Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca in Arabia, the posthumous son of Abdallah ibn Abd-al-Muttalib and his wife Amina, both of the Koreish tribe that ruled the city. Amina died when Muhammed was about 6, and the young boy was raised by his grandfather and an uncle. Muhammad became a merchant in the caravan trade, and at about age 25 he married a much older wealthy widow, Kadijah.
Muhammad was given to meditation and Mecca, a major trading center, saw the circulation of numerous intellectual currents. Influenced both by Jewish and Christian traditions, and claiming to have heard voices that imparted to him divine will, at about age 40 Muhammad became a prophet. His doctrine included belief in One God (Allah), the Last Judgment, alms, regular prayer, and the surrender of the self to the will of God (Islam) as expressed through His prophet (Muhammad). The teachings of the faith were later expressed in the holy book, the Quran, which Muhammad said had been given him by God in visions.
Although Muhammad gained a few converts in Mecca, he and his followers aroused the ire of the city elite (probably because of his opposition to usury). Subjected to persecution, they were forced to flee (the Hijira) to Medina in July 622. There Muhammad rallied his followers and organized the tribes of Medina into a community under the revealed will of God. At the same time, Muhammad waged war against Mecca.
Muhammad's first military actions were raids on Meccan caravans. In early 624 Muhammad ordered a dozen men to attack a small caravan from Yemen to Mecca. Acting as pilgrims bound for Mecca, his followers located the caravan and joined it. They faced one glaring problem: it was a holy month in Arabia during which warfare was forbidden. If they obeyed that stricture, then they would reach the holy city of Mecca, where fighting was forbidden. The raiders decided to violate the first rule and fell on the guards, killing one and capturing two others.
Muhammad was condemned for the raid. His response was that the merchants of Mecca were committing greater sins than any violation by his men of the holy month. The leaders of Mecca, however, were now determined to destroy Muhammad. They used as bait a rich caravan from Sinai to Mecca, tricking Muhammad into a battle in which he would be badly outnumbered.
Muhammad fell into the trap. In early March he led some 300 men from Medina to intercept the caravan. Most of his men were on foot. Reportedly they had only 70 camels and 2 horses. The Meccans, meanwhile, sent out almost 1,300 men. Led by Abu Jahl, they were far better armed and equipped, and had some 700 camels and 100 horses. Half the men were supposedly wearing chain mail.
The caravan leader, Abu Sufyan, discovered the location of Muhammad's ambush force and diverted the caravan to another route. Abu Sufyan then informed Abu Jahl of its safe arrival at Mecca. This news caused some 400 of the Meccans, who now saw no need for battle, to desert. Abu Jahl was determined to destroy Muhammad, however, and he told his remaining forces that they would travel to the wells at Badr, about 25 miles southwest of Mecca, and there celebrate the safe passage of the caravan.
Muhammad's men were lying in wait at Badr. Learning of Abu Jahl's approach, Muhammad called a council on the evening of March 14. When representatives of both his Mecca and Medina followers pledged their support, Muhammad announced they would indeed give battle. On the advice of his second-in-command, Abu Bakr, Muhammad had all the wells save one stopped up; he then positioned his men around this well. On March 15, Abu Jahl's men arrived, nearly out of water. They approached the one serviceable well on rising ground.
Muhammad, seated under a tent, instructed his men to hold their positions and advance only when ordered. In the meantime, they would meet the attackers with arrows. Reportedly a sandstorm struck the Meccans as they advanced and their attack faltered, whereupon Muhammad ordered his force forward. The Meccan force broke and ran, leaving 70 dead and another 70 as prisoners. Abu Jahl was wounded and taken prisoner. He was beheaded when he refused to acknowledge Allah as the real victor.
Many in Arabia saw the victory of Muhammad's badly outnumbered, poorly armed, and badly equipped force as a sign from God. It certainly added immensely to Muhammad's reputation, especially as a military leader. Defeat at Badr would probably have brought his death. Instead, he emerged as the leader of a rapidly growing religion that soon came to dominate North Africa and the Middle East. Spencer C. Tucker
Balyuzi, H. M. Mahammed and the Course of Islam. Oxford: G. Ronald, 1976; Holt, P. M., Ann K. S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis. The Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970; Irving, Washington. Mahamet and His Successors. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970.
Spencer C. Tucker