The Prophet Muhammad began his mission by preaching to his kinsfolk at Makka and round about. A few people accepted him. Opposition to him by his own tribesman also began to grow, and he and his followers began to be persecuted. The persecution grew more bitter. Muslims were tortured and butchered. In some places the Prophet was attacked and injured by stoning. At Makka the Prophet’s mission was rather like that of Jesus—a persecuted teacher. Some Muslims even had to seek refuge in Abyssinia, East Africa.
Later, people in the city of Madina, just over 200 miles to the north of Makka, started accepting Islam, and the persecuted Muslims of Makka began to emigrate to Madina. The Prophet Muhammad, with two closest followers, waited till gradually almost all the other Muslims had left Makka. Then, while his opponents had finalised plans to murder the Prophet in his house, he and his senior-most follower, Abu Bakr, managed to leave Makka and they hid in a cave a few miles outside while being pursued by their enemy. The lowest point in the history of Islam was reached when the pursuers reached the entrance to that cave. But they turned away, believing that cobwebs at the mouth of the cave indicated that no one could have gone inside. The Prophet Muhammad’s escape from the jaws of death represents his “resurrection”, and this event was akin to the “sign of Jonah” prophesied by Jesus, of being in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights (Matthew 12:39-40).
At Madina, a completely new phase of the Prophet’s life began in 622 C.E., after 13 years of his mission at Makka. He was now the head of a community as well as a city-state. It was here, over the next ten years, that the teachings of Islam relating to practice, as distinct from faith and doctrine, were revealed. These related both to purely religious functions, such as prayer and fasting, and to all material aspects of human life, such as social institutions, financial dealings, war and peace, state organization. Like Moses, the Prophet Muhammad became a law-giver.
It was also in this period that the Muslims had to take up arms for the first time. Their enemies from Makka, of course kinsmen of the Prophet Muhammad, raised an army to attack Madina. It was then the Prophet Muhammad received revelation allowing Muslims to fight, but fight only in self-defense against only those who attacked them. And in this case fighting was allowed specifically to establish freedom of religion. That first revelation stated:
“Permission (to fight) is given to those upon whom war is made … Those who are driven from their homes, without any just cause except that they say: Our Lord is Allah. And if Allah did not repel some people by others, then cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques in which Allah’s name is much remembered, would have been pulled down” – 22:39-40
So the Muslims were fighting for the right of every religion to be practiced freely and openly.
Each of the three major battles fought was close to Madina, the last being a siege of Madina, the Muslims being vastly outnumbered in all cases, which shows that Muslims were fighting in sheer self-defense. But their enemy failed every time and gave up in the end. Like David, the Prophet Muhammad fought in battle in person. Eventually, a peace was agreed, and during the time of peace, Islam spread very rapidly in Arabia. Two years later, when the people of Makka violated the peace treaty the Prophet Muhammad marched on Makka and they had no option but to surrender. He conquered Makka almost bloodlessly, eight years after he was forced to leave it.
Upon his victorious entry into Makka, he addressed the leaders of the city, who had been his enemies, torturers and persecutors, asking:
“What treatment do you expect from me?”
Knowing that he was not vengeful but forgiving, they replied: “You are a noble brother, son of a noble brother”.
He then announced:
“There will be no reproof against you this day”
— no charges, trials or punishments. He forgave all his former persecutors. They were free to accept Islam or not.
The teachings of the Prophet Muhammad raised his people morally, spiritually, intellectually, and in terms of culture and civilization, to a height which greatly exceeded anything existing at that time. This was why after his death within a century Islam spread over a large part of the then known world, establishing a great civilization of learning and enlightenment. That civilization prospered for a thousand years, until the rise of modern Western civilization.
In the Quran, God describes the role of the Prophet Muhammad in the following words in ch. 21, verse 107:
“We have not sent you but as a mercy to the nations.”
To all nations, races, peoples and religions of the worlds, the Prophet Muhammad is destined to be a mercy.