The following is a part of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series, which is a refutation of Robert Spencer’s book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). Specifically, I am herein refuting chapter one of his book, entitled “Muhammad: Prophet of War.”
An anti-Muslim canard that has gained considerable popularity in the post-9/11 world is the idea that Muslims can do anything, no matter how morally questionable, if it furthers the Islamic cause. According to this idea, jihad can be waged “by any means necessary.” Robert Spencer argues this in his book, writing:
Islam’s only overarching moral principle is “if it’s good for Islam, it’s right.” 
Spencer traces the birth of this Islamic “principle” to the life story of the Prophet Muhammad, specifically the raid at Nakhla. To properly debunk this conspiracy theory, we must then transport ourselves back in time to this controversial event.
In the year 610 A.D., Muhammad declared his prophethood. His people, the Quraysh of Mecca, violently rejected him. The early Muslims suffered heavy-handed persecution, which they endured with patience for well over a decade. Finally, the God of the Quran permitted them to take up arms in self-defense. Muhammad and his followers, who had regrouped in the nearby city of Medina, engaged in guerre de course (commerce raiding) against the powerful Quraysh.
I have discussed Muhammad’s guerre de course in quite a lot of detail in a previous article. This tactic was not only something considered acceptable in the Arabian context of the time, but also has a celebrated history in the American–as well as French and German–naval traditions. Historically, it has been considered a valid military strategy and a means of waging economic warfare against a more powerful enemy.
The early military operations led by the Muslims were largely unsuccessful–that is, until the raid at Nakhla. Muhammad had dispatched Abdullah bin Jahsh with secret instructions contained in a letter that were not to be opened until after traveling two days journey. (This precaution was designed no doubt to thwart potential spies, who may have informed the Quraysh of Muslim “troop” movements, which could explain the earlier failed military expeditions.)
When Abdullah opened Muhammad’s letter, it read:
When you have read this letter of mine proceed until you reach Nakhla between Mecca and Al-Ta’if. Lie in wait there for [the] Quraysh and find out for us what they are doing. 
On the way to Nakhla, Abdullah and his fellow riders happened across a poorly armed Qurayshite caravan. They debated among themselves whether or not to waylay it, for it was the last day of the month of Rajab. The pre-Islamic culture at the time assigned four months of the year as sacred (of which Rajab was one), in which fighting was proscribed. In addition to the four sacred months, fighting was forbidden in certain holy sanctuaries (i.e. Al-Bayt Al-Haram, the area around the Kaabah).
Abdullah’s contingent faced a difficult choice:
If [we] leave them alone tonight they will get into the sacred area and will be safe from [us]; and if [we] kill them, [we] will kill them in the sacred month. 
They were also not quite sure what day it was. Was it the last day of the sacred month of Rajab or the the first day of the next month? Prof. Reuven Firestone writes of this:
The uncertainty of the day is a natural result of the calendrical system of that period, in which the moon was the primary measurer of time, because the beginning of the month was established only by actual observation of the new crescent moon. 
Making matters worse was the fact that, according to the lunar calendar used by the Arabs, days change at sunset, not midnight. One of the men explained to Muhammad later that
it was becoming evening. We looked at the crescent moon of Rajab, and we did not know whether we [struck during] Rajab or in Jumada [or Sha'aban?]. 
Initially, Abdullah and his men hesitated, but then decided to attack. The Muslims shot and killed one of the Quraysh (a man by the name of Amr Ibn Al-Hadrami), captured two of them, and seized the caravan’s goods. By killing Ibn Al-Hadrami, the Muslims had violated the pre-Islamic Arabian custom forbidding bloodshed during the sacred month.
When Abdullah and his men returned to Medina, Muhammad rebuked them, saying:
I did not order you to fight in the sacred month! 
Sir Thomas W. Arnold wrote of this incident:
In so doing, [Abdullah] had not only acted without authority but had violated the sacred truce within Arab custom caused to be observed throughout the month of pilgrimage. Muhammad received him coldly with the words, “I gave thee no command to fight in the sacred month;” dismissed the prisoners, and from his own purse paid blood-money for a Meccan who had lost his life in the fray. 
Other Muslims in Medina also chastised the men. Meanwhile, the Quraysh exploited the incident to further their war propaganda against the Islamic nation. They effectively drove a wedge in the community of Medina, with Muslims distancing themselves from other Muslims, and non-Muslims from Muslims. Muhammad’s leadership itself was called into question.
