Note: The following is a part of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series, a refutation of Robert Spencer’s book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). Specifically, this article addresses the bottom of page 5 of Spencer’s book (part of the section entitled “Muhammad the raider” in the chapter “Muhammad: Prophet of War”). Admittedly, my rebuttal makes for a lengthy read, but it would be doing an injustice to this complex topic to sacrifice thoroughness for brevity. Those looking for an easy, children’s book sort of read (in size 16 font no less) are encouraged to refer to Spencer’s book.
When it comes to matters pertaining to Islam, there is no buzzword quite like the word jihad. In the West, especially among anti-Muslim elements, it is firmly associated with violence, terrorism, and perpetual holy war against unbelievers. Even many well-meaning non-Muslims think that “moderate Muslims” do not believe in jihad and that this is a doctrine espoused only by radical elements of the faith.
But, the reality is that most observant Muslims accept jihad as an integral part of Islam. It should be understood, however, that “there are…many kinds of jihad, and most have nothing to do with warfare.”  Prof. Reuven Firestone writes:
The semantic meaning of the Arabic term jihad has no relation to holy war or even war in general. It derives, rather from the root j.h.d., the meaning of which is to strive, exert oneself, or take extraordinary pains. Jihad is a verbal noun of the third Arabic form of the root jahada, which is defined classically as “exerting one’s utmost power, efforts, endeavors, or ability in contending with an object of disapprobation.”
There are, therefore, many kinds of jihad, and most have nothing to
do with warfare. “Jihad of the heart,” for example, denotes struggle against one’s own sinful inclinations, while “jihad of the tongue” requires speaking on behalf of the good and forbidding evil. 
Of these, there is jihad al-saif (“the struggle of the sword”, which will be referred to henceforth simply as jihad). Using Firestone’s definition of “holy war” (“holy war is defined most broadly as any religious justification for engaging in war”), it is difficult to accept the claim of some Muslim preachers that the Quran does not endorse the concept of holy war at all. 
Nonetheless, most modern day Muslims view jihad as their equivalent of the West’s just war doctrine.  War is religiously justified (and approved by God, a “holy war” in this sense) if it is in response to injustice, oppression, and aggression. Certainly, the Quran provides considerable evidence to support the idea that war ought to be waged only in self-defense. 
The question arises, however: does the sira (biography) of the Prophet Muhammad support such a view? Muhammad waged history’s first jihad: he mobilized the Muslim refugees in Medina against the Quraysh of Mecca. Naturally, the circumstances and context of this event are pivotal to Islamic theology and the doctrine of jihad. Did Muhammad wage a war of aggression against the Quraysh simply because they were infidels? Or, was he waging a justifiable war of self-defense? Muhammad’s motivations in this regard are instrumental to formulating Islam’s views on matters of war and peace.
It is no surprise then that Robert Spencer, the internet’s leading anti-Muslim ideologue, has dedicated an entire chapter of his book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), to the biography of the Prophet Muhammad. Spencer depicts Islam’s holy prophet as a violent aggressor and warmonger. Meanwhile, Muhammad’s enemies, the Qurayshite leaders, are portrayed as the hapless victims of Muhammad’s aggression.
Yet, as I pointed out in a previous article, this is a complete inversion of reality. The truth is that Muhammad declared his prophethood in Mecca and preached his message peacefully for over ten years. During this time period, the Qurayshite leaders persecuted him and his followers: the early Muslims suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture, and forced conversions; some were even killed.
The persecution reached such a level that the most vulnerable members of the Muslim faithful were forced to flee for their lives to the African land of Abyssinia. Soon, the condition of Muslims in Mecca had become so unbearable that there was a very real fear that the nascent religion of Islam would be snuffed out altogether. With the death of his guardian uncle, Muhammad lost tribal protection, leaving him extremely vulnerable to his enemies.
It was at this precarious moment in history that a group of influential men from the city of Yathrib (later to be renamed Medina ) accepted Islam and promised to protect the Prophet Muhammad. They secretly met Muhammad while he was still in Mecca, and took two solemn oaths to protect him, known as the First and Second Pledge at al-Aqaba. Under the cover of night, waves of Muslims began to flee Mecca to find refuge in Medina. Muhammad was one of the last ones to undertake the Flight (Hijra), a watershed event that is the Islamic equivalent of the Exodus.
For almost a decade and a half, Muhammad had advised his followers to endure their humiliation and persecution with patience. Prof. Firestone writes:
Muhammad is invariably portrayed as steadfast in his refusal to respond to insult with violence…
The Muslims are portrayed in this early period as being regularly beaten and occasionally even tortured by their Meccan opponents, with virtually no recourse for the injurious treatment they received….
[T]hey most certainly refrained in most cases from violence in reaction to such harmful treatment. In at least one case, a person is killed simply for belonging to the new followers of Muhammad. 
But in Medina, the Muslim refugee community regrouped and prepared for battle against their avowed enemies, the Quraysh of Mecca. The stage for history’s first ever jihad was set.
* * * * *
The Prophet of Islam had actually arrived in Medina to bring peace: the two major tribes of the city had been involved in a protracted civil war, and the city elders had hoped Muhammad could arbitrate between the two sides. (As peculiar as it sounds to us today, it was not unusual in the ancient world for holy men to be called in to arbitrate between warring factions.)
The newly arrived Muhammad called for an end to tribalistic rivalries, preached brotherhood, and “fashion[ed] a united community (umma) out of disparate and contending groups: Muslim emigrants (muhajirun) from Mecca, Muslim helpers (ansar) from Medina [the Medinese that converted to Islam], Medinan Jews, and pagan Arabs.”  Muhammad’s influence as an arbiter led to him to become the de facto leader of Medina.
Soon, Muhammad turned his attention to his former tormentors, the Quraysh of Mecca. The first military expedition against them was dispatched about seven to nine months after Muhammad’s arrival in Medina in what is known as Hamza’s Expedition to the Seashore.
According to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad dispatched Hamza ibn Abdul-Muttalib “to the seashore in the neighborhood of Al-‘Is with thirty riders.”  There, they met Abu Jahl, one of Muhammad’s fiercest enemies, who was accompanied by “three hundred riders from Mecca.”  This would become the very first jihad operation in history, but how anticlimactic it turned out to be:
Majdi b. ‘Amr al-Juhani intervened between them, for he was at peace with both parties. So the people separated from [one] another without fighting. 
Although there was no clash of swords on that day, the two sides did exchange enlivened battle poetry. (Who would have thought that the very first jihad in history would have amounted to nothing more than the ancient equivalent of 1980’s battle rap?)
The Expedition of Ubayda bin al-Harith, the second such military operation , was equally uneventful. Ubayda along with “sixty or eighty riders” rode out to the valley of Rabigh, where they “encountered a large number of Quraysh”  consisting of “more than two hundred riders led by Abu Sufyan”  Ibn Ishaq writes that “no fighting took place” ; Haykal writes:
The Muslim forces withdrew without engaging the enemy, except for the report that Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas shot one single arrow, later to be called, ‘the first arrow shot in the cause of Islam’. 
Saad ibn Abi Waqqas led a third group “into the Hijaz, but he [too] returned without engaging the enemy.” 
Muhammad himself led the next four expeditions (Waddan, Buwat, Safwan, and Dhil ‘Ushairah), each of which resulted in the same uneventful outcome: the Muslims kept going out to meet the enemy, only to find them gone. Thus it was that the Prophet of Islam and his followers “returned to Medina without a fight.” 
It was only with the eighth expedition that actual military combat took place. Muhammad dispatched Abdullah bin Jahsh to scout the Qurayshite movements at a place called Nakhla. Although Muhammad intended this expedition to be a reconnaissance mission, Abdullah took the initiative when his men happened across a poorly armed Qurayshite caravan, which they waylaid. In the firefight that ensued, one of the Qurayshite men was killed, two more were captured, and the caravan’s property was seized.
When the men reported back to Medina, Muhammad was less than pleased with their actions for, as Sir Thomas W. Arnold wrote, Abdullah had “acted without authority.”  Muhammad “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 prisoners in exchange for two Muslim prisoners. The confiscated goods from the caravan, however, were taken as spoils of war. (The Nakhla raid became very controversial, and in a future article, I will deal with this particular event in more detail.)
