When the Prophet Muhammed died in 632 AD, it triggered a succession crisis amongst his followers. After the dust settled, two divergent branches of the faith remained – Sunni and Shi’a. It is a deeply misunderstood story that has been unearthed and repackaged in the 21st century to inflame political animus and give superficial labels to complex tensions. In this episode, we will examine the very human, very relatable drama that unfolded against the backdrop of the rise of the Islamic Empire in the 7th century. THE CAST Muhammed – The Prophet. A merchant-turned-messenger from God. Aisha – The Prophet’s favorite wife; Charming, fiery, and envious. Ali – The Prophet’s cherished son-in-law. Humble, loyal, and honorable to a fault. Abu Bakr – Aisha’s father, Muhammed’s close friend, and first Caliph. Hussein – Grandson of the Prophet. Murdered at Karbala. Martyr of the Shi’a faith.
When the Prophet Muhammed died in 632 AD, it triggered a succession crisis amongst his followers. After the dust settled, two divergent branches of the faith remained – Sunni and Shi’a. It is a deeply misunderstood story that has been unearthed and repackaged in the 21st century to inflame political animus and give superficial labels to complex tensions. In this episode, we will examine the very human, very relatable drama that unfolded against the backdrop of the rise of the Islamic Empire in the 7th century.
Muhammed – The Prophet. A merchant-turned-messenger from God.
Aisha – The Prophet’s favorite wife; Charming, fiery, and envious.
Ali – The Prophet’s cherished son-in-law. Lion of God. Humble, loyal, and honorable to a fault.
Fatima - Daughter of the Prophet and wife to Ali.
Abu Bakr – Aisha’s father, Muhammed’s close friend, and first Caliph.
Hussein – Grandson of the Prophet. Murdered at Karbala. Martyr of the Shi’a faith.
Hazleton, Lesley. The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammed.
Hazleton, Lesley. After The Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shi’a-Sunni Split in Islam.
Louer, Laurence. Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History.
Hoyland, Robert G. In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire.
Betts, Robert Brenton. The Sunni-Shi’a Divide.
Charles Rivers Editors. The History of the Sunni and Shia Split: Understanding the Divisions Within Islam.
Armstrong, Karen Keishin. MuhammedL A Prophet for Our Time.
Cole, Juan. Muhammed: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires.
Safi, Omid. Memories of Muhammed.
Holland, Tom. The Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network, and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
Welcome to Episode 18: Prophet’s Dilemma: The Sunni Shi’a Split
Every year, during a single month, millions upon millions of people converge on a small city in central Iraq. A place called Karbala.
If you were to hop in a helicopter and fly over the city of Karbala, you would see a gigantic, white rectangular structure dominating the landscape. A mosque, at the center of which sits a huge golden dome, surrounded by gilded spires and slender minarets.
And circling this mosque, are hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Some years, there are millions. A river of humanity, walking around the structure. Over and over again. It’s more people than the naked eye can really process, but as you look closer at this procession, you see a panorama of colors. White, green, red, black, and gold. You see flags snapping and billowing in the breeze. Banners rising high into the air. People packed so tight and so dense that it’s hard to distinguish where one person ends and the other begins.
As you get closer, in your hypothetical helicopter, you’d start to hear a tremendous amount of noise. A deafening wall of sound. You’d hear the steady, hypnotic beat of drums. You’d hear rhythmic chants and singing blaring through loudspeakers, creating a call and response pattern with the pilgrims circling the mosque.
Most Western eyes and ears would, understandably, have no clue what they were looking at. Is this a celebration? A state fair? A music festival? What is this? Well, this mind-blowing display of people, sound and architecture is called Ashura. It is a Shi’a Muslim religious festival that takes place every year on the tenth day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic lunar calendar.
Ashura is, at its core, an expression of grief and remembrance. Remembrance of something that happened more than 1300 years ago. Before the mosque was built. Before the city existed. Back when Karbala was just a lonely scrap of desert.
On October 10th, in the year 680 AD, a battle took place at Karbala. Although “battle” would be a strong word for what actually happened. In reality, 72 travelers were surrounded by an army, cut off from their water supply for three days, starved to exhaustion and then massacred. All the men had their heads cut off, and the women and children were hauled away in chains. The bodies were left to rot in the desert, at the very same spot where the mosque in Karbala stands today.
Violence and atrocity were not rare events in the 7th century. That’s a fact. Hell, they’re not even rare in the 21st century. So why is *this* violent atrocity so special? Well, it’s special because of *who* was left headless out there in the desert. These 72 travelers were led by a man named Hussein. And Hussein was the last male blood relative of the Prophet Muhammed.
Muhammed, as most of you probably know, was the founder of Islam. The last in a chain of allegedly divine prophets that included Abraham, Moses, and Jesus of Nazareth. And less than 50 years after the Prophet Muhammed’s death, his only grandson was butchered at Karbala. Snuffing out for good the bloodline that had founded Islam in the first place.
For reasons that will become much clearer over the course of the next hour or so, this event is a huge deal. It holds an astronomical amount of significance for Shi’a Muslims, one of the two main branches of Islam. The other, more dominant branch, being Sunni.
In the modern age, Shi’a Muslims remember the murder of Hussein every year during Ashura. And that grief manifests in many different ways, ranging from benign dramatization to outright self-mutilation.
Something you will often see, and you can pull up footage of this on YouTube at the drop of the hat, is a more extreme form of mourning for Hussein. Shi’a men and boys, dressed all in white will walk down the street in vast processions. Like a sea of white. And in their hands are long knives, sharpened to a razor’s edge.
To emulate the suffering that Hussein endured at Karbala, they will cut their scalps and faces with these knives. What they do is kind-of tap the blades on their foreheads. Sometimes a few times. Sometimes dozens of times. Tap-tap-tap. It can range from a gentle nick, to forceful sustained chops onto their own foreheads.
The result, as the day goes on, is a sea of men and boys (some as young as 9 years old) who are covered in blood. Because when the head gets cut it, even a small cut, it bleeds a lot. And by the end of the day, all those clean white clothes are drenched in red. To the uninitiated eye, it can be an extremely unnerving and alien visual.
But believe it or not, the scalp cutting is not even the most intense expression of Ashura penance.
The Catholics have long held a monopoly on self-flagellation in the popular imagination. Pope John Paul II was known to whip himself with a belt in the privacy of his room on more than a few occasions.
But self-whipping is also very prevalent in the most extreme versions of the Ashura festival. And instead of leather belts, they use metal whips. Chains. Again, if you have a strong stomach, you can look up footage of this. Sometimes it’s just knives attached to a cat of nine-tails.
Dozens of these men will strip down to their waists. And someone will beat a drum. And at each beat of the drum they whip their backs with these metal chains and flails. As hard as they can. It’s steady, like beat. And it’s fast, too. Boom – boom -boom -boom. Back and forth. And they do this for minutes at a time. Sometimes you’ll see the younger men clench wads of white cloth between their teeth to deal with the pain.
The goal of all this is to experience some semblance of the pain Hussein experienced at Karbala, and also to….repay? his martyrdom, his sacrifice, with a sacrifice of one’s own flesh. It is a sobering testament to the raw power of belief. And the weight that history can have on the modern world.
Now the vast majority of Muslims, including most Shi’as, see this bloodletting practice as backwards, unsanitary, and, frankly a little cray-cray. It’s just not good PR for the faith. In fact, many Shi’a clerics and leaders have urged the faithful to donate blood instead as a more productive form of symbolic bloodletting. And many do.
Some communities have found creative, even philanthropic, ways of paying tribute to the Karbala story.
For example, In 2018, Shi’a Muslims in Flint, Michigan donated thousands of bottles of clean water to charity during Ashura as a symbolic remembrance of how Hussein and his followers were deprived of water for three days at Karbala.
The point is, there is a huge amount of variance among Shi’a Muslims about how to honor Hussein, who they see as a martyr. Kind of like a saint, to use a Christian term. But that feeling of grief and reverence is the same all over the world. It crosses generations and cultures and national divides. From Iran to Australia to Jamaica and India, it is a uniting factor for all Shi’a Muslims.
The reason I bring all of this up, is because the Battle of Karbala, and the outpouring of emotion and tradition it engenders is one of the most important inflection points in one of the most influential religious schisms in the history of the planet. Which brings us to the true topic of this episode.
Today we’re going to be dissecting the origins of the Sunni-Shia Divide. The split between the two main branches of Islam.
When I first picked this topic, I was immediately overwhelmed by the crushing sense of having bitten off way more than I could chew. Islam is a hot-button topic in the 21st century just on its face anyway. To wade deeper into the water and explore the internal divisions between an externally misunderstood religion is, admittedly, ambitious for a monthly podcast.
But that said, you guys know the drill. I take great pains to approach these kinds of topics with respect, nuance, and a boatload of reputable sources. I would not come to a discussion like this without the receipts. And I promise I have done my utmost to tackle this subject with the sensitivity and thoughtfulness it deserves.
This will be a secular retelling of the story, rather than a scriptural one, so if you are a Muslim listening to this, you’re bound to hear some details or anecdotes that you may not agree with. I wanted to paint as comprehensive a picture as I could, and that requires piecing a story together from diverse, often contradictory perspectives.
I have often said that each new topic on this show, is for me personally, a journey from ignorance to understanding. Because every topic for the most part is fresh for me. A lot of times I know the contours of the story, I know the personalities involved, but the resonance it has for other people is something that takes time to get your head around.
