The Death of Mohammed: A Scene From a Modern Play

by TAWFIQ EL-HAKIM

DRAMA as a recognized form of Arabic literature is of very recent introduction and cannot be said to have found as yet a popular place alongside the more traditional “readings” of poetry and stylized rhymed prose. But there have been in recent years a number of attempts to apply dramatic form as we know it in the West to the traditional subject matter of Arabic literature. The play Mohammed by the Egyptian novelist and short-story writer Tawfiq el-Hakim is one of the most interesting of these efforts. In it, el-Hakim has written very little; rather he has extracted the lines of the play from the text of the Hadith. This collection of “Traditions” was gathered in the centuries after Mohammed’s death, and is made up of the reported sayings and doings of the Prophet of Islam and his associates. Because of the semisacred nature of his material, el-Hakim could take few liberties; the words were there and he has tried not to add to them or alter them. Further, because the words were spoken thirteen hundred years ago they are at least as strange to the modern Arab ear as is King James Biblical English to the modern American. However — and it must be admitted that this cannot be translated — every word is steeped in emotional flavor and is evocative of a set of sentiments which are absorbed in the process of growing up in every Muslim family.

Islam has always been al once a religion, a state, and a code of conduct. The basis of all three is set out in the Koran. These “rides” reflected the society of Mohammed’s own times, and later, in changing circumstances, had to be augmented or reinterpreted. In this process close study was made of the way Mohammed himself had gone about things in his own life, and family traditions and even gossip and odd bits and pieces of information were memorized and eventually handed down to posterity.

The energy with which the life of the Prophet was mined can only be understood as the desperate attempt made by the whole community to produce a new Sunna (code of life) to replace the older, tribal codes undermined by Islam. Actions in new situations were thus justified by a sort of “legal fiction” based on some action or comment attributed to Mohammed. Thus, the Hadith has become canonized as a source of law and ethics second only to the Word of God, the Koran.

Needless to say, the action and the various characters of el-Hakim’s play are at least as well known to an Arab audience as stories of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles would be to an American audience. This, however, affects the modern Arab playwright differently from what one might suppose: rather than being the delight of the Islamic equivalent of a Sunday school, the play is ipso facto beyond the pale. The sacrosanct stature to which Mohammed was raised in the centuries after his death — in direct contradiction to Koranic instructions — makes performance of the play impossible. Indeed, a film intended to portray the Prophet in a most pious way was banned by the censors in Egypt, supposedly because an actor would have played the part of Mohammed.

The following (from the last act of the play) deals with the tremendous emotional stress brought by the death of Mohammed to his young and insecure community. Tradition indicates that in his life some of his followers had already ascribed to him superhuman attributes, despite his constant denial that, he was “more than a messenger.” Some seem to have assumed that he would live until he had converted the world to Islam or that his “death” would only be a cover for his rise to heaven, as the Koran explains the rise of Jesus. The portrayal of the bitter dispute over his death is surprisingly graphic; this strife was to be temporarily put aside by the trial rebellion which followed

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

AISHA:The favorite wife of the Prophet.

OMAR: Later to be Second Caliph (successor) to Mohammed.

ALI: Son-in-law, cousin, and Fourth Caliph of Mohammed.

ABBAS IBN ABDEL MUTTALIB: Uncle of Mohammed, formerly a strong enemy now a warm supporter; ancestor of the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad.

ABU BAKR: Father of Aisha, First Caliph, and Mohammed’s most trusted supporter.

MOHAMMED:The “Messengerof God (also called Ahmed, meaningmost praised”).

FATIMA: Daughter of Mohammed, wife of Ali, and ancestor of the Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt.

GABRIEL: The Angel who delivered the Koran to Mohammed.

THE ANGEL OF DEATH

BURAIRA: A woman of the household.

EL-MUGAIRA:One of Mohammed’s followers.

(THE SCENEis the house of Aisha. — The Prophet is on his deathbed, and his womenfolk are behind a curtain which hides them from his male relatives and companions.)

OMAR (enters and whispers to Ali and to Abbas): The people are asking how the Messenger of God is this morning.

ALI (whispering): He has entered upon the morning, thank God, much better.

ABBAS (looks at the face of the Prophet and whispers): I swear by God, I recognize death in the face of the Messenger of God, just as I have recognized it in the faces of my brothers.

ABU BAKR (touches the Prophet): O Messenger of God, truly you are weakened and are suffering very much.

MOHAMMED (in a weak voice): Yes. . . . I am suffering as much as two men like you can suffer.