It was in this crisis that the following Quranic verse was revealed:
They ask you about fighting in the sacred month. Say, ‘Fighting in that month is a great offense, but to bar others from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him, prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and drive out its people, are still greater offences in God’s eyes: [their] persecution is worse than the killing [of Amr Ibn Al-Hadrami].’ They will not stop fighting you [believers] until they make you renounce your faith, if they can. If any of you renounce your faith and die as disbelievers, your deeds will come to nothing in this world and the Hereafter, and you will be inhabitants of the Fire, there to remain. But those who have believed, who were driven out from their homes, and who strive for God’s cause, it is they who can look forward to God’s mercy: God is most forgiving and merciful. (Quran, 2:217-218)
This response from the God of the Quran successfully rallied the Muslims around their leader and their cause. Muhammad’s treatment of the raid was splendidly balanced, neither making the Muslims look too warlike nor too humiliated: on the one hand, he paid blood money for the Qurayshite man that was killed (blood money was a form of restitution given to a victim’s family) and freed the two Qurayshite prisoners. On the other hand, he released the two Qurayshite prisoners only in exchange for two Muslim prisoners, and also accepted the confiscated goods as legitimate spoils of war.
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Robert Spencer writes of the Nakhla raid:
In Medina, these new Muslims began raiding the caravans of the Quraysh, with Muhammad personally leading many of these raids. These raids kept the nascent Muslim movement solvent and helped form Islamic theology–as in one notorious incident when a band of Muslims raided a Quraysh caravan at Nakhla, a settlement not far from Mecca. The raiders attacked the caravan during the sacred month of Rajab, when fighting was forbidden. When they returned to the Muslim camp laden with booty, Muhammad refused to share in the loot or to have anything to do with them, saying only, “I did not order you to fight in the sacred month.”
But then a new revelation came from Allah, explaining that the Quraysh’s opposition to Muhammad was a worse transgression than the violation of the sacred month. In other words, the raid was justified. ”They question thee, O Muhammad, with regard to warfare in the sacred month. Say: warfare therein is a great transgression, bu to turn men from the way of Allah, and to disbelieve in Him and in the Inviolable Place of Worship, and to expel his people thence, is a greater sin with Allah; for persecution is worse than killing” (Quran 2:214). Whatever sin the Nakhla raiders had committed was overshadowed by the Quraysh’s rejection of Muhammad.
This was a momentous revelation, for it led to an Islamic principle that has had repercussions throughout the ages. Good became identified with anything that redounded to the benefit of Muslims, regardless of whether it violated moral or other laws. The moral absolutes enshrined in the Ten Commandments, and other teachings of the great religions that preceded Islam, were swept aside in favor of an overarching principle of expediency. 
In true Spencerian fashion, he misleads the reader using lies of omission and commission. Spencer does not clearly state that Muhammad had dispatched the “band of Muslims” on a reconnaissance mission, in order to “find out for us what [the Quraysh] are doing.” This is why the Prophet of Islam later disavowed Abdullah’s actions, for he had “acted without authority.” Also, no mention is made in Spencer’s book of the difficulty in ascertaining the day and month in which the raid took place.
Spencer’s biggest lie, however, is the following doozie:
Whatever sin the Nakhla raiders had committed was overshadowed by the Quraysh’s rejection of Muhammad.
In fact, it was not merely “the Quraysh’s rejection of Muhammad”, but, in the words of the Quran itself, their “persecution [of the Muslims that] is worse than the killing” of Amr Ibn Al-Hadrami. Here, the Islamic holy book was referring to the over decade-long period of Qurayshite persecution, during which the early Muslims suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture, and forced conversions; some of the early believers were even killed. This, the God of the Quran argued, was worse than what the “band of Muslims” had done. It would be difficult to argue otherwise.
Spencer goes on to say:
In other words, the raid was justified.
No, it wasn’t. In fact, the Quran recognized and affirmed that the Muslims had committed a grave sin: “Fighting in [the sacred] month is a great offense.”
Many Western commentators have claimed that Muhammad and the Quran, by this passage, abandoned observation of the ban on fighting during the four sacred months. The insistence on this view is based on their blind acceptance of the traditional opinion , held by various Islamic exegetes in medieval times, that this was a pre-Islamic tradition that was overturned by the advent of Islam.
