Back in the News: The Treaty of Hudaybiya
by Daniel Pipes
Yasir Arafat somewhat cryptically mentioned the Treaty of Hudaybiya in a 1994 speech in South Africa while discussing his views of the Oslo Accord ("I see this agreement as being no more than the agreement signed between our Prophet Muhammad and the Quraysh in Mecca.") and this reference prompted years of speculation about his intentions. Iin 1999, I took up the issue in "Lessons from the Prophet Muhammad's Diplomacy," in which I reviewed the historiography of the prophet's life, the treaty itself, modern assessments of it, and the post-1994 controversy about Arafat's reference. My key conclusion:
The Hudaybiya precedent implies that Arafat can choose any lapse or transgression [in the Oslo Accord] … and turn this into a casus belli for an all-out attack on the Jewish state.
The treaty is back in the news today with a prominent mention in Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's opening speech to the Organization of the Islamic Conference - the same one in which he flaunted his antisemitism. Mahathir broods on how Muslims can defeat Jews and suggests that the prophet's career "can provide us with some guidance as to what we can and should do." He then goes on (and I quote the official text, changing only some transliterations to make them more standard):
We know he and his early followers were oppressed by the Quraysh [tribe]. Did he launch retaliatory strikes? No. He was prepared to make strategic retreats. He sent his early followers to a Christian country and he himself later migrated to Medina. There he gathered followers, built up his defence capability and ensured the security of his people. At Hudaybiya he was prepared to accept an unfair treaty, against the wishes of his companions and followers. During the peace that followed he consolidated his strength and eventually he was able to enter Mecca and claim it for Islam. Even then he did not seek revenge. And the peoples of Mecca accepted Islam and many became his most powerful supporters, defending the Muslims against all their enemies.
From this, Mahathir concludes that Muslims today are making a mistake.
We fight without any objective, without any goal other than to hurt the enemy because they hurt us. Naively we expect them to surrender. We sacrifice lives unnecessarily, achieving nothing other than to attract more massive retaliation and humiliation.
He takes up the case of Israel to illustrate his point.
For well over half a century we have fought over Palestine. What have we achieved? Nothing. We are worse off than before. If we had paused to think then we could have devised a plan, a strategy that can win us final victory. Pausing and thinking calmly is not a waste of time. We have a need to make a strategic retreat and to calmly assess our situation.
The key to the situation, he argues, is to find non-Muslim allies and then declare a Hudaybiya-like truce:
We also know that not all non-Muslims are against us. Some are well disposed towards us. Some even see our enemies as their enemies. Even among the Jews there are many who do not approve of what the Israelis are doing. We must not antagonise everyone. We must win their hearts and minds. We must win them to our side not by begging for help from them but by the honourable way that we struggle to help ourselves. We must not strengthen the enemy by pushing everyone into their camps through irresponsible and unIslamic acts. … We need only to call a truce so we can act together in tackling only certain problems of common interests, the Palestine problem for example.
Mahathir concludes with this bit of cleverness:
The Quran tells us that when the enemy sues for peace we must react positively. True the treaty offered is not favourable to us. But we can negotiate. The Prophet did, at Hudaybiya. And in the end he triumphed.
Translated into policy terms, Mahathir seems to be advising the Palestinians to accept any interim terms Israel's government offers, bide their time, consolidate their strength, and then "triumph." (October 16, 2003)
Oct. 25, 2003 update: Two readers pointed out to me that in his major speech on Sept. 19, 2001, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan also alluded to the Treaty of Hudaybiya, using it as one of his arsenal of arguments to justify supporting what he called "a long war against terrorism at the international level." Acknowledging that this was not a popular decision, Musharraf concluded from the Hudaybiya incident that "when there is a crisis situation, the path of wisdom is better than the path of emotions." This is, to put it mildly, a very different reference to the treaty than Arafat's or Mahathir's.
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