Islamic History The Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) Wars and Battles

If Islam is a Peaceful Religion, Why Did the Prophet Muhammad (sa) Fight Wars?


Zafir Mahmood Malik, London, UK

A simple Google search will reveal that the rhetoric that ‘Islam is a violent religion’ is as prevalent today as it was in the past. 

This is not a new criticism; 19th-century orientalists such as Sir William Muir and  John Rodwell, among others, also promoted these baseless accusations.

One strategy in their attacks against Islam was to malign the character of the Holy Prophet (sa) of Islam, for they knew that if they managed to do this, they would achieve their goal of discrediting Islam itself. It is interesting to note, however, that the Quraish, the first opponents of  Islam and Muhammad (sa) testified to his high moral character in spite of their opposition to his teachings. Indeed, his reputation was so outstanding that he was known by the titles of al-Siddiq (meaning the truthful) and al-Amin (meaning the trustworthy). His staunchest enemy, Abu Jahl, once stated, ‘O Muḥammad (sa)! We do not consider you to be a liar but we consider that which you have brought to be a lie.’ [1] Similarly, another staunch enemy of Islam, Al-Nadr bin al-Harith once heard someone say that ‘Muhammad (sa) is a liar’ (God forbid), and  replied by saying: ‘Muhammad (sa) was a child among you and he was the most virtuous of all. He was the most honest in speech and the most trustworthy – and this remained your view of him until you observed his hair turning grey and he reached his old age, and he brought to you that which he brought. Then you began to say that he is a magician and a liar. By God, he is not a liar nor is he a magician.’ [2] Thus, the people who lived in his time, even those who became his staunchest enemies, never found a flaw in his character – yet strangely, those studying the life of the Holy Prophet (sa) centuries later attempt to besmirch his character.

After starting his mission to invite people to Islam, Prophet Muhammad (sa) preached in Makkah for almost 13 years. During this time, most of the chieftains of the Quraish tribe rejected him. They began persecuting him and his followers to the extent that some of them had to migrate to Abyssinia to seek protection under a Christian king. The Quraish would beat and torture the small community of Muslims and made no distinction between any class or family ties. In addition, the Quraish even imposed severe sanctions upon the Muslims for over two years which pushed them to the point of starvation. Eventually, God Almighty commanded them to migrate and the Muslims began a new life in the city of Madinah, a few hundred kilometres away. But despite the fact that the idolaters of Makkah had successfully run the Muslims out of town, they were not content: they wanted to wipe out Islam itself once and for all. They marched upon Madinah, without any provocation, with a well-equipped army of 1000 men. It was because of this unprovoked attack that God Almighty then permitted the Muslims to take up arms to defend themselves. Hence the first verse revealed in this regard was:

‘Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged – and Allah indeed has power to help them.’ [3]

The reason for this is clarified in the subsequent verse:

‘Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ – And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty.’ [4]

This verse explains why the Prophet (sa) of Islam ever raised his sword to fight. It was never to gain territory or to spread his religion by force. Rather, it was to fight in self-defence, to save Islam from extermination and to establish freedom of religion and thought for people of all religions. Hence, every war fought by the Holy Prophet (sa) must be examined with this premise in mind. Furthermore, according to the aforementioned verse, it is the duty of Muslims to protect not only mosques, but also the places of worship of other faiths and to ensure there is freedom for religion for all people, which is in complete accordance with the Holy Qur’an, which explicitly states, ‘There should be no compulsion in religion’ [5]

The Battle of Badr was the first major war against the Makkan Quraish, comprising 1000 fully-equipped fighters, 700 camels and 100 horses. In comparison, the Muslims numbered little over 310, with 70 camels and 2 horses. Their provisions were so scarce that only six or seven Muslims were clad in armour. [6] By all forms of logic, this battle ought to have been won by the idolaters who numbered three times more than the Muslim army and were far superior in terms of military equipment. However, God Almighty had already vouchsafed to the Muslims that they would be granted victory, and this is exactly what transpired. Had the Muslims been adamant on waging war, then after this decisive victory they should have had the perfect chance to launch an attack on the Quraish. Yet it was the Quraish who, seeking revenge for the loss of Badr, marched on Madinah yet again with an army of 3000 warriors, 700 of whom were clad in armour, along with 200 horses and 3000 camels. [7] This was known as the Battle of Uhud. The Muslims once again had to defend themselves or Islam would have been wiped out. The Muslim army, on the other hand, numbered only 700; of whom only 100 men were covered in armour, and the entire army had no more than 2 horses. In fact, in every war in which the Muslims had to fight, they were heavily outnumbered, with the exception of the Battle of Hunain. Hence to suggest that the Muslims actively waged war against any non-Muslim opponent is a fallacy.

