Thursday, June 23, 2011

Muhammad, Abu Talib and Yathrib

The major events in Muhammad's life are well marked out. He was born in 570 CE (Common Era). His parents, first his father, Abdullah, and then his mother Amina, died before he was three. Interestingly, Amina seemed to have belonged to Madina, then known as Yathrib. Abdullah died in Yathrib, Muhammad's year of birth – 570 CE – is also known as the Year of the Elephant because the king of Yemen attacked Mecca in that year. Muhammad was brought up by Abdu'l Mutallib, his paternal grandfather, and after his death by his uncle Abu Talib.

As a boy, Muhammad travelled north into Syria on the trade caravans of his uncle, Abu Talib. And he continued to do so as a young man, when he worked for the widow and businesswoman, Khadija. Syria was then a Christian country, and it is said that he met many Christian ascetics during the business trips. At the time, some of the young Arabs were also leading the life of religious ascetics, partly influenced by their Syrian Christian counterparts.

When he was 25, Muhammad married Khadija, who was then 40. His marriage must have taken place in 595 CE. It was in 610 CE that Muhammad received his first revelation. He was then 40 years old, and he had been married for 15 years. In these 15 years, he would retire into a cave in Mt.Hira in the month of Ramadan to pray and fast. Hi wife was with him in this annual retreat. Muhammad would share the revelations with the people who came to Mecca, and the shrine of Ka'aba.

It was Muhammad's clan of the Qureish, who were custodians of the Ka'aba. So, the initial resistance to Muhammad's new ideas, based on his revelations, came from the Qureish. They felt that Muhammad's new ideas would reduce the importance of the Ka'aba and the old deities there. The resistance and resentment soon grew into violent persecution. Muhammad was physically harassed. They would dump dead flesh of animals on his back while he was bent in prayer. A woman would spit on him whenever he passed her door. It is said that one day when she did not spit, Muhammad went in and discovered that she was ill. Though many, indeed a majority, of them were opposed to Muhammad's ideas, they respected him as an upright man. He was called 'Al Amin' or The Honest Man. When the Ka'aba was being renovated, they decided it was Muhammad who should lay the keystone. This did not, however, prevent them from opposing his preachings, and from harassing him. If they had the way, they would have either killed Muhammad, or they would have thrown him out of Mecca. But they could do neither because Abu Talib was an influential and respected person in the traditional Meccan hierarchy.

Abu Talib gave protection to Muhammad. As a consequence, Abu Talib's family had to suffer ostracisation in the close-knit trading community of the oasis city. Abu Talib supported as a kinsman but he did not become a convert to the new teaching. There were a few other converts, his wife Khadija and his cousin Ali were among them. Did Abu Talib consider Muhammad's ideas right or wrong? If he thought that Muhammad was right, then he would have accepted them. If he thought that Muhammad was wrong, then he would have opposed him. But he did neither.

The orthodox interpreters of early Islam say that Abu Talib did accept Muhammad's new religion, but he told his nephew that people would think that it is the fear of death that compelled him to accept the new faith. And he did not want that. The other popular, orthodox version is that he did whisper the confession of the new faith in his dying moments. But it is also said Muhammad said that he did not hear it.

Abu Talib's relationship with Muhammad – that is, the intellectual and religious one – has to be seen in a clearer perspective. It seems more likely that he did not agree with his nephew's new religious experience, but he did seem to feel that Muhammad's religious experience was genuine and true. Abu Talib did not consider Muhammad as a deluded man, or as a heretic in relation to the old faith. But he did not go so far as to embrace the new faith. He was certainly dissatisfied with the old system. It is this dissatisfaction that led him to accept the possibility that Muhammad was trying to find a way to God. In pre-Islamic Mecca there people like Abu Talib who did not accept the established religious practices at face value, and they were open to new ideas. As a matter of fact, Muhammad himself belongs to the small group of people in Mecca and in other parts of Arabia, who were searching fro truth in religion. They were known as Hanifs. Zaid, Muhammad's distant cousin, was one of them. It is said that Zaid became a Christian but the evidence is not clear.

There was an intellectual stirring in the Arabia of Muhammad's youth. That is why, Abu Talib was open to Muhammad's new religious experience. It is also clear that Muhammad never insisted that the others should accept his revelations. The earliest of his followers, including his wife Khadija and his cousin Ali and his future father-in-law Abu Bakr, did so voluntarily. They felt that there was something true and superior in what Muhammad had to offer.

