The Raids of the Meccan Caravans

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Dr Khalid Blankinship, an Islamic historian and professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa, answers a question about the raids on the Meccan Caravans and the reason Muslims engaged in warfare.
Question: If Islam is a religion of peace, why did the Muslims during the time of Prophet Muhammad engage in so many wars and bloodshed? Why did Prophet Muhammad order the raids and stealing of the Meccan caravans?

Dr. Khalid Blankinship’s response:

The Prophet (SAAS) and the early Muslim community in al-Madinah did engage in warfare against the Makkan Quraysh, but it was based on causes and was not unprovoked. It arose primarily out of the expulsion of the Muslims from Makkah and the confiscation of their property, which traditionally was a common and widely-accepted cause for war. Indeed, Qur’an 22: 39-40 specifically gives this as the reason for the original permission to fight and states that the Muslims were persecuted by the Makkan Quraysh only on account of their religion.

The Muslim tradition has largely preferred to portray the migration or hijrah to al-Madinah as a voluntary migration, but the Qur’an is unambiguous on this point, clearly saying that the Muslims were expelled (Qur’an 2:191, 217; 3:195; 60:1, 8-9) and their property was confiscated (Qur’an 59:8). This even includes the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS), who was also driven out, according to Qur’an 9:40 and 47:13 (17:76 refers to an earlier threat). Elsewhere, the Muslims are told not to be agressors (Qur’an 2:190, 193; 5:2). When the Muslim Muhajirun arrived in al-Madinah, they were thus destitute.

Although the generosity of the Madinan Ansar supported the Muhajirun at first, despite the general poverty of al-Madinah and Arabia at that time (Qur’an 59:8-9), the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) knew that the Muhajirun would have to support themselves, and that goal seemed best and most morally achievable by recovering what was theirs by raiding the caravans of the Quraysh, starting with the raid at Nakhlah in the year 1/623, when the first blood was shed, the incident referred to in Qur’an 2:217.

After that, the rest of the wars developed out of this initial wrong done to the Muslims by the pagan Makkan Quraysh. The Muslims were also threatened with expulsion by the Madinan hypocrites according to Qur’an 63:8, a verse said in the commentaries to describe the situation of the year 4/626, after the Muslim losses in the Battle of Uhud the previous year.

This threat of expulsion also appears in association with the Battle of al-Khandaq or the Ditch in 5/627 (Qur’an 59:11-12), which might help explain some of the events of that campaign. The Quraysh and their allies are said to have been plotting to expel the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) from al-Madinah at different times as well (Qur’an 8:30; 9:13). This is the background of the overcoming and expulsion of the Jewish tribes referred to in 33:26-27 and 59:2-4.

Besides these references in the Qur’an to the Prophet’s (SAAS) life story, there are many other references to expulsions or threatened expulsions as well in the stories of the earlier prophets (AS), including various prophets from Nuh on down (14:13), Lut (7:82; 27:56), Shu`ayb (7:88), Musa (7:110, 123; 20:57, 63; 26:35), Samu’il or Samwil (2:246), and Sulayman (27:37), and even Adam (2:36).

There is also a reference to expulsions in al-Madinah before the arrival of Muhammad (SAAS) and the Muslims (2:85).

While warfare is generally seen as politically incorrect by many today, it should be understood that conditions in ancient Arabia differed, as there was no central government, so that every group of people had to defend itself. The fears of expulsion, which many people remain under even today, were real and ever present, and the consequences went far beyond a mere loss of property. Therefore, whatever our interpretation of these verses that we apply to ourselves today may be, it is not appropriate to judge ancient and medieval peoples by our possibly fleeting contemporary standards.

Also, all of this should be seen in comparison with the content of the Torah of Musa, which contains many bloody episodes that would be politically incorrect by today’s standards, including warfare that is much less arguably defensive than that in the Qur’an, but that does not appear to place any moral burden on the followers of Judaism and Christianity.

Dr. Khalid Yahya Blankinship

Born in Seattle, WA, Khalid Yahya Blankinship obtained his BA in History in 1973 from the University of Washington, an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language in 1975 from the American University in Cairo, and an MA in Islamic History in 1983 from Cairo University. His Ph.D. in History is from the University of Washington in 1988.

After traveling extensively in Europe and the Middle East, Blankinship long resided in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia at Makkah, becoming fluent in both classical and colloquial Arabic. He taught English for several years at the American University in Cairo, and then History at the University of Washington. In 1990, Blankinship moved to Philadelphia, where he was appointed in the Department of Religion at Temple University. Promoted to the rank of Associate Professor in 1996, he has served as Chair of the Department of Religion 1998-2002, Departmental Graduate Director 2003-2013, and Chair again from 2013. He is active in lecturing and research on religion in general and Islam in particular.

In addition to courses on Islam, he regularly teaches Religion in the World as well as Religion and Science. He has regularly presented papers at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the American Oriental Society (AOS), and has also participated in meetings of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). He has delivered lectures in many places, including Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, India, and Malaysia. Also, Blankinship studied with a number of Muslim religious scholars, especially Shaykh Ismâ‘îl Sâdiq al-‘Adawî (1934-1998), the Imâm of Masjid al-Azhar in Cairo, and he has made the acquaintance of many well-known scholars of the Muslim world. He has posted a number of his responses to questions on Muslim law (on-line). He participated in the series of religious lectures in the Arabic language called al-Durûs al-Hasaniyyah (Hasanian Lectures) presented before the king in Morocco during Ramadân 1989-2000.Dr. Khalid Blankinship is a regular contributor to the Lamppost Education Initiative. We are pleased to announce that we have published  a new book by Dr.Blankinship.  ‘Murshid Al-Qari’-A Reader’s Guide to Classical Muslim Religious Literature in English’ is a unique work that explores the English translations of the Qur’an and Tafsirs. 

The most recent book from Dr. Abdullah bin Hamid Ali that explores the very concept of race and Blackness in the early Arab-Muslim context. A powerful, historic work. Get your copy now: 

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