And the truth is, this is a topic that is almost a complete mystery to most people in the West. Especially America. Because our country has some baggage when it comes to Islam. For millions of Americans and Europeans, their only acquaintance with Islam is with its most fringe elements. Groups that are not representative of the two billion people who adhere to the faith. As a result, there’s a barrier of lingering distrust and otherness standing between most Americans and any true conception of what Islam’s history is, what it’s all about, who was there at the beginning, and what they actually believed.
And the Sunni-Shia divide in particular has been portrayed somewhat disingenuously by the media in recent years. It’s been painted with a broad, sloppy brush; characterized as this eternal, sectarian civil war that’s been raging non-stop for centuries. But that’s just not the case.
The inflammation of tensions between Shi’as and Sunnis is a relatively recent phenomenon. And it’s mostly about power politics, not theological debate. For most of their history, the two branches have lived in relative peace with one another. They read the same Quran. They practice most of the same rituals. They believe the same basic tenets about the Prophet and his message. Intermarriage between Sunnis and Shias is very, very common and widely accepted. But that fracture is always there in the background. And the divergence in these two competing orthodoxies can all be traced back to what is essentially a heated family dispute in the 7thcentury.
It’s actually a real shame more people aren’t familiar with the tale. The origin story of Islam and the resulting schism that tore it apart is one of the most dramatic, interesting, and emotionally moving stories that I’ve ever stumbled upon. It has all the action, political intrigue and twisty-turny plotting of anything in, say, Ancient Rome.
Honestly, you could easily change the names, relocate the events to ancient Italy, and the story would feel right at home amongst the pantheon of epic events involving figures like Caesar, Sulla, Marius, Brutus, Antony. There’s the same sense of scale, drama, emotion and loss. There are huge battles. And betrayals. And romance.
It’s an amazing story. And honestly, I’m very excited to share it with you today. With that being said, let’s jump right in.
It all starts fourteen centuries ago, in Arabia.
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Fourteen centuries ago, in Arabia, there lived a young girl named Aisha.
Aisha was 12 years old when her father told her that she would be getting married.
The prospect of an unexpected engagement like this would terrify any modern 12-year-old girl, and rightly so. Just the idea of it makes 21st-century ears bristle. After all, we live in an era where the concept of “childhood” actually exists. Where we try and shelter young people from the rigors and responsibilities of adulthood for as long as we possibly can. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
But for Aisha, living back in the 7th century, a marriage proposal at her age was expected. Relatively normal, in fact. Shelter from the unpleasant realities of life was not an option in medieval Arabia.
The year was 620 AD; And Aisha lived in a city called Mecca.
It was, geographically, in the middle of nowhere. Nestled along the western Arabian coast in the shadow of the Hijaz mountains. But while it may have been in the middle of nowhere, Mecca was at the very heart of a vibrant trade network that crisscrossed all over the Middle East. It was a vital artery in a circulatory system of caravan routes that pumped trade goods back and forth through the neighboring empires of Persia and Byzantium.
Aisha’s father, a man named Abu Bakr (remember that name), was a respected genealogist in the city. And she would’ve grown up surrounded by the constant hustle and bustle of her hometown. She would’ve seen all kinds of people from all kinds of places, carrying dazzling luxury goods like gold, ivory, medicine, and incense.
To a little girl, Mecca must’ve seemed like the center of the universe. Because trade goods were not the only thing you could find in Mecca. The city also had a wide selection of religions and belief systems.
Aisha would’ve grown up walking through the streets, hearing the prayers and chants and invocations of Mecca’s kaleidoscopic array of holy men. It was a huge spectrum of spirituality, all co-existing in a single city. There were pagans, sorcerers, and fire-worshippers. There were “people of the book”, as they were called; the Christians and Jews who occupied wide swaths of the Middle East at this time.
The city was an odd hybrid of the sacred and the salesy. Like some kind of bizarre mix between a church and a Costco. As the writer and scholar Lesley Hazelton describes in her book Muhammed, the First Muslim:
“Amulets were made from animal parts and hair, parchment and rare shrubs, pieces of gold thread and precious stones, and they could make you fertile or virile, protect you against evil or call it down on those you wished. Sideshows featured Indian fakirs walking over coals and African snake charmers, dancing monkeys and fighting roosters. Bards competed with one another in the sixth-century equivalent of poetry slams while soothsayers traded in the future, preachers in faith, and prostitutes in the flesh. Shamans went into their trances, rolling and writhing in the dust; exorcists reached deep into ailing bodies and pulled out diseased organs dripping with blood, miraculously leaving no sign of incision; wild-eyed visionaries proclaimed themselves prophets.
Even before the creation of Islam, Mecca was a holy place.
Pilgrims came from far and wide, not just to trade, but to worship. They flocked to make offerings at the Kaaba, a cubic structure located at the center of the city. The Kaaba was believed to be a gateway to the divine. A spiritual superconductor for dozens, even hundreds of gods. Big ones, small ones. Gentle ones and cruel ones. Mecca, in many ways, was the city of Gods. (Fun fact: that’s actually where we get the English word “cube”, this geometric structure in Mecca)
But then something happened.
An insignificant, 40-year-old merchant – a nobody - had come forward, saying that everything the Meccans believed was a lie. There were not hundreds of Gods, there was only one God. And if that didn’t blow their minds, what he said next did. Not only was there only one God, but this supreme deity had chosen him, this nobody merchant, as his messenger.
According to this prophet, God was only speaking through him. He wasn’t special. He wasn’t a miracle worker. He couldn’t heal the sick, he couldn’t part the Sea, he was just a conduit. A microphone into which God whispered. And all he wanted to do was share God’s message with the world.
Most people in Mecca thought this guy was either crazy or a con-man. They laugh him off. They ridicule him. They say, c‘mon is he for real? “Divine” messengers are a dime-a-dozen in Mecca. And why now? Why you? Why at forty years old do you just receive a message out of the blue from God? No way. This person was a poser. A grifter. A fake.
But someone doesn’t think he’s a fake.
Aisha’s father, Abu Bakr, sees something in this man. When the merchant-turned-Prophet spoke, it lit a spark in people. His words were beautiful, hypnotic. Anyone who listened to him recite this divine poetry was instantly filled with a sense of peace and calm. Abu Bakr couldn’t stop thinking about it. Who knows how many sleepless nights he laid awake, staring at the ceiling, thinking about the recitations he had heard.
To the shock and anger of the entire Meccan community, Abu Bakr accepts this Prophet’s message. He converts to monotheism. This was a big deal. Because Abu Bakr was a respected member of Mecca’s ruling elite. People trusted him, looked up to him. If this Prophet’s message was good enough for Abu Bakr, then there had to be some merit to it.
And as Abu Bakr spent more and more time with this man, they became very close. As close as brothers, in fact. But being the Prophet’s friend was not an easy thing.
The ruling class of Mecca did not like this monotheistic message. Not only because it ran contrary to their most sacred traditions, but it also messed with their cash flow. As an important stop on the trade routes and home to the shrines to many pagan gods, Mecca was a very lucrative piece of real estate. And communing with your gods at the holiest place in Arabia had a price of admission. You had to pay for the privilege of circling the Kaaba. As Lesley Hazelton writes:
“Piety and profit were the twin engines of their city’s prosperity.”
The Prophet’s “one-God-and-one-God-only” message, if widely accepted, would collapse the city’s carefully constructed economy, or so the Meccans believed.
In short, this Prophet was bad for business. The Meccan elite hurled constant insults at him on the street. They pushed him, they shoved him, the beat him. They threw wet trash at him and dumped blood and animal organs at him while he prayed. Abu Bakr often had to leap to the Prophet’s defense when hecklers cornered him in the street or intimidated his followers.
Abu Bakr’s young daughter Aisha remembered her father coming home one night with patches torn out of his hair and beard. He’d sustained injuries trying to defend the Prophet from attackers.
Aisha was just a child at the time. And she would have had a child’s conception of the situation in Mecca. She knew something big was going on. The adults were fighting. Her father was coming home with bruises. People in the streets were talking about this man, this prophet. They were quoting him, repeating the beautiful verses and poetry that seemed to pour out straight from the lips of Heaven.
At some point, Aisha must’ve asked what the Prophet’s name was. And her father would’ve answered, “His name is Muhammed.”
The Prophet Muhammed’s movement in Mecca began to grow. His message was egalitarian, one of of non-violence and charity that resonated deeply with the city’s less fortunate. The slaves, the poor, the beggars. And once a respected man like Abu Bakr chose to believe, there were even more converts. A movement was growing in the streets of Mecca. Something electric, something game-changing.
But then, the Prophet Muhammed was struck by a personal tragedy. His wife of 26 years, a woman named Khadija, died.
At this time, men in Arabia often took several wives, but Muhammed had bucked that trend. In his 40 years, he had only taken one wife, and an older woman at that. Which was a little unusual. It was a deeply affectionate marriage. Muhammed had loved Khadija more than anything. She had been the first person he’d told about his message from God. And even though Muhammed doubted himself, she had encouraged him to preach his message. But now, just as his movement was flowering, the woman who had supported him was gone.
