Islamic History, Part 5: Muhammad in Medina, war with Mecca, and Muhammad’s death (622-632)

Islamic History Series

Having established Muhammad’s initial ministry in Mecca and his eventual flight from that city, just ahead of a plot to assassinate him, we now pick up the story with Muhammad having arrived in the oasis city of Yathrib, although it wasn’t “Yathrib” much longer. The city soon became known as “The City of the Prophet,” madinat al-nabi,  or “The Enlightened City,” madinat al-munawwarah, either of which could be shortened to madinah or, in modern parlance, Medina. In short order, Muhammad, who I suspect was invited in with the intention that he would be an arbiter between Yathrib’s feuding tribes, established himself as the clear leader of the community and seems to have crafted a document called the “Constitution of Medina,” though since the original document hasn’t survived it’s somewhat unclear whether it really existed as described. Before we get there I should probably go over the situation in Yathrib as it stood when Muhammad arrived in 622.

A town in the Hejaz (western Arabia) named Yathrib is attested as far back as the 6th century BCE in Assyrian sources. Sometime in the 2nd century CE Judaism, either in the form of already converted tribes or Jewish travelers who converted tribes that were already there, arrived in Yathrib, supposedly claiming that they were expecting a new prophet to arise there (this legend was, of course, applied to Muhammad by Islamic historians). Ultimately three tribes of Jews and/or Jewish Arabs (it’s really hard to tell the difference and impossible to evaluate claims of ancestry) settled in Yathrib: the Qaynuqa’, the Qurayzah, and the Nazir. They dominated the oasis, controlling its agriculture (cereal grains and date palms), manufacturing and commerce, and money lending, until the arrival of two Arab tribes from the Yemen, the ‘Aws and the Khazraj, who ultimately wrested control of the city from them by the end of the 5th century. These two tribes quickly turned on each other, and by the time they invited Muhammad to the city they had been (supposedly) at war for almost 120 years, most recently at the Battle of Bu’ath, fought ~617, where most of the leading figures of both tribes were killed and the city was left in considerable chaos.

It was that chaos, as well as general weariness of the constant fighting, that led Yathrib to invite Muhammad to relocate there. However, once he and his followers arrived, there was another social division that instantly formed between Muhammad’s supporters who had made the Hijrah with him from Mecca, the muhajirun, and his new supporters from among the population of Yathrib, known as the ansar or “helpers.” The muhajirun naturally assumed they were the privileged followers of Muhammad since they’d been with him from the beginning, but they were also in a foreign city and lacking any tribal protections, so they were not in a good position to assert themselves against the ansar. The split between these two groups of followers is going to come up again later. Muhammad’s solution to the many cracks that had formed in Yathrib’s society was the Constitution of Medina.

The Constitution of Medina has not survived in its original form, but was written into Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad, and most scholars seem to think that it is genuine. It’s been called the “first written constitution of human history,” and perhaps it is. What it clearly indicates, in my opinion, and again assuming we’re dealing with a genuine article, is that Muhammad was really a master statesman, a wunderkind considering he never had any formal training for the job. It establishes a few basic legal principles. The Meccan refugees are to be treated effectively as a new tribe, reestablishing the kind of protection they had lacked since being disavowed by the Quraysh in Mecca. All of Medina’s residents (the document particularly singles out Medina’s Jews) were to have equal rights and privileges with Muhammad’s believers, and would not be compelled to follow Muhammad’s teachings. However, all tribes were also required to share equally in warfare to defend the city or any one of its tribes (at Muhammad’s discretion). But most importantly, the document establishes that Muhammad’s followers, Meccan, Medinan, or otherwise, are part of one community, the ummah, the idea of which broke down the traditional tribal structure, based on blood relations, and replaced it with a community based on a shared religious commitment or shared faith (maybe a community of hanifs–remember them?–since at this point “Islam” was really still gestating and may not have been distinguishable as its own unique faith).

