22 – Leaders of Quraysh

The followers of the Prophet were continually increasing, but whenever a new convert came to him and pledged his or her allegiance, it was more often than not a slave, or a freed slave, or a member of Quraysh of the Outskirts or else a young man or woman from Quraysh of the Hollow, of influential family but of no influence in themselves, whose conversion would increase tenfold the hostility of their parents and elder kinsmen. ‘Abd ar-Rahmãn, Hamzah and Arqam had been exceptions, but they were far from being leaders; and the Prophet longed to win over some of the chiefs, not one of whom, not even his uncle Abu Talib, had shown any inclination to join him. It would greatly help him to spread his message if he had the support of a man like Abu Jahl’s uncle, Walid, who was not only chief of Makhzum but also, if it were possible to say  such a thing, the unofficial leader of Quraysh. He was, moreover, a man who seemed more open to argument than many of the others; and one day an opportunity came for the Prophet to speak with Walid alone. But when they were deep in converse a blind man came past, one who had recently entered Islam, and hearing the Prophet’s voice he begged him to recite to him some of the Qur’an. When asked to be patient and wait for a better moment, the blind man became so importunate that in the end the Prophet frowned and turned away. His conversation had been ruined; but the interruption was not the cause of any loss, for Walid was in fact no more open to the message than those whose case seemed hopeless.

A new surah was revealed almost immediately, and it began with the words: He frowned and turned away, because the blind man came to him. The Revelation continued: As to him who sufficeth unto himself, with him thou art engrossed, yet is it no concern of thine if purified he be not. But as for him who cometh unto thee in eager earnestness and in fear of God, from him thou art drawn away.[1]

Not long after this, Walid was to betray his own self-satisfaction by saying: “Are revelations sent to Muhammad and not to me, when I am the chief man of Quraysh and their lord? Are they sent neither to me nor to Abu Mas’ud, the lord of Thaqif, when we are the two great men of the two townships?”[2] The reaction of Abu Jahl was less coldly confident and more passionate. The possibility that Muhammad might be a Prophet was too intolerable to be entertained for one moment. “We and the sons of ‘Abdu Manaf,” he said, “have vied for honor, the one with the other. They have fed food, we have fed food. They have borne others’ burdens, and we have borne others’ burdens. They have given, and we have given, until, when we were running equal, knee unto knee, like two mares in a race, they say: ‘One of our men is a Prophet; Revelations come to him from Heaven!; And when shall we attain to the like of this? By God, we will never believe in him, never admit him to be a speak of truth.” As to the Shamsite ‘Utbah, his reaction was less negative, but almost equally lacking in sense of proportion; for his first thought was not that Muhammad must be followed if he were a Prophet but that his prophethood would bring honor to the sons of ‘Abdu Manaf. So one day, when Abu Jahl pointed derisively at the object of his hatred and said to ‘Utbah: “There is your prophet, O sons of ‘Abdu Manaf,” ‘Utbah rejoined sharply: “And why shouldst thou take it amiss if we have a a prophet, or a king?” This last word was a referrence to Qusayy, and a subtle reminder to the Makhzumite that ‘Abdu Manaf was Qusayy’s son, whereas Makhzum was only his cousin. The Prophet was near enough to hear this altercation and he came to them and said: “O ‘Utbah, thou was not vexed for the sake of God, nor for the same of His messenger, but for thine own sake. And as for thee, Abu Jahl, a calamity shall come upon thee. Little shalt thou laugh, and much shalt thou weep.”[3]

The fortunes of the various clans of Quraysh were continually fluctuating. Two of the most powerful at this time were ‘Abdu Shams and Makhzum. ‘Utbah and his brother Shaybah were the leaders of one branc of the Shamsite clan. Their cousin Harb, the former leader of its Umayyad branch had been succeeded on his death by his son Abu Sufyan, who had married, amongst other wives, ‘Utbah’s daughter Hind. Abu Sufyan’s success, both in politics and in trade, was partly due to his reserve of judgement and his capacity for cold and patient deliberation -and also forbearance, if his astute sense of opportunity saw that an advantage could thereby be gained. His cool-headedness was a frequent cause of exasperation for the impetuous and quick-tempered Hind, but he seldom if ever allowed her to sway him once his mind was made up. As might have been expected, he was less violent than Abu Jahl in his hostility towards the Prophet.

But if the leaders of Quraysh differed somewhat from each other in their attitude towards the Messenger, they were unanimous in their rejection of the message itself. Having all attained a certain success in life -though the younger men hoped that for them this was merely the beginning- they had by common consent achieved something of what had come to be accepted in Arabia as the ideal of human greatness. Wealth was not held to be an aspect of that greatness, but it was in fact almost a necessity as a means to the end. A great man must be greatly in demand as an ally and a protector, which meant that he must himself have reliable allies. This he could partly contrive by weaving for himself, through his own marriages and the marriages of his sons and his daughters, a network of powerful and formidable connections. Much in this respect could be achieved by wealth, which the great man also needed in his capacity as host. The virtues were an essential aspect of the ideal in question, especially the virtue of generosity, but not with a view to any heavenly reward. To be extolled by men, throughout all Arabia and perhaps beyond, for lavish bounty, for leonine courage, for unfailing fidelity to one’s word, whether it had been given for alliance, protection, guarantee or any other purpose -to be extolled for these virtues in life and after death was the honor and the immortality which seemed to them to give life its meaning. Men like Walid felt certain of such greatness; and this generated in them a complacence which made them deaf to a message that stressed the vanity of earthly life -the vanity of the very setting where their own success had taken place. Their immortality depended on Arabia remaining as it was, on Arab ideals being perpetuated from the past into the future. They were all sensitive, in varying degrees, to the beauty of the language of the Revelation; but as to its meaning, their souls spontaneously closed themselves to such verses as the following, which told them that they and their honored forefathers had achieved nothing, and that all their efforts had been misplaced: This lower life is but a diversion and a game; and verily the abode of the Hereafter, that, that is Life, did they but know.[4]


[1] Qur’an 80 : 5 – 10
[2] I.I. 238; see Qur’an 43 : 31
[3] Tab. 1203, 3
[4] Qur’an 29 : 64

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