The Hadith of Heraclius | Part 1 | Abu Sufyan Enters the Roman Court

The Narrators

(1) Abû’l-Yamân Al-±akam ibn Nâfi¢ narrated to us, saying: (2) Shu¢ayb informed us on the authority of (3) Al-Zuhr who said: (4) ¢Ubaydallah ibn ¢Abdallah ibn ¢Utâbah ibn Mas¢ûd informed me that (5) ¢Abdallah ibn ¢Abbâs informed him that (6) Abû Sufyan ibn ±arb informed him:

  1. That Heraclius sent for him while he was in a caravan of Quraysh.”
  • Heraclius is the name of the Roman Emperor at the time of the Prophet œ. His title was Caesar. The caravan of Abû Sufyân consisted of 30 men, as reported by Al Hâkim. Ibn Al-Sakn narrated that the caravan consisted of some 20 men. When the ^adîth states that Heraclius sent for Abû Sufyân, it means that he sent for Abû Sufyân and his caravan, but that Abû Sufyân is specified because of his leadership.
  1. They were trading in Al-Shâm during the period [of truce] that the Prophet œ set for Abû Sufyân and the disbelievers of Quraysh.”
  • The period of truce refers to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, six years after the Hijrah. Its term was 10 years, but the Quraysh broke the treaty in the eighth year, so the Prophet œ fought them and went on to conquer Makkah.
  1. So they came to him while they were in Ilya’.
  • The emperor of Persia had waged war against some of the lands of Heraclius and had taken control of them. Now, the emperor of Persia felt that his general, Shahr Brâz, was slow in coming to his aid. So he plotted his assassination and agreed to make a person named Farrahân the new general. However, Shahr Brâz came to know of this plot. So he secretly allied himself with Heraclius and agreed before the battle to ensure that the Persian army would be defeated. Thus Heraclius walked from his place of battle, after his victory, to Jerusalem, as an expression of gratitude to Allah. His servants would place before him a carpet sprinkled with [aromatic] basil, upon which he would walk. In this manner, he walked the entire length of the journey on luxurious carpets.
  • Ilya’ means the House of Allah. It was the name of Jerusalem at the time.
  • [During the time] when Heraclius was in Jerusalem, the caravan of Abû Sufyân was in Gaza, a trading port where Quraysh’s caravans would often come.
  • While in Jerusalem, Heraclius instructed his chief of police to “turn Al-Sham inside out until you find a person from this man’s [Prophet Muhamamad’s œ] people, that I may ask them about him.”
  • So the chief came upon the caravan and compelled them to come to Jerusalem.
  • Abû Sufyân said of the caravan that war had [long] distracted them from trade. So when there was a truce, he took a trading caravan to Al-Shâm with a group of Qurayshites. Abû Sufyân said: “By Allah! I knew not a single woman or man from Makkah save that he had given me goods to carry.”
  1. So he summoned them to his court, and sitting round him were the nobles of Rome.”
  • Other established narrations of the entrance of the Qurayshî caravan upon the Roman court inform us that Heraclius was wearing his crown. Moreover, when they entered, the important religious heads of Roman Christendom—including the [high] priests and monks—were ranged around Heraclius.
  • Ibn Hajar states that the Romans (of Al-Shâm) are descendants of Ess ibn Is^âq ibn Ibrahim ∑. A number of Arab tribes resident in Syria had allied themselves with the Roman Empire. When the Muslims [later] conquered Syria, these tribes migrated north to the Roman lands and mixed with the populations there.
  1. Then [Heraclius] summoned them [to draw near] and summoned his translator.”
  • This is the second time that the ^adîth mentions that Heraclius summoned Abû Sufyân and those with him. Understood from the context is that he summoned them first to his court, and then summoned them to stand before him.
  • Heraclius then sent a messenger to bring forth his Arabic translator.
  • Tarjumân’ is the Arabic word for ‘translator.’ There is a difference of opinion among linguists whether the origin of the word ‘tarjumân’ is Arabic.
  • [It is clear—from the fact that Heraclius had Abû Sufyân brought to his court by his military—that the Arabs before Islam were a weak and fragmented group of people, from whom none feared a threat.]
  1. So he said: ‘Which of you is closest in lineage to this man that claims to be a prophet?’”
  • Meaning that Heraclius said this in his language to his translator, who then said it to Abû Sufyân in Arabic.
  • Ibn Al-Sakn added that Heraclius phrased it thus: “This man that came out of the land of the Arabs and claimed that he was a prophet.”
  1. So Abû Sufyân said: I said: ‘I am the closest of them to him in lineage.’”
  • Ibn Al-Sakn‘s narration says: “They said: ‘This [man] is the closest of them to him in lineage. He is the son of his paternal uncle, the brother of his father.” In another narration of this ^adîth which occurs in a later place in Bukhari, Abû Sufyân specifies that there was no one in the caravan from Banî ¢Abd Manâf besides him. ¢Abd Manâf is the fourth forefather of both the Prophet œ and Abû Sufyân. Abû Sufyân called him the son of his paternal uncle based on the consideration that their grandfathers were first cousins. This clarifies that Ibn Sakn’s report about them being first cousins means first cousin’s in a looser sense, at a remove.
  • Heraclius specified that he wanted the closest one to the lineage of the Prophet œ because closer relatives are more intimately aware of their kin than are others. People farther away in lineage may not be honest about the nobility of that lineage. This becomes important when Heraclius asks Abû Sufyân about the nobility of the lineage of the Prophet œ.
  • [The fact that Heraclius said: “This man who claims that he is a Prophet” shows Heraclius’ intelligence, subtlety, and overall concern about the matter, such that he does not begin his discourse with Abû Sufyân employing a result-oriented statement, such that Abû Sufyân would more likely give him information freely and non-defensively.]
  1. So, he [Heraclius] said: “Bring him [Abû Sufyân] close to me. And His companions, bring close [also]. [Yet] let them remain behind his [Abû Sufyân’s] back.” Then he said to his translator: ‘Tell them I am going to ask this man [Abû Sufyân, some questions]. So if he lies to me, then [let them] indicate to me that he is lying.” Abû Sufyân said: “By Allah! Were it not that I would have been ashamed for [my travel companions] to mention [later on] that I told a single lie, I would have lied about him.”
  • Heraclius had Abû Sufyân’s companions stand behind him so that they would be free to indicate that he was lying without having to worry about him knowing who it was [that exposed him] and then [Abû Sufyân] punishing him [in retaliation] or being angry with him. Moreover, in this way, Abû Sufyân could not know what was going on behind him. Hence, he could risk no lie. For had Abû Sufyân lied, one behind him could signal Heraclius by gesture, look, or any sign. This enabled each of [Abû Sufyân’s] companions to act, free of peer pressure.
  • This shows that the pre-Islamic Arabs used to view lying as a hideous act. This may have come down to them from the legacy of Ibrahim ∑. Or, it may have developed as a cultural trait among them.
  • Abû Sufyân explains his fear that he would be known as a liar among his people, which shows that he was confident that his companions would not belie him to Heraclius. This confidence is because the Arabs were tribal. They shared their tribal leader’s hostility toward the Prophet œ. At the same time, never would they help the Roman emperor against their leader. However, Abû Sufyân was aware that this same tribal culture would work against him if he lied, because, although they would not let Heraclius know that he lied, when they went back to themselves later on, he would lose esteem with them. They would certainly talk among themselves about how he had lied. This is clear in the narration of Ibn Is^âq in which Abû Sufyân states:

