“Our Prophet (peace be upon him) always approached the people of Mecca with peace and tolerance.”
Most everyone agrees that after thirteen years of preaching his new religion, Muhammad did not have very much success and was forced to flee Mecca with his 150 followers. There he formed an army and returned eight years later to conquer the city that rejected him.
Muslims who are not as knowledgeable about the true record left by the historians of the day believe that Mecca was a city of extreme religious persecution and evil pagans who simply had to be conquered because of the danger they posed. Muhammad then fully forgave the people and everyone lived in harmony, enjoying the new age of peace and religious tolerance that Islam brought to the city.
Today’s Muslims have a visceral need to believe that their religion made Mecca a better city, because if Islam wasn’t better than the paganism that was before, it has little chance of being better than Western religion and other alternatives that exist today.
Unfortunately, the picture painted by the early Muslim historians is in stark contrast to what today’s Muslims desperately want to believe. The truth is that Islam transformed a highly tolerant and religiously pluralistic Mecca into one of only two cities in the entire world where one is not allowed to set foot if they do not profess the predominant religion. (Not surprisingly, Medina is the other).
Mecca, prior to Muhammad, was one of six cities in Arabia with a Kaaba, the cube-like building that housed hundreds of idols and religious artifacts. The Meccans were mostly polytheists, who worshipped their preferred gods yet respected everyone else’s.
Mecca was also the site of an annual religious pilgrimage, in which people from across the region would visit the city over a four month period. The commerce and income generated from this annual event was extremely important to the local economy.
People from foreign lands were allowed to store their idols at the Kaaba, including Hindus. Room was even made for Jews and Christians, who worshipped there alongside the others. Meccans allowed conversions between faiths and there was no record of persecution against those who practiced their religion, as long as they did not insult others.
Muhammad’s own experience is proof of the Meccan desire to live in peace and harmony. According to Muslim historical sources, the people of Mecca did not mind Muhammad preaching a new religion, as he began to do in 610 at the age of 40. They simply asked that he be as tolerant of them as they were of him.
Instead of obliging, however, the self-proclaimed prophet broke with tradition and began openly insulting the local religions as well as the ancestors of the people who practiced it. (See Myth: Muhammad was Persecuted by the Meccans for Preaching Islam for references). This not only caused great offense, but it was a direct threat to the primary source of livelihood for many residents.
Even so, the people allowed Muhammad to preach in contradiction to local customs for 13 years, which is proof positive of their tolerance. In fact, it was the Muslims who were the first to draw blood, as they became increasingly violent toward the skeptical mainstream of society.
To be fair, there were some Meccans who responded in kind after the Muslims became violent, but only one death was recorded in the Sira (that of an elderly slave from stress) and none in the Hadith. Muhammad’s presence was tolerated – up until he joined with a foreign tribe in an alliance of war against the very city in which he lived. At that point he was evicted from Mecca. The year was 622.
Although his adversaries were content leaving him alone in Medina, where he fled with his cult of friends and family, Muhammad would not let go of the bitterness of his rejection. He constantly harassed the Meccans by raiding their caravans and goading them into open conflict. Eventually, he tricked them into signing a 10-year treaty which left them defenseless before his army when he suddenly decided to take the city by surprise less than two years later in 630.
The violent history of early Islam leaves little for Muslim apologists to make the case that Islam is a peaceful, tolerant religion. Ironically the occupation of Mecca in the aftermath of Muhammad’s victory is usually their prime example, since it was was not followed by widespread massacre of the residents (other than the annihilation of anyone who tried to defend his home from foreign occupation, as a handful did).
Yet, it is fascinating to see just how low Islam’s own defenders must set the bar for their religion. It is clear from the accounts of Ibn Ishaq/Hisham and other early historians that the residents of Mecca did not want war, did not prepare for war, and were obviously not expecting it when Muhammad marched through the gates of their city with an army of 10,000 soldiers. There is simply no reason to expect that these innocent people would be slaughtered in the first place (other than the fact that the prophet of Islam had ordered such massacres in the past).
As it was, some residents of Mecca were sentenced to death by Muhammad himself (“a small number who were to be killed even if they were found beneath the curtains of the Ka’ba” Ishaq/Hisham 818, see also Abu Dawud 2677). These included his old enemies who had personally mocked and rejected him, including two slave girls who had made up songs about him:
Their master, Ibn Khatal, an apostate from Islam, was also slain on Muhammad’s order even as he tried to take refuge in what was considered the holiest of places:
A former scribe of Muhammad’s named Abdullah also made the hit list for leaving Islam after realizing that the transmissions from Allah were arbitrary by successfully suggesting changes to Muhammad about the wording of certain supposedly immutable “revelations.”
