The story of Muh.ammad’s clairvoyant knowledge of H. a-t.ib’s letter to the Quraysh is approached by al-T.abarı-and Ibn Kathı-r in a number of diﬀerent ways. The manner in which the story is presented in the sı-ra is controlled by al-T.abarı-through his inclusion of only one report, from Ibn Ish. a-q, that details H. a-t.ib’s letter warning the Quraysh of Muh. ammad’s impending attack. Muh.ammad receives news of the letter “from heaven” and is able to send ʿAlı-
and al-Zubayr b. al-ʿAwwa-m after the woman who serves as H. a-t.ib’s messenger. She produces the letter after ʿAlı-threatens to strip-search her, and the fact that it is, indeed, H. a-t.ib’s letter conﬁrms the supernatural origin of Muh.ammad’s knowledge. ʿUmar requests permission to kill the man, but Muh.ammad speculates on the possibility that God has forgiven the veterans of Badr for any future sins they might commit, and this speculation – indicating that Muh.ammad is leaning toward forgiveness – is countered by the revelation of Qurʾa-n 60:1-4, in which believers are warned against friendly relations with unbelievers, and the Prophet Abraham is criticized for agreeing to pray for his polytheistic father. Ibn Kathı-r’s sı-ra account is less strictly controlled than that of al-T.abarı-, as he includes three reports, but also includes information regarding the text of H. a-t.ib’s letter and the authoritativeness of the reports he relates. And yet, he too controls the way the story is portrayed by relating Ibn Ish. a-q’s version of events ﬁrst, despite this report’s mursal status. The reports that follow are taken either from al-Bukha-rı-’s S. ah. ı-h. or Ah.mad b. H. anbal’s Musnad, but relate the story in such a way as to present a variety of possibilities regarding the role of its characters and the importance of the warning from God. The control by both authors is continued in their works of tafsı-r, in which
they provide introductory comments that help inform the reader how to interpret the reports they include. Al-T.abarı-’s introduction is somewhat vague, linking this story to others that relate the supernatural to Muh.ammad’s companions, and provides a direct statement supporting the connection between this story and the revelation of Qurʾa-n 60:1. However, the reports that follow vary in the number of Qurʾa-n verses connected to this event, and this variation changes the story from one of divine condemnation of Muh.ammad’s forgiving nature to one of divine support for forgiveness of
one’s enemies. Although not stated outright, the structure of al-T.abarı-’s account in the Tafsı-r indicates that he favored forgiveness over vengeance. Ibn Kathı-r’s introduction is very speciﬁc and includes details not found elsewhere in any of the works examined here, thus revealing that he was not above including his own interpretation of the story regardless of whether or not his version is supported by the evidence he presents. Although his reports, too, vary the numbers of verses associated with this event, none of them extend the revelation to include the verses on forgiveness, so Ibn Kathı-r must support this idea more directly through his introductory comments, in which he speciﬁcally states that H. a-t.ib approved of Muh.ammad’s decision to take Mecca, indicating that he was, as he would later claim, still a good Muslim. Not all of the reports related by either author, however, indicate that the ﬁrst few verses of Su-rat al-Mumtah. ina were originally thought to be connected to this event, and both al-T.abarı-and Ibn Kathı-r include reports that suggest the verses were a later addition to the reports themselves, signifying that the story of H. a-t.ib’s letter was not originally a sabab al-nuzu-l, but was – at some point – made into one by its transmitters. In addition, the timing of the event is called into question by a report related by al-T.abarı-that states H. a-t.ib sent his letter two years earlier than the conquest of Mecca, at the time of al-H. udaybiya. While I am not here concerned with the actual timing of events, the accounts of both al-T.abarı-and Ibn Kathı-r support the idea that early Muslim scholars at one time connected H. a-t.ib’s story to al-H. udaybiya, but that later scholars changed the timing of the event to the conquest of Mecca. The importance of this shift in chronology is connected to the role of the supernatural in this story. If God warned Muh.ammad about H. a-t.ib’s letter and Muh. ammad was able to act to intercept it, but was still unable to enter Mecca, instead having to negotiate with the polytheists at al-H. udaybiya, then God’s warning is made irrelevant and Muh.ammad’s failure becomes God’s failure. And so, the reports had to be moved in the timeline of events to relate, instead, to the successful venture of Muh.ammad’s ﬁnal conquest of Mecca to rehabilitate God’s miracle and to once again make the sharing of God’s knowledge with His prophet a sign of his success and the ultimate superiority of his religious message. Later scholars such as al-T.abarı-and Ibn Kathı-r had to deal with the remnants of this shift and each of these men deals with the problematic reports in ways that reﬂect the level of control they exercised over their works. A comparison of the way in which this story is treated in the sı-ra and tafsı-r
works of al-T.abarı-and Ibn Kathı-r reveals that each author supported the role of the supernatural in this story – that Muh. ammad received his warning from God rather than from a human source. However, each author indicates his support for this interpretation of the story through diﬀerent means depending upon the genre within which he works. While al-T.abarı-’s support does not seem out of keeping with his overall approach, Ibn Kathı-r’s treatment of events reveals that he does not completely comply with his teacher’s program of reform, depending instead upon reports that he admits are not authoritative in order to put forward his own interpretation of events. Al-T.abarı-
controls the perception of his readers in his sı-ra account by presenting only the report from Ibn Ish. a-q that speciﬁcally states that Muh. ammad received his warning “from heaven,” but in his Tafsı-r, he relies far more heavily on a combination of his – admittedly vague – introductory comments and the reports he relates. Ibn Kathı-r begins his sı-ra account of this event with the same report from Ibn Ish. a-q, which he admits is mursal, but allows this interpretation to color his readers’ perception of the more authoritative, but far more vague, reports that follow. Ibn Kathı-r, in his Tafsı-r, uses very speciﬁc introductory comments to encourage his readers to interpret his reports in such a way that supports the role of the supernatural in this story far more than the wording of the reports themselves. For Ibn Kathı-r, then, the proper interpretation of the story is more important than the method used to obtain it, and so he is willing to place admittedly less-than-authoritative reports in pivotal places in his works and is willing to allow his own views to take precedence over the authoritative reports that he claims to favor.