Seerah episode 6: History of Zamzam

The legend of ‘Abd’l-Muttalib was established and solidified by two major events in his life. These were his lasting legacy:

I. Re-digging of the well of zamzam (prologue to the birth of the Messenger of Allah)
II. Invasion of the Army of the Elephants

The Re-Digging of the Well of  Zamzam
Most of us are aware about the story of the Prophet Isma’il and his mother Hajer ‘alayhuma as-salaam. The baby was thirsty and they were in a valley with no vegetation. The mother began making rounds (immortalized in the acts of sa’i for umrah and hajj) to find something for her child. Then, by the grace of Allah a fountain of water flowed from near the area the foot of the baby had been thrashing at on the ground.

This spring was not just a spiritually symbolic thing. It defined the political, economic and social development of the region. The place was now habitable. Therefore, the incident of the zamzam well is very important. It has a huge impact.

The people of Yemen were leaving their areas (first because of starvation and economic oppression) and found this inviting region. Then, the second exodus of the Yemeni people happened because of the huge flood that happened at Yemen. These people were also attracted to Hejaz.

Many people had settled here. Centuries passed, but somewhere along the lines (it is not very clear who, but they attributed it to the tribe of Jurhum) someone sealed the well. There was civil war because families and tribes were disputing over the well of zamzam and control of Mecca. One tribe put their weapons over the well and buried it so that it was not recoverable. Years became decades and centuries and people even forgot about the well.

At the time of ‘Abd’l-Muttalib, the people had heard what they presumed were myths about this well with sweet water that would never run out. One day, ‘Abd’l-Muttalib goes home and lays down and in his dream something came to him.

Many of the scholars have not shied away from saying that this may have been Angel communicating with this noteworthy individual. It was inspired (ilham) to him like what happened to the mother of Musa ‘alayhi as-salaam.

The thing told him to go and dig up teeba (that thing which is very attractive). He asked it, “What is teeba?”, but it left.

The next day the thing came back to ‘Abd’l-Muttalib. It told him, “Go and dig up baara’ (the very blessed thing).” He asked it, “What is barra’?”, but it left.

The third day he went to sleep again and it came to him. It told him, “Go and dig up magnoona (= something that is coveted)?” He asked it, “What is magnoona? ” but it left.

The fourth night when he went to sleep this being came back to him. It told him, “Go and dig up zamzam.” He asked it, “What is zamzam?” It answered, “Zamzam is that thing which will never run out and its water is always abundant. It can give water to the most largest group of people that are visiting (people that are doing hajj). It is between al-farath and ad-dam.” This is a figure of speech of the Arabs to mean something that is very pure. “You will find it. Look for it where you will find ant hills. There you will find many crows pecking there beaks into the ground”.

‘Abd’l-Muttalib goes to this place with his son al-Haarith. They begin digging and unearth certain things. They come across swords made of gold and silver with jewels. Then, they begin to unearth bricks of gold, gold coins, silver coins. Then, they find themselves to be knocking on top of a well.

They begin screaming takbir. People begin to congregate and realize something is going on. They realize that this is the myth of the well. The chieftains of other tribes come up an say, “This is the well of our forefather, Isma’il. Slow down ‘Abd’l-Muttalib. If this is his well, then we all have a right to dig this up.”

This is a source of pride and everyone wants their hands in it. ‘Abd’l-Muttalib says, “This was informed to me directly. I was inspired where this well was. This is my responsibility and I will take care of it.”

He is a very generous and kind man, but he was a wise man. The people continue to fight and argue. They say there is an old man (some narrations say he is a soothsayer) and that man will make the decision between them. They decided to travel to that person. The man lives very far away but still they decided to proceed on.

Some narrations mention that along the way, the people had diminished their water supply and become very thirsty and cannot find any water. People begin to fall ill and they are in a crisis situation. This was a common occurrence for desert-life. The norm was to dig their own graves because they did not wish to put the weight upon another. They don’t want other people to be burdened by the effort to bury them. When they would feel exhaustion, they would lay inside of it and wait for death to come to them. They also don’t want animals to eat their corpse.

Some of them are fading in and out of consciousness. ‘Abd’l-Muttalib passes out for some time, but awakes. He awakes everyone and says that he has a feeling that water is not too far. They all rise and begin to motivates other people to move forward as difficult as it is.

‘Abd’l-Muttalib races forward and when he reaches a spot he kicks his animal so that its feet hit the ground. Water, a stream of water, gushes forth. The people begin digging there and they unearth an amazing well. And so their life were saved.

