Hamzah : The Lion of Allah, the Martyr of Martyrs
In Muslim history there are some extraordinary stories of how people have embraced Islam over the years. As Muslims, these stories encourage and inspire us to learn more and more about the history of Islam, especially in the early days when our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was struggling to make its message known and heard.
Learning about how others came to Islam allows us to pause and reflect on our own spirituality and to thank Almighty Allah for His great gift to us of being Muslims. Such stories of heroism and of spiritual searching help us to put into context our own poor efforts as servants of Allah.
One of the most human of these stories is that of Hamzah ibn Abd Al-Muttalib, the uncle of Prophet Muhammad.
The story of his call to Islam is all the more amazing because it was not brought about by the reading of books, nor after hearing a beautiful sermon, nor after searching and pondering over the meaning of life. His return to Islam was a direct result of his very strong sense of family honor.
First of all, though, we need to remind ourselves why we use the term ‘return’ to Islam, rather than saying his conversion. As Muslims we believe that Islam is the natural religion of mankind and that it has existed since the beginning of time.
We also believe that right at the start of human history, Almighty Allah gathered before Him all the souls of everyone who would ever live on this earth. He then explained to them that there was no other god but He. As the natural religion of mankind, we believe that if individuals were left on their own in a pure state they would naturally believe in One God.
We believe, therefore, that everyone is born into this world a Muslim, but that it is the action of others that makes him or her Christian or Jew or whatever. So, when someone changes his religion to become Muslim, he is not really converting to a new religion, but rather returning to the natural state into which he was born. This is why we say that Hamzah “embraced” Islam, rather than converted to it.
The story is very simple. It happened like this. For three years Prophet Muhammad had spoken to only a few people about the revelations he had so far received from Angel Jibreel (Gabriel), and for a further three years he struggled against great odds to make the message known to the wider community in Makkah.
Muhammad (SAW) was not yet a serious problem to the Quraysh. But he had started to draw their attention, for his call was spreading secretly. Although the number of his followers was still very small, there were people among the non-believers who loved and respected him. They yearned to declare their belief in him and become one of his followers, but their fear of the prevailing atmosphere and the inhibitions of inherited traditions prevented them. Among them was Hamzah lbn `Abdul Muttalib (RA), the Prophet’s paternal uncle who was at the same time his brother through fosterage (i.e. they had been breast-fed by the same woman).
Hamzah (RA) was fully aware of the greatness of his nephew and the truth of the message he conveyed. To him Muhammad (SAW) was not only a nephew, but also as a brother and a friend because they both belonged to the same generation. They always played together, walked together and grew up together. But in their youth they departed, each taking after his own inclination: Hamzah (RA) preferred the life of leisure, trying to take his place among the prominent men of the Quraysh and Makkah, while Muhammad (SAW) chose the life of seclusion from the crowd, immersed in the deep spiritual meditation that prepared him to receive the revelation.
Despite the fact that each of them had a different way of life during their youth, Hamzah (RA) was always attracted to the virtues of his friend and nephew. Such virtues helped Muhammad (SAW) to win a special place in the hearts of the people.
One morning, Hamzah (RA) went out as usual. At the Kaaba he found a number of Qurayshi elders. He sat with them, listening to what they had to say: they were talking about Muhammad (SAW). For the first time Hamzah (RA) saw them worried about the call his nephew was propagating. The tone of their voice was full of bitterness and rage. Before that, they had pretended not to pay attention to his message, but on that day their faces looked perplexed, upset, and aggressive.
Hamzah (RA) laughed at their talks and accused them of exaggeration. To this, Abu Jahl responded that Hamzah (RA) was in the best position to know the danger of his nephew’s call and that he pretended to underestimate this danger till the Quraysh would relax so much that by the time they get awakened, his nephew would have had complete control over them. They went on expressing their worries, while Hamzah (RA) sat smiling at some points and frowning at others.
Days passed and the Quraysh’s whispering about the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) intensified. Later, the whispering turned into provocation that Hamzah (RA) watched from a distance. His nephew’s composed, steadfast attitude towards their provocations puzzled him. Such an attitude was quite unfamiliar to the Quraysh, who were known to be strong and challenging.
Hamzah’s (RA) love for his nephew was so deep that no one could erase it from his heart. For he knew Prophet Muhammad (SAW) as he knew himself and maybe even more. They had come into life together, grew up together, and attained full strength together. Muhammad’s (SAW) life had been as pure and clear as the sunlight. He had never commited any wrong or any doubtful act in his life. Hamzah (RA) had never seen Muhammad (SAW) angry, hopeless, greedy, careless, or unstable.
