10 – Bahira The Monk

The fortunes of ‘Abd al-Muttalib had waned during the last part of his life, and what he left at his death amounted to no more than a small legacy for each of his sons. Some of them, especially ‘Abd al-‘Uzzah who was known as Abu Lahab, had acquired wealth of their own. But Abu Talib was poor, and his nephew felt obliged to do what he could to earn his own livelihood. This he did mostly by pasturing sheep and goats, and he would thus spend day after day alone in the hills above Mecca or on the slopes of the valleys beyond. But his uncle took him sometimes with him on his travels and on one occasion when Muhammad was nine, or according to others twelve, they went with a merchant caravan as far as Syria. At Bosra, near one of the halts where the Meccan caravan always stopped, there was a cell which had been lived in by a Christian monk for generation after generation. When one died, another took his place and inherited all that was in the cell including some old manuscripts. Amongst these was one which contained the prediction of the coming of a Prophet to the Arabs; and Bahira, the monk who now lived in the cell, was well versed in the contents of this book, which interested him all the more because, like Waraqah, he too felt that the coming of the prophet would be in his lifetime.

He had often seen the Meccan caravan approach and halt not far from his cell, but as this one came in sight his attention was struck by something that like of which he had never seen before: a small low-hanging cloud moved slowly above their heads so that it was always between the sun and one or two of the travelers. With intense interest he watched them draw near. But suddenly his interest changed to amazement, for as soon as they halted the cloud ceased to move, remaining stationary over the tree beneath which they took shelter, while the tree itself lowered its branches over them, so that they were doubly in the shade. Bahira knew that such a portent, though unobtrusive, was of high significance. Only some great spiritual presence could explain it, and immediately he thought of the expected Prophet. Could it be that he had at last come, and was amongst these travelers?

The cell had recently been stocked with provisions, and putting together all he had, he sent word to the caravan: “Men of Quraysh, I have prepared foof for you, and I would that ye should come to me, every one of you, young and old, bondman and freeman.” So they came to his cell, but despite what he had said they left Muhammad to look after their camels and their baggage. As they approached, Bahira scanned their faces one by one. But he could see nothing which corresponded to the description in his book, nor did there seem to be any man amongst them who was adequate to the greatness of the two miracles. Perhaps they had not all come. “Men of Quraysh,” he said, “let none of you stay behind.” “There is not one that hath been left behind,” they answered, “save only a boy, the youngest of us all.” “Treat him not so,” said Bahira, “but call him to come, and let him be present with us at this meal.” Abu Talib and the others reproached themselves for their thoughtlessness. “We are indeed to blame,” said one of them, “that the son of ‘Abd Allah should have been left behind and not brought to share this feast with us,” whereupon he went to him and embraced him and brought him to sit with the people

One glance at the boy’s face was enough to explain the miracles to Bahira; and looking at him attentively throughout the meal he noticed many features of both face and body which corresponded to what was in his book. So when they had finished eating, the monk went to his youngest guest and asked him questions about his way of life and about his sleep, and about his affairs in general. Muhammad readily informed him of these things for the man was venerable and the questions were courteous and benevolent; nor did he hesitate to draw off his cloak when finally the monk asked if he might see his back. Bahira had already felt certain, but now he was doubly so, for there, between his shoulders, was the very mark he expected to see, the seal of prophethood even as it was described in his book, in the selfsame place. He turned to Abu Talib: “What kinship hath this boy with thee?” he said. “He is my son,” said Abu Talib. “He is not thy son,” said the monk; “it cannot be that this boy’s father is alive.” “He is my brother’s son,” said Abu Talib. “Then what of his father?” said the monk. “He died,” said the other, “when the boy was still in his mother’s womb.” “That is the truth,” said Bahira. “Take thy brother’s son back to his country, and guard him against the Jews, for by God if they see him and know of him that which I know, they will contrive evil against him. Great things are in store for this brother’s son of thine.”[1]

[1] II. 115 – 117

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