"The Aqaba Conspiracy"… The Most Controversial Assassination Attempt on the Prophet

Tuesday 19 January 202104:16 pm
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"مؤامرة العقبة"... المحاولة الأكثر جدلاً لقتل الرسول

Despite having been the target of several murder plots throughout his 61 years of life, Prophet Mohammad’s most significant, and perhaps most controversial blotched assassination attempt remains the one executed in Aqaba in the year 9 AH.

The most intriguing aspect of the Aqaba conspiracy is that it was perpetrated by a group of the Prophet’s Companions and comrades during the Expedition of Tabuk. The incident sparked much debate around the integrity of the Prophet’s Companions and the power shifts happening in the political milieu of Medina during the final years of the Prophet’s life – both subjects that the Sunni and Shia schools of thought will continue to explore and exhume for centuries to come.

The Incident According to Historical Sources

The Aqaba assassination plot was mentioned in several Islamic history books including ‘Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal’ (d. 241 AH/855 AD), ‘Sahih Muslim ibn al-Hajja’j (d. 261 AH), the ‘History of the Prophets and Kings’ by ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 31 AH), and ‘The Complete History’ by Ali ibn al-Athir (d. 630 AH).

According to these sources, the Prophet set out to fight the Byzantine empire and its Arab allies north of the Arabian Peninsula in the Expedition of Tabuk on the 9th year AH. He marched to Tabuk with a large army of an estimated 30,000 fighters, but the Byzantine army and its allies had already dispersed. After making alliances with local tribesmen and chiefs from the area, the Prophet turned back to Medina.

The sources report that the Muslims came across a wide valley near a narrow mountain pass upon reaching the place called Aqaba on the Tabuk-Medina road. The Prophet ordered his army to march through the valley, while he took the narrow Aqaba route with Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman and Ammar ibn Yasir.

According to the sources, the Prophet sent a message to his army stating, “The Messenger of Allah wishes to take the Aqaba Road. Do not use it and walk the valley instead. It is easier and wider for you.” And so, it was. As the Prophet passed through the Aqaba, 12 men from the army conspired to kill him. Masked, they decided to climb the top of the Aqaba and throw rocks at the convoy till it slips and falls off the mountain.

The sources concur that the Prophet was warned of the conspiracy by Gabriel. Upon the plotters’ approach, sources say, Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman struck their horses with a stick, causing the conspirators to flee out of fear of getting exposed.

The story states that the Prophet then told Hudhayfah the names of the men, and that they were hypocrites that put on the mask of faith while hiding heresy and impiety. When Hudhayfah asks why the men were left alive, the Prophet said, “I do not wish for people to talk and say that Mohammad laid his hand on his companions.”

The Sunni Approach… Hiding the Conspirators’ Names

Despite the significance of the Aqaba incident to the final years of Prophet Mohammad’s life, Sunni collective memory did not lend it much care nor attention – owing to the fact that opening room for discussion would question and probably weaken one of the most important pillars of the Sunni school of thought: the integrity of the Prophet’s companions.

Sunni scholarship was built on the premise of the integrity of all the Companions. Their conviction is based on Quranic verses like the one in Surat al-Fatih, {Muḥammad, the Apostle of Allah, and those who are with him are hard against the faithless and merciful amongst themselves. You see them bowing and prostrating [in worship], seeking Allah’s grace and [His] pleasure. Their mark is [visible] on their faces from the effect of prostration (48:29)} and in Sourat at-Tawbah, {The early vanguard of the Emigrants and the Helpers and those who followed them in virtue, — Allah is pleased with them and they are pleased with Him, and He has prepared for them gardens with streams running in them, to remain in them forever. That is the great success (9:100)}.

Imami Shiites quickly took advantage of the accounts of the Aqaba conspiracy, linking them to the names of the Sahabis who refused to support Ali Bin Abi Talib, and to those who stood against him and passed the caliphate to Abu Bakr on the Prophet's death

Additionally, they based their beliefs on hadiths like the one listed in ‘Sahih Bukhari’ and ‘Sahih Muslim’, which reports on the Prophet saying: “The best people are those of my generation (my compatriots), then those who follow them, and then whose who follow the latter,” or the one cited in other works that reads: “Do not revile my Companions; by Him in whose hand my soul resides, if one of you contributed the amount of gold equivalent to Uhud, it would not amount to the [good] of one of them, or half of it.”

Belief in the veracity of all the Prophet’s Companions was both popularized and well-received in the scholarly fields of the Sunnah and Jama’ah. To this extent, Abu Amr Ibn Ṣalaḥ al-Shahrazuri writes in the introduction of his book (d. 643 AH): “The Community (‘Ummah’) agrees unanimously on declaring all of the Companions to be upright. On the basis of consensus of those scholars taken into account in determining a consensus, the same is held to be true of those who were involved in discords (‘fitan’) on account of their high esteem and the glorious deeds which were set out for them. It would seem that Allah (He is praised and exalted) ordained the consensus on that, because they were the conveyors of the Holy Law (‘Shari’iah’).”

Belief in the integrity of all the Companions – who by some estimates reaches 114,000 men and women – are plainly contradicted by the Aqaba conspiracy. So, how does one reconcile utmost confidence in all the Prophet’s Companions when a group of them tried to carry out an assassination attempt on the Prophet himself?

To this extent, the overwhelming majority of Sunni resources chose to overlook the incident and not lend it the attention they gave other assassination attempts on the Prophet’s life. Such attempts include the ones plotted by Quraishi heathens, as was the case the night of the Prophet’s migration to Yathrib, and the ones perpetrated by the Jews, as was the story of the invasion of Banu Nadir that took place in year 4 AH/ 625 AD, or the story of the poisoned goat a Jewish woman gave the Prophet following the invasion of Khaybar in the year 7 AH/ 628 AD.

