The Prophet’s use of statecraft to defeat and win over the Quraish

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rajab 29, 1422 2001-10-16


by Zafar Bangash (Features, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 16, Rajab, 1422)

Last month the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) convened an International Seerah Conference in Pretoria, South Africa. In this issue, we publish a second extract from The Seerah as a model for the total transformation of society, by ICIT director ZAFAR BANGASH.

Hijrah is an important factor in the process of change. In the Qur’an, Allah chastises a group of people who were oppressed but neither resisted nor moved away: “Was not Allah’ s earth spacious enough for you to migrate [to escape evil and oppression]?” (4:97). Throughout history hijrah has played an important role at crucial junctures; Ibrahim (as) made hijrah from his place of birth in Ur (present-day Iraq) to escape persecution, and eventually settled in Palestine. He settled his older son, Ismail, in the valley of Makkah, which ultimately became the cradle of Islam. The early Muslims first migrated from Makkah to Abyssinia in the fifth year of the Prophet’s mission, again to escape persecution; when Allah’s permission was granted, the Muslims migrated to Madinah, leading to the establishment of the Islamic state there. From being oppressed, persecuted and without support in Makkah, after the hijrah Muslims became the dominant power in Madinah.

If life in Makkah was characterized by passive resistance, in Madinah it entered a more active phase with the Prophet himself initiating many of the moves. Within six months of arriving and consolidating the internal situation there (see: M. al-Asi & ZB: The Seerah: A Power Perspective, ICIT, London, Toronto, 2000. pp. 41-42), the Prophet sent several expeditions against the Quraish caravans. The first one was sent under the command of his uncle, Hamza bin Abdil-Muttalib (ra); others followed suit. There were eight such expeditions before the battle of Badr in the month of Ramadan in the second year of the Hijrah. There were specific purposes behind these expeditions. First, they declared the Muslims’ presence and staked a claim to the trade routes around Madinah. Second, they served notice that the days of the Quraish’s trouble-free journeys were over and that their aggression, which had driven the Muslims out of Makkah, would now be resisted by force. Third, these expeditions helped facilitate alliances with tribes along the trade routes; if these did not materialize, at the very least the tribes were neutralized in any future conflict with the Quraish. Finally and most importantly, the Quraish’s most vulnerable point — their economic lifeline — was threatened.

The Prophet’s challenge to the Quraish caravans was a new and more ominous development. Hitherto they had enjoyed trouble-free travel between Makkah and Syria, a rare privilege in that uncertain part of the world. More importantly, this was the first time that anyone had threatened the Quraish caravans so openly; if the threat was allowed to continue, it was bound to encourage others to challenge them as well. In the past, whenever a caravan was attacked, all they had to say was they were from the land of the Haram and they would be let go unmolested. A modern-day comparison could be made with the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf. (Note: Just as any blockade of the Persian Gulf would lead to the collapse of western economies, so challenging the Quraish caravans at the time of the Prophet threatened their economic lifeline.)

In warfare, all factors — military, political, social and economic — must be utilized. For instance, if a country is undermined economically, it may not even be necessary to wage war against it. In the eighties, the US involved the Soviet Union in an arms race that crippled it economically. Additional blows were delivered by the mujahideen in Afghanistan, bringing the Soviet colossus to its knees and causing its disintegration. Today the US imposes economic sanctions against a host of countries as a bullying tactic whose policies it does not approve of. Economic pressure is, therefore, a recognized form of warfare. (Note: It is important to identify the enemy’s most vulnerable point and apply one’s strength against it. For instance, America and Israel can be defeated by imposing on them human costs that their societies cannot bear; this might not work on a country like India, where human life is considered cheap. India, however, can be confronted by an economic strategy as well as by deepening the fault lines that exist within it. Muslims must consider more creative ways of confronting their enemies in order to ward off aggression and violence which is directed at them.)

The Prophet’s strategy involved clipping the power of the Quraish while increasing the power of the Islamic state. True, the Quraish had driven the Muslims out of Makkah; they even plotted to kill the Prophet but he managed to leave safely once Allah granted him permission. But it was not merely to save his own life; Allah says in the Qur’an: “He [Allah] it is Who has sent the Messenger with clear guidance and the Deen of Truth so that it may become dominant over all other systems, however much the mushrikeen may be averse to it” (9:33, 61:11). No apologies are offered for making Islam dominant, as many Muslims do these days. The divine system must triumph, but Muslims have to work for it. Change will come about only when Muslims are prepared to make the requisite sacrifices. Apologizing for Islam’s power or not making it dominant are not the Sunnah of Allah; He wants Islam to be dominant so that His laws are implemented. This is exactly what the Seerah of the Messenger of Allah (saw) is.

