BROTHERHOOD- The Basis of Islamic Society


The study of the Seerah enables the student to acquire a better understanding of the factors which contributed to the triumph of Islam in its early days, and of the personality of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, peace be on him. It is a well known fact that there has been no leader of any type in the history of mankind whose behaviour, habits, manners and actions have been recorded, researched, authenticated and made known to all nations and ages as those of Muhammad.

We know every minute detail of his life whether on the personal level, such as his activities as a human being, or on a very special level-as the Messenger of Allah. We know his private life as a father, husband and master, and his public life as a Prophet and a unique leader and statesman. We may wonder why does Allah permit the highly personal and private aspects of the life of His Prophet to become public knowledge, when everyone of us takes extra care to keep his own private affairs really private? The reason is both simple and important. When we say Islam is a way of life, we mean it literally. It is in order to provide us with guidance in all spheres of life that we are given such minute details about the life of the Prophet.

Islam does not approve of any distinction between the material, political and worldly on the one hand and the spiritual and religious on the other. Its outlook is comprehensive. It regulates life in all its aspects, and considers any human action, made with the right attitude, an act of worship. It is for this reason that we need to have guidance in all fields, so that we may elevate all our actions to the level of worship.

Perhaps this has been heard so often that we tend to overlook its importance. But, it is impossible to overstress this central concept. We can, indeed, transform all our actions into acts of worship, but for this we need guidance. This guidance is provided by the Seerah. This should be the basis of our approach to the Seerah. We must not read it as we read a history book or a biography of a great man.

We must approach it as one who has for long been in despair approaches a source of light and hope. When reading the Seerah our concern should be to learn how the Messenger conducted his life, and to conduct our lives on the same lines.

I’d like to introduce my second premise by relating an incident which took place during an Islamic Society function some ten years ago. The theme was “The Battle of Badr” and the speaker related the events which preceded the battle. He mentioned the fact that the Muslims who took part in it did not set out of their homes in order to fight a full-scale war; they were very badly equipped for such an eventuality.

The speaker explained that their original purpose was to confiscate a commercial caravan which belonged to the Meccan polytheists. In the discussion which followed the talk one of the active members of the Islamic Society criticised the speaker for what the questioner considered to be a failure to distinguish fact from fiction. The questioner argued that the Messenger of Allah and his companions could not, on any account, have indulged in such a monetary pursuit; that they were too noble to descend to such a material level; that the caravan affair was fabricated by the enemies of Islam to give a distorted picture. He proceeded to warn us against being deceived by such distortion. It was not easy to explain to him afterwards all the relevant facts and to show him that in the circumstances in Arabia at that time the attempt to confiscate the caravan was both legitimate and honourable.

I have related this incident in order to introduce a basic principle in the study of the Seerah. I have thought about it a great deal over the years and the more I thought about it the better I could understand this brother’s predicament. Taken in isolation the caravan affair may easily look, as our brother thought, a shameful act of piracy! But it appears so only when it is taken in isolation, which is a very dangerous process. Hence, we need our second basic principle which is that we we must always try to understand the Seerah against the background of the Arab society in which its events had taken place. We must not judge events in the Seerah by other periods’ standards only. That would give us a one-sided picture of the early stages of the Islamic call. Understanding the Arabian society of the time will not give us a localised picture of the life of the Prophet. It will help us to appreciate fully the change Islam brought about in that society. This will, in turn, help us recognise the change we must bring about within ourselves and in the society at large to make it truly Islamic.

So, if we want to understand the feeling of brotherhood which Islam generated among the companions of the Prophet, we must first of all understand, how near to brotherhood or how far from it the Arabs were immediately before Islam.

We need to know how they conducted their affairs at the individual and collective level. We all know that the Arabian society at the time of the Prophet was a tribal one. But we must try to understand the place the individual occupied within the tribe and the place of the tribe within society at large.

The clan, which was a branch of the tribe, was a closely-knit unit. It was the sole source of protection for the individual; every individual was vividly aware of his association with his clan. There were numerous feuds and wars between the Arabian tribes and clans, and vendetta was the motto and the life style of all. Every individual accepted the implications of this type of life to his person and his immediate family. He would fight the wars his clan decides to enter without question. It was not his business to question the merits or the motives of any war; he simply went to war with his clan knowing that being killed in a senseless war was a better eventuality than being disowned by his clan. This state of affairs is amply illustrated in the poetry of the period. A frequently quoted line of poetry says:

“I am merely one of my tribe Ghuzayyah. If it indulges in corrupt ways I indulge in the same, and if it follows the right I do the same.”

