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Muhammad at Medina

Posted by Sen on June 28, 2009

While Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile in Najaf in 1970, he said:

khomeiniThis slogan of the separation of religion and politics and the demand that Islamic scholars not intervene in social and political affairs has been formulated and propagated by the imperialists; it is only the irreligious who repeat them. Were religion and politics separate in the time of the Prophet? Did there exist on one side a group of clerics, and opposite it, a group of politicians and leaders? (As cited by Nader Hashemi)


The answer to the Ayatollah is, Yes: in the time of the Prophet there were several groups of political leaders: in Medina, in Mecca, and in the neighbouring kingdoms and city-states. Muhammad knew them, corresponded with them, and treated them with respect, and did not seek to overthrow them. Perhaps there was no group of clerics as we now know them, but there was an Islamic religious leadership, comprising Muhammad himself, `Ali, and the various believers designated as prayer leaders and as teachers of the recitation of the Quran. There were also Jewish and Christian religious leaders, whose authority Muhammad did not seek to undermine. These facts are all well known: the late Ayatollah’s question shows his ignorance.

quranpageMuhammad the ruler?
The roots of Muhammad’s attitude to political leadership are found in the Quran itself. In Surah 88, God tells Muhammad “Call to remembrance, for you are only one who calls to remembrance. You are not over them as a ruler. If anyone turns away to unbelief, God will punish him with a mighty punishment.” (88:21-24) I have discussed this and close to 100 similar verses on this blog in ‘Church and State in Islam.’

Given the clear teaching of the Quran, it would have been unthinkable for Muhammad to assume the position of ruler. However the historical picture we have of his work in Medina is coloured by the fact that the last narrators, and first writers, who tell the story lived at a time when the Caliphs had assumed power in an Islamic empire. The narrators give the impression that Muhammad was the first Caliph, partly because they had to please the Caliphs of their own time, whose rule could be justified by a picture of Muhammad ruling over Medina, and partly because their concept of ‘power’ and its nature was shaped by the world they lived in. Yet when we look in these narratives for incidents and texts that show Muhammad acting as the ruler of Medina, there are remarkably few, and even these are not clear. Muhammad is reported as sending ambassadors to neighbouring peoples, for example, but when we look at the tasks given to these ‘ambassadors’ they appear to be teaching the procedures of obligatory prayer and the correct recitation of the Quran. McGlinn_ChStI’ve discussed this in more detail in my book Church and State.

There are however some incidents that show unambiguously that Muhammad was not functioning as a ruler. One of these is the massacre of the men of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza, as recounted in Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, (tr. A. Guillaume, Oxford University Press, 2000, from page 450). This is an early history, written in Arabic, circa 760 CE, and edited by Ibn Hisham circa. 820 CE. The story is outlined briefly in my Church and State from page 109, as follows:

Battle TrenchIn 627 the Meccans brought a great army against Muhammad, and he resolved to meet them in the city itself, which meant that the treaty of Medina would oblige all of the clans in the city to join in its defence. Muhammad organised workers from all of the clans in building a defensive trench to defend the city. The defence was successful.

During the brief siege the Meccans apparently negotiated with the Jewish tribe of Qurayza within the city, hoping that they would switch sides, and did persuade them to renounce their alliance under the treaty of Medina. The Qurayza were accused by the Moslems of having invited the Meccans to attack, and of persuading clans outside Mecca to join the Meccans in the attack. According to the story, Muhammad prevented the Qurayza actually fighting against him during the siege, by sowing distrust between the Qurayza and the Meccan forces, in a way so cunning that one suspects the story has been embroidered.

Once the Meccans had withdrawn, Muhammad attacked the Qurayza. After a siege of three weeks they had to surrender. Now the Qurayza tribe had formerly been allies of the Aus in their vendetta against the Khazraj, whereas the Qaynuqa` had formerly been allies of the Khazraj. It is evident that the clans were still functioning as separate political units, and old alliances were still powerful. The Aus claimed that since the Qaynuqa` had been shown mercy (in being banished, rather than killed), the Qurayza should also be spared. The result was a dispute between the two Arab clans, which was resolved in traditional fashion by sending for an arbiter from among the Aus, one Sa`d ibn Mu`aadh, who had not been involved in the fighting because he had been wounded earlier.

