The first permission to fight

Surah 22 (al-Hajj/The Pilgrimage): 39-41

39. Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is waged, because they have been wronged.

Most certainly, God has the power to grant them victory.

40. These are the ones who have been driven from their homelands against all right for no other reason than their saying: ‘Our Lord is God!’

Were it not that God repels some people by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques – in all of which God’s name is abundantly extolled – would surely have been destroyed.

God will most certainly succour him who succours God’s cause.

God is certainly Most Powerful, Almighty.

41. They are those who, if We firmly establish them on earth, attend regularly to their prayers, give in charity, enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong.

With God rests the final outcome of all events.

[‘In the Shade of the Qur’an by Sayyid Qutb’, 1965 (Egyptian Islamist and leading figure in the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood; executed in Egypt 1966]


According to the traditional narrative, after more than a decade of preaching in Mecca, relatively few Meccans had been persuaded by Muhammad’s revelations. The Qur’an itself addresses its audience’s scepticism on many occasions. Some Meccans, however, believed, as did a small number of converts, initially just six, who were visiting Mecca from the oasis of Yathrib, about two hundred miles to its north:

The time came when (Muhammad) met a number of the Helpers at one of the fairs, and while he was offering himself to the Arab tribes, he met at al-Aqabas a number of the Khazraj whom God had intended to benefit. …

When the apostle met them, he learned by inquiry that they were of the Khazraj and allies of the Jews. He invited them to sit with him and expounded Islam to them and recited the Qur’an to them. Now God had prepared the way for Islam in that they lived side by side with the Jews who were people of the scriptures and knowledge, whilst they themselves were polytheist and idolaters. They had often raided them in their district and the Jews used to say to them: ‘A prophet will be sent soon. His day is at hand. We shall follow him and kill you by his aid as ‘Ad and Iram perished [〈26.〉].‘

So when they heard the apostle’s message they said to one another: ‘This is the very prophet of whom the Jews warned us. Don’t let them get to him before us.’

Thereupon they accepted his teaching and became Muslim. … (and) returned to Medina as believers.


The following year, these coverts from Medina returned to Mecca with six others and the twelve made a pledge, known as the First Pledge of al-Aqaba, to follow Muhammad. The year following that, they returned to Mecca again, this time with many others – so that they were seventy-five in total – all of whom swore to obey and to protect Muhammad (the Second Pledge of al-Aqaba).


Immediately, after this assurance of protection had been given, Muhammad announced that it had been revealed to him from Jabril that he had been given permission to fight the Meccans. This critical moment is described by Ibn Ishaq as follows:

The apostle had not been given permission to fight nor allowed to shed blood before the second Aqaba. He had simply been ordered to call men to God and to endure insult and forgive the ignorant. The Quraysh had persecuted his followers, seducing some from their religion and exiling others from the country. They had to choose whether to give up their religion, be maltreated at home or flee: some to Abyssinia, others to Medina.

When the Quraysh became insolent towards God and rejected His gracious purpose, accused His prophet of lying and ill-treated and exiled those who served him and proclaimed His unity, believed in His prophet and held fast to His religion, He gave permission to His apostle to fight and to protect himself against those who wronged them and treated them badly.

The first verse which was sent down on this subject was… [{22.39-41} above]

Then God sent down:

[{2.190} And fight in the way of God against those who fight against you but do not transgress.

Truly, God loves not the transgressors.

{2.191} And slay them wheresoever you come across them and expel them whence they have expelled you, for fitna is worse than slaying.

But do not fight them near the Masjid al-Haram until they fight with you there. But if they fight you then slay them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.

{2.192} But if they desist, then truly God is Forgiving, Merciful.

{2.193} And fight them until there is no fitna and all is for God.

But if they desist then there is no enmity save against the wrongdoers.]

When God had given permission to fight and this clan of the Ansar had pledge their support to him in Islam, and to help him and his followers and the Muslims had taken refuge with him, the apostle commanded his companions, the emigrants of his people and those Muslims who were with him in Mecca, to emigrate to Medina and to link up with their brethren, the Ansar: ‘God will make for you brethren and houses in which you may be safe.’

So they went out in companies and the apostle stayed in Mecca waiting for his Lord’s permission to leave Mecca and migrate to Medina.


Surahs 2 and 22 have many common features, and for Ibn Ishaq {2.190-193} and {22.39-41} were both announced at about the same time and address the same problem with the same solution. Fighting is justified to Muhammad and his followers as righteous retribution for having been ‘expelled’/’driven from their homelands’ for their obedience to God. In {22.39-41} this is supported by the general observation that violence is sometimes necessary in order to protect places of worship. However, both {22.39-41} and {2.190-193} anticipate that those to whom the verses are directed will be doing more than merely defending religious sites from attack. Rather, both passages assert that the believers have already been excluded from somewhere – ‘their homelands’ in {22.40}; a location near Masjid al-Haram in {2.191} – and that their goal is nothing less than regaining access to that place and expelling or subduing those who were responsible for this exile. The instruction in {2.190-193} to ‘slay (those who fight against you) wheresoever you come across them’ and the prohibition against fighting ‘near the Masjid al-Haram until they fight with you there’ suggests that the fighting that is anticipated will constitute a wide-wide ranging campaign around, but preferably not within the immediate vicinity of, the Masjid al-Haram. This does not accord with Ibn Ishaq’s account for he nowhere describes Muhammad having been excluded from Mecca, nor being under any threat there, at the time when these verses were announced. On Ibn Ishaq’s account, there was never any prospect of a campaign of a campaign of fighting within Mecca until Muhammad marched against the settlement at the head of an army in 630.


