It is a mistake to make a distinction like “Meccan Period Muslims” and “Medinan Period Muslims”
Some opponents of Islam refer to moderate Muslims as “Meccan period Muslims.” In their eyes, the time when our Prophet (pbuh) was in Mecca was a peaceful time of no wars, yet wars suddenly started following our Prophet’s (pbuh) migration to Medina. Some people claim, on that basis, that the proponents of war in Islam recognize only the verses revealed in the Medinan period, while peace-loving Muslims recognize only the verses from the Meccan period. That idea is as illogical as it is ignorant.
As we have already seen, the essential precondition for a Muslim to acquire the identity of a Muslim is to believe in all the verses of the Qur’an, without exception. If someone rejects a single verse, then he loses the attribute of being a Muslim as described in the Qur’an. There is therefore no possibility in the eyes of the Qur’an of someone who says, “I am a Muslim” to discriminate by saying, “I recognize this verse but not that one.”
It is true that there was no fighting in the Meccan period in the life of our Prophet (pbuh), but that there was fighting in the Medinan period and that verses were sent down concerning those particular battles. In order to understand the reason for this we need to understand the difficult conditions in the time of our Prophet (pbuh).
The Harsh Testing of Muslims in the Meccan Period
The revelation to our Prophet (pbuh) took a full 23 years. During the first 13 years of this, Muslims lived as a minority in the pagan society of Mecca and were subjected to very great pressures. Many Muslims were subjected to physical torture, some were martyred, the homes and possessions of most were looted and they were constantly exposed to threats and insults. Yet Muslims continued living without resorting to violence, merely keeping their distance from the pagans and always calling them to the path of peace.
Yet the aggression of the pagan communities in question was unending.
The Quraysh initially seemed to regard the prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh) as unimportant. While continuing not to believe, they made no protest against the Prophet’s (pbuh) call so long as he said nothing against their idols. When they saw the Prophet (pbuh) however, they attacked him verbally. They unwisely mocked and belittled Muslims. The Quraysh “verbal assault” period began in that way.
The Qur’an describes the position in these words:
Those who did evil used to laugh at those who had faith.
When they passed by them, they would wink at one another.
When they returned to their families, they would make a joke of them.
When they saw them, they would say, “Those people are misguided.” (Surat al-Mutaffifin, 29-32)
Mecca was the center of idolatry. Mecca would fill to overflowing every day with people coming to visit the Ka’aba and the idols around it, thus earning the Quraysh a good deal of money and prestige. The Quraysh regarded the spread of Islam in Mecca as a threat, because they thought that this would act against their own interests and also attract the hostility of other tribes. They also knew that Islam regarded everyone as equal and made no discrimination on grounds of lineage or wealth. Leading members of the Quraysh therefore believed they needed to take precautions to stop the spread of Islam. These “precautions” frequently included the torture and even the killing of Muslims. (Ibn Hisham, 1/287)
The pagans of the time could not do much harm to members of strong and eminent families, such as Hazrat Abu Bakr and Hazrat Uthman but they viciously mistreated poor and unprotected Muslims. Worthy Muslims exposed to such severe mistreatment included Abu Fakih, Khabbab ibn al-Aratt, Bilal ibn Rabah, Suhaib ar-Rumi, Ammar ibn Yasir, Yasir ibn Amir and Sumayyah bint Khayyat.
Abu Fakih, a slave of Safwan ibn Umayyah, was tied by his feet every day by his master and dragged over hot gravel and sand.
The iron-worker Khabbab ibn al-Aratt was laid on hot coals and his chest pressed down onto the coals until they had cooled.
