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Mary, the Coptic Maid, and her Son Ibrahim A.H. VIII. IX, A.D. 630, 631.

The Battle of Honein and Siege of Tayif

Ętat 61, 62.

Death of Zeinab, Mahomet's daughter

IN the ninth year of the Hegira, Mahomet lost his daughter Zeinab, who had never recovered the barbarous treatment which she had received from the Coreish, on her escape from Mecca. Omm Kolthum, the wife of Othman, had already died, so that of his daughters Fatima alone was left. But his heart was now solaced by the birth of another child.

Mary, the Coptic maid

I have before related that Muckouckas, the governor of Egypt, sent two Coptic maids, Shirin and Mary, as a gift to Mahomet.1 They were both comely, but it was not lawful, according to his own strict precept, for the Prophet to place two sisters in his harem. The beauty of Mary, whose fair complexion and delicate features were adorned by a profusion of black curling hair, fascinated the heart of Mahomet.2 So he kept Mary, and gave her

1 See above, p.56.

1K. Wackidi p.25. The hair was crisp, in the Coptic style.

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sister to another.1 Omin Salim, the wife of his servant Abu Rafi, was entrusted with the new charge.2 Mary was not at once placed in the harem at the Mosque, but a garden house was prepared for her in Upper Medina, where in the heat of the summer and the date harvest, she used to receive the visits of the Prophet.3

presents Mahomet with a son. Dzul Cada, A.H. VIII. April, A.D. 630.

A singular fortune elevated Mary to a dignity which the charms of her person alone could not have secured. Shortly after the return of her master from Jierrana, she gave birth to a son. Salma, who had long ago attended at the birth of Khadija's children, now performed the same office for Mary.4 And Omit Burda was selected

1 The later traditions on the subject I believe to be without foundation; e.g. Mahomet was so overcome with the beauty of both that he felt unable to decide which to keep, and so he prayed God to direct him, --- which was accordingly done, a divine intimation pointing out Mary as the favoured one, because she was the first to recite the creed. See Jour. Asiatique, No.16, Dec. 1856, p. 508.

2 The same that made ready Safia for Mahomet at Kheibar.

3 See Burton, ii. pp.142, 324. The place is shown to the present day. It lies in the quarter called Ambariya, on the S.E. side of the city, where the road to Yenbo and Mecca emerges; it is separated from the rest of the town by the stream and low intervening land. A Mosque called Masjid Mashrabat Onim Ibrahim (the drinking place of Mary) still marks the spot. At what period Mahomet provided this garden for her is not certain: possibly after the birth of Ibrahim, or on her becoming enceinte. Certainly it was an honour one would not have expected to be conferred on a slave girl without some special cause.

4 Vol. ii. 26.

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from amongst many candidates to be the infant's nurse. His name was called Ibrahim.1 More than five-and-twenty years had elapsed since the birth of Mahomet's last child, and his numerous marriages at Medina had given no promise of any progeny. His joy, therefore, at the birth of a son in his old age was very great. On the seventh day, following the example of Khadija, he sacrificed a kid; and, having shaved his head, he distributed silver among the poor to the weight of the hair, which then was buried.2 He used daily to visit the house of the nurse, (where according to, custom Ibrahim was brought up,) and. calling for the little child would embrace him in his arms and kiss him fondly.

Jealousy of Ayesha and Mahomet's other wives.

The wives of Mahomet were envious of Mary, who as the mother of Ibrahim was advanced beyond the position of a slave, and enjoyed peculiar other wives. favour.3 As the infant grew and throve, Mahomet

1 The name, I need hardly inform the reader, is the Arabian form for Abraham. Another tradition says that the child was given to be nursed by Omm Saif, wife of a blacksmith, who used to be blowing his forge when Mahomet came to see the child, and the house was consequently full of smoke. K. Wackidi 25 ½.

2 Ibid. The weight must have been trifling, as he had only shaved his head a month or six weeks before, at the lesser pilgrimage.

3 She became the "Omm al Walad" of Mahomet, which appellation is given, in Mahometan parlance, to the female slave who is fortunate enough to bear her master a child. She has certain privileges, cannot be sold, and obtains freedom at her lord's death. But I find no hint anywhere that by her becoming his Omm Walad,

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one day carried him to Ayesha, and with pride exclaimed. "Look, what a likeness his countenance shows to me!" "I cannot see any likeness," said Ayesha, who would gladly have put Mahomet out of conceit with the child. "What!" repeated Mahomet; "dost thou not see how closely be resembleth me, and how fair and fat he is ?" "Yes," she replied, "and any child that drank as much goats' milk would be like him, both fat and fair." A flock of goats was kept for the especial service of the child.1

But the jealousy of Mary's "sisters" showed itself in a more practical manner, and led to an incident in the Prophet's life surpassed in scandal only by his amour with Zeinab. The biographers pass over the scene in decent silence, and I should gladly have followed their example if the Coran itself had not accredited the facts, and stamped them with unavoidable notoriety.

