Answered by Sidi Abdullah Anik Misra
Question: Can you please tell me the Islamic point of view on early Muslims attacking caravans? I get this a lot from non-Muslims and I wish to give them a proper response. Unfortunately, militants also use this reasoning as an excuse to do their militant attacks.
Answer: Wa alaikum salam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
The question of caravan raids by early Muslim and their justifications is an important question with serious modern implications. This is why sound Islamic knowledge, both the letter and spirit of the law, is so important to attain.
The caravan raids that took place during the early Migration period can never be used [and abused] to justify modern terrorist attacks on civilians, or cowardly assaults on one’s own countrymen Muslim or non-Muslim, or rebellion against one’s own governments whether Muslims or non-Muslims, or to conduct vigilante operations to fulfill one’s ambitions of bloodlust and revenge.
The Reason Why the Caravan Raids by Early Muslims Took Place
The early Believers of Makkah were mercilessly persecuted for their faith, in their own hometown, by their own kinsmen and countrymen who could not tolerate their call to fix the injustices in their society, which spanned from the spiritual to societal. For thirteen years while the Prophet (peace be upon him) lived in Mecca, he was forbidden by God Most High to do so much as lift a finger in self-defense against his persecutors.
The early Muslims were powerless, outnumbered and boycotted. Still, they did not resort to guerrilla tactics, coup d’etats, terrorist methods nor assassinations, when all of that could have easily been attempted. The command on them from God Most High to keep the peace and order within their society and respect its laws, even uphold the trusts and contracts they had, is telling for how Muslims who perceive themselves in similar situations today should behave. Their only response was to increase themselves in devotion to Allah, and pray for ease. This attracted even more people to the message of Islam.
After the order by God to migrate to Madina, the Muslims had their own state, but the Makkans still sought to vanquish them. Thus, the raids were in self-defense, fully conducted within the laws of Islam which forbade the killing of innocent civilians or even the harming of people with whom you have covenants of peace. Even if the early raids were pre-emptive, the trade being conducted by the hostile Makkans was the selling, at times, of the stolen properties of the exiled Muslims, in order to amass materials and weapons to exterminate the nascent Muslim community of Madina in a looming war they were planning.
What took place after the migration of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to Madina with regards to the caravan raids were actions between two independent states with rulers and laws, not guerrilla leaders, militias or vigilante terrorists. They did not occur on any one state’s land- rather, on the no-man’s-land of the vast Arabian desert. There were no international laws, no government relations, no treaties of peace and diplomatic ties, nor accepted rules of engagement like there are today in our times. There were no covenants of citizenship, but even then, there was the concept that a visitor from a hostile that entered the city legally was never to be harmed.
There was also no “khiyana”, or treacherous deception, even though the migrants were Makkans and looked just like their aggressing countrymen [even being from the same families], yet they clearly declared the renunciation of their citizenship, identified themselves openly and separated before they defended themselves, and never harmed civilians or acted as an “enemy from within” in Makkah. They were never a fifth column in their countries, nor attempted assassinations, overthrows, or terrorist attacks to force Makkan to accept their demands when it was possible to do so, even under the worst persecution.
It is clear from this that the terrorists of today do not have a moral [therefore Islamic legal] leg to stand on.
History is Not the Same as Islamic Sacred Law
Historical events in the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him) are not Islamic legal rulings. One cannot pick up a book of Prophetic biography by themselves and come to conclusions on how to deal with complex modern-day issues of international gravity. Rather one returns to the mainstream scholars, both for guidance on how to view past and new incidents in an Islamic light, and for rulings on how to behave in contemporary contexts.
When a Muslim is supposed to return to mainstream scholars on minute issues of personal law rather than go into the primary texts to find their own whimsical solutions, isn’t it more obvious that people should return to them for clarity on major issues which hold innocent life and millions of people’s safety in the balance?
Likewise for those outside of Islam looking in, they should know that any wars and violent resistance in the prophetic biography should be seen in the same light as any mention of war in the holy books of other world religions, such as the Battle of Jericho and those fought by Moses, David and Solomon in the Old Testament, or the wars between the Kauravas and Pandavas in the Hindu Gita, or stories of self-defense which are the cornerstone of Sikh history.
