‘The Battle of Badr’

Surah 8 (Al-Anfal/The Spoils of War): 12

12. Remember thy Lord inspired the angels (with the message):

‘I am with you, give firmness to the Believers. I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them.’

13. This because they contended against Allah and His Messenger. If any contend against Allah and His Messenger, Allah is strict in punishment.
14. Thus (will it be said): ‘Taste ye then (of the punishment). For those who resist Allah, is the penalty of the Fire.’

[Yusuf Ali/Saudi approved revision, 1985]


According to the traditional Islamic narrative, two months after the raid at Naklah 〈38.〉, Muhammad is said to have personally led a much larger raiding party to plunder a Meccan caravan travelling south along the Red Sea coast. Ibn Ishaq introduces the event:

Then the apostle heard that Abu Sufyan bin Harb was coming from Syria with a large caravan of Quraysh, containing their money and merchandise accompanied by some thirty or forty men …

When the apostle heard about Abu Sufyan coming from Syria, he summoned the Muslims and said: ‘This is the Quraysh caravan containing their property. Go out to attack it and perhaps God will give it as prey.’

After the raid upon the caravan at Naklah, Abu Sufyan is said to have been alert to a possible attack by Muhammad and to have sent out spies who found traces (implausibly, olive stones) of Muhammad’s scouts. When he learned of Muhammad’s proximity, Abu Sufyan sent a messenger to Mecca to summon help and altered his caravan’s route to avoid the ambush. Upon the messenger arriving at Mecca, the Quraysh there hastily assembled a relief force which set off for the area where the caravan had last been known to be. Meanwhile Abu Sufyan’s caravan, returned to Mecca without incident.


The Meccan force arrived in the valley of Badr at the same time as Muhammad’s would-be raiders and the two groups rested overnight before doing battle the following day. Ibn Ishaq reports that that evening a messenger reached the Meccan force to advise it that the caravan was now safe, and that some of their number then returned to Mecca, but that the Meccans’ leader, Abu Jahl, declared that he would not turn back ‘until God decide between us and Muhammad’. According to al-Tabari, verses {54.45-47} record the words of Muhammad to his fighters on the morning of the battle:

{54.45}  The whole shall be routed and they will turn their backs.

{54.46}  Nay! The Hour is their tryst and the Hour is more calamitous and more bitter.

{54.47}  Truly, the guilty are astray and mad.


As it turned out, the confrontation did indeed result in a surprise victory for Muhammad and in the deaths of eighty Meccans amongst whom were some of the settlement’s most prominent leaders including Abu Jahl. The triumph is said to have provided the background for the triumphant Surah 8: ‘The Spoils of War’ .
Surah 8 was clearly celebratory of a successful military encounter. It commences with the triumphant claim that: ‘The spoils belong to God and His Messenger’, {8.1}, although this blanket appropriation of the spoils by the prophet in the name of God was amended by {8.41} (possibly added as the regular acquisition of war booty required a more systematic distribution) to ‘a fifth is for God and the Messenger, and for kinsfolk, orphans, the indigent and the traveller’. Basking in the successful outcome of a battle, {8.5-9} recalls how some of the believers had been reluctant to set forth on the expedition and that others had preferred to attack ‘the unarmed company’ – i.e. Abu Sufyan’s caravan – to the armed one, drawing the lesson that ‘God had desired to verify the truth through His Words and to cut off the last remnant of the disbelievers’, {8.7}. {8.39} repeats the formula seen in {2.193} 〈36.〉: ‘And fight them until there is no more fitna and religion is wholly for God’.


Whatever the facts of the conflict described in Surah 8, it seems to mark a critical transition in the Qur’an’s announcement. Prior to this battle the expectation had been that God would reserve the punishing of the unrighteous to himself. Numerous prior verses had insisted that the Qur’an’s announcer was only ‘a warner’. In later surahs it is God’s will that his messenger orders his followers to fight for him as a test of their faithfulness.  Surah 8, at this pivotal moment, seems anxious to place responsibility for what had occurred with God’s supernatural intervention. Phrases are used that recall the former punishment-narratives (compare {8.7} above with the words of Moses in {10.82}Surely God does not allow the deeds of those who work corruption to flourish. God verifies the truth through His Words’; and the divine voice’s ‘Thus we cut of the last remnant of those who denied Our signs (the people of Noah)’ in {7.72} and ‘We decreed … that the that the last remnant of those people (the people of Lot) will be rooted out in the morning{15.66})

