The first six months of Muhammad’s residence at Medina were undisturbed either by alarms from without or by hostile councils at home. No vindictive measures were planned by the citizens of Mecca. He who had for more than ten years kept the city in continual excitement and introduced a new faction of his own, was now gone and his absence afforded immediate relief. The society long troubled, now again returned to flow peacefully for a while. The people of Medina were pledged only to defend the Prophet from attack, not to join him in aggressive steps against the Qurraish. His followers from Mecca were too few to measure arms alone with the Qurraish. They were also, like himself occupied by the duty of providing dwelling-places for their families.
The caravan-trade in which Mecca was involved was large and profitable and almost every citizen of Mecca, man and woman, owned a share however small; and when a caravan was threatened the whole city was thrown into alarm. The caravans, indeed, had always been subject to a certain risk from the attack of Arab bandits. Halting by day and travelling by night, the long strings of camels, with but a slender escort, were at once thrown into confusion, especially in ravines or narrow passes, by the onset of a few determined brigands. The danger from such desultory attack was ordinarily met by extreme caution on the part of the leader, whose scouts gave timely notice of any risk. The Qurraish were not slow to perceive that their position must be very different now with an enemy situated as Muhammad at Medina and they began to watch with anxiety as they despatched their caravans to Syria.
The earliest indications of hostility were of a petty and marauding character. Seven months after his arrival Muhammad despatched his uncle Hamza, at the head of thirty Refugees, to surprise a Meccan caravan, guarded by some 300 Qurraish, returning from Syria under the guidance of Abu Jahl. About a month later a body, double the strength of the first, was sent by Muhammad under command of his cousin Ubaida in pursuit of another caravan protected by Abu Sofian with an escort of 200 men. The Qurraish were surprised while their camels were grazing by a fountain in the valley of Rabigh; but the Muslims found the caravan too strong for them and, beyond the discharge of arrows from a distance, no hostilities were attempted. Ubaida is distinguished in tradition as he who upon this occasion ‘shot the first arrow for Islam,’
After the lapse of another month, a third expedition started, under the youthful Sa’d with twenty followers, in the same direction. He was desired to proceed as far as a certain valley on the road to Mecca, and to lie in wait for a caravan expected to pass that way. Like most of the subsequent marauding parties intended to effect a surprise, they marched by night and lay in concealment during the day. Not-withstanding this precaution when they reached their destination on the fifth morning, they found that the caravan had passed a day before, and they returned empty-handed to Medina. On each occasion, Muhammad mounted a white banner on a staff or lance, and presented it to the leader on his departure. In these and all other expeditions of any importance the names of the leaders, and also of those who carried the standard, are carefully recorded by tradition. These small night attacks are called Sariya; the larger expeditions, those of any importance especially in which Muhammad himself was the leader, Ghazia.
The Nakhla Expedition during the sacred month of Rajab
Nakhla is a valley to the east of Mecca, about half-way to Taif; and the southern trade all passed that way. Muhammad had, no doubt, intimation that some rich venture, lightly guarded, was shortly expected at Mecca by this route; and with sealed instructions he sent Abdallah ibn Jahsh, with seven other Muhajerin to lie in wait for the caravans of the Qurraish. Two of them fell behind in search of their camel which had strayed, and lost their party. The remaining six, having reached Nakhla, waited there. In a short time a caravan laden with wine, raisins, and leather came up. It was guarded by four of the Qurraish, who, seeing the strangers, were alarmed and halted. To disarm their apprehensions, one of Abdullah’s party shaved his head, in token that they were returning from the Lesser Pilgrimage; for this was one of the months in which that ceremony was ordinarily performed. The men of the caravan seeing his shaven head were at once reassured, and turning the camels adrift to pasture began to cook their food. Abdallah and his comrades debated the propriety of an attack during the sacred month of Rajab and so were fixed on the horns of a dilemma but at last they overcame their scruples. Waqid, one of their number, advanced covertly; and discharging an arrow killed a man ( Amr ibn al Hadhrami) on the spot. All then rushed upon the caravan, and securing two of the Qurraish, Othman and Al Hakam, carried them off as prisoners along with the spoil, to Medina.
When Abdallah returned to Medina, he acquainted Muhammad with what had passed. The Prophet, who had probably not expected the party to reach Nakhla or the attack to be made till after the close of Rajab, appeared displeased so he put the booty aside, pending further orders, and kept the prisoners in bonds. Abdallah and his comrades were ashamed and grieved; the people also reproached them for what they had done. But Muhammad was unwilling to discourage his followers; and soon after, a revelation was given, justifying hostilities even during the sacred months as a lesser evil than idolatry and opposition to Islam. We can read it in Sura Al-Baqarrah 2: 217: “They ask thee concerning fighting in the Prohibited Month. Say: “Fighting therein is a grave (offence); but graver is it in the sight of Allah to prevent access to the path of Allah, to deny Him, to prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and drive out its members.”
