42 – The March to Badr

The time was now at hand for Abu Sufyan to return with all the wares that he and his fellows had acquired in Syria. The Prophet sent Talhah and ‘Umar’s cousin Sa’id -the son Zayd the Hanif- to Hawra on the sea-shore due west of Medina to bring him news as soon as the caravan arrived. This would enable him, by a quick march to the south-west, to overtake it further down the coast. His two scouts were hospitably received by a chief of Juhaynah who hid them in his house until the caravan had passed. But he and they might have spared themselves their pains, for someone in Medina, no doubt one of the hypocrites or one of the Jews, had already sent word of the Prophet’s plans to Abu Sufyan, who immediately hired a man of the Ghifari tribe, Damdam by name, to go with all speed to Mecca and urge Quraysh to march out at once with an army to their rescue, while he himself pressed forward along the coastal route, traveling by both day and night.

But his was not the only sense of urgency. The Prophet had his reasons for wishing to remain in Medina as long as possible, for his beloved daughter Ruqayya had fallen seriously ill. But personal consideration could not be taken into account, and rather than risk being too late he decided not even to wait for the return of his scouts. By the time they reached Medina he had already set out with an army of Emigrants and Helpers, three hundred and five men altogether. At that time there were seventy-seven able-bodied Emigrants in Medina and all these were present on this occasion except three: the Prophet had told his son-in-law ‘Uthman to stay at home and tend his sick wife; the other two were Talhah and Sai’d who arrived back from the coast too late to set out.

At the first halt, which was still in the oasis, the Prophet’s cousin Sa’d of Zuhrah noticed his fifteen-year-old brother ‘Umayr looking troubled and furtive and he asked him what was the matter. “I am afraid,” said ‘Umayr, ” that the Messenger of God will see me and say I am too young and send me back. And I long to go forth. It might be that God would grant me martyrdom.” As he feared, the Prophet noticed him when he lined up the troops and said he was too young and told him to go home. But ‘Umayr wept and the Prophet let him stay and take part in the expedition. “He was so young,” said Sa’d, “that I had to fasten the straps of his sword-belt for him.”

There were seventy camels which the men rode by turns, three or four men to one camel, and three horses, one of which belonged to Zubayr. The white banner was given to Mus’ab, no doubt because he was of the clan of ‘Abd ad-Dar, whose ancestral right it was to carry the banner of Quraysh in war. After the vanguard came the Prophet himself, preceded by two black pennants, one of the Emigrants and one for the Helpers. These were borne respectively by ‘Ali and Sa’d ibn Mu’adh of Aws. During the Prophet’s absence from Medina, the prayers were to be led by Ibn Umm Maktum, the blind man referred to in the Revelation He frowned and turned away when the blind man came unto him.[1]

In Mecca, shortly before the arrival of Damdam, the Prophet’s aunt ‘Atikah had a dream which terrified her and left her with a conviction of impending disaster for Quraysh. She sent for her brother ‘Abbas and told him what she had seen: “I saw a man riding a camel and he halted in the valley and cried at the top of his voice: ‘Haste ye forth, O men of perfidy, unto a disaster that in three days shall lay you prostrate.’ I saw the people gather round him. Then he entered the Mosque with the people following him, and from out of their midst his camel carried him up to the roof of the Ka’bah, and again he cried out the same words. Then his camel bore him to the top of Mount Abu Qubays, and yet again he cried out to the people as before. Then he wrenched free a rock and sent it hurtling down the slope, and when it reached the foot of the mount it split into fragments, nor was there any house or any dwelling in Mecca but was smitten with a piece of it.”

