The essay before you is concerned with a specific set of people who are to be counted amongst the greatest of the companions and richest in their love for Allah (s.w.t), His blessed Prophet (s.a.w) and the noble quest for knowledge. These people were the Ashab us-Suffah (Companions of the Bench) and it is fundamentally important that we each come to know about, appreciate, and love the contribution of these great individuals to both Islam and the evolution of the human spirit. The Holy Prophet (s.a.w) undoubtedly loved and cared for these men of humility and this fact alone is reason enough for us to love them with every shred of our very being.
In the early days of Islam the Qiblah (direction to face for prayer) was not the Baitul Haraam (Holy Ka’aba) but instead Muslims prayed towards Jerusalem (Bait-ul-Quds). The Holy Prophet (s.a.w) prayed towards Jerusalem out of obedience to the Will of Allah (s.w.t), however his heart was always inclined towards the Ka’aba. For this reason, when in Mecca, he would always position himself in the prayer so that he was facing both the Holy Ka’aba and Jerusalem.
After the migration of the Muslims to Medina (hijra) the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) was not able to continue this practice (Jerusalem being north of Medina and Mecca being south of Medina) and the Holy Prophet (s.a.w), along with the companions, would pray only towards Jerusalem. The positioning of Jerusalem dictated that they would stand in the South-Western part of the Prophet’s Mosque. This lasted until Allah (s.w.t) revealed the verse:
“Verily, We see thee turning thy face often to heaven; surely, then, will we make thee turn to the Qiblah which thou likest. So turn thy face towards the Sacred Mosque; and wherever you may be, turn your faces towards it. And they to whom the Book has been given know that this is the truth from their Lord; and Allah is not unmindful of what they do.”
(The Holy Qur’an Chapter 2, verse 144)
After this the Southern door of the Prophet’s Mosque was closed and a new one opened in the Northern part of the Mosque facing the new Qiblah – Baitul Haraam (Holy Ka’aba).
A shade was then erected, under the instructions of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w), which was fixed to the wall where the old Qiblah used to be (this was now the back wall of the Mosque). The type of shade, or raised bench, which was erected, is known in Arabic as a Suffah and this is why that quarter of the Mosque became known as Al-Suffah.
The Suffah was not an enclosed space but was open on three sides and became a place which many of the poorer companions would occupy. The great scholar of hadith, Hadhrat Ibn Hajr al-Asqalani (r.a), relates to us in his work Fath-ul-Bari that:
‘As-Suffahh is the place in the back portion of the Prophet’s Masjid. It had a covering and was prepared so that estranged people could stay there, people who had neither homes nor families’.
(As-Sallaabee. The Noble Life of the Prophet. Vol.2. Pg.735.)
Many historical records tell us that the people who lived in the place of Suffah (sometimes referred to as ‘The People of the Bench or Veranda’) were those individuals who either had no family or were too poor to afford their own accommodation.
Whilst this is true in part it does an injustice to those companions whom chose to live in the place of Suffah because of their burning desire to shun all worldly objects and completely annihilate themselves in the service of Allah (s.w.t) and love of His Messenger (s.a.w). These people were not few in number and sacrificed all of the temptations of this world in search of a far greater reward in the hereafter.
The great Islamic thinker, Hadhrat Chaudhry Muhammad Zafrullah Khan (r.a), has commented on the Ashab us-Suffah writing:
“They enjoyed the company of the Holy Prophet most of the time, and occupied themselves with worship and the recitation of the Holy Qur’an. They had no permanent means of subsistence. The Holy Prophet looked after them, and shared with them whatever became available to himself and to members of his family. On occasion, the latter went without, and whatever was available was sent to the Dwellers of Suffah. Ansar also offered them hospitality, so far as they could afford it. Nevertheless, these people often faced starvation. This continued for several years till some of them began to find gainful occupation, and the national treasury could also afford to provide them with some relief.”
(Muhammad; Seal of the Prophets. pp.84-85.)
The precise number of the Ashab us-Suffah is not known but it is estimated that the Suffah could hold up to three hundred people at any one time and that roughly seventy people made up its’ permanent residents. The initial inhabitants of the Suffah were members of the Muhajirun (those that had emigrated from Mecca) who were without any accommodation but as time passed the Suffah would house people from many different areas who could find no other place to live.
As has been mentioned the Ashab us-Suffah were a group of people who were predominantly poor and had no family. This was a state which developed and changed over many years with people leaving the Suffah after marriage or when they were blessed with additional provisions. Their general condition improved in the later days of Medina as the poverty and financial depression which had struck Medina improved.
