THE SEEDS OF DIVISION HAD BEEN SOWN. MUHAMMAD’S WIVES, fathers-in-law, sons-in-law, cousins, daughters, aides, closest companions—everyone would be drawn into it as the seeds took root. But as Muhammad lay dying, it was the wives who were in control. It was they who guarded the sickroom, who determined if he was well enough to receive visitors or so weak that even the closest companions should be turned away; they who had argued about whose chamber he should be taken to until he insisted that it be Aisha’s; and they who now argued over which medicine to give him, even about whether to give him any medicine at all.
As the life slowly seeped out of the Prophet, the disputes increased over who should be allowed in to see him and who not. The few times he mustered the strength to make it clear exactly whom he wanted to see, they argued also about that. Even as he was helpless to prevent it, the dying man could see his worst fears coming true.
There was the time when he called for Ali, who spent most of those days studying and praying in the mosque, but Aisha lobbied instead for her father. “Wouldn’t you rather see Abu Bakr?” she said. Her cowife Hafsa countered by suggesting her own father. “Wouldn’t you rather see Omar?” she asked. Overwhelmed by their insistence, Muhammad waved assent. Both Abu Bakr and Omar were called for; Ali was not.
Cajoling a mortally sick man into doing as they wanted may seem unbecoming, even heartless, but who could blame these young wives for pushing their own agenda, for promoting the interests of their fathers over those of other possible successors like Ali? They faced a daunting future, and they knew it.
They were about to be widowed, and widowed forever. They were fated, that is, to become professional widows. It was right there in the revelation that would be part of Sura 33 of the Quran. “The Prophet is closer to the Faithful than their own selves, and his wives are their mothers,” it said. “You must not speak ill of the Messenger of God, nor shall you ever wed his wives after him. This would surely be a great offense in the eyes of God.”
If the Prophet’s wives were indeed the Mothers of the Faithful, to marry any of them even after his death would be tantamount to incest.
This ban on remarriage went against the grain of custom. In seventh-century Arabia, widows were remarried almost immediately, often to a relative of the dead husband, so that the family would be preserved and protected. To forbid this was surely a striking exception to Muhammad’s forceful advocacy for the care of widows and orphans and the needy. But then that was the point: the wives were exceptional. The ban on their remarrying emphasized the idea of the Islamic community as one large family.
While this may have worked well enough for the older wives, it must have seemed at best ironic, at worst even cruel, to the youngest of them. Aisha would be a lifetime mother, even as by the same stroke of revelation, she would be denied the chance ever to become pregnant and give birth to children of her own.
Certainly there would have been no shortage of suitors for any of Muhammad’s wives. Men would have vied to marry a widow of the Messenger of God, gaining political advantage by claiming closeness to him in this way. Indeed, that may be exactly what he sought to prevent. It was not as though the idea had not already occurred to some. Aisha’s ambitious cousin Talha had once been heard to say out loud that he wanted to marry her after Muhammad’s death—a desire that resulted in his quickly being married off to one of her sisters instead. But the word of revelation had since forestalled any more such ambitions, and that word was final. Muhammad would leave behind nine widows, and not one would ever marry again.
None of them could have been more anxious about her future than Aisha. At barely twenty-one, she was about to become the lifetime widow of a man who had not even made a will. Would she have to go back to her father’s house and live out her life in a kind of premature retirement? The very idea of retirement at so young an age might have been daunting for even the most reclusive of women; for Aisha, it must have been horrifying. Used to being at the center of attention, she was not about to be relegated to the sidelines. Yet if Ali were to be designated Muhammad’s successor in a deathbed declaration, she feared this was exactly what would happen. She could expect nothing good from that, and neither could her father, Abu Bakr, who had been as deeply wounded as she herself had been by Ali’s role in the Affair of the Necklace.
Ali’s blunt advice had been a slur on Abu Bakr’s honor and that of his whole family—indeed, on all the Emigrants. That is certainly how Omar saw it. He and Abu Bakr were the two most senior of Muhammad’s advisers; close friends, both were fathers-in-law of the Prophet, despite being younger than he—Abu Bakr by two years, Omar by twelve. But where the stooped, white-haired Abu Bakr inspired affection and reverence, Omar, the stern military commander, seemed to inspire something closer to fear.
