SUMMARY: Numerous tribes in the Arab Peninsula had united to form kingdoms at the time of Muhammad, but the tribes of the Hejaz (the area including Mecca and Medina) were never able to follow their example. Muhammad’s grandfather Abu Mutallib envisioned his descendants forming a kingdom similar to those of the surrounding kingdoms. Muhammad himself had political and economic ambitions that included conquering the Sassanid (Persian) and Byzantine (Roman) Empires.
COMMENT: The concept of Muhammad having political and economic ambitions runs counter to the common Muslim understanding that he was a peace-loving man called by Allah to be a religious prophet. As could be expected, there are numerous websites that seek to vigorously refute all that (Abuna) Zakaria Boutros says about Muhammad on his Al-Hayat TV programs. Zakaria often repeats that he only wants people to critically examine the available evidence and think for themselves.
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AHMAD: We have talked about the tribal and domestic political influences that influenced the personality of Muhammad. What were the other influences?
ABUNA: By domestic political influences, I meant the Arab Peninsula, but we only talked about the situation in Mecca. The most important thing occupying the minds of the thinkers in Mecca was how to establish a united country with Mecca as its capital. In his book “Mecca and Medina”, Dr. Ahmad al-Sharif writes that the Arabs of Mecca felt that the absence of a kingdom uniting them was a source of abasement and shame. This was particularly true because they were surrounded by numerous Arab kingdoms.
AHMAD: What were some of them?
ABUNA: There were at least eight Arab kingdoms. First of all, there was the kingdom of Hirah in the northern part of the Peninsula on the border of the Persian Empire that includes today’s Iraq, with its famous king Numan. In the north-western part, bordering the Byzantine Empire that is today’s Syria, was the Ghassanid Kingdom led by king Harith. There was the Sabean kingdom (also known as the Kingdom of Sheba) near Najran south-west of Mecca, the Qatban kingdom in a southern pocket of the Peninsula, the kingdom of Hadramout east of Qatban, and other kingdoms in Yemen including the Humayr, the Maen and the Kindah. One of the Kindah kings, Imru al-Qais, is famous for his pre-Islamic poetry. There was a sense of Arab nationalism that encouraged the establishment of these kingdoms.
AHMAD: How did these kingdoms influence the personality of Muhammad?
ABUNA: We have already seen that Muhammad’s ancestors including Qusay, Hashim, and his grandfather Abu Mutallib were occupied by this idea. They were surrounded by kings; why could they not establish a kingdom? In his book “Islamiyat”, Dr. Qimni writes that Abu Mutallib once pointed at his children and grandchildren and said Allah would raise children such as these if he wanted to establish a kingdom in Mecca. Dr. Qimni also pointed out that the area of the Hejaz with its two major cities of Mecca and Yathrib (Medina) was geographically far removed from the realm of international conflicts and independent of subjugation to any foreign influence. In spite of that, however, it did not have kings in the true sense nor a sense of political unity that united all the tribes. One man, Aswad Ibn Abdel al-Uzzah said, “We need to establish a state with a leader like the Prophet David.” The political environment in which Muhammad lived was occupied with the idea of establishing a kingdom.
AHMAD: Why were the people of the Hejaz unable to form a kingdom?
ABUNA: They were a tribal society, unable to decide which tribe would be the ruler. Dr. Qimni writes that they would not allow one person to rule over them, because that would mean the ruler’s tribe was superior to the other tribes and his family was above their families. Even king Numan, who inherited the throne of the Hirah Kingdom from his father, informed the Persian king Khosrau that the infighting of the Arabs made it impossible for one person to be their king, even though many had tried. For that reason some believed the only solution was that of the Jewish tradition where one person, such as King David, fulfilled the dual role of prophet and king.
AHMAD: Perhaps Muhammad announced himself as a prophet in order to achieve the dream of his grandfather Abu Mutallib of establishing a kingdom in the Hejaz. But what was the connection between the people of Mecca and the surrounding Arab kingdoms?
ABUNA: In his book “The Ancient Arabs”, Lutfi Abdul Wahab writes that even though the Kindah kingdom in Yemen did not last very long, the fact that it even existed at all gave birth to a longing among the Arab tribes of the Hejaz to form a similar union. It paved the way for the uniting of the region under Islam.
AHMAD: So it was not merely a dream of uniting the tribes of Mecca, but of establishing a kingdom in the entire Hejaz.
