65 – The Lie

Not long after her return to Medina, ‘A’ishah fell ill. By that time the slander that the hypocrites had whispered against herself and Safwan was being repeated throughout the city. Few took it seriously, though amongst those who did was her own cousin Mistah, of the clan of Muttalib. But whether they believed it or not, everyone knew of it, except herself. She was none the less conscious of a certain reserve on the part of the Prophet, and she missed the loving attention which he had shown her in her other illnesses. He would come into the room and say to those who were nursing her “How are ye all today?”, simply including her with the others. Deeply wounded, but too proud to complain, she asked his permission to go to her parents’ house where her mother could nurse her. “As thou wilt,” he said.

To recount what took place in ‘A’ishah’s own words: “I went to my mother without any knowledge of what was being said, and recovered from my illness some twenty days later. then one evening I went out with the mother of Mistah -her mother was the sister of my father’s mother- and as she was walking beside me she stumbled over her gown and exclaimed: ‘May Mistah stumble!’ ‘God’s Life,’ I said, ‘that was an ill thing to say of a man of the Emigrants who fought at Badr!’ ‘O daughter of Abu Bakr,’ she said, ‘can it be that the news hath not reached thee?’ ‘What news?’ I said. Then she told me what the slanderers had said and how people were repeating it. ‘Can this be so?’ I said. ‘By God, it is indeed!’ was her answer, and I returned home in tears, and I wept and wept until I thought that my weeping would split my liver. ‘God forgive thee!’ I said to my mother. ‘People talk their talk, and thou tellest me not one word of it!’ ‘My little daughter,’ she said, ‘take it not so heavily, for there is seldom a beautiful woman married to a man who loveth her but her fellow wives are full of gossip about her, and others repeat what they say.’ So I lay awake the whole of that night, and my tears flowed without ceasing.”[1]

But in fact, whatever jealousies there may have been between one and another, the wives of the Prophet were all women of piety, and not one of them took any part in spreading the slander. On the contrary, they defended ‘A’ishah and spoke well of her. Of those chiefly to blame, the nearest to the Prophet’s household was his cousin Hamnah, Zaynab’s sister, who repeated the calumny, thinking thus to further her sister’s interests: for it was generally thought that but for ‘A’ishah Zaynab would have been the Prophet’s favorite wife; and Zaynab suffered much from her sister’s ill conceived zeal on her behalf. Another of the slanderers, in addition to Mistah, was the poet Hassan ibn Thabit; and in the background were Ibn Ubayy and the other hypocrites who had started everything.

The Prophet clearly hoped for a Revelation, but when nothing came he questioned not only his wives but also other near ones. Usamah, who was the same age as ‘A’ishah, spoke vigorously in her defense. “This is all a lie,” he said. “We know naught but good of her.” His mother, Umm Ayman, was equally emphatic in praise of her. As for ‘Ali, he said: “God hat not restricted thee, and there are many women besides her. But question her maidservant and she will tell thee the truth.” So the Prophet sent for her and said: “O Burayrah, hast thou ever seen aught in ‘A’ishah that might make thee suspect her?” She answered: “By Him that sent thee with the truth, I know only good of her; and if it were otherwise God would inform His Messenger. I have no fault to find ‘A’ishah but that she is a girl, young in years, and when I am kneading dough and I bid her watch it she will fall asleep and her pet lamb will come and eat it. I have blamed her for that more than once.”

When next the Prophet went to the Mosque he ascended the pulpit, and having praised God he said: “O people, what say ye of men who injure me with regard to my family, reporting of them what is not true? By God, I know naught but good of my household, and naught but good of the man they speak of, who never entereth a house of mine but I am with him.” No sooner had he spoken than Usayd rose to his feet and said: “O Messenger of God, if they are of Aws we will deal with them; and if they be of our brethren of Khazraj then give us thy command, for they deserve that their heads should be cut off.” Before he had finished Sa’d ibn ‘Ubadah was already on his feet, for Hassan was of Khazraj, and so were the men who had subtly hatched the slander in the beginning. “God’s Life, thou liest!” he said. “Ye shall not slay them, nor can ye. Neither wouldst thou have spoken thus, had they been of thye people.” “God’s Life, liar thyself!” said Usayd. “Slay them we shall, and thou art a hypocrite, striving on behalf of hypocrites.” By this time the two tribes were about to come to grips with one another, but the Prophet motioned them to desist, and descending from the pulpit he quietened them and sent them away in peace.

If ‘A’ishah had known that the Prophet had defended her in public from the pulpit, she would no doubt have been greatly comforted. But she knew nothing of it at that time. She was only aware of his questioning others about her, which suggested that he did not know what to think, and this greatly distressed her. She did not expect him, of himself to look into her soul, for she knew that his knowledge of hidden things came to him from the next world. “I only know what God giveth me to know,” he would say. He did not seek to read the thoughts of men; but she expected him to know that her devotion to him was such as to make the thing she was accused of impossible.

