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EARLY MILITARY EXPEDITIONS 

The circumstances in the early days in Madina

With the arrival of God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, in Madina, the struggle between Islam and unbelief entered a new phase. In Makka, the Prophet devoted himself almost exclusively to expounding the basic principles of Islamic faith and to the moral and spiritual training of his Companions. After the Emigration, however, people belonging to different tribes and regions of ‘Arabia, who had embraced Islam, began to concentrate in Madina. Although the Muslims held only a tiny piece of the land, the whole of Arabia, under the leadership of the Quraysh, moved against them, bent upon their extermination.

In these circumstances, the very survival, let alone the success, of this small group of believers depended upon several factors. First, that they should propagate their beliefs with the utmost conviction in order to convert others. Second, that they should demonstrate the falsity of their opponents’ standpoint so convincingly that there could remain no justifiable ground for any intelligent person to entertain any doubt on the question. Third, that they as the followers of the Prophet should not become disheartened because they had been driven out of their homes and were faced, through the hostility and opposition of the whole country, with economic stringency, hunger, and constant insecurity and danger, but that they should confront the situation with patience and fortitude. Fourth, that they should be able to find a way to retake all their wealth and goods usurped by the Makkans during Emigration. Fifth, that they should be prepared to resist with both courage and the force of arms the violent assault by which the enemy intended to frustrate their movement, and that in this resistance they should not heed the enemy’s superiority in either numbers or material resources.

In addition to the threats coming from Makka and its allied tribes, there were, in Madina itself, three tribes of the Jews. As explained earlier, the Jews held the control of the economic life of the city. Although they had been waiting for the emergence of a Prophet, they severely opposed God’s Messenger because he did not appear from among them, among the descendants of the Prophet Isaac. They felt constrained to sign a pact with God’s Messenger but, entertaining feelings of hatred against him, they never refrained from conspiracies to exterminate Islam. For example, among their poets, Ka’b ibn Ashraf composed poems to satirize God’s Messenger and instigate his enemies against him.

In Madina, another element of enmity against Islam also began to emerge in the form of hypocrisy. One group of hypocrites consisted of those who had no faith in Islam but had entered the ranks of the Muslim community merely in order to create mischief. Another group of hypocrites, conscious of the political dominance of the Muslims in Madina, considered it advantageous to gain acceptance as fellow-Muslims. At the same time, they maintained contacts with the enemies of Islam so that they could secure all the advantages of friendship with the two opposite camps and thus remain safe from any hostilities. There was still another group of hypocrites - those who were in a state of ambivalence and indecision between Islam and Ignorance but who had accepted Islam because the majority of their tribe or family had done so. The final group consisted of those who, although they believed Islam to be true, found it difficult to forsake their inherited way of life, their superstitions, their customs and usages, and to discipline themselves to observe the moral restraints and fulfill the obligations prescribed by Islam.

Military expeditions

In such severe circumstances, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, dispatched, as military measures, expeditions into the heart of the desert. In dispatching them, he had several aims, some of which are as follows:

  • Unbelievers tried to extinguish the Light of God ‘with their mouths’ but, although they were averse, God willed to perfect His Light (al-Saff, 61.8). So, God’s Messenger desired to demonstrate that it was impossible for unbelievers to exterminate Islam, and to show that Islam was a reality that could not be ignored.

  • Makka enjoyed a central position in the heart of the Arabian peninsula. It was the most formidable power of the time in Arabia and all the other tribes felt some sort of adherence to it. By dispatching military expeditions to neighboring areas, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, also desired to demonstrate the power of Islam and to break the dominance of the Quraysh in Arabia.

  • During human history, the concept of ‘might is right’ has usually been a norm. This has been so because ‘right’ has usually not had enough power to hold the dominance of the world. The case was the same fourteen centuries ago in Arabia. Since the Quraysh enjoyed might and wealth, the neighboring tribes obeyed them. However, Islam came to make right might, and, in order to demonstrate this and to break the pressure of the Makkan polytheists on neighboring tribes to prevent them from embracing Islam, God’s Messenger dispatched military expeditions through the desert one after the other.

  • The mission of God’s Messenger was not restricted to a fixed period, nor to one nation only; rather, he was sent as a mercy for all the worlds. So, he was charged to communicate the Message of God as far as the remotest corners of the world. However, since he began his mission in Arabia, he had, certainly, to know the conditions surrounding him. These expeditions were, therefore, vanguards to be acquainted with those conditions and pave the way for the preaching of Islam in the peninsula.

  • One of the most effective ways of crushing the enemy is to stir them to unpremeditated, premature movements and thereby to always have the initiative. God’s Messenger was surely informed of the contacts the Quraysh established with ‘Adbullah ibn Ubayy ibn Salul, the head of the hypocrites in Madina, to frustrate him in his mission, and he was alert to their possible attacks on Madina. Meanwhile a military force of the Quraysh was able to penetrate as far as the suburbs of Madina and, after a plunder, returned to Makka. So, by dispatching military expeditions, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace, also desired to agitate the Quraysh to an unprepared, unpremeditated action against Madina to nip their plots in the bud.

