‘The one who spoke, was Ja’far ibn Abi Ṭālib…’
The companions of the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him), the Ṣaḥābah, hold a truly special place in the history of Islam. Whether one considers the most famous of them or even those that are perhaps less well known, their steadfastness, sacrifice, commitment and devotion is truly unparalleled. It should be of no surprise that they are credited with having the accolade ‘may Allah be pleased with him/her’ after the very mention of their name.
Explicit praise is given to the Ṣaḥābah in the text of the Qur’ān itself, where Allah says:
والسابقون الأولون من المهاجرين والأنصار والذين اتبعوهم بإحسان رضي الله عنهم ورضوا عنه وأعد لهم جنات تجري تحتها الأنهار خالدين فيها أبدا ذلك الفوز العظيم
And (as for) the foremost, the first of the Muhājireen and the Anṣār, and those who followed them in goodness, Allah is well pleased with them and they are well pleased with Him, and He has prepared for them gardens beneath which rivers flow, to abide in them forever; that is the mighty achievement [9: 100]
One such example, is that of Ja’far ibn Abi Ṭālib (may Allah be pleased with him), the elder brother of Ali ibn Abi Ṭālib (may Allah be pleased with him). In the Musnad of Imām Aḥmad bin Ḥanbal in the Musnad of the Ahl-ul-Bayt, there is the solitary narration about Ja’far ibn Abi Ṭālib (may Allah be pleased with him) concerning events after the migration to Abyssinia (Ethiopia). The narration is reported on the authority of the mother of the believers, the wife of the Prophet (peace be upon him), Umm Salamah (1).
The Political Context
Prior to the famous migration (hijrah) from Mecca to Medina, a sizeable portion of the early Muslims had migrated to Abyssinia to escape persecution. The pagan Quraysh had some links with Abyssinia. It was a land that they knew of and had good trading relations. However, with the growth of Islam in Mecca, the ‘liberal’ image that the Quraysh portrayed for themselves was becoming increasingly tarnished regionally. The increasing level of attacks, torture and imprisonment on the group of new Muslims had not gone unnoticed. Muslims seeking sanctuary abroad only served to heighten that (2). To try and rectify the situation, the Quraysh sent two emissaries to Abyssinia; their mission was to persuade the authorities there to return the Muslims who had sought sanctuary. In modern parlance, to deport them. Umm Salamah (may Allah be pleased with her) explains:
When we came to the land of Abyssinia, we stayed there under the protection of the best of protectors, the Negus, and we felt safe to practise our religion and we worshipped Allah without being bothered or hearing anything we disliked. When news of that reached Quraysh, they decided to send two tough men to the Negus concerning us and to give the Negus gifts of some of the goods of Mecca. Among the goods of Mecca that he liked best was leather, so they collected a great deal of leather and they did not leave any of his bishops without giving him a gift. Then they sent that with Abdullah ibn Abi Rabee’ah bin al-Mughirah al-Makzhumi and ‘Amr bin al-‘Aāṣ ibn Wā’il as-Sahmi, and they told them what to do. They said to them: Give to each bishop a gift before you speak to the Negus concerning them [the Muslims], then give the Negus his gifts, then ask him to hand them over to you before he speaks to them (3).
Having curried flavour with the bishops of the court, the entourage of Negus, the emissaries of the Quraysh then set about seeking to undermine the position of the Muslims. They presented their case directly before the king:
Then they brought their gifts to the Negus and he accepted them from them, then they spoke to him and said: ‘O king, some foolish young men of ours have come to your land; they have left the religion of their people and they have not entered your religion; they have invented a religion that neither we nor you recognise. The nobles of their people, their fathers, uncles and clans, have sent us to you concerning them, to bring them back, for they know best bow to handle them and they know best about their faults.’
Umm Salamah (may Allah be pleased with her) then narrates that the Qurayshi emissaries – Abdullah bin Abi Rabee’ah and ‘Amr bin al-‘Aāṣ – did not want the Negus to give any audience to the Muslims and hear what they had to say in response. Having presented their gifts and won favour with the notables of the court, they aimed at convincing the ruler directly. Even the bishops of the court repeated what the Qurayshi emissaries said, seeking to cajole the ruler into agreeing to their demands. But the Negus did not agree and he became angered at this approach. He replied:
‘No, by God, I shall never hand them over to them; I shall never expel people who came seeking my protection and settled in my land, and chose me over all others, until 1 summon them and ask them about what these two are saying concerning them. Then if they are as these two say, I shall hand them over to them to return them to their people, but if they are not like that, I shall keep them away from them and I shall be kind to them so long as they are under my protection.’
