Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword

James M. Arlandson, Ph.D.

This article is designed to be compared with the previous one about Jesus and his mission.

Early on in Muhammad’s call, he followed the path of peace, while he was defenseless in his hometown Mecca. As he preached monotheism to polytheists – those who believe in many gods – he suffered from persecution. But it was at this time that he also got the idea that he would fight back, with harm that equals harm, though not yet, because he had no military strength. Meanwhile, the opposition got so bad that he left and headed for the town of Medina, to the north.

Immediately after his move, he still followed the path of peace. He said to the inhabitants of Medina, “There is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256).[1]

After this brief period of peace, he changed, following the Arab custom of conducting raids. His raiders gradually grew to an army. So he went down the path of jihad. In fact, in the ten years that he lived in Medina he sent out or went out on seventy-four raids and conflicts and battles and even assassinations, though we can discuss only a sample in this article.[2]

Exploring the transition from peace to war is important. If perhaps he had never begun his raids and abandoned his quest for the Kabah shrine back in Mecca, where Muslims to this day take a pilgrimage, then surely peace would have ensued between the two cities and two religions.

To understand these issues, we divide his life and policies in three stages: the path of peace in Mecca; the path to war; and jihad and qital in Medina.

Before we get to the three stages, we begin with basic textual facts.

Jihad and Qital: Defining the Terms[3]

The three-letter root of jihad is j-h-d. It can mean “holy war,” but it more generally signifies “struggling” or “striving.” In its various forms it appears about thirty-five times in the Quran: nine times in the Meccan chapters, and twenty-six times in the Medinan ones, nearly a triple increase.

While Muhammad lived in Mecca, he had no military, so the verses are peaceful. But when he migrated up to Medina, his raiders grew into a large army after a mere eight years. Chapter 9 of the Quran was one of the last chapters to be revealed, if not the last one. Jihad appears mostly in that chapter, in the context of war (ten times). This increase of the Medinan jihad verses reflects the rise of his military, though not every use of the word is in a military context.

But much more revealing is the root q-t-l (qital or qatala), the meaning of which is much more narrow or restricted: slaying, killing, warring, fighting, and slaughtering. It appears a total of about one hundred and twenty-three times in the Quran: thirty-four times in the Meccan chapters, most of which do not involve Muslims as such, since his community was small. But the contexts typically involve wars or conflicts of long ago or commands not to kill the innocent, like children. In the Medinan chapters q-t-l is found eighty-nine times, a huge increase over the Meccan ones. Chapters 2 and 3 – very long Medinan ones – of the Quran contain the most instances, at twenty-five, though Chapter 9 by itself comes in at ten. Of all the occurrences of q-t-l, not every context is about war, but many are.

The rise of the military explains the increase of the two roots.

Maybe we have been focusing only on jihad too much, when our attention should be directed at qital – or both at the same time.

Stage One: the Path of Peace in Mecca

One day early in Muhammad’s preaching career, he arrived at the Kabah, touched and kissed[4] the black stone, circled it, and prayed to Allah. As the Meccans observed his respectful devotion, which he performed habitually at the shrine, three men of reputation met him later and proposed that they should worship what he worships, and he should worship what they worship – a compromise. It is in this context that Muhammad receives the following revelation, in which Allah commands Muhammad to “say” to the Meccan polytheists, here called disbelievers:

1 Say [Prophet], “Disbelievers: 2 I do not worship what you worship, 3 you do not worship what I worship, 4 I will never worship what you worship, 5 you will never worship what I worship: 6 you have your religion and I have mine.”[5] (Quran 109:1-6)

Verse 6 says he does not give up his religion, and they do not give up theirs. Implied in the verse is the notion that he does not forcibly impose his own beliefs on his fellow Meccans – not yet. He was tolerant enough of polytheism at this early stage that he did not or could not attack it, though he preached against it.

Muhammad met with little success in the first five or so years of his career in his hometown because opposition to his message of monotheism against polytheism and the materialism of Meccan tradesmen was strong, though the opposition means he was hitting nerves. In the life of a prophet, this is success, regardless of the small number of converts.

Early biographer Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) reports:

... [The Meccans] had never known anything like the trouble they had to endure from this fellow [Muhammad]; he had declared their mode of life foolish, insulted their forefathers, reviled their religion, divided the community, and cursed their gods.[6]

And the Quran says:

[Prophet], you can see the hostility on the faces of the disbelievers when Our messages are recited clearly to them: it is almost as if they are going to attack those who recite Our messages to them.[7] (Quran 22:72)

Despite his strong rhetoric and subsequent persecution, though, he still practiced nonviolence at this point. Strong rhetoric does not have to escalate to violence, at least not from the rhetorician. He does not wage military jihad against his fellow Meccans, for he is too weak.

Stage Two: the Path to War

Given this mounting persecution, a transition from peace and tolerance to physical retaliation – the second stage – can now be discerned.

In Quran 42, a Meccan chapter, is found a balancing act. The specific passage in vv. 36-43 transitions from forbearance to a policy of defending and requiting harm with another harm or recompensing evil for evil.