One day, Hamzah (RA) went out of to the desert carrying his bow to practice his favourite sport of hunting, in which he was very skilled. He spent most of his day there. On his way home he passed by the Kaaba for cicumambulation as was his usual practice.
Near the Kaaba, a female servant of Abdullah Ibn Jud’an saw him and said, “O Abu `Umarah! You have not seen what happened to your nephew at the hands of Abu Al-Hakam lbn Hisham. When he saw Muhammad (SAW) sitting there, he hurt him and called him bad names and treated him in a way that he hated.” She went on to explain what Abu Al-Hakm – or Abu Jahl, ‘father of ignorance’ – had done to the Prophet of Allah (SAW).
Hamzah (RA) listened to her carefully and paused for a while, then with his right hand he picked up his bow and put it on his shoulder. He hastened to the Kaaba, hoping to meet Abu Jahl there. He had resolved that if he did not find him, he would search for him everywhere till he got him.
As soon as he reached the Kaaba he glanced at Abu Jahl sitting in the yard in the middle of the Qurayshi noblemen. Hamzah (RA) advanced very calmly towards Abu Jahl, hit him with his bow on the head till it bled. To everybody’s surprise, Hamzah (RA) shouted, “How dare you insult Muhammad while I follow his religion and I believe in what he says? Come and retaliate upon me. Hit me if you can.” In a moment they all forgot how their leader Abu Jahl had been insulted and they were all thunderstruck by the news that Hamzah (RA) had converted to Muhammad’s (SAW) religion and that he saw what Muhammad (SAW) saw and believed what he said. Could Hamzah (RA) really have converted (returned) to Islam when he was the strongest and most dignified man of the Quraysh?
This overwhelming disaster made the Quraysh helpless. Hamzah’s (RA) converting (returning) to Islam would attract other elite and youth to do the same. Thus Muhammad’s (SAW) call would be supported, and he would find enough solidarity that the Quraysh might wake up one day to find their idols being pulled down.
After that, Hamzah (RA) picked up his bow, put it on his shoulder, and with steady steps and full strength left the place, leaving everyone looking disappointed and Abu Jahl licking the blood flowing from his wounded head.
At home, after he had relaxed from the day’s exhaustion, he sat down to think over what had happened. He had announced his conversion (return) to Islam in a moment of indignation and rage. He hated to see his nephew getting insulted and suffering injustice with no one to help him. Such a tribal zeal for the honour of Bani Hashim had made him hit Abu Jahl on the head and declare his Islam. But was that the ideal way for anyone to change the religion of his parents and ancestors and to embrace a new religion whose teachings he had not yet become familiar with and whose true reality he had not acquired sufficient knowledge of?
Hamzah (RA) possessed a sharp insight and a clear conscience. He never had any doubts about Muhammad’s (SAW) integrity and had always in his heart a great respect for his nephew’s mission, but what should be the right time to embrace this religion if he was destined to embrace it? Should it be a moment of indignation and anger or as a result of deep reflection? Thus he was inspired by a clear consciousness to reconsider the whole situation in light of strict and rational thinking.
Thus Hamzah (RA) spent many restless days and sleepless nights. When one tries to attain the truth by the power of mind, uncertainty will become a means of knowledge, and this is what happened to Hamzah (RA). Once he used his mind to weigh between the old religion and the new one, he started to have doubts raised by his innate inherited nostalgia for his father’s religion and by the natural fear of anything new. All his memories of the Kaaba, the idols, and the high religious status these idols bestowed on the Quraysh and Makkah crowded in his mind.
It appeared to him that denying all this history and the ancient religion was like a big chasm which had to be crossed. Hamzah (RA) was amazed at how a man could depart from the religion of his father that early and that fast. He regretted what he had done but he went on with the journey of rational thinking. But at that moment, he realized that his mind was not enough and that he should resort sincerely to the unseen power. At the Kaaba he prayed and supplicated to heaven, seeking help from every light that existed in the universe to be guided to the right path.
Allah answered his prayer and filled his heart with faith and certainty. The next morning Hamzah (RA) went to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) informing him about himself, and the Prophet prayed to Allah to keep Hamzah’s heart stable in this religion.
This way Hamzah (RA) embraced Islam, the religion of certainty.
Allah strengthened Islam with Hamzah’s (RA) conversion. He was strong in defending the Prophet of Allah (SAW) and the helpless amongst his Companions. When Abu Jahl saw him among the Muslims, he realized that war was inevitably coming. Therefore he began to urge the Quraysh to torture the Prophet (SAW) and his Companions. He wanted to prepare for a civil war to relieve his heart of anger and bitter feelings.
