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Martin Kramer
on Israel and the Middle East

Islam: 1,400 years embattled

The Muslims consult before the battle of Badr, 14th-century manuscript of the Jami‘ al-Tawarikh of Rashid al-Din, Khalili Collection. Wikimedia Commons.
The Muslims consult before the battle of Badr, 14th-century manuscript of the Jami‘ al-Tawarikh of Rashid al-Din, Khalili Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In September 1973, Egypt’s leaders were looking for a name for their plan to launch a surprise attack against Israeli forces across the Suez Canal. According to the Egyptian chief of staff, Saad El Shazly, they wanted “something more inspirational than our planning title, The High Minarets.” Once the assault was set for October 6, falling in Ramadan, “Operation Badr named itself.”

This 17th of Ramadan marks 1,400 years since the battle of Badr (624), the first military confrontation between the Muslims and their opponents—in this case, the grandees of the Prophet Muhammad’s own tribe of Quraysh. He had fled their persecution in Mecca less than two years earlier (the hijra, 622), along with his followers, in order to regroup and recruit in Medina, to the north.

At Badr, southwest of Medina, Muhammad led a contingent of 313 Muslims, outnumbered three to one, to a decisive victory over the polytheists of Mecca. The Muslims killed many, took others prisoner for ransom, and secured much booty. Angels supposedly helped out. It’s considered a turning point in the fortunes of nascent Islam, demonstrating Muhammad’s skills as a commander as well as the divine favor enjoyed by the believers.

Badr received its most memorable cinematic treatment in the 1976 epic The Message, starring Anthony Quinn and bankrolled in good part by the then-dictator of Libya, Mu‘ammar Qadhafi (watch here). The movie roughly adhered to the traditional accounts of the battle: the preliminary duels by champions, the general melee, the cut-and-thrust, and the spirit of Muslim triumph. (Quinn didn’t play Muhammad, who couldn’t be depicted on film; he played Hamza, Muhammad’s companion and uncle. Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law and later caliph, also couldn’t be depicted; the double-pointed sword on screen is wielded by him, but you won’t see him.)

Badr did much to signal the character of Islam going forward. Bernard Lewis, historian of Islam (and my mentor), summarized that character in theses words:

The founder of Christianity died on the cross, and his followers endured as a persecuted minority for centuries…. Muhammad did not die on the cross. As well as a Prophet, he was a soldier and a statesman, the head of a state and the founder of an empire, and his followers were sustained by a belief in the manifestation of divine approval through success and victory. Islam was associated with power from the very beginning, from the first formative years of the Prophet and his immediate successors.

Thus did Islam find its validation in military success, which became its hallmark for a millennium. Its first decisive victory occurred at Badr, during Ramadan of the second year of the hijra, corresponding to March 624.

“Proven fact”

Or so I was taught. In my student days (back in the 1970s), every Islamic history syllabus started with the biography of Muhammad by a Scottish scholar, W. Montgomery Watt, in its two-volume or abbreviated version. His work, published in the 1950s, gave a coherent account that seemed well-grounded. But he achieved that only by giving the benefit of the doubt to the Muslim sources.

Why doubt? The Qur’an, the earliest source, is an opaque book of revelation, not a history. The earliest biography of the Prophet wasn’t set down until over a century after his death. The versions we have were redacted still later. The traditions regarding Muhammad were collated at about that time, and were demonstrably colored by biases and politics far removed from seventh-century Arabia. Worse still, the later the accounts, the more detailed they became, rendering them even more suspect.

Even Watt had to acknowledge that there had been “shaping” of the facts by their recorders, but he wouldn’t admit their invention: “At least the material in the early biographies is to be accepted as true,” he insisted, and “most of the background material, culled from a large number of varied works, is sound.” Otherwise, he’d never have filled two volumes.

In 1961, the French Marxist scholar Maxime Rodinson published a materialist biography of Muhammad, but he too relied on the standard Muslim sources. Consider, for example, what he wrote about Badr:

We also have certain facts upon which all the traditions are agreed. The first Arab compilers differ (slightly) as to the names of those who took part in the battle of Badr, as well as the circumstances, the preparations and the consequences of the fighting. They conflict with one another on all these points, each reflecting the party-struggles of his own day. But such disputes can only take place because everyone agrees that the battle did in fact take place, on its date (at least approximately) and with its result. We must therefore consider it as a proven fact, and endeavor to see how to place it in the total chain of cause and effect.

Just as I was finishing my studies, such “proven facts” came under a full-scale assault by revisionist historians, who insisted that the story of early Islam as told in Muslim sources was entirely spurious. Islam, they claimed, arose gradually in a setting far removed from early seventh-century Arabia; the later Muslim accounts of its birth were a kind of back-filling. As one leading revisionist historian, Patricia Crone, put it, “The entire tradition is tendentious… and this tendentiousness has shaped the facts as we have them.” My fellow grad students who’d chosen early Islam as their field had entered a maelstrom of controversy. (Not that the modern history of the Middle East was less tumultuous. All this coincided with the Iranian revolution and Edward Said’s Orientalism.)

