When They Almost Killed Muhammad: The Persecution of Islam’s Earliest Followers
Robert Spencer has summarized the key arguments raised by Islamophobes in his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). Chapter one of his book is entitled “Muhammad: Prophet of War”, in which he recounts the life story of the Prophet Muhammad. In it, he portrays Muhammad as the aggressor and his Quraysh enemies as the victims. Spencer writes:
After receiving revelations from Allah through the angel Gabriel in 610, [Muhammad] began by just preaching to his tribe the worship of One God and his own position as a prophet. But he was not well received by his Quraysh brethren in Mecca, who reacted disdainfully to his prophetic call and refused to give up their gods. Muhammad’s frustration and rage became evident. When even his uncle, Abu Lahab, rejected his message, Muhammad cursed him and his wife in violent language that has been preserved in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam: “May the hands of Abu Lahab perish! May he himself perish! Nothing shall his wealth and gains avail him. He shall be burnt in a flaming fire, and his wife, laden with faggots, shall have a rope of fibre around her neck.” (Qur’an 111:1-5)
Ultimately, Muhammad would turn from violent words to violent deeds. In 622, he finally fled his native Mecca for a nearby town, Medina… 
Muhammad’s message of monotheism does not adequately explain why the leaders of the Quraysh rejected his message so forcefully. Indeed, Muhammad preached a lot more than this: he called for a top-to-bottom reform of Meccan society, advocating for the rights of the poor and weak. While it is also true that Muhammad’s renouncement of the pagan gods was unbearable to many followers of the old religion, so too did his powerful critique of the rich and powerful set him on a collision course against them.
Spencer not only fails to properly explain why the Quraysh leaders opposed Muhammad, but he also omits entirely how they opposed him. In Spencer’s version of events, (1) Muhammad preached to them about God and his prophetood; (2) the Quraysh didn’t accept this message; and then (3) Muhammad reacted with rage and violence. Spencer’s biography is curiously missing the almost decade and a half-long persecution of Muhammad and his early followers in Mecca, whichpreceded their Flight (Hijra) to Medina. This willful omission is designed to mislead the reader, and Spencer succeeds in inverting reality, portraying Muhammad as the aggressor and the Quraysh leaders as the victims.
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Muhammad was born and raised in seventh-century Mecca, a city of the Arabian Peninsula. At the time, the majority of Meccans, led by the powerful Quraysh, were polytheistic in religion. Then, in 610 A.D., when he was around forty years old, Muhammad declared his prophethood and called his people to a new, monotheistic religion.
Initially, Muhammad preached in private, and his early followers congregated in secret. When Muhammad eventually declared his message publicly, he and his early followers were met with increasing hostility. The Quraysh leaders instigated a sustained campaign of violence against what they saw as a rival faith. Consequently, the early Muslims suffered persecution; they endured beatings, torture, and even imprisonment.
This entire period is omitted entirely from Robert Spencer’s chapter: Spencer portrays Muhammad as the violent aggressor and the Quraysh as his peaceful victims. Yet, it is well-established that it was in fact Muhammad who began preaching his message peacefully, and it was the Quraysh leaders who responded violently. Prof. Spencer C. Tucker writes:
As Muhammad’s group of followers grew, the leadership of Mecca, including Muhammad’s own tribe, perceived them as a threat. Some of the early converts to Islam came from the disaffected and disadvantaged segments of society. Most important, the Muslims’ new set of beliefs implicitly challenged the Meccans’ and the Quraysh tribe’s guardianship over the Kaaba, the holy site dedicated to the gods and goddesses of the area, which hosted an annual pilgrimage. The city’s leading merchants attempted to persuade Muhammad to cease his preaching, but he refused. In response, the city leadership persecuted Muhammad’s followers, and many fled the city. One group of his followers immigrated to Abyssinia. In 619 Muhammad endured the loss of both [his wife] Khadija and [his uncle] Abu Talib, while the mistreatment of his followers increased. 