Nothing could ever replace Khadija. But Abu Bakr, Muhammed’s high-status convert and closest friend, comes to him with an idea. He could see his friend was in pain. It was not right for a man to be unwed, he said. Especially one burdened with a message from God. Muhammed would need all the love and support he could get. He needed to remarry.
So Abu Bakr says, look, my daughter, Aisha, is almost of marrying age. Let’s join our families together officially. We can strengthen this growing flock with the bonds of marriage. Let’s turn a movement into a family. Muhammed, despite his grief over Khadija, agrees to Abu Bakr’s proposal. It was decided that when Aisha was of the proper age, she would marry the Prophet.
Now let’s just address the elephant in the room. Obviously – a 12-year-old girl marrying a middle-aged man is not acceptable in our 21st century, Post-Enlightenment society. And believe it or not, some sources assert that Aisha was even younger when she got married.
But it’s very important that we always examine the behavior of historical figures within the context of the times they lived in. What was normal in the past, often seems unthinkable now. But again, this is medieval Arabia, where the concept of childhood did not exist as we think of it now. Pre-teens and teenagers were pretty much considered full adults.
So, as uncomfortable as it makes us, let’s try and keep our cool about this particular facet of the story. We’ve addressed the modern cringe factor, now let’s move past it. Because as you’ll see, Aisha is too dynamic and too strong of a character to ever be reduced to some kind of passive, one-dimensional sense of victimhood.
This is a story completely dominated by men. But Aisha carves out her own place within it. Through her words and actions, she demands to be remembered in the pages of history. As we will see, she had a consequential role to play in the Sunni-Shi’a split. So back to the story.
It’s impossible to know for sure how Aisha felt about the prospect of marriage. But odds are, she was terrified. Not only would she be marrying a much older man, but a holy one at that. A messenger from God, or so many believed. The adults around her would have told her that it was the honor of her life. A great privilege. The pressure must have been unimaginable.
Before long, Aisha and Muhammed were married. When she finally spent some time alone with this venerable Prophet, she must’ve been surprised at how…human he seemed. According to Lesley Hazelton:
He had round, rosy cheeks and a ruddy complexion. He was stockily built, almost barrel-chested, which may partly account for his distinctive gait, always “leaning forward slightly as though he were hurrying toward something.” And he must have had a stiff neck, because people would remember that when he turned to look at you, he turned his whole body instead of just his head. The only sense in which he was conventionally handsome was his profile: the swooping hawk nose long considered a sign of nobility in the Middle East.
Muhammed had messy, curly black hair and wore loose, patchy robes. For a Prophet, Aisha might’ve thought, he didn’t look like much.
But then she starts talking to him. He wasn’t aloof or cold or distant, the way you might expect a divine messenger to be. He was just… a guy. Capable of warmth, humor, anxiety, and frustration. He really was just an ordinary person. And Muhammed was surprised by Aisha in turn. This girl, even as a young teenager, was a forceful, confident personality. She had a razor-sharp sense of humor, and absolutely no filter. She’d say whatever came to her mind, whenever it came to her mind. She would insist on having things her way, and in time, she became intensely protective of her new husband.
Before long, Muhammed and Aisha developed an extremely close bond. The Prophet would go on to take on several other wives as he built alliances in Mecca, as was the common practice, but Aisha always held the most prominent place among them. She was the fiercest, the bravest, and the one whom he felt comfortable around. He called her ”humayra” or “my little redhead”, because Aisha would always dye her hair with henna, making it appear a deep crimson.
He felt like he could tell her anything.
And that’s why, one night, Aisha worked up the courage. She asks Muhammed what really happened on the night he’d received his message from God. What happened in that cave? Muhammed had only ever told the full story, the full impact of the experience to one other woman on planet earth. His first wife - Khadija. And she was long gone. He needed someone else to know. Even this young girl who knew nothing about the wider world.
So, Muhammad sits her down, and tells her the truth.
The year was 610 AD. Some sources say 609. About ten years earlier.
At this time, Muhammed was a nobody. A mildly successful merchant, making his living supervising the caravans that twisted through the Arabian deserts to and from Mecca.
Orphaned at a young age, he had been adopted and raised by Bedouins tribesmen until he was six years old. As a small child, he had learned to navigate the dunes by starlight, to care for the unruly herds of camels, and to defend himself in a fight. The Bedouins eventually returned him to his extended family in Mecca, and Muhammed got a job with his Uncle, managing his caravan business.
By 610 AD, Muhammed was living a comfortable life as a merchant, happily married with 4 daughters. But there was an emptiness nagging at him. A sadness without a name. He didn’t find any comfort or spiritual satisfaction in the endless ranks of gods and goddesses that held sway over Meccan society. All those idols left him cold and numb. To Muhammed, they didn’t represent salvation or enlightenment, they represented money and fees and upcharges. Mecca was a theme park, and he craved distance from it. As Muhammed later described, these gods could “neither see, nor hear, nor hurt, nor help.”
So, he got into the habit of taking annual trips out into the mountains overlooking Mecca. Essentially solo camping trips. It was quiet. It was peaceful. Far away from the crass capitalism of Mecca. When he was out in the wilderness, he would fast and meditate. And Lesley Hazelton describes the kind of altered consciousness this kind of solitude can produce:
As the darkness thickened, so too did the silence—the kind of absolute silence that rings in the ears, a high, perfect tone that comes from everywhere and nowhere. A vibration more than a sound, really, as though the whole landscape is sentient. The rock itself seems to be alive as it releases the accumulated warmth of daytime into the cool of night, and as the stars begin their slow revolution overhead, there comes that sense of being a human all alone and yet inexorably part of something larger, a sense of life and existence far older and deeper than the superficial ambitions and everyday cruelties of human affairs.”
On a night just like that, Muhammed set up camp in a cave, and fell asleep. His muscles must have been aching from the long walks and the climbing. Mentally spent from meditation and belly aching from the fasting. He drifted off into unconsciousness.
At some point, in the middle of the night, he jolts awake. He gasps. Someone is grabbing him, crushing him, smothering him. He’s being attacked in the pitch blackness of the cave. A bandit or a robber must have slipped in while he was sleeping. Muhammed struggles against it but he can’t move. He’s completely paralyzed. Locked in a death grip.
Then he hears a voice in his ear. A booming, incomprehensible voice. And it says one word to him:
Recite what? He asks. I’m not a poet. Or a scholar. What do you want me to do?
This presence doesn’t answer. It just tightens its grip. It squeezes him harder and harder until he can barely breathe. Muhammed is dying. And just as he thinks he’s about to pass out, to be crushed to death, something flows into his lungs. Not any form of relief. Something even more violent and more painful. As Lesley Hazelton writes:
“Imagine being breathed into—inspired—with such force that your body can hardly bear it. No gentle breath from heaven here, but air being impelled into your lungs under immense pressure, as though a giant were giving you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It feels like every cell of your body is overtaken by it, and you are entirely at its mercy. Even as it gives you life, it seems to be squashing the life out of you, suffocating you under its enormous weight until it’s useless to even think of fighting against it.”
Words, verses, poetry, - whatever you want to call it - starts being pulled out of Muhammed’s. He’s speaking aloud and alone in this cave. He’s aware of what’s happening, but he can’t stop it. It’s like someone else is in the driver’s seat, and he’s locked in the trunk. In a trance, he starts reciting, speaking words that are not his own:
Recite in the name of your lord who from an embryo created the human. Recite that your lord is all-giving. Who taught by the pen. Who taught the human what he did not know before. The human being is a tyrant. He thinks his possessions make him secure. To your lord is the return of everything.”
Those, ladies and gentlemen, are some of the first verses of what would become the Quran, Islam’s holy book. But at the time, Muhammed did not feel enlightened or blessed or spiritually soothed. He felt one - and only one - visceral emotion. Fear. Indescribable, existential fear.
He wakes up covered in sweat, shivering, his lungs on fire. Without missing a beat, he knows what he has to do. Muhammed runs out of the cave, and prepares to leap off of a cliff. To kill himself. He was 100% convinced that he had gone insane. That he had suffered a psychotic break. The more superstitious part of his brain thought maybe he’d been possessed by a desert spirit – a djinn. And his first instinct was to end it all – right then and there.
But as he looks over the cliff, preparing to jump, he pauses. His thoughts must have returned to his wife or his children. We’ll never know. But he decides not to commit suicide. It would turn out to be one of the most consequential decisions in human history.
Muhammed runs through the darkness in a blind panic. He crawls over the hills and mountains in a desperate attempt to get home. To get to another human being. Some kind of tangible tether to reality. As Lesley Hazelton writes:
“[…] He came stumbling down the mountain, slipping and sliding on the loose scree, his breath hot and rasping, each inhalation needing to be struggled for until it felt like his chest would burst with the effort of it. His robe was torn, his arms and legs scratched and bruised by thorns and sharp-edged rocks in the path of his headlong flight for home.
“I have been in fear for my life,” was the first thing he said. “I think I must have gone mad.” Trembling, shuddering almost convulsively, he begged Khadija to hold him and hide him under her shawl. “Cover me, cover me,” he pleaded, his head in her lap, like a small child seeking shelter from the terrors of the night. And that terror alone was enough to convince her that what her husband had experienced was real.”
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Five years after Muhammed’s revelation on the mountain, what would be later referred to as “laylat al-qadr” or the Night of Destiny, he called all of his friends and extended family together – about 40 tribal elders.
