Jihad in the KoranMuhammad gave credence to his plans to take his battle to the unbelievers far and wide with an expedition to Tabuk in northwestern Saudi Arabia, then part of the Byzantine Empire.

He assembled an army of more than thirty thousand and marched north 889 kms (552 miles) intending to engage the Byzantine forces at Tabuk. The Byzantine army did not show up. The lesson was not lost on the locals, not only Arabs but also Christians who flocked to the Prophet’s banner. When the Muslims returned, there would be no stopping them. The expedition to Tabuk was one battle too far for many of the believers. They asked to stay behind and, to God's initial dismay, His Messenger agreed. 

9:38 O Believers, what is the matter with you? If you are told: “March forth in the Way of Allah”, you simply cling heavily to the ground. Are you satisfied with the present life rather than the Hereafter? Yet the pleasures of the present life are very small compared with those of the Hereafter.

9:39 If you do not march forth, He will inflict a very painful punishment on you and replace you by another people, and you will not harm him (the Prophet) in the least; for Allah has power over everything.

9:40 If you do not support him, Allah did support him, when the unbelievers drove him out – he being the second of two (the other being Abu Bakr), while they were both in the cave. He said to his companion: “Do not grieve; Allah is with us.” Whereupon, Allah sent down His Tranquility upon him and assisted him with soldiers you did not see, and made the word of the unbelievers the lowest. The Word of Allah is indeed the highest and Allah is Mighty and Wise.

9:41 Charge forth, on foot or mounted, and struggle with your possessions and yourselves in the Way of Allah. That is far better for you, if only you knew.

9:42 Had it been a gain near at hand and a short journey, they would surely have followed you. But the distance seemed too long to them. Still they will swear by Allah: “Had we been able, we would have marched forth with you.” They damn themselves, and Allah knows that they are liars.

God had choice words for His Messenger and questioned the allegiance of many of those who sought to avoid the long journey north.

9:43 May Allah pardon you! Why did you allow them (to stay behind) before it became clear to you who were the truthful ones, and you knew who were the liars?

9:44 Those who believe in Allah and the Last Day do not ask you for [exemption from] fighting in the Way of Allah with their wealth and lives. Allah knows well the righteous.

9:45 Only those who do not believe in Allah and the Last Day will ask you [for exemption] and their hearts are in doubt. Thus they vacillate in their state of doubt.

God then changed His tune, as He often does in these situations, and explained that it was all His doing if some of them were reluctant to join His Messenger on an expedition to the southern frontier of the Byzantine Empire.

9:46 Had they wanted to go forth, they would have made preparations for that; but Allah was averse to their going forth, and so He held them back, and it was said to them: “Sit back with those who sit back.”

9:47 Had they gone out with you, they would have only increased your confusion, and would have kept moving among you sowing sedition. And some of you would have listened to them. Allah knows well the wrongdoers.

9:48 They have sought to sow sedition before and turned things around for you, until the truth came out and Allah’s Command was manifested, although they were averse [to it].

9:49 Some of them say: “Allow me and do not tempt me.” Indeed they have already fallen into temptation and Hell shall encompass the unbelievers.

9:50 If a good fortune befalls you, they are displeased, and if a disaster befalls you they say: “We took our precautions before.” Then, they turn away rejoicing.

9:51 Say: “Nothing will befall us except what Allah has decreed for us. He is our Lord, and in Allah let the believers put their trust."

God will tell His Messenger to remind those who wish to stay behind that he, the Prophet Muhammad, is also His instrument for meting out punishment.

9:52 Say: “Do you expect for us anything other than one of the two fairest outcome (martyrdom or victory); while we await for you that Allah will smite you with a punishment, either from Himself, or at our hands?” So wait and watch, we are waiting and watching with you.

Some wanted to offer money to get an exemption from this jihad against the Byzantines.

9:53 Say: “Spend willingly or unwillingly; it shall not be accepted from you. You are truly a sinful people.”

9:54 And nothing prevents what they spend from being accepted but that they disbelieve in Allah and His Messenger and that they do not perform the prayer except lazily, and do not spend [anything] except grudgingly.

Muhammad may have granted exemptions to fathers who did not want to be away from their children for months on end. This did not sit well with Allah, Who explained that even children were part of His Plan, therefore not a valid reason to be exempt from the fighting, no matter how far away.

9:55 So do not let their wealth and their children win your approval, Allah only wishes to torture them therewith in the present life, so that their souls might depart while they are still unbelievers.

Why some did not care to accompany Muhammad on the long journey.

9:56 They swear by Allah that they [are believers] like you, but they are not; they are a people who [fear] you.

9:57 If they could find a shelter or dens or any place to crawl into, they would make for it in great haste.

It was during the return trip from Tabuk that Muhammad got wind of an alleged assassination plot, which led to some foreboding revelations about unbelievers and hypocrites.

9:73 O Prophet, fight the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be stern with them. Their abode is Hell, and what a terrible fate!

