People who argue that Islam is a religion of peace often justify the raids and battles carried out by Muhammad as being defensive. After years of suffering persecution without retaliation in Mecca, they say, Allah finally allowed Muhammad to defend himself against the continued attacks of his enemies after he and his followers immigrated to Medina.
The Quran itself does not seem to make that distinction. In the first and most authoritative biography of Muhammad, Ibn Ishaq’s “The Life of the Apostle of Allah”, the author notes that the first passage given to Muhammad authorizing fighting was Quran 22:39-40, “Permission is given to fight against those who have wronged you. Allah will give victory to those who were expelled from their homes only because they said, Our Lord is Allah.” The emphasis is clearly not that Muslims were only allowed to defend themselves from attack in Medina, but were authorized to attack those who had been their opponents in Mecca.
One person who understood this was Abbas ibn Ubada. Ibn Ishaq explains the background as follows:
Yearly fairs were held outside Mecca where people came from as far away as Medina, 250 miles to the north. Muhammad regularly went to these fairs to try to convince visitors to accept him as a prophet, and on one occasion met some men from the Khazraj tribe in Medina. The Khazraj, who were illiterate idolaters, often raided their wealthier, better educated, more skilled Jewish neighbors who formed over one-half the population of Medina. The Jews used to warn them that a prophet would soon be sent to them, and when he came they would gain revenge on the Khazraj for their constant raids. When six Khazraj men heard Muhammad’s message, they concluded he was the prophet the Jews had been talking about. It was better to align themselves with him, they decided, before the Jews got to him first. The Khazraj tribe was also notorious for its lack of unity and internecine hatred. If Muhammad could unite them, they reasoned, they would be mightier than all the other tribes. For these reasons, says Ibn Ishaq, they accepted Islam. (It is interesting that their motivation for becoming Muslim was not spiritual in any sense, but based on a desire to become strong militarily and overpower the Jews).
The six returned to Medina, and told their fellow tribesmen about Muhammad. The following year they came back to the fair with some others, and twelve of them pledged themselves to Muhammad. Muhammad sent a man from Mecca named Musab back with them to read the Quran to them and give them instruction in their new religion. The next year 75 of them attended the fair and gave their allegiance to Muhammad.
One of their leaders was Abbas ibn Ubada. Before they gave their pledge to Muhammad, he warned of the seriousness of what they were about to do. “Oh men of Khazraj,” he said, “Do you realize what you are committing yourselves to when you pledge support to this man? It is to war against one and all.” He reminded them that it would be shameful for them to make the pledge, only to rescind it if they lost their leaders and their property in the wars that were to come. If they took the pledge they needed to keep to it, no matter what the consequences. Faced with the significance of their oath, they asked Muhammad what they would get in return for their loyalty. He promised them paradise, and they accepted the bargain. Ibn Ishaq notes that at least 20 of the 75 were killed in the battles of the next few years.
As soon as they completed the pledge by shaking hands with Muhammad, he told them to go back to their caravan. Abbas ibn Ubada told Muhammad they would gladly attack the Meccans with their swords the next day if the Prophet wanted them to. Muhammad’s reply was simply that he had not yet received the command to fight.
The following morning the leaders of the Meccan Quraysh tribe came to the Khazraj, saying they had heard they had invited Muhammad to leave Mecca for Medina, and had pledged themselves to him in war against them. The Quraysh leaders said they had no interest in going to war against the Khazraj, and in fact there was no Arab tribe they would fight with more reluctance. Abbas ibn Ubada noticed that one of the young Quraysh men was wearing a new pair of sandals. He said to an associate named Abu Jabir, “Why can’t you get me a pair of nice sandals like this young man has?” When the young men heard that, he took off his sandals and threw them at Abbas ibn Ubada. Abu Jabir told him, “You’ve made that young man angry, so give him back his sandals.” “By Allah, I will not,” Abbas ibn Ubada retorted, “It is a good omen and if it proves to be true I will plunder him.”
Soon afterwards Allah gave Muhammad the verses noted above authorizing war. Ibn Ishaq records that “when Allah gave permission to his apostle to fight, the Khazraj bound themselves to war against one and all for Allah and his apostle, while he promised them the reward of paradise”. Another of the Khazraj leaders said, “We pledged ourselves to war in complete obedience to the apostle come what may.” Ibn Ishaq concludes the episode by noting, “When Allah had given permission to fight, the apostle ordered his companions from Mecca to immigrate to Medina and link up with their brethren there.
A careful reading of the text prepares one for what came next. Muhammad was only in Medina a short time before he began the raids against the Quraysh trade caravans that would mark the rest of his life. Far from being defensive battles against those who were attacking him, they were offensive forays against his own people who had chosen not to accept him as the prophet he claimed to be. And Abbas ibn Ubada had all the opportunity he wanted for plunder. He undoubtedly ended up with a whole lot more than a pair of new shoes.