The Qur'ân preaches standards of justice and peace that, if properly interpreted, are applicable to the contemporary world scene and acceptable to most well-meaning people. Several contemporary Muslims have attempted to present such an exegesis of the Qur'ân. (1)

The biography of Muhammad, however, suggests a cleavage between the man and the Qur'ânic message. Our information on the man Muhammad comes mainly from the work of Ibn-Hishâm who died in 833, itself a reworking of the Sîra of Ibn-Ishâq, who died in 768, 134 years after the death of Muhammad. This work represents Muslim attitudes of the time of its writers as much as it does historical fact. Let us see what principles regarding war and peace emerge from this Sîra.

Prophecy and politics

As soon as Muhammad began preaching outside his immediate family he was forming a community based not on tribal or clan alliances, as was customary among the Arabs, but on ideology and common interest. The urban and international politics of Mecca likewise were based on a new foundation that was not tribe and clan, in this case money and trade. Muhammad's non-traditional community was an alternate system competing for control of the new society centred on cities and international trade. (2)

Muhammad's preaching also had a social dimension. The social message of reform conspired to make his emerging community appear to challenge the oligarchy that controlled Mecca.

These two factors provoked opposition from the Meccan elite. Their opposition, in turn, brought out the separatist nature of his community, casting Muhammad inexorably into the role of a full-fledged political leader and eventually a head of state.

Muhammad was eager to win converts and tried every means to overcome opposition and assure the triumph of Islam. The first of these means was preaching. He tried to win people by friendly persuasion. If this failed he warned them. In an extreme situation he would curse his opponent, as in the case of Abû-Lahab (Qur'ân 111).

The second means of dealing with opposition was hijra. When the persecution was so severe, he sent as many as 83 men and many women to Ethiopia for refuge, and the remainder of the Muslim community moved to Medina when the chance came.

The third means was violence.

Motives for violence

(1) Self-defence was the first motive for engaging in violence. Muhammad was eager to win converts and tried every means to gain people for his cause. Yet persuasion was not always successful, and he had to face an opposition determined to stamp out his movement. The violence directed against Muhammad and his community soon became part of their own way of life, as they fought for survival. The motive of self-defence is most apparent in the Battle of the Trench, when the Meccans came to attack Medina.

(2) Punishing the enemy was another motive. Muhammad's actions usually went beyond the limits of strict self-defence. He or his followers were out to teach their aggressors a lesson, to strike back for what they had done. Retaliation became a normal practice from the early days of the community in Mecca:

A band of polytheists came upon them as they were doing salât and criticized them, attacking what they were doing, and even fought them. Sa`d ibn-abî-Waqqâs then struck one of the polytheists with a camel's jawbone and wounded him. That was the first blood shed in Islam. (I:263). (3)

The latter incident, where no Muslim blood was shed, shows that retaliation need not be proportionate to the offence. Physical violence was used to counter verbal injury. There are many similar cases of disproportionate retaliation, some of the most notable being the attacks on the three major clans of Jews in Medina.

(3) Neutralizing the enemy by preemptive attacks was another motive. In Medina the Hypocrites and the Jews were the main serious checks to Muhammad's absolute authority. Muhammad wanted to remove this source of ideological opposition, and any small pretext would suffice. In the case of the Qaynuqâ` Jews it was a Jew's trick to expose the legs of an Arab woman in the market. In the case of the Nadîr Jews, it was information gained by "revelation" (non-Qur'ânic) that they were planning to drop a stone on Muhammad's head as he sat by the wall of their building. In the case of the Qurayza Jews it was alleged plotting to assist the Meccan attackers during the battle of the Trench - the information in this case also came from "revelation" (also non-Qur'ânic).

(4) Silencing ideological opposition was another motive for violence against stubborn anti-Muslim propagandists. After the battle of Badr two poet prisoners were executed (I:644-6). The usual way of getting rid of such people was assassination. Muhammad sent an assassination squad to kill the Jewish poet Ka`b ibn-al-Ashraf (II:54-57). He also sent one of the Nadîr converts to assassinate his cousin who allegedly wanted to drop the stone on Muhammad (II:192). An assassination squad took the life of Sallâm ibn-abî-l-Huqayq, another Jew who was instigating the nomadic Arabs to resist Muhammad (II:273-5). At the surrender of Mecca Muhammad ordered all who did not resist to be spared except for a list of eight apostates or poets. These were to be killed "even if found under the curtains of the Ka`ba" (II:409). But two of these succeeded in finding protectors who persuaded Muhammad to spare their lives on the grounds that they had repented and become Muslims.

In carrying out the assassinations, Muhammad's emissaries had scruples because it meant that they had to pretend that they were not Muslims and tell other lies. But Muhammad reassured them: "Say whatever seems best to you. Lying is permitted" (II:54). In fact, Muslims are excused for denying their faith outwardly under persecution while their heart remains unshaken in belief (I:320; cf. Qur'ân 16:106).

(5) Booty was a very important motive for the early raids. In Arabian custom the ghazwa was nothing more than armed robbery. Once the Muslims were established in Medina, Muhammad and his followers began to raid Meccan caravans, with the justification that they were compensating themselves for having been driven out of house and home in Mecca. Booty was necessary for the support of the Emigrant Muslims in Medina, because there they had no land to farm and few jobs, and depended mostly on the charity of their hosts. This arrangement could no be expected to last indefinitely; so the Muslims took to raiding Meccan caravans. There was also the long-term aim of making Mecca submit.

The first raid, at Nakhla, violated the sacred months and required a Qur'ânic revelation justifying it to calm the fears of the Muslims. In his lifetime Muhammad directed raids against the Meccans, the Jews, the nomadic Arabs and the Byzantine frontier forces in the North.

