IF THERE WAS A SINGLE MOMENT IT ALL BEGAN, IT WAS THAT OF Muhammad’s death. Even the Prophet was mortal. That was the problem. It was as though nobody had considered the possibility that he might die, not even Muhammad himself.
Did he know he was dying? He surely must have. So too those around him, yet nobody seemed able to acknowledge it, and this was a strange blindness on their part. Muhammad was sixty-three years old, after all, a long life for his time. He had been wounded several times in battle and had survived no fewer than three assassination attempts that we know of. Perhaps those closest to him could not conceive of a mere illness bringing him down after such concerted malice against him, especially now that Arabia was united under the banner of Islam.
The very people who had once opposed Muhammad and plotted to kill him were now among his senior aides. Peace had been made, the community united. It wasn’t just the dawn of a new age; it was morning, the sun bright, the day full of promise. Arabia was poised to step out of the background as a political and cultural backwater and take a major role on the world stage. How could its leader die on the verge of such success? Yet dying he definitely was, and after all the violence he had seen—the battles, the assassination attempts—he was dying of natural causes.
The fever had begun innocuously enough, along with mild aches and pains. Nothing unusual, it seemed, except that it did not pass. It came and went, but each time it returned, it seemed worse. The symptoms and duration—ten days—seem to indicate bacterial meningitis, doubtless contracted on one of his military campaigns and, even today, often fatal.
Soon blinding headaches and wrenching muscle pain weakened him so much that he could no longer stand without help. He began to drift in and out of sweat-soaked semiconsciousness—not the radiant trance in which he had received the Quranic revelations but a very different, utterly debilitating state of being. His wives wrapped his head in cloths soaked in cold water, hoping to draw out the pain and reduce the fever, but if there was any relief, it was only temporary. The headaches grew worse, the throbbing pain incapacitating.
At his request, they had taken him to the chamber of Aisha, his favorite wife. It was one of nine built for the wives against the eastern wall of the mosque compound, and in keeping with the early ethic of Islam—simplicity, no inequalities of wealth, all equal as believers—it was really no more than a one-room hut. The rough stone walls were covered over with reed roofing; the door and windows opened out to the courtyard of the mosque. Furnishings were minimal: rugs on the floor and a raised stone bench at the back for the bedding, which was rolled up each morning and spread out again each night. Now, however, the bedding remained spread out.
It was certainly stifling in that small room even for someone in full health, for this was June, the time when the desert heat builds to a terrible intensity by midday. Muhammad must have struggled for each breath. Worst of all, along with the headaches came a painful sensitivity to noise and light. The light could be dealt with: a rug hung over the windows, the heavy curtain over the doorway kept down. But quiet was not to be had.
A sickroom in the Middle East then, as now, was a gathering place. Relatives, companions, aides, supporters—all those who scrambled to claim closeness to the center of the newly powerful religion—came in a continual stream, day and night, with their concerns, their advice, their questions. Muhammad fought for consciousness. However sick, he could not ignore them; too much depended on him.
Outside, in the courtyard of the mosque, people were camped out, keeping vigil. They refused to believe that this illness could be anything but a passing trial, yet they were in a terrible dilemma, for they had seen too many people die of just such sickness. They knew what was likely to happen, even as they denied it. So they prayed and they waited, and the sound of their prayers and concern built to a constant, unrelenting hum of anxiety. Petitioners, followers, the faithful and the pious, all wanted to be where news of the Prophet’s progress would be heard first—news that would then spread by word of mouth from one village to another along the eight-mile-long oasis of Medina, and from there onto the long road south to Mecca.
But in the last few days, as the illness worsened, even that steady murmur grew hushed. The whole of the oasis was subdued, faced with the inconceivable. And hovering in the air, on everyone’s mind but on nobody’s lips, at least in public, was the one question never asked out loud. If the impossible happened, if Muhammad died, who would succeed him? Who would take over? Who would lead?
It might all have been simple enough if Muhammad had had sons. Even one son. Though there was no strict custom of a leader’s power passing on to his firstborn son at death—he could always decide on a younger son or another close relative instead—the eldest son was traditionally the successor if there was no clear statement to the contrary. Muhammad, however, had neither sons nor a designated heir. He was dying intestate—abtar, in the Arabic, meaning literally curtailed, cut off, severed. Without male offspring.