  • The Quraysh lived on international trade. They sent trade caravans to Syria and to the Yemen. So, it was a vital importance for them that their trade routes should be absolutely secure. However, thanks to the situation of Madina, God’s Messenger was able to threaten their trade and, therefore, while strengthening his position in Madina on the one hand, he was, on the other, dispatching military expeditions to paralyze the hopes and plans of the Quraysh to deal him any blow.

  • Islam guarantees security of life and property. Its commandments aim to guarantee the security of life, the security of property, the security of, in addition to physical health, mental and spiritual health, the security of chastity, and the security of belief. Therefore, it strictly prohibits murder, theft, robbery and plundering, and also usurpation and interest or usury and gambling, alcohol, every kind of illicit sexual intercourse, anarchy and propagation of atheism. The Arabic original of ‘belief’ is iman and means giving security. Therefore a mu’min (believer) is the one who never cheats and from whose tongue and hand all people are in utmost security. He never lies, never breaks his word, and never breaches a trust. Also, he never conceives of earning his life by stealing or other un-Islamic ways like usurpation and interest-involving transactions. He is convinced that the one who has killed a man is as if he killed the whole of humankind.

  • When God’s Messenger was raised as a Prophet, there was in Arabia no security, neither of life or property, nor of chastity or health, nor of belief, nor indeed in the rest of the world. However, he had to establish absolute security in every aspect of life. Once, he had said to Adiy ibn Khatam:

  • A day will come when a woman will travel, riding in a litter, from Hira to Makka and fear nothing except God and wolves.1

  • By dispatching military expeditions through the desert, God’s Messenger also aimed to establish security therein and wanted to show to everyone, friend and foe, that security was not possible but by Islam.

 

Expeditions

The first military expedition sent after the Emigration was toward Sif al-Bahr. When Hamza, the commander of the expedition, reached Sif al-Bahr, a trade caravan of the Quraysh was returning from Damascus. The Quraysh had usurped all the possessions of the Emigrant Muslims left in Makka, and used them in trade. In order to threaten their trade, and weaken them economically, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, desired to make a show of power in the desert. No clash took place in this first confrontion with the Quraysh, but the desert tribes witnessing the incident showed an inclination to acknowledge a second power in the peninsula besides the Quraysh.

This first expedition was shortly followed by the second sent under the command of ‘Ubayda ibn Harith. With the same purpose as in the first expedition, ‘Ubayda went as far as Rabigh, a valley on the route to Makka. The Muslim expedition of sixty cavalrymen met there with a force of the Quraysh consisting of two hundred armed men. An exchange of arrows took place between the parties; in the end, fearing a possible defeat, the Makkan troops withdrew towards Makka.2

Military expeditions followed one another, some of them commanded by God’s Messenger himself, upon him be peace and blessings. In two of the expeditions he commanded, he went to Abwa and Buwat respectively and aimed to threaten the trade caravans of the Quraysh and intimidate them.3 In the former, he also had the purpose of signing a treaty with Banu Damra. According to the conditions of the treaty, neither of the sides would take up arms against the other, and the tribe of Banu Damra would not help any aggressive force against the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings.

Shortly before the Battle of Badr, God’s Messenger sent an expedition of about ten persons under the command of ‘Adbullah ibn Jakhsh to Nakhla, a place between Makka and Ta’if, a few miles away from Makka. He ordered them to follow the movements of the Quraysh and gather information about their plans. While they were staying in Nakhla, a trade caravan of the Quraysh coming from Ta’if halted there. Something happened unexpectedly and the Muslims killed one of the Makkans and captured the rest except one, and their belongings, and took them to Madina. They did this at a time when the month of Rajab was approaching its end and Sha’ban about to begin. It was, therefore, doubtful whether the event took place in Rajab, one of the sacred months, or not. But the Quraysh, and the Jews who were secretly in league with them, as well as the hypocrites, made great use of this as a weapon in their propaganda campaign against the Muslims. They claimed that the Muslims shed blood in a sacred month, when bloodshed is forbidden.

Since the incident had taken place without his approval, God’s Messenger expressly pointed out to those who had participated in the campaign that he had not ordered them to fight. Also the other Muslims reproached them for doing something not commanded. However, the verses revealed consoled them on account of their purity of intention with hope for the mercy of God:

They question you concerning the holy month, and fighting in it. Say: ‘Fighting in it is a heinous thing, but to bar from God’s way, and unbelief in Him, and denying entry into the Holy Mosque, and to expel its people from it - that is more heinous in God’s sight; and persecution is more heinous than killing.’ They will not cease to fight with you till they turn you from your religion, if they are able; and whoever of you turns from his religion and dies unbelieving - their works have failed in this world and the next; those are the inhabitants of the Fire; therein they shall dwell forever. But the believers, and those who emigrate and struggle in God’s way - those have hope of God’s Mercy; and God is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate. (al-Baqara, 2.217-8) 4

The verses aimed to answer the objections raised by the Quraysh and the Jews and hypocrites. The essence of the matter is that fighting during the holy months is an evil act. However, those people who had continually subjected the believers to indescribable wrong for thirteen years merely because they believed in the One God could have no right and justification to make such an objection. They had not only driven the Muslims from their homes, they had closed to them the way to the Holy Mosque, a bar which had not been imposed by anyone during the course of some two thousand years. With this record of mischief and misconduct it was not for them to raise such an outcry at a small incident, and especially so when the incident had taken place without the approval of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings.

