Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

Muhammad and Islam: Stories not told before, Part 7

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The Battle of Badr

The City of Medina was situated at a strategic location, which afforded its inhabitants the ability to intercept, if they liked, the caravans that traveled north on their way to Syria and south on their return to Mecca. In the autumn of 623 A.D., the annual caravan of the Quraishites traveled through this route on its way to Syria. The caravan, consisting of one thousand camels said to be laden with Arabian merchandise, was under the command of Abu Sofian, one of Muhammad’s sworn enemies. The Muslims failed to intercept it.

The caravan, on its return journey to Mecca, left Damascus escorted by thirty horsemen in the month of Ramadhan, 624 A.D. Muhammad, on receiving information on its movement, decided to seize it, no matter how, even though the month was a holy one for the Arabs, who considered raids and plunder in this time of the year a great sin. He contemplated the operation because it had a considerable importance for him as well as for the Muslim community of Medina.

The caravan represented a large part of the annual income of all the Meccans, for though, much of it was owned by the city’s rich merchants, almost every resident of it also had some share in this venture. By corollary, if the Muslims were able to capture it, the Meccans would have become paupers, and the plunderers wealthy overnight, with their leader’s war chest correspondingly strengthened.

As determined, Muhammad set out to intercept the caravan with three hundred and fourteen men: eighty-three emigrants, or exiles from Mecca: sixty-one Ausites, and one hundred and seventy Khazrajites. The entire Muslim force, it is said, had only two horses and seventy camels. The troop mounted them in rotation in order to make a rapid march, with minimal fatigue. They reached the valley watered by the brook of Badr, and began waiting for the caravan to approach the ford, which they were expected to cross on their way to Mecca.

But while yet a hundred miles south of Damascus, intelligence reached Abu Sofian that Muhammad, with an army, was waiting near Medina to ambush his caravan. He hastened, therefore, to dispatch a messenger to Mecca on a dromedary, calling upon the Quraishites to send out an armed force to meet and escort him past the danger zone of Medina. Hearing the news from the messenger, Abu Jahl sounded the alarm. Confusion and consternation took over Mecca, and people assembled around Abu Jahl to decide what action they should take to protect their caravan.

Hinda, the wife of Abu Sofian, having a firm determination mingled with a fierce and intrepid nature, exhorted all of her relatives and all other warriors to arm themselves and to hasten to assist her husband. The assembly of the people agreed, and in a short time, a Meccan force of about one thousand men, divided into cavalry and infantry, found itself on its way to Medina, under the command of Abu Jahl, who was then seventy years old, but still retained all the vigor and spirit of a youth.

While the rescue force was advancing fast to a point of rendezvous where they expected to meet the caravan, Abu Sofian was approaching it from the opposite direction. On nearing the anticipated range of danger, he preceded his caravan by a considerable distance, carefully scanning every track and footprint on the road. Eventually, he came upon the track of Muhammad’s army, having been guided to it by the discarded stones of the dates, which his soldiers had been eating during their march. The kernels of the Medinese dates are easily distinguishable by their small size.

Abu Sofian instantly changed his course and passed along the coast of the Red Sea until he considered himself out of danger. He then sent an envoy to meet and advice the Quraishites that his caravan was safe and that they could return home.

The envoy encountered the Quraishites in full march. Learning that the caravan was safe, they halted to chart their next course of action. In the meantime, they dispatched a scout to spy upon the strength and condition of Muhammad’s fighting men. The spy brought back word that they were about three hundred in strength and had not enough horses or camels to fight a winning battle.

Learning of the statistics, many of the Meccans favored a battle to inflict a signal punishment on Muhammad and his followers in revenge for the slaying of their men at Nakhla. Another group was opposed to shedding blood of their kindred, even though Muhammad had sown seeds of discord by preaching a religion that separated son from father, brother from brother, accompanied by his attempts to seize their life-supporting caravans. Abu Jahl sided with the belligerents and the main body of the troops resumed its march once again. A considerable number of the forces, numbering about three to four hundred, that opposed engaging the Muslims in a bloody battle, turned back and returned to Mecca.

The Muslim force failing, in the meantime, to see the caravan approaching the ford, decided to march to Badr where they were sure to meet it head on. After passing Safra, Muhammad called for a halt. Here he received information that a strong contingent of the Quraishites had left Mecca to meet and escort the caravan. The informer, however, failed to give Muhammad the exact location of the Meccan forces. Under the circumstances, Muhammad convened a meeting and explained the situation to his men. Abu Bakr, Omar, and the emigrants declared their readiness to follow Muhammad, no matter in which direction he led them.

