Knowing the Prophet · Seerah

Overview of the Life of Prophet Muhammad [Part 2]


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

By Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall

The Jews and Hypocrites 

In the first year of his reign at Yathrib, the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam made a solemn treaty with the Jewish tribes, which secured to them equal rights of citizenship and full religious liberty in return for their support of the new state.

But their idea of a prophet was one who would give them dominion, not one who made the Jews who followed him brothers of every Arab who might happen to believe as they did.

When they found that they could not use the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam for their own ends, they tried to shake his faith in his Mission and to seduce his followers’ behavior in which they were encouraged secretly by some professing Muslims who considered they had reason to resent the Prophet’s coming, since it robbed them of their local influence. In the Madinah Surahs, there is frequent mention of these Jews and Hypocrites.

[Tafseer Surah Al-Baqarah Ayaat 14 – 15]

The Qiblah

Till then the Qiblah had been Jerusalem. The Jews imagined that the choice implied a leaning toward Judaism and that the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam stood in need of their instruction. He received the command to change the Qiblah from Jerusalem to the Ka‘bah at Makkah. The whole first part of Juz’ 2, part of Surah al-Baqarah, relates to this Jewish controversy.

[Changing of the Qiblah]

The First Expeditions

The Prophet’s first concern as a ruler was to establish public worship and lay down the constitution of the State: but he did not forget that Quraysh had sworn to make an end of his religion, nor that he had received the command to fight against them till they ceased from persecution.

After he had been twelve months in Yathrib several small expeditions went out, led either by the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam himself or some other of the fugitives from Makkah for the purpose of reconnoitering and of dissuading other tribes from siding with the Quraysh. These are represented as warlike but, considering their weakness and the fact that they did not result in fighting; they can hardly have been that, though it is certain that they went out ready to resist attack.

It is noteworthy that in those expeditions only fugitives from Makkah were employed, never natives of Yathrib; the reason being (if we accept Ibn Khaldoon’s theory, and there is no other explanation) that the command to wage war had been revealed to the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam at Makkah after the Yathrib men had sworn their oath of allegiance at al-‘Aqabah, and in their absence.

Their oath foresaw fighting in mere defense not fighting in the field. Blood was shed and booty was taken in only one of those early expeditions, and then it was against the Prophet’s orders. One purpose of those expeditions may have been to accustom the Makkah Muslims to going out in a war like trim. For thirteen years they had been strict pacifists, and it is clear, from several passages of the Qur’an, that many of them, including, it may be, the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam himself, hated the idea of fighting even in self-defense and had to be inured to it.

The Campaign of Badr 

In the second year of the Hijrah, the Makkan merchants’ caravan was returning from Syria as usual by a road which passed not far from Yathrib. As its leader Abu Sufyan approached the territory of Yathrib, he heard of the Prophet’s design to capture the caravan. At once he sent a camel-rider to Makkah, who arrived in a worn-out state and shouted frantically from the valley to Quraysh to hasten to the rescue unless they wished to lose both wealth and honor.

A force of thousand strong was soon on its way to Yathrib: less, it would seem, with the hope of saving the caravan than with the idea of punishing the raiders, since the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam might have taken the caravan before the relief force started from Makkah. Did the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam ever intend to raid the caravan? In Ibn Hisham, in the account of the Tabuk expedition, it is stated that the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam on that one occasion did not hide his real objective. The caravan was the pretext in the campaign of Badr; the real objective was the Makkan army.

He had received a command to fight his persecutors, and the promise of victory, he was prepared to venture against any odds, as was well seen at Badr. But the Muslims, ill-equipped for war, would have despaired if they had known from the first that they were to face a well-armed force three times their number.

The army of Quraysh had advanced more than half-way to Yathrib before the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam set out. All three parties – the army of Quraysh, the Muslim army, and the caravan – were heading for the water of Badr.

Abu Sufyan, the leader of the caravan, heard from one of his scouts that the Muslims were near the water, and turned back to the coast-plain. And the Muslims met the army of Quraysh by the water of Badr. Before the battle, the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam was prepared to increase the odds against him. He gave leave to all the Ansar (natives of Yathrib) to return to their homes unreproached since their oath did not include the duty of fighting in the field, but the Ansar were only hurt by the suggestion that they could possibly desert him at a time of danger. The battle went at first against the Muslims but ended in a signal victory for them.

The victory of Badr gave the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam new prestige among the Arab tribes, but thenceforth there was the feud of blood between the Quraysh and the Islamic State in addition to the old religious hatred. Those passages of the Qur’an which refer to the battle of Badr give warning of much greater struggles yet to come.