Let us look at the progress of Islam in terms of numbers from another angle, which can shed further light on the fragility of this criticism. The Treaty of Hudaibiyah – a pact to end fighting between the Muslims and the Makkans – took place in the 6th year after the migration to Madinah, at which point Islam had been in existence for approximately 19 years – 13 years in Makkah and 6 years in Madinah. The Muslims that accompanied the Holy Prophet (sa) on this journey to Makkah numbered 1400. Taking into consideration those women who stayed behind in Madinah, as well as the children and elderly who did not join in this expedition, a conservative estimate would put the entire Muslim population at close to 3000. [8] Two years later, at the Conquest of Makkah, the Holy Prophet (sa) entered the city with 10,000 men. [9] This meant that in 19 years of preaching, four of which were spent warring against the Makkans, the Holy Prophet (sa) had only, at most, a few thousand followers. But in the two years of peace, when no wars were fought, this number increased to 10,000. This is an increase of several times over: which shows that most people accepted Islam in peacetime, whereas during the years of conflict the rate of people accepting Islam was significantly less. This is another blow to the criticism that Islam was spread by the sword.

When the Muslims were at war with the Makkans, the Holy Prophet (sa) sent a delegation under the command of Hazrat Abdullah bin Jahsh (ra) to obtain information about the activities of the Makkans. An intelligence mission so close to Makkah was a delicate matter and thus the Holy Prophet (sa) did not even disclose to them where they were going.  Instead he handed a letter to their leader, Hazrat Abdullah bin Jahsh (ra) and instructed him to only open the letter after two days of travel. When they arrived near Makkah, a caravan of the Quraish spotted them and an altercation broke out. The Muslims decided of their own accord to attack the caravan and that the people ought to be captured or killed. Out of this party, one was killed, two were taken captive, but a fourth escaped. This party of Muslims returned to Madinah with the spoils of war. When the Holy Prophet (sa) learned of what had happened he stated:

‘I have not given you permission to fight in the Sacred Month.’ [10]

He then refused to take anything from the spoils of war. [11] From the above accounts we also find that the Muslims were ill-equipped for warfare and lacked provisions. Any provisions, then, would have  been welcomed under normal circumstances. Furthermore, the Muslims were actively at war with the Quraish. But the lofty morals and sense of honour of the Holy Prophet (sa) was such that he refused to accept anything from the spoils as he had never commanded them to fight. This is a completely different approach to the famous proverb: ‘All is fair in love and war.’ In fact, the Holy Prophet (sa) was so particular about the conduct in war that whenever he would dispatch a contingent, he would advise them saying:

‘O ye Muslims! Go forth in the name of Allah and perform jihad with the intention of protecting religion. But beware! do not embezzle the wealth of spoils and do not deceive a people. Do not mutilate the enemy dead, do not kill women and children, [12] nor religious recluses; [13] and do not kill the elderly. Create peace in the land, and treat the people with benevolence, for surely, Allah loves the benevolent.’ [14]

This exemplary conduct in warfare was upheld by the Rightly-Guided Caliphs after the Prophet (sa). It is stated that when dispatching the army to face Byzantine forces, Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra) gave his men similar words of advice:

‘Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those that are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.’ [15]

A common technique of those criticising Islam is to use isolated verses from the  Holy Qur’an out of context to show that these verses have been used by terrorist organisations to justify their activities. As there are a number of verses that can be presented, by way of example I will choose one and let the reader decide for themselves what conclusion they wish to draw. One commonly used verse is found in Chapter 2: ‘And kill them wherever you meet them and drive them out from where they have driven you out; for persecution is worse than killing. And fight them not in, and near, the Sacred Mosque until they fight you therein. But if they fight you, then fight them: such is the requital for the disbelievers.’ [16]

Reading it alone and without any context it may seem quite explicit. The narrative of the propaganda is that this verse means the overriding permission for Muslims to kill all non-believers wherever they may be found. But if this is the supposed meaning of this verse,  the question then arises as to why 99.9% of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world choose not to act on this verse  and instead live peacefully in every society? Presumably, there is another explanation.

