his life based on the earliest sources
By Martin Lings
OTHER of the most powerful Arab tribes of Abrahamic descent was Quraysh; and about four hundred years after Christ, a man of Quraysh named Qusayy married a daughter of Hulayl who was then chief of Khuza’ah, Hulayl preferred his son-in-law to his own sons, for Qusayy was outstanding amongst Arabs of his time, and on the death of Hulayl, after a fierce battle which ended in arbitration, it was agreed that Qusayy should rule over Mecca and be the guardian of the Ka’bah.
He thereupon brought those of Quraysh who were his nearest of kin and settled them in the valley, beside the Sanctuary -his brother Zuhrah; his uncle Taym; Makhzum, the son of another uncle; and one or two cousins who were less close. These and their posterity were known as Quraysh of the Hollow, whereas Qusayy’s more remote kinsmen settled in the ravines of the surrounding hills and in the countryside beyond and were known as Quraysh of the Outskirts. Qusayy ruled over them all as king, with undisputed power, and they paid him a tax every year on their flocks, so that he might feed those of the pilgrims who were too poor to provide for themselves. Until then the keepers of the Sanctuary had lived round it in tents. But Qusayy now told them to build themselves houses, having already built himself a spacious dwelling which was known as the House of Assembly.
All was harmonious, but seeds of discord were about to be sown. It was a marked characteristic of Qusayy’s line that in each generation there would be one man who was altogether pre-eminent. Amongst Qusayy’s four sons, this man was’Abdu Manaf, who was already honoured in his father’s lifetime. But Qusayy preferred his first-born, ‘Abd ad-Dar, although he was the least capable of all; and shortly before his death he saidto him: “My son, I will set thee level with the others in despite of men’s honouring them more than thee. None shall enter the Ka’bah except thou open it for him, and no hand but thine shall knot for Quraysh their ensign of war, nor shall any pilgrim draw water for drink in Mecca except thou give him the right thereto, nor shall he eat food except it be of thy providing, nor shall Quraysh resolve upon any matter except it be in thy house.”[ LL 83. Throughout this book, everything between quotation marks has been translated from traditional sources.]
Having thus invested him with all his rights and powers, he transferred to him the ownership of the House of Assembly.
Out of filial piety ‘Abdu Manaf accepted without question his father’s wishes; but in the next generation half of Quraysh gathered round ‘Abdu Manaf’s son Hashim, clearly the foremost man of his day, and demanded that the rights be transferred from the clan of ‘Abd ad-Dar to his clan. Those who supported Hashim and his brothers were the descendants of Zuhrah and Taym, and all Qusayy’s descendants except those of the eldest line. The descendants of Makhziim and of the other remoter cousins maintained that the rights should remain in the family of ‘Abd ad-Dar. Feeling rose so high that the women of the clan of ‘Abdu Manaf brought a bowl of rich perfume and placed it beside the Ka’bah; and Hashim and his brothers and all their allies dipped their hands in it and swore a solemn oath that they would never abandon one another, rubbing their scented hands over the stones of the Ka’bah in confirmation of their pact. Thus it was that this group of clans were known as the Scented Ones. The allies of ‘Abd ad-Dar likewise swore an oath of union, and they were known as the Confederates. Violence was strictly forbidden not only in the Sanctuary itself but also within a wide circle round Mecca, several miles in diameter; and the two sides were about to leave this sacred precinct in order to fight a battle to the death when a compromise was suggested, and it was agreed that the sons of ‘Abdu Manaf should have the rights of levying the tax and providing the pilgrims with food and drink, whereas the sons of ‘Abd ad-Dar should retain the keys of the Ka’bah and their other rights, and that their house should continue to be the House of Assembly.
