The Prophet’s Greatest Victory According to the Quran: A Peace Treaty
The prophet Muhammad had participated in several battles in the larger defensive war after his migration to Madinah in the tenth year of his prophetic ministry. There was the battle of Badr in which a small Muslim army of untrained 313 had a resounding victory over a 1,000 well trained Makkan army. Nevertheless, God reserved the applause of ‘a great victory,’ not for any armed struggle, but for a peace treaty, which the common Muslim opinion held as acceptance of humiliating terms by the prophet.
What an amazing emphasis on peace, dialogue and coexistence in Islam as opposed to armed struggle and war, even if defensive!
The Quranic verse we are talking about is from the beginning of Surah Fatah (the Victory):
Surely we have granted you (Muhammad) a clear victory. (Al Quran 48:1/2)
إِنَّا فَتَحْنَا لَكَ فَتْحًا مُّبِينًا
The Treaty of Hudaybiyyah (Arabic: صلح الحديبية) was an important event that took place during the formation of Islam. It was a pivotal treaty between Muhammad, representing the state of Madinah, and the Quraysh tribe of Makkah in March 628 (corresponding to Dhu al-Qi’dah, 6 AH). It helped to decrease tension between the two cities, affirmed a 10-year peace, and authorized Muhammad’s followers to return the following year in a peaceful pilgrimage, later known as The First Pilgrimage.
Muhammad had a premonition that he entered Makkah and did tawaf around the Ka’bah. His Companions in Madinah were delighted when he told them about it. They all revered Makkah and the Ka’bah and they yearned to do tawaf there. In 628, Muhammad and a group of 1,400 Muslims marched peacefully without arms towards Makkah, in an attempt to perform the Umrah (pilgrimage). They were dressed as pilgrims, and brought sacrificial animals, hoping that the Quraish would honor the Arabian custom of allowing pilgrims to enter the city. The Muslims had left Madinah in a state of ihram, a premeditated spiritual and physical state which restricted their freedom of action and prohibited fighting. This, along with the paucity of arms carried, indicated that the pilgrimage was always intended to be peaceful.
Muhammad and his followers camped outside of Makkah, and Muhammad met with Makkan emissaries who wished to prevent the pilgrims’ entry into Makkah. After negotiations the two parties decided to resolve the matter through diplomacy rather than warfare, and a treaty was drawn up.
What is most instructive about this treaty is that even though the Makkans were polytheist and Muhammad’s arch enemies and had persecuted the prophet and his followers for 13 long years in Makkah, chased them to Abyssinia when some of his followers had migrated there and later attacked Madinah three times after his migration there, he did not hesitate to negotiate peace with them in good faith.
Could he have given us a brighter example to be flexible and negotiate peace and coexistence with others?
It was not an easy negotiation or no brainer. It was a hard fought victory, through flexible negotiation with the Makkan ambassador and then the prophet had to sell it through patience and wisdom to his followers, who were on the verge of breaking down. According to Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun and now a popular writer on religions, in her book, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet:
But the pilgrims were still mutinous and there was a dangerous moment when they seemed on the point of rebellion. After the treaty had been witnessed, Muhammad cried aloud that they would now observe the rites of the pilgrimage right there in Hudaybiyah, even though they had not reached the Ka’aba. Every man would shave his head and they should sacriﬁce the seventy consecrated camels. There was absolute silence. Unmoving, the pilgrims stared bitterly at Muhammad. In despair, he retreated to his tent, knowing that if he lost their obedience and support at this crucial moment all was lost. What should he do? he asked Umm Salamah, who had been watching the scene from his red-leather tent. She had judged the situation perfectly: Muhammad should go out to the people once more, she told him, and refuse to speak to anyone until he had sacriﬁced his own camel in front of the whole pilgrim body. It was exactly the right decision. The dramatic and spectacular blood-letting immediately broke the tension. Muhammad