Excerpt from The Savage

Excerpt from The Savage

She came to him with hate as her gift. Her eyes blinked seldom and her thought - for she had only one thought - dominated her breathing, which came and went slowly through her nose while her jaw clenched. That single thought of revenge had swollen from annoying occasional ponderings to a constant raging madness during the six years since she lost her father, brother and uncle in a battle which also destroyed any goodness she had ever possessed.

In anticipation of meeting that man - the one whom she believed had robbed her city of its ageless normality, undermined its economy and threatened to end her husband’s eminence - she had clothed herself in her finest garments and dabbed herself with her sweetest oils. She had not originally thought of doing so. Her first thought upon learning that he and his army had entered the city was to flee; to leave that apparently cursed place, and her craven husband, so that she could gain refuge elsewhere and perhaps then find a way of gaining revenge. Eventually realising that no nearby or even distant cities would shelter her, and that they all lacked the strength to oppose her enemy, she abandoned that idea and thought of ways of approaching him with either a weapon or poison. If only she could rid the world of that man, she told her servants, she would not fear the death that would inevitably fall upon her within seconds.

Her servants helped to persuade her that she should put aside all thoughts of fleeing or dying. They reminded her that she was a great woman of noble birth and nobler character. Why should she lose her wealth, position and dignity because of that man? Why should she add to his pleasure and smugness by revealing the depth of her humiliation? Was she no better than her feeble husband, who had sold his soul to that man? She listened to them. She believed them.

In soft and finely woven blue fabric purchased by her husband in some place that gleamed beyond the deserts, she wrapped herself with a care and confidence that belied her swarming thoughts and trembling fingers. She looked at her tight sleeves and their intricate red embroidery. Her maid beautifully painted her eyelids with the kohl that had once cost her husband so much. She had worn it every day and wiped it off before sleeping, leaving her eyelids pale where the sun never reached. Today she wore it thick and strong. Her large eyes looked as black as her thoughts.

With nothing visible beneath her ornate veil and robes except those penetrating eyes, she and her servants, who also wore their best, walked carefully, heads high, to where several of the city’s other leading women gathered. Her arrival in their midst caused a swirl of unspoken accusations of audacity and blame - conveyed by the sideways glances of eyes made up like hers - as they all felt the fear of impending judgement.

She pushed to the front as they walked to where the man sat. She wanted the other women to feel her strength and defiance. They did. They let her walk ahead. They did not know what thoughts pulsed in her temples. They did not care. She and her stubborn family were mainly to blame for this ghastly situation, they believed, as they tried to hide their own fears under a semblance of control. Their own menfolk were already assembled at Al-Safa, a low hill near the city’s holy sanctuary, waiting to learn their fate. The women wondered whether they would receive the right to die with their men. Most wanted to.

She reached his presence first, but he wasn’t looking at her, or at the women who soon surrounded her. He was looking at a child and speaking softly, almost whispering, in the boy’s ear. She had never seen him that closely and was surprised. His face possessed none of the ambition and malice that she was sure was motivating him. He looked calm and his eyes blinked in the sun as he smiled at the child who laughed. Pushing hair away from his face, the man she hated looked up. He saw the women. He called them to approach him. They came, some trembling, she not.

She had last seen him only from a distance. Five years younger, he had then worn a dull helmet wrapped tight in duller cloth and armour that must have weighed enough to slow his movements. She had seen him across a dry and suffocating valley and only recognised his authority by the way his soldiers clustered around him, hanging on every word as if he were a prophet. That day hell had come to Arabia. Death came in screams of pain. Even the one she hated had suffered. She now remembered the moment when shouts proclaiming his death filled her with joy, and she remembered the disappointment, deep and bitter, that soon after enveloped her when it became clear that he had been struck and wounded, but not killed.

Now she was able to see the damage to his face from that mad moment in battle five years earlier. Struck by a rock that had torn his face and smashed his teeth, he seemed unconcerned that he wore the scars of such closeness to death as a visible reminder of his mortality. She searched his face to see what evil lay behind his clear gaze. She saw none but attributed this to his cunning ability to disguise his black heart. She did not enjoy their meeting of eyes so she looked past him, focusing instead on busy scribes and advisors who seemed concerned with lists, until he had disengaged and looked at the women around her.

When she looked back, a young man was whispering to him. She recognised the armour-clad warrior from that fateful day. Five years had turned him from a lean and angular youth into a sturdy, sun-darkened and muscular man. She listened to him. She watched him. She noticed that her enemy, himself surprisingly strong and straight for his age, enjoyed the company of this friend.

Then he called the women closer. He spoke quietly. He asked about their husbands, many of whom were in the crowd that encircled him and watched quietly, many with bowed heads, none with anger, while he dispensed justice with a steady voice.

She said nothing. Others did. They asked for clemency. Their husbands were good men. They had done only what they thought was best for their city and their families. They were ignorant. Surely they deserved mercy. He listened to them.