Shortly thereafter, Muhammad decided to intercept a Qurayshite caravan led by Abu Sufyan, which was returning from Syria to Mecca. As the Muslims advanced towards it, the Quraysh of Mecca were informed of this news and quickly organized a response. Abu Jahl mobilized a large army who marched out from Mecca to meet Muhammad and protect Abu Sufyan’s caravan.
Abu Sufyan’s caravan successfully slinked past Muhammad’s men and into safety, which caused both the Muslims and the Qurayshite army to reconsider their objectives. A group of the Quraysh argued that “there is no point in going to war”  now that Abu Sufyan’s caravan was safe. They advised to
turn back and leave Muhammad to the rest of the Arabs. If they kill him, this is what you want. 
Abu Jahl, one of the powerful chiefs of Mecca, rejected this argument and declared: “No, by God, we will not turn back until God decides between us and Muhammad.”  With this said, most of the Qurayshite army pressed on towards Muhammad and his men, with an intent to deliver the Islamic movement a decisive blow once and for all.
Meanwhile, the early Muslims were themselves conflicted as to whether or not to retreat to Medina or to face the Qurayshite army marching toward them. They certainly had the numbers to take on Abu Sufyan’s caravan, but they were heavily outnumbered against the larger Qurayshite force headed by Abu Jahl. Some of Muhammad’s followers advised a hasty retreat. But, Muhammad was of a different mind and decided to face the threat head on. Of this, the Quran declared to the believers:
God promised you that one of the two enemy groups would fall to you: you wished the unarmed one to be yours, but it was God’s will… to cut off the root of the disbelievers, so that He may make the truth manifest and prove falsehood false, however hateful this be to the criminals. (Quran, 8:7-8)
It seems that both Abu Jahl and Muhammad saw it as a sign of weakness to retreat, one that would only embolden the other. So it was that the two forces met at a place called Badr. The Battle of Badr was the first (and most pivotal) battle of Islamic history. In the words of Robert Spencer:
Above all, the battle of Badr was the first practical example of what came to known as the Islamic doctrine of jihad… 
Muhammad’s followers were heavily outnumbered, on a scale of three to one. The Muslim battalion consisted of a meager 313 men, 70 camels, and 2 horses. Meanwhile, the Qurayshite army was composed of almost a thousand men with 170 camels and 100 horses. Spencer writes:
[T]his time the Quraysh were ready for him, coming to meet Muhammad’s three hundred men with a force nearly a thousand strong…[Muhammad] cried out to Allah in anxiety, “O God, if this band perish today Thou wilt be worshiped no more.” 
Whether it was better military strategy, survival instinct, or divine intervention, the Muslims were victorious on that fateful day. They overcame the Quraysh, their former tormentors, who, after a pitched battle, eventually gave flight. Islam had survived.
* * * *
The details of the actual battle itself and the aftermath warrant further discussion (and I will write a future article on this topic). However, the even more pertinent question arises: did the Muslims have just cause? Or were their actions unprovoked aggression against unbelievers, as Spencer and other anti-Muslim ideologues argue?
To portray Muhammad as the aggressor, Islamophobes downplay or even deny the persecution of the early Muslims in Mecca. (As we have seen, Robert Spencer just omits it entirely from his biography.) Even if he had been persecuted aforetime, they argue, Muhammad was now living safely in Medina. Indeed, Orientalists have long argued that Muhammad initiated an offensive war against the Quraysh by attacking them a year after the Flight (Hijra). (In reality, the sources indicate that it was a delay of seven-to-nine months, not a full year.)
The anti-Muslim website ReligionOfPeace.com (henceforth to be referred to as simply ROP) argues:
After his eviction by the Meccans, Muhammad and his Muslims found refuge many miles away in Medina where they were not being bothered by their former adversaries. Despite this, Muhammad sent his men on seven unsuccessful raids against Meccan caravans…
Elsewhere, ROP argues:
The Muslims were under Persecution from the [Quraysh] Meccans while Living at Medina
…In fact, it was the Meccans who were acting in their own defense during this time.
Historians do not record any act of aggression by the Meccans against the Muslims during the time at which the second sura was narrated by Muhammad. There were no armies marching against them, nor any plans for such. The Meccans had no influence in this far-away town, and Muslims were not under persecution at the time by any stretch of the term as it is popularly understood today. According to the sequence of events in the Sira (biography), the Meccans were quite content with leaving Muhammad alone following his eviction (even though he had made a pledge of war against them)…
There is absolutely no record of Meccan aggression against the Muslims at Medina in the first three years after their arrival in 622.
Muhammad ordered the first raids against the Meccans a year after the hijra in February of 623, which eventually proved deadly. There is no record of Meccan aggression during this time.
As can be seen, the historical record provides absolutely no evidence that the Muslims were being threatened in any way by the Meccans, and fully supports the view that it was the latter who were acting in self-defense. The Meccans had no interest in Muhammad and simply wanted to live in peace and pursue their commerce. At each turn, the prophet of Islam unnecessarily harassed them with deadly and provocative actions that eventually forced battles on several occasions.
ROP’s basic argument is that Muhammad may have been a nuisance to the Quraysh in Mecca, but once he fled the city, they could care less about him or the Muslims in general. He was no longer their problem or concern.
But, Muslim historians depict the situation quite differently, pointing to continued aggressive behavior of the Quraysh towards the Muslims; Ar-Raheeq Al-Makthum reads:
The Quraishites, mortified at the escape of the Prophet along with his devoted companions, and jealous of his growing power in Madinah, kept a stringent watch over the Muslims left behind and persecuted them in every possible way. They also initiated clandestine contacts with ‘Abdullah bin Uabi bin Salul, chief of Madinese polytheists, and president designate of the tribes ‘Aws and Khazraj [the two major tribes of Medina] before the Prophet’s emigration. They sent him a strongly-worded ultimatum ordering him to fight or expel the Prophet, otherwise they would launch a widespread military campaign that would exterminate his people and proscribe his women. [Narrated by Abu Da’ud]…
Provocative actions continued and Quraish sent the Muslims a note threatening to put them to death in their own homeland. Those were not mere words, for the Prophet received information from reliable sources attesting to real intrigues and plots being hatched by the enemies of Islam. Precautionary measures were taken and a state of alertness was called for, including the positioning of security guards around the house of the Prophet and strategic junctures. 
Indeed, the primary sources confirm (and Western historians accept as historic) that the Quraysh had attempted to assassinate Muhammad in Mecca right before he took flight (Hijra). According to Ibn Ishaq, once they came to know that Muhammad was escaping the city of Mecca, the “Quraysh offered a hundred camels as a reward for whoever would seize Muhammad and bring him back.” 
This certainly goes against ROP’s argument that the Quraysh could care less about Muhammad once he left the city. Even though the Quraysh knew he fled Mecca, they continued to pursue him. In fact, this lends credence to the counter-argument: the Quraysh were very much concerned about Muhammad reestablishing a base of support in another city such as Medina. Furthermore, they were ready to use force against him even outside the city’s limits.
Indeed, there is primary evidence to support the argument that the Qurayshite leaders exerted their influence on the leadership of Medina, especially Abdullah ibn Ubai , to expel Muhammad and the other Muslim refugees. The Quraysh issued the following ultimatum:
O people of Medina, you have given safe-haven to our opponent[s]. By God, if you do not fight or expel them, we shall come out against you and kill your warriors and enslave your women. 
If Iran sent an official letter to the United States threatening to kill all American men and enslave their women unless the country abandons and even attacks Israel, would any reasonable person object to Israel interpreting this as an act of war?
Certainly, this threat created a sense of looming fear and insecurity in the nascent Muslim community, which was at the mercy of their hosts (the Medinese). Muhammad himself took the threat seriously enough to sleep with a bodyguard posted outside his door. Tafsir Ibn Kathir notes that verse 5:67 of the Quran was revealed in regard to his fear of assassination: “The Messenger of God was vigilant one night, after he came to Medina…”  Then, the Quran reassured him:
God will protect you from mankind. (Quran, 5:67)
Haykal brings up a good point, noting that the Qurayshite leaders had earlier sought the official extradition of the Muslim refugees from the distant land of Abyssinia.  Would it not be reasonable to assume then that the Quraysh would similarly seek to pursue the Muslims when they fled to Medina?
