Why Did Prophet Muhammad Go To War?

Since 9/11, there has been a lot of discussion about whether Islam requires Muslims to use military force to spread Islamic rule, and whether Islam therefore poses a threat to America and the West.

Many people point to the fact that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was a military leader who was involved in several wars, and that Islamic rule spread throughout the Arabian peninsula during the Prophet’s lifetime.  They also note that later Muslim rulers, claiming to follow the example of the Prophet, engaged in wars to spread Islamic rule in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, and Europe.

There’s no doubt that later Muslim rulers used force to spread Islamic rule.  But Muslims today are divided about the Prophet’s personal legacy regarding justifications for the use of military force.  Some Muslims argue that the Prophet used military force to spread Islamic rule, so that is the example that Muslims must follow today.  However, other Muslims argue that the Prophet used military force only for self-defense of the small Muslim community, so that is the example that Muslims must follow today.

The following are some of the events relating to the major wars the Prophet was involved in:

Persecution of Muslims in Mecca, and Muslim Migration to Medina

The Prophet began receiving revelations from God in 610 CE in Mecca.  As a result, the Prophet criticized the Meccans for worshipping idols and for mistreating the weak.  Therefore, the Meccans became hostile to the Muslims and subjected the Muslims to physical abuse.  When some of the Muslims escaped to Abyssinia, the Meccans followed them and unsuccessfully tried to convince the Abyssinians to turn the Muslims over to the Meccans.  In September 622 CE, the Meccans tried to assassinate the Prophet.  The Prophet and his followers escaped to Medina at the invitation of a group of people from Medina who had become Muslim.  The Prophet and his followers left their homes and all their property in Mecca and fled to Medina; the Meccans confiscated the Muslims’ property.

Question:  Did the Prophet leave Mecca so he could live in peace and build a new society in a more welcoming city, Medina?  Did the Prophet leave Mecca so he could have a base in Medina where he could prepare for war against the Meccans?

Continuing Tension between Muslims and Meccans

From Medina, the Prophet continued to criticize the Meccans for worshipping idols and for mistreating the weak.

The Meccans demanded that the people of Medina expel the Prophet and turn him over to the Meccans; the Meccans threatened to attack Medina if the Prophet was not turned over.

Small groups of Meccans traveled to the outskirts of Medina, got into skirmishes with Muslims, and seized livestock from Medina.

Muslims from Medina seized Meccan trading caravans passing near Medina.  These caravans were owned by the wealthy Meccans who had abused the Muslims in Mecca.

Question:  Were these Muslim seizures of Meccan caravans an offensive or defensive act by the Muslims?  Did Muslims seize the Meccan caravans simply because they were non-Muslim caravans?  Would the Muslims have seized caravans owned by any non-Muslims?  Or did Muslims seize the Meccan caravans in retaliation for the Muslims’ expulsion from Mecca?  Did Muslims seize the Meccan caravans in response to the Meccan seizure of Muslim property left behind in Mecca when Muslims escaped from Mecca (leaving many Muslims without financial resources)?  Did Muslims seize the Meccan caravans because the Muslims knew that revenue generated by the Meccan caravans would be used to finance Mecca’s threatened attacks on Medina?

The Battle of Badr

In March 624 CE (the second year after the Prophet moved to Medina), a Meccan army marched towards Medina to fight the Muslims.  In response, a Muslim army marched from Medina and fought the Meccans at Badr.  (Badr is an area located between Mecca and Medina, closer to Medina.)  The Muslims won the Battle of Badr.

Question: Did the Meccans march towards Medina to stop seizures of Meccan caravans?  Or did the Meccans march towards Medina because they wanted to destroy Islam?

The Battle of Uhud

Following the Muslim victory at Badr, the Prophet continued to criticize the Meccans for worshipping idols and for mistreating the weak.

Following the Muslim victory at Badr, Muslims continued to seize Meccan caravans.  The Meccans and their allies destroyed agricultural property around Medina.

