Event of Mubahala
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The Event of Mubahala was a meeting between the Islamic prophet Muhammad and a Christian delegation from Najran (present-day Yemen), in the month of Dhu'l-Hijja, 10 AH (October 631, October 631-2, October 632-3), where Muhammad invoked a curse attempting to reveal who was lying about their religious differences.
The initial effort was to invite the Najrani Christians to Islam and acknowledgement of Muhammad as a prophet. During religious discussions of similarities and differences, the topic of the divinity of ‘Īsā (Arabic: عِـيْـسَى, Jesus) arose. The Christians refused to accept Muhammad's teachings about Christ and refused denying their beliefs. Muhammad invoked a mubahala (prayer curse) regarding their refusal, and included his children and wives in the call to invoke a curse.
According to a hadith in Bihar al-Anwar, Mohammad brought only selected members of his family, Husayn, Hasan, Fatimah and Ali. The Christians were surprised, according to the traditions, and decided not to invoke a curse on Muhammad and the others, and instead asked for peace, offering Muhammad tribute in return for protection. Islamic sources offer various explanations of this outcome. Some of them suggest that the Christians would have perished by the end of the year if they had entered into the imprecations.
The event is commemorated annually on 24 Dhu al-Hijjah by Shia and is an inceptual argument for Shia Muslims in proving that Ahl al-Kisā’ (Arabic: أَهْـل الـكِـسَـاء, People of the Cloak) are the Ahl al-Bayṫ (Arabic: أَهْـل الـبَـيْـت, People of the Household [of Muhammad]) mentioned in the Quran.
Al-Mubahalah (Arabic: المباهلة) is derived from the Arabic word bahlah (curse). Bahala is a root verb meaning to curse. Al-bahl (the curse) also means a scarcity of water. The term 'mubahala' can also mean withdrawing mercy from one who lies or engages in falsehood.
In the Quran, al-mubahala (invocation of God's curse) was mentioned as a decisive solution to the dispute over Jesus between the Christians of Najran and Muhammad. Allah ordered Muhammad to call on the Christians to invoke God's curse (mubahala – verse 3.61) in order to determine who was telling the truth.
The Quran's mubahala verse is one of the most controversial verses due to the debate with Christianity and more-so the Shia and Sunni division within Islam. Praying for God to curse the liar regarding religious disputes is an ancient Arabic tradition. Mubahala was common among Semitic tribes, being found in pre-Islamic writings.
The event of Mubahala is an instance of the Quran's critique of a central Christian doctrine; God on earth as Christ (Incarnation). From this historical event, Muslims were to continue challenging and criticizing major points of the Christian faith with Christians defending and defining their doctrines and practices.
In the ninth year of Hijra, Muhammad is reported sending a letter to Abdul Haris Ibn Alqama, Grand Bishop of Najran, the official representative of the Roman Church in the Hijaz, inviting the people of that area to embrace Islam. In response to that letter a delegation was sent to Muhammad.
Between 21 and 25 of Dhu'l-Hijja 10 A.H. / 22 to 26 March 632 A.D. (specific dates contested), the delegation arrived and discussions of religion and theology began, with the subject eventually turning to Jesus, the Messiah, and the question of defining what and who Jesus is understood to be. Muhammad preached to them and requested them to accept Islam. The Christians, however, were not convinced and responded with their explanations of Christ being divine.
Verse of Mubahalah
"Surely the case of Jesus is like the case of Adam. He created him out of dust, then he said to him, "Be', and he was. This is the truth from thy Lord, so be thou not of those who doubt. Now whoso disputes with thee concerning him, after what has come to thee of Knowledge, say to him "Come let us call abnā’anā (Arabic: أَبـنـاءنـا, our sons) and abnā’akum (Arabic: أَبـنـاءكـم, your sons) and nisā’anā (Arabic: نِـسـاءنـا, our women) and nisā’kum (Arabic: نِـسـاءكـم, your women) and anfusanā (Arabic: أَنـفـسـنـا, ourselves) and anfusakum (Arabic: أَنـفـسـكـم, yourselves), then let us pray fervently and invoke the curse of Allah on those who lie.""
