[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]

The Shunning of Three Men Who Do Not Go on the Raid on Tabūk

John C. Rankin

Three Muslims, among many others, make excuse not to participate in the raid against the Byzantines – Ka‘b b. Mālik, Murāra b. Al-Rabī and Hilāl b. Umayya. After Muḥammad returns to Medīna, they are forgiven, “but neither God [Allāh] nor His apostle accepted their excuse.” Accordingly, the rest of the Muslims separate themselves and refuse to speak with them.

Ka‘b b. Mālik views himself as having procrastinated the necessary preparations, prepares a rationalization which includes the “thought that they could conceal it from him so long as no revelation came down from God [Allāh] about it,” even as one who made the pledge to Islām at al-‘Aqaba. But:

“When I heard that the apostle was on his way back from Tabūk[,] I was smitten with remorse and began to think of a lie I could tell to escape from his anger and get some of my people to support me in it; but when I heard that he was near at hand[,] falsehood left me and I knew that I could only escape by telling the truth, so I determined to do so. In the morning the apostle entered Medina and went into the mosque[,] and after performing two rak‘as he sat down to await the men. Those who had stayed behind came and began to make excuses with oaths – there were about eighty of them – and the apostle accepted their public declarations and oaths and asked the divine forgiveness for them, referring their secret thoughts to God [Allāh]. Last of all I came and saluted him and he smiled as one who is angry. He told me to come near, and when I sat before him he asked me what had kept me back, and had I not bought my mount. I said, ‘O apostle of God [Allāh], were I sitting with anyone else in the world I should count on escaping his anger by an excuse, for I am astute in argument. But I know that if I tell you a lie today you will accept it and that God [Allāh] will soon excite your anger against me; and yet if I tell you the truth which will make you angry with me, I have hopes that God [Allāh] will reward me for it in the end. Indeed, I have no excuse. I was never stronger and richer than when I stayed behind.’ The apostle said, ‘So far as that goes you have told the truth, but get up until God [Allāh] decides about you.’ So I got up and some of B. Salima rose in annoyance and followed me, saying, ‘We have never known you to do wrong before, and you were unable to excuse yourself to the apostle as the others who stayed behind did. It would have sufficed if the apostle had asked pardon for your sin.’ They kept after me until I wanted to go back to the apostle and give the lie myself.”

Thus, Ka‘b b. Mālik chooses the integrity of honest confession over excuse making or lying, and Muḥammad often promises pardon upon repentance, but not here, and in the context of military orders. Ka‘b has to first wait for Muḥammad to hear from Allāh, even as fellow Muslims are annoyed that Mālik does not choose the easy way out, not unlikely because it exposes the excuse making or lying in which they are engaged. Also, here as elsewhere in Ibn Isḥāq’s candid narrative, we see that while Islām calls for truth telling in a certain way, the culture of revenge and anger and scheming for one’s advantage is not overcome, except as ordered by external measures. And such an external measure is at play here.

Thus:

“The apostle forbade anyone to speak to us three out of those who had stayed behind, so men avoided us and showed us an altered demeanour, until I hated myself and the whole world as never before. We endured this for fifty nights. As for my two companions in misfortune they were humiliated and stayed in their houses, but I was younger and hardier, so I used to go out and attend prayers with the Muslims, and go round the markets while no one spoke to me; and I would go to the apostle and salute him while he sat after prayers, asking myself if his lips had moved in returning the salutation or not; then I would pray near him and steal a look at him. When I performed my prayer he looked at me, and when I turned towards him he turned away from me. When I had endured much from the harshness of the Muslims I walked off and climbed over the wall of Abū Qatāda’s orchard. He was my cousin and the dearest of men to me. I saluted him and by God [Allāh] he did not return my salām, so I said, ‘O Abū Qatāda, I adjure you by God [Allāh], do you not know that I love God [Allāh] and His apostle?’; but he answered not a word. Again I adjured him and he was silent; again, and he said, ‘God [Allāh] and His apostle know best.’ At that my eyes swam with tears and I jumped up and climbed over the wall.”

