Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Spirit Of Hijrah: Concluding Remarks (2/2)


As we have seen in Part 1, as soon as Abu Bakar assumed the role as the Successor to the Prophet, he received the news about the widespread rebellions throughout Arabia.  Faced with widespread rebellions on the one hand, and the Prophet’s command to march to the Syrian border on the other, the majority of the Companions advised him to delay the marching.  But Abu Bakar decided to fulfill the Prophet’s command before the latter died.

As we have explained in The Picture Less Painted on Abu Bakar, his decision to go ahead with the Prophet’s command was not simply because he wanted to honor the last wish of the Prophet.  It was because he believed it to be the best decision to make.  It was a strategic move that eventually worked on the Muslims’ favor.  Far from being dogmatic, he was actually making a smart tactical move.

Those who say that Abu Bakar was dogmatic simply do not understand the special quality Abu Bakar has.  It is the ability to see beyond what normal people would see.    

For instance, after the Prophet narrated his Night Journey from Makkah to Jerusalem and then to Seven Heavens, and back to Makkah, all within the same night (the Night of Isra’ and Mi’raj), the disbelievers were having a field day.  The story was too extraordinary to conceive.  They mocked the Prophet, but the Companions were losing their wits to counter the mockery thrown to the Prophet.  Abu Bakar stood to defend the Prophet.  He quickly declared that Muhammad, upon him be peace, spoke the truth. 

Abu Jahal, the archenemy of the Prophet, ridiculed Abu Bakar, accusing him of not using his brain.  Abu Bakar replied calmly: “You know that Muhammad never lies.  What is so difficult to believe about his Night Journey? I believe in him when he says he is visited by the Most Noble Angel (meaning Gabriel), carrying the Message from Allah.    I would believe in him even if he brings something more extraordinary than this.”

While others found the story illogical, Abu Bakar pointed out the common knowledge among his people that Muhammad never lied in his entire life.  What benefit would it bring to him were he to lie now.  For him to lie at that stage would be illogical, because the Makkan leaders were already accused him of madness and worse. 

But Abu Bakar did not simply stop with logic.  He went for practical or empirical evidence as well.  Now, everyone at Makkah knew that Muhammad never went to al Aqsa.  They also knew that Abu Bakar had visited this mosque a few months before.  So, Abu Bakar asked the Prophet to describe the mosque al Aqsa in front of everyone.  And the Prophet was able to answer all questions put to him, giving the impression that he had just been to the mosque.   With Abu Bakar’ simple stroke of ingenuity, the Prophet’s reputation was thus restored.  It was from this event that Abu Bakar earned the title “as Siddiq,” the Truthful.

On the occasion of the death of the Prophet, the Muslims were grief stricken.  Umar for one was already losing his mind, threatening to sever the head of anyone saying the Prophet had died.  Abu Bakar remained calm and composed.  Instead of getting excited, he went to his beloved Prophet’s apartment to ascertain the news.  Seeing that the soul had left the body of his beloved Companion, he went out to the people, forced Umar to keep quiet, and calmly spoke: “O people.  Whoever worships Muhammad, knows that Muhammad has died.  Whoever worships Allah, He is Ever Living, Eternal.”   Then he recited the Quranic verses relevant to the matter.  His action had put everyone into perspective.

These two events essentially describe crises. Now, as we know, crisis often clouds one’s mind.  When the Prophet spoke about his Night Journey, the crisis of faith was created.  Some of the Muslims’ minds were already clouded.  No so with Abu Bakar.  He was able to perceive the matter with his deep insight and had the presence of mind to ascertain the story by asking for the empirical evidences. 

When the Prophet died, the Muslims were thrown into confusion because they loved him too much and could not believe that he was leaving them for good.  Umar, noted for his farsightedness, thought that this was the work of the hypocrites, bent on creating mayhem to the believers.  Even Umar could not keep his presence of mind in this particular instance.  He knew that the Prophet had been gravely ill.  He saw the lifeless body of his beloved Prophet.  But he chose not to perceive the reality for what it was.  Abu Bakar, on the other hand, took the reality for what it was.

Now, it is known that before the Prophet died, all tribes in the Peninsula Arabia paid tribute to Islam.  But the Prophet and Abu Bakar knew that the Arabs’ support to Islam was not wholesome.  Their acceptance to the leadership in Madinah was lukewarm.  Musailamah, who was to become the leading contender during the widespread rebellion after the death of the Prophet, had challenged the Prophet’s leadership even while the Prophet was still alive. 

Musailamah had come to Madinah to pay his homage to the Prophet, but he wanted a stake in the Prophethood for himself.  When he came back to his hometown, al Yamamah, he wrote to the Prophet: “You are the Prophet, and I am also the Prophet.  Let’s split our dominion.  To you is the West, and to me is the East.”   (West and East refer to the Arabian Peninsula.  He suggested the split because the Prophet hailed from the West (Hijaz region) and he from the East (Nejd region)).

The Prophet wrote to him: “The West and the East belong to Allah.  He gives to whomever He wills.  I am the Messenger of Allah, and you, Musailamah, are the liar.”  It was from this letter that Musailamah got the epithet Musailamah al Khazzab (Musailamah the Liar). 

Musailamah was not alone in this.  Most of the tribes that had paid homage to the Prophet did so only a few months or at most a year or two before the Prophet died.  Islam had yet to enter their hearts firmly.   They paid homage and declared their conversions only because it is human nature to ally with the powerful authority. 

