Story of Mohammed - Edith Holland

The Year of Mourning

In the sixth year of Mohammed's mission there was a second emigration to Abyssinia, where the Moslems soon numbered over a hundred. But in spite of persecutions the little band of Believers at Meccah was steadily increasing; one or two men of influence were added to its numbers, and at one time Mohammed even had hopes of the conversion of a Chief of the Kuraysh. One day when the Prophet was in earnest conversation with this Chief, a poor blind man came up and interrupted him. "O Apostle of God," cried Abdallah, the blind man, "teach me some part of what God hath taught thee!" But the Prophet, annoyed at the interruption, frowned and turned away. This incident is alluded to in the Koran, and we realize Mohammed's generous nature in his readiness to confess a fault and own himself in the wrong. "The Prophet frowned and turned aside, because the blind man came to him. . . . The man who is wealthy, thou receivest respectfully . . . but him who cometh unto thee earnestly seeking his salvation, and who feareth God, dost thou neglect. By no means shouldest thou act thus."

On account of the insulting behaviour of their enemies the Moslems had, for some time past, given up praying in public; they used to meet secretly in the house of a convert named Al-Arkam. This house, situated on the hill of Safa, away from the centre of the town, came to be known as the "House of Islam."

It was not long after Hamzah had declared himself a Moslem that another important conversion was made. Mohammed's enemy, Abu Jahl, had a nephew called Omar, who was, at the time of which we are speaking, twenty-six years of age. He was of gigantic height, and so bold and strong that his fellow-citizens were more afraid of his walking staff than of other men's swords, while his hasty temper made him a terror to his enemies Omar bitterly opposed the Moslems, and some say that he had agreed with Abu Jahl to waylay the Prophet and stab him. One day a rumour reached Omar that his sister Ramlah had been converted to the new religion. Full of wrath, he went straight to his sister's house to discover the truth. Entering hurriedly, he found Ramlah and her husband Said listening to a reading of the Koran. Omar, in a furious passion, drew his sword, and turning on his brother-in-law, felled him to the ground, while Ramlah, throwing herself between the combatants, was wounded by the point of her brother's sword.

When Omar saw the blood flowing from his sister's face he was struck with shame, his fury was subdued, and he asked to see the scroll from which the reading was taken. But Ramlah would not allow him to touch it until he had washed and purified himself, as the Moslems are in the habit of doing before prayers. When this had been done Omar took the scroll and began to read the twentieth chapter of the Koran: "We have not sent the Koran unto thee that thou shouldest be unhappy; but for a warning unto him who feareth God. . . . The Merciful sitteth on His throne: unto Him belongeth whatsoever is in heaven and earth, and whatsoever is between them, and whatsoever is under the earth. If thou pronounce thy prayers with a loud voice, know that it is not necessary, for God knoweth that which is secret, and what is hidden." Omar realized that these were not the words of a madman; as he read further the truth sank deep into his soul, and he asked to be taken to the Prophet that he might declare himself a Believer.

The Faithful were gathered together in the house of Al-Arkam when a knock was heard on the door. Hamzah, before opening it, peeped through a crevice, and when he announced that Omar stood without, several of the Moslems drew their swords, ready to defend the Prophet, and bar the way to the intruder. But Mohammed bade him enter, and great was his joy when Omar made his profession of faith. From that day he devoted himself to the Prophet's cause, and, like St. Paul, became a brave defender of the faith he had persecuted. The day after his conversion Omar went boldly to the Kaabah to pray, the other Moslems following his example, and such was the fear inspired by Omar's strong arm and fiery temper that none dared interfere.

Like Abu Bakr, Omar became one of the Prophet's chief advisers; in after years they both succeeded him as head of Islam, or Khalif, a word which means Successor. We realize how great was Mohammed's influence over his fellowmen when we learn that the mild and retiring Abu Bakr became a bold leader in time of war, and the hasty and violent Omar a wise and moderate ruler.

The Kuraysh, alarmed at the recent conversions, determined to take strong measures to crush this new faith which threatened to overthrow the ancient religion of their forefathers. At a council of, the elders it was decided that Mohammed and all those who took his part against the rest of the tribe of Kuraysh should be outlawed. All rights of citizenship were to be denied them, no one might sell them food, marry into their families, or have any kind of dealings with them. This decree, or Ban, as it was called, was written on a piece of parchment, which was sealed with three seals and hung up inside the Kaabah. All Mohammed's near relations, even those who were not believers, rallied round him, with the exception of one of his uncles—Abu Lahab. In fact, the greater number of the descendants of Hashim, Mohammed's great grandfather, stood by their kinsman. But the Hashimites, as they were called, could not hope to hold their own against the rest of the tribe of Kuraysh; some were openly attacked, the Prophet himself was one day seized in the Kaabah, and would have been strangled had he not been bravely rescued by Abu Bakr, who was wounded in the struggle.

The mountains on the eastern side of Meccah rise very steeply, like cliffs, quite close to the town, and between their spurs are long narrow ravines called Shebs. The word Sheb means, in Arabic, a rock. The outskirts of the city extended right into these ravines, in one of which was a castle, or stronghold, belonging to Abu Talib. Enclosed by steep rocks on every side, there was, from this Sheb, but one opening communicating with the town, and this was a gateway, so narrow that a camel could only just pass through it.

