Power: the neglected dimension of the Seerah Part 2

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Sha'ban 25, 1423 2002-11-01


by Zafar Bangash (Features, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 17, Sha'ban, 1423)

(Part 2. Click here for Part 1)

The ICIT held a second International Seerah Conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, last month. Here we publish the second section of an abridged version of the keynote paper, presented by Zafar Bangash, Director of the ICIT.

Acquisition of Hard Power in Madinah

Three years before divine permission was finally granted for the Prophet (saw) to migrate to Yathrib, a group of people came from there to perform the Hajj. The Prophet secretly met 12 or 13 of them, who accepted Islam. They made a pledge, referred to as the First Pledge of Aqaba, to abide by the values of Islam: neither to steal nor to commit adultery, neither to kill their [female] children nor knowingly commit any evil, and not to fail to obey God in His commandment of any good (Haykal: The Life of Muhammad, Islamic Book Trust, Kuala Lumpur, 1993, p.154). At their request the Prophet sent one of his companions, Mus’ab ibn Umayr (ra), to Madinah to teach them about Islam. Mus’ab turned out to be an excellent teacher; the following year, 73 people came from Yathrib and pledged the second Pact of Aqaba.

This was an important breakthrough, because the group from Yathrib pledged to provide political, economic and military support to the Prophet and to protect him against his enemies. It is important to note that, while the Prophet did not possess any hard power in Makkah, there were people from other lands who were willing not only to pledge him their allegiance but also to offer him the protection of their own hard power to defend him against his enemies. This was a serious undertaking, and shows the influence of the soft power of the Prophet (saw). The delegation from Yathrib also understood what the pledge meant: incurring the enmity of the established power of Makkah’s tribal chiefs, who had strong trade links with people throughout the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. The chiefs of Makkah also controlled access to the Ka’aba, still a place of pilgrimage despite its corruption by idolatrous accretions. The people of Yathrib made their pledge in full knowledge of what the consequences of their act would be.

It is also clear that the Prophet was not trying to escape from Makkah merely to save his own life; he first allowed his followers to leave in small numbers, until the revelation came permitting him to leave as well. All his moves were aimed at establishing the political authority and power of Islam – translating the soft power of Islam into hard power. The opportunity for this came in the thirteenth year of his mission, when he migrated from Makkah to Yathrib, accompanied by his close friend and companion, Abu-Bakr Siddiq (ra). During the Hijrah (migration), there was an interesting incident. When the chiefs of Makkah discovered that the Prophet had managed to escape even as they plotted to kill him, they offered a reward of 100 camels – a huge reward at the time – for his capture. Bounty-hunters set out in search of the Prophet, each hoping to claim the reward. Suraqa bin Malik of Makkah was one such person, who succeeded in catching up with them. Despite the gravity of the situation, the Prophet turned and said to Suraqa: "I see you wearing the gold bracelets of the emperor of Persia." What this demonstrates is that even at a time of grave danger to his life, the Prophet (saw) was talking about the victory and supremacy of Islam. He was confident not only that the soft power of Islam would become hard power but also that the Muslims would defeat the Persian and Roman empires, the two superpowers of the time. This optimism is breathtaking and proves his great confidence even in times of great crisis. More importantly, it shows that he was quite clear about the mission entrusted to him by Allah: establishment of Islam both in its spiritual and temporal domains. This episode alone should dispel the mistaken notion that the Prophet’s acquisition of power in Madinah was not planned, but occurred as a result of a stroke of good fortune; otherwise he had had no intention of establishing any worldly authority, because that was not in keeping with his Prophetic mission. This is not only a misunderstanding of the nature of Islam but also a distortion of the Seerah.