At first, they did not know why they were there. There must have been a sense of anxiousness or unease, at the very least curiosity. All they knew was that Muhammed had something important to tell them.
In this crowd of waiting relatives, there was a 13-year-old boy, named Ali.
Ali was Muhammed’s little cousin. And like most 13-year-old kids, he was going through a bit of an awkward phase. He was a little pudgy, with skinny legs and bad eyesight. But those eyes were glued on Muhammed as the older man stood up and began addressing the group.
Muhammed explained to them what had happened five years ago on the Mountain. How he had received a message from God. How he had been chosen as Allah’s Prophet.
It had not been an easy road. After the first revelation on the mountain, God went dark on Muhammed. For two years he heard nothing. Received no divine messages. Two years of thinking he really had gone insane, or experienced some fluke possession out in the desert. Maybe God was just toying with him, being cruel?
But then, one day, the visions returned to him. The divine messages start pouring forth, assuring him that he had not been abandoned. And now was the time to spread the faith.
For three years, Muhammed quietly shared his recitations with his immediate family. But in the year 615 AD, and just a reminder that some of these dates are very fuzzy, he decided it was time to grow the flock. Or as he would claim, he was commanded by God to grow the flock. All of Mecca needed to hear God’s message. So on that night, in front of 40 members of his extended clan, Muhammed recites the words that he believed God had spoken to him.
The recitations revolved around a few central themes. Economic equality. Non-violence. Compassion for the less fortunate. Kindness. But most of all, it called for a surrender to God, or “islam” in Arabic. To completely subjugate oneself to Heaven. These were messages that contrasted starkly with the economic ruthlessness and macho-survivalist ethos of Arabian tribal culture. In today’s vernacular, the Meccans would’ve called Muhammed a tree-hugging hippie.
Well after he finishes speaking, Muhammed asks this dead-silent room of 40 people:
“God has ordered me to call you to Him. So which of you will cooperate with me in this venture, as my brother, my executor, and my successor?”
Silence. No one answers. Not a single person. Except for one. Ali, the awkward thirteen-year-old kid stands up and says:
“O prophet of God. I will be your helper in this matter!”
Years later, long after the Prophet’s death, Ali remembered what happened next. Muhammed approached the boy, put his arm around his neck, and smiled. He says:
“This is my brother, my executor, and my successor among you. Hearken to him and obey him.”
Initially Muhammed only had a handful of followers, mainly his first wife Khadija and his little cousin Ali. But as he preaches in and around Mecca, something about his recitations begins to click. There was something intangibly attractive about Muhammed’s words that just took hold of people. As the scholar Karen Armstrong writes in her biography of the Prophet:
Muhammad’s converts eagerly awaited each new revelation; after he had recited it, they would learn it by heart, and those who were literate wrote it down. They felt moved and stirred by the exquisite language of their scripture, which, they were convinced, could only have come from God. It is difficult for a non-Arabic speaker to appreciate the beauty of the Qur’an, because this is rarely conveyed in translation. The text seems wearyingly repetitive; it has no apparent structure, no sustained argument or organizing narrative.
Muhammad’s followers would have been able to pick up verbal signals in the text that are lost in translation. They found that themes, words, phrases, and sound patterns recurred again and again—like the variations in a piece of music, which subtly amplify the original melody, and add layer upon layer of complexity.
Muhammed’s recitations also resonated with women, invoking a new and radical approach towards gender that was clear from the outset. He railed against crushing subjugation of women, including the practices of female circumcision and domestic violence. But Muhammed’s female-friendly philosophy was present in the very words of the recitations themselves. As Armstrong elaborates:
The divine voice constantly changed the way it referred to itself—as “we,” “he,” “your lord,” “Allah” or “I”—shifting its relationship to both the Prophet and his audience. Nor was God distinctively male. Each recitation began with the invocation: “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate (al-Rahman) and the Merciful (al-Rahim).” Allah was a masculine noun, but the divine names al-Rahman and al-Rahim are not only grammatically feminine but related etymologically to the word for womb. A partially personified female figure was central to nearly all the early revelations.
For the Prophet’s followers, listening to these revelations was pure bliss. But for Muhammed, receiving them was a taxing, almost violating, experience. As he would admit later in his life: “Never once did I receive a revelation without thinking that my soul had been torn away from me.”
He told his young wife Aisha that the revelations came: “like the tolling of a bell, and that is the hardest on me; then it leaves me and I am aware of what he said. And sometimes it appears to me as an angel in the form of a man and addresses me, and then I am conscious of what he says.”
Sometimes Aisha would be around to personally witness these moments, and the teenage girl remembered; “I saw him when revelation was descending on him on an extremely frigid day, and when it left him, sweat was streaming from his brow.”
As we discussed before through the perspective of Aisha, these messages did not vibe with the Meccan aristocracy. At first, they didn’t consider him much of a threat, but as his influence grew and his alliances multiplied, Muhammed became a problem. One that might need to be silenced. As one of the leaders asked him: “How could God only send a nobody like you?”
Karen Armstrong talks a little bit more about these ideological divisions in her book:
“The revelations had brought to light a fault line in the city. Over the years, a worrying divide had opened between young and old, rich and poor, men and women. This was dangerous. The scripture that was being revealed to Muhammad, verse by verse, surah by surah, condemned this kind of inequality; one faction would inevitably suffer at the hands of another. Any society that was divided against itself would be destroyed, because it was going against the very nature of things.”
The Meccan elite decide that they’d had enough of this false Prophet. This charlatan whom, in their eyes, had brainwashed so many weak-minded people, spat on their polytheistic traditions, and challenged their rightful control over the city. So, the Meccan bosses get together for a good old-fashioned brainstorm. How do we get rid of this guy?
One boss suggests locking him up and throwing away the key. He says, Let’s throw him in a cell and leave him there until he dies. No, no, say the others, that won’t work. His followers could storm the jail, it could create riots, that’s not gonna work.
Another idea comes up. Let’s exile him, says one of them: “Let us expel him from among us and banish him from our land. We don’t care where he goes or where he settles; the harm he’s been doing will disappear and we will restore our social harmony.”
That wouldn’t work either, some say. His message was so powerful, he could easily ally himself with the Bedouin raiders and migratory clans out in the desert. Having been raised in that environment until he was six, he had a feel for that culture. He knew their ways. “He could lead them against us, crush us with them, seize power from our hands, and do with us as he wants.”
But eventually, they settle on a solution. In a way it was both clean and messy:
“Take a young, strong, well-born man from each clan, and have them strike him with their swords as one man, and kill him. If they do this as one, then the responsibility for his bloodshed will be divided among all the clans, and the Hashims (That’s Muhammed’s family) will not be able to act in retaliation against the whole of the Quraysh (that’s the Arabic word for the people of Mecca”.”
Soon afterwards, a group of hitmen is sent to Muhammed’s house in the dead of night. They knew he left his house every morning at dawn. And when he did, they’d hack him apart with their swords and put an end to this up-jumped merchant with delusions of grandeur. So they hide outside the house, and they wait. At dawn, the door opens and a hooded figure steps into the morning light.
The assassins strike, but before they can kill him, they pull back the man’s hood. It wasn’t Muhammed at all. It was his young cousin, Ali. They demanded: “Where is your companion?”. The awkward teenager had grown into a strong young man, and Ali answered: “Do you expect me to keep watch over him? You wanted him to leave, and he has left.”
And Ali was telling the truth. Muhammed was long gone, safely hidden away in a mountain cave with his close friend and father-in-law Abu Bakr. Someone involved in the plot to kill the Prophet had loose lips, and Muhammed was warned the night before. They decided his little cousin Ali would play the decoy, while his friend Abu Bakr smuggled him out of Mecca.
But where to go? Hunted and hated in their hometown of Mecca, Muhammed and his followers needed a new home. A new place to live and worship. Which, to the modern ear, sounds like a fairly simple proposition. You don’t like where you live, you move. But again, we’re talking 14 centuries in the past. In a tribal, family-centric society like medieval Arabia, your home was a part of you. Leaving it was like leaving yourself. It was a painful, hollowing choice to make.
But it had to be done. And Muhammed decides that he would resettle in a city to the North. A place historian Juan Cole called “an emerald oasis of date orchards and farms dotted with tribal hamlets among which stood imposing tower houses and defensive redoubts.”. It was called Medina, and it would be Muhammed’s new base of operations.
This happened in the year 622. About 12 years after the first revelation. About 7 years after Muhammed had started preaching his message. And about 5 years after he’d married the young Aisha. Just to ground us in the timeline here. This migration to Medine, or “hijra” in Arabic, is considered a watershed moment in the history of Islam. In fact, it’s so important that later Muslims began their calendar at this event. In other words, 622 was year one for gestating Islamic empire.
But this transition brought with it a mounting degree of political complexity. Medina was much less homogenous than Mecca. There were Jewish tribes, Christians, atheists, polytheists - and Muhammed had to negotiate with all of them to negotiate a tenuous state of state of co-existence. Muhammed’s role was becoming more and more complicated. He was now both a religious leader and a political leader. And you get a sense that he starts to struggle with finding that balance between pragmatism and idealism. You don’t have to look at the world too closely to realize that divine ideals often start to decay when exposed to the harsh light of worldly reality.
It would’ve also been a very hard transition for two of the most important people in Muhammed’s life. His teenage wife Aisha, and his young cousin Ali.
