Repentance, II
(The Self-Criticism of Ka’b b. MAlik)

We shall continue with the “Book of Repentance.” In it appears a long hadIs entitled “The Repentance of Ka’b b. MAlik.” This hadIs, the longest in the SahIh Muslim, constitutes a very interesting psychological document.  We cannot reproduce it in full here or put it to an adequately searching analysis, but the reader will do well to read it carefully and give it serious thought, for it is an illuminating story with a family likeness to the notorious “confessions” and “self-criticism” of Communist countries.  Besides the usual breast-beating and protestations of loyalty to the leader, it also indicates to a discerning reader some of the psychological factors that make the members of the ummah or the party fall in line and keep together.

Even in Muhammad’s time, Islam was not all theology, the appeal of a so-called superior monotheism against an idolatrous and superstitious polytheism, as some scholars and propagandists would have us believe.  Monotheism does not have the superiority per se that fanatics often ascribe to it.1 The monotheism of prophetic Islam is particularly shallow and barbarous, spiritually speaking.  But from the beginning, it was combined with other, more secular appeals, negative as well as positive.  The Prophet rewarded loyalty and obedience with war spoils, and visited palpable punishments of varying degrees on the lukewarm, the indifferent, and the disloyal.  He used the carrot as well as the stick.

Apostasy was severely punished. The sword and its threat were frequent arbiters, but more sophisticated psychological pressures were equally in use.  Social cohesion and political and ideological compliance were secured by means of social ostracism, political boycott, and ideological untouchability.  The fear of divine hellfire was distant, but the fear of the strongman, the boss, the toughs of the ummah, or party, was ever present.  In offending the Prophet, you not only offended Allah-an offense which many could take in stride-but even worse, you offended ’Umar, Talha, ’AlI, Zubair, Sa’d, ’Abdullah-the Prophet’s swordsmen and hangmen.  You also had to be on guard against the treacherous daggers of his assassins, SAlim b. Umayar, Muhammad ibn Maslama, Muheiasa, ’Abdullah ibn Oneis2 and company, ’Amr ibn Omeya, and so on.

If one invited the Prophet’s displeasure, besides inviting more concrete punishments, one also invited a pervasive social boycott.  This could be a very coercive phenomenon.  One’s own relatives and best friends deserted one.  And why?  Because it was the safe thing to do.  One had oneself played safe in the past; now others do the same in turn.

Perspicacious readers will be able to detect a close resemblance between the atmosphere described in the following hadIs and the more familiar (but only a little more familiar) atmosphere that obtains under the Communist regimes of our own time.  But before we quote from the hadIs, let us provide some background information.


Muhammad planned an expedition for the autumn Of A.D. 630; it was his largest and also his last, for he died soon afterward.  In planning other campaigns, he used to keep the time and the target of attack to himself in order to effect the maximum surprise; in fact, sometimes he would go north when his intended destination was south.  But this campaign was to be of long duration, the enemy was far away (300 miles to the north), and the weather was dry and hot; so this time he gave advance warning to his followers so that they could prepare and equip themselves adequately, for the expedition was to take them to the very frontiers of Arabia and might embroil them with the garrisons of the Byzantine Empire.  Because of its unusually arduous nature, the TabUk campaign was also called the “Campaign of Difficulties.”

As Muhammad was planning for the biggest campaign of his life, he directed his adherents and allies and the Bedouin tribes to gather in great numbers.  He collected tithes from the tribes, which were now reduced to submission, and appealed for donations and gifts from his followers, who were now rich and powerful.  They had become governors, generals, contractors, and traders.  They gave generously, his own son-in-law, ’UsmAn, gifting one thousand dinArs, a lordly sum.  These funds were used to provide mounts for the poorer soldiers.  But even so, many had to be sent away for lack of funds.  Though they were sent back, their spirit was considered praiseworthy, and there was even a revelation about them from Allah: “Nor is there blame on those who come to thee to be provided with mounts, and when you said, ‘I can find no mounts for you,’ they turned back their eyes streaming with tears” (QurAn 9:92).  In the Islamic tradition, these men were subsequently remembered with honor as “Weepers.”

Muhammad made an appeal to all and sundry in the Muslim world, which now included, at least nominally, the whole Arab world.  His appeal was Allah’s own appeal.  “Go ye forth, whether equipped lightly or heavily, and strive and struggle, with your goods and your persons, in the cause of Allah.  That is best for you, if ye but knew” (QurAn 9:41).


