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"I’d rather die standing up
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Stephane Charbonnier
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Myths of Muhammad

The Myth:

The Muslims were
Attacked by the
Meccans at Medina


"Our Prophet (peace be upon him) and his peope were constantly harassed and attacked by the polytheists after the hijra to Medina."

The Truth:

This myth owes its origin to the need Muslim apologists have to justify the more violent passages of the Quran’s second chapter, which was “revealed” shortly after Muhammad arrived in Medina following the hijra

Passages from this chapter encourage believers to violence within the context of ending “tumult,” "oppression," and "persecution."  Contemporary Muslim readers usually apply their personal definitions to these terms and assume that the Muslims in Medina must have been under attack at the time.

Unfortunately, what Muhammad meant by “persecution” is well-defined within the historical record, and it is quite different from the popular modern-day view.  In fact, it was the Meccans who were generally acting in their own defense during this time.

Historians do not record any act of aggression by the Meccans against the Muslims during the time at which the second sura was narrated by Muhammad.  There were no armies marching against them, nor any plans for such.  The Meccans had no influence in this far-away town, and Muslims were not under persecution at the time by any stretch of the term as it is understood today. 

According to the sequence of events in the Sira (biography), the Meccans were quite content with leaving Muhammad alone following his eviction (even though he had made a pledge of war against them).  Ibn Kathir narrates one of the adversaries as saying, "Once he has gone, we shouldn't care where he ends up or what happens to him. So long as he is gone, we'll be rid of him and we'll be able to restore our affairs as they were before." (Vol.2 p.152).  And they did... or tried to, anyway.

Muhammad's pride was hurting from his ouster, and his credibility as Allah's chosen messenger was damaged.  He wanted revenge.  He used "revelations" from Allah to redefine persecution in order to convince his followers that they were under it.  He wanted them to believe that the mere fact that the Meccans had evicted him to Medina and prevented a return was grounds for marching back with a vengeful army (ie. 2:193 – “persecution is worse than slaughter”).

But it was entirely reasonable for the Meccans to evict Muhammad and prevent his return.  In the first place, the prophet of Islam had declared himself to be an armed revolutionary against them.  What town would invite a sworn enemy back within its own gates?  (Indeed, the Meccans were foolish enough to do exactly that a few years later and paid for it with the loss of their city and way of life).

The second reason that the Meccans did not want Muhammad anywhere near their town was that Islam was intolerant of other faiths and demanded sole possession of the Kaaba, the common worship area.  In other words, it wasn’t that the Meccans had a problem with Muslims circling the Kaaba, it was that Muslims wanted to bar everyone else from doing so.  In fact, after Muhammad eventually returned to capture the city in 630, he ordered the eviction of anyone who refused to convert to Islam (Quran, 9:18-19).

Against this reality, the words of Sura 2 take on a different meaning:
“And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter.  And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them.  Such is the reward of disbelievers… And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah (Sura 2:191, 193)
Although apologists are fond of claiming that this passage is limited to matters of self-defense, the historical context does not agree.  Instead the verse is a justification for aggression in the cause of advancing Islamic rule. As we have pointed out, Muhammad and his Muslims were not under attack by the Meccans.  They were not being slaughtered, hence the obvious distinction in the verse between “persecution” and slaughter.

“Persecution” thus meant simply that Muslims living 300 miles away in Medina were barred from visiting Mecca and entering the “sacred mosque” (the Kaaba).  Muhammad was trying to convince his people that this (non-lethal) policy was justification for attacking and slaughtering the Meccans in the name of religion.

[Note: There is evidence from the Sira that Muslims were allowed to conduct pilgrimages from Medina during these years - with the exception of Muhammad.  This makes the justification for warfare all the thinner.]

The only possible reason for marching on Mecca at the time would have been to capture the Kaaba and evict the resident non-Muslims (note the Quran says to fight "until religion is for Allah").  Within its true context, the passage is therefore a manifesto for aggressive warfare against the Meccans, and not a case of the Muslims being under real persecution so many miles away.

There is obvious irony in the fact that the “persecution” spoken of by Muhammad in this verse (to justify slaughter) is exactly what he planned - and did - to his adversaries.  To this day, anyone who is non-Muslim is forbidden to enter the city of Mecca merely on that basis.

Additional Notes:

Chronology according to Muslim historians:
There is absolutely no record of Meccan aggression against the Muslims at Medina in the first three years after their arrival in 622.

Muhammad ordered the first raids against the Meccans a year after the hijra in February of 623, which eventually proved deadly.  There is no record of Meccan aggression during this time.

Word of an impending Muslim attack on a particularly rich caravan, prompted the Meccans to send an army out in defense, where they were goaded into battle and routed by the Muslims at Badr in March of 624.

The Meccans avenged their loss at Badr (and the hostages that were cruelly executed by Muhammad) by routing the Muslims at Uhud, near Medina, in March of 625.  If their ultimate objective had been to kill Muhammad and his followers, then they surely would have invaded the defenseless city and defeated them.  They obviously did not have any interest in doing this.

Muhammad behaved himself with the Meccans for one year, choosing to support himself instead by evicting local Jewish tribes and confiscating their property.  Then he began attacking caravans in April of 626.

After a year of renewed Muslim aggression, the Meccans responded by sending an army to Medina a year later in April of 627, where they failed in a siege that is known as the 'Battle of the Trench.'
As can be seen, the historical record provides absolutely no evidence that the Muslims at Medina were being oppressed or threatened in any way by the Meccans, and fully supports the view that it was the latter who were acting in self-defense.  The Meccans had no interest in Muhammad and simply wanted to live in peace and pursue their commerce.  At each turn, the prophet of Islam unnecessarily harassed them with deadly and provocative actions that eventually forced battles on several occasions.


Further Reading:

 

Myths of Muhammad Index

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