‘Abbas recounted his sister’s dream to ‘Utbah’s son, Walid, who was his friend, and Walid told his father, and the news spread throughout the city. The next day Abu Jahl exclaimed in the presence of ‘Abbas, with gleeful mockery: “O sons of ‘Abd al-Muttalib, since when hath this prophetess been uttering her prophecies amongst you? IS it not enough for you that your men should play the prophet? And must your women do the same?” ‘Abbas could ont find a rejoinder, but Abu Jahl had his answer the next day, when the crags of Abu Qubays resounded with the powerful voice of Damdam. The people streamed out of their houses and out of the Mosque to where he had halted in the valley. Abu Sufyan had paind him handsomely, and he was determined to play his part well. He had turned round his saddle and was seated with his back to his camel’s head; and in further sign of calamity he had slit his camel’s nose, so that the blood poured forth from it, and he had rent his own shirt to ribbons. “Men of Quraysh,” he shouted, “the transport camels, the transport camels! Your goods which are with Abu Sufyan! Muhammad and his companions are upon them! Help! Help!”

The town was immediately in an uproar. The caravan now in danger was one of the richest of the year, and many were those who had reason to fear the loss of it. An Army of about a thousand men was quickly mustered. “Do Muhammad and his fellows think that this will be as the caravan of Ibn al-Hadrami?” they said, referring to ‘Amr, the confederate of ‘Abdu Shams who had been killed by an arrow in the sacred month at Nakhlah. The clan of ‘Adi were alone in not taking part in the expedition. Every other chief of clan led out a contingent except Abu Lahab, who sent in his own stead a man of Makhzum who owed him money. But the Bani Hashim and the Bani l-Muttalib had none the less their interests in the caravan and felt in honor bound to defend it, so Talib led out a body of men from both clans, and ‘Abbas went with them, perhaps intending to act as peacemaker. Hakim of Asad, Khadijah’s nephew, went out with the same purpose. Like Abu Lahab, Umayyah of Jumah had also decided to stay at home, for he was an elderly man of excessive corpulence; but while he was sitting in the Mosque ‘Uqbah came to him with a censer of incense which he placed before him, saying: “Scent thyself with that, Abu ‘Ali, for thou art of the women.” “God curse thee,” said Umayyah and made ready to set out with the others.

The Prophet had by now left the direct route from Medina to the south and was making for Badr, which lay on the coastal route from SYria to Mecca, to his west. It was at Badr that he hoped to waylay Abu Sufyan, and he sent ahead two of their allies of Juhaynah, who knew the district well, to scout for news of the caravan. At Badr they halted on a hill above the well, and when they went to draw water they overheard a conversation between two girls from the village about a debt. “The caravan will come tomorrow or the next day,” said one to the other, “and I will work for them and pay thee what I owe thee.”” When they heard these words they made haste back to the Prophet with the news. But if they had stayed a little longer they would have seen a solitary rider approaching the well from the west. It was Abu Sufyan himself, who had hastened ahead of the caravan in order to see whether it was safe to proceed to Mecca by the nearest route, that is by Badr. On reaching the water he found a villager there and asked him if he had seen any strangers. He answered that he had seen two riders who had made a halt on the hill above and who had then drawn some water and taken it away with them. Abu Sufyan went to their halting-place and took up some of the camel dung which he broke into pieces. There were some date stones in it. “By God,” he said, “this is the fodder of Yathrib.” He hastened back to his followers, and turning the caravan away from the road they pressed on at full speed along the shore by the sea, leaving Badr on their left.

Meantime the two scouts returned to the Prophet with the news that the caravan was expected to reach Badr on the following day or the day after. they would certainly stop at Badr, which had long been one of the great halts on the road between Mecca and Syria, and there was ample time for the Muslims to surprise them and overpower them.

