The myth that warfare is only justified in Islam under the condition of self-defense is disproved by the account of the Battle of Badr, in which Muhammad sent his men out to raid caravans, then deliberately provoked a battle with the Meccan army sent out to defend them. The case for aggressive warfare is also supported by the fate of the three Jewish tribes of Medina, who were cleansed because they had rejected Muhammad’s claims of prophethood (and because the Muslims wanted their possessions).
Consider the fate of the Banu Mustaliq, an Arab tribe:
“The Prophet had suddenly attacked Bani Mustaliq without warning while they were heedless and their cattle were being watered at the places of water. Their fighting men were killed and their women and children were taken as captives” (Bukhari 46:717)
Although there are many reliable accounts from the Hadith and Sira that mention the Mustaliq grazing cattle, not one mentions Muhammad making any effort at peacemaking. In this case, Muhammad’s men raped the women (with his approval) after slaughtering the men (Sahih Muslim 3371). What does raping a female captive have to do with self-defense?
In many situations, Muhammad waged war for the purpose of revenge, such as the attack on the Lihyan, in which the people were clearly not prepared for war and saved themselves only by fleeing into the hills (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 718). Muhammad also attacked the people of Taif as soon as he had the opportunity to avenge their rejection of him (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 280 & 872).
Also disproving the myth that Muhammad only fought in self-defense is the account of his first attack on the Christians. There was no compelling reason for him to send an army to Muta (in Syria, where they met with disaster at the hands of the Byzantines). Had this been a matter of self-defense, then the enemy would surely have followed the routed army back to Arabia, but this was not the case (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 791).
Near the end of his life, the prophet of Islam directed military campaigns for the mere purpose of spreading Islamic rule. He knew that some cities would resist and others would not. He left instructions to his people for dealing with each case:
The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: If you come to a township (which has surrendered without a formal war) and stay therein, you have a share (that will be in the form of an award) in (the properties obtained from) it. If a township disobeys Allah and His Messenger (and actually fights against the Muslims) one-fifth of the booty seized therefrom is for Allah and His Apostle and the rest is for you. (Sahih Muslim 4346)
As can be seen, those who were not at war with the Muslims are to be subjugated anyway, and their property seized. The only distinguishing factor is the extent of Muslim entitlement following the victory.
Military campaigns to extend Islamic domination include the raid on Tabuk, which was a second incursion into the Christian territory of Syria, in which Muhammad forced the local populace to pay him tribute after ambushing and killing local civilians to assert his authority (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 903). Another example would be the “convert or die” mandate given to an Arab tribe, the Banu al-Harith:
Then the apostle sent Khalid bin Walid… to the Banu al-Harith and ordered him to invite them to Islam three days before he attacked them. If they accepted then he was to accept it from them, and if they declined he was to fight them. So Khalid set out and came to them, and sent out riders in all directions inviting the people to Islam, saying, “If you accept Islam you will be safe.” So the men accepted Islam as they were invited. (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 959)
Obviously self-defense was not a factor in any of these cases (even though some Muslims are prone to embellish the record with imaginary details not found therein). As with the capture of Mecca in 630, these early Muslims had clear military superiority and the target of their aggression was in no position to defend itself.
In fact, the first part of the 9th Sura, the most bellicose chapter of the Qur’an, was revealed shortly after the Muslims had established military dominance in Mecca. Consider one of the more violent verses:
But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them (9:5)
The words, “when the forbidden months are past,” precludes the possibility that this was a matter of self-defense. The Muslims had already been given the divine right to fight during the sacred months, and it is simply implausible that they would have suffered attacks over a four month period without defending themselves. That they were not under attack is consistent with the historical context, in which the Haj period was a traditional time of peace and tolerance throughout Arabia.
Although not under attack from the pagans, Muhammad ordered his men to chase and kill the unbelievers following the Haj. The pagans who agreed to become Muslim (ie. practice the pillars of Islam, zakat and salat) would be allowed to live following their conversion. Verse 9:29 offers a separate rule for Jews and Christians, allowing them to keep their religion as long as they pay protection money to Muslims and acknowledge the inferiority of their faith. Should they resist, then they should be killed.
One of the best documented examples of Muslim aggression during the lifetime of Muhammad is the attack on the peaceful community of Khaybar. This followed the treaty of Hudaibiya between the Muslims and Meccans, which called for a period of peace between the two groups. The treaty was controversial with Muslims, not only because it contradicted Allah’s prior mandate to “drive out” the Meccans with violent force (2:191), but also because Muhammad agreed not to be recognized as a prophet in the document (Muslim 4401).
Muhammad decided that it was prudent to attack the Jews at Khaybar in order to regain the trust of his people and placate their grumbling with military victory and (especially) the stolen wealth that followed. This is embarrassing to modern-day Muslim apologists, who try to justify the siege by imagining that the sleepy farming community, located about 100 miles outside of Medina, posed some sort of necessary threat.
Unfortunately for contemporary apologists, not only is there no supporting evidence that the Muslims were under attack by the Khaybar, there are at least three historical references that flatly contradict any notion of self-defense on the part of Muhammad. The first is a description of the initial attack by Ibn Ishaq/Hisham:
We met the workers of Khaybar coming out in the morning with their spades and baskets. When they saw the apostle and the army they cried, “Muhammad with his force,” and turned tail and fled… The apostle seized the property piece by piece… (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 757)
The people of Khaybar were not attacking Muhammad. They were farming their land with shovels and buckets, not even knowing that they were supposed to be at war. This is further confirmed in the same text:
When the apostle raided a people he waited until the morning. If he heard a call to prayer he held back; if he did not hear it he attacked. We came to Khaybar by night, and the apostle passed the night there; and when morning came he did not hear the call to prayer, so he rode and we rode with him. (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 757)
Muhammad attacked only after waiting to see if the people of Khaybar issued a morning call to prayer. This would have no possible relevance had they already been at war with him.
Perhaps the best proof that Muhammad was not acting in self-defense is the fact that his own people did not understand why they were marching to war. His son-in-law, who was in charge of the military expedition, had to ask for justification:
Allah’s Messenger called Ali [and said]: “Proceed on and do not look about until Allah grants you victory,” and Ali went a bit and then halted and did not look about and then said in a loud voice: “Allah’s Messenger, on what issue should I fight with the people?” Thereupon he (the Prophet) said: ”Fight with them until they bear testimony to the fact that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his Messenger…” (Sahih Muslim 5917)
The question Ali posed would have been unnecessary had the Muslims been under attack by the Khaybar or if the answer to the question were obvious. As it is, Muhammad’s reply underscores the ostensible purpose of the campaign, which was to force the Jews into acknowledging the superiority of Islam.
Muhammad’s men easily captured Khaybar and divided up the loot. The prophet of Islam tortured the community’s treasurer to extract information, then had him killed (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 764). Muhammad then took the man’s widow, Saffiya, as his wife after trading two other captured women to one of his lieutenants (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 758). The surviving Jews were allowed to stay on their land provided that they gave their Muslim masters an ample share of their crops.
Therefore, the rule of aggression in Islam, from the example set by Muhammad, is that it is proportional to the power held by Muslims, and not the persecution that they are under. The rare verses of peace in the Qur’an were “revealed” in Mecca, when true oppression existed (in some cases). The verses of violence that are revealed later correspond to Muslim military might even as any persecution of Muslims had largely dried up.