In the early seventh century, Muhammad had a vision. The angel Gabriel appeared and proclaimed “You are the messenger of God”. Muhammad began his career as rasul Allah (a messenger of God). Today more than a billion people align themselves with the Islamic tradition and recognise Muhammad as its human founder. On earth Muhammad led and guided people, militaristically, spiritually and politically. He appears to have been an extraordinary man who founded a very large and influential religion. But was he a political leader? Muhammad was a skilled politician and a shrewd tactician.
To Muslims, however, he is a prophet. He led people under God’s banner. The aim of any politician or political party is to attain power. Muhammad didn’t appear to be out for power himself, rather to show the world the way of Islam. As a prophet, Muhammad performed the functions of a political leader for Islam rather than himself. We might suggest that the compartmentalisation of religion and politics is fairly recent and it is accordingly anachronistic to look at Muhammad in such simple terms.
This provokes the question, how are we identifying Muhammad? Are we looking at him, or representations of him made over thirteen centuries. Is posterity providing our subject matter? The sources we look at might grossly misrepresent Muhammad.
In his biography of the prophet, ‘Muhammad at Medina’, Montgomery Watt provides us with an authoritative account of Muhammad’s life. In 610 at the age of 40 Muhammad received his first vision from God. From this point until his death he had frequent visions and revelations.
He began trying to understand the messages with his wife’s cousin, a Christian. They concurred that the messages were identical to those received by Jewish and Christian prophets. Muhammad believed he was being commissioned by God to communicate God’s message. Friends, mainly relatives, who believed Muhammad, began worshipping and praying with him. In 613 he began preaching publicly. It seems few people in Mecca at this time believed man was dependent on supernatural powers. The merchants thought wealth and human planning were the pre-requisites for accomplishment. The earliest passages of the Quran revealed to Muhammad, indicate the goodness and power of God, demonstrated in nature and in the wealth of the Meccans.
Read about the role and function the messenger in Antigone
‘O men of Mecca! Serve your lord who hath created you, and those who have been before you: peradventure you will fear him; who hath spread the earth as a bed for you, and the heaven as a covering, and hath caused water to descend from heaven, and thereby produced fruits for you sustenance’
Muhammad, though his teachings were essentially religious, was critical of the wealthy merchants in Mecca, through the Quran and through his preaching:
“There are some who say, We believe in God and the last day, but they are not really believers; they seek to deceive God, and those who do believe, but they deceive themselves only, and are not sensible thereof. There is an infirmity in their hearts…”
Religious as his perspective was, these were also social and political criticisms. He referred to the Meccans’ worshipping half-heartedly, and their selfish attitudes, and questioned their ideology and conduct, offering his, or Allah’s alternative. Criticism of a society and offering alternatives are political actions, even when religious zeal is involved. Muhammad was seeking to turn society on its head, to ‘change the world’.
Meccans, wary of Muhammad at this point, tried to court him, offering him a fuller trade share in Mecca and a lucrative marriage deal with a very wealthy family. Muhammad rejected these advances. In 615 Abu Jahl, a contemporary of Muhammad, observed that Muhammad was on his way to becoming politically supreme in Mecca and Arabs respected the kind of wisdom and knowledge that Muhammad clearly had.
The leadership of Muhammad’s clan changed in 619, and his protection was withdrawn. He became vulnerable and unable to preach, while Muslims as a whole were not treated well by the sceptical Meccans. He tried to move to a neighbouring town but was poorly received. In 620 Muhammad began negotiating with clans in a place called Medina, to which he emigrated in 622. During the negotiations he had sent 12 Muslims to Medina to advance Muslim ideas. The process of Muhammad’s movement from Mecca to Medina was done in a diplomatic, political manner for the benefit of his fellow Muslims. Upon arrival at Medina Muhammad drew up the so-called ‘constitution of Medina’ stating that Muhammad’s authority was ultimately derived from God:
‘Whenever a dispute or controversy likely to cause trouble arises among the people of this document, it shall be referred to God and to Muhammad, the apostle of God. God is the guarantor of the pious observance of what is in this document.”
Organising and running a propaganda network and negotiating a written constitution in which it is stated that his authority comes directly from God are clever and assertive examples of political leadership. Authority from God provides a strong mandate. Andrew Rippin observes that in Medina ‘Muhammad emerged as a forceful religious and political leader’
For Islam to prosper it was necessary for Muhammad to act politically. The religion was growing at the same speed as it encountered difficulties, and to ignore these and concentrate solely on the religious aspect may not have favoured early Islam. Many Muslims left in Mecca were made unwelcome. Hostility between Meccans and Muslims grew.
At Medina, Muhammad endorsed raids on Meccan trade caravans, leading some attacks himself. In 624 he took 315 men on a razzia (raid) to attack a wealthy Meccan caravan at Badr. Aware of this plan, 800 men led by Abu Jahl were in support of the Meccan caravan. Jahl wanted to teach Muhammad a lesson. Muhammad won despite great disadvantages and unfavourable odds. The victory, for the Muslims, was seen as a divine vindication of Muhammad’s prophethood. Prior to this victory, Muhammad had many detractors in Medina. People who had been satirising Muhammad in verse, appear to have been assassinated, perhaps on his authority. When a small disturbance occurred he used it as an excuse to expel Medina’s Jewish clan. This weakened his chief rival in Medina, Abd Allah ibn Ubayy, whose key supporters had been that same Jewish clan. An aggressive political move, this lacked subtlety but was very effective. The victory and flaring of activity afterwards seriously strengthened Muhammad’s position. If the events after the battle were not involving Muhammad’s responsibility, their results seem to have landed nicely in his lap.