left his tent, looking neither to right nor to left, strode over to the camel he had consecrated and performed the ritual sacriﬁce. It was a holy action, familiar to all the Arab pilgrims, but it was also an act of deﬁance and independence because Muhammad was breaking with tradition in sacriﬁcing the camel outside Mecca itself. It released some spring of recognition in the silent crowd, broke through the torpor of depression and incomprehension and pro- vided a catharsis. Immediately the men leaped to their feet and raced over to the other camels, probably intensely relieved to be able to do something at last. They sacriﬁced the animals, crying aloud the ancient Arab formula, ‘In thy name, O al-Llah!’ and adding the Muslim slogan, ‘al- Llahu Akbar!’ When Muhammad called one of the Helpers to him and asked him to shave his head, the Muslims nearly fell over one another in their eagerness to do the same, and set about each other’s heads with such a frenzy of enthusiasm that Umm Salamah said later that she was ‘afraid they would inﬂict mortal wounds in their zeal.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr and associates write in their recent commentary of the Quran, in the introduction to Surah Fatah (the Victory):
Some of the Prophet’s Companions, however, considered the terms unfavorable for the Muslims and even tantamount to defeat. Nonetheless, the Prophet accepted the terms, and the treaty worked quickly and decisively to the advantage of the Muslim side. The freedom of any tribe to ally with either the Muslims or the Quraysh absolved the tribes of their former alliances, and some that had been allied with the Quraysh quickly switched to the Muslims. The concluding of a treaty with the Quraysh clearly demonstrated that the Muslims had acquired at least equal footing with the Quraysh, which was a feat in and of itself. After the Prophet slaughtered his sacriﬁcial animals in the area of Hudaybiyah, where the Muslim pilgrims had stopped, and they had begun the return trip to Madinah, this surah was revealed, declaring the Treaty of Hudaybiyah a manifest victory. Regarding this event, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab is reported to have said, “We were with the Messenger of God on a trip, and I asked him about a matter three times, but he did not answer me. So I said to myself, ‘May your mother be bereft of you, O Ibn al-Khattab! You were stubborn in repeating your question three times to the Messenger of God; each time he did not respond to you.’ So I mounted my camel and went ahead for fear that a part of the Quran might be revealed regarding my case. Suddenly I heard someone calling, ‘O ‘Umar!’ So I went to the Messenger while fearing that part of the Quran had been revealed about me. The Prophet said, ‘Last night, a surah was revealed to me that is dearer to me than all over which the sun rises.’ Then he recited [the surah beginning with] ‘Truly We have granted thee a manifest victory’ (IK, Q).
Here IK is reference to a traditional Quranic commentator ‘Imad al-DinAbu’l-Fida’ Isma’il ibn ‘Umar ibn Kathir (d.774/1373) and Q is reference to Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Qurtubi 9d671/1272). These two are among the 41 traditional commentators of the holy Quran that in the beginning of his commentary, Seyyed Hossein Nasr has listed that he and his colleagues have used as a resource and quoted frequently in the text.
The treaty was quite controversial for many reasons. Originally, the treaty referred to Muhammad as the Messenger of God, but this was unacceptable to the Quraish ambassador Suhayl ibn Amr. Muhammad compromised, and told his cousin Ali to strike out the wording. But Ali said, “I will not be the person to rub it out”, after which Muhammad himself rubbed out the words. (Sahih al-Bukhari, 3:49:862, Sahih Muslim, 19:4404).
Another point of contention, was that the Muslims objected over a clause of the treaty that said that any citizen from Makkah entering Madinah was eligible to be returned to Makkah (if they wanted), while the reverse was not true, and any Muslim from Madinah entering Makkah was not eligible to be returned to the Muslims, even if Muhammad himself requested. (Sahih al-Bukhari, 3:50:874)
A condition was also placed that the Muslims could not enter for their pilgrimage at that time, but could return the following year. The treaty also assured a 10-year peace.