The Quraysh feared (and one could say reasonably) Muslim hegemony spreading around the area of Medina, which lay directly in between the Quraysh and their trade routes to Syria (and the rest of the world). But more than strategic concerns, the animosity between Muslims and the Quraysh had, after over a decade in strife, reached such a high level that it is unlikely that the Qurayshite leaders would have suddenly dropped their hostility towards the new religion. It is therefore difficult to accept ROP’s argument that the Meccans didn’t display any hostility towards the Muslims in Medina.
ROP claims that “[t]he Meccans had no influence in this far-away town [of Medina]”, but the evidence seems to indicate otherwise. Mecca was the most influential city of the Arabian Peninsula, and the Quraysh attempted to use this influence to pressure the Medinese to turn out Muhammad and his followers. The fear of Mecca had been, after all, one of the major reasons the leaders of Taif had turned Muhammad out so quickly.
The Quraysh colluded with a fifth column within the ranks of the Medinese, a group referred to pejoratively in the Quran as the Hypocrites (Munafiqun). They were led by an influential man named Abdullah ibn Ubai who, prior to Muhammad’s arrival, had been slated to become the unified chief of the two major tribes of Medina. Ibn Ubai’s influence was quickly eclipsed by the Prophet of God, a fact that put the two men at loggerheads with one another. The Quraysh urged Ibn Salul to expel the Muslim refugees, although Ibn Salul countenanced himself with less crude means of countering Muhammad’s growing influence within his city.
During the Meccan Period, the Quraysh had applied pressure to the Banu Hashim and Banu Muttalib to rescind their protection of Muhammad so that they could kill him. When Muhammad fled to Medina, the Quraysh did the same with the Medinese. We can see evidence of this, for instance, in the case of Saad ibn Muadh’s visit to Mecca in order to perform a religious pilgrimage. Saad, a Medinese convert to Islam, entered the city under the protection of his old Meccan friend, Abu Safwan. Abu Jahl, one of early Islam’s fiercest opponents, saw Saad with Abu Safwan and threatened:
I see you wandering about safely in Mecca in spite of the fact that you have given shelter to the people who have changed their religion (to Islam) and have claimed that you will help and support them. By God, if you were not in the (protective) company of Abu Safwan, you would not be able to go to your family safely!
By God, if you should stop me from doing this, I would certainly prevent you from something which is more valuable to you, that is, your passage through Medina. 
That Abu Jahl, one of the chiefs of Mecca, issued such a threat indicates that the Muslims of Medina had every reason to feel threatened by the Quraysh. Additionally, this exchange seems to have occurred before the initiation of Muhammad’s military operations. In it, the Medinese man threatens a retaliatory move (if you block our entry to Mecca, we will block your way through Medina).
Qurayshite hostility was not limited to threats alone: their persecution of Muslims in Mecca continued unabated. Some of the Muslims in Mecca were too weak to make the arduous journey to Medina, whereas others were detained against their will. The Quran itself mentions this fact in verse 4:98, calling them the “weak and oppressed–men, women, and children–who have no means in their power nor any way to escape [Mecca].” Ibn Ishaq writes that “[t]he emigrants [Muhajirun] followed one another to join the apostle [in Medina], and none was left in Mecca but those who had apostatized [under duress?] or been detained.”  Their “houses in Mecca were locked up when they migrated…and sold” by the Quraysh , prompting Muhammad to reassure one of his followers about the “property which [they] lost in God’s service”:
Are you not pleased that God will give you a better house in Paradise? 
The Emigrants [Muhajirun] were barred from their homes and families in Mecca, whom they wished to visit. They were also barred from making the pilgrimage to visit the Holy Kaabah.
It seems then that the faucet of Qurayshite hostility was not, as ROP implies, turned off the minute Muhammad and most of his followers fled the city. It continued in the form of threats against the Muslims and those who harbored them, and active persecution of those Muslims still under Qurayshite control.
* * * * *
More than this, there is a point that is often overlooked by both the Muslim and anti-Muslim side, something that would seem to be the crux of the matter. On the one hand, Muslims seem to argue that Muhammad had every reason to initiate attacks on the Quraysh due to their continued aggressive behavior. On the other hand, the Islamophobic side argues the exact opposite, as ROP writes:
The only reason that this myth arose is the need for Muslim apologists to justify the more violent passages of the Qur’an’s second chapter, which was “revealed” shortly after Muhammad arrived in Medina following the hijra. Passages from this chapter encourage believers to violence within the context of ending “tumult,” “oppression,” and “persecution.”
…[However, h]istorians do not record any act of aggression by the Meccans against the Muslims during the time at which the second sura was narrated by Muhammad.
It is true that chapter two of the Quran does include some verses justifying war (2:190-194, 216-218, and 244,), but the first passage ordaining war was in chapter twenty-two of the Quran (typo on ROP’s part?), in which the God of the Quran states:
Permission to take up arms is granted to those who are being fought, because they have been oppressed–And indeed, God has the power to help them!–those who have been unjustly driven out from their homes, only for saying “Our Lord is God.” (Quran, 22:39-40)
ROP claims that “[h]istorians do not record any act of aggression by the Meccans against the Muslims during the time at which the [twenty?] second sura was narrated by Muhammad.” By this, ROP implies that Muhammad and the Muslims were living safely in Medina–for well over a year–before this passage came down. Was Muhammad justifying war by looking to an old infraction, just as the United States used Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds in the 1980’s to justify war against him years later?
In fact, however, this passage, which permitted the Muslims to defend themselves–and constituted a declaration of war against the Quraysh–was revealed long before Muhammad’s military expeditions against the Quraysh were launched. Ibn Ishaq places its revelation (“[w]hen God gave permission to his apostle to fight” ) to the Second Pledge at Al-Aqaba, which occurred right before the Prophet’s Flight (Hijra). Ibn Ishaq writes:
The apostle had not been given permission to fight or allowed to shed blood before the second ‘Aqaba…[at which time God] gave permission to His apostle to fight and to protect himself against those who wronged them and treated them badly.
The first verse which was sent down on this subject…was: ‘Permission [to take up arms] is given…’ [Quran, 22:39] 
He writes elsewhere:
Then God sent down to [Muhammad]: ‘Fight them so that there be no more seduction’, i.e. until no believer is seduced [coerced] from his religion. ‘And the religion is God’s…
When God had given permission to fight and this clan of the Ansar had pledged their support to [Muhammad]…the apostle commanded his companions…to emigrate to Medina and to link up with their brethren the Ansar. 
Prof. F.E. Peters writes (emphasis added):
While still at Mecca, if we have the chronology right, during Muhammad’s last days there, a revelation had come to him for the first time permitting Muslims to resort to force, or rather, to meet Quraysh violence with violence (Quran 22:39-41). 
Other sources, such as Tabari and Wahidi, date this revelation to shortly afterward, to immediately after the Flight (Hijra). Prof. Reuven Firestone writes:
According to Wahidi, sura 22:39 was revealed during the year of the Hijra immediately after Muhammad left Mecca. Abu Bakr is reported to have complained that the minute they would leave the limited protection of Mecca, they would be destroyed by their enemies.46 The verse was therefore revealed to allow them henceforth to defend themselves. Sura 22:39 is considered the first revelation allowing the Muslims to engage in fighting.47
46. P. 177. Similar words put into the mouth of Abu Bakr are also found in a number of the sources listed in note 47, following.
47. Many authoritative statements to this effect (i.e., statements attributed to specific early authorities) are collected in Tabari, book 17, pp. 172–173; Nahhas, vol. 2, pp. 233, 301, 525; Tafsir Ibn Abbas, p. 280; Tafsir Muqatil, vol. 3, p. 129; Tafsir Mujahid, p. 482. 
