‘The Conquest of Mecca’

Surah 17 (Al-Isra/The Night Journey): 81-82

81. And say: ‘Has come the truth and perished the falsehood. Indeed, the falsehood is (bound) to perish.’
82 And We reveal from the Qur’an that it (is) a healing and a mercy for the believers, but naught it increases the wrongdoers except (in) loss.

[Corpus Coranicumin, an ongoing research project by collaborating international scholars under the auspices of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities]


Just two years into the agreed ten-year long truce between Muhammad and the Meccans, Muhammad cited a skirmish between a tribe allied to him and a tribe allied to the Meccans as grounds to declare that the Treaty of Huddaybiyah had been breached and was voided. During the peace, Muhammad’s capture and taxation of Kaybar and subjugation of surrounding Bedouin tribes must, according to the traditional narrative, have led to a substantial strengthening of his power, for he is said by Ibn Ishaq to have marched on Mecca at the head of an army of ten thousand men. No doubt this army included many recent adherents with the mercenary motivation addressed in {48.15-16} 〈46.〉


The Meccans, caught by surprise and now facing a far stronger foe than they had faced two years earlier, sent Abu Sufyan to attempt to negotiate a renewal of the treaty with his son in law, but when Muhammad refused this and threatened Abu Sufyan with beheading, Abu Sufyam agreed to submit to Islam. That day Muhammad’s army entered Mecca with instructions only to fight those who resisted, ‘except a small number who were to be killed even if they were found beneath the curtains of the Ka’aba’. Ibn Ishaq reports only minor skirmishes taking place.


It should be born in mind that the only explicit reference to Mecca in the Qur’an is as an inconsequential valley where battle was avoided, and that whilst the Qur’an refers to military successes, there is no passage that seems to celebrate the achievement of the community’s overall goal, that is to say of having won the war as opposed to mere battles. Verses {17.81-82} are traditionally afforded this interpretation since they are said to have been announced by Muhammad as he smashed the pagan idols around the Ka’aba.


There is a certain irony in the fact that despite so many punishment narratives in the early and middle Qur’an proclaiming the inevitability of God’s destruction of cites and peoples who reject his prophet, all, according to the traditional Islamic narrative, aimed at warning the Meccans, when Muhammad finally conquered his home town, he spared its inhabitants in return for their pledges of allegiance. This is in marked contrast to the fate of the Banu Qurayza and Kaybar. Only a handful of Meccans were sentenced to death, amongst whom Ibn Ishaq names a former scribe of Muhammad, Abdullah bin Sa’d, ‘who had been a Muslim and used to write down revelations, then he apostatized and returned to the Quraysh’, one Abdullah bin Khatal, who had also apostatized, and three women who had insulted him Muhammad when he had preached in Mecca ten years earlier, for whom he seems to have harboured a particular resentment: two of Abdullah bin Khatal’s singing girls and a freed slave called Sara. These sentences are among the authorities cited by later Islamic jurists for ruling that the correct penalty for apostasy or mockery of the prophet is death. Abdullah bin Khatal, as it happens had an extremely fortunate escape when Muhammad’s fighters failed to pick up on Muhammad’s unspoken desire that they should kill him. Also spared was one of the two singing girls who threw herself on his mercy and offered to convert.