However, the hardship which they were made to undergo should not be taken as a light matter, they were made to endured such devastating tribulations that their very dignity and lives were almost extinguished on many occasions. The Suffah was a structure which was not enclosed or sealed. Because it was open to the forces of nature the Ashab us-Suffah sometimes had an untidy outward appearance as their cloths and skin would often be covered in dust. The clothes which they wore were made of a thin and weak material which was hardly adequate enough in size to cover their bodies. This caused many of them great personal discomfort as they became embarrassed to enter the Mosque to pray. The situation became so distraught that many of the Ashab us-Suffah were made to wear a thin loin cloth. As the Suffah was an open structure and the Ashab us-Suffah were without sufficient clothing they had no defence against the cold winter nights of Medina.
The companions would sometimes go without food for long periods of time and endure great hunger. Some of the Ashab us-Suffah, Abu Hurairah being the most famous example, would physically fall unconscious when praying in Masjid An-Nabawi. One should pause here for a moment and reflect upon the magnitude of the pure desire and firm obedience of these individuals that despite suffering from hunger and the cold they would rather risk falling unconscious than miss a prayer.
When food was available they would often be limited to eating dates which would be distributed amongst them all evenly. It is narrated that they were so just in the distribution of the little food they had that if one of them would eat two dates together he would tell the other companions that he had taken two and that they should take one extra.
The hunger which they suffered from was something they could simply not avoid due to the dictates of their circumstance and so in order to overcome this great trial they would engulf themselves in the remembrance of Allah (s.w.t). Surely Allah (s.w.t) has promised:
“And We will try you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives and fruits; but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere. Who, when a misfortune overtakes them, say, ‘Surely, to Allah we belong and to Him shall we return.’
It is these on whom descend blessings from their Lord and also mercy, and it is these who
are rightly guided.”
(The Holy Qur’an Chapter 2, verse 156-8)
The desperation of the trial they were made to undergo is better understood through the words of Hadhrat Abu Hurairah (r.a) who said:
‘By Allah except Whom none has the right to be worshipped, (sometimes) I used to lay (sleep) on the ground on my liver (abdomen) because of hunger, and (sometimes) I used to bind a stone over my belly because of hunger’.
Such trials are only entered upon and embraced by those individuals who have embarked upon the journey towards the highest stations of spirituality. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Promised Messiah (a.s), described the severe hunger he himself endured as follows:
‘I have often thought that if a large, plump person, who is also a wrestler, had to starve along with me, he would die before I could feel any acute need for food. This experience taught me that one can progress stage by stage in starving oneself and that until one’s body becomes accustomed to such privations a comfort loving person is not fit to accomplish stages of spiritual progress. But I would not advise everyone to embark upon such a discipline, nor did I do so of my own accord. I have known many ignorant dervishes who adopted a course of hard physical discipline and in the end lost their sanity and spent the rest of their lives in madness or became afflicted with various diseases such as tuberculosis, etc.
Not all humans possess similar mental faculties. Those whose faculties are naturally weak cannot bear any physical discipline. Very soon, they are afflicted with some dangerous disease. It is better that one should not subject oneself to a rigorous physical discipline on one’s own. Rather one should adopt the faith of simple people. Of course, if one receives a revelation from God and it is not opposed to the magnificent Shariah of Islam, it must be carried out.
However, the foolish fakirs of today teach disciplines which do not result in any good. One should stay away from them. Keep in mind that it was on the basis of a clear vision from God Almighty that I carried out rigorous physical discipline for eight or nine months and tasted hunger and thirst. Then I stopped its continuous practice, but did revert to it occasionally’
The link here is made by the Promised Messiah (a.s) between the way with which physical hunger can act, in certain circumstances, as a source which feeds one’s spiritual hunger.