After the signing of the treaty, there was still great resentment and fury among the Muslims because they did not like its stipulations. Muhammad, binding onto the Islamic ethic “fulfill every promise” ordered that Muslims do exactly as the treaty says. Also, many Muslims thereafter objected, when Muhammad told them (thrice) to perform their rites there and then. (Sahih al-Bukhari, 3:50:891)
Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan was the first Foreign Minister of Pakistan. From 1954 to 1961 he served as a member of the International Court of Justice at The Hague. He again represented Pakistan at the UN in 1961–64 and served as president of the UN General Assembly in 1962–63. Returning to the International Court of Justice in 1964, he served as the court’s president from 1970 to 1973. Let me quote him as he describes the negotiations of the treaty in the following words in his biography, Muhammad Seal of the Prophets:
After some further interchange of messages Quraish deputed Suhail bin Amr, one of their leading chiefs, and other representatives with power to conclude a treaty of peace. When the Holy Prophet saw Suhail, he observed, ‘There comes Suhail; now, if God so wills, the affair would be resolved.’ (The root of the word Suhail is sahl, meaning easy.) When Suhail arrived with his companions, he said, ‘We are ready to come to a settlement.’ The Holy Prophet, peace be on him, said that he too was ready and summoned Ali to act as the scribe of the treaty, the purport of which was understood between the two sides, and the details of which would be put into shape during the writing of it. When Ali arrived, the Holy Prophet started dictating, and told him to write, ‘In the name of Allah, Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim’, to which Suhail immediately demurred, saying, ‘We have no knowledge of Rahman; begin as is the Arab custom with: In Thy name, O Allah.’ The Muslims were excited and insisted that the opening words should be as the Holy Prophet had dictated, but he told them there was no harm in adopting the suggestion of Suhail. The dictation proceeded: ‘These are the conditions of peace between Muhammad the Messenger of God and…’, ‘Stop again,’ interposed Suhail. ‘If thou art what thou sayest, we would not have taken up arms against thee. Write, as the custom is, thine own name and thy father’s name.’ ‘Write, then,’ continued the Holy Prophet, ‘between Muhammad son of Abdullah, and Suhail son of Amr,’ whereupon Ali protested that having already inscribed the words Messenger of Allah, he felt it would be a sacrilege to rub out those words. The Holy Prophet thereupon himself rubbed out those words and the writing preceded as Suhail had desired. The terms of the treaty were: ‘War shall be suspended between Quraish and the Muslims for ten years. Whosoever wisheth to join Muhammad, or enter into treaty with him, shall have liberty to do so; and likewise, whosoever wisheth to join Quraish, or enter into treaty with them. If a man from among Quraish goeth over to Muhammad without the permission of his guardian, he shall be sent back to his guardian; but should any of the followers of Muhammad return to Quraish, they shall not be sent back. Muhammad shall retire this year without entering the City. In the coming year, Muhammad may visit Mecca, he and his followers, for three days, during which Quraish shall retire and leave the City to them. But they may not enter it with any weapons, save those of the traveller, namely, to each a sheathed sword.’
While the treaty was being inscribed Suhail’s son, Abu Jandal, wearing handcuffs and chains and bearing marks of injuries all over his body, staggered into the Muslim camp and told the Muslims that he had embraced Islam and was being kept in durance and tortured, as they could see from his chains and injuries. He begged that he should not be returned to Quraish as he would not be able to survive further torment. On his side Suhail demanded that he should be handed over into his custody. The Holy Prophet was deeply moved by the condition of Abu Jandal and pleaded with Suhail to let Abu Jandal remain with the Muslims, but despite the repeated pleas of the Holy Prophet, Suhail was adamant and his claim was admitted. As he was dragged away, the Holy Prophet said to Abu Jandal, ‘Have patience and put thy trust in the Lord. He will work out for thee, and for others likeminded with thee, a way of deliverance. We are unable to help thee, as we have entered into an agreement with the Meccans, and we cannot go against our word.’
The Muslims were much agitated over this incident and Umar, being unable to restrain himself, approached the Holy Prophet and inquired, ‘Are you not the Messenger of Allah?’ To which he replied, ‘Certainly.’ Then Umar asked, ‘Are we not based upon truth, and our enemies on falsehood?’ To which the Holy Prophet replied, ‘That is so.’ ‘Then why should we submit to such humiliation in the matter of our faith?’ The Holy Prophet pointed out, ‘Umar, I am the Messenger of Allah, and know what He desires. I cannot go against it, and He alone is my Helper.’ Umar was still not satisfied and asked: ‘Did you not tell us that we would perform the circuit of the House?’ To which the Holy Prophet rejoined, ‘Indeed I did, but did I also say that it would happen this very year?’ Umar confessed that such had not been the case, on which the Holy Prophet counselled him, ‘Then wait; you will, God willing, certainly enter Mecca and perform the circuit of the Ka’aba.’ Still excited, Umar approached Abu Bakr and had a similar exchange with him. Abu Bakr admonished him, ‘Umar, hold yourself in check, and do not let your grip on the stirrup of the Messenger of Allah be loosened, for by God, he to whom we have sworn allegiance is certainly true.’ Umar subsequently confessed that, in his momentary excitement, he said all this to the Holy Prophet and to Abu Bakr, but was soon overtaken by remorse and sought to wash out this stain of weakness through prayer, and fasts and almsgiving and the freeing of slaves.
The inscribing of the treaty was completed and it was attested, on behalf of the Muslims, by Abu Bakr, Uthman, Abdul Rahman bin Auf, S’ad bin Abi Waqqas, and Abu Obadiah. A copy was handed to Suhail bin Amr who returned with it to Mecca. The original was retained by the Holy Prophet.
