The Three who Stayed Behind
The story of the three who stayed behind is a very inspiring and moving story from the seerah. The story is referred to in the holy Qur'an in verses 117 and 118 of surat Al-Tawbah. The details of the story are told by Ka'ab ibn Malik, who was actually one of the three men. The story goes as follows.
When the Messenger of Allah decided to launch the Tabuk expedition, he asked all able bodied men to join him, except for those who have special circumstances that would prevent them from travelling and leaving their homes for a long time. Valid excuses would be an illness or elderly parents who need care. The companions rushed to obey the Messenger (pbuh) and they prepared themselves for the long trip.
The Tabuk expedition occured in a very inopportune time for most people. It was a very hot time of the year, and most people avoided long travels during this time. The distance from Al-Madinah to Tabuk was over 500 kilometers, a trip that would take many days by foot or on camels and horses. Also, it was the time of harvest for many owners of gardens around Al-Madinah. Travelling at this time would mean that they would not be able to harvest, and would incur large financial losses.
Yet, even with all of these difficulties, the vast majority of companions obeyed the Messenger (pbuh) without question. They took their provisions, prepared their belongings and were ready to join the Messenger. The holy Qur'an even mentions people whose tears would flow when they were told by the Messenger that he was not able to accomodate them in the expedition (Al-Tawbah, verse 92).
The hypocrites hated the idea of travelling at this time. They preferred to stay at their homes to avoid the heat and the hardship. They wanted to harvest their crops and gain the financial benefits. They thought that it is illogical to travel at this time, and that they must take care of their families and provide for them. So they started to look for any excuse to disobey the Messenger. They started to tell each other and the believers not to go out in this intense heat, and Allah (swt) answered them in the holy Qur'an by saying that the heat of the Hellfire is even more intense, if they would just undestand! (Al-Tawbah, verse 81).
We need to stop at this point for a moment and reflect upon the actions of the hyprocrites. Many of us today, when we are told to obey the commandments of Allah (swt) and the Messenger (pbuh), we also make excuses, some of them are very similar to those made by the hypocrites at the time of the Tabuk expedition. For example, some of our dear sisters who do not wear the hijab would say that it would be too hot in the summer. Some of our dear brothers, when asked why they do not attend the Friday prayer every week explain that they do not want to look bad in front of their boss by being away for an hour every Friday afternoon. Almost all of us have made such excuses at one point or another in our life. It makes one wonder, if the Messenger (pbuh) was among us today and the revelation was still coming down, how many verses would be revealed about us and the excuses that we make for not following the commandments of Allah (swt) and the Messenger (pbuh)? May Allah (swt) guide us all and make us follow the footsteps of the companions who obeyed Allah (swt) and the Messenger (pbuh) without question and without hesitation.
The Messenger (pbuh) left with a large number of the companions towards Tabuk. Some of the companions were late making last minute arrangements but they continued catching up and joining the Messenger (pbuh). Only the hyporcites and those with a valid excuse were left behind. After some time, the Messenger (pbuh) started asking about people whom he didn't see. He wanted to know who obeyed the orders and who rejected them. It is as if he knew that this was more than an expedition. This was a test of faith. Allah (swt) wanted to test the Muslims to see who are the true and sincere believers and who are the people who will make up any excuse to stay in their comfortable life and to avoid any hardship for the sake of Allah (swt).
Indeed, it was a test of faith. There was no battle. After arriving at Tabuk, the Muslims discovered that the army that the Messenger (pbuh) expected to meet retreated when they got news that the Muslims were coming. The only battle was that of the believers against the shaytan (devil) and against their own desires. Those who overcame their desires and decided to obey Allah (swt) and the Messenger (pbuh), even through intense hardship, passed the test.
When they arrived back in Al-Madinah, the hypocrites went to the Messenger (pbuh), and one by one they would tell him their excuse. They would lie and make up stories to justify why they refused to obey the order. The Messenger (pbuh) accepted their excuses, although Allah (swt) exposed them in the holy Qur'an (see verses 90 - 96 of surat Al-Tawbah).
Three of the companions, the three who stayed behind, were different. They were in good health, and had enough wealth and resources that they could have joined the expedition. But they did not. The shaytan was able to overcome them. They disobeyed Allah (swt) and the Messenger (pbuh) and followed their own personal desires.
Ka'ab ibn Malik was one of those three men, and he later told his story. He said that he was in his full health and strength at the time of this expedition. He was also finacially able to go. However, he did not prepare when the others prepared, and he told himself that he would delay his travel and catch up with the expedition after a day or two. The days passed, and he kept delaying the travel, until it was too late for him to catch up. So he stayed behind, and he noticed that the only men remaining in Al-Madinah were the hypocrites, the sick and the elderly, which greatly saddened him.
When he heard that the Messenger (pbuh) arrived back in Al-Madinah, he went to the masjid to welcome him back. He initially thought of any excuse or lie to tell the Messenger (pbuh) in order to avoid angering him. But then he remembered Allah (swt), and he knew that Allah (swt) knows the truth that is in his heart. He realized that he should be honest, and that lying will not help him. In fact, it will only add more sins to the one he has already committed by not joining the Messenger (pbuh).
