A Brief History of War in Earliest Islam

We’re talking about history when the Islamic prophet was still alive. It’s all there in the Quran. After reading this post, you’ll understand why there’s so much violence coming out of the Islamic world.

There is a little known word that is found everywhere in the Quran: qital. It means only warring, killing, fighting, and slaughtering. I appears more often than jihad.

To understand jihad and qital, they must be analyzed in their historical context, and we do this by tracking their development in the Quran, as it parallels Muhammad’s life. His small band of raiders grew into a huge army in a mere ten years after his immigration to Medina from Mecca in A.D. 622. As the army conquered communities, tribes, and cities, he established policies on how to govern the new territories and cities.

He set up tax policies. He told his soldiers how the spoils of conquest would be divided. He laid down the law on what to do with the prisoners of war. Yes, he really wanted his religion to prevail over all others – Christianity, Judaism, and polytheism (the worship of many gods). He also wanted to return to his hometown Mecca, after he was chased out. Islamic law emerged from these policies that are spelled out in the Quran and hadith. (For a quick definition of the Quran and hadith, please go here.)

This article covers the topics of religion, jihad, qital, and taxes, which mixed in early Islam, as well as the messenger’s (Muhammad’s) desire to return to his hometown Mecca and worship at the sacred shrine there.

The Path of Peace

In the very beginning, in Mecca, Islam was tolerant of other religions. Muhammad’s family for generations used to circle a black stone housed in the Kabah shrine in Mecca, and he did the same.[1] It had been an object of veneration for pagan Arabs, and since time immemorial they took pilgrimages to it.

But around A.D. 610 – so says tradition – he began to get revelations while living in his hometown. They took another direction from the paganism inherited from his ancestry, but he still circled the black stone.[2] He preached against their polytheism.

The Meccan pagans objected to his message. But he told them, “You have your religion and I have mine” (Quran 109:6). This verse, so admirable in many ways, came to him while he had no military or even a small band of fighters to protect him from his fellow Meccans.

By 622, the persecution grew so intense, he had to leave.[3] He went to Medina, then called Yathrib, where Muslim converts had lived – they went to Mecca on pilgrimage and converted – or had fled to Medina. He joined them there. This hijrah (flight or emigration) is so significant that Muslims mark their calendar by it, so their Year 1 began in 622 and is abbreviated, not A.D., but A.H., from the Latin “anno hegirae” or “in the year of the hijrah.”[4]

As Muhammad settled into his new town, he observed three large and thriving communities of Jews and a large number of prosperous pagans. He was unclear of his standing in Medina, for he was still not militarily strong. His religion was new, compared to the Jews and pagans there. It was around this time that he got a verse that is often cited today: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256). This verse, similar in spirit as Quran 109:6 and admirable in many ways, preaches religious tolerance.

But as he looked back toward Mecca, he reached a significant conclusion: it was unjust that he was chased out of his hometown and was not allowed to take a pilgrimage back there. So what would he do? Give up his desire to go back to Mecca, and instead start a new holy site in Medina in the name of Islam? Or would he go back secretly? Or would he fight to weaken the Meccans? The first option was available to him. Quran 109:6 and 2:256 say so. The second one was not realistic, for it was too risky. He chose the third option, to conduct raids mainly on Meccan caravans.[5]

This fateful decision to fight put into early Islam a new institutional genetic code: raiding, which eventually expanded into jihad or holy war. This is why it is so important to find out which chapters in the Quran were revealed in Mecca, where he was not militarily strong, so the verses are peaceful, and which chapters were revealed in Medina, where many (not all) verses encourage, even command jihad.[6]

The Call to Fight

Chapter 47 of the Quran was revealed early in Medina and is titled either “Muhammad” or “War.” The motive Muhammad reveals to fight is to take revenge on the Meccans for chasing him out of his hometown. Allah destroyed disobedient towns in the past, and Mecca is next. “We [Allah] have destroyed many a town stronger than your own [Prophet] – [Mecca] the town which [chose to] expel you – and they had no one help them” (v. 13).[7]

Further, he was asked why no verse was yet sent down from on high about war (vv. 20-21). Now he got one.

