Part II: The Campaign of the Apostasy
Chapter 11: The Gathering Storm
"The desert Arabs say, 'We believe.' Say, 'You have not believed, but say: 'We have submitted,' for Faith has not yet entered your hearts.
But if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not belittle anything of your deeds: For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.'
Only those are Believers who have believed in Allah and His Messenger, and have never since doubted, but have striven with their belongings and their persons in the Cause of Allah: such are the sincere ones."
Apostasy had actually begun in the lifetime of the Prophet, and the first major action of the apostasy was fought and satisfactorily concluded while the Prophet still lived. But the real and most serious danger of apostasy arose after the Prophet's death, when a wild wave of disbelief-after-belief moved across the length and breadth of Arabia and had to be tackled by Abu Bakr. Hence the Campaign of the Apostasy is here taken up as a whole, although chronologically the first of these events belongs to Part I of this history.
The first major event of the apostasy occurred in the Yemen and is known as the Incident of Aswad Al Ansi. Aswad was a chief of the Ans-a large tribe inhabiting the western part of the Yemen. His actual name was Abhala bin Kab, but because of his very dark colour he was called Aswad, i.e. the Black One. A man of many qualities, few of them enviable, he was, before the apostasy, known mainly as a tribal chieftain and a soothsayer.
During the tenth year of the Hijra, the people of the southern and south-eastern regions of the Arabian peninsula had been converted to Islam. The Prophet had sent envoys, teachers and missions to various places to accomplish this task and the task had been duly completed. But the majority of the inhabitants of these regions had not become true Muslims, their conversion being more a matter of form than a sincere change of heart.
Before this conversion the Yemen was governed, on behalf of the Persian Emperor, by a noble-born Persian named Bazan. 1 This man became a Muslim and was confirmed in his appointment as governor of the Yemen by the Prophet. As he was a wise and virtuous officer, the province prospered under his rules; but shortly before the last pilgrimage of the Prophet, Bazan died, and the Prophet appointed Bazan's son, Shahr, as governor at San'a. Peace continued to prevail in the Yemen, and no clouds darkened the southern skies.
Then, at about the time of the Prophet's last pilgrimage, Aswad decided that he would become a prophet. He gathered his tribe, recited some of his verses, claiming that they were verses of the Quran revealed to him, and announced that he was a messenger of Allah.
Aswad had a donkey which he had trained to obey certain commands, and he used this donkey to demonstrate his powers. He would give the order, "Bow before your lord", and the donkey would bow its head before Aswad. He would then command, "Kneel before your lord!", 2 and the donkey would kneel. Because of this, Aswad became known in the region as Dhul Himar-the One of the Donkey, or 'Donkey-Walah'. Some chroniclers, however, maintain that he was known not as Dhul Himar, but as Dhul Khumar, i.e. the Drunk. 3 This could be true because he was heavily addicted to alcohol and often in a drunken stupor. Nevertheless, his tribe followed him, believing him to be a genuine prophet; and in this error they were joined by some of the lesser tribes of the Yemen.
Aswad organised a column of 700 horsemen and rode to Najran. He captured the town with no difficulty and drove out its Muslim administrator. Elated by this easy victory, he left his own man to govern Najran and moved on San'a. (See Map 7) Shahr, the newly appointed Muslim governor of the Yemen, heard of the fall of Najran, came to know of the intentions of Aswad and decided to tackle Aswad before he could reach San'a. Organising a small armed force (he did not have many warriors), he marched out to meet his adversary, and the two forces met some distance north of San'a. The short, brisk engagement that followed ended in Aswad's favour. The Muslims suffered a defeat and Shahr was killed in battle, leaving behind a beautiful young widow named Azad. Five days later Aswad entered Sana' as a conqueror. He had worked fast for his unholy mission, for it was now only 25 days since he had first gathered his tribe and proclaimed his prophethood.
