Pen proposes, Sword executes


During his last days on an isolated island, St Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte, a graduate from a French military academy and an accomplished swordsman, had famously said, “Pen is mightier than sword.” If someone had asked Prophet Mohammad, founder of Islam, to make a choice, probably he would have said, ”Both are mighty but sword is mightier. The messages Allah gave me had to be written down but the use of sword is necessary to spread his message. Without the help of sword, pen would not achieve anything.”  

Arab before Mohammad

Since time immemorial, the Arab tribes had lived as self-governing sedentary or nomadic communities. They worshipped idols of their gods considered their protectors, natural things such as trees, stones, springs, and wells, etc. In Mecca, unity among the members of the same tribe was not a common characteristic. A tribe consisted of clans with common ancestry. Clans too clashed for supremacy. In Mecca, the mercantile Quraysh tribe had two rival clans, Banu Hashim (Hashemites) and Banu Umayya (Umayyads) with common ancestry. Hashemites were custodians of Mecca’s sacred precinct, the Kaaba, which housed the idols of tribal deities. Umayyads ruled the city-state in their traditional tribal style. 

Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullāh (570-632 CE) was born into the Hashemite clan in Mecca. According to the Islamic belief, when he was about 40, he used to spend hours alone in prayer and meditation in the Mount Hira cave of mountain Jabal an-Nour, 3 miles from Mecca, speculating, inter alia, about the moral degeneration of the people and in the quest for true religion. One day, he claimed that the angel Gabriel appeared before him and commanded him to recite five verses. The angel said that God had chosen Muhammad and ordered him to spread the message of Islam meaning (in Arabic) “submission” that there is only one God i.e. Allah. Those five verses, later included in the Quran (meaning “the recitation”), became the foundation of Islam. The process of revelations continued for the next 23 years (each revelation known as Ayah — literally, “Sign of God”), until his death. Every Muslim proclaims: “I testify that there is no god but Allah, and I testify that Muhammad is a Messenger of Allah”. The last ayah says: “So prostrate to Allah and worship.”

Since he was unable to read or write, at least 29 of his companions served as scribes to record the revelations. If the claim is to be believed, Muhammad had a fantastic memory. The Quran – 6,236 verses organized in 114 chapters- is the composition of those revelations. What is claimed to be the authentic agreed collection of Quranic verses was prepared after Muhammad’s death, during the reign of Uthman ibn Affan (6 November 644 – 17 June 656).

Next to the Quran, the most important religious composition is Hadith, a collection of half verbal and physical teachings and traditions of Muhammad, compiled after his death by several of his followers.

In 613, he started preaching monotheistic Islam in Mecca condemning idol worship and polytheism. Muhammad’s message challenged the traditional social, economic, and religious order. Naturally, he faced tough opposition from pagans including members of his tribe. The Meccan clans led by Umayyads retaliated by crippling commercial and marital boycott of the Hashemite clan. For 9 years since 613, he had tried to persuade Meccans to convert to Islam. He succeeded but only partially. To escape the wrath of Umayyads, in 615 large number of Muslims migrated to Abyssinia.

In 622 CE, to escape the increasing persecution Muhammad and his followers fled to Medina (the episode known in the Islamic history as Hijra or migration, marking the beginning of the Islamic calendar). He continued to receive revelations in Medina and gradually formed a community of believers. (Some historians say that the process of Muslims settling in Medina had started before 622 CE.) As a strategy, Muhammad patronised Umayyads and others who converted to Islam, though more out of compulsion than conviction.

Muhammad decided to deal with his enemies with force. In Medina, he and his followers started raiding Meccan caravans. A series of armed conflicts followed. Over a period of about 9 years (623 to 632), he fought 98 battles (ghazwah, lit. battle i.e.). He personally took part in bigger battles numbering 28. In the Quran, Mohammad has justified the use of violence: “Ye (Muslims) slew them not, but Allah slew them. And thou (Muhammad) threwest not when thou didst throw, but Allah threw, that He might test the believers by a fair test from Him. Lo! Allah is Hearer, Knower.”(8:17) 

According to an article written by Asma Afsaruddin for Encyclopædia Britannica, the word “Jihad” is erroneously translated as “Holy War”. “Jihad, particularly in the religious and ethical realm, primarily refers to the human struggle to promote what is right and to prevent what is wrong.” In the Quran, its meaning depends on the context in which it is used. “In these kinds of extra-Qurʾānic literature, the different ways of promoting what is good and preventing what is wrong are included under the broad rubric of al-jihād fī sabīl Allāh, “striving in the path of God.” A well-known Hadith refers to four primary ways in which jihad can be carried out: by the heart, the tongue, the hand (physical action short of armed combat), and the sword.”

(No other founder of a religion has advised the use of sword to promote what is good and prevent what is wrong.)

In all these battles he and his followers acted with utmost brutality. They looted property, converted large numbers to Islam, massacred grown up males who refused to convert, sent thousands of women and young children (who had not reached puberty) to be sold in slave markets for horses and weapons. (In one battle in 628, he kept beheaded Jewish leader’s young widow, Safiyah, for himself.)