Yet, a neutral reading of the Quranic text–both this passage and those that follow it–reveals the exact opposite: the Prophet Muhammad affirmed and respected the sanctity of the four sacred months. The Quranic verse starts by saying, “They ask you about fighting in the sacred month.” Obviously, Muhammad was being accosted by all sides about the raid at Nakhla, which threatened to be a public relations disaster for the Muslims. How much easier it would have been for the Prophet of Islam to have simply declared the four sacred months a “pagan belief” that the Muslims did not accept.
After all, in another controversy in early Islam’s history, when Muhammad received significant criticism for having married his adopted son’s ex-wife Zaynab bint Jahsh, the Quran justified the act by declaring that: firstly, unlike in the pagan custom of the time, in Islam there is no prohibition against such a thing; and secondly, it was God himself who commanded Muhammad to marry Zaynab, and therefore, “the Prophet is not at fault for what God has ordained for him” (Quran, 33:38). (It should be noted that the Islamic permission to marry one’s adopted son’s ex-wife is no more disconcerting than Judaism’s permitting of marriage to one’s nieces.)
The point is that the Quran didn’t just take the easy way out, which would have been to reject the four sacred months altogether. (Muhammad could have also simply declared the pagans to be “disbelievers”, licit to be attacked at any place or any time.) Instead, the Quran affirmed that it was indeed a grave offense to fight therein, and in fact, commanded Muhammad to tell the people so:
They ask you about fighting in the sacred month. Say, ‘Fighting in that month is a great offense.’ (Quran, 2:217)
The Islamic affirmation of the four sacred months occurs throughout the Quran. Muslims are not to fight in these months, so long as the other side respects this prohibition:
Fight during the sacred months if you are attacked therein, for a violation of sanctity is subject to the law of just retribution. So, if anyone commits aggression against you, attack him as he attacked you. (Quran, 2:194)
The Quran also affirms the idea of sacred spaces:
Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque unless they fight you there. (Quran, 2:191)
This topic deserves greater elaboration, but for now, suffice to say that even in the jihad passages of chapter nine of the Quran–which the Islamophobes insist are (in the words of the anti-Muslim website ReligionOfPeace.com) “the final ‘revelations’ from Allah” about jihad–the four sacred months are affirmed. For example, in the so-called “verse of the sword” (ayat al-saif), the Quran declares:
When the sacred months are passed, then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them… (Quran, 9:5)
Leaving aside for now the fact that the verse right before this one (verse 9:4) explains that this injunction refers only to those pagans who broke a treaty and waged war against the Muslims, there is another obvious point to be made here: Islamophobes insist that this passage was revealed in Muhammad’s last years and was his final, all-out call to war against non-Muslims. (I will refute this argument in a future article.) If we are to accept this claim, then we see that–even in this late stage of Muhammad’s decrees about jihad–the sacred months are to be respected.
In fact, the Quran goes so far to claim that it was God himself who decreed these months to be sacred. More than this, the God of the Quran chastises the Qurayshite pagans for violating the four sacred months by “transposing them” for other months in the year, something they did out of convenience:
God decrees that there are twelve months–ordained in God’s Book on the Day when He created the heavens and earth–four months of which are sacred: this is the correct calculation. Do not wrong your souls in these months–though you may fight the idolaters at any time, if they first fight you–remember that God is with those who are mindful of Him. Transposing sacred months is another act of disobedience by which those who disregard God are led astray: they will allow it one year and forbid it in another in order to outwardly conform with the number of God’s sacred months, but in doing so they permit what God has forbidden. Their evil deeds are made alluring to them: God does not guide those who disregard Him. (Quran, 9:36-37)
In conclusion, it is not true that Muhammad justified the Nakhla raid, nor is it valid to claim that the Prophet of Islam simply made it legal when Muslims did it. Spencer’s claim that ”if it’s good for Islam, it’s right” finds no basis.
The Quran acknowledged that the killing of Amr Ibn Al-Hadrami in the sacred month was a “grave offense” and Muhammad offered restitution to the victim’s family. This mea culpa indicates that the Prophet of Islam acknowledged that wrong had been committed and he sought to right it. Meanwhile, the “band of Muslims” involved in the escapade were duly chastised. After they had expressed remorse for their sin, the God of the Quran forgave them “for God is Forgiving, Merciful” (2:218), and reassured them of their salvation. That forgiveness was necessary in the first place indicates that they had committed a sin.