36 ... Far better and more lasting is what God will give to those who .... 37 forgive when they are angry ... 39 and defend themselves when they are oppressed. 40 Let harm be requited by an equal harm, though anyone who forgives and puts things right will have his reward from God Himself .... 41 There is no cause to act against anyone who defends himself after being wronged, 42 but there is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice – they will have agonizing punishment – 43 though if a person is patient and forgives, this is one of the greatest things. (Quran 42:36-43)

These verses first encourage forgiveness and patience. However, the text also permits Muhammad to retaliate for wrongs committed against him. Which path will he choose? And how does one measure the equality of harm or evil?

The following verse poses the same difficulty of measurement. The key words “proportionate,” “like,” “extent” are found in Quran 16, a Meccan chapter, which deals with responding to Meccan persecution:

126 If you [believers] have to respond to an attack, make your response proportionate, but it is best to stand fast.[8] (Quran 16:126)

So it is clear from 42:36-43 and 16:126 that Muhammad has two paths before him. One is to “forgive when [enemies] are angry” and become a “person who is patient and forgives.” The other is harm for harm and a proportional response to an attack.

At this stage he cannot take the second path because he has no militia and perhaps he simply chooses to be peaceful. But the seeds of jihad are planted. Eventually they will grow, and he will wander off from a strictly peaceful policy revealed to him in Mecca.

In any event, the persecution of Muhammad and his small Muslim community reached its height, even as far as nearly assassinating him. It was safer for him to leave Mecca. He does so in September 622.

At this point in time he is not aiming, as part of a master plan, to completely take over the Kabah shrine, which housed the black stone, around which he walked, just as the pagans did for centuries. All the two passages say so far is that he may retaliate if he wants. Rather than completely taking over the shrine, he simply wants access to it for a pilgrimage, which the Meccans had hindered, due to their persecution of him and threats against his life.

He is about to set out on a mission.

Muhammad’s policies undergo such a shift after his hijrah (emigration or flight) that Muslim scholars date their calendar according to it, usually abbreviated AH, from Latin “anno hegirae” or “in the year of the hijrah.”[9]

Stage Three: Jihad and Qital in Medina

This brings us to the third and final stage in Muhammad’s shift toward jihad and qital.

After he settled in at Medina, for a brief while he took the path of peace, as summed up in Quran 2:256: “There is no compulsion in religion.” It is not clear when this verse was written, but it most likely comes early in his life in Medina, since Chapter 2 of the Quran is an early one.[10] In any case Muslims today quote the verse to show that Islam is tolerant. But as we shall see, the picture is much more complicated.

Whenever the verse was written, something compelled him to abandon the path of peace and patience. Quran 42:36-43 and 16:126 had given him the option of forgiveness and steadfastness, which are the greater things, or the option of “let harm be requited by an equal harm.” He chose the second option: proportional attack.

Chapter 22 of the Quran was probably written partly in Mecca, and partly in Medina. The Medinan verses are very hard to distinguish from the earlier ones. Whenever it was written, its title is “the Pilgrimage,” showing that Muhammad was intent on carrying on this centuries-old ritual, begun by pagans, even if he has to fight for the shrine and purify it for monotheism. This verse gives the motive to fight:

25 As for those who disbelieve and bar others from God’s path and from the Sacred Mosque – which We [Allah] made for all people, residents and visitors alike – and who try to violate it with wrongdoing, We shall make them taste a painful punishment.[11] (Quran 22:25)

Muhammad goes on to say that Allah commanded Abraham to purify the Kabah (sacred mosque) for those who circle it (v. 26). Since Muhammad was a monotheist and claimed to stand in the tradition of Abraham, Muhammad is called to take up arms to purify the shrine with his own pilgrimage.

39 Those who have been attacked are permitted to take up arms because they have been wronged – God has the power to help them – 40 those who have been driven unjustly from their homes only for saying, 'Our Lord is God.' (Quran 22:39-40)

Chapter 47 of the Quran, which can be titled either “Muhammad” or “War,” was also written early, in the first year of Muhammad’s flight to Medina. He condemns the Meccans who expelled him from his hometown.

We [Allah] have destroyed many a town stronger than your own [Prophet] – [Mecca] the town which [chose to] expel you – and they had no one help them (Quran 47:13).[12]

And Allah tells him:

When you meet the disbelievers in battle, strike them in the neck. (Quran 47:4).

Now the way to wage war has been specified, striking them in the neck with a sword.[13]

Various Raids, A.D. 623

Muhammad either sent out or went out on seven raids for a full year in A.D. 623, specializing in the Meccan caravans. He is gradually raising the Arab custom of raids to a jihad that is already getting incorporated into his Quran.

First, in early 623, about 30 Muslim raiders went out, but no fighting took place, only a stare-down between them and the Meccan caravans. Second, about a month later, Muhammad sent out another expedition of 60-80 fighters, but again no fighting, except both sides shot arrows at each other, which marks the first shots fired in Islam. Third, the next month another dozen or two soldiers sallied out on the news of another caravan, but no contact was made. Muhammad himself led the next four raids, ranging from 60-200 soldiers, for the rest of 623, and the results were no contact, stare-downs and possible negotiations, or a failure to overtake the caravans.

Muhammad’s raids are not finished. In November 623 a small band of a half-dozen to a dozen Muslims without Muhammad got a lucky strike, capturing a small Meccan caravan of four men east of Mecca, but spilling blood in a sacred month. Tradition marks the one man’s death as the first killing in Islam. After the Muslims returned to their new city, the non-Muslim Medinans were understandably upset because for centuries the sacred months provided a welcome relief from the Arab custom of raiding against each other and caravans, fostering free trade for mercantile city-dwellers.

