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DEATHS AND THE PROMISE OF A BIRTH

The earlier half of this same year of rejoicing, the eighth year after the Hijrah, was also a time of bereavement. The first of the deaths in the household of the Prophet was that of his daughter Zaynab. He was with her at the end and spoke words of comfort to his son-in-law and little granddaughter. Then he gave instructions to Umm Ayman, together with Sawdah and Umm Salamah, to make ready the body for burial. When the ablutions had been performed, the Prophet took off an undergarment he was wearing and told them to wrap her in it before they shrouded her. Then he led the funeral prayer and prayed also beside her grave. Khadijah was the only one of his wives who had borne him children.

The people of Medina longed that a child should be born to the Prophet in their city. Only two of his present wives – Umm Salamah and Umm Habibah; had borne children to their first husbands. But at each new marriage, the citizens were filled with fresh hopes, which gradually faded, for not one of the later wives was destined to be the mother of a child to the Prophet. Yet now, shortly after the death of his eldest daughter, it appeared that he was again to become a father. Mariyah, his Coptic bondmaid, was expecting a child. She was already a center of attention for the people of Medina who knew well the Prophet’s affection for her, and who sought to please him by their kindness to her, and now their attentiveness was redoubled.

About three months after his return from the Lesser Pilgrimage the Prophet sent fifteen men to act as peaceful messengers of Islam to one of the tribes on the borders of Syria, but their friendly greetings were met by a shower of arrows, and having been obliged to fight they were all killed but one. There was another setback, smaller in that it involved only a single death, but of greater political import. The Prophet had previously sent Dihyah Al-Kalbi to the governor of Bostra with his letter to Caesar, which had remained unanswered. A second messenger to Bostra was now intercepted by a chief of the tribe of Ghassan and put to death. Such an act could not be allowed to go unpunished, despite the risk that the Ghassanids, who were mainly Christian, might be able to persuade Caesar’s representative to send them help. The Prophet mustered an army of three thousand men and put Zayd in command of them, with instructions that if Zayd should be killed Jafar should take his place. ‘Abd Allah ibn Rawahah was named as third in order of precedence. If these three should all be incapacitated, the men were to follow a commander of their own choosing.

The Prophet then gave Zayd a white standard, and with others of his Companions, he accompanied the army to where the ground rises up towards the Pass of Farewell, an opening between the hills a little to the north of Uhud. ‘Abd Allah had with him, on the back of his saddle, an orphan boy whose guardian he was. On the way the boy heard him reciting some verses he had composed, expressing the desire to be left behind in Syria when the army returned home. “When I heard these verses I wept,” said the boy, “and he flicked me with his whip and said: ‘What harm to thee, wretched fellow, if God grant me martyrdom and I have rest from this world and its toil and its cares and its sorrows and its accidents, and thou returnest safe  in the saddle?’ After that, during a halt in the night, he prayed two prayer cycles followed by a long supplication. Then he called me and I said: ‘Here I am, at thy service.’ ‘If God will,’ he said, ‘it is martyrdom.”’

When the army reached the Syrian border they heard that not only had the northern tribes come out in considerable strength but that Caesar’s representative had greatly reinforced them with imperial troops. Altogether the enemy was said to be a hundred thousand strong. Allowing for the probability of gross exaggeration, Zayd nonetheless decided to halt and to hold a council of war. Most of the men were in favor of sending immediately to inform the Prophet of this grave turn of events. Then he could either order them home or give them auxiliaries. But ‘Abd Allah spoke vigorously against any such course. Using the same unanswerable argument which had been used before Uhud, and which was to be used again and again in the future, he ended his speech with the words: “We have before us the certainty of one of two good things, either victory or martyrdom – to join our brethren and be their companions in the gardens of Paradise, On then to the attack!”

‘Abd Allah’s resolution prevailed, and the army continued its northward advance. They were now not far from the southern end of the Dead Sea, separated from its long and deep valley by the range of hills that rises up from its eastern shores. A few hours’ marches brought them within sight of the enemy. Whatever the exact numbers of the combined Arab and Byzantine forces, the Muslims could see at a glance that they themselves were vastly outnumbered, on a scale which they had never yet experienced. Nor had any of them witnessed before such military splendor as that of the imperial squadrons which formed the center of the host, with the Arabs on either flank. The pomp of Quraysh as they had descended the hill of ‘Aqanqal at Badr had been as nothing to the wealth of arms and armor and the richly caparisoned horses which now met their eyes. Their approach moreover had been anticipated, and the legions were ready for them, drawn up in battle formation.

Wishing to avoid an immediate engagement, for the slope of the land was against them, Zayd gave orders to withdraw southwards to Mu’tah, where they would have the advantage, and there they consolidated their position. The enemy, conscious of the great superiority of their numbers and bent’ on making it an altogether decisive day, followed them to Mu’tah. As they drew near, instead of retreating further as they had expected, Zayd gave the order to attack. At that moment the space between Mu’tah and Medina was folded up for the Prophet and he saw Zayd with the white standard leading his men into battle. He saw him many times mortally wounded until finally, he fell to the ground, and Jafar took the standard and fought until his life also flowed out from his wounds. Then ‘Abd Allah took the standard and the attack which he led against the enemy was repulsed with a vigorous onslaught in which he too was killed and his men driven back in disarray.

Another Helper, Thabit ibn Arqam, seized the standard and the Muslims rallied, whereupon he gave it to Khalid who at first refused the honor saying that Thabit had more right to it. “Take it, man,” said Thabit; “I did but take it to give it thee.” So Khalid took command and knit the ranks together, and the enemy advance was so firmly checked that they drew back enough to enable the Muslims to beat an orderly retreat. It was a victory for the other side, but they gained no advantage from it; and of the  Muslims, apart from their three leaders, only five were killed. It was thus something of a victory for Khalid; and when the Prophet told his Companions of the battle and of the deaths of Zayd and Jafar and ‘Abd Allah he said: “Then one of God’s swords took the standard, and God opened up the way for them” -that is, for the Muslims to reach safety, and thus it was that Khalid came to be called “the Sword of God”.