A year after the Battle of Badr, in March 625 CE (the third year after the Prophet moved to Medina), a Meccan army marched towards Medina to fight the Muslims.  In response, a Muslim army met the Meccan army near Mount Uhud, a mountain north of Medina.  The Meccans won the Battle of Uhud.

Question: Did the Meccans march towards Medina to stop seizures of Meccan caravans?  Or did the Meccans march towards Medina because they wanted to destroy Islam?

Following the Battle of Uhud, the Muslims expelled a Jewish tribe (Banu Nadir) from Medina after the tribe attempted to assassinate the Prophet.  This Jewish tribe move north to Khaybar, where many other Jews lived.  Other Jews remained in Medina.

Question: Why did the Banu Nadir try to assassinate the Prophet?

The Battle of the Trench

Following the Muslim loss at Uhud, the Prophet continued to criticize Meccans for worshipping idols and for mistreating the weak.

It is unclear whether Muslims continued to seize Meccan caravans.

In March 627 CE, two years after the Battle of Uhud, an army of Meccans and their allies from northern Arabia (Arabs, Jews who had been expelled from Medina, and Jews from Khaybar) marched on Medina.  The Muslims dug a massive trench around Medina, so that the enemy’s horses could not jump over, and so that the enemy’s horsemen would be vulnerable if they entered the trench to try to cross over.  That’s why this war came to be called the Battle of the Trench.  Unable to cross the trench to attack Medina, the Meccans and their allies surrounded and besieged Medina for a month.  Eventually, the Meccans and their allies ended the siege and returned to their homes.

Question: Why did the Meccans march on Medina?  Was it in response to some sort of Muslim provocation?  Or was it because they wanted to destroy Islam? Why did the Jews march on Medina?  Was it in response to their expulsion from Medina?  Or was it because they wanted to destroy Islam?

Following the Battle of the Trench, the Muslims executed hundreds of men from the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza for treason.  Prior to the Battle of the Trench, the Banu Qurayza (a Jewish tribe based in Medina) had entered into a mutual defense treaty with the Muslims.  But the Banu Qurayza helped the Meccans and their allies in their attempt to defeat the Muslims at the Battle of the Trench.

The Battle against Banu Mustaliq

In December 627 CE, the Prophet suspected that the Meccans were encouraging their allies on the Red Sea coast (the tribe of Banu Mustaliq) to attack Medina, and that the Banu Mustaliq were making preparations for war.  A Muslim army marched towards the Red Sea coast and defeated the Banu Mustaliq.  (This was the first battle in which Muslims marched on the enemy; in all prior battles, the enemy had marched on Medina.)

Question: Why did the Muslims march on the Banu Mustaliq?  Was it in response to genuine concerns that the Banu Mustaliq were planning to attack Medina?  Was it to spread Islamic rule?

The Treaty of Hudaibiya

In March 628 CE, the Muslims and the Meccans signed the Treaty of Hudaibiya.  Once the Treaty went into effect, Muslims, Meccans, and others were able to move more freely around Arabia and communicate more easily with each other.  As a result of this increased interaction, thousands converted to Islam (including many Meccans).

Question:  Why did the Muslims enter into a peace treaty with the Meccans?  Was this because the Muslims were content to spread their faith peacefully, without the use of force?  Or was this an attempt to buy time so the Muslims could get stronger and prepare for later war against the Meccans? Or was this so that the Muslims could focus on fighting other non-Muslims without having to worry about a Meccan attack?

The Battle of Khaybar

The Jewish tribe of Banu Nadir (which had been expelled from Medina, and which had helped mobilize anti-Muslim forces for the Battle of the Trench, and which had helped besiege Medina at the Battle of the Trench) and its Jewish allies in Khaybar, 90 miles north of Medina, continued to encourage northern tribes to attack Medina.

Question: Why did Jews from Khaybar want another attack on Medina?  Was it in response to the expulsion of Banu Nadir from Medina?  Was it in response to the execution of the Banu Qurayza after the Battle of the Trench?  Or was it because they wanted to destroy Islam?

