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  3. The Charge of Magical Eloquence

The Charge of Magical Eloquence

3332 2008/07/11 2024/02/27

as muhammad began to approach the pilgrims coming from various corners of arabia with his call to god, a number of quraysh leaders met with al walid ibn al mughirah to consult for a possible strategy. what would they say regarding muhammad to the arabs coming for pilgrimage? their answers to this question should be universally the same; otherwise they would constitute arguments in favor of muhammad's claims. some suggested that they should claim that muhammad was a diviner. a1 walid rejected this suggestion on the grounds that what muhammad recited was unlike the secret formulae of common diviners. others suggested that they should claim that muhammad was possessed or mad. a1 walid again rejected this view on the grounds that the symptoms of madness or possession were not apparent in muhammad. still others suggested that they should claim that muhammad was a magician, but al walid again rejected this view on the grounds that muhammad did not practice the common tricks of magicians. after some discussion, al walid suggested that they should tell the non-makkan arab pilgrim that muhammad was a magician whose craft was eloquence that by means of eloquent words he was capable of dividing the man against his father, his brother, his spouse and his own tribe. a1 walid advised that they could produce evidence for such nefarious eloquence by pointing to the division which befell makkah after muhammad began to practice his craft. any consideration of the present division, internal struggle, and internecine fighting raging among the makkans who were once the exemplars of tribal solidarity and social unity would convince the observer that muhammad's influence had brought the worst. during the pilgrimage season the quraysh made a special effort to warn every visitor to makkah against ever lending his ear to muhammad for fear that he would be mesmerized by his magic eloquence and then suffer in turn the same evils that had befallen makkah and thus bring about a general war in arabia detrimental to all.


al nadr ibn al harith

a mental warfare of such order could not be expected to withstand or counteract muhammad's so-called magic eloquence all alone. if genuine truth were to come on the wings of this so-called magic eloquence, what would prevent the people from accepting it? is the acknowledgment of the distinction of the antagonist and the acknowledgment of the inferiority of the protagonist ever successful as a propaganda weapon? there must needs be other fronts on which to attack muhammad in addition to this proposed mental warfare. let the quraysh seek this second front with al nadr ibn al harith. the said al nadr was one of the sophisticated geniuses of quraysh. he had studied at al hirah the history, religion, wisdom, theories of good and evil, cosmology, arid other literature of the persians. whenever muhammad finished preaching his faith in an assembly calling men to god, and warning them of the consequences on the day of judgment taking the bygone peoples and civilizations as examples of such divine punishment for failure to worship god-al nadr would rise and tell his fellow makkans about persia and its religion. he would conclude by asking the assembly, "why is muhammad's speech better than mine? does he not draw from the tales of antiquity just as i do?" the quraysh used to memorize al nadr's speeches and statements and circulate them around and outside makkah as countermeasures to the claims of muhammad and his message.


jabr, the christian

muhammad used to tarry at the shop of a christian youth called jabr whenever he passed by the marwah quarter of makkah. the quraysh took advantage of the fact and began to spread the rumor that this christian jabr had taught muhammad all that he knew and that if anyone were expected to apostatize from the religion of his ancestors, the christian should be the first one to do so. as this rumor spread, revelation itself answered the claim in the verse: "we know they claim that the qur'an is taught to him by another man. but the man whom they suspect is persian of tongue, whereas the tongue of this qur'an is pure and clear arabic."[qur'an,16:103]