As it happens, the slain man, whose blood was shed, was a client of a tribal leader in Mecca, and the leader would have to retaliate, following the Arab custom of a blood-feud.[14]

These verses in Chapter 2 of the Quran speak of this skirmish. Of special note is the Kabah and how the Meccans barred Muhammad from it. Allah is addressing Muhammad:

216 Fighting [q-t-l] as been ordained for you, though it is hard for you. You may dislike something although it is good for you, or like something although it is bad for you: God knows and you do not. 217 They ask you [Prophet] about fighting [q-t-l] in the prohibited month. Say, “Fighting [q-t-l] in that month is a serious offence, but to bar others from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him, prevent access to the Sacred Mosque [Kabah], and expel people, are still greater offences in God’s eyes: persecution is worse than killing. They will not stop fighting you [believers] until they make you revoke your faith, if they can. If any of you revoke your faith and die as disbelievers, your deeds will come to nothing in this world and the Hereafter, and you will be inhabitants of the Fire, there to remain. 218 But those who have believed, migrated, and striven [j-h-d] for God’s cause, it is they who can look forward to God’s mercy: God is most forgiving and merciful.[15] (Quran 2:216-218, emphasis added)

Allah permits his messenger to fight the Meccans because they expelled him and his early disciples from their city and the sacred shrine. Qital and jihad cannot be distinguished. In this verse it does indeed involve killing because the historical context tells us blood was shed, and so does v. 217.[16]

The motive to fight appears earlier, in v. 214: “Who could be more wicked than those who prohibit the mention of God’s name in His places of worship and strive to have them deserted?” Next, one belief is also seen in v. 217, the key clause of which reads: “they will not stop fighting you until they make you revoke your faith.”

Actually, after Muhammad had departed from Mecca, they left him alone at this time.[17] They would have preferred it if he had not sent out raids against their caravans and instead let them go about their trading business. They could have their religion, while he could have his (Quran 109:6).

In any case, the upshot of this passage is that the messenger is getting a clearer idea that he should fight for access to the sacred shrine. But it is not yet evident from these early verses in Medina that he intended to conquer it. On that one point, he seems to be feeling his way.

Battle of Badr, A.D. 624

Muhammad knows of a large annual Meccan caravan with over a thousand camels laden with priceless merchandise passing along a major trade route near the Red Sea, heading for Damascus, Syria, but he fails to intercept it. But he knows that it is due to leave the north in January 624, so it would come on the same trade route two or more months later, so he makes preparation to try again. This would ease the financial hardship of his Muslim community and make him richer than he had ever been. Spies were common in Arabia, so it was not difficult to find out about his plan.

Mecca sent a large force of around 1,000 northward to meet the caravan. At the same time, Muhammad sets out with an army of a little over 300 raiders to reach the trade route tracing the Red Sea, about seventy to ninety miles west of Medina (two to three days away by foot, horse or camel). So the three bands converge at the wells of Badr, just off the trade route: the Meccan caravan from the north, Muhammad’s warriors from the east, and the Meccan army from the south. The Meccan army and the Muslims soldiers clash in mid-March 624, and the Muslims won against all odds.[18]

Muhammad’s military triumph is referenced in Chapter 8 of his Quran. Though the whole chapter is devoted to his victory, in which he says he is to get twenty percent and his warriors eighty (v. 41), we focus on two verses. They show Muhammad scolding his Muslim community for setting their sights too low. They were after the plunder only, whereas he was after both the polytheists and then the plunder from the huge caravan.

7 Remember how God promised you [believers] that one of the two enemy groups would fall to you: you wanted the unarmed group to be yours, but it was God’s will to establish the truth according to His Word and to finish off the disbelievers – 8 to prove the Truth to be true, and false to be false, much as the guilty might dislike it.[19] (Quran 8:7-8)

The “two enemy groups” refers to the Meccan army coming up from the south and the Meccan caravan coming down from the north. That Muhammad’s men desired in their own soul the wealthy spoils from the caravan without confronting the Meccan army is seen in the words, “You wanted the unarmed group to be yours.” Further, it was Allah’s will not only to establish the truth according to his word, the Quran, but also to “finish off the disbelievers.” With this victory at Badr, the Truth (the Quran, Muhammad, and Islam) is true, and the false is false.

Muhammad connects this battle with his desire to take a pilgrimage to the Kabah shrine. Quran 8:34 says:

34 Yet why should God not punish them when they debar people from the Sacred Mosque, although they are not its [rightful] guardians? (Quran 8:34).

But Allah’s victory at Badr is a sign to the Meccans that “they will be overcome and herded into Hell” (8:36). “God helped you at Badr when you were weak” (Quran 3:123).

Battle of Uhud, A.D. 625

The substantial Meccan riposte to Badr occurs at the Battle of Uhud in 625.[20] The Muslims lost this battle, though this loss did not cripple them materially, but only their prestige was tarnished, which was recovered with a strong retaliation. Muhammad sent his Muslims out the next day to chase down the Meccans, but nothing came of it.

Quran 3:121-129 and 137-175 deal with this battle, and a very important verse is 143, which says, “Before you encountered death, you were hoping for it.” The idea of hoping for death will inspire Muslims throughout their early history, as they too go out and conquer.[21] Further, it is about this time that Muhammad claims that the Kabah shrine is a special place of worship.

