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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 emerged with 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 survived 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 was abandoned for more than two days, left to rot in the hot weather of June, and was 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, were nowhere to be found during this entire ordeal.
Succession and family relations were at the heart of his unfolding tragedy as his health deteriorated. His household—blood relatives, trusted Companions, and in-laws—was a microcosm of the power struggles and destructive politics that would tear the Islamic world apart in the following centuries. Aisha was the daughter of his best friend and Companion, Abu Bakr. His wife Hafsa was the daughter of his other friend Umar ibn al Khattab, a man who instilled fear in everyone, including the Prophet himself, according to Aisha. The two most powerful men in early Islam, after Mohammed, were 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 was the sister of his uncle Abbas’ wife. His wife Umm Salama was also his cousin (daughter of his paternal aunt Barra), and his wife Zaynab bint Jahsh was his cousin (daughter of his paternal aunt Umayma) and previously wife of his adopted son Zayd ibn al-Haritha.
Just as Mohammed married his Companions and cousins, he gave his own daughters to friends and cousins. He forced his plain-looking cousin Ali to marry his daughter Fatima who was, in his view, not as good looking as her sisters Zaynab, Roqayya and Umm Kalthum. The latter two at first married their cousins, sons of Abu Lahab, Mohammed’s own uncle and implacable enemy; but Abu Lahab’s sons eventually divorced them and both ended up marrying, in quick succession, the same rich man: Uthman ibn Affan, the third caliph who, as a result of these two marriages, earned 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 received 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 acquired after he received his mission), lived a turbulent life at home, with many women vying and fighting for his attention. When he was married to his first wife, Khadija bint Khuwaylid, a powerful Meccan merchant known as the “leader of Qurayshi women” (sayyidat nisa’ Quraysh), he remained monogamous. Except for the Coptic concubine Maria that he acquired later in life, Khadija is the only one to give him children, despite accounts having her as being much older than him. Aisha was certainly his most favored wife after Khadija, but the only woman who struck him with her beauty was Zaynab bint Jahsh, wife of his adopted son Zayd ibn al-Haritha. Aisha was so young when she was given to him in marriage that her father, until then known as Ibn Abi Quhafa, was rebranded Abu Bakr (Father of the Virgin) because Aisha was the only virgin Mohammed married. Smart, creative, and fiercely competitive, the child-wife occupied such a privileged place in Mohammed’s harem that he asked Muslims to take half their religion from the little ruddy one (humayra). He even used Aisha’s bed as a qibla (focal point of prayer) and kissed her during the Ramadan fast. She was only 18 when her husband died, leaving her a widow for life. But she refused to be buried by the prophet because, she said, she had been with other men, even though the Quran explicitly forbids the Prophet’s wives from ever marrying.
Aisha was also a diligent informant for her father Abu Bakr, keeping him in the loop as the health of her husband faltered and Mohammed’s blood relatives, the Hashemites, wanted assurances that power would stay in their family. Abu Bakr and Umar wanted none of that and fought any attempt to wrest power from him. Once the Prophet-King of Arabia lay dying, seditious and separatist movements began to emerge, led by so-called “false prophets” like Musaylima who lifted the obligation of prayers and decriminalized the drinking of wine and fornication. Another one, Tulayha, took a similar approach with fasting. Both offered a deal to Mohammed to share the world in half between them, but Mohammed, insulted, refused. Since Arabian tribes were a major source of income, these movements were 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, asked 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 became nervous. Umar prevented him from dictating his advice, claiming that “we already have the Quran, the Book (kitab) of Allah.” The Prophet’s request produced a “tumultuous discussion” (laght u laghw), as voices were raised, but everyone was afraid of Umar. Islamic tradition also speaks about a document (sahifa), two pages or so, with instructions for Muslims, that the Prophet attached to the scabbard of his sword, later inherited by Ali. Mohammed’s main preoccupation, it seems, was to make sure that only Islam reign in Arabia, so he ordered the expulsion of Jews and Christians. He wanted to give his people a religion, but he didn’t seem to care about the rest of the world. His was 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 was 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 called satanic and refused to acknowledge having). Zaynab’s poison would have taken three years to take its effect, which is quite unlikely, not to mention that Mohammed spit out the poisoned meat he was fed as soon as he tasted it. Pleurisy (dhat al-janab) seemed more plausible, and so the accounts tell us that Mohammed was treated with “Indian wood” (al-`ud al-hindi) while he lay unconscious on his bed. He was so angry when he found out that he ordered all the people in his house (expect his uncle Abbas) to take it as well.
Debilitated by migraines and fevers, Mohammed faded in and out of consciousness, predicting that his daughter Fatima would soon join him in the other world. He advised his Companions not to be divided like the Christians after Jesus. While he knew that prophets suffer more than common humans because their reward is also greater, he believed no prophet before him had 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 woke up early, seemingly better, and walked to the mosque adjoining Aisha’s house to watch his followers pray. He smiled at first, then burst out laughing, before he returned to Aisha and rested his head on her lap. Her brother Abdel Rahman appeared with a siwak stick, which Aisha chewed to soften before she gave it to Mohammed to brush his teeth. She felt her husband's head getting heavier. As he started fading, Mohammed saw Gabriel, who was accompanied by Azrael, the angel of death, who asked the Prophet to choose between the riches of the world and the company of Allah in paradise. Mohammed, of course, chose the latter. The sun was setting. A drop of cold saliva fell from his mouth on Aisha’s thigh. His black eyes closed and his hands dropped in the bedpan. The Prophet was dead.
Just like we are not sure about how he died, 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 Sonh, outside of Medina, tried to prevaricate with angry claims that Mohammed was not dead. As people walked into 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, as 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 (surprisingly unmentioned in Ouardi’s book), 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 transformed into the template of a global religion.
Anouar Majid is founding director of the Center for Global Humanities in Portland, Maine; founding director of the Tangier Global Forum in Morocco; and Vice President of Global Affairs at the University of New England in Maine, USA. He has written many books and articles on the West, Islam, and the clash of ideologies in the modern world. Majid is also a novelist, the author of Si Yussef (1992, 2005).