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Muhammad under Fire: The Art of Waging Peace and Humane Engagement

Muhammad under Fire: The Art of Waging Peace and Humane Engagement

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Opinion Religious Discourse

Wednesday 20 December 202312:25 pm

Dashing frantically amidst corpses on the smoldering battlefield of Uhud, the prophet Muhammad desperately sought his beloved uncle Hamzah, who had gone missing. The Meccan surprise attack on Medina on the Saturday morning of March 23, 625, had nearly destroyed Muhammad’s ragtag band of defenders. The prophet himself had almost been assassinated, rescued only at the last-minute by a brave group of female followers. After a counter-surge at last sent the Meccans retreating home, Muhammad encountered the aftermath of a brutal battle.

When Muhammad finally found his uncle, he fell speechless at the gruesome scene before him. Hamzah’s body was savagely mutilated: face disfigured; nose and ears cut off; torso ripped apart; and entrails scattered across the field. Hamzah’s liver lay thrown to the side, a clear bite mark on its exterior and bits of spat-out chewed liver sizzling on the scorching sands.

Muhammad dropped to his knees and tenderly embraced his uncle’s maimed corpse. His garments soon became soaked with Hamzah’s blood as well as his own tears. The prophet’s sobs reverberated across the eerily still battlefield.

This was the latest in a series of devastating blows. Muhammad’s wife had been starved to death after a two-year imprisonment imposed on Muhammad’s family by the Meccan elite. His daughter had died the previous year due to wounds she suffered after being savagely yanked from a camel onto a rock, her eight-month fetus crushed as his daughter lay in a pool of blood. Years earlier, he had watched helplessly as one of his first followers, a woman of Yemenite Jewish origin named Sumayyah, was tortured by the Meccan elite and ultimately impaled through her womb.

Yet nothing had prepared Muhammad for the ferocious defilement of his uncle. Witnessing the horrific scene and intense pain on their prophet’s face, Muhammad’s followers angrily vowed: “When we defeat the Meccans, we will mutilate 30 of them for what they have done to Hamzah!”

Absorbed in his mourning, the prophet remained silent. A few days later, however, a new Quranic revelation cautioned restraint: “If you feel compelled to respond, only do so in a balanced and proportionate manner – and remember that choosing to forgive from a position of resilience offers greater healing and a far better outcome!” (16:126).

The call to forgive without forgetting would inspire Muhammad years later when he finally came face to face with the combatant who had mutilated his uncle. Rather than demand vengeance, the prophet instead sought closure. “Describe to me how you killed Hamzah,” he insisted, tearing up as the warrior recounted the battlefield defilement. After Muhammad flinched in agony at the description, he looked away from the man and anxiously admitted: “If I ever see you again, it will reignite the piercing pain of witnessing his defiled body.” His sole request was that the mutilator stay away from his sight to avoid evoking the traumatic scene.

Contrary to the mythical image of Muhammad as bold conqueror, the prophet of Islam endured a life of what could be crushing trauma and suffering. From his father’s dying before he was even born to his mother’s sudden death when he was only six, Muhammad navigated Arabian society as an orphan who depended on the kindness of foster parents and mentors. Even after he achieved financial success as an entrepreneur, his lack of male heirs limited his influence in a tribal society. Publicly revealing early Quranic revelations then turned him into an outcast, as the Meccan public at first laughed off his calls for ending a state of widespread stagnation and then actively persecuted his small underground movement. His insistence on persevering despite the odds came at an enormous price, and he would spend two decades enduring countless setbacks, including assassination attempts and several full-scale invasions against his community.

In fact, the Meccans’ attack on Medina in 625 intended to wipe out Muhammad and the citizens of Medina who had given him refuge. The Meccans deviously timed their invasion for a Saturday morning knowing that Medina’s Jewish population would be unable to take up arms to protect Muhammad on the Sabbath. The city itself had been founded around an oasis by Jews forcibly displaced by the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem over 1,000 years earlier. The inhabitants of Medina had warmly welcomed Muhammad after the Meccans put a bounty on his head, risking their political neutrality to provide refuge for a persecuted leader who was partly a native son – as Muhammad’s mother and paternal grandfather had been born in the city.