The Ashab us-Suffah were the great lovers of Allah (s.w.t) and their example was inspired with the blessed quest for the very spiritual food which is alluded to in the above quotation. They spent their days in deep reflection and would always aspire to find new ways to expand their knowledge and serve the Holy Prophet (s.a.w). From amongst them we discover some of the most prominent companions in the field of knowledge. Hadhrat Abu Hurairah (r.a), who was generally accepted as the most prominent of the Ashab us-Suffah, was renowned for having an exquisite memory. Anyone familiar with Ahadith will understand just how important he was in this field having put to heart the highest number of Ahadith reaching a staggering total of 5374. On this issue we find an enlightening narrated of Hadhrat Abu Hurairah (r.a) who said:
“You people say that Abu Huraira tells many narrations from Allah’s Apostle and you also wonder why the emigrants and Ansar do not narrate from Allah’s Apostle as Abu Huraira does. My emigrant brothers were busy in the market while I used to stick to Allah’s Apostle content with what fills my stomach; so I used to be present when they were absent and I used to remember when they used to forget, and my Ansari brothers used to be busy with their properties and I was one of the poor men of Suffah. I used to remember the narrations when they used to forget. No doubt, Allah’s Apostle once said,
‘Whoever spreads his garment till I have finished my present speech and then gathers it to himself, will remember whatever I will say.’ So, I spread my coloured garment which I was wearing till Allah’s Apostle had finished his saying, and then I gathered it to my chest. So, I did not forget any of that narrations”
(Sahih Al-Bukhari. Vol.3, Bk.34, No.263.)
His absolute resoluteness to always be close to the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) is indicative of many of the Ashab us-Suffah. Hadhrat Bilal ibn Rabah (r.a) was a close companion of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) and indeed the muezzin of the Holy Prophet (saw). Another member of the Ashab us-Suffah was Hadhrat Salman al-Farsi (r.a). Hadhrat Salman (r.a) was also a very close companion of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) and an expert in Christianity and the Zoroastrian faith. He is known as the first person to translate parts of the Qur’an into a different language translating it into Persian. Both Hadhrat Ibn Mas’ud (r.a) and Hadhrat Saalim (r.a) were two of the four companions whom the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) said it is permissible to take the Qur’an from. These great individuals were filled with such a great thirst for knowledge that one of the Ashab us-Suffah gave Hadhrat Ubaada ibn Saimat (r.a) his bow in return that he would teach him, and the other Ashab us-Suffah, verses of the Qur’an and how to read and write (As-Sallabee. Vol.2, Pg.738.).
Their services to Islam were not limited to the Suffah and whenever the call for Jihad was made they were ever ready to sacrifice their lives on the battlefield despite being hungry, without proper provisions and with insufficient armour. Some of the great members of the Ashab us-Suffah laid their lives down for Islam and entered the fold of the Shuhudaa (Martyrs). May Allah (s.w.t) grant each of their blessed souls a loft station in heaven, Insha’Allah, Ameen.
“Think not of those, who have been slain in the cause of Allah, as dead. Nay, they are living, in the presence of their Lord, and are granted gifts from Him”
(The Holy Qur’an Chapter 3, verse 170)
The Holy Prophet (s.a.w) could easily be described as the guardian of the Ashab us-Suffah as he not only looked after their every need but was every filled with a unique love for them. The Holy Prophet (s.a.w), more than anyone, understood and knew the value of their sacrifice. The Holy Prophet (s.a.w) has said:
“I am closer to the believers than their selves in this world and in the Hereafter, and if you like, you can read Allah’s Statement:
“The Prophet is closer to the believers than their own selves.” (33.6)
So, if a true believer dies and leaves behind some property, it will be for his inheritors (from the father’s side), and if he leaves behind some debt to be paid or needy offspring, then they should come to me as I am the guardian of the deceased.”
(Sahih Al-Bukhari. Vol.3, Bk.41, No.584.)
A close study of the Ashab us-Suffah is testament to the fact that the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) was indeed so conscious about the needs of the companions that even they themselves were less aware of their own needs. Regarding their physical well being the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) took great care to provide them with whatever he could from him own humble share. His willingness to share with them literally whatever he physically had in his house, and to even deny his own family, is illustrated when he invited the some of the Ashab us-Suffah to his home and all that was on his table was barley. Even when the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) would receive Sadaqa he would not take a penny but rather distribute it amongst the Ashab us-Suffah. Likewise if he was given any gift he only kept for himself a small portion and distributed the rest to the Ashab us-Suffah.
The Ashab us-Suffah set an astonishingly highly spiritual example for us to follow. They were not people of this world but sacrificed everything temporal for the reward of the hereafter. They were the great lovers of Allah (s.w.t) and it was that very love which caused them to serve, day and night, the greatest of Allah’s creation (s.a.w). They evaporated their hearts in the love of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) became and thus became an embodiment of the saying of the Holy Prophet:
“None of you can be a true believer until his love for me is more than his love for his parents, children and all the people in the world”.
It is to these great champions of humanity that the world is indebted to for the scrupulous transition of much the knowledge that we now utilise on a daily basis. This was only as a result of them spending the minutes and seconds of their lives in remembrance of Allah (s.w.t) and at the every beckoning of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w).
The full article can be read on:
– by Adam Hani Walker, UK