In essence, the treaty meets the very real and immediate political needs of the community: protection and a social network for the Meccan migrants and an end to the city’s bitter tribal infighting, while more subtly laying out the long-term vision of a faith-based community that would eventually tear down Arabia’s tribal society (though not without a fight, or several fights, as we’ll see). If you want to pinpoint the formation of the first “Islamic” political entity, even though “Islam” was by no means a fully formed concept at this point, the Constitution of Medina is it. The hope of a unified community fell apart fairly quickly, as the Jewish tribes refused to recognize Muhammad’s authority or his prophethood; in 624 we’re told that Muhammad had his followers stop facing Jerusalem in their five daily prayers and turn instead in the direction of the Ka’ba in Mecca. Scholars debate the reason for the change, but a strong possibility is that it signaled a change in Muhammad’s expectations; rejected by the Jewish tribes of Medina, he began to see himself at the head of a new, Arabian (or universal) religious movement more so than as the next prophet of the Abrahamic tradition. Muhammad, for his part, continued his Qurʾanic revelations in Medina, although they seem to have taken on a decidedly more legalistic tone, befitting a community that now needed legal structure more than spiritual guidance.

On the subject of “Islam,” it was during the Medinan period of Muhammad’s career that be reportedly preached the so-called “Hadith of Gabriel,” probably the most important Hadith and a seminal statement about what this still-forming religion would be about. Later narrators report that Muhammad and a group of his companions were sitting together one day when a man unknown to any of them sat down next to Muhammad and asked him, “What is faith?” Muhammad then uttered what are known as the “Six Articles of Faith” that are held in common by nearly all Muslims: belief in God, belief in His angels, belief in His revelation (the Qurʾan above all, but also earlier texts like the Torah and the Gospels), belief in His prophets and messengers (messengers are prophets who bring new texts with them), belief in the Resurrection and the Day of Judgment, and belief in His will (which could be understood as destiny or fate). The stranger (SPOILER: it’s Gabriel the Archangel, Jibril in Arabic) then asked Muhammad, “What is Islam?” Muhammad replied with the well-known Five Pillars, the five key things that all true Muslims should believe and/or do to be good Muslims: the shahadah, or profession of faith (“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is God’s Messenger”); the salat, or prayer (5 times a day at prescribed times); the zakat, a regular and defined tithe of 2.5% of one’s wealth whose proceeds should be used for charity; the sawm, the fast (for all who are able) during the month of Ramadan; and the Hajj, the requirement for all adult Muslims (again, those who are able), to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives. The “Five Pillars” is a Sunni framing, but all the major Shiʿa branches agree on the importance of these five things, even if they might use a different term for them and/or add other things to the list. Muhammad is also said to have talked on this occasion about the concept of Ihsan (“doing what is beautiful”), which is the principle that says the believer should act at all times as if he or she could see God, because God is always able to see him or her.

As this series moves on, I will try very hard to avoid saying things like “Islam teaches this” or “Islam says that,” because if there’s one thing that Islamic history teaches you it’s that “Islam” has never been entirely one thing to all believers in all times and places; it’s always changing, always developing, always being reinterpreted. But if we could offer a bare bones statement as to what “Islam” is, it would be that “Islam” is the Qurʾan, the Six Articles, and the Five Pillars. Various Qurʾanic passages give you the Six Articles and the Five Pillars, but the Hadith of Gabriel is the clearest, most succinct distillation/collection of them that you’ll find anywhere in Islamic literature.

Battle of Badr
Battle of Badr

The Meccan refugees now had a legal foothold in their new home, but they lacked an economic one. As the economically disenfranchised often did in Arabian society, they turned to caravan raiding as a way to acquire wealth, and naturally the trade caravans between Mecca and Roman outposts in Syria were an ideal target. A series of mostly successful raids followed, which not only won the Meccan refugees some much-needed wealth but also brought them some new found prestige, as Medinans saw how successful they were and started joining in on these caravan raids. In 624, a force of around 300 followers went out to raid a Meccan caravan, setting a trap at the town of Badr, where they assumed the caravan would stop because of its proximity to water. The caravan got wind of Muhammad’s position and rerouted around Badr, but a small army was dispatched from Mecca to deal with Muhammad and his followers once and for all. Outnumbered roughly 3 to 1, Muhammad’s forces are said to have charged the enemy and broken the demoralized Meccan line, killing around 70 Meccans to only 14 of their own dead. Badr established Muhammad’s followers as a military and political force to be reckoned with, earning him credibility and new followers outside Medina (particularly among Bedouin–nomadic–tribes to the north), and cemented his power within Medina, to the extent that he was able to order the expulsion of one of its Jewish tribes, the Qaynuqaʿ, ostensibly for assaulting a woman among Muhammad’s followers but almost certainly because they had refused to accept Muhammad’s prophethood (as, indeed, had all of Medina’s Jewish tribes). There was likely a strong economic motive behind the expulsion as well, because the Qaynuqaʿ dominated Medina’s crafts trade, and once they were gone considerable new economic opportunities became available to the still relatively poor muhajirun.