Life in Madinah was better than what the Muslims had left behind in Makkah. In Makkah they were persecuted and forced to leave; in Madinah they were welcomed, and the Prophet (saw) secured a territorial base from which he could operate. It would, however, be inaccurate to assume that there were no problems in Madinah, that he established the Islamic state and that his authority was accepted by everyone without hesitation or obstruction. The Prophet (saw) and his Companions (ra) were mostly made welcome yet, human nature being what it is, the goodwill could not be taken for granted. The large influx of Muhajiroon (immigrants) from Makkah continued as their families joined them; this could have created great economic and social problems, and had to be handled delicately. Using his soft power – his moral authority – the Prophet urged the Ansar (the helpers of Madinah) to pair with the Muhajiroon and support them. This the Ansar did willingly, but many Muhajiroon asked merely to be shown the way to the marketplace or the fields, where they would work. Not only was a potential social problem averted, it also strengthened the bonds between Muslims, making them a united body to face the challenges ahead.

The influx of the Muhajiroon was only one aspect of the situation. Far more serious was the presence of Jews, who exercised considerable influence over the two dominant tribes – al-Aws and al-Khazraj – in Madinah. The Prophet (saw) initially regarded the Jews as potential allies, because they were people of the Book, against the continuing threat of the Quraish of Makkah, but the Jews’ hostility to Islam was soon exposed. The Prophet launched two initiatives: he built a masjidin Madinah that was both a place of worship and a seat of government, and he drew up theMithaq (Covenant) of Madinah, guaranteeing religious and political rights and security to all the tribes and groups that signed it, and also setting out their duties and responsibilities.

The Mithaq (Covenant) of Madinah

The Mithaq (also known as the Sahifah) of Madinah is unparalleled in its fairness and farsightedness. The Prophet (saw) was recognized as the undisputed leader of all the people, not just the Muslims. Signatories to the Mithaq acknowledged the Prophet’s supreme authority as political and military leader; no decision could be taken without his permission. This was a remarkable achievement, as most people in Madinah and the surrounding areas, with whom they had alliances, were not yet Muslims. Even the Jews accepted the Prophet’s leadership, although, as we shall see later, they secretly plotted to undermine him. In the tribal society of Arabia such alliances had great significance. Weaker tribes protected their interests by aligning themselves with powerful ones, although this had a price: if a tribe went to war against another, its allies were obliged to support it, and vice versa.

The Prophet foresaw that the chiefs of Makkah would not leave the Muslims in peace just because they had left Makkah and gone to Madinah. On the contrary, the consolidation of Muslim power in Madinah alarmed the Makkan chiefs even more; they were bound to strike to eliminate this threat before it established itself more firmly. By the judicious use of soft power, the Prophet (saw) linked a number of tribes residing in the narrow corridor between Madinah and the Red Sea, through which most of the Makkan caravans passed, into an alliance with the Muslims. This was a successful transformation of soft power (moral suasion) into hard power (military muscle). These tribes were now obliged to come to the aid of the Muslims if the Quraish attacked Madinah; the Muslims similarly pledged to defend these tribes if they were attacked by another tribe. Initially, some tribes chose neutrality, but even this worked to the Muslims’ advantage.

The Mithaq and the alliances with nearby tribes also had another consequence: they widened the theatre of conflict, which was no longer confined to Makkah and Madinah. Makkah’s advantage as a concentrated power centre was somewhat neutralized by this stroke of military genius. More, Muslims’ allies began to threaten Makkah’s trade caravans, which were Makkah’s lifeline. Thus, even before a formal armed clash occurred between the Muslims and their Makkan foes, the Muslims took the initiative and undermined some of the hard power of the Quraish. In a direct clash between Makkah and Madinah, the Quraish enjoyed a preponderance of hard power: military, economic and political. They also had links with many tribes in the rest of the Arabian Peninsula because of the location of the Ka’aba in Makkah, which was also a city on the East-West trade route that conferred further advantage upon it. Besides, the Quraish were good fighters; Muslims, far fewer in number and with few resources, had not been tested in battle yet, so they could point to no victories to attract allies. Their soft power – their beautiful message and superior moral character – were not usually sufficient in themselves to win people over against the threat of Makkah’s hard power.