1. Called Bazam by some historians.
2. Balazuri: p. 113.
Most of the Yemen was now his. And in order to get the maximum pleasure from his military and political success, Aswad forcibly married the lovely Azad. The poor widow had no choice but to submit to the drunken embraces of the loathsome Donkey-Walah.
Having occupied Najran and San'a, Aswad consolidated his gains and extended his sway over all Yemen, many tribes of which acknowledged him as ruler and prophet. As his authority grew, he began to feel discontented with the title of prophet and proclaimed himself Rahman of Yemen. 1 The word 'Rahman' means the Merciful One, and is one of the titles by which Muslims know Allah. Thus Aswad attempted to enter the divine province to which no man has laid claim without suffering disastrous consequences. Anyway, to his followers he became known as the Rahman of Yemen. His drunken orgies continued, as did his enjoyment of the ill-starred Azad, whose loathing for him grew so intense that she confided to a friend: "To me no man is more hateful than he." 2 In his viciousness Aswad also turned against the family of the Persian Bazan and heaped every manner of indignity and insult upon the surviving members. By doing so he earned the bitter hostility of a stalwart and true Muslim by the name of Fairoz Al Deilami-a member of this Persian family and a cousin of Azad.
Unknown to the false prophet, the real Prophet at Madinah had already initiated measures to deal with him. Having received full reports of Aswad's mischief, the Holy Prophet sent Qais bin Hubaira to organise the liquidation of Aswad. Qais got to Sana' undetected, laid the foundations of an underground movement against the impostor and made contact with the Persian Fairoz. Qais and Fairoz became the brains of the organisation that was to draw the sword of vengeance against Aswad and his apostates. In secret they laid their plans.
The killing of Aswad was not going to be an easy matter. The Black One was a huge, powerfully-built man, known for his strength and ferocity, and he already suspected Fairoz of disloyalty. Moreover, he lived in a palace that was surrounded by a high wall and guarded by a large number of warriors who were chosen for their loyalty and their faith in Aswad. They paced the wall and treaded the corridors of the palace. The only possible entrance was over a certain part of the wall adjacent to the chamber of Azad. The wall would have to be scaled.
Fairoz got in touch with Azad, explained his purpose and sought her help, which she readily promised, seeing this as the only way out of the wretched life that she led.
The fateful night of May 30, 632 (the 6th of Rabi-ul-Awwal, 11 Hijri) was chosen as the night. Just after midnight, when the moon had set, and at a moment when no guards were near, Fairoz scaled the wall of the palace with the aid of a rope and slipped into the chamber of Azad. She hid him in the room and the two cousins, fired by the same mission, waited.
Shortly before dawn Azad stole out of her room and walked to Aswad's chamber, which was next to hers. She knew that there was a sentry on duty nearby, though not in sight. She opened the door, looked in, and then returned to Fairoz. The fire of vengeance burnt in her eyes as she whispered, "Now! He is lying drunk!"
Fairoz, followed by Azad, tiptoed out of her chamber and to the door of Aswad's room. The woman stationed herself at the door while Fairoz entered with drawn sword. Suddenly Aswad sat up in bed and stared in horror at Fairoz, whose appearance left no doubt as to his purpose. In the face of this danger the drunkenness of the Black one vanished; but before he could get off the bed, Fairoz sprang forward and struck him on the head with his sword. Aswad fell back on his pillow. According to the chroniclers, "He began to bellow like a bull" 3
His cries attracted the attention of the sentry who rushed to Aswad's chamber. He saw Azad standing by the door and asked, "What is the matter with the Rahman of Yemen?" The plucky girl raised her finger to her lips. "Shush!" she whispered. "He is receiving a revelation from Allah!" 4 The sentry nodded knowingly, and disregarding the shouts of his master, walked away.
1. Balazuri: pp. 113 - 125.
2. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 467.
