The following conflicts and battles, all of which were led by the prophet Muhammad himself, are the major, important ones in the history of early Islam. They are important for mapping the early trajectories of Muhammad’s religious movement, its growth, and consolidation of power in Arabia within the 6th and 7th centuries AD.
Battle of Badr (624 AD) – The Battle of Badr marks the first military victory of the prophet Muhammad. In 622 AD, Muhammad and his first Muslim followers emigrated from the city of Mecca to Medina. This emigration followed increasing hostilities between the Meccans, who were pagans and polytheists, and Muhammad who taught and proposed quite a different religion. Now living in Medina (over 300 kilometers away), Muhammad and the Meccans fought several smaller conflicts. From his new base, Muhammad raided Meccan caravans couriering much needed goods to the city. In one case, the prophet learned that a wealthy caravan was on route to Mecca, and thus he organized a raiding party of about 300 Muslims who, under his own leadership, would assault it and take its goods.
At the same time, however, the Meccans, angered by repeated raids on their caravans, sent an army to confront the Muslim raiders. The opposing forces clashed in the Battle of Badr where Muhammad and his forces, outnumbered by roughly 3-1, came out the victors. It wasn’t a particularly large battle as there were only 300 Muslims and 1000 Meccan fighters, and casualties were minimal in number. However, this victory was hugely significant for Muhammad and the Muslims.
During the early 7th century AD, Mecca was one of the most powerful cities in Arabia, and they possessed an army much larger than the Muslims. The victory at Badr, which the Quran attributes to supernatural forces (3: 123-125) and God (8:17), gave the Muslims confidence in the prophet Muhammad, their God and religion, and their fighting forces. The Battle of Badr is mentioned and/or referred to elsewhere in the Quran (see 3:13 and 8), the ahadith (Sahih al-Bukhari 4:53:359, 4:53:369 and Sunan Abu Dawud 14:2716), and by Muhammad’s earliest biographer Ibn Ishaq (writing roughly 120 years after the prophet lived).
Battle of Uhud (625 AD) – Following the Battle of Badr, in which Muhammad and the Muslims were victors, many of the leaders in the Quraysh (the main Arab tribe that ruled Mecca at the time) had been slain, and so they needed a new leader. This new leader was a very angry Abu Sufyan who wished little else than to have his revenge against the prophet. Thus, having learned of the current situation in Medina from the Banu Nadir, a Jewish tribe in Medina (and the second Jewish tribe to eventually be expelled by Muhammad from the region), Abu Sufyan marched his army to the city. But rather than directly attempting to conquer Medina they settled in an area near by, hoping that Muhammad’s forces would be lured out, thus taking them away from Medina’s fortifications and putting them into the open. Muhammad obliged but unlike the Battle of Badr this conflict led to a major defeat for his army. Muhammad’s forces had already dwindled in number after some of his allies retreated from the battlefield. There was also disobedience in his own ranks as some of his men abandoned their positions to look for spoils in a Meccan camp and were struck by a Meccan surprise attach. Many Muslims died and their army suffered greater losses than the Meccans which led them to retreat back to Medina. The Battle of Uhud is a significant event in early Islamic history and is mentioned in numerous Islamic sources including the Quran (3:122, 3:152, 3:166-168), Sahih al-Bukhari (3:30:108 & 4:52:276), and Sahih Muslim (4:2050), Ibn Ishaq, and Ibn Kathir.
Battle of the Trench (627 AD) – Muhammad’s expelling of two Jewish tribes, the Banu Nazir and Banu Qaynuqa, from Medina angered them and so they formed an alliance with the rulers of Mecca, the Quraysh, in the fight against the prophet.
