31 – The Year of Sadness

In the year AD 619, not long after the annulment of the ban, the Prophet suffered a great loss in the death of his wife Khadijah. She was about sixty-five years old and he was nearing fifty. They had lived together in profound harmony for twenty-five years, and she had been not only his wife but also his intimate friend, his wise counsellor, and mother to his whole household including ‘Ali and Zayd. His four daughters were overcome with grief, but he was able to comfort them by telling them that Gabriel had once come to him and told him to give Khadijah greetings of Peace from her Lord and to tell her that He had prepared for her an abode in Paradise.

Another loss followed closely upon the death of Khadijah, a loss less great and less penetrating in itself, but at the same time less consolable and more serious in its outward consequences. Abu Talib fell ill, and it soon became clear that he was dying. On his deathbed he was visited by a group of the leaders of Quraysh -‘Utbah and Shaybah and Abu Sufyah of ‘Abdu Shams, Umayyah of Jumah, Abu Jahl of Makhzum and others -and they said to him: “Abu Talib, thou knowest the esteem we have for thee; and now this that thou seest hath come upon thee, and we fear for thee. Thou knowest what is between us and thy brother’s son. So call him to thee, and take for him a gift from us, and take for us a gift from him that he should let us be, and we will let him be. Let him leave us and our religion in peace.” So Abu Talib sent to him, and when he came he said to him: “Son of my brother, these nobles of thy people have come together on account of thee, to give and to take.” “So be it,” said the Prophet. “Give me one word -a word by which ye shall rule over the Arabs, and the Persians shall be your subjects.” “Yea, by thy father,” said Abu Jahl, “for that we will give thee one word, and ten words more.” “Ye must say,” said the Prophet, “there is no god but God, and ye must renounce what ye worship apart from Him.” They clapped their hands and said: “Wouldst thou, O Muhammad, make the gods one god? Thy bidding is strange indeed!” Then they said to each other: “This man will give you nothing of what ye ask, so go your ways and keep to the religion of your fathers until God judge between you and him.”

When they had gone, Abu Talib said to the Prophet: “Son of my brother, thou didst not, as I saw it, ask of them anything out of the way.” These words filled the Prophet with longing that he should enter Islam. “Uncle,” he said, “say thou the words, that through them I may intercede for thee on the day of the Resurrection.” “Son of my brother,” he said, “if I did not fear that Quraysh would that I had but said the words in dread of death, then would I say them. Yet would my saying them be but to please thee.” Then, when death drew near to Abu Talib, ‘Abbas saw him moving his lips and he put his ear close to him and listened and then he said: “My brother hath spoken the words thou didst bid him speak.” But the Prophet said: “I heard him not.”

It was now becoming difficult in Mecca for almost all those who had no official protection. Before he joined the Prophet Abu Bakr had been a man of considerable influence, but unlike ‘Umar and Hamzah, he was not a dangerous man in himself and therefore did not inspire fear except in those who had learned to esteem him for spiritual reasons; and when his Islam set a barrier between himself and the leaders of Quraysh his influence with them decreased almost to nothing, just as it increased within the community of the new religion. For Abu Bakr the situation was, moreover, aggravated by his being known to be responsible for many conversions; and it may have been partly in revenge for the Islam of Aswad the son of Nawfal that one day Nawfal himself, Khadijah’s half-brother, organized an attack on Abu Bakr and Talhah, who were left lying in the public highway, bound hand and foot and roped together. Nor did any of the men of Taym intervene against the men of Asad, which suggests that they had disowned their two leading Muslim clansmen.

