Muhammad and Al-Nadr Bin Al-Harith
The first paragraphs in The Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition, Vol. VII, 1993, p. 872, are a good concise introduction:
AL-NADR B. AL-HARITH b. `Alkama b. Kalada b. `Abd Manaf b. `Abd al-Dar
b. Kusayy, a rich Kurayshite who, in the pre-Islamic period, carried on
trade with al-Hira and Persia, from where he is said to have brought back
books (?) and to have brought back also one or more singing slave girls
He represented `Abd al-Dar in the group of the mut`imun, i.e. the Meccans who were charged with supplying food for pilgrims, and he occupied a fairly eminent position in the town. He was a strenuous opponent of the Prophet, scoffing at him and not failing to speak up and evoke the glories of the kings of Persia when Muhammad recalled the miserable fate of past nations. In particular, he accused Muhammad of retailing tales of the ancients (asatir al-awwalin [q.v. in Suppl.]), and two Qur'anic verses containing precisely this expression (VIII, 31; LXXXIII, 13) are stated to have been specifically connected with him. The Qur'an is likewise said to have alluded to this personage, amongst other enemies of the Prophet in various passages, notably VI, 8-9, XLV, 6-7/7-8. He fought at Badr [q.v.] in the pagan ranks and was captured. Muhammad then killed him personally and `Ali cut off his head with a blow of his sword, but the fact is disputed since a hadith says that, who will suffer the cruelest punishment on Judgment Day are those who. have killed a prophet or whom a prophet has killed. The most accredited version is that `Ali b. Abi Talib executed him in cold blood after having secured him in bonds (sabran) in a place called al-Safra'; ...
However, we need to establish our conclusions on the basis of reading the early Muslim sources. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations and page numbers in the following will refer to "The Life of Muhammad", the translation by A. Guillaume of Ibn Hisham's edition of the "Sirat Rasul Allah" by Ibn Ishaq.
Al-Nadr bin al-Harith is first mentioned on page 133 as being among the leaders of the Quraysh holding council how to deal with Muhammad. They then are making him this offer:
If it was money he wanted, they would make him the richest of them all;
if it was honor, he should be their prince; if it was sovereignty, they
would make him king; if it was a spirit which had got possession of him
(they used to call the familiar spirit of the jinn ra'iy), then they would
exhaust their means in finding medicine to cure him. The apostle replied
that he had no such intention. He sought not money, nor honor, nor sovereignty,
but God had sent him as an apostle, and revealed a book to him, and commanded
him to become an announcer and a Warner. He had brought them the messages
of his Lord, and given them good advice. If they took it then they would
have a portion in this world and the next; if they rejected it, he could
only patiently await the issue until God decided between them, or words
to that effect. [Sirat, pp. 133-134]
This is a good answer showing Muhammad's integrity at the time. He does not sell short his message for fame or riches. Sadly, we will learn that Muhammad doesn't keep this attitude of leaving his defense to God in later times when he becomes powerful.
'Well, Muhammad,' they said, 'if you won't accept any of our propositions,
you know that no people are more short of land and water, and live a harder
life than we, so ask your Lord, who has sent you, to remove for us these
mountains which shut us in, and to straighten out our country for us, and
to open up in it rivers like those of Syria and Iraq, and to resurrect
for us our forefathers, and let there be among those that are resurrected
for us Qusayy b. Kilab, for he was a true shaikh, so that we may ask them
whether what you say is true or false. If they say you are speaking the
truth, and you do what we have asked you, we will believe in you, and we
shall know what your position with God is, and that He has actually sent
you as an apostle as you say.' He replied that he had not been sent to
them with such an object. He had conveyed to them God's message, and they
could either accept it with advantage, or reject it and await God's judgment.
They said that if he would not do that for them, let him do something for
himself. Ask God to send an angel with him to confirm what he said and
to contradict them; to make him gardens and castles, and treasures of gold
and silver to satisfy his obvious wants. He stood in the streets as they
did, and he sought a livelihood as they did. If he could do this, they
would recognize his merit and position with God, if he were an apostle
as he claimed to be. He replied that he would not do it, and would not
ask for such things, for he was not sent to do so, and he repeated what
he had said before. They said, 'Then let the heavens be dropped on us in
pieces, as you assert that your Lord could do if He wished, for we will
not believe you unless you do so.' The apostle replied that this was a
matter for God; if He wanted to do it with them, He would do it. They said,
'Did not your Lord know that we would sit with you, and ask you these questions,
so that He might come to you and instruct you how to answer us, and tell
you what He was going to do with us, if we did not receive your message?