As the Prophet described the battle the tears were flowing down his cheeks, and when the time came for the prayer he led it and immediately withdrew from the Mosque instead of turning to face the congregation as was his wont. He did the same again at sunset, and yet again after the night prayer. Meantime he had been to the house of Ja’far. “O Asma’,” he said, “bring me Jjafar’s sons.” With some misgivings at the gravity of his face, she fetched the three boys. The Prophet kissed them, and then again his eyes filled with tears and he wept. “O Messenger of God,” she said, “dearer than my father and my mother, what maketh thee weep? Hath news reached thee of Jafar and his companions?” “Even so,” he said. “They were struck down this day.” She uttered a cry of lamentation, and women hastened to her side. The Prophet returned to his house and ordered food to be prepared for the family of Ja’far during the next days. “Their grief doth busy them”, he said, “beyond caring for their own needs.”

Umm Ayman and Usamah and the rest of Zayd’s family were in his house. He had already condoled with them; and as he returned, Zayd’s little daughter came out into the street in tears, and seeing him she ran into his arms. He now wept unrestrainedly, and as he clasped the child to him his body shook with sobs. Sa’d ibn ‘Ubadah happened to pass by at that moment and searching in himself for words of comfort, he murmured: “O Messenger of God, what is this?” “This,” said the Prophet, “is one who  loveth yearning for his beloved.”

That night the Prophet had a vision of Paradise, and he saw that Zayd was there, and Jafar and ‘Abd Allah and the other martyrs of the battle; and he saw Jafar flying with wings like an Angel. At dawn he went to the Mosque; his Companions sensed that the weight of his sorrow had left him; and after the prayer, he turned as usual to face the congregation. Then he went again to Asrna’, to tell her of his vision; and she was greatly consoled. When Khalid and his men returned to Medina the Prophet called for his white mule, Duldul, which the Muqawqis had given him, and putting Jafar’s eldest boy in front of him on the saddle he rode out to meet them. Many men and women had already lined the route, and as the troops passed they jeered at them and threw dust in their faces. “Runaways,” they shouted. “Did ye flee from fighting in God’s path?” “Nay,” said the Prophet, “they are not runaways but returners again to the fight if God will.”

The setback at Mu’tah was an encouragement to the northern Arabs to strengthen their resistance to the new Islamic state, and in the following month, news came that the tribes of Ball and Quda’ah were massing in considerable numbers on the Syrian border, with intent to march south. But this time there appeared to be no question of reinforcements from Caesar. The Prophet sent ‘Amr at the head of three hundred men, with instructions to fight where necessary and to win allies where possible. The choice of commander may have been partly determined by the close ties of kinship that ‘Amr had with one of the tribes in question, for his mother was a woman of Bali. By dint of night marches and relatively secluded camps, he avoided attracting undue attention and reached the Syrian border in ten days. Winter had set in early that year and unaccustomed to being so far north, the men of Mecca and Medina set about gathering firewood as soon as they had made their final halt.

But ‘Amr forbade the lighting of a single fire; and grumblers were silenced with the words: “Ye were ordered to hear me and obey me; therefore do so.” Quickly realizing that the enemy was in greater numbers than had been anticipated and that there was little hope, for the moment, of local assistance, he sent back a man of juhaynah to the Prophet asking for reinforcements. Abu ‘Ubaydah was immediately dispatched with an additional two hundred men. As one of the closest Companions, and one who moreover had fought in every campaign, he expected to take precedence; but ‘Amr insisted that the newcomers were merely an auxiliary force and that he himself was commander-in-chief. The Prophet had told Abu ‘Ubaydah to see that there was perfect co-operation and no division between the two forces, so the older man gave way, saying to ‘Amr: “In case thou shouldst disobey me, by God I will obey thee.” When the Prophet heard of this, he invoked blessings upon Abu ‘Ubaydah.

‘Amr now led his five hundred men across the Syrian border, and as they advanced the enemy dispersed. There was only one brief exchange of arrows; for the rest, it was a question of coming upon deserted camps whose very recent occupants had vanished; and in the absence of the hostile clans, friendly elements – individuals and groups – ventured to manifest themselves. So ‘Amr was able to claim, in a letter to the Prophet, that he had re-established the influence of Islam upon the Syrian frontier. That influence was now rapidly growing throughout the tribes on all sides of the Yathrib oasis. The reasons were not purely spiritual: the Prophet was now known as a dangerous and incalculable enemy and as a powerful, reliable, and generous ally; by comparison, other alliances were beginning to seem less attractive and more hazardous. In many cases the political and religious motives were inextricably connected; but there was also a factor, slow-working yet powerful and profound, which had nothing whatsoever to do with politics, and which was also largely independent of the deliberate efforts made by the believers to spread the message of Islam. This was the remarkable serenity that characterized those who practiced the new religion.

The Qur’an, the Book of God’s Oneness, was also the Book of Mercy and the Book of Paradise. The recitation of its verses, combined with the teaching of the Messenger, imbued the believers with the certainty that they had within easy reach, that is through the fulfillment of certain conditions well within their capacity, the eternal satisfaction of every possible desire. The resulting happiness was a criterion of faith. The Prophet insisted: “All is well with  the faithful, whatever the circumstances.”

President

The divine scriptures are God’s beacons to the world. Surely God offered His trust to the heavens and the earth, and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man undertook it.
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