Which one event does the Qur’an describe as the Prophet Muhammad’s “manifest victory”?
A. The Prophet’s re-entry into Mecca.
B. The Muslim conquest of the entire Arabian Peninsula.
C. A nonviolent Muslim movement resulting in a peace treaty and compromise with long-time enemies.
It may come as a surprise, but the answer is C. True, the Arab Spring showed the world that Muslims can embrace nonviolent resistance to successfully effect change, but this commitment to nonviolence has rarely been described as a religious expression grounded in Islam. Many in the West have thus raised the fear that Islamic-minded movements in the post-revolutionary Arab world – Tunisia’s Ennahda or Egypt’s Muslim Brothers, for instance – simply used nonviolence as a convenient way to assume power, after which they will turn to force and repression. This fear is overblown, for Muslims can indeed use Islamic religious tradition to firmly ground the principles of nonviolent resistance and faithful compromise with secularists and non-Muslims for the common good. And nothing can do that better, in my opinion, than reviving the legacy of a event in the Prophet Muhammad’s life that occurred at a barren camp named Hudaybiya – an event Islamic tradition calls a “manifest victory ".1
Before discussing this event, it is worth remembering the legacy of the first thirteen years of Muhammad’s prophetic mission in Mecca (610-622) – a period that so powerfully inspired Gandhi’s Afghan counterpart in the independence struggle, Khan Abdul-Ghaffar Khan, and his Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) towards a deeply devout Muslim commitment to nonviolence. “There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or Pathan [Afghan] like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence…” said Khan, “It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet [please be upon him] all the time he was in Mecca.”2
No one can dispute Khan’s assessment. Mecca’s wealthy elite vehemently opposed the Prophet’s monotheistic message and unleashed a heavy toll of physical and economic persecution upon Islam’s weakest followers. Nevertheless, Muhammad unconditionally forbade retaliation and enjoined a complete and patient commitment to nonviolence. When persecution became intolerable, he and the early Muslims migrated to Medina, where he established a sovereign state in 622. Only then did Islam permit military action. The young Medinan state saw a series of battles with its Meccan enemies – Badr in 624, Uhud in 625, and the unsuccessful siege of Medina in 627 3– resulting in increasing Muslim regional influence. Though war brought its political gains, the Prophet would soon show that he had never abandoned nonviolent resistance – it would bring forth his greatest victory.
Each year, the far-flung Arabian tribes would converge in Mecca for pilgrimage to the temple of their patriarch Abraham4 (peace be upon him). In the spring of 628, seeking to underscore his claim that Abraham was indeed not a polytheist, the Prophet did what many would describe as daringly foolish and led 1400 followers into enemy territory, intent on peacefully performing pilgrimage. Bound by an ancient code of nonviolence, the Muslim pilgrims could carry no more than travelers’ swords for self-defense and would have been no match for the Meccan cavalry sent to rout them. Evading the cavalry and encamping within the sacred vicinity of Mecca, the Prophet had essentially led his followers into a lion’s den.
Like all nonviolent resistance movements, the Muslims at Hudaybiya were at once incredibly weak and incredibly powerful – “weak” in being unable to match any abject brutality unleashed upon them, but “powerful” in that the public outrage elicited by such brutality would be far too socially costly to the powers in control. Neither the British Raj nor Jim Crow could afford to crack down on nonviolent protesters without earning the world’s condemnation. Likewise, in the sacred context of pilgrimage, the Meccans could not afford to massacre peaceful pilgrims without earning the condemnation of the entire Arabian Peninsula. After a prolonged stalemate, the Prophet [please be upon him] called the two parties towards a peace treaty.
Peace often requires seemingly difficult compromises. The treaty dictated that Muslims would return to Medina unable to perform pilgrimage until the following year, that anyone would be free to apostate from Islam, and that all male, Muslim refugees were to be returned to their Meccan captors. The Prophet’s acceptance of these terms led to considerable dissension among his own followers until a new Qur’anic revelation described the events as a “manifest victory” (48:1)5. Suppressing their personal emotions, the Muslims would have to trust that nonviolent engagement and political compromise were in themselves a victory.
