The Prophet Muhammad’s Eighty-Six Military Campaigns

I recently began rereading David Cook’s excellent work, Understanding Jihad, published by the University of California Press in 2005. Cook is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Rice University and author of five scholarly books on Islam. I first read it nearly a decade ago and had forgotten how engaging it is as he traces the historical development of jihad in the Islamic world. I was quickly reminded when, coming only to page six, I read the following: “It was in this context that jihad arose, and the campaigns to gain adherents and control territory constituted the focus of the community’s activity during the last nine years of the Prophet’s life. Muhammad is recorded as having participated in at least twenty-seven campaigns and deputized some fifty-nine others- an average of no fewer than nine campaigns annually.” The Prophet Muhammad participated in or sanctioned eighty-six military campaigns? The number is striking. Particularly when one considers that Professor Cook is referring to the founder of one of the world’s great religions (with 1.6 billion current followers).

Certainly, there are a variety of historical contexts and circumstances under which Muhammad participated in or sanctioned these various battles (as highlighted in such authoritative sources as the Qur’an and Hadith). Arabia in the seventh-century was a rough place and if Islam was to thrive and survive in its early years it had to defend itself. Yet not all of those eighty-six instances of military campaigning carried out toward the end of Muhammad’s life would necessarily be seen as necessary or justifiable from a modern post-Enlightenment western perspective (e.g. circumstances leading to the Battle of Badr, conflict with the Jewish tribes of Medina, etc…).

Cook’s comments had me thinking about the topic of violence and its connection to (specifically) the founders of the Abrahamic religions. As a historian of religion and crusading, I know well that the association or justification of violence in the name of faith is certainly not unique to Islam. Christians and Jews have embraced their own rationales for engaging in holy wars or violence. Yet when we focus more narrowly on the early religious founders of these major faiths, not all founders are equal in this regard.

One might contrast, for example, the traditional narratives of the life of Jesus of Nazareth with those of the Prophet Muhammad. If we accept the Gospels as reliable historical sources, Jesus was a non-violent man better known for his command to “turn the other cheek,” rather than commit acts of violence even when seemingly justified. He rebuked the apostle Peter, for example, for daring to cut off the ear of a soldier who had come to arrest him. Moreover, so far as we know, Jesus never called for (much less participated in) a holy war against either the Romans, who forcibly occupied Jewish lands, or the Jews, who sometimes violently rejected his message.

This is not to say that Jesus never would have sanctioned violence under any circumstances. Indeed, the reason Peter was likely carrying a sword in the first place was because (as the Gospel of Luke states) Jesus commanded his followers carry at least two of them (Luke 22:38). In other words, as this verse suggests, Jesus and his followers were armed as they made their travels during his ministry. Jesus may have objected to Peter intervening with his arrest, but that does not necessarily mean Jesus opposed Christians using force to defend others. Christ, according to the Christian narrative, had to be crucified for the salvation of mankind. Peter was unthinkingly trying to prevent that. Other verses suggest Jesus could be prone to fits of anger. He famously, for example, violently over-turns the moneychangers table as he thought they were desecrating the Temple (Matt. 21:12), but so far as we know he did not harm anyone or shed blood during this incident.

Other New Testament verses, although not specifically in reference to Jesus, provide much stronger calls to violence, as is justified in the case of rulers. In Romans 13:3-4, the apostle Paul writes: “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” Romans 13: 3-4 This represents a clear justification from the New Testament for the legitimate use of force by the state. It’s even more striking when one considers the broader context. Paul was writing to Christians living in Rome under the authority of the pagan Roman emperor (who nevertheless acts as a “minister of God” who “bears the sword” to bring wrath on evil doers). That the emperor was a pagan did not lessen his authority to use force in Paul’s view. But these are Paul’s words. Let’s get back to Jesus.

Even though Jesus may have sanctioned his followers to carry swords, even commanding them to do so, such an act obviously doesn’t compare to Muhammad’s personal participation or sanctioning of no less than eighty-six battles. A better comparison might come from the Hebrew Scriptures, where God calls the Israelites into often-brutal battle on several occasions against their various enemies.