Critics accuse the Prophet Muhammad of raiding pagan caravans that passed by Madinah and provoking the Battle of Badr. Losing at the Battle of Badr, the pagans sought revenge for their humiliating loss.
The Battle of Badr was clearly the catalyst for the next battle the pagans initiated, the Battle of Uhud. However, critics claim that if Badr never happened, subsequent encounters with the pagans would never have occurred.
They are wrong.
To understand the dynamics that commenced the Battle of Badr, we have to rewind and analyze the events that preceded the battle. We will go back a little over a decade to begin the analysis.
Events Before the Battle
The Prophet’s call to monotheism in Makkah created an alternative to idolatry, one that many pagan chiefs found unacceptable. As people started to embrace the message of monotheism, the pagans stigmatized new Muslims, accusing them of abandoning the religion of their forefathers.
To contain the message of monotheism the pagans resorted to constant, escalating oppression that included grand theft, physical torture, murder, and boycotts that led many to the brink of starvation.
For years, the Prophet instructed the believers not to fight, but to forgive, hoping the pagans would abandon their hostilities. He said:
I have been commanded with forgiveness, therefore do not fight. (An-Nasai- Sahih)
Instead of fighting back, the Prophet directed Muslims who could not bear the torture any longer to migrate to Abyssinia. He provided hope for these Muslims by informing them that the Abyssinian king would be a just ruler. They would not live in fear and face oppression as they had in Makkah.
The pagan Arabs, relentless, sent an emissary to Abyssinia demanding extradition of the new Muslims. Upon hearing the case from both sides, the Abyssinian king did not find any justification for the pagans’ demand and refused to surrender the Muslims.
Other Muslims decided not to leave their homeland and remained with the Prophet where they patiently bore the torment the pagans rained down on them. This 10-year experience nurtured Muslims to be non-retaliatory and nonviolent.
After tribal leaders in Madinah had embraced the message of monotheism, they invited the Muslims to escape pagan persecution and take refuge in their city. As the extended period of pagan persecution came to a head, the majority of Muslims fled Makkah, leaving behind their homes and worldly possessions.
Some emigrated barefoot with just the clothes on their backs, barely saving their lives. Others were caught, detained and tortured by the pagans. The Prophet narrowly escaped assassination and was chased by pagans, with a price on his head, as he made his way to Madinah through the deserts of Arabia.
The Prophet Muhammad escaped his pursuers and arrived safely in Madinah. Muhammad, now as a recognized leader of Madinah, instituted a constitution and established diplomatic relations built on peace and mutual recognition with neighboring tribes of other faiths.
The Muslims’ refuge and establishment in Madinah further angered the pagans who saw the Muslims’ escape as a failure to contain monotheism and the development of their diplomatic relations as a disadvantage to them.
The Muslims remaining patient and steadfast for a decade in Makkah in the face of persecution had not hindered the pagans’ aggression.
Similarly, the migrations did little to stem their hostilities. The pagan Makkans persisted, continuing to demand that the Muslims in Madinah recant monotheism and return to the religion of their pagan forefathers.
They barred Muslims from visiting their homeland, issued death threats to them, and refused to free those they caught and imprisoned when trying to migrate.
The Muslims in Madinah were now responsible for a city and its families, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. An attack on Madinah meant an attack on all its inhabitants, no matter what their faith.
Patiently suffering persecution without self-defense was no longer an option for Muslims. Amidst the unremitting hostility and newfound responsibility, came a Quranic verse that granted Muslims permission for self-defense:
Permission has been given to those who are being fought because they were wronged. And indeed, God is competent to give them victory. (Quran 22:39)
This verse is not granting the Muslims an open license to fight. It does not say, “Permission to fight has been given.” Instead, the wording limits when Muslims are allowed to defend themselves: if they have already been attacked and wronged. This is why the verse is in the passive voice.
The new city of Madinah began to mildly defend itself against pagan Makkan hostilities by reminding the pagans that their trade routes to the Levant passed through Madinah. If the aggression continued, free passage would not be allowed.
The pagan Makkans, however, showed no signs of ending their hostilities. Continuing their containment policies, they plotted with their allies in Madinah to sow discord in the city, hoping it would cause the Prophet’s expulsion. For years, the pagans had committed acts of aggression that were, in essence, acts of war.
Even though the Quran permitted Muslims to defend themselves, the Muslims did not respond to the pagan’s longstanding aggression by fighting. Instead, the Prophet permitted Muslims to patrol trade routes around Madinah. The Muslims’ patrol would demonstrate to the pagans their ability to put an economic strain on Makkah.
If the pagans were not previously willing to cease their belligerence, hopefully with the new geographical dynamics, they would realize that peaceful coexistence with Madinah was financially advantageous to them.
Critics accuse the Prophet Muhammad’s caravan patrol as the cause for subsequent conflicts between Madinah and Makkah. However, it would require a great deal of historical amnesia to arrive at such a conclusion.
We cannot erase 10 years of pagan aggression in Makkah and the new security threats the Muslims faced in Madinah. Keeping the recent history in mind, this first-ever modest show of self-defense by the Muslims was negligible compared to the pagans’ litany of hostilities.
Critics also falsely characterize these patrols as raids. Interestingly, out of the five patrols that were sent out (in a 7 month period from 1 A.H into 2 A.H), three missed the caravans, and two met the pagans, but no looting or fighting ever occurred. The patrols were not meant to be combative.
If these patrolling forces were not vigilant around Madinah, we can presume that pagan belligerence would have escalated much earlier. In 2 A.H, the pagans raided the pastures of Madinah and looted livestock.
The Prophet, leading 70 men, pursued the raiders but was not able to catch up to them. The Prophet did not follow up with a declaration of war. Still concerned about Madinah’s safety, however, he extended the patrol perimeters.
If the Prophet was hunting for an opportunity to attack Makkah, this was it. Apparently, he wasn’t. What then was the goal of these patrols?
The answer to this and a more in-depth analysis of the immediate events that transpired before the Battle of Badr are what we will cover in Part 2.