Arabia, 626 / 676 CE
In her old age, Ayesha passed her days as a widow in a fine house at Medina, one of those within the compound near the old cemetery. Many of her relatives were buried in the graveyard, in domed tombs shaded by boxthorn trees, their remains lying in a patch of land the Prophet himself had acquired when first he came from Mecca with his followers. Through the intricate wooden lattice-work of her windows, she could see the tombs, in their beautiful garden setting, thought to be a pale reflection of Paradise. The Prophet himself had been laid to rest here – he who was her beloved husband, in life. Beside him was the tomb of her father, Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s closest friend. Next to them lay Umar, the second of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, after her father. Another tomb lay empty, reserved by the pious to receive, in time, the mortal remains of Jesus, the Messiah, an earlier Prophet who had been hidden away by Allah.
Ayesha could not contemplate the tombs without remembering the day when the Messenger of Allah had died in her arms, feverish after a brief but relentless illness. That had been forty-four years ago, when she was just a young woman, twenty years old. He had looked at her, one last time, as she held his head in her hands, and finally whispered, “Instead, Allah Most High and Paradise.”
She smiled, knowing exactly what he meant. She had learned so much from the Prophet, and she saw in his expression signs that he understood her smile. It always had been like this between them, this ability to know exactly what the other was thinking.
“Yes,” she whispered back. “Go to your reward.”
He died at that moment, filled with peace.
“Thank you, my love,” Ayesha said, closing her eyes. “Ya Allah! Compassionate and Merciful, receive my earthly lord into Paradise.”
̔Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, entered the chamber where Ayesha sat with her husband’s body, and said, softly, “I will take him, now, and prepare him for burial.”
Ayesha nodded, but said nothing more. Her father, also present, rose to his feet and said, “I must go inform the people that the Messenger has gone to Allah.”
As her father stalked out of the room, however, Ayesha understood that nothing would ever be the same again, not for her, not for anyone.
Only a few years before his death, no one outside western Arabia had ever heard of Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah. Within just ten years of his passing, however, all the peoples from Egypt to Iran, and from Yemen to the snowy mountains of Rum came under the rule of his followers, the Muslims – those who had accepted the clarity and light of Allah’s message into their lives.
* * *
Although she had been a widow for forty-four years, Ayesha did not simply sit and wait for death. The Mosque of the Prophet, adjoining her house, brought a steady stream of visitors to her door, as did her husband’s tomb, where people gathered daily to pray, touch the stone monument, and gaze with wonder upon the relics of Muhammad’s life – his slippers, a kameez, and even some of the hairs snipped from his beard. Almost daily, Ayesha received the ladies of Medina and visitors from other cities in her private apartment, while a handful of men – mostly religious scholars – huddled within earshot, but out of sight, behind a curtain and a latticework screen.
“Umm al-Mu`mineen!” the women sometimes said, touching their heads respectfully as they filed into the room, taking seats upon the floor. One by one, they opened their veils, revealing their faces. “Al-Siddiqa bint al-Siddiq!”
Ayesha nodded, accepting these praises as humbly as she could – Mother of Believers, they called her, which was ironic, given that she had never borne any of the Prophet’s children. As for the other honorific – Truthful Daughter of the Truthful Man – this she could accept, out of respect for her father’s memory. Abu Bakr had always been truthful; if he had not been thus, he never could have been such a good friend to the Prophet.
“Cut a pen, Umrah, and see that your ink-pot is full,” Ayesha said to her female secretary.
“Yes, lady,” Umrah replied, respectfully, seating herself on a cushion beside her respected kinswoman.
Ayesha chuckled, for Umrah’s timid manner was so unlike that of most of the women she had known, growing up. Arabia was changing – things were different, now. Medina was becoming an Arab city with polished and circuitous, evasive Persian manners. If Zaynab had lived to see what Medina would become, she might have been happier. Always the aristocrat, she had never been at ease in Muhammad’s household….
“What are you thinking about, Hazrat Ayesha?” a young female visitor asked her. Young women often attended Ayesha’s gatherings, for she was said to be a font of knowledge, especially for women.
Ayesha looked at the girl, whose face was radiant with innocence, and said, “I was remembering Zaynab bint Jahsh, the fifth wife of the Prophet – peace be upon him. What is your name?”
“Ah – an excellent name,” Ayesha nodded, approving.
“Fifth wife?” Yasmin asked, furrowing her thick, dark eyebrows. “I thought men were allowed only four wives.”
“Have you forgotten so quickly?” Ayesha laughed. “Things were a little different, in the old days, especially in the Household of the Messenger. Women didn’t hide under all this Byzantine nonsense, to begin with. We wore robes and scarves, but there were no veils then. Men used to be able to see our faces. I must tell stories, clearly.”
“Oh, please do!” Yasmin cried, soliciting excited nods from the other women.
“Well, first there was Khadijah, who married the Messenger of God before the Qurʽan was revealed. She was the first Muslim.”
“Would that not be the Prophet – peace be upon him?”
“No,” Ayesha explained. “You see, the Messenger received the revelation of the Qurʽan from the Angel Jabril, who transmitted the words of Allah. So there was no question of his believing or not. He had no choice. He was chosen by Allah. But Khadijah had to believe on the strength of faith alone – and she did. That is why she is considered the first Muslim. That is why we are called Believers.”
“Did you know Khadijah?”
“I was only a little girl when she died,” Ayesha explained, “but we all knew her. She was an important lady of the Banu Hashim – one of the most important ladies in Mecca. She inherited her father’s business, but needed a man to lead her caravan. That is why she hired the Messenger to work for her – and, of course, the Prophet had a reputation for honesty, even then. Everyone could see what a good couple they would make, despite the fact that she was older.”
“Were you the next wife?”