Then came the news that Quraysh had set out with an army to rescue their caravan. This had always been considered as a possibility, but now that it had become a fact the Prophet felt bound to consult his men and to let theirs be the choice between advancing and retreating. Abu Bakr and ‘Umar spoke for the Emigrants in favor of advancing and retreating. Abu Bakr and ‘Umar spoke for the Emigrants in favor of advancing and then, by way of confirmation of all that they had said, an ally of the Bani Zuhrah who had only recently come to Medina, Miqdad by name, rose to his feet and added: “O Messenger of God, do what God hath shown thee to do. We will not say unto thee as the children of Israel said unto Moses: Go thou and thy Lord and fight; we shall sit here,[2], but we will say: ‘Go thou and thy Lord and fight, and with you we also will fight, on the right and on the left, before thee and behind thee.'” ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud used to tell in after years of the great light that dawned on the Prophet’s face when he heard those words and as he blessed their speaker. Not that he was surprised, for he knew that the Emigrants were unreservedly with him. But could the same be said of all the Helpers who were now present? THe army had set out from Medina in hope of capturing the caravan. But now it seemed that they might have to encounter something much more formidable. Moreover, when the Helpers had pledged allegiance to him in ‘Aqabah, they had said that they were not responsible for his safety until he had entered their territory, but that when he was with them they would protect him as they protected their wives and their children. Would they be prepared to help him against an enemy now that he was no longer in Yathrib? “Men, give me your advice,” he said, expressing himself in general but meaning the Helpers, some of whom had already divined his thoughts, though none of them had yet spoken. But now Sa’d ibn Mu’adh rose to his feet. “It would seem,” he said, “that we are the men thou meanest, O Messenger of God.” And when the Prophet assented he went on: “We have faith in thee and we believe what thou hast told us, and we testify that what thou hast brought us is the truth, and we have given thee our binding oaths to hear and obey. So do what thou wilt, and we are with thee. By Him who hath sent thee with the truth, if thou shouldst bid us cross yonder sea and didst plunge into it thyself, we would plunge into it with thee. Not one man of us would stay behind. Neither are we averse from meeting our enemy tomorrow. We are well tried in war, trusty in combat. It may be that God will show thee prowess of ours such as shall bring coolness to thine eyes.[3] So lead us on with the blessing of God.”

The Prophet rejoiced at his words; and the certainty came to him that they would indeed have to contend with either the army or the caravan but not with both. “Onwards,” he said, “and be of good cheer, for God the All Highest hath promised me one of the two parties, and even now it is as if I saw the enemy lying prostrate.”[4]

Although they were prepared for the worst, there was still hope that they would be able to attack the caravan and be well on their way back to Medina, enriched with plunder and prisoners, before the army of Quraysh arrived. But when they had reached a halt that was less than a day’s march from Badr, the Prophet rode on with Abu Bakr and obtained some information from an old man from which he concluded that the Meccan army was already near. Returning to the camp he waited until nightfall and sent his three cousins ‘Ali, Zubayr and Sa’d with some others of his companions to the well of Badr to see if either the army or the caravan or both had drawn water from it, or if anyone there had had any news of either party. At the well they chanced upon two men who were loading their camels with water for the army of Quraysh, and having overpowered them they brought them back to the Prophet, who was standing in prayer when they arrived. Without waiting until he had finished they began to question the two men, who said that they were the army’s water-carriers. But some of their interrogators preferred to think that they were lying, for they fervently hoped that it was Abu Sufyan who had sent them to get water for the caravan, and they set about beating them, until they said “We are Abu Sufyan’s men,” and they let them be. The Prophet made the concluding prostrations to his prayer and gave the greetings of peace, and said: “When they told you the truth, ye beat them, and when they lied ye let them be. They are indeed of the army of Quraysh.” Then he turned to the two prisoners. “Tell me, ye two,” he said, “of Quraysh, of their whereabouts.” “They are behind this hill,” they said, pointing to ‘Alqanqal, “on the further slope of the valley beyond it.” “How many men are they?” he asked. “Many,” they said, nor could they answer anything more precise, so he asked how many beasts they slaughtered. “Some days nine, some days ten” was the answer. “Then they are between nine hundred and a thousand,” he said. “And what leaders of Quraysh are amongst them?” They named fifteen and these included, of ‘Abdu Shams, the brothers ‘Utbah and Shaybah; of Nawfal, Harith and Tu’aymah; of ‘Abd ad-Dar, Nadr, who had pitted his tales of Persia against the Qur’an; of Asad, Khadijah’s half brother Nawfal; of Makhzum, Abu Jahl; of Jumah, Umayyah; of ‘Amir, Suhayl. Hearing these eminent names, the Prophet remarked when he rejoined his men: “This Mecca hath thrown unto you the best morsels of her liver.”