Her age is up for debate, obviously, but Aisha would’ve been about sixteen or seventeen at this time. That’s a rowdy age for any teenage girl, but Aisha was not your average teenage girl. By this point, she had begun to grasp a sense of her own importance. Not only was she the wife of the Prophet, she was his favorite. As he took on alliances, he sealed them with marriages. By the end of his life, Muhammed would have nine wives, but Aisha was always the favorite, and the most jealous.
These years in Medina are when Aisha really starts to blossom into the desert rose she should would eventually become – thorns and all. In her book, Lesley Hazelton describes Aisha as “quick-witted, sassy, tart-tongued, and charming”.
When it came to her marriage to the Prophet, Aisha was extremely territorial. She grudgingly acknowledged the reality that she would have to share Muhammed with 8 other women, but she resolved herself to be the most favored and powerful among them.
There’s one anecdote that distills all of Aisha’s qualities down perfectly. During the early years in Medina, Muhammed tries to broker an alliance with a local Christian tribe, one that would be sealed with a marriage. So, the chieftain of this tribe sends his most beautiful daughter to Muhammed to be married.
Before the wedding night, Aisha decides to give the new bride some advice. Wife to wife. Girl to girl. Aisha tells Muhammed’s new fiancé that the Prophet liked to be teased. She tells her that on the wedding night, she should play hard to get and use a very particular phrase: “I take refuge with God from thee.” So the new fiancé takes Aisha’s advice, and on her wedding night she says that phrase to Muhammed.
Well, as it turned out, that was the specific phrase used to annul new marriages. Not being acquainted with Islam, this young Christian girl had accidentally torpedoed the new alliance, just by following Aisha’s manipulative advice. The girl was sent back to her tribe in tears, and Aisha comforted the confused and disappointed Muhammed in his tent. She would not suffer any rivals. At least no more than she already had to.
Muhammed may have claimed to have been imparted with divine wisdom, but he clearly had a blind spot when it came to his free-spirited young wife. She had him wrapped around her little finger. On one occasion, she became displeased that he was spending extra time with another wife who knew how to make his favorite drink. A mixture of honey and goat’s milk. Next time Aisha saw him, she complained that his breath smelled bad because of the beverage. Not wanting to gross out his favorite wife, he quit drinking the drink, and spent less time with that other wife.
But there was one area where Aisha could overstep her bounds. No matter how hard she tried, there was one woman she could never eclipse. Muhammed’s first wife, the long-dead Khadija. The woman who had been his entire world for 26 years, who had held him in her arms when he thought he was going crazy, who had encouraged him to spread his message in the first place. The memory of Khadija was such a raw, painful subject for Muhammed that he wouldn’t even talk about her. He wouldn’t even say her name aloud. As Aisha confessed many years later: “I wasn’t jealous of any of the Prophet’s wives except for Khadija, even though I came after her death,”
One day, as a teenager, Aisha’s envy of this long-dead woman came out. She teased Muhammed: “How could you remain so devoted to the memory of that toothless old woman, whom God has replaced with a better.”
Muhammed was not the type to have a violent outburst. But he knew how to cut others deeply with a few carefully chosen words. After Aisha’s flippant insult to Khadija, Muhammed replies: “Indeed no, God has not replaced her with a better. God granted me her children while withholding those of other women.”
Muhammed was referring to the fact that neither Aisha nor any of the other wives had been able to conceive children with him. Khadija had - several in fact. All girls. There were two boys, but they died. And for some reason, historians often guess sterility or impotence on Muhammed’s part, none of his other wives were able to bear his children. Aisha couldn’t say anything to that rebuttal, and she never said a word against Khadija in front of Muhammed again.
The Prophet’s love life was getting complicated. And the simmering tensions within his rapidly expanding household were destined to turn deadly.
--- -- MUSIC BREAK --- ---
As the followers of Muhammed began to carve out their new home in Medina, one man began to shine brighter than any other.
Ali, Muhammed’s much younger cousin. As a 13-year-old boy, he had stood up and accepted Muhammed as the Prophet, making him the very first male to accept Islam. As a young man, he had risked his life playing the part of the Prophet’s body double on the night the assassins had come to kill the Prophet.
And in 623 AD, when Ali was strapping young guy in his early 20s, that loyalty was being rewarded, with the most precious token of gratitude that Muhammed could offer. Muhammed decided that his daughter Fatima would marry Ali, making him the son-in-law of the Prophet.
Muhammed had never been able to father any sons, or any children at all after his first wife Khadija had died. But he loved Ali like a son, and he hoped that his bloodline would live on in male children of his favorite cousin Ali and his daughter Fatima. His hopes were well-founded, they would go on to have two sons – Hasan and Hussein.
Now if you’ve been taking notes, you’ll remember that second name. Hussein, and his tragic death years and years into the future, is the reason millions upon millions of Shi’a Muslims mourn during Ashura to this very day. But no one could’ve guessed the dark, war-torn future that lay ahead. For now, the Prophet was overjoyed. His most treasured daughter and his beloved cousin were joined together in marriage.
But as Muhammed basked in the satisfaction of this union, his thoughts began to turn to troubling issues. In uprooting his followers from Mecca and emigrating to Medina, the Prophet and his flock faced a two-fold problem.
First, how were they going to support themselves and make a living in this new city? Muhammed and his followers did not own any land, or orchards, or agricultural space. They were merchants - traders with nothing to trade. Except maybe the clothes on their backs and the strength in their hands. All their roots and support systems were back in Mecca. They were starting from scratch, and they needed a way of contributing to this new community. So that was one issue.
The other issue was the very hometown they had left: Mecca. Muhammed suspected that the Meccan leaders who had tried to have him killed wouldn’t simply let it go or give up. He had a target on his back. And he worried that it was only a matter of time before a hired hand from his old stomping grounds stuck a blade between his ribs. Or maybe Muhammed had just convinced himself of their undying enmity. After so much harassment and physical violence, God’s messenger may have felt a very human desire for revenge.
Luckily, there was a way of killing two birds with one stone.
Trade caravans were the lifeblood of Mecca. Unlike the agricultural oasis of Medina, Mecca had no farms or arable land. The city depended entirely on commerce to sustain itself. Goods for cash for food for goods for cash. So there was a constant (and tempting) flow of wealth and valuable ‘stuff’ flowing across the desert to and from Mecca. These caravans could be a very easy and profitable source of new income for Muhammed and his followers.
The lord works in mysterious ways, and he had presented a convenient solution to provide for his Prophet and his flock. Or so Muhammed would have told his followers.
Initially these were meant to be clean raids. No deaths. No killing. Killings were very inconvenient in 7th century Arabia, because they always-always-always triggered blood feuds. If you killed a guy, his entire family would vow revenge and they would not rest until they tagged you back, even if it took them 2, 3, 4 generations. If you’ll recall, the whole reason the Meccans leaders had decided to have ten men assassinate Muhammed simultaneously was so that no one clan could be blamed. Thus, no blood feud. And there was a precedent for these kinds of stick-up raids. They were kind of accepted in Arabian tribal culture as a fact of life, an environmental hazard, like sand storms or animal attacks. There were no taboos being breached here.
So, the idea behind raiding these Meccan caravans was a simple smash and grab. Stick-ups basically. Muhammed and his community would siphon a little wealth off to support themselves from the town that hated them anyway. No one would die, so it wouldn’t incur any meaningful retaliation. But like so many robberies across so many eras in so many places, accidents happen. Passions run hot. And before long, one of these raids went bad. Someone was killed, and it further inflamed the growing tensions between Mecca and Medina.
It’s tempting to place the blame for the trajectory of events on Muhammed and his followers, but the Meccans were engaging in their own type of provocation.
They were not content to let Muhammed, who they saw as a false prophet, steal away huge chunks of their population. These sudden conversions split apart families, took away sons, brothers, sisters, and mothers and friends. For the Meccans, it was like losing the people they loved to a charismatic cult leader. And they believed that the only way to snap them back to reality was to snatch them back to reality, and haul them back to Mecca whether they liked it or not. The Meccans often sent raiding parties to abduct members of Muhammed’s flock and force them to convert back to polytheism. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes not, but all it did was make things worse.
Clearly, these two cities were on a collision course. And in a matter of months, the small skirmishes, raids and abductions, bloomed into open warfare.
Ali had never killed a man. But killing came easily to him. The weak knees and thin legs were now fast and powerful. The paunch of his pre-teen years had flattened into the stomach of fit young man. His eyesight wasn’t any sharper, but his reflexes were. And when a Meccan army marched across the desert to threaten his Prophet and the new community at Medina, Ali was happy to pull on a shirt of mail, buckle on a saber and kill for his beliefs.
By the firelight in Medina, he had listened to his father-in-law’s new revelations from God. The only acceptable form of violence in Islam was self-defense. That was unequivocal. But if the Meccans threatened to haul them all back in chains, to denounce their one true God, and crush Muhammed’s new religion like an inconvenient weed, then violence had to be done to defend the faith. They had no choice, Ali believed.
In the late 620s, a series of battles erupted across the Arabian desert between Mecca and Medina. It was in these engagements that Ali got his first taste of combat. Muhammed’s raised an army of his faithful followers to stand against the aggression of Mecca, and Ali distinguished himself within it.
