Back in the 6th year of the Hegira Muhammad had summoned the sovereigns of the surrounding states and embassies to his allegiance! It may seem visionary and wild in design that he should dream of supremacy, either spiritual or political, over Egypt, Abyssinia and Syria and even the Roman and Persian Empires but it was so.
It was suggested by one of his followers that the kings of the earth did not receive despatches, unless they were attested by a seal. Accordingly, Muhammad had a seal made of silver and engraved it with the words MUHAMMAD THE APOSTLE OF GOD. Letters were written and sealed and six messengers were despatched but the world leaders treated with contempt the summons of the Prophet.
Muhammad was now sixty-three years of age and it was more than a year and a half since any important campaign had been conducted but now he commanded his followers to make themselves ready for an expedition against the Roman border. It was essential to the permanence of Islam that its aggressive course be pursued, and its claim to universal acceptance be enforced by the sword. Within the limits of Arabia this work appeared now to be accomplished. It remained to gain over the Christian and idolatrous tribes of the Syrian desert, and then in the name of the Lord to throw down the gauntlet of war before the empires of Rome and Persia.
Muhammad attributes illness to poisoned meat eaten at Kheibar
Up to this time Muhammad had suffered no serious illness. He had been ill temporarily from loss of appetite and a pining depression of health and spirits which was ascribed to the magical incantations of the Jews in the 6th year of the Hegira. In the 7th year his system had sustained a shock from eating poisoned meat at Kheibar and periodically he had complained of the effects of the poison. When he had been now sick for several days, the mother of Bishr (who had died from the effects of the same poison) came to enquire of his health. The people said he was suffering from pleurisy but Muhammad had replied to them: ‘Nay, the Lord would never permit that sickness to seize his Apostle, for it cometh of Satan. This, verily, is the effect of that which I ate at Kheibar, I and thy son. The artery of my back feels as though it would just now burst asunder.’
Whether his constitution was really impaired by the poison, or whether it was the Prophet’s imagination, it is certain that the frailties of age were imperceptibly stealing upon him. His vigorous well-knit frame began to stoop. Though frugal, if not abstemious in his habits, and in all things (the harem excepted) temperate, yet during the last twenty years of his life there had been much to tax his mind and body. Nor must we forget the excitement and agitation (possibly of an epileptic character) which occasionally overpowered him in the moments of imagined inspiration. Abu Bakr had remarked one day when Muhammad came into the Mosque from one of his wives apartments: ‘Ah! Thou art dearer to me than father and mother!’….. ‘alas! gray hairs are hastening upon thee;’ and his eyes filled with tears as he saw the Prophet raise his beard with his hand, and gaze upon it. ‘Yes,’ said Muhammad, ‘it is the travail of inspiration that hath done this. The Suras Hud, and the Inevitable, and the Striking, with their fellows, have made white my hair.’
Muhammad did not yield to the infirmities of old age and he maintained the severe simplicity of robuster years. If we may believe the traditions of Ayesha, Muhammad was not unconscious of the premonitions of decay. The traditions of this period abound in anticipation of Muhammad’s decease. But few of them seem founded on fact. When the 110th Sura, An-Nasr was revealed Muhammad called Fatima, and said: ‘My daughter! I have received intimation of my approaching end.’ Fatima burst into tears. ‘Why weepest thou, my child?’ continued the Prophet ‘be comforted for verily thou art the first of my people that shall rejoin me.’ Whereupon Fatima dried her tears and smiled pleasantly. As Fatima died within six months after her father it is easy to see how this tale grew up.
He had returned to the apartment of Meimuna, whose day it was, and he had not been long returned when the fever returned upon him with increasing violence. So calling his wives around him, he said: ‘Ye see that I lie very sick: I am not able to visit your houses in turn; if it be pleasing to you, I will remain in the house of Ayesha.’ All agreed to the proposal. Though hardly yet twenty years of age, and though she had never before tended anyone in sickness, Ayesha waited with the utmost solicitude and tenderness on the death-bed of her aged husband.
Islam’s party factions
It may be necessary here to warn the reader that we have now reached a point in Muhammad’s biography which has become specially the arena for contending traditions of party and faction. First, Ayesha, who had the closest opportunity for watching the last moments of Muhammad, has made the most of her position; through her statements there is a patient endeavour to exclude even the mention of Ali and his partisans. Second, is the party of Ali, who (with the view of strengthening their dogma that the divine right of succession was vested in their hero and his posterity) would attribute to him every important part in the scene. And lastly, there are the Abbasids (holding the right of succession to reside in the near relatives of the Prophet and their heirs whose tendency is to magnify Abbas and his family. Every tradition is coloured by these factions; and it is necessary to steer very cautiously among them.
On the following day, when the hour of public prayer came round, he called for water to perform the preparatory ablutions; but on attempting to rise, he found that his strength failed him, so he commanded that Abu Bakr should conduct the prayers in his place. Together with Muhammad’s spiritual authority it was recognised in early times that the right of presiding at public prayers was the mark of the chief secular power. There can be little doubt that Muhammad by nominating Abu Bakr to this duty intended the delegation of the supreme authority to him while he himself was laid aside, if not to mark him as successor after death.