These people realized that the one who showed him where this well was must have been the one who showed him where the well of zamzam was. They apologized to him because they doubted him. So they believed him and don’t want to fight with him. He was given full custodianship of the well. They return to Makkah. ‘Abd’l-Muttalib and his sons solidify the boundaries of the well and it was established.

He recited some poetry at this point:
O Allaah, You are the King and the One Worthy of Praise
My Lord, My Master, You are the One Who creates and You are the One Who brings back
You are the One Who gives strength and steadfastness and from You comes wealth and from You comes starvation/poverty.
If You wish, You inspire as You will to give that person knowledge of where treasure or wealth is buried.
So today show to me what You wish for me to do.

This was basically his supplication for guidance. This is another evidence used to show that ‘Abd’l-Muttalib was a hanif.

What did he do with the gold and silver? He melted it all and build a door for the Ka’bah from it. He is of the first to adorn the Ka’bah in such an elaborate manner – from his love, respect, and affection for that sacred sanctuary.

Zamzam is part of the recommended practices of hajj and umrah. It stayed under the guardianship of Banu Haashim going from ‘Abd’l-Muttalib to Abu Taalib. They would very seriously, physically and financially serve the hujjaj. They would arrange for the serving and containers for the hujjaj. It was an investment and they would money to accomplish it.

The first year that Abu Taalib was responsible for it, he went bankrupt. We will learn later that he was an amazing man. He was not a wealthy man, but his personality was averse to making extravagant amounts of money. Money was not his main concerns.

In the second year, Abu Taalib went to his brother ‘Abbas and asked for a loan to arrange for the visiting hujjaj. He is given 10 000 silver coins as a loan. He promised to pay back.

In the third year, Abu Taalib again had no money. He again went to his brother ‘Abbas who said that he would take care of the debts, but Abu Taalib was to sell him the rights to the well of zamzam.

Eventually, ‘Abbas accepted Islam and after his death, the responsibility was given to ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas, then to ‘Ali b. ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas, then to Daw’ud b. ‘Ali, then to Sulayman b. Daw’ud, then to ‘Isa b. Sulayman. Eventually this was inherited by the khalifa, al-Mansur. From there, it was passed between leadership (in the Umayyad dynasty) rather than ancestry.

Well of Zamzam in the olden days

Significances of Zamzam
This is how Ibn Abbas taught us on how to drink zamzam.
1. It will fulfill whatever intention you have (i.e. when drinking it)
2. When you drink it, face the Qiblah, say the name of Allah, drink it in three breaths (not chugging it), drink it to your fill and then praise Allah. The difference between the believers and the hypocrites is that they do not drink to their fill with zamzam.

A difference between belief and hypocrisy is conviction versus skepticism. A believer will believe them for whatever he needs because he has trust that Allaah is true in His promise. That person will be enthusiastic about it and will exhaust all the opportunity. This was a tool the Messenger of Allah gave us to reflect upon our behavior.

3. Imaam al-Bayhaqi rahimahu Allaah mentions that ‘Abd’l-Muttalib said, “O Allaah I do not allow someone to use this for washing themselves.” Even he had the understanding that this water had some spiritual significance to it.
“Rather I permit them to drink it and it is a cure for the one who drinks it.”

4. It was a blessing foretelling the coming of a greater blessing. It was unearthed a few years before the birth of the Messenger of Allah by his very grandfather who not only cared for him, but also named him.
It first came into existence through the legacy of Ibrahim ‘alayhi as-salaam. This minor legacy was a sign of the unearthing of the true and real legacy of Ibrahim ‘alayhi as-salaam – tawhid.

Invasion of the Army of the Elephants
The Messenger of Allah was born in the same year as the year of this invasion. The most substantial of historical accounts says that he was born two months after this invasion.

The Political Landscape
At the time of the Messenger of Allaah’s s birth there was a great amount of political turbulence. Yemen had been very deep in idolatry, but had been impacted by Christianity from the Abyssinians. There had been a Jewish overtaking of the area. Many narrations mention that the incident of ashab’l-ukhdud (mentioned in Surat’l-Buruj) was the incidence of persecution of that time. The Abyssinians were very offended by this and sent an Abyssinian to Yemen, not to conquer the region, but to free the Christian people from tyranny. The land was then to be returned to the oppressed Christian people of Yemen.

When the Christians won their freedom back from the Jews, the ruler was Irbath. Abraha was a general in his army and unsatisfied with his method of ruling. Irbath was first and foremost a Christian and he was ruling over secondly. He did not have a great understanding of economics and political stabilization. He was instead a very devout Christian. Irbath had been put into this position because the situation had been seen as a spiritual uprising.

