41 – The Threshold of War

Unto those who are attacked permission to fight[1] is given unto those who fight because they have been wronged; and God is Able to give them victory. Those who have been driven from their homes unjustly, for no cause other than for their saying: Our Lord is God.[2]

The Prophet had received this Revelation not long after his arrival in Medina. He knew moreover that permission was here a command, and the obligations of war had been stressed in the covenant with the Jews. An early Revelation had said: Deal gently with the disbelievers, give them respite for a while,[3] but the last three words were portentous; and now God had declared war on Quraysh. His Messenger was therefore obliged to attack them by every means in his power and to make it clear to them that Arabia would never be safe for them until they submitted to the Divine Will. Nor was he unaware that to give Quraysh no peace meant giving himself and his Companions no peace. This premonition was soon to be confirmed by another Revelation: Fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is all for God.[4] But for the moment there could be no question of anything but raids. Quraysh were vulnerable in their caravans, and it was especially in the spring and early summer months, when their trade with Syria was most active, that they lay open to attack from Medina. In the autumn and winter they sent most of their caravans to the south, mainly to the Yemen and to Abyssinia.

The information received in Medina about the caravans was seldom very precise, and there were liable to be last-minute changes of plan. The Mecca caravans altogether eluded some of the first raids from Medina, but the Muslims succeeded none the less in making treaties with Bedouin tribes at strategic points along the coast of the Red Sea.

When the Prophet went out himself he appointed one of his Companions to be in charge of Medina during his absence, and the first to have this honor was the Khazrajite chief, Sa’d ibn ‘Ubadah. That was eleven months after the Hijrah; until then the Prophet himself took no part in the expeditions, and on each occasion when he remained behind he gave the leader a white banner mounted on a lance. For the first year he sent out only those of his Companions who were Emigrants; but in September 623 news came that a rich Meccan caravan was returning from the north under the escort of Umayyah, the chief of Jumah, with a hundred armed men. Umayyah had always been one of the fiercest enemies of Islam; and another reason for attack was on the prize itself. The merchandise at stake was said to have been loaded on to as many as 2,500 camels. But the Emigrants alone would have been no match for a hundred Quraysh, so on this occasion the Prophet set out with two hundred men, over half of whom were Helpers. Once again, however, the information had been inadequate and there as no encounter. They also missed, some three months after that, another rich caravan, less heavily guarded, which the Shamsite Abu Sufyan was conducting to Syria. News of it had come too late, and when the Prophet and his men reached ‘Ushayrah in the valley of Yanbu’, which opens out on to the Red Sea south-west of Medina, the caravan had already passed. But Abu Sufyan would soon be returning from Syria, perhaps with an even richer load, and then, if God willed, they would not fail to waylay him.

Although no fighting had taken place as yet, Quraysh were already alert to the danger of having an enemy established in Yathrib. But it seemed to them that this would in no way affect their trade with the south. They were soon to be disillusioned, for the Prophet now received word of a caravan that was on its way from the Yemen, and he sent his cousin ‘Abd Allah ibn Jahsh with eight other Emigrants to lie in wait for it near Nakhlah, between Ta’if and Mecca. It was Rajab, one of the four sacred months of the year, and the Prophet gave ‘Abd Allah no instructions to attack the caravan but simply to bring him news of it. No doubt he wished to see how well the southern caravans were guarded, for future activity against them.

Soon after the Emigrants reached their destination and had camped at a point of vantage not far from the main route, a small caravan of Quraysh passed by them and then stopped and camped nearby, unaware of their presence. The camels were laden with raisins and leather and other merchandise. ‘Abd Allah and his companions were in a dilemma: the Prophet’s only definite instructions had been to bring him news; but he had not forbidden them to fight, nor had he made mention of the sacred month. Were these pre-Islamic conventions still binding, they asked themselves. They thought also of the Revelation: Permission to fight is given unto those who fight because they have been wronged … those who have been unjustly driven from their homes.[5] They were at war with Quraysh, and they had recognized at least two of the merchants in the caravan as men of Makhzum, which of all the clans of Mecca had shown itself most hostile to Islam. It was the morning of the last day of Rajab; sunset would bring in Sha’ban, which was not a sacred month, but by that time, though no longer protected by the calendar, their enemies would be protected by distance, for they would have reached the sacred precinct; and after much hesitation they decided to attack. Their first arrow killed a man of Kindah, a confederate of the clan of ‘Abdu Shams, whereupon ‘Uthman, one of the men of Makhzum, and Hakam, a freedman, surrendered, though ‘Uthman’s brother Nawfal escaped to Mecca.

‘Abd Allah and his men took their prisoners and the camels and the merchandise back to Medina. He set aside a fifth part of the spoils for the Prophet, dividing the rest among his companions and himself. But the Prophet refused to accept anything and said: “I did not bid you fight in the sacred month,” whereupon those who had done so thought they were doomed. Their brethren in Medina blamed them for their violation of Rajab, while the Jews said it was a bad omen for the Prophet, and Quraysh set about spreading far and wide the news that Muhammad was guilty of sacrilege. Then came the Revelation: They question thee about the sacred month and fighting therein. Say: to fight therein is a grave offense; but barring men from God’s path and sacrilege against Him and the holy mosque and driving out His people therefrom are grave with God. And torturing is graver than killing.[6]

The Prophet interpreted this as confirming the traditional ban on warfare in the sacred month but as making an exception in this particular case, so he relieved ‘Abd Allah and his companions of the fear that lay so heavily upon them and accepted a fifth of the spoils for the general benefit of the community. The clan of Makhzum sent ransoms for the two prisoners, but Hakam their freedman chose to enter Islam and remain in Medina, so ‘Uthman returned alone.

It was in this same moon of Sha’ban that there came a Revelation of great ritual importance. Its opening words refer to the Prophet’s extreme care to face in the right direction for prayer. In the Mosque the direction was set by the Mihrab, the prayer-niche in the Jerusalem wall; but when he was outside the town he would check his direction by the sun if it were day and by the stars at night.

We have seen the turning of thy face unto the sky; and now We shall turn thee a way that shall well please thee. So turn thou thy face towards the inviolable Mosque; and wheresoever ye may be, turn ye your faces toward it.[7]

A Mihrab was forthwith made in the south wall of the Mosque, facing towards Mecca, and the change was accepted with joy by the Prophet and his Companions. From that day Muslims have turned in the direction of the Ka’bah for the performance of the ritual prayer, and by extension for other rites.

[1] According to some authorities this verb is passive, i.e. “those who are fought against”, in which case “because” must be taken as referring back to “is given”.
[2] Qur’an 22 : 39 – 40
[3] Qur’an 86 : 17
[4] Qur’an 8 : 39
[5] Qur’an 22 : 39
[6] Qur’an 2 : 217
[7] Qur’an 2 : 144

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