Furthermore, many had envied the success and “popularity” that Muhammad had achieved.  They wanted some of the glories for themselves.  Thus, when the news of the widespread rebellion reached him, Abu Bakar did not get excited.  He was perceptive enough to realize that, while the rebellion was widespread, the rebels were not united.  The rebels no doubt were in the majority, but since each was going for their own glory, they did not pose fatal threats to the Islamic State.  Some rebels, meanwhile, simply refused to pay the required zakat.  Theirs were not armed rebellions.
 
Seeing what others did not see, Abu Bakar recognized that the perceived threat was more psychological than real.  If ever these rebels were to get united, it would have been many months in the making.  Dire as the situation was, Abu Bakar believed that the internal threat can wait.  Besides, he wanted to score psychological victory against these rebels.  If Madinah was courageous enough to send its army to fight against the mighty Romans, then Madinah must have been very strong indeed in the eyes of the rebels.   Thus, whatever fanciful thoughts they may have had, they would have to think twice before attacking Madinah.

With that in mind, Abu Bakar told his army to march to where the Prophet had planned.  He told them to do their job quickly and came back quickly, because there would be bigger job waiting.  He requested Usamah’s permission to leave Umar behind, saying that he needed Umar’s counsel.

Holding on to their leader’s instruction, the army marched to the Roman frontiers quickly, won the war quickly, and came back to Madinah quickly.  Meanwhile, in Madinah, led by Ali and Zubayr, the small contingent of Muslim cavalry made surprise attacks during the night to the neighboring rebellious tribes, giving the impression that Madinah was well fortified.  This caused the enemies to second guess the real strength of the central authority in Madinah, as well as their own preparation to stage a challenge to the central leadership.

The strategy worked very well.  It had delayed any possible attack from the rebels, while affording the army to finish their job and came back on time.  Dividing his army into eleven battalions, Abu Bakar sent them to quench the rebellions.  Already scoring psychological warfare with their victory against the Romans, the rebels capitulated to the Central Authority in a relatively short time, although they were in the majority.

Having quenched the rebellions at home, Abu Bakar went to the offensive with the Persian and the Roman empires.  Thus, in the short span of two years and three months, Abu Bakar not only managed to quench the rebellions within the country, but he also inflicted severe damage to the Persian and Roman empires.  When he died, the Islamic State was no more under threat.  Instead, the new power of Islamic State had become a serious threat to the Persian and Roman empires, the two superpowers at that time.

The above is hardly the picture of a dogmatic leader, if we care to analyze properly.  It was the spirit of practicality, assisted by careful and farsighted planning, that colored the leadership of Abu Bakar, the Successor of the Prophet.  It was the very essence of the spirit of Hijrah.  It was not for sport that the Prophet had chosen Abu Bakar to be his “hijrah companion.”  Besides, the Prophet would not have signaled Abu Bakar to be his successor if he did not believe in Abu Bakar’s competence as well as his deep understanding of Islam.

As for Umar, no one with the right frame of mind would say that he was a dogmatic leader.  He had instituted many practical “reforms” during his reign.  Many of these were not merely administrative by nature. 

For instance, it was because of his suggestion that the Quran is compiled into a book form.  He also outlawed the mut’ah marriage (temporary marriage, that is, with a specified time period, such as for one day, one week, one month or any period.  After the stipulated period, the couple would be automatically divorced). 

The Prophet had expressed his wish for this form of marriage to be abolished after the Battle of Khaybar, but he did not outlaw it during his lifetime.   When Umar outlawed it, he received some opposition from the Companions, including, it is alleged, from the celebrated Ibnu Abbas himself.  But the majority of the Companions sided with Umar and it is unanimously accepted as illegal among the Sunnis.  The Shias, however, until this very day, do not make it illegal, since they claim that it was Umar, not the Prophet himself, who made it illegal.

The Prophet knew that this temporary marriage would be abused.  He allowed it in the beginning for practical reason. By Umar’s time, it was already abused by some.   It may still have some practical uses, but the harm from the practice far outweighs its benefit, pretty much like liquor, which has some benefits, but was outlawed because it is too harmful. 

This shows that the spirit of Islam, as exemplified by Hijrah, is practicality, which must be governed by the principle.  It is not pragmatism, which is governed by “anything goes so long as it achieves the end.” 

Also for practical purpose, Umar even went to the extent of suspending hudud law on stealing (hudud are specified penalties for certain crimes such as stealing, murder, and fornication.  In the case of stealing, the penalty is cutting off the hand).  When the Arabian Peninsula was hit by severe drought, he was worried that people would steal because of hunger.  Thus, he suspended the hudud law on stealing until the drought was over.  He exemplifies practicality over dogmatism.

The eras of Uthman, Ali, and to a large extent, the Umayyid and early Abbasid caliphates, were largely colored by the spirit of practicality over dogmatism.  Dogmatism came much later in the history of Islam.  This is a big subject.  Suffice to say that when dogmatism took over practicality, the Muslims grew weaker until they became servants rather than masters of the world.

It is heartening to see that since Islam is essentially a practical, instead of a dogmatic, way of life, efforts to revive the spirit of practicality have been going for at least one and a half century.   It is interesting also to note that some go as far as embracing pragmatism instead of practicality, which is foreign in Islam.  But we shall reserve this topic for later entry.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Spirit Of Hijrah: Concluding Remarks (1/2)


After twenty three years of spreading the Message of Islam, his job as the Seal of the Prophets was done.  When Muhammad the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, died, the whole of the Arabian Peninsula recognized him as the “Master.”  But he did not hand over the Islamic State to his successor in a silver plate. 