Not surprisingly, the meanest persecution was meted out to the most vulnerable members of the Muslim faithful. Prof. Daniel C. Peterson writes:
There are many stories of imprisonment, beating, starvation, and thirst, and perhaps worst of all, of believers staked out on the ground under the scorching heat of the Arabian sun until they could be induced to repudiate their faith.
Slaves were particularly vulnerable, for they had no one to protect them against their masters. One of them, a black Abyssinian named Bilal, was pinned to the ground by his master, with a large rock on his chest, and told that that he would remain there until he either died or recanted–whichever came first. He was spared only because Abu Bakr, passing by, was horrified at this maltreatment of a fellow believer and bought Bilal’s freedom…Some, it is said, died under torture. And others did indeed renounce their faith. 
The extent of the persecution can be gauged by the fact that some of the early Muslims were forced to flee with their lives from the Arabian Peninsula altogether, an event known as the First Flight to Abyssinia. Under the cover of night, these Muslims fled Mecca and boarded ships headed for the African country of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). There was a second such emigration, known as the Second Flight to Abyssinia. The Quraysh leaders dispatched envoys to the Abyssinian king, requesting that these Muslim refugees be returned to Mecca. This request for extradition was rejected and these Muslim refugees stayed in Abyssinia for the remainder of what is known as the Meccan Period of Muhammad’s prophethood.
The Quraysh leaders harassed Muhammad himself, who endured both verbal and physical abuse. Initially, however, his tormentors stopped short of killing Muhammad because he was still under the tribal protection granted to him by his aging uncle, Abu Talib. Islam’s early enemies earnestly beseeched Abu Talib to permit the killing of Muhammad, but Abu Talib adamantly refused.
To pressure Abu Talib’s clan, the Banu Mutalib, to rescind their protection of Muhammad, the Quraysh leaders signed a pact resulting in the complete social and economic boycott of the early Muslims along with the two clans associated with them (the Banu Mutalib and the Banu Hashim, the latter of which was the tribe Muhammad was born to). The early Muslims and members of the two clans were forced by circumstance to leave their homes and resettle in the outskirts of Mecca. Confined to the harsh and barren desert valley (Mecca’s “ghetto”), they struggled to survive for three years, with even food and medicine being barred to them by the Quraysh leaders, who intended to starve them into submission:
Abu Jahl now tried to starve Muhammad into submission and imposed a boycott on the clans of Hashim and al-Muttalib, managing to get all other clans to sign a treaty to unite against the Muslim threat. Nobody could intermarry or trade with anybody in the two outlawed clans and this meant that nobody was supposed to sell them any food. For the sake of security, all members of Hashim and al-Muttalib, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, moved into Abu Talib’s street, which became a little ghetto. 
During what is known as the Year of Grief, both Muhammad’s wife Khadija and uncle Abu Talib passed away. Abu Lahab, early Islam’s arch-enemy and Muhammad’s bitterest foe, replaced Abu Talib as the chief of the clan. Muhammad thus lost his tribal protection and was forced to flee with his life to the neighboring city of Taif. He preached his message to the leaders of Taif, who rejected him and refused to give him asylum for fear of earning Mecca’s wrath. Muhammad was stoned by the street urchins of Taif and told to never return. Bloody and battered, Muhammad had no place to go but to return to Mecca.
The persecution of the early Muslim community in Mecca intensified to the point that there was a very real fear that the religion of Islam would be snuffed out entirely. It was at this precarious moment in history that a group of influential men from the nearby city of Yathrib (henceforth to be referred to as Medina) accepted Islam and promised to grant Muhammad refuge. Thus began The Flight (Al-Hijra), as the Muslim community in Mecca migrated in waves to Medina. The Quraysh authorities, fearful that Islam would spread to other parts of the Arabian Peninsula, tried (but failed) to prevent this exodus.