96 The first House [of worship] to be established for people was the one at [Mecca]. It is a blessed place; a source of guidance for all people; 97 there are clear signs in it; it is the place where Abraham stood to pray; who ever enters it is safe.[22] (Quran 3:96-97)

Muhammad accepts (or invents) the legend that Abraham went all the way to Mecca from Canaan, a journey of about a thousand miles. Abraham was the first monotheist, and Muhammad was also a monotheist. So by his logic the Kabah really belongs to him, not to pagans who worshiped many gods (cf. Quran 2:125-126; 8:34-36).

It is around this time that Muhammad acquires and nicknames these swords: "Pluck Out"; "Very Sharp"; "Death"; "Sharp"; "That is wont [apt] to sink" (presumably in human flesh); and "Having the Vertebrae of the Back." This last sword he collected as booty after his victory at the Battle of Badr.[23]

Battle of the Trench, A.D. 627

The next conflict that we have time to cover here is called the Battle of the Trench, which was fought in late March 627 and lasted a month.[24] Tradition says that Mecca mustered 10,000 soldiers, mostly Meccans with some allied tribes. Muhammad could muster only 3,000, mostly Medinan Muslims, and some allies. Given the disparity, Muhammad directed that he and his men dig a trench around the north and southwards along the western side of the oasis near Medina. This compensated for the Muslims not having a cavalry, since the Meccan cavalry could be used mainly to the north, for the south, east and west of Medina were surrounded by lava flows and other natural hindrances.

The two sides never clashed in pitched battle, so the Meccans withdrew, returning home. Quran 33:20-27 covers this battle, saying that confederates gathered against Muhammad, but Allah turned them back in their fury, to no advantage for them (see Part Five for a discussion).

It is not exactly clear when Chapter 5 of the Quran was written, but it was in the middle to late Medinan period, probably shortly after the Battle of the Trench.[25]

Whenever it was written, Muhammad reveals his hatred for the Meccans who commit a specific unjust act, in his eyes. Allah speaks to him:

2 ...“Do not let your hatred for the people who barred you from the Sacred Mosque induce you to break the law: help one another to do what is right and good; do not help one another towards sin and hostility”[26] (Quran 5:2, emphasis added).

Hatred is a strong motive to fight the Meccan pagans. Then he reveals a monetary motive to fight to get it back.

97 God has made the Ka‘ba [Kabah] – the Sacred House – a means of support for people” (Quran 5:97).

People from all over Arabia went to Mecca during seasons of pilgrimage, and this generated a lot of money.[27]

Maybe it is at this time that Muhammad went beyond his mere desire of a pilgrimage; he has to get the shrine back and control it. But this specific and far-reaching goal of control is still not clear.

Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, A.D. 628

During the time of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, named after a plain near Mecca, a treaty that Muhammad forged with the Meccans in 628, but which he claims they broke, he negotiated a pilgrimage a year later to the sacred shrine, for three days.[28]

Once there in 629, he was able to see his old city again and the black stone. He had predicted,

God has truly fulfilled His Messenger’s vision: ‘God willing you will most certainly enter the Sacred Mosque in safety’ ... (Quran 48:27).

Then he repeats the theme that Meccans had barred him from the Kabah:

They were the ones who disbelieved, who barred you from the Sacred Mosque, and who prevented the offering from reaching its place of sacrifice” (Quran 48:25).

Maybe it is for this deeper reason – barring him from the shrine – that peace between him and them was temporary.

In any case, while in Mecca on his pilgrimage he was able to find out how strong or weak the city was. Apparently he concluded it was weak, perhaps after all his raids on the Meccan caravans and his victory at the Trench.

Conquest of Mecca, A.D. 630

Muhammad was about to test his assessment of Mecca.

In January 630, he set out for Mecca with 10,000 men;[29] this large number testifies to the growing power of Islam – the same number that the Meccans had sent up to Medina, during the Trench. The night before the military conquerors entered Mecca, he ordered that they light 10,000 fires, to overwhelm the Meccans with fear. He told his jihadists (maybe it is here that his raids were elevated to jihad, but one cannot be sure) that a general amnesty would be followed because he wished to win the Meccans’ approval and their heart for Islam. Only a few would be hunted down, even if they clung to the curtain of the Kabah shrine.

The next day, the Muslims marched into Mecca in four columns from four directions, but not entirely without bloodshed. Muhammad’s military commander Khalid al-Walid, nicknamed the “Sword of Allah”[30] because of his violence, encountered some resistance. But his forces smashed it, killing twenty-four Meccans and four of their allies.[31] In a short time, they smashed the idols around the Kabah, but apparently sparing a picture of Jesus and his mother. Muhammad allowed the same clans to watch over it.

Muhammad finally possessed the sacred black stone for his monotheistic religion, a stone where pagans worshipped, but that originally belonged to Abraham – or so goes the legend that the Quran accepts or invents. The fifth of the Five Pillars of Islam is to take a pilgrimage to this sacred stone and walk around it.

Mecca submitted to Allah and his messenger. Now he would be able ultimately to control the money from the pilgrims. Mission accomplished (gradually).

Battle of Hunain, A.D. 630

Muhammad did not stop at the conquest, because shortly after the victory over Mecca, an enemy coalition of tribes from the east was determined to attack Mecca when they perceived it was weak. Muhammad moved swiftly against them, able to field the 10,000 jihadists, plus 2,000 Meccans who converted to Muhammad’s religion. The enemy could field only about 4,500, but they followed the practice of bringing their wives and children with them, stationing them in the background, in order to make sure the soldiers fought harder.