“No – first they married him to an old widow named Sawda. He was so sad after Khadijah died that his friends were afraid he might do something rash. They thought another wife would bring him solace.” Ayesha paused for a moment, overcome by memories. “And then my father, Abu Bakr, offered me, as well. They were close friends, you see. Our houses were next to each other, in Mecca, before the Hijra.”
She was a child, still playing with her dolls. To her, Muhammad had been her father’s steadfast companion, regarded as a sort of brother by Abu Bakr, and a frequent visitor to their home.
“Wasn’t the Prophet very old?” This question was asked by Shayla, a friend of Yasmin, already known to Ayesha.
“Yes,” Ayesha admitted, “but he had known me since I was born, and I had known him, too, all my life. We were not strangers, you see – not at all. And – to be blunt – the Messenger was a good-looking, robust man even in his fifties.”
“When was the marriage consummated?” Shayla inquired, furrowing her eyebrows.
“What a question! Ya-Allah! You imp – you shouldn’t be thinking about such things. Allow a married couple some privacy,” Ayesha retorted, but her words were gently chiding and full of humor. “Now, all you need to know is that we all had to flee here, to Medina, which in those days was called Yathrib. The Quraysh had begun to persecute the Muslims, and the Prophet – peace be upon him – heard that the Umayyad leaders were plotting to kill him.”
Ayesha told her friends how, in Yathrib – renamed Medina – the Messenger had married other women. First, there was Hafsa, the daughter of Umar bin Khattab, and at the same time Zaynab bint Khuzayma.
“Their husbands were killed at the Battle of Badr – the first battle with the Quraysh,” Ayesha said. “Hafsa was closest to my own age, and we became good friends. Zaynab was older, but greatly respected, and gave away much of her wealth to those who had nothing…. She died, however, only eight months after marrying the Prophet. Sawda, meanwhile, took care of us younger wives like her own daughters – she no longer received the Messenger at night, claiming to be too old, and beyond the age of desire. He stayed with his younger wives, at night, instead.”
When Zaynab died, Muhammad took a fourth wife, Ayesha told them – Hind, daughter of Abi Umayya, a widower who already had children by her first marriage. Hind was reluctant to accept the Prophet’s proposal, at first, but eventually was prevailed upon to marry the Messenger of Allah so that she might have support for herself and her children.
“The Prophet and the Companions thus married the wives of their friends as they became widows, for we were at war with the Quraysh, and many of the Muslim men were being martyred for the sake of Islam.”
“What about Rayhana?”
“She was a concubine, only – a slave girl, like the two Christian girls later sent down from Egypt by the Persians. She was a Jewish woman of the Banu Qurayza, taken by the Prophet as part of his spoils, after they betrayed us: but she refused to convert. She also refused to wear the khimar, like the others… at least at first.”
“Then Zaynab bint Jahsh was the next wife?”
“No,” Ayesha cautioned. “She was married first to the adopted son of the Prophet, Zayd, but after he was killed, in the attack against the Ghassanids, the Qurʽanic verses were revealed commanding Muhammad – peace be upon him – to take Zaynab to be his own wife. Before Zaynab bint Jahsh, and even before Rayhana, there was Juwayriyya, the daughter of Al-Harith, the pagan chief of the Banu Mustaliq. The number of wives allowed to other Muslims was fixed at four, but an exception was made for the Messenger.”
Yasmin seemed troubled by something, and at last summoned the courage to ask, “Were you frightened at the Battle of the Camel, after the Caliph Uthman was murdered, when you opposed ʽAli?”
“No,” Ayesha laughed. “I was too mad to be frightened. And, of course, I could see very little of the action from behind the curtains of my howdah.” Suddenly frowning, she said, “Yes – at one point, I was very scared. That was when Marwan killed Zubayr, my half-sister’s husband.”
Poor Zubayr! He would not have died at all if she had not sent him away from the battlefield to track down Marwan, one of ʽAli’s supporters, and bring him to justice. Asma and she had been close all their lives, but now Asma would go to her grave, Ayesha was sure of it, resentful and grief-stricken.
“Why did you fall out with ʽAli?” a third young woman inquired. “Was he not one of the first among men to accept Islam?”
Ayesha did not answer right away. A thoughtful expression came over her. She said, at last, “It’s not easy to remember – where does that story begin? I think it had many beginnings, my child, but if those terrible things had not happened, and if the Prophet – peace be upon him – had not chosen as he did, none of us would be here, now. Islam itself might have withered, and then the world would be a very different place….”
* * *
In those days, the Mosque of the Prophet had no stone pillars, and not even the wooden ones put in place by Ayesha’s father. The teakwood roof, with its beams and planks imported from Malabar, in India, did not exist. Indeed, there was no mosque, as such – only a place of gathering and prayer. There was an enclosure, considerably smaller, with a wall only as tall as the height of a man’s head, made of palm trunks plastered with mud, pierced by three doors: within, there were places shaded by a thatching of dried palm fronds, where the Prophet used to sit and meet face-to-face with those who came to see him.
Medina was not the place of tall, intricately-decorated houses and ornate tombs that it was now, deluged by the spoils of the conquests made by the Caliphs, after Muhammad’s death. The wars of that time, although matters of life and death to those caught up in them, had involved only small numbers of men, tribe against tribe. The spoils had been horses, camels, goats, and human captives. No, in those days Medina was merely an oasis consisting of villages, wells, fields, and date palm groves, encompassed by rocky hills. There was a market, along the caravan route, from which tracks branched off into the desert mountains, to all the different parts of Iraq and Arabia.
It was the Year of the Earthquake, the fifth year since the arrival of the Muslim refugees in Medina.
Ayesha was fourteen years old, petite and thin. Indeed, her delicacy was such that other women often remarked upon it. Sometimes they chided her, saying, “You eat like a bird, Ayesha – how will you put any meat on your bones, carrying on like this?”
“It’s just the way I am,” she had pleaded, for the teasing could be exasperating. She also did not like to talk about the real reason why she was so small – that she was often sickly, lying ill for weeks at a time.
