Before sunrise on a winter’s day early in the year 630, a captive in the Arabian town of Yathrib looked on as the men of the place gathered in the courtyard outside his cell. He could make out little between the few splashes of lamplight. But when their leader arrived – it had to be him, for the whispering had stopped – and the men drew themselves up in rows, the captive sensed something momentous was about to happen. A thought came, colder than dawn: ‘I believe they mean to kill me . . .’
It would not have been surprising. For several years the men of Yathrib had been raiding the rich trading caravans of the prisoner’s own people; he himself had led a number of counter-raids. Many had died, and there was blood between them. Although a treaty earlier in the year had halted the skirmishing, it had recently been broken by allies of the captive’s tribe. But in truth there was no knowing what the Yathrib men would do: they were a break-away group that crossed tribal boundaries and was led by a maverick but charismatic seer – a cousin, in fact, of the captive – and their actions were unknowable.
What happened next amazed the prisoner. The seer stood alone in front of the rows, chanted some of the strange incantations for which he was famous, bowed, and then prostrated himself. The ranks of men behind him copied his movements. It looked something like the worship of the Christians that the captive had witnessed on his trading trips to Syria. But these men were so precise, so drilled in their motions that they moved as a single body. As the prisoner watched, he uttered an oath on the old high deity of his tribe:
By Allah! Never have I seen the discipline I’ve seen this day, and in men who have come from here, there and everywhere . . . No, not among the noble Persians, nor the Byzantines with their braided locks!
The captive was a clan chief of Mecca called Abu Sufyan. His maverick cousin was called Muhammad, and for a few years his captors had been calling themselves ‘Muslims’.
What surprised Abu Sufyan so much was the unity of these men of Yathrib (or Madinat Rasul Allah, ‘the City of Allah’s Messenger’ – al-Madinah or Medina for short – as they were starting to call it, in honour of their leader). This was a body of people of diverse origins, united neither by blood nor even, as was the case in most tribal groupings, by the pretence of a blood relationship. Some of them in fact were from his own tribe of Quraysh, which over the last five generations had split into competing clans. Most of them, however, were from tribes that had settled here in Yathrib long ago but came originally from South Arabia – al-Yaman, ‘the South’, a land of mountains and gorges, forests and fields, distant and different in its tongues and manners. There were even a few Jewish Arabians in the bowing ranks. Yet here they all were, moving, responding as one body. Muhammad had achieved, with spectacular success, what all would-be Arab leaders had always tried to do: he had ‘gathered the word’ of the people – he had achieved unanimity, and silenced all dissent.
Abu Sufyan’s comparison with the Byzantines and the Persians is revealing. As an experienced merchant in the international trade, he was no stranger to the peninsula’s warring imperial neighbours. But he knew that, for all their own claims of internal unity, those empires were themselves split by political disagreements and sectarian disputes. Here before him, in the heart of eternally squabbling Arabia, was a paradigm of unity – of unanimity, the gathered word – that put those imperial pretensions to shame.
It was too good to last. Within less than three decades, Abu Sufyan’s son would be bloodily at war with Muhammad’s son-in-law over the question of authority – control of people and of an income that would have made the rich old merchant’s head dizzy. In a sense, that same conflict continues today, with exponentially enlarged figures and ramifications, often simplified with a sectarian gloss as a conflict between Sunnah and Shi’ah but in reality still to do not with dogma but with earthly powers: power over wealth, power over people, power over power.
From Arabs by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Tim Mackintosh-Smith is an eminent Arabist, translator, and traveler whose previous publications include Travels with a Tangerine and Yemen. He has lived in the Arab world for thirty-five years and is a senior fellow of the Library of Arabic Literature.