Muhammad – The Medinan Period

The Hijra to Medina marks a great turning-point in Muhammad’s career, and the interesting and insistent question arises as to whether Muhammad’s ideals changed with the changed outlook. Did he see, at last, an open road to triumphs on which his heart had long been set? That is possible, for we have seen that a political element entered into the recent pledge he had exacted. A view commonly held, however, is that in Mecca Muhammad was the prophet, or religious reformer pure and simple, but that in Medina he exchanged this role for that of a secular ruler, or prophet- king.

It seems more probable that the patriotic sentiment was in his mind from the first, and that, in consequence, the ardent preacher and zealous reformer of Mecca unfolded, in the more favourable condition of Medina, into the military commander and autocrat.

Certain it is that the conditions at Medina offered Muhammad much promise of success. A strong Jewish element in the city ensured greater interest in religious matters than had been shown in Mecca; the ravages of civil strife plainly indicated the need of a strong ruler; and there was already keen rivalry between Medina and Mecca, should he care to take advantage of it. Indeed, in estimating the causes of Islam’s early success, we need to take these factors into account. It was here that Islam first began to thrive. Medina was the real birth-place of the new faith.


Various groups in Medina

Muhammad quickly took in the situation at Medina and accustomed himself to think and speak of its inhabitants as belonging to one another or of other several distinct groups.

1. First in order of importance to the mind of Muhammad were the Muhajirin, or Emigrants, i.e., those Muslims who had come from Mecca, either before Muhammad or with him, or shortly after his arrival.

2. The Ansar, or Helpers. These were people of Medina who had accepted Islam either before of after the Hijra. They did not rank as highly in the thought of Muhammad as those of the first group because they had not endured so much for Islam, nevertheless these two groups provided the main strength of Islam, and Muhammad bound them together in a compact of fraternity so that the loneliness and poverty of the Muhajirin were dispelled by the generosity of the Ansar.

3.The Munafiqin, or Hypocrites. These were a group of influential residents of Medina who had ostensibly embraced Islam, but had no intention of surrendering their position to the intruders from Mecca. For this reason Muhammad called them “hypocrites.”

4. Finally, there were the Jews who, constituted a large and influential community. Muhammad, realising both their power and importance, sought to win them over to his cause. His foresight and genius for organisation are seen in the way in which he bound them, along with the first two groups, in a treaty of obligation. This treaty a) provided against sedition, b) proclaimed the Qurraish to be outlaws, and c) while granting religious toleration to the Jews, demanded their support whenever the Muslims should require it. Sayyid Amir ’Ali, commenting on the terms of this treaty says, “It constituted Muhammad the chief magistrate of the nation.” Elsewhere he quotes from Carlyle’s The Hero as Prophet : No emperor with his tiaras was obeyed as this man in a cloak of his own clothing.”


The Jews

Muhammad indeed must be given the credit for introducing order into Medina, but he soon discovered that the Jews were a peculiarly obstinate people, a veritable thorn in his side. Amir ’Ali remarks that they had business relations with the outlawed Qurraish, that they were half-hearted in their allegiance to Muhammad, and that within a month they broke out into open sedition. Why, then, had Muhammad bound them to himself in that treaty? Was it because he coveted their support or because he suspected them? Or was it a combination of both these reasons? Amir ’Ali makes the astonishing suggestion that it was the Jews who were eager for the alliance, and that they thought to use Muhammad for the conversion of Arabia to Judaism!

Muhammad did much to conciliate the Jews. He related Islam to Abraham, associated the patriarch and his son Ishmael with the Ka’ba; but though a handful of them became Muslims the Jews as a body held profoundly aloof. Gradually Muhammad was forced to the conclusion that the Jews were profoundly hostile towards him. It was plain that they resented his suggestion that he, an ummi, an unlearned fellow, could be in the line of the prophets. Thus Muhammad came to realise that he had escaped from the controversy in Mecca only to become embroiled in another in Medina. The former, however, had been with debased idolaters; this was with a keenly intellectual people, possessors of a Book, their Scriptures. Thus arose a bitter altercation. The Jews criticized, and poured scorn on Muhammad’s claims, while he sought to bring them into discredit.

For instance , he charged them with having concealed and misrepresented the contents of their Scriptures, and tried to intimidate them by uttering terrible threats. – Surah 4:50.

The breach with the Jews had now become complete, and Muhammad introduced changes in the religious ceremonial of the Muslims that served to emphasize it. For instance, Jerusalem had been the qibla, the direction to be faced in prayer, but Mecca now took its place. – Surah 2: 136-139.