If Ibn Ishaq’s dating is to be accepted, this could explain why the Qurayshite leaders decided to finalize their plot to assassinate Muhammad. Ibn Ishaq writes:
When the Quraysh saw that the apostle had a party and companions not of their tribe and outside their territory, and that his companions had migrated to join them, and knew that they had settled in a new home and had gained protectors, they feared that the apostle might join them, since they knew he had decided to fight them. So they assembled in their council chamber…to take counsel what they should do in regard to the aspotle, for they were now in fear of him…
The discussion [among the Qurayshite leaders] opened with the statement that now that Muhammad had gained adherents outside the tribe they were no longer safe against a sudden attack and the meeting was to determine the best course to pursue… 
Ibn Kathir writes:
[The] Quraysh were concerned that the Messenger of God would leave and join [the people of Medina], since they knew that he had decided to do battle with them. They therefore gathered in the Dar al-Nadwa, the house of assembly…[and] discussed there what they should do about the Messeger of God, since they now feared him….They would kill him. 
The state of war between the Quraysh and the Muslims thus already existed by this point in time, far before Muhammad’s military expeditions several months later. ROP argues this exact point, saying:
Muhammad eventually made an alliance with another town, Medina, that included provisions of war against the Meccans. The parties to the treaty were asked “Do you realize to what you are committing yourselves in pledging your support to this man? It is to war against all and sundry” (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 299). The pledge to war is further confirmed in Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 305.
Therefore, it was only after Muhammad committed himself to armed revolution against the Meccans that the town’s leaders sought to have him either killed or evicted.
The weakness in ROP’s argument lies in the fact that the Quraysh had long before considered harming or killing the Prophet of Islam. In fact, the Quraysh had implored Abu Talib, Muhammad’s uncle and tribal guardian, to rescind his protection over his nephew so that they could deal with him. Their level of seriousness can be assessed by their complete social and economic boycott of Abu Talib’s entire tribe along with the Banu Hashim. It can also be gauged by the fact that as soon as Abu Talib died, Muhammad felt threatened enough to flee to Taif. Therefore, all that can be said is that Muhammad’s decision to battle the Quraysh convinced the chiefs of Mecca to finalize and actualize their idea of murdering the Islamic prophet, a plan that they were already mulling over in their heads.
Another weakness in ROP’s logic becomes apparent: on one page he argues that Muhammad declared war while “safe in Medina”, but on another page he (inadvertently) “concedes” that Muhammad declared war against the Quraysh while in Mecca. (This is of course another case of an Islamophobe trying to further as many arguments as possible against Muhammad and Islam, a strategy that often results in contradictory claims.)
In any case, it is more likely that the later dating of verse 22:39 is more accurate, and that the failed assassination attempt on Muhammad’s life may have been the casus belli for the Quranic injunction of war against the Quraysh. In this dating scheme, Muhammad was committed to war against the Quraysh immediately after he was forced out of Mecca.
Whether one accepts the earlier or later dating of verse 22:39, the fact is that Muhammad’s declaration of war occurred much earlier than when he finally launched military expeditions against the Quraysh. This point completely nullifies ROP’s argument that “[h]istorians do not record any act of aggression by the Meccans against the Muslims during the time at which the [twenty-]second sura was narrated by Muhammad.” In fact, Muhammad’s war declaration occurred at the zenith of Qurayshite persecution, when it had reached a tipping point and Muslims had to flee from Mecca entirely.
A state of hostility between the two sides already existed by the time the Prophet of Islam arrived safely in Medina. It should be noted that there was no formal declaration of war because the Quraysh regarded Muhammad and his party as “renegades” and, in the words of ROP, as “armed revolution[aries]”. They were seen as non-state actors against whom formal declaration of war was not needed. Muhammad, on the other hand, quickly organized in Medina to establish his community not as a refugee community but as a sovereign nation onto itself. Muhammad’s military forays were show-of-force exercises designed to convey this message to the Quraysh. But, there were likely two other audiences in mind: firstly, these early campaigns were confidence-building measures for the benefit of the Muslims themselves. Secondly, they were meant to send a message to the city that had granted his people refuge: the Muslims could stand their own ground against the Quraysh.
The seven-to-nine month gap of military conflict between the Quraysh and Muslims can be thought of as similar to the six-month Phony War during World War II. The Phony War was the “name [given] for the early months of World War II, marked by no major hostilities” between the Allies and the Germans. Military historian David Horner writes:
This period between the Anglo-French declaration of war and the fall of France is known as the ‘phoney war’ because of the very inaction of both sides. The Germans were honing their plans for the assault on the Allies in the west, and the Allies too were busying themselves with organizing their counter-effort. 
Muhammad’s delay of seven-to-nine months, between when he expressed his intent to fight the Quraysh and the actual military expeditions against them, was due to the time needed to organize his community from a refugee population into a functioning state.
On the other side of the equation, the Quraysh of Mecca had not yet committed themselves to war against Medina itself. It should be noted that Mecca was not in a state of war with the city of Medina overall, but only with the Muslim refugees (“renegades”) from Mecca (Muhajirun). The Quraysh were not at war with the Medinese converts to Islam (the Helpers or Ansar) nor with the non-Muslim residents of Medina. It is recorded that the Quraysh had actually initially said to the Medinese:
We have come to know that you have come here to conclude a treaty with this man (Muhammad) and evacuate him out of Mecca. By God, we do really hold in abhorrence any sort of fight between you and us. 
This is also why Muhammad’s initial military campaigns against the Quraysh consisted of, in the words of Ibn Ishaq, “emigrants [from Mecca], there not being a single one of the [Medinese] Ansar among them.”  The war at this point in time was only between the Quraysh and the Muslim refugees (Muhajirun).
The Quraysh had not yet made the decision to attack Medina itself, a move which had the potential of uniting the city behind Muhammad. Such an act would have also converted what the Quraysh saw as an internal conflict between a state and a renegade faction into an all-out war between two different (city-)states, an escalation that the people of Mecca may not have been ready to commit to. Instead, they chose the less energy-intensive option of isolating the Muslims, hoping that the Medinese would, under Qurayshite pressure, expel them. For their part, the Medinese were willing to harbor the Muslim refugees against Qurayshite wishes, but they had not yet accepted the idea of war with Mecca.
In light of our Phony War paradigm, it not only becomes apparent but also somewhat understandable why the Quraysh maintained hostilities towards the Muslims–why they tried to kill Muhammad, pressured Medina to expel or fight the Muslims, and oppressed Muslims stranded in Mecca. As detestable as these acts may seem to Muslim historians, they are, at least to some degree, an expected part of war.
On the flip side, Muhammad cannot be accused of declaring or initiating an offensive war against the Quraysh. All that can be said is that “Muhammad went on the offensive”, which is a much different matter. No reasonable person would argue that the Allies had declared or initiated an offensive war when they invaded Normandy. Instead, this was a case of the Allies going on the offense in a defensive war (against German aggression). Likewise, Muhammad had declared a defensive war against the Quraysh at the height of Qurayshite persecution of Muslims, and it was only in Medina several months later that he went on the offensive.
This point also negates the anti-Muslim canard that Muhammad was “opportunistic” in terms of war and peace, i.e. that he called for peaceful coexistence when he was weak and war when he was in a position of strength. (Based on this idea, Robert Spencer and other Islamophobes argue that Islam itself advocates such opportunism, i.e. Muslims calling for peace when they are weak and war when they are in a position of strength.) In fact, Muhammad declared war against the Quraysh when, from a military standpoint, he was very, very weak. According to Ibn Ishaq’s dating, the Prophet of Islam declared war against the Quraysh while still in Mecca. He was not the leader of a powerful city but rather a hunted down rogue prophet who feared for his life.
Even if we accept the later dating, Muhammad conveyed his intent to battle the Quraysh as he fled the city. He was a refugee leader at this time, nothing more. His emerging leadership role in Medina was only just developing and far from determined. Either way, Muhammad’s intent to square off with the far more powerful Quraysh can be seen as something courageous and not opportunistic at all. The “peace when weak and war when strong” paradigm cannot be accepted; the Muslims, from a military standpoint, were quite weak.