It is a historical truism that most people do not support an ideology or system simply because it is right; they align themselves with it because they perceive it to have greater military or economic power. "Might is right" seems to be the perception in most cases; only a few hardy souls do what is right regardless of the consequences. This was the case with all the earlier Prophets as well, from Nuh, Ibrahim and Musa all the way to Isa (Jesus), upon them all be peace. Thus, in the struggle between Islam and kufr, led by the chiefs of Makkah, most tribes in Arabia sided with the Quraish. Until the decisive battle of Badr, the Prophet (saw) had only the power of persuasion and the legitimacy of his position from on High; he used these to persuade people to accept Islam and to enter into alliances with the Muslims or, at the very least, to remain neutral in the struggle for supremacy.

The Muslims’ first formal battle (Badr) was fought against great odds in numbers and weapons, but it immediately proved that the new factors tipped the balance in any struggle: the power of faith and commitment. Muslims won this battle not because of superiority of arms – they had few weapons – but because they were committed. They knew that, regardless of the outcome, they would be rewarded. If they won, they had the satisfaction of reward in this world; if they died, they became martyrs and would earn the infinitely higher reward of Paradise. This point is lost on the unbelievers, who rely only on material factors – numbers of soldiers, tanks, guns and so on. Even some contemporary Muslims are mesmerized by this materialistic thinking. They can only think in terms of weapons and munitions when faith and commitment play a much larger role in determining the outcome of any struggle. This has been demonstrated not only historically but also in contemporary history: in Vietnam, Algeria, Afghanistan and South Lebanon, for instance. No doubt more examples will come our way as the kuffar intensify their aggressions against Muslims.

For the first five years in Madinah, the Muslims only fought defensive battles against the Quraish. It was the latter who repeatedly attacked Madinah, alone or with other tribes. Muslims did not invade Makkah even once during this time, although they undertook reconnaissance missions. The Quraish also tried to use the Jews and the munafiqeen (hypocrites) – a new breed that emerged in Madinah because of Islam’s dominance – against the Muslims. On each occasion the offending Jewish tribe was warned and then punished, but this seemed to have little deterrent effect on the others. It was after the battle of Ahzab (in the fifth year after the Hijrah) and the siege of Madinah by the Confederate tribes, with whom Banu Quraida, the last Jewish tribe in Madinah, also secretly aligned itself in violation of its covenant with the Muslims, that the Prophet (saw) punished them severely according to their own law. It is also interesting to note that it was only after the Confederate tribes were unsuccessful in their long siege of Madinah that the Prophet decided to visit Makkah, not to fight but to perform umrah (the lesser pilgrimage), for the first time since the Muslims left six years before.

Although the attempt to perform umrah was unsuccessful, the Prophet returned with the Treaty of Hudaibiyya, which consolidated the hard power of Islam. On the face of it the treaty was against the Muslims’ interests, but in reality it had a very significant impact. First, the Quraish were forced to accept the Muslims as equals (they had refused even to tolerate them before this); second, the treaty stipulated that all tribes were free to form alliances with whomever they pleased. Before Hudaibiyya, many tribes had not aligned themselves with the Muslims for fear of antagonizing the Quraish. Hudaibiyya also freed the Muslims to deal with the Jewish stronghold at Khaybar without worrying about an attack from Makkah.

It was after the Treaty of Hudaibiyya that the Prophet (saw) sent messages to many rulers around the Arabian Peninsula ,inviting them to Islam. This included the Romans in Palestine and Syria, the rulers of Bahrain, Yemen, Persia, Egypt and the surrounding areas. The Prophet had emerged as the undisputed leader not only of Madinah but also of much of the Peninsula, and could now deal with the superpowers on his own terms. This was a result of the translation of the soft power of Islam into the hard power of the Islamic state. So people in large numbers began to enter Islam, as pointed out in surah an-Nasr (110).

In the 13 years of the Prophet’s mission in Makkah only a few hundred people became Muslims, yet in 10 years in Madinah hundreds of thousands did so. Why such a great disparity? This is also a question that must be pondered by those who insist on tabligh these days, to explain why their efforts bear so little fruit. The difference is that in Makkah the Prophet (saw) only had soft power; in Madinah he acquired hard power as well. Soft power backed by hard power is the combination that achieves results best. This is also evident today. The US as a world power has no intrinsic values of decency, ethics or culture, but because of its hard power McDonald’s, Coca Cola and Pepsi products are consumed by millions of people daily, despite these foods having little or no nutritional value; American clothes are considered fashionable all over the world, because of the hard power of the US. The same was true of Britain in the days of its glory.