What the Quran didn’t do is claim that the Muslims had done nothing wrong. All it did was point out the hypocrisy of the Quraysh, for they had committed greater offenses against the Muslims. Robert Spencer would quickly claim that the Quran was committing a tu quoque fallacy, but there is a difference between a valid tu quoque argument and an invalid tu quoque fallacy. Tu quoque (“you too”) arguments are not always illegitimate. Of significance is the fact that, following the Nakhla raid, Muhammad (1) admitted that the Muslims had committed an offense, and (2) willingly submitted to the penalty of that offense (i.e. paid blood money).
The Prophet of Islam didn’t try to make something right because the enemy did something wrong. More importantly, he didn’t try to get out of the penalty for the offense. Instead, he admitted that his side had done something wrong, paid the penalty for it, and then pointed out that his accusers had committed far greater offenses without making any amends for it. He was not trying to get out of the penalty, but only highlighting the Qurayshite hypocrisy so that they would not exploit the incident to further anti-Muslim propaganda.
Islamophobes today are also guilty of hypocrisy on this front: they are among America and Israel’s most hawkish proponents of war in Muslim lands. During Muhammad’s pre-Badr expeditions, the Muslims had killed only one person, and this was in violation of their orders. What about the hundreds and hundreds of Muslim victims who die at the hands of the American and Israeli military, without any form of restitution given to them? We are told then that “this is war”…But when Muhammad’s men kill one person, then it’s the greatest tragedy in all of history.
Related to our opening question (Is Islam more violent than other religions, specifically Judaism and Christianity? Was Muhammad the most violent prophet or religious figure in history?) lies another question: the Biblical prophets–such as Moses, Joshua, Samson,David, Saul, etc.–engaged in genocide against the natives of Canaan. Thousands and thousands of innocent people were slaughtered. Are there any stories in the Bible of any of these Judeo-Christian prophets and holy figures giving restitution to the victim’s families? One can already hear Robert Spencer crying “tu quoque, tu quoque!”, a word that he obviously does not properly understand. Islam, identified as our enemy in the post-9/11 war, is put through a special standard, one that Spencer’s own religion could not withstand.
* * * * *
The Islamic principle of justice is to apply the law equally to all. There are numerous verses of the Quran to this effect (i.e. 16:90: “God commands you to uphold justice and to do good to others”) and this topic would require another article to elucidate fully. For now, however, it would suffice us to refer to the opening of sura (chapter) five, which is said to be among the final revelations of the Quran. It was revealed after the conquest of Mecca. In it, we see once again that the Quran affirms the idea of sacred months and sacred spaces. More importantly, it commands Muslims to uphold justice and be fair even to their enemies:
Do not violate the sanctity of God’s rites or the Sacred Months…or the people coming to the Sacred Space…Do not let your ill-will towards a people–because they barred you from the Sacred Mosque–cause you to transgress against them. Help one another to do what is right and good. Do not help one another towards sin and aggression. (Quran, 5:2)
Robert Spencer traces “Islam’s only overarching moral principle” of “if it’s good for Islam, it’s right” to the raid at Nakhla, but the evidence simply does not bear his argument out. Instead, all that becomes apparent is the Islamophobic tactic: if it makes Islam and Muslims look bad, let’s run with it.
1. Robert Spencer, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), p.79
2. Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p.287 (tr. A. Guillaume)
4. Reuven Firestone, Jihad, p.57
5. Ibid. Update [5/1/2012]: Refer to footnote 77 on p.154 of Firestone’s book for a discussion of whether it was the first or last day of Rajab, making the other month either Jumada al-Thani or Sha’aban.
6. Ibn Ishaq, p.287
7. Thomas W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, p.30
8. Spencer, pp.5-7
9. It should be noted that the nineteenth century gave birth to the modernist movement within Islamic thought, which redefined jihad and challenged the long-held “traditional” opinion on the matter. Today, the “traditional” opinion is held only by a few ultra-conservative Muslims, a view that should not to be conflated with that held by radical Muslims such as Osama Bin Laden.