Neither could it be said that Muhammad was now in a position of power because he had the Medinese to aid him. The various factions of Medina had only committed to defending the city of Medina from attack. Unless the Quraysh attacked Medina directly, Muhammad could not count on their support. In the initial military campaigns, only the Muslim refugees (Muhajirun) took part, not the Medinese. Muhammad had at his disposal a ragtag group of refugees, nothing more. How then can we accept the claim that Muhammad was “opportunistic” and called for peace in times of weakness and war in times of strength?
* * * * *
That there was a financial component to such warring cannot be denied. The Muslims of Mecca had been forced to escape the city under cover of darkness, with their life possessions reduced to what they could carry on their backs. The Quraysh seized their remaining property in Mecca, aside from what they could sneak out.  Thus it was that the Muslim Emigrants arrived in Medina in an impoverished (and homeless) state. The generosity of the Muslim Helpers sustained the refugees for some time, but faith and brotherhood could only be expected to go so far.
Military historian Richard A. Gabriel writes:
As the leader of this new community Muhammad was responsible for ensuring that it survived. He and his people were on the brink of starvation and living in poverty. During the early days in Medina they survived on dates and water, having no money to purchase much else…There was, in any case, little new land to be cultivated by the newcomers in the already developed agricultural community of Medina. 
(And yet we are expected to believe that Muhammad, whose “people were on the brink of starvation and living in poverty…surviv[ing] on dates and water”, was now in a “position of strength”!)
Raiding Qurayshite caravans was a solution to this financial dilemma. Frances O’Connor writes in the History of Islam:
The Muslim community in Medina faced many challenges. In particular, when the Meccan Muslims migrated there, they had no way to make money because they were not farmers like the Medinans, and most of their belongings left behind in Mecca had been confiscated by the Meccan tribes. Muhammad sent a party of his followers to raid the Meccan trade caravans that were coming through the area. This was a way for their followers to get supplies of food and other goods, as well as to demonstrate to the Meccans that the Muslims were not weak. The Arabs of this time were accustomed to this type of warfare and competition as a means of survival, and the Muslims felt justified in harming Meccan economic interests. 
Robert Spencer writes:
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… 
Spencer entitles this section of his book “Muhammad the raider“, clearly using the term “raider” in a pejorative manner. I have myself opted to use the more neutral term “military expedition” to refer to Muhammad’s early operations against the Quraysh. But, is “raid” an appropriate term to use? What about “raider“?
From a purely technical standpoint, the word “raid” seems to be appropriate. The dictionary definition of raid is: “[a] rapid surprise attack on an enemy by troops, aircraft, or other armed forces in warfare.” The United States military routinely engages in raids, such as the infamous “night raids” in Afghanistan. For some reason, however, the word has a positive or at least neutral connotation when used for our own military or our allies. Meanwhile, when the term is used for our enemies or The Other, it has a very negative meaning.
More problematic is the Spencerian epithet of “Muhammad the raider.” If Muhammad is to be given this name for having ordered military raids, then should George W. Bush or Barack Obama be called “raiders” for their role in ordering raids against the nation’s enemies? Should it be “Bush the raider” or “Obama the raider”?
Spencer’s tactic of wordplay can also be seen with the following misleading statement of his:
In 622, [Muhammad] fled his native Mecca for a nearby town, Medina, where a band of tribal warriors had accepted him as a prophet and pledged loyalty to him. 
In fact, “the Medinese were agriculturists.”  The “tribal warriors” of the day were the desert Bedouins, not the urban and agricultural folks of Medina. For the most part, the people of Medina were not wise to the ways of war. In fact, as Richard Gabriel writes, “most Muslims were urban or agricultural folks, not bedouins, and knew very little about how to undertake a successful caravan raid.”  The city of Medina, had been from time to time involved in this or that battle or war, but how is this different from every other city and nation in history? Should we call the United States a nation of “tribal warriors” simply because it is involved in war?
Richard Gabriel himself, whose book is nothing more than post 9/11 anti-Muslim polemic encased in a pseudo-scholarly shell , refers to Muhammad as a “marauder.” Likening the vast desert to the open seas, ROP calls Muhammad and his followers “pirates.” This is a consistent theme in Islamophobic literature.
Much has been written by Western commentators about the ghazu (raid) and how it was a “peculiar” pre-Islamic Arabian custom that Muhammad adopted. For instance, Prof. Joseph Morrison Skelly writes of it:
It is historically apparent that raiding was commonplace among Arabs in the pre-Islamic era. Also, raiding was not considered immoral unless it entailed stealing from kinsmen…[It was] a pre-Islamic Arab practice later adopted by Muslims. 
Voices sympathetic to Islam argue that the early Muslims were operating in a completely acceptable way for that time. Meanwhile, anti-Muslim elements argue that Muhammad should be condemned for accepting such a “barbaric” Arabian custom.
These discussions, however, seem to miss the crux of the matter: Muhammad and the early Muslims did not raid caravans belonging to random tribes or peoples. Instead, their attacks were very specific and limited to caravans belonging to the powerful Quraysh, their arch-enemy, with whom they were already in a state of conflict with.
Had Muhammad simply been a marauder or pirate wishing to enrich himself, he would most certainly have chosen to attack caravans belonging to far less powerful peoples. The Quran did not, however, legitimate raids against all non-Muslim peoples, but only against those who persecuted the Muslims, i.e. the Quraysh. The Quran declared: “Fight in God’s cause against those who fight against you, but do not commit aggression, for surely, God does not love aggressors.” (Quran, 2:190) (This is of course important from a theological point of view.)
Having understood this, Muhammad’s decision to raid Qurayshite caravans need not be rationalized by citing some ancient Arabian custom. Rather, one can actually look much closer to home. The tactic employed by the early Muslims was identical to that used by the United States from its very inception. Using the same “open seas” analogy, we see that the Prophet of Islam engaged not in “piracy” but in “commerce raiding”, which has been an accepted form of warfare throughout history and across all cultural lines.
The distinction between the act of piracy and commerce raiding is an important one to make. There are two major reasons why piracy is considered illegitimate as compared to commerce raiding: firstly, pirates do not possess proper authority; secondly, “pirates attack merchants without distinction.” Conversely, commerce raiding is vested in proper authority, and commerce raiders only attack commercial ships belonging to enemy nations. Clearly, Muhammad’s expeditions fall into the latter category: he was the leader of a community, and he only targeted enemy caravans.
Commerce raiding is known in French as guerre de course (“war of the chase”) and in German as handelskrieg (“trade war”). Both France and Germany have a long history of using this tactic, which is considered respectable and even celebrated. This tactic also has a venerated position in American history, being used against the British during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). The Continental Congress formed the Continental Navy, which
was not expected to contest British control of the seas, but rather to wage a traditional guerre de course against British trade, in conjunction with scores of privateers outfitting in American ports. The Continental navy’s ships were to raid commerce and attack the transports that supplied British forces in North America. To carry out this mission, the Continental Congress began to build up, through purchase, conversion, and new construction, a cruiser navy of small ships–frigates, brigs, sloops, and schooners.
…[The Continental Navy’s] cruisers ranged far and wide and demonstrated that British commerce was nowhere safe, not even in British home waters.
Retired navy officer and military author Joe B. Havens writes:
During that war, the Continental navy, privateers, and commerce raiding squadrons chartered by individual American states, and the navy of our French ally all played vital roles in our fight against the British.
The Continental navy’s squadrons and individual ships attacked British sea lines of communication and seized transports laden with munitions, privisions and troops. Continental and state Navy ships and privateers also struck at enemy commerce, taking nearly 200 British ships as prizes, forcing them to divert warships to protect convoys and trade routes. 
In fact, commerce raiding was used to boost American morale against the British and were instrumental in winning the war against such a powerful naval power. Military historian James C. Bradford writes in the Atlas of American Military History:
The Continental Congress and the state governments issued letters of marque to ship owners, who then attacked enemy commerce. Captured and condemned vessels became prizes and the property of the owner, captain, and crew, among whom the spoils were divided according to the proportion of investment and crew rank.