Hashim’s brothers agreed that he should have the responsibility of providing for the pilgrims. When the time of the Pilgrimage drew near he would rise in the Assembly and say: “Omen of Quraysh, ye are God’s neighbours, the people of His House; and at this feast there come unto you God’s visitors, the pilgrims to His House. They are God’s guests, and no guests have such claim on your generosity as His guests. If my own wealth could compass it, I would not lay this burden upon you.”[ I.I. 87]
Hashim was held in much honour, both at home and abroad. It was he who established the two great caravan journeys from Mecca, the Caravan of Winter to the Yemen and the Caravan of Summer to north-west Arabia, and beyond it to Palestine and Syria, which was then under Byzantine rule as part of the Roman Empire. Both journeys lay along the ancient incense route; and one of the first main halts of the summer caravans was the oasis of Yathrib, eleven camel days north of Mecca. This oasis had at one time been chiefly inhabited by Jews, but an Arab tribe from South Arabia was now in control of it. The Jews none the less continued to live there in considerable prosperity, taking part in the general life of the community while maintaining their own religion. As to the Arabs of Yathrib, they had certain matriarchal traditions and were collectively known as the children of Qaylah after one of their ancestresses. But they had now branched into two tribes which were named Aws and Khazraj after Qaylah’s two sons.
One of the most influential women of Khazraj was Salrna the daughter of ‘Amr, of the clan of Najjar, and Hashim asked her to marry him. She consented on condition that the control of her affairs should remain entirely in her own hands; and when she bore him a son she kept the boy with her in Yathrib until he was fourteen years old or more. Hashim was not averse to this, for despite the oasis fever, which was more of a danger to newcomers than to the inhabitants, the climate was healthier than that of Mecca. Moreover he often went to Syria and would stay with Salma and his son on the way there and on his return. But Hashim’s life was not destined to be a longone, and during one of his journeys he fell ill at Gaza in Palestine and died there.
He had two full brothers, ‘Abdu Shams and Muttalib,[ The name is al-Muttalib, except in the vocative case where the “al-” must be omitted. But since this prefix (the definite article) is cumbersome in transcription, the vocative form has been extended here throughout to most cases of proper names which begin with the article.] and one half brother, Nawfal. But ‘Abdu Shams was exceedingly busied with trade in the Yemen, and later also in Syria, whereas Nawfal was no less busied with trade in Iraq, and both would be absent from Mecca for long periods. For these and perhaps for other reasons also, Hashim’s younger brother Muttalib took over the rights of watering the pilgrims and of levying the tax to feed them; and he now felt it his duty to give thought to the question of his own successor. Hashim had had three sons by wives other than Salma, But if all that was said were true, none of these-and for that matter none of Muttalib’s own sons -could be compared with Salrna’s son.
Despite his youth, Shaybah -for so she had named him -already showed distinct promise of gifts for leadership, and excellent reports of him were continually brought to Mecca by travellers who passed through the oasis. Finally Muttalib went to see for himself, and what he saw prompted him to ask Salma to entrust his nephew to his care. Salrnawas unwilling to let her son go, and the boy refused to leave his mother without her consent. But Muttalib was not to be discouraged, and he pointed out to both mother and son that the possibilities which Yathrib had to offer were not to be compared with those of Mecca. As guardians of the Holy House, the great centre of pilgrimage for all Arabia, Quraysh ranked higher in dignity than any other Arab tribe; and there was a strong likelihood that Shaybah would one day hold the office which his father had held and so become one of the chiefs of Quraysh. But for this he must first be integrated into his people. No mere exile from outside could hope to attain to such honour.
Salma was impressed by his arguments, and if her son went to Mecca it would be easy for her to visit him there and for him to visit her, so she agreed to let him go. Muttalib took his nephew with him on the back of his camel; and as they rode into Mecca he heard some of the bystanders say as they looked at the young stranger: “‘Abd al-Muttalib”, that is, “al-Muttalib’s slave”. “Out upon you,” he said, “he is no less than the son of my brother Hashim.” The laughter with which his words were greeted was but a prelude to the merriment that was caused throughout the city as the story of the blunder ran from mouth to mouth; and from that day the youth was affectionately known as ‘Abd al-Muttalib.
Not long after his arrival he was involved in a dispute about his father’s estate with his uncle Nawfal: but with the help of his guardian uncle, and pressure brought to bear from Yathrib, ‘Abd al-Muttalib was able to secure his rights. Nor did he disappoint the hopes that had been encouraged by his early promise; and when, after several years, Muttalib died, no one disputed his nephew’s qualifications to succeed to the heavy responsibility of feeding and watering the pilgrims. It was even said that he surpassed both his father and his uncle in his fulfilment of this task.