By Allah! Had I lied, they would not have belied me to Heraclius. But I was a leader and felt that lying was beneath me. I knew also that the least that would happen (if I lied) was that they would remember this and then talk of it among themselves. So I did not lie. By Allah! Never, have I beheld a shrewder man than this uncircumcised one.

  • [Abû Sufyân’s reference to the emperor of Rome as “this uncircumcised one” connotes that Heraclius came from a people the Arabs considered prescriptively unclean, and thus of inferior character.]

In Part 2 we will continue our translation and reflection on Heraclius’ interrogation of the Qurashite chief, Abû Sufyân, about Prophet Muhammad œ.

Written By

Omar Abdl-Haleem is a fourth generation Muslim in America. He has a BA from Al-Azhar University in Usul Al-Din, specializing in Hadith, and was about to finish his Master’s Degree from Al-Azhar in Hadith, when he had to leave Egypt for safety reasons in the fall of 2013. He has translated most of Ibn Al-Jawzi’s book: Sayd Al-Khatir into English, which he intends to complete (some episodes of Omar’s translation of this book have appeared in Aljumuah Website). He is also working on a Hadith book for English speakers that explains and teaches Mustalah Al-Hadith (Hadith Terminology) in common terms. His Arabic is native, having studied in Egypt since he was 14, and then full time after completion of High School in the US. He is invaluable for AlJumuah in accessing scholarly texts. He intends to complete his graduate studies in Hadith.

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