 Muhammad clarified: “One helps an oppressor by holding him back from committing aggression.” True loyalty was not following one’s tribe no matter what but rather caring enough to hold them accountable to moral standards. 

When the Meccans massed outside Medina on Friday evening, a rabbi named Mukhairiq refused to sit by passively. In a passionate speech to his congregation, Rabbi Mukhairiq insisted: “The Sabbath is not a barrier to doing one’s duty.” He then marched out of the synagogue, followed by nearly 100 congregants, and insisted on standing on the frontline of Muhammad’s small defense force. Mukhairiq’s religious garb was clearly visible to the opposing Meccan army of 3,000 warriors. The attackers needed to know that the Jews of Medina were united with their non-Jewish neighbors in opposing aggression and protecting Muhammad.

Along with Muhammad’s uncle, Rabbi Mukhairiq was another casualty of the Battle of Uhud. With a heavy heart, Muhammad buried him in a grave next to Hamzah, as a new Quranic revelation declared: “Remember the many rabbis who fought and died alongside prophets; they neither wavered in the face of overwhelming odds on the path toward the Divine, nor showed signs of weakness, nor allowed themselves to feel victimized” (3:146).

The neighboring graves of Hamzah and Mukhairiq can still be found on the outskirts of Medina, a physical testament to the unusual coalition that safeguarded the prophet’s message from annihilation in its most precarious moment. Of course, Hamzah remains a household name in Muslim societies, while Rabbi Mukhairiq has been almost entirely forgotten. This historical amnesia comes despite the fact that the rabbi bequeathed seven lush orchards to Muhammad’s guardianship, property that formed the first Muslim Waqf (“charitable endowment”) to support widows and orphans. Remarkably, Mukhairiq’s Waqf still exists, and his orchards can be visited just north of Salman’s Well in Medina.

As tensions between Muslims and Jews spike around the world, this lost history assumes renewed relevance. If the prophet Muhammad is upheld as a uniquely inspiring example for Muslims to emulate, it is crucial to renew appreciation both for how he responded to extreme trauma with remarkable sophistication and for how he displayed respect for Jews and the Jewish tradition. While the past offers no direct analog to the present, it can nonetheless provide hope to people seeking guidance in times of great confusion and distress. For a break from the present’s bleak headlines, let us return to the crucible of Islam’s formation amidst terrible persecution in 7th Century Arabia.

* * *

On September 16, 622, Muhammad stood in the courtyard of Rabbi Mukhairiq’s home and around him gathered seventy of Medina’s elders. Just two months earlier, Muhammad had escaped a band of assassins who waited outside his own home in Mecca and he had fled bounty hunters through the desert to refuge in Medina. Upon arrival in the lush oasis, he discovered that beneath the pastoral surface Medina was reeling from social strife, corruption, and disputes over limited resources, with destructive envy and unhealthy grievances felt on all sides. After spending several weeks assessing the scene, he brought together the city’s leaders to try to end the festering civic conflict.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year holiday, had concluded the day before, and Muhammad symbolically stood flanked by two of the city’s leading rabbis to help inaugurate a new era. At Muhammad’s encouragement, leaders of each tribe presented the rights they sought under a new civic order. After everyone finished, Muhammad identified their common concerns and proposed a series of tenets that could address them. Scribes combined these in a formal “Constitution of Medina” that recognized the rights of each individual tribe and each person within a tribe (including women, children, and the enslaved) – while binding all groups together in a pact.

The Constitution invoked the concept of an Ummah, an ancient Arabian agreement used to stipulate how different herders shared a common watering hole. A well guardian directed access to the water in an orderly manner. Similarly, the new Ummah of Medina would be guided by a formal agreement to share land and resources, as well as mediate disputes and mobilize a unified defense from external threats. The Constitution replaced a broken and dysfunctional system with a shared understanding of rights and obligations. Notably, the text of the Constitution made clear that this Ummah included many Jewish tribes (e.g., “the Jews of Bani Najjar”) alongside Muhammad’s Muslim followers and even some pagans. Indeed, the Qur`an repeatedly invokes the term Ummah broadly to describe any collective that upholds shared values. The re-defining of the term as an exclusively Muslim collective would happen for political reasons more than a half-century after Muhammad’s death.

