6 – The Need for A Prophet

‘Abd al-Muttalib did not pray to Hubal; he always prayed to God -to Allah. But the Moabite idol had been for generations inside the House of God and had become for Quraysh a kind of personification of the barakah, that is the blessing, the spiritual influence, which pervaded that greatest of all sanctuaries. There were other lesser sanctuaries throughout Arabia and the most important of these in the Hijaz were the temples of three “daughters of God” as some of their worshippers claimed them to be, al-Lat, al-‘Uzzah, and Manat. From his earlier years, like the rest of the Arabs of Yathrib, ‘Abd al-Muttalib had been brought up to revere Manat whose temple was at Qudayd on the Red Sea, almost due west of the oasis. More important for Quraysh was the shrine of al-‘Uzzah in the valley of Nakhlah, a camel day’s journey south of Mecca. Another day’s journey in the same direction brought the devotee to Ta’if, a walled town on a luxuriant green tableland, inhabited by Thaqif, a branch of the great Arab tribe of Hawazin. Al-Lat was “the lady of Ta’if”, and her idol was housed in a rich temple. As guardians of this, Thaqif liked to think of themselves as the counterpart of Qurays; and Qurays went so far as to speak currently of “the two cities” when they meant Mecca and Ta’if. But despite the wonderful climate and fertility of “the Garden of the Hijaz”, as Ta’if was called its people were not unjealous of the barren valley to their north, for they knew in their hearts that their temple, however much they might promote it, could never compare with the House of God. Nor did they altogether wish it were otherwise, for they too were descended from Ishmael and had roots in Mecca. Their sentiments were mixed and sometimes conflicting. Quraysh on the other hand were jealous of no one. They knew that they lived at the center of the world and that they had in their midst a magnet capable of drawing pilgrims from all points of the compass. It was up to them to do nothing that might diminish the good relationship which had been established between themselves and the outlying tribes.

‘Abd al-Muttalib’s office as host of pilgrims to the Ka’bah imposed on him an acute awareness of these things. His function was an intertribal one, and it was shared to a certain extent by all Quraysh. The pilgrims must be made to feel that Mecca was a home from home, and welcoming them meant welcoming what they worshipped and never failing to show honor to the idols they brought with them The justification and authority for accepting idols and believing in their efficacy was that of tradition: their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had done so. None the less, God was, for ‘Abd al-Muttalib, the great reality; and he was no doubt nearer to the religion of Abraham than most of his contemporaries of Quraysh and Khuza’ah and Hawazin and other Arab tribes.

But there were -and always had been- a few who maintained the full purity of Abrahamic worship. They alone realized that far from being traditional, idol worship was an innovation -a danger to be guarded against. It only needed a longer view of history to see that Hubal was no better than the golden calf of the sons of Israel. These Hunafa’, [1] as they called themselves, would have nothing to do with the idols, whose presence in Mecca they looked on as a profanation and a pollution. Their refusal to compromise and their frequent outspokenness relegated them to the fringe of Meccan society where they were respected, tolerated or ill-treated, party according to their personalities and partly according to whether their clans were prepared to protect them or not.

‘Abd al-Muttalib knew four of the Hunafa’, and one of the more respected of them, Waraqah by name, was the son of his second cousin Nawfal,[2] of the clan of Asad. Waraqah had become a Christian; and there was a belief among Christians of those parts that the coming of a Prophet was imminent. This belief may not have been widespread, but it was supported by one or two venerable dignitaries of eastern churches and also by the astrologers and soothsayers. As to the Jews, for whom such a belief was easier, since for them the line of Prophets ended only with the Messiah, they were almost unanimous in their expectancy of a Prophet. Their rabbis and other wise men assured them that one was at hand; many of the predicted signs of his coming had already been fulfilled; and he would, of course, be a Jew, for they were the chosen people. The Christians, Waraqah amongst them, had their doubts about this; they saw no reason why should not be an Arab. The Arabs stood in need of a Prophet even more than the Jews, who at least still followed the religion of Abraham inasmuch as they worshipped the One God and did not have idols; and who but a Prophet would be capable of ridding the Arabs of their worship of false gods? In a wide circle round the Ka’bah, at some distance from it, there were 360 idols; and in addition to these almost every house in Mecca had its god, an idol large or small which was the center of the household. As his last act on leaving the premises, especially if it was for a journey, a man would go to the idol and stroke it in order to obtain blessings from it, and such was the first act on returning home. Nor was Mecca exceptional in this respect, for these practices prevailed throughout most of Arabia. There were, it was true, some well established Arab Christian communities to the south, in Najran and the Yemen, as well as to the north near the frontiers of Syria; but God’s latest intervention, which had transformed the Mediterranean and vast tracts of Europe, had made, in nearly six hundred years, practically no impact on the pagan society which centered on the Meccan shrine. The Arabs of the Hijaz and of the great lain of Najd to its east seemed impervious to the message of the Gospels.