al tufayl ibn `amr al dawsa

with this and like feats of propaganda the quraysh sought to fight muhammad in hope of achieving by these means more than they did by means of injury and harm to his person and followers. the clear and simple might of truth, however, shone brilliantly in muhammad's preaching. while the struggle between the two forces continued, islam spread more and more widely among the arabs. when al tufayl ibn `amr al dawsi, a nobleman of great poetic talent, arrived in makkah, he was immediately approached by the quraysh and warned against muhammad and his magical eloquence. they admonished him that muhammad's craft might well divide him and his people and that his tribe might well suffer the same evil as had befallen makkah. they asked him not to visit muhammad or hear him if he wanted to avoid the evil. a1 tufayl, however, went one day to the ka'bah and there heard a little of the preaching of muhammad and liked it. he then thought, "woe to me! am i, the intelligent poet, the mature man, to fear that i may not distinguish between the genuinely beautiful and the really ugly in human discourse? shouldn't i go to muhammad, hear all that he has to say and apply my own judgment? if i should find it good, why shouldn't i accept it? and if i find it evil, surely i shall avoid it." he followed muhammad one day to his house and there told him exactly what. he thought and what he had decided. muhammad welcomed him, presented to him the new religion, and recited for him the qur'an. al tufayl was immediately converted, recited the confession of truth, and returned to his people a missionary for islam. he was responsible for the conversion of many, though not all, of his tribesmen. for many years, he continued his missionary activity and succeeded in converting the greater number of them. he and they joined themselves to the forces of muhammad after the conquest of makkah once the political structure of the islamic community began to crystallize.

a1 tufayl ibn `amr al dawsi is only one of many examples. the idol worshippers were not the only ones responding favorably to the message of muhammad. while muhammad was still in makkah, twenty christian men arrived, sent by their own people on a fact-finding mission concerning the new faith. they sat with muhammad and asked him all kinds of questions and listened to him. they, too, were converted on the spot, believed in muhammad and in the revelation. this conversion aroused great anger and resentment among the quraysh. indeed the latter addressed the new converts in these words: "wretched factfinding mission that you are! your fellow religionists sent you here in order to investigate the man and bring them the factual news concerning him. but you have hardly sat down with him before you apostatized from your religion and believed him in everything he said." in vain did the quraysh try to dissuade the christian delegation from following muhammad and converting to his faith. on the contrary, the quraysh's attack against their sincerity had strengthened their faith in god and added to their monotheistic convictions since, before they heard muhammad, they were already christian and hence submissive to god.


abu sufyan, abu jahl, and al akhnas

the struggle against muhammad reached even greater proportions. the most antagonistic of the quraysh began to ask themselves: "is it true that this man is really calling unto the religion of truth? that what he promises us and threatens us with in the hereafter is true?" abu sufyan, abu jahl and al akhnas ibn shariq went out one night to hear muhammad preach in his own house without any one of them knowing what the other was about. unobserved by his colleagues, each one of them took his place in some corner and spent the night listening to muhammad preach, then pray and recite the qur'an in the still of night, cantillating its holy verses with his beautiful voice. as dawn arrived and the three auditors repaired to their houses, they met one another on the road. each one of them knew what the others were about and blamed the others for such behavior. arguing that this would be a blow to the morale of the rank and file of the quraysh if they ever knew of it, they mutually promised one another never to do it again. when the following night came, however, and the hours of yesterday struck, each one of them felt as if he were being carried to the house of muhammad without being able to stop himself. an irresistible power was drawing them to spend another night of listening to muhammad's prayer, preaching, and cantillation of the divine verses. again they met one another at dawn on their way back and blamed one another anew. even this repeated violation of their mutual threat and promise did not prevent them from going to the same place the third night. it was only after the third violation that they realized their weakness and the strong attraction they felt toward the voice of muhammad, his faith, and qur'anic recitation. they pledged solemnly never to return again, but what they had heard from muhammad during the three previous nights left such a deep impression upon their souls that it disturbed their inner peace and reduced their spirit of resistance. naturally, they were quite apprehensive that, being leaders of their people, their inner disturbance would some day be discovered by their followers and sap the morale of the whole community.


"he frowned and turned away"