Muhammad insisted that the pact signed by tribal elders in Rabbi Mukhairiq’s home be read throughout Medina so all inhabitants understood the terms of the new social order. Knowing their rights enabled Medinians to hold their leaders accountable, which was their own civic obligation under the terms of the Constitution. Citizens, in Muhammad’s conception, could not remain passive but rather had a responsibility to ensure responsible leadership. Scribes who had written down the text of the Constitution held public readings throughout the city.

At one of these readings, Muhammad stood up to elucidate the responsibility of individuals. Invoking Arabia’s ancient tribal code, he declared: “Support your brother whether he is oppressed or an oppressor.” The crowd was shocked to hear what sounded like an endorsement of blind loyalty over reason and discernment. “It is understandable to support someone when they are oppressed, but how can we support an oppressor?” they asked in astonishment.

The prophet clarified: “One helps an oppressor by holding him back from committing aggression.” True loyalty was not following one’s tribe no matter what but rather caring enough to hold them accountable to moral standards. Muhammad would repeat this declaration numerous times over the next decade as a reminder to his followers that they had an obligation to act against transgression, especially from within their own tribe. The Qur'an would remind people to avoid the corrupting temptations of blind tribalism: “Stand firm in justice bearing witness to the truth even if it be against your own selves or your parents or your relatives.” (4:135). And: “Beware of following your prejudices by deviating from justice and acting unjustly” (5:8). These verses echo one of the Torah’s most iconic injunctions, “You shall not be biased in judgment; listen to the weak and the powerful equally. Judge fairly between Israelite and stranger alike. Take no bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice, you shall actively pursue.” (Exodus 23:8).

Guided by a Constitution and a spirit of civic accountability, Medina began to thrive, even as the Meccans sent marauders to terrorize the outskirts of Medina. When a drought hit Arabia, Medina’s grain storehouses and water cisterns enabled the city to avoid the famine that crushed the region. Muhammad insisted that Medina share its food reserves with the Meccans, even though their bounty on his head remained. “Remember well that they have hopes and fears just like you,” reminded the Qur’an. “What pains them also pains you” (4:104). Without relief supplies from Medina, many at-risk children in Mecca would die.

“The good deed is not equal to the harmful deed; therefore, push away aggression with kindness and understanding,” further explained the Qur’an. “For if you do so, then a seeming antagonist can be transformed into the dearest and most loyal of friends. Yet be aware that only those with maturity and foresight can transform animosity into friendship – and know that anyone who can achieve such a difficult task is truly fortunate and successful!” (41:34-35).

Of course, the Meccan elders who had vilified Muhammad for years were humiliated at having to accept aid from their perceived enemy. Rather than interpret the food supplies as a gesture for reconciliation, the Meccans instead hardened their hearts and began to plan for war. It would not be honorable combat with a formal declaration of hostilities but a surprise attack on a defenseless city. Over 1,000 warriors from Mecca would sneak up on Medina to sack the city and murder Muhammad. They planned to quarter his corpse and hang each part from a different entrance to Mecca as a graphic warning that any challenger to the established order would be met with merciless destruction.

Muhammad was alerted to their plans by a secret messenger, who delivered the news that the Meccan army was less than two weeks away. For 15 years, Muhammad had preached a philosophy of principled non-violence. Despite all the physical and verbal assaults on his movement, Muhammad had long forbidden his followers from retaliating. But the nascent success story of Medina’s Ummah was suddenly at-risk of complete annihilation. A prophet who had never once physically fought anyone in his life faced an existential crisis.

A new Quranic revelation suggested that while the Divine did not condone violence, in extreme cases self-defense was grudgingly tolerated: “Permission is granted to those who are attacked, because they have been greatly oppressed” (22:39). The verse could not even bring itself to directly say “self-defense,” instead only implying via context.