Many people were lukewarm to the appeal and unwilling to undertake such an arduous and risky journey and in such hot weather, so they put forward many excuses for not going.  Of such people, Allah spoke later on in several QurAnic verses: “Those who were left behind [in the TabUk expedition] rejoiced in their inaction behind the back of the Apostle of God.  They hated to strive and fight with their goods and their persons in the Cause of God: they said, ‘Go not forth in the heat.’ Muhammad, say to them that the Fire of Hell is fiercer in heat, if only they could understand” (9:81).

The worst offenders were the Arabs of the desert as well as the Arabs settled in neighborhood of Medina.  Both were condemned by Allah in the QurAn: “The Arabs of the desert are the worst in unbelief and hypocrisy,” Allah said of them (9:97).  And again He warned His Prophet thus: “Certain of the Arabs round about you are hypocrites. . . . They are obstinate in hypocrisy.  Thou knowest them not, but We know them.  Twice shall we punish them, and in addition shall they be sent to grievous penalty” (9:101).  These Arabs were not exempted from the general conscription and were forced into the march.

But there was opposition in Medina itself amongst the ansArs under the very nose of the Prophet, and many Medinans put forward all kinds of excuses.  “If there had been immediate gain in sight, and journey easy, they would all without doubt have followed thee,” Allah tells Muhammad (QurAn 9:42).

The Prophet warns these recalcitrants that “unless ye go forth, Allah will punish you with a grievous penalty and put others in your place.  But Him you would not harm in the least.  For Allah has power over all things” (QurAn 9:39).

But Muhammad did not leave matters with divine threats.  He also took more secular measures.  For example, Ibn HishAm’s biography of Muhammad tells us that when Muhammad learned that certain men opposed to the expedition were meeting at the house of Suwaylim the Jew, he sent Talha with some men to burn the house.  This effectively dealt with them.  One of the victims, Al-DahhAk, sang: “My salams to you, I’ll ne’er do the like again / I’m afraid.  He whom fire surrounds is burned.”3


Eventually a large army gathered and encamped in the outskirts of Medina, although many of its members were still disgruntled.  According to some traditions, those who assembled but stayed back were as numerous as those who actually went.  ’Abdullah ibn Ubayy, the leader of the “doubters” or “hypocrites” of the QurAn, was also there in considerable force.  But eventually he did not go, probably for reasons of old age (he died a few months later).  The ansArs too were not very numerous.  According to some traditions, the expedition was thirty thousand strong, one-third of which was cavalry.

’AlI was left behind to maintain order among Muhammad’s wives and possibly also to keep a watch on Medina.  But some people insinuated that he was being left behind because he would have been more of a liability than an asset on such an expedition.  ’AlI was angered and came out with his armor on.  Muhammad pacified him by saying: “They lie. I left you behind because of what I had left behind, so go back and represent me in my family and yours.  Are you not content, ’AlI, to stand to me as Aaron stood to Moses?” This satisfied ’AlI.


When the expedition reached its destination, it found there was not much to do, because the Byzantine army, which supposedly had been assembling on the frontiers, was nowhere in sight.  So to occupy his time during the ten days he stayed in TabUk, Muhammad accepted the submission of three Jewish settlements and two Christian princes, which was easily done with such a large show of force.  To Yuhanna b. Ru’ba, the Christian prince of Ayala, he wrote the following: “Peace be on you!  I praise God for you. . . . I will not fight against you until I have written thus unto you.  Believe, or else pay tribute.  And be obedient unto the Lord and his Prophet and the messengers of His Prophet.  Honour them and clothe them with excellent vestments. . . . Specially clothe Zaid with excellent garments. . . . But if you oppose and displease them, I will not accept from you a single thing, until I have fought against you and taken captive your little ones and slain the elders.  For I am the Apostle of the Lord in truth.” The prince readily submitted and became a tributary.


When Muhammad returned to Medina, he was determined to deal firmly with those who had failed to accompany him.  Of the many who had remained behind, three were ansArs who had been loyal followers of Muhammad: MurAra, HilAl, and Ka’b, the subject of our discussion in this chapter.  Ka’b, who was a poet, expressed his repentance for not joining the TabUk expedition.  According to him: “I never remained behind Allah’s Messenger from any expedition which he undertook except the Battle of TabUk and that of the Battle of Badr.  So far as the Battle of Badr is concerned, nobody was blamed for remaining behind as Allah’s Messenger and the Muslims did not set out for attack but for waylaying the caravan of the Quraish, but it was Allah Who made them confront their enemies without their intention to do so.”

