I just finished reading an eye-opening book by the Tunisian scholar Hela Ouardi, a professor of French literature who has waded brilliantly into Islam’s canonical texts, written by Sunnis and Shiites alike, and drew a striking portrait of the Prophet Mohammed as he lay dying in Medina. This picture is gleaned and stitched together from voluminous narratives, written over centuries, many of which present different versions of the same event. Since we have no surviving documents from Mohammed’s lifetime or the decades immediately following his death to guide us, and since all Muslims rely on the texts Ouardi examines to build their image of the Prophet, this is probably the best that can be done.
The picture that emerges from her carefully reconstructed portrait in Les derniers jours de Muhammad, published last March in Paris, is of a challenged tribal chief, deeply enmeshed in the clannish ways of his tribe Quraysh, surrounded by intrigues and plots, heartbroken by the death of his last son Ibrahim, debilitated by migraines and high fevers, and mysteriously abandoned by family and close friends at his hour of death. He survives two assassination attempts by his closest Companions (who are revered in the Muslim world as exemplary in their devotion); but after his death, his corpse is abandoned for more than two days, left to rot in the hot weather of June, and is only buried in the middle of the night under the bed of Aisha. His trusted Companions Abu Bakr and Umar, as well as his beloved young wife Aisha, are nowhere to be found during this entire ordeal.
Succession and family relations are at the heart of his unfolding tragedy as the Prophet’s health deteriorates. His household—blood relatives, trusted Companions, and in-laws—is a microcosm of the power struggles and destructive politics that would tear the Islamic world apart in the following centuries. Aisha is the daughter of his best friend and Companion Abu Bakr. His wife Hafsa is the daughter of his other friend Umar ibn al Khattab, a man who instills fear in everyone, including the Prophet himself, according to Aisha. The two most powerful men in early Islam, after Mohammed, are thus Mohammed’s fathers-in-law. Umar would later marry Mohammed’s granddaughter, Umm Kalthum, the daughter of his cousin Ali and daughter Fatima, after offering 40,000 dirhams for a dowry (mahr). His wife Maymuna is the sister of his uncle Abbas’ wife. His wife Umm Salama is also his cousin (daughter of his paternal aunt Barra), and his wife Zaynab bint Jahsh is his cousin (daughter of his paternal aunt Umayma) and previously wife of his adopted son Zayd ibn al-Haritha.
Just as Mohammed marries his cousins and the daughters of his Companions, he gives his own daughters to friends and cousins. He forces his plain-looking cousin Ali to marry his daughter Fatima who is, in his view, not as good looking as her sisters Zaynab, Roqayya and Umm Kalthum. The latter two at first marry their cousins, sons of Abu Lahab, Mohammed’s own uncle and implacable enemy; but Abu Lahab’s sons eventually divorce them and both end up marrying, in quick succession, the same rich man: Uthman ibn Affan, the third caliph who, as a result of these two marriages, earns the sobriquet of “Man of two lights” (dhu-l-nurayn).
Not much is known about the man known as Abul Qassim (Father of Qassim), the kunya (nickname) of Mohammed, although we know of no son of his by that name before he receives his prophecy at the age of forty, including his exact date of birth. We know nothing about his siblings (although his mother Amina is known to have had other children), and whatever is known about his paternal ancestry only adds to the picture of convoluted tribal relations.
As a prophet, Mohammed (the name he acquires after he receives his mission), leads a turbulent life at home, with many women vying and fighting for his attention. When he marries his first wife, Khadija bint Khuwaylid, a powerful Meccan merchant known as the “leader of Qurayshi women” (sayyidat nisa’ Quraysh), he remains monogamous. Except for the Coptic concubine Maria that he acquires later in life, Khadija is the only one to give him children, despite accounts having her as being much older than him. Aisha is certainly his most favored wife after Khadija, but the only woman who strikes him with her beauty is Zaynab bint Jahsh, wife of his adopted son Zayd ibn al-Haritha. Aisha is so young when she is given to him in marriage that her father, until then known as Ibn Abi Quhafa, is rebranded Abu Bakr (Father of the Virgin) because Aisha is the only virgin Mohammed marries. Smart, creative, and fiercely competitive, the child-wife occupies such a privileged place in Mohammed’s harem that he asks Muslims to take half their religion from the little ruddy one (humayra). He even uses Aisha’s bed as a qibla (focal point for prayer) and kisses her during the Ramadan fast. She is only eighteen when her husband dies, leaving her a widow for life. But she refuses to be buried by the prophet because, she says, she has been with other men, even though the Quran explicitly forbids the Prophet’s wives from ever marrying.