Contrary to popular perception, the Qur’an never invokes the concept of Jihad in reference to war. The word Qital is used to convey fighting and self-defense, whereas the root J-H-D appears only to evoke the “extensive and calculated effort” to help improve the world. The term Jihad literally refers to “contractions of childbirth,” and metaphorically “strenuous and determined efforts to nurture vitality.” No military force under Muhammad’s command would ever invoke the term, which would only be repurposed by Muslim political leaders for military expansion decades after the prophet’s death. (More than a century after his death, political factions would also invent myths of Muhammad supposedly massacring various Jewish tribes in Arabia – none of which are supported by historical evidence yet sadly inspire contemporary antisemitic chants. In fact, these myths have been debunked by major Islamic scholars like Imam Al-Awza‘i, Imam Malik, and many others).

Scared by the Meccan invading force, Muhammad’s followers wanted to take shelter in Medina’s storage forts to defend the city guerrilla-style. Yet the prophet refused to endanger the city’s civilians and insisted on facing death in the open. Instead, he decided to organize a rag-tag band of 314 men to meet the Meccan army some 90 miles outside Medina, by the wells of Badr.

When Muhammad’s motley crew arrived at Badr in advance of the Meccans, he set down clear principles for the looming battle. First, no non-combatants could be harmed or taken captive, including the opposing army’s cooks, servants, concubines, and nurses, provided they did not take up arms. Second, the local environment could not be damaged, including poisoning wells, disfiguring trees, or burning crops. The battle should be limited and contained.

Though outnumbered almost four to one, Muhammad’s forces used innovative psychological strategies to create the impression they were a larger force. Remarkably, the Meccans were defeated quickly and rushed home in humiliation, though seventy Meccans were taken prisoner. The prophet had to quickly establish rules for captives, as his fighters instinctively bound the prisoners and forced them to languish in the sun. Muhammad insisted the men be untied, given water, and treated humanely. Each captive would be hosted as a guest by families in Medina, even joining family meals. Prisoners could earn their freedom by teaching ten locals how to read or be ransomed by their relatives. POWs who were illiterate and from poor families were released immediately to relatives at no price.

For a year, Medina enjoyed quiet, until the Meccans returned with an even larger force for the surprise attack at the Battle of Uhud. After Muhammad buried Hamzah and Mukhairiq, he updated the code of battlefield conduct to include a ban on torturing and mutilating opponents. Soldiers should either capture or aim for a swift kill. Indeed, anyone who surrenders or seeks peace should be spared. Looting of any kind was strictly banned as a form of theft in contrast to the distribution of war booty which was permissible.

Two years later, the Meccans decided to resolve their Muhammad problem once and for all. They mobilized a force of 12,000 men, including mercenaries promised a share of the spoils once Medina was conquered, including taking women and children as slaves. Once again, Muhammad received advanced warning and had to quickly innovate new defense strategies. His Persian follower Salman suggested a brilliantly simple solution: dig a wide trench along Medina’s exposed northern flank that no horse could jump across. The trench would protect the city and prevent direct combat.

The Meccan force of 12,000 arrived outside Medina yet could not approach the city because of the trench. For weeks, the opposing forces mostly stared at one another across the chasm. A few horsemen tried to breach the gap, but failed. Meanwhile, Muhammad established a medical center for treating the wounded called Dar Ash-Shifa (the Abode of Healing) and instructed that any wounded opponent be given medical treatment. Amazingly, only eight fighters in total died during these skirmishes, and the Meccan alliance eventually splintered as various mercenaries gave up to head home. What could have been a blood bath ended instead with a whimper.

The firm warning of At-Tawbah was clear: Fight to stop them but not to replicate their actions -- an expression of hope that murderers might still change, repeatedly acknowledging anger, while offering avenues of de-escalation to avoid vengeance.

* * *

Eager to avoid further military conflict, Muhammad mobilized an unarmed march on Mecca. Fourteen hundred men, women, and even children dressed in white began walking toward Mecca without weapons. The peaceful procession created a dilemma for the Meccan elders. Slaughtering the marchers would make them look like shameful brutes, but allowing Muhammad and his followers to enter Mecca would also be humiliating. Muhammad’s ingenious strategy thus forced the Meccans to sue for peace. At the wells of Hudaibiyyah, the two sides agreed to a peace treaty, one with terms so generous to the Meccans that Muhammad’s followers were furious at his capitulation.