As with some of the others, Abdullah managed to save his neck by “converting” to Islam just before the moment of execution. Rather than mock the people who mocked him, or turn the other cheek (as a different “prophet” named Jesus once preached), Muhammad killed those who would not repent, merely for rejecting him (see the Answering Islam article Muhammad and the Ten Meccans for a full list of those were sentenced and/or executed).
It was at this point that Mecca, one of the most religiously diverse cities on earth, became one of the most oppressive and intolerant. Muhammad’s first order of business was to destroy the idols of the very people who allowed him to preach his religion in their city for thirteen years:
The prophet of Islam then sent his men out to destroy the temples of other tribes, both around Mecca (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 840) and as far away as Yemen (Bukhari 59:643).
With their own religion violently destroyed, most Meccans had no choice but to outwardly “embrace” the very religion they had adamantly rejected for the twenty-one years prior to having a sword at their throat. To say that this was heartfelt (as some contemporary apologists do) stretches the limits of credulity.
Before evicting those who would not convert, Muhammad first used the allied strength of the local Meccans to conquer a neighboring city, al-Taif, as payback for their earlier rejection of him (and, ironically enough, their own unwillingness to make an alliance of war with him against the Meccans).
Islam owes its success to military force, but this probably would not have been possible if the non-Muslims of his day were vigilant instead of overly tolerant and peaceful. Only months after conquering their city, Muhammad was in a position to break what was left of his treaty and forcibly evict those who would not embrace Islam:
The prayer and “poor due” mentioned in the verse are among the pillars of Islam – salat and zakat respectively. According to Islam’s holiest text therefore, the only way for polytheists to avoid death was to convert to Islam or flee the city. Consider the fate of an elderly man who preferred to pray in his own way:
Needless to say, anyone who did not profess their faith in Muhammad after a four month grace period was not allowed even to perform the pilgrimage, which had been a centuries-old tradition. According to the Qur’an, this was not because they posed any sort of physical threat, but rather because they were “unclean” (Quran 9:28)
The story of Muhammad’s violent expulsion of non-Muslims from their own city can also be found in Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 920-923. Muslim apologists often claim that Muhammad only commanded the killing of those pagans who had “broken the treaty,” yet the historical context states that the command to fight applies to “the polytheists who had broken the agreement as well as those who had a general agreement after the four months which had been given them as a fixed time” (Ishaq/Hisham 922). In other words, unbelievers were given four months to vacate their homes, whether they had done anything wrong or not.
There is no real evidence that the polytheists at Mecca had done anything wrong, much less posed a threat. Ibn Kathir’s account (Vol IV pp 48-52) simply says that Allah/Muhammad declared a “declaration of immunity” from prior agreements with the pagans. No justification is provided other than that they are “unclean” for worshipping idols. Neither is there any historical account of their having become violent after being told they were being evicted.
Those who remained in the once tolerant city of Mecca lived under a draconian theocracy in which an outward display of religion was required by Muhammad as a test of personal loyalty. Those who refused to comply were literally burned alive:
Jews and Christians weren’t spared the religious bigotry. In fact, they were eventually chased out of the entire Arabian peninsula based on Muhammad’s final injunction from his deathbed:
So, Muhammad not only evicted non-Muslims from Mecca, he also banned them from approaching the Kaaba altogether. This was an extraordinary example of hypocrisy given that, according to the Quran’s second chapter, preventing people from from worshipping at the Kaaba is akin to “persecution,” and so important that “slaughter” is mandated by Allah in this case.
Islam thus became a system of double standards in which “might makes right” and the morality of an action is judged only by whether or not it advances Islam or benefits Muslims. To this day, Muslims demand the freedom to preach their faith in non-Muslim countries, yet deny the same right to other religions where and when they have the power. They also insist that others have the right to convert to Islam, while no Muslim has the right to leave on penalty of death.
The effects of supplanting the traditional pagan system with Muhammad’s legacy of intolerance were undeniable. Fifty years after Muhammad’s death, the Kaaba, which had stood for centuries under the banner of religious tolerance and respect, lay in ruins from one of the many internal Muslim wars that sprang up immediately following Muhammad’s death.
To this day, Muslims are still at each others throats and there is no Islamic country in the world that truly allows other religions to preach openly and recruit converts as Muhammad was allowed to do in Mecca. In stark contrast to its pre-Islamic history, this city now holds the honor as being the most religiously intolerant city on earth, as non-Muslims are not even allowed to visit… and there is not a single Muslim voice of protest.