On the other hand, Abraha was a strategist. He led a coup against Irbath, killed him and overtook the rulership.

Abraha wished to regain the glory and return to the old days of Yemeni glory. The drought and starvation had left the region ravaged. Everyone had gone to Hejaz or Yathrib. Makkah had become the metropolitan center.

Abraha wished to regain the glory for Yemen. He was not a good man by any means. He had killed his own ruler. Note, however, he did not have his eyes set on destructing the Ka’bah initially. Historical accounts by Ibn Kathir rahimahu Allaah indicated that Abraha was a genius and he had a very patient manner with people. Any time he came across the Arabs and their tribes, he would engage in profound discussion with them. This showed what type of a man he was. He listened to ‘Abd’l-Muttalib when he came to visit – he was not a blood thirsty man on a rampage.

Abraha realize that spirituality played a large in people’s lifestyles – even if in a perverted manner. They were not completely apathetic, but they had a lack of respect because of their lack of grounding in tradition. For this reason, Abraha’s Plan A had been to attract business. They have financial issues because the flood has damaged their resources. He needed to attract people to Yemen. He realized people were still very spiritual in their own way. As such there must be a similar
attraction for people (like the Ka’bah). This would attract people to Yemen and bring money to them.

He is a Christian so he builds a big church. He builds a palace of a church and names it Qulays. It put all the resources which were available to the people. He forced his people to build the church so much so that if somebody did not show up to the construction site after the sun had risen, Abraha would cut that person’s hand off. His plan had been to build a place that rivaled the Ka’bah so that people would consider visiting it. From his perspective, he has not done anything wrong.

Then, he sends a message to the Christian Abyssinian King (Najashi). “I have built a church and have dedicated it to you. I want to bring honor and dignity back to our Christian people in this Christian land. I will not rest with the construction of this church until I am able to bring more people here than the number of people who visit the Ka’bah in Makkah.”

The Reaction
Word of his message spreads to the Arabs. Obviously, they are not very happy. A man from Banu Kanana goes to the Qulays, waiting until it has closed and it is dark. Then he defecates in the church. One narration by Ibn Kathir rahimahu Allaah mentions that the man takes the excrement and smears it on the walls.

It is an appalling incident. This is brought to the attention of Abraha and he is upset because this was his personal project. That man in the meanwhile proudly spreads word to people about what he has done.

The Plan for Attack
Abraha takes an oath: “I will not rest until I have destroyed the Ka’bah.” He rallies support, gathers troops. The highest of narrations says he gather 60,000 troops and marches towards Makkah. He did one last thing. Remember that Yemen has that connection to Abyssinia – to Africa. He recruits a man by the name of Unays – an elephant hunter. Like an elephant whisperer. He asks for anywhere between 9-15 elephants. He wants to strike fear into the hearts of the people. People don’t see a lot elephant in their life at that time and they would be afraid with it. The people of Mecca would run all over the place.

We understand it to be a very strategic decision to flatten the land. At the same time, it is fear striking for the hearts of the Arabs because they have never seen anything like it.

Abraha was a very arrogant, but he was also a revolutionary and intelligent leader. He is very motivated and driven to live up to the many promises he has made. We know him as the poor, foolish individual who attempted to attack bayt of Allah, but that was not how he began. He was not out-rightly with malicious intent. He became angry because someone else did something wrong. Several people died in defense of the Ka’bah and several people from his own army died. How did he get to the point where he was solely responsible for the death of thousands of people?

It took someone who was immature and foolish and thought that an act of devotion to his own religion was to violate someone else’s religion. Right or wrong, that is secondary. He disrespected someone else’s belief system. He behaved like an animal and that is what drives Abraha mad. History is full of lessons and this is a lesson that disagreeing is a different matter, stating the truth is an obligation, but there is a line that ought not be crossed.

Allaah says in (6:108)

وَلَا تَسُبُّوا الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللَّهِ فَيَسُبُّوا اللَّهَ عَدْوًا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ كَذَٰلِكَ زَيَّنَّا لِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ عَمَلَهُمْ ثُمَّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّهِم مَّرْجِعُهُمْ فَيُنَبِّئُهُم بِمَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ

And do not insult (say vile things) those who invoke other than Allaah, lest they insult Allaah in enmity (out of retaliation) without knowledge. Thus, we have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord in their return and He will inform them about what they used to do.

You may be cursing something made of wood, but they are disrespecting the Lord of the Worlds because you disrespected their belief system. Look at how linked the Qur’aanic injunction is to incidents even before its revelation and the birth of its Messenger.

May Allaah give us the ability to practice everything that was said and heard.

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