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Muhammad: The Jihad Begins

Now that we have looked at the basic written sources, we can begin our brief historical survey. Clearly we cannot recount the entire history of Muslim conquest; the topic is far too vast. The remaining sections will be limited to tracing the history of jihad in broad outline. The Muslim conquests were, to be sure, motivated by the same aspirations to empire that have prompted other conquering nations. They were also motivated by the spirit of jihad: the sacred imperative to spread Islam and to extend Muslim rule by force. This religious motivation was a huge factor in their success.

We begin with Muhammad himself, and ask: Were his battles all truly motivated by self-defense, as his apologists claim, or did other factors come into play?

The Sources

When we try to answer such questions we immediately confront the question of what we really know about Muhammad, how much that is told of him is truly historical. This is a complex issue, on which even experts do not agree. Much information about Muhammad comes from oral tradition and legend, what some have called "sacred history," and searching for the historical Muhammad poses problems similar to searching for the historical Jesus - a notoriously controversial undertaking. In addition, the information about Muhammad that one hears through books, the media, and other popular sources is confusing and contradictory, often colored by the biases and intentions of the one who is narrating.

The best way to go about studying the life of Muhammad is to consult the earliest sources. The earliest is, of course, the Qur'an. The Qur'an is of great value to the scholar of religion; it is far closer to Muhammad than the Gospels are to Jesus. Its verses appeared against the background of historical events in the life of Muhammad. Nevertheless, serious problems arise when using the Qur'an to reconstruct history. The Qur'an does not usually present the historical background. Since Muhammad's words are extracted from their historical setting, the Qur'an has the aura of a timeless statement of universal truth, and it has been treated that way by Muslims even while they insist that others should not quote its verses "out of context." Since the context is usually missing, the Qur'an alone is not sufficient for constructing a complete life of the Prophet.

In addition to the Qur'an we have the Hadith, a tradition that contains more explicit detail about Muhammad's life and through which many events in his life can be reconstructed. The earliest biographies, however, were not written down until the eighth and ninth centuries, by writers who recorded what they knew of Muhammad from oral traditions that they tried as best they could to authenticate. These biographies are called sira, and together with the Hadith they constitute the Sunna ("way," "example," or "tradition"). The earliest and most important of the sira is the Sirat Rasul Allah by Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 767). We do not have this work in its original form, but in a revised and abridged version by his disciple 'Abd al-Malik ibn Hisham (d. 833). The other early Arabic biographies of Muhammad are by Muhammad ibn Umar al-Waqidi (d. 822), Muhammad ibn Sa'd (d. 845), and Abu Jafar al-Tabari (d. 923).

An English edition of Ibn Ishaq is available, though out of print in the U.S. (1). As for contemporary work, one must look for biographies based closely on the early sources and sound historical methodology. The most important English biographies are those by Martin Lings (2), which is based entirely on the Arabic sources and which follows them faithffully, W. Montgomery Watt (3), a critical study based on the early sources and considered a standard in the field, and Karen Armstrong (4), which in spite of its avowedly apologetic purpose contains much useful information from primary sources. Maxime Rodinson (5), while more interpretive, is also quite useful. Since the early sources represent Muhammad as the ideal example for all Muslims, we must accept their accounts and dialogue with them to the extent possible in an English discourse, while also applying what we know of the history and politics of the time.

Concerning historicity, Watt (241) states:

Some have taken the unduly sceptical view that nothing is to be trusted except the Qur'an.... The present study is based on the opposing view that at least the material in the early biographies is to be accepted as true, except where there are particular reasons for thinking that an anecdote has been distorted (or invented) through legal, theological or political motives.

Whatever their reliability, the Arabic sources do report how Muhammad was and is understood by Muslims, and that may be more important even than historicity. The Arabic sources describe in detail the life of the one whom Islam takes as a model human being and spiritual leader. And that is what we really need to know.

The First Jihad

We have already mentioned the hijra, Muhammad's journey from Mecca to Medina in the year 622. It is after this event that jihad begins to become an issue.

The new Muslim emigrants to Medina needed a way to maintain their livelihood. They pursued the most expedient course, and began raiding the caravans of the Meccans. This was clearly an aggressive action, as Watt (105) states:

In the raids the Muslims were taking the offensive. Muhammad cannot have failed to realize that, even if the raids were only slightly successful, the Meccans were bound to attempt reprisals. In these little raids, then, he was deliberately challenging and provoking the Meccans. In our peace-conscious age it is difficult to understand how a religious leader could thus engage in offensive war and become almost an aggressor.

Several writers have defended Muhammad's actions for the following two reasons:

  1. Everybody did it. In the rough tribal desert culture of seventh-century Arabia, when life was hard and resources were scarce, it was usual for tribes to raid each other's caravans.

  2. It was justified revenge. The Meccans made life very difficult for Muhammad and his followers. The Qur'an (47:13, 60:1,9) speaks of Muslims being driven from their homes. Ibn Ishaq (205) reports that some of Muhammad's followers had been beaten. The caravan raiders were only attacking those who attacked them first.

