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Abu Talib ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib

Abu Talib
Born Abdul Manaf or Imran[1]
c. 549 CE
Mecca, Arabia
Died c. 620 CE
Resting place Jannatul Mualla
Ethnicity Arab (Quraysh)
Known for being the uncle of Muhammad
Spouse(s) Fatimah bint Asad
Children Talib
Ja'far
Aqeel
Ali
Fakhitah
Parents Abdul Muttalib
Fatimah bint Amr
Relatives Az-Zubayr (brother)
Abdullah (brother)

Abu Talib ibn Abdul Muttalib (c. 549 – 619) was the leader of the Banu Hashim, a clan of the Quraysh tribe of Mecca in Arabia. After the death of ‘Abd al-Muttalib he inherited this position and the offices of siqaya and rifada.[2] He was well respected in Mecca despite declining fortune.[3]

Abu Talib was an uncle of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. He is famous for this close connection to the Prophet and his protection of Muhammad.

Abu Talib and Muhammad's Relationship

Abū Ṭālib was a brother of Muḥammad's father, 'Abdullāh ibn 'Abd al-Muṭṭalib, who had died before Muḥammad's birth. After the death of Muḥammad's mother Āminah bint Wahb, Muḥammad as a child was taken into the care of his grandfather, 'Abd al-Muṭṭalib. When Muḥammad reached eight years of age, 'Abd al-Muṭṭalib died, one of the Prophet’s uncles was to take him in. The oldest, Al-Harith was not wealthy enough to take him in. Al-‘Abbas was the most wealthy but he was not welcoming. Abu Talib took in the Prophet despite his poverty because of his generosity.[4]

Muhammad loved his uncle very much and Abu Talib loved Muhammad in return.[5] Abu Talib is remembered as a gifted poet and many poetic verses in support of Muhammad are attributed to him.[2] [6]

Once, as Abu Talib was about to leave for a trading expedition, Muhammad wept and could not bear to be separated from him. To this Abu Talib responded, “By God I will take him with me, and we shall never part from one another” [7]

Later in life, as an adult, Muhammad saw that Abu Talib was struggling financially after a severe drought. Muhammad decided to take charge of one of Abu Talib’s children and he convinced al-‘Abbas to do the same. They discussed this matter with Abū Ṭālib, who asked that his favorite child 'Aqīl could be left with him. Al-'Abbās chose Talib, and Muḥammad chose 'Alī.[8] [9] [10] [11]

Protecting Muḥammad

In tribal society, a tribal affiliation is important otherwise you could be killed without impunity.[12] As leader of the Banu Hashim, Abu Talib acted as a protector to Muhammad. After Muḥammad began preaching the message of Islam, members of the other Qurayshite clans increasingly came to feel threatened by Muḥammad. In attempts to quiet him, they pressured Abū Ṭālib to silence his nephew or control him. Despite these pressures, Abū Ṭālib maintained his support of Muḥammad, defending him from the other leaders of the Quraysh. Leaders of the Quraysh directly confronted Abu Talib several times. Abu Talib brushes them off and continues to support Muhammad even when it puts a rift between him and the Quraysh. In one account, the Quraysh even threaten to fight the Banu Hashim over this conflict.[13] In a particular narration of one such confrontation, Abu Talib summons Muhammad to speak with the Quraysh. The Prophet asks the Quraysh leaders to say the shahada and they are astounded.[14]

The Quraysh even bribe Abu Talib. The Quraysh tell Abu Talib that if he lets them handle Muhammad he can adopt ‘Umarah ibn al Walid ibn al Mughirah the most handsome youth in Quraysh.[15] [16][17]

When this still does not work, the Quraysh elicit the support of other tribes to boycott trading with or marrying members of the Banu Hashim tribe and the associated clan of al-Muttalib. This boycott took place seven years after the Prophet first received revelation and lasted for three years.[2] The idea was to put pressure on Abu Talib and even starve them into submission. [18] For the sake of security many members of the Banu Hashim and the al-Muttalib moved near to Abu Talib (Encyclopedia of Islam) and the place became like a ghetto.[19] This didn’t cause undo hardship [20] because many had family members in other tribes that would smuggle goods to them.[21] Abu Talib’s brother, Abu Lahab, sided with the Quraysh on this issue he moved to a house the district of Abd Shams to demonstrate support for the Quraysh.[22] [23] He thought Muhammad was either mad or deceiving others.[24]

Protecting Muhammad put considerable pressure on Abu Talib and the Banu Hashim. In one instance Abu Talib exclaimed to Muhammad, “Spare me and yourself, and do not put a greater burden on me than I can bear”. The Prophet responded, “Oh uncle! By God Almighty I swear, even if they should put the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left that I abjure this cause, I shall not do so until God has vindicated it or caused me to perish in the process”.[4] Seeing his nephew’s emotion, Abu Talib responded, “Go, nephew, and say what you like. By God, I will never hand you over for any reason”.[25]

Death

Abū Ṭālib's died circa 619,at more than 80 years of age, 10 years after the Prophet received revelation.[2] This year is known as the Year of Sorrow because Khadija, Muhammad’s wife, within a month of Abu Talib.