Information has reached us that you are taught by this fellow in al-Yamama,
called al-Rahman, and by God we will never believe in the Rahman. Our conscience
is clear. By God, we will not leave you and our treatment of you, until
either we destroy you or you destroy us.' Some said, 'We worship the angels,
who are the daughters of Allah.' Others said, 'We will not believe in you
until you come to us with God and the angels as a surety. [Sirat, p. 134]
When they said this the apostle got up and left them.
One could see this either as the persecuted but patient apostle who has no need of arguing with stubborn people. When he is not heard he will not waste his time. He goes instead to those who would listen. Or it could on the other hand be that Muhammad had no answers and left because he had nothing to respond. In any case, he was pressured hard by the leaders of Mecca and made not to look very good.
After this a story is reported about a planned and failed assassination
of Muhammad which sounds very much embellished with legendary material.
But since al-Nadr is not involved this does not concern us here. After
this failure of that attempt we read how he addresses the nobles of Mecca:
Al-Nadr b. al-Harith b. Kalada b. `Alqama b. Abdu Manaf b. Abdu'l-Dar b. Qusayy got up and said: 'O Quraysh, a situation has arisen which you cannot deal with. Muhammad was a young man most liked among you, most truthful in speech, and most trustworthy, until, when you saw gray hairs on his temple, and he brought you his message, you said he was a sorcerer, but he is not, for we have seen such people and their spitting and their knots; you said, a diviner, but we have seen such people and their behavior, and we have heard their rhymes;
and you said a poet, but he is not a poet, for we have heard all kinds of poetry; you said he was possessed, but he is not, for we have seen the possessed, and he shows no signs of their gasping and whispering and delirium. Ye men of Quraysh, look to your affairs, for by God, a serious thing has befallen you.' Now al-Nadr b. al-Harith was one of the satans of Quraysh; he used to insult the apostle and show him enmity. He had been to al-Hira and learnt there the tales of the kings of Persia, the tales of Rustum and Isbandiyar. When the apostle had held a meeting in which he reminded them of God, and warned his people of what had happened to bygone generations as a result of God's vengeance, al-Nadr got up when he sat down, and said, 'I can tell a better story than he, come to me.
' Then he began to tell them about the kings of Persia, Rustum and Isbandiyar,
and then he would say, 'In what respect is Muhammad a better story-teller
than I?' [Sirat, pp. 135-136]
Statements like "al-Nadr b. al-Harith was one of the satans of Quraysh" and many others reveal that the Sirat is a polemic against the opponents of Muhammad rather than an attempt of objective historical reporting. We have to keep this in mind when reading the book. As in all polemical literature the own virtue is extolled and the vileness of the opponent exaggerated.
The Meccan leaders were probably concerned for their city and had the best of the city in mind when trying to oppose Muhammad whom they saw to be threat for the well-being and social stability in Mecca. Some might have had bad intentions but certainly not all. Today, many Muslim authorities take drastic measures just as well when they believe that the faith and peace of the community is threatened by somebody. We may certainly disapprove of the attempt to kill Muhammad (which may or may not be part of the polemical exaggeration) but there can hardly be a question that the leaders of Mecca had the protection of the people in mind against some danger whether real or imagined.
However much of this report may polemic and exaggeration on part of
the Muslim biographer, at least we can learn from it the Muslim understanding
and feelings about the situation. In their view al-Nadr b. al-Harith was
pressing Muhammad hard not only by political opposition but also by countering
his revelations with his own stories of high poetic quality. Stories which
he thought of being worthy rivals of Muhammad's recitations. It was so
great an aggravation to Muhammad that he responded to this challenge even
in the Qur'an itself.
Ibn `Abbas, according to my information, used to say eight verses of the Qur'an came down in reference to him, 'When our verses are read to him, he says fairy tales of the ancients'; and all those passages in the Qur'an in which 'fairy tales' are mentioned.
