17. Repentance (Tauba), I
We now take up the thirty-fifth book, pertaining to “Repentance and Exhortation to Repentance” (KitAb al-Tauba).
Allah loves repentance in a believer. He is “more pleased with the repentance of His servant than an Arab who found his lost camel in the waterless desert” (6610-6619).
In fact, Allah loves to see the believer repent more than He hates to see him sin. “If you were not to commit sins, Allah would have swept you out of existence and would have replaced you by another people who have committed sin, and then asked forgiveness from Allah,” the Prophet told his ummah (6620-6622). Psychologists tell us that the joys of sinning are great but the joys of repentance are even greater.
SIN IS DOUBLY REWARDING
A man’s sinning is doubly rewarding. It helps him as well as his Maker. It helps the believer to realize that he is a creature and provides an opportunity for Allah to exercise His mercy. According to Muhammad, Allah said: “A servant committed a sin and he said: 0 Allah, forgive me my sin, and Allah said: My servant committed a sin and then he came to realize that he has a Lord who forgives the sins.... He again committed a sin and said: My Lord, forgive me my sin, and Allah, the Exalted and High, said: My servant committed a sin and then came to realize that he has a Lord who forgives his sin.” The servant committed yet a third sin, and Allah responded in the same way, but now He added: “O servant, do what you like. I have granted you forgiveness” (6642). Sin is doubly blessed. It blesses him who sins and Him Who forgives. It helps man to realize his creaturely nature and Allah to realize His lordly and merciful essence. It is not an accident that theologies of man’s sinful nature have also sought a God of mercy.
ALLAH’S WRATH AND MERCY
Allah says: “My mercy predominates my wrath” (6626). Of this mercy, He bestows a one-hundredth part “upon the Jinn and human beings and the insects,” the part with which they love one another; but He “has reserved ninety-nine parts for His servant on the Day of Resurrection” (6631). This reserve of mercy will be handy on this Day for saving the Muslims from the fire of hell, which is also needed for dealing with the infidels, or kAfirs. “God’s wrath” is an important concept in Semitic religions.
GOOD DEEDS TAKE AWAY BAD ONES
A Muslim came to Muhammad and said: “Allah’s Messenger, I sported with a woman in the outskirts of Medina ... [and] committed an offence short of fornication.... Kindly deliver verdict about me.” The man wanted Muhammad to impose the penalty of hadd (a category of punishments defined in the QurAn or in the HadIs) on him. AbU Bakr and ’Umar felt that the man had committed a serious offense, but according to some traditions, ’Umar gave him the oft-repeated advice of the Prophet, which is both worldly-wise as well as pious: “Allah concealed your fault. You had better conceal it yourself also.”
Meanwhile, Muhammad had a revelation: “And observe prayer at the ends of the day and in the first hours of the night. Surely good deeds take away evil deeds” (QurAn 11:115). Following this he dismissed the man, telling him: “Allah has exempted you from the imposition of hadd, or from your sin.” Someone who was present at the time asked Muhammad whether the promise of pardon related only to that individual alone. “No, but the people at large,” Muhammad said reassuringly to all the believers (6655-6661).
The two prayers mentioned are the morning and evening prayers. The one destroys the sins of the night, and the other the sins of the day. And, presumably, after reciting them the believer is refreshed and ready for his next bout of sin. Such is human nature.
NONBELIEVERS AS REPLACEMENTS FOR BELIEVERS IN HELL
The next five ahAdIs (6665-6669) are very interesting. Allah does not exactly forgive the sins of the believers but visits them on the unbelievers. He punishes the unbelievers for the sins of the believers. In this way, both His wrath and His mercy are established. “When it will be the Day of Resurrection Allah would deliver to every Muslim a Jew or a Christian and say: That is your rescue from Hell-Fire,” Muhammad tells his followers (6665). Allah’s sense of fairness and justice is no better than that of the believers. Thus the believers create Allah in their own image.
Muhammad also promises his followers that on the Day of Reckoning, Allah will tell the Muslims: “I concealed them [your sins] for you in the world. And today I forgive them.” But as for the nonbelievers, their sins will be exposed before the whole world and “there would be general announcement about them before all creation,” and it will be advertised that they “told lies about Allah” (6669).
THE “NECKLACE” AFFAIR
The book contains a long hadIs which relates to a scandal involving ’Aisha, the girl-wife of the Prophet. It happened in the fifth year of the Hijra (December AD 626), when Muhammad was returning to Medina after defeating the tribe of BanU ’l-Mustaliq in a surprise attack and taking many prisoners, including JuwairIyya. ’Aisha, who was thirteen years old at the time, had accompanied the Prophet on the expedition, together with another co-wife, Umm Salama.
