63 – The Hypocrites

Zayd’s successful ambush on the eastern caravan route turned the thoughts of Quraysh once more to the western route which they so much preferred; and they now stirred up their own Red Sea coast allies, the Bani l-Mustaliq, a clan of Khuza’ah, to make a raid on Medina, hoping no doubt that the raiders might gather support from other coastal tribes, and thus open up the way once more for themselves. But the other clans of Khuza’ah were more favorably disposed to the Prophet than the Meccans realized, and news of this project reached him in good time. He was thus given the opportunity to demonstrate his undiminished and even increased power along the western route also, to within a few marches from Mecca itself. After eight days, considerably before the Bani l-Mustaliq were prepared to set out, he was already encamped on their territory at one of their watering places. From there he advanced and by a quick maneuver was able to close in upon the tent-dwellers, who surrendered without much resistance. Only one Muslim was killed, and of the enemy no more than ten. About two hundred families were made captive, and the booty included some two thousand camels and five thousand sheep and goats.

The army camped there for a few days, but its stay was cut short by an untoward incident. A quarrel broke out at one of the wells between two coastal tribesmen, from Ghifar and Juhaynah, as to which bucket belonged to which, and they fell to fighting. The Ghifarite, whom ‘Umar had hired to lead his horse, shouted for help -“O Quraysh”- while the Juhaynite called on his traditional allies of Khazraj, and the more hotheaded of both Emigrants and Helpers rushed to the scene. Swords were drawn and blood might have been shed had not some of the closer Companions intervened on both sides. This would normally have been the end of the matter. But it so happened that more of the hypocrites than usual had taken part in this expedition; it was in familiar and well-watered territory, and from the outset there had been hope of an easy victory and spoils well worth the effort. They were not, however, prepared to change their point of view but still persisted in looking on the expeditions which set out from Yathrib as forays of Khazraj and Aws supplemented by auxiliaries. It was therefore to the son of Qaylah that the camp belonged: the Quraysh refugees were there, as elsewhere, merely on sufferance. In this frame of mind Ibn Ubayy was sitting apart with a group of his intimates when the sound of the quarrel came to their ears, and one of them went to see what was the matter. He returned to report, quite truly, that ‘Umar’s man had been entirely to blame, and that it was he who had struck the first blow. This served to fan afresh the embers of bitterness which were still smoldering from the ordeal of the Trench. For the last five years the tension had gradually mounted until the presence of Muhammad and the other Emigrants had brought the whole of Arabia against them. Added to this, the rich and hospitable Jewish tribes which had played so important a part in the community had been rooted out -two of them exiled and the third massacred. The civil wars of the oasis had indeed called for a solution, but Ibn Ubayy was convinced that if he had been made king he would have known how to put an end to the discord without involving his people in more dangerous hostilities. And now these impoverished refugees had had the effrontery to obstruct the passage of their benefactors to the well! “Have they gone so far as this?” said Ibn Ubayy. “They seek to take precedence over us, they crowd us out of our own country, and naught will fit us and these rags of Quraysh but the old saying ‘Feed fat thy dog and it will feed on thee.’ By God, when we return to Medina, the higher and the mightier of us will drive out the lower and the weaker.” A boy of Khazraj named Zayd, who was sitting at the edge of the circle, went straight to the Prophet and told him what Ibn Ubayy had said. The Prophet changed color, and ‘Umar, who was with him, suggested that he should forthwith have the traitor beheaded, but he said: “What if men should say, O ‘Umar, that Muhammad slayeth his companions?” Meantime one of the Helpers had gone to Ibn Ubayy and asked him if he had in fact said what the boy had reported, and Ibn Ubayy came straight to the Prophet and swore that he had said no such thing. Some of the men of Khazraj who were present also spoke in his defense, anxious to avoid trouble. The Prophet let it seem as if the incident were closed; but a surer way of avoiding trouble was to busy men’s minds with something else and he gave the order to break camp immediately.

Never before had be been known to move off at that hour: it was not long after midday; and with brief halts at the times of prayer they were kept on the march through the heat of the afternoon, then all through the night and from dawn until the heat of the next day became oppressive. When they were finally told to pitch camp, the men were too tired to do anything but sleep. During the march the Prophet confided to Sa’d ibn ‘Ubadah, who for the Muslims had been gradually replacing Ibn Ubayy as the chief man of Khazraj, that he believed young Zayd to have spoken the truth. “O Messenger of God,” said Sa’d, “thou, if thou wilt, shalt drive out him, for he is the lower and the weaker and thou art the higher and the mightier.” He asked him none the less to deal gently with Ibn Ubayy, nor was the Prophet intending to mention the incident again; but soon after this talk with Sa’d the matter was taken out of his hands, for the Revelation descended upon him and that chapter was revealed which is named the Surah of the Hypocrites, one of whom it quotes, though not by name, as having said the very words spoken by Zayd. The Prophet did not however give out this chapter until they had returned to Medina. But he rode up to Zayd and leaning towards him took hold of his ear. “Boy,” he said, “thine ear heard truly, and God hath confirmed thy speech.”

Meantime ‘Abd Allah, the son of Ibn Ubayy, was deeply distressed for he knew that his father had spoken those words. He had also been told that ‘Umar had wanted the Prophet to put his father to death, and he was afraid that the sentence might be passed and the order given at any moment. So he went to the Prophet and said: “O Messenger of God, I am told that thou art minded to slay ‘Abd Allah ibn Ubayy. If thou must needs do it, then give me the order, and I will bring thee his head. Khazraj know full well that there is no man amongst them of moral filial piety unto his father than myself, and I fear that if thou shouldst give the order unto another my soul would not suffer me to look upon the slayer of my father walking amongst men, but I would slay him, and having thus slain a believer on behalf of a disbeliever I would enter the fire of Hell.” But the Prophet said: “Nay, but let us deal gently with him and make the best of his companionship so long as he be with us.”[1]


[1] I.I. 726 – 728

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