Clans also included the allies and slaves who were second and third class citizens. The allies were individual persons who, for various reasons, sought to be associated with one particular clan or another. They fought with their clans and were given protection, but they remained in a lower position than that of the ethnic members. The slaves, on the other hand, had no rights whatsoever. Their status was scarcely better than that of productive machines, except that a man hardly ever wilfully destroyed a useful machine he had, but he might very often kill his slave for the most trivial reason. When that happened no one could question the master or speak to him about what he had done. This is a brief outline of the social order within the clan. There was also another line of distinction. Tribes had their own hierarchy with which some of them were given high standing and others were left down the scale. These positions were not static: a lower tribe could improve its standing and prestige on the basis of certain criteria like the victories it achieved in wars against other tribes. But the tribe which had the upper hand and the highest prestige was that of Ouraish, to which the Prophet and a large number of Al-Muhajireen belonged.

The picture is not as simple as it may seem at the first glance, We have mentioned two levels of hierarchy, the clan and the tribe. We need to ask: what constituted a clan? The question is problematic. To simplify the problem we need to remember that any one person may establish, over two generations, a large family of fifty grandsons and great grand- sons. Over three generations the number could easily reach two hundred, and over .-our or five generations it may become a thousand. The basic rule of allegiance in the Arabian society was that everyone was loyal to his immediate father, grandfather, great grandfather and so on. But once a group of brothers and immediate cousins become conscious of their strength they become a branch of a clan of their own. Each individual becomes conscious of his belonging to one particular group as opposed to another formed by his fellow tribesmen, who may only be one step more distant. Wars used to erupt between such small branches of the same clan. We may cite the example which took place after the death of Oussai ibn Kilab, who was the leader of Mecca, and an ancestor of the Prophet. Oussai bequeathed to his eldest son Abduddar all the traditional honours of nobility, to compensate him for the honour attained by his younger son Abd Manaf. The two brothers were not long dead when their children fell out and prepared for war. They were immediate cousins yet they would engage in brutal killing of one another. Both households were joined by other clans and war was about to break out between the two sides. It was averted through the good offices of a wiser intermediary who suggested a division acceptable to both sides.

This is an example of the extremely narrow allegiance which was the norm not the exception. Allegiance becomes wide.- in scope according to the source of danger. Both households mentioned in our example would have joined forces against any hostile outsider, though it may belong to the same branch of their tribe. Again that hostile outsider would join forces with them against any more distant enemy. In short, the system was pyramid-like, and within that hierarchy the allegiance of the individual starts with the smallest sub-branch and it travels upwards through sub- branches and branches until it reaches the main stem.

I have dwelt on this point because I feel it is very important to have a clear view of the pre-islamic social order, if we are to properly appreciate the change brought about by Islam. The hierarchical system in Arabia played a central role in the strategy of both the Islamic and the anti-Islamic camps. It afforded a degree of protection to the Prophet and to some of the early Muslims, while it led to an extremely harsh treatment of the less fortunate Muslims, like Bilal, Khabbab and Suhaib who were either slaves or allies of their clans. At the same time, the system dictated the attitude of some of the most bitter enemies of Islam.

Once Abu Jahl came out with his potent reason for his opposition to Islam. He said: “We contested glory with the clan of Abd Manaf: They fed the poor, we did the same; they granted support to others, we did likewise; they gave generously, we did likewise. When we were with them on the same level like two horses in a race-course they claimed that one of them is a Prophet who receives revelation from heaven. How can we attain such prestige. We will never accept him or believe in him.” We can say, then, without hesitation, that this tribal system was one of the main reasons behind the relentless opposition to Islam on the part of the Meccans, with the opponents of Islam trying to preserve the system against the Islamic principle of equality and brotherhood. it was this hierarchy, with its complicated system of multiple loyalty, which Islam sought to replace by the tie of brotherhood. Islam hit at the fibre of the Arabian social order and preached the equality of all men and the brotherhood of all believers. It was not a sentimental or theoretical motto to which the Muslim might pay lip service. It was a reality practised by the Prophet and his companions. Any newcomer would be immediately educated in the new social foundation which demanded that loyalty should be only to Islam.

