AND [remember, O Prophet, the day] when thou didst set out from thy home at early morn to place the believers in battle array.90
And God was all-hearing, all-knowing
This reference to the battle of Uhud, to which many verses of this surah are devoted, connects with the exhortation implied in the preceding verse, "if you are patient in adversity and conscious of God, their guile cannot harm you at all". Since this and the subsequent references cannot be fully understood without a knowledge of the historical background, a brief account of the battle would seem to be indicated. In order to avenge their catastrophic defeat at Badr in the second year after the hijrah, the pagan Meccans - supported by several tribes hostile to the Muslims - mustered in the following year an army comprising ten thousand men under the command of Abu Sufyan and marched against Medina. On hearing of their approach, in the month of Shawwal 3 H., the Prophet held a council of war at which the tactics to be adopted were discussed. In view of the overwhelming cavalry forces at the disposal of the enemy, the Prophet himself was of the opinion that the Muslims should give battle from behind the fortifications of Medina and, if need be, fight in its narrow streets and lanes; and his plan was supported by some of the most outstanding among his Companions. However, the majority of the Muslim leaders who participated in the council strongly insisted on going forth and meeting the enemy in the open field. In obedience to the Qur'anic principle that all communal affairs must be transacted on the basis of mutually-agreed decisions (see verse 159 of this surah, as well as 42 : 38), the Prophet sorrowfully gave way to the will of the majority and set out with his followers towards the plain below the mountain of Uhud, a little over three miles from Medina. His army consisted of less than one thousand men; but on the way to Mount Uhud this number was still further reduced by the defection of some three hundred men led by the hypocritical 'Abd Allah ibn Ubayy, who pretended to be convinced that the Muslims did not really intend to fight. Shortly before the battle, two other groups from among the Prophet's forces - namely, the clans of Banu Salamah (of the tribe of Al-Aws) and Banu Harithah (of the tribe of Khazraj) almost lost heart and were about to join the defectors (3 : 122) on the plea that because of their numerical weakness the Muslims must now avoid giving battle; but at the last moment they decided to follow the Prophet. Having less than seven hundred men with him, the Prophet arrayed the bulk of his forces with their backs to the mountain and posted all his archers - numbering fifty - on a nearby hill in order to provide cover against an outflanking manoeuvre by the enemy cavalry; these archers were ordered not to leave their post under any circumstances. In their subsequent, death-defying assault upon the greatly superior forces of the pagan Quraysh, the Muslims gained a decisive advantage over the former and almost routed them. At that moment, however, most of the archers, believing that the battle had been won and fearing lest they lose their share of the spoils, abandoned their covering position and joined the melee around the encampment of the Quraysh. Seizing this opportunity, the bulk of the Meccan cavalry under the command of Khalid ibn al-Walid (who shortly after this battle embraced Islam and later became one of the greatest Muslim generals of all times) veered round in a wide arc and attacked the Muslim forces from the rear. Deprived of the cover of the archers, and caught between two fires, the Muslims retreated in disorder, with the loss of many lives. The Prophet himself and a handful of his most stalwart Companions defended themselves desperately; and the Prophet was seriously injured and fell to the ground. The cry immediately arose, "The Apostle of God has been killed!" Many of the Muslims began to flee; some among them were even prepared to throw themselves upon the mercy of the enemy. But a few of the Companions - among them 'Umar ibn al-Khattab and Talhah - called out, "What good are your lives without him, O believers? Let us die as he has died!" - and threw themselves with the strength of despair against the Meccans. Their example at once found an echo among the rest of the Muslims, who in the meantime had learnt that the Prophet was alive: they rallied and counter-attacked the enemy, and thus saved the day. But the Muslims were now too exhausted to exploit their chances of victory, and the battle ended in a draw, with the enemy retreating in the direction of Mecca. On the next day the Prophet started in pursuit of them at the head of seventy of his Companions. But when the Muslims reached the place called Hamra' al-Asad, about eight miles south of Medina, it became obvious that the Meccans were in no mood to risk another encounter and were rapidly marching home; and thereupon the tiny Muslim army returned to Medina.