Ali was lethal with a sword and shield. By all accounts, it gave him no pleasure, but the Prophet’s son-in-law knew how to use a sword better than most. His lethality on the battlefield was a sight to behold, and a credit to the growing reputation of Islam. This talent was a blessing and a curse to Ali. He did not crave violence, but he did crave the love and approval of his father-in-law, as well as the affection of his new wife Fatima. He wanted a secure future for his sons, Husan and Hussein. He wanted them to know a life without persecution and fear and homelessness. Maybe if he fought hard enough, killed enough men, Islam might have a real future.
So, Ali did what he had to do.
Ali is described in these battles as being surrounded by bodies. Piles and piles of them around him. The best warriors that Mecca could muster fell at his feet like leaves. The oral and written traditions of Islam attach an almost superhuman proficiency for killing to Ali – cutting down twenty, thirty, forty men at a time. He comes off like an Arabian Achilles in these battles. Those are obviously exaggerations, and the truth probably lies somewhere in between. But in all probability, Ali knew how to fight. He became known as Assad Allah, or “The Lion of God”.
According to legend, after one particularly strenuous battle, Muhammed held Ali close, embracing his cherished son-in-law with palpable gratitude. Then he placed a gift in Ali’s hands. It was a sword. A curved saber, with a blade that featured a split in the last few inches. Forked, like a snake’s tongue. Muhammed told Ali that the sword was called “Zulfiqar” or “The Splitter”. Now, this sword is most likely a mythical invention by later Islamic historians rather than an actual sword that existed. But if you go to Shi’a communities throughout the world, you will find images of Zhulfikar evertyer
but it’s a potent symbol in Shia Islam. Ali would be a focal point in the Sunni-Shia split, and his possession of a sword named “splitter” is no accident.
It was plain as day that Muhammed loved his son-in-law Ali. Everyone seemed to love Ali. He was brave, and kind, and humble, and strong. But there was one person who definitely did not like Ali: The prophet’s favorite wife, Aisha.
While Ali was cutting down the enemies of Islam, Aisha was watching from the rear of the army. Women were not permitted to fight, much less an important woman like the teenage wife of the Prophet. But Aisha, like many Arabian women, had a crucial role to play on a 7th century battlefield.
As their men fought, the women would scream and chant and shriek from the rear. They would taunt the enemy soldiers and cheer on their own husbands and brothers. “Shrill” is a bit of a no-no word these days, but “shrill” is exactly what women on Arabian battlefields were going for. High-pitched, unnerving, eardrum-piercing invective that served to distract the enemy and spur on allies.
They were meant to motivate the fighters in particular. As one of the chants went:
“Advance, and we’ll embrace you on soft pillows. Falter, and you’ll get no tenderness from us.”
In other words, no victory, no sex.
Aisha would’ve been screaming and shrieking along with the rest of the women in these early battles. She would’ve smelled blood and death and guts for the first time. As Lesley Hazelton puts it “the women of seventh-century Arabia were no shrinking violets”.
But the adrenaline rush of witnessing battle was soured for Aisha when Ali came swaggering back into camp. Covered in blood and glory. His triumphs made more infuriating by his easy smile and approachable demeanor. She rolled her eyes when people sang the praises of Muhammed’s favorite son-in-law. The Lion of God.
Aisha’s resentment toward Ali and Fatima ran deep. They were the golden couple, the apples of Muhammed’s eye. Fatima was the daughter of Muhammed’s first wife, Khadija. That long-dead venerated woman whom Aisha could never hope to surpass in her husband’s mine. The only woman who had ever given the Prophet children. Aisha and the other wives had not been able to achieve even that simple task, and that bitterness sat in Aisha’s belly where a child should be. Corrosive and unremitting.
She projected all of her hatred of Khadija and the disappointment of her failed pregnancies onto Ali and Fatima, who had been blessed with two sons, Husan and Hussein. They were the future of Islam, it seemed. The next link in the bloodline that would guide generations of Muslims to come. A future that did not include Aisha.
It was only a matter of time before Muhammed’s favorite wife and his closest family members came into conflict. And it all started with a lost necklace.
> In the late 620s, Muhammed and his army were on an expedition, traveling across Arabia. Their objective had been to sway this or that tribe into joining Muhammed’s constantly swelling coalition against Mecca. And after a successful campaign, the Prophet and his followers were heading home to Medina.
The teenage Aisha had been brought along for this trip. She loved it. For a teenage girl like Aisha, it was heaven. The thrill of adventure, the stark beauty of the desert. When they were about a day’s journey outside Medina, the group made camp to rest the camels and eat and recuperate. The next morning, they broke camp. Aisha was wearing her favorite necklace, a gift from the Prophet. We’re not sure what kind of necklace it was, maybe pearls or gems or seashells, but as the caravan was preparing to move out, she realized it was missing.
She must have dropped it somewhere. She jumps off her camel and retraces her steps, eventually arriving at a bush she used for a bathroom break earlier that morning. The necklace had snagged on a branch and broken, scattering the beads all over the sand. She gathered them up and turned back to return to the caravan.
But they were gone. The desert was completely empty except for the hundreds of footprints in the sand. They’d left her behind by accident. Aisha immediately panics. To be left behind without so much as a camel or a skin of water in the Arabian desert was a death sentence. But then, she takes a breath, and calms herself. They would realize she wasn’t there and send someone back to get her. As Aisha remembered in her own words:
I wrapped myself in my smock and then lay down where I was, knowing that when I was missed they would come back for me.”
But someone comes along much sooner than expected. A young warrior by the name of Safwan had also fallen behind the expedition, and as he was racing to catch up on his camel, he caught sight of Aisha laying in the sand. Her dark, henna red hair peeking out from beneath her shawl.
He offers her a ride and she accepts. By nightfall, they were back in Medina, but their arrival together made for a very scandalous image. As Lesley Hazelton explains:
The sight was too much to resist. The Prophet’s youngest wife traveling alone with a virile young warrior, parading through the series of villages strung along the valley of Medina? Word of it ran through the oasis in a matter of hours. A necklace indeed, people clucked. What could one expect of a childless teenager married to a man in his late fifties? Alone the whole day in the desert with a young warrior? Why had she simply lain down and waited when she could have caught up with the expedition on foot? Had it been a prearranged tryst? Had the Prophet been deceived by his spirited favorite?”
This innocent act of hitchhiking exploded into a full-blown scandal that rocked Medina to the core. As Hazelton observes:
“In the politics of seventh-century Medina, as anywhere in the world today, the appearance of impropriety was as bad as impropriety itself.
Muhammed trusted Aisha implicitly. And she would never, ever have cheated on him. Not only out of love and respect, but out of self-preservation. But once the rumor mill got started, it was every difficult to stem the flow of juicy gossip around Medina. The Prophet’s favorite wife, sneaking around behind his back? It was unthinkable. Aisha was horrified and hurt that people would say such things. But the deepest wound was yet to come. Muhammed seemed unsure whether he believed her story or not. For the time being, she was sent to live at home with her father. The shame and humiliation was unbearable. As Aisha remembered:
“I could not stop crying. I thought the weeping would burst my liver.”
Sending Aisha away was just a temporary solution. Muhammed needed to make a definitive decision. Would he divorce her? Forgive her? Believe her? Allah was silent on this question. The almighty seemed unconcerned with the bedroom drama of his Prophet.
So, Muhammed turns to someone else for advice. One of the men he trusted more than anyone else in the world. His son-in-law. The Lion of God. Ali.
Ali had never liked Aisha. This young teenage girl with the sharp tongue and an air of self-importance. She was Muhammed’s favorite, his red-haired confidant, and she used that influence to pepper anyone she disliked with insults and jabs. Her favorite target had been Ali’s wife and Muhammed’s daughter Fatima.
One day, Fatima had had enough. She complained to her father about the clear favoritism he showed towards Aisha. Muhammed reacted defensively, saying: “Dear little daughter, do you not love who I love?” The rebuke in his tone was clear, and Fatima could only sigh and agree: “Yes; surely”.
So when Muhammed came to Ali, asking for advice about Aisha’s rumored infidelity, the latter’s answer was instant and unambiguous: “There are many women like her, Ali said.” God has freed you from constraints. She is easily replaced.”
That was not the answer Muhammed wanted. He had hoped Ali would urge him to dismiss the insinuations. Instead, his favorite son-in-law had just muddied the waters even further. Muhammed left Ali’s tent, more conflicted and dissatisfied than when he’d entered it. But the die was cast, in urging the Prophet to cast his young wife out, Ali had made himself a powerful enemy.
Eventually, Muhammed realized he couldn’t put it off any longer. He had to talk to Aisha in private, and glean the truth for himself. To make a final decision. Once again, he asked Aisha if there was any truth to the rumors. Aisha was nothing if not proud, and she bristled at the false accusation. She stood her ground with the Prophet and defiantly quoted his own scripture back at him:
“Patience in adversity is most good in the sight of God; and it is to God [alone] that I pray to give me strength to bear the misfortune which you have described to me.”
Then she turned around, laid on her bed and gave him the cold shoulder. Lo and behold, Muhammed, at that very moment, received a revelation from God. “Good news, Aisha!”, he exclaimed. An angel had come to him in a vision – just now - and proclaimed that she was innocent of the accusations. In Muhammed’s later years, God really did seem to have impeccable timing.
But instead of rushing back into her husband’s arms, Aisha stubbornly refused to see him. Telling her parents: “I shall neither come to him nor thank him. “Nor will I thank the both of you, who listened to the slander and did not deny it. I shall rise and give thanks to Allah alone!”
