At Muslims and Muhammad - the Impossible Task, I posted, "It is impossible that a man could finance his religious and political community by robbing the trade caravans that passed through his area on their annual trips between Arabia and Syria, and be a prophet of God."
One reader responded, "You have truly written a bad article and when taking information from books and sources that are clearly against the clear and peaceful message of Islam, it should be taken with a grain of salt and a lot more integrity and respect for honesty because most of what you have written is lies and your own opinion."
I have noticed that when Muslims are presented with the bare and unvarnished facts of Muhammad's life as presented in the original sources of Islam written 12 to 14 hundred years ago, they respond as people do when one of their friends or relatives has committed a violent crime. The first response is to deny that the accused could possibly have done such a thing. The next step is to challenge the motivations of the authorities; the police must have doctored the evidence or had it in for the accused. If the evidence presented is inconvertible, the final stage is to argue there must have been a justification for his action; it was an accident or done in self defense. There is no way, according to their thinking, that their loved one could simply have committed a cold-blooded crime.
There is no place this is more true in Islamic history than when looking at the raids that Muhammad began less than a year after moving to Medinah and continued for the rest of his life. One early biographer of Muhammad, Al Wakidi, simply entitled his book "Kitab al-Maghazi" - The Book of Raids. Another biographer, Ibn Hisham, began many of his chapters with titles such as "Ghazwat at-Tabuk" - the Raid against Tabuk. One Arabic writer commented that Muhammad's ten years in Medinah could be summarized in the phrase "ghazawatahu wa zawjatahu" - his raids and his wives. In the English translation of Ibn Ishaq's "Sirat Rasul Allah", The Life of the Prophet, the raids begin soon after Muhammad's arrival in Medinah on page 281 and continue uninterrupted until his final illness and death on page 678.
What is most striking about these original accounts, whether in Arabic or English translation, is that they are simply presented as historical fact with no explanation or justification. Bear with me as I quote Ibn Ishaq's description of the first raid led by Muhammad:
The apostle came to Medina on Monday at high noon during the month of First Rabiah, when he was 53 years old, and remained there for almost one year. Then he went forth raiding in Safar at the beginning of the 12th month from his coming to Medinah, and continued until he reached Waddan. The Beni Damrah there made peace with him through their leader Makhshi bin Amr al-Damri. Then he returned to Medinah without meeting war and remained there for the next two months.
A few months later Muhammad sent a commander named Abdallah to raid a camel caravan carrying dry raisins, dates, and other merchandise. Ibn Ishaq writes, "The raiders encouraged each other and decided to kill as many as they could and take what they had. Waqid shot Amr bin al-Hadrami with an arrow and killed him, and Uthman and al-Hakam surrendered. Abdallah and his companions brought the captured caravan and the two prisoners to Medinah where they gave the Apostle a fifth of the booty and divided the rest among his companions."
I wonder how Amr bin al-Hadrami felt as he looked up from the back of his camel and saw Muhammad's warriors swarming down upon him waving their swords and shouting "Allahu Akbar". Was his terror any different than that experienced by the young businesswoman on the 80th floor of the Twin Towers as the aircraft piloted by Muhammad's followers crashed into her office space on 9/11?
The non-Muslim historian is free to look at Muhammad's raids objectively, seeing in them the pattern of intimidation and conquest and source of revenue that has been part and parcel of Islamic history for 14 centuries. Muslim historians, unfortunately, do not have this luxery of freedom. Forced to think of Muhammad as the perfect leader and guide for all humanity, they are required to justify his raids in any way possible.
One can look at any number of recent books written by Muslims to see how they attempt to do this. In No God but God, Reza Aslan argues that the raids were a type of spring-time sporting activity that all the Arabian tribes engaged in. It's impossible to believe that Muhammad's first victim Amr bin al-Hadrami could have thought of the raid that cost his life as a type of spring fun.
Tariq Ramadan justifies the raids in The Footsteps of the Prophet by saying they were to take back the equivalent of the properties in Mecca that were expropriated from the Muslims who migrated to Medinah with Muhammad. In the first place, this is like saying if someone from Philadelphia stole my car, I could steal the vehicle of another Philadelphian in retaliation. I wonder how far that would get me in court! But even more serious is that Tariq's claim is without any historical documentation. It is important to understand that there are only a few extant writings of the early history of Islam. Their well-known authors include Ibn Hisham, Ibn Ishaq, Al-Wakidi, Ibn Sa'd, and al-Tabari. Apart from that, there is nothing. If what Tariq said was true, it would have been recorded by these early historians. It is easy for Tariq to claim to unknowing and gullible Westerners that the properties and belongings of the immigrants were stolen after their departure, but it is only his speculation, his attempt to justify Muhammad's raids.
In the Life of Muhammad, author Muhammad Haykal takes an even more fanciful approach. He agrues that the raids were really intended to make peace with the Quraysh and other enemies of Muhammad. The Muslims had to show themselves strong, according to Haykal, to entice the other tribes to seek peace with them.
Behind all these justifications is the claim that Muhammad's raids were somehow a form of self-defense. It is impossible to read them in the original Islamic source documents - not the apologies written by Aslan and Ramadan and others 14 centuries later - and conclude they were in any way undertaken in self-defense.
The camel caravans were the economic life-line for the Arab tribes in Muhammad's day. The goods that were bought and sold in destinations such as Damascus provided the foodstuffs and supplies that enabled the Arabs to live. It is impossible for me to see Muhammad's continual raiding of the Arab tribes for the last 10 years of his life as anything other than common highway robbery to build and enrich his own kingdom at the expense of his fellow Arabs. And it is impossible for me to believe that a man who would do this could be a prophet of God.