The First Jihad
A military history of Islam
In 624 AD, two years after the followers of the prophet left Mecca, they defeated an army of their former home city at the Battle of Badr despite being outnumbered three to one.
Historian Richard Bell tells us that this victory was the moment when the Qur’an came together as a collection of sacred verses. So it is not a coincidence that this is also one of three moments when Umar bin Al-Khattab, later to be the second caliph after the death of the prophet, seems to direct events within the historical narrative of Islam. Two other controversies — the prohibition of wine and the imposition of veils on women of the prophet’s family — are attributed to Umar’s lobbying for new dispensations from Allah that accord with his own opinions. Put simply, the most severe kind of Islam today has roots in Umar’s personal relationship to the agent of revelation. The aftermath of Badr was the third such event.
Muhammad’s small force had taken many prisoners. According to 8th Century writer Muqatil bin Sulayman, when the prophet asked his advisors what to do with so many captives, Umar replied: “Put them all to death, for they are the heads of unbelief and the leaders of the deviation from the right path.”
If that seems callous to us moderns, imagine what the sons of the prophet must have thought. Ransom of captives was the normal way to pay an army at the time, as regular wages were impossible, and men are supposed to fight harder if they hope to win significant spoils. Even the most pious men are still men. Right?
Abu Bakr, another companion of the prophet, argued this point in calling for clemency. “Don’t put them to death, for God helped us achieve our vengeance, killed the polytheists and defeated them,” he said. “It is preferable to let them redeem themselves, for the ransom they pay will strengthen Islam and help finance the war against them. Maybe God will turn them to supporters of Islam and they will convert.”
This argument “pleased the prophet, for he was merciful, just like Abu Bakr, while Umar was sharp and unflinching,” Sulayman reports. Thereafter, “The prophet agreed with Abu Bakr’s view and demanded a ransom from the prisoners.”
This debate was all the more remarkable for the fact that the Sabaha, or ‘companions of the prophet,’ were all related to their prisoners. In fact, Umar volunteered to kill his own relatives first.
Muhammad chose mercy after Badr, but the war was not over. Mecca used the temporary peace to rebuild, inflicting a defeat on the Sabaha one year later at Uhud. For Muhammad and his companions, the new danger was indecision: they could not afford an endless cycle of victory and defeat at the hands of the same warriors, captured and ransomed over and over.
Nor were profit motives helpful to ultimate victory, as the Battle of Uhud had gone well until archers guarding the flank abandoned their posts to pillage the Meccan camp. The sons of the prophet could not win battles without better discipline.
Luckily, Allah came around to Umar’s view as the prophet announced that previous heavenly policy had been reversed.
“It is not for any prophet to have prisoners until he make wide slaughter in the land,” the Qur’an declares. The spoils of war are deprecated: “You desire the chance goods of the present world, and God desires the world to come; and God is All-mighty, All-wise.” Allah compensates the believers somewhat by allowing pillage: “Eat of what you had taken as booty, such as is lawful and good.”
Rationalizing the defeat at Uhud as divine punishment, the text declares that “a prior prescription from God” had prevented even worse from happening. Then, according to Muqatil bin Suleyman, the prophet directly addressed Umar: “Bless God, for your God agreed with you.”
“Bless God who agreed with me regarding the prisoners of Badr,” Umar replied. We can only imagine the tone of this pious response.
Then: “If a chastisement were to descend from heaven, none of us would be saved except for Umar al-Khattab, indeed he forbade me and I did not pay heed,” the prophet added.
As public apologies go, it was a consequential scene. “Umar is portrayed here as the only Muslim who cared for the war for the glory of God, jihad,” writes Avraham Hakim, a modern-day scholar of Islam. “Indeed, when addressing the prophet about fighting for God, he is made to use the word nujahid, that is, ‘we fight a holy war.’”
The holy struggle to defend Islam, and the holy scripture of Islam, arrived in our world together, hand in hand. Gold alone was not enough to secure the safety of the faith; holy verses were a military necessity.