written by Mateen A. Khan, Piscataway, NJ
A version of this article was first published in Al-Madania Magazine.
Chapter 2: The Formative Years – Childhood
Barakah found herself dripping tears as she hovered over a hunched and broken child. The sky and the universe above it weighed down upon them, the world constrained and suffocating. The area in which she stood was devoid of life much like their hearts felt. A dry wind blew around a well and over a mound of dirt. It covered the grave of Āminah.
The Foster Family
Six years earlier, a small group was traversing the expansive desert. The dry heat ripped moisture from their faces and sand particles nestled into crevices. The weak cry of children rumbled with the wind. They found little to drink from their mothers, and their embrace only gave so much comfort in the face of their hunger. Among them was a family of three – husband, wife, and a suckling infant. Their days marked by incapacitating thirst and their nights by the sleeplessness of stomach pangs. With no other option, they trekked on with only an emaciated donkey and a dry camel. Like a stray comet traversing through the solar system, they headed towards the center of Makkah. Ḥalīmah, her husband al-Ḥārith, their child Maṣrūḥ, and others from the Banu Sa`d tribe were making an annual trip to collect some of the town’s children with whom they would return into the sandy void.
Meanwhile in Makkah, the orphaned newborn Muhammad ﷺ found himself the focal point of his mother Āminah and his now nurse mother Barakah. Like the sun to its planets, they intently surrounded and attended to him. Joining in this inner orbit was his guardian and grandfather Abdul Muṭṭalib. Despite being without a father’s patronage and born into relative poverty, he was rich in loving attention.
However, age-old customs meant he would soon be separated from them. The town’s people having realized long ago the harms of city-life, sent their infants into the purity of the desert. The desert, it seems, not only stripped away water, but also pollution, plagues, and immorality. It strengthened young bodies and purified minds. The Arabs, ever proud of their language, knew Bedouin life preserved it and were keen on the tongue being accustomed to it from birth. So, every year their infants would go out to live for a time with paid, foster parents and Muhammad ﷺ would be no different. Although it meant separation from their Sun, they were willing to sacrifice for him. Love both pulls and pushes away.
Ḥalīmah arrived along with the other potential foster mothers and sought out her child. They darted from house to house looking for a nursing infant. However, each one of them, blinded by financial needs, overlooked the newborn in favor of one with a father who could guarantee proper compensation. After each child was paired with her foster child, Ḥalīmah remained without a match and the newborn Muhammad ﷺ, too. Not wanting to remain empty-handed and having abandoned hope for financial benefit, she returned to the house of Abdul Muṭṭalib seeking her destiny. She immediately fell in love with this child. Like his mother, she found miraculous ease accompanied him. She was able to produce milk sufficient for him and her son. The donkey became invigorated and strong. The camel became enlivened and produced plentiful milk for the family. “Wait for us. Is this the same animal you brought with you?” the others asked. When once they lagged the caravan, they now raced ahead of it. Ḥalīmah exclaimed, “By Allah! I am carrying a blessed boy upon it.” After returning home with him, their grazing land grew lush, and their sheep became plush. The now family of four found their days serene and their nights restful. The child was a cool sight for the dry, injected eyes of Banu Sa`d. They had never beheld another child like him.
The child remained with his foster family for two years which marked the time of his return. They did not wish to detach from him or relinquish the goodness they came to enjoy. Their hearts mourned, “By Allah! We will never part from him while we can!” Wanting greatness for him, his foster sister, Shaymā’ composed a sincere supplication:
Our Lord, keep us in Muhammad’s ﷺ presence
Until I see him mature to adolescence
Then, into one who is a chosen leader
Crush his enemies and enviers together
And grant him honor lasting forever
Indeed, Allah ta`āla would answer her sincere supplication in full. She would meet him much later in their lives when she would accept Islam. The entirety of Banu Sa`d, too, would find freedom in this world and the next from these couple years spent together.
For the time being, duty bound, they brought him back to his mother. As it happens however, a plague broke out in Makkah around that time. Ḥalīmah capitalized on the events and urged Āminah to return the child with them for a time. “We fear he may be afflicted by the Makkan plague. Let him return until you are free of your disease.” Having finally been reunited with her beloved son, she reluctantly agreed to a second separation.
Now old enough to walk and by all accounts larger and stronger than his age would suggest, he began to go out with his foster siblings into the grazing fields. Then, one day, his foster brother came running to Ḥalīmah and her husband and breathlessly said, “Two men wearing white tunics seized my Qurayshi brother! They laid him down and slashed open his chest!” Horrified, his foster parents tore across the fields and found Muhammad ﷺ standing alone, pale in color. They pulled him close crying over the trust placed in their care. He described the same events his foster brother mentioned and added that the two beings removed his heart and cleansed it of a clot. The clot was the physical representation of any Shayṭānī component found within men. Having been freed of it, his heart was returned, and his chest closed with a seal to protect it. Fearing the events that just occurred and the breaking of their trust, Ḥalīmah brought the child back to Āminah. For her part, Āminah remained calm having witnessed signs prior which allayed her fears and convinced her son had a great purpose ahead of him. This was a child who Allah Himself will look over.
A Mother’s Loss
Our Prophet ﷺ found himself back in the endearing embrace of his family. Two years later, Āminah, her son ﷺ, and Barakah had been visiting his maternal homeland and burial place of his father, who they had lost before his birth. His child was now six years old and more self-sufficient. Though, he still had much nurturing and education ahead. The reminder of Abdullah’s death must have brought renewed pain to his family; a wife having lost her companion, a servant her sponsor, and a child his parent. They found comfort in one another and began their journey back to Makkah.
During their return, Āminah fell ill and was taken by her Rabb in a place called al-Abwā. Like her husband before, she had fulfilled her purpose in life. Now that their son ﷺ was old enough to be physically independent from his mother, his Rabb would take sole responsibility for his rearing. As she had been by Abdullah and then by Āminah, Barakah stood by our Prophet ﷺ. With a composure that would serve her through their lives, she delivered the now completely parentless child back to his grandfather.
Back in Makkah, Abdul Muṭṭalib received his grandson with great grief. Henceforth, the child remained mostly by his side, a familiar fixture on his sitting mat during tribal gatherings. He would openly exclaim his affection for him, and his actions never betrayed his words. Once after having been separated longer than expected for an errand, Abdul Muṭṭalib anxiously paced around the Ka`bah pleading Allah ta`āla for his safety. Upon his grandson’s return, his heart spoke, “My child, I felt a grief over your separation, as a mother feels, that will never leave me.” From that day forth, he did not allow any separation of length. However, two years after his mother’s death, the skies again grew dark. The child ﷺ was to be separated once more from a beloved caretaker. For a grandfather is akin to a father in love and care. With his passing, he was orphaned once more.
As the bier of Abdul Muṭṭalib was carried to its resting place, the eight-year-old child could be seen following it in tears. The sun set on the dusty town and a similar sight was beheld: a female of dark complexion contrasted by the white of her charge. Barakah quietly walked back with her foster son from yet another burial.