Story of Mohammed - Edith Holland

The Year of the Elephant

On the western side of Arabia, in the province of Hijaz, and about fifty miles from the Red Sea coast, is the city of Meccah. It is one of the oldest cities in the world and one of the most interesting. As long ago as the days of Jacob it was an important centre for the caravans bringing their rich merchandise from the south, and through the desert into Syria. You read in the Psalms, "The kings of Arabia and Saba shall bring gifts." Saba was a city on the southwest coast of Arabia, in the province of Yemen, which is much more fertile than other parts of the country. In the olden days there must have been many stately towns along that coast, and it was from this part of Arabia that the Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon.

Gold and precious stones and many sweet-smelling spices were brought to Yemen from the shores of Africa, and even from India. All this valuable merchandise was loaded on the backs of camels to be conveyed to the markets of Syria and other important centres of trade, sometimes even to Egypt and the ports of the Mediterranean. The merchants travelled in companies or caravans, for the sake of safety, for there were many dangers to be faced before they could reach the end of their journey. A great part of the route lay through the desert, and here were often plunderers who might fall on the caravans, robbing them of all their treasures. A caravan may be large or small, a large one sometimes numbering over a thousand camels.

At certain places in the desert there are fertile spots called oases. A spring of water coming to the surface causes grass and palm-trees to grow, and the latter are much prized and carefully cultivated for the sake of their dates. A well is usually built to prevent the precious spring from being choked up with sand. An oasis may consist of a single well and a few palms, or it may be very large, containing thousands of date palms and villages with many inhabitants. At these fruitful islands the caravans halted, while the weary travellers enjoyed a well-earned rest and replenished their store of water, which they carried in goatskin bags. On the road from Yemen to Syria there are about seventy halting-places, Meccah lying about half-way.

The sacred city of Meccah is situated in a long, narrow valley, almost entirely surrounded by steep mountains, on which there is hardly a trace of vegetation. There are no green fields to be seen, and this spot, so reverenced by the Arabs and all Mohammedans, is one of the most grim and barren places of the earth. There are many legends connected with its early history. It is said that, after their wanderings in the wilderness, Hagar and Ishmael came into the valley of Meccah; Hagar, unable to find water for her son, left him lying on the ground, and ran distractedly between the hills of Safa and Marwah, seeking a well or a spring. When she returned to her child there was a stream of clear water gushing from the ground at his feet! This spring was afterward known as Zem-Zem, the sacred well which is to this day visited by pilgrims. Near this spot the city of Meccah was founded; in course of time Ishmael married the daughter of one of the ruling chiefs, and he is reverenced as the forefather of many of the tribes of Arabia.

In the midst of the city stands a very ancient temple. Its shape is that of a perfectly plain four-sided figure, the height being rather greater than the length and breadth; the sides of the building are entirely covered with a drapery, usually of black. The Kaabah, or Cube House, as this temple is called, is regarded by the Mohammedans as the most sacred place on earth. It is in no way beautiful, yet its severe simplicity makes it one of the most impressive sights in the world. At the southeast corner of the building, near the only door, is inserted a mysterious Black Stone, which has been held in reverence by countless generations. A legend tells that it once fell from heaven, and was originally white, until the sins of the world changed it to its present colour. Very little is known about the early history of the Kaabah. The Arabs say that the first Kaabah was built by the angels for Adam in Paradise, and that the earthly Kaabah was an exact copy of this first model. It was many times destroyed, and was supposed to have been rebuilt by the Patriarch Abraham with the help of his son Ishmael. The Arabs say that it was Abraham who first taught them the worship of the true God and instituted some of the ceremonies of pilgrimage to the Holy House.

For a time the Arab tribes followed the religion of Abraham, but by degrees they fell away from their ancient faith and became idolaters. At the time at which our story begins the whole of Arabia was given over to idolatry. Some of the tribes worshipped the stars and planets, the beautiful Sirius, or Dog Star, being an object of special devotion; some made idols of stones and rocks, and a few were fire-worshippers, like the early Persians. Thus the Kaabah, which had first been devoted to the service of God, became a shrine of idolatry. In the sixth century there were 360 idols, one for each day of the Arab year, around and within the Kaabah. These idols were of various forms, one being in the shape of an eagle, another of a horse, and among them stood a rude statue of the Patriarch Abraham. One of the most honoured was Hubal, the gigantic figure of a man, carved in red stone, and holding in his hand seven wingless arrows. The ancient Arabs often drew lots to decide any important question, and for this purpose they used wingless arrows. Hubal was the oracle who presided over the drawing of lots.

The care of the Kaabah, with the duty of feeding the many pilgrims who came to worship at the holy shrine, was entrusted to the members of the tribe which had most power and influence; these also claimed the right of raising the banner and declaring war.

During the fifth and sixth centuries the ruling tribe at Meccah was the Kuraysh. This name is derived from a word which means "to trade," many of the leading members of the tribe having been great traders. The chief of the tribe of Kuraysh was the most important and influential man in Meccah. One of the most renowned of these chiefs was Hashim, who was born in A.D. 464; he was very rich, having gained great wealth by trading, and he did much to increase the prosperity of his native town. He instituted a regular caravan service between Meccah and the most important markets of the East; every winter a caravan set out for Yemen, and every summer for Syria. During the pilgrimage season Hashim entertained the pilgrims with princely liberality, providing them with bread and meat, butter, barley, and dates. The ancient well Zem-Zem having long ago become choked up and the site forgotten, Hashim had large tanks made in which all the available water could be stored, thus giving Meccah a sufficient water-supply.

