Muslim ‘Raids’ on Quraish Caravans after Emigration

Some Statements by Tariq Ramadan in his Biography of Prophet Muhammad

The Light (UK), April 2008 Issue (pp. 6–7)

A friend has sent us, for comment, an extract from the book The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad by the well-known Muslim writer Tariq Ramadan, in which it is stated that as the Muslims migrated from Makka to Madina the Quraish in Makka started seizing their property they left behind, and thereupon the Holy Prophet Muhammad and the Muslims decided

“six months after their exile, that they would attack the Meccan Caravans passing near Medina in order to take back the equivalent of their belongings expro­priated in Mecca.”

And the result of this was that:

“In the expeditions, no fighting or killing occurred: the merchants gave up their goods, then were free to move on. The Muhajirun [Muslims who had left Makka for Madina] occasionally arrived too late at the spot where the Meccans were supposed to have stopped; the Caravans had already left, and the operation failed. Generally however, they were successful, and the exiles managed to obtain signi­ficant com­pen­sation in the form of booty.”

It is disappointing that a man of Tariq Ramadan’s calibre and reputation, who is trying hard to correct the mis­under­stood image of Islam, should have fallen prey to this misconception. On the basis of such readings of early Islamic history the critics of Islam condemn these actions as robbery and loot­ing. It is true that those Muslims who penned the history of this period, about 200 years after those events, have mentioned such expeditions but their interpre­tations have been analysed and challenged in biographies such as Sirat-un-Nabi by Maulana Shibli, The Life of Muhammad by M.H. Haykal, and Muhammad The Prophet by Maulana Muhammad Ali.

Even those writers who consider that Muslims were trying to waylay and seize Quraish caravans contradict one another. So while Tariq Ramadan says that the raids were generally successful, Martin Lings, the famous Muslim convert and Sufi, in his book Muhammad, admits that these raids failed to intercept any caravan, which he ascribes to the inaccuracy of the Muslims’ infor­mation about the caravan movements.

The fact is that these were reconnaissance missions whose purpose was to detect any armed move by the Quraish and also to approach tribes living in the vicinity of Madina to secure pacts of neutrality or friendship with them. M.H. Haykal writes in The Life of Muhammad:

“That by means of these raids, begun six months after their settlement in Madina and undertaken by the Muhajirun alone, the Muslims sought to wage war against Quraish and to attack its caravans is an opinion which cannot be accepted without hesitation and scrutiny.” (p. 202)

He shows that

“the number of fighters assigned by the Quraish to the protection of their caravan was in each case many times the number of riders the Muslims had sent out” (p. 203).

We quote below from his comments and explanations:

“Rather than to bring war and hostility, these expeditions were intended to put an end to the old hostility, to guarantee to the Muslims the freedom they sought for calling men to their religion, and to ensure for Makka the security it needed for its caravans … If the Quraish could be made to realize that this precious trade and wealth were exposed to danger by their own sons who had migrated to Madina, perhaps they might be inclined to reach an understanding with the Muslims in order to grant them the freedom to preach their faith, visit Makka, and perform the pilgri­mage, which was all they really sought.” (p. 204)

According to Maulana Shibli’s Sirat-un-Nabi, the Muslims in Madina right from the beginning were deeply anxious about defending the city against the aggressive plans of the Quraish. Shibli quotes two hadith reports in this connection:

“When the Messenger of Allah first came to Madina, he used to stay awake at night.” (p. 308; report from Nasai)

This was because he was apprehensive of an attack by the Quraish. The other report is:

“When the Messenger of Allah and his Companions came to Madina, and the Ansar gave them shelter, all the Arabs combined to fight them. The Companions had to sleep by their weapons, till the morning.” (ibid., report from Hakim and Darimi)

With such great anxiety about their own security in Madina, Muslims were not in a position deliberately to court war with the Quraish.