To quote an example from the Medinian period: Safwan ibn Umayyah and Umair ibn Wahb were two Meccan friends who felt deeply the humiliating defeat of the Meccans in Badr. Safwan’s father and brother were killed in the battle and Umair’s son was held captive by the Muslims. One day Umair said to Safwan when the two were talking about the Meccan defeat: “My handicap is twofold-my debts which I cannot settle and my young dependents who would have no one to look after them. Otherwise I would definitely go to Medina and kill Muhammad.” Safwan immediately replied with this offer: “I will settle all your debts and I will take in your dependants with mine and I will be as kind to them as you wish me to be, if you go and kill Muhammad.”

The deal was made and Umair had his sword sharpened and poisoned. He then set out till he arrived in Medina. Umar ibn Al-Khattab saw him when he arrived and suspected his motives, so he asked a few people who were with him to go and sit with the Prophet to watch Umair. Umair entered the mosque with Umair. The Prophet asked him his reasons for coming to Medina. He answered that he wanted to offer some ransom in return for the freedom of his son. The Prophet asked why he had his sword. Umair replied rhetorically-“What use are these swords to us!” The Prophet then said to him-“Tell me the truth. What have you come here for?” Umair replied-“For the reason I told you, to buy my son’s freedom.” The Prophet then said to him “No, that is not true. You talked things over with Safwan and made a deal with him that he will take over your debts and dependants in return for you killing me. But Allah will foil your designs.” Umair immediately accepted the truth of what the Prophet had said, declared that the deal was made between him and Safwan in secret and that the Prophet’s knowledge of it was, to him, a sufficient evidence of the Prophethood of Muhammad and proclaimed himself a Muslim. The Prophet turned to his companions and said,

“Teach your brother his religion and let him read the Qur’an, and let his son free.”

Here we have a man plotting to kill the Prophet, and admitting his plot, but the very fact that he declared himself a Muslim made the Prophet refer to him as “brother” to the rest of his companions. Thus, Islam set a great divide between old loyalties and new ones. All past loyalties and enmities are forgotten immediately a man becomes a Muslim. He is given a crash course, as it were, in the new pattern of social behaviour, and helped to observe the new standard. Some people may think that after the great victory the Muslims achieved in Badr, they could well afford to show such a benevolent attitude to someone like Umair in order to win him over to their side. But such a view is extremely mistaken. The brotherhood of the Muslims was declared right at the outset. It was practised by the early followers of the Prophet in the very early stages of the new religion. Al-Arqam, who was the eleventh person to embrace Islam, turned his house into a general headquarters for the new call. Every Muslim, whatever his position in society, was welcome there to study, worship and stay. Reading through the Seerah one cannot fail to observe a mode of social relations between the Muslims different from that between the others. It reveals their close association with one another, and their feeling of unity against the rest of the world.

The prime example in the early period may be taken from the actions of Abu Bakr, whose tribal position enabled him to escape from much of the persecution suffered by other Muslims. (This is not to say that he escaped it all. He was spared in the early period because of his high standing, but later on, when attitudes became more rigid he suffered a great deal of hardship.) However, Abu Bakr was in a better position than say, Bilal or Khabbab. Abu Bakr was keenly aware of the plight of his brethren, and did his best to alleviate their sufferings. He bought five women slaves and two men, Bital and Amir ibn Faheerah, and set them free to spare them the torture inflicted by the Meccan polytheists.

Abu Bakr’s father, who was not a Muslim, blamed him for so doing and said: “You would have been better off if you had bought strong, young men who would be able to defend you, instead of buying women slaves and setting them free.” We must say that in the Meccan type of society, based on tribal and clan hierarchy, Abu Bakr’s father’s advice sounds very logical. Everyone in that society was in need of protection and Abu Bakr’s action was not motivated by any desire for worldly gains. He told his father: “What I did was for the sake of Allah.” Abu Bakr never thought of keeping a fellow Muslim a slave, although that was permissible, and the social structure would have favoured such course of action. But the mere idea of having his own brother or sister as his slave was in no way acceptable to Abu Bakr.