The man with evident authority and power then explained to them what he had done earlier that day. He had assembled his opponents, the city’s leaders, and asked them what fate they expected. They had quivered as he recalled both their eight years of armed violence against him and his followers and the many years of humiliating treatment that had come before those years of war. They had relentlessly tried to kill him, he reminded them, and had come close to doing so on occasions. They would certainly not have extended mercy to him had the roles been reversed. So what did they now expect him to do?

Aware of their likely fate, they had begged for mercy, even appealing to the fact that he was from a noble family and was, in fact, related to them. He had answered. Just as the Prophet Joseph had once forgiven his wicked brothers for their earlier attempt on his life - they had even cast Joseph headlong down a well - he too would show mercy to his undeserving enemies. He had, he explained to the startled and joyful women, therefore decided to forgive their husbands. They were free.

She thought of her own husband. She had long adored him, but now loathed him. He had changed during these last days from a worthy companion to a fearful, inwardly looking wretch who had abandoned the city to the enemy without a fight. Even more disgustingly, she thought, he had humiliated himself and stained their names by accepting the leadership of the one who now sat serenely in front of her surrounded by children, warriors and the forgiven.

It made no sense to her. Her husband had opposed that man for over a decade and campaigned against him in war for six years. He had agreed with virtually every plan of the city elders to protect their commerce, authority and reputations from the one she now stood before. Her husband had comforted her with soothing words and gentle caresses after her father had fallen in battle against that man and his companions. Her husband’s tears had flowed with hers. Coping with the indescribable loss of her father, uncle and brother was only possible because her husband had survived, consoled her and promised revenge. He had lied, she told herself (and him, earlier that day). His promise had evaporated the moment that panic had clutched his heart so tightly. He was a coward.

Why had her courage not inspired her husband? He had watched her dart onto that battlefield five years ago to claim her revenge for her father’s death in the previous year’s battle. Her husband had roared in triumph, as had his army, when her Abyssinian slave’s plunging spear slew one of the men she blamed and hated: the very uncle of the man who now sat and spoke with her and other women. Her husband had also seen her gain revenge by humiliating the bodies of their enemies. She and other women had sliced off ears and noses in a triumphant bloodlust and she had even bitten into the liver of the enemy’s dead uncle. Why was her husband no longer motivated by the memory of her jubilance as she spat out that thing she could not swallow?

The nephew must hate her for that savagery, she knew. For five years she had heard the grim rumours that he had pronounced a death sentence upon her for her bestial treatment of his uncle’s body. Woman or not, her crime had been unspeakably barbarous. It could not go unpunished.

For five years he had been unable to enforce his pronouncement about her punishment. Yet he was powerless no longer. He had ridden his camel into her city at the head of a huge and highly motivated army reportedly numbering 10,000 soldiers, most on foot but many riding horses and camels. Leading his own well-armed and armoured personal bodyguard, clad in iron with only their eyes visible, he had divided his army intro three forces, each of which he placed under the command of a trusted subordinate with instructions to enter the city from a different direction in order to divide and weaken any potential resistance.

That man was fully aware of the significance of this long-overdue moment. Originally from the city himself, he had dreamed for many years of liberating his beloved place of birth from its current masters. He had long yearned to re-dedicate it, as a holy city, to the worship of Allah, whom he and his community called the one true god. Now he sat and looked at her.

She had raged when her husband had earlier described the sight of that army heading towards their city. She had mocked him when he recalled the horror of seeing endless lines of fearless warriors passing beneath his vantage point. She had spat hatred at her man when he had confessed that he saw no point in further resistance and she raged uncontrollably when he confessed that he had accepted their enemy as the messenger of the divine. Cowardice and blasphemy were a vile combination, she had shrieked.

Her husband, now standing close in the crowd but not beside her, had trampled on his own good name, but she would not. She was made of stronger stuff and she would show that spineless wretch how people of their background and status should act.

She drew closer to the one who owned her city and her life. She saw all others accept his leadership and swear loyalty. They were no better than her husband, she thought, but she was. She was stronger, prouder and not easily frightened.

He looked up at the women who clustered. He spoke calmly: “You have come to swear allegiance to me and to promise that you will associate nothing with Allah in any divine partnership.” She saw the other women nod and accept, but she heard her own voice, as if coming from somewhere else, reply: “By God, you are not demanding this of every man here. Yet we will accept.” Had she sounded defiant even in her submission? Had she sounded like an equal party in a negotiation? She prayed she had and worked hard to prevent her lip quivering.

She was not frightened. She raged. She seethed. She knew he noticed the fire in her eyes. She expected it to provoke his wrath; an anger that would surely result in him violating the magnanimity of his actions that day - the city had been awash with claims, now proven to be true, that he was forgiving everyone - by allowing his boiling temper to lead him unmercifully to order her death. Spoiling his perfect conduct will be my revenge, my victory, she told herself. Let them see that anyone can grant mercy to the shaking and powerless who beg to stay alive, and that no-one can forgive the defiant and unrepentant. Let them see that this all-too-human man who claims to have received revelations from God will rage at her defiance and then behave like anyone else by exacting revenge.

She waited for his fury. She waited for that “You dare to ... !” moment. It did not come.

