“Our Prophet (peace be upon him) forbade his people from attacking innocent caravans and only took what had been taken from his people by the polytheists.”
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 before finally finding one – whereupon they murdered the driver and plundered the contents. This particular caravan was especially vulnerable because the attack came during the holy months, when the merchants were least expecting it due to the generally agreed upon rule that the tribes of the area would not attack each other during that time:
The shaved head caused the Muslims to look like pilgrims rather than raiders, which instilled a false sense of security in the drivers. However, Islam was a different sort of religion than what the Meccans were used to:
According to Ibn Kathir, the Muslims living in Mecca did not dispute that their brethren in Medina had killed, captured and stolen from the Quraish, but they were reluctant to accept that this had occurred during the sacred months:
Faced with losing face by admitting his error, Muhammad went into his hut and emerged with a convenient and timely revelation “from Allah” that provided retroactive permission for the raid (and, of course sanctioned the stolen possessions for his own use):
Notice that the Quran does not say that the Meccans were guilty of killing Muslims, only that they were “persecuting” them by preventing them from the ‘sacred mosque’ (the Kaaba). The killing of the Meccan driver by the Muslims was the first deadly encounter between the two adversaries. This is of acute embarrassment to contemporary Muslim apologists, who like to say that Islam is against killing for any reason other than self-defense.
For this reason, there has arisen the modern myth that the Muslims of that time were simply “taking back” what was theirs – rather than exacting revenge and stealing. Contemporary apologists like to say that Muhammad and his followers were basically robbed by the Meccans on their way out of town. (The 1976 movie, “The Message,” perpetuates this misconception as well).
Apologists are somewhat vague as to how property theft justifies killing (particularly on the part of someone they otherwise like to portray as the paragon of virtue); nor do they attempt to explain how the particular victims of subsequent Muslim raids (usually the caravan drivers and laborers) were directly responsible for this supposed theft. This is the least of their problems, however. There is there no evidence to support the misconception that the Muslims were “taking back what was theirs”; in fact, it is specifically contradicted by the early historical record.
The event of the first attack on Meccan caravans is detailed quite well by Muhammad’s biographer, Ibn Ishaq/Hisham, but nowhere does he mention the contents of the caravan as being Muslim property. In fact Ishaq explicitly describes the goods as belonging to the Meccans:
Note also that the cargo plundered from the caravan included raisins, which would have long since perished had they been from grapes grown and dried by the Muslim before they left Mecca nearly a full year earlier. Moreover, a fifth of the loot was given to Muhammad as war booty, which would not have been the case if it rightfully belonged to another Muslim (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 425).
Most of the Muslims living in Mecca had few assets to begin with, having been drawn largely from the lower rungs of the social ladder, but those who did would have had several years to liquidate their assets or transport them to a new location. As the instigator of the discord, Muhammad was the only Muslim literally forced to flee Mecca in the dead of night, but even his business affairs were sewn up on his behalf by Ali, his son-in-law:
So, if the Muslims at Medina weren’t trying to recover stolen goods, why were they plundering Meccan caravans? Muhammad explains the real reason for the looting and the killing:
Thus, the justification for killing the Meccans and stealing their goods is purely religious. The only thing stolen from the Muslims was their ability to enter the sacred mosque (ie. complete the Haj ritual at the Kaaba). The innocent caravan drivers were fair game for Muhammad’s deadly raids simply because Muslims felt “kept back from the way of Allah” by the “unbelief” of the Meccan leadership. This is all the more apparent by the next major episode in which Muhammad sent his men to plunder caravans, which precipitated the Battle of Badr:
In this case the Meccans were returning to Mecca from a business trip to Syria. Any goods they were carrying would have been purchased from the Syrians.
Over the next nine years, the principle source of income for Muslims was wealth forcibly extracted from others. The targets of misfortune expanded well beyond the Meccans. By the time Muhammad died, his men were finding excuse to raid and steal from many other Arab tribes, Jews and even Christians. Like the mafia, a protection racket gradually evolved where other tribes were allowed to live peacefully provided they paid tribute to Muslim rulers.