He arrived at the masjid, and found the hypocrites making excuses and lying to the Messenger (pbuh). He saw the Messenger (pbuh) was accepting their excuses, forgiving them and even praying to Allah (swt) to forgive them. However, being a true sincere and honest believer, he could not lie. He was just not able to lie.
He went up to the Messenger (pbuh), and the Messenger (pbuh) smiled to him but was visibly angry, and he told him to come close and sit beside him. He then asked him: "What made you stay behind, didn't you prepare to come with us?" Ka'ab ibn Malik replied: "By Allah, I was never in better health or wealth than I was on the day you left, and I had no excuse and no reason for not joining". The Messenger (pbuh) told him to get up and leave until Allah (swt) reveals his judgement. Only two other men had the courage and moral character to do the same as Ka'ab ibn Malik, accepting full responsibility for their actions and refusing to lie or make up excuses like the hypocrites did.
The Messenger (pbuh) asked the Muslims to boycott the three men. No one was allowed to talk to them, not even return their salam. Even their own families would not talk to them. The boycott continued for fifty days.
We must again stop at this point of the story and try to learn a lesson from the honesty of Ka'ab ibn Malik. Even though he saw the Messenger (pbuh) accepting the excuses and forgiving anyone who made up any excuse, he simply refused to lie. As a Muslim and a believer, he knew that lying was forbidden. He knew that he could not correct one sin by adding another sin to it. He knew that even if he lied and got away with it in this life, that Allah (swt) knows the truth and will hold him accountable for this lie on the Day of Judgement. He knew how bad the consequences of saying the truth would be for him in this life. But he chose hardship and misery in this life over saying one lie and deserving the punishment from Allah (swt) for it on the Day of Judgement.
We really should learn a lesson from the honesty of this man. How many of us would do what he did? How many of us would just have lied and made up an excuse and then said to ourselves that it is just a small lie, and that we will ask Allah (swt) to forgive us later? How many of us would have passed this test of sincerity? He could not bring himself to lie. We should follow his example, because this is the example of true and sincere Muslims. In fact, Allah (swt) pointed to this beatiful moral character in these three men who stayed behind in verse 119 of surat Al-Tawbah, where Allah (swt) advises all believes: "Oh believers, fear Allah, and stand with the truthful ones". This verse came directly after the verse that mentioned the story of the three men, and although they committed a mistake by not adhereing to the order of the Messenger (pbuh) to go on the Tabuk expedition, Allah (swt) forgave them and accepted their repentance, and Allah (swt) mentioned them as "the truthful ones" in the Qur'an. Their truthfulness and high moral character saved them from their sins and ensured their forgiveness. On the other hand, the hypocrites who thought that they got away with their lies, they did not gain the forgiveness of Allah (swt) and they will face a severe punishment on the Day of Judgement.
The story has a happy ending of course. Allah (swt), after 50 days, revealed the verse 118 of surat Al-Tawbah: "And to the three who were left behind (at the Battle of Tabuk), until the earth became narrow with all its vastness, and their souls became narrow for them, they knew there was no shelter from Allah except in Him. Then He turned to them (in mercy) so that they might also turn (in repentance). Allah is the Turner, the Most Merciful."
Their forgiveness was revealed in the holy Qur'an, and it came down from above the seven heavens. It has been recited since that day, and will continue to be recited forever by millions of Muslims around the world. Allah (swt) replaced their hardship and misery with the honour of vindication and of being mentioned in the holy Qur'an. This was their reward for their sincerity and honesty, even though they committed a sin and made a mistake. But they were sincere in their hearts, and they truely loved Allah (swt) and the Messenger (pbuh).
From this we learn that it is never too late to seek forgiveness. It is never too late to turn a new page. Allah (swt) forgives all sins, as long as we are sincere. As long as we love Allah (swt) and the Messenger (pbuh) in our hearts, and we ask for forgiveness sincerely, insha' Allah we shall be granted forgiveness by the Most Gracious and the Most Merciful.
When these verses were revealed, the believers raced to the home of Ka'ab ibn Malik to give him the good news. One of them even got on top of a house and shouted out the news. Every believer wanted to be the first to tell the good news to their brother. They went to his home, hugged him and congratulated him on the forgiveness that he was granted from Allah (swt).
What a beautiful example of brotherhood. They loved their brother. Even though they had boycotted him for 50 days, but when Allah (swt) forgave him they raced to hug him again! Subhan Allah, they loved and hated based on whom Allah (swt) loved and hated, not based on their own personal choice and their own desires. Even though their brother was a sinner, and he made a terrible mistake, and he disobeyed Allah (swt) and the Messenger (pbuh), they still loved him and were hoping he would be forgiven.
We should implement this type of love and brotherhood today amongst ourselves. Unfortuantely, many times when a Muslim commits a sin, the others will treat him badly. Even if he repents, they will still suspect him and never forget his mistake. These are not the manners of true believers. We should follow this beautiful example of the companions. We should rush towards those who repent, and love for our brothers to repent. We should love them and work with them to help them stop committing sins, not accuse them and fight with them and against them. We are all in this together, and we must help each other or else we will all lose everything in this world and on the Day of Judgement.
May Allah (swt) guide us all to what pleases Him.