ABU BAKR: You shall have double recompense.

MOHAMMED: Yes, by Him in whose hand is my soul, there is not a Muslim pained by sickness or any other distress who will not be unburdened, as the tree drops its leaves, of his sins by God. (The sound of yelling and crying is heard from the mosque, the place of prayer in Mohammed’s house.)

ABU BAKH(whispering to Ali): What is this noise in the mosque?

ALI (whispering): I fear that Abbas has gone out to tell the people!

MOHAMMED (points toward the curtain which separates the mosque from the living quarters): Who are those ?

ALI: The companions — the men and the women — are crying for you.

MOHAMMED: What makes them cry?

ALI (with a low hesitating voice): They fear that you will die. . . .

Mohammed’s death. When this was quelled or diverted, however, the conflict was to break out anew and to remain a constant; tension within Islam. Thus, in this scene, we can see the seeds of much of the subsequent history of Islam.

MOHAMMED (feverishly) : Pour on me the contents of seven cups of water from several wells, and bring me an ink pot that I may write for you a testament which will save you from going wrong.

OMAR (whispering to the men around him): Pain has overcome the Messenger of God. You have the Koran. And the Book of God suffices us.

ABU BAKR: Nay . . . draw nearer. Let the Messenger of God write for you.

ALI: No . . . what Omar says is right . . . (The argument grows more violent among the men.)

MOHAMMED (speaking impatiently to them): Get away from me. . . . Get away from me . . . !

ABU BAKR: We have become heavy on the Prophet in his suffering. . . . Let us go. (The men leave, and Aisha and the other women emerge from behind the screen.)

AISHA: O Messenger of God . . . you are anxious and vexed. . . . Had any one of us women behaved in such a way you would have been astounded at her.

MOHAMMED (musing to himself): Verily pain weighs heavily on the believer in order that he may be forgiven for his sins. (Fatima weeps, not understanding Mohammed’s words.) Don’t cry my child . . . but say that we are dedicated to God and to Him we are returning. To every person on earth, there is a compensation for every calamity.

FATIMA: And even you, O Messenger of God, must go through this?

MOHAMMED: Even I.

AISHA (to Fatima): He is exhausted from the fever.

MOHAMMED (starting up slightly in his bed): Aisha, what did you do with that gold?

AISHA: What gold?

MOHAMMED: The six dinars which I had.

AISHA: I have them.

MOHAMMED: Mohammed will not be worthy of his God if he meets Him with this gold in his possession . . . Spend it all on charity. . . . The Prophet must not be inherited.

AISHA: I shall spend them.

MOHAMMED: Please God, let me die poor . . . don’t let me die rich, and put me among the miserable. (He lies down as though to sleep.) Now I can rest.

AISHA(putting the head of the Prophet on her breast): O Messenger of God! I beg God for your recovery and for your good health!

MOHAMMED (fixing his eyes toward the skyas though soliloquizing): Nay! Pray for me to meet the Most Exalting of Friends.

AISHA(silent tears falling from her eyes): You were given the choice and you have chosen; this I know by the One Who sent you with the Truth.

MOHAMMED (in a barely audible voice): A cup of water. AISHA (to the women): Quickly! Bring me a cup of water. (They bring a cup.)

MOHAMMED (wets his hand and wipes his face): God help me against the anguish of death!

FATIMA: Oh, how pained you must be, Father!

MOHAMMED: Your father has no more pain after this day. . . . Draw near me, O Gabriel! Draw near, Gabriel. O Gabriel, come to me. (He sees Gabriel, who has come down to him.)

GABRIEL: O Ahmed, God has sent me to you as an honor to you, as a bounty to you, and uniquely to you, asking you about that which He knows better than you. He asks how you feel.

MOHAMMED (staring intently and speaking from the heart without anything being evident to those who stand around him): I find myself, O Gabriel, afflicted and grieved, O Gabriel.

GABRIEL (pointing to an angel standing behind him): O Ahmed, this is the Angel of Death who asks permission to enter unto you — and he has never asked permission from any of the sons of Adam before you nor will he ever from those after you.

MOHAMMED: I grant it to him.

THE ANGEL OF DEATH: O Messenger of God . . . O Ahmed! Verily God has sent me to you and has ordered me to obey you in anything that you bid me to do: if you order me to take your soul, I shall, or if you order me to leave it, I shall.

MOHAMMED: And you will really do what I tell you to, O Angel of Death?

ANGEL OF DEATH: Yes, because I was ordered to obey what you command.

GABRIEL: O Ahmed, verily God longs for you.