Having proclaimed this verse, Muhammad gave over the booty to the captors, who (anticipating the subsequent practice) presented a fifth of it to Muhammad, and divided the remainder among themselves. The prisoners were later ransomed after their relatives sent a deputation from Mecca.
Arabian writers rightly attach much importance to this expedition. ‘This was,’ says Ibn Hisham, ‘the first booty that the Muslims obtained; the first captives they seized; the first life they took.’
Growing hostility of Muhammad and his followers towards the Qurraish
It was now a year and a half since Muhammad and his followers had taken refuge in Medina. Their attitude towards Mecca was becoming daily more hostile. Now, no opportunity was lost in threatening the numerous caravans which passed through the Hejaz. The Nakhla attack had shown that the combat on which they were entering, would respect neither life nor the inviolability of the sacred months. Blood had been shed foully and sacrilegiously, and was yet un-avenged. Still there came no hostile response from Mecca. Though followers of the Prophet, were known to be in the city, no cruelties were perpetrated on them, nor any reprisals attempted by the Qurraish but the breach was widening, and the enmity becoming deeper seated.
Divine command to fight against the Qurraish
At Medina, on the other hand, the prospect of a mortal conflict with their enemies was steadily contemplated, and openly spoken of by Muhammad and his adherents. At what period the divine command to fight against the unbelievers of Mecca was promulgated, is uncertain. Repeated attacks on the caravans of the Qurraish had been gradually paving the way for it; and when given, it was no more than the embodiment of a resolution for revenge for the plunder of the rich merchandise which passed to and fro in tempting proximity to their city. War, upon grounds professedly religious, was established as an ordinance of Islam. Hostilities were justified by the ‘expulsion’ of the believers from Mecca: “To those against whom was is made permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged; and verily, Allah is most powerful for their aid: (They are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defience of right, (for no cause) except that they say, “Our Lord is Allah” (Al-Hajj 22:39, 40). However, the main and later undisguised issue which Muhammad in this warfare set before him was the victory of Islam. They were to fight ‘until the religion became the Lord’s alone.’
The Battle of Badr
A new era opens in Islam with the battle of Badr. The biographers of Muhammad have shown their appreciation of the influence which it exercised on his future fortunes. In the mass of detail the minutest circumstances, and most trifling details, even to the name of each person engaged in it, have been carefully treasured up. The battle concluded with 49 of the Qurraish killed, and about the same number taken prisoner. Many of the principal men of the Qurraish, and some of Muhammad’s bitterest opponents were slain. Chief amongst these was Abu Jahl. Muhammad lost only 14 of whom 8 were citizens of Medina.
The booty consisted of 115 camels, 14 horses, carpets, fine leather, vestments and armour. A diversity of opinion arose about the distribution which was interposed with a message from Heaven: “They ask thee concerning (things taken as) spoils of war. Say “(such) spoils are at the disposal of Allah and the Messenger: So fear Allah, and keep straight the relations between yourselves: Obey Allah and His Messenger, if ye do believe” (Al-Anfal 8:1) In accordance with the divine command, the booty was gathered together on the field, and placed under a special officer, a citizen of Medina. The next day it was divided near Safra, in equal allotments, among the whole army, after the Prophet’s fifth had been set apart.
In the evening, in pursuance of Muhammad’s commands, the citizens of Medina, and such of the refugees as already had houses of their own, received the prisoners, and treated them with much consideration. When, some time afterwards, their friends came from Mecca to ransom them several of the prisoners who had been treated kindly declared themselves adherents of Islam and to such the Prophet granted liberty without ransom. It was a long time before the Qurraish could reconcile themselves to the humiliation of visiting Medina to arrange for the liberation of their relatives. Their kindly treatment, was thus prolonged, and left a favourable impression on the minds even of those who did not at once go over to Islam.
The Battle of Badr was indeed a critical point in the career of Muhammad. The victory now supplied him with new and cogent arguments. He did not hesitate to ascribe his success to the miraculous assistance of Allah and this was the easier in consequence of the superior numbers of the Qurraish (Al-Anfal 8:9, 17-19; Al-Imran 3:13)
Muhammad now stands or falls by success on the battle-field
The cause of Muhammad, it was distinctly admitted, must stand or fall by the result of the armed struggle with his native city on which he had now entered: difficult and dangerous ground, no doubt, for a fallible mortal to stand upon; but the die was cast, and the battle must be fought out to the death. The scabbard having been cast away, little additional risk was incurred by the founder of Islam when he made success in arms the criterion of his prophetical claim. However strong his position otherwise, it could not possibly be maintained in the face of a final and conclusive defeat; however otherwise weak, a succession of victories would establish it triumphantly.