3. Balazuri: p. 114.
Azad waited until the sentry had turned the corner of the corridor, then rushed into the room. She saw Fairoz standing beside the bed, waiting for a chance to strike again, while the impostor writhed in his bed, waving his arms about. The two now worked together. The woman hastened to the head of the bed, caught the hair of Aswad in both her hands and held his head down. Fairoz drew his dagger and with a few deft strokes severed the black head from the enormous body. Thus ended the career of the false prophet, Abhala bin Kab, alias the Black one, alias the Donkey-Walah, alias the Drunk. His mischief lasted three months and ended with his death, six days before Prophet Muhammad passed away.
With Aswad's death his movement collapsed. The Muslim resistance organised by Qais in San'a turned in violent vengeance against the followers of Aswad, many of whom were killed. But many escaped to create trouble for Muslim rulers at a later stage. Many became Muslims again, and of these some again apostatised. Fairoz was appointed governor of San'a.
The messenger who carried the good news to Madinah arrived there shortly after the death of the Holy Prophet. The report of the destruction of the mischief of Aswad Al Ansi brought some solace to the heart-broken Muslims.
Madinah was now going through a crisis which was at once emotional, spiritual and political. The loss of the beloved Muhammad had left the Muslims devastated. For the past 10 years the Prophet had been everything to them-commander, ruler, judge, teacher, guide, friend. There was no aspect of life in which he had not participated. They had taken all their problems to him, and he had settled, decided, directed, comforted. In the warm light of his presence they had felt safe from trouble and misfortune. Now that light had gone out. The Muslims felt alone and frightened-in the words of the chroniclers: "like sheep on a cold, rainy night." 1
The crisis deepened as reports of the revolt spreading over Arabia began to arrive. All the tribes of Arabia, with the exception of those in Makkah and Madinah and the Thaqeef in Taif, revolted against the political and religious authority of Madinah and broke their oaths of allegiance. False prophets arose in the land and claimed a share in Muhammad's prophethood. These impostors, having seen the affection and reverence in which the Holy Prophet was held, and unmindful of the trials and sufferings which he had experienced before his efforts bore fruit, decided that prophethood was a good thing and that they too should get the benefit of it. Apart from Aswad, there were two impostors (possibly three) and one impostress. There were others-chieftains and elders, who did not claim prophethood, but united with the false prophets in their perfidious designs to extinguish the flame of Islam and return to the tribal independence of the Ignorance. The flames of the apostasy raced like wild fire across all Arabia, threatening to engulf Makkah and Madinah-the spiritual and political centres of the infant state of Islam.
The chief cause of the apostasy was lack of true faith. Most of the tribes, converted in the ninth and tenth years of the Hijra, had taken to Islam for political reasons. They had found it expedient. They saw Muhammad as a powerful political boss rather than a prophet with a new message. The true Muslims were the Muslims of Makkah and Madinah, especially the latter who had been in contact with the Holy Prophet for many years and had drunk deep at the fountain of truth which the Prophet had revealed. The outlying tribes had not enjoyed this spiritual experience. In many cases, when a chief became a Muslim the tribe followed his example out of tribal loyalty rather than religious conviction. With the death of the Prophet the tribes felt free to renounce their allegiance, which, as they saw it, had been made to a person and not to Madinah or to Islam. Muhammad was dead; and now they could throw off the yoke of discipline which the new faith had imposed in limiting the number of wives a man could marry, in collecting taxes for the benefit of the community, in enforcing prayers and fasting. The strong leaders who led the revolt preferred to be free to exploit the weak to their own advantage, unhampered by the restrictions which Islam placed upon them.
The fears of the Muslims deepened when Abu Bakr became caliph-the first caliph in Islam. Abu Bakr had never been known for any great quality of leadership, let alone the ability to steer the ship of state through the storm that gathered on every side and threatened the very existence of Islam. What was needed at this critical juncture was a strong, robust and capable leader. And what was the image of Abu Bakr? A small, slender, pale man, he had deep-set eyes under thin, delicate eyebrows. By now he had a pronounced stoop which heightened the impression of age and senility, in spite of the fact that he dyed his beard. A mild, gentle and tender-hearted individual, he was easily moved to tears.