Both these reasons require comment. According to Islam, while Muhammad is not to be worshiped, he is certainly to be emulated. His actions represent what a good human being and spiritual leader should be. Is the behavior of such a role model to be governed merely by a standard of "everybody did it," or should we aspire to something more? Aren't great prophets and spiritual leaders known precisely by their willingness to go against and rise above the values of their society?

Concerning revenge: justified or not, revenge is not self-defense. Both Judaism (Leviticus 19:18) and Christianity (Matthew 5:39) teach that revenge is an invalid motivation. Islam clearly does not. In any case, there can be no credible claim that Muhammad acted only in self-defense.

While inter-tribal fighting was common in Arabia at that time, Muhammad's raids began something new. The early Muslims were not a tribe in the traditional sense. They were united not by blood but by belief. Therefore, when they fought members of any neighboring tribe, the struggle was not between one tribe and another but between believers and nonbelievers. These raids thus began to take on a religious dimension.

Watt (108) describes how these raids became the first jihad:

Thus, whether Muhammad incited his followers to action and then used their wrongs [wrongs committed against them] to justify it, or whether he yielded to pressure from them to allow such action, the normal Arab practice of the razzia [raid] was taken over by the islamic community. In being taken over, however, it was transformed. It became an activity of believers against unbelievers, and therefore took place within a religious context. The Emigrants were described as "striving with goods and person in the way of God [Qur'an 4:95, 9:20, 9:41, 9:44]." They were promoting one of the purposes of the Islamic community in trying to establish a region in which God was truly worshipped.

This early jihad became the seed of greater ones to follow (Watt, 108-9):

This transformation of the nomadic razzia has wider implications than are apparent from the English translations used. The word translated "strive" is jahada, and the corresponding verbal noun is jihad or "striving" which came in the course of time to have the technical meaning of "holy war." The change from the razzia to the jihad may seem to be no more than a change of name, the giving of an aura of religion to what was essentially the same activity. Yet this is not so. There was a change in the activity which came to be of the utmost importance as time went on. A razzia was the action of a tribe against another tribe. Even if two tribes were very friendly, their friendship might cool, and in a few years a razzia might be possible. Jihad, however, was the action of a religious community against non-members of the community, and the community was expanding. If members of the pagan tribes raided by the Muslims professed Islam, they at once became exempt from further Muslim raids. Consequently, as the Islamic community grew, the raiding propensities of the Muslims had to be directed ever further outwards. It was this "religious" character of the jihad which channelled the energies of the Arabs in such a way that in less than a century they had created an empire which stretched from the Atlantic and the Pyrenees in the West to the Oxus and the Punjab in the East. It seems certain that without the conception of the jihad that expansion would not have happened. (emphasis added)

During these raids, which had nothing to do with self-defense, the first arrow was shot, the first blood shed, and the first man killed in the name of Islam (Ibn Ishaq, 416-425).

It was common in those days for poets to compose songs celebrating the achievements and victories of the tribe. These poets were thought to be possessed with spiritual power, and their verse was taken quite seriously by other tribes as well as their own.

After the early raid in which the first arrow was shot, the following verses were composed by the shooter (Ibn Ishaq, 418):

Has the news reached the apostle of God
That I protected my companions with my arrows?
By them I defended their vanguard
In rough ground and plain.
No archer who shoots an arrow at the enemy
Will be counted before me, O apostle of God.
'Twas because thy religion is true
Thou hast brought what is just and truthful.
By it the believers are saved
And unbelievers recompensed at the last.

Clearly we have passed from the raid as an ecomonic expedient to the raid as striking a blow for the new faith.

The Battle of Badr

This battle, which became a watershed in the history of Islam, began as just another caravan raid. Muhammad was once again the initiator. He received news of a very large caravan returning to Mecca, led by Abu Sufyan, one of that city's leaders and most prominent businessmen. "Go out and attack it," he told his followers, "perhaps God will give it as a prey" (Ibn Ishaq, 428).

Somehow Muhammad's plan leaked, and the Meccans detected it. They raised a large force to confront the Muslims. In the meantime Abu Sufyan took a detour and led his caravan away from the danger. The two armies met and the Muslims were badly outnumbered. Nevertheless, they were far more disciplined than the Meccans, and with the caravan safe, the Meccans lost much of their incentive to fight. The Muslims, inspired by their religious fervor, routed them.

The victory at Badr assumed great religious significance. To the Muslims, Badr was more than just a caravan raid. It was a triumph of good over evil. It inspired an entire sura of the Qur'an:

O ye who believe! when ye meet the Unbelievers in hostile array, never turn your backs to them. If any do turn his back to them on such a day - unless it be in a stratagem of war, or to retreat to a troop (of his own) - he draws on himself the wrath of Allah, and his abode is Hell, - an evil refuge (indeed)! It is not ye who slew them; it was Allah: when thou threwest (a handful of dust), it was not thy act, but Allah's: in order that He might test the Believers by a gracious trial from Himself: for Allah is He Who heareth and knoweth (all things). (8:15-17)

In no way can the battle of Badr be rationalized as self-defense. Muhammad planned it and executed it and justified it by his faith. Allah is now on the side of caravan raiders. But no longer is this merely a raid. It is now full-scale jihad.

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