SUMMARY: It is common knowledge that Muhammad was orphaned at an early age, but it is less known that his ancestors ruled Mecca for five generations. Father (Abuna) Zakariya Boutrous examines in this segment the influences of Muhammad’s family and tribal background on his personality.
COMMENTS: The merger of religious and secular power in Mecca did not originate with Muhammad, but with his ancestors Qusay and Hashim. Religion was seen not as a personal goal, but as a means to power. The concept of revelation was not unique to Muhammad, but was seen in the dream of Hashim in which Allah told him to dig the well of Zamzam. Truth can exist in Islam apart from historical fact. Muslims believe Abraham’s son Ishmael lived in Mecca and drank from the well of Zamzam, although older historical records indicate he lived in what is now Gaza and never even visited the Arabian Peninsula. Many of Muhammad’s concepts of leadership were taught him at a young age by his grandfather Abd al-Mutallib who dreamed of uniting Arabia under a single ruler.
ABUNA: The first thing I want to say is that Muhammad was an important historical figure who is worthy of study. This will involve examining the factors that affected his personality, the people who influenced him, his ambitions and goals, and his plans to carry them out. We’ll look in detail at his personal situation and his tribal background, as well as the political, economic, and religious milieu of his day.
AHMAD: Let’s start with his personal situation.
ABUNA: We all know what we learned in school. The Quran says in 93:6-8, “Did he not find you an orphan and gave you a refuge? He found you unaware and guided you, and found you poor and made you rich.” Ibn Kathir explains that Muhammad’s father died before he was born, his mother died when he was 6 years old, and he was next cared for by his grandfather who died two years later. He then entered the household of his uncle Abu Talib, who later protected him against the Quraysh even though he never accepted Islam.
AHMAD: What does the Quran mean when it says, “He found you poor and made you rich?”
ABUNA: Imam Qurtubi explains it by saying, “He found you without a family and gave you Khadija, because Khadija was a wealthy woman. But my question is, how could Muhammad have been poor if he came from the wealthiest tribe of Mecca?
AHMAD: What do you mean? We all know he was an orphan.
ABUNA: This leads to today's study, which is his tribal affiliation. The history books tell us that the previous five generations of Muhammad’s family were his father Abdallah, his grandfather Abd al-Mutallib, his great-grandfather Hashim, and before that Abd al-Manaf and Qusay al-Qurayshi. Let’s begin with Qusay.
AHMAD: Is this going to be a history lesson?
ABUNA: Not exactly, but there are lessons to be learned in history and there’s an important point in what I’m going to say. History is the root, and the present is the fruit. If we want to understand what is happening now, we need to look at the history.
AHMAD: All right, let’s begin with Qusay.
ABUNA: Our references are the biographies of the Prophet by Ibn Hisham and al-Halabi, as well as the Islamic Encyclopedia of Knowledge. Qusay’s original name was Zayd. His father died and his mother remarried a man who took them to Syria to live. His name became Qusay, which means “someone who lived far away”. He returned as an adult to Mecca with his new name.
AHMAD: But we all know that he became the ruler of Mecca and the Kaaba. How did that happen if he grew up in Syria?
ABUNA: At the time the al-Khuzai tribe controlled Mecca, and its chief was Khalil al-Khuzai. Qusay married Khalil’s daughter, and when Khalil died Qusay became the new leader.
AHMAD: So Muhammad’s ancestor five generations back was the ruler of Mecca. What did he do?
ABUNA: The first thing he did was unite the tribes. It is possible the name of the Quraysh tribe came from that, because one of the meanings of the verb “qarasha” is to unite. He purchased the keys of the Kaaba, reestablished religious worship in it, and revitalized the religion of Abraham. This is important to note; in order to become the leader, he took interest in the religious side. He wanted to control the Kaaba, and wanted to control religious worship in it so that his leadership was sanctioned by the divinity. Another important note is that he revitalized the religion of Abraham. There were Christians in the region, as well as idolaters. But he chose the religion of Abraham, who was considered a “haneef” or a worshiper of the one true God He established taxes, as well as civil and religious rule. A most important thing that he did is noted by Sayyid al-Qamni, in his book “Islamiyat”. Sayyid writes, “His gaining control of Mecca was in accordance with a carefully laid out plan of political awareness towards a specific goal. This plan was carried out by means of religion.”
There is a big difference between religion being a goal, and religion being used as a means to achieve power. Since the time of Qusay, religion has been used to acquire power. Sayyid continues, “Thus Qusay was able to gather all the legal, civilian, and religious authorities under his control. He was the first complete ruler of Mecca.”
AHMAD: What happened after Qusay’s death?
ABUNA: His descendants remained in power, but there was conflict between the families of his sons Abd al-Dar and Abd al-Manaf that resulted in war between the two. Abd al-Manaf’s side was called the Party of the Perfumed ones because they would bring a bowl of perfume to the Kaaba and dip their hands in it before rubbing them against the walls of the Kaaba to show their solidarity. The other side did the same, but with a bowl of blood. The two families eventually reached an agreement in which they shared power, but with the passing of time the family of Abd al-Manaf regained power of the entire city. Ibn Kathir writes in the “The Beginning and the End” that power was eventually consolidated in the hands of Abd al-Manaf’s son Hashim.
AHMAD: The father of Abd al-Mutallib, Muhammad’s grandfather. What can you tell us about him?