In the Sheb of Abu Talib the Hashimites took refuge from their persecutors. It was no longer safe for them to live in the city, for every time they left their houses they ran the risk of being attacked by their oppressors. Khadijah, the Prophet's devoted wife, and all the members of his household, shared his exile; even his uncles, with the exception of Abu Lahab, left their homes and followed Mohammed into the Sheb. Many of the descendants of Hashim were not believers, but the feeling of kinship, which is very strong among the Arabs, induced them to take the side of the Prophet against the leaders of the Kuraysh. You will understand that the name Kuraysh applies to the whole tribe; while the Hashimites were a clan of that tribe: We cannot but admire the loyalty of Mohammed's relations in thus sharing his hardships.

For nearly three years the Hashimites remained in the Sheb of Abu Talib. They suffered cruel privation and want, for corn soon became very scarce, and the Hashimites were not rich enough to send out caravans of their own, while the merchants who came to Meccah were prevented, by the Kuraysh, from having any dealings with the outlaws. There were times when the unfortunate Hashimites were on the verge of starvation, the wailing of the hungry babies could be heard in the city, and many, even of the Kuraysh, were moved to compassion, and thought the terms of the Ban too hard. But the Elders were determined to suppress the new faith, and had no thought of giving in. A nephew of Khadijah had sometimes found means of sending supplies to his aunt, and on one occasion a camel laden with corn was brought secretly into the Sheb by night; but those who gave help to the sufferers ran the risk of offending the Chiefs of Meccah, by breaking the rules of the Ban.

There was one time in the year when the outlaws could, with safety, leave their retreat. This was the month in which the yearly pilgrimage to the Kaabah took place; it was regarded by the Arabs as a sacred month, during which all feuds were suspended. Caravans crossing the desert had no fear of plunderers, and warring tribes were at peace with one another, for the truce of the holy month was observed throughout Arabia. Thus it came about that the season of pilgrimage was also the time when the great fairs were held, both at Meccah and other places in the neighbourhood.

When, therefore, the time of pilgrimage came round the Hashimites were able, once more, to mix with their fellow-citizens. Mohammed took every advantage of these peaceful intervals in renewing his efforts to gain converts. He went to several of the great fairs, and amid the noisy confusion of the buyers and sellers preached against the sin of idolatry whenever he could find listeners. But he was received for the most part with hoots and jeers. "Why do not your own countrymen believe in you if you are a true prophet?" cried the strangers. One is struck with wonder at Mohammed's persistence and fortitude; no discouragement seemed to weaken his fixed resolve to establish the faith he felt himself commissioned to preach. The Kuraysh would, at any moment, have allowed Mohammed to return to his home and live the life of a peaceful citizen, if he would have agreed to give up preaching his doctrines. This, however, he resolutely refused to do. When the month of pilgrimage was over, the rules of the Ban were again enforced in all their strictness, and the Hashimites returned to the Sheb of Abu Talib. During the third year of their imprisonment an incident occurred which changed the course of events.

Rumours reached Mohammed that the parchment on which the Ban was written had been destroyed by insects, and he took this as a sign that God had favoured his cause. So Abu Talib, with a few companions, went to the Kaabah, and standing before the Chiefs and Elders, addressed them thus: "I am told that the parchment has been devoured by insects; if this be true, you should cancel the rules of the Ban, and let the Hashimites go free. But if you can prove that I have spoken falsely, I will deliver my nephew into your hands."

These terms were agreed to, and the parchment was fetched from the Kaabah, while all waited in suspense for the issue. When the parchment was unrolled, it was found that most of it had been eaten away by white ants, and the rules of the Ban were unreadable. An Arab historian relates that the only word which was still visible was the name of God.

Abu Talib, satisfied that he had spoken the truth, bitterly reproached the Kuraysh for their cruel treatment of their countrymen, and without waiting to hear their decision, departed and returned to the Sheb. But as soon as he had gone five Chiefs of the Kuraysh stood up and declared the Ban to be at an end. They put on their armour and made their way to the Sheb of Abu Talib, to announce to the outlaws the joyful news that they might return to their homes in safety. Though many of the Kuraysh disapproved of these measures, they were forced to submit to the terms they had agreed to.

What a relief must it have been to the exiles to leave the narrow ravine in which they had been so long imprisoned, and to return in peace to their homes! The house in which Mohammed and Khadijah lived is still to be seen. But not long was the Prophet to be free from care, for he had soon to endure a bitter sorrow. Before many months had passed, his beloved wife, Khadijah, died. Mohammed was so overcome with grief that he at first refused all comfort. Well was Khadijah named "The Mother of the Believers," for had she not stood by the Prophet in his hour of trial and given him her help and counsel, had she not encouraged him and suffered with him when the future of Islam seemed wellnigh hopeless! It has been said that without Khadijah Mohammed would never have become a Prophet. In the ancient cemetery lying on the western slope of the mountains north of Meccah Khadijah's grave is still to be seen. When, in after years, Mohammed had several wives, according to Arab custom, he was once asked by the young and beautiful Ayesha if she were not better than Khadijah. "No, by Heaven," answered Mohammed, "she believed in me when no one else did, she enriched me when I was poor, she was true to me when all the rest of the world was against me."

Yet another sorrow befell the Prophet about this time. It was scarcely five weeks after Khadijah's death that lost his uncle and protector, Abu Talib. Mohammed was now indeed desolate, for he had lost the two best friends he ever had—the wife who had been his trusted counsellor for twenty-five years, and the uncle who had acted as a father towards him since his boyhood. With good reason was the year in which these events took place called the Year of Mourning.