My personal reflections on this blog take inspiration from the Bahá’í teachings.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

The Prophet Muhammad's genius for peace

Muhammad first announced His mission as a Prophet to his kin and the people of Mecca, the city where He lived, around A.D. 614. But because Muhammad’s message was strongly opposed to idolatry, and Mecca was the main centre in that region for the worship of idols, Muhammad and his small group of followers suffered serious persecutions at the hands of the city’s tribal leaders and the populace at large. Eventually the Muslims found refuge in the town of Yathrib (now known as Medina), most of whose inhabitants also converted to Islam, and the Muslim community began to flourish. The leaders of Mecca launched three great attacks against Medina, in 623, 625, and 627. The Muslims were not defeated, and indeed Muhammad was steadily gaining a greater following in many parts of Arabia. In 628, Muhammad, through superb diplomacy, initiated a “ten year truce” with Mecca. Within two years, this truce had been broken by the actions of a few hotheaded youth of a tribe allied to Mecca. Shortly thereafter, a Muslim army, which on the way grew to be ten thousand strong, marched on Mecca.


The fall of Mecca


That night a desert wasteland came alive,

as countless bonfires blazed across the plain,

where troops encamped before their final drive,

in multitudes, that made defences vain.


Abú Sufyán, who climbed a hill and saw

the burning threat, knew Mecca’s doom stood by.

That greying chief had no more heart for war –

conceived surrender as the only course to try.


He thought to act as envoy, then, and plead

with He whose Cause advanced relentlessly –

resile from battle with that potent Creed

on terms that might avert catastrophe.


At dawn, escorted through a watchful crowd,

the pagan chief attained the Prophet’s tent –

on entering which, he found himself endowed

with awe, at scenes commanding – wonderment.


A splendour charged the aura of that place

that not Byzantium nor yet Pars could claim.

No king had glory like Muhammad’s grace –

and those who served Him, served with hearts aflame.


Addressing gently now His bitter foe,

Muhammad sought an answer of His guest –

would he admit, for surely he must know –

the one true God, no idol can contest.


The meek reply: “Your hosts grow more and more,

while no stone god rewards my loyal oath.

Allah, alone, full well, I will adore –

and vow to You, His Messenger, my troth.”


Muhammad pledged that those forswearing force

would see but blessings fall upon their fate –

nor placid homes find vengeance at their doors,

nor swordless men, regret their helpless state.


Before Abú Sufyán rushed home to warn

his tribe they must give in or die, he watched

as rank on rank of armoured men marched on

and passed him by, and left him badly shocked.


Though briefly led to fear a grim attack

by hostile hordes with bloody debts to pay

firm reassurance sent him quickly back

to keep his city’s braves from futile fray.


The legions of Islám prevailed with ease

and spilt the blood of few upon the ground.

Though Mecca fell, its folk would rise to seize

the gift of faith the Victor would propound.


Inside the ka’bah built by Abraham

false deities long mocked the true Divine.

At once the Prophet struck to end their sham –

hurled out the noxious idols, cleansed the Shrine.


And “Truth has come”, He said. “The false is gone.”

And said again, for each stone god He felled.

The Faith He taught asserts the living One

is merciful – which truth, His deeds upheld.


Historical background


Most of the following information is from Muhammad and the Course of Islam, by the historian, H.M. Balyuzi, published by George Ronald, Oxford, 1976.


As is often said, “Islam means peace.” It has had this meaning, from the start, even though the battles that occurred in the early days of Islam admittedly loom large in its history. That the early Muslims committed acts of violence in the course of serving their Faith, is undeniable. But the nature of the battles can be misconstrued, if the reality of the situation of those times is not accounted for. The warfare conducted by Muhammad was primarily defensive, and He took every opportunity to avoid bloodshed, if at all possible. Indeed, it seems His victories were mainly won by the effectiveness of his defensive strategies, reversing the saying that attack is the best form of defence. The historical record shows that His vanquished enemies were not forced to convert to Islam, for some of them, including a number of pagans in Mecca, after the city was defeated, freely chose to stay outside the Islamic fold. That “there is no compusion in religion”, was a principle that Muhammad maintained throughout his life.