ABUNA: Hashim’s name originally was Amre, but during some lean years he adopted the practice of breaking up bread and mixing it in broth to feed the pilgrims who came to the Kaaba. The verb “hashama” means “to break up”, and so he was named Hashim. He was a good businessman and instituted the custom of sending out two trade caravans per year. One would go to Syria in the summertime, and the second to Yemen in the winter. He transferred Mecca from merely a transit town that collected taxes from caravans passing through and fees from pilgrims visiting the Kaaba, to a major commercial center. The Encyclopedia of Islamic Knowledge says it was known as a “commercial republic”.
AHMAD: Hashim seems to be an unusual person. Can you tell us more about him?
ABUNA: Yes, because he was the great grandfather of Muhammad, and to understand Muhammad we must know where he came from. Hashim was an intelligent man, a great businessman and equal to the kings with whom he met. He established a trade agreement with Rome so that the caravans could travel safely to Syria. He strengthened his clan, the Beni Hashim, and married one of the leading women of Medina in order to strengthen his relationship with the rulers there. When his son Abd al-Mutallib was born, Hashim left him in Medina with his wife so that he could learn horsemanship from his mother’s relatives and religion from the Jewish community living there. Abd al-Mutallib’s name was originally Shayba, and when he grew up his uncle al-Mutallib went to Medina to bring him to Mecca. As they approached Mecca and the people saw Shayba for the first time, they assumed al-Mutallib was bringing a new slave he had purchased. They called him Abd al-Mutallib (“abd” means slave and Abd al-Mutallib means “the slave of Mutallib”), and the name stayed with him.
AHMAD: Did Abd al-Mutallib become the ruler of Mecca after Hashim?
ABUNA: Not immediately. After Hashim died during a trade expedition to Gaza, al-Mutallib ruled for a short while. He soon died, and Abd al-Mutallib became the next ruler of Mecca. He shared his father’s intelligence and political and business acumen. He became greater than any of his ancestors, and was well-loved by his people.
AHMAD: What did he do to become so great?
ABUNA: He benefitted from the expertise of his ancestors Qusay and Hashim and, like Qusay, revitalized the religion of Abraham and removed idols from the Kaaba. Another very important thing he did was dig the well of Zamzam, which he said was the well where God miraculously provided water to Hagar and Ishmael. He said the revelation to dig the well came to him while he was sleeping in the Kaaba. Note the similarity of the fact that he said the idea to build the well was a revelation from God to the later revelations claimed by Muhammad.
AHMAD: Was this really the well that Ishmael drank from?
ABUNA: There is no record of that in any Islamic source except that Abd al-Mutallib said it was revealed to him in a dream.
AHMAD: Was there really a well at all?
ABUNA: The Bible records the original story of Ishmael and the well, but says it took place in Beersheba, which is in southern Gaza. It was not anywhere near Mecca. The original records also say that Ishmael lived in Gaza, and there is no historical evidence he ever went to Mecca.
AHMAD: What did Abd al-Mutallib do other than dig the well of Zamzam?
ABUNA: In his creativity, he invented some things which have become part and parcel of Arabic and Islamic heritage. He claimed that the Arabs in general and the Quraysh in particular were direct descendants of Ishmael. He followed the religion and example of Abraham to the extent he wanted to sacrifice one of his sons as Abraham was ordered to do. He vowed that if he had ten sons, he would sacrifice one of them to God. When his tenth son was born, Abdallah the father of Muhammad, he prepared to carry out the vow but the Quraysh stopped him and sacrificed camels instead. The businessman Abd al-Mutallib linked his activities of the religion of Abraham and taught a complete package of religious and secular leadership to his grandson Muhammad. Abu al-Mutallib would also retreat during Ramadan to the cave of Hara. He announced that he would not drink alcohol and proclaimed certain moral values and warned about the final Day of Judgment, just as Muhammad did later.
AHMAD: Are there other things Abd al-Mutallib did that can give us a more complete picture of him?
ABUNA: Abd al-Mutallib’s ambitions were larger than merely ruling Mecca. He wanted to unite the entire Arab peninsula. In “Towards Wider Horizons”, Abkar al-Saqqaf writes that Abd al-Mutallib said, “If Allah wanted to establish a state, he would have created people such as these,” and pointed to his sons and grandchildren.
Abd al-Mutallib raised Muhammad with this perspective. Al-Bayhaqi says in his book “The Evidences of Prophethood” that Abd al-Mutallib put a carpet in the Kaaba on which none of his children or grandchildren were allowed to sit except the young Muhammad, and Abd al-Mutallib would say that Muhammad was going to be great. He prepared the way for Muhammad to rule through the medium of religion.
AHMAD: How old was Muhammad when Abd al-Mutallib died?
ABUNA: He was only eight years old, and was next raised by his uncle Abu Talib. Abu Talib was not the leader his ancestors had been, and the Quraysh tribe quickly weakened with conflicts breaking out between ancient rivals.
AHMAD: What happened to the Quraysh tribe in this period of weakness?
ABUNA: Abu Talib saw in Muhammad the hope of the Quraysh, and stood by Muhammad the rest of his life even though he never accepted Islam. Abu Talib was interested in the political and economic aspects of power, not the religious side. His only interest was in bringing rule and wealth back to the Quraysh. For this reason he had no interest in accepting Islam. His poetry still remains in the history books, and it was all about bringing back the power and the wealth and the glory of Quraysh rule.
AHMAD: This brings us to the end of the segment on the influences on Muhammad’s life from his family and tribal background.