The Myth: Muhammad Raided Caravans to Retrieve Stolen Property, a post from TheReligionofPeace.com

“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.”

The Truth:

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:

[A Muslim raider] who had shaved his head, looked down on them [the Meccan caravan], and when they saw him they felt safe and said, “They are pilgrims, you have nothing to fear from them.”  (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 424)

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:

[The Muslim raiders] encouraged each other, and decided to kill as many as they could of them and take what they had.  Waqid shot Amr bin al-Hadrami with an arrow and killed him…  (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 425)

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:

The Quraysh said that Muhammad and his Companions violated the sanctity of the Sacred Month and shed blood, confiscated property and took prisoners during it. Those who refuted them among the Muslims who remained in Makkah replied that the Muslims had done that during the month of Sha`ban (which is not a sacred month). (Ibn Kathir)

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):

They ask you concerning the sacred month about fighting in it. Say: Fighting in it is a grave matter, and hindering (men) from Allah’s way and denying Him, and (hindering men from) the Sacred Mosque and turning its people out of it, are still graver with Allah, and persecution is graver than slaughter (Quran 2:217)

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:

A caravan of Quraish carrying dry raisins and leather and other merchandise of Quraish passed by…” (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 424)

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:

Ali stayed in Mecca for three days and nights until he had restored the deposits which the apostle held.  (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 335)

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:

“If you have killed in the sacred month, they have kept you back from the way of Allah with their unbelief in Him, and from the sacred mosque, and have driven you from it when you were its people.  This is a more serious matter with Allah then the killing of those of them whom you have slain. ‘And seduction is worse than killing.’   They used to seduce the Muslim in his religion until they made him return to unbelief after believing, and that is worse with Allah than killing.” (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 426)

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:

When the Apostle heard about Abu Sufyan coming from Syria, he summoned the Muslims and said, “This is the Quraish caravan containing their property. Go out to attack it, perhaps Allah will give it as a prey.” (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 428)

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.

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3 Responses to The Myth: Muhammad Raided Caravans to Retrieve Stolen Property, a post from TheReligionofPeace.com

  1. θ says:

    Yes the early Moslems were simply “taking back what was theirs” (Irredenta) when stopping the caravans – rather than exacting revenge and stealing – as Moslems’ properties were basically robbed and confiscated by the Mekkans on their way out of migration.
    Ibn Ishaq, p.230
    Their houses in Mecca were locked up when they migrated, leaving no inhabitant. When the B. Jahsh gave up their house Abu Sufyan went and sold it to ‘Amr b. ‘Alqama brother of B. ‘Amir b. Lu’ayy. When the owners heard of this ‘Abdullah b. Jahsh told the apostle of it, and he replied: ‘Are you not pleased that God will give you a better house in Paradise?’ And when he answered Yes, he said, ‘Then you have it.’ When the apostle got possession of Mecca Abu Ahmad spoke to him about their house; and the apostle delayed his reply. People said to him, ‘The apostle dislikes your reopening the question of your property which you lost in God’s service, so don’t speak to him about it again.’ Abu Ahmad said in reference to Abu Sufyan:Tell Abu Sufyan of a matter he will live to regret. You sold your cousin’s house to pay a debt you owed. Your ally by God the Lord of men swears an oath:Take it, Take it, may your treachery cling to you like the ring of the dove.

    Mekkah heathens declare war to the city of Madinah shortly after they heard the persecuted Moslems find refuge in Madinah.
    Abu Dawud, Book 19, Hadith 2998.
    Narrated A man from the companions of the Prophet: Abdur Rahman ibn Ka’b ibn Malik reported on the authority of a man from among the companions of the Prophet: The infidels of the Quraysh wrote (a letter) to Ibn Ubayy and to those who worshipped idols from al-Aws and al-Khazraj, while the Apostle of Allah was at that time at Medina before the battle of Badr. (They wrote): You gave protection to our companion. We swear by Allah, you should fight him or expel him, or we shall come to you in full force, until we kill your fighters and appropriate your women.
    When this (news) reached Abdullah ibn Ubayy and those who were worshippers of idols, with him they gathered together to fight the Apostle of Allah. When this news reached the Apostle of Allah, he visited them and said: The threat of the Quraysh to you has reached its end. They cannot contrive a plot against you, greater than what you yourselves intended to harm you. Are you willing to fight your sons and brethren? When they heard this from the Prophet, they scattered.
    This reached the infidels of the Quraysh. The infidels of the Quraysh again wrote (a letter) to the Jews after the battle of Badr: You are men of weapons and fortresses. You should fight our companion or we shall deal with you in a certain way. And nothing will come between us and the anklets of your women. When their letter reached the Prophet, they gathered Banu an-Nadir to violate the treaty. They sent a message to the Prophet: Come out to us with thirty men from your companions, and thirty rabbis will come out from us till we meet at a central place where they will hear you. If they testify to you and believe in you, we shall believe in you. The narrator then narrated the whole story.

  2. Rubart Subinsar says:

    B-B, But, but, but, but I came across these verses of the Bible and found them highly repulsive.
    How could the Lord participate to build the kingdom of idols, to rob the treasures, and to behead the people as means of terrors?

    Founding the Gentile kingdom of idols by the Lord?
    Isa 10:10
    As my hand hath found the kingdoms of the idols, and whose graven images did excel them of Jerusalem and of Samaria;

    Robbery of treasures by the Lord?
    Isa 10:13
    For he saith, By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom; for I am prudent: and I have removed the bounds of the people, and have robbed their treasures, and I have put down the inhabitants like a valiant man:

    Beheading with terrors by the Lord?
    Isa 10
    33 Behold, the Lord, the LORD of hosts, shall lop the bough with terror: and the high ones of stature shall be hewn down, and the haughty shall be humbled.34 And he shall cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, and Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one.

  3. Rubart Subinsar says:

    First, I thought the words of Isaiah 10:7-15 were coming from Assyrian tyrant, but I find in Isaiah 10:6 the Lord permits him so, e.g. taking spoil, preying and swamping down the kingdom of idols.
    Isa 10:6
    I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.

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