Economic distress of the Muslims

Me anwhile the economic condition of Muhammad and his followers was causing anxiety and resentment. The Emigrants considerably outnumbered the Helpers, so that the former had little food and clothing. The wrath of the Muslims was kindled against the Jews, who now proved themselves indifferent and niggardly. The situation was getting desperate and something had to be done. We need to remind ourselves that in such circumstances it was the normal thing for Arabs of one tribe to attack and loot the caravans of another tribe. This, in fact, was the course which Muhammad now proceeded to adopt against the Meccans, and by so doing he virtually declared war. Modern Islamic apologists seek to exonerate Muhammad from all blame by urging two reasons in extenuation. Much is made, on the one hand, of the traitors within the Muslim ranks, in particular the Jews, who it is alleged, were intriguing with the Meccans. On the other hand, it is stated that the Qurraish army was in the field before Muhammad was prepared to do battle. And, we are told, Muhammad “was not simply a preacher of Islam; he was also the guardian of the lives and liberties of his people.

As a prophet, he could afford to ignore the reviling and the gibes of his enemies; but as the head of the State, ’the general in a time of almost continuous warfare,’….. he could not overlook treachery.”

The facts, however, appear to have been these. The Qurraish were returning to Mecca from Syria with a caravan of merchandise; in this sense only might they be said to have been “first if the field.” But why should they risk loss by an unprovoked assault upon Muslims ? Ibn Hisham says that before the first big battle of Badr, A.D. 624, Muhammad had sent out a force to capture a caravan of the Meccans, who subsequently dispatched an army to protect it.

The next raid was ordered to take place, much to the amazement of the Muslims and the genuine alarm of the Meccans, in a sacred month, during which, according to an ancient custom, there should be a truce between hostile tribes. The attack, being unexpected, was successful and brought in much booty. But it required a special pronouncement from Muhammad to silence the objections of his followers. Surah 2:214.

Some time later a rich caravan was returning from Syria to Mecca in the charge of Abu Sufyan, the inveterate foe of Muhammad. Muhammad determined to intercept, but Abu Sufyan managed to give the alarm to his towns-people. Subsequently Abu Sufyan out-distanced the Muslims and saved the caravan, but he failed to stop the disorderly crowd that had issued forth from Mecca to do battle with the Muslims at Badr, Though possessing great numerical superiority, the Meccans were hopelessly defeated. The victory was another turning-point in the career of Muhammad,

The victory produced a very marked change in the minds of his followers, Surah 3:119 But the victory rankled in the minds of the Jews, and their poets lampooned Muhammad. It is recorded that he had one of the latter, a woman, removed. She was stabbed in her sleep by a blind Jew.


Muhammad’s growing power

From this time Muhammad turned his unwelcome attention to these people. He began by expelling for some reason, the Bani Qainuqa’ from their homes at the same time confiscating their property. Singular to relate, the various Jewish tribes, apparently blind to their fate, failed, as here, to go to the help of one another, with the result that Muhammad was able to deal with each group separately, and so finally disposed of them. The next tribe to suffer were the Bani Nadr, three miles out of Medina, who had broken a treaty with Muhammad. They were banished from their homes and Muslims were installed in their place. Surah 59 makes direct reference to this occasion.

In the meantime the Meccans, far from taking the defeat at Badr with equanimity, were making great preparations for revenge, and to this end they devoted the whole of the profits realised from the caravan which the skill of Abu Sufyan had rescued from the Muslims. Thus in the following year at the battle of Uhud, 3,000 men under the command of Abu Sufyan completely defeated the Muslims. Muhammad himself was wounded and a report was spread that he was slain. It was on this occasion, says Baidawi, that he uttered the words: “Muhammad is no more than an apostle; other apostles have already passed away before him; if he die, therefore, or be slain, will ye turn upon your heels? Surah 3:138.

But, through failing to follow up their initial success, the Meccans won a hollow victory. Muhammad had proclaimed the victory of Badr as a mark of Allah‘s favour; he now explained this defeat as a test of the constancy of his followers and as a rebuke to those who in the fight had disobeyed his orders. He, however, refused to be discouraged and soon re-established confidence among his followers.

It was well that he did so, for the Meccans resolved to make a last desperate effort to rid themselves of this man who threatened their very existence, They called up their Bedouin allies and their mercenary troops. There is reason to believe that they had an understanding with the Jewish tribe called Bani Quraiza in Madina, that help would be forthcoming from that quarter. In 627 this new Meccan army, about 10,000 strong, appeared before Medina. Muhammad defended the exposed part of the city and his numerically inferior force by means of a trench, which effectively prevented the enemy from storming his position. Put to the test the Bedouins proved untrustworthy; in any case Muhammad succeeded in dividing the enemy forces and so the siege was raised with very little loss on either side.

