1 Mecca AD 613
I was born in blood, and its terrible taint would follow me all my life.
My mother, Umm Ruman, cried out in agony as the contractions increased in severity. The midwife, a stout woman from the tribe of Bani Nawfal named Amal, leaned closer to examine the pregnant woman's abdomen. And then she saw it. The line of blood that was running down her patient's thigh.
Amal looked over to the young girl standing nervously to the side of the wooden birthing chair where her stepmother was struggling to bring forth life.
"Asma," she said in a soft voice, trying to mask the fear that was growing in her chest. "Get your father."
Your mother, Abdallah, was no more than ten years old at the time, and she paled at Amal's words. Asma knew what they meant. So did Umm Ruman.
"I am dying," Umm Ruman gasped, her teeth grinding against the pain. She had known something was wrong the moment her water broke. It had been dark and mottled with blood, and the subsequent horror of the contractions was far beyond anything she had experienced at the birth of her son, Abdal Kaaba, so many years before.
At the age of thirty-eight, she had known that she was too old to bear another child safely and had greeted the news of her pregnancy with trepidation. In the Days of Ignorance before the Revelation, perhaps she would have turned to Amal or the other midwives of Mecca for their secret draft that was said to poison the womb. But the Messenger of God had made it clear to his small band of followers that the life of a child was sacred, despite the many pagan Arab customs to the contrary. She had sworn an oath of allegiance to his hand, and she would not go against his teachings, even if they meant her demise. Unlike most of her neighbors and friends still clinging to the old ways, Umm Ruman no longer feared death. But she grieved to think that her child, the first to be born into the new faith of Islam, might not survive to see the sunrise.
Amal took her hand and squeezed it gently.
"Do not despair. We will get through this together." Her voice was kind, but Umm Ruman could see in the stern lines around her mouth that Amal had reached her professional conclusion. The end was nigh for mother and child.
Umm Ruman managed to turn her head to her stepdaughter, Asma, who stood frozen at her side, tears welling in her dark eyes.
"Go. Bring Abu Bakr to me," she said, her voice growing faint. She stroked the girl's still plump cheeks. "If I die before you return, tell him my last request was that the Prophet pray at my funeral."
Asma shook her head, refusing to face that possibility. "You can't die! I won't let you!"
The girl was not of Umm Ruman's flesh, but the bond between them was as strong as that of any mother and daughter. Perhaps stronger, for Asma had chosen her over her actual mother, Qutaila, who had refused to accept the new faith. Abu Bakr had divorced his first wife, for it was forbidden for a believer to share a bed with an idol worshiper. The proud Qutaila had left their home in a furious rage, vowing to return to her tribe, but Asma had refused to go with her. The girl had chosen the Straight Path, the way of the Messenger and her father, Abu Bakr. That had been three years ago, and Asma had not seen her mother since. Umm Ruman had felt sorry for the abandoned child, still too young to understand the enormity of her choice, and had raised the girl as her own.
She wondered what would happen to Asma once she was gone. Abu Bakr would likely look for a new wife, but there were only a handful of believers, and the Message was spreading slowly because of the need for secrecy. If the pagan leaders of Mecca learned the truth of what the Prophet was teaching, their wrath would be kindled, and the tiny community the believers had founded in the shadows would be exposed and destroyed. In all likelihood, Asma would be alone, without any foster mother to guide her through the journey of womanhood. The girl was past due for her cycles, which usually began at the age of ten or eleven for those born under the harsh Arabian sun. The menstrual flow would erupt any day now, but Umm Ruman would not be there to comfort her through the shock of first blood.
She ran her hand through Asma's brown curls, hoping to bequeath a soft memory with her touch that would comfort the child in the days to come. And then a shock of pain tore through Umm Ruman's womb and she screamed.
Asma broke free of her stepmother's grasp. She fell back, stumbling over one of the bricks that the midwife had placed at Umm Ruman's swollen feet. As Amal searched desperately through her midwife's stores for a salve to ease her patient's agony, the girl turned and ran in search of her father.
Umm Ruman closed her eyes and said silent prayer even as her body burned from within.
As her uterus contracted with increasing urgency, she could feel the baby shifting, preparing to emerge into the world. A process that in all likelihood would lead to her death, and possibly the baby's as well.
It was the beginning of the end, she thought sadly.
Umm Ruman was right. But in ways she could not have expected.
My father, Abu Bakr, walked through the quiet streets of Mecca, his head bowed low, his back hunched slightly, as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Which, of course, it was.
Tonight everything had changed. And he needed to tell someone. Normally he would have gone straight home after emerging from the Prophet's house, as their dwellings were next door to each other. But after what he had seen and heard tonight, he needed to take a walk.
And besides, his wife had entered labor earlier that day, and his home was now the exclusive domain of the midwife. Abu Bakr had learned through the birth of two sons and a daughter to give the tribe of women its privacy at such moments. A man could only serve as a bumbling annoyance or a dangerous distraction to the sacred rituals of birth. And the safe delivery of this child, the first to be born into the Revelation, was important not just to him, but to the entire Muslim community.
All twenty of them.
His child. Abu Bakr wondered for a moment what kind of world the baby would grow into. For years he had hoped that the Truth would spread discreetly and in secret until the masters of Mecca were surprised to see that their tribal religion had died in its sleep, to be replaced quietly with the worship of the One God. But tonight had shown him that whatever path Islam would take among these people, it would not be a quiet one.
He paused to look up at the heavens. There was no moon tonight and the sky was aflame with a legion of stars, the sparkling strands of a cosmic web that testified to the glory of the Lord. The foolish among his people believed that the future could be discerned in the shimmering patterns that played across the heavens. But Abu Bakr knew that such superstitions were a delusion. Only God knew the future. The greatest of storytellers, every day He surprised man with a new tale. Those who thought they could encompass His grand plan with their puny calculations were always humbled.
