Muḥammad Allows Permisison to Break the Sacred Months for the Sake of Jihād
John C. Rankin
Muḥammad sends ‘Abdullah b. Jaḥsh b. Ri‘āb al-Asadī on a raid with eight of the emigrants, but they do not know their mission until they read a letter, on cue from Muḥammad, two days into it: “When you have read this letter of mine proceed until you reach Nakhla between Mecca and Al-Ṭā’if. Lie in wait there for Quraysh and find out for us what they are doing.” ‘Abdullah b. Jaḥsh also says to the eight others, congruent with the instructions of Muḥammad: “ ‘He has forbidden me to put pressure on any of you, so if anyone wishes for martyrdom let him go forward, and he who does not, let him go back; as for me I am going on as the prophet has ordered.’ So he went on, as did all his companions, not one falling back.”
Thus, we see the original definition of martyrdom in Islām – namely, any person who dies while fighting in war against the declared enemies of Islām. These nine raiders follow through and attack a caravan of the Quraysh carrying raisins, leather goods and other merchandise. “When the caravan saw them they were afraid of them because they had camped near them. ‘Ukkāsha, who had shaved his head, looked down on them, and when they saw him they felt safe and said, ‘They are pilgrims, you have nothing to fear from them.’ ” The shaved head is customary for those on a pilgrimage, especially during one of the sacred months. Thus, ‘Abdullah b. Jaḥsh is engaging in a feint, and also, under Muḥammad’s orders, engaging in jihād against merchants, not soldiers.
“The raiders took council among themselves, for this was the last day of Rajab, and they said, ‘If you leave them alone tonight they will get into the sacred area and will be safe from you; and if you kill them, you will kill them in the sacred month,’ so they were hesitant and feared to attack them. Then they encouraged each other, and decided to kill as many as they could of them and take what they had.”
Rajab is one of the four sacred months in the Arabian then Islāmic calendar, during which fighting is prohibited, but which ‘Abdullah b. Jaḥsh and his raiding party violate. Thus, they are caught between two definitions of what Islām now calls sacred, and are willing to violate the most expedient one.
“Wāqid shot ‘Amr b. al-Ḥaḍramī with an arrow and killed him, and Uthmān and al-Ḥakam surrendered. Naufal escaped and eluded them. ‘Abdullah and his companions took the caravan and the two prisoners and came to Medina with them. One of ‘Abdullah’s family mentioned that he said to his companions, ‘A fifth of what we have taken belongs to the apostle.’ (This was before God [Allāh] had appointed a fifth of the booty to him).” So the principle of one-fifth of the booty going to Muḥammad is established in practice, later in an edict by Allāh. As it turns out, Muḥammad spends his one-fifth in governing responsibilities, always living among his men, but too, he also has the expense of his many wives who often travel with him. And there is great motivation for those on the raiding parties, in gaining four-fifths of the booty to split between themselves, thus enriching the umma at the foundational level, and this ethic proves to be the economic engine that propels Islām forward for centuries.
The breaking of the sacred month causes great conflict when ‘Abdullah b. Jaḥsh and his men return. Muḥammad says he did not order them to fight in the sacred month (but he did send them out during it …), so he holds the caravan and prisoners in suspension. Many fellow Muslims reproach them as well, and some Jews say this is an omen against Muḥammad.
Then the Qur’ān comes down to Muḥammad: “They will ask you about the sacred month, and war in it. Say, war therein is a serious matter, but keeping people from the way of God [Allāh] and disbelieving in Him and in the sacred mosque and driving out His people therefrom[,] is more serious with God [Allāh] … This is a more serious matter with God [Allāh] than the killing of them whom you have slain.”
Thus, Allāh overrides the sacred month in such Islāmically defined exceptional cases, which is in fact a treaty between different tribes, and ex post facto in this first instance. This also places Islāmic advance as superior, and previews a pattern in Islām where the end can justify the means.
Ibn Isḥāq continues:
“And seduction is worse than killing.” i.e. They used to seduce the Muslim in his religion until they made him return to unbelief after believing, and that is worse with God [Allāh] than killing. “And they will not cease to fight you until they turn you back from your religion if they can.” i.e. They are doing more heinous acts than that contumaciously.”
Seduction from Islām, by any means including persuasion, is more damning than killing a merchant in a raid to steal their goods. Muḥammad thus keeps the caravan and the prisoners, who are then exchanged, under threat of killing them, for two Muslim prisoners. “As for al-Ḥakam [who surrenders][,] he became a good Muslim and stayed with the apostle until he was killed as a martyr at Bi’r Ma‘ūna. ‘Uthmān went back to Mecca and died there as an unbeliever.” Muḥammad rewards ‘Abdullah b. Jaḥsh and his eight men, as Muḥammad brings a Qur’ānic verse that gives the booty to those who “fought in the way of God [Allāh].” Reward for breaking a most longstanding treaty among all the tribes and religions of Arabia.
Abū Bakr thus composes a poem at this juncture:
“You count war in the holy month a grave matter, but graver still, if one judges rightly, your opposition to Muhammad’s teaching, and your unbelief in it, which God [Allāh] sees and witnesses, your driving God’s [Allāh’s] people from his mosque so that none can be seen worshipping Him there.
“Though you defame us for killing him, more dangerous to Islam is the sinner who envies. Our lances drank of Ibn al-Ḥaḍramī’s blood in Nakhla when Wāqid lit the flame of war, ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Abdullah is with us, A leather band streaming with blood restrains him.”