The First Trip to al Sham
abu talib loved his nephew just as `abd al muttalib had done before him. he loved him so much that he gave him precedence over his own children. the uprightness, intelligence, charity, and good disposition of muhammad strengthened the uncle's attachment to him. even when muhammad was twelve years old, abu talib did not take him along on his trade trips thinking that he was too young to bear the hardship of desert travel. it was only after muhammad's strong insistence that abu talib permitted the child to accompany him and join the trip to al sham. in connection with this trip which he took at an early age, the biographers relate muhammad's encounter with the monk bahirah at busra, in the southern region of al sham. they tell how the monk recognized in muhammad the signs of prophethood as told in christian books. other traditions relate that the monk had advised abu talib not to take his nephew too far within al sham for fear that the jews would recognize the signs and harm the boy.
on this trip muhammad must have learned to appreciate the vast expanse of the desert and the brilliance of the stars shining in its clear atmosphere. he must have passed through madyan, wadi al qur'a, the lands of thamud, and his attentive ears must have listened to the conversation of the arabs and desert nomads about the cities and their history. on this trip, too, muhammad must have witnessed the luscious green gardens of al sham which far surpassed those of ta'if back at home. these gardens must have struck his imagination all the more strongly as he compared them with the barren dryness of the desert and of the mountains surrounding makkah. it was in al sham that he came to know of byzantine and christian history and heard of the christians' scriptures and of their struggle against the fire worshipping persians. true, he was only at the tender age of twelve, but his great soul, intelligence, maturity, power of observation, memory and all the other qualities with which he was endowed in preparation for his prophet hood enabled him at an early age to listen perceptively and to observe details. later on he would review in memory all that he had seen or heard and he would investigate it all in solitude, asking himself, "what, of all he has seen and heard, is the truth?"
in all likelihood, abu talib's trip to al sham did not bring in much income. he never undertook another trip and was satisfied to remain in makkah living within his means and taking care of his many children. muhammad lived with his uncle, satisfied with his lot. there, muhammad grew like any other child would in the city of makkah. during the holy months he would either remain with his relatives or accompany them to the neighboring markets at `ukaz, majannah, and dhu al majaz. there he would listen to the recitations of the mudhahhabat and mu'allaqat [at the yearly market of 'ukaz (near makkah), held during the holy months, poets from all tribes competed with one another in poetry. they recited their compositions in public and the greatest was given the prize of having his composition written down and "hung" on the walls of the ka'bah. according to al mufaddal (d. 189 a.ii./805 c.e.), imru' al qays (d. 560 c.e.), zuhayr (d. 635 c.e.), al nabighah (d. 604 c.e.), al a'sha (d. 612 c.e.), labid (d. 645 c.e.),'amr ibn kulthum (d. 56' c.e.) and tarafah (d. 565 c.e.) were authors of the greatest poems of preislamic days, accorded this special honor. hence, their name "al mu'allaqda," literally "the hanging poems." other early historians of arabic literature claimed that the mu'allaqat were eight, adding to the seven above-mentioned a poem of 'antarah. other pre-islamic and early islamic (up to 50 a.h./672 c.e.) poems, numbering 42 in all, were divided into six groups of seven poems each-the whole of pre-islamic poetry adding up to seven groups of seven poems each-arranged according to their literary merit, poetic eloquence and force. they included: al mujamharat by 'ubayd, 'antarah, 'adiyy, bishr and umayyah, al muntaqayat (literally, "the selected poems") by al musayyib, al muraqqash, al mutalammis, 'urwah, al ' muhalhil, durayd and al mutanakhkhil; al mudhahhabat (literally, "the golden poems," or "written in gold") by 4assan ibn rawahah, mau, qays ibn al khatim, uhayhah, abu qays ibn al aslat and 'amr ibn umru' al qays; al mashubat (literally, "the poems touched by islam as well as pre-islamic unbelief"), al malhamat (literally, "the epic poems"). for further details, see any literary history of the arabs, or muhammad 'abd al mun'im khafaji, al hayah al adabiyyah fi al 'asr al jahili, cairo: maktabat al husayn al tijariyyah, 1368/1949. -tr.] poems and be enchanted by their eloquence, their erotic lyricism, the pride and noble lineage of their heroes, their conquests, hospitality, and magnanimity. all that the visits to these market places presented to his consciousness, he would later review, approve of, and admire or disapprove of and condemn. there, too, he would listen to the speeches of christian and jewish arabs who strongly criticized the paganism of their fellow countrymen, who told about the scriptures of jesus and moses, and called men to what they believed to be the truth. muhammad would review and weigh these views, preferring them to the paganism of his people, though not quite convinced of their claims to the truth. thus muhammad's circumstances exposed him at a tender age to what might prepare him for the great day, the day of the first revelation, when god called him to convey his message of truth and guidance to all mankind.