Privateering proved to be both an effective weapon against the enemy as well as a profitable source of income for those in the business. For the British, the American privateers proved to be a major source of trouble, as their efforts, combined with later naval activity by the French, Spanish, and Dutch, led to the seizure of approximately 3,300 ships of the total 6,000 British vessels involved in overseas trade during the war…
Commerce raiding also made for good propaganda, as the exploits of individual captains made news both in America and in Europe. In March 1776, a squadron of eight Continental Navy vessels unders Commodore Esek Hopkins raided New Providence in the Bahamas and captured the British governor…The most distinguished American captain, however, was John Paul Jones, a native of Scotland who joined the Continental Navy and made an early name for himself capturing prizes off the coast of Canada…
[Jones] proceeded to raid British shipping off the coast of the British Isles, crowning this achievement by raiding the Lake District port of Whitehaven…underscoring the harassing role the American navy would play…In 1779, he captured a French merchant hulk and converted it into a forty-two-gun sloop…. 
The United States would use commerce raiding once again during the War of 1812 (“the second American revolution”), and continued to employ it throughout its history all the way to World War II (when it was used against Imperial Japan). (In the post WWII world, the United States has the most powerful navy in the world and can now rely on blockades. Commerce raiding is the tactic used by navies too weak to enforce blockades.)
In fact, since the very beginning of her birth, America has incorporated commerce raiding into its main strategy at sea. Dr. Kenneth J. Hagan, Professor of Strategy and War at the US Naval War College, writes:
American submarine warfare against Japanese cargo vessels and oil tankers during World War II constitutes history’s outstanding example of successful guerre de course, or commerce raiding…[I]ts impact on the Japanese war machine and on the Imperial Japanese Navy’s sea-keeping potential was staggering. Of the 8.1 million tons of Japanese merchant marine shipping sunk in World War II, American submarines accounted for 4.8 million tons…
Guerre de course, or commerce raiding, is as old as naval warfare. It consists of an attack by an armed vessel–a privateer or warship–on an unarmed merchant vessel with the intent of capturing the victim and its cargo for the profit of the attacker. It is the favored tactic of a weaker naval power fighting a stronger one; for example, continental European powers have often employed it against England…
…[G]uerre de course offered the only viable strategy for American naval policy makers from the moment independence was decided upon in 1776. The Americans were a lilliputian naval power compared with the British, and at best they could only sting Britain’s oceanic commerce while dodging the punitive might of the Royal Navy’s ubiquitous warships….[T]he U.S. Navy’s favorite weapon…[was the] hit-and-run mission…[C]ommerce raiding remained the preferred American way of fighting at sea until very late in the nineteenth century…
The pattern was set: American warships would not fight British warships, of which there were far too many to overcome, but they would capture British merchant vessels in order to acquire scarce capital and to sap mercantile Britain’s morale…Guerre de course could not defeat the Royal Navy, but by inclining London to negotiate a peace, it “made an enormous impact on the success of the war effort.”
George Washington understood the virtues of this strategy, as did a majority in Congress. 
Commerce raiding was accepted by the United States and the world as a valid form of warfare, and it was only with the advent of submarines that things began to change. The Oxford Companion to American Military History explains:
The term GUERRE DE COURSE describes a form of maritime warfare aimed at disrupting seaborne commerce…[I]t is usually rendered as “commerce raiding” in English. Operationally, guerre de course resembles blockades in that it is primarily a form of economic warfare, in which combat with enemy ships is at best a secondary consideration…
Guerre de course, in contrast, is usually adopted by countries too weak to attempt such continuous, large-scale operations [such as blockades]; or unwilling to risk the kind of fleet action that may be necessary to impose or break a blockade. It is conducted by individual ships (naval warships or privately owned ships armed with guns and authorized by government letters of marque to engage in legal privateering) or small squadrons. These operate in hit-and-run fashion along oceanic shipping lanes…Strategically, guerre de course respresents an alternative to operations directed against the main naval forces of the enemy. Guerre de course in the form of privateering was widely employed by Americans in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
…[G]uerre de course aims to…undermine public morale by inflicting economic losses and depriving the population of necessary or familiar goods…
[I]n the twentieth century…the advent of torpedo-armed submarines, which brought to the guerre de course a ferocity and decisiveness it had not previously possessed. A surface cruiser operating under the rules of engagement accepted by nineteenth century navies was expected to board a prospective target, determine if the nationality and cargo made it a legal prize, and see the safety of the crew before taking further action.
However, the early months of World War I revealed that similar conduct by German submarines exposed them to enormous risks, and reduced their tactical effectiveness far below what was possible if such scruples were set aside. Guerre de course accordingly lost its traditional character as a relatively bloodless and vaguely romantic sort of peripheral operation, and became a desperate and murderous struggle capable of deciding a major war.
This trend culminated in the devastating campaign against Japanese commerce conducted by American submarines (and to a lesser extent by carrier-based aircraft) during World War II–a rare example of guerre de course waged by the stronger side… 
Muhammad’s military expeditions were commerce raids, not only completely acceptable in the Arabian context of the time, but also by American and international standards throughout history. Just as commerce raiding had a “traditional character as a relatively bloodless and vaguely romantic” tactic, so too was the ghazu (caravan raid) seen as a “relatively bloodless and vaguely romantic” tactic of the desert: only those merchants/caravans that resisted were fought and/or killed.
The question arises: are Robert Spencer and other Islamophobes in this country impugning the tactic relied upon by our nation’s Founding Fathers to gain independence from Britain and which America used to win World War II? From every conceivable angle, Muhammad’s tactic of commerce raiding is similar to that employed by the Continental Navy, and by the U.S. Navy throughout its history. It is only Orientalist hubris that allows one to talk of the early Muslim raids as part of some peculiar and “barbaric” Arabian custom, especially when the ghazu–unlike the submarine attacks by the United States during World War II–minimized innocent casualties.
Indeed, in the eight or so military expeditions preceding the Battle of Badr, only one Qurayshite died at the hands of the Muslims. Even this action was carried out without Muhammad’s permission, and the Prophet of Islam expressed disapproval of it. More importantly, Muhammad paid blood-money as a result of it, which, as discussed above, was an Arabian form of restitution given to a victim’s family. The Muslim raids were certainly “bloodless” compared to “the devastating campaign against Japanese commerce conducted by American submarines”, which left countless Japanese dead.
Muhammad’s treatment of the incident at Nakhla reinforces the view that “commerce raiding”, not wanton bloodletting, was his intent. He gave blood money to the family of the slain Qurayshite and freed the two Qurayshite prisoners in exchange for two Muslim prisoners. But, Muhammad held onto and distributed the confiscated goods from the Qurayshite caravan. The purpose of the attacks was to strangle the Quraysh economically.
It should be noted, however, that Muhammad did not succeed in this effort. All of the initial military expeditions were failures, with the lone exception of the unintentional “success” at Nakhla. Richard Gabriel notes, correctly, that the early Muslims “knew very little about how to undertake a successful caravan raid.”  From an economic standpoint then, one must question Robert Spencer’s claim that “[t]hese raids kept the nascent Muslim movement solvent.”  How did a series of unsuccessful caravan raids keep the “nascent Muslim movement solvent”?
Gabriel is also correct in thinking that there must have been something more than economic benefit that enticed Muhammad. From a purely risk-benefit standpoint, raiding Qurayshite caravans was a bad idea: the raids were largely unsuccessful, and only “succeeded” in earning the wrath of the vastly more powerful city of Mecca. Writes Gabriel:
Muhammad must have known that any attack on the Meccan caravans would have been but the opening skirmish in a long campaign in which the Meccans would try to exterminate him and his followers…[T]he Meccan chiefs could raise significant military forces on their own, including cavalry, and had the money to hire mercenaries and bedouin warriors. Muhammad’s forces in Medina were small by comparison and certainly no match for the Meccans.
Muhammad was too good a strategic thinker not to have been aware of these realities. And yet, he went ahead with his plans to challenge the Meccans. 
Gabriel goes on to argue that Muhammad’s “attacks on the Meccan caravans were but the first strike in a larger strategy of conquest and destruction of his enemies.”  Indeed, Orientalist commentators have long argued that Muhammad’s intention–when divine permission was granted to him to fight, when he fled Mecca, and when he launched raids against the Quraysh–was the conquest of Mecca.