4 So, when you meet (in fight – Jihad in Allah’s cause) those who disbelieve, smite (their) necks till when you have killed or wounded [th-kh-n] many of them, then bind a bond firmly (on them, i.e. take them as captives). Thereafter (is the time) either for generosity (i.e. free them without ransom), or ransom (according to what benefits Islam), until war lays down its burden[8] . . . . (Quran 47:4)

In the near future and beyond, Islamic armies will be permitted to kill enemies in battle and to bind up prisoners of war. Then these captives can be released freely without ransom, or be released only after a ransom is paid. Payment for humans produced money for Islam. The root in the brackets means “subdue thoroughly, have a regular fight, cause much slaughter, have a triumphant war  . . . to do something great, make much slaughter, overcome, battle strenuously”; “to slay in great numbers, to make a wide slaughter, to massacre (the enemy).”[9]

Simple economics says that keeping captives as slaves benefited their owners. “And forbidden to you are wedded wives of other people except those who have fallen in your hands (as prisoners of war)”[10] . . . (Quran 4:24). This verse says that marrying a woman who is already married is off limits, but if she is a captive slave and married, then she can be married. But we do not need to get lost in the marriage details, because interpretations of this verse vary on that one point.[11] The main conclusion to draw, for our purposes here, is that keeping war captives as slaves was permitted. Even if no marriage takes place, such slaves were an economic boon to the owners (cf. Quran 4:3; 23:5-6; and 33:50).

In another early chapter of the Quran Muhammad reveals his frustration with the Meccan pagans, and he gets another command to fight them:

216 Fighting [q-t-l] has been ordained for you, though it is hard for you . . . 217 To bar others from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him, prevent access to the Sacred Mosque [the Kabah in Mecca], and expel its people, are still greater offences in God’s eyes: persecution is worse the killing [q-t-l].”[12] (Quran 2:216-217)

This verse appears in the context of a raid he sent out in 623, in which blood was shed. His justification for the bloodshed is that persecution is worse than killing, from his point of view. The three-letter root is the Arabic word qital, meaning fighting, killing, warring, and slaughtering. It has a much more restricted meaning than jihad (root is j-h-d), which can also mean killing, but j-h-d has the primary definition of striving and struggling.[13] Muslims were commanded to fight, though they may dislike it.[14] More importantly the Kabah shrine was dear to him, and he aims to fight possibly to get it back – or at least to harass those who barred him.

The Battle of Badr

Muhammad’s mostly unsuccessful raids in 623 grew into bigger battles. In 624, he and about 300 raiders confronted a Meccan caravan at a group of wells called Badr, near the coast on the Red Sea, about a two or three day journey by foot or horseback from Medina.[15] The Meccan caravan had finished their business up north in Syria and was heading home. The Meccan traders got word that Muhammad planned to attack, so they sent a message to their hometown to send reinforcements. About 1,000 showed up, but remarkably the Muslims won the battle.

Chapter 8, in its entirety, celebrates this victory. First Muhammad recalls his past persecution: “Remember when you were few, victimized in the land, afraid that people might catch you” (v. 26). “Remember [Prophet] when the disbelievers [Meccans] plotted to take you captive, kill, or expel you” (v. 30).

Then he recounts the Meccans’ transgression of barring him from the Kabah shrine: “Yet why should God not punish them when they debar people from the Sacred Mosque, although they are not its [rightful] guardians” (v. 34).[16] He commands his followers to fight the Meccans. “Fight [q-t-l] them until there is no more persecution, and all worship is devoted to God alone” (v. 39). The clause “all worship is devoted to God alone” is a prediction of what Islamic policy will become: fighting for Islam, monotheism. He says that “they are the worst creatures in the sight of God who reject Him and will not believe” (v. 55).

Next, Chapter 8 continues by saying, “Prophet, urge the believers to fight [q-t-l]: if there are twenty of you who are steadfast, they will overcome two hundred, and a hundred of you, if steadfast, will overcome a thousand of the disbelievers, and a steadfast thousand of you will defeat two thousand” (v. 65). In verses 39 and 65 the strong Arabic word qital is used, and, as noted, it means only fighting and killing physically and militarily. It does not mean just an inner struggle against vices.

However, Muhammad offers peace. “But if they incline towards peace, you [Prophet] must also incline towards it.” Despite the battle he just won, he was willing to have peace, presumably to take pilgrimages to the sacred shrine back in Mecca.

In any case, with his victory, Muhammad lays out the rules for the spoils of war.