(6) Later in the Medinan period, the extension of Islamic rule became a justification for violence, even without provocation. The attack on Khaybar was justified simply on the basis that the people had been called to submit to Islam and had refused. The same justification was used for the raids on Mu'ta and Tabûk. Later Islamic law precised that people were to be given three calls to become Muslim before they could be attacked for refusing. (4)

Treaties with the enemy

Muhammad took pledges and treaties seriously. The two most significant ones were the Second Pledge of `Aqaba (the Pledge of War) and the Treaty of Hudaybiyya. The first was between Muhammad and the people of Medina who "pledged and allegiance of war... to obey as soon as we hear, in difficult conditions and easy ones, in pleasant and unpleasant circumstances, whatever effect it has on us..." (I:454) Muhammad extracted the pledge of war from the Medinans as a condition of his going to their city, at his risk, to settle their civil strife. It did not make Muhammad their king or absolute ruler, but as events developed, he maximised the provisions of this pledge to become just that, a ruler whose word was sacred and could never be disputed.

The Pledge of Hudaybiyya was made with Mecca in 628 when Muhammad feigned a march on Mecca with the intention of making the `umra pilgrimage. Muhammad agreed to retreat from his attempted pilgrimage until the next year, and a cease-fire was established for 10 years. Any Meccan who came to join Muhammad without permission of his guardian would be returned. Muhammad agreed to these provisions, but interpreted them to his own advantage, finding loopholes in the provision that converts should be returned to their Meccan masters. After a year and a half Muhammad repudiated the treaty on the grounds that the Meccans indirectly violated it by arming an allied nomadic clan which was fighting with a clan allied to Muhammad. The Meccans pleaded for a restoration of the treaty, but Muhammad refused, since the treaty no longer served the interests of Islam, and he demanded and got Mecca's unconditional surrender.

Treatment of the vanquished

The rule of that age, which Muhammad never questioned, was that the spoils of war go to the victor. The spoils included both the persons and the property of the vanquished. Frequently the men were killed and the women and children enslaved, but in the Battle of Badr men prisoners were held for ransom. In the distribution of women after other battles, Muhammad himself gained Juwayriya and Safiyya, a princess and a queen of her people respectively. Besides, he held the right to a fifth of the general booty. (5)

An exception to death or enslavement always was made if the vanquished accepted Islam. Then they would be freed and their property restored to them. An early instance of this was the conversion of two Nadîr Jews, who thereby escaped deportation (for a time another possible fate of the vanquished) and the confiscation of their property. The Qurayza Jews had the opportunity to save their lives by converting and becoming Muslims, but they preferred to keep their faith and suffer execution.

Executing prisoners, as we have seen, was reserved to extreme cases: poet-propagandists and apostates, who threatened the ideological foundation of Islam, and obstinate enemies, such as the Qurayza. Between 600 and 900 men were killed and their wives and children put into slavery.

Finally, towards the end of the Medinan period the system of dhimma began to evolve, whereby Jews or Christians who submitted to Islamic rule would be granted protection and certain limited rights in exchange for the payment of the jizya tax. This was first applied to certain forts of Khaybar which surrendered, and later to a Christian tribe at Tabûk.

Interpretation of reversals and of martyrdom

At the battle of Uhud the Muslims experienced their first reversal. Muhammad was wounded and 70 Muslims were killed. Much of Sûra 3 of the Qur'ân is a reflection on this battle. God permitted the Muslims to suffer because of their sins and to sift out the hypocrites from the believers (Q 3:165-8). Those who abandoned their posts to run after booty are blameworthy, but God will forgive them (Q 3:153-3). A disaster like this is also a test to determine who is really serious about the cause of God and is willing to die for it (Q 3:141-3).

Martyrs are living with God and enjoying a reward greater than the surviving soldiers with their booty (Q 3:169 ff.). In the case of al-Aswad, who was killed in the battle of Khaybar, Ibn-Ishâq says that Muhammad turned his eyes away from the body because while looking at it he could see al-Aswad enjoying the Hûrîs of Paradise (2:344-5).


The Muhammad that comes across in the Sîra is a shrewd, somewhat ruthless political and military tactician, as the same time as being a visionary. He was noble enough a character for his times, but hardly a model for the contemporary world. Is this the true Muhammad? Or is it a distortion by his 9th century biographers?

The Qur'ân presents quite a different ethics. It does not quite match the Gospel's ideal of peace, but it is certainly much loftier than what appears in the Sîra. Does the Qur'ân reflect the true Muhammad in both his preaching and deeds? If so, the Sîra requires a serious critical study to sift what belongs to the real Muhammad from the image constructed by 9th century polemecists.


1. For example, Mohamed Talbi, "Religious liberty: a Muslim perspective," Islamochristiana, 11 (1985), 99-113, A.O. Naseef, "Muslim-Christian relations: The Muslim approach," Bulletin of the Secretariat for non-Christians, n. 66 (1987), 277-282.

2. On the economic background to Muhammad's career, cf. W.M. Watt, Muhammad at Mecca and Muhammad at Medina (Oxford: Clarendon).

3. References are to the two volume Arabic edition (Cairo, 1955). The number before the colon indicates the volume, the number after, the page.

4. Cf. Ibn-abî-Zayd al-Qayrawânî, ar-Risâla, ch. 39; al-Mâwardî, al-Ahkâm as-sultâniyya (Cairo, 1960), pp. 37-38.

5. The rule of the fifth came with the distribution of the spoil of Qurayza (II:244); cf. Qur'ân 8:41.