what prevented these men from following muhammad? he had not asked of them either reward or power or kingship. rather, muhammad was a very modest man, full of love for his people anxious to do good to them and to guide them in the true path. he was both strongly self-critical and fearful of bringing the least harm to the weak or the oppressed. in suffering the injuries inflicted upon him by others and forgiving their authors, he found peace and tranquility of conscience. evidence of this personal characteristic of muhammad may be found in the story of ibn umm maktum. muhammad was once involved in serious conversation with al walid ibn al mughirah, one of the leading aristocrats of quraysh, whom he hoped he would convert to islam. ibn umm maktum, the blind, stopped by and asked muhammad to recite some qur'anic verses for him. preoccupied with his conversation, muhammad did not answer. ibn umm maktum insisted until he interrupted the conversation of the two men, to the severe annoyance of muhammad. the conversation thus abruptly ended, muhammad frowned, gave an angry look to the blind man and moved on without satisfying his request. when muhammad came to himself, he began to criticize himself for this maltreatment of the blind man, and soon the following verses were revealed to him: "he frowned and turned aside when the blind man approached him. perhaps, the blind man may have sought to purify himself, to remember the words of god and to benefit there from. but to him who is disdainfully indifferent, you [muhammad] pay great attention, though you are not responsible if he should never become purified. but he who came to you exerting himself and striving in fear and reverence, him you neglected. no! no! the whole matter is a reminder. so let him who so desires, be reminded of it. the qur'an is inscribed in honored sheets, exalted and purified, and written by hands noble and virtuous."[qur'an, 80:1-16] if such was muhammad's character, what did in fact prevent the quraysh from following him and from helping him in his cause, especially as their hearts had mellowed, as the years had caused them to forget the obsolete traditions to which they had lethargically attached themselves, and as they saw in muhammad's message true majesty and perfection?


the will to perfection

but is it true that time makes men forget their obsolete past and lethargic conservatism? perhaps so, but only among those who are endowed with superior intelligence and a will to perfection. such people spend their lives trying out and testing the truth which they have taken to be such in order to keep it free of admixture, superstition, and error. the minds and hearts of such people are cauldrons forever, boiling, accepting every new idea in order but to boil it down, purify it, and separate its good from its evil as well as its beauty from its ugliness. such souls seek the truth in everything, everywhere, and from every source. in every nation and age, such people are few; they are the chosen and the distinguished. such men always find themselves on the other side of any contest with the rich, the established, and the powerful. the latter are forever apprehensive of anything new lest it may adversely affect their wealth, prestige, or power and, generally speaking, they do not know any other facts besides those of concrete everyday living. everything is true, in their opinion, if it leads to an increase in the substance of this very life, and false if it implies the slightest doubt regarding that substance. for the capitalist, virtue is good if it increases the substance, evil if it dissipates it. religion itself, is indeed true only if it serves his passions and desires, and false if it denies or fails to satisfy them.

the man of political power and the man of social prestige stand here on a par with the capitalist. in their enmity to everything new and fearful, they mobilize the masses on whom their wealth, social prestige, or power depend against the innovator. this mobilization of the masses is carried out under an appeal to save the sanctity of the old order which may very well have become corrupt, obsolete, and spiritless. they present the old order they seek to save in great monuments of stone designed to delude the innocent rank and file. they pretend that the great spirit and value which moulded those monuments still lives therein with all its majesty and grandeur. the masses usually respond to their appeal with enthusiasm, for they are above all concerned with their daily bread; it is not easy for them to realize that any truth cannot remain for long imprisoned within the walls of any temple or monument, however beautiful or majestic it may be. it is hard for them to understand that it is of the nature of truth to be free, to invade the souls of men and to nourish them without discrimination between nobleman and slave; that no matter how hardily a system may defend itself against the truth and how closely it may be protected, the truth is always bound to win. how then could those quraysh leaders who were seeking to listen to the qur'an in secret, believe in its call when it proclaimed the wrath of god against the very practices which they were doing? how could they believe in a religion which did not differentiate between the blind pauper and the great capitalist except as regards the purity of their own souls? how could they believe in the call of islam unto all men that "the greatest of you with god is the most pious and virtuous?"[qur'an, 49:14]. if, therefore, abu sufyan and his colleagues remained true to the religion of their ancestors, it was not due to their faith in its truth value. rather, it was due to their zeal to preserve the old order that not only protected them but also enabled them to achieve their position of wealth, social prestige, and power.