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 461.
As the Muslims gathered to take the oath of allegiance, Abu Bakr made the first speech of his caliphate-a speech that further emphasised his modesty and humility and gave no promise of strength. He said:
"Praise be to Allah! I am now in authority over you, but I am not the best among you. If I act virtuously, help me. If I act wrongfully, correct me. Truth is honesty, falsehood is treachery.
The weak among you is strong in my sight, until I give him what is due to him, if Allah wills it. And the strong among you is weak in my sight, until I take what is due from him, if Allah wills it.
Let none among you abjure the holy war in the way of Allah, for no people do so but Allah strikes them with disgrace. And among no people does vice become general but Allah inflicts upon them terrible punishment.
Obey me while I obey Allah and His Messenger; and if I disobey Allah and His Messenger, you are not obliged to follow me.
Forget not your prayers. May Allah have mercy upon you!" 1
Abu Bakr's virtues and outstanding services to Islam were well known. His personal courage, his devotion to the Prophet, who had given him the title of the Truthful One, his high moral principles and his faith as one of the staunchest of believers were unquestioned. As the third male to embrace Islam his position among the Blessed Ten was high indeed. 2 But did such virtues make for leadership in troubled times? And then there was the departure of the Army of Usama, which further imperilled Madinah and increased the alarm of the Muslims.
About the middle of May 632, the Holy Prophet, now ailing, had ordered a large expedition to be prepared for the invasion of Jordan. Every body was to join it. As commander of the expedition, he appointed Usama-a young man of twenty-two. Usama was the son of Zaid bin Harithah, the Prophet's freedman, who had been the first of the Muslim commanders to fall at the Battle of Mutah. Although Usama was common-born and enjoyed no family standing among the Quraish, the Prophet put him in command over all the older and more distinguished warriors from the best clans. The warriors gathered at a campsite just west of Uhud, and the force thus concentrated became known as the Army of Usama. This was the last expedition ordered by the Prophet; and it could mean war with the Romans.
Usama was given the Jordanian area of Mutah as his geographical objective. "Go to the place where your father was killed", ordered the Holy Prophet. "Raid those territories. Go fast; take guides with you and send your scouts and agents ahead of you." 3 Shortly before his death the Prophet remarked, "Remember to despatch the Army of Usama!" 4 The army was still in camp when, on Monday, June 5, 632, (the 12th of Rabi-ul-Awwal, 11 Hijri) the Holy Prophet passed away. On the same day Abu Bakr, son of Abu Quhafa, became caliph.
The following day Caliph Abu Bakr issued instructions for the Army of Usama to prepare for the march. All the distinguished Companions who were available for war were sent to join the Army in its camp and serve under the command of the youthful Usama. Even Umar, one of Abu Bakr's closest friends, was sent to the camp.
For the next few days the preparations continued even as reports of the rapid spread of the apostasy arrived. Then a group of prominent Muslims came to the Caliph. "Will you send away the Army of Usama when most Arabs have revolted, and disruption raises its head everywhere?" they protested. "The Muslims are few. The unbelievers are many. The army must not be sent away!"
Abu Bakr was adamant. "Even if wild dogs rove around the feet of the wives of the Messenger of Allah (SAWS)," he replied, "I would still despatch the Army of Usama as ordered by the Prophet." 5
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 450.
2. The first was Ali, the second Zaid bin Harithah.
3. Ibn Sad: p. 707.
4. Ibid: p. 709.
5. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 461.
A few more days passed. Reports from the countryside became more alarming. Then one day Usama, who feared for Madinah and for Islam no less than the others, spoke to Umar. "Go to the Caliph", he said. "Ask him to permit the army to remain at Madinah. All the leaders of the community are with me. If we go, none will be left to prevent the infidels from tearing Madinah to pieces."