Muhammad was, however, not sure of the exact attitude of the Ansars on his attempt to seize the Meccans’ caravan. Although they had concluded the Pledge of Aqaba with him purely for defensive matters, it had not required them to support him on such matters as that of raiding a peaceful caravan en route its destination. In an uncertain situation, he decided to address the Ansars in order to find out their position on his present attempt at doing exactly what they disliked.

Muhammad’s address over, Saad ibn Muadh, one of the chiefs of the Aus stood up and gave him his unwavering pledge, to obey him in whatever task he might be asked to accomplish. Elated, he ordered his troops to march forward “in good courage, for Allah has promised us one of the two parties,” meaning either the caravan, or the Quraish army.

After marching another six or seven miles, Muslim forces set tents a short distance away from the wells of Badr, which the opposing army was also approaching, each being ignorant of the other’s movement. The informant employed by Muhammad brought him news that the Meccan forces were on their way to the place where his troops were encamped. At this news, the hearts of some of Muhammad’s fighters sank, for they had joined the foray, expecting a little fight and much plunder. Now, they felt overwhelmed by the reported strength of their opponents; their hearts collapsing at the prospect of fighting a large army, the like of which they had never fought before. Muhammad assured them victory having Allah tell him:

“O Apostle! Rouse the Believers to the fight. If there are twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred: if a hundred, they will vanquish a thousand of the Unbelievers: for these are a people without understanding.”[1]

Muhammad’s above statement was based on the Meccans’ reported strength of about one thousand fighters. For raising his men’ fighting spirits, he equated one of them with ten of their enemies. When his men questioned the absurdity of the equation, he unashamedly revised his nonsensical statement, stating:

“For the present, Allah hath lightened your (task), for He knoweth that there is a weak spot in you: but (even so), if there are a hundred of you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred, and if a thousand, they will vanquish two thousand, with the leave of Allah: for Allah is with those who patiently persevere.[2]

He brought down the fighting ability of his men, saying that one of them was strong enough to defeat two of his enemy. This equation seemed reasonable to his fighting men, for they were three hundred and fourteen and their opponents about six to seven hundred, which means one Muslim combatant was required to take on, approximately, 1.91 to 2.23 men of the Pagans in order to win the battle. And to do so, they needed no heavenly intervention, given the extreme difficult conditions the Meccans Pagans were expected to face at the battle ground they had chosen to fight them.

After assuring success to his troops, Muhammad positioned them on a raised ground, with water at its foot. The troops, using the branches of the date trees, erected a hut on the summit for Muhammad to take rest in. They also kept a fleet camel standing by for him to escape, should they face defeat at the hands of the Meccan army.

The vanguard of the Meccan troops entered the ground, panting with thirst. They hastened to the stream for a drink. Hamza, the uncle of Muhammad, set a number of his men upon them and slew their commander with his own hand. Only a single soldier of the Meccan vanguard escaped the slaughter.

The main body of the Meccan forces now arrived at the venue of the last massacre, challenging the bravest of the Muslim fighters to an equal combat. A number of individual fights took place in which all of the Meccan challengers were defeated, and slain. The battle then turned into a general melee.

The Muslims, aware of their inferior strength, at first adopted a defensive posture from their strategic position on top of the hill.[3] From their upper ground, they assailed the Meccans with flights of arrows, whenever they sought to quench their intolerable thirst at the stream below. Muhammad, during all this time, remained within his hut worrying about the outcome of the battle.

The sporadic arrow flights soon flared up into a furious sword fight. In spite of their superior numbers, the Quraishites suffered a number of tactical disadvantages. They had advanced against the Muslims across the soft sand dunes, which made them extremely exhausted,[4] whereas the believers awaited them standing on the firm ground, precluding them from all sorts of exertion. Moreover, the Muslims controlled the most essential commodity of the desert warfare: the water. The Meccans had none, and without it, it was impossible for any army - no matter how strong and large - to win a battle even against a nominal enemy of theirs, let alone the highly charged Muslim army Muhammad had raised against his Pagan enemies.

Despite their setback, the Meccans were engaging the Muslims in a fierce fight, when a violent squall whipped the sand into their faces that almost blinded them. “Gabriel,” cried Muhammad ecstatically, “with a thousand angels is falling upon the enemy!” Subsequently, Allah increased the number of the angels to three thousand strong; in order to defeat a force of infidels, numbering about six to seven hundred, that was fighting a battle under some of the most insurmountable conditions.