Sayings of Muhammad on his death-bed
Muhammad’s fever reached such a pitch that the hand could hardly be kept upon the skin from its burning heat. His body was racked with pain; restless and moaning, he tossed about his bed. Umar, approaching the bed, placed his hands on Muhammad’s forehead and suddenly withdrew it because of the heat: ‘O Prophet!’ He said, ‘how violent is the fever upon thee!’ ‘ Yea, verily,’ replied Muhammad, ‘but I have been during the night season repeating in praise of the Lord seventy suras, and among them the seven long ones.’ Umar answered: ‘But the Lord hath forgiven thee all thy sins, the former and the latter; now then, why not rest and take thine ease?’ Muhammad replied, ‘for wherefore should I not be a faithful servant unto him?’
During the same day Muhammad fell into a state of unconsciousness. Omm Salma advised that physic (a medicine that purges) should be given to him, so Asma, sister of Meimuna, prepared it after an Abyssinian recipe, and they forced it into his mouth. Reviving from its effects, Muhammad demanded to know what it was they had given him. Asma, enumerated the ingredients (Indian wood and seed mixed with some drops of olive oil) upon which Muhammad exclaimed angrily: ‘this is a remedy for the pleurisy, which she hath learned in the land of Abyssinia; but that is not a disease which the Lord will suffer to attack me. Now shall ye all partake of the same dose? Let not one remain in the house without being physicked, even as ye have physicked me, excepting only my uncle Abbas.’ So all the women arose and they poured the physic, in the presence of the dying Prophet, into each other’s mouths. The scene is well attested. How strangely it must have contrasted with the Prophet’s death-bed! Meimuna pleaded that she was under a vow of fasting, and could not therefore, allow anything, even medicine, to pass her lips.
Muhammad in fever curses Jews and Christians
After this, the conversation turned to Abyssinia where Omm Salma and Omm Habiba had both been exiles. They spoke of the beauty of a cathedral in that country, called the Church of Maria, and of the wonderful pictures on its walls. Muhammad listened quietly and then said: ‘these verily are the people who, when a good man hath lived amongst them, build over his tomb a place of worship, and then adorn it with their pictures. These, in the eyes of the Lord, are the worst part of all creation.’ He stopped and covered himself with the bedclothes; then casting them off in the restlessness and perhaps delirium of the fever said: ‘The Lord destroy the Jews and Christians! (some authorities omit Christians from this tradition) Let his anger be kindled against those that turn the tombs of their Prophets into places of worship! Let there not remain any faith but that of Islam throughout Arabia!’ (Lit., ‘Let there not remain two religions.’)
Muhammad’s last activities
Calls for writing materials:
About this time, recognising Umar, and some other chief men in the room, he called out: ‘Fetch me hither ink and paper, that I may record for you a writing which shall hinder you from going astray for ever.’ Umar said: ‘He wandereth in his mind. Is not the Quran sufficient for us?’ But the women wished that the writing materials should be brought and a discussion ensued. They did not know whether he had asked for the writing materials while in a state of delirium or not. So they asked him what were his wishes regarding the writing materials only to be told: ‘Leave me thus alone for my present state is better than that ye call me to.’
In the course of the day he asked Ayesha to distribute some gold in charity. He directed that it should be divided among some indigent families; and then lying down he said: ‘Now I am at peace. Verily it would not have become me to meet my Lord, and this gold in my possession.’ (There are many traditions to show Muhammad’s unwillingness to retain money in his possession. He used to give everything away in charity; and did not even like retaining money in the house over the night. All this is probably exaggerated).
The following morning brought Muhammad some relief. The Mosque was crowded at the hour of prayer with men and women anxiously awaiting news. Abu Bakr, as usual, led the devotions; as Imam he stood in the place of Muhammad before the congregation, his back turned towards them. At the beginning of the second rakat, or series of prostrations, Muhammad himself appeared and sat on the ground by the side of Abu Bakr, who resumed the service, and finished it in the customary form.
Muhammad returned to Ayesha exhausted. A relative of hers entered with a green-tooth pick in his hand. (In the east, the fresh and tender wood of trees is used for this purpose, cut into thin and narrow pieces.) Ayesha observed that the eye of Muhammad rested on it, and knowing it to be such as he liked, asked whether he wished to have it. He signified assent. Chewing it a little to make it soft and pliable, she placed it in his hand. This pleased him; for he took up the tooth-pick and used it, rubbing his teeth with his ordinary vigour; then he put it down.
Prays and calls for Gabriel:
His strength was waning and he seemed to be aware that death was drawing near. He called for a pitcher of water, and wetting his face prayed: ‘O Lord, I beseech thee assist me in the agonies of death!’ Then three times he called out earnestly: ‘Gabriel, come close unto me!’
Perhaps in half-conscious delirium, he began to blow upon himself repeating a prayer he had been in the habit of praying over persons who were very sick. When he stopped because of weakness, Ayesha took up the task and continued to blow upon him and recite the same prayer. Then, seeing that he was very low, she seized his right hand and rubbed it (another practice of the Prophet when visiting the sick) repeating all the while the earnest invocation. The Prophet now wished for perfect quiet and he prayed in a whisper ‘Lord! grant me pardon; and join me to the companionship on high.’ Then at intervals: ‘Eternity in Paradise! Pardon!Yes; the blessed companionship on high!’ He stretched himself gently, and then all was still. His head grew heavy on the breast of Ayesha. The Prophet of Arabia was dead.