In fact in the following year, an army of three thousand came from Makkah to destroy Yathrib. The Prophet’s first idea was to defend the city, a plan of which Abdullah ibn Ubayy, the leader of “the Hypocrites” (or lukewarm Muslims), strongly approved. But the men who had fought at Badr and believed that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala would help them against any odds thought it a shame that they should linger behind walls.

The Battle on Mount of Uhud 

The Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam, approving of their faith and zeal, gave way to them, and set out with an army of one thousand men toward Mount Uhud, where the enemy was encamped. Abdullah ibn Ubayy was much offended by the change of plan. He thought it unlikely that the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam really meant to give battle in conditions so adverse to the Muslims and was unwilling to take part in a mere demonstration designed to flatter the fanatical extremists. So he withdrew with his men, a fourth of the army.

Despite the heavy odds, the battle on Mount Uhud would have been an even greater victory than that at Badr for the Muslims but for the disobedience of a band of fifty archers whom the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam set to guard a pass against the enemy cavalry. Seeing their comrades victorious, these men left their post, fearing to lose their share of the spoils. The cavalry of the Quraysh rode through the gap and fell on the exultant Muslims.

The Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam was wounded and the cry arose that he was slain, till someone recognized him and shouted that he was still living. A shout to which the Muslims rallied. Gathering round the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam, they retreated, leaving many dead on the hillside. On the following day, the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam again sallied forth with what remained of the army, that Quraysh might hear that he was in the field and so might perhaps be deterred from attacking the city.

The stratagem succeeded, thanks to the behavior of a friendly Bedouin, who met the Muslims and conversed with them and afterward met the army of Quraysh. Questioned by Abu Sufyan, he said that Muhammad salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam was in the field, stronger than ever, and thirsting for revenge for yesterday’s affair. On that information, Abu Sufyan decided to return to Makkah.

Massacre of Muslims

The reverse which they had suffered on Mount Uhud lowered the prestige of the Muslims with the Arab tribes and also with the Jews of Yathrib. Tribes which had inclined toward the Muslims now inclined toward Quraysh. The Prophet’s followers were attacked and murdered when they went abroad in little companies. Khubayb, one of his envoys, was captured by a desert tribe and sold to Quraysh, who tortured him to death in Makkah publicly.

Expulsion of Bani Nadhir

And the Jews, despite their treaty, now hardly concealed their hostility. They even went so far in flattery of Quraysh as to declare the religion of the pagan Arabs superior to Islam. The Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam was obliged to take punitive action against some of them. The tribe of Bani Nadhir was besieged in their strong towers, subdued and forced to emigrate. The Hypocrites had sympathized with the Jews and secretly egged them on.

The War of the Trench

In the fifth year of the Hijrah the idolaters made a great effort to destroy Islam in the War of the Clans or War of the Trench, as it is variously called; when Quraysh with all their clans and the great desert tribe of Ghatafan with all their clans, an army of ten thousand men rode against Madinah (Yathrib). The Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam (by the advice of Salman the Persian, it is said) caused a deep trench to be dug before the city, and himself led the work of digging it.

The army of the clans was stopped by the trench, a novelty in Arab warfare. It seemed impassable for cavalry, which formed their strength. They camped in sight of it and daily showered their arrows on its defenders. While the Muslims were awaiting the assault, news came that Bani Qurayzah, a Jewish tribe of Yathrib which had till then been loyal, had gone over to the enemy.

The case seemed desperate. But the delay caused by the trench had damped the ardor of the clans, and one who was secretly a Muslim managed to sow distrust between Quraysh and their Jewish allies so that both hesitated to act.

Then came a bitter wind from the sea, which blew for three days and nights so terribly that not a tent could be kept standing, not a fire lighted, not a pot boiled. The tribesmen were in utter misery. At length, one night the leader of Quraysh decided that the torment could be borne no longer and gave the order to retire. When Ghatafan awoke next morning they found Quraysh had gone and they too took up their baggage and retreated.

Punishment of Bani Qurayzah

On the day of the return from the trench, the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam ordered war on the treacherous Bani Qurayzah, who, conscious of their guilt, had taken to their towers of refuge. After a siege of nearly a month, they had to surrender unconditionally. They only begged that they might be judged by a member of the Arab tribe of which they were adherents. The Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam granted their request. But the judge, upon whose favor they had counted, condemned their fighting men to death, their women and children to slavery. Early in the sixth year of the Hijrah the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam led a campaign against the Bani al-Mustaliq, a tribe who were preparing to attack the Muslims.