Not that Quraysh and the other pagan tribes were hostile to Christianity. Christians sometimes came to do honor to the Sanctuary of Abraham, and they were made welcome like all the rest. Moreover one Christian had been allowed and even encouraged to paint an icon of the Virgin Mary and the child Christ on an inside wall of the Ka’bah where it sharply contrasted with all the other paintings. But Quraysh were more or less insensitive to this contrast: for them it was simply a question of increasing the multitude of idols by another two; and it was partly their tolerance that made them so impenetrable.

Unlike most of his tribe, Waraqah could read and had made a study of the scriptures and of theology. He was therefore capable of seeing that in one of Christ’s promises, generally interpreted by Christians as referring to the miracle of Pentecost, there were none the less certain elements which did not fit that miracle and must be taken to refer to something else -something which had not yet been fulfilled. But the language was cryptic: what was the meaning of the words : he shall not speak of himself, but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak.[3]
Waraqah had a sister named Quraylah who was very close to him. He often spoke to her about these things, and his words had made so great an impression on her that thoughts of the expected Prophet were often in her mind. Could it be that he was already in their midst?

Once the sacrifice of the camels had been accepted, ‘Abd al-Muttalib made up his mind to find a wife for his reprieved son, and after some consideration the choice fell on Aminah, the daughter of Wahb, an grandson of Zuhrah, the brother of Qusayy.

Wahb had been chief of Zuhrah but had died some years previously and Aminah was now a ward of his brother Wuhayb, who had succeeded him as chief of the clan. Wuhayb himself also had a daughter of marriageable age, Halah by name, and when ‘Abd al-Muttalib had arranged that his son should marry Aminah, he asked that Halah should be given in marriage to himself. Wuhayb agreed, and all preparations were made for the double wedding to take place at the same time. On the appointed day, ‘Abd al-Muttalib took his son by the hand, and they set off together for the dwellings of the Bani Zuhrah.[4] On the way they had to pass the dwellings of the Bani Asad; and it so happened that Qutaylah, the sister of Waraqah, was standing at the entrance to her house, perhaps deliberately in order to see what could be seen, for everyone in Mecca knew of the great wedding which was about to take place. ‘Abd al-Muttalib was now over seventy years old, but he was still remarkably young for his age in every respect; and the slow approach of the two bridegrooms, their natural grace enhanced by the solemnity of the occasion, was indeed an impressive sight. But as they drew near, Qutaylah had eyes only for the younger man. ‘Abd Allah was, for beauty, the Joseph of his times. Even the oldest men and women of Quraysh could not remember having seen his equal. He was now in his twenty-fifth year, in the full flower of his youth. But Qutaylah was struck above all -as she had been on other occasions, but never so much as now- by the radiance which lit his face and which seemed to her to shine from beyond this world. Could it be that ‘Abd Allah was the excepted Prophet? Or was he to be the father of the Prophet?

They had now just passed her, and overcome by a sudden impulse she said “O ‘Abd Allah”. His father let go his hand as if to tell him to speak to his cousin. ‘Abd Allah turned back to face her, and she asked him where he was going. “With my father,” he said simply, not out of reticence but because he felt sure that she must know that he was on his way to his wedding. “Take me here and now as they wife,” she said, “and though shalt have as many camels as those that were sacrificed in thy stead.” “I am with my father,” he replied. “I cannot act against his wishes, and I cannot leave him.”[5]

The marriages took place according to plan, and the two couples stayed for some days in the house of Wuhayb. During that time ‘Abd Allah went to fetch something from his own house, and again he met Qutaylah, the sister of Waraqah. Her eyes searched his face with such earnestness that he stopped beside her, expecting her to speak. When she remained silent, he asked her why she did not say to him what she had said the day before. She answered him, saying: “The light hath left thee that was with thee yesterday. Today thou canst not fulfill the need I had of thee.”[6]

The year of the marriages was AD 569. The year following this has been known ever since as the Year of the Elephant, and it was momentous for more than one reason.


[1] The word hanif, plural hunafa’, has the sense of “orthodox”. See Qur’an 6 : 161
[2] Not to be confused with Hashim’s brother Nawfal, after whom the clan of Nawfal was named
[3] St John 16 : 13
[4] The sons (i.e. descendants) of Zuhrah; bani is the plural of ibn, son
[5] I.I. 100
[6] I.I. 101

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