In actuality this interpretation stems from a lack of understanding the Qur’anic idiom and also the language of the Qur’an. The Arabic pronoun هُم which means ‘them’ refers to something or someone that has already been mentioned previously. So let us take a look at the preceding verse:

‘And fight in the cause of Allah against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. Surely, Allah loves not the transgressors.’

This dispels any kind of doubt that it could mean anyone other than those who have initiated the fighting. Bearing in mind the first verse regarding warfare stated that arms must only be taken up against those who first raise arms to fight, this verse duly follows suit. The clause ‘against those who fight against you’ is key, as it indicates that Muslims are only permitted to fight against those people who instigate the fight against them, i.e. permission is given only for a defensive war. 

With this brief introduction to the conditions in which Muslims were permitted to raise arms, The Review of Religions is pleased to present the first ever English translation of the treatise penned by Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra), Second Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, titled The Exemplary Conduct of the Companions (ra) During the Battle of Hunain’. From the outset of Islam, witnessing the excellent example of the Holy Prophet (sa), the companions (ra) tried their best to emulate his example. It is for this reason the Holy Prophet (sa) praised the companions (ra) by saying: ‘My companions are like the stars, whichever one of them you decide to follow, you will be guided.’ His Holiness (ra) outlines the reasons why they were granted this grand status and highlights their bravery in times of peace and even in times of battle. His Holiness (ra) opens with a famous account during the Battle of Badr, before discussing the Battle of Hunain.

About the Author: Zafir Mahmood Malik serves as the Associate Editor of The Review of Religions, having graduated from Jamia Ahmadiyya UK– Institute of Modern Languages and Theology. He is also an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and regularly appears as a panelist on MTA International and Voice of Islam radio station answering questions on Islam.


  1. Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Tafsir, Hadith No. 3064.
  2. Al-Qadi Abu al-Fadl ‘Ayad bin Musa, Al-Shifa Part 1 (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2002), 90.
  3. The Holy Qur’an, 22:40.
  4. The Holy Qur’an, 22:41.
  5. The Holy Qur’an, 2:257.
  6. Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad M.A. (ra), The Life & Character of the Seal of the Prophets Vol. II (Tilford, Surrey: Islam International Publications Ltd., 2013), 138.
  7. Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad M.A.(ra), The Life & Character of the Seal of the Prophets Vol. II (Tilford, Surrey: Islam International Publications Ltd., 2013), 321.
  1. Muhammad bin Sa‘d, Al-Tabaqat al-Kubra – Volume 2 (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1996), 282.
  2. Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Maghazi, Hadith No. 4276.
  3. Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Jarir al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk (Tarikh al-Tabari Second Edition), Volume 3, Sariyyat ‘Abdillah bin Jahsh (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Fikr, 2002), 15.
  4. Ibid
  5. Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Jihad wa al-Siyar, Bab Ta’mir al-Imam al-Umara ‘ala al-Bu‘uth, Hadith No. 4522.
  1. Imam Abu Ja’far Ahmad bin Muhammad al-Tahawi, Sharh Ma‘ani al-Athar – Volume 2, Kitab al-Siyar, Babal-Shaikh al-Kabiri Hal Yuqtalu fi Dar al-Harb am la, Hadith No. 5067 (Lahore, Pakistan: Maktabah Rahmaniyyah), 126.
  2. Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Jihad, Babu fi Du‘a al-Mushrikin, Hadīth No. 2614.
  3. Aboul-Enein, H. Yousuf and Zuhur, Sherifa, Islamic Rulings on Warfare, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, page 22.
  4. The Holy Qur’an, 2:192.