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Muhammad as a general

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Muhammad callig
Prophet of Islam

Family tree · In Mecca · In Medina · Conquest of Mecca · The Farewell Sermon · Succession

Diplomacy · Family · Wives · Military leadership

Farewell Pilgrimage · Ghadir Khumm · Pen and paper · Saqifah · General bay'ah

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Muslim (Poetic and Mawlid) · Medieval Christian · Historicity · Criticism · Depictions

Muhammad as a general refers to one of the roles played by the Islamic prophet Muhammad as the leader of the ummah at Medina during the last ten years of his life.


Muhammad spent his last ten years, from 622 to 632, as the leader of a Muslim community in Medina that was engaged in a state of war with the Meccans. Muhammad and the émigrées, known as the Muhajir, had earlier migrated from Mecca to Medina in what is known as the Hijra. Through raids, sieges, and diplomacy, he and his followers allied with or subdued most of the tribes and cities of the Arabian peninsula in their struggle with the powerful Banu Quraish of Mecca.

They also sent out raiding parties against Arabic-speaking communities ruled under the Roman Empire. Muhammad was believed by the Muslims to be divinely chosen to spread Islam and that warfare was one aspect of this struggle for the truth was clarified in its ultimate form.[1] After initially refusing to accede to requests by his followers to fight the Meccans for what was viewed as continued provocation, he eventually proclaimed the revelations of the Quran:

"Permission to fight is given to those who are fought against because they have been wronged -truly Allah has the power to come to their support- those who were expelled from their homes without any right, merely for saying, 'Our Lord is Allah'..." (Qur'an, 22:39-40)"

After the first battle of Badr against the Quraysh, he is reported as having said "We have returned from the lesser Jihad to the greater Jihad (i.e. the struggle against the evil of one's soul)." John Esposito writes that Muhammad's use of warfare in general was alien neither to Arab custom nor to that of the Hebrew prophets, as both believed that God had sanctioned battle with the enemies of the Lord.

Lead up to armed conflict

Upon arrival in Medina he set about the establishment of a pact known as the Constitution of Medina, to regulate the matters of governance of the city, as well as the extent and nature of inter-community relations, and signatories to it included the Muslims, the Ansar and the various Jewish tribes of Medina.

Significant clauses of the constitution included the mutual assistance of each other if one signatory were to be attacked by a third party, the resolution that the Muslims would profess their religion and the Jews theirs, as well as the appointment of Muhammad as the leader of the state Muslims who did not migrate were subject to increased persecution, and the threat to the life of both the Ansar and the Muslims was such that they were reported as having to sleep by their weapons all night.[2]. ‘Abdullah bin Uabi bin Salul, who was the Madinan chief of the tribes ‘Aws and Khazraj before Muhammad's emigration was sent an ultimatum to either fight or expel Muhammad, or face action in the form of a military campaign that would exterminate his people and enslave his women.[3]

Sa'd ibn Mua'dh, an Ansar, went to Mecca to learn how to perform the Umrah and there was accosted by Abu Jahl at the Kaaba who threatened he would kill him, had he not been in the company of Omaiya bin Khalaf. Sa‘d then challenged him to commit any such folly if he wanted to court a risk to the Meccan trading caravans.[4]

As tensions escalated the Muslims began to take defensive measures such as stationing guards around Muhammad and sending out reconnaissance patrols.[3] The Muslims, who fled to Madinah, had left all their possessions and houses in Mecca, which were confiscated by their Meccans.[5] The Muslims were initially not given permission to fight.[5] Small groups of men were only sent for intelligence gathering, but are reported as not having followed orders to engage in violence-free missions.

Raids on Meccan caravans

Before armed conflict started between the Meccans and Medinans, Sa'd ibn Mua'dh warned the Meccans of upcoming raids. Muslims started raiding caravans going to and from Mecca. Such activities were initially denounced by Muhammad.

It was only when the Muslims discovered that their properties in Mecca were being taken to Syria to be sold, they were permitted to fight and, that the Muslim community started a mission to capture caravans carrying Jewish property, these expeditions were full of blood, with the most blood being spilt by the death of a guard of the Al-Hadrami caravan at Nakhlah, thereby formally setting up a blood feud from the Meccan end, though the Muslims said it had started when they were expelled and lost their property. It was in such a context that the Battle of Badr took place during one particular expedition in which the Muslims sought to waylay it to recoup for the property and wealth their possessions that they had been forced to abandon in Mecca, and the Meccans who unknown to the Muslims also quickly mobilized a force for its defense.[6] thus setting up the Battle of Badr. Abu Sufyan leading the caravan got wind of the Muslim intention and rerouted the caravan, thereby escaping and sent a message to the Meccan to return as the caravan was now safe. Thereupon, Abu Jahl exhorted the army to press on and fight the Muslims, some members refused and returned while the rest moved on to fight and were defeated by the smaller Muslim army[7]