“It’s what the Messenger of Allah likes,” teased her half-sister, Asma, who was ten years older than her, and the wife of Zubayr, the Prophet’s cousin.
Ayesha blushed, giving her half-sister a playful push, although her co-wife, Hafsa, the daughter of Umar bin Khattab, said, “Now, Ayesha – everyone knows he likes you best!”
“Why would he?” Ayesha protested.
“Because you’re the only wife of the Prophet who wasn’t married in the spirit of charity,” Hafsa replied, shaking her head. “The rest of us were married to other men, first. That makes you special. You were the only one of us who was a virgin.”
In those days, when the Time of Confusion – the Jahiliyya – was coming to an end, the Arabs’ beliefs about marriage could only be described as eclectic. Some men, like Muhammad himself, had been monogamous, although he adopted the practice of polygamy, with some reluctance, later in life. Ayesha knew that among some of the tribes, especially in the south, a few women married multiple husbands. However, among all the tribes – even among the Jews, Christians, and Fire-Worshippers – there was agreement that a girl must remain a virgin until marriage, and thereafter a chaste wife. Still, many marriages did not end well. Realizing this, divorce and remarriage were permitted, and consequently the lineages of the different families were so tangled that bards were hired to memorize them.
That night, the Messenger joined her in the seclusion of her quarters, behind the curtains. It was difficult for her to tell when the Prophet was tired, for although he was sixty years old, he looked and acted like a much younger man. His normal walk was a stride, which lesser men could scarcely keep pace with, and not a hair on his head had turned white or grey. Indeed, as he removed his turban, his long dark locks spilled out across his broad shoulders, worn loose today in contrast to his curly, round beard.
“Is something the matter?” Ayesha asked, seeing concern in her husband’s dark eyes.
“Evil-doers are plotting against us,” Muhammad replied. “I fear the Banu Aws are uneasy. ʽUbayy ibn Salul is muttering in the shadows. They are still close to their Jewish allies, the Banu Qurayza. And, no doubt, Abu Sufyan, the Chief of Mecca, has sent his agents among us. If ever a man knew how to divide people against each other, it’s Abu Sufyan.”
“Messenger, why has Allah permitted men to take so many wives?”
“It is divine wisdom,” Muhammad replied, glancing at her as she sat next to him on the soft camel-leather cushion that was almost the only furniture in her chamber. “Many of the Bedouin, especially, already have many wives. Allah is compassionate – He does not demand a man’s conversion at the price of making him pick and choose which wife he will keep, and which he will throw away. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” she said, reassured when he smiled at her.
“Anyway, only men who can afford to build a house for each wife they take can have more than one,” Muhammad added. “And surely, if any man saw how you ladies sometimes quarrel, or gang up against me, he would be sensible and remain contented with one wife.”
“We do not quarrel!” Ayesha cried, but her surprise was in jest, and Muhammad sensed this. “You must be thinking of Zaynab, the wife of your adopted son.”
The Prophet closed his eyes and shook his head, saying nothing. After a long pause, he merely said, “Zayd and Zaynab are unhappy. We must pray to Allah to give them both understanding.”
“I have been told that Hamnah, sister of Zaynab, dislikes me,” Ayesha said, softly. “Why should she hate me?”
“She hates you because I love you,” Muhammad sighed, setting aside his turban cloth. “The truth is that she hates me.”
“But why? Surely, you are the best of men? Allah chose you to receive the Revelation.”
“That is not the reason,” the Prophet said, but there was no anger in his voice. Indeed, he spoke like a wise man. “Hamnah’s brother, uncle, and husband were all killed at the Battle of Uhud, when we fought the Quraysh last year, and they defeated us.”
“But you were wounded, too! I remember it well,” Ayesha snapped. “It took months for you to recover – your armor was all dented when they brought you back….”
“Hamnah blames me, nevertheless,” Muhammad explained. “I only hope she will be happy, married to Talha, now, and that someday she will forgive me.”
* * *
“The Banu Khuzaʽa have been our friends for many years,” Abu Bakr said to Muhammad a few months later, “but now they have been swayed against us by Abu Sufyan. He has promised to make a great gift to the Temple of Manat, the Goddess of Fate, at Qudayd.”
“That lies in the territory of the Banu Mustaliq, one of the sub-clans of the Khuzaʽa,” Muhammad replied. “The town is on the Red Sea – the temple is on the shore itself, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I believe so,” Abu Bakr answered. “Many of the Ansar still believe in Manat, and worship her. The temple is a place of pilgrimage for them. They sometimes offer their children to the goddess, and shave off their hair after making vows.”
“Ya Allah,” Muhammad muttered, hearing this. It was gross superstition, he thought, but the Ansar – the non-Muslim “Helpers” of Medina – were allies, bound to the Muslim umma, or community, by the oath that everyone had sworn in the year of the Hijra. The Muslims, likewise, were bound to the Ansar.
“Al-Harith ibn Abi Dirar, chief of the Banu Mustaliq, is making preparations to attack Medina – even without the direct support of the Quraysh. He believes we are weak, after our defeat at Uhud.”
“Well, then,” Muhammad remarked. “Let’s surprise him, instead: summon the leaders of the Khazraj and the Ansar. We will decide how to proceed against Al-Harith.”
The heads of the different communities of Medina all gathered – the men of the Khazraj tribe, who had converted to Islam, and also the men of the Banu Aws, and the Jews of Qurayza. Muhammad and the other Muhajirun – the Refugees – joined them. Seating around the Prophet were the Sahaba, or “Companions” – loyal men who had followed him from Mecca, sharing his exile, as well as the price that the Quraysh had laid on his head.