ABUNA: Yes, but much more than that. This will become evident as we examine the influence of the external or international political situation on Muhammad. His dream was not only to unite the Hejaz with Mecca as its capital, but to unite the other Arab kingdoms and overtake the Persian Sassanid and Roman Byzantine Empires which had been making inroads into conquering some of the Arab kingdoms.
AHMAD: Was Muhammad really thinking about conquering the Byzantine and Persian Empires?
ABUNA: Yes. Dr. Qimni writes in “Islamiyat” that when Muhammad first called the slaves of Mecca to Islam, he promised them that if they followed him he would give them the treasures of Khosrau and Caesar, meaning the rulers of those empires. Dr. Qimni adds that when the Quraysh understood what Muhammad meant, they concluded he was merely another self-proclaimed prophet with political ambitions. He was attacking their commercial interests by calling their slaves to follow him, and then planned to rule the Hejaz in preparation for defeating the Persian and Byzantine Empires. This was particularly true of Muhammad’s distant relatives, the Meccan Quraysh clans of Abdel Dar, Abdel Shams, and Naufal, as they realized Muhammad’s clan of the Beni Hashim would be above them.
AHMAD: You have been quoting from Dr. Sayyid Qimni, but some Muslims might say he was only a historian subject to error. Are their authoritative hadith from the life of Muhammad that speak of conquering those empires?
ABUNA: Yes indeed. But I want to say that modern researchers and historians rely upon the authoritative texts. They do not create new information. However if we want to go back to the source documents, we have the following hadith that indicate Muhammad’s ambitions toward these kingdoms.
Sahih Bukhari says in hadith volume 8, book 78, number 626: Narrated Abu Huraira, Allah's Apostle said, "If Khosrau is ruined, there will be no Khosrau after him; and if Caesar is ruined, there will be no Caesar after him. By Him in Whose Hand Muhammad's soul is, surely you will spend their treasures in Allah's cause.
Also Sahih al-Bukhari hadith volume 4, book 52, number 175: Narrated Khalid bin Madan, The Prophet then said, “The first army amongst my followers who will invade Caesar’s city will be forgiven their sins.”
Also Sahih al-Bukhari hadith volume 9, book 91, number 369: Narrated Abdullah bin Abbas: Allah's Apostle sent a letter to Khosrau and told his messenger to give it first to the ruler of Bahrain, and tell him to deliver it to Khosrau. When Khosrau had read it, he tore it into pieces. (Az-Zuhri said: I think Ibn Al-Musaiyab said, "Allah's Apostle invoked Allah to tear them (Khosrau and his followers) into pieces."
And Sahih al-Bukhari hadith volume 4, book 56, number 793: Narrated Adi bin Hatim: The Prophet said, “If you should live long, the treasures of Khosrau will be opened and taken as spoils.”
AHMAD: What caused Muhammad to think in this way?
ABUNA: It was the victory of the Christian Arabs over the Persians in the battle of Dhi Qar about 609 that caused Muhammad to think about overcoming the Persians.
AHMAD: What happened in that battle?
ABUNA: Dhi Qar (which is located in Iraq and the modern name of one of Iraq’s provinces) belonged to the Persians. The Persian king Khosrau had an Arab administrator working in the royal court whose father had been killed by Numan king of Hirah. The administrator created a ruse to gain revenge on his father. Knowing that Khosrau loved beautiful women, the administrator informed him that Numan had beautiful daughters. Khosrau sent the administrator to ask for one of them, but Numan refused. Khosrau then summoned Numan to appear before him. Realizing he was in a precarious position, Numan hid his family armor including 400 shields with one of the local tribes. Khosrau imprisoned and killed Numan, and then sent his forces to recover the armor. Numan’s friend Hani bin Masud refused to turn it over and enticed the Persian forces to a location of Dhi Qar where it was extremely hot and there was no water. The Persian commander challenged the Arab commander to an individual dual and the Arab won. The Persian commander was killed and his forces routed. When news of this reached Muhammad, he said, “This is the first time the Arabs defeated the non-Arabs.”
AHMAD: So the Arab victory at Dhi Qar caused Muhammad to begin thinking about defeating the Persians and the Byzantines?
ABUNA: Yes. And it is clear that his motive in this was not religious, but economic and political. Another important event took place about the same time in Yemen. The Ethiopians had conquered parts of Yemen for seventy-two years, but a Yemeni Arab leader forced them out. These two events raised sentiments of Arab nationalism, and caused Muhammad to think about achieving the dream of a kingdom long held by his grandfather Abu Mutallib.