Originally published in The Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette
After suffering grueling punishment for 13 long years in Mecca, Prophet Muhammad and his small band of believers had reached their Promised Land, Medina. There, the majority chose the prophet as their ruler. Prophet Muhammad gave them a constitution that would grant freedom of religion and equal rights to all its citizens — Muslims, pagans and Jews. This enraged the Meccans even more, and they declared war on Medina for not handing over their fugitive, the Prophet Muhammad. Meccan chiefs vowed in the holy precinct of Kaaba to destroy Muhammad and to decimate his new religion.
Prophet Muhammad had no choice. He set up reconnaissance missions comprising of his close associates going out in the outskirts of Medina looking for any signs of aggression coming from Mecca. He also negotiated peace agreements with many bedouin tribes inhabiting the outskirts of Medina to quell the impending danger. Being the guardians of the most holy shrine for the pagans, Kaaba, Meccan chiefs carried a lot of influence throughout Arabia. Prophet Muhammad tried to neutralize that through peace agreements, but the attack from Mecca was imminent.
At last, a revelation came to Prophet Muhammad from God in the following:
Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged, and Allah indeed has power to help them — those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, “Our Lord is Allah.” And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty.
— Holy Quran 22:40-41
Meccan chiefs who had vowed repeatedly to destroy Muhammad and his supporters started to dedicate profits from their trade caravans to the war preparations. Everyone was cajoled to participate in such “national undertakings.” This information was reaching the prophet through those few Muslims who were still stranded in Mecca and could not leave despite extreme hardships. One of Prophet Muhammad’s uncles Abbas — a believer — was still in Mecca. Prophet Muhammad got intelligence of a possible attack by the Meccans. He sent a company of about 70, who encountered Meccan army chief and archenemy of Muslims, Abu Jahl, camped with 300 or so armed men not far from Medina. The battle was about to break out, when the chief of the region — who had good relations with both sides — was able to diffuse the situation. The same month, another company encountered Abu Jahl’s son, Ikrima — a general himself in the Meccan army — camped with a force of about 200 men. This encounter resulted in a few skirmishes, and then the enemy stood down.
Meccans were moving forward with their plans to attack Medina. Prophet Muhammad, therefore, decided to intercept Meccan trade caravans to dissuade the enemy from their bold transgressions. Such applications of trade embargoes and sanctions against belligerent nations are among the well-accepted rules of engagement — even in the comity of civilized nations in the 21st century — to discourage outright wars.
The condition of Muslims in Medina was precarious. They were living in constant fear. Their numbers had surely increased to about 1,000, including women and children. Yet, they were surrounded by pagans — within and without the city — who had centuries of relations with their co-religionists in Mecca. Even within those who converted to Islam were the supporters of Abdullah ibn Ubayy, who — as history would later prove — did not miss any opportunity to create dissension from within the Muslim ranks. The prophet had taught the believers patience, forgiveness andunconditional love for Allah and His creation. He gave them prayers for the last 14 years and, more recently, fasting — all high morals that emphasized effacing the self. But the enemy was determined to efface the last of these holy men from the face of the earth with the edge of the sword.
It is clear from the verses cited above that only defensive war was permitted to the Muslims. The reasons given are:
• An unjust war was imposed on Muslims.
• That too only for believing in Allah, i.e., accepting a religion of their choice.
• Muslims were forced to leave their homeland under threat to their lives.
• They would have been totally decimated unless they fought back. In other words, they had no choice in this.
• This was to establish freedom of religion to Christians, Jews and Muslims, alike.
Despite their utter weakness and powerlessness, they were asked to sacrifice even their lives for establishing the inalienable right of humans to have freedom of religion and expression.
This is the definition of Jihad in Islam.