Protesting his loyalty to the Prophet, Ka’b says: “I had the honour to be with Allah’s Messenger on the night of ’Aqaba when we pledged our allegiance4 to Islam and it was more dear to me than my participation in Battle of Badr.” Ka’b tells us that in undertaking this journey to TabUk, the “holy prophet had in his mind the idea of threatening the Christians of Arabia in Syria and those of Rome [i.e., the Byzantine Empire]”; he says the expedition was big, “more than ten thousand people.” He also tells us that “when Allah’s Messenger intended to set out on an expedition, he kept it as a secret.” But this expedition was a different thing.  “Allah’s Messenger set out for this expedition in extremely hot season; the journey was long and the land [which the army had to traverse] was waterless and he had to confront a large army, so he informed the Muslims about the actual situation, so that they should adequately equip themselves for his expedition.”

Ka’b had no excuse for remaining behind, neither age nor health nor lack of means.  “Never did I possess means enough and my circumstances more favourable than at this occasion. . . . I had never before this expedition simultaneously in my possession two rides.” Though eminently qualified to participate, Ka’b went on postponing his preparations till one day he found, to his dismay, that the Prophet had departed.  “I was shocked to find that I did not find anyone like me but the people who were labelled as hypocrites or the people whom Allah granted exemption because of their incapacity,” he says.

Now he waited with dread for the return of Muhammad.  “When this news reached me that Allah’s Messenger was on his way back from TabUk I was greatly perturbed. I thought of fabricating false stories and asked myself how I would save myself from the anger of the following day.” But later, he decided to speak the truth.  “Nothing could save me but the telling of truth,” he said to himself.

The next day Muhammad arrived, and “those who had remained behind began to put forward their excuses and to take an oath before him and they were more than eighty persons.” Their excuses as well as their allegiances were accepted.  When Ka’b’s turn came, Muhammad asked him what had kept him back.  Was it lack of a mount?  But Ka’b spoke the truth.  “By Allah, I never possessed so good means . . . as I had when I stayed behind.” Muhammad dismissed him, saying that he should wait till “Allah gives a decision in your case.” (In the language of the QurAn: “There are others held in suspense for the command of God, whether He would punish them, or turn in mercy” [9:106].)

Later, some of Ka’b’s friends came to him in sympathy.  They could not compliment him for his “inability to put forward an excuse” as others did.  They also told him that two other “pious” persons (MurAra b. ar-RabIa AmirI and HilAl b. Ummayya al-QAqifI) “have met the same fate as has fallen to you and they have made the same statement as you have made, and the same verdict has been delivered in their case.” This comforted him somewhat.


Then the ordeal began.  “Allah’s Messenger forbade the Muslims to talk with three of us. . . . The people began to avoid us and their attitude towards us underwent a change and it seemed as if the whole atmosphere had turned hostile against us. . . . We spent fifty nights in this very state and my two friends confined themselves within their houses and spent most of their time in weeping.” Ka’b himself went to the mosque for prayer to catch the Prophet’s eye, but “he looked at me and when I cast a glance at him he turned away his eyes from me.”

Even his close relatives and friends avoided him.  He says: “When the harsh treatment of the Muslims towards me extended to a considerable time, I walked until I climbed upon the wall of the garden of AbU QutAda, and he was my cousin, and I had the greatest love for him. I greeted him but, by Allah, he did not respond to my greetings.” Ka’b repeatedly adjured him by Allah, and repeatedly protested his love for the Messenger of Allah, but QutAda “kept quiet.”

While he was enduring this mental torture, Ka’b received a letter from the King of GhassAn.  “As I was a scribe I read that letter,” Ka’b says.  The letter said: “It has been conveyed to us that your friend [Muhammad] is subjecting you to cruelty and Allah has not created you for a place where you are to be degraded and where you cannot find your right honour.” This communication could be very incriminating.  “As I read that letter I said, This also is a calamity, so I burnt it.”