There may have been other incidents also. Abu Bakr was on increasingly bad terms with Bilal’s former master Umayyah, the chief of Jumah, amongst whom he lived; and the time came when he felt he had no alternative to to emigrate. Having obtained permission of the Prophet, he set out to join those who had remained in Abyssinia. But before he had reached the Red Sea, he was met by Ibn ad-Dughunnah, at that time the head of a small group of confederate tribes not far from Mecca, allies of Quraysh. This Bedouin chief had known Abu Bakr well in his days of affluence and influence, yet now he had the appearance of a wandering hermit. Amazed at the change, he questioned him. “My people have ill-treated me,” said Abu Bakr, “and driven me out, and all I seek is to travel over the face of the earth, worshipping God.” “Why have they done this?” said Ibn ad-Dughunnah. “Thou art as an ornament to thy clan, a help in misfortune, a doer of right, ever fulfilling the needs of others. Return, for thou art beneath my protection.” So he took him back to Mecca and spoke to the people, saying: “Men of Quraysh, I have given my protection to the son of Abu Quhafah, so let no one treat him other than well.” Quraysh confirmed the protection and promised that Abu Bakr should be safe, but at the instigation of the Bani Jumah they said to his protector: “Tell him to worship his Lord within doors, and to pray and recite what he will there, but tell him not to cause us trouble by letting it be seen and heard, for his appearance is striking and he hath with him a way, so that we fear lest he seduce our sons and our women.” Ibn ad-Dughunnah told this to Abu Bakr, and for a while he prayed only in his house and made there his recitations of the Qur’an; and for a while the tension was relaxed between him and the leaders of the bani Jumah. Abu Talib was succeeded by Abu Lahab as chief of Hashim; but the protection that Abu Lahab gave his nephew was merely nominal, and the Prophet was ill-treated as never before. On one occasion a passer-by leaned over his gate and tossed a piece of putrefying offal into his cooking pot; and once when he was praying in the courtyard of his house, a man threw over him a sheep’s uterus filthy with blood and excrement. Before disposing of it, the Prophet picked up the object on the end of a stick and said, standing at his gate: “O sons of ‘Abdu Manaf, what protection is this?” He had seen that the offender was the Shamsite ‘Uqbah,[1] stepfather of ‘Uthman, Ruqayyah’s husband. On another occasion, when the Prophet was coming from the Ka’bah a man took a handful of dirt and threw it in his face and over his head. When he returned home one of his daughters washed him clean of it, weeping the while. “Weep not, little daughter,” he said, “God will protect thy father.”

It was then that he decided to seek help from Thaqif, the people of Ta’if -a decision which eloquently reflected the apparent gravity of his situation in Mecca. For except that truth can conquer all things, what indeed could be hoped for from Thaqif, the guardians of the temple of the goddess al-Lat, whose shrine they liked to think of as comparable to the House of God? There must however be exceptions in Ta’if as there were in Mecca, and the Prophet was not without hope as he rode up from the desert towards the welcoming orchards and gardens and cornfields which were the outskirts of the walled city. On his arrival he went straight to the house of three brothers who were the leaders of Thaqif at that time, the sons of ‘Amr ibn Umayyah, the man whom Walid looked on as his own counterpart in Ta’if, the second of “the two great men of the two townships”. But when the Prophet asked them to accept Islam and help him against his opponents, one of them immediately said: “If God sent thee, I will tear down the hangings of the Ka’bah!”, and another one said: “Could God find none but thee to send?” As for the third, he said: “Let me never speak to thee! For if thou art a Messenger from God as thou sayest, then art thou too great a personage for me to address; and if thou liest, it is not fitting that I should speak to thee.” So the Prophet rose to leave them, perhaps intending to try elsewhere in Ta’if; but when he had left them, they stirred up their slaves and retainers to insult him and shout at him, until a crowd of people were gathered together against him and he was forced to take refuge in a private orchard. Once he had entered it the crowd began to disperse, and, tethering his camel to a palm tree, he made for the shelter of a vine and sat in its shade.

When he felt himself to be in safety and at peace, he prayed: “O God, unto Thee do I complain of my weakness, of my helplessness, and of my lowliness before me. O Most Merciful of the merciful, Thou art Lord of the weak. And Thou art my Lord. Into whose hands wilt Thou entrust me? Unto some far off stranger who will ill-treat me? Or unto a foe whom Thou hast empowered against me? I care not, so Thou be not wroth with me. But Thy favoring help -that were for me the broader way and the wider scope! I take refuge in the Light of Thy Countenance whereby all darknesses are illuminated and the things of this world and the next are rightly ordered, lest Thou make descend Thine anger upon me, or lest Thy wrath beset me. Yet is it Thine to reproach until Thou art well pleased. There is no power and no might except through Thee.”[2]

The place where the Prophet had found peace was not as empty as it had seemed. Every man of Quraysh hoped for riches enough to buy a garden and a house on the green hill of Ta’if to which he might escape when the heat of Mecca was at its fiercest, and this orchard was not owned by a man of Thaqif but was part of a property that belonged to the Shamsite leaders ‘Utbah and Shaybah, who were now even seated in a corner of their garden adjoining the vineyard. They had seen what had happened, nor were they without feelings of indignation at the way in which the rabble of Thaqif had ventured to treat a man of Quraysh, who was, moreover, like themselves, of the sons of ‘Abdu Manaf. As to the differences which had come between them, were not these now almost at an end? They had last seen Muhammad at the deathbed of Abu Talib; and now he was without a protector, and clearly in desperate straights. Feeling they could afford to be generous, they called a young Christian slave of theirs named ‘Addas, and said to him: “Take a cluster of these grapes and put them on this platter. Then give it to that man, and bid him eat thereof.” ‘Addas did as they had ordered, and when the Prophet put his hand to the grapes he said: “In the name of God.” ‘Addas looked keenly into his face; then he said: “Those words are not what the people of this country say.” “From what country art thou?” said the Prophet. “And what is thy religion?” “I am a Christian,” he said, “of the people of Nineveh.” “From the city of the righteous man Jonah, the son of Matta,” said the Prophet. “How knowest thou aught of Jonah the son of Matta?” said ‘Addas. “He is my brother,” was the answer. “He was a Prophet, and I am a Prophet.” Then ‘Addas bent over him and kissed his head and his hands and his feet.