Battle of Uhud
Battle of Uhud

The Meccans, meanwhile, rebuilt their forces in hopes of avenging their defeat. In 625 a force of 3000 Meccan soldiers marched against Medina. Muhammad, with about 700 soldiers (he started with 1000 but around 300 returned to Medina after protesting that it was unwise to meet the enemy outside the city), set out to meet them in battle near a mountain called Uhud, and the Battle of Uhud was joined. Muhammad’s forces had the initial advantage, but when his archers broke ranks to begin taking spoils, it allowed a Meccan cavalry force to counterattack and break Muhammad’s line. Rumors abounded that Muhammad had been killed, but he was only wounded and managed to lead the survivors in a retreat up the mountain. The Meccans, their honor having been regained, returned home without pressing the fight. Unfortunately for them, they had broken an army but had not broken Muhammad’s movement or his power at Medina. In the aftermath, Muhammad further consolidated his power by expelling the Jewish Nazir tribe from Medina to the oasis of Khaybar, further to the north. While inconclusive, Uhud does demonstrate that Arab tribes had a relatively sophisticated sense of military tactics; the Meccan commander, Abu Sufyan, deployed his cavalry in two wings in order to execute an envelopment of Muhammad’s forces, while Muhammad chose to fight from the high ground on Mt. Uhud, with his flanks protected by mountains on either side, in order to protect his all-infantry force from being enveloped or flanked by the more mobile Meccans. This keen military sense would serve the Arabs well when they finally came into conflict with the Byzantine and Sasanian empires.

Battle of the Trench
Battle of the Trench

When it became clear that Uhud had not broken Muhammad’s power or prestige, the Meccans, now allied with the expelled Nazir tribe, resolved on one massive final assault to take Medina and put an end to Muhammad’s movement. They assembled a force said to have numbered around 10,000, which seems staggeringly large for the time and place in question, and in 627 marched on Medina, where Muhammad waited with around 3000 defenders. It was decided that deep trenches would be dug across the main approaches into Medina, so as to neutralize the power of Meccan cavalry; thus, this siege became known as the Battle of the Trench. When they were unable to breach these defenses, the Meccans and their allies sent messengers to the last Jewish tribe remaining in Medina, the Qurayzah, to convince them to renounce the Constitution of Medina and attack Muhammad from the rear. Muhammad countered with a very effective misinformation campaign directed at both the Meccan confederacy and the Qurayzah, intended to convince each side that the other was planning to betray them and abandon the fight. This had the effect of stymieing the immediate threat to Medina and of prolonging the siege, and as it wore on elements of the Meccan army simply began drifting away, starting with her Bedouin allies but, as provisions ran out and the weather got worse, eventually including almost the entire force. The siege ended, Muhammad besieged the territory of the Qurayzah, and as punishment for their dealings with the Meccans he had the men of the tribe slaughtered and the women and children enslaved. For the Meccans, they were effectively broken by the failure of the siege. They had put every effort and resource they had into this all-out assault on Medina and had failed utterly. Muhammad was now firmly in the ascendance in western Arabia, and there was no longer anything that Mecca could do about it.