9:74 They swear by Allah that they said nothing [evil], but they said the word of disbelief and disbelieved after professing Islam, and they aimed at (according to some commentators they aimed at killing the Prophet while he was returning from Tabuk) what they could not attain. They only resented that Allah and His Messenger have enriched them from His Bounty. If they repent, it will be better for them; but if they turn away, Allah will inflict a very painful punishment on them in this world and the Hereafter, and they will have on earth no friend or supporter.

9:75 And some of them make a compact with Allah: “If He give us of His Bounty, we shall give in charity and be among the righteous.”

9:76 But when He gave them of His Bounty, they grew mean and turned away disobediently.

9:77 So He caused hypocrisy to cling to their hearts until the day they meet Him, on account of revoking what they promised Allah and on account of lying.

9:78 Do they not know that Allah knows their hidden thoughts and private talk, and that Allah knows fully the things unseen?

9:79 Those disparage the believers who give voluntary alms and those find nothing to offer but their outmost endeavour, and they scoff at them. May Allah mock them. There is a painful punishment [in store] for them.

9:80 Ask forgiveness for them or do not ask forgiveness for them. If you ask forgiveness for them seventy times, Allah will not forgive them; because they disbelieve in Allah and His Messenger. Allah does not guide the sinful people.

Some may have stayed behind because they were worried about the heat.

9:81 Those who stayed behind rejoiced at tarrying behind the Messenger of Allah and hated to struggle with their wealth and their lives in Allah’s Path, saying: “Do not march forth in the heat.” Say: “The Fire of Hell is hotter, if only they could understand.”

9:82 Let them laugh a little and cry a lot, as a reward for what they used to do.

While God waited to burn those who stayed behind in Hell, His Messenger would not allow them to join further expeditions.

9:83 Then, if Allah brings you back to a party of them and they ask your permission to go forth with you, say: “You will never go forth with me, and you will never fight with me against any enemy. You were content to sit back the first time; so sit back with those who stay behind.”

As to attending their funerals, don’t bother:

9:84 And do not ever pray over any one of them who dies, or be present at their grave; indeed they disbelieve in Allah and His Messenger, and died still ungodly.

Again with the children and the wealthy!

9:85 And do not let their wealth or children win your admiration. Allah only wishes to punish them therewith in the present life, so that their souls may depart while they are still unbelievers.

Perhaps the ultimate insult is found in Revelation 9:87:

9:86 And if a Surah is revealed stating: “Believe in Allah and fight along with His Messenger”, the affluent among them will ask your permission and say: “Let us be with those who stay behind.”

9:87 They are content to be among the women who stay behind, and a seal is set upon their hearts, and thus they do not understand.

What could those who went to Tabuk expect?

9:88 But the Messenger and those who believe with him struggle with their wealth and their lives. To those are the good things reserved, and those are the prosperous.

9:89 Allah has prepared for them Gardens beneath which rivers flow, abiding therein forever. That is the great triumph!

Even the desert Arabs, i.e., Bedouins, didn’t escape Allah’s criticism.

9:90 Some of the desert Arabs who gave excuses came to seek permission, whereas those who lied to Allah and His Messenger stayed behind. Those of them who disbelieved shall be afflicted with a very painful punishment.

God did allow for some exceptions for the weak and the sick as well as for those who could not afford to make the journey to Tabuk or for whom transportation was not available.

9:91 The weak, the sick, and those who have nothing to spend are not at fault, if they are true to Allah and His Messenger. There can be no blame on the beneficent; and Allah is All-Forgiving, Merciful.

9:92 Nor on those who, when they came to you asking you for mounts, you said: “I do not find that whereon I can mount you.” Thereupon they went back, their eyes overflowing with tears, sorrowing for not finding the means to spend (to provide the expenses of war).

As often happens during these long rants, God repeats himself, perhaps for effect.

9:93 The blame is on those who ask your permission, although they are rich. They are content to join those women who stay behind. Allah has placed a seal upon their hearts and so they do not know.

More revelations, supposedly received on the return journey, for the people Muhammad allowed to stay behind, prompting another round of questioning when he reached Medina.

9:94 They present to you [false] excuses when you return to them. Say: “Do not offer excuses; we will not believe you. Allah has told us [all] about you. Allah shall see your work, and His Messenger too. Then you will be turned over to Him Who knows the unseen and the seen, and He will apprise you of what you used to do.”

9:95 They will swear by Allah to you, when you return to them, that you may leave them alone. So leave them alone; they are an abomination and their abode is Hell, as a reward for what they used to do.

9:96 They swear to you that you may be well-pleased with them; but should you be well-pleased with them, Allah will not be well-pleased with the sinful people.

Generalizations about Bedouins:

9:97 The desert Arabs are more steeped in unbelief and hypocrisy and are more likely not to know the bounds of what Allah has revealed to His Messenger. Allah is All-Knowing, Wise.