The Bani Quraiza took no part in the fight but Muhammad suspected treachery, and this, following their habitual scorn and sarcasm, now drove him to exasperation. He has left it on record that in his opinion the Jews, of all men, were the worst enemies of the Muslims, Surah 5:85. He took desperate measures with the offending tribe. ‘Ali, with 3,000 men set out against them. After a siege of fifteen days the Jews sent a request to be allowed to depart as the Bani Nadir had done, but the petition was refused, The whole tribe capitulated. Muhammad agreed that a third party should decide their fate. The decision of this man, no friend of the Bani Quraiza, was that all the males should be slain, and that the women and children should be sold into slavery.

Men to the number of about 600, say some authorities, were beheaded. Muhammad meanwhile stood by consenting to their death. It is perhaps fair to add that Sayyid Amir ‘Ali says, “The number of the men executed could not have been more than 200 or 250.”

Secure at his base, and with the Meccans disheartened by failure and defeat, Muhammad had the road to Mecca lying open before him. He displayed great insight and sound judgment in now claiming the Ka’ba for Islam. He declared the hajj ceremonies of the pagan Arabs to be “the sacred ordinances of God,” cp. Surah 22:31. As a matter of “policy“ it was a master-stroke for gaining influence at this time. Here was a means for uniting the scattered and mutually hostile Arab tribes. But the leadership still lay with the Qurraish, and his cause could not prosper until they were disposed or won over.

When some time later he attempted the ’Umra, or lesser pilgrimage, with 1,400 of his followers, he was opposed by the Qurraish, who refused to let him enter the city. The parties fell to debating the matter, and Muhammad secured terms from the Meccans by the Treaty of Hudaibiya (628). Islam gained in prestige by this treaty, inasmuch as Muhammad, as head of state, had dealt with the proud Meccans on equal terms. Some of the Qurraish even came over to his side as the result of it. This victory is referred to in Surah 48:1. There was to be no fighting for ten years, and though Muhammad and his followers were refused admission into Mecca on that occasion it was agreed that they should come the following year.

Muhammad made memorable his return to Medina by issuing letters to rulers of neighbouring states demanding their submission to Islam. Each letter bore the impress of a seal with the words, “Muhammad, the Apostle of God.” Heraclius the Byzantine (Roman) Emperor, the King of Persia, and the Maqauqis of Egypt were among those so addressed. But his orders were either flouted or evaded.

In 629, at the time of the lesser pilgrimage, Muhammad and his adherents were permitted to enter Mecca. It was a time of great enthusiasm, since some of them had not been in the city for seven years. Muhammad led the way in performing the customary ritual,

The fervour of the Muslims made a deep impression on the townspeople and there were considerable accessions to their ranks from among the Qurraish, the most notable being Khalid ibn Walid, known in after years, because of his prowess in battle, as “the Sword of Allah.”

Though Muhammad, after this, returned to Madina stronger than ever, he had not yet achieved that success through which Islam would become the one politico-religious force in all Arabia. Mecca must become the centre of Islam even as it was the centre of the affections of the pagan Arabs.

The truce of Hudaibiya would have proved irksome long before it had run its course. As it was, through the defection of an obscure Arab tribe Muhammad found a pretext for proceeding against Mecca when only two years had passed. He assembled an army of 10,000 men and appeared before the city. And now Abu Sufyan, Muhammad’s old foe, seeing the folly of resistance, came forward to Muhammad, repeated the Kalima, “There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Apostle of God,” and embraced Islam. His desertion disheartened the Meccans and they calmly submitted to the inevitable.

Thus Muhammad entered Mecca at last as victor; more than that, he came also as an ardent reformer. Proceeding to the Ka’ba and having kissed the Black Stone, he ordered all the “idols” within the shrine to be broken to pieces. Moreover, in his hour of triumph he showed mercy towards his old foes. He proclaimed a general amnesty to all in the city although there were a few exceptions.

What a dramatic change was this in, Muhammad’s fortunes! Eight years before he had left Mecca a fugitive, despised, outcast, barely escaping with his life. Now he is master, and his word is law. Witness the manner in which idolatry was promptly banished.

There was an immediate response from the side of the Arabs. Tribe after tribe came in to give Muhammad their allegiance. His ideal was being realised. Arabia would yet be a nation united and free, a match for all invaders. But all who entered Islam were obliged to accept its teaching, perform the necessary ritual, give alms, and in everything render implicit obedience to “God and His Apostle.”

Rumours now began to reach Muhammad that the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius was collecting a large army on the Syrian border with a view to attacking Medina. Though Muhammad went out himself at the head of a large army he Failed to find the enemy so he contented himself with making a demonstration against the Jews and the Christians over the border. Several Christians from this time became dhimmis, non-Muslims subjects in a Muslim state, and paid the jizya, or poll-tax. The very late date of the passage Surah 9:29, “Make war upon such of those to whom the Scriptures have been given as believe not in God,” etc., would seem to indicate that a certain amount of intolerance, if not of compulsion, against both Jews and Christians was encouraged in Muhammad’s closing years.

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