Aisha is also a diligent informant for her father Abu Bakr, keeping him in the loop as the health of her husband falters and Mohammed’s blood relatives, the Hashemites, want assurances that power would stay in their family. Abu Bakr and Umar want none of that and fight any attempt to wrest power from him. Once the Prophet-King of Arabia lies dying, seditious and separatist movements begin to emerge, led by so-called “false prophets” like Musaylima who lifts the obligation of prayers and decriminalizes the drinking of wine and fornication. Another one, Tulayha, takes a similar approach with fasting. Both offer a deal to Mohammed to share the world in half between them, but Mohammed, insulted, refuses. Since Arabian tribes are a major source of income, these movements become a serious concern to Mohammed’s Companions who even may have considered a coup d’état to handle the situation better.
On the Thursday before his death, known as the calamitous Thursday (raziyyat al-khamis), Mohammed, surrounded by his wives, his uncle Abbas, and Abbas’ son Abdellah, asks for a scapula and inkwell (katif wa dawat) to write a document (another instance, where Mohammed is presented as someone who actually writes) that would help his followers avoid misguidance forever. Everyone becomes nervous. Umar prevents him from dictating his advice, claiming that “we already have the Quran, the Book (kitab) of Allah.” The Prophet’s request produces a “tumultuous discussion” (laght u laghw), as voices are raised, but everyone is afraid of Umar. Islamic tradition also speaks about a document (sahifa), two pages or so, with instructions for Muslims, that the Prophet attaches to the scabbard of his sword, later inherited by Ali. Mohammed’s main preoccupation, it seems, is to make sure that only Islam reigns in Arabia, so he orders the expulsion of Jews and Christians. He wants to give his people a religion, but he doesn’t seem to care about the rest of the world. His is a purely local affair.
In the end, no document has reached us from this crucial period, except for later accounts, based on a dubious chain of transmissions.
The causes and circumstances of Mohammed’s death are also complicated. He is either poisoned by Zaynab bint al-Harith, a Jewish woman from the tribe of Khaybar to avenge her slaughtered family, in which case he would have died a martyr (which he, being a prophet, didn’t need, really), or of pleurisy (an ailment that Mohammed calls satanic and refuses to acknowledge having). Zaynab’s poison would have taken three years to take its effect, which is quite unlikely, not to mention that Mohammed spits out the poisoned meat he is fed as soon as he tastes it. Pleurisy (dhat al-janab) seems more plausible, and so the accounts tell us that Mohammed is treated with “Indian wood” (al-`ud al-hindi) while he lies unconscious on his bed. He is so angry when he finds out that he orders all the people in his house (except his uncle Abbas) to take it as well.
Debilitated by migraines and fevers, Mohammed fades in and out of consciousness, predicting that his daughter Fatima would soon join him in the other world. He advises his Companions not to be divided like the Christians after Jesus. While he knows that prophets suffer more than common humans because their reward is also greater, he believes no prophet before him suffered as much as he did in his agony.
On June 8, 632 (Rabi` 1, year 11 in the Islamic calendar), after days of being consumed by fever and resting almost motionless on a couch, with his hands dipping occasionally in a bedpan of water for relief, he wakes up early, seemingly better, and walks to the mosque adjoining Aisha’s house to watch his followers pray. He smiles at first, then bursts out laughing, before he returns to Aisha and rests his head on her lap. Her brother Abdel Rahman appears with a siwak stick, which Aisha chews to soften before she gives it to Mohammed to brush his teeth. She feels her husband’s head getting heavier. As he starts fading, Mohammed sees Gabriel, who is accompanied by Azrael, the angel of death, who asks the Prophet to choose between the riches of the world and the company of Allah in paradise. Mohammed, of course, chooses the latter. The sun is setting. A drop of cold saliva falls from his mouth on Aisha’s thigh. His black eyes close and his hands drop in the bedpan. The Prophet is dead.
Just like we are not sure about how he dies, Mohammed’s age is also uncertain. Some sources have him die at the age of 65, not 63, while others imply he was not much older than forty or fifty since he only had a few gray hairs. We assume he was born in 570, the Year of the Elephant, about which we don’t have much information. The Islamic calendar begins with his migration to Medina because it was an event that people could remember. We are not a hundred percent sure, therefore, that he died in 632, since some non-Muslim accounts mention someone who sounds like him and was still alive in Gaza at that time.