If a son had existed, perhaps the whole history of Islam would have been different. The discord, the civil war, the rival caliphates, the split between Sunni and Shia—all might have been averted. But though Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, had given birth to two sons alongside four daughters, both had died in infancy, and though Muhammad had married nine more wives after her death, not one had become pregnant.
There was surely talk about that in Medina, and in Mecca too. Most of the nine marriages after Khadija had been political; as was the custom among all rulers of the time, they were diplomatic alliances. Muhammad had chosen his wives carefully in order to bind the new community of Islam together, creating ties of kinship across tribes and across old hostilities. Just two years earlier, when Mecca had finally accepted Islam and his leadership, he had even married Umm Habiba, whose father had led Mecca’s long and bitter opposition to him. But marital alliances were sealed by children. Mixed blood was new blood, free of the old divisions. For a leader, this was the crucial point of marriage.
Most of Muhammad’s wives after Khadija did indeed have children, but not by him. With the sole exception of the youngest, Aisha, they were divorcées or widows, and their children were by previous husbands. There was nothing unusual in this. Wealthy men could have up to four wives at the same time, with Muhammad allowed more in order to meet that need for political alliance, but women also often had two, three, or even four husbands. The difference was that where the men had many wives simultaneously, the women married serially, either because of divorce—women divorced as easily as men at the time—or because their previous husbands had died, often in battle.
This meant that the whole of Mecca and Medina was a vast interlocking web of kinship. Half brothers and half sisters, in-laws and cousins, everyone at the center of Islam was related at least three or four different ways to everyone else. The result beggars the modern Western idea of family. In seventh-century Arabia, it was a far-reaching web of relationships that defied anything so neatly linear as a family tree. It was more of a dense forest of vines, each one spreading out tendrils that then curled around others only to fold back in on themselves and reach out again in yet more directions, binding together the members of the new Islamic community in an intricate matrix of relationship no matter which tribe or clan they had been born into. But still, blood mattered.
There were rumors that there was in fact one child born to Muhammad after Khadija—born to Mariya the Copt, an Egyptian slave whom Muhammad had freed and kept as a concubine, away from the mosque compound—and that indeed, the child had been a boy, named Ibrahim, the Arabic for Abraham. But unlike the ancestor for whom he was named, this boy never grew to adulthood. At seventeen months old, he died, and it remains unclear if he ever actually existed or if, in a culture in which sons were considered a sign of their fathers’ virility, he was instead a kind of legendary assurance of the Prophet’s honor.
Certainly any of the wives crowded around Muhammad’s sickbed would have given her eyeteeth—all her teeth, in fact—to have had children by him. To have been the mother of his children would have automatically granted her higher status than any of the other wives. And to bear the son of the Prophet? His natural heir? There could be no greater honor. So every one of them surely did her utmost to become pregnant by him, and none more than Aisha, the first wife he had married after the death of Khadija.
The youngest of the nine, the favorite, and by far the most controversial, Aisha was haunted by her childlessness. Like the others, she must certainly have tried, but in vain. Perhaps it was a sign of Muhammad’s ultimate loyalty to the memory of Khadija, the woman who had held him in her arms when he was in shock, trembling from his first encounter with the divine—the first revelation of the Quran—and assured him that he was indeed Rasul Allah, the Messenger of God. Perhaps only Khadija could be the matriarch, and only her eldest daughter, Fatima, could be the mother of Muhammad’s treasured grandsons, Hasan and Hussein.
There can be no question of impotence or sterility on Muhammad’s part; his children by Khadija were proof of that. No question either of barrenness on the part of the later wives, since all except Aisha had children by previous husbands. Perhaps, then, the multiply married Prophet was celibate. Or as Sunni theologians would argue in centuries to come, perhaps this late-life childlessness was the price of revelation. The Quran was the last and final word of God, they said. There could be no more prophets after Muhammad, no male kin who could assert special insight or closeness to the divine will, as the Shia would claim. This is why Khadija’s two infant boys had to die; they could not live lest they inherit the prophetic gene.
All we know for sure is that in all nine marriages after Khadija, there was not a single pregnancy, let alone a son, and this was a major problem.