The two opposing sides met in a valley named Hunain (or Hunayn), near Mecca. At first, Muhammad’s enemy was on the path of victory, but he stood firm and cried out to his men that he is a prophet of God and not an imposter. This rallied the troops, and the Muslims won the day. The diehard tribesmen fled to the fortified city of Taif. He besieged the city for fifteen days and eventually prevailed. Then he turned his attention to dividing up the spoils.

This passage in the Quran speaks of this battle is 9:25-26, and it is designed to remind the Muslims of God’s help in the battle.

25 God has helped you [believers] on many battlefields, even on the day of the Battle of Hunayn. You were well pleased with your large numbers, but they were of no use to you: the earth seemed to close in on you despite the spaciousness, and you turned tail and fled. 26 Then God sent His calm down to His Messenger and the believers, and He sent down invisible forces. He punished the disbelievers – this is what the disbelievers deserve[32] .... (Quran 9:25-26)

Chapter 9 is one of the last chapters of the Quran to be written, if not the last one. Since it is late, many Muslim scholars conclude it supersedes or cancels other earlier verses that describe peace. In fact, the same is true of Medinan chapters that describe jihad. They abrogate the earlier peaceful Meccan chapters and even the peaceful early Medinan verse in Quran 2:256, “There is no compulsion in religion.” In any case, the last sentence in v. 26 promises punishment for the unbelievers or infidels.

Tabuk Campaign, A.D. 630

Finally, having subdued the Meccan pagans, Muhammad led, in late 630, a large army of 20,000 to 30,000 jihadists to Tabuk, today in northern Saudi Arabia.[33] This is a huge number and reflects the enthusiasm of the Arabs for his earlier conquests. It was time to elevate his mission beyond conquering Mecca and the black stone and look toward the Christians. He believed that the Byzantines were mustering an army of 200,000 soldiers to launch an assault on Islam.[34] But the Byzantine army never mustered out.

Along the way up there and back again, however, Muhammad subdued various Christian and Jewish Arab tribes and required them to pay tribute to him.

Quran 9:29 explains to Muhammad’s soldiers why and how they must fight Christians and Jews as they set out for Tabuk.

29 Fight [q-t-l] against those who (1) believe not in Allah, (2) nor in the Last Day, (3) nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger (Muhammad), (4) and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (i.e. Islam) among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.[35] (Quran 9:29)

Backed by a large army, Islam gives three alternatives to People of the Book or Scripture (the Bible): fight and die in warfare; do not fight, but convert to Islam; or do not fight, but keep their religion and become subjugated, paying a special tax for living under Islam. The word “willing submission” can also be translated as “humiliation,” “utterly humbled,” “contemptible” or “vile.” It can mean “small” as opposed to “great.”[36]

In any case, early Islam after Muhammad’s death implemented this policy of options, so it is important to understand this verse, which will be repeated in later articles in this series.

Reversal of Fortunes

Now strong militarily, Muhammad was finally able to bar the Meccan pagans from their sacred shrine or mosque in Mecca.

28 Believers, those who ascribe partners to God are truly unclean: do not let them come near the Sacred Mosque after this year. (Quran 9:28; cf. v. 18).

That verse appears just before the famous one against the People of the Book. However, “those who ascribe partners” to Allah are polytheists. The wheel of Islamic justice has come full circle. This is a complete reversal of outcomes.

Muhammad now bars the pagans from their sacred stone and mosque, just as they had barred him. The door is shut.

It turns out that the pagans cannot have their religion, while he has his, contrary to Quran 109:6.

And it turns out that there really is compulsion in religion, contrary to Quran 2:256.

The sword made all the difference. The final part of his gradual and incremental mission was accomplished.


Muhammad peacefully started out on his mission while he resided in Mecca, because perhaps he had no plans for jihad at all. He could not see that far into the future. But it is certain he had no power to wage jihad.

Quran 42:36-43 and 16:126 gives him the inkling that it is possible, if not to take the Kabah shrine, then to punish anyone who blocked his path back to it, including his own pilgrimage to the Kabah, which housed the black stone in Mecca. But those verses also give him the option to choose forgiveness and patience.

Arriving in Medina, he had two paths before him: the one of peace and the other of jihad. In Medina he may have trodden down the first one for a brief time. But he wanted to get back to the main place of pilgrimage – the Kabah. He was chased away from it. In his mind this was unjust.

The shrine generated a lot of money as well. He opted to follow his own culture and conducted small raids on caravans, specializing in Meccan ones. After military success piled up, he collected a lot of spoils of battle, so more people, ready for battle and spoils, joined his new community.

In history nothing is inevitable, as the saying goes. We can only speculate as to how Islam would have evolved differently if Muhammad had relinquished his raids and subsequent wars and even the Kabah itself and instead simply preached his message and treated his mosque in Medina as extra-special.

It is a pity he did not say, “Something greater than the pagan black stone is here: Islam. If the pagans want to keep their shrine, they may do so in peace. I have a new mosque in Medina! Come to it!”

If people did not wish to join Islam, then they would be free to go their own way because “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). “You have your religion and I have mine” (109:6).