Turning a corner in the walled district of Mecca where many of the chieftains of the city lived, he found himself looking out past the hills that surrounded the desert valley to Mount Hira the place where God had spoken to a man, even as He did to Moses at Mount Sinai to the north. The mountain, which soared two thousand feet above the desert floor, tapered into a rocky plateau, at the pinnacle of which was hidden a tiny cave. A small, cramped space where no light could enter. And from which Light itself had sprung forth.
When his childhood friend Muhammad, the orphan son of Abdallah of the clan of Bani Hashim, had emerged from that cave three years ago, he was transformed. He had seen a vision of an angel named Gabriel who had proclaimed him to be God's Messenger to mankind, the final Prophet sent to bring the world out of darkness into light. It was an audacious claim, one that would understandably invite ridicule had it been made by any other man. But Muhammad was different.
Abu Bakr had known him since they were excited boys traveling with a caravan to the markets of Palestine and Syria. And from the first day he had set eyes on the young Muhammad, Abu Bakr had known that his friend had a destiny. Raised in poverty and humiliation, the boy nonetheless exuded a dignity, a power, that seemed to emanate from another realm. While other youths quickly embraced the sharp business tactics of the Meccan traders as a means of getting ahead in the harsh world of the desert, Muhammad had gained a reputation as Al-Amin the Honest One. His reputation for fair dealing brought him respect but little profit, and Abu Bakr had been heartbroken to see his friend live in destitution while less scrupulous young men advanced rapidly.
And he had been overjoyed as Muhammad's luck finally turned, when he won the heart of Khadija, a lovely and wealthy widow who had employed the youth to manage her caravans. Khadija had proposed to the penniless Muhammad, and Abu Bakr took great pleasure in seeing his boyhood comrade finally living in affluence among the nobles of Mecca. But Muhammad had never seemed comfortable around wealth, and his sudden prosperity and entry into elite society had only increased his concern for the many who remained poor in the desert valley.
Abu Bakr had spent many nights talking with his friend through the years as he expressed agitation over the worsening plight of the lower classes of the city. Women and children starved in the valley of Mecca, even as flourishing trade with the Byzantine and Persian empires to the north enriched its tribal chiefs. Muhammad had become increasingly distraught at the daily injustices he witnessed, as the strong preyed on the weak and men used and discarded women, leaving their bastard children to fend for themselves in the worst cases, killing infant girls, whose birth was seen as socially undesirable.
Abu Bakr had not been surprised to see his tormented friend embark on a spiritual path, meditating every night and spending his days conversing with people of other nations and faiths he met on the caravan routes. Muhammad had never been interested in the religion of their people. The crude idols that the Arabs worshiped had repelled him, and he was drawn instinctively to the People of the Book, Jews and Christians, and their remarkable stories of the One God who stood for justice and compassion. And the People of the Book would remind him that this God had once also been worshiped by the ancestors of the Arabs, who had been descended from the prophet Abraham through his firstborn son, Ishmael. This God, whom the Jews called Elohim, was still known to the Arabs as Allah, the Creator God. But the Arabs now worshiped hundreds of other deities that were seen as intermediaries of Allah, who was too powerful and remote to care about the daily lives of men. Every tribe in the desert had its own god, and each held its god out to be better than the others, leading to division and warfare among the clans. These competing deities, like the untamed elements of nature they symbolized, were capricious and lacked any sense of morality or justice. Seeing the chaos engendered by these warring and cruel gods, Muhammad longed for his people to return to the old ways of Abraham and his simple, pure vision of Allah.
When Abu Bakr would come to visit him, Muhammad would often stay up late into the night sharing tales he had heard from these foreigners, stories about Moses and the haughty Pharaoh, Joseph and his conniving brothers among the Children of Israel, and Jesus the son of Mary, God's most recent Messenger to mankind, who had healed the blind and raised the dead. Abu Bakr was swept away by his friend's passion for this God and His prophets, which awakened within him a similar longing for the Divine. Like Muhammad, Abu Bakr found the gods of the Arabs to be petty and small. But Allah, this God of Abraham, had never spoken to the Arabs, and Abu Bakr longed to hear from this mysterious, invisible being who had forgotten the children of Ishmael.
And then it had happened. Muhammad's vision on Mount Hira had left his friend shaken and confused. Seeing the winged angel first inside the cave and then standing on the horizon, its wondrous form expanding in a cloud of light until it stretched to the heavens, Muhammad became convinced that he was mad or possessed by a djinn. He had wanted to kill himself in despair, but his wife, Khadija, had comforted him. She told him that a man of his character would not be misled or abandoned by Allah, and that his experience must be true. Over the next several months, the visions intensified, and the angel told Muhammad that he had been chosen to follow in his ancestor Abraham's path to abolish idolatry and establish the worship of the One God among the Arabs, who would then spread the faith of their forefather to all mankind.
Muhammad was overwhelmed. He was being asked to undertake an impossible task. To turn a land of warring tribes who venerated hundreds of tribal deities into a unified nation under one God. How could he begin? Unable to find an answer beyond the loving circle of his wife and family, he had taken a risk. Muhammad had turned to his friend Abu Bakr and shared what was happening to him.
So it was that one peaceful evening three years ago, Abu Bakr had sat on the floor in the quiet of Muhammad's sparsely furnished private study as his old friend revealed the angelic visions and the Voice that had called to him from the heavens. As Abu Bakr heard him speak, he felt something stirring inside his heart. It was as if he had been waiting his whole life for this moment. It was as natural and inevitable as falling in love. Even before Muhammad finished speaking, Abu Bakr knew that his inner longing had been answered. Allah, the God who had spoken to Moses and Jesus, had not forgotten the Arabs, the children of Abraham. Abu Bakr had known Muhammad for over thirty years and had never had reason to doubt one word spoken by Al-Amin. If God would choose anyone to prophesy to the Arab nation, it would be this man. It had to be this man.