A messenger was then sent to summon the Muslims for an audience with the Negus. Prior to their arrival, the messenger asked the Muslims: ‘What will you say to the man when you go to him?’ the reply that was given is truly insightful. They said: ‘By Allah, we shall say what our Prophet (peace be upon him) taught us and enjoined upon us, no matter what the consequences.’
The Muslims Enter the Court
Having been summoned to the court of the ruler of Abyssinia, the Negus, the stage was now set for an intense political showdown. On the one hand, were the powerful bishops and notables of Abyssinia, the emissaries of the Quraysh were present and the ruler himself. The Negus asked the Muslims: ‘What is this religion for which you left your people, and you did not enter my religion or the religion of any of these nations?’ The reply that was given amidst what must have been an intense pressured situation was none other than Ja’far ibn Abi Ṭālib (may Allah be pleased with him). And this is what he set out in his reply:
‘O king, we were an ignorant people, worshipping idols, eating dead meat, committing immoral actions, severing ties of kinship and mistreating neighbours; the strong among us would devour the weak. We were like that until Allah sent to us a Messenger from among us; we knew of his lineage, his sincerity, his trustworthiness and his dignity. He called us to Allah, to believe in Him alone and to worship Him, and to give up what we and our fathers used to worship of rocks and idols. And he commanded us to speak the truth, render back trusts, uphold ties of kinship, treat neighbours well, and refrain from crimes and bloodshed; he forbade us to commit immoral actions, speak falsehood, consume the wealth of orphans and slander chaste women. He instructed us to worship Allah alone and not associate anything with Him; he enjoined us to pray, give charity and fast – and he listed the commandments of Islam – and we believed in him and followed that which he brought.
So, we worshipped Allah alone and did not associate anything with Him. We regarded as forbidden that which he forbade to us and we regarded as permissible that which he permitted to us. But our people turned against us: they tortured us and tried to make us give up our religion and go back to worshipping idols instead of worshipping Allah, and so that we would regard as permissible that which we used to regard as permissible of evil things. But when they persecuted us and mistreated us, and tried to make us give up our religion, we came to your land and chose you over all others; we sought your protection and hoped that we would not be mistreated in your land, O king.’
Upon hearing this, the Negus asked Ja’far: ‘Do you have with you any of that which he brought from Allah?’ Ja’far replied in the affirmative and recited the opening of Surah Maryam (chapter 19, entitled Mary). Umm Salamah reports that the Negus wept when he heard this, as did the bishops. He then told the Muslims before the court: ‘This and what Moses brought came from the same lamp. Go away, for we will never hand them over to you or harm them.’
Raising the Stakes
With Qurayshi emissaries effectively humiliated and rebuffed, ‘Amr bin al-‘Aāṣ decided that he would raise the political stakes. He informed his colleague that he would tell the Negus that the Muslims say something incredulous about Esa ibn Maryam – Jesus, the son of Mary (peace be upon him and his mother). The Muslims would therefore, in his mind, be cornered in the court and depending upon the answers they would give, could lead to their expulsion, something that the Quraysh eagerly desired. Umm Salamah (may Allah be pleased with her) notes that nothing like this had happened before, and it was asked, ‘What will you say about Jesus when he asks about him.’ The reply that was given, typifies the commitment, devotion and steadfastness of the Ṣaḥābah (may Allah be pleased with them). It was said: ‘By Allah, we will say about him what Allah said about him and what our Prophet said about him, no matter what the consequences.’