He would keep persuading the pagans, with words alone and without the sword, how special his mosque was in his new city of Medina, where Islam could flourish and Muslims could visit on a pilgrimage.

To the Jews and Christians he could have said: “Jews! Christians! You are People of the Book! You will not be attacked and forced to convert or die or pay a submission tax! ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’”

Those options of peace were possible for the messenger of Islam. Quran 2:256 says so. Surely peace and tolerance would have prevailed between the Mecca and Medina, and Islam and other religions – even today.

But those hypotheticals are contrary to fact. In early 630 he conquered Mecca. The Meccans had barred him from the shrine, and now he bars them. A 180-degrees reversal of fortunes.

And in late 630 Christians and Jews were attacked. They had to pay a tax or convert or die.

Mission accomplished (though gradually).

Choosing the path of jihad and qital, Muhammad thus set the institutional genetic code for his later community to follow. He declared jihad and qital and waged them in the name of Allah and Islam. So did the first four caliphs and later ones. Jihad and qital were the means to accomplish his mission of religious control and conversion, and they were the same means for later Muslims too.

How does the implementation of the rules of jihad and qital in Quran match up with this brief survey of Muhammad’s life? This question will be answered in the next articles on Islam.

But first we return to Christianity and the Gospels in our comparative study of the two religions.

The contrast between them will be clear.


[First published: 1 May 2012]
[Last updated: 24 July 2012]

Articles in the Series:

1. Introduction

2. The Mission of Jesus and the Sword
3. The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword

4. The Gospels and the Sword
5. The Quran and the Sword

6. Two Kinds of Swords

7. The Early Church and the Sword
8. The Early Muslim Community and the Sword

9. The Sword and the Jews

10. Martyrdom and the Sword

11. Q & A on the Sword

12. Conclusion

[1] All translations in this article are those of MAS Abdel Haleem, The Quran, rev. ed. (Oxford UP, 2010), unless otherwise noted. Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation of the verse, in the Meaning of the Holy Quran, 11th ed., (Belleville, Maryland: Amana, 2004), reads, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” Caution must be used with these two translators. Sometimes they omit or “soft-sell” the harsher aspects of the Quran. It is important to note that some chapters in the Quran were revealed in Mecca, while others were received in Medina. This difference is important because the Meccan chapters are peaceful because Muhammad had no military, large or small. The Medinan chapters teach jihad and conflict because he managed to recruit soldiers and expand his military. If readers would like to see various translation of the Quran, they may go to the website and type in the references.

[2] W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Medina (New York: Oxford UP, 1956), 2 and 339-43. The latter pages are made up of a table that tracks these raids or jihad. In addition to the previous book, these sources have been consulted for this article. Primary or early sources: Muhammd Ibn Ishaq, Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume (Oxford UP, 1955); Abu Jafar Muhammad b. Jarir Tabari, Muhammad at Mecca, vol. 6, trans. W. Montgomery Watt and M. V. McDonald (Albany: SUNYP, 1988); idem, The Foundation of the Community, vol. 7, trans. M. V. McDonald and annotated by W. Montgomery Watt (Albany: SUNYP, 1987); idem, The Victory of Islam, vol. 8, trans. Michael Fishbein, (Albany: SUNYP, 1997); idem, The Last Years of the Prophet, vol. 9, trans. Ismail K. Poonawala (Albany: SUNYP, 1990 ). Tabari (d. 923) and Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) use a variety of sources, some reliable, others not. They may also inflate numbers or incorporate miraculous elements. So they must be used with caution. However, they are still invaluable for historians today. Secondary or modern sources: Watt, Muhammad at Mecca, (New York: OUP, 1953); idem, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, (New York: Oxford UP, 1961); John Glubb, The Life and Times of Muhammad, (New York: Cooper Square P, 2001, 1970); Muhammad H. Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, 8th ed., trans. Ismail Raji A. al-Faruqi, (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 2002, 1935); Hajjah Amina Adil, Muhammad: the Messenger of Islam, His Life and Prophecy, (Washington: Islamic Supreme Council of America, 2002); and Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar: Biography of the Noble Prophet, (Houston: Dar-us-Salam, 1996, 1979). All of these biographers write favorably of Muhammad.

[3] We should not fall into the trap of believing that the fewer the verses, the less significant the theme. All it would take is one important verse calling for jihad, and then the command to wage war would be established. These are the verses that have j-h-d in them, whether verb or noun forms. They are divided by Meccan and Medinan chapters. Meccan chapters: 6:109 (most earnest); 16:38 (most earnest), 110 (this one v. may be Medinan); 22:78 (ch. 22 may be part Meccan, part Medinan) 25:52; 29:6, 8; 31:15; 35:42 (most earnest). Medinan chapters: 2:178; 3:142; 4:95; 5:35, 53, 54; 8:72, 74, 75; 9:16, 19, 20, 24, 41, 44, 73, 79, 81, 86, 88; 24:53; 47:31; 49:15; 60:1; 61:11; 66:9.