Without hesitation, Abu Bakr had accepted his claim to be the Messenger of God and promised that he would be Muhammad's righthand man on his mission. And for the next three years, he had quietly spread the word to a few trusted friends and kinsmen that there was a Prophet in their midst, one who would bring their people to salvation. Abu Bakr acted in absolute secrecy, as the leaders of Mecca, whose trade was done in the name of the ancient gods, would have moved quickly to destroy this new religious movement.
While he succeeded in persuading a small handful of associates to accept Muhammad's teachings and join his faith, he was devastated that he failed to win over some in his own family. His first wife, Qutaila, had refused to break the idols of her gods and he had divorced her. And to add to his grief, his beloved son Abdal Kaaba also proved unwilling to turn his back on the ways of their people. Their arguments grew so bitter that Abdal Kaaba had left his home and gone to live among kinsmen, refusing to speak with him until Abu Bakr renounced his foolish new ideas. His alienation from his son weighed heavily on his heart, and the Prophet gently reminded Abu Bakr that Noah, too, had been estranged from his son, whose resistance to God's message had ultimately led to his death in the Flood. Abu Bakr understood that a father could not be responsible for the choices of his son, but his failure haunted him nonetheless.
Despite the personal losses he had endured in his family, Abu Bakr had not faced any major social consequences for his involvement in Muhammad's new group. The chieftains of Mecca had heard rumors that Al-Amin was quietly playing the role of spiritual teacher to a handful of locals, but they paid little attention. As long as his small band of followers kept to themselves and did not create trouble in Mecca, they could worship whatever god they wished, believe whatever they wanted. As long as Muhammad's teachings remained quiet and did not disrupt the profits of the tribal chiefs, everything would be fine.
But that had all changed tonight.
Abu Bakr turned away from the towering vision of Mount Hira and looked back to the Prophet's home in a distant corner of the city. The two-story edifice sparkled under the starlight, its white stone walls shimmering with a faint, unearthly glow. For the past few years, that house had been a secure gathering place for Abu Bakr and the nineteen other believers. There they prayed together and listened to the Prophet as he shared God's words that had been revealed through Gabriel. That home was their sanctuary.
It would now have to be their fortress. For the leaders of Mecca had learned tonight what Muhammad's true message was.
And they had declared war.
Asma raced out of her father's home. She had seen Umm Ruman's ghostly pale face, the blood on her thighs, and had known that the birthing had gone terribly wrong. Asma had already lost one mother she could not bear to lose another.
The girl ran down the steps and stepped out into the narrow alley between her father's home and the house of the Prophet. She splashed her feet in a pool of dark mud, residue of the rare and welcome rainfall of the night before. Her friends had all gone this morning to pray at the sacred temple the Holy Kaaba and thank their gods for the life-giving water that so rarely fell from the sky in the desert valley. But Asma had not joined them. Her father had taught her that the idols in the Kaaba were abominations, false gods whose worship angered Allah. The believers had gathered instead inside the Prophet's home to thank the One God in secret. They had bowed in unison, their foreheads touching the dark earth as the Prophet recited the most recent verses of the Qur'an, the Book that God was revealing to him bit by bit, in small poetic stanzas, every day.
Asma always enjoyed their services, partly because of the secrecy, the thrill of doing something that was forbidden. And partly because it was a special time that she could share with her father. Abu Bakr was a prosperous merchant who was forever busy inspecting caravans from Yemen, buying and selling frankincense, carpets, and pottery in the marketplace, and serving as an arbiter of commercial disputes among the various trading parties of Mecca. She rarely saw him during the day and relished the few hours every night when he would set aside the ledger of a businessman and take on the robes of a believer.
Asma had always been amazed by how he would change in the presence of the Prophet at these meetings. Abu Bakr was a dignified man, masculine and strong, a man accustomed to quiet leadership. But in the presence of the Messenger, he became as a slave before its master enthusiastic, nervous, anxious to please. The stern cynicism of the trader was replaced with wonder, the complete and absolute trust of a child. His long face, tired and worn from a day of haggling with Abyssinian, Greek, and Persian traders, would suddenly come alive with enthusiasm and joy. When her father had first approached Asma and told her of his new faith, she was too young to understand the intricacies of theology. But she saw how the Revelation had changed him, how it breathed life into a man who once seemed like a stone, perennially weary of the world, and she knew she that she, too, would embrace this path.
Her love for her father had given her the strength to turn her back on her mother, Qutaila, and her half brother, Abdal Kaaba, who had refused to join the new movement. When they left, a pall had fallen over the house of Abu Bakr. They were outcasts in their own home, adherents to a strange new religion that had the temerity to put the bonds of the soul before the ties of blood. Asma had felt her father's silent despair grow as his efforts to spread the Prophet's teachings among his kinsmen were met sometimes with incomprehension, more usually with laughter, and a few times with anger. As fewer and fewer of Abu Bakr's clansmen and family members came to visit their home, she had felt her own growing isolation. The girls she played with would sometimes whisper about the rumors spreading through Mecca, that Abu Bakr and his family had been possessed by djinn or had been placed under a spell by a sorcerer. She wanted to tell them, tell everyone in the city, the truth. That God had spoken to them, was speaking to them every day, through the lyrical voice of a man who had never before recited any words of power or poetry. That they were being told truths far greater than any relayed by the kahins, the mystical soothsayers who wandered through the villages of Arabia, sharing their visions for a price.
