dual strategy to stop muhammad
the clouds of despair thickened over the quraysh as they saw all their attempts to contain the message of islam rendered futile. no temptation was strong enough to make muhammad moderate his stand, and no threats could be used against him.
moreover, the quraysh recognized that they would not be able to assassinate muhammad, even if they attempted to do so time after time.
at no time did the moderates or hardliners of the quraysh ask themselves what motivated muhammad into his unshakable resolve to carry on with his message, or why he should prefer the hard option to that of compromise, with all its promise of wealth, power and pleasure.
the only question to which the quraysh wanted an immediate answer was: how can we prevent muhammad from exploiting our failure to win new recruits to his religion? that was the main preoccupation of the quraysh chiefs. to achieve their purpose, they adopted a dual strategy.
1- more pressure, more torture
the quraysh lost no time in escalating its ruthless campaign of repression. as always, the slaves, the allies and those who lacked influential support among their clans had to bear the brunt of this wicked campaign.
the rest of the muslims were not immune. even the strongest among them were subjected to great pressure, both physical and mental. in addition, torture of intense severity was inflicted on the weak and the vulnerable.
abdullah ibn abbas, the prophet's cousin who achieved high scholarly renown, was once asked: "did disbelievers in makkah inflict on the companions of the prophet torture intense enough to justify the latter's turning away from islam? he answered:
yes, they used to beat their victims very badly, and allow them nothing to eat or drink, until they could not even sit up. they inflicted so much pain that the victim would give or say anything he was asked just to win a short rest. the situation of some of those victims was so bad that they would answer any questions put to them by their tormentors in the way acceptable to them. the disbelievers would ask: "are al-lat and al-uzza, two major idols worshipped by the pagan arabs, your gods?" or " is this cockroach your lord whom you worship?" in their unbearable plight, the believers might answer these questions in the affirmative.
in fact, god permitted those afflicted people and others who might have found, or may find, themselves in similar situations to give in verbally to their tormentors. they may say what they are asked to say, provided they remain, deep at heart, faithful to their religion.
god says in the quran: [those who are forced to recant while their hearts remain loyal to the faith shall be absolved; but those who deny god after professing islam and open their bosoms to unbelief shall incur the wrath of god and be sternly punished.] (an-nahl 16:106)
2- meeting the jewish rabbis
the other half of this strategy was adopted in another meeting of the quraysh elders, but this time the prophet was not present. a man called al-nadr ibn al-harith ibn alqamah took the floor.
by modern standards, al-nadr may be described as an intellectual. he had visited persia, one of the great empires of the day, where he studied history and learnt a great deal about the lives and times of ancient and recent kings and emperors. al-nadr outlined the quraysh's predicament in this way:
people of quraysh, you are confronted with a problem for which you have not been able to find a solution. when muhammad was still a young man living among you, he won general admiration because he always spoke the truth and his honesty could not be faulted. when he had grown grey, and started to preach whatever he is preaching to you, you began to allege that he was a sorcerer. we have seen magicians and their tricks in the past. you also accused him of being a fortune–teller. by god, he is not one, for we have seen fortune- tellers and how they repeat their rhyming phrases. you also claimed that he was a poet. again i say that, by god, he is not a poet, for we have seen poets and listened to all types of poetry. you claimed that he was also a madman, but he is far from being so. we have seen what madness has done to people, and how it causes them to say incoherent things. i say, people of quraysh, you have to look at this question very carefully, for you have a big problem on your hands.
that was indeed a very accurate description of what the quraysh considered to be a disaster that it had to face. it was they who called muhammad "al-amin" or "the trustworthy" when he was a young man because he was, as al-nadr himself said, generally admired.
he always spoke the truth and displayed a high standard of honesty. would such an honest young man start lying when he grows old? and would he choose for his lying and fabrications none other than god himself?
but if one were to ask the quraysh elders why they were so determined to oppose muhammad when they knew that he spoke the truth, one only betrays naivety. the quraysh did not want to know whether muhammad was truthful or not; they realized that he was telling the truth, as he always did. they simply wanted to find the best means to oppose him and defeat his message.
this situation was to repeat itself time after time, whenever the call to islam found itself on a collision course with those who wielded power in the land. in history there are many incidents when special committees were formed and study groups were organized for no reason other than mapping a strategy to silence the message of islam.
every time, those committees and study groups came out with the same results: the advocates of islam are the best of people, most patriotic, demonstrating great resolve in resisting temptation and corruption. every time the line to be followed was that of total liquidation.