Muhammad was the man who had imposed his will—the will of God—on the whole of the vast Arabian Peninsula. He had done it in a mere two decades, since the angel Gabriel’s first appearance to him. Iqra, “recite,” the angel had told him, and thus the stirring opening lines of the Quran—“the Recitation”—came into being. Further revelations had come steadily, and in the most beautiful Arabic anyone had ever heard, transcendent poetry that was taken as a guarantee of its divine origin, since surely no illiterate trader like Muhammad was capable of creating such soul-stirring beauty on his own. He was literally the Messenger, the man who carried the revealed word of God.
As Islam spread through the towns, oases, and nomadic tribes of Arabia, they had all prospered. The accrued wealth of taxes and tribute was now that of the Islamic community as a whole. But with a public treasury and publicly owned lands, it was all the more important that their leader leave a will—that he designate his successor or at least establish clear guidelines for how his successor was to be determined.
What did he intend to happen after his death? This is the question that will haunt the whole tragic story of the Sunni-Shia split, though by its nature, it is unanswerable. In everything that was to follow, everyone claimed to have insight into what the Prophet thought and what he wanted. Yet in the lack of a clear and unequivocal designation of his successor, nobody could prove it beyond any shadow of doubt. However convinced they may have been that they were right, there were always those who would maintain otherwise. Certainty was a matter of faith rather than fact.
It is clear that Muhammad knew that he would die, if not quite yet. He had no illusions of his own immortality. True, he was still full of vitality—his gait had been strong until the illness struck, his build solid and muscular, and only a close observer could have counted the few white strands in what was still a full head of dark, braided hair—but those three assassination attempts must have made him more aware than most that his life could be cut short. On the other hand, a close brush with death is sometimes the renewed impetus for life. Indeed, the most serious of those attempts to kill him had been a major turning point in the establishment of Islam.
That had been ten years earlier, when his preaching had so threatened the aristocrats of his native Mecca. His message was a radical one, aimed above all at the inequities of urban life, for despite the prevailing image of seventh-century Arabia as nomadic, most of its population had been settled for several generations. Social identity was still tribal, however; your status was determined by what tribe you were born into, and no tribe was wealthier or more powerful than the Quraysh, the urban elite of Mecca.
The Quraysh were merchant traders, their city a central point on the north-south trade route that ran the length of western Arabia. It had become so central less because of any geographical advantage—if anything, it involved a slight detour—than because it was home to the Kaaba. This cube-shaped shrine housed numerous regional deities, many of them said to be offspring of a higher, more remote deity known simply as Allah, “the God.” Mecca was thus a major pilgrimage center, and since intertribal rivalries were suspended within its walls during pilgrimage months, it also provided a safe venue for large trading fairs.
This combination of pilgrimage and commerce proved highly profitable. The Quraysh skillfully melded faith and finance, charging fees for access to the Kaaba, tolls on trade caravans, and taxes on commercial transactions. But the wealth they generated was not shared by all. The traditional tribal principle of caring for all its members had not survived the passage into urban life, so that while some clans within the tribe prospered, others did not. It was these others with whom Muhammad’s message would first resonate.
The poor, the orphaned, the enslaved—all were equal in the eyes of God, Muhammad taught. What tribe you were born to, what clan within that tribe, what household within that clan—none of this mattered. No one group had the right to raise itself up above others. To be Muslim—literally to submit yourself to God’s will—was to forsake all the old divisiveness. It meant no more tribe against tribe or rich against poor. They were one people, one community, bound together in the simple but stunning acknowledgment that there was no god but God.
It was an egalitarian message, as revolutionary in its time and place as that of an earlier prophet in first-century Palestine. And to those who controlled the city’s wealth, it was downright subversive, a direct challenge to the status quo of power. As Muhammad’s following increased, the Meccan elite had done all they could to silence him, but everything they tried, from vilification to boycott, had failed. Finally, a group of leading Meccans, one from every major clan of the Quraysh, banded together in the dark outside Muhammad’s house, knives at the ready, waiting for him to emerge for dawn prayers. Warned of the plot just in time, he fled Mecca under cover of night along with a single companion and headed for the oasis city of Medina to the north, where he was welcomed first as a peacemaker between feuding tribes, then as a leader. The year of his nighttime flight for refuge—the hijra, or emigration—would become the foundation year of the Islamic calendar: 622 A.D., or the year One A.H., After the Hijra.