When the treachery of the Banu Mustaliq had been described, Ubayy, chief of the Banu Aws, said, “When they march against us, they will stop at the oasis of Al-Muraysi to water their livestock. Those of us who have been to the Temple of Manat, on pilgrimage, know the place well. But they will wait until just after the rains, when there will be water in the wadi for the animals to drink. We must be ready to attack them at the oasis no later than the second day of the eighth lunar month. We cannot strike sooner, nor can they, for fighting is forbidden by our customs in the month of Rajab.”
Everyone agreed to this plan, and each tribe pledged enough warriors to make up a force of seven hundred men altogether, who set out for Al-Muraysi seven days before the end of the lunar month of Rajab. As usual, the men rode on horseback, followed by servants leading camels that carried their armor and tents. Many of the men also brought their wives along, including Muhammad, whose women drew lots to find out which of them would share the Prophet’s blanket during the campaign. The winning lot fell to Ayesha.
* * *
The scouts sent out to report the movements of the enemy returned to the Prophet’s camp with the best possible news.
“They are taking their ease on the bank of the wadi at Al-Muraysi,” said a breathless Sufwʽan bin Muʽattal, one of the Muhajirun warriors, who had known Muhammad since the early days of the Revelation.
“Did they see you?” Ubayy asked.
“No – they suspect nothing. They have their herds with them, and dozens of women and children.”
“We should let them know we are here,” Muhammad said, turning to the Khazraj and Ansar chiefs. “It would be best to avoid bloodshed, if possible. We must reserve our strength for dealing with the Quraysh.”
“The warriors of the Banu Aws did not come all this way to parlay with our enemies,” Ubayy muttered. “You heard Sufwʽan. The Banu Mustaliq have all their livestock with them, and many tents full of beautiful women. We should attack them at once, without warning and make what is theirs our own.”
“No,” Muhammad countered, “that is not the way this will be done. When we all swore the oath of alliance, you pledged to follow my command, and I say we should give Al-Harith a chance to withdraw. Plunder is not the reason why we fight.”
Ubayy disagreed, but there was nothing he could do: he had sworn the oath, and so had everyone else in Medina, and the Arabs of that time took their oaths to each other very seriously. Moreover, the Muslims were powerful, since the conversion of the Khazraj – they had wiped out the Jewish tribe of Qaynuqa, for warning the Meccans of the approach of the Prophet’s army prior to the Battle of Badr. Later, the Banu Nadir, another Jewish tribe, had been expelled for treachery during the Battle of Uhud.
“Send word to the men to prepare themselves for battle,” Muhammad said, dispatching his officers. “Sufwʽan, can you send my message to Al-Harith?”
Taking a fresh horse, Sufwʽan rode as fast as he could toward the fording place, where the Banu Mustaliq had arrayed their tents and portable sheepfolds made of acacia branches and matting. Laying down his arms at the edge of the camp, Sufwʽan made his way to Al-Harith’s tent, where he was received warily.
“It is customary to send a poet to make one’s threats, or does the False Prophet not realize this?” Al-Harith smirked.
“We Muslims do not make use of poets or magicians in war,” Sufwʽan retorted. “We prefer to speak plainly, like Arabs. We don’t prance around on the battlefield like a bunch of Persian slave-boys.”
“Speak, then, son of Muʽattal,” the chief said, immediately, as someone whispered to him who this young stranger was. “Be as plain as you like.”
“God’s Messenger, Muhammad ibn Abdallah, Protector of the Commonwealth of Medina by the acclamation of its inhabitants, invites you to save yourselves. Leave this place, return to Qudayd in peace, and the warriors of Medina will quit the field.”
“If I did that, the Quraysh would consider it a breach of faith,” Al-Harith replied. “As chief of the Banu Mustaliq, I am charged with protecting the shrine of the Goddess Manat, just as the Quraysh protect the Kaʽaba, just as the Banu Thaqif protect the Temple of Al-Lat, at Taʽif… just as Muhammad protects Medina. This so-called Prophet of yours is the king of all liars – he has transgressed against our gods and our ancient customs. So, there is nothing to discuss. Go back to your chief. Tell him to depart. It is your army that trespasses on our territory. We are still within our grazing area. Is it not the month when the animals are taken to the watering places?”
As Sufwʽan departed, one of Al-Harith’s officers said, “Should we prepare for battle?”
“Why? Did you see the state that young fellow was in?” Al-Harith laughed. “He’s ridden a hundred miles, at least. Muhammad’s bluffing: he’s nowhere near Al-Muraysi. Let him make his threats when he’s close enough to make them in person.”
* * *
Ayesha and the other women accompanying the Muslim army ran after the warriors in a mob, cheering the men on with a shrill, harmonious trilling of their tongues as, one by one, the warhorses galloped over the sandy, rocky wasteland, toward the Banu Mustaliq camp. The men all wore their steel helmets, chain mail, and cloaks, and every one took with him his most trustworthy weapon – bows, spears, swords. The weapons had names, and many had been passed down from father to son, or taken from enemies: not a weapon was taken to hand, that day, that did not have its own history, and songs had been composed in praise of a few of them.
The Prophet ordered the Ansar to cry out, “In the name of Allah!” as they charged, but this Ubayy’s troops refused to do, nor did they charge home. Rather, the Banu Aws and the other Ansar horsemen galloped pell-mell toward the Banu Mustaliq, letting go a few poorly-aimed arrows at the scattered sentries who hastened out to meet them, on foot. Ayesha, watching the Ansar horsemen milling around in a cloud of dust, stopped her trilling.
“What are they doing?” she asked. “Why are they stopping? Why are they turning around?
“Who knows? Just so long as they don’t lose the battle,” one of her companions said, whereupon both she and Ayesha raised another trilling cry.
Groaning with displeasure, Muhammad called upon his official spokesman, a Khazraj covert named Thabit bin Qays, to lead the attack, and in a single body, the Muslim cavalry rushed over the plain. They also did not cheer in the name of Allah, but rather thundered in among the enemy shouting, “Oh, Conqueror! Conqueror! Kill! Kill!”