The historicity of Badr also came in for its share of doubt. A fragment of Arabic papyrus suggested that a full century after the battle, Muslims didn’t place it in the month of Ramadan. If it had been slipped into Ramadan by late-eighth-century fixers, perhaps the whole thing was made up. This is the conclusion spread a decade ago by Tom Holland, a British writer of popular histories who took in the revisionist scholarship and sharpened its edges. The canonical account of Badr essentially duplicated

the themes that the Greek poet Homer, a millennium and a half earlier, had explored in his great epic of warfare, the Iliad. The one features angels; the other gods. Why, then, should we believe that the account of the Prophet’s first great victory is any more authentic than the legend of the siege of Troy?… What if the entire account of the victory at Badr were nothing but a fiction, a dramatic just-so story, fashioned to explain allusions within the Qur’an that would otherwise have remained beyond explanation?

Over the last fifty years, early Islamic history has been turned into just such a game of “what ifs,” without the guardrails of the traditional sources. It’s a highly technical discipline, and I don’t pretend to grasp all of the current work. It does seem that the wave of hyper-skepticism has receded; Crone, a staunch revisionist, decided that “the chances are that most of what the tradition tells us about the Prophet’s life is more or less correct in some sense or other.” But to my untrained eye, the study of earliest Islam seems to have grown ever more speculative.

The Badr of memory

Islam’s formation wasn’t the chosen specialty of my teacher, Bernard Lewis. He only touched on it in more general works, such as his 1950 overview, The Arabs in History. There he largely adhered to the consensus that the Muslim sources preserved more than a kernel of truth. “There were many disagreements among scholars as to the authenticity of this or that tradition,” he later recalled, “of this or that narrative, but the broad outline of the Prophet’s career, as also the actions and achievements of his companions and successors, was generally accepted.”

But when Lewis came to revise that book many years later, everything had changed. “In certain subjects,” he wrote in 2006, “our knowledge diminishes from year to year with the progress of scholarship and research, as one generally accepted view after another is attacked, leaving a terrain strewn with demolished or endangered hypotheses and assumptions.”

Yet Lewis still believed the Muslim sources should be taken seriously. “The past as remembered,” he wrote,

the past as perceived, the past as narrated, is still a powerful, at times a determining, force in the self-image of a society and in the shaping of its institutions and laws, even if the factual base on which this image rests is shown by historians, centuries later in distant countries, to contain more fantasy than fact.

Lewis thus shows us the relevance of Badr in our own time. In his famous 1976 article “The Return of Islam,” Lewis noted the Egyptian choice of Badr as a code name for Egypt’s 1973 war plan. Indeed, Egypt continues to this day to name large-scale military exercises after Badr. (In the Egyptian setting, that’s a double-barreled pointer, to 624 and 1973.)

But Egypt hardly has a lock on Badr. On the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda drew a comparison between Badr and 9/11, which it called “Badr September.”

Truly, September 11th was a day unlike any before it. It was a day of distinction [between truth and falsehood], akin to the great [battle of] Badr, when God crushed the tyrants of disbelief of that time. Similarly, on this day in September, God crushed the head of the present era’s idol, America, and weakened its foundations through Al Qaeda’s knights of the jihad. Thus, [September 11] was a kind of Badr in one of its many dimensions and meanings…. Just as no one at the time imagined that… the final countdown of Quraysh, Persia, and Byzantium began on Friday, the 17th of Ramadan of Year Two, so no one imagined that America and its allies would begin their decline on Tuesday, September 11. But what follows will be the rise of the world’s oppressed, as is God’s unchanging law in history.

Like much in history and myth, the memory of Badr is so elastic that it’s been invoked across the entire range of contemporary politics—by Egypt’s military, the biggest Arab beneficiary of American military aid, and by Al Qaeda, America’s deadliest Arab enemy. It’s also the name of an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, a Taliban battalion in Afghanistan, and rockets fired off by the Houthis in Yemen and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. To name something after Badr is to associate it with resistance and faith, the weak against the strong, the few against the many.

It’s also more evidence, if more were needed, for the consciousness of history that permeates the politics of the Middle East. When the novelist William Faulkner wrote that “the past is never dead; it’s not even past,” he intended it as a general proposition, but it particularly describes the Middle East. “The Muslim peoples,” wrote Bernard Lewis, “like everyone else in the world, are shaped by their history, but, unlike some others, they are keenly aware of it.” That’s true, even if the history isn’t.

For Muslims, this year’s anniversary of Badr isn’t special. By the Islamic lunar calendar, it’s 1,443 years to the battle, not 1,400. But the entire world now lives in an era when Badr again matters, and it’s the rest of us who need the reminder. Perhaps that’s because more battles of Badr may lie ahead.

Above: The battle of Badr from the movie The Message, directed and produced by Moustapha Akkad.

About the Author
Martin Kramer is a historian of the Middle East at Tel Aviv University and the Walter P. Stern fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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