It is rare for one event to have such a profound impact to alter the course of history. The assassinations of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and John F. Kennedy in 1963 are examples where history may have turned out very differently if these events never transpired. Whilst history is never black and white the context it takes place in is always central in making sense of any historical event, the Battle of Badr for the Ummah marks the first full-scale war in the history of Islam. It took place on the 17th of Ramadan 2nd Hijri, which corresponds to 13 March 624 CE.
The advent of Islam in the Hijaz came about with its own political reality. The Romans had become a regional superpower along the northern borders of the Peninsula in the early decades CE. For the Bedouin Arabs, this meant the presence of a wealthy and strong trading partner to the north. Merchants regularly traversed the western part of the Peninsula from Yemen in the south to Syria in the north, trading goods that came from places as far away as India and Italy. The Romans were content to remain in the more hospitable and familiar lands of the Fertile Crescent and let the nomadic Arabs carry on the trade with more distant lands. Al-Sham was a Roman colony where Roman culture and Christianity were predominant.
To the northeast was the Iranian Plateau which saw the rise of the Sassanid Dynasty of the Persian Empire in the 200s CE. Their rise saw a centuries-long struggle between the Romans and Persians, which would have its effects on the Arabs. The border between the two great Empires fluctuated, but was generally in the Syrian Desert, in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Both the Romans and the Persians attempted to gain the upper hand by using Arab tribes as proxies. The constant warfare between the two sides would slowly wear them down. By the early 600s, the Romans and Persians were exhausted by decades of warfare and were weakening behind a façade of militaristic power. Most Arab tribes, however, avoided the external conflict between the two imperial powers. They were more interested in carrying on a profitable trade with the two warring empires than helping to decide the winner.
Our Prophet (ﷺ) was born in Mecca around 570 CE. After receiving revelation in 610 CE this eventually led to a clash with the Quraysh who became increasingly more intolerant of the Muslims during the 13 years of personal attacks against their kufr. In fear for their religion and economic viability, which heavily relied on annual pilgrimages, the Meccans began to mock and disrupt the Muslims. In 622 CE, Muhammad (ﷺ) allowed most Muslims to migrate from Mecca to Medina, 200 miles north of Mecca. Shortly thereafter, Muhammad (ﷺ) himself left for Medina in the Hijra.
The Prophet (ﷺ) established a small city-state in Medina. Although the threat of the Quraish remained the Prophet (ﷺ) dealt with this in a number of ways. He (ﷺ) established treaties with the tribes surrounding Medina, especially with those from whom the Meccans could derive most advantage against the Muslims. The Prophet (ﷺ) would dispatch small groups to obtain intelligence on the Quraish and their allies and also provide, thereby, an opportunity for those Muslims still living in Mecca to leave with them. Most important was the interception of trade caravans of the Meccans that passed close to Medina and obstructing their trade routes. The Hijaz economy was built upon goods trade and the routes to Al-Sham were critical, any loss of trade routes would severely impact the Quraishi economy.
In September 623 CE the Prophet (ﷺ) himself led a force of 200 men in an unsuccessful raid against a large caravan. Shortly thereafter, the Meccans launched their own raid against Medina led by Kurz bin Jabir and fled with livestock belonging to the Muslims. It was similar raids on caravans that prompted the Battle of Badr. This was the spot where the Quraish had sent their own army to protect their caravans from the Muslims. By roaming the Hijaz and sending out expeditions Allah’s Messenger achieved considerable gains which paved the way for still greater battles, since these raids served as military exercises for the Muslims. The Prophet (ﷺ) succeeded in demoralising the Quraish by defying them.
In the second year of the Hijrah, the Prophet (ﷺ) set out on the 8th of Ramadan with 305 of his Sahabah mounted on 70 camels. They rode the camels, in turn, heading towards a caravan led by Abu Sufyan. As they marched on, they sought news of the caravan until they had reached the valley of Dafran where they settled, and news reached them there that the Quraish had set out from Mecca to protect their caravan. The whole affair then assumed different proportions for it was no longer the caravan, the question was whether to confront the Quraish or not.
