Such is the traditional account of this event which was the turning-point of Muhammad's (Peace be upon him) mission. He had now met with a people whose antecedents had in some way prepared their minds for the reception of his teaching and whose present circumstances, as afterwards appeared, were favourable to his cause.
The city of Yathrib had been long occupied by Jews whom some national disaster, possibly the persecution under Hadrian, had driven from their own country, when a party of wandering emigrants, the two Arab clans of Khazraj and Aws, arrived at Yathrib and were admitted to a share in the territory. As their numbers increased they encroached more and more on the power of the Jewish rulers, and finally, towards the end of the fifth century, the government of the city passed entirely into their hands.
Some of the Arabs had embraced the Jewish religion, and many of the former masters of the city still dwelt there in the service of their conquerors, so that it contained in Muhammad's time a considerable Jewish population. The people of Yathrib were thus familiar with the idea of a Messiah who was to come, and were consequently more capable of understanding the claim of Muhammad to be accepted as the Prophet of God, than were the idolatrous Meccans to whom such an idea was entirely foreign and especially distasteful to the Quraysh, whose supremacy over the other tribes and whose worldly prosperity arose from the fact that they were the hereditary guardians of the national collection of idols kept in the sacred enclosure of the Ka'bah.
Further, the city of Yathrib was distracted by incessant civil discord through a longstanding feud between the Banu Khazraj and the Banu Aws. The citizens lived in uncertainty and suspense, and anything likely to bind the conflicting parties together by a tie of common interest could not but prove a boon to the city. Just as the mediæval republics of Northern Italy chose a stranger to hold the chief post in their cities in order to maintain some balance of power between the rival factions, and prevent, if possible, the civil strife which was so ruinous to commerce and the general welfare, so the Yathribites would not look upon the arrival of a stranger with suspicion, even though he was likely to usurp or gain permission to assume the vacant authority.
On the contrary, one of the reasons for the warm welcome which Muhammad (Peace be upon him) received in Medina would seem to be that the adoption of Islam appeared to the more thoughtful of its citizens to be a remedy for the disorders from which their society was suffering, by its orderly discipline of life and its bringing the unruly passions of men under the discipline of laws enunciated by an authority superior to individual caprice.
These facts go far to explain how eight years after the Hijrah Muhammad (Peace be upon him) could, at the head of 10,000 followers, enter the city in which he had laboured for ten years with so meager a result.
But this is anticipating. Muhammad (Peace be upon him) had proposed to accompany his new converts, the Khazrajites, to Yathrib himself, but they dissuaded him therefrom, until a reconciliation could be effected with the Banu Aws. "Let us, we pray thee, return unto our people, if happily the Lord will create peace amongst us; and we will come back again unto thee. Let the season of pilgrimage in the following year be the appointed time." So they returned to their homes, and invited their people to the faith; and many believed, so that there remained hardly a family in which mention was not made of the Prophet.
When the time of pilgrimage again came round, a deputation from Yathrib, ten men of the Banu Khazraj, and two of the Banu Aws, met him at the appointed spot and pledged him their word to obey his teaching. This, the first pledge of 'Aqabah, so called from the secret spot at which they met, ran as follows:—"We will not worship any but the one God; we will not steal, neither will we commit adultery or kill our children; we will abstain from calumny and slander; we will obey the Prophet (Peace be upon him) in everything that is right." These twelve men now returned to Yathrib as missionaries of Islam, and so well prepared was the ground, and with such zeal did they prosecute their mission, that the new faith spread rapidly from house to house and from tribe to tribe.
They were accompanied on their return by Mus'ab b. 'Umayr; though, according to another account he was sent by the Prophet upon a written requisition from Yathrib. This young man had been one of the earliest converts, and had lately returned from Abyssinia; thus he had had much experience, and severe training in the school of persecution had not only sobered his zeal but taught him how to meet persecution and deal with those who were ready to condemn Islam without waiting to learn the true contents of its teaching; accordingly Muhammad (Peace be upon him) could with the greatest confidence entrust him with the difficult task of directing and instructing the new converts, cherishing the seeds of religious zeal and devotion that had already been sown and bringing them to fruition. Mus'ab took up his abode in the house of As'ad b. Zurarah, and gathered the converts together for prayer and the reading of the Qur'an, sometimes here and sometimes in a house belonging to the Banu Zafar, which was situated in a quarter of the town occupied jointly by this family and that of 'Abd al-Ashhal.