By this time, the Quraysh leaders had already formulated a plot to assassinate Muhammad in his sleep. They delegated this task to eleven men, chosen from all different tribes so as to make retaliation against any one of them untenable. The assassins gathered around Muhammad’s house, broke into it, and advanced towards his bed. In fact, however, they had just missed Muhammad, who had slipped away and begun the arduous journey to Medina. Prof. Juan Eduardo Campo writes:
[P]ersecution of Muhammad and his followers in Mecca by the Quraysh intensified; the weaker ones were physically tortured or imprisoned. Muhammad ordered his followers to emigrate to Yathrib [Medina] in small groups, while he remained in Mecca with his friend Abu Bakr and his loyal cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib. The Quraysh plotted to murder Muhammad and invaded his house only to find Ali sleeping in his bed. Muhammad had secretly escaped with Abu Bakr, and the two of them hid in a cave for three days before making their way to Yathrib [Medina]. 
The Quraysh leaders were by this time wild-eyed with fury, and placed a bounty on Muhammad’s head. Whoever could intercept Muhammad before he reached Medina would be handsomely rewarded. Search parties went out to apprehend or kill the prophet of Islam.
But, destiny had another plan altogether for Muhammad. He arrived safely in Medina in the year 622 A.D., what became year one of the Islamic calendar. There, the early Muslim community would regroup, and eventually, flourish.
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In Robert Spencer’s biography of the Islamic prophet, the persecution of Muslims in Mecca is completely passed over. Muhammad is wrongfully portrayed as the aggressor and the initiator of violence. Context is completely lost–in fact, it is purposefully distorted. Without understanding the background of the conflict (i.e. Muslims being persecuted in Mecca for almost a decade and a half), the reader will view Muhammad’s actions in Medina as nothing short of unprovoked aggression.
Not only does such a deception distort the reader’s view of the Prophet Muhammad, it also has huge implications with regard to Islamic theology. Jihad is wrongfully equated with terroristic violence and unprovoked aggression, instead of what is actually called for in the Quran: a defensive respondingto unprovoked aggression.
If the concept of jihad was first formulated during Muhammad’s lifetime–and if Muslims look to Muhammad’s example to understand the embodiment of this concept–then it makes a very big difference whether or not Muslims see Muhammad as initiating violence or merely defensively responding to it.
Spencer well understands this concept and himself argues it intensely in his book. His deception, however, lies in his flipping of reality on its head, portraying Muhammad and the early Muslims as the aggressors and their tormentors as the victims.
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Having thus understood the importance of this discussion, let us then delve into Muhammad’s response to the violence, persecution, and injustice directed at him (and his religious community). Did he preach “love your enemies” or ruthless vengeance?
Muhammad’s reaction to his enemies can be summarized as follows: it was better to forgive the average foot soldier, and only the top level leaders of injustice (“the chiefs of disbelief”) were to be punished. This dynamic can be seen with Muhammad’s eventual triumphal return to and conquest of Mecca eight years after he fled from it. Even though the people of Mecca in general had engaged in the persecution of the early Muslims, Muhammad issued a blanket immunity and “mercy” to all of them aside from nine individuals (other sources say seventeen), who were “his most inveterate [of] enemies.”  However, even of these, most were pardoned, and in the end “only four Meccans were killed. ” 
These were the same people who had humiliated, harassed, tortured, and persecuted Muhammad and his followers. In fact, at one point in time Muhammad was attacked by them and left with a bloodied face, a busted lip, a broken tooth, and a split-open forehead. Muhammad had then asked rhetorically:
How can a people cut the face of their prophet and break his tooth while he is calling them to God? How can such a people prosper?
God’s Wrath is great on those who besmear the face of His Messenger!
The following Quranic verse reprimanded Muhammad:
Not for you (O Muhammad) is the decision whether [God] turns in mercy to them to pardon them or if He punishes them (for indeed, they are wrongdoers). To God belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth. He forgives whom He pleases and punishes whom He pleases; but God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Quran, 3:128-129)
Muhammad retracted his earlier comment and then prayed for not only forgiveness of the attackers but forgiveness for the Meccans overall:
O God, forgive my people for they do not know. 