But her father had forbidden her to speak of their community and its beliefs. So she had kept silent, and the shared secret created a lasting bond with the few other believers. They were her new family.
A family that would now be torn asunder if her stepmother died. Umm Ruman had become a mother to the whole community, second only in importance to Khadija, the Prophet's wife and the first to embrace the new faith. The handful of believers turned to Umm Ruman for hope and inspiration. They relied on her patient ears to unload their tales of loneliness and sorrow, the price that came with their newfound faith. Her kind smile had lifted the hearts of many who had been consumed by grief and rejection, and her soft hands had wiped many cheeks of tears in the past few years. Her death would be a devastating blow to the faithful. But they would ultimately be consoled by turning to the Prophet and his family, the Ahl al-Bayt, the People of the House, who served as the heart of the new religion. The believers would move on, Asma thought ruefully, but she would be bereft of a mother. Again.
She ran down the narrow path toward the Messenger's home, stopping in front of the wrought-iron gate. As always when she approached the beautiful stone house, with its sturdy pillars and delicately tapered arches, she detected the distinct smell of roses in the air, although she could see no blooms in the courtyard. Asma caught her breath and glanced up. The silver latticed windows on the second floor, the family area, were dark. Although she knew there had been a large gathering inside earlier in the night, no sound emerged from within. The eerie chirping of crickets echoed around her mournfully. Perhaps the Prophet was asleep or immersed deep in prayer.
Even though she knew that her mission was one of life and death, she still hesitated to knock and disturb the holy family. Although her father always reminded her that Allah was merciful and compassionate, she had heard the frightening tales of those who earned His wrath the tribe of 'Ad, which had mocked their prophet Hud and been struck down by wind and storm, or Thamud, which had hamstrung the she-camel of its prophet Salih and been consumed by an earthquake.
Asma realized that she was shaking. Whether it was from fear of losing her stepmother or fear of inciting God's anger by troubling his Prophet, she could not say. She took a breath and took hold of the silver knocker that hung just above her head. Asma rapped the gate three times and was surprised by how deeply the sound echoed inside.
For a long moment, she heard nothing. She tentatively reached for the knocker a second time, when the sound of approaching footsteps halted her. The gate swung inward and a shadow fell upon her. Asma looked up to see a handsome boy of thirteen with emerald-green eyes and hair the color of a starless night. She immediately knew who he was and for a second had difficulty speaking. His intense eyes seemed to peer straight through her in the dark, as if they were lit by their own fire. She blushed and looked down at her feet, and was suddenly mortified to see her slippers, feet, and ankles caked in mud.
"Peace be upon you, daughter of Abu Bakr." The boy spoke cheerfully, apparently oblivious to her embarrassment. He smiled at her softly, but what he was thinking as he looked at the panting and bedraggled girl on his doorstep, she had no idea. Ali, the son of the Meccan tribal chief Abu Talib, was a cipher, a mystery to even those closest to the Prophet and his family. He was the young cousin of the Messenger and had been adopted into the Ahl al-Bayt when the Prophet's elderly uncle Abu Talib could no longer afford to feed him. Muhammad was very close to the lad, perhaps viewing him as the brother he had never had, or the son who could have been.
But Ali was not like other youths, and he remained aloof from the boys of Mecca. He showed little interest in their sports, races, or kites, preferring to spend his time watching people in the marketplace as if trying to understand a strange and different species. As a result, the other young men of the city were always a little nervous and uncertain in Ali's presence. Even the believers around the Prophet were not sure what to make of him. He never quite appeared to be with them in spirit, even if he was there in body. Even now, Ali was like an apparition from a dream. She suddenly had a strange thought. What if Ali is the dreamer and Asma the dream? What happens to me when he awakes?
"I am looking for my father," she said, pushing the troubling thought aside. "Umm Ruman is ill. Her womb is bleeding."
Ali blinked at her as if he did not understand her words. Asma got the unnerving feeling again that he was not quite with her but was gazing at her from across some vast distance.
And then he nodded, as if suddenly snapped back to the present moment.
"I am sorry to hear that," he said softly. "I will inform the Prophet. He will pray for Umm Ruman and, if God wills, she will be healed."
Ali stepped back and moved to close the gate, when Asma shifted on to the threshold and took hold of its iron latch.
"And my father?" Asma insisted.
"Your father is not here," Ali said gently. "Abu Bakr went to see Talha and tell him the news."
The light in Ali's eyes seemed to brighten.
"It has begun," he said simply. And with that, Ali nodded a farewell to the perplexed girl and closed the gate.
Asma stood frozen for a moment. There was perfect silence all about her, and the air felt heavier, as if a mysterious blanket had covered the street. It felt as if time had somehow stopped during her brief talk with Ali and that the world itself had been holding its breath.
And then the crickets chirped again in a steady, flowing cadence. Asma shook off the uncomfortable sensation of having just returned from a strange and distant land and focused her mind on what she had to do. She turned and ran away from the Prophet's house toward the main streets of Mecca and her cousin Talha's home.
Abu Bakr warmed his hands by the fire as Talha poured him some goat's milk in an old wooden bowl. The young man, recently turned eighteen, was one of the most recent converts to the new faith. The Prophet's teachings of charity and justice for the poor had ignited Talha's youthful idealism and had given him a cause more worthy of dedicating his life to than simply driving camels for his wealthy cousin. He was eager to share the Revelation with his young friends, to recruit them to the cause, but he had sworn a vow of secrecy. Talha had passionately counseled the Messenger to let him spread the word among the stable boys and shepherds of God's Word. He argued that the new way would be resisted by Abu Bakr's generation, long trapped in the rites of their fathers, but that it was among the shabab of Mecca, those too young to be subdued by the overpowering weight of tradition, that they would find their strongest supporters. The Prophet had smiled and gently admonished him to be patient. Allah had a plan and none could rush the Divine into action. They day would come, Talha had been assured, when they would emerge from the shadows and proclaim the One God openly in Mecca, and eventually the world.