This coalition accumulated into a sizable force, numbering over 10 000 men, and pressed onwards to Medina. Muhammad, aware of their approach, held counsel to devise a plan of action. The Muslims realized that meeting the coalition’s army in the open would almost certainly result in a defeat so they opted for a defensive approach instead. In what could be conceived of as a particularly clever plan they dug deep trenches along the northern front of Medina (hence the name, Battle of the Trench). Digging a trench this size would be an enormous effort so every available Muslim in the city, including the prophet himself, put effort into digging, which took several days to complete. Luckily most of Medina was surrounded by rocky, mountainous terrain so just a trench in the northern front of Medina would do. At most, Muhammad could field 3000 soldiers against the coalition, but given the trench and despite being outnumbered they were in a convenient position to attack the incoming army should they attempt to cross it.
There were several such attempts but few managed to cross it, and those that did were defeated by the Muslims on the other side of the trench. In a desperate plan to move the assault forward, the coalition attempted to persuade the Banu Qurayza, a Jewish tribe and ally to the Muslims, to attack Muhammad from the south given their strategic location in the south side of Medina. This would essentially allow the coalition forces to attack Muhammad from two sides, thus allowing them the time and space to overwhelm the much smaller Muslim forces. Initially hesitant at the proposal, the Banu Qurayza agreed, probably because of the size of the coalition forces.
Muhammad learned of this and begun diplomatic efforts to keep the tribe on his side. However, to the dismay of the Banu Qurayza the coalition forces not only abandoned their efforts and retreated back to Mecca but now they were at the mercy of Muhammad who then commenced an almost month long siege against the Banu Qurazya’s fortress. Eventually the Banu Qurazya and the Muslims agreed to an arbitration led by an injured Sa’d ibn Muadh, an Arab chief and former ally of the Banu Qurayza. Despite calls for mercy among in the council, Sa’d ibn Muadh believed that the Jewish tribe failed to honour their agreement to protect the town, and so decided that all the Banu Qurayza men should be killed. Muhammad agreed, accepted his judgment, and some 700 men of the Banu Qurayza were executed.
The brutal massacring of the Banu Qurayza thus stood as a message and reminder to the other tribes and groups in the region of what would happen to them if they betray the Muslims. The Battle of the Trench is found in several Islamic sources including the Quran (33:10-22), Sahih al-Bukhari 1:8:452 (referencing the death of Sa’d ibn Muadh due to his injuries following the battle), Sahih Muslim 31:4940, and Ibn Kathir (providing his commentary on surah 33 of the Quran).
Battle of Khaybar (628 AD) – Following the Treaty of Hudabiyya, in which the Muslims and the Meccans agreed to cease fighting, Muhammad marched an army of just under 2000 soldiers to Khaybar, an area where Jewish tribes had been living for centuries. The Jews had managed to live in the oasis by growing date palm trees, through their craftsmanship, and trade which provided them with some wealth. When Muhammad marched on Khaybar, his army entered an area consisting of several fortresses within which homes, storehouses, and stables were located. Outside of these forts were agricultural fields which, tilled by the inhabitants of the area, produced enough to bring in wealth and allow for a sustainable living.
Numerous reasons are given for why the prophet intended to attack the Jews in Khaybar. Some suggest that it was to procure food and resources, and others because Jewish tribes were uniting to attack Muhammad in revenge for expelling them from Medina. Another reason was because the prophet wished to quell doubts about his prophethood within the ranks of his followers following the embarrassing events that occurred concerning the Treaty of Hudabiyya. In order to quell doubts, Muhammad received a revelation from Allah promising him that he would capture “much booty” and that this would be a “sign to the believers” (48:20) who doubted his prophethood. In order to fulfill this promise, Muhammad attacked the Jews living in Khaybar where he plundered their wealth. Evidently, for the Jews a war with the prophet seemed inevitable so they rallied to defend themselves and prepare for war. One of the tribes to ally with Jews of Khaybar, the Banu Fazara, attempted to negotiate with the Muslims although such an effort proved unsuccessful.
Despite the combined army in Khaybar far outnumbering the Muslim forces they were far from prepared and they also underestimated the Muslims. Muhammad’s forces conquered the fortresses in the oasis one by one, and despite the large numbers of fighters involved there were few casualties (over 20 Muslims and 93 Jews of the oasis). The only fortress to give the Muslims any real issues was al-Qamus, evidently the most well defended of them all, which the Muslims eventually infiltrated after several failed attempts. The Jews surrendered, and an agreement was made between Muhammad and the inhabitants of Khaybar. The Jews were to leave the oasis, hand over their wealth, and the Muslims would not harm them. However, some Jews requested to stay and cultivate their orchards as well as provide half of their produce to the Muslims. These terms were accepted.