The Prophet had successfully established the foundation for this “new” religion, but not the State.  He had subdued all the tribes in the Arabian Peninsula, but as soon as the news of his death broke out, and before his successor, Abu Bakar, could do anything, the intelligence had reached Madinah that there have been widespread rebellions throughout Arabia.  The fledgling Islamic State under the new leadership suddenly found itself under serious threat. 

Only three cities were free from rebellions: Makkah, Taif, and Madinah itself.  Tribes in all other regions had challenged the central leadership in Madinah in various degrees, ranging from refusal to pay the religious tax (zakat) to openly declare war.  The city of Madinah, therefore, needed protection very badly. 

But there was one knotty problem.  Just before the Prophet died, he had assembled an army of 30,000 strong, and commanded them to march to the Roman frontiers.  The Romans and their subjects had been playing truant at the borders.  The Prophet wanted to teach them some lesson.  He also wanted to show to the Romans what the Muslims are capable of.  He wanted to reverse the loss suffered in the Mu’ta War three years earlier.

The Mu’ta War was led by Zayd bin Haritha, the Prophet’s adopted son.  He fell martyr there.  Then the leadership was taken over by Jaa’far Abu Talib, the older brother of Ali.  He too fell martyr.  Then led by Abdullah bin Rowahah, who also fell martyr.  The three were the designated commanders by the Prophet himself, who said: “If Zayd falls, then Jaa’far will take over; if Jaa’far falls, then Abdullah Rowahah.  If he also falls, then choose one among yourselves to be the commander.”

When Abdullah fell, the Muslims asked Khalid al Walid to lead.  It was the first war Khalid participated as a Muslims, having entered into Islam a few months earlier.  He saved the Muslims from total annihilation through tactical retreat.  For his service in that war, the Prophet gave him the title The Drawn Sword of Allah.

Before the Prophet died, he gave the army strict instruction that they must march to the Roman frontiers—to teach the Romans a lesson and to take revenge for the loss in the Mu’ta War—regardless of what happened to him.  The Prophet was already gravely ill at that time, and he died very soon after.

Because of his death, the army, which was about to leave Madinah, delayed the marching.  They attended the Prophet’s funeral and took part in pledging their obedience to the new leader, Abu Bakar.  When all these brief affairs were completed, but before they could march, the news of the rebellions broke out.  The majority of the Companions, therefore, felt that it was better to delay the marching to the Roman frontiers and dealt first with the internal affair.   After all, the survival of the Islamic State itself was at stake.

Abu Bakar was therefore left with a critical decision to make: either to continue with the Prophet’s command, or to go along with the majority opinion.

But breaking the command of the Prophet was not about to be his first decision upon assuming the role as the Prophet’s Successor.  So, he ordered the army to march.

But just before the army got ready for the march, the Companions wanted to give another try in persuading their new leader to change his mind.  Had the Prophet were still alive when the widespread rebellion broke out, they reasoned, he would have delayed the marching to the Roman frontiers and settled the internal affair first.  This time, however, they did not approach the Caliph in group, but elected Umar to be their negotiator, since the Caliph had a proclivity to listen to Umar.

But even before Umar could complete making his case, Abu Bakar the Caliph shouted at him:  “You too, Umar, of all people!”

Umar, despite his reputation for being stern, blurted out meekly, “I am only a messenger, carrying the message of your companions.”

To which Abu Bakar replied authoritatively, “The Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, has made his command.  Changing his command is not about to be my first decision as his successor.  Proceed quickly, do the job quickly, and come back quickly.  You people are wasting precious time.”

The army then marched to the Syrian border, leaving behind a few leading Companions including Umar, Ali, and Zubayr to take care of the security in Madinah.

For that line of approach, Abu Bakar is often misunderstood as being dogmatic.  Some Western writers even suggest that Abu Bakar was a dogmatic blind follower who followed the instruction of his deceased leader exactly to the letters.

But is that the real case?

Before we discuss his character in light of this event, whether he is dogmatic or practical in his approach, let’s take a look at some other events during his time as a caliph.

First, as the Prophet did not take any “salary” in his capacity as the Prophet and the leader of the State, Abu Bakar too followed his successor’s footstep.  He did not take any salary.  He was a merchant and earned his living that way before he became a caliph.  As he assumed the leadership role, the demand for his time had increased.  Soon he ran out of provision.

One day, people were waiting for him at the mosque, but he did not turn up.  Umar asked what had happened to the Caliph, whether he was sick or being detained by some other matters.   Somebody told him that he saw Abu Bakar at the market.  Umar quickly went to the market, and upon seeing the Caliph, he asked: “What on earth are you doing here?”

“Can’t you see what I am doing?”  The Caliph replied.

“I know what you are doing, but why?”

“My family has to live.  We have run out of food.”  The Caliph answered matter of factly.

Umar quickly perceived the heart of the matter.  In the case of the Prophet, he received one fifth of the booty.  He therefore had enough provision to sustain his large family (bearing in mind the Prophet had many wives), although he spent most of it for the poor or for the State.  Abu Bakar, however, did not receive such provision. 

When the Prophet was alive, Abu Bakar would receive war booty only when he participated in the expedition.  Since he became the Caliph not long ago, he did not participate in any war, and had not been doing much trading due to busyness in running the State affairs.

“Your time is too precious to earn a living like this, we must allocate some salary for you.”  Umar said.