Under Muhammad, the oasis city became the political center of Arabia, threatening to eclipse Mecca to the south. The power struggle between the two cities would include two major battles and countless skirmishes, but eight years after forcing Muhammad out, Mecca had finally accepted his leadership. The fatah, they would call it, the “opening” of the city to Islam. The Kaaba had been rededicated to the one God, Allah, and Muhammad had acted on his message of unity by reaching across the aisle, as it were, and welcoming many of the Meccan elite into the leadership of Islam.
Friends could be as dangerous as long-term enemies, though. Muhammad certainly knew that assassination could also be used by those closest to you. Throughout the world of the time, it had long been a prime pathway to power. Appoint your successor, and that appointee, no matter how trusted, might always be tempted to speed up events, to preempt the natural life cycle by artificial means. A carefully crafted poison in a honeyed drink or a dish of succulent lamb? Such things were not unknown. In fact, they were soon to become all too familiar.
But what is most likely is that Muhammad knew that the moment he formally appointed a successor, he would be introducing divisiveness into the newly united community of Islam—or, rather, feeding into the divisiveness that already existed. He would set in motion the web of resentments and jealousies that had accumulated as people jockeyed for influence and position, as they will around any man of charisma, let alone a prophet. However hard he may have tried to smooth them over, disagreements that had merely simmered beneath the surface would become all too visible. Factions would form, arguments develop, his whole life’s work teeter on the edge of collapse. Perhaps that was inevitable, and he simply could not bring himself to endorse the inevitable. He had put an end to intertribal warfare; he had empowered the powerless; he had overthrown the old aristocracy of Mecca, expelled the old pagan gods, and founded the world’s third great monotheistic faith. He had achieved what had seemed the impossible, but could the impossible survive him?
There are signs that Muhammad was all too aware of what would happen after his death. One tradition has it that his last words were: “Oh God, have pity on those who succeed me.” But then what did he mean by that? Was it an expression of humility? Or perhaps an invocation to the one God to help his people? Or did Muhammad, with his final breath, foresee the terrible saga of blood and tears to come? There is no way of knowing. As the old Arabic saying has it, “Only God knows for sure.” Words are always subject to interpretation. Thoughts can only be imagined, and that is the work of novelists. We have to rely on the basic stuff of history, the accounts of those who were there. And each one had his or her own angle, his or her own interest in the outcome.
Sunni scholars would argue in centuries to come that Muhammad had such faith in the goodwill and integrity of all Muslims that he trusted to them, and to God, to ensure that the right decision be made. He saw the community itself as sacred, these scholars would argue, meaning that any decision it made would be the correct one. But Shia scholars would maintain that Muhammad had long before made the divinely guided choice of his closest male relative—his son-in-law Ali—as his successor. He had done so many times, in public, they would say, and if Ali’s enemies had not thwarted the Prophet’s will, he would certainly have done so again, one last time, as he lay dying in that small chamber alongside the mosque.
In those ten final days of Muhammad’s life, everyone who plays a major role in this story was in and out of that sickroom, in particular one woman and five men, each of them a relative, and each with a direct interest in the matter of who would succeed the Prophet. The men included two of his fathers-in-law, two of his sons-in-law, and a brother-in-law, and indeed all five would eventually succeed him, claiming the title of Caliph—the khalifa, or successor, of Muhammad. But how that would happen, and in what order, would be the stuff of discord and division for fourteen centuries to come.
Whatever divisions may have existed between the men as Muhammad lay dying, however, they paled compared with that between Aisha, the childless favorite whose room they were in, and Ali, the youngest of the five men. As Muhammad’s first cousin and his adopted son as well as his son-in-law, he was the Prophet’s nearest male relative. Yet Aisha and Ali, the two people closest of all to Muhammad on a daily basis, had barely been able to speak a civil word to each other for years, even in his presence.
The tension between the two surely made the air in that sickroom all the more stifling, yet it seemed that not even the Prophet could foresee how their mutual animosity would determine the future of Islam. After all, how could something as seemingly small as a necklace lost seven years earlier have set the scene for the centuries of division that lay ahead?