Pseudo-Sebeos, in his History of Armenia, which was written just thirty years after the traditional date of Muhammad’s death, a century before Ibn Ishaq, tells a very different story, one that involves a group of Jews who had been expelled from Edessa after Heraclius’ recapture of the city. He writes:

At this time there was an Ishmaelite called Mahmet, a merchant. He presented himself to (the Jews who had been expelled from Edessa) as though at God’s command, as a preacher, as the way of truth, and taught them to know the God of Abraham, for he was very well-informed, and very well-acquainted with the story of Moses. As the command came from on high, they all united under the authority of a single man, under a single law, and, abandoning vain cults, returned to the living God who had revealed Himself to their father Abraham…

(Mahmet said to them): ‘God has promised this land to Abraham and his posterity after him forever. He acted according to His promise while he loved Israel. Now you, you are the sons of Abraham and God fulfils in you the promise made to Abraham and his posterity. Only love the God of Abraham. Go and take possession of your country which God gave to your father Abraham, and none will be able to resist you in the struggle, for God is with you.’

Then they all gathered together … (and) divided into twelve tribes according to the lineages of their patriarchs. They divided among their tribes the twelve thousand Israelites, a thousand per tribe, to guide them into the land of Israel…

All that remained of the peoples of the children of Israel came to join them, and they constituted a mighty army…


Although Sebeos’s description of Muhammad dividing the Arabs into twelve tribes has  an obviously symbolic quality, replicating the twelve tribes of Israel descended from Jacob’s sons, his account of Jews being divided amongst Arab tribes receives corroboration from a likely contemporary Arab document, the Constitution of Medina. The text of this is preserved by Ibn Ishaq, who describes Yathrib as having already had a significant settled Jewish community at the time of Muhammad and his followers’ migration there. Shortly after Muhammad’s arrival, Ibn Ishaq tells us, he ‘wrote a document concerning the emigrants and the helpers in which he made a friendly agreement with the Jews and established them in their religion and property and stated their reciprocal obligations’ .


The treaty describes its signatories as ‘the believers and Muslims of Quraysh and Yathrib’ who agree in it to form ‘one community (ummah) to the exclusion of all men’. It lists eight tribes of believers whose obligations are briefly set out. There follows a general statement concerning Jews – ‘To the Jew who follow us belongs help and equality He shall not be wronged nor shall his enemies be aided’ – followed by a list of seven specific groups of Jews, each of which is described as ‘the Jews of…’ followed by the name of a tribe. Six of these tribes appear in the list of eight tribes of believers, with one tribe not otherwise mentioned in the treaty. For each group of Jews, a statement of their rights and duties are given, accompanied by a statement that ‘the Jews are to have their religion and the Muslims theirs’. Both Jews and Muslims accept a duty to help the other if one is attacked, but ‘none of them shall go out to war save with the permission of Muhammad.’ Crucially, ‘If any dispute or controversy likely to cause trouble should arise it must be referred to God and to Muhammad, the apostle of God.’


As has been noted previously, there is no trace in any Jewish or Arabic source, prior to Islam, of a significant Jewish presence anywhere in the Hijaz. Moreover, the Constitution of Medina is hard to reconcile with the common understanding of a long-established Jewish population in Yathrib. One would expect a people united by ethnicity, culture and faith to form one or more distinct tribes. This is the model that is encountered later in Ibn Ishaq’s story, when Muhammad is described launching punitive expeditions against three exclusively Jewish tribes, the Banu Qaynuqa, the Banu Nadir and the Banu Qurayza, each living in its own walled compound. Yet not only are these three tribes not mentioned in the Constitution of Medina, but the Jews who are mentioned therein appear to be dispersed amongst predominantly non-Jewish tribes. This would have been an unlikely state of affairs in a tribal society, but Sebeos provides an explanation for it that makes perfect sense. These were Jews who had been embedded into local tribes, probably to limit their opportunity to act as a unified group in a way that might challenge Muhammad’s authority.


The fact that eight tribes had agreed to place control over their affairs, and in particular decisions of whether to go to war and against whom, into the hands of a newly arrived refugee shows that this was much more than a ‘friendly agreement’. Reading Sebeos and the Constitution of Medina together calls for a major revision of the traditional understanding of Muhammad’s relationships with the Jews of Yathrib. This relationship was not one of curious neighbours, but of parties to a military alliance. The presence of Jews amongst his followers gave Muhammad military strength and added credibility to his claim to be walk in the footsteps of biblical patriarchs, kings and prophets. Muhammad offered the Jews the hope of regaining their homeland, and particularly their Temple from the Byzantines.


This alliance between the descendants of Israel and Ishmael, would create the basis for an army charged with restoring the Holy Land to those who ‘perform the prayer, give the alms, enjoin right and forbid wrong’, {22.41}, and to fight its then occupiers, ‘the wrongdoers’, until there is no more ‘fitna’ and ‘all is for God’, {2.193}, the deadly violence justified by the phrase ‘fitna is worse than slaying’. ‘Fitna’, literally means ‘strife’ (per The Study Qur’an, rendered ‘oppressionper Yusuf Ali, or ‘persecutionper Arberry and Pickthall. Given its context here, it is suggesting that the word should be given a broad interpretation of opposition to God’s will, as exactly the same phrase does in {2.217} (see 〈38.〉) ‘such is the recompense of the unbelievers’.


See also Part VII Muslims, Believers and Others.