In the case of Abu Talib, it was different. He must have followed very closely the spiritual progress of his nephew over the years. And he certainly must have admired Muhammad's steadfast dedication to his new-found cause. This did not however induce him to give his intellectual assent though he had lent unconditional emotional and social support. Muhammad could have prevailed on Abu Talib to accept the new faith, but he did not do so. The open-ended intellectual equation between Muhammad and Abu Talib shows that there was a climate of intellectual pluralism in the apparently primitive Arabia of seventh century CE. Muhammad and Abu Talib each held their own views and they lived together.

It will be argued that kinship bonds were more powerful than intellectual affinities in the Arabia of Muhammad's time, and that Abu Talib stood by his nephew till the end for the sake of family honour more than anything else. It is certainly true that in traditional Arab society with its tribal divisions, family loyalty was supreme. But it is not a sufficient argument to explain matters of faith. If Abu Talib had felt at any time that Muhammad was breaking radically with the time-honoured traditions of society, he would not have hesitated to ostracise his nephew. The code of honour in a traditional society is indeed a harsh one, and those who broke the law could not claim protection in the name of affection. Emotional attachments were subservient to the collective compulsions of a society. The biographies of Muhammad tell us that Abu Talib and his family were under great pressure to give up Muhammad, and he had even to suffer much economic deprivation from fellow-Qureish.

It is only after the death of Abu Talib that Muhammad realises his life is in danger and that he has to leave Mecca. Without Abu Talib's support through the crucial years, Muhammad could have been easily killed. Or, he would have had to flee Mecca much earlier. The Qureish take pride that Muhammad was a Qureish. They forget the fact that the persecutors of Muhammad in his lifetime were none other than the Qureish. They were not in a position to understand his new teachings. They felt threatened. They thought that Muhammad's teachings would undermine their commercial monopoly over the Ka'aba. It seemed to them that Muhammad's insistence on One God, who is invisible and transcendent, destroyed the physical importance of the Ka'aba. The Qureish fought fiercely to preserve their traditionally monopoly over the Ka'aba, which served as the important holy shrine in Arabia during that time. That is why, they did not allow Muhammad to visit the Ka'aba on his last visit. Muhammad had to content himself with performing a 'Umrah' or the short pilgrimage. It was no doubt a desperate attempt on the part of the Qureish to stave off the growing popularity of Muhammad's new faith.

While Muhammad's following in Mecca was small – indeed so small that his life was not safe – it is an influential section of the people from Yathrib, the neighbouring oasis city, who seemed to have been impressed by Muhammad's teachings, and who were willing to embrace the new faith. For many years, during their annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the leaders of Yathrib became acquainted with Muhammad's teachings. They must have been attracted to the rational beauty of the idea of One God, which was the main thesis of Muhammad.

Ideas have a strange power over the imagination of people, and once they are charmed by an idea they are willing to give their emotional and economic support to it. The Yathrib pilgrims must have been unhappy and felt insulted by the arrogance of the Qureish, who lorded it over at the Ka'aba. Muhammad challenged the power and glory of the Qureish. The leaders from Yathrib must have sensed a golden opportunity of siding with a charismatic Qureish dissenter like Muhammad. Muhammad was Yathrib's chance to shake off the spiritual-material yoke imposed by the Qureish on the rest of Arabia.

It could not have been mere political calculation that motivated the contingent from Yathrib to invite Muhammad to their city. Yathrib was willing to embrace the new faith of Islam. The leaders of Yathrib have decided to challenge the political and economic supremacy of Mecca by adopting the new ideas implied in Islam. The ballast for political power is provided by intellectual fire. Yahtrib had undertaken an intellectual and spiritual adventure by inviting Muhammad. This would not have been possible if the people of Yathrib were not emotionally satisfied with the existing mode of faith. They were thirsting for fresh spiritual and emotional solace, and Muhammad's teachings seemed to provide them that.

When they invited Muhammad and were wiling to adopt his spiritual ways, the people of Yathrib could not have imagined that Islam would become a triumphant idea in the whole of Arabia, and in large parts of the then known world. The people of Yahtrib were hazarding their future on an untested idea. Muhammad in his lifetime did not succeed in overthrowing the supremacy of the Qureish in Mecca. That happened after his death. Yathrib played a crucial role in providing the much-needed base for Muhammad. The Qureish were forced to reckon with him.

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