However, some Islamic scholars question narratives regarding raid against the caravan as they argue that these narratives contradict the Qur'anic version of the account. They argue that the caravan was one of the two targets which weak believers wanted to attack ([Qur'an 8:5]), but then eventually Muslims fought against Meccan army, as looting a defenseless caravan wouldn't require preparations which Qur'an talks about The Meccans then fought against the Muslims at the Battle of Uhud. They made a final attempt at the Battle of the Trench. Uhud was a battle started purely by the Meccans for retaliation to their military loss in Badr, and the Battle of the Trench was the final trial by the Meccans to end the Muslim presence. The latter was also exclusively started by the huge Meccan forces, accompanied by other armies from outside Mecca.

Raids against other tribes

The Muslims also set their new military organization against various non-Meccan groups. Two Jewish groups were expelled from Medina. In light of a perceived betrayal of the part of their Jewish allies at the Battle of the Trench, where the Jewish leadership was believed to have allied itself with the Meccan assailants, the Muslims defeated the last remaining Jewish tribe in Medina. The result was that the Muslims eventually became the rulers of the oasis to which they had fled as refugees.

As a result of these campaigns, some nomadic tribes decided that it was in their best interests to ally with the Muslims. They accepted Islam, subsequently destroying their own cult figures and shrines.

Muslim alliance versus Meccan alliance

By expanding their military operations and negotiating with the nomads, the Muslims had created an alliance with greater resources than Mecca, alone, could muster. The Meccans in their turn made alliances with Bedouin tribes. Two large alliances faced each other, poised for further warfare.


By old custom, during the months of pilgrimage, tribal hostilities stopped and all were free to visit Mecca. In March of 628, Muhammad put on the garb of a pilgim and taking a small force and camels for sacrifice, set out for Mecca.

According to the early chronicler Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad took 700 men (Guillaume 1955, p. 500). According to Watt, Muhammad took 1400 to 1600 men (Watt 1957, p. 46).

The Meccans did not accept the Muslim professions of peaceful intent and sent out an armed party against them. The Muslims evaded them by taking a side route through the hills around Mecca, and then camped outside Mecca, at Hudaybiya. Ibn Ishaq describes a tense period of embassies and counter-embassies, including a bold foray by Uthman ibn Affan into the city of Mecca, where he was temporarily held as a hostage. The Meccans told the Muslims that Uthman had been killed and open warfare seemed imminent.

Then the situation shifted radically. Uthman was revealed to be alive, and the Meccans expressed their willingness to negotiate a truce. The Muslims wanted to attack, but Muhammad held out for a peaceful resolution.

The treaty of Hudaybiyyah committed both sides to a ten-year truce. The Muslims were to be allowed to return the next year, to perform the pilgrimage.

Muslim alliance expands

Free of the Meccan threat, the Muslims expanded their activities against other oases and tribes. They conquered the rich oasis of Khaybar and sent raiding parties against the Ghatafan, Murrah, Sulaym, and Hawaizin (Watt 1957 pp. 52–53).

Muslims take Mecca

Less than two years after the truce of Hudaybiyyah, the truce was broken by a squabble between tribes allied to the Meccans and Medinans. There had long been bad blood between the Khuza'ah and the Banu Bakr bin Abd Manat, and the two groups lined up on opposite sides, the Khuza'ah with the Muslims and the Banu Bakr with the Meccans. Watt (p. 62) says that some of the Quraysh helped the Banu Bakr ambush the Khuza'ah.

Shortly afterwards, a large Muslim force of some 10,000 men headed for Mecca. They camped outside Mecca and the usual round of emissaries and negotiations began. Apparently Abu Sufyan had negotiated, then or earlier, a promise that he and those under him would not be attacked if they submitted. A few Meccans, from the Makhzum faction, prepared to resist.

On or near January 11, 630, Muhammad sent four columns of troops into Mecca. Only one column met any resistance. Twenty-eight Meccans were killed and the rest of those opposing the Muslim entry fled. The remaining Meccans surrendered to Muhammad. The Meccans, even those who had been notable for their opposition to Islam, were spared.

The Kaaba was cleansed of all the idols of Arabian gods, such as Hubal, which were placed in it and the area was established as a Muslim sanctuary.[8] While destroying each idol, Muhammad recited Qur'an 17:81 which says "Truth has arrived and falsehood has perished for falsehood is by its nature bound to perish." [9][10] According to Islamic tradition, the Kaaba was built by Adam as a place of worship, and then later reconstructed by Ibrahim (Abraham) and Isma'il (Ishmael).