Next, these verses have qital (noun) or qatala (verb) in them: Meccan chapters: 6:137, 140, 151; 7:127, 141, 150; 12:9, 10; 17:31, 33; 28:9, 19, 20, 33; 18:74; 20:40; 22:39, 58; 28:15, 19, 33; 25:68; 26:14; 29:24; 40:25, 26, 28; 51:10; 73:20; 74:19, 20; 80:17; 81:9; 85:4. Medinan chapters: 2:54, 61, 85, 72, 87, 91, 154, 178, 190, 191, 193, 216, 217, 244, 246, 251, 253; 3:13, 21, 111, 112, 121, 144, 146, 154, 156, 157, 158, 167, 168, 169, 181, 183, 195; 4:29, 66, 74, 75, 76, 77, 84, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 155, 157; 5:24, 27, 28, 30, 32, 70, 95; 8:16, 17, 30, 39, 65; 9:5, 12, 13, 14, 29, 30, 36, 83, 111, 123; 33:16, 20, 25, 26, 61; 47:4, 20; 48:16, 28; 49:9; 57:10; 59:4, 11, 12; 60:8, 9, 12; 61:4, 63:4. Hannah E. Kassis, A Concordance of the Quran (Los Angeles: UCP, 1982), 587-88; 928-33.

[4] Muhammad Bukhari, Pilgrimage, 2.1597 and 1605, in Sahih Bukari, 9 vols. trans. Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Riyadh: Darussalam, 1997), records sound traditions that say that Muhammad touched and kissed the black stone. Umar was a close companion to Muhammad, and the second caliph (successor). In what follows, he does not like the idea that Muhammad kissed it and mildly objects to doing it himself, but does anyway. Umar implies that his prophet was excessive in his devotion to it.

Narrated Abis bin Rabia: Umar came near the black stone and kissed it and said "No doubt, I know that you are a stone and can neither benefit anyone nor harm anyone. Had I not seen Allah's apostle kissing you, I would not have kissed you." (2.1597, with small mechanical edits)

Narrated Zaid bin Aslam from his father who said: "Umar bin al-Khattab addressed the corner (black stone) saying, 'By Allah! I know that you are a stone and can neither benefit nor harm. Had I not seen the prophet touching (and kissing) you, I would never have touched (and kissed) you.' Then he kissed it and said, 'There is no reason for us to do [this] except that we wanted to show off before the pagans, and now Allah has destroyed them.' Umar added, '(Nevertheless), the prophet did that and we do not want to leave it.'” (2.1605, with small edits; the parenthetical notes are the translator’s; the word in brackets is added)

Bukhari (d. 870) was a hadith collector. The hadith are the traditions and reports about Muhammad outside of the Quran and come second to the Quran in sacredness. Bukhari’s collection is considered reliable and sound. Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) was a jurist and legal scholar who wrote a very helpful summary of legal opinions on a wide range of topics. He writes a section on pilgrimage and circling the black stone: “The majority [of legal interpreters] agree unanimously that the form of circumambulation [circling around], whether obligatory or recommended, is that the worshipper begin at al-hajar al-aswad (the Black Stone). If he is able to kiss the stone he should do so, or touch it with his hand if possible and then kiss it” (The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer, vol. 1, trans. Imran Ahsan Khan Nyaazee [London: Garnet, 1994], 401). The hadith are searchable online at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, under the aegis of the University of Southern California.

[5] Abdel Haleem, The Quran; the bracketed insertion is his.

[6] Ibn Ishaq 130-31.

[7] Abdel Haleem, The Quran; the bracketed insertion is his.

[8] Ibid. The bracketed insertion is Abdel Haleem’s.

[9] For an account of the Hijrah, see Ibn Ishaq 221-3; Tabari 6.145-52; Watt, Mecca 149-50; Glubb 151-65; Haykal 163-72; Adil 274-82; and al-Mubarakpuri 168-180; 202-10.

[10] Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi, in The Meaning of the Quran, vol. 1, 4th ed., trans. Ch. Muhammad Akbar, ed. A. A. Kamal, (Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Publications, 2003), 43-47 says Chapter 2 is early. And Quran 2:256 comes in the context of vv. 243-255, which speaks of Allah’s sovereignty, yet he does not force religion on people (note 284). Clearly the verse is intended to proclaim the tolerance of Islam. But as we shall see shortly, the picture is much more complicated. His commentary can be read online at

[11] The word in brackets has been added.

[12] The first word in brackets is added, the others have been inserted by the translator.

[13] This hadith says in regard to Muhammad’s war on pagans in light of Quran 22:39-40: “Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Messenger said: Allah said: ‘I will declare war against him who shows hostility to a pious worship of Mine’” (Bukhari, Softening Hearts, 8.6502).

[14] For an account of the raids, see Ibn Ishaq 281-89; Tabari 7.10-23 / 1265-79 (see also the translator’s Foreword xix-xx); Watt, Muhammad: Prophet, 102-111; idem, Medina, 2-9; Glubb 169-78; Haykal 200-06; Adil 288-93; and Mubarakpuri 202-09. This last book says with surprising objectivity that Muhammad wanted to bring the commercial routes under his control (201).

[15] The words in brackets, except “Prophet” and “believers,” are added by me. This hadith, in support of early fighting or at any time, says:

Allah's Apostle said: “I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle, and offer the prayers perfectly and give the obligatory charity, so if they perform that, then they save their lives and property from me except for Islamic laws and then their reckoning (accounts) will be done by Allah.” (Bukhari, Belief; 1.25; parenthetical notes are the translator’s).

[16] Abdul Mannan Omar, Dictionary of the Holy Quran (Hockessin, Delaware: 2003, 2004), 105-06; 442-43.