It was all over quickly – all the Banu Mustaliq who ran out to defend the camp were slain and trampled, including the son-in-law of Al-Harith, Mustafa bin Safwan. A single Muslim warrior fell, hit in the throat by an Ansar’s arrow, and the struggle moved on through the enemy’s camp, where Al-Harith and his bewildered men stumbled from their tents to find themselves overwhelmed. Thabit bin Qays himself seized Al-Harith by the beard, holding the point of his saber to the chief’s throat.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you!” the Prophet’s spokesman bellowed.
“I have a daughter – she’s yours!” Al-Harith said, quickly. “She’s twenty years old and very beautiful. You will find her inside the tent – her name is Juwayriyya.”
Thabit bin Qays pulled Al-Harith’s beard sharply, causing him to cringe with pain, and said, “You have no honor at all, pagan, but no one can say you don’t know how to survive. Search the tent!”
Juwayriyya was not discovered in the tent, but they eventually found her, screaming and crying over the limp and bloody corpse of her husband, near the muddy water of the wadi. Thabit bin Qays seized her, shouting, “You will go before the Messenger of God and ask him to give me a deed for you, or I will cut your father’s throat.”
Muhammad was appalled as he rode into the camp of the Banu Mustaliq, watching both the Muslim warriors and their Ansar allies burning tents and looting with a brutal, vicious efficiency in every direction. Captives already had been taken by the score, the men bound with their hands behind their necks so that if they tried to struggle they would choke themselves. The Companions from Mecca showed more restraint, most of them, but many of the Muslim warriors were new converts, who scarcely understood their faith, or what it required of men.
Thabit bin Qays threw Juwayriyya onto the stony ground in front of the Prophet’s horse and said, “Ask the Messenger for a deed!”
“Please, my lord!” sobbed the daughter of Al-Harith. “Please! My husband has been killed! I do not know this man, but he threatens to kill my father if you do not make me over to him as a slave!”
Muhammad glanced at Thabit, and then at Al-Harith’s daughter. He was struck by her beauty, despite her tears and grief, and at first hardly knew what to say. At last, he said, “Your father knows the customs of war among the Arabs.”
“I am a chieftian’s daughter,” Juwayriyya snapped, defiance finding its way through her fear and horror. “I cannot submit to being anyone’s slave.”
“Well, Thabit has asked me to give you to him,” Muhammad replied, dismounting from his horse with a clatter of armor. “All our plunder goes to the state, but the disposal of the loot is my decision. One-fifth of what we capture is my portion, to do with as I please.”
“I don’t wish to belong to such a man,” she answered.
“Perhaps you would prefer to belong to God’s Messenger?”
“As a slave?”
“As a wife, if you will accept Allah – and me.”
Juwayriyya paused, astonished by this sudden turn. She stared at Muhammad for a moment, and he could see that she understood the full import of his words.
“What?” Thabit cried, but his companions restrained him, urging caution in low voices.
“Yes,” Juwayriyya said, breathing heavily, fighting against a surge of panic. “Yes, I will become a Muslim, and I accept you as my husband.”
“Inshallah!” Muhammad nodded. “You will accompany us to Medina. When you have become a Muslim, and we are married, there will be brotherhood between the Banu Mustaliq and the Muslims, and in accordance with the customs of war, all the people of your tribe we hold as captives will be set free.”
* * *
“The Prophet took another wife during the expedition against the Banu Mustaliq!” Yasmin said, rather surprised.
“Well, they did not marry until we all returned to Medina, which took several days,” Ayesha pointed out. “But Juwayriyya was brought to my tent, and I still remember greeting her, and how beautiful she was. Many of you remember her as an old woman, living here with me until recently. She’s buried, downstairs, with the other ladies, but when I first saw her, despite her sadness she was as beautiful as a fairy, and she always carried herself, from the first moment, with nobility. I recall how she spoke – her accent, and how she could recite any number of poems. She even knew how to read. Indeed, she taught me….”
Ayesha explained to her astonished young listeners that in those days, almost no one in Arabia knew how to read. There were no books, outside the royal libraries of the Yemen, and what little writing there was among the Hejaz Arabs employed the curving, dot-riddled script used for Aramaic.
“We recited everything from memory,” Ayesha said. “That is why the first revelation Allah gave to the Prophet – peace be upon him – began with the word, ‘Recite!’”
In those days, Ayesha added, women ate sparingly, and livestock were slaughtered only for sacrifices and feasts. She weighed so little, in fact, that her attendants used to wait for her to step into her howdah before they raised it up onto the back of her camel, before setting out. From her veiled perch, however, Ayesha could see everything – the meandering army, victorious, returning to Medina across the sandy, brush-covered plains, hundreds of men and women together with snorting horses, groaning camels, and bleating herds of sheep and goats. She could still see, in her mind’s eye, the fluttering black flags carried by the Prophet’s warriors, embroidered with the Names of Allah in the Arabic script, but no images whatsoever, for the Revelation had forbidden every form of idolatry.
“Did anything interesting happen during the journey?” Shayla asked.
“Oh, many things happened,” Ayesha smiled. “For instance, the men who had captured women from the Banu Mustaliq were driven mad with desire, and wished to lie with their captives even before the caravan reached Medina, for they no doubt suspected that they would have to give the women up. However, they did not wish to get them with child, so Abu Saʽid and several of the other men came to the Prophet and asked if it was forbidden to practice al-ʽazl with their slaves, which was their hope.”
“Al-ʽazl?” Yasmin asked, but Shayla, her friend, whispered something in her ear, and she looked horrified.
“Yes, dear!” Ayesha laughed, as did the other, older women present. “You’ll find out about that, soon enough, when you’re married. If you don’t want to spend your entire life pregnant, you need to take the pestle out of the mortar before it’s too late. Well, the Prophet said, ‘Why are you boys always asking me questions like this? God is Almighty, and therefore no matter what you do, every soul destined to rise on Judgment Day will be born. It is the will of Allah. But if the women are free, then you’d better get their permission first!’ Well, that seemed to satisfy them, and off they went to the tents….”
