The Battle of Uhud was fought on 23 March, 625, between a force from the small Muslim community of Medina, in what is now north-western Arabia, and a force from Mecca, the town from which many of the Muslims had emigrated (see Hijra). Uhud is near Medina. The Muslims had the worst of the encounter and retired after having lost some seventy-five men. However, the Meccans did not pursue the Muslims into Medina, but marched back to Mecca.
The encounter is generally regarded as a victory for the Meccans and a serious setback for the Muslims. Watt, in his 1956 account of the battle, disagrees; he concludes that while the Muslims did not win, the Meccans themselves had suffered some losses and did not feel strong enough to attack the Muslims in their stronghold. Since the Meccans had embarked on the venture with an eye to subduing the Muslims entirely, their mission had actually failed (pp. 27-29).
The background to the battle
Muhammad had preached his message of Islam in Mecca from 613 to 622. He had attracted a small, tight-knit community of followers, but had also succeeded in angering the rest of the Quraysh, the clan that ruled Mecca and to which he belonged. After years of persecution, the Muslims fled Mecca in 622 and established themselves at Medina. They considered themselves to be in a state of war with Mecca and raided Meccan caravans. The Meccans sent out a small army to punish the Muslims and stop their raiding. At the Battle of Badr in 624, a small Muslim force defeated the much larger Meccan army.
Many Muslims considered this unexpected victory a proof that Muhammad was indeed a prophet, favored by Allah (God). Hence they were confident that Allah would always favor them in battles with the Meccans.
The Meccan force
Losses at the Battle of Badr infuriated the Meccans, who now wanted revenge for their dead kinsmen. The following year, they raised another force, said to number 3000, and set out for the Muslim base in Medina. The force was led by Abu Sufyan. Rather than attacking Medina itself (which held a number of strongholds that would have required long sieges to overcome) they camped on the outskirts of the oasis, hoping that the Muslims would come out to meet them.
The Muslim battle plan
At the Muslim conference of war, there were many voices urging Muhammad to march out and attack the Meccans. Muhammad felt that it would be safer to stay in the center of the oasis and take advantage of the heavily fortified strongholds there. Those who wanted to march out argued that the Meccans were destroying their crops, and that huddling in the strongholds would destroy Muslim prestige. Muhammad bowed to the wishes of his followers and readied the Muslim force for battle.
A group of approximately 1000 men set out on late Friday and managed to circle around the Meccan forces. Early the next morning, they took a position on the lower slopes of the hill of Uhud. The Meccan forces lay between the Muslim forces and the center of Medina. The Meccans attacked, but their initial charge was driven back. The Muslims surged forward, as victory seemed certain. A detachment of archers had previously been posted on a hill to defend an extremity of the Muslim flank; however, this force disobeyed its initial orders and ran downhill to join in the pursuit, leaving the flank hanging in the air. At this critical juncture the Meccan cavalry, led by Khalid ibn al-Walid (later famous as a Muslim general), attacked the Muslim flank and rear. After fierce hand-to-hand combat, most of the Muslims managed to withdraw to their original position on the hill. (One party was cut off and tried to make its way back to Medina; Watt believes that most of these men were killed.) Muhammad was wounded in the battle, and there were many reports that he had been killed. The Meccans, believing that they had destroyed their enemy, then returned to Mecca.
As noted above, the wisest thing would perhaps have been for the Meccan force to turn towards Medina and destroy the remaining Muslim and Medinan forces there. However, an early Muslim historian, Waqidi, records Amr ibn al-A`as as saying:
When we renewed the attack against them, we smote a certain number of them, and they scattered in every direction, but later a party of them rallied. Quraysh then took counsel together and said, The victory is ours, let us depart. For we had heard that Ibn Ubayy had retired with a third of the force, and some of the Aws and the Khazraj had stayed away from the battle, and we were not sure that they would not attack us. Moreover we had a number of wounded, and all our horses had been wounded by the arrows. So they set off. We had not reached ar-Rawha until a number of them came against us and we continued on our way. (cited in Watt, 1956, p. 28).
Watt explains this last comment by saying that Muhammad realized that a show