Much speculation surrounds the identity of the Companion who led prayers the following day—Friday—since whoever led it must have been assumed to be the successor to the dying prophet. (It was not unusual for the Prophet to allow people to lead prayers.) Through the centuries, Sunni literature created the impression that it was Abu Bakr, supported by Umar, who did. But other credible sources indicate that Mohammed didn’t care much about this symbolic function, noting that he had transmitted his Islamic message and people could pray however they want. In all likelihood, he didn’t designate anyone to lead prayers on that Friday, a fact made even more plausible because funeral prayers over his dead body were led by no one—Abu Bakr being notably absent.
Most Muslims who gathered at the Prophet’s house had been expecting the end of times, an apocalypse, which is why Umar, in the absence of Abu Bakr, who had gone on a trip to Sunh, outside of Medina, tried to prevaricate with angry claims that Mohammed was not dead. As people walked in the room to see him, they concluded that he was, in fact, dead. The seal of prophecy, which had been tattooed between his shoulders, had vanished. The enigmatic Green Man, al-Khidr, appeared to give his condolences to his family. People didn’t know what to do until Abu Bakr finally showed up and confirmed his friend’s death, adding that Allah is eternal. Abu Bakr reminded Umar that the Quran says Mohammed was a mere prophet, like other prophets before him; but Umar, as with other verses used on the same occasion to make the same point, couldn’t recall this verse, even though he was a reputable memorizer of the Quran and, in fact, one of the major catalysts for some of its verses.
A number of days—between two and four—separate Mohammed’s death from his burial, even though Islamic and pre-Islamic custom mandate that the sun should not shine on a person who had died the day before. In addition, it was hot in June and his body was quickly decomposing. Sources describe how the Prophet’s rotting body swelled, his nails turned green and his color changed. It was clear that they needed to get rid of the fetid corpse.
Mohammed’s body may have remained in this kind of limbo because Abu Bakr and Umar who were absent during all this time were sorting out the succession problem at a meeting. It was, therefore, Ali, with the help of his uncle Abbas and his two sons, Qutham and Fadhl, and Ali’s brother `Aqil who took care of washing (with water from the well of Ghars, said to be one of the streams of paradise, mixed with buckthorn [sedr]) and burying his body (wrapped in Yemeni cotton sheets, as Mohammed required) on the spot where Aisha’s bed stood. He was buried according to Medinian custom since there was no Meccan gravedigger present. The prophet had told his followers that God, then Gabriel, Michael, Azrael, then other angels, then those surrounding the Divine Throne, then his family, and finally his spouses would pray for him in this order. Otherwise, the prayers of the dead were conducted with no imam.
All sources agree that Mohammed was buried in the middle of the night, even though the Prophet had explicitly forbidden nocturnal burials. Eventually, Abu Bakr and Umar were also buried in the same spot, but a wall was not built to identify the place until 707, during the reign of the Umayyad caliph Walid ibn Abdel Malik (668-715), who ordered the governor of Medina, Umar ibn Abdel Aziz (before becoming caliph himself), to buy the house and enlarge the mosque. According to Bukhari (one of the most authoritative sources on the Prophet), a leg protruded from the grave during this process—so neglected was the burial spot in the first century of Islam. That Mohammed’s remains lay in neglect could be surmised from the fact that many of his direct descendants were assassinated or died in obscure conditions.
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This is the portrait, transmitted by Islam’s authoritative texts and meticulously pieced together by Ouardi, of an Arabian man whose goal, it seems, was to unite the fractured tribes of his region around a new ideology. As I said in the opening paragraph, scholars have no option but to rely on the texts (Quran, biographies, Hadith [reports about the sayings and doings of the Prophet]) that Muslims use as a foundation for their unshakeable faith.
“The historian is condemned,” writes Ouardi, in one of her many beautiful passages,“to grope in the dark labyrinth of the past, guided by the weak and tremulous light that emanates from the books of [the Islamic] Tradition and which sometimes, far from lighting the way, creates vertiginous optical illusions.” If one combines Les derniers jours de Muhammad, with Tilman Nigel’s exhaustive and critical biography, one could, at least, begin to get a sense of what early Muslims had in mind when they talked about Mohammed. The Prophet we know now is a later invention that bears no resemblance to Abu Bakr’s friend, Aisha’s husband, Ali’s cousin, or Fatima’s father.
Mohammed was shaped by the primitive customs and language of his tribe. He led wars, lost children, suffered debilitating illnesses, and was betrayed by his own Companions. He was a man of his people trying to be a prophet in his own land. If there is any lesson about the story of Mohammed’s life, it is how the ways of squabbling (and often ruthless) Bedouins in a remote part of Arabia were made into the template of a global religion.