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Pain Beyond the Thinkable

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The Persecution of the Prophet's Companions
By Adil Salahi
Researcher and writer - UK
8252
The Prophet's companions suffered all kinds of torture, persecution and humiliation but their faith stood firm in the face of oppression. Picture © Microsoft.com
Prophet's companions suffered from torture, persecution and humiliation for converting to Islam.
 

The early Muslims did not belong to any particular class or social group, but were drawn from all clans and all levels of the tribal structure of Makkan society.

Tribal considerations dictated that a member of a tribe should be defended by the whole tribe against any outside harassment or injustice. Indeed, as has been seen, a tribe would defend an individual member even when he was at fault.

Hence, some of the early Muslims escaped physical persecution as they were protected by their tribes. Many, however, were less fortunate, for they belonged to the lower classes of slaves or "allies" i.e. individuals attached to different clans and tribes by a verbal covenant of" alliance".

Although they enjoyed tribal protection in normal circumstances as a result of that covenant, their status within their tribes was ambivalent. They were therefore vulnerable to stern punishment when their dispute was with the powerful leaders of their tribes.

It was indeed only natural that the brunt of the campaign of persecution would be borne by Muslims who belonged to these classes.

When the sun was at its hottest, Bilal was made to lie on the sand without any clothes to protect his back and a large stone was put on his chest.  
After all, the Makkan tribal society was defending its very system which classified people according to their birth and circumstances. The privileged class would not relinquish its privileges easily.

It was unable, however, to disregard those privileges or to deny them to those companions of the Prophet who were entitled to enjoy them by virtue of their birth and lineage.

A Campaign of Terror

One of the early tactics of the chiefs of Makkah to try to suppress Islam altogether was a campaign of terror which varied according to the status of the recipient. Those who belonged to the higher classes were subjected to taunts and ridicule.

The most determined opponent at that time was a man called Amr ibn Hisham. He was soon to be nicknamed Abu Jahl, which meant "father of ignorance".

Abu Jahl masterminded the campaign of opposition in its two distinct forms: ridiculing those Muslims who had good connections with their tribes to ensure their protection, and persecution of the weaker ones.

When he heard of a noble person who accepted the faith of Islam, he reproached and ridiculed him.

He would tell him: "You have deserted the faith of your father, who was a better man than you. We will disregard any good opinion you may have, oppose your views and treat you with contempt."

If a man was a merchant, Abu Jahl would threaten a boycott so that the business of the new Muslim would suffer. If the new Muslim belonged to the weaker class, then physical abuse was soon forthcoming from Abu Jahl.

With every new recruit Islam gained, the venom of torture increased.
Abu Jahl, however, was not the only enemy of Islam; he was only the most uncompromising. Others tried to outbid him in the campaign of terror. What happened to Bilal and Khabbab provides good examples of the ferocity of the terror campaign.

Bilal's Ordeal

Bilal was born in slavery to an Abyssinian father. His master, Umayyah ibn Khalaf, the chief of the clan of Jumah, wanted to show to everyone in Makkah that he was just as keen as Abu Jahl to defend the established order. Hence Bilal was taken out to the open desert day after day where he was severely beaten.

At midday, when the sun was at its hottest, he was made to lie on the sand without any clothes to protect his back from the burning sand. A large stone was put on his chest to increase the torture.

He was dragged with ropes over the burning sand. Repeatedly he was asked to renounce Islam and to declare that he believed in the idols. Just as often he repeated" "He is One! He is One."

Bilal's ordeal lasted a long time, until one day, Abu Bakr passed by while he was being tortured. He tried to soften Umayyah's heart, without much success. Umayyah, however, accused Abu Bakr of being responsible for Bilal's transgression and challenged him to save him.

Abu Bakr immediately took up the challenge and offered Umayyah an exchange deal: Bilal would become his in return for a more youthful and vigorous slave who was not a Muslim.

They tore off his clothes and laid him over stones heated with fire and twisted his neck all at the same time but he stood as firm as a mountain. 
Umayyah accepted the deal and Bilal joined Abu Bakr, who immediately set him free because he knew Islam disliked slavery and promised great reward from God to those who freed slaves.
 

All in all, Abu Bakr freed seven slaves to save them from the campaign of terror launched by the Quraish.

His father, who was not a Muslim, could not understand his action. he said to him: "Son, I see that you are setting free weak slaves. If you want to do this, why don't you set free some strong men slaves who will be able to protect you?" Abu Bakr explained that he wanted only to be rewarded by God for his action.