The heads of the latter family at that time were Sa'd b. Mu'adh and Usayd b. Hudayr. One day it happened that Mus'ab was sitting together with As'ad in this house of the Banu Zafar, engaged in instructing some new converts, when Sa'd b. Mu'adh, having come to know of their whereabouts, said to Usayd b. Hudayr: " Drive out these fellows who have come into our houses to make fools of the weaklings among us; I would spare thee the trouble did not the tie of kinship between me and As'ad prevent my doing him any harm " (for he himself was the cousin of As'ad). Hereupon Usayd took his spear and, bursting in upon As'ad and Mus'ab, "What are you doing?" he cried, "leading weak-minded folk astray? If you value your lives, begone hence." "Sit down and listen," Mus'ab answered quietly, "if thou art pleased with what thou hearest, accept it; if not, then leave it.” Usayd stuck his spear in the ground and sat down to listen, while Mus'ab expounded to him the fundamental doctrines of Islam and read several passages of the Qur'an. After a time Usayd, enraptured, cried, "What must I do to enter this religion?" "Purify thyself with water," answered Mus'ab, "and confess that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the apostle of God." Usayd at once complied and repeated the profession of faith, adding, "After me you have still another man to convince" (referring to Sa'd b. Mu'adh). "If he is persuaded, his example will bring after him all his people. I will send him to you forthwith."
With these words he left them, and soon after came Sa'd b. Mu'adh himself, hot with anger against As'ad for the patronage he had extended to the missionaries of Islam. Mus'ab begged him not to condemn the new faith unheard, so Sa'd agreed to listen and soon the words of Mus'ab touched him and brought conviction to his heart, and he embraced the faith and became a Muslim. He went back to his people burning with zeal and said to them, "Sons of 'Abd al-Ashhal, say, what am I to you?" "Thou art our lord," they answered, "thou art the wisest and most illustrious among us." "Then I swear," Replied Sa'd, "nevermore to speak to any of you until you believe in God and Muhammad, His apostle." And from that day, all the descendants of 'Abd al-Ashhal embraced Islam.
With such zeal and earnestness was the preaching of the faith pushed forward that within a year there was not a family among the Arabs of Medina that had not given some of its members to swell the number of the faithful, with the exception of one branch of the Banu Aws, which held aloof under the influence of Abu Qays b. al-Aslat, the poet.
The following year, when the time of the annual pilgrimage again came round, a band of converts, amounting to seventy-three in number, accompanied their heathen fellow-countrymen from Yathrib to Mecca. They were commissioned to invite Muhammad (Peace be upon him) to take refuge in Yathrib from the fury of his enemies, and had come to swear allegiance to him as their prophet and their leader. All the early converts who had before met the Prophet (Peace be upon him) on the two preceding pilgrimages, returned to Mecca on this important occasion, and Mus'ab their teacher accompanied them. Immediately on his arrival he hurried to the prophet, and told him of the success that had attended his mission. It is said that his mother, hearing of his arrival, sent a message to him, saying: "Ah, disobedient son, wilt thou enter a city in which thy mother dwelleth, and not first visit her!" "Nay, verily," he replied, "I will never visit the house of any one before the Prophet of God." So, after he had greeted and conferred with Muhammad (Peace be upon him), he went to his mother, who thus accosted him: "Then I see thou art still a renegade." He answered, "I follow the prophet of the Lord and the true faith of Islam," " Art thou then well satisfied with the miserable way thou hast fared in the land of Abyssinia and now again at Yathrib? "Now he perceived that she was meditating his imprisonment, and exclaimed, "What! wilt thou force a man from his religion? If ye seek to confine me, I will assuredly slay the first person that layeth hands upon me." His mother said, "Then depart front my presence," and she began to weep. Mus'ab was moved, and said, "Oh, my mother! I give thee loving counsel. Testify that there is no God but the Lord and that Muhammad is His servant and Messenger." But she replied, "By the sparkling stars! I will never make a fool of myself by entering into thy religion. I wash my hands of thee and thy concerns, and cleave steadfastly unto mine own faith."
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