[Excerpts, with occasional modest edits, from The Real Muḥammad: In the Eyes of Ibn Isḥāq, copyright 2013, TEI Publishing House. All quotations from the Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (“Life of the Messenger of Allāh”) are from the translation by Alfred Guillaume (Oxford University Press), copyright 1955. These stories are faithfully passed along from the most ancient, extant and authoritative biography of Muḥammad. All Muslims are called to imitate Muḥammad in their daily lives, and Muslim scholars know that Ibn Isḥāq is the best source for the historical Muḥammad, despite concern for various hon-historical material. The question is this: Can Muḥammad satisfy the Muslim thirst for freedom? How many people, of their own volition, would follow Muḥammad if they were free to choose otherwise? The same question is freely received by Muslims who would question Christians who follow Jesus as the Son of God]
Zaynab Taken From Her Unbelieving Husband in Mecca by Muḥammad
John C. Rankin
“Among the prisoners was Abū’l-‘Āṣ b. al-Rabī‘, son-in-law of the apostle, married to his [step-]daughter Zaynab. Abū’l-‘Āṣ was one of the important men of Mecca in wealth, respect and merchandise. His mother was Hāla d. Khuwaylid, and Khadīja was his aunt. Khadīja had asked the apostle to find him a wife. Now the apostle never opposed her [Khadīja] – this was before revelation came to him [his calling by Allāh] – and so he married him to his daughter. Khadīja used to regard him as her son. When God [Allāh] honoured His apostle with prophecy[,] Khadīja and her daughters believed in him and testified that he had brought the truth and followed his religion, though Abū’l-‘Āṣ persisted in his polytheism.”
“Now the apostle had no power of binding and loosing in Mecca, his circumstances being circumscribed. Islam made a division between Zaynab and her husband Abū’l-‘Āṣ, but they lived together, Muslim and unbeliever, until the apostle migrated.”
In other words, Muḥammad tolerates this mixed marriage as long as he can do nothing about it. Now, after he consolidates power in Medīna, and after Khadīja is dead, he makes his move.
“Now the apostle had imposed a condition on Abū’l-‘Āṣ, or the latter had undertaken it voluntarily – the facts were never clearly established – that he should let Zaynab come to him … [he] came to Mecca and told Zaynab to rejoin her father, and she went out to make her preparations.” Ibn Isḥāq here is expressing uncertainties as to his sources in his pursuit of the most verifiable eye-witness history possible. It is clear that Muḥammad – who imposes his will and Islām as much as possible – wants his daughter back with him since her husband refuses to convert. The line between an imposition and a “request,” and what is voluntary and what is not, in situations such as this, blurs easily. And too, though not stated here, it is not unlikely that Abū’l-‘Āṣ is given his freedom in return for telling Zaynab to go back to her father. They are divided by Islām.
” ‘Abdullah b. Abū Bakr told me that he had been told that Zaynab said that while making her preparations she was met by Hind d. ‘Utba who inquired whether she was going off to rejoin Muhammad. When she said that she did not wish to go, Hind offered to give her anything she needed for the journey as well as money. She need not be shy of her, for women stood closer together than men. However, though she thought she was sincere she was afraid of her and denied that she had any intention of going. But she went on with her preparations.”
In Ibn Isḥāq’s approach to the history of Muḥammad’s life, he very often gives us a wealth of candid detail on human interactions, as we have already seen repeatedly in a variety of contexts. Here it seems that we see the subtle and not so subtle pressures put upon Zaynab, and we can see how she resists in expression of her will, but yields to an extent in terms of her outward compliance. And here, Zaynab is essentially being bribed to comply with Muḥammad’s wishes; or if even-handed language is used here, she is being “seduced” to leave Mecca, the very complaint we have seen in terms of the Quraysh having “seduced” Muslims away from their chosen religion.
