#HiraHike: The Prophet Muḥammad (SAW)’s practice of ‘taḥannuth’ or ‘taḥannuf’ (Haykal)

#HiraHalqa readings

from “The Life of Muḥammad” (pp 70-72) by Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal (first written in Arabic in 1933, translated in to English from the 8th Arabic edition by Isma’īl Rāgī A. al Fārūqī, 1976).

The Arabs’ Annual Retreat

It was Arabia’s custom at the time for the pious and thoughtful to devote a period of each year to a retreat of worship, asceticism, and prayer. They would seek an empty place far away from their people where they could concentrate on their prayers and genuinely seek a new level of seriousness, wisdom, and ethical goodness through meditation. This practice was called taḥannuth or taḥannuf. Therein Muḥammad found the best means of satisfying his will to thinking and meditating. In its solitude he could find a measure of spiritual detachment and peace that would enable his consciousness to screen the whole universe for inspiration and to pursue his thoughts wherever it might lead. At the head of Mound Ḥirā, two miles north of Makkah, Muhammad discovered a cave whose perfect silence and total separation from Makkah made of it a perfect place for retreat. In that cave Muḥammad used to spend the whole month of Ramadān. He would satisfy himself with the least provisions, carried to him from time to time by a servant, while devoting himself uninterruptedly to his spiritual pursuits in peace, solitude and tranquillity. His devotion often caused him to forget himself, to forget his food, and, indeed to forget the whole world around him. At these moments the very world and his existence must have appeared to him like a dream. Through his mind he would turn the pages of all that he had heard and learned, and his search could only whet his appetite for the truth.

Groping after the Truth

Muḥammad did not hope to find the truth he sought in the narratives of the rabbis or the scriptures of the monks but in the very world surrounding him, in the sky and its stars, moon, and sun, and in the desert with its burning air under the brilliant sun—its impeccable purity enclosed by the light of the moon or that of the stars in the balmy night, in the sea with its countless waves, and in all that which underlies this existence and constitutes its unity of being. It was in the world that Muḥammad sought to discover the supreme truth. He sought to unite his soul to it, to penetrate it, and to grasp the secret of its being. He did not take much thought to realize that his peoples’ understanding of the nature of this world, of their religiosity and devotion, was all false. Their idols were mere stones—speechless, thoughtless, and powerless. Hubal, al Lāt, and al ‘Uzzā, as well as every one of these idols and statues inside or around the Ka’bah, had never created even so much as a fly and never did Makkah any good. Where was to be found the truth in this vast universe of infinite skies and stars? Is it in the brilliant stars which give men their light and warmth and sends them rain? Is it in their water, the light and warmth and sources of life to all mankind throughout the world? No! For all these are creatures like the earth itself. Is the truth then behind the sky and their stars, in the boundless space beyond? But what is space? And what is this life which is today and is gone tomorrow? What is its origin and source? Is this world and our presence therein all a mere accident? The world and its life have, however, immutable laws which cannot be the product of circumstances. Men do good and they do evil. But do they do it willingly and deliberately, or is their action a mere instinct which they are powerless to control? It was of such spiritual and psychological problems that Muḥammad thought during his solitary retreat in the cave of Ḥirā, and it was in the totality of spirit and life that he sought to discover the truth. His ideas filled his soul, his heart, his consciousness, indeed all his being. This paramount occupation diverted him from the commonplace problems of everyday. When at the end of Ramadān, Muḥammad returned to Khadījah, his perturbed thoughts showed on his face and caused Khadījah to inquire whether he was well.

In his devotions during that retreat, did Muḥammad follow any one of the known religious schools? That is a question on which scholars disagree. In his Al Kāmil fī al Tārīkh, ibn Kathīr reported some of the current views in answer to this question. Some claimed that Muḥammad followed the law of Noah; others, the law of Ibrahīm; others, the law of Moses; others the law of Jesus. Others claimed that Muḥammad had followed every known law and observed it. Perhaps this last claim is nearer to the truth than the others, for it agrees with what we know of Muḥammad’s constant search for answers and for ways to the truth

from “The Life of Muḥammad” (pp 70-72) by Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal (first written in Arabic in 1933, translated in to English from the 8th Arabic edition by Isma’īl Rāgī A. al Fārūqī, 1976).

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