Muhammad insisted on signing the treaty because he understood that the end of hostilities would give his movement the freedom to build new alliances beyond Arabia. Since the treaty stipulated limiting Muhammad’s access to the sphere of Mecca and her allies, he would circumvent the restriction by forging economic and political ties with the surrounding tribes and empires, consequently isolating the Meccans. Signing peace treaties served as a more effective way to win the conflict than waging war.

Once again, Muhammad’s strategies infuriated the Meccans. They watched in horror as his following grew ten-fold, along with his international prestige. The terms of the peace treaty that initially seemed so beneficial instead felt like a straitjacket preventing them from directly attacking Muhammad. The only way out was to find surreptitious means of provoking Muhammad’s wrath so that the prophet might be recast as an aggressor and the Meccans as victims. Rather than do the dirty work themselves, the Meccans quietly hired mercenaries to massacre unarmed pagan allies of Muhammad’s during a visit to Mecca.

The tribe, the Banu Khuza‘ah, had camped on Mecca’s outskirts with women, children, and the elderly as part of a pagan pilgrimage to honor their tribal idols at the Ka‘bah shrine. In the evening, as families sat by their tents around the campfire, masked assassins dressed in black suddenly emerged from the shadows and began slitting the throats of every person they could seize. A small group of the Banu Khuza‘ah rushed to the Ka‘bah, knowing that the holy sanctuary was a recognized refuge site. Yet as they desperately clung to the tapestries covering the Ka‘bah, the assassins mercilessly slaughtered them like sheep.

One survivor, feigning to be dead by lying beneath a pile of bodies, witnessed the horrors. Bloodied and injured, he stumbled across the desert for two weeks before arriving in Medina and collapsing outside the main mosque. As Muhammad listened to the survivor’s testimony, his face turned deep red and his forehead wrinkled with worry, though he remained silent. Muhammad had often reminded himself and his followers not to act on emotions, famously teaching La Taghdhab! – “Refrain from acting while enraged!” He also taught that the “strongest person is the one who can restrain and reground himself in moments of rage.”

On the eve of the conquest of Mecca, Muhammad gathered his commanders to remind them about his code of military ethics. “No doors of homes will be forced open, no houses will be sacked and pillaged, and anyone who remains in their abode shall be safe!” 

The next day a new Quranic chapter was revealed, yet for the first time it did not begin by invoking the name of God. Ironically titled At-Tawbah (“The Reconciliation”), it explored the painful dynamics of how to handle human betrayal and hold aggressors accountable in a principled way. Righteous anger, which had driven an unending cycle of bloody vendettas in Arabia, needed to be channeled towards a positive outcome: standing up to those who massacre innocents without replicating their behavior.

An effective response required remaining open to reconciliation (as reflected in the chapter’s name) provided atonement could be demonstrated by concrete actions. The revelation initially addressed the Meccans, balancing outrage and clemency with a vague warning of consequences while encouraging acts of repentance:

If you repent and reconcile, it will be advantageous to you. However, if you turn your backs in haughty scorn, then be aware that you cannot escape the Loving Divine’s accountability…

The aggressors in no way uphold the rights of a person protected by a treaty, caring neither about chivalrous valor nor the shielding rights enshrined in a pact. Yet if they repent, atone, reconcile, repair the connections they have severed, and make amends by elevating the surviving families of those they wounded – then they are in effect your brothers.

However, should they renege after making strong pledges of peace and instead backstab your reconciling approach, then fight to stop them for they are inverted guides toward concealing darkness. As there can be no trusting sense of safety with them, the only way to keep them from continuing their aggression is to fight to stop them. Thus, fight the guides of darkness who hold no safety of others in their hearts – in the hope that they might cease…

Fight them, for the Loving Divine will hold them accountable via your rectifying hands; He will dishonor them; He will give you victory over them; He will heal the heavy hearts of a people of serenity, soothing their righteous anger and removing the resentment in their hearts; the Loving Divine will forgive and reconcile with whoever seeks forgiveness. The Loving Divine knows all and is a source of profound wisdom.

