The Emigrants Return from Abyssinia
the emigrants resided in abyssinia three months during which 'umar ibn al khattab converted to islam. in their exile, they heard that upon 'umar's conversion the quraysh had stopped their persecution of muhammad and his followers. according to one report a number of them had returned to makkah, according to another, all. on reaching makkah they realized that the quraysh had resumed persecution of the muslims with stronger hatred and renewed vigor. unable to resist, a number of them returned to abyssinia while others entered makkah under the cover of night and hid themselves away, it is also reported that those who returned took with them a number of new converts to abyssinia where they were to stay until after the emigration to madinah and the establishment of muslim political power.
we may ask what incited the muslims of abyssinia to return to makkah three months after their emigration. it is at this stage that the story of the goddesses is told by ibn sa'd in his al tabaqat al kubra, by al tabari in his tarikh al rusul wa al muluk, as well as by a number of muslim exegetes and biographers. this story arrested the attention of the western orientalists who took it as true and repeated it ad nauseam. this story tells that realizing how alienated the quraysh had become and how intensely they had persecuted his companions, muhammad expressed the wish that a revelation might come that would reconcile his people rather than further alienate them. when, one day, he was sitting with the quraysh in one of their club houses around the ka'bah, he recited to them surah "al najm." after reading the verses, "would you consider al lat and al `uzza? as well as manat, the third goddess?" [qur'an, 53:19-20] he continued the recitation with the statement, "they are the goddesses on high. their intercession is worthy of being sought." he then proceeded with his reading of the surah as we know it. when he finished he prostrated himself, and all the quraysh likewise followed him. at this moment, the quraysh proclaimed its satisfaction with what the prophet had read and said, "we have always known that god creates and gives life, gives food, and resuscitates. but our gods intercede for us with him. now that you have allowed for them a place in your new religion, we are all with you." thus the difference between muhammad and the quraysh was dissolved. when the news of this reconciliation reached abyssinia, the muslims there decided to return to their beloved country and people. as they reached the approaches of makkah, they met some kinanah tribesmen who informed them that muhammad allowed the gods a good position in his religion, reconciled the quraysh, and was now followed by everyone. the story then relates how muhammad reverted by blaspheming those gods and the quraysh reverted to persecution. it further adds that the returnees stopped to consider what their next course should be. they longed so much to see their relatives and next of kin that they went ahead and entered makkah.
other versions of the same story give detailed descriptions of muhammad's attitude toward the gods of quraysh. they claimed that quraysh's plea that if he but grant their gods a share in his religion the makkans would all support him troubled the prophet. they relate how muhammad one evening reviewed surah "al najm" with gabriel when the latter made a timely appearance. when he arrived at the sentence in question, gabriel asked where it came from. muhammad answered; "i must have attributed to god that which he did not say." god then revealed the following verses: "they have almost succeeded in inducing you, under promise of their friendship, to attribute to us, against our command, that which we did not reveal to you. had we not confirmed you in your faith, you might have been tempted and hence fallen under the inescapable punishment."[qur'an, 17:73-75]. thereafter, muhammad returned to his condemnation of the gods, and quraysh returned to their persecution.
incoherence of the story
such is the story of the goddesses reported by more than one biographer, pointed to by more than one exegete of the qur'an, and singled out and repeated by a number of western orientalists. it is a story whose incoherence is evident upon the least scrutiny. it contradicts the infallibility of every prophet in conveying the message of his lord. all the more wonder, therefore, that some muslim scholars have accepted it as true. ibn ishaq, for his part, did not hesitate at all to declare it a fabrication by the zindiqs[ non-muslims concealing their unbelief, falsely pretending that they are members of the ummah; mostly zoroastrians and manicheans. -tr.]. those who were taken in by it rationalized it further with the verse, "every prophet we sent before you was such that whenever he pressed for revelation to come, satan would hasten to inspire him with something satisfying his wish and thus necessitate god's abrogation of it if scripture is to be kept absolutely pure and true. god is all wise and all knowing. that which satan had given is a lure for those who are sick of mind and hard of heart. surely the unjust are deep in error."[qur'an, 22:52-53]. some explain the word "tamanna" in the foregoing verse as meaning "to read;" others give it the usual meaning of "to press wishfully." muslim and western scholars who accept the story explain that the prophet suffered heavily from the persecution the unbelievers directed at his companions. they tell how the unbelievers killed some muslims, exposed others to burning by the sun while pinned down to the ground with heavy stones (as was the case with bilal), and how these sufferings pressured muhammad to permit his companions to migrate to abyssinia. they underscore quraysh's alienation and the psychological effect of their boycott upon the prophet. since muhammad was very anxious to convert them to islam and to save them from idol worship, they claim that his thinking; of reconciling them by adding a few verses to surah "al najm" is not farfetched. finally, they allege that muhammad's jubilation was all too natural when, coming to the end of his recitation and prostrating himself, the quraysh joined in, showing their preparation to follow him now that he had given a share to their gods with god.
to these tales of some books of biography and exegesis, sir william muir adds what he thinks is a final and conclusive proof. he says that the emigrants to abyssinia had hardly spent three months there during which the negus had tolerated as well as protected them when they decided to return to makkah. had they not heard news of a reconciliation between muhammad and quraysh nothing would have caused them to return so soon. but, reasons muir, how could there be reconciliation between muhammad and quraysh without a determined effort to that effect on the part of muhammad? in makkah, the muslims had then been far fewer and weaker than the quraysh. they were still incapable of protecting themselves against the injuries which the quraysh had been inflicting upon them. why, then, should the quraysh have taken the initiative in such reconciliation?
refutation of these arguments
these are the arguments on which stands the claim for veracity of the story of the goddesses. they are all false, incapable of standing any scrutiny or analysis. let us begin with the argument of the orientalist muir. the muslims who returned from abyssinia did so for two reasons. first, `umar ibn al khattab was converted to islam shortly after their emigration. with him, he brought to the muslim camp the same boldness, determination, and the tribal standing with which he had been fighting the muslims before. he never concealed his conversion nor did he ever shun the quraysh opponents. on the contrary, he proclaimed his conversion publicly and challenged the quraysh openly. he did not approve the muslim's concealment of themselves, their secret movement from one end of makkah to the other, and their holding of prayers at a safe distance from any quraysh attack. `umar began to fight the quraysh as soon as he entered the faith of islam, constantly pressed his way close to the ka'bah, and performed his prayer there in company with whatever muslims that decided to join him. it was at this new challenging turn of events that the quraysh came to the realization that any further injury inflicted upon muhammad or his companions would henceforth create a civil war of which nobody knew the consequences. by this time, a great number of men from the various clans of quraysh had joined islam. to kill any one of these would necessarily imply the rise to war not only of his fellow muslims but of all the clans of which the various muslims or allies were members, even though the rest of the clan or the tribe were still of a different religion. after the conversion of `umar and the entry of so many members of other clans into the faith, it became impossible to fight muhammad in the same way as before. such a course could easily expose the whole of quraysh to terrible peril. it was necessary to find a new way which did not incur such risks, and until such way was found, the quraysh thought it advantageous to enter into an armistice with muhammad and the muslims. it was this news which reached the emigrants in makkah and prompted them to return home.