We must now return to the Prophet’s method of dealing with the Quraish once he had secured the internal situation in Madinah. Upon his arrival, he established a bond of brotherhood between the Muhajiroun (migrants from Makkah) and the Ansar (helpers of Madinah). The former were destitute and would otherwise have suffered immense hardship. It is instructive to note that the bond of brotherhood was based not on blood relationship but iman, a new basis for social interaction. Similarly, the Prophet made a covenant to all the people of Madinah, including the Jews, to establish peace in the city-state. This was a unique document and reflected the statesmanship of the Messenger of Allah (saw). It also established his undisputed leadership in Madinah. Everyone, including the Jews, accepted his authority, although they violated their treaty obligations by secretly plotting to undermine it.

What is worthy of note is the Prophet’ s consolidation of authority to enable him to deal with any threat to the fledgling Islamic state, including the ever-present menace of the Quraish, who had declared open war on Islam and were beginning to threaten Madinah as well. Soon after the Muslims arrived in Madinah, the Quraish sent a message to Abdullah ibn Ubayy ibn Salul, a well-known munafiq, asking him to expel the Muslims or prepare to face the consequences. When the Prophet (saw) learnt of this, he personally intervened and averted a crisis.

Despite this, it could not be long before the Quraish attacked Madinah, so it was important to make adequate preparations for it. The raiding parties sent by the Prophet were meant to do just that; nor were they confined to the vicinity of Madinah. One of the raiding parties sent under the command of Abdullah ibn Jahsh (ra) went to Nakhlah, to the very doorstep of Makkah. He was told to watch the movements of the Quraish and to keep the Prophet in Madinah informed about them. The Quraish trade caravans used to pass through Nakhlah on their way to Yemen. To challenge the Quraish in their backyard was an act of supreme courage, especially at a time when Muslims were few in number, had no experience in battle and had barely managed to escape from Makkah a few months earlier.

Secure Territorial Base

The point that emerges from this brief look at the Prophet’s Seerah is that once he had acquired a territorial base, the phase of passive resistance ended. A secure territorial base is essential for Muslims to operate from. It was perhaps providential that the people of Taif did not respond to the call of the Prophet (saw) when he visited them in ‘Am al-Huzn (the year of calamity, the 10th year of his mission, when he lost both his uncle Abu Talib and his wife Khadijah ra). If he had settled in Taif, it is quite likely that the Quraish would have succeeded in crushing the nascent Islamic state there. Madinah is 400 kilometres (250 miles) away from Makkah; besides, it dominated the trade routes going north to Palestine and Syria. Thus, by settling there, the Prophet not only secured a base but also gained leverage over the Quraish’s trade, which he could use to maximum advantage to pressure them.

In the first five years in Madinah, Muslims did not go to Makkah to fight the Quraish; instead, all the wars were fought near Madinah, Badr being the only exception, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Madinah. For the Quraish, it was still more than 300 km away from Makkah, yet in their arrogance they thought that they could easily defeat the Muslims and wipe out Islam. Against other tribes, the Prophet did not hesitate to go and overwhelm them in their home territory; many of them were caught off guard and subdued without much fighting. After the battle of Ahzab, also called Khandaq (Trench) in the fifth year of the hijrah, the Prophet (saw) made his famous prediction, that henceforth the Quraish would not attack Madinah; instead the Muslims will go out to meet them (Tafheem al- Qur’an vol. IV, Lahore, 1974, pp. 80-84: Maulana Maudoodi’s commentary on Surah al-Ahzab). This was borne out by the battles waged against the Jews at Khaybar (7 AH), the liberation of Makkah and the Battle of Hunayn (8 AH), as well as the battles of Muwata (8 AH) and the expedition to Tabuk (9 AH) against the Romans.

One other point is worth mentioning: in the liberation of Makkah, very little force was used although the Prophet (saw) had come with an army of 10,000 heavily armed men and could have easily exacted revenge from the Makkans who had tormented the Muslims for many years. Instead, he used psychological pressure to break their resistance by ordering his companions to light fires on the mountains surrounding Makkah the night before Muslims entered the city. When the Makkans saw so many fires, they thought that tens of thousands of Muslims had camped outside; that it was futile to resist such a force. The Prophet’s compassionate treatment of his vanquished foes won them over easily; they entered the fold of Islam en masse. Makkah, a bastion of shirk, was transformed into a stronghold of Islam and restored to its original purpose as the House of Allah, purified of all the idols.

The Prophet (saw) utilized all means — ideological, social, economic, political and military — to transform the society in Arabia. We also see that he did not use institutions established by the enemy to promote Islam, nor did he resort to such means as tribalism, class interest or nationalism to mobilize the people. He never compromised on principles, preferring instead to endure suffering and persecution. It was this strict adherence to principles that helped to create a body of Muslims who, though small in number, were strong in commitment and prepared to die for their principles. Confronted by such people, the opposing forces simply withered away.

Muslims today will have to imbibe these lessons from the Seerah if they want to re-emerge in their natural role in the world. There is no other way for us to transform our societies and to regain leadership of a wayward world that is so completely dominated by exploiters and oppressors today.

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