Although Hamzah (RA) alone was, of course, unable to prevent all the harm, his conversion was a shield that protected the Muslims. He was indeed the first source of encouragement to many tribes to embrace Islam. The second source was `Umar bin Al-Khattab’s (RA) conversion, after which people entered Allah’s religion in multitude. Since his conversion, Hamzah (RA) devoted all his life and energy to Allah and His religion till the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) honoured him with the noble title, “The Lion of Allah and of His Messenger”.
The first military raid launched by the Muslims against their enemies was under the command of Hamzah (RA). He was, therefore, the first banner bearer in Islam. In the battle of Badr, when the two armies met, the Lion of Allah was there performing great wonders.
The defeated remnants of the Quraysh army returned to Makkah stumbling in disappointment. Abu Sufyan was broken hearted with a bowed head as he left on the battlefield the dead bodies of the Quraysh fighters such as Abu Jahl, Utbah Ibn Rabi’ah, Shaybah lbn Rabi’ah, Umayyah lbn Khalaf, Uqbah Ibn Abi Mu’ayt, Al Aswad Ibn `Abd-al-Asad Al-Makhzumi, Al-Walid lbn `Utbah, Al-Nafr lbn Harith, Al-’Aas lbn Sa’id, Ta’mah lbn `Addi and tens of other Quraysh elites.
But the Quraysh would not accept the defeat easily. They started preparing an army, by pulling together all the powers to avenge their honour and their dead. They insisted to continue with the war and, once again, went to war together with their allies from the Arabs, under the leadership of Abu Sufyan. This led to the Battle of Uhud. In this battle the Qurayshi leaders had targeted two persons, namely, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and Hamzah (RA).
Before they went to war, they had already chosen someone for the task of assassinating Hamzah (RA). An Abyssinian slave with extraordinary skill in spear throwing was the one chosen to kill Hamzah (RA). His only role was to hit him with a deadly spear. He was starkly to focus his attention on his target regardless of the situation on the battlefield. Upon successful execution of the task, he was promised the excellent reward of his freedom. Jubayr Ibn Mut’am owned this slave whose name was Wahshi, “Go out with the army, if you kill Hamzah (RA) you will be free.” Afterwards, the Quraysh sent Wahshi to Hind Bint `Utbah, Abu Sufyan’s wife, to receive more encouragement to kill Hamzah (RA), because she had lost her father, uncle, brother and son, and it was said that Hamzah (RA) was responsible for their deaths.
This was the reason why Hind was among the most enthusiastic Quraysh in beating the drums of war. All she wanted was Hamzah’s (RA) head, whatever the cost might be. She spent days before the battle pouring all her rage into Wahshi’s heart and making the plans for him. She promised him if he killed Hamzah (RA) she would give him her most precious trinkets. With her hateful fingers she held her precious pearl earrings and a number of golden necklaces around her neck and gazed at him saying, “All these are yours if you kill Hamzah (RA).”
Wahshi’s salivated at the offer, and his soul was eager for the battle after which he would win his freedom and cease to be a slave, in addition to all the jewellery decorating the neck of the leading woman of the Quraysh, the wife of its leader, and the daughter of its master. It was clear then that the whole war and the whole conspiracy were decisively targeting Hamzah (RA).
Soon the two armies met and the Battle of Uhud began. Hamzah (RA) was in the middle of the battlefield in battle dress and on his bosom he put an ostrich feather that he used to wear while fighting. He was swiftly moving everywhere on the battlefield as though death was at his command; whenever he ordered it for any Qurayshi polytheist, it reached him.
As the Muslims were about to gain victory, the nearly defeated Quraysh army started to withdraw from the battle. Seeing this, the Muslim archers left their places on the hills to collect the spoils of the war that the Quraysh were abandoning. If they had not left their positions, giving the Quraysh cavalry the chance to find a way, the battlefield would have been transformed as a mass graveyard for all the Quraysh, including men, women, horses, and even cattle.
The Quraysh attacked the Muslims by surprise from the rear and started striking them with thirsty swords. The Muslims tried to pull themselves together, picking up the weapons, which they had put down upon seeing the Quraysh’s withdrawal, but the attack was too swift to be repulsed. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Hamzah (RA) doubled his efforts and intensified his attack. As he slashed his way through the enemy lines, Wahshi patiently followed him, waiting for the right moment.