9:98 And some of the desert Arabs regard what they spend as a fine, and await the turns of fortune to go against you. May the evil turn against them. Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.

9:99 And some of the desert Arabs believe in Allah and the Last Day and regard what they spend [in the way of Allah] as a means to get closer to Allah and to earn the prayers of the Messenger. Indeed, that will bring them closer [to Allah]. He will admit them into His Mercy. Allah is truly All-Forgiving, Merciful.

Some of the desert Arabs and people of Medina can expect double the punishment.

9:101 And some of the desert Arabs around you are hypocrites, and some of the people of Medina persist in hypocrisy. You do not know them, but We know them. We shall punish them twice, then they will be afflicted with a terrible punishment (before they are thrown into the Fire).

Some confessed that they had lied to avoid going to Tabuk. God hints that He will pardon them if they part with some of their wealth.

9:102 Others have confessed their sins; they mixed a good deed with a bad one (the good deed is confessing sins and the bad one is that they stayed behind when the Muslims marched against the enemy). Perhaps Allah will pardon them. Allah is truly All-Forgiving, Merciful.

9:103 Take of their wealth voluntary alms to purify and cleanse them therewith; and pray for them, for your prayers are a source of tranquility for them. Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.

9:104 Do they not know that Allah is He who accepts the repentance from His servants, and accepts voluntary alms, and that Allah is All-Forgiving, Merciful?

There may also have been some labour involved.

9:105 And say: “Work, for Allah shall see your work, and His Messenger and the believers too. And you shall be brought back (on the Day of Resurrection) to Him Who knows the unseen and the seen, and He will apprise you of what you used to do.”

As to any others left out of the revelations, that will be decided when the Day comes.

9:106 And others are deferred to Allah’s Decree; He will either punish them or pardon them. And Allah is All-Knowing, Wise.

Destruction of the Christian Mosque of Medina

It was also on the way back from Tabuk that God revealed what He thought of the mosque built by the Christian monk Abu ‘Amir al Rahib and those who prayed there. The Masjid al-Dirar had been built, with Muhammad’s approval, next to the Masjid al-Quba whose first stones were positioned by the Prophet himself. After receiving the revelation that He should not pray there, God’s Messenger realized that it had been a mistake to allow its construction and he had the Masjid al-Dirar destroyed. The fact that the Christian mosque was built with Muhammad’s approval would indicate that Abu Amir’s intentions were honourable, but Revelation 9:107 says otherwise.

9:107 And those who build a mosque (the reference is to the mosque built in the neighbourhood of the mosque of Quba’, the first mosque built by Muslims) or hurt [the Muslims], to spread unbelief, to disunite [the believers] and to await him (he is said to be Abu ‘Amir) who had fought Allah and His Messenger – they will certainly swear that they meant nothing but good. Allah bears witness that they are liars.

9:108 Do not stand up there [for prayer]; for a mosque founded on piety from the first day is worthier of you standing in it. Therein are men who love to be purified; and Allah loves those who purify themselves.

What could pass for a parable:

9:109 Is one who founds his edifice upon the fear and Good Pleasure of Allah better, or one who founds his edifice upon the brink of a crumbling precipice that will tumble down with him into the Fire of Hell? Allah does not guide the unjust people.

9:110 The edifice which they built will continue to be a source of doubt in their hearts, unless their hearts are cut up into pieces. Allah is All-Knowing, Wise.

The Three Sincere Believers Who Lied

No, we are not finished with the controversies surrounding the excursion to Tabuk. God forgave His Messenger for granting all those exemptions, including a group that “almost deviated” but in the end, joined Muhammad and went to Tabuk.

9:117 Allah has forgiven the Prophet, the Emigrants and the Helpers who followed him in the hour of distress, after the hearts of a group of them had almost deviated. Then He forgave them; for He is, indeed, Most Kind and Most Merciful towards them.

Back in Medina, Muhammad again interviewed those he allowed to stay behind. Those who stuck to their original stories were dismissed with a simple: “May Allah forgive you.” When three sincere believers who had accompanied the Prophet on more than one military campaign (two had fought at Badr) admitted to lying, something they now deeply regretted, God’s Messenger asked Allah for advice.

As an exemplary punishment from the Prophet, no believers were to talk to the three men until God had rendered His decision. After forty days, with still no revelation on their score, Muhammad ordered their wives to have nothing to do with them. Ten days later, Allah communicated His Decision, which exonerated the three men but not before excoriating them, just a little.

9:118 And [He also forgave] the three who were left behind till the earth, for all its vastness, became too small for them (meaning they could not find refuge), and their souls were distressed, and they realized there was no refuge from Allah except with Him. Allah then forgave them so that they might repent. Allah is the All-Forgiving, the Merciful.

9:119 O you who believe, fear Allah and side with the truthful.

Muhammad returned from Tabuk a more self-confident, wary Messenger. His actions on his return secured the home front as he made plans to take the quest for converts and booty even further afield.