Muhammad: From Prophet to Warrior

I have spoken and written on the true character of Muhammad, Islam, and its history. I am deeply concerned that people not be lulled into thinking it is simply another “peaceful” religion. Consequently, I thought this article was important enough to replicate here. This article appeared in Kairos Journal, which is a journal for pastors.

Peter Cotterell is former Principal of the London School of Theology and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. An expert in Islamic studies, Cotterell is the author of nineteen books, including Islam in Context (with Peter Riddell) and the forthcoming One God.

How did the transformation of Muhammad from prophet to warrior occur?

According to the earliest biography of Muhammad available to us (by Ibn Ishaq), Muhammad was personally engaged in 27 fighting raids, and “actually fought” in nine of those engagements.[1]

The history of the formative years of Islam is best characterized as a trajectory of violence, presenting three phases: the initial period, when Muhammad’s followers passively accepted persecution; a defensive period, when violence was permitted as a response to violence; and an offensive period, when violence was allowed generally “in the cause of Allah.”

Phase One: The Passive Acceptance of Persecution. Muhammad began his proclamation of the One God, Allah, when he was 40 years old, and emphasized the claims of the One God, the absurdity of Arab polytheism, and the need to end the exploitation and neglect of the poor. At the same time he warned of Allah’s judgment on those who rejected either the message or the messenger. Inevitably his teaching provoked opposition: from the rich and powerful who were the exploiters of the poor and from those who profited from the polytheistic idolatry (reminiscent of Paul’s experience at Ephesus, Acts 19:23-27).

Phase Two: Defensive Fighting. In 622 Muhammad and his followers abandoned Mecca and moved to Medina, whose people had promised him both protection from his enemies and a welcome for his message. The Meccans, however, rejected Muhammad’s message and refused his followers access to the Ka’ba, their place of worship which included in its walls the so-called black stone, which Muhammad appears to have claimed had been given to Adam as a foundation for the first “mosque.” But a new period of Muhammad’s life had begun: he now had enough Medinan support to oppose and even threaten the Meccans.

He first organized an attack on a Meccan trading caravan at Nakhla. Muhammad provoked controversy when he attacked the caravan during one of the sacred months, when, according to Arab custom, the caravans were immune from attack. Muhammad subsequently claimed a revelation from God justifying that attack and the more general principle of resisting the Meccan idolaters. Qur’an chapter 2, verse 217 represents Allah speaking to Muhammad about how he is to explain this event to his followers: “They ask thee concerning fighting in the Prohibited Month. Say: ‘Fighting therein is a grave (offence); but graver is it in the sight of Allah to prevent access to the path of Allah, to deny Him, to prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and drive out its members.'”[2] It is at this point in its history that Islam is introduced to the idea of jihad, struggle in the cause of Islam.

Phase Three: Offensive Jihad in the Advance of Islam. With the failure of the Meccan attempt to capture Medina in 627 and Muhammad’s occupation of Mecca itself in 630 A.D., the second phase ended and the third phase began: Meccan opposition was over, and Muhammad then turned his attention to subduing the Arab tribes and incorporated them into a single Muslim nation. But he also encountered and subdued a Jewish group at Khaybar, and he personally led the attack on a Christian group at Tabuk on the Gulf of Aqaba. They were compelled to submit and become dhimmi, a non-Muslim minority in the Muslim state.

Muhammad’s combative biography thus defined the early character of Islam and set the precedent for how Muslims would think about conflict for years to come.

What is the significance of transformation for understanding the development of Islam?

The trajectory of violence outlined above historically has provided justification for the violence that has characterized the confrontation between successive Muslim empires/caliphates and the rest of the world. The initial advance of Islam westwards across North Africa, into Spain and southern France, and northwards into Syria and to the very gates of Constantinople, could in no way be described as defensive jihad. Currently the trajectory also provides the Muslim extremists with justification for their violent actions. Other Muslims have tried to reinterpret those early events in Muslim history as sanctioning defensive warfare but not offensive warfare.

However, as Professor Bernard Lewis has pointed out, “For most of the fourteen centuries of recorded Muslim history, jihad was most commonly interpreted to mean armed struggle for the defense or advancement of Muslim power.”[3]

Jihad. The Arabic word “jihad” means “struggle,” and it has been seen in two ways, as higher jihad, the struggle against the self, the struggle to be a better Muslim, and as lower jihad, armed struggle with the non-Muslim world. Ahmadi Muslims, who are counted as heretics and non-Muslims by the rest of Islam, have entirely rejected the lower jihad and say that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (c. 1839-1908), was the prophet promised for the End Time, who “broke the sword” in accordance with Muslim Tradition and ended lower jihad.

Within Islam there is a second stream, the Sufi, that has majored on higher jihad, without actually rejecting lower jihad. The Sufis may perhaps best be described as Muslim charismatics, whose goal is the immediate personal experience of Allah, obviously a focus for the individual on higher jihad. However, across North Africa and in Nigeria, Sufism has promoted both forms of jihad.

Some observers of modern day Islam say that the religion properly defined means “peace.” Both etymologically and historically, such a statement is simply not true. Patricia Crone of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton concludes: “Mohammad’s God endorsed a policy of conquest, instructing his believers to fight against unbelievers wherever they might be found….In short, Mohammad had to conquer…and his deity told him to conquer.”[4] That legacy continues within Islam today.

[1] Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume (Lahore: Oxford University Press), 659-660. Originally published as Sirat Rasul Allah, c. 750 A.D.
[2] Qur’an, trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali (Beltsville, MA: Amana Corporation, 1989).
[3] Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (New York: The Modern Library, 2003), 31.
[4] Patricia Crone, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 244; also available at: (accessed December 16, 2005).

Ronnie W. Rogers