Everything was eventually forgiven, but only a woman like Aisha was capable of putting God’s prophet squarely in the dog house. There was one person, however, that Aisha could not forgive.
The man who had urged Muhammed to divorce her, to get rid of her, to kick her to the curb without a second thought. Ali. With his fake humility and fancy sword. He was happy to use his own gilded, unassailable reputation to trample all over hers. He would pay for that, if it took Aisha the rest of her life. She would despise Ali until her crimson hair was withered and gray.
With Aisha exonerated and more influential than ever, Ali had just made a powerful enemy. And Muhammed was getting older. The Prophet’s looming mortality would soon set the twin pillars of his life against one another. With deadly results.
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As the 620s came to a close, Muhammed was beginning to feel his age. His curly black beard was streaked with veins of silver. He was wracked by migraines and debilitating headaches that would come over him suddenly and without warning. The headaches were a souvenir of a battle wound he’d sustained against the Meccans at a place called Uhud.
During the fighting, Muhammed had been hit in the head. A glancing blow from a lance or a mace or a rock. The impact had split his helmet and forced the metal into the side of his face. His nose was broken, his cheek was split open and his upper lip was cut. He recovered from the wound, but the intense waves of pain never left him.
It was a close call. Too close. And it served as a reminder that the Prophet would not last forever. Muhammed had never wanted to be immortal, or claimed to be, and he constantly reminded his followers that Islam was bigger than one man.
“Muhammad is but a messenger. Other messengers have come and gone before him, so how can it be that when he dies or is slain, you turn back on your heels?”
But the wars with his hometown of Mecca had left their mark in other ways. The Prophet was tired. Tired of war. Tired of raids and fighting and arbitration. By this time, he had survived multiple assassination attempts. The night on the mountain, when he had received his message from God, seemed so distant, so long ago. Was he even the same man anymore?
Muhammed had always preached peace and equality and kindness. As historian Karen Armstrong writes:, he wanted to: “create a society where the weak and vulnerable were treated with respect.”
But the practical and political realities of surviving in the cutthroat environment of 7th century Arabia had forced him to do things he was not proud of. Binding the new community of believers, or “ummah” as its called in Arabic, had been a grueling, thankless task. Many tribes accepted Islam not for the spiritual benefits, but for political opportunity. They were quick to change sides, and comfortable with betrayal if it served their purposes.
In 627, Muhammed became aware of a certain Jewish tribe in Medina who had been working closely with his Meccan enemies. They had pledged to support him, then withdrawn their support in a moment of great need. Muhammed was faced with a terrible choice. On the one hand, he could exile them. And while that would remove the immediate danger, there was a strong possibility they would just return as part of a much larger Meccan army. On the other hand, he could do something more drastic. Something that would ensure the safety of his fragile flock.
In one of the most controversial and heart-wrenching episodes of the Prophet’s life, he let his lieutenants deal harshly with the traitorous tribe. As a later Arabic historian described: “The men shall be killed, the property divided, the women and children made captives”. There were anywhere form 400-900 men in this tribe.
But Muhammed was not one to pass a sentence and look away. For three days, he forced himself to watch the executions. From sundown to sunset, hundreds of heads fell one by one into a long trench dug for the purpose.
It’s hard to know if Ali was present for the executions, but he must have known they occurred. Battle was one thing, the Lion of God might have thought, but all this blood spilled in an executioner’s trench? It was necessary to the survival of the Ummah, the Islamic community, there was no doubt about that. But when would it all end? Would they ever achieve the peaceful utopia God had promised to them?
Ali’s thoughts roiled with anxiety about the future. Muhammed was getting old. He’d seen the old Prophet clutching his forehead. He’d seen the way he disappeared into Aisha’s tent for comfort during his most debilitating headaches. When the Prophet died, the ummah would turn to Ali for guidance. At least, that’s what made the most sense. After all, he was married to the Prophet’s daughter, related to him by blood, and he was the first male convert to Muhammed’s message.
Ali was not an ambitious man, but he was a dutiful one. And he was aware of the responsibility looming over his shoulders.
In the year 628 AD, Muhammed decided that it was time to bring this war with Mecca to a close. They had fought three major battles and countless smaller skirmishes. If he didn’t find a way to decisively end the war, the cyclical violence would churn and churn and churn until the thimbleful of potential Islam had was all dried up. And Arabia would collapse back into tribal paganism and crushing economic inequality.
So Muhammed decides to return to Mecca. To walk straight into the lion’s den. But when he explained his plan to his followers, he said something that surprised them. They would not be returning home as an army, but as pilgrims. No weapons, no violence. They would make the 250-mile journey from Medina to Mecca without a stitch of armor or a blade or a bow to defend themselves.
The pilgrimage to Mecca was a sacred thing for both monotheists and polytheists alike. To circle the Kaaba, the cube at the heart of the city, was a privilege the Meccan aristocracy could not deny to any man, not even their greatest enemy. At least that’s what Muhammed was counting on. He was taking a gamble, not just with his own life, but that of his followers. He was betting on a more hopeful view of human nature than experience had taught him to expect. They would either bring this conflict to a peaceful resolution, or the Prophet’s journey would end right where it started.
In the winter of that year, almost 1000 of Muhammed’s followers set out across the desert, dressed all in white. In the context of the pilgrimage, the white robes they wore were a symbol of peace and piety.
It would be entirely up to the Meccans whether they respected these defenseless pilgrims or butchered them as enemies. Muhammed was placing his flock in the hands of people who despised him. But decisive results often require dramatic solutions.
When Muhammed and his followers arrive at the outskirts of Mecca, they are immediately surrounded and stopped from entering the city. Grim-faced cavalrymen with long spears barred their entrance.
But to their surprise, they aren’t attacked. By arriving without weapons or threat of violence to the city, Muhammed had put his enemies in a bind. If they killed a thousand unarmed pilgrims in cold blood, the whole of Arabia would turn against them. It was a spiritual catch-22 was Muhammed had engineered perfectly. It was a risk, but it paid off. After a brief period of tense uncertainty, a truce was signed between the city of Mecca and Muhammed’s community ad Medina.
As Lesley Hazelton writes:
Neither Gandhi nor Machiavelli could have done better. Muhammad had reversed the terms of engagement, turning apparent weakness into strength. He had proved himself as effective unarmed as armed, and used the language of peace as forcefully as that of war. In fact, it was precisely this dual aspect of him that would so confound his critics and his followers alike. Whether in the seventh century or the twenty-first, he would frustrate the simplistic terms of those trying to pigeonhole him as either a “prophet of peace” or a “prophet of war.” This was not a matter of either/or. A complex man carving a huge profile in history, his vision went beyond seemingly irreconcilable opposites.”
In the aftermath of the uneasy truce, Mecca inevitably breeched their side of the truce. For Muhammed, even the smallest infraction was all the excuse he needed. The Prophet marched on the city with ten thousand men. The Meccan leaders, seeing this vast sea of humanity, realized they had lost the spiritual war. They surrendered unconditionally, without a single life lost. Ten years after he had first fled the assassination attempt in Mecca, Muhammed finally returned his hometown, uniting it with Medina under the tenets of Islam. All without shedding a single drop of blood.
Muhammed never believed he was starting a new religion. Islam was just a continuation of the Abrahamic faiths that came before it. He thought of the Q’uran as an amendment to existing belief systems, rather than wholesale invention of a new one. But Islam was destined to carve out its own, unique place in the religious tapestry.
The scrawny little weed of belief that struggled to survive in the Arabian desert began to fully bloom. And tribe after tribe pledged themselves to the Prophet and his interpretation of monotheism. All they had to do was say the words: “There is no god but God, and Muhammed is his messenger.” Then they became part of the “ummah” or community of believers. No believer was to raise a hand against another believer in anger, greed, or violence. They were all family now.
As Arabic historian Ibn-Ishaq (hopefully I didn’t mess that up too bad) wrote:
“No victory greater than this one had been won previously in Islam. There had only been fighting before, but when the truce took place and war laid down its burdens and all the people felt safe with each other, they met with each other in conversation and debate, and all who possessed understanding and were told about Islam accepted.”
But not everyone in Mecca wanted to convert. And they were not punished for that choice. Everyone was free to worship as they wished. But from that moment on, Islam would hold sway over Arabia, and Mecca would be the cradle and seat of spiritual power for Islam. The Kaaba, the sacred cube in the heart of Mecca, was rededicated to the one God. To this day, pilgrims flock to Mecca from all over the world, to circle the colossal Black Cube and pay homage to Allah.
It had to have been a surreal moment for the teenage Aisha. She’d left the city a scared little girl, unsure of her place in the world and married to a hunted man. Now she was the favorite wife of God’s last Prophet. And he had accomplished his mission. They no longer had to fear for their lives or cross the desert in an endless chain of bloody campaigns. In the twilight of his life, the Prophet of peace might get a chance to experience a little for himself.
But over the next two years, Aisha noticed a change in Muhammed. He was exhausted all the time. The decades of conflict, strife, and persecution had finally caught up with him. A weariness seemed to pull at him and weigh him down. He seemed to crave solitude, and he would stand alone in the graveyards of Medina all night and pray over the dead. Even old enemies who were dead and gone. Aisha overheard him one night, saying softly to himself:
“Peace be upon you, oh people of the graves. Happy are you, so much better off than men here.”