In May 629 CE, a Muslim army marched to Khaybar, which was made up of several fortresses.  The Muslims besieged the fortresses until Khaybar surrendered.  Many Jews left Khaybar and surrendered their wealth to the Muslim army.  Other Jews of Khaybar were permitted to remain in the region as farmers, as long as they gave half their yearly crop to the Muslims.  (This was the second battle in which Muslims marched on the enemy.)

Question: Why did the Muslims march on Jewish Khaybar?  Was it in response to Jewish Khaybar’s participation in the Battle of the Trench?  Was it in response to Jewish Khaybar’s attempt to encourage another attack on Medina?  Was it to spread Islamic rule?

The Battle of Mu’tah

In 629 CE, the Prophet sent an ambassador to meet with Christian Arab tribes (allies of the Christian Roman Empire) in northern Arabia and southern Syria to teach them about Islam.  The Christian Arab tribe of Ghassan captured and executed the Muslim ambassador in southern Syria.

Question: Why did these Christians execute the Muslim ambassador?

The Muslims believed that the Christian Roman Empire and its Christian Arab allies would follow up this execution with an attack on Arabia.  A Muslim army marched to Syria.  Near the village of Mu’tah, the Muslim army fought a massive Roman army and its Arab allies.  The Muslims were outnumbered, so they withdrew.  (This was the third battle in which Muslims marched on the enemy.)

Question: Why did the Muslims march on the Christians?  Was it in response to the execution of the Muslim ambassador?  Was it to preempt a Christian attack on Medina?  Was it to spread Islamic rule?

The Fall of Mecca

In 630 CE, allies of the Meccans attacked allies of the Muslims.  Some Meccans supported the attack, providing weapons or participating in the attack.  The Muslims viewed this as a violation of the peace Treaty of Hudaibiya.  A Muslim army from Medina and its allied tribes marched on Mecca.  (This was the fourth time the Muslims marched on an enemy.)  The outnumbered Meccans did not resist, and the Muslims took control of Mecca, the Prophet’s hometown.  The Prophet destroyed the idols in and around Mecca.

Question: Why did the Muslims march on Mecca?  Was it in response to the violation of the Treaty of Hudaibiya?  Was it to spread Islamic rule?

The Battle of Hunain

After the Muslim capture of Mecca, the idol-worshipping tribe of Hawazin, based in the nearby city of Taif, became concerned that the Muslims might attack them.  The Hawazin were also angry that the Muslims had destroyed the idols in Mecca.  Therefore, a Hawazin army marched to the Valley of Hunain, and a Muslim army met them there.  The Muslims won.

Question:  Why did this battle occur?  Is it true that the Muslims intended to attack the Hawazin in order to spread Islamic rule?  Or would the Muslims have left the Hawazin alone if the Hawazin had not attacked first?

The March to Tabuk

In October 630 CE, the Prophet heard reports that the Christian Roman Empire planned to invade Arabia from Syria, to challenge growing Muslim influence and alliances.  A Muslim army marched to Tabuk (near Syria) to fight the Romans.  (This was the fifth time the Muslims marched on an enemy.)  There was no Roman army at Tabuk, so there was no fighting.

Question: Why did the Muslims march on the Christians?  Was it to preempt a Christian attack on Medina?  Was it to spread Islamic rule?

Before returning to Medina, the Muslim army required local Christian Arab and Jewish tribes in northern Arabia (who had been allied with the Christian Roman Empire) to agree to pay regular taxes to the Muslims in exchange for Muslim promises of protection.  This extended the Prophet’s influence into northern Arabia.

Question: Why did the Muslims require Christian Arab and Jewish tribes in northern Arabia to pay taxes to the Muslims in exchange for Muslim promises of protection?  Was this a defensive step to take allies and resources away from an enemy, the Christian Roman Empire?  Was it to spread Islamic rule?

Kamran Memon is the founder of Muslims For A Safe America, a 501(c)(3) organization based in Chicago. Muslims For A Safe America encourages honest and informed discussion about how to make Muslims and America safer. Kamran can be reached at kamran@muslimsforasafeamerica.org.

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