The migration to Madinah and the establishment of a new society proved itself challenging to the early Muslims. Within the first few months, they were struck with disease and morale had depleted. Society was being built, though it was anything but an easy task. Yet slowly, but surely, a society did grow. The mosque was built. Brotherhood was established. Alliances were formed. As the weeks and months passed, things seemed to stabilize as well as they could.
Being an independent society, the Muslims of Madinah – with their Prophet (peace be upon him) at the helm – were given divine permission to fight for the safety and growth of their faith and infant nation. They began military expeditions, and they started to raid various caravans on trade routes between Makkah and the Levant.
Nearly two years into the migration, the Prophet (peace be upon him), commanded one of his companions – ‘Abdullah ibn Jahsh (may Allah be pleased with him) – to undertake a military expedition that would prove to be a treasure trove of rich lessons for any Muslim society dealing with the project of nation-building in accordance with their faith. It also provides an opportunity for Muslims outside that society to observe and judge the project based on divine merits, and not propaganda.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) gave ‘Abdullah an enclosed parchment and instructed him to go to a certain place and only open the letter two days later. When ‘Abdullah arrived at the location with his unit and opened the letter, he found that the Prophet (peace be upon him) had ordered him to go to another place between Makkah and Ta’if in order to raid a caravan set to pass through the area. He also asked ‘Abdullah to give his unit the option to refuse, should they choose. Going between Makkah and Ta’if was no joke. It spelled immediate danger as it was the heart of the enemy. As such, this was a voluntary mission.
‘Abdullah told his unit that he intended to fight, and if they wished, they could join him. It wasn’t a question for them. They were going. These weren’t puppets of occupying imperialists, after all, they were the companions of the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him). They had the will to fight. The thirst. We are ready to die for the sake of Allah, his unit responded to him. And true to their word, they found themselves a few days later awaiting the caravan as it approached their area of encampment.
There were just two problems. They were close to Makkah. And it was the last day of the month of Rajab.
If anyone knows the Arab society pre-Islam, they would know there were four months in the year where fighting was prohibited by the consensus of all Arab tribes. Everyone was guaranteed safety, and no one would raise arms against another. Islam affirmed these four months and sought to abide by this noble tradition. Similarly, the premises of Makkah were sacred. Once a person entered the area, they were promised safety by necessity.
‘Abdullah’s unit found themselves in a tricky situation. On the one hand, they could attack at the moment – this meant breaking the sanctity of the noble months. On the other hand, they could wait for the caravan to enter Makkah. This would be another violation of sanctity, not to mention the added difficulty of raiding within the outskirts of the city which would itself pose a further threat. Believing there were only two options in front of them in carrying out the command of the Prophet (peace be upon him), they conferred among one another and chose to attack the caravan during the last day of the sacred month of Rajab.
Their arrows flew above the caravan, striking and killing one of the four scouts guarding the caravan. Another managed to flee (he would go on to report the news). They captured the remaining two, along with the caravan.
On their return to Madinah, news had already spread like wildfire. All across the Arabian desert, whispers of this sacred violation. It was already bad enough that the residents of Madinah were making trade routes difficult for Quraysh, they couldn’t be trusted with sacred traditions now either. Quraysh had started milking this story for all they could. They said that Muhammad and his people have violated the sacred months, they have shed blood, taken our wealth, and men prisoners.
This was a public image disaster for the Muslims. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was visibly angry. This was against policy. The Prophet (peace be upon him) admonished the unit. I didn’t tell you to fight in the Holy Months. Those weren’t my instructions, he stressed. Other Muslims also noted that this may spell disaster for them. They chided them even further – why did you violate the sacred month? The Prophet (peace be upon him) refused to take the caravan, he refused the prisoners.
The events which transpired after the return of ‘Abdullah and his unit to Madinah led them to feel extreme distress. They feared spiritual repercussions with the Prophet (peace be upon him) being upset at them. They felt hurt at the whispers of the Muslims across the city questioning their honor, dignity, and wisdom. They questioned whether their decision and actions were sincerely harmful to the blossoming Muslim community that had struggled so much the last two years since its inception. They feared whether Quraysh would be able to successfully hyperbolize the events, fanning the flames of war through their propaganda against the small Muslim society in Madinah. They felt lost. They felt alone.