on this particular occasion, the quryash decided to send two people, al-nadr ibn al-harith and uqbah ibn abi muay, to yathrib where they would meet the jewish rabbis and enquire from them about muhammad and the truthfulness of his message. without waiting for his visit, al-nadr started his own campaign against islam.
first propaganda campaign
he set up for himself a special position in the mosque. whenever the prophet addressed a group of people, al-nadr would wait until he had left.
then al nadr would say to those people: "i have something better to say to you. come and listen to a better discourse than his."
he would relate to them some of the history of ancient kings. he would then ask them: "what has muhammad got to say that is better than what i say?"
indeed, it was al-nadr who used to describe the quran as tales of the ancients. the quran refers to him whenever this is mentioned. the reference is also to him in the verse which speaks of a person who claims: "i shall send down something similar to that which god had sent down."
this attempt by al-nadr was perhaps the first propaganda campaign against islam. it was to be followed by numerous similar campaigns which were to employ better tactics and far reaching tools as means of communication developed. the message of islam has always been able to counter such propaganda campaigns with the truth it declares.
the three jewish questions
when the two man delegation prepared to set out from makkah to yathrib to ask the jewish rabbis about the prophet, their terms of reference were outlined to them.
the quraysh elders told al-nadr and uqbah to ask the jewish rabbis about muhammad, describing him in detail and reporting truthfully what he said. "the jews", said the quraysh elders, "are the people of early scriptures and they have a wealth of knowledge about prophets which is not available to us."
in yathrib the two quraysh men put their questions to the rabbis and solicited their honest opinion about muhammad. the rabbis told them to ask muhammad three questions.
"if he gives you satisfactory answers, then he is a prophet and a messenger of god. if he has no answer to give, then he is fabricating whatever he says. you may do what you like with him. ask him about a group of young people who had a strange story in ancient times, and let him tell you what happened to them. ask him also about a man who traveled all over the place and went to the far east and far west. the third question you should ask him is to tell you about the spirit."
one report suggests that the jewish rabbis told the two quraysh men that if muhammad were to give them a detailed answer about the spirit, then they should not believe him. if he refrained from answering this question, then that would confirm that he was a prophet.
answering the rabbis's questions
the quraysh were happy with the results of this mission and wasted no time in putting those three questions to the prophet. when he heard their questions, the prophet told them that he would answer them the following day.
apparently he did not qualify this promise by saying : "god willing", as he should have done and as muslims should always do. as a result, nothing was revealed to him for 15 days.
some reports suggest that it was only a three- day lull before the angel gabriel came down with the revelation of chapter 18, entitled "the cave" or "al-kahf".
the surah (chapter) opens with a statement of praise to god which confirms that it was he who revealed the quran to his servant and messenger muhammad. in other words, this is an answer to the questions the quraysh put to the jews.
the opening also outlines the role of the messenger: giving a stern warning against divine punishment and happy news for those who believe and do good works. it refutes the claims of the quraysh and other disbelievers who ascribe children to god or describe angels as daughters of god.
it states categorically that all such claims are lies. it then tells the prophet not to grieve too much for his people if they refuse to listen to him. the chapter goes on to give a detailed account of the young men whom it calls "people of the cave".
the details it gives of what happened to those young men could never have been learnt by the prophet from a book or a scholar. these details could be provided only by god, who knows everything.
this account is outlined in verses 9-26 which then proceeds to speak of other matters before it answers the second question suggested by the jewish rabbis. verses 83-98 provide detailed account of the man named in the chapter as dhul qarnayn.
as for the third question, there is a short reference to it in verse 85 of chapter 17, entitled the night journey or al-isra. this verse may be rendered in the quran "if they ask you about the spirit. say: knowledge of the spirit belongs to my lord and you have been granted very little of real knowledge".
the gap widens
what change would these answers to the questions suggested by the jews and put to the prophet by the unbelievers bring about? certainly not much. al-nadr continued with his propaganda campaign, and the quraysh continued with its persecution of the believers, and the two camps were as far apart as ever.
something new had to be worked out. something had to happen soon, either to break the deadlock or to pull the two parties further apart. in the particular circumstances of makkah at that time, further polarization was more likely.
the muslims in makkah felt that they could not allow the quraysh to continue their persecution campaign without asserting their own presence. they started to be more open with their challenge to the unbelievers.
some of them even prayed in congregation at the kabah. moreover, with umar and hamzah in the ranks of the muslims, more and more people were joining the new religion.
by now the unbelievers realized that there could be no meeting ground between them and the muslims. they were also aware that the tactics they employed to check the tide of islam were of no great use. a conference was therefore called early in the seventh year of muhammad's prophethood to find some more effective methods for achieving that ungodly objective.