All attempts by the Quraysh to suppress the growing community of Islam having failed, the clans planned to assassinate the Prophet. In 622, fearing for his life in Mecca, Muhammad and his closest Companion, Abu Bakr, escaped in the dead of night and journeyed north by camel to the oasis of Yathrib. The most heavily populated part of the oasis was known as “the city” — in Arabic al-Madinah, or Medina, and according to tradition he arrived there on September 27, 622. The journey of emigration was called the Hijra (“breaking bonds”). A number of Muhammad’s followers had preceded him to Yathrib beginning on July 16 of that year, which later under the Caliph Umar became day one of the Muslim calendar. The year 622 became known as AH 1, or Anno Hegirae (Year of the Hegira ).
In Medina, Muhammad was able openly to invite people to Islam and establish a fairly safe base of operations. He made compacts with the Jewish tribes living there, and asked his followers to adopt the Jewish practice of circumcision, still a mandatory part of Islamic custom even if not mentioned in the Quran. He continued to receive Quranic revelations, which prescribed regular almsgiving and fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan, among other duties. Following a Divine command, Muhammad initiated the practice of turning to face the Kaaba in Mecca during ritual prayer and other rites; previously in Mecca, the faithful had faced Jerusalem as the sacred center of the prophetic tradition.
On the more mundane side, Muhammad was especially sensitive to odor, and on at least one occasion refused to eat food that was cooked with an abundance of garlic. He also insisted on the practice of cleaning the teeth with a tooth stick. It was perhaps the last action he performed for himself before dying, and has become a popular practice among Muslims. As happened with Moses, Muhammad began to spend much of his time in Medina adjudicating legal and familial disputes. He arranged numerous marriages among his followers, some of which were politically valuable.
Short of money and supplies after their emigration, the Medinan Muslims took to raiding caravans of the Quraysh bound for Mecca, which Muslim scholars argue was legitimate because Muhammad was in a state of war with the Meccans. After half a dozen unsuccessful attempts, his men finally captured a caravan, but through a misunderstanding they murdered an escort during the sacred months when combat was traditionally forbidden among all Arabs. This prompted a new revelation that concluded, “idolatry is worse than killing,” providing the rationale for future battles on behalf of Islam. Based on revelations he received, Muhammad promised entry into Paradise to any Muslim killed in fighting the holy war, or jihad; those who died came to be called shahada, “witnesses” or martyrs. In the broader sense, though, jihad — a word that literally means “struggle” or “effort” — refers to striving against evil spiritually and physically. According to a famous hadith, on returning to Medina from successful battles in Mecca and Hunayn, Muhammad exclaimed, “We return from the lesser holy war (jihad) to wage the greater holy war (mujahada),” which he explained as “the war against the soul,” the struggle against the limited self or separative ego. Many modern Islamic scholars of jurisprudence think that the only true jihads were those engaged in by the Prophet and his Companions; and all Muslims admit that compulsion in religion goes against the Quran (2:257). Beginning with Muhammad, Islam accepted Christians and Jews because they were “People of the Book,” possessing an authentic holy scripture — and, no doubt, because they also accepted the teaching of the One God. Later Muslims accepted religions as apparently polytheistic as Zoroastrianism and Hinduism for the same reason. Despite Islam’s reputation as an intolerant religion, the teachings of the Quran are very clear on the subject of other religions (as opposed to idolatry): “We make no distinction between any of his Messengers.” (2:285)
After a series of military encounters in which Muhammad prevailed despite being outnumbered, he succeeded in decisively defeating the main Meccan force. He entered Mecca and took it almost without resistance and with few deaths. Another important victory followed at Hudayn, and Islam was on its way to becoming the religion of all Arabia. Contrary to the traditions of Arabian warfare, the Prophet did not take murderous revenge on his former enemies, and this compassion moved many of them to come to Islam voluntarily. Muhammad was an extremely gifted leader with an intuitive grasp of personality and human psychology. Full of spiritual charisma, he was also imbued with the compassion and common sense to offer reconciliation to idolaters when they finally did embrace Islam, even as his own forces were calling for retribution.
Because of its history of military conquests and of offering the conquered the choice of conversion to Islam or death, Islam has unfairly gained the reputation of being the religion of the sword. In this context it may help to recall that the Middle Eastern custom of warfare generally offered no choice at all — the vanquished were either killed outright, enslaved, or at best held for ransom. Triumphant Islamic generals offered the further choice to the conquered of paying a tribute rather than converting. Christian rulers, on the other hand, frequently offered the limited options of death or conversion to Jews and Muslims already living peaceably within their own boundaries. Muslim scholars point to Muhammad’s 13 years of non-violent struggle in Mecca — where he “turned the other cheek,” as it were — and the defensive nature of most of his battles, as proof that he was a reluctant warrior. Ultimately, they argue, Muhammad was a pragmatist in his spirituality; his compassion and sense of justice by all reports far outweighed his fierceness as fighter and moral reformer.