His headaches got worse and worse. Aisha would often cradle Muhammed’s head and place a cool cloth against his forehead to ease the pain. It was in one of these quiet moments, Muhammed must’ve looked up at his wife and saw the truth of her reality. She was 21 years old. Young, and beautiful. He saw her bright, crimson hair, mingled against the dried-out grey of his own.
He was an old man, tired and dying. Aisha, on the other hand, was a just a young woman, with her whole life ahead of her. In that moment, Muhammed received one of his final revelations from God. It would come to be known as “The Verse of the Choice”.
“Oh messenger, say to your wives: ‘If you desire the life of this world and its adornment, then come, I shall make provision for you and send you forth with honor. But if you desire God and his messenger and the future abode of paradise, then God has prepared for you a mighty reward.’”
As Lesley Hazelton explains:
“The wives were free to choose divorce, that is, and Muhammad would make sure they were well provided for, or they could freely accept their public role and everything it entailed. That too was spelled out. “The messenger is closer to the believers than their own selves, and his wives are their mothers,” the voice instructed. “It is not for you to marry the messenger’s wives after him; truly that is grievous in the sight of God.” If the women chose to stay married to Muhammad, they now had to accept that their role went far beyond that of a normal spouse. They would be bound so tightly into the familial fabric of the new Arabia that they would be not merely his wives but the mothers of all the believers: “the Mothers of the Faithful.”
What this meant, in a practical sense, is that if Aisha chose to stay married to Muhammed, she could never remarry after he died. Ever. She could never touch another man again. She could never love or have children or feel the intimate embrace of another person.
She would be a “Mother to the Faithful”. To have a relationship with the Mother to all Muslims was tantamount to incest. She would have to spend her days alone, celibate, an untouchable widow for as long as she lived. But, it was her choice to make. Muhammed, at the end of his life, felt he at least owed her that. She was his “humayra”, the little redhead.
It's impossible to ever really know the inner workings of a mind belonging to a person who lived 14 centuries ago. Much less a teenage girl who’d experienced more in her first couple decades alive than most people experience in a lifetime. We have no idea what Aisha truly wanted when presented with this choice. How could we?
Did she feel pressured to stay married to Muhammed? Did she resent being married so young and being used as a political prop? Maybe she just wanted to be left alone and not have to deal with the rigors of married life? Maybe she enjoyed the prestige and power that came with her position?
Whatever went through her brain, Aisha chose to stay married to Muhammed. His other wives did too – all eight of them. But for a young woman like Aisha, with so much life left to live, the choice must have weighed particularly heavy.
Her fears about an uncertain future came to fruition in the summer of 632 A.D.
In June of that year, Muhammed came down with a fever. The piercing migraines that had plagued him ever since he’d sustained his head injury at the battle of Uhud were more agonizing than ever. And this time, they would not relent. The pain was debilitating, and Muhammed could barely move. His health deteriorates very, very fast. He develops extreme sensitivity to light and noise, and the fever drags on for days and days.
Modern experts have identified Muhammed’s illness as a form of bacterial meningitis. But even with today’s medicine, it can be a fatal infection.
For ten days, Muhammed clung to life, drifting in and out of sweat-soaked consciousness. Every noise, every whisper, was a piercing stab into his ear drums. Every ray of light that filtered into the sickroom was a lance in his brain. All the followers of the Prophet could do was make him comfortable – and wait for a miracle.
Surely God would not let his Prophet die at this critical moment? When the newly established power of Islam would need his guidance more than ever? And most disturbing of all, Muhammed, in all his time since the revelations, had never designated a successor. He had never made it explicitly clear who would lead the community after he died.
There were those who assumed it would be Ali, his son-in-law. The Lion of God. Muhammed had certainly expressed his admiration for the young man, saying:
“I am from Ali and Ali is from me; he is the guardian of every believer after me,” […]“None but a believer loves Ali, and none but an apostate hates him.”
But there were also those who said it should not be Ali. A community based on fairness and equality should not devolve into a hereditary monarchy. Egalitarianism and meritocracy was the very bedrock Islam rested upon. The best among them should lead. Ali was not guaranteed the position just because he was related to Muhammed and married to his daughter.
The sad truth was, no one knew for sure what Muhammed wanted. He had never made it categorically clear who should take over when he died. But there was a moment, during his illness, when he appeared to want to make his wishes known.
It was the ninth day of his illness. Muhammed was half-conscious, soaked in sweat, and paralyzed from excruciating migraines. Aisha held him in her arms, trying to soothe the pain with a cool wash cloth. Suddenly the Prophet jolts awake and gasps. He asks the room, which was full of people, to send for Ali. He had something to tell his son-in-law. Something urgent.
No one moves. Aisha’s eyes dart around the room, her commanding stare freezing them in their tracks. Her resentment for the Prophet’s son-in-law flaired up like a reflex.
Ali. The so-called Lion of God. The upjumped warrior who advised the Prophet to freeze her out? To divorce her? To believe the wicked slanderous accusations of adultery laid against her? That Ali?
In a pivotal moment, Aisha looks down at her husband and asks if he would rather see her father, Abu-Bakr? If you’ll recall, Abu-Bakr was one of Muhammed’s oldest friends and closest confidants. He’d been the first important man in Mecca to convert. He was a mover and shaker in Muhammed’s court. And Aisha cooed, “Wouldn’t you rather see Abu-Bakr?”
Muhammed nodded through the delirious pain. And abu-Bakr arrived shortly after. Ali was never sent for. And he was never told that Muhammed has asked to see him.
After Aisha’s father, Abu-Bakr arrived, Muhammed seemed to gain a sense of clarity. He felt a little better. He sipped some water, sat up in the bed. Maybe the illness had passed. Maybe God had delivered his Prophet from the clutches of death! Muhammed then asks the room, full of attendants, wives, and advisors:
“Bring writing materials that I may dictate something for you, after which you will not be led into error,”
Like most Arabs at the time, Muhammed was illiterate, and could not write his message himself. There was talk of summoning a scribe, but everyone in the room just starts bickering about what to do. In the clutches of unbearable pain and illness, Muhammed had a hard time expressing himself. And his closest advisors had their own ideas and preferences about the true meaning of his words. Lesley Hazelton describes the scene:
There was every sign that the man they were all so deeply devoted to was ready to make his dying wishes known, perhaps even to designate his successor once and for all. It was the one thing everyone in the room wanted to know, but at the same time the one thing nobody wanted to know. Yet it is an altogether human scene. Everyone was concerned, everyone trying to protect Muhammad, to stop the importuning of others and to ease his life even as it seeped out of him. They were all doing their best, and doing it heatedly, their voices rising so that every angry note and high-pitched syllable seemed to pierce the sick man’s ears until he could take it no more. “Leave me,” he said finally. “Let there be no quarreling in my presence.”
One of Muhammed’s closest advisors, a man named Omar, told the room:
“The messenger of God is overcome by pain,” he said. “We have the Quran, the book of God, and that is sufficient for us.”
On the morning of Monday, June 8th, 632 AD, the Prophet Muhammed died. He breathed his last breaths in the arms of someone he loved. Although *which* loved one has been debated and argued for the better part of 1400 years.
In one version of the story, Aisha is cradling him as he dies. As Hazelton writes: “She had been holding him, and realizing suddenly how heavy his head had become, had looked down to find the empty glaze of death in his eyes.”
In the other version, his son-in-law Ali is holding him when he dies. Ali had been able to save his Prophet from assassination all those years ago, from the long knives of the Meccan aristocrats. He’d defended him from armies and bandits and desert skirmishers, but even the Lion of God could not save his Prophet from the ravages of old age.
For all his wisdom, Muhammed had made a glaring mistake. By not designating a successor, unequivocally, he had left a seed of discontent within his flock. Who would lead them now? How could a family so divided against itself endure?
When Muhammed’s heart stopped, a civil war began. One that would consume thousands of lives, and engender generations of mistrust, strife, and confusion. The Prophet of peace had given a gift to the world. But his successors, unable to reconcile their differing views of it, would split the faith in two.
Muhammed died surrounded by his closest friends and loved ones. The stewards of his legacy. And within just a few short years, they would find themselves lined up on opposite sides of battlefields, from Iraq to Syria to Egypt.
The Prophet’s followers later referred to his death as “the closing of a gate”. But it had also opened the door to a new world power. An empire that would influence the long arc of history for 14 centuries to come.
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Well guys, that is all the time we have for today.
Next time, in Part 2 of the Prophet’s Dilemma, we’ll continue the story of the Sunni-Shi’a Split, not only through the eyes of Aisha and Ali, but through an expanded cast of other characters that I think you’re really going to love.
When I started writing this first episode, I initially wanted to get to Muhammed’s death much sooner, but as time went on it became clear that so much of what happens in this story is the result of dynamics and relationships that developed while he was alive.
You can’t understand what people like Aisha, Ali, Fatima, Abu-Bakr and others do without understanding the nature of their connection with Muhammed. The decisions they make and the crises that arise make no sense without doing the legwork we’ve done this episode. So believe it or not, the best is yet to come. This is a hell of a story, and we’ll take as long as we need to to do it justice.
So with that being said, I hope you enjoyed the opening salvo of the story, and I’ll have another chapter ready for you real soon.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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As always, thanks so much for listening and have an awesome day.