The Protection of Uncle Abu Talib and the Damascus Trip
When Abu Muttalib passed away, Abu Talib took his nephew Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, to his side and embraced him with the affection of a father. Now the Messenger of Allah would receive affection from Abu Talib like a father, and from Fatima, the wife of Abu Talib and mother of Ali, he would be shown much warmth.65
Abu Talib was poor. He had no riches to spend but only the affectionate arms that he had opened to his nephew at all time. His affection would resolve problems that could not be cured by money and wealth. Since the arrival of Muhammad the Trustworthy, peace and blessings be upon him, to their home, there was a different kind of bounty felt throughout the house; there was a special kind of peace among the members of the family. When he was not present at the table, the family would leave dinner without having satiated their hunger, but when they ate with him, they could see that food was always enough for all.
That’s why Abu Talib did not want to sit at the table without the presence of Muhammad the Trustworthy whom he loved more than his own children. When they sat at the table, he would place him right next to himself, and showed him affection and attachment that he showed to no other child.
Muhammad demonstrated a maturity that was well above his peers and never complained of their meager means. He was never heard complaining of either hunger or thirst. He would go drink the Zamzam water and when someone would offer him food he would say he did not want it since he was already full.66
Because he was the trust given to him by his brother and the testament of his father, Abu Talib would never let him out of his sight. He would spend the night watching over him as he slept and when he went out, he would go out with him. Since all scholars had warned about what people’s reaction to Muhammad would be, there had to be some truth in it.67
Just like the youth of the Quraysh, Abu Talib also worked in commerce. He sometimes took his nephew with him and tried to prepare him for the future. He was twelve years old. He would go towards Ajyad and graze sheep during the time he spent in Mecca,68 and was thus gaining experience about all aspects of life.
One day, Abu Talib started preparations to go on a journey towards Damascus. His nephew was sad to learn about it that he requested of he could go with him. This touched Abu Talib greatly and so he said: “I swear by Allah that I will not go without taking him with me; I will never stay away from him from this day forth, nor will I allow him to stay away from me.”
The Pride of Humanity, who heard his uncle’s oath, was filled with joy. He was now going to leave Mecca for the first time for trade. Who knew what cities he would pass, what kind of people he would meet, and what kind of incidents he would witness throughout the journey.
The Damascus Trip and Priest Bahira
Then it was time to leave, both uncle and nephew took their leave and joined the moving caravan. When they arrived near the town of Basra, between Jerusalem and Damascus, they had a stopover to rest.
Just as the caravan had started to relax, they saw a man approach them from afar in great excitement. The man had a disheveled look and seemed to have abandoned ties with the world. Thus, the people in the caravan thought he could not possibly have anything to do with them and they continued to rest. But then the man reached one of them and said: “Priest Bahira in that yonder monastery is inviting you to dinner.”
Bahira was a priest who had given up on the world and he was spending what was left of his life worshipping his Lord in a monastery. He was a good Christian scholar. In fact, he used to follow Judaism and then later he had chosen Christianity; but he had not stopped there and had searched deep into religion and he was one of the greatest scholars of his time.
In the church where he was, there was an ancient book that would pass from the hands of one priest to another. He was one of the few priests who could actually read and understand it. He had given up worldly life and was living the life of a holy man in the church. He had no use for those who came to trade; he had no possessions or wealth. But as it happened, his eyes had caught sight through the cloisters. It was clear that the diversion of his gaze outside was also part of what was meant to be. As per usual, a caravan was approaching town. But this caravan stood out amongst the previous ones; for a cloud was following the caravan and was protecting them from the scorching sun. He had an epiphany. Cloud… Shadows… End of time… The Last Messenger… Ahmad… The ancient book… All these struck like lightening in his mind and it increased his interest in the caravan. Was destiny coming to him on its two feet? What if that was the case! Then it made no sense to wait around where he was. The old man, who had closed his windows to the outer world, was rejuvenated and he started doing things he had not done in years. There was the happiness of having found something that had been lost to him in his eyes. Was what he now saw, coming towards him; Paraclete, who was to appear in between the Paran Mountains?
The clouds had gathered around a particular point in the caravan and were protecting the person underneath it from the sun. When the caravan stopped for a break, and the person in question had retired under a tree to rest, the cloud would follow him and settle upon that tree to shade him. Even the branches of the tree had come to life, and they had come closer together to stop the sun from filtering through in order to protect the person from the effects of the heat. In order to find out whether what he was seeing had any connection with what he had read and what he knew, he had to come closer and so Bahira approached their caravan and called out to them: “O people of Quraysh! I have prepared dinner for you today and I want you all, young and old, slave and free, to attend it.”
The people in the caravan were very surprised! For they had passed through this town many times before but they had never seen a priest at the monastery, let alone Priest Bahira take any interest in them. One of them came to the fore and said: “I swear by Allah, O Bahira, there is some strangeness about you today; you never did such things before.”
“You tell the truth,” answered Bahira and continued: “It is just as you say; there is some strangeness today. But you are guests. I have had the desire to extend my hospitality to you. Come all together around this table and eat from it.”