Although the Prophet never received any salary, Abu Bakar quickly agreed with Umar.  He was not being dogmatic at all.  The only thing is that, due to his asceticism, he only agreed to take the barest minimum of wage so that he can sustain his family.

Second, after the Battle of al Yamamah, many reciters of Quran (read, those who had memorized the whole Quran by heart), fell martyr.  Umar was concerned that if more and more reciters fell martyr, the Quran would be lost if not compiled in the book form.  So, he went to Abu Bakar with his proposal, namely, to compile the Quran in a book form.

Abu Bakar saw the logic of Umar’s proposal, but was concerned that the Prophet never asked them to do it.  Umar pointed out that though the Prophet never asked them to compile the Quran in a book form, but the latter always asked the Revelation to be written when it came to him.  As Abu Bakar was still not comfortable, he told Umar he would think about it.  They talked about the matter again the next day.  By the third day, he told Umar to find the man for the job.

In this case, while at first he had some reservation, it did not take long for him to see the value of his right hand’s man proposal and quickly agreed to that.  He was not being dogmatic.

Third, during the war against the rebels (having won the war at the Roman frontiers), Khalid al Walid proved himself to be the most worthy general.  He was the leader of one of the eleven battalions formed by Abu Bakar to fight against the insurgents.  Unlike some other generals, Khalid finished his job quickly and effectively.  As soon as his given task was done, the Caliph instructed him to help other battalions.  Without fail, this means taking over the leadership of those battalions.  

But the news had reached Umar that Khalid had been distributing the war booty without reporting to, or asking permission from, the central command in Madinah.  Incensed with that behavior, Umar quickly demanded Abu Bakar to take stern action Khalid. 

Abu Bakar the Caliph simply wrote a letter to Khalid, asking the latter to play with the rule like other generals did.  In his characteristic way, Khalid simply replied: “If you want me to do the job, let me do it my way.  If you don’t like it, come here and do it yourself.” 

Umar was doubly incensed with that terse reply, and again demanded stern action against Khalid.  Abu Bakar simply cooled Umar down, saying that he needed a general like Khalid, because he got the job done.  Abu Bakar understood that to get extraordinary result, one cannot be ordinary.  And Khalid was no ordinary general.  He knew how to get his job done, and he knew how to motivate his soldiers.  So long as Khalid did not go overboard, he was free to do his job the way he saw fit.  After all, Khalid had succeeded where others failed.

In this case, Abu Bakar was even more pragmatic than Umar.

These three cases illustrate that, far from being dogmatic, Abu Bakar is actually driven by the spirit of practicality.  If such is the case, why was he so adamant about following the Prophet’s command when the majority thought that it was a bad decision, as was the case of sending the army to the Roman frontiers?

We shall answer that question in our concluding part, God willing.

Stay tuned.


End of Part 1

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hijri Calendar: Practicality Over Dogmatism (2/2)


In Part 1, we have argued that the Character of early Muslims is encapsulated by actions, not by idle talks.  Practicality takes precedent over dogmatism. 

Before we illustrate this idea in the light of Hijrah, some definitions would be handy at this stage.

Dogma, defined as a set of principles, did play a big role in the lives of early Muslims.  But dogmatism, defined as rigid adherence to “one correct view,” did not.  The Prophet and his Companions embraced practicality, but not pragmatism as encapsulates in the Machiavellian’s famous dictum: “the end justifies the means.” 

The decision to go with the event of Hijrah, to mark the beginning of Islamic Era, was driven by the spirit of concrete action over intellectual speculation, and of practicality over dogmatism.  It was the same spirit that drew them out of the desert to become the conquerors of the world.  In short, it was Hijrah, not any other events, that captures the essence of this very spirit.   

Thus, when Muhammad the Prophet, upon him be peace, met the dead end with the leaders of Quraysh, having no hope that they would listen to him, he went looking for other alternative to establish his “base.” 

Now, we know that Muhammad did not choose to be the Prophet, and was in fact bewildered when the first Revelation hit him, but he knew what his job entails.  Being the last Prophet, he had no choice but to succeed.  He does not have the luxury of waiting for 300 years before his mission is to be the force to be reckoned with, as Christianity was.  He would have died before that, and many things can happen within three centuries, as attested by the history of Christianity.

When his tribe, Bani Hashim, was boycotted because the tribe members protected him—though the majority of them were not yet Muslims at that time—it gave clear signal that any wish of making Islam supreme in Makkah, or of establishing Islamic way of life there, was effectively closed.  This took place around the seventh year of his Prophethood.  Muhammad therefore had no choice but to search for other “base.” 

The majority of his companions were already migrated to Ethiopia, but that faraway land only accorded protection to his followers as refugees.  Christianity was deeply ingrained there.  The Muslims who lived in Ethiopia can escape persecution from their own people in Makkah, but they could not grow as a sovereign nation. 

Thus, after the boycott was lifted, the Prophet went to Taif, hoping that the people of Thaqif (the tribe living in Taif) would accept his calling.   But the Thaqif treated him worse that the Quraysh did.  Not only that their elders insulted him, but to add salt to the wound, they asked their children to throw stones at the Prophet.  This story is well known. 

Dejected, but never a quitter, the Prophet went searching for other fertile grounds.  Every Hajj season, he approached every tribe he could meet to call them to Islam, and to look for the possibility of establishing his base with them.  In most cases, however, he didn’t have much opportunity to have meaningful discussions with them, because these tribes had been forewarned about a “madman” who can work magic on people’s mind.  They were told to be careful and not to listen to him.  His own uncle, Abu Lahab, made it his business to follow the Prophet every time the latter went to meet these tribes, and told them not to listen to his “deranged” nephew.