The firm warning of At-Tawbah was clear: Fight to stop them but not to replicate their actions. Despite outrage over the massacre, the verses expressed hope that murderers might still change. Verses repeatedly acknowledged shock and anger but kept offering avenues of de-escalation to avoid vengeance. They codified a methodology for how to deal with harrowing betrayal and unprovoked aggression. Rather than react impulsively, allow time to cool tensions by insisting on consequences while providing specific opportunities for principled repentance.

The words of At-Tawbah reached Mecca but inspired no repentance. As Muhammad remained mysteriously silent, the Meccans nervously awaited his next move. For months, nothing happened, and many assumed the storm had passed. Then, one evening, the chief elder of Mecca discovered that Muhammad was camped out on the outskirts of his city with a siege force of 10,000 men. Notably, several thousand of these warriors were Muhammad’s allies from Jewish tribes like Banul-Harith and Banu Hilal, as noted by Imam At-Tirmithi and others.

Overwhelmed by the surprise siege, the Meccans capitulated without a fight. The next morning, Muhammad’s forces would enter the city. After two decades of continuous persecution culminating in a horrific spree of mass murder of unarmed civilians, the Meccans certainly had a reckoning ahead of them.

On the eve of the conquest of Mecca, Muhammad gathered his commanders to remind them about his code of military ethics. He added several new principles specific to how one enters a city that has surrendered: “No doors of homes will be forced open, no houses will be sacked and pillaged, and anyone who remains in their abode shall be safe!” In addition, any place of worship was a safe haven (in contrast to how the Meccans had just violated the sanctity of their own sanctuary), including the home of Mecca’s chief elder. Finally, Muhammad expanded the ancient Arabian concept of Ijarah from being limited to warriors offering protection and amnesty, to allowing anyone to offer such protection. Indeed, an unarmed Muslim woman of no political significance would leverage this right during the conquest of Mecca to shield one of the organizers of the inhumane Banu Khuza‘ah massacre. This was not, in any way, an endorsement of the man’s actions. Rather, it served as a testament to the equal rights and privileges granted to women by the Qur'an, even in extreme cases like this where all, including the Qur'an itself, called for this man’s execution in light of his heinous crime.

Muhammad’s 10,000 fighters flowed into Mecca without disturbing a soul. The people of Mecca watched in amazement as they flooded through the city chanting: “The Loving Divine is the most empowering source of all creation.” Their song heralded a new era that could actually uplift the Meccans – and marked the only time Muhammad associated God’s name with soldiers. At Badr, Uhud, and the Trench he had always forbidden the invocation of the Divine. While the Meccans had made their fight a holy war, Muhammad’s forces instead proclaimed a holy peace.

Outside the Ka‘bah shrine the elders of Mecca who had for years persecuted Muhammad solemnly awaited their fate. As his fiercest opponents stood arrayed before him, at his mercy, Muhammad gazed down at them from his camel. The sun’s rays glittered, reflecting off the thousands of pieces of armor and raised spears of Muhammad’s men. An uneasy silence hovered over the largest gathering Mecca had ever witnessed, with the city’s inhabitants watching the final confrontation from their rooftops anticipating brutal justice.

Finally, Muhammad addressed his long-time tormentors: “What do you think I should do with all of you?” The Meccans all knew the unspoken truth: they would have happily massacred Muhammad and his followers had the situations been reversed. After an awkward silence, the Meccan elders obsequiously appealed to Muhammad: “You are an honorable and kind brother and the son of a gracious brother.”

Muhammad closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Several tense minutes passed, as the city waited on edge. Finally, Muhammad looked each elder in the eye, one by one, his face expressionless. After silently judging each one, he declared: “On this day, I revoke the tradition of vendetta! No more blood! Go! You are absolved of your aggression. You are forgiven and granted a fresh start.” Muhammad would not respond to their massacre of innocents with another massacre. A normal Arabian conqueror would traditionally have seized such a moment to proclaim: “Al-yawmu yawm-ul-malhamah!” (Today is the day of slaughter!). Yet as he descended the Ka‘bah steps, Muhammad switched one letter in his final declaration, which inverted its meaning: “Al- yawmu, yawm-ul-marhamah!” – Today is the day of amnesty!