But Muhammad’s unique role was to serve not only as Prophet but also as the founder and leader of a nation. To an ignorant people accustomed to feuding and fiercely loyal to their tribes, he brought unity and enlightenment. A fair reading of history needs to appreciate the responsibilities He had in His dual role as Prophet and Statesman, and His extraordinary achievements in transforming a fractious land into an orderly society. It was for this purpose that He fought. In wielding the forces that kings and rulers must wield, he did so with a genius for peace, and a forbearance, that no other commander in chief has ever approached. But the military victories were insignificant beside His service to humankind in revealing the Qur’an, which established a pattern of civilisation and spirituality that flowered centuries afer His death, producing Islam’s golden age, whose intellectual and spiritual benefits underpin the modern world.


Muhammad was a resident of the city of Mecca when His prophetic mission began, around A.D. 610. Mecca was the centre of idol-worship in Arabia, where pilgrims paid homage to al-Lat, Manat, Hubal, and a pantheon of others. The Revelation Muhammad received, as recorded in the Qur’an, commanded him: “So, call not upon another god, with God, lest thou be of those who are chastised. And warn thy clan, thy nearest kin. And lower thy wing to those who follow thee, being believers.” (Surah xxvi, 213-30) Over time, Muhammad’s vigorous opposition to idolatry led to an increasing number of repressive measures against him by the leaders of Mecca. Eventually, He and His followers were welcomed and given refuge by the people of Yathrib (now called Medina), where they settled in relative safety and could prosper. The Medinites themselves, as the whole, accepted Islam. The armies of Mecca proceeded to attack Medina, particularly in three great campaigns: the battles of Badr in 623 and Uhud in 625, and the investment of Medina in 627. The senior leader of Mecca during this period was Abú Sufyán, high chieftain of the Quraysh, the major tribe of the city. In March 628 Muhammad initiated a truce with Mecca that was intended to last ten years. This was readily accepted by the Quraysh, who were tired of the fruitless fighting and the resulting damage to their trading activities. Yet, within a couple of years, the truce was broken as a result of the actions of a few hot-headed young men of a tribe allied to the Quraysh. Hoping to avert retaliation, Abú Sufyán visited Medina, seeking a meeting with the Prophet. He was rebuffed and went home deeply despondent. Soon after, Muhammad’s army marched on Mecca.


The poem recounts the exceptional achievement of Muhammad in achieving an almost bloodless victory over a veteran enemy. The facts alluded to in the poem are as follows. By the time the Muslim army reached Mar-az-Zahran, some 20 kilometres out of Mecca, it had swelled to a force ten-thousand strong, including contingents from a number of tribes that had only recently embracd Islam. The army stopped there for the night, and Muhammad gave an order for bonfires to be lit across the plain. Abú Sufyán came out of Mecca that night with two companions, sensing trouble was on the way. Upon seeing the blazing fires, his suspicions were confirmed. Meeting up with an uncle of the Prophet who was friendly towards him, He managed to obtain safe conduct past the sentries to Muhammad’s tent, but was asked to wait until morning before a meeting could take place. At dawn, he heard the call to prayer, chanted by the Ethiopian former slave, Bilal, the first muezzin. The historian, Hasan Balyuzi, writes: “Abú Sufyán was amazed and his amazement was boundless when he noticed how the Muslims would not let a drop of water, with which Muhammad made his ablutions, reach the ground. Not even at the courts of the Sasanians [monarchs of Persia, or Pars] and the Byzantines, had he seen such devotion.” An earlier Meccan envoy to Muhammad had similarly reported, Balyuzi states, “that though he had been to the courts of Chosroes, Caesar and the Negus, nowhere had he seen the like or equal of the reverence which Muslims rendered to Muhammad.”