“Did anything else happen?”
“Oh, there was the fight at the well,” Ayesha said, sensing that they wanted to hear about the story of the necklace, but she knew that would only truly make sense if they knew about what happened at the well. “We eventually came to a well, at a little oasis, and one of Umar’s servants, a Bedouin named Jahjah Al-Ghifari, knocked into Sinan bin Wabr, one of Ubayy’s men. They got into a scuffle, calling each other names, and soon there was a big brawl – the Muhajirun versus the Ansar, with some of the Khazraj trying to keep peace between them. But Ubayy, well, he tried to make it worse by shouting, ‘When we reach Medina, the exalted man will put down the meaner one – shame on you all, Khazraj, for taking orders from a foreigner!’”
“What did the Messenger do?” Shayla asked.
“Well, before the Prophet could say anything, the son of Ubayy, whose name was Abdullah, ran to him and exclaimed, ‘Messenger of God, if you order one of the Companions to kill my father, on account of his arrogance, then I will be bound by the customs of our people to slay your man. Let me kill my father myself, for what he has said against you, and let my punishment be what it might.’ The Messenger, however, simply waved his hand – like this – and said, ‘Sit down, Abdullah. No one’s killing anyone.’”
Ayesha told them what had happened, making sure to note that Muhammad himself gave her the details. As they marched back to Medina, Umar ibn Khattab quietly asked the Prophet if he wanted Ubayy dead. Muhammad and his Companions rode alongside Ubayy and demanded to know what he had meant, as his words had been construed, by some, to mean that there should be a civil war, in Medina, between the Muslims and the Helpers. Seeing that his thoughts were laid bare, Ubayy apologized, without actually confessing, saying that he was the meaner man, surely, and Muhammad the exalted one. The Prophet accepted this hollow excuse, for the sake of peace in his own camp, but he let Ubayy go on his way with a heavy heart, realizing that he would never be able to trust the Ansar leader. He could barely even trust the Banu Khazraj, and they all had converted to Islam, supposedly.
“The Prophet also said he was certain that by attacking the Banu Mustaliq, we would arouse the fury of the Meccans, and we certainly did, but I’m getting ahead of myself….”
“Then what happened?”
“Now we come, my dears, to the Qissat al-Ifk, the Story of the Lie – the tale of the necklace….”
The eldest daughter of Muhammad, Zaynab, had married her maternal cousin, Abu al-Aas ibn al-Rabiah, but instead of becoming a Muslim, he had sided with the Quraysh and had fought against the Muslims. Abu al-Aas was captured by Muhammad’s men at the Battle of Badr and held for ransom. Zaynab, knowing how deeply the Prophet had loved Khadijah, her mother, sent him an onyx-bead necklace, from Yemen, which had belonged to the Messenger’s first wife. Seeing the beads, Muhammad had permitted Abu al-Aas to return to Mecca on condition that he send Zaynab to Medina. Once she reached her father’s house, however, Zaynab was informed that a Muslim woman like herself could not marry a pagan: Allah had revealed this. Thus, the Prophet’s daughter and her non-Muslim husband were separated.
“The Messenger gave Khadijah’s beads to me,” Ayesha told her visitors, “and that was the cause of all the mayhem that followed….”
* * *
The problem was that the string was old and kept breaking, and the beads fell from Ayesha’s slender neck, onto the ground. She almost lost them, once, while walking about the camp, and there was such a hullabaloo, with everyone scurrying about trying to find them, that the second time she lost them she did not dare tell anyone. Moreover, she was embarrassed. With his big, bellowing voice, Thibat had been marching around, warning everyone that the army was about to march. The order was unexpected, being given at a time when the army normally would have remained in camp. Clearly, something was amiss, but Ayesha trusted that Muhammad, who must have given the order, knew what he was doing. She slipped away, running away from the camp to find a secluded place, among the bushes, to ease herself before the caravan set out, for once the animals began to move, they would not stop until they reached the next camp.
Walking hurriedly back toward the camp, she reached to her throat for the beads, but they were not there.
She ran back to where she had been, searching everywhere. All she could think of was how sad and furious the Prophet would be when he learned that she had lost this, one of the last mementos of Khadijah’s life that he possessed. She was so distracted by shame and fear that she did not notice the caravan depart without her. Overjoyed when she at last sighted the beads, she ran toward the camp only to find the plain empty.
“Allah, why have you done this to me?” she gasped, gazing in all directions, for not a soul was to be seen for miles and miles.
Ayesha was a city girl, born and raised in Mecca. She had no idea how to survive in the desert, but she remembered what they had told her: if you are left behind, stay where you are. Do not try to find your own way in the wilderness – it all looks the same. She sat down, where the camp had been, wrapped in her jilbab, wondering how long it would take for them to miss her and send a search party. Alas, the Prophet was so busy, thanks to Ubayy’s treachery, that he had left her, of necessity, to her own devices.
She lay down and slept for a time, at least until she remembered there were scorpions and snakes in the desert. Then she sat up, startled, and wondered if she would have to spend all night here in this deserted place. She laid herself back down, carefully, shaded by her head-scarf, but when she heard a horse’s whinny sat up again, staring into the mirage, to the south, from which a lone warrior emerged, leading a camel. She stood, quickly, as the horse broke into a gallop, and instantly the man was bearing down on her, reining in his steed.
“Ya Allah! We belong to God, and to God we return – you’re the wife of the Messenger!” the young man cried out, dismounting.
“Who are you?” Ayesha asked, hesitantly.
“Safwʽan bin Muʽattal,” he said, removing his helmet to reveal long, sweat-soaked locks of hair. “I know who you are. You are Ayesha, the daughter of Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s friend. I am one of those who came from Mecca.”