When Al-Nadr said that to them, they sent him and `Uqba b. Abu Mu`ayt to the Jewish rabbis in Medina and said to them, 'Ask them about Muhammad; describe him to them and tell them what he says, for they are the first people of the scriptures and have knowledge which we do not possess about the prophets.' They carried out their instructions, and said to the rabbis, 'You are the people of the Taurat, and we have come to you so that you can tell us how to deal with this tribesman of ours
.' The rabbis said, 'Ask him about three things of which we will instruct you; if he gives you the right answer then he is an authentic prophet, but if he does not, then the man is a rogue, so form your own opinion about him. Ask him what happened to the young men who disappeared in ancient days, for they have a marvelous story. Ask him about the mighty traveler who reached the confines of both East and West. Ask him what the spirit is. If he can give you the answer, then follow him, for he is a prophet. If he cannot, then he is a forger and treat him as you will.' The two men returned to Quraysh at Mecca and told them that they had a decisive way of dealing with Muhammad, and they told them about the three questions.
They came to the apostle and called upon him to answer these questions. He said to them, 'I will give you your answer tomorrow,' but he did not say, 'if God will.' So they went away; and the apostle, so they say, waited for fifteen days without a revelation from God on the matter, nor did Gabriel come to him, so that the people of Mecca began to spread evil reports, saying, 'Muhammad promised us an answer on the morrow, and today is the fifteenth day we have remained without an answer.' This delay caused the apostle great sorrow, until Gabriel brought him the Chapter of The Cave, in which he reproaches him for his sadness, and told him the answers of their questions, the youths, the mighty traveler, and the spirit. [Sirat, pp. 136-137]
`Uqba is not as prominent as al-Nadr but the two are a team in their mission to disprove the prophetic claim of Muhammad by asking him hard questions. They make the trip to Medina to get tricky test questions from the learned Jewish rabbis.
One result of their mission and the questions posed is that Muhammad is ridiculed by many for not being able to answer them as he promised. Muhammad certainly did not have fond memories of al-Nadr and `Uqba.
The Sirat records that this was not a one time affair, but for the time of Muhammad's preaching in Mecca, he often had the eloquent opposition of al-Nadr putting down Muhammad's message as made up and not being qualified to be a word of divine origin.
Sirat, pages 162-163 state:
Al-Nadr b. al-Harith b. `Alqama b. Kalada b. `Abdu Manaf whenever the
apostle sat in an assembly and invited people to God, and recited the Qur'an,
and warned the Quraysh of what had happened to former peoples, followed
him when he got up and spoke to them about Rustum the Hero and Isfandiyar
and the kings of Persia, saying, "By God, Muhammad cannot tell a better
story than I and his talk is only of old fables which he has copied [Sura
25.6] as I have." So God revealed concerning him, "And they say, Stories
of the ancients which he has copied down, and they are read to him morning
and night. Say, He who knows the secrets of heaven and earth has sent it
down. Verily, He is merciful, forgiving." [Sura 83.13]
And there came down concerning him, "When Our verses are read to him he says, fables of the ancients". [Sura 83.13]
And again, "Woe to every sinful liar who hears God's verses read before him. Then he continues in pride as though he had not heard them, as though in his ears was deafness. Tell him about a painful punishment". [Sura 45.7]
Al-Nadr was a major aggravation factor in Muhammad's mission to the people of Mecca. This at least we can glean from the Muslim sources.
After the Muslim victory in the Battle of Badr, when the Muslims are
on their way back to Medina, the following is reported in Ibn Hisham's
"Sirat Rasul Allah", page 308-312:
Then the apostle went forward until when he came out of the pass of
al-Safra' he halted on the sand hill between the pass and al-Naziya called
Sayar at a tree there and divided the booty which God had granted to the
Muslims equally. ...
When the apostle was in al-Safra', al-Nadr was killed by `Ali, as a learned Meccan told me. When he was in `Irqu'l-Zabya `Uqba was killed. He had been captured by `Abdullah b. Salima, one of the B. al-`Ajlan.
When the apostle ordered him to be killed `Uqba said, 'But who will look after my children?' 'Hell', he said, and `Asim b. Thabit b. Abu'l-Aqlah al-Ansari killed him according to what Abu `Ubayda b. Muhammad b. `Ammar b. Yasir told me. [page 308]
The apostle arrived in Medina a day before the prisoners. ... [page 309]
Mus`ab b. `Umayr ... said: "Bind him fast, for his mother is a wealthy woman; perhaps she will redeem him for you." ... [page 309]
Then the Quraysh sent to redeem their prisoners ... [page 312]
On page 360 of the Sirat we find that
Qutayla d. al-Harith, sister of al-Nadr b. al-Harith, weeping him said:
O Rider, I think you will reach Uthayl
At dawn of the fifth night if you are lucky.
