The Treaty of Hudaybiyya

In 628 CE, Muhammad and a band of 1400 Muslims marched out from Medina armed only with animals to sacrifice in Mecca on pilgrimage.  For some time they had been barred from entering Mecca to worship at the Ka’ba by the pagan Meccans.  Battles had ensued between the two sides.  Now they tried a different tack: go peacefully and avoid bloodshed.  This new Medinan surah recounts aspects of this journey and the “triumph” (the name of the surah) that resulted.

The Muslims were met by the Meccans outside the city in a small town called Hudaybiyya.  They were stopped there and barred once again from entering Mecca but this time a treaty was drawn up between the two sides in which the Muslims would be granted free access to Mecca and the Ka’ba for the following ten years in order to complete their pilgrimages and sacrifices.  The Meccans even agreed to leave the city so the Muslims could worship in peace.  This became known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyya.  The treaty lasted all of one year, but it was the first time the nascent Muslims were acknowledged by their neighbors to be a legitimate bargaining power, one with which it might be better to strike a treaty than to fight.  In this way, the Treaty was most certainly a triumph. 

Hudaybiyya today

Much of the surah takes up the issue of loyalty within the Muslim group.  As the plan for the peaceful pilgrimage to Mecca was birthed and vetted amongst the people, the desert Muslim tribes were not especially fond of the plan.  They offered up excuses and stayed home.  There was no war booty to be had in the campaign.  Worse, there was the very real possibility of the loss of possessions or even death.  Thinking with earthly minds, this pilgrimage didn’t make sense.  God says he is less than impressed.  He will be dealing with them. 

Three passages stood out to me in this surah.  First:

Those who pledge loyalty to you [Prophet] are actually pledging loyalty to God himself — God’s hand is placed on theirs. (48:10)

We can conclude from this ayah that a Muslim who pledged fidelity to Muhammad would place their hand on his.  Then it was as if God were placing his hand on the top of the other two, to seal the pledge.  What strikes me is the rare anthropomorphism assigned to Allah in this passage.  Allah has so often been described in purely spiritual ways.  Allah is almost never described in bodily fashion (in fact, I can’t recall a passage at all so far in our reading).  And yet he is here.  Interesting! 

The second passage also has to do with the body, but this time the Muslim’s:

You see them kneeling and prostrating, seeking God’s bounty and His good pleasure: on their faces they bear the marks of their prostrations. (48:29)

Does this have a spiritual connotation?  Probably.  Commentator Ali says  this refers to gentleness, kindness, and love.  But it is also likely meant physically.  Daily prayer, five times a day, forehead to the ground — well, that’s going to leave a mark!  It is very admirable when your spiritual devotion leaves a physical mark on your person.

The third passage appears to be an expansion of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower.  This ayah describes what a firmly devoted worshiper is like:

This is how they are pictured in the Torah and the Gospel: like a seed that puts forth its shoot, becomes strong, grows thick, and rises on its stem to the delight of its sowers. (48:29)

The Prophet Muhammad, 17th century Ottoman cop...

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The people of Mecca don’t want to believe what Muhammad is teaching.  It seems preposterous: life after death (46:17).  It is beneath them: it is mainly poor people accepting this new-fangled religion (46:11).  That crazy man made this all up (46:8).    Muhammad is told to ask them the one question we all must ask: 

What if this Qur’an really is from God and you reject it? (46:10)

The Qur’an is logical: if God can create this intricate world, don’t you think he can bring the dead back to life again (46:33)?  Muhammad could point to Jews in Mecca who had accepted the Qur’an as another revelation from their God (46:10, 12).  The parents of these unbelievers even believed (46:15, 17).  Even the jinn were accepting the veracity of this message when they heard it (46:29-31).  Why reject it?

Things will not turn out well if they do reject it.  One only has to think about the example of the people of `Ad, a civilization bigger and more established than Mecca in Muhammad’s time (46:26), yet God wiped them out from amongst the “sand dunes” (the reason for the name of this surah) with a desert storm when they would not heed the warning Hud was bringing (46:21-25).   