And now, at last, that day had come.
"So he told the tribal chiefs tonight?" Talha's eyes glittered with excitement as he handed his elder cousin the bowl of milk.
"Yes." Abu Bakr held the bowl to his lips, softly whispering the invocation Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Raheem "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate." It was the sacred formula that the Prophet had been taught by Gabriel, the words by which believers began the recitation of their prayers. It was the blessing that they uttered every time they started something anew, whether it be as simple as eating or drinking or tying their shoes, or as meaningful and profound as making love. The bismillah sanctified even the smallest moments of life, elevating the mundane to the holy with every breath.
Abu Bakr sipped the milk, let its soft curds flow down his throat and cool the fire he had felt growing inside his belly through the night.
"What happened?" Talha leaned forward, his hands gripping the edge of the old cypress table that Abu Bakr had given him as a gift the day he embraced Islam.
Abu Bakr sighed and put down the bowl.
"The Prophet received a revelation from Gabriel that he must now openly proclaim the Message, beginning first with his own family members," Abu Bakr said, looking into the flames as he recounted the tale. "And so he asked Ali to gather the heads of Quraysh for dinner tonight."
The Quraysh were the Prophet's tribe, who had long administered the city of Mecca and organized the annual pilgrimage that brought Arabs from all over the desert to worship their gods at the Kaaba, the holy temple at the center of the city. They were the de facto rulers of the most important religious site in all of Arabia, and their support would have given Muhammad's new movement the prestige to win over the hearts of their countrymen.
"It was a sparse meal," Abu Bakr said softly, remembering the strange events of the evening with a hint of wonder in his voice. "Just a leg of mutton, the meat of which barely filled the bowl the Prophet gave to Ali. And one cup of milk that I saw him fill from an earthen jug. I asked the Messenger if I should go and bring more food from my house, for there was barely enough to feed one man, much less the gathered dignitaries of the Quraysh. He simply smiled and reached into the bowl, taking a small strip of meat. He chewed a morsel and then threw it back into the bowl. And then I saw him turn to Ali and tell the boy to take it in the name of Allah."
Talha clasped his hands eagerly as Abu Bakr recited the inexplicable events that had followed.
"Ali passed the bowl from man to man, thirty in all, and each reached in and took his fill. Yet the meat did not diminish and the bowl remained always full. Ali poured them milk from the goblet, filling each man's glass, and yet I never saw him refill his own."
Talha gasped at the remarkable tale.
"And you saw this? With your own eyes?"
Abu Bakr nodded. "It was like the tale the Messenger once told me when we were boys, a story passed along to him by a Christian monk he met on the caravan to Syria. A tale of the prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, who multiplied many fish and loaves as a sign from God."
Talha felt a chill go down his spine, and his heart began to thud in his chest. The Prophet had never claimed to perform any miracles, saying that the fact that God was speaking through an illiterate Arab was enough of a miracle in itself. Talha had accepted the truth of the Prophet's words because they touched his heart. He had never needed any such signs or proofs of his divine mission. But now, listening to Abu Bakr's tale, he fervently wished that he had been there tonight. But Talha was not a tribal chief. Far from it. He had little wealth or influence of his own and often regretted that he could offer little to the Prophet in terms of material support. But if what Abu Bakr was saying was true, perhaps their little community no longer needed material help. If food could rain down from heaven as it had in the days of Jesus, then the age of miracles had been reborn. Their new faith would triumph, shining a light on what was true and pushing away the darkness.
"Surely the Quraysh must have seen what was happening," Talha said excitedly. "Surely their hearts must have been moved by the miracle."
Abu Bakr looked down sadly. "Their hearts were indeed moved, but in the wrong direction. They hardened, like the heart of Pharaoh when confronted by Moses and his miraculous rod."
Talha was stunned. "They denied the sign?"
"When murmurs of surprise spread through the hall at the miracle, Abu Lahab, the Prophet's uncle, rose and proclaimed that their host had bewitched them." Abu Bakr shook his head at the memory of the old man's fury. "The tribal chiefs rose to leave, but the Prophet begged them to stay, to hear his message. He told them at long last the truth. That he was the Messenger of Allah, and that he had been sent to destroy the idols and false gods that had corrupted the religion of the Arabs. They were shocked and outraged, and for a moment I thought their fury would lead to a riot there in the very home of the Prophet."
Talha sat back, his heart sinking. "What did the Prophet do?"
"He called out to his clansmen and asked who among them would help him in his mission and thus become his brother, his executor and successor among them." Abu Bakr looked into Talha's eyes. "None spoke in his favor. And then Ali stood up before all the lords of Mecca and proclaimed that he would be the Prophet's helper."
Talha was perplexed. "Ali? He is just a boy."
Abu Bakr nodded. "A boy, perhaps, but with the heart of a lion. He showed more courage in that moment, standing firm before the jeering chieftains, than most men show in a lifetime. The Prophet touched Ali's neck and commanded the tribal chiefs to hearken to Ali and obey him."
Talha was speechless for a moment. Abu Bakr saw his consternation and smiled.
"The chieftains had the same reaction," he said. "There was a silence in the room, like the quiet that falls upon the earth before the wrath of heaven is unleashed. And then they began to laugh and mock the Prophet, who had ordered them to obey a boy whose voice had only recently hardened, whose cheeks were still without a beard. I looked across the room to see Ali's father, the Prophet's uncle Abu Talib, bow his gray head in shame, as the lords heaped abuse on his son and nephew. And then they all turned and stormed out of the hall, leaving us alone and in silence."
