Critics accuse the Prophet Muhammad of hostile intentions against a pagan caravan that was to pass by Madinah, citing his words:
This is the caravan of Quraysh (pagan Makkans), upon it is their wealth. Go out towards it. It could be that God will grant it as spoils of war. (Al-Bidayah Wal-Nihayah)
However, if we place the Prophet’s words in its historical context, the meaning is entirely different.
As mentioned in Part 1, after the pagan raid on Madinah’s pastures, the Prophet increased the perimeters for patrol. The continuous threats and hostilities that spearheaded from Makkah told the Muslims that an attack on Madinah was imminent.
Would Makkah use one of its caravans as a disguise to launch an attack on Madinah or would it send out a battalion? The surveillance around Madinah provided an early warning system that would give Muslims a clearer picture of pagans’ motives and movements.
Recently, the Prophet objected to any form of belligerence against these caravans, and did not attack the caravans when he had the opportunity in non-sacred months (see Part 2). So, what then do his words above mean?
The first analysis of his words reveals that he made it clear to his patrol that the wealth belonged to Quraysh by asserting that it was “their wealth.”
Taking an ounce of someone’s wealth was not legal according to the laws of Islam. Despite the belligerence of Quraysh, the Muslims were cultured to respect property ownership, even if the property belonged to belligerent people.
The pagans had named the Prophet Muhammad, “The Reliable, The Trustworthy.” Despite their hate for monotheism and their belligerence towards the Prophet, the pagans still deposited their valuables with him, knowing the valuables would be safe and that they would receive it back in full.
After the pagans’ assassination attempt on the Prophet, the Prophet migrated to Madinah and left his cousin, Ali, in Makkah to ensure that he would return all valuables to their rightful owners.
The respect for others’ rights obligated the Muslims to be equitable to proportions that may even be unheard of today. Take for example the Quran’s teaching about women who would embrace monotheism and migrate to Madinah:
O you who have believed, when the believing women come to you as emigrants, examine them. God is most knowing as to their faith. And if you know them to be believers, then do not return them to the disbelievers; they are not lawful [wives] for them, nor are they lawful [husbands] for them. But give the disbelievers what they have spent. (Quran 60:10)
If women from Makkah left their pagan husbands and desired a life of monotheism in Madinah, the Muslims were commanded to reimburse the pagan husbands for what they had spent on their former wives.
With this practice of wealth management and respect for property rights, it is inconceivable that the Prophet would ever send out a patrol to loot a caravan.
Spoils of War
Spoils of war were only permitted from legal battles. Muslims were only allowed to fight those who fought them, and not initiate fights with anyone else.
God had already revealed:
Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits: God does not love those who overstep the limits. (Quran 2:190)
Initiating fights would overstep God’s limits, and that would be a transgression.
It could be argued, however, that the pagans’ longstanding aggression and the recent pagan raid on Madinah’s pastures had placed the Muslims and pagans in a state of war, and as a result, the pagan caravan was lawful booty.
This argument only defines the state between Makkah and Madinah but does not prove the Prophet had a hostile intention. The caravan-dispatch analysis, of the Prophet’s words and actions – covered in Part 1 and Part 2, only points to the fact that the Prophet’s intentions for these caravans were not combative, even if attacking them may have been justifiable.
There are many examples from the Prophet’s life when attacking the pagans was justifiable, but he did not do it: the Conquest of Makkah, the pagan yielding a sword over his head to kill him, and his suffering at Taif are just some of these examples.
Furthermore, the audience of the Prophet who heard his words did not interpret the mission to be militaristic. Ibn Abbas, a companion of the Prophet, stated what people thought would happen in this mission:
“They did not think the Messenger of God would see a battle.” (Ibn Ishaq)
If the mission was meant to be combative, the Prophet would have called for battle preparations and issued explicit orders for attacking the caravan. He didn’t.
Instead, the Prophet only described the possibility of war by his words “It could be.” Due to recent pagan attacks and the imminent danger of war, the Prophet alerted Muslims that patrols could face confrontation. If so, the Muslims needed to muster the courage to defend themselves.
The Prophet’s words, “It could be that God will grant it as spoils of war,” gave them much needed courage and hope. He was telling them that if the pagans attacked their patrol, God would grant them a victory for defending their city.
It is improper to interpret a statement of the Prophet out of its historical context. The events that surrounded the Prophet’s words and his audience’s understanding of them lead us to the conclusion that his intentions for the patrols were not combative.
His continuous pursuit of peace, even when the Muslims were more significant in numbers – like at the Hudaybiyah Treaty and the Conquest of Makkah, further discredits the critics’ accusations.