Traditional narrative from hadiths
According to Ibn Hisham's sirah, Muhammad recites the mubahala verses to the Christians and after lengthy discussions, no agreement was reached on the position and standing of Jesus. At the end of the discussions, Muhammad demands the two sides engage in Mubahala.
The Christians returned to the place they were staying. Their leader al-Sayyid, al-'Aqib advised them saying: "If he challenges us with his people, we accept the challenge for he is not a prophet; but if he challenges us with his family in particular we don't challenge him, for he is not going to put forward his family unless he is truthful."
The morning of 24th Dhul Hijjah, Muhammad emerged at the appointed time. He brought only selected members of his family, carrying Husayn in his arm with Hasan holding his hand, followed by Fatima and Ali. Tradition states the Christians were surprised when they saw Muhammad's family ("Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn") accompanying Muhammad.
Muhammad offered to do the Mubahala, asking each conflicting party to cover themselves with a cloak, and that all parties ask God sincerely to destroy and inflict with curses on the lying party and their families. The Christians consulted each other and Abdul Haris lbne Alqama, the greatest scholar among them, talked them out of carrying out the Mubahala.
The Christians refused, so Muhammad gave them two alternatives: either to convert to Islam or pay the Jizya (a tax on free non-Muslims under Muslim rule). The Christians agreed to pay tribute and asked Muhammad to send with them a trustworthy man to aid them in judging monetary disputes amongst themselves. Muhammad is said to have agreed and appointed 'Abu 'Ubaydah bin Al-Jarah out of a large group of willing and hopeful contenders.
Accounts of the Christians' response
The earliest Islamic testimonials (Hadith) and histories report different details regarding the dialogue between the Christians and Muhammad.
In Muqatil, the Christian leader simply says that in any scenario, cursing Muhammad would be disastrous and that Allāh will destroy the liars by the end of the year.
Al-Tabari reports uncertainty among the Christians and that according to Amir al-Shabi, after the Christians initially accept the mubahala they later seek advice from a wise man in their group, with that man rebuking them and convincing them not to invoke the curse.
Ibn Sa'd doesn't provide details of the dialogue aside from the Christian leader responding to Muhammad with "We think it proper not to curse you. You may order us as you like and we shall obey you and shall make peace with you."
Controversy between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam exists regarding the verse of Mubahala. Modern scholars critique the tendency of later commentators of relating many Quranic passages to this particular event.
According to Al-Mizan by Allamah Tabatabaei, a Shia scholar, the first "us" in this verse has a different import from the plural pronouns used in "our sons", "our women" and "our near people". The former refers to both the Islam and Christian sides, while the other three "our"s refer to the side of Islam only. This way, a meaningful short sentence implies a longer sentence equal in meaning. Based on Madelung, interpreting the term our sons as the two grandsons of the prophet is reasonable and consequently the parents, Ali and Fatimah, may be included in this verse.
The members of the Muhammad family who were expected to participate this event are not modified in some of the Sunni sources, while some others mention Fatima, Hasan and Husayn as the participants. Meanwhile, some of the Sunni sources are in agreement with Shia belief saying that Ahl al-Kisa, including Ali, participated in the occasion.
- "What is the proof for the Caliphate of your grandfather, Ali ibn Abi Talib?
- "The verse of our selves," The Imam replied.
- "If there were not our women," al-Ma'mun said
- "If there were not our sons," the Imam said.
Tabatabaei says: "The Imam argued on the strength of the word, ourselves. He meant that God had made Ali like the person of the Prophet. (And who could have more right to succeed the Prophet than his own person?). al-Ma'mun said, 'If there were not our women.' He wanted to say that the reference to 'women' indicates that the word 'ourselves' means 'our men', and as such it would not show any excellence. The Imam replied, 'If there were not our sons.' That is, if 'ourselves' referred to the men, then why should the sons be mentioned separately? They would have been included in 'our men'."