Later that day, Muhammad came across his uncle, Hamza ibn Abdul Mutallib, who had been killed by the Quraysh. Worse, Hamza’s corpse had been mutilated: his nose was burnt off and his ears cut off; his stomach was gutted and his intestines were hanging out of his body. When Muhammad saw his uncle in such a state, he angrily took the following oath:
I shall kill seventy of their men in revenge!
To this, God is said to have replied in the Quran:
(O Muhammad), invite them to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and dispute with them only in the most politest manner–for your Lord knows best who has strayed from His Path and who is rightly guided. And if you wish to retaliate, retaliate only in a way that is proportionate to the injury done to you. But if you endure patiently (instead of retaliating), it is better to do so. (O Muhammad), endure with patience. Truly, your patience is only possible with the help of God. Do not be grieved by them or distressed because of their schemes–for God is with those who are mindful of Him and who do good.
Therein then do we have the Quranic axiom: if you wish to retaliate, then the punishment must be proportionate to the crime. (This rule is clarified in verses 2:190-194 with the stipulation that the punishment must be against the guilty party only.) Although the Quran permits one to demand justice, it strongly urges the believer, especially Muhammad, to instead “endure with patience” and forgive. Following this admonition, ”the Prophet refrained (from taking revenge) and atoned for his oath.” 
Indeed, when the early Muslims triumphed over and conquered Mecca, Muhammad issued a blanket pardon to everyone, aside from four “arch-criminals”.  Muhammad could have taken vengeance against all those who had persecuted him and his people for so many years, but instead he forgave them all, reciting the following verse of the Quran:
There is no censure on you on this day. May God forgive you, for He is the Most Merciful of the merciful. (Quran, 12:92) 
Muhammad would even forgive those who killed and mutilated his uncle, praying: ”[M]ay God forgive them, for God is Forgiving, Merciful.”  He also forgave those who had tried to kill him.
There is much food for thought here: Islamophobes like Robert Spencer argue that Muhammad’s violence cannot be compared to that of the Biblical prophets, since Muhammad in Islam is considered perfect whereas Jews and Christians don’t think the same of Moses, Joshua, David, etc. This is a huge oversimplification and mischaracterization of Islamic textual sources and dogma (a topic that I will analyze in further detail in a later article). But for now, suffice to say, this is but one example of Muhammad being corrected in the Quran–and that too with regard to war, peace, vengeance, and mercy towards non-Muslims.
The Islamophobes claim that Muhammad only preached patience, forgiveness, and tolerance during the Meccan Period. They argue further that the “opportunistic” Muhammad opted towards militarism, violence, and war as soon as he came to power in Medina. And yet, the events surrounding this Quranic revelation (i.e. the killing/mutilating of Muhammad’s uncle, and the command for Muhammad to endure it with patience and forgiveness) occurred well into the Medinan Period. In fact, it occurred at the height of the military conflict with the Meccan pagans.
What is even more telling is the fact that once Muhammad and the early Muslims conquered Mecca, Muhammad granted the Meccans pardon and mercy. If the critics of Islam attribute Muhammad’s peaceful attitude during the early Meccan Period to his lack of power to do otherwise, then what of Muhammad’s triumphal return to Mecca whereupon he had all the power in the world to take limitless vengeance upon them? Muhammad’s tolerant nature towards his Quraysh enemies cannot be explained by the meekness of his position, because he maintained that attitude when he had the power to crush them as they had tried to do to him aforetime.
Similarly, Muhammad had prayed for the forgiveness of the people of Taif, who had stoned him out:
Mohammed traveled to Ta’if, a mountainside town in Arabia about seventy miles southeast of the holy city of Mecca, to invite its people to become Muslims. Instead of welcoming him, the farmers stoned him and drove him, bleeding, out of town…Wiping blood from his face, the Prophet refused, saying, “Lord, forgive thy people, they do not know.” 
After the Conquest of Mecca, the pagans regrouped at Taif to launch a massive counter-offensive; Prof. Ella Landau-Tasseron writes:
Shortly after[ the Conquest of Mecca,] the Thaqif, the ruling tribe of the nearby town al-Ta’if, organized a bedouin army [against Muhammad], which was defeated by Muhammad at a place called Hunayn. Muhammad then laid siege to al-Ta’if but had to withdraw without achieving any result. Shortly afterward, however, the Thaqif joined Islam of their own volition. 
