Background to the Battle of Badr
Pre-Islamic Arabia was a lightly-settled land of Bedouin pastoralists and wealthy trading oases in the desert. The people adhered to a number of religions, including various polytheistic beliefs, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.
Around 610 CE, however, just outside of the trading hub of Mecca, a man named Muhammad had a divine revelation. God revealed that the followers of Abraham, the Jews and Christians, were on the right track, but that they did not have the complete story. As God's final messenger, Muhammad would perfect monotheism.
Mecca was his home town, yet the rich and powerful merchants of that city had no use for Muhammad and his prophecies. The old gods had served Mecca well - what need did they have for this new interpretation of Abrahamic religion as revealed by Muhammad? In 622, they expelled the Prophet and his small band of followers, who moved to the nearby city of Medina.
From that point forward, there were constant skirmishes between the Muslim faithful and the Meccans. When their Meccan cousins' rich caravans of goods neared Medina, Muhammad and his followers would ambush them.
Early in 624, a train of camels laden with goods and guarded by 30-40 Meccans approached. According to later accounts, the caravan included about 1000 camels, and carried merchandise worth a hefty 50,000 dinars. Muhammad set out with his largest army thus far - between 313 and 330 men. They prepared to ambush the caravan at the oasis of Badr, some 155 km southwest of Medina.
The leader of the caravan, Abu Sufyan bin Harb, heard that a large band of Muslims had left Medina. He prudently turned the caravan west to the coast, avoiding the most likely ambush point at Badr entirely. Abu Sufyan also sent a message to Mecca to ask for reinforcements.
When the Meccans heard about Muhammad's army, they sent out their own army of 900-1000 men to guard the precious camel train. Many of the city's rich merchants, those with something to lose if Muhammad made off with the caravan, joined the army themselves. They reasoned that such a huge force might scare the Muslims off, and dissuade them from future attacks.
While the two armies were each a day's march away from the wells at Badr, some of Muhammad's advance scouts captured two Meccan scouts, who revealed how close the city's army had come. The Meccans also told Muhammad of the wealthy notables among the approaching force. Shocked at how quickly the Meccans had come, and eager for a chance to humble some of his most vociferous critics in person, Muhammad marched his small army double-fast to the oasis. They camped there in the Badr valley the night of March 14, 624.
The Battle of Badr
At the same time that the Muslims were preparing for a show-down, the Meccan army got word that the caravan was safely beyond Muhammad's reach. Two of the Meccan clans decided that they had achieved their objective, and turned back toward their homes. The greater mass of the Meccan army decided to press on to Badr, however. In their minds, the two armies were now too close to retire honorably without a fight.
Muhammad, who got to the oasis first, ordered his men to fill in all of the wells except for that closest to Mecca. If the Meccan army wanted water, they would have to fight him for it.
On the morning of March 15, the Meccan army advanced to the oasis of Badr. They were shocked to find the Muslims arrayed and waiting for them. The battle began with one-on-one combat, and Muhammad's skirmish-tested warriors took a toll on the cream of the Meccan fighters. Hamzah defeated Shayba bin Rabi'a, and Ali beat Waleed bin Utbah. The Muslim Ubaydah bin Harith fought to a draw with Utbah bin Rabi'a, losing a leg in the process. His companions then finished off the Meccan.
Once this cousinly combat was finished, the fighting began in earnest with arrow volleys and then hand-to-hand sword-work. The Quran (Koran) recounts that Muhammad's army was reinforced by a host of 1000 invisible angels. In any case, the Muslims soon routed the Meccan army, despite its vast advantage in numbers. The surviving Meccan fighters turned and fled.
That evening, many of the most prominent men from Mecca lay dead on the battlefield, including Muhammad's nemesis, Abu Jahl. The Muslims lost a total of just 14 men, while the Meccans toll was up to 70 killed and about the same number captured.
Among the captives, Muhammad ordered the wealthy held for ransom, but the poor were released unharmed. The victorious commander also divided both the battlefield loot and the forthcoming ransom money evenly among his fighters, an arrangement that served to increase his army's loyalty. All in all, Muhammad's conduct as a gracious and merciful victor afforded him credibility not only with his own men, but with the people of Mecca and surrounding tribes as well.
Although the Battle of Badr was little more than a civil skirmish, it signaled the beginning of the Islamic expansion. The Prophet Muhammad himself died in 632. Over the next 120 years, however, his followers would go on to take not only Mecca and the Arabian Peninsula, but lands from Spain in the west to the borders of China and India in the east. It was one of the most impressive conquests the world has ever seen, and continues to impact geopolitics to this day - and it all started at the Battle of Badr.
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