But they weren’t alone, of course. Allah revealed verses in the Qur’an in their defense that every Muslim should recite and reflect upon in times of political turmoil.
They ask you ˹O Prophet˺ about fighting in the sacred months. Say, “Fighting during these months is a great sin. But hindering ˹others˺ from the Path of Allah, rejecting Him, and expelling the worshippers from the Sacred Mosque is ˹a˺ greater ˹sin˺ in the sight of Allah. For persecution is far worse than killing. And they will not stop fighting you until they turn you away from your faith—if they can. And whoever among you renounces their own faith and dies a disbeliever, their deeds will become void in this life and in the Hereafter. It is they who will be the residents of the Fire. They will be there forever.” Surely those who have believed, emigrated, and struggled in the Way of Allah—they can hope for Allah’s mercy. And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
( Surah al-Baqarah I 217-218 I سورة البقرة )
Let’s break down this verse to extract some important lessons.
“They ask you ˹O Prophet˺ about fighting in the sacred months.”
The disbelievers are now asking the Prophet (peace be upon him) about his policies. Imagine a press conference being held with the Prophet (peace be upon him) center stage. He is being questioned about the actions that his group has taken. They are trying to paint him and the Muslim society as barbarians. As insurgents and terrorists. It’s no surprise that they don’t respect our international laws. Our human rights ordinances. The pre-Arabian pagans didn’t care much about women’s rights (something introduced to the world by Islam). Perhaps if they did, they would bring that into question as well.
“Say, “Fighting during these months is a great sin.”
There are two lessons to be learned here.
The first is that one should speak the truth in all cases. In fact, the truth holds more weight when it is spoken against oneself – the more bitter, the more honest. One shouldn’t rely on false justifications and sophistry. Admitting fault is the true mark of sincerity, and that is where all roads to rectification begin. One cannot be absolved of sin unless they first admit to having made mistakes and feeling regret over them.
The second lesson to learn, and perhaps more relevant for those merely witnessing the events as they transpire, is the recognition that no one is perfect. Mistakes happen. That is the nature of being human. There’s a false double standard that exists – seeking to hold Muslims (who are still human at the end of the day) to utopic standards and visions. On the other hand, the crimes of all others are conveniently minimized, or even excused and justified, no matter how heinous. This is even as the latter claims subscription to similarly universal values of elevated morality and integrity.
A true utopia will never exist. If that is the goal, then death is the shortest route to achieving that – as a perfect society is only for the hereafter. There will always be flaws in any society. War will always incur collateral damage. Ignorance and a lack of education will always persist at some level. The human rights of women and minorities will always leave room to desire more.
It’s important to create a distinction between policy and application. The policy of Islam, the edicts of the Qur’an and Sunnah, are perfect. If one sees a problem with how hijab and gender segregation – for example – is taught in the Qur’an, then it’s their hearts that are corrupt and not the sacred text. But if these concepts are applied improperly, the confusion is natural – but one must not forget to crucially separate between policy and application. ‘Abdullah made a mistake in the application, but the Prophet (peace be upon him) didn’t instruct that in the policy.
If the policy is valid (and Islam determines that for a Muslim society) – no matter how much one may find applications repulsive and false – the validity of the policy remains, and its applications need to be improved. The baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater.
“But hindering ˹others˺ from the Path of Allah, rejecting Him, and expelling the worshippers from the Sacred Mosque is ˹a˺ greater ˹sin˺ in the sight of Allah.”
This part of the verse comes to the aid of ‘Abdullah and teaches the believers a very important lesson.
No matter how despicable the application – no matter how grave a sin – belief and disbelief are not the same. History is witness that they are not even measured on the same scale. They will never share moral equivalency.
Maybe a Muslim government did at one point beat men who had already prayed for not praying in the Masjid. Maybe they did force women to stay indoors and prevent their necessary education. Maybe they did beat people for not growing beards who couldn’t do so in the first place. Maybe they didn’t respect valid differences of opinion. There is no justification for these extreme applications of Islamic Law.
But having accepted that (yes – fighting in the sacred months is a major sin): there is no moral equivalency with their actions and those of the disbelievers. To even utter such heinous, laughable comparisons stems from either weak faith, or weak ‘aql (intellect).