In that small sickroom, he must have been an overwhelming presence. So tall that Aisha would say that “he towered above the crowd as though he were on horseback,” Omar was always with a riding crop in his hand and always ready to use it, on man or beast. His voice was the voice of command; honed to terseness on the battlefield, it compelled obedience. The moment he came into any room, Aisha would remember, all laughter stopped. People’s voices trailed off into silence as they registered his arrival; faces turned toward him as they waited for him to speak. There was no room for small talk around Omar, no space for frivolity. His presence now at the side of the ailing Prophet was a confirmation of how serious the situation had become.
Every person in that room wanted to safeguard Islam, yet each also wanted to safeguard his or her own position. As is the way in political matters, all were convinced that the interests of the community and their own personal interests were one and the same. And all this could be sensed in the strange and disturbing incident that came to be known as the Episode of Pen and Paper.
On the ninth day of Muhammad’s illness, he appeared to recover somewhat—the kind of illusory improvement that often precedes the end. He seemed perfectly lucid as he sat up, sipped some water, and made what many believe was one final attempt to make his wishes known. But even this came laden with ambiguity.
“Bring me writing materials that I may write something for you, after which you will not be led into error,” he said.
It seems a simple enough request and a perfectly reasonable one under the circumstances, but it produced near panic among those in the room at the time: the wives, Omar, and Abu Bakr. Nobody there knew what it was Muhammad wanted to write—or rather, as tradition has it, to dictate to a scribe, since one of the basic tenets of Islam is that he could neither read nor write, however improbable that may have been in a man who was for many years a merchant trader. That would have required that he keep records of what was bought and sold, and though this was no great literary art, it did require the basic skills of literacy. But Muhammad’s assumed illiteracy acted as a kind of guarantee that the Quran had been revealed, not invented, that it was truly the word of the divine, not the result of human authorship.
Whether the dying Prophet wanted to write or to dictate, though, the question now on everyone’s mind was the same: What would it be? General guidelines for how they should proceed? Religious advice to the community he was about to leave behind? Or the one possibility that seemed most called for and yet was most feared: a will. Was the dying Prophet about to definitively name his heir?
The only way to know was to call for the pen and paper to be brought to him, but that is not what happened. No sooner had he uttered the request than everyone attending him was aware of what it might mean. What if it really was to write his will? What if it was not in their favor? What if it named Ali as his successor, not Abu Bakr or Omar or another of his close companions? And if it was indeed his will he wanted to write, why not simply speak it? Why insist on pen and paper? Did that mean that even on his deathbed, he did not trust them to carry it out and so wanted it written down, unambiguously, for all to see?
None of this did anyone there say out loud, however. Instead, they voiced concern about overstraining Muhammad in his illness. They worried about placing too much pressure on him. They argued that the sickroom should be kept quiet, and even as they stressed the need for silence, their voices rose.
It is the strangest scene. There was every sign that the man they were all so devoted to was ready to make his dying wishes known, perhaps even designate his heir, once and for all. It was the one thing everyone wanted to know, and, at the same time, the one thing nobody wanted to know. If Ali turned out to be the designated heir, nobody in that room wanted it put into writing.
Yet it is also an altogether human scene. Everyone so concerned, everyone crowded around, trying to protect Muhammad from the importuning of others, to ease life for a mortally ill man. They were all, it seemed, doing their best. But as their voices rose in debate over the pros and cons of calling for pen and paper, the terrible sensitivity to noise overtook Muhammad again. Every angry note, every high-pitched syllable seemed to drill through his brain like an instrument of torture until he could take it no more. “Leave me,” he said finally. “Let there be no quarreling in my presence.”
He was so weak by then that the words came out in a mere murmur. Only Omar managed to hear him, but that was enough. Using his commanding presence to full advantage, he laid down the law. “The Messenger of God is overcome by pain,” he said. “We have the Quran, the Book of God, and that is sufficient for us.”
It would not be sufficient, though. It could have been and perhaps should have been—Omar’s words are still used today as the model of perfect faith—but it was not. The Quran would be supplemented by the practice of Muhammad, his example in everything from the greatest events to the smallest details of everyday life, as related by those closest to him. The sunna, it would be called—the traditional Arabian word for the custom or tradition of one’s forefathers—and this was the word from which the Sunnis would eventually take their name, though the Shia would follow nearly all the same traditions.