Let us hear Wahshi himself describe the scene:
“I was an Abyssinian. I used to throw the spear, Abyssinian style, that hardly missed its target. When the armies met I looked for Hamzah till I found him in the middle of the crowd like a huge camel. He was killing every one around him with his sword. Nothing could stop him. By Allah, I prepared for him. I wanted him. I hid behind a tree so that I might attack him from a distance. At that moment Saba’ Ibn `Abd Al-’Uzza approached him before me. When Hamzah glanced at him he shouted, “Come to me, you son of the one who circumcises!” and he hit him directly in the head. Then I shook my spear till I was in full control over it and threw it. The spear penetrated him from the back and came out from between his legs. He rose to reach me but could not and soon died. I came to his body and took my spear and went back to sit in the camp. I did not want anything else. All I wanted was to be a free man.”
“When I returned to Makkah, I was set free. I stayed there till the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) entered Makkah on the Day of the Conquest. I fled to Ta’if. When the delegation of Ta’if went to declare their conversion to Islam, I heard various people say that I should go to Syria or Yemen or any other place. While I was in such distress, a man said to me, “Woe to you! The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) never kills anyone entering his religion.” I went to Allah’s Prophet (SAW) in Madinah, and the moment he saw me I was already giving my true testimony. When he saw me he said, “Is it you, Wahshi?” I answered, “Yes, Messenger of Allah.” He said, “Tell me, how did you kill Hamzah?” I narrated to him, and when I was done, he told me, “Woe to you! Get out of my sight and never show your face to me.” From that time, I always avoided wherever the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) went lest he should see me, till he died.
Afterwards, when the Muslims fought Musaylamah the Liar in the Battle of Al-Yamamah, I went with them. I took with me the same spear I had killed Hamzah with. When the armies met, I saw Musaylamah standing with his sword in his hand. I prepared for him, shook my spear till I had full control over it, threw it, and it went into his body. If I killed with this spear the best of men, Hamzah, I wish that Allah might forgive me, as I killed with it the worst of men, Musaylamah.”
Thus the Lion of Allah died a great martyr. His death was as unusual as his life, because it was not enough for his enemies to kill him. They sacrificed all the men and money of the Quraysh to a battle that sought only the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his uncle Hamzah (RA).
Hind Bint `Utbah, the wife of Abu Sufyan, ordered Wahshi to bring her Hamzah’s (RA) liver, and he responded to her savage desire. When he returned to her, he delivered the liver to her with his right hand, while taking the necklaces with the left as a reward for the accomplished task. Hind, whose father had been killed in the Battle of Badr and whose husband was the leader of the polytheist army, chewed Hamzah’s (RA) liver hoping to relieve her heart, but the liver was too tough for her teeth so she spat it out.
The battle ended and the polytheists mounted their camels and led their horses back to Makkah. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his Companions examined the battlefield to see the martyrs. There, in the heart of the valley, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was examining the faces of his Companions who had offered their souls to their Lord and had given their lives as a precious sacrifice to Him.
The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) suddenly stood up and gazed deeply upset and sorrowful, he ground his teeth and closed his eyes. He had never imagined that the Arabs could be so savage that they cut and mutilate a dead body the way they had done to his uncle, the Lion of Allah, Hamzah Ibn `Abd Al Muttalib (RA). On opening his eyes, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) once again looked at the body of his uncle saying, “Losing you is the worst calamity in my life. I have never been more outraged than I am now.”
Allah honoured Hamzah (RA) by making his death a great lesson for the Muslims to learn justice and mercy, even in situations when penalties and retaliation were justified. A revelation came down to Prophet Muhammad while he was still standing in his place with the following verse:
“Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance. And if ye do catch them out, catch them out no worse than they catch you out: But if ye show patience, that is indeed the best (course) for those who are patient. And do thou be patient, for thy patience is but from Allah; nor grieve over them: and distress not thyself because of their plots.” (Surah Al Nahl 16:125-127)
The revelation of these verses in this situation was the best honour for Hamzah (RA). As stated before, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) loved him dearly because he was not only an uncle, but also his brother by fosterage, his playmate in childhood, and the best friend in all his life.
The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) did not find any better farewell for Hamzah (RA) than praying for him among the numerous martyrs. Hamzah’s (RA) body was carried to the place of prayer on the battlefield, the same place which had witnessed his bravery and embraced his blood. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his Companions prayed for him. Another martyr was then brought, and put beside Hamzah (RA), and prayed for. Then they took the martyr away and left Hamzah (RA) and brought the next martyr and placed him beside Hamzah (RA) and prayed for him and so on. They brought all the martyrs, one after the other and prayed for them beside Hamzah (RA), who on that day was prayed for seventy times (the number of martyrs).