Of course such a sincere invitation could not be rejected. They had walked for weeks, and they had longed for such an invitation. Those who had completed their business in the caravan thus set out for the church.
In the meantime, the volunteers of the church had set into action and they were preparing a grand dinner for the caravan. Everyone had come; however the scene that he had wanted to attract to the church was still by the side of the caravan. He had not yet seen the face he had longed for among his guests. He was about to burst with curiosity, and not able to resist any longer, he asked: “O you people of
Quraysh! Is there anyone among the people of the caravan who did not come with you to dinner and stayed with the caravan? Is there anyone who did not come?”
“There is no one who should have accepted your invitation but remained behind, except for a little boy. He was the youngest among us by age and we left him behind to look after our wares,” they added.
“Do not do so!” Bahira said and added: “Call him as well; let him join you in this dinner.”
Even though he was a little boy he was meant to come as well, and so the Pride of Humankind was invited as well. One of them had come running back to where the caravan was and invited the one that all eyes had been looking for. He was coming. As he stood up and walked towards the church, the cloud that was protecting him also set into motion and it too was coming to the place of the gathering. Now it was as it should be. Bahira’s conviction grew stronger, and he was very excited thinking that he might be able to get answers to questions that had been troubling him for some time. When The Pride of Humanity arrived near Bahira with his shining, beautiful face, the priest had been cleared of all doubt, and could now see the truth. His eyes were locked on to Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. He looked at him for a long while. Then, an air of happiness got hold of him. There was no doubt that this was no one but Ahmad whose good tidings had already been given in ancient books.
The food had been eaten and people were starting to get up and leave. What if he also left without speaking? There had to be a way to speak to him, he had to verify what he had seen through conversing with him. At last he found an opportunity to address him: “O you young man,” he said and added: “I will ask you a few questions. You will answer what I ask only in the name of Lat and Uzza.”
But the Pride of Humankind had been disturbed by the names that had been spoken and said: “Do not ask me in the name of Lat and Uzza. I swear by Allah that I feel anger towards them like I feel towards no other thing.”
Bahira knew that the Quraysh swore by these two idols and he wanted to gage the reaction of the Pride of Humankind concerning idol worship, and he had got what he wanted. For the priest, all signs were supporting each other and he was now sure more than before. He was aware of the uniqueness of the person he was in the presence of.
“Then promise me only in the Name of Allah and answer what I ask you,” said Bahira, thus preparing the ground for his questions. The answer he received relieved Bahira further: “Ask whatever you like.”
Bahira asked Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, about the manner of all things, from his sleep and dreams to his everyday life, and to his hopes. Bahira was asking and the Pride of Humankind was answering with ease. Everything was very clear; all was as described in the books that he read. The conversation was completed and all signs pointed to the fact that the interlocutor was him. All that remained was the mark of Prophethood. He asked to see it as well. However, the Pride of Humankind thought it unseemly to bare his shoulders without enquiring about the reason. Seeing that there was no way round, Bahira whispered in his ear. The Pride of Humanity did not keep the curious old man waiting any longer. Just as Bahira had given up hope of seeing him, he had been given the good grace of his presence so close to him, and Bahira was thanking his Lord for this good fortune.
The Conversation Between Bahira and Abu Talib
There was no room for hesitation any longer. Bahira had one more historical duty to perform and so he turned to the uncle, Abu Talib and asked: “What relation are you to this child?”
Among Arabs when there was no father, an uncle or grandfather would take the place of the father, and so Abu Talib introduced himself by saying: “I am his father.”
Bahira, who had till that time found everything in keeping with his expectations, was startled by this unexpected answer from Abu Talib. He hesitated for a while and he started to shake his head from side to side in agitation. His demeanor seemed to say “No, this can’t be!” For according to his knowledge, the father of this child should have died before he came to the world. Bahira said: “No, you can’t be the father of this child. The father of this child cannot be living today. He must have died before he was born.”
It was through being his guardian that Abu Talib had given that answer. It was thus time for Abu Talib to tell the truth: “He is my brother’s son,” he said in all seriousness. Although Abu Talib was becoming wary of this questioning, Bahira kept asking: “What does his father do?”
Abu Talib gave a short answer: “He died when the boy’s mother was pregnant with him.”
This was as it should be. For Bahira, the comparison that he was trying to make with the truncated historical knowledge continued and he said: “Now you have said the truth.”
He then took Abu Talib to one side and said to him, in a very grave manner: “You and your brother’s son should return to where you came from, to your own land. You should be careful about this boy when it comes to the jealous clergy around here. I swear by Allah that if they also see what I see in him, and if they recognize him through his characteristics, they will do some harm to the boy, for there will be a great event concerning your brother’s son. Just take care and return where you came from with great haste.”69
The priest spoke with years of experience, and taking his advice, Abu Talib was also reminded about his father’s testament about the boy and so decided to return home before anything happened to him. He sold the wares he had brought with him to Basra, and then taking his nephew’s hand, he returned to Mecca.1