An affair with Mary creates scandal in Mahomet's harem

It once happened that Haphsa paid a visit to her father on the day which, in due course, Mahomet was passing in her house.2 Returning unexpectedly,

Mahomet, according to the notions of the day (as M. C. de Perceval seems to hold) forfeited any of the privileges he berore possessed in regard to her person. M.C. de Perceval, v. iii. 268.

1 Another tradition makes Ayesha say,- "Any infant that drinks little camel's milk will be both fat and fair." I do not find in the early authorities that Mahomet was jealous of Mary or had any suspicion of her fidelity. Such traditions as those given at p. 509 of the No. of the Jour. Asiatique above quoted are not reliable, and need not be alluded to here.

2 Possibly Haphsa laid a trap for him. I have before explained how Mahomet used to divide his time among his wives.

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she surprised the Prophet in her own private room with Mary. She was indignant at the wrong. The affront was the mote intolerable from the servile position of her rival. She reproached her lord bitterly, and threatened to make the occurrence known to all his wives. Afraid of the exposure, and anxious to appease his offended wife, Mahomet begged of her to keep the matter quiet, and promised to forego the society of Mary altogether. Haphsa, however, did not care to keep the secret to herself. She told all to Ayesha, who equally boiled with indignation. The scandal spread apace over the harem, and Mahomet soon found himself received by his wives with coldness and with slight.

Mahomet's displeasure with his wives

As in the case of Zeinab, Mahomet produced a message from Heaven, which disallowed his promise of separation from Mary, chided Haphsa and wives. Ayesha for their insubordination, and hinted the possibility of all his wives being divorced for their demeanour, so disloyal towards himself. He then withdrew from their society altogether, and for a whole month lived alone with Mary. Omar and Abu Bakr were greatly mortified at the desertion of their daughters for a menial concubine, and grieved at the scandal of the whole proceeding. At length Mahomet, unwilling longer to continue the disgrace of

He would say, "This" (i.e. living in rotation with each) "I have power to do: but thou, O Lord, art the master over that in respect of which I have no power" (meaning love in the heart). K. Wackidi, 147 ½.

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his wives, or impatient at his self-imposed seclusion from them, listened to their prayer. Gabriel, he said, had spoken in praise of Haphsa, the chief offender, and desired him to take her back again. Accordingly, he pardoned them all and returned to their apartments as before.

Notice of the affair in the Coran

The narrative may well be left without comment. I will only draw attention to the strange fact that this exhibition of frailty and petulance, supported as it was asserted to be by the direct interposition of the Almighty, did not in any perceptible degree affect either the reputation and influence of the Prophet, or the credit and character of the pretended divine revelation, among his followers. The passage in the Coran relating to the affair is as follows : -

"O Prophet! Why hast thou forbidden thyself that which God hath made lawful unto thee,1 out or desire to please thy wives; for God is forgiving and merciful?"
"Verily God hath sanctioned the revocation of your oaths; 2 and God is your Master. He is knowing and wise."
"The Prophet had entrusted as a secret to one of his wives a certain affair; and when she disclosed it (to another3) and God made known the same unto him, he acquainted (her) with a part thereof, and withheld a part.4 And when he had acquainted

1 Meaning the company of his female slave.

2 Alluding to the previous revelation on the subject, permitting the retractation of oaths, subject to a certain expiation. See Sura, v.98.

3 i.e. when Haphsa disclosed it to Ayesha.

4 The passage is enigmatical. It probably is impossible (and certainly it is of no great consequence) to fix the precise signification. The meaning is apparently this:--- He told a part,- that is a part of what he pretended he had supernaturally learned, that Haphsa had said to Ayesha ; and withheld a part i.e. refrained from upbraiding

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her1 therewith, she said, Who told thee this? He replied, He told it to me, the Knowing and the Wise.
"If ye both turn with repentance unto God (for verily the hearts of you both have swerved) — Well. But if ye combine with each other against him, surely God is his Master; and Gabriel and (every) good man of the Believers, and the Angels, will thereafter be his supporters.
"Haply, his Lord, if he divorce you,2 will give him in your stead Wives better than ye are, submissive unto God, believers, pious, repentant, devout, fasting; — both Women married previously, and Virgins."3

braiding her with a part of what he had thus learned ---the one part perhaps relating to Mahomet's misdemeanor in Haphsa's room; the other, to his promise that he would not consort with Mary again. According to another tradition, Mahomet, with the view of appeasing Haphsa, told her that Abu Bakr, and after him her father Omar, were to succeed him; this being the part which, from fear of its getting abroad, he did not mention; but such an interpretation is altogether unlikely.

The tradition, which makes the oath or promise to have been to the effect that he would not again partake of a species of strong-scented honey disliked by his wives, is childish and unsupported. The version given in the text is accredited by Jelalood deen, Yahia, Beidhawi, Zamakahari, &c., though the two latter add the other story also. See the Notes of the Commentators quoted by Maracci in loco; and also Weils note, p.276.
The secret (if conjectures might be hazarded) may have been in connection with the child Ibrahim, perhaps that Omar and Abu Bakr were to be its guardians.