In any case, it was not enough that he should himself believe ‘A’ishah and Safwan to be innocent. The situation was a grave one, and it was imperative to have evidence which would convince the whole community. To this end ‘A’ishah herself had proved the least helpful of all concerned. It was now time that her silence should be broken. Not that anything she said could be enough to resolve the crisis. But the Qur’an promised that questions asked during the period of its revelation would be answered.[2] In the present case the Prophet had filled the air with questions -the same question, reiterated to different person- but for the promised answer to be given by Heaven, it was perhaps necessary that the question should already have been put to the person most closely involved.

“I was with my parents,” said ‘A’ishah, “and I had wept for two nights and a day; and while they were sitting with me a woman from the Helpers asked if she could join us, and I bade her enter, and she sat and wept with me. Then the Prophet entered and took his seat, nor had he sat with me since people began to say what they said of me. A month had passed, and no tidings had come to him about me from Heaven. After uttering the testification there is no god but God, he said: O ‘A’ishah, I have told such and such a thing concerning thee, and if thou art innocent, surely God will declare thine innocence; and if thou hast done aught that is wrong, then ask forgiveness of God and repent unto Him; for verily if the slave confess his sin and then repent, God relenteth unto him.’ No sooner had he spoken than my tears ceased to flow and I said to my father ‘Answer the Messenger of God for me,’ and he said: ‘I know not what to say.’ When I asked my mother she said the same, and I was no more than a girl, young in years, and there was not much of the Qur’an that I could recite. So I said: ‘I know well that ye have heard what men are saying, and it hath settled in your souls and ye have believed it; and if I say unto you that I am innocent -and God knoweth that I am innocent- ye will not believe me, whereas if I confessed to that which God knoweth I am guiltless of, ye would believe me.’ Then I groped in my mind for the name of Jacob, but I could not remember it, so I said: ‘But I will say as the father of Joseph said: Beautiful patience must be mine; and God is He of whom help is to be asked against what they say.[3] Then I turned to my couch and lay on it, hoping that God would declare me innocent. Not that I thought He would send down a Revelation on my account, for it seemed to me that I was too paltry for my case to be spoken of in the Qur’an But I was hoping that the Prophet would see in his sleep a vision that would exculpate me.

“He remained sitting in our company and all of us were still present when a Revelation came to him: he was seized with the pangs which seized him at such times, and as it were pearls of sweat dripped from him, although it was a wintry day. Then, when he was relieved of the pressure, he said in a voice that vibrated with gladness: ‘O ‘A’ishah, praise God, for He hath declared thee innocent.’ Then my mother said ‘Arise and go to the Messenger of God,’ and I said: ‘Nay by God, I will not rise and go to him, and I will praise none but God.'”[4]

The words of exculpation were:

Verily, they who brought forth the lie are a party amongst you … When ye took it upon your tongues, uttering with your mouths that whereof ye had no knowledge, ye counted it but a trifle. Yet in the sight of God it is enormous. Why said ye not when ye heard it: To speak of this is not for us. Glory be to Thee! This is a monstrous calumny. God biddeth you beware of ever repeating the like thereof, if ye are believers.[5]

The new Revelation also dwelt upon the whole question of adultery, and, while prescribing the penalty, it likewise prescribed, as the penalty for slandering honorable women, that the slanderers should be scourged. This sentence was carried out upon Mistah and Hassan and Hamnah, who had been most explicit in spreading the calumny and who confessed their guilt. But the hypocrites, who had been more insidious, had none the less been only implicit, nor did they confess to having had any part in it, so the Prophet preferred not to pursue the matter, but to leave them to God.

Abu Bakr had been in the habit of giving his kinsman Mistah an allowance of money on account of his poverty, but now he said: “Never again by God will I give unto Mistah, and never again will I show him favor, after what he hath said against ‘A’ishah, and after the woe he hath brought upon us.” But there now came the Revelation:

Let not the men of dignity and wealth amongst you swear that they will not give unto kinsmen and unto the needy and unto those who have migrated for the sake of God. Let them forgive and let them be indulgent. Do ye not long that God should forgive you? And God is Forgiving, Merciful.[6]

Then Abu Bakr said: “Indeed I long that God shall forgive me.” And he returned to Mistah and gave him what he had been used to giving him and said: “I Swear I will never withdraw it from him!” The Prophet likewise, after a certain time had elapsed, showed great generosity to Hassan; and he married his cousin Hamnah, Mus’ab’s widow, to Talhah, by whom she had two sons.

[1] B. 52 : 15
[2] Qur’an 5 : 101
[3] Qur’an 12 : 18
[4] B. 52, 15
[5] Qur’an 24 : 11, 15 – 17
[6] QUr’an 24 : 22

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