Historians now recount how more people became Muslim in the following years of peace than in all the previous years of Muhammad’s prophetic mission. When Mecca’s allies later broke the peace to resume hostilities, the Muslims conquered the city without fighting and completely forgave their former enemies. Although this military accomplishment was a “victory,” the Prophet made sure to remind everyone that Islam’s “manifest victory” had already occurred at Hudaybiya long before6. It was nonviolence, not war, and political compromise, not rigid adherence to dogma, that brought that victory.
But in an age of conflict between “Muslims” and “the West,” it is certain that both Muslim extremists and anti-Islamic polemicists will dispute any Islamic justification for nonviolent resistance. I will just briefly address a few objections from both these groups, who, though nominally opposed to one another, remarkably speak with a single voice.
1) "Hudaybiya was not a true commitment to nonviolence – the Muslims had pledged to defend themselves physically if the Meccans attacked."7 If the Meccans saw it fit to break the sacred code and spill blood, the Muslim pilgrims certainly could not expect Meccan brutality to stop at a beating and a prison sentence. Rather, they expected being massacred. In that context, the Prophet and his followers clearly saw fighting back with the little means they had as far more honorable than fleeing from their cause, even if it meant certain death. This commitment, an inspiration to all Muslims engaged in civil disobedience, by no means made their movement any less nonviolent – the Meccans themselves acknowledged such.
2) "Any Islamic justification for nonviolence has been abrogated – From the time hostilities with Mecca resumed, Muslims were bound to perpetual warfare with disbelievers until the end of time." The Qur’an’s ninth chapter8 did enjoin Muslims to fight the Meccans after the treaty of Hudaybiya was broken, but it would be ridiculous to suggest that this would eternally prohibit Muslims from ever again turning to nonviolence or compromise. This very chapter itself calls for continued commitment to peace with polytheists who “neither failed you anywhere nor supported anyone against you” (9:4). And the Prophet himself would never forget Hudaybiya’s legacy, for he reminded everyone of this “manifest victory” on his return to Mecca.
3) “Hudaybiya’s true legacy is one of deception – Muhammad [please be upon him] made a treaty when weak only to break it when stronger." This charge simply does not stand up to historical record. Though the Prophet took a dangerous risk in leaving behind Medina’s security, determined nonviolent resistance is never truly “weak.” And while Muslim strength did increase in the following years of peace, history recounts the Prophet’s faithful compliance to the treaty, broken by Mecca’s allies. Hindsight is 20/20, but Hudaybiya was declared a “manifest victory” long before the eventual outcomes were known – when all that were apparent were nonviolent action, a failed pilgrimage attempt, and a difficult compromise for the sake of peace.
So what victory should Islamic-minded parties in today’s post-revolutionary Arab world work towards? Some in the Muslim world may aspire to establish societies devoted to God’s “sharia” or well-trodden path, but in focusing on this “end,” they may unfortunately turn to whatever means deemed necessary, however violent or duplicitous. By contrast, Hudaybiya’s legacy should remind all devout Muslims that real victory is achievable through constructive, lawful means. In this particular case, true and lasting victory was achieved through firm adherence to nonviolent resistance and non-dogmatic compromise with opposition. A resulting civil society arising from these principles – one at least able to ensure individual liberties and minority rights – may surprise some people but may be closer in line to the Prophet Muhammad’s powerful precedent at Hudaybiya – Islam’s one and only “manifest victory.”
1. Arabic: Fath Mubeen.
2. Easwaran, Eknath. Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan, a Man to Match His Mountains. Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1999.
3. Known as the Battle of the Trench, or Khandaq.
4. The Hajj.
5. The first verse of Sura al-Fath reads Inn? fatahn? laka fatham mubeen? – “We have indeed opened for you a manifest victory.”
6. Abdullah ibn Mughaffal narrates, “I saw the God’s Messenger ﷺ reciting Sura al-Fath (melodiously) on his she-camel on the day of Mecca’s conquest.” (Bukhari)
7. Known as the Pledge of the Tree, or Bay’at ash-Shajara.
8. The Chapter of Repentance, or Sura at-Tauba.
Dewan-Syed Adnan Majid is a student of Medicine and Neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego and had previously completed a Bachelor of Science degree at Stanford University. I grew up in New Orleans, LA.
Previously published at Suhaibwebb.com