This example does not merely show us how good Abu Bakr was to his Muslim brethren. It shows a keen awareness on his part for a complete departure from the old social practices of Jahiliyyah, to the new social order Islam wanted to establish. Abu Bakr’s action reveals his complete acceptance of the new order of things and his readiness to implement the desired change, albeit on a limited scale. But that limited scale was the best he could do in the circumstances.

Abu Bakr was not alone in implementing the change. Indeed, all Muslims were educated in the new basis of social relations. Most of them accepted the change and implemented it readily. Their practice was a declaration served on the Meccans that they no longer acknowledged the old system of loyalties based on blood relationships. Their only relationship was that of Islam which contracts a permanent brotherhood between all Muslims.

This rejection of the old loyalties is highlighted by the Hijra, twice to Abyssinia, and a third and final time to Medina. By the very fact that a Muslim left Mecca and went to Abyssinia, he forfeited all his claims for protection and support by his clan or tribe. He was simply saying to them: “I no longer belong to you, I belong to a different nation. I share nothing with you, but I share everything with my Muslim brothers who belonged to different tribes. Together we form a homogeneous unit which rejects your social structure in its totality.”

It may be said that the Hijra was not a matter of choice; that the Muslims were fleeing from persecution. That may be true in some cases, but we read in the Seerah that the first person to go to Abyssinia was Othman ibn Affan, who did not suffer much hardship in Mecca. Indeed, he belonged to a highly influential clan which meant that he was fairly secure from persecution, except perhaps for some harassment by his mother, which does not constitute an urgent motive to flee.

Another early Muhaijir was Jaafar ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin. Because of the protection of Abu Talib, the Prophet enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom. Surely, Abu Talib’s own son would have enjoyed at least an equal degree of freedom not to warrant his flight. Indeed, when we go through the list of those who went to Abyssinia we find that many of them did not need to go by reason of persecution and torture. On the other hand some of those who received more than their share of persecution did not go. This supports our conclusion that the Hijra was in essence a demonstration of the Muslim’s rejection of the old ties in favour of the new tie of Islamic brotherhood.

Another incident is of Abu Salaman, the first to immigrate to Medina. He migrated about a year earlier than anybody else. When he was leaving he faced a dilemma; his tribe did not allow his son to go with him although his wife was allowed to go along. There was a brawl between the two tribes which resulted in the loss of one arm of the child. So the child was taken by the tribe of Abu Salamah’s grandfather, and the woman by her tribe, but Abu Salamah went alone to Medina. He did so because the tie of parenthood, marriage and other blood relations was not so important as the tie of brotherhood in the same faith. He knew that in Medina there would be an Islamic community and he wanted to join that in preference to his tribe. This is the main tie and the only tie which a Muslim has. The tie of brotherhood was reflected by the binding which the Prophet made with the Medinians, the Jews, Muslims and the polytheists, all subscribing to the same covenant, “the Muslims are a nation of their own and they belong to no other communities or tribes … They are all one against whoever commits injustice and whoever seeks corruption in the land even if he was the son of anyone of them.”

Then the Prophet Muhammad made a formal pact of brotherhood between pairs of Muslims; one from Mecca and another from Medina. It was a brotherhood in every respect and even when one of them died, the other inherited him like a blood brother. That was in the early stage, but then this was discontinued. But the tie itself was not weakened because when Bilal left for Syria, Umar ibn Khattab asked him, “to whom will you trust your affairs here?” He said, “Abu Hurairah, because of the brotherhood the Prophet entrusted between me and him.” That was about twenty-five years later.

In Badr we witnessed how the tie of faith dictated the actions of every Mu’min. In Badr, we read that many Muslims fought their own relations. Abu Udaiba killed his father. Abu Bakr Siddique was about to kill his son. Umar ibn Khattab killed his uncle. Take this against the loyalty of the past and you realise the transformation that was brought a bout.

Today we talk a lot of this brotherhood, and we address each other as Brother. We even write Sr. instead of Mr. when we send letters or cards to one another. But we should ask ourselves how much are we prepared to give in order to save a brother some trouble, or to solve a problem he is facing. Let us ask ourselves how keenly are we aware of this relationship and how much are we prepared to sacrifice in order to preserve our belonging to the Muslim community.

The Muslim
December-January 1975/6