19 – Aws and Khazraj

The tribes of Aws and Khazraj had alliances with soem of the Jewish tribes who lived beside them in Yathrib. But relations between them were often strained and fraught with ill feeling, not least because the monotheistic Jews, conscious of being God’s chosen people, despised the polytheistic Arabs, while having to pay them a certain respect because of their greater strength. In moments of acrimony and frustration, the Jews had been known to say: “The time of a Prophet who is to be sent is now at hand, with him we shall slay you, even as ‘Ad and Iram[1] were slain.” And their rabbis and soothsayers, when asked whence the Prophet would come, had always pointed in the direction of the Yemen which was also, for them, the direction of Mecca. So when the Yathrib Arabs heard that a man in Mecca had now in fact declared himself to be a Prophet, they opened their ears; and they were still more interested when they were told something about his message, for they were already familiar with many of the principles of orthodox religion. In more friendly moments, the Jews often spoke to them of the Oneness of God, and of man’s final ends, and they would discuss these questions together. The idea that they would rise from the dead was especially difficult for the polytheists to accept; and noticing this, one of the rabbis pointed to the south and said that thence a Prophet was about to come who would affirm the truth of the Resurrection.

But their deepest preparation for the news from Mecca had come, indirectly, from a Jew named ibn al-Hayyaban who had migrated from Syria, and who on more than one occasion had saved the oasis from drought through his prayers for rain. This saintly man had died about the time that the Prophet had received his first Revelation; and when he had felt himself at the point of death -as Aws and Khazraj were subsequently told- he had said to those about him: “O Jews, what was it, think ye, that made me leave a land of bread and wine for a land of hardship and hunger?” “Thou best knowest,” they said. “I came to this country,” he answered, “in expectation of the coming forth of a Prophet whose time is near. To this country he will migrate. I had hopes that he would be sent in time for me to follow him. His hour is close upon you.”[2] These words were taken greatly to heart by some Jewish youths who heard then and who were enabled by them, when the time came, to accept the Prophet even though he was not a Jew.

But generally speaking, whereas the Arabs were in favor of the man but against the message, the Jews were in favor of the message but against the man. For how could God send a Prophet who was not one of the chosen people? None the less, when the pilgrims brought news of the Prophet to Yathrib, the Jews were interested despite themselves and eagerly questioned them for more details; and when the Arabs of the oasis sensed this eagerness, and when they saw how the monotheistic nature of the message increased the interest of the rabbis tenfold, they could not fail to be impressed, as were the bearers of the tidings themselves.

Apart from such considerations, the tribe of Khazraj was fully aware of its strong links of kinship with the very man who now claimed to be a Prophet, and who had visited Yathrib with his mother as a child, and since then then, more than once, on his way to Syria. As to Aws one of their leading men, Abu Qays, had married a Meccan who was the aunt of Waraqah and also of Khadijah. Abu Qays had often stayed with his wife’s family, and he respected Waraqah’s opinion of the new Prophet.

All these factors, supplemented by continuous reports of pilgrims and other visitors from Mecca, now began to work upon the people of the oasis. But for the moment most of their attention was centered upon the urgent problems of their own internal affairs. A quarrel ending in bloodshed between an Awsite and a Khazrajite had gradually involved more clans of the two tribes. Even the Jews had taken sides. Three battles had already been fought, but instead of being decisive these had inflamed the souls of men still further, and multiplied the needs for revenge. A fourth battle on a larger scale than the others seemed inevitable; and it was in view of this that the leaders of Aws had the idea of sending a delegation to Mecca to ask Quraysh for their help against Khazraj.

While they were waiting for an answer, the Prophet went to them and asked them if they would like something better than what they had come for. They asked what that might be, and he told them of his mission and of the religion he had been commanded to preach. Then he recited to them some of the Qur’an, and when he had finished a young man named Iyas, son of Mu’adh, exclaimed: “People, by God this is better than that ye come for!” But the leader of the delegation took a handful of earth and threw it in the youth’s face, saying: “Let that be all from thee! By my life, we have come for other than this.” Iyas relapsed into silence, and the Prophet left them. Quraysh refused their request for help, and they returned to Medina. Shortly after this Iyas died, and those who were present at his death said that they heard him continually testifying to the Oneness of God and magnifying, praising and glorifying Him until the end. He is thus counted as the first man of Yathrib to enter Islam.

[1] Ancient Arab tribes, suddenly destroyed for their refusal to obey the Prophets who were sent to them
[2] I.I. 136

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