Did the Muslims take the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children? Did they rape countless women along the way? Did they open prisons where they treated their innocent captives worse than their dogs? Did they fuel the pedophilia against young vulnerable boys by warlords for their sick satanic pleasures? Did they fuel an international drug trade to sustain the farms of these warlords? Did they drop bombs from their drones onto weddings and funerals with flimsy claims of targeting terrorists? Where one supposed terrorist would be killed along with fifty women and children? Did they plunder the natural resources of the indigenous people and rob them of their livelihoods, creating slaves to their agenda? Did they give them disgraceful promises of being “honored” with “refugee” statuses in their God-forsaken countries, treated as their third-class citizens, and looked down upon by the white faces around them? Did they seek to destroy the morality of women in that country? Did they extract the physical hijab and the internal haya from them, destroying their self-image in the process? Did they instill within their people tenacious inferiority complexes that would persist for generations, making mental slaves out of them and their kids? Did they shoot the victims of their own imperialist occupation as they ran towards them, seeking their clemency? Did they leave their teenagers to drop from their cargo planes, clinging on to the landing gears only to fall to their deaths like insects, specs of dirt on the camera screens recording nearby?
Is there any moral equivalency, or are people really insane?
‘Abdullah killed a man during the sacred month. Allah reminds the believers that hindering others from the path of Allah, rejecting Him, preventing and expelling them from the Sacred Mosque were four counts far greater in sinfulness. For those of clear conscience, a clean heart – this is not even something to doubt for an instance, much less a source of sustained reasonable contention. This is as clear as the bright sun in the summer sky.
Yet still, Allah explains why:
“For persecution is far worse than killing. And they will not stop fighting you until they turn you away from your faith—if they can. ”
Exegetes of this verse explain that the Quraysh would seduce people away from Islam until they would leave it. The “fitnah” (persecution) here is a reference to that. It helps to put things into perspective. Undoubtedly, something as horrendous as taking life in an unjustified manner is a grave sin.
Yet, to seek to destroy the hereafter of an individual by preventing them from practicing their faith, the source of his or her ultimate salvation, is far worse.
And lest one forgets, this battle doesn’t finish on the battlefield. It rises from the dust of the Middle East and South Asia and settles in the USA, UK, and Germany.
Look at the case of these very same refugees living among their oppressors. Look at the loss of religion, the loss of rich culture and identity, and the prevalence of shamelessness that now persists among them. They are perhaps safe in their livelihoods after decades of struggle and humiliation. Their families may enjoy breaking bread with the people that broke their first homes and nations. But when everything is said and done, one must ask if the sacrifice of faith that comes along with such a sick reality, an identity crisis that leads to ultimate humiliation in this life and the next – is really worth it?
Allah clarifies the answer:
“And whoever among you renounces their own faith and dies a disbeliever, their deeds will become void in this life and in the Hereafter. It is they who will be the residents of the Fire. They will be there forever.”
‘Abdullah ibn Jahsh and his unit returned to the Prophet (peace be upon him). They were elated. Jubilant. Allah had divinely exonerated them. They went to seek reward from the Prophet (peace be upon him). The Prophet (peace be upon him) at the revelation of the verse accepted their spoils and the captives as well. Even though their actions were definitely erroneous, Allah revealed further verses about them in the Qur’an:
“Surely those who have believed, emigrated, and struggled in the Way of Allah—they can hope for Allah’s mercy. And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”
Hope in the mercy of Allah doesn’t come from easy criticism. The following praise for these people was a vindication of them among all the other residents of Madinah on the sidelines who had criticized them without actually taking the risk of going behind enemy lines and waiting to enact the order of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Allah reminds people that His mercy can come to those who make mistakes on His path. Those ambivalent to the cause, though they may not make the same mistakes along the way, can’t hope as much.
While the people were thinking of them as killers and violators, Allah preserved their identity for eternity as believers, those who emigrated, struggled, and fought in the path of Allah. They were further given the honor of being the first to take a life and captives for the sake of Islam, as well as being the first to take the spoils of war in this faith.
