Badr & Medina, Saudi Arabia
In addition to his role as spiritual leader of the early Muslim community, the Prophet Muhammad served his followers as their military commander as well. This necessity was forced upon him by the myriad foes that constantly threatened the survival of the Muslims, and much of the latter part of his career was spent fighting to unite the tribes of Arabia under the banner of Islam. Three of these battles rise above the others in fame and importance, and have become an integral part of the early story of Islam: Badr, where three hundred Muslims won their first albeit small-scale victory against the army of Mecca; Uhud, which was a defeat and temporary setback where a number of prominent early Muslims died; and the Trench, where the Prophet led his army to final victory over the Meccans, and which led directly to the rise of Islam throughout the Arabian peninsula. Memorials to these battles are maintained at Badr and Mount Uhud.
The bitter rivalry between Muhammad and the powerful tribal leaders of Mecca that led to the conflict at Badr began more than a decade before the fateful battle. Around the year 613 AD, Muhammad began to preach in Mecca. At first ignored, his message inveighing against the defiling of the Holy Kaaba and the idolatry which had corrupted the local populace soon began to annoy the local leaders. Within a few years the Prophet’s growing number of followers was perceived as a real threat to the religious and tribal status quo, and the persecutions began. By 619 the rivalry between the Muslims and the other Meccans had become a violent blood feud, and many of the Muslims fled to safer destinations. In 622, Muhammad and some of his remaining followers relocated to Medina in the journey known as the Hijra.
Rather than reduce tensions between the Muslims and the Meccans, the migration to Medina only seemed to incite greater violence. The Meccans seized the property of those Muslims who had fled, and the Muslims retaliated by raiding Meccan caravans. In 624 AD, hostilities came to a head near Badr, a town south of Medina on the road to Mecca. A force of three hundred and thirteen Muslims found themselves confronted by a force of a thousand or so Meccan warriors. Outnumbered, the Muslims miraculously carried the day. Although the scale of the battle was small and losses on both sides were light, the Muslim victory sent shockwaves through the region, as the loosely organized tribes came to realize that Muhammad and his followers were a force to be reckoned with.
Abu Sufyan, the new leader of the Quraysh, immediately began to plan a campaign to conquer Medina and crush the Muslims. In 625 AD, about a year after Badr, a Meccan army of three thousand men marched north to Medina. Although they outnumbered the Muslims, they refrained from an open assault on Medina, fearing the casualties that would result from attacking the city’s strong positions. Instead they prepared a siege, waiting for Muhammad and his men to come out. Surprisingly, they did. Pressured by his followers to attack the Meccans, who were laying waste to the fields around the city, Muhammad marched out to meet his enemies. The results were a victory for the Meccans. However, deeming the Muslims defeated, they failed to finish them off. Curiously, they returned to Mecca without actually conquering Medina, and left the surviving Muslims to fight another day.
Had the Meccans pursued them, The Prophet would likely have been killed and Islam put to an end then and there. Muhammad was wounded during the battle, and his Uncle Hamza ibn Abd Al-Muttalib was killed. But two years later in 627 AD, the Muslims rallied to fight again in the major showdown of the conflict. After regrouping, skirmishing resumed throughout Eastern Arabia. Eventually, the Quraysh, determined to win once and for all, assembled an army of over ten thousand men. The Meccan army laid siege to Medina for two weeks, attempting a few assaults without success. Eventually, a diplomatic initiative of Muhammad, coupled with heavy losses and the prospect of starvation, drove several of the Quraysh’ key allies to abandon the field. Within a few days the Meccans retreated, giving up any further thought of conquering Medina. This effectively marked the end of serious opposition to the Prophet and his followers.
The field where the Battle of Badr took place spreads out in the valley beneath the modern-day town of Badr. The battlefield, a dusty, sun-baked place scattered with rocks and small scrub plants, is separated from the town by a long white-washed wall, appears today much as it did in Muhammad’s time, making it easy to envision how the battle between the Meccans and the Muslims played out. The Shrine of the Martyrs of Bedr stands close to the middle of the battlefield. It consists of a large square pit surrounded by another whitewashed stone wall. The graves of the fourteen fallen Muslim warriors are inside. An additional chain-link fence which runs across the battlefield and surrounds the shrine both guides pilgrims to the site as well as preventing the overeager from falling or jumping into the pit.
Most of the places associated with the battle of Uhud are located in and around Mount Uhud, a tall hill located a few miles north of Medina. Various places, including where the Muslim camp was located, are easily found. Several dozen men who died in the battle are buried on or near the mountain, including that of Hamza ibn Abd Al-Muttalib, the Prophet’s uncle. The most popular site on the mountain is a cave which is said to have been used by Muhammad to rest in. There have been discussions recently to demolish the cave in order to discourage Muslims from worshipping there.
There are fewer surviving traces of the Battle of the Trench. The epymonious trench ran between Medina and Mount Uhud. The enemy encampments were located north of the trench in the plain of Uhud. Although the sites are not well marked, the general is well known to the locals and can be easily explored by intrepid explorers.
The town of Badr is located about 60 miles south of Medina and approximately 430 miles west of Riyadh. It is a non-mandatory but popular stop on the pilgrimage trail between holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The battlefield is located on the outskirts of the town and, the chain link fence aside, is effectively an open site. There is no charge for admission. The battlefields of Uhud and the Trench are located between Medina and Mount Uhud, approximately three miles away to the north of Medina. They are effectively open sites. There is no cost of admission. Web: http://saudtourism.sa/en (official tourism website of Saudi Arabia)
Badr has long been an important way-station between the Islamic behomeths of Mecca and Medina, and in addition to the battlefield boasts at least one other site of interest to pilgrims. According to tradition, the town’s major mosque, the Masjid Al-Arish, marks the location where the Prophet Muhammad prayed for victory during the battle.