Yet, some recounts of the incident seem willing to investigate the names of the conspirators most historic sources seem content to cover up. For instance, in his book ‘The Muhallah’ (d. 456 AH), Ibn Hazm al-Zahiri criticizes an account credited to Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman by al-Walid ibn Jami’. Al-Zahiri writes, “As for Hudhayfah’s hadith, it is baseless, because it comes from al-Walid ibn Jami’, who is a mortal, and we find him unaware of the hadith’s origin. He made other claims of Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, Talha, and Sa’d ibn abi Waqqas wanting to kill the Prophet and throw him off the Aqaba in Tabuk. These are the planted and inserted lies where God condemns their source, and so, [the hadith] can be discredited.”

The main problem with the aforementioned hadith is that it is completely unheard of in the books of Sunni scholarship we have today. We do not know how it reached Ibn Hazm, even though it was probably found in hadith journals and was later omitted from Sunni scholarship following the fifth century AH for the appalling claim it made against five of the most esteemed and revered companions in Sunni consciousness and memory.

Despite the significance of the assassination attempt on the Prophet, Sunni collective memory doesn't lend it much attention – for opening the discussion would allow weaken the important pillars of Sunni thought: the veracity of the Prophet’s Companions

The second problem with the text concerns its narrator, al-Walid Ibn Jami’. Unlike Ibn Hazm who went out of his way to critique and question him, many scholars and specialists accredited al-Walid. All of al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, al-Tirmidhi, and al-Nasa’i cite him, as well as Shams ad-Din adh-Dhahabi in his book ‘Mizan al-Itidal’ (d. 748 AH) and Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani in his book ‘Al-Isabah fi tamyiz al Sahabah’ (d. 852 AH).

On the other hand, and to balance the scale of accusations, it is quite typical to find Sunni accounts that fault Ali ibn Abi Taleb for the assassination attempt, despite him being absent from the Tabuk Invasion and staying behind in Medina al-Munawwara as per the Prophet’s orders, so provided by al-Tabari.

For instance, in his book ‘Tahdhib al-Tahdhib’, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani mentions that one of the narrators known for his prejudice against Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, Hariz ibn Othman, claims that when the Prophet set out to ride his horse on the day of Aqaba, Ali Ibn Abi Taleb loosened his saddle so that the Prophet may fall to his death.

Shiite Interpretation… Blasting The Principle Of Veracious Companions

On the opposite end of the Sunnah and Jama’ah, the Imami Shiites (Twelvers) paid attention to stories of the Aqaba conspiracy. What aided their interest is their utter refusal of believing in the absolute veracity of the Companions, and their tendency to rid the Companions of saintliness by considering them to be regular people, not unlike those who came before or after them.

Imami Shiites back their convictions with Quranic verses that mention hypocrites and infiltrators in the ranks of the Prophet’s companions, as well as hadiths in which the Prophet states that some of his companions will be estranged from him in the Day of Judgement. Upon asking why, he will be answered: “Because you do not know what they have done after you,” in clear reference to the Companions’ unpredictability and/or disloyalty. This hadith is cited in the ‘musnad’ of Ahmad Ibn Hanbal.

It could be said that the cornerstone for determining the position of Imami Shiites on the Prophet’s Companions lies in the formers’ stance on the caliphate of Ali ibn Abi Talib, who they believe to have been next-in-line after the Prophet. Consequently, Imami Shiites fault the three caliphs who preceded Ali, in addition to blaming all the Companions who consented to or welcomed the decisions.

To this extent, Imami Shiites quickly took advantage of tales of the Aqaba conspiracy, linking the murder plot to the Companions who refused to support Ali Bin Abi Talib, and to those who stood against him and gave the caliphate to Abu Bakr following the Prophet’s death.

For instance, in his encyclopedic book ‘Bihar al-Anwar’ (d. 1111 AH/1700 AD), Mohammad-Baqer Majlesi mentions that the conspirators on the day of Aqaba did not carry out their plans until after the Prophet informed them of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s right to succession and their required support of it. Majlesi cites Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman saying, when asked, that the conspirators were 14 men – 9 from Quraysh and 5 elsewhere – and were Abu Bakr, Omar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, Talhah ibn Ubaydullah, Abd al-Rahman ibn 'Awf, Sa’d ibn abi Waqqas, Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, Muʿāwiya ibn Abī Sufyān, Amr ibn al-As, Abu Musa Ashaari, al-Mughira ibn Shu'ba al-Thaqafi, Aws ibn al-Hadthan al-Basri, Abu Hurairah, and Abu Talha al-Ansari.

Some Shiite narratives concerning the Aqaba incident take a miraculous and fantastic tone, including that in ‘Bihar al-Anwar’, which mentions lighting striking to reveal the conspirators’ hiding spot amongst the rocks, and also that in the interpretation cited to Imam Hasan al-Askari (d. 260 AH), who is the eleventh of the twelve imams Shiites believe in. According to that text, the Prophet had ordered Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman to ride ahead in order to identify the plotters in Aqaba. Hudhayfah feared for his life if the conspirators spotted him, to which the Prophet replied, “Once you reach Aqaba, head to the biggest rock next to the base and tell it: ‘The Messenger of God orders you to split for me so that I conceal myself within you. Then, he orders you to open a small hole for me to peer through at passersby, and for life (air) to find its way to me when I’m inside, so that I do not perish.’” According to the story, Hudhayfah – indeed – hid within the split rock and managed to see the conspirators without being seen or spotted.

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