In the same year the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam had a vision in which he found himself entering the place at Makkah unopposed, therefore he determined to attempt the pilgrimage. Besides a number of Muslims from Yathrib (which we shall henceforth call Madinah) he called upon the friendly Arabs, whose numbers had increased since the miraculous (as it was considered) discomfiture of the clans to accompany him, but most of them did not respond. Attired as pilgrims, and taking with them the customary offerings, a company of fourteen hundred men journeyed to Makkah.

As they drew near the valley they were met by a friend from the city, who warned the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam that the Quraysh had put on their leopards-skins (the badge of valor) and had sworn to prevent his entering the sanctuary; their cavalry was on the road before him. On that, the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam ordered a detour through mountain gorges and the Muslims were tired out when they came down at last into the valley of Makkah and encamped at a spot called Al-Hudaybiyah; from thence he tried to open negotiations with the Quraysh, to explain that he came only as a pilgrim.

[Fighting in the Sacred Months]

The first messenger he sent towards the city was maltreated and his camel hamstrung. He returned without delivering his message. Quraysh on their side sent an envoy which was threatening in tone, and very arrogant. Another of their envoys was too familiar and had to be reminded: sternly of the respect due to the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam. It was he who, on his return to the city, said, “I have seen Caesar and Chosroes in their pomp, but never have I seen a man honored as Muhammad is honored by his comrades.”

The Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam sought some messenger who would impose respect. `Uthman was finally chosen because of his kinship with the powerful Umayyad family. While the Muslims were awaiting his return the news came that he had been murdered. It was then that the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam, sitting under a tree in Al-Hudaybiyah, took an oath from all his comrades that they would stand or fall together. After a while, however, it became known that `Uthman had not been murdered. A troop which came out from the city to molest the Muslims in their camp was captured before they could do any hurt and brought before the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam, who forgave them on their promise to renounce hostility.

Truce of Al-Hudaybiyah

Then proper envoys came from Quraysh. After some negotiation, the truce of Al-Hudaybiyah was signed. For ten years there were to be no hostilities between the parties. The Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam was to return to Madinah without visiting the Ka‘bah, but in the following year, he might perform the pilgrimage with his comrades, Quraysh promising to evacuate Makkah for three days to allow for his doing so. Deserters from Quraysh to the Muslims during the period of the truce were to be returned; not so deserters from the Muslims to Quraysh.

Any tribe or clan who wished to share in, the treaty as allies of the Prophet might do so, and any tribe or clan who wished to share in the treaty as allies of Quraysh might do so.  There was dismay among the Muslims at these terms. They asked one another, “Where is the victory that we were promised?” It was during the return journey from Al-Hudaybiyah that the Surah entitled “Victory” was revealed.

This truce proved, in fact, to be the greatest victory that the Muslims had till then achieved. War had been a barrier between them and the idolaters, but now both parties met and talked together, and the new religion spread more rapidly. In the two years which elapsed between the signing of the truce and the fall of Makkah the number of converts was greater than the total number of all previous converts. The Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam traveled to Al-Hudaybiyah with 1400 men. Two years later, when the Makkans broke the truce, he marched against them with an army of 10,000.

The Campaign of Khaybar

In the seventh year or the Hijrah the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam led a campaign against Khaybar, the stronghold of the Jewish tribes in North Arabia, which had become a hornets’ nest of his enemies. The forts of Khaybar were reduced one by one, and the Jews of Khaybar became thenceforth tenants of the Muslims until the expulsion of the Jews from Arabia in the ‘Caliphate of Umar.’

On the day when the last fort surrendered Ja`far son of Abu Talib, the Prophet’s first cousin, arrived with all who remained of the Muslims who had fled to Abyssinia to escape from persecution in the early days. They had been absent from Arabia fifteen years.

It was at Khaybar that a Jewess prepared for the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam poisoned meat, of which he only tasted a morsel without swallowing it, and then warned his comrades that it was poisoned. One Muslim, who had already swallowed a mouthful, died immediately, and the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam himself, from the mere taste of it, derived the illness which eventually caused his death. The woman who had cooked the meat was brought before him.

When she said that she had done it on account of the humiliation of her people, he forgave her.

Pilgrimage to Makkah

In the same year, the Prophet’s vision was fulfilled: he visited the place at Makkah unopposed. In accordance with the terms of the truce the idolaters evacuated the city, and from the surrounding heights watched the procedure of the Muslims. At the end of the stipulated three days, the chiefs of Quraysh sent to remind the Prophet that the time was up. He then withdrew, and the idolaters reoccupied the city.