Abu Bakr's action was the best example of how closely knit the new Muslims community was. Those who were able to help their brothers and sisters did not hesitate to render any assistance they could.

Nevertheless, Abu Bakr's actions were exemplary. Neither he nor the other Muslims who enjoyed tribal lineage were able to stop the campaign of terror.

Although he was reasonably wealthy, he could not buy all the victims of the Quraish's persecution. Not all of them were slaves anyway, and those who were could not have been bought because their masters refused to sell them.

Abu Bakr's action demonstrated the new bond that was established among the followers of the new religion. There was another aspect to what he did: it emphasized that the followers of the new religion were all equal, slaves and masters alike.

Much later, when Umar ibn Al-Khattab, became one of the leading figures among the Muslims, he stated this fact in the clearest of terms when he said of Abu Bakr and what he did for Bilal: "Abu Bakr is our master, and he has freed our master."

The Great Suffering

These efforts by Abu Bakr and other Muslims to help those of their brethren who were subjected to brutal torture by the young men who belonged to the most privileged families in the Quraish could not significantly reduce the pressure on the Muslims.

Indeed, the reverse was true. With every victim released by Abu Bakr a new turn of the screw was made in order to increase the pressure on those who were still captive. With every new recruit Islam gained, the venom of torture increased.

She was stabbed in her private parts with a spear and her husband, who was laid on the burning sand was kicked in his chest until he died. 
Khabbab ibn al-Aratt was kidnapped from his clan's area while he was still young. He was brought to Makkah, where he was sold to a man from the clan of the Khuzaah. He was one of the very early Muslims; therefore, he suffered more than most.

The unbelievers experimented with all kinds of torture. They put him in a fire and beat him severely. They kicked him and punished him and flogged him, but he was as firm as a mountain. Once they tore off his clothes and laid him over stones heated with fire and twisted his neck all at the same time.

They caused him permanent injuries to his back, but he was prepared to die for his faith. He survived the torture and lived to fight the unbelievers with the Prophet in all his wars.

Torturing a Family

Those who suffered most as a result of the campaign of terror mounted by the Quraish were a family composed of two elderly parents and their only son who was about 35.

Yasir, the father, was originally of a Yemini tribe. He came to Makkah in his youth looking for his brother. He loved Makkah and felt a strong desire to stay.

He therefore, entered into an "alliance" with his host, a notable personality of the clan of Makhzum, to which Abu Jahl belonged. This type of alliance meant, as far as Yasir was concerned, a firm attachment to the tribe of his ally which burdened him with all the duties of the weaker members of the tribe and accorded him tribal protection.

Without such a bond, no individual could hope to survive in the Arabian society at that time.

Yasir married Sumayyah, a servant of his ally, and she gave birth to their only son, Ammar. Yasir never regretted his decision to stay in Makkah. He led a happy life there, although he instinctively dislikes idolatry.

When the Prophet started to preach his new message, Ammar was among the first to respond favorably. He joined the small number of Muslims who began to gather around the Prophet in the house of Al-Arqam. Ammar soon persuaded his parents to embrace Islam.

Their happy family life was soon disrupted by Abu Jahl, who gathered an effective force of youths and slaves to help him in his efforts of terrorization. He wanted to make Yasir and his family an example for anyone who might be thinking of responding to the new message of Islam.

He supervised a progressive type of torture of parents and son to make them renounce Islam. As the volume of torture increased, the three afflicted victims showed a growing determination to stick to their faith.

The Prophet passed by one day while they were being tortured. He could not do anything to release them. However, he gave them the most encouraging words when he said to them: "Yasir and family persevere. Heaven is our meeting-place."

After weeks of varied types of torture, Sumayyah gave her tormentor a piece of her mind, telling him what she thought of him and his methods. Infuriated, Abu Jahl stabbed her in her private parts with a spear he was carrying.

Then he turned to her husband, who was laid on the burning sand. He kicked him in his chest until he died. Thus Sumayyah and Yasir were the first of two martyrs in the history of Islam.

Adil Salahi is the Executive Director of Al-Furqan Heritage Foundation. He teaches Islamic Studies at the Markfield Institute of Higher Education, Leicester, England. After working for the BBC Arabic Service for several years, he worked for the Arabic daily, al-Sharq al-Awsat. He continues to publish a column, "Islam in Perspective", in its sister publication, Arab News, an English daily published in Saudi Arabia. He has produced an English translation of several volumes of Sayyid Qutb's commentary, In the Shade of the Quran (Leicester, Islamic Foundation), as well as several other books on Islamic subjects.

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