1 They ask you [Prophet] about [distributing] the battle gains. Say, “That is a matter for God and His Messenger, so be mindful of God and make things right between you. Obey God and His Messenger if you are true believers” . . . 41 Know that one-fifth of your battle gains belongs to Gods and the Messenger[17] . . . (Quran 8:1, 41)

The rest of v. 41 goes on to say that Muhammad gets to distribute the twenty percent as he wants, for close relatives, orphans, the needy, and travelers. Collecting the spoils of war was done in pre-modern Arab culture, and Muhammad followed the custom. “God helped you at Badr when you were weak” (Quran 3:123).[18]

Before we leave the Battle of Badr, we can compare 8:41 with a verse in another chapter. This one says that Muhammad can distribute alms taxes in a similar way as the schematic laid out in 8:41.

Alms are for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer the (funds); for those whose hearts have been (recently) reconciled (to Truth); for those in bondage and in debt; in the cause of God; and for the wayfarer: (thus is it) ordained by God, and God is full of knowledge and wisdom.[19] (Quran 9:60)

Thus Quran 8:41 says that one-fifth of the spoils go to the needy, while 9:60 here says that alms – sometimes collected from the defeated enemies after conquests – can be similarly used. This may involve funding anyone who recently converted, “whose hearts have been reconciled” to the truth (Islam).

Battle of Uhud

In 625, the Meccans responded to their defeat, going north to Medina with an army. The conflict, named the Battle of Uhud, after a hill near Medina, was a minor defeat for the Muslims. A part of Chapter 3 of the Quran deals with the battle, and these verses talk of the loss. “Do not lose heart or despair – if you are true believers you have the upper hand – if you have suffered a blow, they too have suffered one like it” (vv. 139-140). “God fulfilled His promise to you: you were routing them, with His permission, but then you faltered, disputed the order, and disobeyed . . . You fled without looking back while the Messenger was calling out to you from behind, and God rewarded you with sorrow for sorrow” (vv. 152-153). The order to fight had been given: “Come, fight [q-t-l] for God’s cause, or at least defend yourselves” (v. 167).

After the battle, however, Muhammad looked around and concluded that his community was still together, though he worried that if he were harsh with them, they would abandon him (v. 159). He lost his prestige, but nothing substantial. As for those who lost their lives, he reassured himself and the family members, “Do not think of those who have been killed in God’s way as dead. They are alive with their Lord, well provided for” (v. 169). These reassuring words also kept the community together.[20] Finally, he still yearned for the Kabah shrine. “The first House [of worship] to be established for people was the one at Bakka [Mecca]” (v. 96).

Expulsion of Two Jewish Tribes

Muhammad’s Atrocity against the Qurayza Jews

In 625 – or perhaps in 624 – Muhammad exiled the Qaynuqa tribe of Jews. They worked in the crafts, and many of the Muslims who emigrated from Mecca to Medina also worked in them, but they were unemployed because their trade was already dominated by the Jews. As the Jews departed, they were told to leave behind their tools. “The Banu [tribe] Qaynuqa did not have any land, as they were goldsmiths [and armor-makers]. The Messenger of God took many weapons belonging to them and the tools of their trade.”[21] Another motive for banishment was that Muhammad claimed that the Jews colluded with the Meccans – a betrayal, in effect.

Still in 625, Muhammad expelled the Nadir tribe of Jews from Medina, claiming that they refused to pay money and were going to assassinate him. He besieged them in their stronghold and started destroying their date palms. With their livelihood undergoing destruction, they surrendered and left town. He got possession of their date trees.

2 God came upon [the Jews of the Nadir tribe] from where they least expected and put panic into their hearts: their homes were destroyed by their own hands, and the hands of the believers [Muslims] . . . 5 Whatever you [believers] may have done to [their] palm trees – cutting them down or leaving them standing on their roots – was done by God’s leave, so that He might disgrace those who defied Him.[22] (Quran 59:2, 5)

Battle of the Trench

The next major battle took place in 627, called the Battle of the Trench, because to counter the Meccan cavalry the Muslims dug a trench to the north of Medina. The other three points of the compass were protected by old, dry lava flows and other natural barriers. The Meccans were fed up with the raids and conflicts, so they intended to eliminate him. Tradition says the Meccans mustered 10,000 troops and marched up north.

However, after a month without serious fighting, they withdrew, because a fair was beginning back in Mecca, and they needed to make some money. The mosque or Kabah shrine in Mecca still played a key role in Muhammad’s life, even at this late date. Allah speaks to him: “Do not let your hatred for the people who barred you from the Sacred Mosque induce you to break the law: help one another to do what is right and good; do not help one another towards sin and hostility” (Quran 5:2).[23] But there is a monetary motive to get the Kabah shrine back: “God has made the Ka‘ba [Kabah] – the Sacred House – a means of support for people”[24] (v. 97). Pilgrims from all over Arabia produced a lot of money for the Meccans.