Suddenly, as if to bolster the faith of his fighters, Muhammad rushed out of his hut, and picking up a handful of dust, cast it at the Meccans, crying out, “Confusion on their faces.” Then ordering his men to charge upon the enemy, he cried: “Fight, and fear not,” for “the gates of Paradise are under the shade of sword. He will assuredly find instant admission, who falls fighting for the faith.”

While the battle was raging, Abu Jahl, who was urging his horse into the thickest of the conflict, received the blow of a scimitar and fell to the ground. Abdullah ibn Masoud put his foot upon his breast and severed his head from his body.

For some time, the fight swayed back and forth, without either side gaining a clear advantage. At long last, the Meccans began to waver, making them to lose their ground. Then suddenly they broke and fled. Fifty of them remained dead on the ground, and nearly the same number was taken prisoners. Of the Muslims, eight were slain, whose names remain on record as martyrs to the faith.

The battle over, Abdullah ibn Masoud brought the head of Abu Jahl to Muhammad. Eyeing the grisly trophy with exultation, he exclaimed, “This man was the Pharaoh of our Nation.”

The number of causalities on the Pagan side proves one point: that there were not as many Pagan warriors involved in the battle of Badr as Muslim historians have made out in their recollection of the event. They exaggerated the number of the Pagan enemy in order to extol the Muslim virtues by dint of which, most Muslims believe, Muhammad and his followers had defeated a “huge” number of their enemy. This is an inspiration that is employed by the Muslims even today, while urging their youths to take on and kill their infidel foes. Or, the battle fought at Badr was not a fierce one, but the Muslim historians made it as such so that they could present Muhammad in the seat of a victim of the Pagans, and not as a perpetrator, of the crime, which he had clearly committed against them and their religion

Muslim ascribes attribute success in this battle to invisible angelic participation, noting that a thousand of them clad in long dazzling robes with white and yellow turbans, mounted on black and white stallions, came rushing like a blast and swept the Quraishites off their feet before their eyes. They mention a Pagan shepherd, who had witnessed the miracle taking place and he, in this connection, is to have declared:

“I was with a companion, a cousin,” said the witness, “upon the fold of the mountain, watching the conflict, and waiting to join the victors to share the spoil. Suddenly we saw a great cloud moving toward us, and within it were the neighing of steeds and sound of trumpets. As it approached, we heard the terrific voice of the archangel as he urged his mare Haizum, “Speed! Speed! Oh Haizum!” At which awful sound the heart of my companion burst with terror, and he died on the spot. I, too, had almost shared his fate.”

Ibn Abbas, who had testified to the occurrence, his statement having been confirmed by Muhammad himself, corroborated the Pagan shepherd’s declaration.

The gist of the matter stands as follows: Allah sent a large contingent of angels to fight against a small number of the humans, and that the angels rode steeds - in spite of their having at least a pair of wings to fly with - undetected by the human eyes and senses.

Before the victorious Muslims returned to Medina, a quarrel broke out among them over the distribution of the spoils. Though the caravan of Abu Sofian, which Allah had promised to the believers, had escaped, yet considerable booty of weapons and camels and used rags and personal items had fallen to the lot of the Muslims. Additionally, the prisoners were also expected to produce, through their ransom, a large sum of money, a prospect that none of the Muslim soldiers wanted to miss.

Muhammad ordered the booty divided equally among all the Muslims, who fought in the battle. Although it was a long established custom among the Arabs to give a fourth part of the booty to their chief, he contended himself with the same share as that of the rest. For him, his success against the Pagans was his best award.

The equal distribution of the booty caused great dissatisfaction among the troops. Those who had taken part in the actual fighting and had been most active in collecting the spoils demanded a larger share than those who had stood aloof from the fray, as well as those old men who had remained at the back to guard the camp. The settlement of the issue became an important matter for Muhammad, especially when he, as a leader, was about to embark upon a career of predatory warfare. He, accordingly, had Allah decreed that in future, a fifth of the war-spoils would go to him and Allah and the remaining would be distributed among those who actually fought in the battles.[5] In the distribution of the booty, Muhammad and Allah were to have first preference of choice: They were to select their part first, whereafter the leftovers were to be distributed among the participants of the wars.[6]

>>> Part 8


[1] The Quran; 8:65.

[2] The Quran; 8:66.

[3] The Quran; 8:42.

[4] Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, The Battlefields of the Prophet, p. 49.

[5] The Quran; 8:41.

[6] Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, p. 643.

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