It was not long before news of the thousand-strong army reached Abu Sufyan, and by that time he had reached a point from which his rescuers were between him and the enemy/ Realizing that the caravan was now safe, he sent a messenger to Quraysh, saying: “Ye came out to defend your camels and your men and your goods; and God hath rescued them, therefore return.” This message reached them when they were already encamped at Juhfah, a little to the south of Badr. There was yet another reason why they should advance no further. Gloom had been cast over the whole camp on account of a dream -almost a vision- that Juhaym, a man of Muttalib, had had. “Between sleeping and waking,” he said, “I saw a man approach on horseback, leading a camel. Then he halted and said ‘Slain are ‘Utbah and Shaybah and Abu l-Hakam and Umayyah'” -and he went on to mention other chiefs of Quraysh that the horseman had named. “Then,” said Juhaym, “I saw him stab his camel in the chest and let it run loose through the camp, and there was no tent that was not bespattered with its blood.” When Abu Jahl was told of this he said in a tone of triumphant derision: “Here is yet another prophet from the sons of Muttalib.” He said “yet another’ because the two clans of Muttalib and Hashim were often thought of as one. Then, seeking to dispel the gloom, he addressed them all: “By God, we will not return until we have been at Badr. Three days will we stay there; we will slaughter camels and feast and make flow the wine and the songstresses shall play and sing for us; and the Arabs will hear how we marched forth and of our mighty gathering, and they will stand in awe of us for ever. Onwards to Badr!”

Akhnas ibn Shariq had come out with Zuhrah, whose confederate he was, and he now urged them to pay no attention to Abu Jahl, so they returned from Juhfah to Mecca, every man of them. Talib also returned with some of his fellow clansmen, for words had passed between him and others of Quraysh who had said: “O sons of Hashim, we know that even though ye have come out with us, your hearts are with Muhammad.” But ‘Abbas decided to go on to Badr with the rest of the army, and he took with him his three nephews, Abu Sufyan and Nawfal, the sons of Harith, and ‘Aqil, the son of Abu Talib.

Beyond the hill, a little to the north-east, the Muslims were breaking camp. The Prophet knew that it was imperative for them to reach the waters of Badr before the enemy, so he ordered an immediate advance. Not long after they had started rain began to fall, and he rejoiced in it as a sign of favor from God, a blessing and an assurance. It refreshed the men and laid the dust and made firm the soft sand of the valley of Yalyal where now they were marching; but it would impede the enemy, who had yet to climb the slopes of ‘Aqanqal, which lay over to the left of the Muslims, on the opposite side of the valley from Badr. The wells were all on the gentler slopes of the near side, and the Prophet ordered a halt at the first well they came to. But a man of Khazraj, Hubab ibn al-Mundhir, came to him and said: “O Messenger of God, this place where now we are -hath God revealed it unto thee, that we should neither advance nor retreat from it, or is it a matter of opinion and strategy of war?” He said that it was merely a matter of opinion, whereupon Hubab said: “This is not the place to halt, but take us on, O Messenger of God, until we come unto that one of the large wells which is nearest the enemy. Let us halt there and stop up the wells that lie beyond it and make for ourselves a cistern. Then will we fight the enemy, and all the water will be ours to drink, and they will have none.” The Prophet at once agreed, and Hubab’s plan was carried out in every detail. The further wells were stopped and the cistern was built, and every man filled his drinking vessel.

Then Sa’d ibn Mu’adh came to the Prophet and said: “O PRophet of God, let us build for thee a shelter and put thy riding camels in readiness beside it. Then will we meet our enemy, and if God strengthen us and make us victorious over them, that is what we fervently desire. But, if not, then thou canst mount and ride to join those whom we left behind us. For as to some of those who came not out with thee, O Prophet of God, even our love for thee is not greater than theirs, nor had they stayed behind, if they had known thou wouldst meet with war. Through them God will protect thee, and they will give thee good counsel and fight at thy side.” The Prophet praised him and invoked blessings upon him, and the shelter was fashioned with branches of palms.