Following dawn prayers, Abú Sufyán was welcomed by the Prophet. In the course of the interview that followed, he admitted the ineffectualness of the deities he had lifelong worshipped, and declared his allegiance to Islam, testifying: "Ilaha illa Allah. Muhammad rasul Allah." "There is no God but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God." This is the shahada, the great confession.1 Muhammad then promised the chief, “Whoever enters the house of Abú Sufyán in the upper regions of Mecca, and whoever enters the house of Hakim in the lower regions of Mecca, he shall be secure; and whoever lays down his arms, he shall be secure; and whoever shuts himself behind his own door, he shall be secure; and whoever enters the [Ka’bah], he shall be secure.” At the end of the meeting, Abú Sufyán was invited to watch while contingents of the army rode past the spot where he stood, lest he be tempted to doubt what Mecca was up against. During this parade of strength, the standard-bearer of Muhammad’s escort caught sight of Abú Sufyán, and was so upset by the sight that he threatened, “O Abú Sufyán, this is the day of blood-letting, when God shall abase the Quraysh.” Balyuzi writes: “Abú Sufyán trembled with fear, and begged Muhammad, when the Prophet drew level with him, not to change His mind, but to be compassionate towards His people ... Muhammad assured him that [the standard-bearer] had spoken in haste: ‘O Abú Sufyán, nay, today is the day of mercy. Today God shall exalt the Quraysh.’” The chief returned home to warn his people, and to face the rage of his wife, Hind, who rained blows on him and called (unsuccessfully) on bystanders to kill this “old, decrepit fool.”


The Muslim army entered Mecca against negligible resistance. The standard-bearer who had threatened Abú Sufyán was told to hand over the banner to his son, in his stead. There were admittedly heavy casualties among a small band of “irreconcilables”, but this outbreak of fighting soon came to an end, and the ringleaders fled. It is said that this incident would have been less bloody if not for a mistake by a messenger who conveyed Muhammad’s order to hold back the sword as an order to “put the sword on them”. After a period of rest, Muhammad rode on horseback to the Ka’bah, still dressed in mail. According to Balyuzi, “It is related that three hundred and sixty idols were ranged around the court of the Ka’bah. As the Prophet moved from one to the other, to hurl them down, He exclaimed: ‘Truth has come and the false has departed, indeed the false has truly gone.’ This was the climax, the supreme moment of the mission of Muhammad.”


Next, on Mount Safa, Meccans crowded to pledge fealty to Muhammad. Muhammad forgave even those among the Meccans who had caused the most severe of difficulties for Him and His Cause. However, seven unrepentant individuals, four men and three women, were put to death for grave crimes. Seven other condemned men, and three women, escaped punishment, through their own contrition or an appeal on their behalf by a Muslim. Some fighting occurred in regions nearby to Mecca within the next few weeks, but within a short time, a young man of Mecca was appointed administrator, and Muhummad returned to Medina, leaving behind one of his close associates to teach the precepts of Islam. One among those he forgave before he left was Wahshi, who had killed Hamzah, who was a cherished friend of the Prophet, at the battle of Uhud. Wahshi despaired of ever being forgiven. For him, this verse of the Qur’an was revealed:


Say: “O my people who have been prodigal against yourselves, do not despair of God’s mercy; surely God forgives sins altogether; surely He is the All-forgiving, the All-compassionate.”2


This verse was regarded by no less than Ali, the first Imam of the Shi’ah, as the most far-reaching in the whole of the Qur’an. He took his cue in this from comments made by Muhammad Himself.


As to Abú Sufyán, he lived to the age of 95, and the Caliph, Uthman, led his funeral prayer.3

1See www.islamonline.com

2Verse 54 of Surah xxxix.

3For a biographical article on Abú Sufyán’s life, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Sufyan

4 comments:

coralie said...

hello, that was a good explanation of the poem...now i understand :)

Sadiq M. Alam said...

greetings of peace dear friend.

blessings be with you.

Irving said...

Salaam and Greetings of Peace:

What an excellent poem and lovely post :) Thank for an exceptional explanation.

Ya Haqq!

John Bryden said...

Thank you, Sadiq, and Irving, for your kind thoughts.