Talha shook his head in dismay. He ran his hand through his dark curls as if trying to pull off the cobweb of despair that had suddenly fallen on him.
"So now they know. And they will try to destroy us."
Abu Bakr nodded.
Talha looked across the small room that served as his only shelter in the barren valley of Mecca. He had only the table his cousin had given him and a small leather cot across from the open fireplace. That was the extent of his worldly goods. And he was considered richer than many of the believers. How were they going to stand up to the might of Mecca, whose lords lived like kings, whose coffers were filled with gold, whose clansmen were armed with the finest swords and spears?
"So what do we do now?"
Abu Bakr gazed out the small window of the stone cottage. Outside, the stars sparkled and danced across the firmament. A heavenly flame flew past his vision, followed by another.
"A new day is upon us," Abu Bakr said thoughtfully. "The secret has been revealed, and the world will now conspire against the believers," he said softly.
And then he reached over and touched Talha on the shoulder. "Like you, my heart was heavy tonight. But as I moved to leave the empty hall, the Messenger took me aside and comforted me. He said these words that had been revealed by Gabriel:
"In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate By the flight of Time Man is indeed in loss Except for those who believe And do good And persevere with truth And persevere with patience."
Talha felt the words flow through his heart, like a stream bringing life to the dead earth. These words, which rhymed with majestic poetry and perfect meter in Arabic, had been spoken by God Himself tonight. Tears suddenly welled in his eyes. The God of Abraham, who had chosen to speak to man one last time. And in His inexplicable plan, He had chosen to speak through them, a barbaric, uneducated, and primitive people. A nation forgotten by history and mocked by the grand civilizations that surrounded them. They were the worst of the sons of Adam. And yet He had chosen them.
Talha followed his elder kinsman's gaze at the stars outside. They had circled the earth for countless millennia. Had seen empires rise and fall, had seen mighty kings and warriors crumble into dust, their names forgotten, the songs of their deeds lost in the mists of time. And yet the stars remained firm, sparkling in the heavens, as a sign of that which would never die, that which would never be lost to time.
Talha understood. Though the entire world might work against them, God's plan would triumph. It was not for them to know the how or the when. Their task was to begin writing the tale, even though its final chapter was hidden from them.
Abu Bakr leaned closer to him and spoke softly, conspiratorially. "Do not sleep tonight, but stay awake and bow in worship."
Talha looked at him. "I will do as you say."
Abu Bakr nodded. He looked directly into Talha's eyes. "The Messenger said that there will be Signs tonight. The angels are writing the future of our faith even as we speak. The destinies of men and women will be inscribed in the Tablet of Heaven, and the writing will be made clear to those whose hearts are ready. For it is tonight that our faith will be born anew and shall light a fire that will consume the old world and bring in the new."
Talha nodded, his soul stirring with awe at Abu Bakr's words.
And then he saw the first Sign.
An angel clad in white, its gown glittering in the starlight, was flying down the path toward his home. Talha's mouth fell open. He stared at the apparition in wonder, like a parched traveler gazing at a mirage, hoping beyond hope that what he saw was real and not a ghost of his imagination
And then he saw that the angel was a child, whose face was white with fear.
"Father!" It was Asma, Abu Bakr's daughter, who cried to them from across the dirt road as she caught a glimpse of their silhouettes standing near the window of the tiny mud brick cottage.
Abu Bakr turned to stare out the window in surprise. And when he saw the look on his daughter's face, the blood emptied from his own. Talha watched in shock as his cousin's serene composure shattered and was replaced by a look of pure terror. Abu Bakr staggered toward the door, his heart in his throat. He stumbled and Talha reached to help him, but the older man swatted him away.
Abu Bakr threw open the small arched door to Talha's cottage just as Asma fell inside the threshold. He held his daughter close as she tried to catch her breath. But even before the child spoke, Talha knew what she would say. Her red-rimmed eyes burned their message to any who looked into them.
Abu Bakr stroked his daughter's brown curls softly, let her lean into his chest to gain strength from the power of his beating heart. A heart that was now thundering so loudly that Talha fancied he heard it pounding in his ears. Or was it his own?
"Umm Ruman..." Asma gasped, trying to choke out the words. "Umm Ruman...the baby...is dying..."
Amal the midwife wiped the sweat-drenched brow of her unlucky ward. She barely noticed that her own face, indeed her arms and breasts, were bathed in sweat from her efforts to save the life of the mother and child. By all accounts, both should be dead by now. The blood from Umm Ruman's womb had flowed like honey from a beehive, slow, dark, and persistent. She had lost more blood in the past hour than Amal imagined could have possibly flowed through the veins of the tiny woman. But the delicate lady, with bones as dainty and small as a bird, had proven a warrior in spirit. Umm Ruman had screamed and screamed in agony, but she remained stubbornly alive, refusing to give in to the inevitable.
Amal had finally been able to stem the hemorrhage, which had drained the dark-skinned Umm Ruman and left her soft skin a sickly yellow, like a full moon low on the eastern horizon in midsummer. The midwife had breathed a sigh of relief and muttered a prayer thanking the goddess Uzza, when her patient sharply forbade her to mention the name of the divinity. "If you pray, do so to Allah," Umm Ruman had croaked out between labored breaths. Amal was surprised at the strange request. Allah, the High God, was too far away to hear the prayers of mortals. That is why their people worshiped His daughters Allat, Uzza, and Manat, and a host of other gods who had the time and patience to deal with the petty affairs of mankind.
