The Death of the Prophet (PBUH) (Dr. Mansoor Alam, Ohio, USA)

(Islamic History: Part 1)

In spite of volumes of literature on the subject, a vast majority of Muslims – young and old – are ignorant of Islamic history. Yet, the importance of the knowledge of history cannot be overemphasized. According to Allama Iqbal, history is like long-term memory where the voices of nations are preserved. So a people without knowledge of history are a people without memory. And people who cannot remember, obviously, cannot benefit from the lessons of history.

The Quran demands that Muslims reflect upon history, not merely to know it but to learn from it. By studying history, Muslims can gain an understanding of how Allah’s laws work in the extended lives of nations. The rise and fall of empires is not random, nor does Allah preordain the fate of nations. Rather, it is the actions of nations that cause their downfall; when the people fail to uphold the laws of society that Allah has set forth in the Quran. This is why Allah repeats and reminds us of the history of past nations throughout the Quran, so we can learn from their stories; if we repeat their mistakes (pointed out by the Quran) we will suffer similar consequences.

It is hard to blame non-Muslim nations, which historically, go through a process of political and economic trial and error without the (Quranic) solutions manual. But what can be said of Muslims who have thrown this solutions manual behind their backs, and thus continue to be buffeted by humiliation and degradation?

The focus of this series of articles will be to look through history for answers to important questions confronting the Ummah in the past and today. What caused (and continues to cause) the downfall of Muslims? What did Allah mean when he said that Muslims can be the best of nations? What does the Qur’an mean in claiming that no one can defeat Muslims? And how reliable are our historical records? These are important questions we need to keep in mind.

The overall history of Muslims may be divided into four periods:

  1. The period of the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions (the Khilaafah) in which was laid the foundation of a true Islamic state. In this period, human beings were liberated from bondage and the brutal, lawless, tribal society was transformed into one based on the rule of law (which, in turn, was based on the Quranic principles of human dignity, equality, and self respect). This Islamic State and system, in a very short span of time, acquired the most respectable and the most powerful position in the world.
  1. The period following this system which was based purely on the Quran, – there was no other written book at the time – was replaced by hereditary kingship, otherwise known as Islamic empire. But, because the system instituted by the Prophet (PBUH) still had its momentum and influence, the Islamic empire continued to flourish and grow. It was as if the tree planted by the Prophet (PBUH) and nourished by the Khulafaa Al-Rashidoon continued to give fruits. Although deprived of further Quranic nourishment, the tree continued to use up the prior nourishing sap. This obviously could not continue forever. The tree, having used up all of its previous nourishment, started to decline.
  2. Next came the third period of Muslim history, the period that marked the decline and fall of the Islamic empire. This period saw the loss of its power and wealth, while Muslims experienced unprecedented levels of humiliation and suffering.
  3. This decline is followed by the current period in which there seems to be a resurgence of Islam at a global level. But Muslims as a whole must not passively accept their condition; they must seek to find the causes that brought them so low. This is not possible without a true and trustworthy Islamic history.

Compiling the history of any nation is difficult, but this difficulty is further compounded in the case of Islamic history. Since in any history, historical personalities tend to figure prominently, and since Muslims revere certain historical personalities while holding others in disdain, it is quite possible that our books of history may not be free from prejudice and partisan sectarianism. Also, when it comes to history, certain elements whose sole purpose has been to hurt Islam, cannot be ignored. Another point worth mentioning about history is that it should be treated as history. Our reverence and emotional attachment to it does not make it sacred and beyond criticism. History, by nature, is prone to error no matter how much care is taken in its collection and compilation.

With this general background, let us now proceed with a critical examination of the history of the first period of Islam (mentioned earlier).

The first comprehensive book of History of Islam is by Imam Tabari and his history is considered to be Ummul Tawaareekh (the mother of all history). It enjoys a unique position among the histories of Islam and it is the main source of all subsequent books on Islamic history. [Imam Tabari was born in Tabristan (in Iran) in 224 hegira and died in 311 hegira.]

The death of the Prophet (PBUH) and the selection of the next leader (Khalifa) of the Muslims presented a unique challenge at this most critical time in the history of Islam. The Islamic state had grown to about one million square miles during the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH). He had not picked his successor before his death. Nevertheless, a successor had to be selected by and among his companions as soon as possible to run the affairs of the state.

So the Sahaabah from both the Muhajiroon (the immigrants from Mecca) and the Ansaar (the people of Medina who helped them) gathered together in Saqeefa Bani Saa-‘eda. Ansaar wanted to choose their candidate Sa‘ad bin ‘Ibaadah (R) as the Khalifah but after mutual consultation, discussion and debate both the Ansaar and the Muhaajiroon agreed to accept Abu Bakr (R) as theKhalifah of this nascent Islamic state.