jealousy and competition

in addition to this anxiety and despair, jealousy and competition did their work to prevent the quraysh from following the prophet. umayyah ibn abu al salt was one of those who predicted the rise of a prophet among the arabs; indeed, he hoped that he himself was such a prophet. he was full of resentment and jealousy when revelation came to muhammad rather than to him; he could not, despite his own superiority over muhammad as far as poetical composition is concerned, follow a person whom he believed was his competitor. when muhammad heard the poetry of ummayyah, he exclaimed: "what a man is ummayyah ! his poetry believes, but his heart does not." likewise, al walid ibn al mughirah said: "it is incomprehensible to me that revelations would come to muhammad and not to me while i am the greatest elder and master of quraysh. neither do i understand that revelation would not come to abu mas'ud `amr ibn `umayr al thaqafi, the elder and master of thaqif." it was in reference to such commonplace sentiments that the qur'an says: "they said: would that this qur'an be revealed to one of the great men in one of the two cities. would they thus divide the mercy of your lord? it is we who do so, as we do divide their livelihood among them in the world." [qur'an, 43:31-32] after abu sufyan, abu jahl, and al akhnas had listened for three consecutive nights to muhammad's recitation of the qur'an, as we have reported earlier, al akhnas visited abu jahl in his home and asked, "o abu al hakam, what do you think of what we heard from muhammad?" abu jahl answered, "what did you hear? our house and the house of banu `abd manaf have been competing for the honor: they have given the people to eat and so did we; they have carried the water to the pilgrims and so did we; they have assumed other burdens and so did we, they have given and so did we. whenever we and they mount on our horses it always looks as if we are in a race. now they are saying, among us is a prophet to whom revelation comes straight from heaven! when, if ever, will we achieve such a feat? now, by god, we shall never believe in their prophet: we shall never accept what he says as true."

in these bedouin souls of muhammad's contemporaries, jealously and competition were deeply rooted, and it would be a great mistake to overlook them. we should remember that such passions are not unique to the arabs but are shared by all men. to neutralize their effects or get rid of them demands long and arduous self-discipline, a radical self transformation that raises reason far above passion and ennobles one's spirit and heart to the degree of acknowledging the truth whithersoever it may come from, be he enemy or friend. it also demands believing that the possession of the truth is more precious than all the wealth of midas, the glory of alexander, or the power of caesar. such nobility and magnanimity of soul is hardly ever reached except by those whose hearts god himself guides. commonplace men are usually blinded by the wealth and pleasure of the world and by the present moment in which alone they spent their lives. obviously, they are unable to rise to such spiritual height. in pursuit of quick satisfaction during the fleeting present, they struggle, fight, and kill one another. for its sake, nothing seems to prevent any of them from striking his teeth and claws into the very neck of truth, goodness and virtue, and from trampling to death the noblest and highest values. seeing muhammad's followers increasing in numbers and strength day by day, the arabs of quraysh were horrified by the idea that the truth which muhammad proclaimed would one day achieve victory and power over them, over their allies and beyond, and over all the arabs of the peninsula. heads shall roll rather than allow such a thing to happen, they thought. counterpropaganda and mental warfare, boycott, blockade, injury and harm, persecutional these and the vials of wrath shall be poured over muhammad and his followers.


fear of resurrection and the day of judgment

a third reason prevented the quraysh from following muhammad, namely, the terror of the resurrection on the day of judgment with its punishment of hell. they were a people immersed in recreation and the pursuit of pleasure; trade and usury were their means to its attainment. those of them who could afford to indulge in these pursuits did not see in them anything immoral and felt no imperative to avoid them. through their idol worship they thought that their evil deeds and sins could all be atoned for and forgiven. it was sufficient for a man to strike a few arrows at the foot of the statue of hubal for him to think that anything he was about to undertake was blessed if not commanded by the god. it was sufficient to sacrifice something to these idols for him to have his sins and guilt wiped out and forgotten. therefore, to kill, to rob, to commit adultery, to indulge in unbecoming speech and indecency were all proper and permissible as long as one was capable of bribing those gods and placating them with sacrifices.

