Arabia's prevailing political conditions
The Arabs belonged to one ethnic race, but history does not record that they were ever united as one nation. They were divided into tribes and clans, each having its own chief or chieftain. They, no doubt, spoke the same language, but each tribe followed a different dialectal variation. Indeed, even religion was not a binding force. Almost every house had its own god; tribes had their own supreme deities. In the south were the small principalities of Himyar, Awza and Aqyal. In the middle and northern Arabia lived the tribes of Bakr, Taghlib, Shaiban, Azd, Qudha'ah, Khandaf, Lakhm, Juzam, Banu Hanifa, Tay, Asad, Hawazin, Ghatfan, and Aws, Khazraj, Thaqif, Quraish and others; they were frequently engaged in intensive warfare. Bakr and Taghlib had been fighting each other for forty years. Blood engagements had ruined many a tribe of Hadhramaut. Aws and Khazraj had exhausted themselves through a protracted war, and the Battle of Fijar between the Banu Qais and Quraish had not yet ended. If any member of a tribe was killed, the tribe considered itself duty bound to seek revenge not merely upon the murderer but also on the tribe to which he belonged. Since there was no effective machinery to settle such disputes, this invariably touched off furious wars, which lasted for generations. Tribal might, dash and alacrity, were the only guarantee of a precarious security. The desert and the hills were the home of fierce nomadic tribes who lived largely on plunder and depredation, but trade was also a major source of livelihood for them. Only a few months of the year were regarded as sacred. It was only then that bloodshed was stopped in order to facilitate the performance of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca or to do trade at Ukaz. But even this convention was at times relaxed to suit the convenience of individual tribes. Only the precincts of the Ka'bah were considered sacred and were free from bloodshed. It is to this state of affairs that the Qur'an has drawn attention:
Do they not see that we have made a sacred territory secure for them, while men are carried off by force all around them? (Qur'an, 29:67)
The conditions in the country were so insecure that even till 5 A.H., the powerful tribe of Abdul-Qais of Bahrain could not think of going to Hijaz outside the sacred months. Even the caravans going to or returning from Syria were sometimes plundered in open daylight.
Muslims' pasturelands were at times raided. Although conditions had considerably improved by then, the route to Mecca from Medina was not altogether safe until the fall of Mecca.
While the country was so strife-ridden internally, dangers from outside were no less. The Roman and Persian empires had extended their domain to the fertile provinces of Yemen, Oman and Bahrain and had established their sovereignty over them. The Romans had occupied Syria. Ghassan and some other Arab tribes, who had embraced Christianity, had been set up as the latter's feudatories. The Romans had expelled the Jews from Syria and Palestine in the second Century B.C. These Jews had migrated to Medina and its suburbs and built strong fortresses at Medina, Khaibar, Taima, Fadak and other places. Prospering themselves, the Jews were extremely jealous of prosperity in other races and strongly resented rivalry in trade business. They believed themselves to be God's "chosen people" and their conduct was characterized by pride and arrogance intensified by the feeling of being secure inside their formidable fortresses.
It was during such times that the Prophet started his great Mission. For preparing the ground and the proper climate, the first step that he took was to unite the Ansar and the Muhajirun.
A Pact with the Jews
The Holy Prophet not only welded the Ansar and the Muhajirun into one Brotherhood, but he set himself to the task of establishing a stable society, a commonwealth based on equality of rights and on the concept of universal humanity. Granting equality of status and rights as well as full freedom of religion and of conscience to the Jews, he invited them to enter into a pact with the Muslims. He drew up a charter, which has been reproduced by the historian Ibn Hisham thus:
In the name of the Most Merciful and the Compassionate God. Granted by Mohammed, the Prophet, to the Believers, whether of Quraish or of Yathrib, and all individuals of whatever origin who have made common cause with them, all these shall constitute one nation.
Then, after regulating the payment of the diyah (blood money) by the various clans and fixing some wise rules regarding the private duties of Muslims among themselves, the document proceeds thus:
The state of peace and war shall be common to all Muslims; none among them shall have the right of concluding peace with, or declaring war against, the enemies of his co-religionists. The Jews who enter into this covenant shall be protected from all insults and vexations; they shall have an equal right with our own people to our assistance and good offices. The Jews of the various branches of 'Awf, Najjar, Harith, Jashm, Tha'labah, Aws, and all others domiciled in Yathrib shall form with the Muslims one composite nation. They shall practice their religion as freely as the Muslims. The clients and allies of the Jews shall enjoy the same security and freedom. The guilty shall be pursued and punished. The Jews shall join the Muslims in defending Yathrib (Medina) against all enemies. The interior of Yathrib shall be a sacred place for all those who accept this Charter. The clients and allies of the Muslims and of the Jews shall be as respected as the principals. All Muslims shall hold in abhorrence anyone found guilty of a crime, injustice, or disorder. None shall uphold the culpable, even if he may be his nearest in kinship.
Then, after some other provisions regarding the internal management of the State, this extraordinary document concluded thus:
All future disputes between those who accept this Charter shall be finally referred, after God, to the Prophet.