All his efforts had been fruitless until he met a group of people from the town of Yathrib (later renamed Madinah when the Prophet migrated there).   Thrice he met the people from this town, each with different group.  The first and the second meetings were not quite successful, but the third meeting, which was unplanned and took place at al Aqabah during the Hajj season, bore fruit. 

In that meeting, the Prophet bounced into six men and asked: “Who are you?”

“We are members of the Khazraj,” they replied.

Knowing a little bit about the people in Yathrib, the Prophet asked: “You are from the allies of the Jews?”

“Yes,” they replied.

Sensing the opportunity, the Prophet said: “Will you not sit down so that I can speak with you.”   They agreed.

From that unplanned meeting, the Prophet found a fertile ground with these people.  Sensing that these men were familiar with his message, on account that they were neighbours to the Jews, he seized the opportunity to present Islam to them.   

It so happened that the Arabs in Yathrib were divided into two main factions: the Tribe of Aus and the Tribe of Khazraj.  One cannot accept the leadership of the other, and always at the loggerhead with one another.  It also happened that there were three Jewish tribes in Yathrib, whose role, among others, was to perpetuate the enmity between the Aus and the Khazraj.  When the Aus clashed with the Khazraj, their Jewish allies would side with one against the other.  In fact, during the chanced meeting between the Prophet and these six men from Yathrib, the Aus and the Khazraj were still nursing the aftermath of the bloody clash known as Bu’aath war. 

Occasionally, the Jews too clashed with the Arabs.   In fact, for years the Jews in Yathrib had been threatening the Arabs, saying that a Prophet in Arabia was about to appear and that, when he did appear, the Jews would follow him and would, with his help, destroy the Aus and Khazraj tribes.  Thus, after the Prophet presented Islam to them, they said to one another, “O people, by Allah, you know that he is indeed the Prophet that the Jews threatened you about, so do not let them beat you to him.”

It was from this chanced meeting that Islam experienced the reversal in fortune, for the better, that is.  All six became Muslims, and when they went back to their town, they invited others to Islam.  They had been successful.  Many joined the fold of Islam, including from the tribe of Aus.   About a year later, the Muslims from Yathrib came back to Makkah for Hajj season.  This time, they selected 12 men to be their representatives, to meet the Prophet and to take the pledge of obedience, also in al Aqabah.  In Seerah, this is known as the First Pledge of Aqabah.

It is known as the First Pledge of Aqabah, although it was the second meeting at the same place, because in the first meeting, there was no pledge (not to be confused with the first two meetings with the people of Yathrib which bore no fruit).  In the first meeting, the Prophet simply invited them to Islam and they accepted it.  In the second meeting, they officially appointed 12 men among their clan leaders to be the delegates, two of which were from the tribe of Aus. 

In this meeting, they requested the Prophet to send someone to teach them the details of Islam and to lead the Muslims in prayer.  The Prophet sent Mus’ab bin Umayr, a companion who had memorized most of the Quran which was revealed at that point.  Other than teaching Islam and Quran, and leading the Muslims there in prayer, as well as inviting others to join Islam, Mus’ab was to be the eyes and the ears for the Prophet, with respect to the possibility of establishing the Islamic base in Yathrib.

They came back again next year, also during the Hajj season.  This time, they selected 72 delegates to take the Second Pledge, two of them were women.  They also invited the Prophet to officially join them as their leader, as well as welcome other Muslims to their town. 

Traditions tell us that the Prophet’s uncle, Abbas, who was not yet a Muslim at the time, had accompanied the Prophet in the Second Pledge.  Communications had been made prior to this meeting, and Mus’ab had relayed their desire to invite the Prophet to their town, as their supreme leader.  And the Prophet had been looking forward to the idea, believing that the Muslims can start a new era in Yathrib.   After all, that was what he had been searching all along.

Now, Abbas did not accompany his nephew the Prophet for the safety of the latter during the meeting, but for the safety of his nephew if indeed he joined them in their town.  He wanted to make sure that the Muslims in Yathrib understood what their invitation means.  He told them in no uncertain terms that, what his nephew brought, had caused the Arabs to turn against him.  By inviting him to their town, it means that they had declared war with other Arab tribes.  If they still insisted on having him within their midst, then they would have to protect him, against all hostile tribes, as they would their wives and children.  In short, they would have to die and sacrifice everything for him.

“If you are not willing to do all that,” Abbas concluded, “then let him stay with us.  At least we can protect him from harm.”

“But if we do all that,” one of their spokesmen said, “what do we get in return?”

“Paradise,” the Prophet answered.

One by one the 72 delegates gave their pledge of obedience and loyalty to the Prophet.  Wasting no time, the Prophet quickly sent the Muslims, in batches, to Yathrib, before he finally migrated there with his bosom companion, Abu Bakar.

The story of their migration and their sacrifice is well known.  The story of the Prophet’s migration, as well as the extreme precaution he took because the Quraysh were chasing him with their swords, is also well known.  We need not relate it here.

All that is left to say is that, with that migration, the New Era had begun.  The Muslims could, by then, chart their own destiny and live a life as a sovereignty nation.   There were, no doubt, problems from within and from without.  The Jews had been thorns in the flesh.  Abdullah bin Ubay, who was about to be crowned a king by the Khazraj before the migration took place, became very sore that the coronation never took place.  Unable to fight against the Prophet man to man, he led his loyal followers to embrace the religion outwardly, but remained enemies from within, causing many harms and dangers to the Islamic State.  