Umar agreed to speak to the Caliph. As he was leaving the camp, he was met by a group of leaders who made the same suggestion and added: "If he does not agree to our remaining in Madinah and we have to go, ask him at least to place an older man than Usama in command of the army." 1 Umar agreed to put this across also.
In Madinah Abu Bakr sat on the floor of his house, getting used to the tremendous burden which the assumption of the caliphate in these stormy days had placed upon his shoulders. The strain would have shattered his nerves but for his limitless faith. Umar entered. Umar was calm and confident, for he was used to speaking to Abu Bakr as a strong, vigorous man would address a mild and submissive, albeit beloved comrade.
Abu Bakr waited until Umar had delivered the message and also expressed his own opinion regarding the proposed change of command. Then he leapt to his feet and shouted at Umar, "O Son of Al Khattab! It was the Messenger of Allah who appointed Usama as the commander. And you want me to remove him from command." 2
Umar hastily backed out of Abu Bakr's house. He returned to the camp where the elders waited to see what news he would bring. Umar abused them roundly! 3
On June 24, 632 (the 1st of Rabi-ul-Akhir, 11 Hijri), the Army of Usama broke camp and moved out. Abu Bakr walked some distance beside the mounted Usama and refused to let the young commander dismount from his horse. "Every step that a Muslim warrior takes in the way of Allah", he explained to Usama, "earns him the merit of 700 good deeds and the forgiveness of 700 sins." 4
Abu Bakr asked if he could retain Umar with him as adviser, to which Usama readily agreed. Then he gave his parting instructions to the Army Commander: "Carry out your task. Start the operation with raids against the Quza'a. Let nothing deter you from accomplishing the mission given you by the Messenger of Allah." 5 And the Army of Usama marched away.
The despatch of the Army of Usama was a mistake in the circumstances which had arisen since the Prophet's death.6 Some Muslim writers have stated that it was a wise move on the part of Abu Bakr, as it gave a show of strength to the rebels and thus deterred them from greater violence. Actually, this was not the case. Although Usama carried out his mission with efficiency and speed, his operation had no bearing whatever on the major actions of the apostasy which were fought in North-Central Arabia. The despatch of the Army of Usama was an act of faith displaying complete submission to the will of the departed Prophet, but as a manoeuvre of military and political strategy, it was anything but sound. This is also proven by the fact that all the Muslim leaders were opposed to the move-leaders who produced, in this and the following decades, some of the finest generals of history.
Abu Bakr was moved to this decision by nothing other than his desire to carry out the last military wish of the Prophet. It was not lack of strategical judgement which led him to send of the Army of Usama, for Abu Bakr had ample military ability, as he was to prove soon after in his direction and conduct of the war against the apostates and the invasions of Iraq and Syria.
The Army of Usama was gone. Reports of ever-spreading revolt and of the concentration of hostile tribes became more serious day by day. The apprehensions of the Muslims increased. In contrast, the apostates rejoiced at the news of Abu Bakr's assumption of the caliphate and the departure of the army. With Abu Bakr at the helm of Muslim affairs, they thought, their objective of crushing the new Muslim State would be more easily achieved. The rebels were relieved that they did not have to deal with the fiery Umar or the peerless Ali. They would only have to deal with a nice old man!
But the Muslims were in for some pleasant surprises and the apostates for some rude shocks at the hands of 'the nice old, man'-such shocks that one rebel chieftain, fleeing from the columns of Abu Bakr, would cry in terror: "Woe to the Arabs from the son of Abu Quhafa!" 7
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 462.
2. Ibid: Vol. 2, P. 462.
5. Ibid: Vol. 2, p. 463.
6. Only a purely material perspective could regard this as a mistake, and even then this statement is difficult to defend categorically. It could easily be argued that the astonishing victories against the apostates, Persians and Romans during Abu Bakr's short caliphate were partly from the blessing of this decision to continue a matter begun by the Prophet (SAWS), one of the first major decisions made by Abu Bakr as caliph.
7. Balazuri: p. 104.