Before he dies, Muhammad asks Abu Talib to say the shahada. According to one tradition, Abu Talib refuses because he claims that the Quraysh (who were present) would mock him and accuse him of saying the shahada because he fears death.[26] In another tradition Abu Talib is dissuaded from saying the shahada by the Quraysh.[27] According to the historiographer Fred McGraw Donner, both of these traditions have very old issnads but the first variation has two different issnads which might suggest that the second variation is a modification of the older, first variation.[27]

In yet another variation of Abu Talib’s death, al-‘Abbas who was sitting next to Abu Talib as he died saw Abu Talib moving his lips. Al-‘Abbas claims that Abu Talib had said the shahada but Muhammad replied that he had not heard it.[28][29][2] Some Muslims see this as proof that Abu Talib died a Muslim. However, the majority of sources state that Abu Talib died a pagan and an infidel.

After Abu Talib’s death, the Prophet was left unprotected. Abu Talib’s successor, Abu Lahab did not protect him. Muhammad and his followers faced incredible persecution. Muhammad is quoted as exclaiming, “By God. Quraysh never harmed me so much as after the death of Abu Talib”.[4] [30] The early Muslims relocated in Medina in order to escape persecution by the Quraysh.


Shii and Sunni View of Abu Talib

The memory of Abu Talib is influenced by political aims of the Sunnis and Shiis.[31] The character of Abu Talib was elemental in the Abbasid/ Shii power struggle after the Prophet’s death.

Origionally, the Abbasids and Shiis banned together in order to overthrow the Umayyad dynasty on the grounds that they were godless and oppressive. The Shiis opposed the Umayyads because the Umayyads assassinated ‘Ali whom they considered to be their spiritual leader after the Prophet’s death. Though both the Shiis and the Abbasids worked to overthrow the Umayyads, the Abbasids assumed all power in 749.[27] The Shiis then struggled against the Abbasids for power.

The Abbasids looked to legitimate their claim on power through ancestry to the Prophet. The Shiis traced their ancestry to ‘Ali through Abu Talib, his father. The Abbasids trace their ancestry to al-‘Abbas. The Shii’s were more closely related to the prophet through Abu Talib (the father of ‘Ali) than the Abbasids, becaise al-‘Abbas, another of the Prophet’s uncles, was not on as intimate of terms with the Prophet and embraced Islam very late. Therefore, in order to assert their credibility, the Abbasids (who embraced Sunni Islam) tried to discredit Abu Talib by emphasizing that he died a pagan. In this way, their ancestry to the Prophet through al-‘Abbas was more legitimate than Shii ancestry through Abu Talib.

Historical Sunni View

From the perspective of some Sunnis, Abu Talib was a “cowardly old man who will not renounce the old religion of his fellow tribesman”.[32] They emphasize his pagan conduct and some sources even assert that Abu Talib demanded Muhammad to worship pagan idols.

Sunnis tried to emphasize the Prophet’s disappointment in Abu Talib; in one account, the Prophet is believed to have said,“I wish that Abu Talib had embraced Isam, for the Apostle of God would have been delighted at that. But he was an unbeliever”. Though this account is serving a polemical purpose, it may be an old source.[27]

Along the same lines, there is a similar account where ‘Ali informs Muhammad of the Abu Talib’s death by saying, “Your uncle, the erring old man, has died”.[27]

Historical Shii View

Shii’s believe that the father of the first imam, ‘Ali, must be nearly as great as the immam himself. Shiis elevate Abu Talib and see him as a heroic defender of the Prophet. Many sources from this perspective claim that Abut Talib was indeed Muslim, he just kept his faith a secret so that he could better protect the prophet (150 Rubin).

In one account, when Abu Talib was ill, Muhammad fed grapes to him that God forbade unbelievers to eat. This implies that Abu Talib had accepted Islam despite his outward actions.[27]

Some Shiis go so far as to insist that even the ancestors of Abu Talib were Muslim.[27] This is because the “divine transmigration of the spirit” is applied to ancestors as well as descendants.[3]

Others claimed that even if Abu Talib did not accept Islam, he did a great service to Islam by protecting the Prophet from the Quraysh. They put the blame of Abu Talib’s failure to convert on the Quarysh. Abu Talib was not to blame, because he had been intimidated.[27]


Family

Abu Talib was married to Fatimah bint Asad. They had four sons:

and two daughters:

See also

References

Preceded by
Zubayr ibn 'Abd al-Muṭallib
Head of Banū Hāshim
?–619
Succeeded by
Abū Lahab
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