A general evaluation of the expeditions

Until the Battle of Badr, which took place two years after the Emigration, God’s Messenger arranged around twenty military expeditions. By these expeditions he seized control of the desert and paralyzed the morale of the Makkan polytheists. Second, most of the desert tribes began to acknowledge the power of Islam and take the side of God’s Messenger. In none of the expeditions, except one, did the Muslim warriors shed blood, nor did they wound anyone. They neither plundered the caravans nor usurped something from desert peoples. They showed in practice that Islam is the guarantee of security.

God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, formed an intelligence network and was informed of everything happening in the desert and in Makka itself. So sophisticated a system did he establish that probably none of his Companions in Madina even knew that, for example, his uncle, ‘Abbas, was left in Makka as a member of his intelligence service. When he set out on a military campaign, no one knew, up to a certain point, his real intention and where they were going.5 Besides, he used couriers in communication with his soldiers fighting at the front. A courier carried the news to some certain point, where he trusted it to another one waiting to carry it to the other station. With this system, he got the news of his expeditions in the shortest time possible.

All the expeditions he dispatched until the Battle of Badr consisted of the Emigrants exclusively. For first of all, the Quraysh were at war with the Emigrants. They did not want them to be sheltered in Madina. Besides, those who were driven from their homes with everything they had left behind were the Emigrants. Second, the Helpers had sworn allegiance to God’s Messenger so that it was expected that the Helpers should perceive by themselves the necessity of taking part in any military action in the way of God.

The military genius of God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, showed itself also in his choice of commanders of the expeditions. His uncle, Hamza, was appointed the commander of the first military expedition. Besides his courage and strength, Hamza was a man of sound judgment, good opinion and high administrative ability. In addition, until the whole of his community appropriated his ideas and adopted his opinions, God’s Messenger chose to practice them in the persons of his relatives. Since the military dimension of his mission showed itself for the first time in Madina, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, was to put his own relatives on the front line until everyone was wholly accustomed to it. It should, however, also be noted that all of the commanders he chose were able and eminent generals and highly qualified for the job. They were, in addition, very upright persons wholly devoted to the cause of Islam.

Hamza was martyred in Uhud after having killed more than twenty soldiers of the enemy. ‘Ubayda ibn Harith was martyred because of the wounds he received in the Battle of Badr. Before his martyrdom, he asked God’s Messenger: ‘O God’s Messenger, I did not die in fighting at the front. Am I regarded then as having died a martyr?’6

Hamza was the uncle of the Prophet; ‘Ubayda his cousin. The commander of the expedition he sent to Nakhla, ‘Adbullah ibn Jakhsh, was the son of his paternal aunt. In the second stage of the Battle of Uhud, he fought heroically. He came across Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas and told him: ‘Come; you pray and I’ll invoke ‘Amen’ for your prayer. Let me pray, and you invoke ‘Amen’ for my prayer.’ Sa‘d prayed: ‘O God, make me encounter one of the strongest soldiers of the enemy, and let me overcome him!’ Ibn Jakhsh invoked ‘Amen’ for this prayer, and then himself prayed: ‘O God, let me encounter one of the strongest soldiers of the enemy. After I wounded him severely, let him kill me, and cut my ears and nose and lips so that I shall come to Your Presence bleeding profusely. You ask me, “‘Abd Allah, where are your ears, nose and lips?” and I’ll answer You: “O God, I was ashamed to come to Your Presence with my members with which I had sinned, and I sacrificed them while fighting in the way of Your Beloved One.”‘ When the battle ended, ‘Adbullah was found lying with his ears, nose and lips cut off and his abdomen lanced.7

Lastly, by sending military expeditions one after the other, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, agitated the Quraysh to an unpremeditated action, and, as will be explained below, on the pretext of securing the return of their trade caravan, they formed an army of one thousand and left Makka for Badr some ninety miles to the south of Madina.

1. Bukhari, “Manaqib, 25.
2. I. Hisham, Sira, 2.241; I. Sa‘d, Tabaqat, 2.7.
3. I. Hisham, 2.241, 248. “ “
4. I. Hisham, 2.252.
5. I. Hisham, 4.39-42; I. Kathir, al-Bidaya, 4.332-5.
6. Hakim, Mustadrak, 3.188; I. Kathir, 3.334.
7. I. Hajar, al-Isaba, 1.286-7.


Recommended Reading:
Battle of Badr

Last Updated on October 09, 2000

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