Massacre and Enslavement of a Jewish Tribe

Immediately after the Meccan withdrawal, Muhammad claimed that the Qurayzah tribe of Jews betrayed him and had been about to attack him from the rear while the Meccans were in the area. The Jews had promised to stay neutral, but they may have plotted something. Yet they did not actually attack the Muslims. For their alleged betrayal, they were put on trial. The sentence was death by decapitation for the 600-900 men and boys who reached puberty, while the women and children were sold into slavery.[25] The Quran records the conflict and aftermath:

25 God sent back the disbelievers [Meccans and their allies] along with their rage – they gained no benefit – and spared the believers from fighting [q-t-l]. He is strong and mighty. 26 He brought those of the People of the Book [Qurayzah] who supported them down from their fortresses and cast panic into their hearts. Some of them you [believers] killed [q-t-l] and some you took captive. 27 He passed on to you their land, their houses their possessions, and a land where you have never set foot: God has power over everything”[26] (Quran 33:25-27).

Selling the women and children into slavery got Islam a lot of money, and so did possessing the Qurayzah’s land and houses. Thus the third and final tribe of Jews was gone from Medina.

Conquest of Mecca

In early 630 Muhammad conquered Mecca. He had traveled there in 629 after a peace treaty was signed in 628.[27] Around this time he predicts: “He has promised you [people] many future gains [spoils]: He has hastened this gain for you”[28] (Quran 48:20). The same word for “spoils” here appears in Quran 8:41, which shows the Muslim how to divide the spoils of war. One gain, in addition to the money he was about to collect from the conquest of the city, he got to walk around the black stone housed in the Kabah. He judged the city to be weak, perhaps from all the raids and battles. Then he claimed that the Meccans broke the treaty and attacked first. “How could you not fight [q-t-l] a people who have broken their oaths, who tried to drive the Messenger out, who attacked you first?” (Quran 9:13).[29]

Whatever the case, he mustered out 10,000 Muslims and their allies and marched south from Medina to Mecca. He surrounded the city at night and told his soldiers to light bonfires to intimidate the Meccans. They surrendered, but not without the bloodshed of twenty-four men who put up some resistance.[30] Now at last he took control of the Kabah shrine.

At first he allowed the Meccans, though pagans, to administer their own shrine (Quran 9:19). It was their custom. However, he soon barred them. “Believers, those who ascribe partners to God [polytheists] are truly unclean: do not let them come near the Sacred Mosque after this year” (Quran 9:28; cf. v. 18). As pilgrims came to Mecca to visit the shrine, he controlled the resources. It became a “means of support” for Islam (Quran 5:97). His mission was accomplished and his heart’s desire fulfilled. He is the one with the upper hand and military power. Thus, Quran 109:6 and 2:256 – both of which taught religious tolerance – disappeared.

After this conquest, still other pagans around Mecca supposedly broke a treaty or oath with Muhammad. He declared war on them.

5 . . . Then fight and slay [q-t-l] the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity [zakat], then open the way for them[31] . . .  11 If they repent, keep up the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms [zakat], then they are your brothers in faith  . . . 12 But if they break their oath . . . 14 Fight [q-t-l] them: God will punish them at your hands, He will disgrace them, He will help you conquer them.” (Quran 9:5, 11, 12, and 14)

The zakat tax is the third of the Five Pillars of Islam – all requirements.[32] He can impose it on the pagans. In the bigger picture Chapter 9 of the Quran was one of the last to be revealed, if not the very last one. Many believe that its verses have final say over the earlier peaceful ones. Certainly Chapter 9 has been used to set later Islamic policies, after armies conquered territories, and as Muslim governors and commanders then imposed either this zakat tax on the newly conquered territories, or they imposed what is known as the jizyah tax, usually this one, which we look at next.[33]

Tabuk Campaign

In late 630 Muhammad is not finished with his conquests. He heard a rumor that a large force of Byzantines – the old eastern Roman empire – had gathered their forces to go south and attack Islam. To counter this threat, he led about 20,000 to 30,000 troops north to the town of Tabuk, in northern Saudi Arabia today.

However, underestimating Islamic aggression, the Byzantines never showed up.[34] Islam was too far to the south and too insignificant at this time in its history. Along the way, though, Muhammad forced the small and disunited tribes of Jews and Christians (People of the Book, the Bible) to pay a poll tax or fight him and die or become Muslims. Here are the options revealed in the Quran.