As for the threats from the outside, suffice to say that the Islamic community in Yathrib (by then known as Madinah) never lost their vigilant.  Conflicts, clashes and wars had always been their standard features.

But the Islamic State thrived, the Islamic community prospered, and the Islamic Way of Life was practiced fully.  Soon they became the equal to their archenemy, the Makkans, and not long afterward, the Masters of Arabia.

In spite of that “chanced meeting,” all this did not happen by chance, nor by clinging to dogmatism, but by careful planning and by being practical.  No doubt God’s Will was with them, but God would not make it happen if the Prophet and his companions did not work for it.  That “chanced meeting” only took place because the Prophet had been deliberately looking for the opportunity. 

Seizing the opportunity, he approached it slowly and patiently, but methodically.  He did not rush the people of Yathrib into the matter.  In the first meeting, he only presented the message of Islam to them, without putting any conditions to it.  He did not even ask them to adhere strictly to the idea of not associating any gods beside Allah, though this is the core of Islamic belief.  He also did not send any of his companions to teach them how to live as Muslims.  He simply wanted them to be comfortable with the idea of the “new religion,” without being dogmatic about it.

By the time the second meeting took place, the number of Muslims was growing in Yathrib, and they started to feel comfortable with the simple message of Islam.  So he took the pledge from them not to associate anything with Allah, and to avoid from indulging in some activities, considered repulsive in Islam, such as stealing, fornication, killing their children, and telling lies.  The “mild” content of this First Pledge of Aqabah led it to be known later as the “Pledge of Women.”  As they were beginning to feel comfortable with the idea and the simple message of Islam, the Prophet sent his learned companion to teach them the Islamic way of life. 

By the third meeting, they were ready, nay eager, to make him their supreme leader, and were willing to die for him, so he took the Second Pledge of Aqabah, which later to be known also as the “Pledge of War.”

In all these episodes, the Prophet was being practical, not dogmatic, in his approach.

This side of the story is never told in the official celebration of Ma’al Hijrah.  We celebrate the event of Hijrah, but its spirit is lost, except superficially, which is a pity.


The End.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Hijri Calendar: Practicality Over Dogmatism (1/2)


Why the year of Hijrah was used to mark the beginning of the Islamic Era, as opposed to other equally momentous events, such as the year of the Prophet’s birth, or the start of his Prophethood mission, or the conquest of Makkah?

One internet site has this to say:

Al-Haafiz Ibn Hajar (may Allah have mercy on him) said:
The incidents that are connected to the life of the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) and that could have been taken as the start of the calendar are four: his birth, the start of his mission, his migration (Hijrah) and his death. They thought it was best to start the calendar from the Hijrah, because in the case of his birth and the start of his mission, there would be uncertainty with regard to the exact year. As for the time of his death, they chose not to use it because remembering it would renew their grief. So there was no choice left except the Hijrah.

The same site quotes many other classical resources, but they are all amounting to the same argument (1).

From the above quotation, we get the impression that Umar and his companions decided to mark the Era of Islam on the strong footing.  They wanted the Era to be based on certainty, not a mere guess.  The year whereby the Prophet undertook the journey from Makkah to Madinah was certain and well known, whereas the other dates were more difficult to ascertain and probably less well known.

This, in itself, speaks volumes about the Character of Islam and the Character of the earlier Muslims.  Islam is based on certainty, and the earlier Muslims would rather not delve into speculation, as we the later Muslims are wont to do. 

But if we probe a little deeper, we would notice something else.

The decision to establish the Hijri Calendar was made around the fourth year of Umar’s reign.  Some said a year or two later.  Whether it was on the fourth, fifth or sixth year of Umar’s reign, it is a known fact that many of Muhammad’s contemporaries were still alive.

His uncle, Abbas bin Abdul Muttalib, was still around.  So was Hakim bin Hizam, the nephew of Prophet’s wife, Khadijah, who was the Prophet’s close friend when they were young.  Both of these were born a few years before Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him, was born.   A few others were also alive, aside from these two.

Should they consider the birth of the Prophet to be of such great importance, and that the Islamic Era must be based on that, it would have been more than possible to work out the exact year.  Many among the Companions were smart people.  Ali, for one, would be more than capable to do the job, if it was entrusted to him.  After all, this task would not have been more difficult than the task of compiling the Quran, which had been ably handled by Zayd bin Thabit. 

Spartan though he was, as the Caliph, Umar would not have exhausted any expenses for the task, if only they deemed the year of the Prophet’s birth to be the indispensable element, without which the Islamic Era would be defective. 

That they didn’t undertake such a seemingly simple task tells a lot about the Character of Islam, and the Character of early Muslims.

Now, if the task of dating the year of Prophet’s birth is not exactly insurmountable, then the dating of the year of his Prophethood would have been much easier.  It is well known that those who first joined the fold of Islam were four: Abu Bakar as Siddiq, Khadijah Khuwaylid, Zayd Haritha and Ali Abu Talib.  They became Muslims in a matter of days or at most, weeks.

Of these four, Ali was still alive when the decision to establish the Calendar was made.  We in fact know that Ali was living with the Prophet before Revelation took place.  The Prophet had adopted him to reduce the burden of his uncle, Abu Talib, the father of Ali, who was poor but had many mouths to feed.  Tradition has it that Muhammad went to his uncle, Abbas, with the proposal of adopting some of Abu Talib’s children.  Muhammad took Ali, while Abbas took Ja’far, the older brother of Ali.