In 630, he returned to Mecca as a hero reciting verses of the Quran and ordered destruction of all idols or idol looking shapes. In Kaaba, all 365 idols were destroyed and it was converted into a mosque, considered by Muslims Bayt Allāh (“House of God”)


While destroying each idol, Muhammad recited Surah 17:81: “And say: Truth hath come and falsehood hath vanished away. Lo! falsehood is ever bound to vanish.”

An orthodox Muslim believes that only the Quran is right, what he believes, and does is right and is blessed by Allah.

Legacy of Mohammad

Mohammad died in 632 CE. Before his death, he had united several Arabian tribes into a single polity of about one hundred thousand believers in Islam and became ruler as well as the religious head of the Arabian Peninsula. He had laid the foundation of a new political ecosystem that gradually affected the entire globe. Its basic components, as outlined by Mohammad himself and preserved in the Quran and Hadith, are:

  • mixing of religion with politics (for him, religion was not a private matter),
  • religion controlling every aspect of personal, social and political life,
  • rule of Sharia (law based on the Quran), and
  • all forms of Jihad to bring more geographical areas and people under Islam.

The institution of caliph (spiritual as well as temporal head) was the product of the first component i.e. mixing of religion with politics

(Every religion influences the life of its followers but not to the extent Islam does. All Hindus do not regularly worship a god or go to temple. Nor is there any religious compulsion to visit a temple every week or month. Christians go to church on Sundays for payers. They don’t need to pray every day. But, barring exceptions, all Muslims offer Namaz five times a day. It is mandatory. )

Mohammad’s followers after his death

After his death, the first issue to be settled was the selection of his successor and new caliph (leader of the Muslims). The issue divided Mohammad’s followers, including his immediate family members and relatives into two groups. One group (that later came to be known as Sunnis) claimed that Mohammad had not appointed anyone his successor and, in any case, the caliph had to be elected. The other group (that later came to be known as Shias) claimed that he had indeed appointed his son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib his political as well as spiritual successor and believed that caliph had to be one of the descendants of Mohammad. 

Even Hadith is unable to indicate Muhammad’s choice. In a Hadith, he says: “My Ummah (community) will be fragmented into seventy-three sects and all of them will be in the Hellfire except one.” But he did no clarify which “one”. Both Sunnis and Shias claim to be the “one”. Sunnis claim that their interpretation of Islam follows the Sunnah (ways of Mohammed). Shias consider Sunnis as a usurper. The use of terms “Sunnis” and “Shias” (short form of ‘Shiat Ali’, meaning ‘partisans of Ali’) were used much later.

Whatever the apparent ideological (or theological) differences, the desire to dominate the community was the root cause. Mohammad’s close friend and father-in-law Abu Bakr’s supporters being in the vast majority, he was elected the caliph (8 June 632 – 23 August 634). He, a rich and respected trader, was one of the first to covert. He provided funds liberally to Mohammad for his cause, accompanied him to medina, and participated in major battles Mohammad fought later to crush his adversaries. Ali ibn Abi Talib pledged his allegiance after initial hesitations.

Rashidun Caliphate (632–661) 

Abu Bakr adopted the title of Khalifat Rasul Allah, generally translated as “Successor to the Messenger of God”. This was the beginning of the institution of caliphate.

The new rule was known as the Rashidun (meaning “Rightly Guided”)  Caliphate or Khalifat, the first of the four major caliphates. Shia Muslims avoid the use of this term because they do not consider the rule of the first three caliphs as legitimate. All caliphs were related to Mohammad.

The first caliph, Al Bakr, died a natural death but the last 5 years of the Rashidun Caliphate saw assassinations of all three Caliphs due to internal and external struggle for power. One assassination prepared background of the next assassination. Al Bakr successor, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (Mohammad’s another father-in-law), named before his death was assassinated by a Persian, perhaps to avenge Muslim conquest. The next Caliph, ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, another son-in-law of Mohammad and one of the six shortlisted by Umar before his death, was also assassinated. His style of governance, appointment of only favoured family members as governors of different regions who ruled as tyrants, made many enemies, especially among the Egyptians who wanted Ali as the Caliph. The Egyptian rebels got an opportunity on June 20, 656, and killed Uthman in his bedroom before one of his wives.

After Uthman’s assassination, Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali ibn Abi-Talib. a Hashemite Shia was chosen caliph. His selection reignited the pre-Islamic rivalry between Hashemites and Umayyads leading to the first Islamic Fitna (civil war) for supremacy. His main opponents included Muhammad’s widow Aisha (Al Bakr’s daughter) and Governor of Syria and Uthman’s cousin Mu’awiya and their followers. They started accusing Ali of not saving Uthman’s life and not doing enough to punish the murderers. Failure of dialogue between the opposite parties led to the Battle of Camel (656 CE) in which Ali defeated A’ishah. Some historians believe that the real issue was the political ambition of Ali’s opponents who found his caliphate against their interest. Ali’s supporters considered him a true Imam and his enemies infidels.