Hindsight is 20/20, and it is easy for us now to think that the early Muslims would one day return to their city of origin as victorious conquerors. Yet, this idea would have seemed far-fetched at the time: Muhammad and his handful of followers were driven out of the city of Mecca by the Quraysh, and were living as an impoverished and meek refugee community in the city of Medina. Richard Gabriel himself argues that “Muhammad’s forces in Medina were small by comparison and certainly no match for the Meccans.” The Islamic community was at that time fearful of being wiped off the face of the earth entirely, and so it seems quite fantastic for Gabriel (or anyone else) to then turn around and argue that Muhammad’s intention by raiding the Qurayshite caravans was to start the process of conquering them.
There is another much more likely possibility, which can be understood by looking back to other examples in history of commerce raiding. The Americans relied on commerce raiding in order to “undermine public morale by inflicting economic losses”  by which they hoped to “inclin[e] London to negotiate a peace.”  It seems far more likely that Muhammad raided Qurayshite caravans with the intention of inflicting heavy economic losses on his enemy, so that the mercantile Meccans would come to believe it too costly to carry on the conflict with the Muslims. Muhammad’s goal then was not conquest but a favorable peace.
One could reasonably argue that Muhammad’s actions did the exact opposite and just infuriated the Quraysh, who then organized a force to meet the Muslims at Badr. However, it is equally reasonable to assume that Muhammad, as the leader of an emerging nation, was not satisfied with the Phony War situation that existed in place of a real peace. At any moment, the Quraysh could have switched from indirect hostility towards the Muslims to more direct military action against them. Muhammad wanted a peace treaty between his community and the city of Mecca, one which recognized the early Muslims as a sovereign nation (with the respect and rights of one) instead of as a hunted down renegade movement. In order to “earn” this position in Qurayshite eyes, Muhammad had to show that the Muslims could stand their own against them, which is what the initial military expeditions were expected to do.
Muhammad must have known that such provocative action could, in the short term, exacerbate the conflict and draw the two forces into all-out war. But, in the long run, the plan was successful and culminated in a treaty between the two sides. Just as the British came to regard the Americans as a sovereign nation instead of a rebel movement, the Quraysh, by signing the treaty, had come to recognize the Muslims as a sovereign nation.
Muhammad’s intention can be gleaned from the primary sources themselves. During this phase of the conflict, no Quranic passage calls on the believers to make way for the conquest and subjugation of Mecca. Instead, the Islamic holy book commands the believers to “prepare whatever forces you can muster, including warhorses, to frighten off God’s enemies and yours…but if they incline towards peace, you must also incline towards it” (Quran, 8:60-61). This is repeated elsewhere in the Quran: “If they desist [in their hostilities], then there should be no hostility [towards them] except against the oppressors” (2:193). The Quran was letting the Quraysh know that the Muslims were willing to pursue a peaceful resolution of the conflict, if they (the Quraysh) would but just stop their hostility.
It should also be noted that Muhammad had another audience in mind: his own Muslim followers and the people of Medina. By securing small wins against the Quraysh, Muhammad was boosting the morale of the early Muslims, proving to their own selves that they could stand up to the Quraysh and that God was with them. This message was also directed to the people of Medina: just as the Americans had to prove to the French that they were a viable force against the British, so too did the Muslims need to prove their viability to the people of Medina who otherwise might succumb to Meccan threats to expel the refugee population.
There is another piece of evidence that indicates that on Muhammad’s mind was not conquest but the peaceful recognition of his new nation. On his very first military expedition, Muhammad set out to meet the Quraysh at Waddan. He missed the Qurayshite force and prepared to go back home, but before he did, he signed a non-aggression pact with the people of the area, the Bani Damra. Shortly thereafter, he also signed non-aggression pacts with other neighboring tribes, such as the Bani Madlij. It is likely that Muhammad would have signed such a pact with the Quraysh, the greatest threat to his peoples’ existence, had they been so willing. Indeed, when the Quraysh finally did offer terms of peace to Muhammad, he accepted them, much to the chagrin of some of his most ardent followers.
As noted above, commerce raiding has generally been a tool used by the weaker force against the stronger one. Historically, the Americans, French, and Germans used this tactic against the powerful British navy. The British, on the other hand, did not need to rely on it, and instead used the much more effective tactic of blockading their opponents. Muhammad simply did not have the resources to blockade the Meccans, which would have brought the Quraysh to their knees (economically speaking). That he could not even set up a blockade of Mecca means that he certainly couldn’t imagine, at this point in time, to conquer it. It is much more realistic that commerce raiding was meant to force the Quraysh to recognize the Muslim nation and make peace with it, just as the Americans wished recognition, independence, and peace with the British.
The early Muslims were not pirates or marauders. They, like the revolutionary Americans, engaged in guerre de course (commerce raiding) against the oppressive party, the Quraysh. Just as the American exploits against British shipping have been celebrated for their valor, so too were the Muslim military expeditions against the Quraysh courageous. The Muslims were facing off against caravans protected by heavily-armed convoys. In the very first such campaign, for instance, Muhammad dispatched Hamza “with thirty riders” against a Qurayshite caravan armed with “three hundred riders from Mecca” led by Abu Jahl.  The second such operation involved “sixty or eighty riders” from the Muslims, who “encountered a large number of Quraysh”  consisting of “more than two hundred riders led by Abu Sufyan.”  Even in these military raids, the Muslims were heavily outnumbered. Using our World War II comparison, it would be like the U.S. navy engaging in operations against enemy merchant marines that were flanked by battleships and aircraft carriers.
The perceptive reader also ought notice that these caravans were led by early Islam’s arch-enemies, such as Abu Jahl, Abu Jahl’s son Ikrima, Abu Sufyan, etc. These raids were not opportunistic acts of piracy against random persons, but rather, were legitimate military operations against a far superior foe.
* * * * *
Robert Spencer claims that the Prophet Muhammad was the most violent religious figure in history. Yet, when similar acts of violence are highlighted in his own faith tradition, suddenly he cries foul and chants “tu quoque, tu quoque!” In reality, his own religion cannot withstand the same standards he so mirthfully applies to Islam.
It is just barely an exaggeration to say that Muhammad’s raids look like girl scout outings compared to the early military exploits of the Biblical prophets and respected religious figures, i.e. the brutal conquest and annihilation of the people of Canaan by Moses, Joshua, Samson, Saul, David, etc. But, there is a specific comparison that I think necessitates closer attention: the raids led by King David.
It is beyond dispute that David (of David vs. Goliath fame) is considered highly regarded in the Jewish and Christian tradition. When the king wanted to kill him, “David found refuge in [a place called] Ziklag…and raided other [nearby] cities to stay financially afloat” (as opposed to Muhammad who signed non-aggression pacts with them). The Bible says of this:
27:8 Now David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites…
27:9 Whenever David attacked an area, he did not leave a man or woman alive, but took sheep and cattle, donkeys and camels, and clothes. Then he returned to Achish.
27:10 When Achish asked, “Where did you go raiding today?” David would say, “Against the Negev of Judah” or “Against the Negev of Jerahmeel” or “Against the Negev of the Kenites.”
27:11 He did not leave a man or woman alive to be brought to Gath, for he thought, “They might inform on us and say, ‘This is what David did.’” And such was his practice as long as he lived in Philistine territory.
David raided with such frequency that the question had to be asked of him, “[w]here did you go raiding today?” During these raids, the great David annihilated every single man, woman, and child. He then ran off with “much booty”:
From Ziklag David made an attack upon the Geshurites, Gerzites, and Amalekites, smote them without leaving a man alive, and returned with much booty.
If Robert Spencer would like to use Muhammad’s raids against the Quraysh as a blunt weapon to bludgeon the heads of Muslims with, then let us hit him back with David’s “plundering incursions”, which culminated in mass death and were part of a broader genocidal campaign. Spencer won’t be able to respond, aside from his familiar cries of “tu quoque, tu quoque!”
Of course, I am not committing a tu quoque fallacy, first and foremost because it was Robert Spencer himself who posited the thesis that Islam is more violent than any other religion–and that Muhammad was the most violent religious figure in history. Spencer has even penned a book with the title Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t. In it, he intones that Islam is more violent than both Judaism  and Christianity. It is Spencer’s central thesis, and yet when I chop off both legs of it [see footnote 70], he yells “tu quoque, tu quoque!” like the intellectual huckster he is.