Many others who joined the fold of Islam during the earliest stage were still alive as well.  Of the Ten Promised Paradise, nine of them were the early believers.  Only Umar was the later convert.  And of these great Companions, only Abu Bakar had died, while the rest were still alive. Thus, if Umar and his companions had deemed that the beginning of Prophet’s mission to be the indispensable requirement for the Islamic Era, they would have chosen the year of prophetic revelation to mark the Islamic Era.  And the task of dating it would have been rather easy. 

That they didn’t consider the beginning of Prophethood to be a must criteria also tell a lot about the Character of Islam, and the Character of early Muslims.

To say that they resorted to the year of Hijrah because they had no choice would be inaccurate. 

As for the year of his death, although the date was well known, it is obvious why it was not considered as the beginning of Islamic Era.  Why would the death of the Prophet be marked as the beginning of Islamic Era, when it was he who established it? 

Other illustrious events, such as the Battle of Badar and the Conquest of Makkah, moreover, could have been selected.  The Day of Badar is considered a momentous event in the history of Islam.  The Prophet profusely supplicated for the victory, saying that if the Muslims are annihilated, Islam would perish.  So is the Conquest of Makkah.  It marked the great victory of a “fugitive” who came back as a “conqueror.”

But that neither of these was used to mark the Era of Islam does tell a lot about the Character of Islam, and the Character of early Muslims.

The event of Hijrah was selected, above all other momentous events, to mark the Islamic Era, and to establish the Islamic Calendar known as Hijri Calendar, because it fits with the Character of Islam as embodied in the Character of Early Muslims; namely, it is the Character of Islam and the earlier Muslims that practicality takes precedent over dogmatism.  Great outcomes were nothing but natural consequences of this Character.

Now, the conquest of Makkah was an outcome of Hijrah.  What it marks is glory.  Neither Islam nor early Muslims consider “glory” to be consequential enough to mark the birth of an era.  Vanity is not part of Islam.  The Day of Badar is also, to a large extent, a mark of glory.  There have been many other glories during the times of the Prophet, if glories are to be taken into considerations.

Neither was the year of his birth, nor the start of his prophetic mission, appeared to fit the bill.  Each of these was wholly determined by Allah.  None involved human intervention.  Allah decided when the Prophet was to be born, and when he was to assume his prophetic mission.  All these happened not by choice, nor by any human effort, but by God’s decree. 

Thus, while there is nothing to suggest that Umar and his companions had indulged in long deliberations over the matter, it would also be na├»ve if we were to suggest that the decision was made without some measure of deliberation.  Ali was credited for making the suggestion.  As we know, it was not in the nature of Ali to merely suggest without making persuasive case.  He is noted for having a knack for making an argument others cannot refute.

The earlier generation had lived by the character of Islam, which put more emphasis on actions than on idle talks, as we the later generation are fond of doing.  “We hear and we obey,” that was their motto, which was derived straight from the Quran.  Every Revelation was treated like a “circular” to be executed, not to be debated, or to be treated like an intellectual treaty.  Once they accepted Islam and understood what it is for, their thinking was for the outcome, and their focus was for the best means to achieve the result.  Practicality is given precedent over dogmatism.

End of Part 1.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dating Game: The Need For Calendar


Why was Islamic Calendar only introduced during the time of Umar, the Prophet’s second successor, and not by the Prophet himself?  Or by his first successor, Abu Bakar?

The story goes like this.

During and before the times of the Prophet, the Arabs were not used to writing.  Very few among them could read and write.  The Prophet was among those who couldn’t, although he was the grandson of their supreme leader, Abdul Muttalib.  This was probably due to the Prophet being an orphan, and was in the care of Abu Talib, his uncle, who was poor, though he was the leader of their tribe.  The Prophet spent most of his youthful life tending the sheep of his uncle, instead of attending the reading and writing classes.  

Their language, Arabic, however, was sophisticated.   But whatever literature they had was oral.  Assisted by their miraculous memory, they composed their “oral literatures” in the form of poetry.  Whether they were narrating their lineage, which they took great pride of, or expounding ideas, or narrating events, these were all done in rhythmic prose.  This rhythmic prose, or poetry, further assisted their memorization.  They held good poetries in high regard.  Poetry competitions were often held, which made many of them excellent poets.  These poetries were handed down from generation to generation.

When the Archangel Gabriel came for the first time with the Revelation, it was said that he held a piece of parchment with an inscription on it.  Gabriel asked Muhammad to read what was written on it, but the latter replied he couldn’t.  These exchanges occurred three times, until the Archangel Gabriel recited what was written on that parchment, and the recitation got engraved in the heart of Muhammad.  This story is well known.

Although it was not the standard practice during his time, his good sense dictated that the revelation was too important to be preserved solely through memory, irrespective of the fact that the Arabs during his time were endowed with miraculous power of memory.  So Muhammad instructed his Companions to write it down whenever the Revelation came to him.

But even the Prophet did not do what people in later times did, namely, putting the date on the important document.  Thus the Quranic parchments were recorded without having the dates on them, which led to disagreements as to when they were revealed.  Dating the Quranic verses later on became a science in itself.

This practice continued until the Prophet died.  He wrote several letters, entered into several written agreements, but they were undated.   Even if some were dated, there was no year in it, only day or month.  This is because the Arabs did not have proper calendar.  They generally based their “year” on certain important events, such as the “Year of Elephant.”  They would say, for instance, 15 years after the Year of Elephant.  Needless to say, this was said orally, not in writing.