The Battle of Uhud A. D 624
At Mecca itself, the news of the defeat was received with consternation. Shame and burning desire for revenge stifled the expression of grief. Twelve months had lapsed since the battle and the cry for revenge was now put into execution. Rumours of preparation by the Qurraish for a grand attack upon Medina had for some time been reaching Muhammad: but the first authentic notice of the impending invasion was a sealed letter placed in his hands, while he was at the Mosque in Quba, by a messenger from Mecca. The letter contained the startling intelligence that the Qurraish, 3,000 strong, were amassing. Muhammad enjoined secrecy; but the tidings could not be suppressed, the coming attack was soon noised abroad, and caused great excitement, especially among the Jews and those who sympathised with them.
The movement at Mecca did, indeed, justify alarm for all the chiefs of the Qurraish had joined the force. Women were allowed to accompany them; foremost was Hind the wife of Abu Sofian, and a further 15 including the two wives of Abu Sofian. These kindled the fury of the army by chanting verses to the stirring cadence of the timbrel, and invoking vengeance on the Muslims for friends and kinsmen slain at Bedr.
The army encamped in an extensive and fertile plain to the west of the hill of Uhud. The luxuriant corn was cut down as forage for the horses; and the camels, set loose to graze, trampled the fields in all directions. Between this plain and Medina were several rocky ridges, which rendered it secure from any direct attack from the north but the Qurraish feared that the road toward the east and south could afford a means of attack from their enemy. They hoped therefore to draw them to the outskirts and overpower them, upon equal ground, by their superior numbers.
A general engagement ensued in which the Muslim advance was pressed too hotly and their own line became irregular and confused; and a portion, piercing the ranks of the enemy, fell to plundering his camp and baggage. They could not resist the temptation; casting to the winds the injunction of the Prophet, they hurried to the spoil. The ready eye of Khalid, the leader of the Qurraish, saw the opportunity and he hastened to retrieve the day. He wheeled round the enemy’s left wing now uncovered, swept off the few remaining archers from the rising ground, and appearing suddenly in the rear of the Muslims, charged down into their ranks. The surprise was fatal the discomfiture complete.
Musab and Hamza were slain and a stone wounded the Prophet’s under lip and broke one of his front teeth another severe blow upon the face drove the rings of the helmet deep into his cheek, and made a gash in his forehead. Ibn Camia returned to his comrades exclaiming that he had killed him and the cry was taken up all around and resounded from the rocks of Uhud. It spread consternation among the Prophet’s followers. But Muhammad was only stunned and took refuge in the cliffs of Uhud close behind. He cursed those that inflicted the wounds saying: ‘Let not the year pass over them alive’; and it came to pass that not one of those that shot at the Prophet survived beyond the year.
Seventy-four Muslim corpses were strewn upon the plain. The destruction of the whole force was only averted by the foresight of Muhammad in keeping a secure place of refuge at the rear. On the enemy’s side the loss was but 20. The news of the discomfiture soon reached Medina, with rumours of the death of Muhammad; and the road was covered with men and women hastening towards the scene of action, to nurse the wounded, or search for the dead. Fatima helped to dress the gash on her father’s temple, the bleeding from which could only be stopped by applying the cinder of a piece of burned matting. This added to the ghastly appearance of the wound which was deep, and did not fully heal for over a month. The field of Uhud was ever after invested for the Muslim with a peculiar interest. Muhammad used to visit it once a year, and bless the martyrs buried there.
Muhammad’s prestige affected at the time by the defeat
Murmurs at the inglorious retreat were rife throughout the city. Tradition passes lightly over this uncongenial subject but the Quran tells a different story. We there find that even the adherents of Muhammad were staggered by the reversal. It was natural that they should. The success at Badr had been assumed as a proof of divine support; and, by parity reasoning, the defeat at Uhud was subversive of the prophetic claim. It required all the ability of Muhammad to avert this dangerous imputation, sustain the credit of his cause, and reanimate his followers. This he did mainly by means of that portion of the Quran which appears in the latter half of the third sura Al-Imran where he followed a line of argument which was mingled with comfort, reproof, and exhortation. The reverse at Uhud was necessary to sift the true believers from those who were infidels at heart; the light afflictions there sustained were a meet prelude to the eternal glories of Paradise and future success was largely promised, if the believers would but remain steadfast and be courageous.
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