Jihad in the Life of Muhammad: From Mecca to Medina

Part 5 Muhammad and the Jews




Jihad in the Sira, the Life of Muhammad: From Mecca to Medina

Let us bear in mind that pious practicing Muslims draw inspiration from three main sources: the Qur'an, the Sunnah (including the Hadith) and the Sira (biography of the prophet Muhammad). Here we shall be concentrating on the relations between Muhammad and the Jewish tribes in Medina after the emigration to that town and while establishing and consolidating his influence and power there. 1 This will enable us to catch a glimpse of the close links between politics and religion and see how they related, in this early stage, to the waging of jihad, in which Muhammad was directly involved, thus establishing an important precedent for the future development of doctrine and practice.

These relations go far in explaining the general aversion of Muhammad for the Jews, which also finds expression in other Islamic sources, and also explains, at least in part, the hatred for Jews in modern Islam. What follows is based principally on the earliest extant biography of the prophet written in the 8th century. It is the canonical biography of Muhammad, the most authoritative account of his life and an indispensable work for anyone researching the battles of the prophet. It is the one indispensable source for anyone intending to write authoritatively on early Islamic history. The seriousness of any published work can be judged by use made of this work and may be used as one criterion for sifting out the reliable from the non reliable works published on the life of Muhammad. 2 This work is known as Sirat rasul Allah, the biography of the messenger of Allah written by Ibn Ishaq and later revised by Ibn Hisham. 3

According to official sources the first of Muhammad’s revelations, which were later to be collected to form the Qur’an, came during the night of 10th August 610 at the age of 40 and during the month of Ramadan. These revelations were considered to be the exact words of God communicated through the archangel Gabriel (Jibril). Three years later Muhammad began to spread the message, first to his family and circle of friends and later publicly while living in Mecca, his home town. In this initial period the message conveyed in these revelations was peaceful, reconciling and non confrontational mainly due to the fact that they constituted a small group that had to survive in adverse circumstances. The revelations of Muhammad as a whole are conditioned by events in the life of the prophet and his community (ummah). In thirteen years of preaching Islam he only managed to convert a small vulnerable group. His message was radically monotheistic and, although Arabia was familiar with monotheism from the Jewish and Christian tribes present there, belief in the absolute unity of God preached in the Mecca, the stronghold of polytheism, threatened vested religious, commercial and political interests. His circle of disciples and their message was opposed, derided and persecuted. However, in the initial stages it was not so much the message as Muhammad’s personal behaviour that provoked the fiercest opposition. It has often been suggested by Muslims that the persecution encountered was exclusively the result of Muhammad's preaching his new message and his claim to be the last of the prophets. This is not borne out by the facts as reported in the above mentioned Islamic canonical source Ibn Ishaq, Sirat rasul Allah. Muhammad was a troublesome character in more ways than one. One or two examples taken from this early eighth century source will suffice to make our point:
When the apostle openly displayed Islam as God ordered him his people did not withdraw or turn against him, so far as I have heard, until he spoke disparagingly of their gods. When he did that they took great offence and resolved unanimously to treat him as an enemy, except those whom God had protected by Islam from such evil, but they were a despised minority. (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 166, 167) 4

They said, ‘O Abu Talib, your nephew has cursed our gods, insulted our religion, mocked our way of life and accused our forefathers of error; either you must stop him or you must let us get at him, for you yourself are in the same position as we are in opposition to him and we will rid you of him.’ (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 167, 168) 5.
Muhammad, who hated derision, derided and insulted others and their beliefs quite freely and made many enemies in his own Qurayshi tribe. We already have the beginnings of religious intolerance despite words to the contrary in the Qur’anic revelations. Muhammad is openly confrontational.6

They [the Quraysh] said that they had never known anything like the trouble they had endured from this fellow; he had declared their mode of life foolish, insulted their forefathers, reviled their religion, divided the community, and cursed their gods. What they had borne was past all bearing, or words to that effect (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 183). 7
Persecution obliged them to emigrate from Mecca to the Kingdom of Aksum (Ethiopia) where the Christian Negus gave them refuge. They remained only three months before returning to Mecca and then, more importantly, they emigrated once again from Mecca this time to Medina in the year 622. Muhammad, who had gained a reputation for honesty and fairness and having a direct line to the words of divine wisdom, was called to arbitrate in disputes among the various tribes there. 8 He quickly gained the trust of most and managed to convert many to his message. He knew from experience the value of religion in creating a sense of identity and solidarity in the various tribes throughout Arabia and his message would potentially serve as the cohesive factor not only for the new community of emigrants but also to unite the various tribes in Medina in a supernatural dimension that would allow them to transcend differences that often led to disputes and feuds.

At long last with Muhammad and his divine revelations there appeared an indigenous Arab religion with a book, a set of revelations just like those of the Jews and Christians. This gave them a sense of prestige and superiority compared to the polytheistic tribes in the region who could not boast of any special, exclusive relation with the divine. That superiority was further reinforced when Muhammad came to portray himself as the “seal” of the prophets, the last in the line of prophets from the earliest times of Jewish scriptures to Jesus Christ of the Christian scriptures. He had the whole history of salvation hinge on himself. More important for the purpose of jihad in the life of Muhammad is that from the time of the emigration (hijra) to Medina there is a radical change in both policy and message.



1 Medina is the second holy city of Islam and burial place of Muhammad. Muslims claim that the town (strictly speaking it was an oasis) previously known as Yathrib changed its name to Medina after the prophet established his community there and that its full name was Madinat an-Nabi (the city of the prophet). This cannot be as the name Medina derives from the Aramaic name medinta meaning "city" from which derives the Arabic al-Madina. There are no records of anyone having inhabited this area before the Jews and it is therefore probable that the Jewish tribes founded this oasis. The Aramaic name was therefore in common use well before any Arabs settled there. The fact that the name Medina is also used in the Qur’an (the eternal words of God for Muslims) would also confirm this (Q. 9:101, 120; 33:60; 63:8).
2 There is much contradictory information on this subject with irreconcilable views on the character of Muhammad. Muslims writers convey an idealised image of their prophet, some academic, non Muslim writers diplomatically avoid mentioning embarrassing episodes in his life, some write with a sense of bitterness but there are also academic works that  do portray, as objectively as possible, what cannot be honestly omitted. It is our objective, in these pages to avoid both extreme tendencies, that of the idealised and the radically ironic verging on the insulting as both tendencies constitute a certain distortion of truth.
3 A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ibn Isḥāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh, Oxford University Press, Pakistan, 2011.
4 Ibid.,  p. 118.
5 Ibid.
6 There was a temporary cessation of hostilities with the recitation of those verses, originally part of the Qur’an,  that are known as the satanic verses (nothing to do with Salmon Rushdie’s novel), which also reveal the opportunistic nature of many of the Qur’anic revelations.
7 A. Guillaume op. cit.  p. 131.
8 In the year 621 an agreement was struck between Muhammad and representatives of the tribes of Medina and another  in 622. As a result of this alliance Muhammad and his followers were offered protection. It is interesting to note that the Jewish tribes had no part in this agreement. It was hoped he would be a neutral arbiter in their disputes. The choice seemed ideal as Muhammad already had contacts with the town because his mother and maternal grandfather were originally from Medina.




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