After his eviction by the Quraish in Mecca, 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, Ibn Kathir V.2 p.242)
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 from 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; see also Ibn Kathir V.2 p.243)
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 Meccan Quraish 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).
Apologists are somewhat vague as to how property theft justifies killing (particularly on the part of someone they otherwise like to portray as a 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. A larger problem is that there is 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 Muslims 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 come 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, also Ibn Kathir v.2 p.155)
” Restoring deposits” means returning property to people who had left them in Muhammad’s care, similar to a bank returning money to depositors. This would not have been possible had Muhammad’s wealth been confiscated. Given that his had not been, it is unlikely that anyone else’s was either, since he was the primary interest of the Quraish.
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.