As an argument
Mubahala provided an opportunity for Muhammad to introduce the People of his Household, who were also given the title Ahl al-Kisa afterward. Shias believe this authentic hadith proves whom the Quran is referring to when it mentions the "Ahl al-Bayt", namely only Ali, Fatimah, and their descendants. This event causes some scholars to conclude the power and superiority of Ali - especially when it comes to his right of Imamah and immediate successorship following Muhammad.
In such debates, each side brings forward the most informed men. It is seen as one of the merits of Ahl al-Bayt and is widely used by the Shia to prove that Muhammad, Ali ibn Abu Talib, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn are Ahl al-Kisa and most prominent among his Ahl al-Bayt.
According to Sidney H. Griffith, it is noteworthy that in this passage the Quran leaves the judgment with God, once the two parties "would have staked their lives and those of their loved ones on their own steadfastness in faith".
Scholar W. Schmucker states the ascription to the Christians from Najran is fictitious and the obscure verse doesn't relate to any historical event, concluding the later doctrines and legends were built around the verse to further dogma. Instead, he states the verse was to extol Muhammad's religious rank in abstract terms, and the inclusion of relatives was according to regional ethnic tradition to show prominence over other tribal and family groups.
Parts of the Quran are interpreted as forging a continuous dialogue between Muslims and Christians, in the same time, however, it assumes that the dialogue between Jews, Christians, and Muslims will sometimes take the form of arguments about religion, for one passage says, "Do not dispute with the People of the Book save in the fairest way; Except for those who are evil doers." And say: "We believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent to you. Our God and your God are one and to Him we are submissive."
Archeologist and historical linguist, Dr. Mohammed Maraqten, states regarding how ancient Arabic practices fashioned Islamic thought:
The curses in the inscriptions of pre-Islamic Arabia are not only very important for an understanding of maledictory practice in the ancient Near East, but provide information on the religious thought in ancient south Arabia and illuminate the background for the use of curses in Islam...In the Quran, God is relentless in cursing unbelievers and evildoers, and the term la'ama is attested many times. In this, ancient Near Eastern curse traditions seem to have been carried over into the Islamic ethical system.
Summary from Muqatil's Tafsir explains the event of Mubahala was less about the confrontation with the Najran Christians but more about the authority of Muḥammad and his claim of prophethood. As explained in the Muqatil's exegesis, the divinity of Jesus was less of a precedent despite the legend of the confrontation between Muhammad and the Christians. The effort instead, as described in the Tafsir, was to determine the Jewish community of Madina and the Najrani Christians to be subordinate to Muhammad's honor.
According to Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i in Tafsir al-Mizan, Muhammad said that the Christians escaped being turned into monkeys and pigs, and all of Najran would have perished within a year of the mubahala.
Eid al-Mubahalah is an annual Shia Muslim commemoration of Mubahala. It takes place on 24 Dhu al-Hijjah. According to Louis Massignon there are many different attitudes among Shia and Sunnis regarding the Mubahalah. One of those disagreement is in terms of the approving of the verse of Quran on Mubahalah whether the verse III, 54 was with the presence of the five persons including as Fatima. According to Shia sources not only did Mubahala happen with the presence of Fatima, but Fatima was considered as someone who was on the forefront of the religion of Islam. In other words, some sects believe there was a symbolic role during the event of Mubahala. Some sects such as Nusayrieh believe that the Christians of Najran recognize the place of Fatima as the place of Maryam (Mary) mother of Jesus.
In the Gregorian calendar
While Eid al-Mubahalah is always on nearly the same day (25 Dhu al-Hijjah) of the Islamic calendar, the date on the Gregorian calendar varies from year to year because of differences between the two calendars, since the Islamic calendar, the Hijri calendar (AH), is a lunar calendar and the Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar. This date is shown for a selection of years, according to the Calendar center of Geophysics institute of Tehran University, in the table below:
|Islamic year||Gregorian date in Iran||Gregorian date in Iraq|
|1439||15 September 2017||16 September 2017|
- being divine and the Son of God, i.e. the claim that 'Isa was God, and the son of God, and one of the three persons of God.
- Traditionally, it was uncommon for a mubahala to include families members of the parties involved. According to an Islamic theological perspective, when family members are included, the process to become more effective.