Mu’tah Expedition 

In the eighth year of the Hijrah, hearing that the Byzantine emperor was gathering a force in Syria for the destruction of Islam, the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam sent three thousand men to Syria under the command of his freedman Zayd. The campaign was unsuccessful except that it impressed the Syrians with a notion of the reckless valor of the Muslims. The three thousand did not hesitate to join battle with a hundred thousand. When all the three leaders appointed by the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam had been killed, the survivors obeyed Khalid ibn al-Waleed, who, by his strategy and courage, managed to preserve a remnant and return with them to Madinah.

Truce Broken by Quraysh

In the same year, Quraysh broke the truce by attacking a tribe that was in alliance with the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam and massacring them even in the sanctuary at Makkah. Afterwards, they were afraid because of what they had done. They sent Abu Sufyan to Madinah to ask for the existing treaty to be renewed and, its term prolonged. They hoped that he would arrive before the tidings of the massacre. But a messenger from the injured tribe had been before him, and his embassy was fruitless.

Conquest of Makkah

Then the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam summoned all the Muslims capable of bearing arms and marched to Makkah. Quraysh were overawed. Their cavalry put up a show of defense before the town but were routed without bloodshed, and the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam entered his native city as a conqueror. The inhabitants expected vengeance for their past misdeeds. The Prophet proclaimed a general amnesty. Only a few known criminals were proscribed, and most of those were in the end forgiven. In their relief and surprise, the whole population of Makkah hastened to swear allegiance. The Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam caused all the idols which were in the sanctuary to be destroyed, saying, “Truth hath come; darkness hath vanished away;” and the Muslim call to prayer was heard in Makkah.

Battle of Hunayn

In the same year, there was an angry gathering of pagan tribes eager to regain the Ka‘bah. The Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam led twelve thousand men against them. At Hunayn, in a deep ravine, his troops were ambushed by the enemy and almost put to flight. It was with difficulty that they were rallied to the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam and his bodyguard of faithful comrades who alone stood firm. But the victory, when it came, was complete and the booty enormous, for many of the hostile tribes had brought out with them everything that they possessed.

Conquest of Ta’if

The tribe of Thaqif was among the enemy at Hunayn. After that victory, their city of Ta’if was besieged by the Muslims and finally reduced. Then the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam appointed a governor of Makkah, and himself returned to Madinah to the boundless joy of the Ansar, who had feared lest, now that he had regained his native city, he might forsake them and make Makkah the capital.

The Tabook Expedition

In the ninth year of the Hijrah, hearing that an army was again being mustered in Syria, the Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam called on all the Muslims to support him in a great campaign. The far distance, the hot season, the fact that it was harvest time and the prestige of the enemy caused many to excuse them and many more to stay behind without excuse. Those defaulters are denounced in the Qur’an. But the campaign ended peacefully. The army advanced to Tabook, on the confines of Syria, and there learned that the enemy had not yet gathered.

Declaration of Immunity

Although Makkah had been conquered and its people were now Muslims, the official order of the pilgrimage had not been changed; the pagan Arabs performing it in their manner, and the Muslims in their manner. It was only after the pilgrims’ caravan had left Madinah in the ninth year of the Hijrah, when Islam was dominant in North Arabia, that the Declaration of Immunity, as it is called, was revealed. The Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam sent a copy of it by messenger to Abu Bakr, leader of the pilgrimage, with the instruction that Ali was to read it to the multitudes at Makkah. Its purport was that after that year Muslims only were to make the pilgrimage, an exception being made for such of the idolaters as had a treaty with the Muslims and had never broken their treaty nor supported anyone against them. Such were to enjoy the privileges of their treaty for the term thereof, but when their treaty expired they would be as other idolaters. That proclamation marks the end of idol-worship in Arabia.

The Year of Deputations

The ninth year of the Hijrah is called the Year of Deputations because from all parts of Arabia deputations came to Madinah to swear allegiance to the Prophet and to hear the Qur’an. The Prophet salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam had become, in fact, the emperor of Arabia, but his way of life remained as simple as before.

The number of the campaigns which he led in person during the last ten years of his life is twenty-seven in nine of which there was hard fighting. The number of the expeditions which he planned and sent out under other leaders is thirty-eight. He personally controlled every detail of organization, judged every case and was accessible to every suppliant.

In those ten years he destroyed idolatry in Arabia; raised women from the status of a cattle to legal equity with men; effectually stopped the drunkenness and immorality which had till then disgraced the Arabs; made men in love with faith, sincerity and honest dealing; transformed tribes who had been for centuries content with ignorance into a people with the greatest thirst for knowledge; and for the first time in history made universal human brotherhood a fact and principle of common law. And his support and guide in all that work was the Qur’an.

Published with slight modifications from


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