‘The raid at Naklah’

Surah 2 (Al-Baqarah/The Cow): 217

They ask you about the sacred month, about fighting therein.

Say ‘Fighting therein is great (sin), but averting (people) from the way of Allah and disbelief in Him, and (preventing access to) al-Masjid al-Haram and the expulsion of its people therefrom, are greater (evil) in the sight of Allah.
And fitna is greater than killing.’

And they will continue to fight you until they turn you back from your religion if they are able.

And whoever of you reverts from his religion (to disbelief) and dies while he is a disbeliever: for those, their deeds have become worthless in this world and the Hereafter, and those are the companions of the Fire, they will abide therein eternally.

[‘The Qur’an’, Sahih International, 2010 (three female US converts)]


Ibn Ishaq states that twelve months after Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina he began organising his followers to carry out raids upon Meccan caravans. Up to seven raids are said to have been dispatched over the following six months although for a variety of reasons none resulted in conflict. Then, about eighteen months following the hijra, Muhammad sent a group of eight followers out with sealed instructions, which they were to open and read only when they were two days away from Medina. Although Ibn Ishaq does not give reasons for this precaution, it seems reasonable to infer that Muhammad had suspected that an informant at Medina was tipping off the Meccans about his preparations, and the Meccans were then taking precautions such as altering their routes or increasing the number of guards, which was frustrating Muhammad’s plans.


When they were unsealed, the instructions read: ‘When you read this letter of mine proceed to Naklah which is between Mecca and al-Ta’if. Lie in wait there for the Quraysh and find out for us what they are doing.


Ibn Ishaq describes the expedition acting as they were instructed:

‘(They) journeyed along the Hijaz until, at a mine called Bahran above al-Faru, Sa’d bin Abu Waqqas and Utba bin Ghazwaz (two of the party) lost the camel which they had been riding by turns. So they stayed behind to look for it whilst Abdullah bin Jahsh (the expedition leader) and the rest of them went on to Naklah. A caravan of Quraysh carrying dry raisins and leather and other merchandise of the Quraysh passed by them.

When caravan saw them they were afraid of them because they had camped near them. Ukkasha (one of the expedition members), 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 raiders took counsel amongst themselves, for this was the last day of Rajab (a month when fighting was traditionally forbidden). 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 to take what they had. Waqid bin Abdullah (one of the raiders) shot ‘Amr bin al Hadrani (one of the caravaners) with an arrow and killed him. And (two other named caravaners) surrendered. (The fourth) escaped and eluded them. Abdullah and his companions took the caravan and the two prisoners and came to Medina with them.

… When they came to the apostle, he said: ‘I did not order you to fight in the sacred month.’ And he held the caravan and the two prisoners in suspense and refused to take anything from them. When the apostle said that, the men were in despair and thought they were doomed.

Their Muslim brethren reproached them for what they had done … (and) the Jews turned this into an omen against the apostle … But God turned this against them when he sent down to His apostle: ‘They ask you about the sacred month… [{2.216-218} of which {2.217}, is produced above].


There is little in {2.217}, to materially separate it from the verses presented in 〈36.〉 as the ‘First Permission to Fight’. The theme that the exclusion of the believers from the Masjid al-Haram justified deadly violence because (repeating the mantra of {2.191}) ‘fitna is worse than slaying’, is essentially the same.


It is likely that the elaborate story of the Naklah expedition was created to provide an explanation for the otherwise unexplained reference to believers not fighting in the ‘sacred’ months. However, the story does not fully meet the verse that it sets out to make sense of. For one thing, only one person had been killed, Amr bin al Hadrani, a man peacefully going about his trade in raisins and leather. There is no reason to suppose that he had been responsible for any rebellion against God and no violence had been ordered in Muhammad’s instructions. In modern parlance, ‘Amr bin al Hadrani‘s death might be described as ‘collateral damage’ resulting from the ‘fog of war’ (if not simply as murder.) Stating that killing him would have been a sin but was justified by the greater sin committed by other people is hard to make any sense of.
At the heart of the story, one is still left puzzled by the status of the ‘sacred months’. It seems illogical that whilst the Qur’an unambiguously justifies and authorises a campaign of violence against pagans, and possibly anyone trading with them, it should instruct that fighting should be conducted to normally avoid the ‘sacred’ (literally ‘ḥaram’ or forbidden) place of worship, {2.191}, and the ‘sacred’/‘ḥaram’ months, {2.217}. If a community has incurred God’s wrath to the point of His ordering his righteous servants to wage war against them, why would a customary ‘sacred’ place or ‘sacred’ months, being pagan or at least pre-Quranic conventions, be recognised by God at all? Just as it is suggested that the Masjid al-Haram may be the Jewish Temple from which, for the Jews had been made forbidden, so it seems more likely that the ‘ḥaram months’ may mean simply refer to the duration of some specific temporary truce. Such is the phrase’s clear meaning in {9.5}, when the ‘ḥaram’ months are a four month period of grace given to the ‘mushrikun’ to convert, leave or face death 〈51.〉