In any case, this article of mine is part of the Understanding Jihad Series, which is answering the question: is Islam more violent than other religions (specifically Judaism and Christianity)? This is the fundamental question I sought ought to answer, and therefore, it is of central relevance.
* * * * *
We can summarize our argument as follows:
* The Quraysh initiated the conflict with the Muslims by persecuting them.
* For over a decade, Muhammad preached peaceful resistance against such persecution.
* Finally, the God of the Quran permitted Muhammad and his followers to defend themselves against their Qurayshite persecutors.
* Islamophobes claim that Muhammad was opportunistic, calling for peace and tolerance while in Mecca, but war and violence when he was in a position of power in Medina. But really, Muhammad declared his intention to fight the Quraysh while still in Mecca or just immediately after fleeing from it, at a time when he and the Muslims were still very weak.
* Following Muhammad’s declaration of intent to war against the Quraysh, a period similar to the Phony War of World War II came into effect. Although no major or direct military combat took place during this period, the hostilities continued in other ways: the Quraysh threatened the life of Muhammad, as well as the safety and security of the Muslim refugees and those who harbored them. The Quraysh were attempting to use their influence to coerce the people of Medina to expel or fight the Muslims. The Quraysh also confiscated Muslim property left in Mecca, and continued to persecute those Muslims who had not been able to make the journey to Medina. The Quraysh threatened to block the Muslims from returning to their homes or making religious pilgrimage, whereas the Muslims, for their part, threatened to harass Qurashite trade routes.
* Islamophobes claim that Muhammad initiated a war of aggression by targeting Qurayshite caravans. However, a state of war had already existed long before Muhammad led his military expeditions. Muhammad went on the offensive, which is not the same as initiating a war of aggression.
* Muhammad and the early Muslims used the same tactic that the American revolutionaries used against the British navy: commerce raiding. This has been a completely acceptable practice throughout history and differs from piracy in substantial ways.
* Muhammad’s intent was to compel the Quraysh to recognize the sovereignty of his new nation and make peace with it.
* Muhammad’s raids were far more morally acceptable than the early military expeditions of the Biblical prophets and religious figures, such as Moses, Joshua, Samson, Saul, David, etc., who committed genocide against the native population of Canaan. David in specific led raids to plunder the local populations and then slaughtered them down to the last man, woman, and child. This completely negates Robert Spencer’s central thesis, i.e. that Muhammad was the most violent prophet in history.
Most importantly, what is crystal clear is that the first military jihad in history was not waged against the Quraysh simply because they were non-Muslims. (Instead, Muhammad signed non-aggression pacts with neighboring non-Muslim tribes.) Jihad was not declared to fight infidels simply because they were infidels, nor was it to convert them to the faith of Islam.
The similarity between the early Muslims and the Americans during the Revolutionary War does not stop at tactics. Rather, the overarching theme is the same: the Patriots were fighting to declare their independence from the powerful British. If the American colonists were justified in waging war with the British due to high taxation and lack of representation, then how much greater right did Islam’s founding fathers have to fight off those who oppressed them for their religious beliefs, who drove them “out from their homes, only for saying ‘Our Lord is God'”? Jihad was waged by the Muslims to defend against injustice, oppression, and aggression. It is no wonder then that the nation responsible for inflicting the most injustice and oppression of Muslims today–for waging wars of aggression in their lands–would come to hate jihad so much.
1. Reuven Firestone, Jihad, p.17
2. Ibid., pp.16-17
3. Ibid., p.15
4. Having said that, I suppose it depends on one’s definition of “holy war”, with Prof. Firestone’s being the broadest possible.
5. Similar, but not identical.
6. For example, “Fight in God’s cause against those who fight against you, but do not commit aggression, for surely, God does not love aggressors.” (Quran, 2:190)
7. From Medinat al-Nabi (the Prophet’s city).
8. Firestone, p.107
9. Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions, p.755
10. Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p.283 (tr. A. Guillaume)
13. Ibn Ishaq briefly discusses the “debate” over the exact order of the initial military campaigns. However, it seems that the first was most likely Hamza’s expedition, followed by Ubayda’s.
14. Ibn Ishaq, p.281
15. Muhammad Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, p.217. Ibn Ishaq states that the contingent was led by Abu Jahl’s son Ikrima.
16. Ibn Ishaq, p.281
17. Haykal, p.217
19. Ibn Ishaq, p.285
20. Thomas Walker Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, p.30
22. Ibn Ishaq, p.296
23. Ibid., p.298
25. Robert Spencer, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), p.10
27. Saifur Rahman Al-Mubarakpuri, Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum, p.125
28. Ibn Kathir, Qasas al-Anbiya, p.390
29. Abdullah ibn Ubai had been slated to become the king of the united tribes of Medina prior to Muhammad’s arrival.
30. Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol.2, p.495
31. Tafsir Ibn Kathir, 5:67
32. Haykal, p.223
33. Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.5, Book 59, #286
34. Ibn Ishaq, p.230
37. Ibid., p.208
39. Ibid., p.213
40. F.E. Peters, The Monotheists, p.104
41. Firestone, p.54
42. Ibn Ishaq, p.221
43. Ibn Kathir, Qasas al-Anbiya, pp.151-152
44. David Horner, The Second World War: Europe, 1939-1943, p.34
45. Ibn Hisham 1/448, taken from Ar-Raheeq Al-Makthum
46. Ibn Ishaq, p.281
47. Refer to Ibn Ishaq, p.230
48. Richard Gabriel, Muhammad: Islam’s First Great General, p.73
49. Frances O’Connor, History of Islam, p.16
50. Spencer, p.5
52. Reinhart Dozy, Spanish Islam, p.16
53. Gabriel, p.73. Having said that, it should be pointed out that the caravan raids were led by Muslim Emigrants, not the Medinese.
54. Richard Gabriel is a military historian, not a scholar of Islamic history. His ideological bent can be gleaned from his previous positions in the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, which The Idiot’s Guide to the CIA describes as “[t]he CIA’s publishing division”, from which “the CIA produces its propaganda” (p.25). He was also an “expert” for the Brooking’s Institution, which (in the words of Glenn Greenwald) “[w]hen it comes to foreign policy and civil liberties” serves three functions: (1) justify war in the Muslim world, (2) provide the ideological defense for Israel’s right-wing policies, and (3) legitimize indefinite detention of Muslim suspects. Quite unsurprisingly, Gabriel’s works reveal himself to be an apologist for Israel and its war crimes, for which he was approvingly cited by the Islamophobic Daniel Pipes. What a magnificent coincidence that such a person would write a biased book against the founder of Islam. In any case, most damning of all is Gabriel’s book itself, which makes his agenda self-evident. Many anti-Islamic websites refer to his pseudo-scholarly work.
55. Joseph Morrison Skelly, Political Islam from Muhammad to Ahmadinejad, p.41
56. Joe B. Havens, Chief, p.21
57. James C. Bradford, Atlas of American Military History, pp.25-26
58. Article by Kenneth J. Hagan in Walter L. Hixson, The American Experience in World War II, Vol. I, p.269-272
59. John Whiteclay Chambers, The Oxford Companion to American Military History, pp.305-306
60. Gabriel, p.73
61. Spencer, p.5
62. Gabriel, pp.73-74
65. Chambers, pp.305-306
66. Hagan, p.269-272
67. Ibn Ishaq, p.281
69. Haykal, p.217
70. It’s interesting that Christian Islamophobes, including Robert Spencer himself, will quickly throw Judaism and Jews under the bus whenever the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) comes up or whenever the violence of Jewish prophets or Jewish law is mentioned. Yet, Spencer himself writes in his book, quoting another Islamophobe: “We cannot defend Western civilization without defending its Jewish component, without which modern Western culture would have been unthinkable. The religious identity of the West has two legs: The Christian and the Jewish ones. It needs both to stand upright. Sacrificing one to save the other is like fighting a battle by chopping off one of your legs, throwing it at the feet of the enemies, and shouting: ‘You won’t get the other one!'” (Robert Spencer, Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t, p.10)