Guillaume coverWhat follows is astounding (see Life of Muhammad 463. In the Arabic edition in two volumes published by Jami`a al-Haquq Mahfuzeh, 1365/1900) this is volume 2, page 240):

“When Sa`d reached the apostle and the Muslims, the apostle told them to get up to greet their leader (sayyid).” The arbiter obtained an oath from the two Arab clans, that they would abide by his judgement, and also obtained the same oath from Muhammad. He then gave his judgement, that the men of the tribe should be executed, their property confiscated, and the women and children sold into slavery. Muhammad carried out the executions himself, of some 600 or 700 adult men (Although other reports say that Ali and al-Zubayr executed the men, and Baha’u’llah, in his Tablet of Tribulations, says that the army executed them.)

Muhammad’s role here looks more like that of a chief of security, acting on behalf of the collective clan leaders, than the governor of a city state. He implements the decision of the sayyid. During the course of the siege Muhammad negotiated a partial peace, on the basis that Medina would pay the Ghatafaan tribe a tribute in dates, but this treaty was rejected by the Medinans.

The importance of this event is that it shows that there was not a Medinan state, and Muhammad was not its ruler. He refers to someone else as the leader of the Medinan forces, he gives his oath to the leader, he obeys that leader’s commands, he makes a treaty but is overruled by the elders of Medina. Muhammad was the leader of the Muslims, in religious matters, he was not the ruler of Medina. Contemporary Islamists’ claims to base their model of an Islamic state on the example of Muhammad at Medina are based on reading-back the Islamic state that later developed, and the role of the Caliph, onto Muhammad.

If the picture of Muhammad as ‘first Caliph’ of Medina is incorrect, how should we picture Muhammad’s role in the city? How are we to understand the military activities that he and his followers undertook from their first days in the city? I suggest we should think of Medina as something like a township corporation in a wide empty plain, or a group of clans living on an island nation, who outsource their external security to a contractor: Muhammad and his companions.

Arabia_600_ADArabian politics
To begin with, we need to understand the political structures Muhammad met in North Arabia. The region was surrounded by states – the empires of Byzantium and Persia, the kingdoms of Yemen and Ethiopia, and princedoms along the Byzantine and Persian borders – but its peoples had not established any states. They had built up three significant population centres: Mecca itself, Taa’if about 180 kilometres to the south, and Medina about 320 kilometres to the north, but these were not city-states. Their social organisation was based on tribal identity and tribal authorities.

The settlements were closely related to the open country around them, from which nomadic warriors could appear at any time. Often they would buy protection from one or other group of nomads. Trade passing through could also be ‘taxed,’ unless it was very strongly escorted. Fairs hosted by the settlements provided meeting-places between the nomadic groups, and between nomads, agriculturalists and traders: these too had to be protected.

A sedentary community in an open landscape has three options: either it spends a good deal of its resources in maintaining military forces to monitor the lands around and protect itself, or it submits to the largest group of mobile raiders, paying dues in return for protection from other raiders, or, if it is strong enough, it contracts an adequate group to provide its external security. The people of Taa’if for example had arranged a security agreement with the bedouin clan of Banu Nasr, led by Maalik ibn `Auf, and a group known as the Ahaabish did the same for Mecca. (See M. Watt, article Habash, Encyclopaedia of Islam.)

palmsMedina
In Medina, two main Arab tribes had established an agricultural way of life in the same oasis, but without any central authority. In a civil war between them, the Aus had at first lost to the Khazraj, but had recovered by means of an alliance with the Jewish tribes of Nadir and Qurayzah, leading to a balance of power and continuing tension. This internal situation meant that neither party could send out the roving patrols that would be necessary to control the surrounding area, maintain links with the nomadic tribes, gather intelligence and forewarning of any attacks, and ‘protect’ any passing caravans, for a price. The internal tensions deprived the city of most of its external security, and threatened its economic life.

In the year 620, some men of the Khazraj tribe of Medina, who were attending the pilgrimage festival in Mecca, met Muhammad. They converted, and returned to Medina to propagate the new faith, winning a few dozen converts among the Aus as well as the Khazraj. In the light of the persecution for the Muslims in Mecca, Muhammad decided to take his followers to safety in Medina, if the people there would accept them. But what did these largely disposessed people have to offer Medina? We know there were negotiations, but not what was said. However the behaviour of Muhammad and the migrants shows that they had been given a home in return for service like those provided by the Banu Nasr and Ahaabish in Taa’if and Mecca. They were to be the Sherif and his men.

Palmfrond porchMohammad’s followers arrived in Medina in 622, followed soon after by the Prophet. Those of the exiles who were able, dispersed throughout the city, but the poor remained living in the Khazraj quarter, where Muhammad had a house whose courtyard served as a place of prayer and accomodation for them. They formed in effect a militia body-guard for Muhammad, a force of men permanently assembled and more or less ready to respond.