* * *

Conquering Mecca transformed Muhammad from a dissident outcaste into the unopposed ruler of Arabia. Enjoying his first respite from persecution in 20 years, the prophet did not seize power and riches for himself, but rather retreated to focus on his true passion: editing the Qur`an for posterity. His old home in Mecca, which had been confiscated by the city’s elders, remained vacant. Muhammad had no desire to return to the city of his birth and paternal ancestors, instead pointedly ensconcing himself in Medina, the city of his maternal ancestry and the people who had opened themselves to his message at great risk.

Sensing his impending death, Muhammad did organize one final trip to Mecca, calling for a pilgrimage from across Arabia to convene for a great Hajj. Over 120,000 people of all backgrounds heeded the call and gathered as a mass in the wilderness outside Mecca to hear the prophet’s Farewell Sermon. Already stooped in old age, Muhammad ascended at the top of Mount ‘Arafah and in a few paragraphs sought to summarize his life’s work and message. After he spoke each phrase, a network of reciters would repeat it to the crowds the distance, each line echoing hundreds of times as it rippled through the crowd.

He began by calling for an end to inherited animosity and for a fresh start: “Oh people, your blood, wealth, and individual hopes are all uniquely sacred – just like the uniqueness you witness today as we stand together united in this sacred space. All blood spilled before is forgiven. Let there be no more vendettas…Do not transgress upon the rights of others or allow yourselves to suffer transgression.” Aware of human beings; darker tendencies, he then warned:

Oh people, do not revert after my death into discord, rivalry, and killing one another. I am leaving you with a sustainable system with the Qur`an, the Loving Divine as your exemplar, and the formula I have outlined for you in my teachings – a method that, if you uphold it, will safeguard you from falling into the ravines of confusion.

Oh people, know that your God is one, unique, and the God of all people. Likewise, you all descend from one common ancestor and as such all are equal before God. Oh people, you all emerged from a thin surface layer of earth, so remain grounded and remember who you are. You are all brothers and sisters before the Divine, emerging from the same source. None has an advantage over another through blood or lineage; neither does an Arab have privileges over a non-Arab.

It is only by merit and accomplishments that you can rise one above the other. In a society of equal opportunity, the weakest among you is equal to the strongest. Seek your own elevation by empowering minorities among you, for they are protected by the sacred covenant of God. The most elevated among you before God are those with the purest spiritual core.

As the sermon concluded, Muhammad asked the crowd, “Have I articulated these points eloquently and clearly?” The throng of 120,000 voices shouted back: Na‘am! – Indeed! The prophet then concluded with one last request: “Then let those present spread this message, precisely as they heard it, to those who were absent.” It was a call for his final advice to echo out geographically and into the future.

Muhammad’s physical decline and lack of a designated successor meant that control of Arabia would soon be up for grabs – stirring ambitious yet conniving politicos to move quickly to seize power. Over a dozen pretender prophets suddenly emerged across Arabia claiming to be the inheritors of Muhammad’s mantle. One particularly brazen contender named Musailimah went so far as to demand a dying Muhammad anoint him as successor. A few days before the prophet’s death, Musailimah sent him a letter boldly demanding control of Arabia: “I have been entrusted with the custodianship of the Qur'an after you. In terms of inheritance, my tribe, Rabi‘ah, will take half of Arabia. We are willing to share the other half with your tribe, Quraish, even though Quraish has a tendency to overreach.”

On death’s door, Muhammad summoned the strength to dictate his last-ever public pronouncement: “Peace shall be the state of those who genuinely follow the guidance [of the Qur'an], which says: ‘The earth belongs to the Loving Divine, who allots it to whomever He wills; yet the most lasting legacy will be the enduring impact of those who have action-based hope.’” The letter quoted Moses’ response in the Qur'an to Pharaoh boasting of God-like power, with the Israelite prophet insisting that what truly lasts is not wealth or domination but the impact of ideas and values. Muhammad’s brief reply exposed Musailimah as a fraud who failed to comprehend that the Qur'an’s true legacy was not ephemeral resources like land or power, but a timeless message of striving for self-improvement.

