The Battle of Uhud

Surah 3 (Al-Imran/The House of Imran): 152-153

152. Indeed, Allah fulfilled His promise to you when you initially swept them away by His Will, then your courage weakened and you disputed about the command and disobeyed, after Allah had brought victory within your reach.

Some of you were after worldly gain while others desired a heavenly reward. He denied you victory over them as a test, yet He has pardoned you.

And Allah is Gracious to the believers.

153. (Remember) when you were running far away (in panic), not looking at anyone, while the Messenger was calling to you from behind! So Allah rewarded your disobedience with distress upon distress. Now, do not grieve over the victory you were denied or the injury you suffered. And Allah is All-Aware of what you do.

[‘The Clear Quran, A Thematic English Translation’, Khattab, 2016, (Al Azhar/Canadian Council of Imams)]

 

A year after their defeat at the Battle of Badr, the Meccans, now led by Abu Sufyan, marshalled a much larger and better prepared force than the one that they had hastily dispatched to Badr, with the intention of avenging their losses and removing Muhammad as a threat to their trade routes.

 

The battle is described in some detail by Ibn Ishaq. When Muhammad learnt of the Meccan advance upon Yathrib he is said to have led his fighters out of the town and deployed most of them at the foot of Mount Uhud, with fifty archers positioned on a nearby hill. These numbers, if accurate, would indicate that Muhammad’s available fighting force had swelled considerably in numbers and improved in discipline and specialisation since the surprise victory at Badr. The battle started well for Muhammad, with the Meccans apparently deterred from using their cavalry by the presence of archers. However, just as the Meccans were being forced back and the day seemed to be almost won, the archers abandoned their positions in order to plunder the unguarded Meccan camp. In the reported account of one witness:

God sent down His help to the Muslims and fulfilled his promise. They slew the enemy with the sword until they cut them off from their camp., and there was an obvious rout. …

There was nothing at all to prevent anyone seizing them when the archers turned aside to the camp when the enemy had been cut off from it. Making for the spoil. Thus they opened our rear to the cavalry and we were attacked from behind. Someone called out ‘Ha! Muhammad has been killed!’ We turned back and the enemy turned back on us after we had killed the standard bearers …

The Muslims were put to flight and the enemy slew many of them. It was a day of trial and testing in which God honoured several with martyrdom, until the enemy got at the apostle who was hit with a stone so that he fell on his side and one of his teeth was smashed, his face scored, and his lip injured.

 

A small group of Muhammad’s most loyal defenders are described being cut down as they tried to protect their fallen leader, but the majority of his fighters, believing the battle lost and their prophet slain, retreated to a valley at the foot of Mount Uhud, and Abu Sufyan called off his attack. It was some time later, as the injured were being attended to that Muhammad was discovered by one of his men to be still alive, and he was helped to a ravine on Mount Uhud where he held a shouted conversation with Abu Sufyan. If there is any historical truth to this account, then Abu Sufyan could, had he so wished, with relative ease have pursued and either killed or captured Muhammad and then sacked his followers’ undefended homes and captured their women and children. As Richard A Gabriel observes in Muhammad, Islam’s first great general, there can be little doubt that this is what Muhammad would have done had the positions been reversed. But for reasons that, on the traditional narrative, one must attribute to a sense of chivalry, he attempted none of these courses .

 

{3.121} is traditionally believed to describe how Muhammad ‘didst leave thy household at daybreak to assign the believers their positions for the battle’ and {3.123-129} take the form of an address to his fighters, reminding them of their victory of Badr and encouraging them that ‘if … they come at you immediately, your Lord will support you with five thousand angels.’ But whilst the Battle of Badr is said to lend Surah 8 its triumphant tone, so Surah 3 is more reproachful. {3.140-141, 146-148, 152-158 & 165-168}, even if phrased in the future tense, clearly anticipate or reflect upon some military setback. One verse consoles the believers in advance for the possibility of defeat by reminding them of a past victory:

{3.140} If a wound afflicts you, a like wound has already afflicted that people. And such days in turn We hand out to mankind.

And this is so that God may know those who believe and take witnesses from among you and God loves not the wrongdoers.

 

{3.144}, which is one of the four verses of the Qur’an to mention Muhammad by name (borrowing a turn of phrase originally used to refer to Jesus 〈5.〉), even prepares the fighters for the potential death of their leader:

{3.144} Muhammad is naught but a messenger; messengers have passed before him. So if he dies or is slain, will you turn back upon your heels?

Whosoever turns back on his heels will not harm god in the least, and God will reward the thankful.’

 

{3.152-153} produced above, reflecting upon the battle, describe how the squandered opportunity for victory and subsequent chaotic rout was a consequence of disobedience and greed.

 

The Battle of Uhud is also associated with the Qur’an’s repeated warnings in Surahs 4 and 5 against relying upon unbelievers. {4.51-52}, bitterly reflects that ‘of those who were given a portion of the book, who believe in idols and false deities’ are cursed and from them believers will find no helper, whilst {4.71-73} instructs believers to ‘go forth in companies or go forth all together’ and to beware those who would ‘tarry’ whilst they weigh up the prospects for success. {4.88-89} goes further and asserts that ‘hypocrites’ have been ‘cast back’ by God Himself. The learning point of the battle is that the way to success is though self-reliance and commitment: believers should not take unbelievers as allies – indeed, if a person shows themselves to not be a true believer by turning their back, the instruction is to ‘then seize them and slay them wherever you find them.’ By tradition, this rage at hypocrites was aimed primarily at one Abd’allah ibn Ubayy, chief of the Banu Kazraj tribe at Yathrib who had professed his belief in Muhammad as a prophet, but only out of fear of him. According to Al-Tabari, he had confessed immediately before Uhud: ‘Our situation with Muhammad is as in the saying ‘fatten your dog and he will eat you’.’ Ibn Ubayy is traditionally said to have led his tribe out to fight alongside Muhammad but then to have turned back, either because Muhammad had rejected the assistance of Jews within its ranks, or because he decided that he should not leave the town undefended.
Ibn Ishaq adds a postscript to the story of the Battle of Uhud, that as Abu Sufyan returned to Mecca, Muhammad followed him and, in order to deter him from turning back lit many campfires and sent a man to warn Abu Sufyan that the Muslims had gained reinforcements from the town. This story of a bold military deception, which is  ill-suited to being applied to a retreating victorious army was likely Ibn Ishaq’s seizing upon {4.101}’s ‘Slacken not in the pursuit of these people’, to avoid the Qur’an’s unmistakeable reflection of a defeat, being allowed to leave Muhammad without the dignity of demonstrating that he remained unbowed.