[17] Mubarakpuri, Sealed Nectar, 199-202, mentions a letter from Mecca provoking Medinan polytheists to attack Muhammad, but he managed to talk them out of it. How serious, then, could the threat and Muhammad’s helplessness be? Taunts and threats were part of seventh-century Arab culture. Mubarakpuri too falls into the trap of believing that Mecca was constantly out to attack or threaten an attack on Muhammad in Medina, but the Meccans never got close to the city. Further, Isma’il R. al-Faruqi and Lois Lamya’al Faruqi, in The Cultural Atlas of Islam, (New York: Macmillan, 1986), 134, assert that the Meccan caravans “passed through” Medina. But this is wrong on its face because Muhammad was attacking the caravans. So why would the Meccans pass through his new city? In contrast, reputable and highly regarded Islamologist Watt, Medina, 2, paints a more accurate picture of these early raids, saying that the Muslims took the offensive, long distances from Medina: “The chief point to notice is that the Muslims took the offensive. With one exception the seven expeditions were directed against Meccan caravans. The geographical situation lent itself to this. Caravans from Mecca to Syria had to pass between Medina and the coast. Even if they kept as close to the Red Sea as possible, they had to pass within about eighty miles of Medina, and, while at this distance from the enemy base, would be twice as far from their own base.”

[18]For an account of the Battle of Badr (AD 624), see Ibn Ishaq 289-339; Tabari 7.26-75; Watt, Medina, 10-20; idem, Muhammad: Prophet, 102-111; 119-34; Glubb 169-200; Haykal 16-41; al-Mubarakpuri 210-33; and Adil 295-304.

[19] The word in brackets is added by Abdel Haleem.

[20] For more on the Battle of Uhud and the raids and their aftermath, see Ibn Ishaq, 370-426; Tabari, 7.89-92 and 105-38; Watt, Muhammad: Prophet, 135-48; idem, Medina, 21-29; Glubb 191-221; Haykal 252-84; Adil 320-55; and al-Mubarakpuri 245-95.

[21] Quran 3:121-129 and 137-175 deal with the Battle of Uhud, but the verses are too many to analyze here in this survey.

[22] The first words in brackets are those of the translator; the second word is mine.

[23] Tabari 9.153-55.

[24] For more on the Battle of the Trench, see Ibn Ishaq 449-82; Tabari 8.5-27; Watt, Muhammad: Prophet, 160-71; idem, Medina, 29-39; Glubb, 213-52; Haykal, 299-316; Adil, 372-98; and Mubarakpuri, 296-329.

[25] Maududi, the Meaning of the Quran, vol. 1, 414-416. His commentary can be read online at

[26] The word “hatred” is sh-n-’ (cf. Quran 5:8 and 108:3); and in addition to Abdel Haleem’s translation in Quran 5:2, the Arabic noun can also mean “insult,” “adversity,” “enmity,” “hostility,” “malice,” “abhorrence”; the verb can mean “to loathe.” (Omar, Dictionary 298-99). The context of the verse is about going to the sacred shrine without violating the sacred month; the pilgrims are not allowed to kill game. When they have completed the rites of pilgrimage, they may then hunt. Whatever the case, hatred is a strong word.

[27] The word in brackets is added. In Abdel Haleem’s footnote to this verse, he says that during the sacred months ordinary Muslims could go to Mecca and take advantage of the many pilgrims who traveled there, in order to sell them their goods and wares (note b).

[28] For more on the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah and raids, see Ibn Ishaq 499-510; Tabari 8.67-71; Watt, Muhammad: Prophet, 176-203; idem, Medina, 40-64; Glubb 255-87; Haykal 317-94; Adil 399-422; and Mubarakpuri 339-48; 364-65.

[29] For more the Conquest of Mecca and the subsequent Battle of Hunayn, next, see Ibn Ishaq 530-602 / 788-893; Tabari 8.133-87, and 9.1-39; Watt, Muhammad: Prophet, 203-214; idem, Muhammad at Medina, 65-77; Glubb, 275-346; Haykal, 360-428; Adil, 472-519; and Mubarakpuri, 380-416.

[30] Watt, Medina 362.

[31] This contradicts Karen Armstrong, “Is Islam Violent?” in Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim their Faith, ed. Michael Wolfe, (Rodale, 2002), 28, who says that Mecca was taken without bloodshed.

[32] The word in brackets was added by Abdel Haleem.

[33] For more on this timeframe, see Ibn Ishaq 602-624; Tabari 9.47-62; Watt, Muhammad: Prophet, 212-28; idem, Medina, 65-77; 139-42; Glubb 333-62; Haykal 443-74; Adil 520-45; and al-Mubarakpuri 417-40.

[34] Maududi, the Meaning of the Quran, vol. 2, 164, says 200,000 Byzantines never materialized, and he calls the Byzantine army’s no-show “a moral victory.” He then says that Muhammad presses home his moral victory and makes northern Christian Arab tribes pay the jizyah. His commentary can be read online at

[35] Hilali and Khan’s translation, the Noble Quran, (Riyadh: Darussalam, 1996, 2002); parenthetical notes are theirs. Mine are in brackets.

[36] For “humiliation,” “contempt” or “utterly humbled,” see Quran 7:13, 119; 12:32; 27:37; for “small,” see 2:82; 9:121; 10:61; 17:24; 18:49; 34:3; 54:53. The root is s-gh-r. For “vile,” see Omar, Dictionary, 316.