On his way from the battlefield, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) heard the women of Bani `Abd Al-Ashhal lamenting their martyrs and he said, “But Hamzah (RA) has no one to lament him.” Sa’id lbn Mu`adh heard this sentence and thought that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) would be satisfied if the women would lament his uncle. He hurried to the women of Bani Abd Al-Ashhal and ordered them to lament Hamzah (RA). When the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) heard them doing this he said, “I did not mean this. Go back, may Allah have mercy on you. There will be no crying anymore.” The Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) Companions began to say their eulogies for Hamzah (RA) in praise of his virtues.
But the best words said about him were those of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) when he first saw him among the martyrs: “May Allah have mercy on you. You were, as far as I knew, always uniting kith and kin and doing all good.”
The loss of Hamzah (RA) was great and nothing could console the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) for it. But to his surprise, Allah offered him the best consolation. When he walked home from Uhud, he saw a woman from the Bani Dinar whose husband, father, and brother had been killed in the battle. She asked the returning Muslim soldiers about the battle. When they told her of the death of her father, husband, and brother, she soon asked them anxiously, “What about the Prophet of Allah?” They said, “He is very well as you wish him to be.” She said, “Let me look at him.” They stayed beside her till the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) came and when she saw him she said, “if you are safe, other calamities are nothing!”
Yes, this was the best condolence for the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). He smiled at this unusual encounter, which was unequalled in loyalty and devotion. In an instant a poor, helpless woman had lost her father, brother, and husband. But her reaction to that news – which if it had fallen on a mountain would have made it collapse – was, “What about the Prophet of Allah?” It was such a well-timed that it is eveident that Allah planned to console His Prophet for the death of Allah’s Lion and Martyr of all Martyrs.
Lessons to Learn
So what, then, can this story teach us today? What does the return of Hamzah to Islam have to say to us now? Well, first of all it teaches us that we don’t know what is going on in a person’s heart and mind.
Who knows what Hamzah had been thinking in those weeks and months before he came out in defense of his nephew and proclaimed his own belief in Islam?
Had he all along been quietly thinking about becoming Muslim? Had a special word or phrase convinced him of the truth of Islam? Had it been the message and the personality of the Prophet that had drawn him to Allah?
We really don’t know, and nor do we know what is going on in the hearts and minds of our non-Muslim colleagues and friends when we talk to them about Islam.
The news of the assault on his nephew came not from a very great person or through some great speech, but by the words of a freed slave woman. In the same way, it need not be a sheikh or someone with vast knowledge of Islam and the Quran whose words draw someone else closer to Islam. It could be our own very simple words or actions which begin others thinking.
We never know, then, the effects our words and our example will have on others. The greatest dawah of all is giving good example to others about how sweet and gentle Islam really is.
We must educate ourselves, of course, to the highest degree in being able to explain its teachings and its message, but all we are asked to do is to play our part in letting others know about Islam. It is not we who call them to Islam, it is Allah alone.
Another striking thing about the story of Hamzah’s return is that he showed himself to be very human. Almost out of rage, in defense of a family member, he came out with the words that he believed Islam to be true.
A strong sense of family honor and a very hot temper were the catalysts that brought him to submit and to bow down to Allah. See how Allah uses all things to draw people to Himself? He even uses our weaknesses to speak to us.
In our modern world, too, the name and the character of our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) is both vilified and ridiculed.
Just remember those cartoons in Denmark. In the Quran, Almighty Allah says to Muhammad in those very dark days when his message seemed not to be succeeding and when personal insults on the prophet were at their height:
“We do indeed know how thy heart is distressed at what they say.” (Surah Al Hijr 15:97)
But Almighty Allah also told him in the next verse:
“But celebrate the praises of thy Lord, and be of those who prostrate themselves in adoration.” (Surah Al Hijr 15:98)
As Muslims today, we are called to defend our beloved Prophet, even to the shedding of our blood or to the giving up of our last breath. We may not be the brave and valiant heroes that Hamzah showed himself to be, but we are called, in our own small way, to be ambassadors of Islam in everything that we do.
If we were to truly live as good Muslims, how the world would look on Islam. Instead of taking distorted ideas about Islam from the television and the newspapers, they would see from us that it is a beautiful and sweet message, which speaks to the hearts of all mankind today.
In celebrating the life of Hamzah ibn `Abdul-Muttalib and being inspired by the story of his call to Islam, let us all resolve to be lions of Allah, afraid of no one in proclaiming His message, and showing by the sweetness and the gentleness of our own lives the happiness which that message brings.