Muhammad sent armed groups into the surrounding area, sometimes leading them himself. These patrols initially consisted only of immigrants, and not others in Medina who had become Muslims. This shows that the obligation to participate in the patrols was one stipulated by the agreement under which the emigrants had been accepted, rather than being an Islamic duty based on doctrine. Surah 2:218, for example, refers to those who have migrated and have engaged in jihad (haajaruu wa jaahhaduu), but at this stage there is no ‘war’ against Mecca. The reference is simply to the ‘efforts’ (jahuud, jihaad) that the migrants had to make in return for their residence in Medina. During these expeditions Muhammad also made treaties of friendship with tribes outside of Mecca.

desert patrolSome of these patrols were as small as eight men, and not all of the expeditions led to battles or even meetings, which gives the impression that they were routine patrols to prevent the city being surprised and to assert control over the open country. If in any other situation we saw a group of homeless outsiders allowed to stay in a city, and immediately behaving this way, we would conclude that they had traded shelter and upkeep for mercenary services: that they had been hired in as security services.

The tribal leaders of Medinah had bought external protection at a bargain price by simply offering Muhammad and his men a home, without having to pay a share of their crops and without losing their independence. The merchant of Mecca had became the Sherif of Medina, and the exile band were becoming a toughened military unit and getting to know the territory. When the Meccan forces attacked, they would be the core of the defence. At the same time, Muhammad was laying the basis for his rise to prominence in Medina, which was reflected about two years later in the Treaty of Medina under which he had the added role of adjudicating in disputes between tribes within Medina.
Muhammad Rasul Allah
~~ Sen McGlinn
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4 Responses to “Muhammad at Medina”

  1. SteveS said

    I had missed (somehow) that Mohammed had a direct hand in the murder of 600 to 700 Jewish men of the tribe mentioned above. That tells me that the gulf between the actions of Jesus and Muhammad, the pattern of action between Christianity and Islam was totally different from the very beginning.

    As every Christian will know, when the Pharisees were testing Jesus on the Law and brought the adulteress before him, there is no questioning in the New Testament as to her guilt, yet Jesus gives the famous line “let him without sin cast the first stone” and as the woman was released, his rebuke for her sin is “go and sin no more.”

    Thanks for bringing the specifics of the murder of the Jews to my attention, I had not seen it highlighted before.

  2. Sen said

    You miss the point: Muhammad was not the judge, nor the ruler, in this case. Paul was a tentmaker, Jesus perhaps a carpenter, Muhammad had been a merchant and became the sherif of Medina. Executions went with the job. His position was analogous to that of a military man today, who may be ordered to kill, and is absoloved from blame if the orders themselves are within the framework of national law and the laws of war. In this instance, the case had been heard, the judge had ruled, and Muhammad (or Ali, according to some reports) did his job.

    If Muhammad’s own advice had been followed, Medina would have made peace with the Ghatafaan tribe, thus splitting the Meccan-led alliance against Medina, and the bloodshed would have been avoided or much reduced. He was a peaceable and intelligent man, but he was not in charge. The powers that be – the elders of Medina – rejected the treaty Muhammad negotiated with the Ghatafaans, they opted for a military solution.

  3. Mark Townsend said

    Was it murder when God told the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites? What is the difference if God does it with a flood, or commands it be done with the sword?

  4. Sen said

    The question is: did God really say (Deut 20:16) But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: 20:17 But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee: 20:18 That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God.

    Historically, it didn’t happen that way. The archaeological evidence is of gradual transition and borrowing between peoples, as if they lived side by side. The Bible itself supposes that in the time of King David, Jerusalem was ruled by non-Israelites, who David conquered. Text criticism shows that Deuteronomy was not a lost book rediscovered in 622 BC, it was actually composed then, partly using old texts but some of those were only 100 years old. It is a history written centuries after the events, and written by the priests of the royal cult at Shiloh, who created a religious-monarchist history to support Josiah’s agenda of centralising the state religion and politics in Jerusalem, and eliminating places of worship outside Jerusalem (except of course for Shilo, 45km north of Jerusalem).

    Likewise, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the pursuit of the Israelites is a myth, not history. The belief that God has historically, or will eschatologically, smite the Others and favour the Inners, is not really about the past or the far future, but about the present. Who is us and who is them, why are we justified in taking their land, how is the state and its historical and present violence justified? Such questions are answered with a narrative theology, with stories more or less made up, or slanted, to support the desired answer.

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