He watched her carefully and answered calmly. Ignoring her insolence, indeed ignoring her altogether, he addressed the city’s leading women collectively. Ushering in a new moral code, and believing that morality within families and communities relied on parents serving as role models for children, he softly forbade the women from stealing.

She did not understand. Had he not heard her spite, strength and defiance? She had spoken back at this so-called Prophet of God, and had shown no fear or weakness. No-one could let that pass. Yet he had. This was too much. “I have taken various things from my husband over the years,” she said in her clearest voice, trying again to provoke a human, un-prophet-like response. “Yet I can’t say whether that is right or wrong.”

Her husband, cringing in the crowd, but still loving her enough not to want her to suffer for her arrogance, could stay silent no longer. Hoping his new leader would respond similarly, he jostled forward and called out that he forgave his wife for anything she had done during their marriage.

The secret was out. Her veil may have disguised her face, but her husband’s protective spirit had uncovered her. Her identity was obvious. The defiant woman who stood arrogantly before the quiet leader was the devil who had mutilated his beloved uncle. Five years became five seconds. She waited for her death to be announced. She hoped for the dignity of that indignity. Instead, he asked her to confirm her name. Was she really that woman? She confirmed she was.

Now his anger will roar like mine, she thought. I mutilated the body of his uncle, and he will prove himself small and ordinary by striking me dead.

She goaded him cleverly, telling him that he should forgive her so that God would forgive him.

He looked at the women, ignoring her, and in a calm voice instead continued his moral instructions. He forbade them all from committing adultery.

What on earth? I don’t understand, she thought. Why is this happening? Is he toying with us; with me? She replied as forcefully as she could that adultery was not the habit of free women anyway.

Again ignoring her shrill reply with unfathomable patience and addressing a custom that would have to end - the killing of unwanted baby daughters - the quiet man told the women that the lives of all children were sacred. This was too much for her. In previous years, this man’s army had slain the sons of her city and she coldly told him so. “We raised them as children,” she said, “but you killed them as adults. So you know more than me about killing.”

A moment passed while she held her breath and waited. Noth- ing came. She saw no anger. She heard no anger. The man looked at her. She could not look back, at least not into his eyes. After what seemed like years but may have been minutes, throughout which her mind seemed to disintegrate into shards of confusion, she heard him calmly forbid them, these assembled women of Mecca, from lying and slandering each other. She heard herself answer - while shaking with bewilderment at the words she spoke - that slander was indeed an ugly thing and that it was better to let bygones be bygones. What was she saying? Was she agreeing with him?

She was. She was confessing the folly of her hatred; a foolishness that had consumed her for years until this sunlit moment in the presence of one who wasted no time on evil thoughts of pay-back. He was composed and tranquil, and looked at her with a softness she had never seen in the eyes of a man.

She breathed deep, her mind full and befuddled yet strangely light. She stared. She saw him. He was a different man. Where had that other one gone? The one she thought she knew and certainly hated was not sitting quietly in her company. Instead she saw forgiveness and patience in the eyes that shone at her. When he asked for her obedience she forgot the immodest strut with which she had walked to him. She forgot the way she had held her head and the downward gaze of her proud stare. She forgot her haughty voice. She forgot herself.

“I have not come here to disobey you,” she said, her mind and soul overwhelmed.

The Prophet of God smiled at the woman who had mutilated the body of his beloved uncle. When he forgave her with soothing words, Hind bint Utbah swore allegiance and returned home with her husband. In the flickering light of an olive oil lamp, she held his hand that night and reflected, as she would every hour for the rest of her life, upon the totality of the Prophet’s compassion. Forgiving the beaten and broken was one thing. Forgiving the hateful, defiant and unrepentant was quite another. The Messenger of God ... yes, the Messenger of God ... had transformed her with quiet words.

Order your copy here.

JOEL HAYWARD FRHistS FRSA is a New Zealand–born, British, Muslim writer, poet and "noted scholar of war and strategy" whom the daily newspaper Al Kaleej calls "a world authority on international conflict and strategy". He is best known for his published books and articles on strategic and security matters, including the use of air power, his 2003 biography of Horatio Lord Nelson and his writing and teaching on the Quranic (Islamic) concepts of war, strategy and conflict.

In November 2012 he became full Professor of International and Civil Security at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi and in 2013 he became Chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Khalifa. He also serves there as the Director of the Institute of International and Civil Security. Earlier in 2012, he was a Senior Fellow at the Markfield Institute of Higher Education and a Research Fellow of the Cambridge Muslim College. His career highlights include having been Dean of the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell for five years (2007-2011), a Director of the Royal Air Force Centre for Air Power Studies think-tank for four years (2008-2012), and the academic Head of Air Power Studies at King's College London for six years (2005-2011). He is a Professor of Strategy at the Indonesian Defense University and he holds fellowships from the United States Air Force and the Federal Government of Germany. He is a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Historical Society. With the title of Shaykh, he has earned ijazas in ʿAqīdah and Sirah.


Comments (0)

No comments at this moment