Deception for the Sake of Allah (Muhammad’s Conduct: Article #4)

In the previous article in this series on Muhammad’s example we had a look at how Muhammad treated the property of vanquished enemies. The time has now come to focus on his relationship with the truth.

Most people would agree that leaders should be people of integrity who can be relied upon to keep their word. The life of Muhammad provides clear evidence that he was willing to make and break promises (including solemn treaties) as it suited him. The most famous instance of this happening was the Treaty of Hudaibiya (628 CE). Muslim apologists spend much time defending Muhammad’s conduct in the aftermath of the signing of this treaty, often claiming that the people of Mecca got what they deserved. This may or may not be the case, and I’m not about to enter into a rather unprofitable debate about the minutiae of why Muslims feel that the Meccans “had it coming”. The point is that, as the “Messenger of Allah”, Muhammad’s conduct should have been totally above reproach in honoring a promise that he made in the name of Allah. Therefore, the only question that I want to address in this section is this: Did Muhammad break a solemn treaty or not?

These are the basic details surrounding Muhammad’s breaking of the “Treaty of Hudaibiya”: While exiled from Mecca, Muhammad tried to lead a large group of Muslims to Mecca to perform the Umrah (lesser pilgrimage). On the way to Mecca, Muhammad’s party was approached by an emissary of the Meccans who indicated that the Muslims would be prevented from entering Mecca by the forces of the Quraysh. Muhammad did not feel confident in forcing the Meccans to relent, so, he had to mount a sudden climb-down. He agreed to sign a treaty with the Meccans and even took the extraordinary step of handing a Meccan convert to Islam back to the people of Mecca. In addition to this, he was forced to change his name and title at the end of the treaty document from “Muhammad: Apostle of Allah” to “Muhammad: Son of Abdullah” (this incident is related in Sahih Bukhari Volume 3 Book 50 Hadith 891). This is what was agreed to: “This is what Muhammad b. Abdullah has agreed with Suhayl b. Amr: they have agreed to lay aside war for ten years during which men can be safe and refrain from hostilities on condition that, if anyone comes to Muhammad without the permission of his guardian, he will return him to them; and if anyone of those with Muhammad comes to Quraysh they will not return him to him. We will not show enmity one to another and there shall be no secret reservation of bad faith.” Two key provisions have to be pointed out: a) The treaty was to stand for 10 years, and b) Those that migrated to Muhammad (in Medina) without permission would be returned to Mecca.

The treaty that Muhammad entered into amounted to a defeat for the Muslims and also indicated a failed prophecy. Its signing, therefore, caused a great deal of grumbling amongst the Muslim forces who objected to the return of some of their compatriots who had converted to Islam back to the Meccan pagans. Many were, furthermore, incensed that Muhammad accepted the change of his title from “Apostle of Allah” to “Son of Abdullah” and also by the fact that the treaty was weighted in favor of the pagans of Mecca (Sahih Bukhari Volume 3 Book 50 Hadith 891). As so often happened in these cases, Allah apparently immediately sprang into action with a “convenient revelation” to shore up Muhammad’s position. Despite the expedition being a dismal failure and defeat, Allah declares it to be a stunning victory: “Verily We have granted thee a manifest Victory” (Qur’an 48:1). Muhammad’s followers must have wondered if they could afford many more “victories” like that.

The grumbling, despite the declaration of “victory”, among his followers put Muhammad in an extremely difficult position. He immediately began to cast around for an opportunity to get out of the treaty. Muslim apologists claim that the Meccans attacked the Muslims first, thus, violating the non-aggression side of the treaty. However, long before the alleged attacks happened, Muhammad had already broken the provision regarding the return of refugees. There can, therefore, be no doubt that he was the first to dishonor his word by reneging on a solemn promise for the sake of political expediency. As can be seen above, one of the key provisions of the treaty was that if any person went to Medina (to join Muhammad) from Mecca, he or she would be returned by Muhammad: “…if anyone comes to Muhammad without the permission of his guardian he will return him to them”.

This provision was very quickly put to the test. According to Ibn Ishaq: “Umm Kulthum Uqba Muayt migrated to the apostle during this period. Her two brothers Umara and Walid sons of Uqba came and asked the apostle to return her to them in accordance with the agreement between him and the Quraysh at Hudaybiyya, but he would not”.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that Muhammad went back on his word with his refusal to return Umm Kulthum to her brothers. Ever faithful, Allah comes to the rescue with yet another “convenient revelation”: “O you who have believed, when the believing women come to you as emigrants, examine them. Allah is most knowing as to their faith. And if you know them to be believers, then do not return them to the disbelievers; they are not lawful [wives] for them, nor are they lawful Allah is most knowing as to their faith. And if you know them to be believers, then do not return them to the disbelievers; they are not lawful [wives] for them, nor are they lawful [husbands] for them” (Qur’an 60:10). How good it must have been for Muhammad to have Allah on-call to constantly justify his questionable actions.

Telling us that Allah sanctioned Muhammad’s treaty breaking does not change the fact that he clearly could not be trusted to keep his word. Allah’s supposed involvement in this sordid episode also raises more questions than it answers. How could he, the supposedly “All-Knowing One”, allow Muhammad to enter into a solemn agreement that he knew would be broken? Perhaps the best answer to this is the fact that Muhammad generally had no problem with deceiving people to gain his own political ends. According to Sahih Bukhari, he said as much: “The Prophet said: War is deceit” (Sahih Bukhari Volume 4 Book 52 Hadith 269).

Muhammad’s behavior, in this case, did not go unnoticed by his followers. It left them with the conviction that treaties and solemn promises can be set aside in a flash if it would serve the cause of Islam. As Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr, said: “If I take an oath to do something and later on I find something else better than the first one, I do what is better and make expiation for my oath” (Sahih Bukhari Volume 8 Book 78 Hadith 618). Muhammad would certainly have been proud of a lesson well-learned.

The events described above and the commentary in the hadith that followed should prove salutary to any non-Muslim believing him or herself to be in possession of a non-aggression treaty from an armed Muslim group. If the “perfect example” broke treaties with impunity when it became militarily and politically expedient, why should his modern followers hold them to be unbreakable?

The next article in the series will focus on Muhammad’s treatment of the captives who fell into his hands.

For much more about the links between Islamic teaching and violence, please see my book ‘Nothing to do with Islam? – Investigating the West’s Most Dangerous Blind Spot’

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