Those who focus on criticizing people working for the sake of Allah should take heed of these verses. They should remember narrations speaking on taking the friends of Allah as enemies. People aren’t perfect. Movements and governments aren’t perfect. They make mistakes. It’s one thing to affirm those mistakes as such. But to forget the crimes of real oppressors by highlighting the mistakes of the good guys at critical junctures, by helping shift public sentiment against them at crucial moments, and ultimately by doing the work of the oppressors for them is not befitting those of wisdom and faith.
It is also a form of ingratitude against the Almighty. Have the people forgotten the decades of oppression? The endless wars that left millions dead and displaced? Have they forgotten that they feared utter impending chaos and destruction but – thanks to Allah and the pragmatism of those same people they criticized – that was almost completely avoided?
When the Quraysh came to ransom their prisoners, two of the companions in ‘Abdullah’s unit had lost a camel and gone wandering into the desert to look for them. The Prophet (peace be upon him), fearing that they may be captured by the delegation in return, refused to hand over the captives until they first returned safely. A further lesson is to be learned in how a Muslim reacts to the welfare of his people before the concerns of what his enemies think.
Soon thereafter, preparations for another expedition – one led by the Prophet (peace be upon him) – with several hundred companions, including ‘Abdullah, would commence. It would spiral out of control, divinely ordained as such, and would become the pivotal turning point in human history. ‘Abdullah ibn Jahsh would get the further honor of being a “Badri” companion, having fought in the Battle of Badr.
He would be given one last honor. A year later, he would sacrifice his life for the sake of Allah and become a martyr near the mountain of Uhud. He would be buried next to his uncle, Hamza ibn Muttalib (may Allah be pleased with him), who passed along with him in the same battle.
There are many lessons to be learned from these two verses and the military expedition of ‘Abdullah ibn Jahsh.
One learns that the enemy will attempt their utmost to present a reality that obfuscates the truth and turns public sentiment against those striving for the sake of Allah. Believers should not fall for this trick. They should not fall for the hyperboles, they should avoid accepting the propaganda. Their husn al-dhann needs to lie with the believers striving for the sake of Allah if they hope for the mercy of Allah along with them.
One learns that no individual is perfect. No movement is perfect. No society is perfect. Utopia is not for this world. And seeking it here is a futile endeavor. Rather, what is sought is to enact the laws of Allah in a complete manner with wisdom such that society can function the best it can while still having flaws – as humans are by nature flawed.
One learns to not be hypocritical and focus on the faults, shortcomings, mistakes, and flaws of their brothers and sisters while ignoring the mercy of Allah who removed the far greater oppression of their enemies.
One learns that there is no moral equivalency between the two. No matter how many mistakes a sincere believer makes, the virtue of faith will always make him or her better than the disbeliever and the hypocrite. The actions of the latter always prove as much, and one shouldn’t become short-sighted in recognizing that.
Ultimately, the project of nation-building is never an easy task. It wasn’t easy when the Prophet (peace be upon him) built Madinah, and it certainly won’t be easy now. There will be mistakes along the way. These mistakes won’t occur because of policies that are based on the perfection of the faith, but in their human application – a process of ijtihad (reasoning). In such a process, even the most sincere may display shortcomings and on occasion, make mistakes that go against the values and principles of the divine policies they seek to enact. While recognizing these mistakes is important (as that is not only sincere – but also strategic – only helping one to improve), one should not let that reflect on the character of those sincerely attempting to bring positive change.
One should be even warier about creating false moral equivalencies that place these individuals in the same spectrum as the oppressors or makes them seem worse. Only one has a proven track record in destroying the lives and spirituality of the Muslim society, preventing its people from practicing their faith properly. One shouldn’t be imprudent in focusing on the mistakes of the sincere at crucial junctures where public sentiment shifts quickly. To do so is merely providing ammunition to the imperialists and colonizers.
In the battle of the hearts and minds, words are very important. Listening to the right people is important. Saying the right things is more important. And standing by the truth is the most important of all. When all is said and done, the truth remains and falsehood is vanquished. It was always meant to be. Muslims should be grateful, not confused. They should rest assured that when people are raised on the Day of Judgment, Mullah Omar will certainly not be raised with Mullah Bradley.
And Allah knows best.
By Muzamil Ahmad
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not necessarily reflect Alfafaa’s editorial views