Greet a dead man there for me.
Swift camels always carry news from me to thee.
(Tell of) flowing tears running profusely or ending in a sob.
Can al-Nadr hear me when I call him,
How can a dead man hear who cannot speak?
O Muhammad, finest child of noble mother,
Whose sire a noble sire was,
'Twould not have harmed you had you spared him.
(A warrior oft spares though full of rage and anger.)
Or you could have taken a ransom,
The dearest price that could be paid.
Al-Nadr was the nearest relative you captured
With the best claim to be released.
The swords of his father's sons came down on him.
Good God, what bonds of kinship there were shattered!
Exhausted he was led to a cold-blooded death,
A prisoner in bonds, walking like a hobbled beast.
According to Ibn Hisham, the prisoners captured at the battle of Badr are held for ransom and nearly all eventually exchanged for money. Pages 309-314 in the Sirat report about some of the transactions in some detail.
However, two people are singled out by Muhammad to be killed. al-Nadr bin al-Harith and `Uqba bin Abi Mu`ayt.
We have seen that al-Nadr strongly and constantly opposed Muhammad's preaching. Not with physical force but with arguments and eloquent stories countering his suras. Muhammad's message was put in doubt through al-Nadr, and his actions resulted in ridicule for Muhammad.
In the beginning Muhammad had the right attitude. He was able to see and preach that truth will stand clear from error. He, however, only a Warner and some will accept his message and some will reject it. That is God's responsibility not Muhammad's. Yet, later Muhammad acquires the power of the sword, he is no longer content to wait for God to act in punishment, but he executes his personal enemies who have ridiculed and opposed him. Muhammad does not stay true to his principles and uses his new power for personal vengeance.
Is that the proper procedure for a prophet from God?
Muhammad asserted that the Qur'an was the great outstanding miracle of Islam (17:90), and was intended for all ages and people, while the miracles and messages of former prophets were meant only for their own people. And, further, when his enemies made the charge that "The Qur'an is his own device," he challenged them "bring ten Suras like it (11:16)" or even "one Sura like it," as he said in a later "revelation" (2:21; 10:39). When, however, his opponent, al-Nadr bin al-Harith, as Ibn Hisham in "Sirat Rasul Allah" tells us, produced some tales from Persian lore about "Rustum the strong, and about Isfandiyar and the kings of Persia," and then said, "Muhammad is not a better story-teller than I am, and his discourse is nothing but the 'Tales of the Ancients' (25:5-6; 68:15);
he has composed them just as I have composed them," he brought down upon himself the "revealed" imprecations of Muhammad, with threats of "a shameful punishment" (45:6-8; 68:16), and ultimately paid for his audacity by the forfeiture of his life. When taken prisoner at the battle of Badr, although other prisoners were allowed by Muhammad to be ransomed, this privilege was denied to him, and he was put to death. Muhammad either considered him an opponent too dangerous to be allowed to live, or otherwise was so offended by his ridicule of, opposition to his message and the public questioning of his personal integrity that he ordered his death for that reason.
Whatever the exact reason might have been, Muhammad was not very patient with those who would oppose him or his message with stories or poems. The deaths of Ka`b bin al-Ashraf, Abu `Afak, `Asma' bint Marwan and al-Nadr bin al-Harith all speak the same language.
Did Muhammad truly believe what he himself preached?
Let there be no compulsion in religion:
Truth stands out clear from Error:
whoever rejects evil and believes in God
hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks.
And God heareth and knoweth all things.
Did Muhammad believe in the Qur'an? If truth stands clear from error because his message, why did Muhammad need to help the clarity of his message by killing those who speak against it?
Is a prophet not bound by the message he brings? How can Muhammad preach that there is to be no compulsion in religion and then he puts to death those who do not obey and believe in him but resist him strongly with eloquent words?
Does freedom of religion not also include the freedom to formulate the reasons of rejection and putting them in the most effective words just as Muhammad puts his message into the most effective words to convince others of it?
Is a prophet allowed to abuse his position of power to execute his vengeance on his personal opponents against the words he himself preaches as from God?
Is such a man a true prophet?
Take a second look again also at the introductory quotation from Sura
5:28 and think about it.
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