26 – Three Questions

At every assembly of Quraysh there was at least some discussion of what seemed to them their greatest problem; and they now decided to send to Yathrib to consult the Jewish rabbis: “Ask them about Muhammad,” they said to their two envoys. “Describe him to them, and tell them what he says; for they are the people of the first scripture, and they have knowledge of the Prophets which we have not.” The rabbis sent back the answer: “Question him about three things wherein we will instruct you. If he tell you of them, then he is a Prophet sent by God, but if he tell you not, then is the man a forger of falsehood. Ask him of some young men who left their folk in the days of old, how it was with them, for theirs is a tale of wonder; and ask him tidings of a far traveler who reached the ends of the earth in the east and in the west; and ask him of the Spirit, what it is. If he tell you of these things, then follow him, for he is a Prophet.”

When the envoys returned to Mecca with their news, the leaders of Quraysh sent to the Prophet and asked him the three questions. He said: “Tomorrow I will tell you,” but he did not say “if God will”; and when they came for the answers he had to put them off, and so it went on day by day until fifteen nights had passed and still he had received no Revelation of any kind, neither had Gabriel come to him since they had questioned him. The people of Mecca taunted him, and he was distressed by what they said and greatly saddened that he had not received the help he had hoped for. Then Gabriel brought him a Revelation reproaching him for his distress on account of what his people said, and telling him the answers to their three questions. The long wait he had had to endure was explained the words: And say not of anything: verily I shall do that tomorrow, except thou sayest: if God will.[1]

But the delay of this Revelation, although painful to the Prophet and his followers, was in reality an added strength. His worst enemies refused to draw conclusions from it, but for those many of Quraysh who were in two minds it was a powerful corroboration of his claim that the Revelation came to him from Heaven and that he had no part in it and no control over it. Was it conceivable that if Muhammad had invented the earlier Revelations he could have delayed so long before inventing this latest one, especially when so much appeared to be at stake?

The believers drew strength also, as always, from the Revelation itself. When Quraysh asked for the story of the youths who left their folk in the days of old -a story which no one in Mecca had ever heard- they did not know that it would have a bearing on the present situation, to their own discredit and to the credit of the believers. It is often called the story of the sleepers of Ephesus, for it was there, in the middle of the third century AD, that some young men had remained faithful to the worship of the One God when their people had fallen away into idolatry and were persecuting them for not following them. To escape from this persecution they took refuge in a cave, where they were miraculously put to sleep for over 300 years.

In addition to what the Jews already knew, The Qur’anic narrative[2] told of details that no human eye had seen, such as how the sleepers looked as they slept their unwitnessed sleep in their cave throughout the centuries, and how their faithful dog lay with his front paws stretched over the threshold.

As to the second question, the greater traveler is named Dhu l-Qarnayn, he of the two horns. The Revelation mentions his journey to the far west and to the far east, and then, answering more than was asked, it tells of a mysterious third journey to a place between two mountains where the people begged him to make a barrier that would protect them from Gog and Magog and other jinn who were devastating their land; and God gave him power to confine the evil spirits within a space from which they will not emerge until a divinely appointed day,[3] when, according to the Prophet, they will work terrible destruction over the face of the earth. Their breaking forth would take place before the final Hour, but it would be one of the signs that the end was near.

In answer to the third question, the Revelation affirmed the Spirit’s transcendence over the mind of man, which is incapable of grasping it: They will question thee concerning the Spirit. Say: the Spirit proceedeth from the command of my Lord; and ye have not been given knowledge, save only a little.[4]

The Jews had been very eager to hear what answers Muhammad had given to their questions; and, with regard to this last sentence about knowledge, they asked him, at their first opportunity, if it referred to his people or to them. “To both of you,” said the Prophet, whereupon they protested that they had been given knowledge of all things, for they had read the Torah in which was an exposition of everything, as the Qur’an itself affirmed.[5] The Prophet answered: “That all is but little in respect of God’s Own Knowledge; yet have ye therein enough for your needs, if ye would but practice it.”[6] It was then that there came the Revelation about the Words of God, which express merely a part of His knowledge: If all the trees in the earth were pens, and if the sea eked out by seven seas more were ink, the Words of God could not be written out unto their end.[7]

The leaders of Quraysh had not bound themselves to take the advice of the rabbis, nor did the rabbis themselves recognize the Prophet, despite his having answered their questions beyond all their expectations. But the answers served to convert others; and the more his followers increased, the more his opponents felt that their community and their way of life was in danger, and the more resolutely they organized their persecution of all those converts who could be ill-treated with impunity. Each clan dealt with its own Muslims: they would imprison them and torment them with beating and hunger and thirst; and they would stretch them out on the sun-baked earth of Mecca when the heat was at its height, to make them renounce their religion.