When they saw this, the two brothers exclaimed, each to the other, as if with one voice: “So much for thy slave! Already hath be been corrupted!” And when ‘Addas came back to them, leaving the Prophet to eat in peace, they said: “Out upon thee, ‘Addas! What made thee kiss that man’s head and his hands and his feet?” He answered: “Master, there is nothing on earth better than this man. He hath told me of things that only a Prophet could know.” “Out upon thee, ‘Addas!” They said. “Let him not seduce thee from thy religion, for thy religion is better than his.”

The Prophet left Ta’if and started on his way towards Mecca when he saw that no good was to be gained at this juncture from the tribe of Thaqif. Late that night he reached the valley of Nakhlah, the half-way halt between the two townships which had rejected him. At the moment of his sharpest consciousness of this rejection, his prophethood had been acknowledged by a man from far-off Nineveh; and now, while he was standing in prayer at Nakhlah, a company of the jinn passed by -seven jinn from Nasibin- and they stopped spellbound by the words he was reciting from the Qur’an. The Prophet knew that he had not been sent to the world of men only. The Revelation had recently affirmed: We sent thee not save as a mercy for the worlds;[3] and one of the earlier Surahs[4] is addressed to the jinn as well as to men, warning them both of Hell as a punishment for evil and promising Paradise to both as a reward for piety. THere now came the Rvelation: Say: it hath been revealed unto me that a company of the jinn gave ear, and then said: Verily we have heard a wondrous recitation which guideth unto rightness, and we believe in it.[5] And another Revelation[6] told how the jinn thereupon returned to their community and urged them to respond to God’s summoner, as they called the Prophet.

The Prophet was unwilling to return to the same conditions which only two days previously had impelled him to leave his home. But if he had a protector, he could continue to fulfill his mission. The Bani Hashim had failed him, so his thoughts turned to his mother’s clan. The situation there was abnormal, for by far the most outstanding and influential man of Zuhrah was Akhnas ibn Shariq, who was not strictly speaking a member of the clan, nor even of Quraysh. He was in fact of Thaqif, but he had long been a confederate of Zuhrah, and they had come to consider him as their chief. The Prophet had already decided to ask for his help, when he was overtaken by a horseman also on his way to Mecca but traveling faster than himse,f so he asked him to do him the favor of going, on his arrival, to Akhnas and of saying to him: “Muhammad saith: Wilt thou give me thy protection, that I may deliver the message of my Lord?” The horseman was well disposed, and even undertook to return with the answer, which proved to be negative, for Akhnas simply remarked that a confederate had no power to speak in the name of the clan with which he was federated and to grant a protection which would be binding upon them. The Prophet, who was by this time not far from Mecca, now sent the same request to Suhayl. His reply was equally disappointing, though the reason he advanced for his refusal had nothing to do with his opposition to Islam. It was once more a question of tribal principle. In the Hollow of Mecca his clan was distinct from all the rest as being descended from ‘Amir the son of Lu’ayy,[7] whereas the others were all descended from ‘Amir’s brother Ka’b. Suhayl simply replied that the sons of ‘Amir do not give protection against the sons of Ka’b. The Prophet now turned aside from the way that led to the city, and took refuge in the cafe of Mount Hira’ where he had received the first Revelation. From there he sent his petition to a leader more closely related to himself, Mut’im, the chief of Nawfal, one of the five who had organized the annulment of the ban, and Mut’im immediately agreed. “Let him enter the city,” he sent back word; and the next morning, fully armed, together with his sons and his nephews, he escorted the Prophet to the Ka’bah. Abu Jahl asked them if they had become followers of Muhammad. “We are giving him protection,” they replied; and the Makhzumite could only say: “Whom ye protect, to him we give protection.”


[1] He was the second husband of ‘Uthman’s mother Arwa, the Prophet’s cousin, named after their aunt Arwa, the mother of Tulayb.
[2] I.I. 280
[3] Qur’an 21 : 107
[4] Qur’an 55
[5] Qur’an 72 : 1 – 2
[6] Qur’an 46 : 30 – 31
[7] See the genealogical tree

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