* * *

Fights over control of “God’s land” did not end with Muhammad’s passing, yet the prophet’s example nonetheless inspired future Muslim military leaders to conduct themselves with principled chivalry. During the Crusades, the Kurdish commander Saladin struggled mightily to expel European invaders without losing his humanity. During the Crusader siege of Acres, he watched in horror as over 2,000 Muslim civilians were massacred by Richard the Lionheart. Nonetheless, when the English king had fallen ill during that siege, Saladin upheld Muhammad’s military code by sending his personal physician along with medicines and food to ensure Richard fully recovered.

After Saladin won the battle of Hattin, paving the path to Jerusalem, he granted the inhabitants of Jerusalem amnesty: offering warriors safe passage to the Mediterranean coast and allowing non-combatants to remain safely in the city, their churches unmolested. Saladin’s example was so inspiring that some crusaders decided to remain and convert to Islam, their blond and red-haired descendants still visible among Palestinian and Levantine communities.

In the modern period, Abdelqader Al-Jazairi led the Algerian resistance against French occupation of North Africa. He quickly became famous across France for his ethical combat, which never targeted civilians and treated prisoners of war with dignity and humanity. The French ultimately sent Al-Jazairi in exile to Damascus, where he risked his life to defend local Christians from Druze extremists during a pogrom in 1860. So renowned was his chivalry that citizens in Iowa incorporated the town of Alkader in his honor.

Today sees yet another brutal battle over contested land – yet the prophet’s clear ethical code seems to have been largely forsaken. Watching the news and browsing social media clips, the contemporary observer is tempted to despair. And yet precisely in the darkest moments Muhammad’s example can inspire. He repeatedly advised his followers that during times of trauma and confusion they could reground themselves by reading Surah Yusuf, the Qur'an’s retelling of the Biblical Joseph’s story.

The Qur'an’s only extended narrative, Surah Yusuf emerged at a time when Muhammad himself nearly gave up. For two years his family had languished in a desert concentration camp. Aside from one verse, Quranic revelation had dried up. No divine inspiration came, and his loved ones withered. Even when he was finally freed from the desert camp and allowed to return to Mecca, his wife Khadijah died from the ordeal. The burden of prophethood exacted yet another terrible price. Was the ordeal truly worth it?

Yet precisely then a stunning chapter of Quranic revelation suddenly burst forth like a torrent after two years of silence. The dramatic story of Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers, his years of slavery and then unwarranted imprisonment, and then his remarkable rise to power flowed with an almost cinematic quality. Despite enduring years of abuse, Joseph ultimately emerges from his manic journey with mercy and equanimity. He retreats to a room to cry, before greeting his brothers and forgiving them for trying to kill him. He also forgives the scheming woman who had him unjustly imprisoned. With hindsight and discerning wisdom, he recognizes that painful persecution actually created the conditions for his great achievements. In fact, he had to endure tribulations in order to save both his own ancestral people (the tribe of Israel) and his adopted people (the Egyptians) from starvation. Suffering could be transformed into blossoming – with the right approach.

As Surah Yusuf ends, the Divine voice appears with a reminder: “When the messengers reach a nadir of despair and feel completely rejected without any hope, precisely then Our assistance comes to relieve them” (12:110). The Qur'an’s oft-repeated word for action-based hope is Taqwa (its Biblical Hebrew cognate Tiqwa and modern Hebrew’s Tikvah) – literally, pulling a bucket up from a well hoping it will emerge filled with water. It implies that human beings must take action to try to alleviate their plight. The Divine provides inspiration, but the mortal must choose to act and persevere.

Muhammad navigating battlefield crises and high-stakes diplomacy offers a compelling example of how one visionary man acted humanely during inhumane moments of tribulation. The prophet who cherished his pagan and Jewish allies, insisted on maintaining the highest standards of military ethics, and redirected righteous anger into wise strategy can inspire us many centuries after his death. His Constitution of Medina and its sacred pact of mutual protection and cooperation between Muslims and Jews never expired and remains ever more relevant today as a means of peace and reconciliation. The message of the prophet’s Farewell Sermon once echoed across the wilderness outside Mecca and can still reverberate today in every nation. The question is whether we are ready to truly listen in contemplation. 

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