“This is a warning” (46:35).  One better have a really good reason to reject the Qur’an.

Islam is well-known for having “five pillars” to their faith.  These five actions were established as Islam became formalized as ways for the Muslim to develop the two most important relationships in life: one’s devotion to God and to fellow Muslim believers.  Those five pillars are as follows:

  1. The Statement of Faith (shahadah) that “there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God”
  2. The daily cycle of Prayer (salat) and prostration
  3. Almsgiving (zakat) to the poor
  4. Observance of the month Ramadan with an increased level of fasting (sawm) from food, water, and sexuality during the day followed by deeply communal feasting at night
  5. All able-bodied Muslims are expected to make a Pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once in their lifetime to engage in the associated rituals

The name of today’s new surah — Al-Hajj, “The Pilgrimage” — makes it clear that we have come to our first significant discussion of the fifth pillar.   

Juan Campo, in the Encyclopedia of Islam, says the pilgrimage is seen both as an action of penitent devotion to God but also as a way to demonstrate solidarity with the worldwide population of Muslims.  Abraham is considered to be the first pilgrim and the example Muslims look to today for the Hajj (22:26).  The pilgrimage, forbidden to non-Muslims, takes a total of six days during the twelfth month of Dhu al-Hijja in the Islamic lunar calendar (some time from October to December, right now).

Pilgrims encircle the Ka'ba (The Sacred Mosque, 22:25) in Mecca in prayer

Pilgrims perform a series of ritual activities (hajjis) as they trace a twenty-mile loop into the desert outside Mecca and back.  The essential rituals are as follows, in order:

  1. Statement of intention and cleansing of the body (22:29)
  2. Circumambulation of the Ka’ba in Mecca seven times counter-clockwise (22:26, 29)
  3. Running between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times, a run tradition says Ishmael made
  4. Encampment at Mina, three miles southeast of Mecca
  5. Standing at the plain of Arafat, ten miles southeast of Mecca.  Campo reports that this is deemed by many to be the most important action of all as the sea of pilgrims in white robes is seen as “a rehearsal for the resurrection of the dead and Judgment Day.”
  6. Spending the night at Muzdalifa
  7. “Stoning” the three “satanic” pillars at Mina with pebbles, each of which represents a time Satan tempted Abraham as he went to sacrifice Isaac. 
  8. An animal sacrifice, usually an unblemished cow, camel (22:36), sheep or goat on Id Al-Adha, a remembrance of Abraham’s obedience in the near-sacrifice of Isaac and now one of the most sacred of festivals on the Islamic calendar (22:28).  The feast that follows the sacrifice (in which a portion of the sacrificed animal is eaten) provides a fitting communal end to the pilgrimage. 
  9. Farewell circumambulation of the Ka’ba in Mecca again
Map of the Hajj

During the pilgrimage, men are required to dress only in a simple, unhemmed white robe and sandals, as a symbolic way to show that all men are really equal regardless of social class.  Women maintain their typical modest dress and head covering. 

A close-up of the Ka’ba:


Pilgrims praying at Arafat: 

The stoning of the three pillars of Satan:

The Hajj has become such a special act that now over 2.5 million pilgrims flock to Mecca each year, the largest annual religious pilgrimage in the world.  The Saudi government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars developing improved infrastructure, housing, dining, and security for the pilgrims.  Many pilgrims will enlist expert guides to help make sure their pilgrimage is ritually successful. 

Construction outside the Sacred Mosque in Mecca in 2010

Regardless of your own faith, the Muslim pilgrimage has to be held in awe and wonder.  What an amazing, tangible sign of devotion!   This verse is a good reminder of what matters most in the pilgrimage and sacrifice:

It is neither their meat nor their blood that reaches God but your piety. (22:37)

On a personal note, my blogging will likely be sporadic over the next few weeks.  It looks like after three and a half months, we are finally going to be able to move back into our home after the storm damage from April.

