“We have sent thee not [O Muhammad] except as a mercy to all the worlds” (21:107). It was the month of Rabi al-Awwal when Muhammad (pbuh) was born to a noble family of the Banu Hashim clan in Makkah. He came into this world an orphan as his father had died a few months earlier while on a trade mission in Gaza. He also lost his mother when he was only six years old. Taken into the loving care of his grandfather, he lost him too at age 8. Thereafter, his uncle Abu Talib took responsibility for the orphaned boy. Despite his limited financial means, the kind uncle spared no effort to look after his nephew, aware that he had suffered much emotional trauma at such tender age.
As a young boy, Muhammad (pbuh) was contemplative and soft spoken. He was more mature than boys his age. Aware of his uncle’s limited means, he tended sheep and goats for others to earn some money and ease his uncle’s burden.
Like all tribal societies, Makkah’s was also hierarchical in nature. The dominant tribe of the Quraysh had many clans and while respected for its nobility, the Banu Hashim had lost its dominant position to other clans. This played into the hostility when Muhammad (pbuh) proclaimed that he had received revelation from on high and was the messenger of God. The haughty clan chiefs argued, why they had been superseded for prophethood when they were more powerful and wealthy than Muhammad (pbuh)?
There were also other factors that aroused their wrath. Muhammad (pbuh) talked about equality and social justice. The Makkan chiefs were incensed. How could the slaves be equal to them, they asked? Further, Muhammad (pbuh) rejected the false gods of the Makkan mushriks and proclaimed that there is only one God, Allah. This was not merely a matter of religious belief; the entire socio-economic and political system of Makkah was built on the notion of the multiplicity of gods. This is what conferred special status upon the Makkan mushrik chiefs. If their gods were rejected, they would lose their privileged position in society. They were not prepared to accept this and would even fight for it to preserve it.
History teaches us that no oppressors have ever voluntarily relinquished authority. They have had to be driven from power. The Makkan mushriks were no different. Their extreme hostility to the message of Islam resulted in the persecution, torture and death of many early Muslims. The vast majority had to flee to Abyssinia to seek refuge and returned only when Muslims had migrated to Madinah that provided a relatively safe sanctuary.
During his 23-year Prophetic mission, the noble Messenger (pbuh) and his companions endured great hardships. The first 13 years in Makkah were particularly difficult. While the 10 years in Madinah were comparatively better for Muslims, they were not left in peace by the Makkah mushriks that continued to attack them. It was not until after the Battle of Ahzab (the war of confederate tribes against the Muslim community in Madinah) in the fifth year of the Hijrah that the Prophet and his companions got some respite.
The treaty of Hudaiybiyyah in the following year was a major breakthrough for Muslims. It ended the Makkan mushriks’ aggression even if not hostility against them. Further, it enabled the propagation of the message of Islam to all tribes resulting in its rapid spread in the Arabian Peninsula.
In the eighth year of the Hijrah, the Makkan mushriks violated the terms of the Hudaibiyyah treaty by attacking and killing a member of a Muslim-allied tribe. The aggrieved tribe appealed to the Muslims for help. The Prophet (pbuh) called upon the Makkan chiefs to abide by the terms of the treaty and punish the offenders. They refused, leaving the Prophet (pbuh) with no choice but to march on Makkah at the head of a 10,000-strong army. Even so, he issued strict instructions that there would be no bloodshed. Seeing the strength of the Muslim army, the Makkans surrendered.
When the Makkans were all gathered around the Ka‘aba, the Prophet (pbuh) told them that they were free to go, provided of course, they did not resort to violence against the Muslims. In the previous 21 years, the Makkan chiefs had repeatedly attacked Muslims to wipe them out. Now that the Makkans had been vanquished, they deserved punishment and many of the chiefs should have been executed according to Arab tradition, but the Prophet (pbuh) let them go. Here was his mercy manifesting itself in all its glory.
When we study the Sirah (life-history) of the Prophet (pbuh), we must bear in mind that he preferred peaceful resolution of disputes rather than conflict. Fairness and social justice, however, were of paramount importance and there was no compromise on these fundamental principles. It was strict adherence to such lofty principles that attracted so many downtrodden and oppressed to the fold of Islam. The oppressors and exploiters had to be defeated in battle before they accepted Islam. Defeat left them with no choice.