For the future of Islam there could not be a more important event in the history of Islam than the death of the Prophet (PBUH) and the selection of his successor. Imam Tabari describes this event in volume 1 part 4 of his history thus:

While people from all walks of life started coming to affirm their allegiance to Abu Bakr (R) they showed their anger towards Saad(R) and were about to crush him to death. Right then followers of Saad (R) screamed: Save Saad! Do not kill him! Umar (R) replied: May Allah curse him to death; kill him. Umar (R) then rushed towards Saad (R) with an intention to kill him. But Saad (R) got hold of Umar’s (R) beard. At this Umar (R) asked Saad (R) to let go of his beard; otherwise he (Umar) would smash all his (Saad’s) teeth. Seeing this Abu Bakr (R) instructed Umar(R) to be quiet and to show tolerance, as this would be prudent at this time. Then Umar (R) turned away from Saad (R). But Saad (R), enraged at the behavior of Umar (R), responded by saying that had he not been injured, he would fill the streets of Medina with his supporters who would fight Umar and his supporters and turn the streets of Medina into bloodbath …. …Saad (R) did not accept the allegiance of Abu Bakr (R) until his death and he never prayed or performed Hajj under the leadership of Abu Bakr (R).

Imam Tabari has presented this picture of some of the closest companions of the Prophet (PBUH) while they were choosing his successor. [There are many more accounts reported by him and Imam Bukhari, and others on this issue. There is no reason to go through them all. Just this one example may be sufficient to illustrate our point.]

While we reflect on this description, we should keep in mind that the Quran has also provided a fairly good picture of the Prophet’s companions. So here are some questions to ponder:

Should we accept as true the above description by Imam Tabari (written more than 250 years after the Prophet’s death without the benefit of any firsthand eyewitness accounts of the events described above) merely because of his almost mythical standing among Islamic scholars? Or should we compare and critique his depiction of the character of the companions with that of the Quran’s? If we are not prepared to do that, then why should we be upset when orientalists (including Christian and Hindu fundamentalists) pick on depictions of the companions’ characters such as these from our history (and hadith) books and turn the tables on us?

As far as the history of this period is concerned at least, we cannot ignore one important factor, namely, that it can (and must) be judged in light of the Quran because we know that our Prophet (PBUH) and his companions used to follow the Quran. Therefore, their characters were aligned with the teachings of the Quran.

What then does the Quran say about the character of the companions of the Prophet (PBUH)? It describes their character in detail in chapter 48, verse 29 thus:

Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah; and those who are with him are strong against Unbelievers, (but) compassionate amongst each other. Thou wilt see them bow and prostrate themselves seeking Grace from Allah and His Good Pleasure. On their faces are their marks, the traces of their prostration. This is their similitude in the Torah; and their similitude in the Gospel is like a seed which sends forth its blade, then makes it strong; it then becomes thick, and it stands on its own stem, filling the sowers with wonder and delight. As a result, it fills the unbelievers with rage at them. Allah has promised to those who believe and do righteous deeds forgiveness, and a great reward. (48:29) [Yusuf Ali]

In chapter 8 verse 74 the Quran says about the companions:

Those who believe, and adopt exile and fight for the faith, in the cause of Allah, [i.e., the Muhaajiroon] as well as those who give (them) asylum and aid [i.e., Ansaar] – these are (all) in very truth the believers: for them is the forgiveness and a provision most generous. (8: 74) [Yusuf Ali]

The Quran also says about the companions of the Prophet (PBUH) that:

And He hath put affection between their hearts: not if thou hadst spent all that is in the earth, couldst thou have produced that affection, but Allah has done it: for He is Exalted in might, Wise. (8:63) [Yusuf Ali]

But the Messenger and those believe with him [i.e. his companions], strive and fight with their wealth and their persons: for them are (all) good things; and it is they who will prosper. (9:88) [Yusuf Ali]

These were the companions who were taught and disciplined by the Prophet (PBUH). These were the companions left behind and entrusted by the Prophet to move forward the Islamic system implemented by him. The Prophet (PBUH) did not appoint a leader of the Muslims so the matter could be decided by his companions by mutual consultation as demanded by the Quran (42:38). This debate and argument was to be done in a peaceful manner as instructed by the Quran (16:125). [This rules out any idea of dictatorship or hereditary kingship in Islam. This also rules out a choice of an Islamic leader based solely on race, ethnicity, or family connection – even with the Prophet’s family. There was definitely an infinite wisdom in why the Prophet (PBUH) did not choose his successor.]

According to the above-quoted verses, the companions of the Prophet (PBUH) loved each other, a circumstance which no amount of wealth could have produced; they spent their wealth in the way of Allah and were ready to give their lives for His Cause; both the Muhajiroon and the Ansaar were true believers; they were given the certificate of forgiveness and reward of a better life by Allah during their lifetime. Therefore, they could not have done anything that was unbecoming of true believers. This is the picture of the companions given by the Quran. When this is compared with Imam Tabari’s account, we find several contradictions. Instead of love, we find arrogance and hatred among them. Instead of self-sacrifice, we find them hungry for power. Instead of engaging in peaceful and mutual consultation to resolve differences, we find them killing one another. How could this scenario fit with the Quranic description of our Sahaabah’s character? We need to think about this when we look at our history books dealing specially with the period of the rightly-guided khalifas. If they clearly contradict the Quran, we should reject it without feeling apologetic because of our reverence for past Imams. After all they were not infallible. Our allegiance should be to the Quran, not to any history. History could be wrong, but the Quran is 100% truth.

The next article will discuss how the true Islam of our Prophet (PBUH), based solely on the Quranic constitution which guarantees universal human rights and freedom, was distorted and given an imperial twist. Wa maa taufeeqi illa billahil ‘aliyil ‘adheem.

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