While all of these religions’ stories of struggle have been twisted by extremists to justify expedient political ends and even terrorism, the main purpose of remembering those events should be to teach good values and condemn oppression, not to justify terrorism.
This space is too short to get into the nitty-gritty legal details of how and why senseless violence, terrorism and traitorous vigilante attacks are impermissible and completely against the spirit of Islam. If one is interested, a 600-page fatwa by a scholar named Shaykh Tahir al Qadri can be read which elucidates more or less what the position of the mainstream scholarship is. It is clear from that that the caravan raids of Islamic history can never justify the terrorist attacks that take place today.
Violent Interpretations Must Be Refuted and Marginalized, By All Sides
This seems obvious when it comes to terrorists and extremists justifying their hideous actions through distorting religious teachings.
However, the misconceptions of some people who fanatically criticize and negatively portray prophetic history are the other side to the same coin that bears the warped understandings of modern day terrorists and militants
Both groups actually employ the same misunderstandings of the same past events and push it on one another to fuel each other, except that the terrorists claim to be believers and use these misinterpretations to justify their heinous actions today, and the Islamophobes do not believe, and use their misinterpretations to justify fear-mongering and demonization of the Muslim communities in their countries, which are by-and-large peaceful, moderate, loyal and law-abiding. No doubt, the side of the terrorists is inexcusable however, while the Islamophobes still have a right to their opinions.
Both sides blame the other for their own existence and need to struggle; furthering violent misinterpretations of Islamic history on either side then, only leads to “self-fulfilling prophecies” which convince misguided and uneducated Muslim youth that these Islamophobes represent the majority of the “other” and rather than refute their misinterpretations logically through the religion, they accept them and actually make them their own while being rebelliously proud of it. While the chicken-or-egg blame-game continues (was it terrorism or aggression?), its consequences distract the mainstream good people of both sides from reaching lasting solutions for peace.
Hence, we as those who call ourselves Muslims and claim to follow the highest moral example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) need to speak up first, to break this vicious cycle, and clarify the truth for ourselves and instruct our own people in it before anything else, and trust that good people of all walks of life will notice, listen and thus marginalize those who propagate misinterpretations from their side.
How Muslims Should Deal with These Types of Historical Incidents
Although an event-by-event exercise in apologetics has its place, if you are looking to answer these types of questions it will never end because the heart of the matter is not being discussed – the greater context. It is easier to adopt a general approach unless you, or the questioner, have time to delve deeply into history and fair sources.
One must look at the over-arching teachings through source texts, in this case Qur’an and prophetic narrations, which will clearly show the sacredness of life and the importance of respecting covenants and legal systems. Also, the prophetic biography, taken as a whole with Makkan and Madinan periods considered, will show us this. This should teach us the spirit of the law. Then, for the law itself, we must return to the mainstream scholars, who follow the way of the majority, preferably those from the same land as the questioner so language and mentalities are clearly understood and communicated, all of whom would condemn the types of modern-day militant attacks you are asking about.
One cannot compare between a prophet who is directly instructed by God on what to do, and modern-day followers who claim to draw lessons from that prophet, while completely violating known and set-down principles of the sacredness of life in their religious teachings taught explicitly by that prophet. Today, we have limited knowledge of exactly what took place and how in religious history. Thus, we accept that because God sanctioned these events, they fully took place within the context of the broader moral teachings of respect for life and justice, though we may not understand. This applies in the life stories of Moses, David, Krishna, and Muhammad (peace be upon him), to name a few across various traditions. Then, we return to the greater teachings that the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself laid down for our own actions, and emphasize historical events in a positive light that reflects the lessons of those greater teachings.
Patience, being peaceful and just, and taking the higher road has always been hardest to take, but this cannot be explained to those who follow what suits them or their situation, because they did not imbibe the compassionate teachings in their own faith before acting in its name.
In any case, it is obvious that people who violate Islam’s teachings on the sacredness of life will never win their struggle. While they continue with their misguidance however, it is the duty of Muslims before any other people to stop them, through force of arms and education and prayers for guidance, because the way to help your oppressive brother is to stop his hand from committing oppression, regardless of whether he feels oppressed.
Abdullah Anik Misra
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani