Today (?) in Middle Eastern history: Muhammad conquers Mecca (630?)

The early Islamic community's war for control of the Hejaz comes to an end.

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You’ve probably noted those question marks in the title to this post, and they aren’t there to remind me to go back and check my facts later. The question marks are there because there’s no compelling reason to believe that this event happened on the date that corresponds with January 11, 630, on our calendar. Don’t get me wrong, the chances that it happened on January 11, 630, are much better than the chances it happened on, say, March 24, 1975, but the fact is that lining up the Islamic calendar with ours isn’t an exact science and the variability gets worse the further back you go. Making things more complicated, we can’t be entirely sure that the Hijri calendar in use in what was the year 8 for Muslims was exactly aligned with the Hijri calendar as it is today. Complicating things still further, the extant sources—all of which are fundamentally problematic in their own rights—give multiple dates for the conquest. The technical term historians use for this sort of thing is “yikes.”

I have settled on the Hijri date of 18 Ramadan 8 as the date Muhammad and his assembled army accepted Mecca’s surrender and entered the city, because this is my newsletter and I’m allowed to be arbitrary about such things. I have further settled on the date of 11 January 630 as the corresponding date on our calendar even though you can, depending on the conversion system, find 18 Ramadan 8 rendered as a bunch of different dates ranging from mid December 629 through early June 630. Having experienced a couple of summers on the Arabian peninsula in my life I feel fairly certain that nobody in the 7th century would have voluntarily marched an army from Medina to Mecca in June, so forget that. Also Hugh Kennedy puts the conquest in January 630, and his The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphs was the first book I ever read on early Islamic history. Again, my newsletter my rules.

The other problem (of course there’s another problem) with talking about Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca is that it's not really much of a “conquest.” I think Kennedy notes that “occupation” would be more accurate, but that doesn’t sound as cool and so “conquest” is how it’s become known. It was the very anti-climactic culmination of years of conflict between Mecca’s Quraysh tribe and Muhammad’s proto-Islamic community that stretched back at least as far as the Battle of Badr in 624 and really all the way back to Muhammad’s early preaching days in Mecca, which began around 613. The defining moment in this conflict was of course the Hijra or Hegira, Muhammad’s 622 flight from Mecca to Medina to escape a Qurayshi threat on his life. That event marks the year 1 on the Islamic calendar.

You can read in more detail about Muhammad’s life in Mecca here and his life in Medina here. What’s important to note for our purposes is the ongoing importance of Mecca to Muhammad and his followers. Many had spent their whole lives there, had left family and friends behind to go with Muhammad, and probably resented the Qurayshi leaders who’d forced them to make that sacrifice. They also recognized that their movement couldn’t go anywhere without Mecca, which was the religious and to some degree commercial (the two went hand in hand via pilgrimage) center of the Hejaz.

The armed conflict between Muhammad and Mecca began not long after the flight to Medina, when Muhammad’s followers—cut off from their tribe and their livelihoods—began raiding Meccan caravans as a source of income. It didn’t heat up to the level of open warfare until Badr, probably in mid-March 624, when the Meccans decided to put an end to the raids but were routed by a much smaller group of Muhammad’s followers in an otherwise indecisive (the caravan Muhammad was trying to raid made it back to Mecca unscathed) battle. That led to the 625 Battle of Uhud, which the Meccans won but again the outcome was indecisive—their aim had been to destroy Muhammad’s movement completely, but he and most of his followers were able to retreat back to Medina. Then came 627’s Meccan siege of Medina, better known as the Battle of the Trench because Muhammad, at the advice of Iranian convert Salman al-Farisi, dug trenches around the city that thwarted the Meccan cavalry and allowed Muhammad’s heavily outnumbered force to resist the siege.

After the Battle of the Trench, Mecca’s will to fight evaporated. They’d thrown everything they had into the siege, assembling a massive (for that time and place) army that early (and admittedly not hugely reliable) sources put around 10,000 men. Their defeat left Muhammad in total control of the northern Hejaz and effectively cut Mecca off from its trade routes into the Byzantine Empire. Realizing he’d pretty much won, in March 628 Muhammad assembled a large group of followers, well over 1000, and marched them on Mecca not for a battle, but to make a pilgrimage. A Meccan delegation met him at Hudaybiyah, outside of Mecca, and negotiated a 10 year peace treaty that stipulated that Muhammad’s group would turn around and go home but could return and make its pilgrimage the following year, and allowed both Muhammad and the Quraysh to make alliances with other Arab tribes around them. Muhammad and his followers made what’s sometimes known as the “first pilgrimage” the following year. It was not a Hajj, to be clear, because it did not take place during the proper month, Dhu’l-Hijjah.

Amid all of these events, Muhammad was consolidating his position in Medina. Much of that consolidation involved expelling or outright killing members of Jewish tribes in the city who were opposed to his teachings. Those events aren’t really germane to the topic of this post but I don’t want anybody to say that I didn’t mention them.

Sometime probably in late 629, a tribe allied with the Quraysh attacked a tribe allied with Muhammad and killed some of its members. Muhammad demanded that the Quraysh either pay blood money for the dead, break off their alliance with the tribe in question, or tear up the Treaty of Hudaybiyah. The Quraysh opted for door number 3 but seem to have immediately regretted it. Muhammad, again presumably realizing he had the advantage, rebuffed their subsequent attempts to make nice. In January 630 (give or take, as I explained above), Muhammad assembled his own roughly 10,000 man army—or at least that's what the sources say—and marched it into the hills surrounding Mecca. He divided it into four columns, one to attack by each of the four main passes through those hills, but only one of those columns saw any actual combat and it was barely a skirmish. The beleaguered Meccans simply allowed Muhammad’s army to enter the city and that was that.

The immediate aftermath of the “conquest” is notable in two respects. First there’s the conversion of the Quraysh, led by the chief of the tribe at that time, Abu Sufyan, who had been implacably opposed to Muhammad and his message but now recognized, or at least claimed to recognize, that Muhammad was on to something since Mecca’s pagan gods hadn’t exactly saved the city. One of Abu Sufyan’s sons, Muawiyah, became caliph in 661—founding the Umayyad dynasty in the process—so his family wound up doing quite well for itself after seeing the light, so to speak. Then there’s Muhammad’s famous entry into the Kaaba, which at that point housed idols to all the various Arabian gods to whom pilgrims came and paid homage at the shrine. Muhammad had the idols smashed to pieces and dedicated (or rededicated, depending on your point of view) the Kaaba to the one God of the Abrahamic tradition.

After the conquest, Muhammad returned to Medina and began planning for the conquest of the city of Taif, the third city of the Hejaz, an effort that failed but led the Thaqif tribe, which controlled the city, to eventually surrender and accept his new movement anyway. He also sent missions to other parts of Arabia and may have participated in the heavily disputed “Battle of Tabouk,” which wasn't actually a battle if it even happened at all—allegedly, he led an army of 30,000 men to a village in northern Arabia later in 630 to counter a rumored Byzantine invasion that never materialized. Muhammad finally made his first and only Hajj in 632, shortly before his death, in what is sometimes called the “Farewell Pilgrimage.”