The Statesman (Early Islam, #2)

A few weeks ago, you’ve read the tale of the birth of Islam – Muhammad’s revelation, his initial teachings, and the flight to Medina. That’s where we continue the story of early Islam today. As Muhammad, the protagonist of this story, juggled with several balls at any given time, this account will not be entirely chronological. Instead, we’ll look at his early clashes with the Quraysh from Mecca, his ascendancy in Medina as well as his political and social reforms there, and finally his unification of Arabia under the banner of Islam.

The Humbling of Quraysh

The early Muslims’ move to Medina already contained the seeds of conflict with Mecca. Muhammad’s supporters were merchants, not farmers like the Medinans. If they wanted to make their own livelihood and not live off their Medinan hosts’ hospitality indefinitely, they had to take up trading again (and thus compete with the Meccan merchants) – or try and raid the Meccan caravans, as Medina was conveniently located between Mecca and its prime trading partner Syria. They opted for both.

Such an attempted raid led to the first big clash between the Muslims and the Meccans – the battle of Badr (624). The former attempted to intercept a large Meccan caravan returning from Syria, but their small force of 200 fighters found itself stuck in the middle between the caravan and a numerically much superior Meccan relief force. While the caravan escaped, the Muslims defeated the Meccans. The victory much improved Muhammad’s political position in Medina.

As the raids on Meccan caravans continued, the leading Meccan tribe of the Quraysh resolved to quash their Muslim countrymen in exile. Their increased commitment to defeating the Muslims resulted in victory in the battle of Uhud (625), but as they did not press their advantage and march on Medina, Islam survived. Only two years later the Meccans did attack Medina, but Muhammad negated their cavalry advantage by having a trench dug around Medina – and in infantry combat, the Muslims’ higher zeal won out once more. In the same year, Muhammad concluded the treaty of al-Hudaybiyah with the Meccans: Hostilities between Muslims and Meccans were to cease (thus, Meccan caravans were safe from Muslim raids), but in exchange, Muslims were to be allowed religious pilgrimages to Mecca. Muhammad thus exchanged the hard power of the war-time blockade of Mecca for the soft power of the superior attractiveness of Islam. Time would show that he had made the right choice.

The Struggle for Medina

Concurrent with his fight against the Meccans, Muhammad also sought to improve his position in Medina. He had come as an external arbiter of disputes, but within a few years he turned himself to the politico-religious leader of the city.

The first step on this way was Muhammad’s issuing of the “Constitution of Medina” (not exactly dated, but likely before the battle of Badr): The Constitution decreed that the Muslims formed a community (the ummah) to which all Muslims owed their highest loyalty and solidarity (instead of to their clan). Thus, the Constitution presented a way out of the internecine clan warfare which had plagued Medina. The Jews of Medina did not have to convert, but could also rely on the solidarity of the ummah provided they were loyal to it. Muhammad continued to be a referee rather than the active leader of Medina.

As Muhammad’s authority grew, his policy changed. First, he excluded the “Hypocrites”, older Muslims who lacked zeal, from public life and decision-making. Thus, he committed the Islamic community to his course of perpetual growth and expansion. More fatefully, however, was Muhammad’s shift in regards to Medina’s Jews.

The five pillars (the declaration of faith, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage) form the basis of Islam as well as of this Islamic quiz game. Cover of 5 Pillars (Islam Inspired Ideas).

Early on, Muhammad had eagerly adopted part of the Jewish religious tradition: The regular prayers at prescribed times of the day (salah), one of the five pillars of Islam, mirrored Jewish practice, and Muhammad even prescribed that during these prayers, Muslims should face in direction of Jerusalem, the holy city of Judaism. It is likely that these rituals were based on Jewish models for a two reasons – both to lend legitimacy to his revelation by equating it with an existing monotheistic faith and to encourage Jews to accept Muhammad as a prophet. The latter was not to be. The Jews of Medina were ready for a political treaty with Muhammad, but not to follow him as a religious leader. They had thus become his main opponents in Medina – not only for politico-religious reasons, but also for economic ones: Unlike the non-Jewish Medinans, who were farmers, most of Medina’s Jews were merchants, and thus direct competitors of Muhammad’s exiles from Mecca.