Umm Ruman was clearly light-headed and confused from her ordeal, but Amal knew enough to remain silent. Now that the bleeding had stopped, she needed to help bring forth the remains of the baby. The child would in all likelihood be stillborn, but she needed to clear the dead fetus from Umm Ruman's womb and cleanse her of the poisonous afterbirth if there were to be any hope of saving her patient.
Amal had pressed her hand along Umm Ruman's stretched belly and was surprised to feel the unmistakable tremor of movement beneath her flesh. The child lived! Amal's heart soared with hope for a second and then was dashed as she pressed farther along Umm Ruman's stomach. She felt a soft pressure near the birth canal that she immediately recognized as the baby's feet. Her spirit sank. The baby was improperly positioned. If Umm Ruman pushed the child out feetfirst, it would suffocate before it had a chance to enter the world.
Amal knew what had to be done. She looked up at Umm Ruman, whose bloodshot eyes shone with grim determination. "The child..."
"I know," was all Umm Ruman said, and Amal knew that she understood. The tiny woman with the heart of a soldier grinded her teeth in preparation. "Do it."
Amal nodded. She hesitated and then made a loud prayer to Allah for the safe delivery of the child. She did not really believe that the Lord of the Worlds would take a moment from turning the stars in the heavens to care for the plight of one small, forgotten mother, but Amal wanted to give Umm Ruman hope. The odds were she would die from what happened next, but at least she would die with her heart satisfied.
The midwife took a deep breath and put her hands on Umm Ruman's belly. Remembering the ancient techniques taught to her by her own mother, Amal placed pressure on her patient's womb in order to turn the child headfirst.
Umm Ruman screamed, an agonized cry that echoed across the valley of Mecca and traveled high into the starry heavens.
Abu Bakr stood outside his wife's birth chamber, shaking with fear. He could hear Umm Ruman's horrific wails, which seemed only to increase in intensity. Every fiber in his body cried for him to rush inside and comfort his dying wife through her final moments. But Talha held him back. "Let the midwife do her job," the boy had said, and Abu Bakr knew he was right.
He looked down at Asma, his loyal daughter, who had chosen him and his faith even over her own mother, and squeezed her tiny hand. She was strong, stronger than he would have been in her position. He had torn their family apart with his decision to follow Muhammad, and she had never complained. Abu Bakr had always been close to his own parents, and he had found it beyond comprehension how his young friend Muhammad had endured the horrific loss of his beloved mother, Amina, when he was only six years old. Abu Bakr's heart was heavy with the knowledge that he had orphaned Asma once already by renouncing Qutaila. And now, with Umm Ruman's impending death, the child would be doubly motherless.
He looked around the antechamber where they waited for the screams to abruptly end and the midwife to emerge with her dreaded tidings. It was well furnished, as befitted a prosperous merchant of Quraysh. Thick rugs imported from Persia covered the marble floors. The stone walls were whitewashed and held many trophies and trinkets from his travels on the caravan routes. Silver plates from Syria, their tiles swirling in intricate geometric designs, lined one wall, while another was covered in an assortment of swords and daggers from Byzantium, their hilts embedded with precious emeralds and rubies. The arched windows were covered in thick curtains made from Abyssinian cotton. Couches covered in rich silk brocade had entertained many nobles from Mecca and beyond in the years past, although now that Abu Bakr's true beliefs were known, he was likely to have few such visitors in the future.
Abu Bakr was by every account a wealthy man, but he would readily trade all the gold in his coffers for a miracle tonight.
Perhaps sensing his thoughts, Talha touched his shoulder.
"Let us pray the Fatiha. Perhaps it will be of help," the boy said softly.
Abu Bakr looked at the sensitive young man and then at his brave little daughter, and nodded.
The three believers stood in a circle, their hands upraised to heaven in humble supplication, and recited in unison the Seven Oft-Repeated Verses that the believers read daily in their prayers:
In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds The Merciful, the Compassionate King of the Day of Judgment You alone do we worship, and Your aid alone do we seek. Show us the Straight Path The path of those who incur Your favor Not the path of those who earn Your wrath Nor of those who go astray.
Abu Bakr, Talha, and Asma recited the prayer out loud, their voices melding in lyrical unison. They repeated it again, and a third time. Perhaps it was Abu Bakr's imagination, but each time he recited the sacred verses, the cries from the adjoining room seemed to lessen in intensity.
Again and again they repeated the holy words. And then, at the seventh recitation, a silence fell over the house, a quiet so sudden and so complete that Abu Bakr's heart chilled. Umm Ruman was dead.
Tears welled in his eyes, and his heart started pounding. She was his strength, his soul. How could he live without her? He realized that Asma was now crying openly, but he found he could not move to comfort her.
Talha moved to take the weeping child out of the room, to leave Abu Bakr to the privacy of his grief.
And then they heard it. A strange, impossible, glorious sound.
The cry of a baby.
Abu Bakr raised his head and stared at the door to the birthing chamber. There was silence again. Had he imagined it? And then the child wailed louder and he felt a burst of light illuminate his heart, like the sun emerging from behind the empty blackness of an eclipse.
Talha looked up at him in wonder. And Asma laughed, clapping her hands with the unfettered delight that only a child can know.
Abu Bakr felt his legs go weak, and he grabbed hold of an intricately carved chair made from Iraqi cypress. And then he stumbled forward and threw tradition to the wind. He flung open the door to the forbidden chamber and rushed inside.
Umm Ruman was still seated on the sharply angled birthing chair, her tunic covered in blood and the fluids of childbirth. Her face was sickly pale, but her eyes were open and alert. And she breathed deeply, like a woman trapped at the bottom of a well longing for air. She was alive!