Last two years

After the fall of Mecca, other tribes hastened to submit to the Muslims. Those who did not submit were harried until they submitted. The historian Fred Donner, in his book The Early Islamic Conquests, argues that the early Islamic state organized the nomads, the Bedouin, under the leadership of urban Arabic-speakers. This arrangement was inherently unstable as long as there were any nomads outside Muslim rule. Otherwise, any rebellious tribe had only to move its flocks and tents outside the area that the Muslims controlled in order to be free again. The Muslims would have to control the entire Syro-Arabian steppe in order to be secure. Muhammad, and the caliphs that followed him, Abu Bakr and Umar al-Khattab, put a great deal of effort into extending and solidifying these tribal treaties and conquests.



The sum total of all casualties on all sides in all the battles of Muhammad range from 1200 to 1500 dead according to the most authoritative sources [11].


His efforts led to the unification of the Arabian peninsula.


Muslim View

Muslims view that the Muslims fought only when attacked, or in the context of a wider war of self-defense. They argue that Muhammad was the first among the major military figures of history to lay down rules for humane warfare, and that he was scrupulous in limiting the loss of life as much as possible.

Javed Ahmed Ghamidi writes in Mizan that there are certain directives of the Qur’an pertaining to war which were specific only to Muhammad against Divinely specified peoples of his times (the polytheists and the Israelites and Nazarites of Arabia and some other Jews, Christians, et al.) as a form of Divine punishment—for they had persistently denied the truth of Muhammad's mission even after it had been made conclusively evident to them by Allah through Muhammad, and asked the polytheists of Arabia for submission to Islam as a condition for exoneration and the others for jizya and submission to the political authority of the Muslims for exemption from death punishment and for military protection as the dhimmis of the Muslims. Therefore, after Muhammad and his companions, there is no concept in Islam obliging Muslims to wage war for propagation or implementation of Islam, hence now, the only valid reason for war is to end oppression when all other measures have failed. (jihad)[1][12]

Non-Muslim view

Michael H. Hart, in his hotly debated and widely copied book, "The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History" (1978) ranked Muhammad as the most influential, attributing this to the fact that Muhammad was successful in both the religious and political realms and had a significant role in the development of Islamic theology.[13]

Muhammad's critics often hold that the Muslims engaged in wars of aggression, that they caused much bloodshed and suffering, that they imposed Islam at the point of a sword, and that Muhammad's conduct is not an example to be imitated. Conversely, other non-Muslim academics believe that Muhammad was a reluctant warrior, such that he disliked fighting except when he believed it to be absolutely necessary.[14]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, Mizan, Chapter:The Islamic Law of Jihad, Dar ul-Ishraq, 2001. OCLC: 52901690 [1]
  2. "When the Holy Prophet and his Companions came to Madina, and the helpers gave them shelter, all the Arabs combined to fight them. The Companions had to sleep by their weapons, till the morning" (Hakim and Darimi, quoted in Shibli's Sirat an-Nabi, p. 308)
  3. 3.0 3.1 al-Mubarakpuri
  4. Sahih Bukhari, 5:59:286
  5. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Bawa
  6. al-Mubarakpuri
  7. al-Mubarakpuri
  8. Karen Armstrong (2000,2002). Islam: A Short History. p. 11. ISBN 0-8129-6618-x. 
  9. Islam, iconography and the Taliban
  10. Conquest of Makkah - USC MSA
  11. A Glance at the Life of the Holy Prophet of Islam page 95
  12. Misplaced Directives, Renaissance, Al-Mawrid Institute, Vol. 12, No. 3, March 2002.[2]
  13. Hart, Michael H. The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, Revised and Updated for the Nineties. New York: Carol Publishing Group/Citadel Press; first published in 1978 reprinted with minor revisions 1992. ISBN 9780806510682
  14. Forward (1998) Muhammad: A Short Biography. Oxford: OneWorld Publishers. ISBN 1-85168-131-0. p. 27


  • Donner, Fred, The Early Islamic Conquests, Princeton University Press, 1981
  • Guillaume, A., The Life of Muhammad, Oxford University Press, 1955
  • Watt, Montgomery, Muhammad at Medina, Oxford University Press, 1957
  • al-Mubarakpuri, Saif-ur-Rahman (2002). al-Raheeq al-Makhtoom, "The Sealed Nectar". Islamic University of Medina. Riyadh: Darussalam publishers. ISBN 1-59144-071-8.

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