Muhammad’s victory proved to be a crucial moment in the religion’s early history for it informed how future generations of Muslims would treat unbelievers living under Muslim rule. It also informed the concept of jizyah, the taxation of non-Muslims living in Muslim land and under Muslim rule. The Jews continued to survive in Khaybar under Muslim rule although years later Umar, a companion to the prophet, expelled them fully from the region. Islamic sources noting the Battle of Khaybar include the Quran (48:20), Sahih al-Bukhari (2:14:68; 5:57:51; 5:59:547), Sahih Muslim (19:4450), and Ibn Ishaq.
Capture of Mecca (630 AD) – Following the Battle of the Trench there was a truce between the Meccans and Muhammad. There was a cease in conflict which allowed Muhammad the space and time to strengthen his position and many more Arabs converted to Islam. However, the truce came to an end when an ally of the Quraysh attacked an ally group of the Muslims. Aware that the truce was canceled, Abu Sufyan made an effort to reinstate it with the Muslims although Muhammad refused. By this time Muhammad had a large army and he saw the opportunity to launch an attack on Mecca.
In 630 AD a slightly more elderly Muhammad marched on Mecca with a 10 000 strong army and at this time the Meccans were no match. The army practically walked into the city in what ultimately, minus an exception or two, turned out to be a bloodless encounter. Muhammad advanced on the Ka’aba destroying the religious artifacts and idols the pagan polytheists had built there. There was followed by a call to prayer and Mecca had been won to Islam, party due to the fact that the inhabitants and their sacred shrine were spared from destruction. Not everyone was so lucky, however, as Muhammad executed several of his enemies which included a poetess, apostates, and a Meccan who had assaulted Muhammad’s daughter Zaynab as she fled Mecca for Medina.
Expedition of Tabuk (630 AD) – According to Islamic sources, Muhammad marched his army against the Byzantines in the Battle of Tabouk on rumors that Byzantine forces were invading the lands. Muhammad later retreated back to Medina with his forces after being unable to find the Byzantines.
Battle of Hunain/Hunayn (630 AD) – Just a few weeks after his capture of Mecca in 630, Muhammad marched his army against the Bedouin tribe of Hawazin. The Hawazin feared the power amassed by Muhammad and the Muslims so they, along with other Arab tribes, grouped together in preparation for battle. The Hawazin had previously sent a spy to Mecca and discovered that Muhammad planned to siege the city. They thought it would be best to attack the prophet during the siege, however Muhammad learned of this plan and marched on the Hawazin. The Muslims forces defeated them and made off with spoils of war including prisoners, weapons, camels, and cattle. This battle is mentioned in the Quran (9:25-27).
Battle of Autas (630 AD) – Upon the defeat of the Hawazin and the mountain tribes to Muhammad’s army, some of the Bedouins fled, breaking into two groups. One group fled to the city of Ta’if (see Siege of Ta’if below) and another fled to Awtas, an arid mountainous region some 14 miles from Mecca. Muhammad defeated the Bedouins and allowed his men to take the wives of the enemies as captives (Quran 4:24). Additional Islamic sources speaking of this battle are Ibn Kathir and Sahih Muslim (8:3432).
Seige of Ta’if (630 AD) – The siege of Ta’if took place after the Battle of Hunain and the Battle of Autas, both of which Muhammad landed huge victories. The prophet was less lucky in the siege of Ta’if as his army failed to conquer the city and its fortresses. Muhammad’s men were defeated at the gates as their enemies dropped hot irons on them from the city walls. The Muslims forces retreated and Muhammad vowed that he would return to the city after the sacred months in which fighting was forbidden. Not long after the city surrendered and handed itself over to the Muslims.