(The differences were purely political but impacted politics as well as religious unity.)

Now Ali and Mu’awiya had to settle scores Ambitious Muawiyah wanted more areas under him, refused Ali’s demands for allegiance. Again, the failure of dialogue led to war. In the Battle of Siffin (July 657) in which Ali lost 25,000 men, while Muawiyah lost 45,000.

During the battle, something unexpected happened that deeply impacted not only a large number of contemporary Muslims but Muslims in the future also. (The world is facing the impact more seriously now in the 21st century than ever before.) When Muawiyah was on the verge of defeat, on the advice of a commander he ordered his soldiers to hoist the Quran on their spearheads. It was a clever use of religion in the battle for political supremacy. It served the desired purpose. Though Ali immediately realised that it was a trick, most of his soldiers disobeyed his order to fight and deserted him. Those rebels were Qurrā’ (“Quran readers”). The daily recitation of the Quran had made them very committed and militant.

In the confusion, Muawiyah fled. The battle remained indecisive. The warning sides decided to go for arbitration. Ali agreed because he had become weak. At the end of the arbitration by two persons, one declared Ali deposed and Muawiya’s appointment as the new caliph. A disappointed Ali declared the award not binding as it was contrary to the Quran.

To continue to fight for survival, Ali tried to raise an army but could not get support. Even those who had deserted him in the battle and forced him to go for arbitration boycotted him. The Qurrā’ formed their organisation called Kharijites (“those who leave”). They adopted a militant religious stance. They believed

  • “Arbitration belongs to God alone.”
  • True Muslims prayed and read Quran every day.
  • They were true Muslims and those who opposed them where enemies of God, and unbelievers.
  • True believers had the right to overthrow an unjust ruler.
  • True believers were ready for martyrdom and death for the sake of God

According to some authors, Kharijites had claimed to be true Muslims because they were afraid that they might be accused and killed for the murder of Uthman. Whatever the reason, they started killing Ali’s supporters and other Muslims who were against them. (Sounds like a precursor of ISIS; Baghdadi, who wanted to be a new caliph, killed Muslims who opposed him.) Ali defeated Kharijites in the Battle of Nahrawan (659) but he had become very weak while his enemies were getting stronger. There was unrest in Egypt. Muawiyah occupied Egypt and several cities in Iraq.

On January 26, 661 while Ali was offering namaz in a mosque, a Kharijite seriously wounded him with a poison coated sword. Ali asked his son not to kill the attacker for he knew that under Islamic law, the attacker would be pardoned but in case victim died, he would be given one equal hit. After two days, Ali died and the attacker got equal punishment.

After Ali’s murder, his son Husayn ibn ‘Ali became the fifth caliph but it was not acceptable to Muawiyah who was ruling over the Levant and Egypt. With the largest Muslim Force at his command, he rebelled and declared himself the caliph. He weakened Hasan’s army by bribing commanders. He virtually forced Hassan to abdicate in his favour. was crowned new caliph and founded Umayyad Caliphate.

Before its end, in fact, before Ali took over as the fourth caliph, the Rashidun Caliphate had, after a series of wars, conquered modern Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Ctesiphon, Palestine, and Jerusalem.

With the end of the Rashidun Caliphate, the first and a very important phase of Islamic history ended. It had all started with Mohammad declaring himself the last messenger of God, Allah. He tried to convert the pagan tribals to the new faith, belief in only one God, and leading life as ordained by God. He made it a mission to spread the divine message, by persuasion and, if necessary, by force. Under Islam, religion was an integral part of day-to-day life, social order, and political system.

Mohammad had left behind about 1 lakh followers to carry on his mission to spread Islam. Though all the followers swear by Mohammed and the Quran, they could not remain united. If the first split was on the issue of criteria of selection of caliph, the second was on the issue of who was a “true Muslim” and who was a “fake Muslim”. This distinction was created by Khajirites who claimed to be “true Muslims”. They believed in killing the “fake Muslims”, forcibly overthrowing unjust rulers and martyrdom for the sake of Islam. For a few hundred years, they continued to create troubles for Muslim rulers. Gradually, they split into several groups and became extinct but the Muslims continue to be divided and subdivided into several groups, peace-loving as well as those believing in violence. The violent groups are more than ever active in the 21st century, creating troubles in several countries.

Devendra Narain

May 12, 2020

Links to articles you may like to read…ay-be-disastrous/…itical-not-legal/


  1. This article is the first of a series of articles. The articles are not about the teachings and principles of their religion, Islam. The articles are about the expansion of Islam, how more geographical areas and people came under Islam.
  2. The facts mentioned in this article as in the subsequent articles, yet to be uploaded on my website, are based on materials available in the public domain, on the Internet. Only a few interpretations are mine.
  3. The article should not taken as criticism of Prophet Mohammad. He was neither the first nor the last to write history with sword

Devendra Narain




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