- So the Prophet [Muhammad]... said, "...and the year would not have ended for all the Christians but they would have perished."
- "If [Muhammad] is truthful, then Allāh will destroy the liars by the end of the year."
- See Louis Massignon, La Mubahala de Medine et I'hyperdulie de Fatima, in Louis Massignon, parole donnee (paris: Editions du Seuil, 1983), 147-67
- The text of the said letter runs as follow: "In the name the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob … I invite you all to worship God instead of worshiping His creatures, so that you may come out of the guardianship of the creatures of Allah and take place under the guardianship of Allah Himself…"
- Quran, 3:59-61
- As-Sirah an-Nabawiyyah, an edited (though not copied) version of Ibn Ishaq's original work. It is now considered one of the classic works on the biography of Muhammad.
- It was uncommon for Mubahala to include families of the parties involved but when included, the family causes the process to become more effective.
- Ibn al-Qayyim says: "It is part of Sunnah when arguing with people of falsehood—when they insist on falsehood regardless of arguments and proofs—to call them to Mubahala." See Ibn al-Qayyim, Zad al-Ma'ad Vol.3 p.643
- He addressed his people saying: "By Allah! You are well-aware, O Christians, that Muhammad is a prophet sent by Allah, and that he has brought to you the decisive word about your Companion (Isa). By Allah! Whenever a nation has entered into imprecation with a prophet, their elders have perished and their youngsters have died. And if you do it, we shall surely perish; but, if you turn down, for the love of your religion and (want) to remain on what you have at present, then make peace with the man and go back to your towns."
- See Surat al-Nabi, II, p. 422.
- See Tafsir, VI, pp. 282.
- Ibn al-Qayyim "What have you done? If Muhammad is a prophet, and he invokes Allah against you, Allah would never anger him by not answering his prayers. If, on the other hand, he is a king, and he were to prevail over you, he would never spare you." See Jami al-Bayan, VI, p. 478.
- See Gordon Nickel, "'We Will Make Peace With You': The Christians of Najari in Muqatir's Tafsir" Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 3 (2006), pp. 171-188. The earliest Muslim sources offer a diversity of details of the discussion which occurs among the Najran Christians in response to Muhammad's mubahala challenge. In Ibn Ishaq, the leader of the Christians is convinced of Muhammad's prophethood and thus advises the delegation that cursing Muhammad's would be disastrous. Surat al-Nabi, II, p. 422.. In Muqatil, the leader simply says that in any scenario, cursing Muhammad would be disastrous. Tafsir, VI, pp. 282. Al-Tabari also transmitted a tradition which indicates ambivalence: according to 'Amir al-Sha'bi, the Christians of Najaran initially accept the mubahala challenge. But when they seek the advice of a wise man from their deputation, he rebukes them: “What have you done? If Muhammad is a prophet, and he invokes Allah against you, Allah would never anger him by not answering his prayers. If, on the other hand, he is a king, and he were to prevail over you, he would never spare you.” Jami al-Bayan, VI, p. 478. Ibn Sa'd did not give details of the deliberations, but had the leader respond to Muhammad's, "We think it proper not to curse you. You may order us as you like and we shall obey you and shall make peace with you." Kitab Tabaqat Al-Kubra (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1957), I, p. 358.
- For useful discussion of this Quran passage, see Jane Dammen McAuliffe, "Debate with them in the better way": The Construction of a Qur'anic Commonplace." In Aspects of Literary Hermeneutics in Arabic Culture: Myths, Historical Archetypes and Symbolic Figures in Arabic Literature. Beiruter Texte und Studien, edited by A. Neuwirth, S. Gunther, M. Jarrar, 163–188. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1999.
- Quran, 29:46
- So the Prophet made agreement with them on these conditions. And he said, "By Him in Whose hand is my soul! Surely destruction had almost descended on the people of Najran.' And if they had entered into imprecation they would have been transformed into monkeys and pigs, and there would have erupted in the valley a conflagration of fire engulfing them all: and surely Allah would have annihilated Najran and its inhabitants even the birds on treetops; and the year would not have ended for all the Christians but they would have perished."
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