48 – The People of the Bench

Part of one of the long colonnades in the Mosque was now reserved for those newcomers who had nowhere to live and no means of sustenance. They were known as “the People of the Bench”, Ahl as-Suffah, on account of a stone bench which had been placed there for their benefit; and since the Mosque was a prolongation of the Prophet’s own dwelling, he and his household felt especially responsible for this growing number of impoverished refugees who lived at their very door, whose plight they witnessed daily and who came in ones and twos from all directions, drawn by the message of Islam and the reports of him and his community which had by now reached the tribes all over Arabia. The news of Badr was not without its effect in this way. Consequently it was seldom that those who lived in the dwellings adjoining the Mosque could eat their fill at any meal. The Prophet used to say: “The food of one is enough for two, the food for two enough for four, and the food of four enough for eight.”[1]

Just as he loved sweet scents and fragrance in general, so also he was exceedingly sensitive to the slightest unpleasantness of odor, especially in the breath, in himself and in others. ‘A’ishah said that the first thing he would do on entering the house was to take up his tooth-stick which was made of green palm wood. When he was on a journey, ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud could well be trusted to have one always in readiness for him. The Companions followed his example in the use of the tooth-stick, and also in the rinsing of the mouth after every meal.

Hunger made no difference to his extreme sensitivity, which he did not always expect others to share. There were certain kinds of food which the law allowed and which he encouraged his companions to eat but would not eat himself, such as the large lizards which were not to be found in Mecca but which were common in Yathrib and elsewhere. Sometimes he would refuse a dish more out of consideration for others than himself. Once a stew was brought to him as a gift from one of the Helpers but just as he was about to take some of it he noticed that it had a strong smell of garlic and withdrew his hand. Those who were with him immediately did the same. “What is amiss?” he said to them. “Thou withdrewest thy hand,” they said, “so we have withdrawn ours.” “Eat in the name of God,” he said. “I hold intimate converse with one whom ye converse not with.”[2] They knew he was referring to the Angel. On that occasion the dish had been prepared and must not be wasted. He none the less discouraged them in general from eating food that was over-flavored with garlic or onions, especially before going to the Mosque.[3]

Fatimah before her marriage had been as it were hostess to the People of the Bench. But despite the sacrifices that were part of the daily life of the Prophet’s household, her life after her marriage seemed even more rigorous on account of a lack which she had not yet experienced. There had never been, for her, any shortage of helping hands. In addition to her sister, Umm Kulthum, Umm Ayman had been there, always ready to do what she could. Umm Sulaym had given her ten-year-old son Anas as servant to the Prophet, and Anas was diligent and thoughtful far beyond his years, while his mother and Abu Talhah, her second husband, were always in the background, ready to help. Ibn Mas’ud had attached himself to the Prophet so closely as to be almost one of the household; and recently, after his return to Mecca, ‘Abbas had sent his slave Abu Rafi’ to the Prophet as a gift. The Prophet had set him free, but freedom had not diminished his readiness to serve. There was also Khawlah, the widow of ‘Uthman ibn Maz’un, who had long considered herself as their servant. But now Fatimah had no one in the house to help her. To relieve their extreme poverty, ‘Ali earned some money as a drawer and carrier of water, and she as a grinder of corn. “I have ground until my hands are blistered,” she said to ‘Ali one day. “I have drawn water until I have pains in my chest,” said ‘Ali, “and God hath given thy father some captives, so go thou and ask him to give thee a servant.” Not very readily she went to the Prophet, who said: “What hath brought thee here, little daughter?” “I came to give thee greetings of peace,” she said, for in her awe of him she could not bring herself to ask what she had intended. “What didst thou do?” said ‘Ali, when she returned empty-handed. “I was ashamed to ask him,” she said, so the two of them went together, but the Prophet felt that they were less in need than others. “I will not give to you,” he said, “and let the people of the Bench be tormented with hunger. I have not enough for their keep; but I will spend on them what may come from the selling of the captives.”

They returned home in some disappointment but that night, after they had gone to bed, they heard the voice of the Prophet asking permission to enter. Giving him words of welcome they both rose to their feet, but he told them: “Stay where ye are,” and sat down beside them. “Shall I not tell you of something better than that which ye asked of me?” he said, and when they said yes he said: “Words which Gabriel taught me, that ye should say Glory be to God ten times after every prayer, and ten times Praise be to God, and ten times God is most great. And that when ye go to bed ye should say them thirty-three times each.” ‘Ali used to say in after years: “I have never once failed to say them since the Messenger of God taught them to us.”[4]

Their house was not very far from the Mosque, but the Prophet would have liked his daughter to be still nearer to him, and some months after the marriage Harithah of Khazraj, a distant kinsman of the Prophet, came to him and said: “O Messenger of God, I have heard that thou wouldst fain bring Fatimah nearer to thee, and this my house is the nearest of all the dwellings of the sons of Najjar, and it is thine. I and my goods are all for God and for His Messenger, and I hold dearer what thou takest from me than what thou leavest with me.” The Prophet blessed him and accepted his gift, and brought his daughter and son-in-law to live as his neighbors.

He greatly rejoiced in the generosity of Harithah, and in the many other acts of generosity in Medina, both towards himself and towards others. One of these, however, which took place at this time, was fraught with some disappointment. The Prophet had a high opinion of Abu Lubabah of Aws, and on the way to Badr he had sent him back from Rawha’ to take charge of Medina in his absence. Later that year an orphan under the guardianship of Abu Lubabah came to the Prophet and claimed the ownership of a certain lavishly fruiting palm-tree, which he said that his guardian had wrongly appropriated. They sent for Abu Lubabah who said that the palm belonged to him, as in fact it did. The Prophet heard the case and gave judgment in favor of the guardian and against the orphan, who was sadly grieved for the loss of the tree that he had always considered to be his. Seeing this, the Prophet asked for the palm as a gift to himself, intending to present it to the orphan, but Abu Lubabah refused. “O Abu Lubabah,” he said, “give it then thou the orphan, and is like shall be thine in Paradise.” But Abu Lubabah’s sense of legal justice had been too much roused by the whole affair for him to agree, and again he refused, whereupon another of the Helpers, Thabit ibn ad-Dahdahah, said to the Prophet: “O Messenger of God, if I should buy this palm and give it to this orphan, would mine be its like in Paradise?” “It would indeed,” came the answer, so he went to Abu Lubabah and offered him an orchard of palms for the single tree. The offer was accepted, and Ibn ad-Dahdahah gave the palm to the orphan.[5] The Prophet was exceedingly glad for his sake, but saddened on account of Abu Lubabah.

[1] M. 36, 176
[2] I.S. 1/2, 110
[3] B. 96, 24
[4] I.S. 8, 16
[5] W. 505

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