In the meantime, Omar’s argument prevailed. His words had their intended effect, and the sickroom subsided into somewhat shamefaced silence. If Muhammad had indeed meant to name an heir, he had left it too late. He no longer had the strength to make his final wishes known, let alone to quiet down the argument. Perhaps he was not as lucid as he appeared, or perhaps everyone in the room truly did have his best interests at heart, or the community’s, but it is no contradiction to say that more was involved. Nearly every person there surely feared that Muhammad was about to put in writing what he had indicated just three months before, at the end of his last pilgrimage to Mecca—or as it would soon be called, the Final Pilgrimage.
Had he sensed then that he would never see Mecca again? That he didn’t have much longer to live? Was that why he had made such a point of singling out Ali the way he did?
Shia scholars would maintain that he had a clear intimation of mortality, and that he prefaced his declaration with these words: “The time approaches when I shall be called away by God and I shall answer that call. I am leaving you with two precious things and if you adhere to both of them, you will never go astray. They are the Quran, the Book of God, and my family, the People of the House, Ahl al-Bayt. The two shall never separate from each other until they come to me by the pool of Paradise.”
Sunni scholars dispute this. These words were added later, they say, and besides, they do not indicate that Muhammad knew he was soon to die. Like anyone of sixty-three, when the human body makes its age known in ways a younger person never imagines, he certainly knew he would not live forever, but that did not mean he expected to die in the near future. He was merely preparing the assembled Muslims for the inevitable, whenever it would come.
The time and place of Muhammad’s declaration are not in dispute. It was on March 10 in the year 632, three months before his final illness. The caravan of returning pilgrims had stopped for the night at the spring-fed water hole known as Ghadir Khumm, the Pool of Khumm. It was not the picturesque Hollywood image of an oasis, but oasis it was: a shallow pool with just enough moisture in the sand around it to nurture the undemanding roots of a few scraggly palm trees. In the barren mountains of western Arabia, even the smallest spring was a treasured landmark, and this one more than most since it was where several caravan routes intersected. Here the thousands of returning pilgrims would break up into smaller parties, some going on to Medina and other points north, others to the east. This was the last night they would all be together, and their numbers were swelled by the arrival of Ali at the head of a force returning from a mission to the Yemen. He had been successful: Yemenite opposition to Muhammad had been quelled, and taxes and tribute paid. Celebration was in the air. It was the perfect time, it seemed, for Muhammad to honor his former protégé, now a mature man of thirty-five, a warrior returning with mission accomplished.
That evening, after they had watered the camels and horses, after they had cooked and eaten and chosen sleeping places under the palms, Muhammad ordered a raised platform made out of palm branches with camel saddles placed on top—a kind of makeshift desert pulpit—and at the end of the communal prayer he climbed on top of it. With that flair for the dramatic gesture for which he was famed, he called on Ali to climb onto the pulpit alongside him, reaching out his hand to help the younger man up. Then he raised Ali’s hand high in his own, forearm pressed along forearm in the traditional gesture of allegiance, and in front of the thousands of people gathered below them, he honored the younger man with a special benediction.
“He of whom I am the master, of him Ali is also the master,” he said. “God be the friend of he who is his friend, and the enemy of he who is his enemy.”
It seemed clear enough at the time. Certainly Omar thought it was. He came up to Ali and congratulated him. “Now morning and evening you are the master of every believing man and woman,” he said.
Surely this meant that Omar had taken Muhammad’s declaration to mean that Ali was now formally his heir, and it is hard to imagine that Omar was the only one to understand Muhammad’s words this way. But again, there is that fatal ambiguity. If Muhammad had indeed intended this as a formal designation, why had he not simply said so? Why rely on symbolism instead of a straightforward declaration? In fact, why had he not declared it during the hajj, in Mecca, when the greatest concentration of Muslims were all in one place? Was this just a spontaneous outpouring of love and affection for his closest kinsman, or was it intended as more?
In the three months to come, as in the fourteen hundred years since, everything was up for interpretation, including what it was exactly that Muhammad had said. We know what words were used, but what did they mean? Arabic is a language of intricate subtleties. The word usually translated as “master” is mawla, which can mean leader, or patron, or friend and confidant. It all depends on context, and context is infinitely debatable. Omar could simply have been acknowledging what every Muslim, Shia and Sunni alike, still acknowledges, which is that Ali was a special friend to all Muslims.