The Prophet (ﷺ) was informed the Quraish were between 900 to a 1000 men and that the nobles of the Quraish were out in force to protect the caravan. The Prophet (ﷺ) realised that they were facing a force which was three times the size of their own and that they would be in for a fierce battle. The Prophet (ﷺ) informed the Muslims that Mecca had thrown out the pieces of its liver (or the best of her sons) into the battle and that they should harden their resolve. The Muslim army stopped at the well of Badr where they built a cistern and filled it with water so that they would have plenty of water and the enemy would have nothing to drink. After determining the military strategy the Prophet (ﷺ) stood in dua:
“Allah this is Quraish. It has come with all its arrogance and boastfulness, trying to discredit the prophet of Allah. I ask my lord to humiliate them tomorrow. Allah, if this Muslim army will perish today, I fear you will not be worshipped.” (Abdul Malik Ibn Hisham Al Seerah Al Nabaweyah)
The Quraish were forced to fight for the water and this led to the beginning of the battle of Badr. The records of Hadith speak eloquently of the fact that the angels did appear on that day and fought on the side of the Muslims. Ibn ‘Abbas said:
“While on that day a Muslim was chasing a disbeliever and he heard over him the swashing of a whip and the voice of the rider saying: ‘Go ahead Haizum’. He glanced at the polytheist who had (now) fallen down on his back. The Helper came to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) and related that event to him. The Prophet (ﷺ) replied: ‘You have told the truth. This was the help from the third heaven.” [Sahih Muslim 2/93] One of the Helpers captured ‘Abbas bin ‘Abdul Muttalib, who said: “O Messenger of Allah, by Allah this man did not capture me. I was captured by a man who was bald and had the most handsome face, and who was riding a piebald horse, I cannot see him here among the people.” The Helper interrupted: “I captured him, O Messenger of Allah.” The Prophet [ﷺ] replied: “Be quiet, Allah the Almighty strengthened you with the help of a noble angel.”
The Prophet (ﷺ) was extremely diligent in navigating the political reality in order to raise the name of Islam. He conducted treaties, implemented policies and engaged in war to spread Islam. The Muslim were outnumbered and Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) addressed them in Surah Anfal:
وَاذْكُرُوا إِذْ أَنتُمْ قَلِيلٌ مُّسْتَضْعَفُونَ فِي الْأَرْضِ تَخَافُونَ أَن يَتَخَطَّفَكُمُ النَّاسُ فَآوَاكُمْ وَأَيَّدَكُم بِنَصْرِهِ وَرَزَقَكُم مِّنَ الطَّيِّبَاتِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ
“And remember when you were few and were reckoned weak in the land, and were afraid that men might kidnap you, but He provided a safe place for you, strengthened you with His help, and provided you with good things so that you might be grateful.” [Al-Anfal: 26].
Surah Anfal (Spoils of War) was revealed on the occasion of the battle of Badr.
What were the implications of this war and the victory?
Islam rose in the early 600s CE and had huge implications for the surrounding regions, and eventually the entire world. Islam would change the destiny of the Arabs doing away with many of their cultural practices that kept them as wandering, warring nomads. Geography, climate, culture and politics together all led to the perfect environment in which Islam could rise to become a world power faster than any other movement or empire in world history. It would sweep out of the deserts of Arabia into the battered Roman and Persian Empires, conquering territories and assimilating diverse peoples, creating a vast nation that stretched from Spain to India by the early 700s—the world’s largest at the time. This exponential growth in power and civilization would have been unfathomable to the Arabs of the early 600s, who were struggling to survive. Yet all it took was the arrival of a man who came with a revolutionary message and a promise to the Arabs of a new destiny, one beyond the sands of Arabia: our Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ).
Badr proved to be the beginning of- the dawn of Islam. On the 17th day of Ramadan, this battle is not just a mere battle that the Muslims won with the help of angles, but it had profound implications, which the ummah at the time probably would never have contemplated.