No retribution was taken against the people of Taif, who thus entered the folds of Islam; Prof. Michael Dumper writes:
[The Muslims] laid unsuccessful siege to Taif for almost a month. In 631 the head of the tribe embraced Islam, which resulted in his assassination by his own people. Quickly, however, the city changed its mind and sent a delegation to the Prophet and indicated their willingness to embrace Islam. The Prophet, stressing the diplomatic immunity of ambassadors, did not hold their earlier antagonism against them and welcomed them into the [Islamic] community. 
Upon his triumphal return to Mecca and Taif, the two cities that had earlier driven him out, Muhammad took no revenge and forgave his former tormentors, thus embodying the Quranic principles of patience and forgiveness.
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Robert Spencer argues that Jesus preached “love your enemies”, contrasting this with Muhammad’s teachings. Certainly, many Westerners associate such peaceable beliefs to Christianity’s central figure. Yet, this comparison suffers from an inherent flaw: it is simply not accurate.
If we wanted to maintain an apples-to-apples comparison, the Meccan Period can be analogized to Jesus’s First Coming: like Jesus, Muhammad was a persecuted prophet during this period and was in fact almost killed. Meanwhile, the Medinan Period can be likened to Jesus’s Second Coming. Just as Muhammad triumphantly marched into Mecca, so does Jesus triumphantly return with his army as a “conquering king.”
Once Muhammad conquered Mecca and held absolute power over them, he forgave all of them (save for four “arch-enemies”). Muhammad’s march into Mecca was virtually bloodless,; on the other hand, “Jesus’ second coming will be exceedingly violent…It’s going to be bloody (v. 13) and gory.” Whereas on the day of Mecca’s conquest, Muhammad bestowed mercy on his enemies (he called it the “Day of Mercy”), Jesus will have “no compassion upon His enemies” and “will take vengeance”on them (the Bible calls it “the day of vengeance”). Indeed, the Biblical Jesus will kill all his enemies.
When one considers other Biblical prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the contrast becomes even more glaring. Compare the Conquest of Mecca to the conquest of Canaan by Moses, Joshua,Samson, David, Saul, etc. Muhammad granted immunity to the Meccan population whereas the Judeo-Christian prophets “completely destroyed every living thing in the city, leaving no survivors” (Joshua 11:11). In fact, this was done to city after city in what can only be called wholesale genocide.
How then can one support Robert Spencer’s dubious argument that the Prophet Muhammad was somehow more violent than all other prophets and religious founders, especially when we have such violent figures in Spencer’s own faith tradition?
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A word ought to be said specifically about what Robert Spencer writes here:
When even his uncle, Abu Lahab, rejected his message, Muhammad cursed him and his wife in violent language that has been preserved in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam: “May the hands of Abu Lahab perish! May he himself perish! Nothing shall his wealth and gains avail him. He shall be burnt in a flaming fire, and his wife, laden with faggots, shall have a rope of fibre around her neck.” (Qur’an 111:1-5) 
Abu Lahab was the only one of Muhammad’s foes to be taken by name in the Quran. Even though numerous Quraysh influentials persecuted Muhammad, Abu Lahab was singled out in the Islamic holy book because he and Abu Jahl were the staunchest and most mean-spirited of early Islam’s adversaries. He was assisted in his hatred by his wife, Umm Jamil, who joined in the persecution of Muhammad and his followers. Abu Lahab led and orchestrated the harassment, beatings, torture, persecution, and crippling boycott of the early Muslim community. He would later be one of the eleven assassins who attempted to kill Muhammad in his sleep.