The human pain at being shunned by the umma is deeply palpable, by a man who is a soldier and poet of Islām, who loves Allāh and Muḥammad, but is experiencing harshness, not love, in return. Mālik genuinely hopes for an immediate pardon, especially as he makes no excuses. The story of this shunning reaches the king of Ghassān (a Christian dynasty) who writes Mālik a letter on a piece of silk: “ ‘We hear that your master has treated you badly. God has not put you in a house of humiliation and loss, so come to us and we will provide for you.’ When I read it I thought that this too was part of the ordeal. My situation was such that a polytheist hoped to win me over; so I took the letter to the oven and burned it.”

Ka‘b b. Mālik is twisted in his distress. He either views this Christian king as a polytheist due to issues of an Islāmic view of the Trinity, or does not know the king is a Christian and assumes he is a polytheist, and perhaps also in assuming that Muḥammad holds such great control, that this must be a ruse through which Muḥammad is probing his allegiance.

“ ‘Thus we went on until forty of the fifty nights had passed and then the apostle’s messenger came to me and told me that the apostle ordered that I should separate myself from my wife. I asked whether this meant that I was to divorce her, but he said No, I was to separate myself and not approach her. My two companions received similar orders … Ten more nights passed until fifty nights since the apostle had forbidden men to speak to us were complete. I prayed the morning prayer on the top of one of our houses on the morn of the fiftieth night in the way that God [Allāh] had prescribed. The world, spacious as it is, closed in on us and my soul was deeply distressed. I had set up a tent on the top of a crag[,] and I used to stay there[,] when suddenly I heard the voice of a crier coming over the top of the crag shouting at the top of his voice, ‘Good news, Ka‘b b. Mālik!’ I fell down prostrate, knowing that relief had come at last.’ ”

“ ‘The apostle announced God’s [Allāh’s] forgiveness when he prayed at the dawn prayer, and men went off to tell us the good news … Then I set off towards the apostle and men met me and told me the good news and congratulated me on God [Allāh] having forgiven me. I went to the mosque and there was the apostle surrounded by men. Ṭalḥa b. ‘Ubaydullah got up and greeted me and congratulated me, but no other muhājir did so.’ (Ka‘b never forgot this action of Ṭalḥa’s).”

Ka‘b b. Mālik, as with all the companions, are slaves to Muḥammad and Allāh, and as Muḥammad declares himself to be a slave to Allāh. The word of Allāh to the Muslims is mediated only though Muḥammad’s internal testimony of what he says Jibrīl says Allāh says to him. Thus, even as a shunning is ordered with its deep punitive nature, Ka‘b b. Mālik also has to separate from his wife for a season. No minutiae are beyond the reach of Allāh and Muḥammad’s specific interposition. Mālik accepts this as a necessary season for gaining Allāh’s forgiveness.

“When I saluted the apostle he said as his face shone with joy, ‘This is the best day of your life. Good news to you!’ I said, ‘From you or from God [Allāh]?’ ‘From God [Allāh], of course,’ he said. When he told the good news his face used to be like the moon, and we used to recognize it. When I sat before him[,] I told him that as an act of penitence I would give away my property as alms to God [Allāh] and His apostle. He told me to keep some of it …” God [Allāh] sent down:

” ‘God [Allāh] has forgiven the prophet and the emigrants and the helpers who followed him in the hour of difficulty[,] after the hearts of a party of them almost swerved; then He forgave them. He is kind and merciful to them and to the three who were left behind’ as far as the words ‘And be with the truthful.’ ”

Ka‘b said: “God [Allāh] never showed me a greater favor after He had guided me to Islam[,] than when I told the apostle the truth that day[,] so that I did not lie and perish like those who lied; for God [Allāh] said about those who lied to him when He sent down the revelation ‘They will swear to you by God [Allāh] when you return to them that you may turn from them. Do turn from them for they are unclean and their resting place is hell, in reward for what they have earned. They swear to you that you may be satisfied with them, and if you are satisfied with them[,] God [Allāh] is not satisfied with an evil people.’ ”

Ka‘b b. Mālik is restored, he is overjoyed, accepts the ordeal as intrinsic to the mercy of Allāh, and is a true Muslim, submitting to Muḥammad and Allāh. The Qur’ān that comes down justifies his suffering, and calls for shunning the others who lied, those who are thus bound for hell even as they continue as Muslim soldiers.

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