Ammar ibn Yasir’s father, Yasir ibn Amir, had his legs tied to camels which were then driven in different directions, tearing his body apart. Unable to bear the pain of her husband being martyred in that savage way, Sumayyah bint Khayyat spoke out against the pagans and was killed by an arrow fired by Abu Jahl. (Zad al-Maad, 2/116; The Age of Felicity, 1/254)
Umayyah ibn Khalaf would lay his slave Bilal al-Habashi down naked on baking sand every day. He would then place a huge rock on his chest and leave him there for hours; he tortured him to try and make him go against the Prophet (pbuh) and abandon Islam. One day he tied his hands and feet and placed a rope round his neck. He then dragged him over the hot sand through the streets of Mecca. (Zad al-Maad, 2/116; The Age of Felicity, 1/253)
They were at first unable to touch the person of our Prophet (pbuh) since he was under the guardianship of his uncle Abu Talib and since they feared the Hashemites. Gradually, however they began slandering him, saying he was a “fortune teller, a poet, a magician, a conjuror.” Eventually, they took every opportunity they could find to insult and mistreat the Prophet (pbuh).
This mistreatment of Muslims all took place simply because they had faith and preached Islam to others. Despite all that oppression, torture and violence, Muslims never harmed those who were harming them, which is one of the requirements of Islam, and never tried to defend themselves which is their most basic human right. Seeing that the Muslims were not fighting back, the Quraysh stepped up their aggression and tortures. The Quraysh in question were now martyring Muslims the moment they saw them.
As the persecution worsened, the Muslims, who did not respond to it in any way and did not even defend themselves since the Qur’an prohibits the shedding of blood, found themselves unable to remain in Mecca any longer. That meant they had to migrate to Medina.
The Medinan Period and the Battles
As the idolaters’ attacks grew in severity in Mecca, the Muslims migrated to the city of Yathrib (later known as Medina), where the climate was freer and friendlier, and set up their own administration there. Yet even after they established their own political structures, the attacks by the pagans of Mecca did not come to an end. The Quraysh followed the Muslims and persisted in violent attacks against them. But our Prophet (pbuh) and the Muslims around him never embarked on a battle against the idolaters.
No person, community or country in the world will fail to respond if they are attacked. They will always respond to the aggressor in “self defense” and at the very least, take defensive action. People who engage in self defense are invariably exonerated by the courts, and countries that do so are exonerated under international law because they have been subjected to an unjust attack, and people’s lives, families and loved ones, or countries’ peoples, lands and honor are endangered.
That also applied to our Prophet (pbuh) and Muslims in the Meccan period. Yet despite all the unjust and murderous attacks on them, our Prophet (pbuh) and the Muslims never counter-attacked on the grounds that God had made killing unlawful. Instead, as commanded in the verses, they always called the other side to peace, and when peace proposals were ineffective they left their homes, lands and cities and moved away.
In the 13 years or so of the Meccan period and the first years of the Medinan period, believers were still commanded to be patient in the face of all this torture and injustice and to preach the faith of God kindly, as revealed in the verse “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair admonition, and argue with them in the kindest way” (Surat an-Nahl, 125), and no fighting was permitted. Our Prophet (pbuh) responded as follows to those Muslims who wished to stand up to the persecution in question:
“Fighting is still not permitted. Be patient, God’s help is at hand, and you will be rewarded for your sufferings...”
Our Prophet (pbuh) was given permission to engage in self defense for himself and his community in the following verses which were revealed after the migration to Medina:
Permission to fight is given to those who are fought against because they have been wronged – truly God has the power to come to their support – those who were expelled from their homes without any right, merely for saying, “Our Lord is God”… (Surat al-Hajj, 39-40)
With these verses, the Muslim community that had been unjustly forced into exile merely for saying “Our Lord is God” started to make preparations to defend themselves. As explicitly stated in the verse, a Muslim community “who are fought against because they have been wronged” are permitted to defend themselves; but they are not told to attack. Following this verse, Muslims began to defend themselves and fought back against the ferocious community that was attacking them.
Verses concerning war and defense revealed after that contain descriptions regarding measures during the fighting taking place then. To put it another way, a special description is provided specific to the situation in that particular war. Therefore, all the verses about war in the Qur’an were specially revealed as referring to the particular attacks taking place at that time to enable us to see the difficult conditions of the time and the justice of our Prophet (pbuh).