The chief of Jumah, Umayyah, had an African slave named Bilal who was a firm believer. Umayyah would take him out at noon into an open space, and would have him pinned to the ground with a large rock on his chest, swearing that he should stay like that until he died, or until he renounced Muhammad and worshipped al-Lat and al-‘Uzzah. While he endured this Bilal would say “One, One”; and it happened that the aged Waraqah came past when he was suffering this torment and repeating “One, One.” “It is indeed One, One, O Bilal,” said Waraqah. Then, turning to Umayyah, he said: “I swear by God that if ye kill him thus I will make his grave a shrine.”

Not every man of Quraysh lived amongst his own clan, and Abu Bakr had acquired a house amongst the dwellings of the Bani Jumah. This meant that they had more opportunities of seeing the Prophet than most other clans, for he used to visit Abu Bakr every afternoon; and it is said that part of a Prophet’s message is always written on his face. The face of Abu Bakr was also something of a book; and his presence in that quarter of Mecca, previously welcomed as an asset by the whole clan, was now a source of anxiety to its leaders. It was through him that Bilal had entered Islam; and, when he saw how they were torturing him, he said to Umayyah: “Hast thou no fear of God, to treat this poor man thus?” “It is thou who hast corrupted him,” retorted Umayyah, “so save him from what thou seest.” “I will,” said Abu Bakr. “I have a black youth who is tougher and sturdier than he, a man of thy religion. Him will I give thee for Bilal.” Umayyah agreed, and Abu Bakr took Bilal and set him free.

He had already set free six others, the first one being ‘Amir ibn Fuhayrah, a man of great spiritual strength, who had been one of the earliest converts. ‘Amir was a shepherd and after he was freed he took charge of Abu Bakr’s flocks. Another of those whom he set free was a slave girl belonging to ‘Umar. She had entered Islam, and ‘Umar was beating her to make her renounce it, when Abu Bakr happened to pass by and asked him if he would sell her to him. ‘Umar agreed, whereupon Abu Bakr bought her and set her free.

Among the most relentless of the persecutors was Abu Jahl. If a convert had a powerful family to defend him, Abu Jahl would merely insult him and promise to ruin his reputation and make him a laughing-stock. If he were a merchant he would threaten to stop his trade by organizing a general boycott of his goods so that he would be ruined. If he were weak and unprotected and of his own clan he would have him tortured; and he had powerful allies in many other clans whom he could persuade to do the same with their own weak and unprotected converts.

It was through him that his clansmen tortured three of their poorer confederates, Yasir and Sumayyah and their son ‘Ammar. They refused to renounce Islam, and Sumayyah died under the sufferings they inflicted on her. But some of the victims of Makhzum and of other clans could not endure what they were made to suffer, and their persecutors reduced them to a state when they could agree to anything. It was said to them: “Are not al-Lat and al-‘Uzzah your gods as well as Allah?” They would say yes; and if a beetle crawled past them and they were asked “Is not this beetle your god as well as Allah?” they would say yes simply in order to escape from a pain they could not endure.

These recantations were on the lips, not in the heart. But those who had made them could no longer practice Islam except in the greatest privacy, and some of them had no privacy at all. There was, however, an example for them in the recently revealed story of the young men who had left their people and taken refuge in God rather than submit to worshipping other gods. And when the Prophet saw that although he escaped persecution himself many of his followers did not, he said to them: “If ye went to the country of the Abyssinians, ye would find there a king under whom none suffereth wrong. It is a land of sincerity in religion. Until such time as God shall make for you a means of relief from what ye now are suffering.”[8] So some of his companions set off for Abyssinia; and this was the first emigration in Islam.


[1] Qur’an 18 : 23 – 24
[2] Qur’an 18 : 9 – 25
[3] Qur’an 18 : 93 – 99
[4] Qur’an 17 : 85
[5] Qur’an 6 : 154
[6] I.I. 198
[7] Qur’an 31 : 27
[8] I.I. 208

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