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Excerpt from Acts of Faith: the Struggle Against our Lower Selves

Eid al Adha began yesterday, marking the end of the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. In this excerpt from Eboo Patel's acclaimed memoir, Acts of Faith, Patel shares a story of pilgrimage, cultural and religious diversity, and compromise from the life of the Prophet. 

90443380_6ea3f949b2_m We humans know violence well. It is a part of each of us. It is precisely the reason I was drawn to religion in the first place. Somehow, the religious people I admired overcame the human desire to hurt others. Tibetan Buddhist masters talked about their struggle to love their Chinese tormentors. Mahatma Gandhi spent his time in a South African prison making sandals for his jailer. Pope John Paul II met with the man who tried to assassinate him, and forgave him.

Dorothy Day once said that she created the Catholic Worker because she wanted a place where people could be better. It was one ofthe key reasons I spent so much time there as a college student. I wanted to overcome those parts of me that would tackle somebody from behind. I wanted to be good.

It was in Islam that I found the clearest articulation of this inner struggle. The story goes like this: As a victorious Muslim army was celebrating its triumph in battle, the Prophet Muhammad told the men they had won only the “lesser jihad.” Now, he said, they had to mov eon to the “greater jihad”—the jihad al-nafs, the struggle against their lower selves. The first time I read that, I felt as if the Prophet was speaking directly to me, as if he could see the thousands of times in my life that my lower self had won, as if he was personally returning Islam to my consciousness.

There is another event in the history of Islam that, for me, defines the religious spirit in the world, and the meaning of lasting victory. It is the signing of the Treaty of Hudaybiyah and the Prophet’s peaceful return to Mecca. After years of defending himself and his fellow Muslims in Medina against aggressive military assaults by the Quraysh, a powerful tribe based in Mecca, Muhammad decided to launch a religious peace offensive. In the year 628, he announced to the Muslim community in Medina that he was going to make a holy pilgrimage to the Ka’aba, the black shrine in Mecca that Abraham built to God. Against the advice of his closest companions, who were convinced that the Quraysh would take this chance to murder him, Muhammad refused to carry arms. He set forth dressed in the simple, white, two-piece outfit still worn by Muslims making the hajj today, uttering the cry “Labbayk Allahuma Labbayk” (Here I am, O God, at Your service). A thousand Muslims accompanied him, many questioning the wisdom of making a religious pilgrimage in the direction of an enemy that wanted war.

The Quraysh sent a war party of two hundred cavalry to prevent Muhammad from entering the city. The Prophet steered his companions toward Hudaybiyah, at the edge of the Sanctuary, where all fighting was forbidden, sending a message to the Quraysh that he came in peace. He reminded his companions that they were on a religious quest and as such should prepare to repent and ask God’s forgiveness for their sins. No doubt some of them were confused about why Muhammad was making spiritual preparations instead of war preparations. But Muhammad, guided by revelations from God, knew that ultimate victory for Islam did not mean violently defeating the enemy, but peacefully reconciling with them. Achieving this required an act of personal humility and self-effacement that shocked even his closest companions.

Patel After being convinced that Muhammad was not going to engage them in battle, the Quraysh sent Suhayl, one of their most stridently anti-Muslim leaders, to negotiate a settlement. The two sat togetherfor a long time, finally agreeing to terms that the Muslims felt were deeply unfair but that Muhammad insisted they accept. The Muslims would be allowed to do the holy pilgrimage in peace, but not now. They would have to go back to Medina and wait a whole year before returning. Also, the Muslims would have to repatriate any Meccan who had converted to Islam and immigrated to Medina to be with the Prophet without the permission of his guardian. One source writes that the Prophet’s companions “felt depressed almost to the point of death” when they saw the settlement. Umar, one of the Prophet’s closest associates, said, “Why should we agree to what is demeaning to our religion?” But the greatest shock was still to come.

When it came time to sign the treaty, Suhayl objected to the statement,“This is what Muhammad, the apostle of God, has agreed with Suhayl ibn Amr.” He said that if he recognized Muhammad as the apostle of God, they would not be in a situation of war to begin with. “Write down your own name and the name of your father,” Suhayl instructed the Prophet. To the utter despair of his companions, Muhammad agreed. He told Ali, his son-in-law who would later become the first Shia Imam, to strike the words “apostle of God” from the treaty. Ali could not bring himself to do it. So the illiterate Prophet asked Ali to point to the words on the paper, took the pen, and struck them himself.

On the journey home to Medina, with the bitter taste of humiliation still fresh in the mouths of his companions, the Prophet received a revelation that would come to be known as the Victory Sura, chapter 48 in the Holy Qur’an. In it, God told the Prophet, “Surely We have given thee / a manifest victory.” The sura states that God Himself was involved in the situation: “It is He who sent down the sakina/ into the hearts of the believers, that / they might add faith to their faith.” The Arabic term sakina loosely translates as “the peace, tranquillity,and presence of God” and is thought to be related to the Hebrew term shekinah. The sura closes with the following lines: “God has promised / those of them who believe in and do deeds / of righteousness, forgiveness and / a mighty wage.”

The following year, as promised, Muhammad returned with nearly three thousand pilgrims to perform the pilgrimage. His enemies, holding up their end of the bargain, vacated the city and watched the Muslims do the ritual circumambulations around the Ka’aba and run seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah. They were shocked to see Bilal, a black Abyssinian who had been a slave in Mecca before being freed by the Muslims, climbing to the top of the Ka’aba several times a day to give the call to prayer, a position of honor in Islam. Muhammad heard that a woman had recently been widowed and offered to marry her, thus taking her into his protection. He invited his Quraysh enemies to the wedding feast. They refused and told him his three days were up. The Muslims left with the same discipline and grace with which they had entered. It was a powerful image that many Quraysh would not soon forget.

When Muhammad returned to Mecca a year later, those who had taken up arms against him converted to Islam in droves. Muhammad granted a near total amnesty to the Quraysh, despite the fact that many had fought battles against him in the past and regardless of whether they converted to Islam or not. To the surprise of some of his companions, he even gave high office to some of the people who, a short time before, had been his sworn enemies. But Muhammad was not interested in punishment. He was interested in a positive future,and he knew that would be accomplished only by widening the space so that people could enter it.

During this time, God sent Muhammad a revelation about relations between different communities in a diverse society:

O mankind, We have created you
male and female, and appointed you
races and tribes, that you may know
one another. Surely the noblest
among you in the sight of God is
the most righteous.

For me, the Treaty of Hudaybiyah and the peaceful return of Muhammad to Mecca are the defining moments of Islam. They exemplify the genius of the Prophet, the generosity of God, and the bright possibility of a common life together. It is an ancient example of how a religiously inspired peace movement can win a victory not by defeating the enemy, but by turning them into friends.

As I think now of the civil rights marchers in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, I cannot help but hear the message of “Labbayk AllahumaLabbayk” in their songs. I cannot help but see the Prophet at Hudaybiyah as I reflect on Martin Luther King Jr. staring at his bombed-out home in Montgomery, Alabama, and calming the agitated crowd by saying, “We must meet hate with love.” I cannot help but glimpse the spirit of the Holy Qur’an’s message on pluralism in the lines that King uttered at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott: “We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization . . . The end is reconciliation,the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.” I cannot help but believe that Allah’s sakina is a force that has reappeared across time and place whenever righteous people are overcoming the tribal urges of humanity’s lower self with a message of transcendence.