“These completed, her brother-in-law Kināna b. al-Rabī‘ brought her a camel[,] and taking his bow he led her away in a howdah in broad daylight. After discussing the matter[,] Quraysh went off in pursuit and overtook them in Dhū Ṭuwa. The first man to come up to them was Habbār b. al-Aswad b. al-Muṭṭalib b. Asad b. ‘Abdu‘l-‘Uzzā al-Fihrī. He threatened her with his lance while she sat in the howdah. It is alleged that the woman was pregnant and when she was frightened she had an abortion. Her brother-in-law Kināna knelt and emptied his quiver (in front of him) and said, “By God [Allāh], if one of you comes near me I will put an arrow through him.” So the men fell back.
The use of the word “abortion” here refers to a miscarriage, and hence a story is alleged that this happened to Zaynab as a result of the confrontation. The Quraysh are most incensed that this action in broad daylight is a measure by Muḥammad to further humiliate them after Badr. They do not want to keep her from her father, saying “that is not is not our way of seeking revenge. But take the woman back [to Mecca], and when the chatter has died down[,] and people say that we have brought her back[,] you can take her away secretly to rejoin her father.” And this is what happens, as a divorce is then ordered by Muḥammad. A poem follows, attributed to one of either two Muslims, where the Quraysh are called wicked for chasing down Zaynab, that they will regret disobeying Muḥammad [by not submitting to Islām], and thus “in hell you will wear a garment of molten pitch forever!”
“When Islam came between them[,] Abū’l-‘Āṣ lived in Mecca while Zaynab lived in Medina with the apostle until, shortly before the conquest [of Mecca, some six years later], Abū’l-‘Āṣ went to Syria trading with his own money and that of Quraysh which they entrusted to him, for he was a trustworthy man. Having completed his business[,] he was on his way home when one of the apostle’s raiding parties fell in with him and took all he had, though he himself escaped them. When the raiders went off with their plunder[,] Abū’l-‘Āṣ went into Zaynab’s house under cover of night and asked her to give him protection. She at once did so. He came to ask for his property [back from Muḥammad].”
Thus, for years, Abū’l-‘Āṣ resists becoming a Muslim. The raiding parties of Muḥammad are many, apart from the military campaigns, where the purpose is to steal money and material goods, to ransom captives, and thus build the economics of Islām which is engaging in no structural industry per se, but building the military capacity to conquer Mecca.
When Muḥammad learns of the matter, he tells Zaynab “to honour her guest but not to allow him to approach her for she was not lawful to him.” Which is to say, in reference to the imposed divorce. Abū’l-‘Āṣ receives his requested return of the property from Muḥammad, pays his obligations in Mecca, then says to his fellow Quraysh: “I bear witness that there is no God but the God [Allāh] and that Muhammad is his servant and his apostle. I would have become a Muslim when I was with him[,] but that I feared that you would think that I only wanted to rob you of your property; and now that God [Allāh] has restored it to you and I am clear of it, I submit myself to God [Allāh].” He then departs for Medīna.
Ibn Isḥāq only allows a few editorial details in his telling of the history of Muḥammad, apart from how he structures the meta-narrative. Thus, we have raw data of reported details, but which in the greater narrative tell us what is going on. Muḥammad advances Islām by virtually any means possible, including the ex post facto removal of the prohibition of fighting during the sacred months.
Here, Zaynab is taken from her husband, not married off to another, as would be a common practice, and years later her husband is robbed by one of Muḥammad’s raiding parties. So it may be asked whether Muḥammad, who has retaken authority over her, has such a strategy in mind to eventually cause Abū’l-‘Āṣ to submit to Islām. Zaynab is quick to give him protection, and as Muḥammad restores his property, we can only guess what is going on in the mind of Abū’l-‘Āṣ in seeing his wife again. Thus, “the apostle restored Zaynab to him according to the first marriage without any new procedure.”
Ironically, though Islām steals his money and property, Abū’l-‘Āṣ treats the Quraysh otherwise, honoring his obligations to their money and property. He does not taking an Islāmically permitted position, upon his conversion, to embrace the original purpose of the raiding party to steal from the Quraysh.