During the time that Hashim was chief of Meccah, there was a year of great scarcity, and the city was threatened with a serious famine. Hashim spent a great part of his wealth in relieving the wants of his fellow-countrymen; he travelled to Syria, and bought all the corn that could be collected; this was loaded on the backs of numerous camels and conveyed to Meccah to be distributed among the people. After this the camels were slaughtered and roasted, and plenty reigned in place of want and starvation.

Late in life Hashim married a noble lady of the town of Yathrib, and had a son who was named Shayba. While Shayba was yet but a child, Hashim died in Syria, where he had gone on a trading expedition. His younger brother, Muttalib, acted as chief of Meccah until Shayba was old enough to succeed to his father's dignities. In course of time Muttalib went to fetch Hashim's son from Yathrib, where he was living with his mother. When Muttalib returned to Meccah in company with the young lad the people thought he had bought a slave, and called the boy Abd al-Muttalib, which means the slave, or the servant, of Muttalib. The name clung to him, and he is known in history by no other name than that of Abd al-Muttalib.

When he was old enough Hashim's son was installed in his father's place; but one of his uncles, whose name was Naufal, disputed his possession of the property and tried to rob the orphan of his rights. Abd al-Muttalib sent word to his mother's relations in Yathrib, letting them know how he had been treated. Thereupon eighty men of his mother's clan rode in haste to Meccah, and appeared before the Kaabah fully armed. Their chief, drawing his sword, threatened Naufal with instant death if he did not swear to respect the rights of his nephew Abd al-Muttalib. Naufal, overawed by this sudden boldness, swore a solemn oath in the presence of the assembled chiefs of the Kuraysh, agreeing to recognize the claims of Hashim's son.

For many years, however, Abd al-Muttalib had a hard struggle to retain his position, and he had many rivals who were jealous of his power. At last an event occurred which seemed to be the turning point in his fortunes. The site of Zem-Zem, the ancient well of Meccah, had, as I have already told you, been long forgotten. Abd al-Muttalib, having got some clue to its position, set himself diligently to find it. Long and patiently he continued excavating, with the help of his son, Harith. At last their efforts were rewarded, and they came on a quantity of treasure which had been buried in the well more than three hundred years before, during a tribal war. Two golden gazelles, some swords and suits of armour were discovered; the well was cleaned out, and found to contain an ample supply of water. Some of the other members of the tribe of Kuraysh disputed the right of Abd al-Muttalib both to the well and the treasure. Lots were cast with the arrows of Hubal to decide whether the newly found treasure should belong to Abd al-Muttalib, to the tribe of Kuraysh, or to the gods of the Kaabah. The drawing of the lots apportioned the golden gazelles to the Kaabah and the rest of the treasure to Abd al-Muttalib, while the arrows of the Kuraysh were blank. The gazelles were hammered out into plates of gold and nailed to the door of the Kaabah, and Abd al-Muttalib hung up the swords on the outside of the building to guard the treasures within.

From this time the fortunes of the chief steadily improved, his wealth increased, and he became famous, as his father Hashim had been before him, for the liberality with which he entertained the pilgrims. As guardian of the well Zem-Zem, it was also his duty to supply them with water. Thus Abd al-Muttalib acquired power and influence. But amid all his prosperity there was one thing which seriously troubled his peace of mind. In the East people think a great deal of having many sons to succeed them and uphold the honour of the family. During the time of his long struggle with fortune Abd al-Muttalib had but one son to help him, and in those days he had made a rash vow, for he had sworn before the gods of the Kaabah that if he ever possessed ten sons he would show his gratitude by offering up one of them in sacrifice. Years passed, several sons and daughters were born to Abd al-Muttalib, and at last the fatal number was reached. He was the father of ten sons, and the youngest, whose name was Abdallah, was his best beloved. For a long time Abd al-Muttalib delayed the fulfilment of his vow, which he now bitterly repented, but an oath sworn before the gods could not be lightly regarded. The day arrived when the sorrowing father took his ten sons with him to the Kaabah; each of their names was inscribed on a wingless arrow, that the lots might decide which of the ten was to be offered up in sacrifice.

Great were the lamentations in the family of Abd al-Muttalib when the lots were drawn, and it was found that Abdallah, the youngest and best-beloved, was doomed to death. His sisters clung to him, weeping bitterly, begging that his life might be spared. The unhappy father, stricken with grief, vowed that he would sacrifice ten camels in the place of his son if the divining arrows should decide in Abdallah's favour. So the lots were cast between ten camels and the life of Abdallah, but again the fatal arrow fell to him. Abd al-Muttalib now doubled the number of camels—twenty camels against the life of his son! But fate seemed determined not to spare him; again and again the lots decreed that Abdallah should die, and each time Abd al-Muttalib vowed ten camels more, until the number reached a hundred! The distracted father now waited in an agony of suspense while once again the lots were cast—a hundred camels against the life of Abdallah!

Fate at length relented, reversing her decree, and this time the arrow of death fell to the lot of the camels. These were slaughtered, and all the meat given away to the poor, for the family of Abd al-Muttalib refused to touch Abdallah's ransom. Released from his cruel doom, the boy was restored to his family; in course of time he became the father of Mohammed the Prophet.

When he was twenty-four years of age Abdallah was married to Aminah, a maiden belonging to a distant branch of his own tribe, the Kuraysh. The year following their marriage was an important one in the history of Meccah. A large army advanced upon the city from the south, led by Abraha, viceroy of the king of Abyssinia, who at that time ruled in Yemen. Abraha rode at the head of his troops on a huge elephant, and the sight so impressed the Arabs that the year A.D. 570, in which these events occurred, has ever since been known as the Year of the Elephant. The invading army was stricken by a deadly disease and retired.

But another event, of vastly greater importance, happened in the Year of the Elephant; for in that year was born Mohammed, the son of Abdallah, destined to be the Prophet of Arabia.