29 Fight [q-t-l] against those who (1) believe not in Allah, (2) nor in the Last Day, (3) nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger (Muhammad), (4) and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (i.e. Islam) among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.[35] (Quran 9:29)

Historically the options become fight and die; or surrender, keep their faith, and pay a tax; or become Muslims. This verse says that Islam fights People of the Book for religious and theological reasons and imposes on them a religious tax, called the jizyah, In Islamic history this turned out to be a poll (submission) tax on Jews and Christians living under Islam, after its armies swept through and conquered a territory.

Vanquished Jews and Christians became known as dhimmis. This word appears in Quran 9:8 and 10, meaning a “treaty” or “oath,” but it can also mean those who are “condemned” “reviled” or “reproved” (Quran 17:18, 22; 68:49).[36] The phrase “willing submission” can also be translated as “humiliation,” “utterly humbled,” “contemptible” or “vile.” It can mean “small” as opposed to “great.”[37] Finally, in actual practice the phrase means that they became citizens of sorts who lived under Islam and had to pay the jizyah.

In addition to getting the Kabah shrine back and imposing taxes on the conquered, another reason Muhammad fought is spelled out in Quran 9:33:

33 It is He who has sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth, to show that it is above all [other] religions, however much the idolaters may hate this.[38]

This verse is repeated two more times, word for word, in Quran 61:9 and 48:28. This repetition shows how important the religious and theological purpose of Islamic warfare is. But more significantly, v. 33 appears right after v. 29, which says to fight Jews and Christians. Islam must get the upper hand over all religions, particularly polytheism (cf. “idolaters”), Judaism and Christianity.[39]


As Muhammad lived his life in Medina, he started out with a band of raiders, and then success piled on top of success. His army eventually grew to 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers. He developed the rules of war, especially the regulation about imposing taxes on the conquered. Specifically, he allowed Christians and Jews to live under Islam, but they had to pay the jizyah, a religious submission tax. The dhimmis lived below Muslims, and all lived under Islam. So religion and warfare are mixed in with taxation. Islam has to prevail over all religions.

Muhammad was part of his culture. It conducted raids against caravans, and so did he. And whenever it could muster a large army, it waged war (qital), and so did he. If it distributed the spoils of jihad, then he did too. If slavery was an institution, then he practiced it too. If his culture permitted sex with female captives and slaves, then he allowed it too. People took pilgrimages to the black stone in Mecca, and so did he.

Everyone has a right to follow his culture and to be judged accordingly – never mind that some reformers and forward-looking individuals rise above their culture and take a better and higher path.[40] But in a sense he outgrew his culture and expanded its customs into a worldwide jihad, taxation policies, enslavement regulations, and overarching laws that govern all of them.

Original Islam – and throughout its long history, since early Islam set the institutional genetic code – combined religion and warfare. Although jihad can mean in some contexts an inner struggle and a social endeavor to improve society, jihad indeed means holy war. Qital also appears in the Quran, more frequently in fact than jihad, and qital’s meaning is much more restricted: killing, fighting, warring, and slaughtering.

The Quran is the foundation of shariah law. And it should now be clear why jihad and qital have such a deeply rooted hold on the Islam of today. It is very difficult to give up those verses in a text believed to be given directly by Gabriel himself, from Allah, with no regard to the Quran’s historical context. That sacred book is somehow immune from history, but is eternal, and therefore must be implemented, every bit of it, in the modern world.


A Brief History of War in the Earliest Caliphates

See these articles in another series:

1 Introduction to the Sword in Early Christianity and Islam

2 The Mission of Jesus and the Sword

3 The Mission of Muhammad and the Sword

4 The Gospels and the Sword

5 The Quran and the Sword

6 Two Kinds of Swords

7 The Early Church and the Sword

8 The Early Muslim Community and the Sword

9 The Sword and the Jews in Early Christianity and Islam

10 Martyrdom and the Sword in Early Christianity and Islam

11 Q and A on the Sword in Early Christianity and Islam

12 Conclusion to Series: Sword in Early Christianity and Islam

Also see these posts:

Is the Bible More Violent Than the Quran?

Are Christianity and Islam Equally Violent?

The Truth about Islamic Jihad and Imperialism: A Timeline

Islamic Jihad v. European Crusades

The West’s Struggle with Islam

4 Jihad and Qital in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Law

All the Jihad Verses in the Quran

Qital (Warfare) Verses in the Quran

Islamic Martyrdom: The Economy of Death in the Quran

The Ultimate Goal of Islam


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