The Quranic verse against Abu Lahab was revealed when he had picked up a stone in his hand to throw at Muhammad and yelled “may you perish” (reflected in the Quranic phrasing “may the handsof Abu Lahab perish“). As for the statement against Abu Lahab’s wife, it can be understood using a less arcane translation: “…and his wife, the bearer of wood (translated in Spencer’s book with the difficult to understand ‘laden with faggots’), shall have a rope of fiber around her neck.” She was dubbed “the bearer of wood” because she used to routinely lay splinters of wood on the ground where Muhammad would walk so as to cause his feet to bleed. Additionally, Umm Jamil used to wear a very expensive necklace, of which she vowed: “By Lat and Uzza, I will sell away this necklace and expend the price to satisfy my enmity against Muhammad.”  This is said to explain the Quran’s choice of punishment for her: a rope of fiber around her neck.
Harsh as these punishments are against Abu Lahab and his wife, two points need to be borne in mind: firstly, Abu Lahab and his wife represent the Quran’s chief villains, equivalent to the Bible’s Pharaoh and Jezebel. The Bible promised that Pharoah and “all who trust in him” will be slaughtered (Jeremiah 46:25), and that Jezebel will be punished–”her children” will be killed (Revelation 2:23). The punishment promised to Abu Lahab and his wife are certainly no harsher than this. More importantly, the Quran only promised punishment of the guilty party, not “all who trust in him” or “her children.”
The second point is that both Abu Lahab and Umm Jamil died of natural causes. Muhammad was never violent with them. The verses in the Quran condemning this couple were meant to be understood in a supernatural sense, unlike the very real violence committed by Abu Lahab and his wife against Muhammad and the early Muslims.
On a somewhat related note, it should be added that one of the major reasons that Abu Lahab opposed the message of Islam so violently was that it threatened his status and position. He was extremely wealthy and powerful–among Arabia’s top one percent. Muhammad, on the other hand, preached equality among believers. To this, Abu Lahab would exclaim:
May this religion perish in which I and all other people should be equal and alike! 
This is reflected in the Quran’s response to Abu Lahab:
Neither his wealth nor his earnings will benefit him. (Quran, 111:2)
Indeed, Muhammad’s support for the 99% explains why he faced the wrath of the 1%, of which Abu Lahab belonged to.
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There are of course events in Muhammad’s life between his escape from Mecca and his subsequent return that merit further investigation and critical analysis. Readers are certainly well-aware of the numerous charges levied against the Prophet of Islam in this regard. Future parts of this Series will look into these matters with an attempt to be impartial and fair. For now, however, we have achieved our purpose: Robert Spencer’s dishonest rendering of Muhammad’s time in Mecca, known as the Meccan Period, has been laid to waste.
Muhammad and his early followers experienced persecution at the hands of their enemies, a basic fact that must be understood in order to understand early Islamic history, as well as Islamic texts and theology. An at least rudimentary knowledge of these events is needed to negate the propaganda of those who seek to demonize the faith of over a billion adherents around the world. More than that, it offers peace-loving, moderate Muslims the ammunition they need to counter the intolerant interpretations of their religion espoused by their fundamentalist coreligionists, people who often act more like the Quraysh leaders than Muhammad.
 Robert Spencer, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), p.5
 Spencer C. Tucker, The Encyclopedia of Middle East Wars, p.849
 Daniel C. Peterson, Muhammad, Prophet of God, p.72
 Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, p.129
 Juan Eduardo Campo, Encyclopedia of Islam, p.299
 Simon Ockley, The History of the Saracens, p.55
 Jonathan E. Brockopp, The Cambridge Companion to Muhammad, p.10
 Ar-Raheeq al-Makthum, p.318; Original source for “O Allah, forgive my people for they do not know” is Fath al- Bari 7/373; Alternately narrated as “My Lord, forgive my people for they have no knowledge” in Sahih Muslim 2/108.
 Tafsir al-Jalalayn, 16:126
 Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum, p.254
 Al-Tabaqat Al-Kubra, Vol.2, p.142
 Al-Sira Al-Nabawiyya, p.432
 Eliza Griswold, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, p.23
 Ella Landau-Tasseron, Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors, p.11
 Michael Dumper, Cities of the Middle East and North Africa, p.634
 Spencer, p.5
 Tafheem ul Quran, 111:5
 Tafsir Ibn Kathir, 111