Enter the Stage: Ja’far
So upon being summoned to the court of the Negus again, the Muslims were asked upon arrival: what is it that you say about Jesus the son of Mary? Again, it was Ja’far ibn Abi Ṭālib (may Allah be pleased with him) who stepped forth and spoke. Without flinching or wavering, Ja’far responded as requested. Here is the reported wording of what he set out, and significantly, the response that it received:
‘We say about him what our Prophet taught: he is the slave of Allah and His Messenger, a Spirit created by Him and His word that He bestowed upon Mary the Virgin.’ The Negus struck his hand on the ground and picked up a stick, then he said: ‘Jesus son of Mary is no different than what you said, not even as much as this stick.’ His bishops around him groaned when he said that, and he said: ‘Even if you groan, by God! Go, for you are safe in this land. Whoever annoys you will be punished, then whoever annoys you will be punished, then whoever annoyed you will be punished. I would not like to have a mountain of gold in return for harming one of you. Give their gifts back to them; we have no need of them. By God, God did not take from me a bribe when He restored my kingdom to me, so why should I take a bribe to go against Him (concerning them)? And He did not listen to the people concerning me, so why should I listen to them and go against Him?’ So they left him, defeated and with their gifts returned to them, and we stayed in his land under the best protection.
As a minority, stood in the presence of the political class; under immense pressure given the high political stakes, Ja’far ibn Abi Ṭālib (may Allah be pleased with him) stood firm. To speak the truth and not fear the blame of the blamers. Is it any wonder why he has the accolade ‘may Allah be pleased with him’, associated with his name? In his Sunan, Imām Tirmidhi records that speaking of Ja’far (may Allah be pleased with him), the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘You share similarity with me in appearance and in character.’(4)
Ja’far ibn Abi Ṭālib (may Allah be pleased with him) was martyred at the Battle of Mut’a (5) in the year 629 CE. The mother of the believers, ‘Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) reports that she saw the Prophet (peace be upon him) sit down and that he was grieving upon hearing the news of this.(6)
A Pause for Thought
In the contemporary age when Muslims stand before political authority as a minority and in adversity, does the example of Ja’far ibn Abi Ṭālib (may Allah be pleased with him) immediately spring to mind?
The stance, demeanour, steadfastness and eloquent words of Ja’far (may Allah be pleased with him) is in stark contrast to the mendacity that all too often plagues Muslims who appear before political authority today.
And yet, that is what ultimately separates the noble companions (may Allah be pleased with them) from the duplicitousness that characterises our age. Their pledge to the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) was what moved them to perform remarkable feats. History testifies to this. What will the judgement of history be upon us?
- The channel of transmission has its sourcing (takhrij) as being ḥasan, with the isnād: Ya’qub narrated to us my father narrated to us from Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq: Muḥammad ibn Muslim ibn ‘Ubaidallah ibn Shihāb narrated to me from Abu Bakr ibn Abdar-Raḥman ibn al-Ḥārtih ibn Hishām al-Makzhumi from Umm Salamah, the daughter of Abu Umayyah ibn al-Mughirah, the wife of the Prophet peace be upon him, she said.
- See: Tarikh Ṭabari [The History of Ṭabari], Vol. 6, p. 98 and Muḥammad ibn Sa’d, Ṭabaqāt.
- cit. Extracts from the narration of Umm Salamah (may Allah be pleased with her) are cited from herein.
- [Sunan Tirmidhi] Muḥammad ibn Ismā’il narrated to us ‘Ubaidallah ibn Musa narrated to us from Isrā’il from Abi Isḥāq from al-Barā’ ibn ‘Aāzib that the Prophet peace be upon him said. Abu Esa (Tirmidhi) said: ‘This ḥadithis ḥasan Ṣaḥīḥ.’
- Ibn Umar recounts the following, as recorded in ṢaḥīḥBukhāri: Aḥmad ibn Abi Bakr reported to us Mughira ibn Abdar-Raḥman narrated to us from Abdallah ibn Sa’eed from Nāfi’ from Abdullah ibn Umar, may Allah he pleased with him, he said: The Messenger of Allah peace be upon him appointed Zayd bin Ḥāritha as the commander of the army during the expedition of Mu’tah and said: ‘If Zayd is martyred, Ja`far should take over his position, and if Ja`far is martyred, `Abdullah bin Rawāḥa should take over his position.’ Abdullah ibn Umar further said: I was present amongst them in that battle and we searched for Ja’far ibn Abi Ṭālib and found his body amongst the bodies of the martyred ones, and found over ninety wounds over his body, caused by stabs or shots (of arrows).
- [SunanNasā’i] Yunus ibn Abdal-‘Ala reported to us he said Abdullah ibn Wahb narrated to us he said, Mu’āwiya ibn Ṣāliḥ said: and Yaḥya ibn Sa’eed narrated to us from ‘Amra from ‘Aishsa, she said.