Abu Bakr looked at her in wonder and she smiled weakly. He would remember that smile in years to come, when the storm clouds that had been gathering would be unleashed and the armies of men and the devil would seek to destroy the believers. It would give him strength and hope and power to battle on in the cause of God and His Messenger. For in a cruel world where the only certainty was death, their way was the way of life.
The child's cries turned his head and Abu Bakr looked at the midwife, who had just finished washing the baby and had wrapped it in a green swaddling cloth. Amal's face was haggard and she looked as if she herself had endured the pangs of childbirth. She looked up at him and nodded a greeting, the lines of her mouth too tired to form into a smile.
"I give you glad tidings of a girl," she said weakly. Abu Bakr saw the strain in her face and worried that she barely had the strength to hold the precious baby. He moved to take the child into his arms, and the midwife did not protest.
Abu Bakr took hold of the tiny child as Talha and Asma tentatively entered the birthing chamber. He looked down at the wrinkled face and ran a finger across the girl's cheeks, pink like a rose blossom. His daughter had a healthy brush of hair, a fiery red that glittered like copper in the pale torchlight. As Abu Bakr held his child, he realized that she was a true miracle the first child to be born into the new religion. He wanted his first words to her to impart the truth he had come to believe with all his heart. He bent down carefully and whispered into the infant's ears the formula of faith: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
The child opened her eyes for the first time at the sound of his words. Abu Bakr caught his breath. She had eyes unlike any he had ever seen before. Golden, like those of a lion, they seemed to glow with their own fire.
He felt rather than saw Asma step up behind him, and he turned to her.
"Come, see your sister," he said to his daughter, who looked down nervously at the little girl. Asma hesitated and then bent down to kiss the baby on its forehead. Abu Bakr turned to Umm Ruman, who weakly reached out to him. He moved to show their daughter to his wife, when the midwife made a cry of alarm.
"Manat protect us! The tidings are ill!" Amal squawked unexpectedly.
Abu Bakr looked over to see the midwife staring out of a small window facing east. Her eyes were wide, and she was slapping her head furiously in the ancient gesture of grief and terror.
"What's the matter?" Abu Bakr asked sharply.
"The baby...she is born under a dark star," Amal said. She pointed out the window to a constellation that was rising on the eastern horizon. It was a swirling cluster of lights, with the ominous red star Antares pulsating in its center.
Al-Akrab. The Scorpion. To the pagan Arabs, the stars of the zodiac were gods in their own right, beings that ruled men's affairs from the heavens and set their destinies at birth. And al-Akrab was the lord of death.
Before Abu Bakr could react, Amal rushed to his side, her eyes wide with fear.
"The child...cast it into the desert...bury it under stones before it can wreak its havoc!" she said, her voice frantic, her leathery face contorted with a kind of madness.
Abu Bakr felt his fury rise. He pushed Amal away from him forcefully.
"Get away from my daughter!" he said with terrifying ferocity. A mild and restrained man by nature, his anger was a rare and terrible thing to behold. Even Asma shrank back at the sudden rage in his voice.
Talha quickly moved forward and put a steady hand on the agitated midwife. "Do not utter your blasphemies in this house, which God has blessed."
But Amal ignored the boy.
"She is a curse...wherever she will go, chaos and death will follow her," Amal said, her eyes brimming with the intensity of her superstitious belief. "Slay her now, before the wrath of the gods is kindled!"
Abu Bakr held the baby closer to his heart, which was pounding with anger.
"I will slay your gods instead, and the wrath of the One will be kindled against your lies for all time!" Abu Bakr's voice boomed with such power and authority that Amal was struck speechless.
He turned to Talha, his eyes burning with righteous indignation.
"Pay this midwife what she is due, and then let her not darken my doorstep again," he said.
Talha pulled the trembling woman away and led her out of the birthing chamber. She bowed her head and did not struggle with him, nor did she make any move to take the gold dirham that he offered her. He finally pushed it into her hand and closed her fingers around it.
As Talha pushed Amal out the door, she looked up at him with her dark eyes, which now shone with the frenzy that he had seen among the kahinas, the medicine women of the desert whom the foolish people consulted for their oracles.
"The child will lead you to your death someday," Amal said softly.
Alas, poor Talha, how I wish he had but listened to her portent!
But he only looked at her with contempt.
"If that is the will of Allah, I will happily embrace it."
His confident response surprised the woman, who suddenly looked confused and lost. Who were these strange people who ignored the ancient traditions of the gods and put their trust in a God that no one could see or hear or touch? She turned and gazed out across the stone settlements of Mecca as if seeing the city for the first time. Amal looked up at the stars for an answer but found none.
"The child is the beginning of the end," she whispered. "It is all ending. Everything. And I cannot see what will take its place."
Talha looked at the strange woman and shook his head.
"The Truth," he said simply, before closing the door on the midwife.
Talha returned to find Abu Bakr leaning close to Umm Ruman, who now held the swaddled baby in her arms. The drama of the midwife appeared to be forgotten amid the family's joy at her safe delivery.
He went up to his kinsman and smiled.
"The madwoman is gone," he said.
Abu Bakr looked up at him and shook his head.
"She was not mad," he said softly. "This little girl will bring death."
Talha was stunned by these words.
"I don't understand" was all he could say.
Abu Bakr stroked his newborn daughter's soft cheek gently.
"She will bring death to ignorance, which will allow the light of knowledge to be born," he said simply.
Abu Bakr took the girl from Umm Ruman and held her close.
"In a world of idolatry, she is the first to be born a believer," he said softly. "She has already conquered death and has brought life." He gazed into the child's golden eyes, which were alert and seemed to exhibit an ancient intelligence.
"I will name her Aisha," Abu Bakr said.
A name that Talha knew in the old language meant "She Lives." Copyright © 2009 by Kamran Pasha