Thursday, November 8, 2012

Travels with the Pious: Ubaidah ibn Jarrah, the Trustworthy Companion

Tomb of Abu Ubaidah ibn Jarrah, Jordan.
Copyright Shafiq Morton
THE Jordan River Valley is the northernmost point of the Great African Rift Valley that stretches for over 1,000 kilometres from Kenya to the Arabian Peninsula. The Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea, one of the lowest places on earth.

Linked to the West Bank highlands and the Jordanian plateau by a series of wadis, it is one of mankind’s oldest agricultural hubs. Crops were first planted here nearly 10,000 years ago.

We’d driven down from Amman, and my driver, Salim, had taken us to visit a cousin of his where we’d been plied with bunches of juicy Jordanian grapes. In the summer heat, this had been a great relief.

Our destination was the burial site of Abu Ubaidah ibn Jarrah (ra), one of the ten Prophetic Companions promised Paradise by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Like so many Companions, he’d migrated to Sham – or greater Syria – after Muhammad’s (SAW) demise in 632 CE.

As a member of the Quraish tribe, Ibn Jarrah had embraced Islam in Makkah a day after Sayyidina Abu Bakr (ra), the Prophet’s closest confidante. He had taken him together with other illustrious Companions Abdurahman ibn ‘Awf, ‘Uthman ibn Madh’un and Ibn Arqam (ra) to meet the Prophet (SAW).

Depicted in traditions as being slim and striking of presence, but with a sparse beard, Ibn Jarrah was also described as being eloquent, yet shy in nature. He was dubbed as the “amin”, or trustworthy custodian, of the Muslim community.

The Prophet (SAW) himself praised Ibn Jarrah, saying that there were three persons (Abu Bakr, Uthman ibn ‘Affan and Ibn Jarrah) amongst the Quraish who had the best of character, and who were the most modest. If they spoke to you, he said, they would not deceive you.

As one of the earliest Prophetic Companions in Makkah, Ibn Jarrah lived through all the tribulations of the early years of Islam, hallmarked by Sumayah becoming the faith’s first martyr. And when the Muslims finally came to blows with their Makkan persecutors outside Madinah, the city of the Prophet’s migration, Ibn Jarrah had faced another test.

It’s related that at the Battle of Badr (where he’d been a fierce combatant), a Quraish warrior had relentlessly shadowed him. Curiously, Ibn Jarrah had done his best to avoid this person, but eventually, they’d been forced to confront each other.

Lifting their heavy swords, Ibn Jarrah had been the first to strike – and after a hefty blow – his opponent’s head had toppled to the ground. It belonged to his father, ‘Abdullah. Qur’anic scholars say that the verses of Surat ul-Mujadilah, in which it is said that the party of God would be successful, were revealed after this incident.

An indication of the Prophet’s (SAW) regard for Ibn Jarrah was him being sent as an arbiter between Christian tribesmen, and then, as the leader of the Expedition of the Fish in 629 CE. On this mission, the Prophet (SAW) had sent Ibn Jarrah with 300 men to waylay a coastal Makkan caravan.

After their rations had diminished to one date a day, the starving expedition had found a whale carcass. This incident is mentioned in Sahih Bukhari, and it’s recorded that the whale fed the Muslims for 18 days. Bukhari and Muslim both report that Ibn Jarrah made an archway of the whale’s ribs, and that his tallest soldier was able to ride under them on his biggest camel.

But Ibn Jarrah’s greatest moment, by far, was his defence of the Prophet (SAW) at the Battle of Uhud, which took place in 625 CE on the outskirts of Madinah. The battle had turned against the Muslims and the Prophet (SAW) had come under attack. Ubaidah ibn Jarrah had been one of the Companions defending him.

When Ibn Qami’ah from the Quraish struck the Prophet (SAW) with his sword, Talha had jumped in its path and deflected the blow, but two rings of the Prophet’s (SAW) helmet had become embedded in his cheek. Ibn Jarrah had immediately torn out the rings with his teeth, losing two as he did so.

In later years Ibn Jarrah became the leader of the Muslims in Sham, conquering many territories until the River Euphrates. It was at this stage that a plague devastated the region, causing thousands of Companions to die.

The Caliph, Sayyidina ‘Umar, sent an urgent message to Ibn Jarrah. He ordered him to leave the region immediately. The Islamic realm could not afford to lose a man of his calibre. Ibn Jarrah’s reply was firm, but apologetic. He had no desire to divorce himself from what was afflicting his men, and could not leave them.

When Sayyidina ‘Umar received Ibn Jarrah’s reply, his eyes had filled with tears, and he’d informed his court that Ibn Jarrah was near to death.

On his deathbed in the Jordan Valley, Ibn Jarrah passed his mantle on to Mu’adh ibn Jabal (ra), telling his men to observe the pillars of Islam, to remain united, to be true to their commanders and to not be seduced by the material world. Having done so, one of Islam’s greatest sons passed on.

Today Ibn Jarrah (ra) is honoured by a simple, domed mosque framed by palm trees, greenhouses and rolling hills. Renovated in the 1990’s, the tomb is an elegant blend of simple limestone, wood,  green metalwork, gold fittings and veined marble.

The mausoleum and mosque complex are fronted by a garden. To the right is the tomb, and to the left a cool, but spacious prayer room. Here, modernity blends ever so subtlely with the old. There’s none of the chintzy crassness of the Gulf, or the polytheistic paranoia of Saudi Arabia.

As I entered the cool interior I could feel a peace, a sacred tranquillity, which seemed to permeate the pores of my skin. I thought: how could anybody ever demean the honour of standing in the spiritual presence of the blessed Prophet’s most Noble Companions?

In the Jordan Valley I was not merely standing before an Arab called Abu Ubaidah ibn Jarrah. No,  I was standing before a son of Paradise. This was a person who’d not only touched the perfumed hands of the Prophet (SAW), the most blessed of Creation, but who’d risked his life to defend him at one of the most critical junctures in human history.
 
Also see the next issue of Muslim Views, Cape Town.