MOHAMMED: GO ahead, Angel of Death, and finish the task you were ordered to perform.

GABRIEL: Peace upon you, O Messenger of God! Today is the last time that I will descend to Earth. (The two angels rise, leaving Mohammed a still corpse.)

AISHA (notices the Prophet has become heavy on her breast,so she lays him down on the bed and covers his face with his mantle, crying shrilly): Come to me! Come to me!

THE WOMEN (seized with anguish and fear): What is it?

AISHA: O, my lost one! The Messenger of God has died! The Messenger of God has died! The Messenger of God has died!

FATIMA: Father . . . O, Father!

THE WOMEN: O, mourning!

FATIMA (sees the body and screams out): Father . . . Father . . . O, Father, whose abode is paradise. . . . O, Father, whom we commend to Gabriel. . . . O, Father, how close to his Lord is he!

AISHA (weeping and sobbing): The Messenger of God has died! Oh the pain of my heart! O, calamity! Now our link to God has been broken away from us!

BURAIRA (rushes into the room): Omar and Abbas and some men with them are requesting permission to enter to see the Prophet!

AISHA (to the women): Hide yourselves behind the curtain!

(The women hide themselves, weeping the while.)

OMAR (enters and hurries up to Mohammed, raising the cover from the Prophet’s face): O . . . he has fainted. And how deep is the faint of the Messenger of God! (One of the men, el-Mugaira, looks at the face of the Prophet.)

EL-MUGAIRA: O, Omar . . . By God! The Messenger of God is dead!

OMAR (furiously): Liar! The Messenger of God has not died . . . but you . . . you’re a man whom deception has trapped! The Messenger of God shall not die until the hypocrites are destroyed. (Abbas looks at the face of the Prophet but does not answer; then Omar, Abbas, and the men leave.)

THE PEOPLE (off stage): Is the Prophet dead? . . . Has the Prophet died?

OMAR (shouting off stage): O, you people ... I don’t want to hear anyone say that Mohammed has died. But he has only been summoned — just as Moses the son of Imran was summoned when he stayed apart from his people for forty nights. And, by God, I hope that any man who says that Mohammed has died will have his hands and feet cut off!

THE PEOPLE (off stage): Do not bury him. . . . He has not died!

A MAN (off stage): Verily the Messenger of God has been raised — just as Jesus the son of Mary arose, and he shall return!

ABBAS (off stage): Does anyone from among you have a statement from the Messenger of God about his death? If so, then tell us.

THE PEOPLE (off stage): No! We have no such statement.

ABBAS (off stage): And do you, Omar, have anything such as that ?

OMAR (off stage): No!

ABBAS (off stage): Witness then all of you that only a liar can now say that he has any sort of statement about his death after Mohammed’s death. And, by God!— who is None but the One God — the Prophet has surely tasted death and his body will surely decay, just as have those of all men. So bury your companion. Does God put one of you to death only once and put him to death twice? He is more precious to God than that. He did not die until he had made the “way” clear and manifest, had allowed the lawful and outlawed the forbidden, had married and divorced, made war and peace. . . . And no shepherd conducting his sheep to the mountaintops was more enduring or persevering than was the Messenger of God on your behalf.

THE WOMEN (behind the curtain): Did the Messenger of God die or has he not died?

FATIMA (comes out, draws near the body, and contemplates the face of the Prophet for a long time; then bursts out crying): The Messenger of God has died.

ABU BAKR (enters and rushes up to the body, raises the shroud from the still Prophet, and kisses him, crying): Would that I could exchange my father or mother for you. Blessed are you alive and dead. As for the death wh ich God decreed for you, you have tasted it. Now never again can a death strike you down. (He returns the cloak over the face of the Prophet and leaves.)

OMAR (off stage): O, you people! By God, the Messenger of God is not dead. ‘His sold has only ascended just as the soul of Moses ascended . . . !

ABU BAKR (off stage): Calm down, Omar, and listen!

OMAR (Continuing): And, by God, the Messenger of God will never die until certain people lose their hands and tongues!

ABU BAKR(off stage, calling out loudly): O, People . . . (He recites from the Koran.) “Mohammed is but a messenger, messengers the like of whom have passed away before him. Will it be that when he dieth or is slain, ye will turn back on your heels? He who turneth back doth no hurt to Allah, but Allah will reward the thankful.” And whosoever of you worships Mohammed, know that Mohammed is dead, but he who worships God, know that God is ever living and cannot die.

THE PEOPLE (off stage): The Prophet of God is dead!

Translation and introduction by William R. Polk