’Aisha reports: “Whenever Allah’s Messenger intended to set out on a journey he cast lots amongst his wives and took one with him in whose favour the lot was cast.” Luck favored her (as it did suspiciously too often), and she accompanied the Prophet on the expedition. During the last, leg of the return journey, ’Aisha was left behind. In the early morning, she had gone out into the fields to relieve herself. Returning to the camp, she discovered that she had dropped her necklace, so she went back to recover it. While she was away, the caravan started for Medina. Apparently no one realized that she had been left behind because the camel carrying her haudaj was with the caravan. The bearers, thinking she was inside it, had placed the haudaj on the camel. “The women in those days were light of weight and they did not wear much flesh, as they ate less food; so they did not perceive the weight of my haudaj as they placed it on the camel,” ’Aisha explains.
When ’Aisha returned to the camp after finding her necklace, she discovered that the caravan had left. So she waited and even slept at the same spot, calculating that they would come to fetch her once the mistake was discovered. “I was overpowered by sleep and slept,” she says. Then a young soldier, SafwAn b. Mu’attal SulamI ZakwAnI, who had also lagged behind for some reason, saw her, recognized her, and gave her a ride back. “By Allah, he did not speak to me a word and I did not hear a word from him except Inna lillAhi [InnalillAhi wainna ilaihi rAji’Un, ‘we are for Allah and to Him we have to return’] and I covered my head with my headdress. He made his camel kneel down and I mounted the camel ... and he moved on leading the camel by the nosestring on which I was riding,” Aisha says.
Under everyone’s gaze, Aisha and SafwAn returned together. This started gossip, which soon developed into a scandal. The participants in the gossip were not merely people who were lukewarm toward Muhammad, such as ’Abdullah ibn Ubayy, a member of the KhAzrajite clan of ’Awf and a leading citizen of Medina, who had come to distrust Muhammad; they also included supporters of the Prophet, such as the poet HassAn, Hamna, the daughter of Jahsh and sister of the Prophet’s wife Zainab, and Mistah, a relative and dependent of AbU Bakr, the father of ’Aisha.
Muhammad was much disturbed and perhaps had his own suspicions. He turned cold toward ’Aisha, so much so that she sought his permission to go to her father’s house. The permission was given. ’Aisha’s mother tried to console her, saying: “By Allah, if there is a handsome woman who is loved by her husband and he has co-wives also they talk many a thing about her.”
Muhammad consulted his close relatives, particularly ’AlI and UsAma b. Zaid. UsAma said: “Allah’s Messenger, they are your wives and we know nothing else about them but goodness.” ’AlI advised Muhammad to divorce ’Aisha: “Allah has not put any unnecessary burden upon you in regard to your wives. There are a number of women besides her.” ’AlI also suggested that ’Aisha’s maid be questioned. BarIra, the maid, was sent for. ’AlI struck her (showing that the manners of the Prophet’s family were quite feudal and no better than those of the unbelievers), and warned her to speak the truth. BarIra could throw no light on the incident in question but said that she had never found any wrong in ’Aisha except that “she goes to sleep while kneading the flour and the lamb eats that.”
Thus a month passed. Now Muhammad went to the pulpit and reprimanded his followers for their scandalmongering. “Who would exonerate me from imputations of that person [was the reference to ’Abdullah ibn Ubayy or to Hass5n the poet, another KhAzrajite?] who has troubled me in regard to my family? By Allah, I find nothing in my wife but goodness,” he appealed. This touched a loyal chord in the hearts of Sa’d b. Mu’az and Usaid b. Huzair. They stood up and promised to punish any delinquent, if the Prophet so wanted it. “I defend your honour.... If he [the delinquent] belongs to the tribe of our brother Khazraj and you order us we would comply with your order,” Sa’d b. Mu’az, the chief of the Aus, told Muhammad. A quarrel now broke out between him and the chief of Khazraj, Sa’d b. ’UbAda, but Muhammad pacified them for the time being.
Next Muhammad went to AbU Bakr’s house, determined to put an end to the matter. He again asked ’Aisha to confess if she had done anything wrong. “ ’Aisha, this is what has reached me about you and if you are innocent, Allah would Himself vindicate your honour, and if accidently there has been a lapse on your part seek forgiveness of Allah,” Muhammad told her. But ’Aisha maintained her innocence.
