5 – The Vow to Sacrifice A Son

‘Abd al-Muttalib was respected by Quraysh for his generosity, his reliability and his wisdom. He was also a very handsome man, with a most commanding presence. His wealth was yet another reason why he should consider himself fortunate; and now all this was crowned by the honor of being the chosen instrument through which Zamzam had been restored. He was deeply grateful to God for these blessings; but his soul was still troubled by the thoughts of the moment when he had been told to stop digging, and when everything had seemed to hang in the balance. All had gone well, praise be to God! But never before had he felt so keenly his poverty -for so it seemed to him- in having only one son. His cousin Umayyah, for example, the head of the clan of ‘Abdu Shams, was blessed with many sons; and if the digger had been Mughirah, the chief of Makhzum, his sons could have made a large and powerful circle round him. But he himself, although he had more than one wife, had only one son to uphold him. He was already half resigned to this; but God who had given him Zamzam could also increase him in other respects; and encouraged by the favor he had just received he prayed God to give him more sons, adding to his prayer the vow that if He would bless him with ten sons and let them all grown to manhood, he would sacrifice one of them to Him at the Ka’bah.

His prayer was answered: the years passed and nine sons were born to him. When he made his vow, it had seemed to refer to a very far-off possibility. But the time came when all his sons were grown up except the youngest, ‘Abd Allah, and his vow began to dominate his thoughts. He was proud of all his sons, but he had never been equally fond of them all, and it had long been clear to him that ‘Abd Allah was the one he loved most. Perhaps God also preferred this same son, whom He had endowed with remarkable beauty, and perhaps He would choose him to be sacrificed. However that might be, ‘Abd al-Muttalib was a man of his word. The thought of breaking his oath did not enter his head. He was also a man of justice, with a deep sense of responsibility, which meant that he knew what responsibilities were to be avoided. He was not going to place upon himself the burden of deciding which son he would sacrifice. So when it was no longer possible to consider ‘Abd Allah as a mere stripling he gathered his ten sons together, told them of his pact with God, and called on them to help him keep his word. They had no choice but to agree; their father’s vow was their vow; and they asked him what they were to do. He told them to make each his mark on an arrow. Meanwhile he had sent word to the official arrow-diviner of Quraysh, asking him to be present at the Ka’bah. He then took his sons to the Sanctuary and led them into the Holy House, where he told the diviner about his vow. Each son produced his arrow, and ‘Abd al-Muttalib took his stand beside Hubal, drew out a large knife which he had brought with him, and prayed to God. The lots were cast, and it was ‘Abd Allah’s arrow that came out. His father took him by the hand, and with the knife in his other hand he led him to the door, intending to make straight for the place of sacrifice, as if afraid to give himself time to think.

But he had not reckoned with the women of his household, and in particular with ‘Abd Allah’s mother, Fatimah. His other wives were from outlying tribes and had relatively little influence in Mecca. But Fatimah was a woman of Quraysh, of the powerful clan of Makhzum, while on her mother’s side she was descended from ‘Abd, one of the sons of Qusayy. All her family were at hand, within easy reach, ready to help her if need be. Three of the ten sons were hers, Zubayr, Abu Talib, and ‘Abd Allah She was also the mother of ‘Abd al-Muttalib’s five daughters, who were devoted to their brothers. These women had not been idle, and no doubt the other wives had sought Fatimah’s help in view of the danger that hung over the heads of all the ten sons, one of whom was the owner of the arrow of sacrifice.

By the time the lots had been cast, a large gathering had assembled in the courtyard of the Sanctuary. When ‘Abd al-Muttalib and ‘Abd Allah appeared on the threshold of the Ka’bah, both as pale as death, a murmur arose from the Makhzumites as they realized that one of their sister’s sons was the intended victim. “Wherefore that knife?” called a voice, and others reiterated the question, though they all knew the answer. ‘Abd al-Muttalib began to tell them of his vow but he was cut short by Mughirah, the chief of the Makhzum: “Sacrifice him thou shalt not; but offer a sacrifice in his stead, and though his ransom be all the property of the sons of Makhzum we will redeem him.” ‘Abd Allah’s brothers had by this time come out from the Holy House. None of them had spoken, but now they turned to their father and begged him to let their brother live and to offer some other sacrifice by way of expiation. There was not one man present who did not take their part, and ‘Abd al-Muttalib longed to be persuaded, but he was filled with scruples. Finally, however, he agreed to consult a certain wise woman in Yathrib who could tell him whether an expiation was possible in this case, and if so what form it should take.

Taking with him ‘Abd Allah and one or two other sons, ‘Abd al-Muttalib rode to the country of his birth only to learn that the woman had gone to Khaybar, a wealthy Jewish settlement in a fertile valley almost a hundred miles north of Yathrib. So they continued their journey, and when they had found the woman and told her the facts she promised the consult her familiar spirit, and bade them return the following day. ‘Abd al-Muttalib prayed to God, and the next morning the woman said: “Word hath come to me. What is the blood-wite amongst you?” They answered that it was ten camels. “Return to your country,” she said, “and put your man and ten camels side by side and cast lots between them. If the arrow fall against your man, add more camels and cast lots again; and if need be add more camels until your Lord accepts them and the arrow falls against them. Then sacrifice the camels and let the man live.”

They returned to Mecca forthwith, and solemnly led ‘Abd Allah and ten camels to the courtyard of the Ka’bah. ‘Abd al-Muttalib went inside the Holy House, and standing beside Hubal he prayed to God to acept what they were doing. Then they case lots, and the arrow fell against ‘Abd Allah. Another ten camels were added, but again the arrow said that the camels should live and that the man should die. They went on adding camels, ten at a time, and casting lots with the same result until the number of camels had reached a hundred. Only then did the arrow fall against them. But ‘Abd al-Muttalib was exceedingly scrupulous: for him the evidence of one arrow was not enough to decide so great an issue. He insisted that they should cast lots a second and a third time, which they did, and each time the arrow fell against the camels. At last he was certain that God had accepted his expiation, and the camels were duly sacrificed.

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