During the course of the battle itself, God had reportedly sent the believers ‘sleepiness’- a strange asset in the midst of  fighting, possibly indicating a sense of moral detachment from their actions – and ‘a blessing of water from the sky to purify’ them, the latter explained in Islamic tradition as an unexpected storm that had worked to the tactical advantage of the Muslims. He also sent them the assistance of ‘a thousand angels, [in the later {3.124} this would become three thousand angels] rank upon rank’, {8.9} , who cast terror into the hearts of the infidels’ hearts and smote with swords at their necks and fingertips, {8.12}, their faces and their backs, {8.50}, saying ‘Taste the punishment of the burning’. If Muhammad’s fighters had had qualms about killing their kinsfolk, they were reassured with the words: ‘You did not slay them, but God slew them, and thou threwest not when thou threwest but God threw, {8.17}. There is material aplenty there to infer that Muhammad’s fighters had had qualms about killing their kinsfolk and had needed to be absolved of responsibility.


Only the slightest description is given of the battle itself:

{8.42} When you were on the near slope and they were on the far slope and the caravan was below you. And had you made a tryst with each other you would have failed the tryst…

Badr is one of only two fields of battle to be named in the Qur’an, being mentioned in {3.123} when the survivors of a larger but less disciplined fighting force a year later are urged to reflect how ‘God certainly helped you at Badr when you were lowly’.


The captives of Badr

After the battle, the Qur’an addresses the fate of the captives that had been taken:

{8.67} It is not for a prophet to take captives until he overwhelms (his enemy) in the land. You desire the ephemeralities of this world whilst God desires the Hereafter.

And God is Mighty, Wise.


What a prophet must do, according to this verse, before they are permitted to take captives has been variously translated to mean killing many of their enemy (‘made slaughterper Arberry and Pickthall, ‘thoroughly decimated the enemy’, Ali Qarai) or confirming their dominance (‘thoroughly subdued the landper Yusuf Ali, ‘conquered the battlefield’, Haleem.) In either case, the counsel not to take prisoners prematurely would seem to admit no plausible interpretation other than that a prophet should continue to fight even where a withdrawal on advantageous terms is practicable, until their victory is absolute. Ibn Ishaq states that forty-three captives were taken at Badr. According to several hadith, Muhammad asked his companions for their opinions what should be done with them, whereupon Abu Bakr’s view was that they should all be released unconditionally, whilst Umar advised that they be put to the sword. In the event, Muhammad is reported to have ransomed all his prisoners except for two, whom he ordered to be executed for having mocked him during the years that he had been preaching in Mecca. A short time later, Umar is said to have found Muhammad weeping, and upon his asking why Muhammad informed him that God had just revealed {8.67} to him. His weeping, it seems, was due to his belated realisation that God had intended him to kill more of the captives than had, rather than ransom them in exchange for the ‘ephemeralities of this world’ .

Abu Sufyan

After the battle and the deaths of many prominent Meccans Abu Sufyan is said to have become the new leader of the Meccan community. Abu Sufyan plays an interesting, but often overlooked role, in the traditional narrative of Muhammad’s rise to power. He was, according to the traditional genealogy, the cousin of Uthman, who was one of Muhammad’s closest supporters, and would in time become the third caliph of the Muslim community 〈7.〉 Uthman had married one of Muhammad’s four daughters, Ruqayya and, the story goes that it was owing to Ruqayya’s illness that Uthman did not join the raiding party to attack his uncle’s caravan at Badr. After her death, he would marry a second of Muhammad’s daughters, Umm Kulthum. One of Abu Sufyan’s daughters, Ramla ‘Umm Habiba’ (‘mother of Habiba’), is reported to have been married by Muhammad. The traditional narrative has it that Ramla had converted to Islam in Mecca and that she and her first husband had been part of the group that had emigrated to Abyssinia. There, her husband had converted to Christianity and drunk himself to death. After the Battle of Badr and her father’s succession to the leadership of the Meccans, Ramla is said to have received a message containing a proposal of marriage from Muhammad, and whilst she remained in Africa they were married by correspondence.


Uthman’s marriage to two of Muhammad’s daughters and Muhammad’s marriage to one of Abu Sufyan’s daughters, suggests that there may have been a dynastic alliance between Muhammad and the Umayyads, who would later seize control of the movement that Muhammad had created. Such an alliance was not, of course, recorded in the history of Muhammad as it was written by Ibn Ishaq after the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty by the Abbasids. In this the marriage connections between Muhammad and the Ummayads, and the fact that one of Muhammad’s inner circle is a cousin of his enemy is underplayed, and Abu Sufyan’s eventual surrender of Mecca and taking an oath of loyalty to Muhammad are presented purely as a consequence of Muhammad’s military genius and inclination to clemency.


See also 〈41.〉 following and 〈D.〉 Muhammad’s wives and concubines.