And Lo! Then and there a revelation descended on Muhammad establishing ’Aisha’s innocence, even to her own great astonishment. “I was innocent but I did not expect that Allah would descend wahy matlu [a QurAnic revelation] in my case as I did not think myself so much important. . . . I only hoped that Allah would in vision give an indication of my innocence to Allah’s Messenger,” ’Aisha says.
Coming out of his prophetic fit or trance, Muhammad announced the news: “ ’Aisha, there is glad tiding for you. Verily Allah has vindicated your honour.” Everybody was happy. ’Aisha’s mother wanted her to get up and thank the Prophet. But she refused: “I shall not thank him and laud him but Allah who has descended revelation vindicating my honour” (6673).
God in this revelation not only vindicated ’Aisha’s innocence but ordered punishment for those who spread unproved calumnies against chaste women. “And those who launch charges against chaste women, and produce not four witnesses to support their allegation, flog them with eighty stripes and reject their evidence ever after, for such men are wicked transgressors” (QurAn 24:4). And the revelation also took to task those Muslims who had given ear to the scandal. “And why did not the believers, men and women, when ye first heard of the affair, put the best construction on it in their own minds and say, ‘This charge is an obvious lie?’ And why did they not bring four witnesses to prove it? When they had not brought the witnesses, such men, in the sight of Allah, stand forth themselves as liars” (QurAn 24:12-13; also see 24:16).
In obedience to Allah’s injunction, all the calumniators, including the poet HassAn, AbU Bakr’s relative Mistah, and even Hamna, the sister of Muhammad’s favorite wife, Zainab, received eighty stripes each. Zainab had not joined her sister in calumniating ’Aisha, though ’Aisha says that “she was the only lady who amongst the wives of Allah’s Messenger used to vie with me [i.e., ’Aisha]” (6673).
But it was not all punishment. Perhaps to buy their silence, the punishments were judiciously mixed with rewards. A valuable castle called BIr HA, in the vicinity of Medina, was bestowed on HassAn the poet. Muhammad even gave HassAn a slave-girl named ShirIn, one of the two Coptic sisters sent him by the Egyptian governor as gifts, retaining the other, Mary, for his own harem.1 As a result, the poet, who until now had been writing lampoons on SafwAn, began writing verses in praise of ’Aisha’s purity, slimness, and grace. ’Aisha also forgave him. “ ’Aisha did not like that HassAn should be rebuked in her presence, and she used to say: It was he who wrote this verse also: Verily, my father and my mother are all meant for defending the honour of Muhammad” (6674).
After this incident AbU Bakr wanted to withdraw his support from Mistah, his indigent relative. In the language of ’Aisha, “AbU Bakr used to give to Mistah some stipend as a token of kinship with him and for his poverty and he said: By Allah, now I would not spend anything for him.” But a special revelation from Allah came to Mistah’s rescue. “Let not those among you who are endowed with grace and amplitude of means resolve by oath against helping their kinsmen, those in want and those who have left their homes in God’s cause” (QurAn 24:22).
Regarding SafwAn, the chief male character in the story, HassAn had lampooned him in a poem. In retaliation, SafwAn gave him a sword wound.2 HassAn’s relatives captured him and in spite of Muhammad’s intervention kept him as a prisoner till HassAn’s wound was healed. Of course, SafwAn denied the allegation hotly, and though young he died soon after. “Hallowed be Allah, by One, in Whose hand is my life, I have never unveiled any woman,” he said, according to ’Aisha. She further says that “then he died as a martyr in the cause of Allah” (6674-6675). According to another tradition; quoted by Ibn IshAq, she added that people found that SafwAn “was impotent.”3
Though Allah exonerated ’Aisha in this particular case, He did not refrain from administering an admonition to all the wives of the Prophet: “O Women of the Prophet! if any one of you should be guilty of unseemly conduct, your punishment would be doubled and that is easy for Allah.” The system of purdah was also made more stringent. “And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former times of Ignorance,” said Allah (QurAn 33:30, 33).
Muhammad also instituted a more careful watch over his household after this event. For example, when he left on the expedition to TabUk, he left ’AlI behind to keep an eye on his household in his absence. Also, we no longer find ’Aisha mentioned as accompanying Muhammad on any expedition after this affair. Apparently Umm Salama replaced her as Muhammad’s companion on subsequent expeditions.
The demand for four witnesses in cases of adultery made it difficult to prove such charges in an Islamic court.
1SIrat RasUl Allah, pp.498-499.
2SafwAn sang: “Here’s the edge of my sword for you!/ When you lampoon a man like me you don’t get a poem in return” (SIrat RasUl Allah, p.498).
3SIrat RasUl Allah, p.499.