Moreover, the second part of Muhammad’s declaration at Ghadir Khumm was the standard formula for pledging allegiance or friendship throughout the Middle East of the time—“God be the friend of he who is your friend, the enemy of he who is your enemy”—the formula much degraded in modern political parlance into the misguidedly simplistic “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But even in its original form, this did not necessarily imply inheritance. As a declaration of trust and confidence in Ali, it was accepted by all. But did that mean it was a declaration of Ali as the Prophet’s successor?
The more things seemed to be clear, the less clear they had become.
What would Muhammad have written if the pen and paper had arrived? That Ali would be his khalifa, his successor, say the Shia. Who knows? say the Sunnis—a matter of no importance, blown out of all proportion by the overactive imaginations of the Shia faithful. After all, if there are any number of ways to interpret a written document, there are an infinite number of ways to interpret one that was never written at all.
There can be no resolution to such an argument. Everyone claimed to know the answer—everyone still does—but the early biographies and histories report what people did and what they said, not what they thought or intended. And the crux of the argument hinges not on what happened but on what it meant.
As always, the question is what Muhammad was thinking—a question that will be asked in turn about Ali too, and, after him, about his son Hussein. What did they intend? What did they know or not know? Unanswerable questions all, which is why the wrenching rift in Islam is so enduring. Despite all the impassioned claims, all the religious certainties and fiery oratory and ghastly massacres to come, the enduring irony is that “absolute” truth is the one thing that can never be established. It does not exist even in science; how much less so in history.
All we know for sure is that in the grip of fever, blinded by those agonizing headaches that made every sound seem as if it were piercing into his skull, Muhammad was no longer in any condition to impose his will. The pen and paper never arrived, and by dawn the next morning he was so weak he could barely move.
He knew then that the end was near because he made one last request, and this one was granted. He was to be washed with seven pails of water from seven different wells, he said, and though he did not explain it, all his wives were certainly aware that this was part of the ritual for washing a corpse. They washed him, and once he was in a state of ritual purity, he asked to be taken across the courtyard to morning prayers in the mosque.
It took two men, Ali and his uncle Abbas, to support him, one on either side of him, his arms around their necks. The few yards from Aisha’s chamber to the mosque itself must have seemed an infinite distance, and the shade of the mosque an exquisite relief from the blinding sun. When they reached it, Muhammad gestured to be seated beside the pulpit, where he could watch as his old friend Abu Bakr led the prayers in his place.
Those who were there remembered the Prophet smiling as the voice of his loyal companion sounded through the building. They said his face was radiant, though there is no knowing if it was the radiance of faith or the radiance of fever and impending death. Perhaps it was the radiance of their own faith, of their gratitude at seeing him there. They watched as he sat and listened to the chanting of the words he had first heard from the angel Gabriel, and persuaded themselves that it was not the last time. But once the prayers were over and Ali and Abbas had carried him back to Aisha’s chamber, Muhammad had only a few hours left.
Some were more clearsighted than others. “I swear by God that I saw death in the Prophet’s face,” Ali’s uncle told him after they had settled the sick man back onto his pallet and left Aisha’s chamber. Now was the last chance to clarify the matter of succession. “Let us go back and ask. If authority be with us, we shall know it, and if it be with others, we will ask him to direct them to treat us well.”
But Ali would hear nothing of it. “By God I will not,” he said. “If it is withheld from us, none after him will give it to us.” Not even Ali, it seemed, was ready for too much clarity.
By then, in any case, it was too late. Even as the two men were talking, Muhammad lapsed into unconsciousness, and this time he did not recover. By noon of that Monday, June 8 in the year 632, he was dead.
He died, Aisha would say, with his head on her breast—or, as the original Arabic has it with vivid delicacy, “between my lungs and my lips.” That is the Sunni version. But the Shia say that Muhammad’s head lay not on Aisha’s breast but on Ali’s. It was Ali’s arms that cradled the dying prophet in his last moments, they say, and Ali who heard the Prophet, with his dying breath, repeat his chilling last words three times: “Oh God, have pity on those who will succeed me.”
Who held the dying prophet matters. Whose ears heard that final breath, whose skin it touched, whose arms supported him as he passed from life to death matter with particular intensity. It is as though his last breath had carried his spirit, leaping from his body at the precise moment of death to enter the soul of the one who held him. That was the person who held not only the past but the future of Islam in his arms. Or hers.