Sir William Muir (27 April 1819 – 11 July 1905) was a Scottish Orientalist, scholar of Islam, and colonial administrator. He evaluates the treaty in his book ‘Life of Muhammad’ on page 35 and 36 of Volume IV, (the PDF file is available here: Muir’s book about the prophet Muhammad), in the following words:
The people, led by the vision to anticipate an unopposed visit to the Ka’aba, were crestfallen at the abortive result of their long journey. But, in truth, a great step had been gained by Muhammad. His political status, as an equal and independent power, was acknowledged by the treaty: The ten years’ truce would afford opportunity and time for the new religion to expand, and to force its claims on the conviction of Quraish; while conquest, material as well as spiritual, might be pursued on every other side. The stipulation that no one under the protection of a guardian should leave Quraish without his guardian’s consent, though unpopular at Madinah, was in accordance with the Arab society; and the Prophet had sufficient confidence in the in the loyalty of his people and the superior attraction of Islam, to fear no ill effect from the counter clause that none should be delivered up who might desert his standard. Above all, it was a great and a manifest success that free permission was conceded to visit Makkah in the following year, and for three days occupy the city undisturbed.
I have modernized the spellings in the above quote. Other volumes of this biography by Sir William Muir are linked here: Volume I; Volume II; Volume III.
The key message of flexibility of thought and being always open to peace and negotiation, in this treaty, has been nicely captured by two non-Muslim biographers of the Prophet Muhammad.
Francesco Gabrieli writes in Muhammad and the Conquests of Islam:
The struggle with Makkah, after the unsuccessful siege of the ‘war of the ditch,’ moved into a new and surprising phase with the episode of Hudaibiya, which shows us a pliant, opportunist Muhammad, open to negotiation and compromise. . . At the edge of the sacred ground of Makkah, the Prophet halted his armed advance and stooped to bargain with his enemies, to the astonishment and discomfiture of his own companions . . . This episode will serve to give the measure of the Prophet’s tactical ability, of the absolute obedience he was able to command from his followers, and of the situation, by now seriously weakened, of the Quraysh.
RVC Bodley writes in his biography of the Prophet Muhammad, The Messenger:
In point of fact, that treaty was Mohammed’s masterpiece of diplomacy. It was a triumph. No one, except perhaps Soheil, had thought back as had Mohammed when the Koreishite stood before him. No one, except those two, recollected the beatings, the stonings, the escape by night, the hiding in the cave. No one thought of the hazardous exile with the seventy followers. The contrast between now and then was unbelievable, miraculous. That the Quraishites were willing to treat with Mohammed at all, to recognize him as someone worthy of their attention, to admit him as the ruler of an Arab community, was beyond the bounds of all expectations. But, apart from his personal triumph over men who had vowed to capture him, alive or dead, Muhammad saw what no other Muslim did, the far‑reaching effects of the treaty.
He was not a man to quibble over small details. …… If Soheil’s limited mentality could not reconcile itself to calling someone who had been a traveling salesman by a grandiloquent title, it did not really matter. If a Muslim phrase in referring to God was upsetting to a Quraish ear, it was not important enough to break off negotiations.
What was important was to have free access to Makkah. Muhammad knew that the day he and his men could set foot in the Holy City, it would not be long before they would be there permanently. …..
What, however, Muhammad chiefly saw in having this peace treaty with Makkah was the effect it would produce on the local tribes. He was right in this too. Within a few days of signing the document which had caused so much stir among his own people, chiefs from all around were coming to swear allegiance.
Umar was confounded. During the space of one week there had been more converts to Islam than in the six preceding years. 
If the prophet was so open to peace with the polytheists of Makkah, should not the Muslims living in the West receive pluralism and multiculturalism with open arms in the Western countries? Should not the Muslims be ever ready to negotiate with the Jewish majority in Israel and the Hindu majority in India?
And last but the not the least, should not the Muslims in the Muslim majority countries be ever ready for secularism and equal rights for the non-Muslim minorities, since they are already signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, remembering the prophet’s absolute commitment to the terms of treaties, even at significant cost?
It is only those who don’t have confidence in their religion or philosophy that are belligerent. One who knows that his or her religion is inferior to none and who has confidence in his or her cause, can be patient in peaceful coexistence and freedom of speech, like the prophet Muhammad was.
1. Karen Armstrong. Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. A Phoenix paper back, published in 2001. Page 222.
2. Francesco Gabrieli; Muhammad and the Conquests of Islam.
3. RVC Bodley. The Messenger. Double Day and Company Inc, 1946. Page 257-258.