When forty days had thus passed, a message came from Muhammad to Ka’b.  “Verily, Allah’s Messenger has commanded you to remain separate from your wife.” “Should I divorce her?” Ka’b asked the message-bearer.  He replied, “No, but only remain separate from her and don’t have sexual contact with her.” As Ka’b was young, he sent his wife away to her parents’ house to be on the safe side.  The same message was sent to the other two.  But HilAl’s wife got the Prophet’s permission to remain with her husband, as he was “a senile person.” “But don’t go near him,” Muhammad told her.  “By Allah, he has no such instinct in him.  By Allah, he spends his time in weeping,” she replied.


At last the dark days ended.  On the morning of the fiftieth day, an announcer came “from the peak of the hill of Sal saying at the top of his voice: Ka’b b. MAlik, there is glad tiding for you.” What other glad tiding was left for him in the world?  Ka’b understood at once.  “I fell down in prostration and came to realize that there was relief for me,” he says.  Meanwhile, other friends hurried with the glad tidings.  “A person galloped his horse and came from the tribe of Aslam and his horse reached me more quickly than his voice.”

Ka’b went to Muhammad in gratefulness, and the latter received him with a smiling face.  Ka’b sought his permission to give away his wealth in charity in thankfulness to Allah for the new life that had been bestowed on him.  The Prophet advised him to keep some for his own use.  Ka’b obediently followed the advice.  “I shall keep with me that part of my property which fell to my lot on the occasion of the expedition of Khaibar” (the booty won at Khaibar was quite large and considerably enriched Muhammad and his Companions), Ka’b submitted (6670-6672).

The self-abasement of the three men and their consequent pardon by Allah is celebrated in the QurAn thus: “Allah turned in mercy also to the Three who were left behind.  They felt guilty to such a degree that the earth for all its spaciousness became constrained to them, and so did their souls become straitened within them.  And they perceived that there is no fleeing from God and no refuge but to Himself.  Then He turned to them, that they might repent.  For God is easy to reconcile and Merciful” (9:118).


The Arabian peninsula had then come under Muhammad’s sway.  His followers heaved a sigh of relief.  They wanted to enjoy their new wealth in peace.  Some of them even began to sell their arms, saying: “The wars of faith are now over.” According to Al-WAqidI, the Prophet’s biographer, when Muhammad heard this, he said: “There shall not cease from the midst of my people a party engaged in crusades for the truth, even until Antichrist appear.”5


At the end of the “Book of Repentance,” there is a brief but interesting hadIs.  Anas reports: “A person was charged with fornication with the slave-girl of Allah’s Messenger.  Thereupon Allah’s Messenger said to ’AlI: Go and strike off his neck.  ’AlI went to the person and found him in a well cooling his body.  ’AlI said to him: Come out, and as he took hold of his hand and brought him out, he found that his sexual organ had been cut.  Hazrat ’AlI refrained from striking his neck.  He came to Allah’s Apostle and said: Allah’s Messenger, he has not even the sexual organ with him” (6676).

This is an interesting hadIs and conceals as much as it reveals.  The slave-girl it mentions is none other than Muhammad’s own Coptic concubine, Mary, the center of great jealousy in the harem; she was never treated with equality by the other wives of Muhammad, particularly ’Aisha and Hafza, who belonged to the Quraish blue blood.  We have already mentioned the incident which caused so much commotion and scandal in the harem.  Peace was eventually restored, but in order to avoid further complications, Mary was kept separately in a distant lodging in the upper quarter of Medina, with a male Coptic slave to help her in fetching wood and water.  But the wives of Muhammad took their revenge by spreading rumors that the two Egyptians were having illicit relations.  Muhammad felt uneasy and jealous and sent ’AlI to punish him. (Where are the four witnesses?) When ’AlI arrived on the scene with sword in hand, he discovered that the slave was a eunuch.  This saved the poor man’s life. (TArikh TabarI, vol. I, p. 504.)


1For a fuller discussion, see our book The Word as Revelation (Publishers Impex India, 2/18 Ansari Road, New Delhi- 110 002).

2He sang: “Whenever the Prophet gave thought to an unbeliever, / I got to him first with tongue and hand.” (SIrat RasUl Allah, p. 789.)

3SIrat RasUl Allah, p. 783.

4This is a reference to the second Pledge of ’Aqabah, a place near Mina in Mecca, where seventy-three men and two women of Medina took a pledge in A.D. 620 to shelter and protect Muhammad in Medina.

5W. Muir, Life of Mahomet, vol. IV, p. 201; also TabaqAt, vol. I, p. 505.

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