By the time Umar became the Caliph, the Islamic Empire had become very big.  As the Empire became very big, face to face instruction, or instruction through a messenger, common during the times of the Prophet and Abu Bakar, was no longer feasible.  Most instructions had to be in the form of written documents.  At least some of these documents were dated, but continuing with the practice of his predecessors, they were without years. Needless to say, this had become a source of inconvenience to many of his governors and officials, as the following case illustrates.

Sheikh Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti (d. 1825), the greatest known chronicler of late 18th- and early 19th-century Egypt, recounted that Umar Ibn Al-Khattab was the first "setter of dates" of the Islamic era. According to his account, Abu Moussa Al-Ash'ari wrote to Umar Ibn AlKhattab in distress: "Letters have reached us from the Commander of the Faithful, but we do not know which to obey. We read a document dated [the month of] Sha'ban, but we do not know which of the Sha'bans is meant: is it the month that has passed, or that which is to come?" Umar is then said to have gathered the Companions of the Prophet and told them: "Money is flowing in, and what we have apportioned bears no date. How are we to reach a way of regulating this matter?" (1)

It is because of the dilemma such as the above, as well as many others, that the need for a proper calendar to be set up became critical.  One internet source highlights this matter beautifully, which would be proper to quote here:

One day Abu Musa al-Ash`ari, the governor of Basra at the time, wrote to `Umar complaining that the ordinances, instructions, and letters from the Caliph were undated and therefore gave rise to problems linked to the sequence of their implementation. Because of this and other similar problems of undatedness, `Umar convened an assembly of scholars and advisors to consider the question of calendar reforms. The deliberations of this assembly resulted in the combined opinion that Muslims should have a calendar of their own.

The point that was next considered was from when should the new Muslim calendar era begin. Some suggested that the era should begin from the birth of the Prophet while others suggested that it should begin from the time of his death. `Ali suggested that the era should begin from the date the Muslims migrated from Mecca to Madina, and this was agreed upon.

The next question considered was the month from which the new era should start. Some suggested that it should start from the month of Rabi` al-Awwal, some from Rajab, others from Ramadan, others from Dhu al-Hijja. `Uthman suggested that the new era should start from the month of Muharram because that was the first month in the Arabic calendar of that time. This was agreed upon. Since the Migration had taken place in the month of Rabi` al-Awwal, two months and eight days after the first of Muharram that year, the date was pushed back by two months and eight days, and the new Hijri calendar began with the first day of Muharram in the year of the Migration rather than from the actual date of the Migration. (2)

That, in short, was how the Hijri or Islamic Calendar came into the picture.  Umar and his companions did not celebrate the New Year of Hijrah during their times because the purpose was different. 

One last point to note in this installment is that while the Prophet did not establish the Islamic Calendar, he did establish the foundation for it.  As we know, the calendars people used are either lunar or solar.  The Christian Calendar is solar, while most others, such as the Jewish and the Chinese calendars, are lunar.  The Islamic Calendar too is a lunar calendar.

But unlike the Jewish and Chinese calendars, the Islamic Calendar is strictly lunar, while the other two are in effect lunar-solar calendars.  This is because the Jewish and Chinese calendars employ what is known as intercalation, that is, the insertion of a leap day, week or month into some calendar years to make the calendar follow the seasons. 

As we know, the moon completes its rotation around the earth in 29 ½ days.  Hence, a year of 12 months would only be 354 days, instead of 365 days, a deficit of 11 day per year.  Thus, after three years, one month has to be added, making that leap year 13 instead of 12 months, so that the month in the lunar calendar would not fall behind the seasonal change.  That is why, for instance, the Chinese New Year is either celebrated in January or February every year, although their calendar is considered a lunar calendar.

The Arabs before Islam too employed intercalation method.  They used to perform their most important ritual, hajj, after the harvest.  This practice started about three hundred years before the Prophet was born, and was done so that it would be convenient to feed the pilgrims.  Thus, the hajj could be performed in any “month” of the year, but would fall roughly on the same season. 

When the Prophet performed his last hajj, known as Farewell Pilgrimage, it was a year that, after undergoing a full revolution, has returned to its original state.  In that year, the Prophet prohibited the infidels from doing hajj.  This is well known.  But it was also the year he prohibited the manipulation of calendar and asked the Muslims to adhere strictly to its original state.  Because of this prohibition, the hajj has always been performed on the fixed days of the fixed month thereafter, but it can be on any season.

Why the year of his migration is used as the starting year of Islamic Calendar, as opposed to the year of his birth, as the Christian Calendar is, which allegedly is based on the year of Jesus’ birth?  After all, events related to Muhammad’s birth are no less “miraculous” than the events of Jesus’ birth. 

Traditions say that when he was born, a very bright light came out of his mother’s birth canal, and Sham (greater Syria) was shown to her, and the fire at the Magian (Majusi) Temple went out for the first time in a thousand years.   Now, even if one doubts the authenticity of these traditions, the year was still conspicuous, because it was the Year of Elephant, whose story no Muslims can doubt, because it is well established in the Quran.

Or perhaps, why not the year of his prophethood, or of his death, or even the year of the conquest of Makkah?

Umar and his companions did not decide the beginning of the Islamic Era arbitrarily, but after much deliberation.  There is something interesting about this decision, which tells a lot about the character and the nature of Islam itself, especially in the beginning of the Islamic Era. 

That we shall cover in the next installment, insyaAllah.

Stay tuned.


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