The following year, 628, Muhammad attempted to lead an unarmed group of around 1000-1500 followers to Mecca to take the pilgrimage, what we now know as the Hajj, which he had mentioned in his Qur’anic revelations as a requirement of all believers but which had never been carried out because of the open hostilities between his followers and the Quraysh at Mecca. The group was met at Hudaybiyah, just outside Mecca, by around 200 Meccan cavalry, but only to negotiate, not to fight. A treaty was signed, the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, that established a ten year truce between Medina and Mecca and recognition of Muhammad’s rule in Medina in exchange for an agreement to postpone any pilgrimage to the following year. Muhammad used the new peace to attack the oasis of Khaybar, where in lieu of expulsion the defeated tribes agreed to send half of their produce to Medina as tribute, and to send an expedition to attack Arabs further to the north, which was defeated. Above all, he used this period to extend his diplomatic ties to tribes throughout the Arabian peninsula, dramatically increasing Medina’s military and political power and setting it up to finally overwhelm Mecca.

Let’s pause the War with Mecca for a moment and talk about the kind of political enterprise Muhammad was setting up in Medina. The nature of his revelations underwent a distinct evolution (more on this in a later entry), so that after he established his authority in Medina they became more about the legal structure of the community than about the spiritual exhortations and prophet stories that marked Muhammad’s Meccan phase. Tribal feuding was prohibited, new taxes implemented (specifically the zakat, a tax whose proceeds were dedicated to providing support for the destitute), and laws around marriage and inheritance were instituted. Muhammad reached out to Bedouin who already traded with Medina and brought them into his movement, if not as full followers of his new religious movement (there were several Christian tribes, for example, that affiliated themselves with Medina in this period) then at least as allies who recognized his temporal authority. His efforts to build coalitions with other tribes in the region began to isolate the Quraysh in Mecca.

Only two years into the ten year Treaty of Hudaybiyah, in 630, a tribe allied with Mecca attacked another tribe allied with Muhammad, and Muhammad demanded that the Meccans either repudiate their ally or declare the treaty nullified; they opted for the latter but immediately tried to renegotiate. It was too late. Muhammad marshaled a force said to be around 10,000 fighters (if accurate, this figure reflects just how much Medina’s power had grown under Muhammad’s leadership) and marched on Mecca, which surrendered practically without a fight. Muhammad amnestied almost all the Quraysh who had fought against him, and most joined his movement (i.e., converted to Islam, whatever “Islam” was at this point). He destroyed the pagan idols inside the Kaaba and declared it, and thus Mecca, to be the center of his monotheistic faith. Muhammad began consolidating power in western Arabia, defeating the Thaqif tribe of Taʾif later in 630 and eventually accepting that city’s surrender and conversion. With the fall of Taʾif there was no remaining political entity in western Arabia that could challenge him, and he found new allies among many of the Bedouin tribes of the region

In 632, 10 years after he’d been forced to flee Mecca, Muhammad finally completed the Hajj. He died peacefully in Medina only a few months after returning. He had founded a new society in Medina that would ultimately mature into a full-fledged world civilization, and a religious movement that would develop into one of the largest religions in the world. But there’s a lot that had to happen in the meantime.

Next time: Why everything I’ve just spent two entries describing may very well be wrong.

Further reading:

One thing to add to the list from my last entry is F.E. Peters’ Muhammad and the Origins of Islam, which sticks pretty closely to the traditional Islamic narrative of Muhammad’s life but adds Peters’ own interpretations.

Richard Gabriel, who almost in spite of myself I find very interesting when he’s talking about military campaigns in antiquity (anybody ever watch “Battles BC” back when the History Channel still did history, sort of?), has a book on Muhammad called Muhammad: Islam’s First Great General, but I have no personal basis to recommend it (or to dismiss it).

I’ll add more to this space if they occur to me.


One thought on “Islamic History, Part 5: Muhammad in Medina, war with Mecca, and Muhammad’s death (622-632)

  1. The prophet was prophesied that he will liberate act of worshiping molten images among the inhabitants of Arabia. Read Isaiah 42. War in the cause of God was mentioned clearly,

    However in the beginning, the prophet invite the pagans to revert and worship One God and make no partners to God, But In return , he and his followers was threatened by the pagan Arabs. Their life were in danger indeed.

    This was also the time Jews invited the prophet to govern their town? But why? Muhammad (pbuh) were never proven to be able to rule ? Answer is simple, he fits the description of the Holy One as mentioned in Isaiah 42. Which leads us to ponder why were there many Jews to begin with in south Arabia.

    They were anticipating the Holy One indeed. Read Habakkuk 3:3, Deut 33:2 about the Holy One prophesied.

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