That night God sent down a peaceful sleep upon the believers, and they awoke refreshed.[5] It was Friday 17 March AD 623 which was 17 Ramadan in the year AH 2.[6] As soon as it was dawn Quraysh marched forth and climbed the hill of ‘Aqanqal. The sun was already up when they reached the top, and when the Prophet saw them on their richly caparisoned horses and camels descending the slope into the valley of Yalyal towards Badr, he prayed: “O God, here are Quraysh: they have come in their arrogance and their vanity, opposing Thee and belying Thy messenger. O Lord, grant us Thy help which Thou didst promise us! O Lord, this morn destroy them!”

They made their camp at the foot of the slope; and since it appeared to them that the Muslims were fewer than they had anticipated they sent out ‘Umayr of Jumah on horseback to estimate their numbers and to see if they had any reinforcements in their rear. He reported that there was no sign of any further troops other than those who were now facing them on the opposite side of the valley. “But O ye men of Quraysh,” he added, “I do not think that any man of them will be slain but he shall first have slain a man of you; and if they slay of you a number that is equal to their number, what good will be left in life thereafter?” ‘Umayr had something of the reputation of a diviner throughout Mecca, and this added weight to his words. No sooner had he spoken than Hakim of Asad, Khadijah’s nephew, seized his opportunity and went on foot through the camp until he came to the men of ‘Abdu Shams. “Father of Walid,” he said to ‘Utbah, “thou art the greatest man of Quraysh, and their lord and the one whom they obey. Wouldst thou be remembered with praise amongst them until the end of time?” “How shall that be?” said ‘Utbah. “Lead the men back,” said Hakim, “and take upon thyself the cause of thy slain confederate ‘Amr.” He meant that ‘Utbah should eliminate one of the strong reasons for fighting and pay the blood-wite to the kinsmen of the man who had been killed at Nakhlah, whose brother ‘Amir had in fact come to take his revenge on the field of battle. ‘Utbah agreed to do all that he said, but urged him to go and speak to Abu Jahl, the man most likely to insist on war. Meantime he addressed the troops, saying: “Men of Quraysh, ye will gain naught by fighting Muhammad and his companions. If ye lay them low, each man of you will for ever look with loathing on the face of another who hath slain his uncle or his cousin or some yet nearer kinsman. Therefore turn back and leave Muhammad to the rest of the Arabs. If they slay him, that is what ye desire; and if not, he will find that ye have shown self-restraint towards him.”

He no doubt intended to approach ‘Amir al-Hadrami at once with a view of paying the blood-wite for his brother, but Abu Jahl was too quick for him. He taunted ‘Utbah with cowardice, with being afraid of death for himself and also for his son Abu Hudhayfah, who was in the ranks of the enemy. Then he turned to ‘Amir and urged him not to let slip his opportunity of revenge for his brother. “Arise,” he said, “and remind them of thy covenant and of the slaying of thy brother.” ‘Amir leapt to his feet and frantically stripping off his clothes, he began to utter cries of lamentation at the top of his voice. “Alas for ‘Amr! Alas for ‘Amr!” So the fire of war was kindled and men’s souls were filled with violence and it was in vain for ‘Utbah or anyone else to seek to turn them back.

The now general absorbedness in final preparations for battle gave one man the chance he had been waiting for. Fearing that he might escape in his absence, Suhayl had brought his son ‘Abd Allah with him to Badr. Umayyah, chief of Jumah, had done the same with his son ‘Ali, whom he had coerced into forsaking Islam. But unlike ‘Ali, who was a waverer, ‘Abd Allah was unshakeable in faith; and going out of sight of the camp behind  a nearby hillock, he quickly made his way across the uneven sands to the Muslim camp, where he went straight to the Prophet, and joy was on both their faces. Then he joyfully greeted his two brothers-in-law, Abu Sabrah and Abu Hudhayfah.


[1] See chapter 22 – Leaders of Quraysh
[2] Qur’an 5 : 24
[3] “Coolness of the eyes” is a favorite term of the Arabs for expressing joy, delight, etc.
[4] I.I. 435
[5] See Qur’an 8 : 11
[6] Anno Hegirae. The Islamic era begins at the Hijrah.

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