“Ah!” Ayesha cried. “Did they send you for me?”
“No,” he said, “I fell behind. The Prophet sent me on all these errands, you see, and I was worn out. My horse was tired. I couldn’t keep up, and then I found this camel…. But why in Allah’s holy names are you here by yourself, lady?”
“I lost – oh, never mind. They must have put the howdah on the camel thinking I was still in it,” Ayesha replied. “Now what will I do?”
“Well, you can’t stay here – it isn’t safe,” Safwʽan answered. “Get up on my camel, lady. I will lead you. God willing, we will catch up with the camp. But they should have been here!”
“Ubayy has been causing trouble,” Ayesha told him. “I think the Messenger thought he would have less chance of stirring up the Ansar if the army kept moving.”
Safwʽan blew out a long sigh. “A wise choice, perhaps….”
They did not catch up with the army until it halted once more, although Safwʽan insisted that they keep moving, right through the night, navigating by the stars. He walked hurriedly, although exhausted, and for the most part said nothing, for it would have been unseemly for him, a mere soldier, to converse unnecessarily with one of the Messenger’s wives. The Prophet was pleased to see Ayesha, but she could see, at once, that his usual warmth of feeling was utterly extinguished.
“Praise be to Allah, you are safe,” was all he said.
Ayesha, left alone in her tent with Juwayriyya, turned to the daughter of Al-Harith and asked, “Why is everyone acting so strangely?”
“You would know, better than anyone,” Juwayriyya said, arching her eyebrows.
“Are you really that innocent?”
“I’ve never known any man other than the Messenger of God, and Inshallah, so it shall be for the remainder of my days,” Ayesha snapped. “You of all people – a captive and a pagan – should not speak to me like that. I am the daughter of Abu Bakr. You are the daughter of a fool and a coward.”
Juwayriyya regarded Ayesha respectfully, to her surprise, and touched her head, looking genuinely contrite.
“You speak the truth, and I hear it, daughter of Abu Bakr.”
Ayesha fell seriously ill shortly after the army returned to Medina. She lay sick in her chamber, but Muhammad only came to see her once each day, merely standing at the door to say, “How are you?”
“I wish to go to the house of my father, so that my mother can take care of me,” Ayesha said, at last, but she could not bring herself to ask the Prophet why he was suddenly so cold.
* * *
The month of Shaʽban passed away, to be followed by Ramadan, a month during which Muhammad led the people in fasting and reflection, at least during the daylight hours. Delirious with fever, Ayesha knew little of what was happening around her, but her mother, Umm Ruman, watched over her, and gradually, little by little, her strength recovered. She also was tended by Burayra, who brought her barley porridge.
“Eat of it,” Burayra insisted, passing the bowl of sawiq to Ayesha. “There is a famine in the city.”
“A famine?” Ayesha asked, propping herself up against the wall. She looked wretched, with dark rings around her eyes. “But the rains… the harvest…?”
“The Quraysh are raising a confederacy against us,” Burayra replied. “The farmers are gathering in their crops early. Much will be lost if we are attacked.”
Ayesha closed her eyes, scooping the barley porridge up into her mouth with her right hand, and said, “How long have I been ill?”
“More than twenty days.”
“Ya Allah!” Ayesha opened her eyes, shocked. “And the Messenger?”
“He is busy, and your father, too – there have been many meetings, trying to decide what we will do if the Quraysh attack.”
That night, as usual Ayesha summoned all her strength to go out onto the open plain to ease nature and tend to her personal ablutions. She walked out accompanied by Umm Mistah, one of the women of the neighborhood, and as they picked their way among the acacia trees in the dark, her companion stumbled on the hem of her jilbab.
“May the Aws perish!” she cried.
Aisha was astonished to hear this, for the Aws were the Helpers: they had sent warriors to fight alongside the Muslims at the Battle of Badr, at Uhud, and on many other occasions.
“How can you say such a thing?”
“Have you not heard, daughter of Abu Bakr?” Umm Mistah inquired. “Ubayy, the chief of the Banu Aws, has been telling everyone how you met up, secretly, with that young fellow, Safwʽan, pretending to be left behind – as if anyone wouldn’t notice an entire army marching away!”
“What!” Ayesha cried, almost dropping her clay water jug. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, it’s not just Ubayy – the sister of Zaynab says the same thing, and also the Banu Qurayza. It’s the talk of the bazaar. Even the tongues of the Khazraj are wagging.”
Ayesha turned and ran, and did not stop until she burst through the door of her parents’ house, crying, “No! Mother!”
“What is it?”
“Allah forgive you, Mama, my heart is breaking! I am slandered – why didn’t anyone tell me what people were saying?”
“Now, now – hush, my girl,” Umm Ruman said, holding her daughter, who had fallen, sobbing, into her arms. “You’re young and pretty. Of course, you have rivals. You can expect people to say mean things. They’re jealous, that’s all.”
Ayesha could hear a great commotion, however, and raised her head. “What is all that?”
“Never mind,” her mother whispered.
The courtyard was filled with people from all the different communities of Medina, pushing and shoving and shouting. Muhammad was there, angrier than anyone had ever seen him before.
“How dare you insult my family!” he shouted. “Are you not afraid to lie, before Allah?”
Usayd, one of the Banu Aws, replied, “If one of our people spread these rumors, then we will punish him, but if our brothers, the Khazraj, have raised these allegations, say the word, and we will fall upon then with our swords.”
The Khazraj protested vehemently, but their shouts merely raised a storm of protest from the Aws, who accused the Khazraj of being hypocrites. To Muhammad’s dismay, a riot ensued in front of his own house, and only with difficulty could those who had remained calm pull the angry men of the two factions apart. Turning away from the mob, the Prophet approached his cousin, ʽAli, who was accompanied by Usamah.