In 625 an assault by 3000 men was mounted on Medina. Muhammad had been anticipating such since Badr. The main battle took place at Uhud and was indecisive. Both sides lost similar numbers and neither made a strong impression. The Meccans had boasted they would make Muhammad pay several times over but the result must have left them abashed. But Muslim fervour was also dented. If Badr demonstrated Allah’s support for them, had he now deserted?
Two years on, 627, and 10,000 men led by Abu Sufyan laid siege to Medina. This time Muhammad was prepared. He had ordered an early harvest and a large trench dug in front of the Medinan oasis. Muhammad planted agents amongst the ranks of the Meccans to foster dissent. A fortnight later the Meccans melted away as quickly as they had arrived. This was a victory made possible by Muhammad’s leadership qualities.
Muhammad now had the option to crush the Meccans. Instead he implemented economic policies. He realised that if Arabs became Muslims it would be necessary for them to cease wasting their energies on razzias and one another. He also recognised that Meccan Merchants would make the skilful administrators to help him expand the incipient Islamic State. In this, Muhammad demonstrated his vision as a leader, his insight, organisational ability and firm decision making. These are all political qualities. The common anthropological model of societies sees groups turn to chiefdoms to states. Tribes united under Muhammad. Does a Muhammad led chiefdom emerge at this time? Is Muhammad’s presence critical to its emergence? I am treating the accounts of Muhammad’s life as straight narrative. The developing picture I am trying to create may be inaccurate, biased or unfair because it is dependent on the constructed pictures of others sources. Muhammad may have been much less involved in these events than we believe, maybe more so.
In a vision in 628 Muhammad saw himself on pilgrimage to Mecca. He made to do this, setting off for Mecca with sacrificial animals but only 1600 men (despite little support for this venture, he follows his religious path, but also makes an example of his own courage and leadership). He was halted outside Mecca. After some fraught days, the Meccans negotiated a treaty with Muhammad. Hostilities would cease and the Muslims could make pilgrimage to Mecca in 629. Muhammad’s power was becoming evermore potent. Meccan allies attacked Muhammad’s allies in November 629. Muhammad denounced the treaty of non-hostility and marched on Mecca with 10,000 men. Leading Meccans met him outside the city and submitted almost immediately. Muhammad who left as an exile returned to the support of most Meccans. He did not insist on their becoming Muslim, but they soon did. Idols were destroyed and the wealthiest Meccans were ordered to give money to the poorest.
Muhammad had been forming alliances since his exile. At first these we non-aggressive, but when he became strong enough to offer protection, becoming Muslim was a condition Muhammad could demand of a tribe. Some groups did not concur with Muhammad’s ideas and a large concentration of hostile nomads formed. Muhammad confronted them at a place known as Hunayn. Part of his army took flight, but he and other Muslims stood firm and eventually won out. The enemy’s dependants and possessions were captured. They were allowed to ransom their wives and children, but their livestock was seized and divided. Muhammad was now the strongest military power in Arabia. Many tribes sent deputations to Medina seeking alliance.
At the end of 630, Muhammad took 30,000 men on a razzia to the Syrian border, essentially the initial stages of the invasion of Syria. Muhammad led the pilgrimage to Mecca in March 632. His health began to fail and he passed on June 8th. He left most of Arabia united and coiled for expansion in to Syria and Iraq.
“Leadership, moreover, needs to be attuned to the structural conditions of a particular historical context; and even then it needs luck if it is to prove successful”
How far is this true of Muhammad? From the events in his life we have briefly looked at, he seems to have been very attuned to the seventh century world, responding with a kind of well-judged opportunism to almost every challenge. Maybe in some instances there were better ways to go about things, but apart from the battle at Uhud, everything goes Muhammad’s way. This might be where luck comes into it, though in Muhammad’s case it’s hard to forget that we’re dealing with a self proclaimed prophet. His consistent success and the amazing speed with which Islam escalated is rather peculiar. It seems impossible not to ascribe some of his success to the out of the ordinary. That may simply be fortune or perhaps Allah manifested in fortune. Anglo-Saxon and Frankish Kings of the seventh century were nowhere near as fortunate as Muhammad, even when supported by their holy men. Muhammad dealt from one situation to the next with fine judgement, as a strategist, warrior, negotiator, preacher, or social administrator dealing with the wealthy, poor, hostile or friendly.
Perhaps the simple fact that he led people made him a leader as his political activity made him a politician. We can’t know if he was an instigator or exploiter of events. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time though. From the evidence presented to us, like the written constitution of Medina, it is hard to deny that Muhammad led politically. His leadership is hard to look at from our modern perspective. He wasn’t solely, even mainly a politician, even though he was a good one. He was politician, military strategist, religious thinker and preacher combined. Today, people are generally one of these things; we don’t combine the roles. A difference between a state and a chiefdom. To one billion people, he was a prophet who founded their religion under the guidance of Allah. Muhammad was a political leader, but among many other things and only as a means to an end. If we conceive of a political leader then Muhammad would possess the required attributes. To think like that, though, would be to miss his point.