Muhammad distanced himself theologically from Judaism: He claimed Abraham as the founder of the monotheistic faith in whose tradition he stood. Thus, he presented Islam as the broad-minded alternative to the more exclusionary faith of Judaism based on Moses’s acceptance of the Torah (and of Christianity, based on Jesus’s new theological course). The clash with Judaism was not only theological, though: Shortly before the battle of Badr tensions into violence erupted for the first time. Over the next few years, Muhammad picked off the Jewish clans following the same pattern: Typically, the fight began with the assassination of one or more Jewish men of a clan, followed by the siege of the clan’s strongholds. One by one, the Jewish clans were defeated and expelled – or, in some cases, massacred.

Muhammad’s Reforms

Muhammad’s ascent to the highest politico-religious authority upended the traditional Arabian clan structure. The clan chiefs (first of Medina, then of the other areas of Arabia joining the ummah) did not derive their position from their own power over their clans anymore. Instead, they became Muhammad’s agents and depended on him for their authority. Muhammad united political and theological power in his hands, building a theocracy like that of Moses.

In addition to his political reforms, Muhammad also reshaped the society of the ummah. He strengthened patrilineal structures by turning virilocal marriage (that is, wives move to their husband’s dwelling after the wedding) into the norm (pre-Islamic marriages had been uxorilocal more often than not) and established inheritance laws which specified in detail which relative was to inherit how much, always favoring direct descendants over other relatives and men over women. While Muhammad’s criminal law was still based on the lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”), he expanded the in-group to which solidarity (instead of vengeance) was owed considerably from the individual clans to the ummah as a whole. In his teachings, he frequently advocated for forgiveness instead of claiming blood debts.

Muhammad’s political and social reforms aimed at overcoming the Medinan inter-clan warfare – but they were also influenced by his distaste for what he perceived as the excesses of individualism, the lack of solidarity in his hometown of Mecca. He would soon get a chance to institute them there.

Uniting Arabia

Muhammad knew the precarious balance in Arabia between the commercial wealth of the cities and the military strength of the nomadic clans of the desert. During his time in Medina, he spent much effort on reaching out to the various desert clans and joining them to the ummah. Some he impressed with the strength of his religious conviction. Others he persuaded with his diplomatic skill. The more renitent ones he subdued militarily by directing the Medinan raids after the treaty of al-Hudaybiyah at them. By 630, Muhammad was at the helm of possibly the largest coalition of clans in Arabian history – and with that, he marched on Mecca.

Muhammad’s force was so superior to the Meccans that he took the city almost without bloodshed – the Meccans just let him enter and accepted his supremacy. He then made peace with the Meccan elites who had opposed him since the early years of his revelation and joined their commercial and administrative strength to the ummah. The Kaaba in Mecca became the symbolic center of Islam (and the sole direction of prayer).

Another Islamic quiz game – this time using the Kaaba as the symbol of Islam. Cover of Board Game of Kaaba (TIK Board Games).

Eight years after his flight to Medina, Muhammad was now the de facto ruler of Arabia – which had been united for the first time in its history. It would not be contained for long. Muhammad, however, would not live to see much of it, as he died in 632.

The story of his successors will be told in the third (and last) instalment of this miniseries! I promise, there will be more board games than in this one. Despite its immense importance to the development of Islam and world history, there is nary a game about Muhammad’s Medinan years (except for games in the style of the quiz games which I referenced). I can only speculate as to why that is – a lack of interest among board game designers (few of which are Muslims) and the traditional avoidance of images of people, particularly Muhammad, in Islamic art seem to be possible explanations. Let me know what you think – and also, if you know of other games about Muhammad’s time in Medina!

Games Referenced

5 Pillars (Islam Inspired Ideas)

Board Game of Kaaba (TIK Board Games)

Further Reading

Muhammad’s life is told in a scholarly, but accessible way (as long as you are willing to skip over some very detailed parts on the Arabian tribes) in William Montgomery Watt’s two-volume biography: Muhammad at Mecca, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1968 (online here) and Muhammad at Medina, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1968 (online here).

For the period that followed Muhammad’s death, see Donner, Fred McGraw: The Early Islamic Conquests, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1981 (online here, free registration required).

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