on the other hand, muhammad was proclaiming that the lord was standing in wait for them, that they will be resurrected on the day of judgment, and that their works will be their only credit. moreover, he did so with verses of such tremendous, power that they shook men's hearts to the foundation and threw their consciousness into horror and panic. the qur'an proclaimed: "but when the deafening cry is heard, when man would flee from his brother, from his father and mother, his wife and children, everyone will have enough to concern himself with his own destiny. on that day some faces will be bright, joyous and gay. others will be dark and gloomy. the latter are the unbelievers, the wicked." [qur'an, 80:33-42] it proclaimed that the deafening cry would come-"the day when heaven will be like molten copper, when mountains will be like flakes of wool, when no friend will be able to concern himself for his friends. beholding the fate which is to be theirs, the condemned will wish to ransom themselves with their own children, their wives and brothers, their tribes that gave them protection, even the whole of mankind if such could save them from the impending doom. no indeed! there shall be a flame of fire, burning and dismembering, grasping without relief him who turned his back to the call of god, who played deaf to the moral imperative, who hoarded wealth and withheld it from the needy . . . ."[qur'an, 70:8-18]

"on that day you will be presented before god; none of your secrets will be hidden. then, he who has received his record with his right hand will say: `come, read my record. i had rightly thought that i was to meet my reckoning.' such a man will lead a blessed life in a lofty garden whose fruits are ripe and within reach. when he is brought therein he will be told: eat and drink joyfully for in the days gone by, you have done the good deeds.' as for him who is given his record in his left hand he will say: `would i that i had never been given my record; that i never knew of my reckoning. oh, would that death had made an end of me! my wealth is of no avail, and my power has come to naught.' to him god will say: `seize him and fetter him. broil him in the fire. then bind him in a chain seventy cubits long. for he did not believe in almighty god, nor did he urge the feeding of the hungry. today, he shall have no loyal friends and no food except what is foul, which none eat except his fellow sinners.”[qur'an, 69:18-37]

after this i may ask the reader: have you read this well? did you ponder every word of it? have you fully understood its meaning? are you not petrified and panic-stricken? but that is only a portion of muhammad's warning to his people. you read these verses today and remember that you have read them many times over before. concurrently with your reading, you will remember the qur'an's description of hell. "on that day, we shall ask hell, `are you full?' and hell will answer: `give me more!' . . . whenever their skins wear out, we shall give them new skins that they may continue to suffer the punishment." [qur'an, 50:30; 4:56]. you can well imagine then the horror which must have struck quraysh, especially the rich among them wallowing in the protection of their gods and idols whenever muhammad warned them of the imminent punishment. it would then become easy for you to appreciate the degree of their enthusiasm in belying muhammad, opposing him, and urging the people to fight him. previous to the prophet's preaching, the arabs had no idea of the day of judgment or of the resurrection, and they did not believe what they heard thereof from non-arabs. none of them thought that he would be reckoned with after death for what he had done in this world. whatever concern they had for the future was limited to this world. they feared disease, loss of wealth and children, of power and social prestige. this life, to them, was all there is to life. their energies were exhausted in the amassing of the means with which to enjoy this life and to keep it safe from misfortune. the future was utterly opaque. whenever their consciences were disturbed by a premonition of evil following upon their misdeeds, they had recourse to divination by arrows, pebbles, or bird chasing in order to dissipate the fear or confirm it. if confirmed they would sacrifice to their idols and thereby avoid the imminent misfortune.

as for reckoning after death, resurrection, and the day of judgment-paradise for the virtuous and hell for the unjust-all this completely escaped them despite the fact that they had heard of it in connection with the religion of the jews and of the christians. nonetheless, they never heard of it described with such emphatic, frightening, indeed horrifying, terms and seriousness such as muhammad's revelation had brought to them. what they had heard of before muhammad never succeeded in pressing home to them the recognition that their continued life of pleasure, pursuit of wealth, exploitation of the weak, robbery of the orphan, neglect of the poor, and excess in usury, would surely incur eternal punishment. they had no idea of impending suffering in the depth of hell, and when they heard of it described in these terms, it was natural for them to be seized with panic. how strongly they must have felt when they realized, though they did not openly admit it, that the other world with its reward and punishment is truly there, waiting for them only one step beyond this life which was soon to end in death!


quraysh and paradise

as for god's promise to the virtuous of a paradise as large as heaven and earth, where there is neither evil word nor deed but only peace and blessedness, the quraysh were quite suspicious. they doubted paradise all the more because of their attachment to this world and their anxiousness to enjoy its blessings right here and now. they were too impatient to wait for the day of judgment though they did not believe in any such day at all.


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