The Jews of Medina accepted this Pact. After some time, the neighboring Jewish tribes of Banu Nadhir and Banu Quraizah joined it, too. But, as later events proved, it was only expediency that had dictated this course of action to the Jews. There was no change of heart on their part and they secretly nursed the same hostile feelings against the Aws and the Khazraj as before and viewed the growing confederation of the Muslims with grave concern and animosity. In the course of time, they started taunting and abusing the Muslims, frequently quarrelling with them and resorting to treachery and sedition. Some people of the Aws and the Khazraj who had become lukewarm converts assisted them: the Munafiqun (hypocrites). These were headed by 'Abdullah ibn Ubay who had his own designs to become the ruler of Medina and, together with the Jews, they became a constant source of danger to the newborn religion and to its adherents.
The Jews, who had business connections with the Quraish of Mecca, conspired with them to eradicate the infant religion before it assumed formidable proportions. As the head of the religion, and "a general in a time of almost continual warfare," Muhammad was the guardian of the lives and liberty of the people. The very existence of the nascent religion was in serious peril. Islam preaches the brotherhood of mankind; it insists upon toleration of all religions and creeds; it enjoins kindness and compassion, but it does not preach monasticism, nor does it permit its followers to submit to the forces of disintegration.
Being in league with the Jews and the Munafiqun, the Meccans started harassing the Muslims. Under the leadership of Karz ibn Jabir al-Fahri, they started raiding up to the very outskirts of Medina, destroying fruit-bearing trees and carrying away flocks. News began pouring into Medina that the Meccans were allying with other tribes to launch a massive attack against the Muslims. Muhammad sent out small missions to these tribes to contract alliances and treaties. One of them entered into a treaty with the Banu Zamra. The terms of the treaty were as follows:
This is the document of Muhammad, Messenger of God, for Banu Zamra. Their lives and property are safe. If they are attacked by anyone, they will be assisted except when they themselves fight against the religion. In return, they will come to the help of the Prophet when called upon by him.
A similar pact was made with the Banu Madlaj at Dhul'Ashirah. The Quraish had sent a threatening letter to 'Abdullah ibn Ubay who was the chief of his tribe before the arrival of the Prophet:
"You have given shelter to our man (Muhammad). You should either kill him or turn him out of Medina or else we swear that we will attack you and, killing all the males, we will capture and enjoy your women."
The attack was considered so imminent, and the small band of Muslims was in such peril, that the Prophet used to remain awake throughout the night. Al-Darmi and al-Hakim have recorded that: "When the Prophet and his companions came to Medina and the Ansars sheltered them, the Arabs decided to attack them. The Prophet's companions used to sleep holding to their weapons."
Some Reconnoitering Parties
The Quraishites were extremely furious about Muhammad (s.a.w.) slipping away from their hands, having made all preparations to kill him. The news that Islam was rapidly gaining hold in Medina did nothing to pacify their rage and enmity. Several times news reached Medina that they were planning to attack the Muslims. As a result, the Holy Prophet had to send out reconnoitering parties now and then to find out the designs and movements of the Quraish and to watch the routes to prevent any sudden attack.
Once, thirty Muslims (under the command of Hamza, the Holy Prophet's uncle) met a party of 300 riders (under the command of Abu Jahl) at Saiful-Bahr. The Meccans were eager to massacre the small group; of thirty, but Majd ibn 'Amr al-Juhni (who had a covenant with both groups) prevailed upon both groups and convinced them to go back to their respective places. Thus, a battle was averted.
Some time later, a patrolling party of 60 or 80 Muslims, under the command of 'Ubaidah ibn Harith (a cousin of the Holy Prophet) reached Rabigh and found 200 riders of Quraish under the command of 'Ikrimah ibn Abu Jahl or Mukriz ibn Hafs. The Quraishites started the battle with their bows and arrows. Then, someone thought that the Muslims could not come with such a small force to face a group of warriors so superior in number unless they had a great army hidden somewhere. This idea spread, and they fled away.
A small party of twelve persons under the command of 'Abdullah ibn Jahsh (a cousin of the Prophet) was dispatched to Nakhlah, a spot between Taif and Mecca, with sealed orders to be opened after two days' journey a precaution against espionage which was rife. The letter, as quoted by al-Tabari on page 1275 of his Tarikh, stated:
"Stay at Nakhlah; gather information about the designs of Quraish and communicate."
It was only incidentally that the party met some Meccan
traders and that one of them, 'Amr ibn al-Hadhrami, was killed at the
hands of 'Abdullah. History has not recorded what altercation ensued between
the two parties and which provoked the other. Whatever the immediate cause
might have been, 'Abdullah had acted beyond his instructions, and this incident
aggravated the situation. Except for this isolated incident, in none of the
numerous expeditions listed by Arab historians as saraya was there any skirmish
or a question of looting and plundering. They were sent out either to make
alliances with neighboring tribes, or they were reconnaissance patrols, for
news was reaching Medina that, the Meccans might strike any day.