1 i.e. Haphsa.

2 "You," here in the plural, not as before in the dual number, - implying that all his wives were involved in his displeasure.

3 Sura, lxvi. vv. 1-5. The Sura is a short one of only thirteen verses. After the passage quoted, there follow admonitions to obedience and repentance, addressed to Believers generally, with references to Heaven and hell. The Sura closes with a pregnant allusion to two wicked women, wino, although the wives of two good men, Noah and Lot, were yet condemned to hell-fire, --

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Sickness of Ibrahim

I turn gladly to a more edifying aud inviting scene. A year and more had passed; and the child Ibrahim was now advanced to an age at which the innocent prattle and winning ways of infancy stoic upon the fond heart of Mahomet. His hopes and his affections centred for a while in his little son. There is, indeed, no ground for holding that Mahomet ever contemplated the building up of a kingdom to be perpetuated in his own family. The prophetical office was purely personal, and his political authority was exercised solely in virtue of that office. But he regarded his children with a loving and partial eye; and no doubt rejoiced in the prospect, dear to every Arab, of having his name and memory perpetuated by male issue; and he might also naturally expect that his son would be cherished and honoured by all the followers of Islam. But his expectations, of whatever nature, were doomed to be prematurely blighted. When aged but fifteen or sixteen months,1 Ibrahim fell sick, and it was soon) apparent that he would not survive. The child lay in a palm grove near the house of his nurse.

signifying that his own wives, unless they repented, might possibly find themselves in the same category; and to two good women, the wife of the tyrant Pharaoh, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, examples propounded for their imitation.

1 Two traditions, given by the Secretary, make Ibrahim to die sixteen months old: another fixes the date at the 10th of the 1st Rabi, which would make him only fifteen months. A fourth tradition says that he was eighteen months. K. Wackidi, 26, 27.

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His death 1st or 2nd Rabi, A.H. X. June or July A.D. 631.

There his mother Mary, with her sister Shirin, His tended his dying bed. And there too was Mahomet in deep and bitter grief. Seeing that the child was soon to breathe his last, he took him up in his arms and sobbed aloud. The bystanders tried to comfort him. They reminded him of his exhortations to others that they should not wail. "Nay," said Mahomet, calming himself by an effort as he hung over the expiring infant:- "it is not this that I forbade, but loud wailing and false laudation of the dead. This that ye see in me is but the working of pity in the heart: he that sheweth no pity, unto him shall no pity be shewn. We grieve for the child; the eye runneth down with tears, and the heart swelleth inwardly: yet we say not aught that would offend our Lord. Ibrahim! O Ibrahim! if it were not that the promise is faithful, and the hope of resurrection sure,- if it were not that this is the way to be trodden by all, and the last of us shall join the first, I would grieve for thee with a grief deeper even than this!" But the spirit had already passed away, and the last fond words of Mahomet fell on ears that could no longer hear them. So he laid down the infant's body, saying,- "The remainder of the days of his nursing shall be fulfilled in Paradise."1 Then he comforted Mary

Ibn Coteiba makes him twenty months and eight days, at his death.

1 Mahomet held two years to be the proper period for suckling a child. See Sura, ii. 234.

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and Shirin, and bade them, now that the child was gone, to be silent and resigned.

Burial of the child

Mahomet, with his uncle Abbas, sat by while Fadhl, the son of the latter, washed and laid out the body. It was then carried forth upon a little bier. The Prophet prayed according to his usual practice over it, and then followed the procession to the grave-yard. He lingered over the grave after it was filled up; and calling for a skin of water, caused it to be sprinkled upon the spot. Then observing some unevenness, he smoothed it over with his hand, saying to the bystanders,1 -- "When ye do this thing, do it carefully, for it giveth ease to the afflicted heart. It cannot injure the dead, neither can it profit him: but it giveth comfort to the living."


An eclipse of the sun occurred on the same day, and the people spoke of it as a tribute to the death of the Prophet's son. A vulgar impostor would have accepted and confirmed the delusion; but Mahomet rejected the idea. "The sun and the moon," he taught them, "are amongst the signs appointed by the Lord. They are not eclipsed on the death of any one. Whensoever ye see an eclipse, then be take yourselves to prayer, until it passeth away."

The nurse rewarded

In gratitude for the services of Omm Burda, the

1 Another tradition makes this to be addressed to the grave- digger, to whom he gave a clod, and desired him to close up a chink in the earth over the tomb. K. Wackidi, 26 ½. The traditions describe very minutely the site of the grave.

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nurse of his little boy, he presented her with a piece of ground planted as an orchard of palm trees.

General history anticipated

In this chapter 1 have anticipated the march of political events by about a year, in order to bring under one view the circumstances connected with Mary the Copt.

The Life of Mahomet, Volume IV [Table of Contents]