We can identify a number of important landmarks in the Prophet’s mission. For 13 years in Makkah, he wielded only soft power; its impact was limited because it did not have a territorial base. Madinah provided a territorial base, establishing the power of Islam on a formal basis. The battle of Badr tested the Muslims’ resolve and demonstrated to the people of the Arabian Peninsula that a new power had emerged. Despite this they were not convinced that Muslims would be able to withstand, much less defeat convincingly, the power of the Quraish, who were militarily strong, economically prosperous and had political alliances and influence because of the presence of the Ka’aba in Makkah. Until the fifth year in Madinah, Muslims waged defensive battles against the Quraish; only after the Treaty of Hudaibiyya neutralized one party – the Quraish – did the Prophet (saw) launch an attack against the Jewish stronghold at Khaybar.

We observe that the Prophet did not take on two enemies simultaneously; he first consolidated his position at home before taking on an external enemy. Also, he preferred to deal with the enemy closer to home before the one further away. It was important to defeat the near enemy first because taking on a distant enemy meant a prolonged absence from home, leaving it vulnerable to attack. Even if the battle against the far-off enemy were won, exposing the territorial base would have been a setback and undermined the hard power of Islam by encouraging other foes to raise their heads. Once the two major enemies – the Jews and the Quraish – were neutralized, only then did the Prophet launch a campaign against the Romans, one of the superpowers of the time.

The most eloquent testimony in favour of hard power is the growth in the number of Muslims during the Madinah period. Success has an energizing effect on people: they are automatically attracted to it; failure, by contrast, has few supporters, regardless of how well grounded or reasoned its case may be.

One final point is in order. Today’s political, economic and educational systems produce men and women who are not suited to achieving the goals of Islam. They produce people who can only serve the interests of the prevailing system, which is opposed to the values of Islam. This is true even of many Islamic institutions, because they have been contaminated by outside influences, and hence have become largely irrelevant. Such institutions do not train men and women for the mission for which the Prophet prepared the Sahaba (ra) during his lifetime. That is why it is imperative to change the entire system, much as the Prophet (saw) did in the Arabian Peninsula, and as his Companions continued to do in the surrounding lands after his death. Allah’s Messenger inculcated a different set of values that did not serve the prevailing order. Muslims will have to launch a similar campaign to make Islam the dominant paradigm, as promised and demanded by Allah (9:33, 61:09), but we must understand that this will not come about by operating in or compromising with the present jahili system.

Unfortunately there are too many well-meaning but naive Muslims who believe that, as long as they "do good deeds", they are not responsible for the injustices of the system which they serve. This view is sanctioned by neither the Qur’an nor the Sunnah of the Prophet (saw). We must remember that after he received the first wahy (revelation), he did not return to the cave: nor did he preach meditation or merely to do good deeds quietly. He entered the marketplace and challenged the established order, suffering great hardships in the process; without this Islam could not have become the dominant paradigm.

If Muslims were to reflect only on the kalimah – the declaration of Belief in One God – they would discover that it is the greatest empowering weapon, in accordance with which they accept subservience to no one except Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. It liberates human beings from the clutches of all false gods (taghoots) and sets them on a course to victory, in which Islam becomes the dominant reality. This is the lesson of the Seerah of the Prophet, the last and final Messenger of Allah (saw), who established the supremacy of Islam in his own lifetime, starting with only a handful of followers. The most important lessons of the Sunnah and Seerah are not confined to individual and physical aspects of taharah and najasah; they are the Prophet’s pursuit of power to make Islam the dominant reality in the world that is presently held hostage by dhulm and oppression.

This is the second part of an abridged version of Zafar Bangash’s keynote paper presented at the ICIT’s International Seerah Conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, last month. The first part was published in the last issue of Crescent International. The full paper will shortly be available on the ICIT website, www.crescent-online.org.

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