Today, for the first time, we get to a Meccan surah, entitled “Livestock” or “Cattle” in English.  Scholars have noted that because the Meccan surahs were written at a time when Islam was still getting a foothold in Arabia.  They are more persuasive and less enfranchised.  By the time the Muslims moved to Medina, Islam had gained power and these later surahs have a slightly more dictatorial tone.  Well, we may very well see that difference in tone for the first time.

I am struck in this section by how the Islamic basis for belief and obedience is quite different from that of Christianity.  Simply put, Muhammad is told to persuade the polytheists of Mecca with reward or avoidance, in other words “to get/not get.”  I see this coming out in four ways in this passage:

  • God is in control of all things as the Creator, so don’t try to work against his control (6:4-5)
  • God is the supreme power in this world, so don’t make him use it against you (6:6)
  • God is inclined to punish those who reject him, so don’t do it (6:15)
  • God rewards those who believe, so come get it (6:16)

In this mentality, the favor of God is still up in the air.  Who knows how he will respond to you?  That is up to you.  Earn a reward.  Avoid a punishment. 

This section ends with the warning that there is no greater sin than to reject God or to look to some other god for power or control (6:21).  These other gods will be of no help in the end, so stop it and turn to God (6:22-24). 

Medieval Mecca

Let’s remember the context of Mecca, from where this surah originated.  Islamic tradition says Mecca was started by the descendents of Ishmael shortly after he and his father Abraham built the Ka’ba, the large, square, black shrine still at the center of city.  Positioned at the crossroads of important trading routes, Mecca quickly grew in size and wealth.  It was not long before Mecca also became the center of Arabian paganism and the Ka’ba became a shrine to the many gods worshiped by the Arabs.  It is this highly polytheistic environment that Muhammad grew up in and into which the Qur’an comes with its push for radical monotheism.  These admonitions to turn from all other gods and find a reward with Allah make more sense in that context. 

Nonetheless, I find all of this very different from the winsome motivation put forward by Christianity.  The way of Christ is not a reward or avoidance worldview.  Jesus and his followers did not come talking about something that could be earned from a God whose favor was still very much up in the air.  Christianity is based on a response motivation; we love because we were first loved, we obey because of what has already been given.  God’s mind was made up to work for our good long before we were even born, long before we even turn towards him.  I see a great difference in the very nature of God in these two depictions.  How about you?

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:10-11)

My sons have played for a few years in a community soccer league.  The one and only Muslim school in town — a small conservative school in one of the suburbs of Memphis — always fields a team.  They are usually quite good and always enjoyable to play against.  However, when time comes for prayers, they take that as seriously as they seem to take soccer.  It might be the middle of a game, but when the next break comes they head off to a corner of the field and all bow towards the east in prayer.   

Typically Muslims will pray at least five times a day (dawn, sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset, evening).  One has only had to watch a little television to know they usually assume a bowing posture, head to the ground in most cases.  It is such a submissive posture, so in line with a religion whose very name means “submission.”  This is a people who understand that there is a definite connection between body and soul. 

Today’s reading takes up the topic of qiblah, bowing in a particular direction for prayer.  Early on Muslims bowed towards Jerusalem (to their west) towards the Temple Mount where Muhammad was said to have departed the earth on his miraculous night journeys in 621 CE.  Jerusalem is considered the third most holy site on earth behind Mecca and Medina, hence the Al-Aqsa Mosque (part of the golden-domed Dome of the Rock complex) was built on the Temple Mount.  Of course this is the same spot where Jews would like to rebuild the Temple, so we have a bit of sticky wicket in world politics, don’t we? 

In today’s reading, Allah authorizes Muhammad’s wish to bow towards the east of Medina to the Ka’ba in Mecca, the most holy site of all.  And ever since Muslims have bowed east towards Mecca in prayer.  Even at soccer games in Memphis.