“Tell me what they’re saying isn’t true,” Muhammad said.
“Messenger of Allah, w e have only ever heard good reports of Ayesha,” Usamah replied. “These are false and idle rumors.”
ʽAli, regarding the tumult in the courtyard, however, accorded his cousin a knowing look and said, “Women can be replaced easily enough. Bring Ayesha’s slave-girl. She can tell us the truth.”
“Bring Burayra!” Muhammad ordered, and soon enough the serving-girl hurried out of Ayesha’s quarters, only to be struck across the face by ʽAli before she could even speak.
“Tell the truth to the Messenger of God!”
“Ayesha is innocent!” Burayra said, cringing as ʽAli raised his hand to strike her again. “She has only done one thing wrong….”
Muhammad raised his eyebrows as ʽAli lowered his hand.
“One day I asked her to watch some dough I was kneading, and she fell asleep… a sheep stole up and ate it.”
“That’s it?” ʽAli asked, staring malevolently.
Muhammad, pulling his cousin close, said in a menacing, low voice, “I know you’ve been beating my daughter, Fatima, ʽAli. She’s miserable. I want that to stop. Muslim men do not strike women. Do you understand?”
“Name me your successor!” ʽAli hissed.
“Earn it,” Muhammad muttered. “Do you think you deserve my mantle just because we are kin? Allah has no patience for the pretences of kings.”
Muhammad went at once to Abu Bakr’s house, without saying another word, and found his friend and his wife, Umm Ruman, sitting with Ayesha, who was crying. The Prophet knelt down with them and said, “You’ve heard?”
“Fear Allah. If you have done wrong, repent. Allah accepts the repentance of his servants.”
Neither Abu Bakr nor Umm Ruman said anything, but they watched Muhammad closely. Ayesha wanted them to speak, but still they held their tongues.
“I will not repent,” Ayesha finally said. “I’ve done nothing I need to repent of, and if I were to repent, merely to make everyone happy, it would be a lie before God, who knows the truth.”
Muhammad passed out, to the horror of Abu Bakr and Umm Ruman, but Ayesha was not shocked at all. Indeed, she stirred herself, crawling next to her husband, and whispered, “It’s a revelation from Allah – this is what happens, often, when no one else is around except me….”
Her parents sat silently, terrified, but Ayesha was filled with hope.
After a few moments, the Messenger awakened and slowly sat up, with Ayesha’s help. He was perspiring, violently, and as he wiped his brow, he said, “Allah has shown me that you are innocent.”
“Allah be praised!” Ayesha smiled.
The Prophet rested a moment, quietly, and then went out to the crowded courtyard to teach the people the new verses of the Qurʽan he had received. It was Allah’s command, he told them, that no woman could be set aside, on an accusation of adultery, without at least four eye-witnesses to the transgression itself. Other teachings were revealed that evening, too, and eventually the crowd dispersed to their homes, amazed.
This is one of the most dramatic tales in world history, and one of my favorite historical moments.
In this story, all of the characters are historical except Yasmin and Shayla. However, it is true that Ayesha held meetings, in her old age, in which she told stories about her life with Muhammad to groups of Muslim women, and also to male visitors. Her stories became an important source of Hadith, or legal precedent, for the development of Islamic law. In fact, medieval Muslim jurists estimated that as much as twenty-five percent of Hadiths originated from Ayesha’s stories, forming the core of Islamic family law and laws concerning relations between men and women.
The necklace incident and the “Story of the Lie” brought a number of important conflicts to a head, and proved to be a crucial turning point in the history of Islam. First, Muhammad’s main opponents in Medina were exposed, and he was able to isolate and eliminate them in a series of purges that followed the failed Quraysh siege of Medina the following year. Secondly, Muhammad’s hitherto close relationship with ʽAli was strained by his public belligerence; the Prophet instead drew closer to Abu Bakr, Ayesha’s father, who eventually became his successor and the first Caliph of Islam. It is sobering to consider what a turn history might have taken, in February 626 CE, if Muhammad had believed the allegations against Ayesha. If the reckless and unpopular ‘Ali had attempted to lead the Muslims, after Muhammad’s death, Islamic Civilization itself might have been extinguished at its birth, a tragedy that would have had profound negative consequences for the future of Western Civilization.
As for the hapless young warrior, Safwʽan bin Muʽattal, he also suffered at the hands of the mob in Medina, and was involved in a scuffle with the Prophet’s spokesman, Thabit, and the official Muslim poet, Hassan. However, Muhammad eventually smoothed over the men’s ruffled feathers, and Hassan composed a poem of apology to Ayesha.
To write this story, I drew on many different sources, but very little of it is derived from the Qurʽan, which is not actually a historical account of Muhammad’s life, but rather a book of spiritual guidance. The details of the life of Muhammad and his Companions are gathered from other sources, written up to three generations after the events they describe. However, Arab culture of the early Islamic period was still rooted in oral tradition, and certain elites – like Ayesha herself, by all accounts – trained their memories and preserved vast amounts of historical and genealogical data by continually telling stories. The details connected with the raid against the Banu Mustaliq mostly are derived from oral histories recorded by Ibn Hisham and other early Islamic historians. These stories contain so many details that I could draw most of the dialogue for this story from them. So, very little in this particular story is contrived by me, although I have changed some of the dialogue to make it more comprehensible. Details about the culture of the early Muslims, and even the physical descriptions of the primary characters (including Muhammad) are derived from early Arab sources, including the Hadith texts.
Finally, although most general writers seem to place the “Story of the Lie” after the siege of Medina and the massacre of the Banu Qurayza Jews, the Islamic Hijri calendar dates for these events are very specific. Working from the Hijri dates, which I consider to be more accurate than the Western dates for these events, I concluded that the Muslim army returned to Medina in early February 626 CE. The siege of Medina by the Meccan forces occurred over a year later, in March 627 CE.
© William Lailey, 2012.