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March 2007
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Apparent Superiority is Temporary

A Bedouin came one day riding a young camel and it outstripped the Prophet’s (Pbuh) she-camel, Al-Adba. Some of the Prophet’s companions were genuinely sorry to see that. The Prophet asked them what was wrong.

They said: Al-Adba has been outpaced. The Prophet said: “It is a rule God has

operated that nothing would rise high in this present life without being subsequently brought low”. (Related by Abu Al-Shaykh and Ibn Saad).

The Prophet (peace be upon him) was the most forbearing person. He never replied to remarks that might have been made casually, even though he knew that the person making such remarks actually meant to upset or irritate him. Indeed he would go out of his way to win the hearts of people, even though they may be unwilling to listen to him. He considered that his task, because as the messenger of God he was required to do his utmost to make his message known to people. Some people did not like his message and some felt aggrieved that he should have had this honorable position with God, thinking that they had a better claim to such an honour. Some of these tried hard to upset him or to make him lose his focus on his task.

One such person was Abdullah ibn Ubayy, who is known in the history of the period as the chief hypocrite. He found himself in a difficult position. Shortly before Islam made its presence in Madinah, he was about to be made king there. However, the emergence of Islam and the warm reception it received from the people of Madinah meant that he was to lose this position before it was given to him. He felt as if the Prophet’s arrival in Madinah deprived him of a kingdom.

Some Hadiths are entered in Hadith anthologies in more than one section, and at times they appear in sections which are not particularly relevant to their main theme. This happens because they include some remark that fits with the section. Thus, in the section concerned with the Prophet’s riding of animals, we read the following Hadith that mentions how Abdullah ibn Ubayy was not slow to make an offensive remark to the Prophet. Anas reports: “It was suggested to the Prophet (peace be upon him) that he should visit Abdullah ibn Ubayy. The Prophet went to see him, riding a donkey, and a number of Muslims went out with him, walking through an area with bad smell. When the Prophet was with him, he said to the Prophet: ‘Stay at a distance. By God, your donkey’s smell is terrible.’ A man from the Ansar said to Abdullah: ‘By God! The stinking of the Prophet’s donkey is more pleasant than your smell.’” (Related by Ahmad, Al-Bukhari and Muslim).

This incident must have taken place in the early period after the Prophet’s arrival in Madinah. At the time, the Muslims’ position still needed consolidation. There were other groupings, including the Jewish tribes, the idolater Arabs and those like Abdullah who pretended to be Muslims when in fact they were not. Some of the Ansar thought that Abdullah ibn Ubayy genuinely adopted Islam, and they felt that the man needed reassurance about his position. They wanted him to be close to the Prophet and to be treated as one of his advisers. The Prophet would not hesitate to include him in his close circle, had Abdullah been a genuine Muslim. The Prophet accepted all people as equal. Those who were exceptionally devoted to the cause of Islam soon distinguished themselves by their deeds. By contrast, Abdullah ibn Ubayy distingui-shed himself by his rancor, always trying to detract from the Prophet’s position and under-mine his cause. Here we see him making this very offensive remark about the smell of the Prophet’s donkey, which was unavoidable since the road to Abdullah’s place passed through an area with a stinking smell. The Prophet sought to give him a position of respect, visiting him in his own place, but he was so unkind to his guest. This was felt by the people present. Hence, it is not surprising that one of them would retaliate telling Abdullah that the stinking donkey smelt more pleasantly than he did.

Subsequent attitudes by Abdullah ibn Ubayy on different occasions confirmed that the man was far from being a true believer. He was to be known in the history of Islam as the chief hypocrite.

The Prophet used all types of riding animals: Donkey, mule, horse and camel. He liked the ones that were strong and healthy. Anas reports: “The Prophet had a she-camel called Al-Adba’, and it was never outpaced. A Bedouin came one day riding a young camel and it outstripped the Prophet’s she-camel. Some of the Prophet’s companions were genuinely sorry to see that. The Prophet asked them what was wrong. They said: Al-Adba has been outpaced. The Prophet said: “It is a rule God has operated that nothing would rise high in this present life without being subsequently brought low.” (Related by Abu Al-Shaykh and Ibn Saad).

This Hadith highlights two points: The first is the one stated by the Prophet that nothing lasts in this present world. Whatever rises high is sure to come low. We look at anything in life and we find that this is absolutely true. Champions in any sport realize that they can reign for a short period, may be a few months or a few years, but they will soon be outstripped by newcomers who will take their crown away from them. Politicians of all types may rise and rule, through democratic or despotic processes, but they will then be eclipsed by others who will replace them by fair or foul means. Scientists, artists and literary figures may achieve great fame, but their contribution will be improved upon. This is all due to the fact that perfection cannot be achieved in this life. Excellence, on the other hand, is relative. What is superior in a certain period may be ordinary in a subsequent period. The Prophet used this small incident of his she-camel being outpaced by a younger camel to emphasize this fact to his companions and followers in subsequent generations, so that they would not attach too much importance to apparent superiority. It is all temporary.

The second point is the genuine love the Prophet’s companions felt towards him, which manifested itself in a great variety of ways. Here we see a small example of their love. They feel really sorry that his she-camel was outpaced. They wanted only what is best for him in everything. Hence, when an indication that his she-camel was no longer ranking top in its class, they felt so sorry that it appeared on their faces. Hence the Prophet asked them the reason for their sorrow. This could only be motivated by genuine love.