Rarely can one find a closer bond between two persons such as existed between Muhammad the son of Abdullah and Abu Sufyan the son of al-Harith. (This Abu Sufyan of course was not the same as Abu Sufyan ibn Harb, the powerful Quraysh chieftain.)
Abu Sufyan ibn al-Harith was born about the same time as the blessed Prophet. They resembled each other a great deal. They grew up together and for a time lived in the same household. Abu Sufyan was a cousin of the Prophet. His father, al-Harith, was the brother of Abdullah; both were sons of Abd al-Muttalib.
Abu Sufyan was also a foster-brother of the Prophet. He was for a short time nursed by the lady Halimah who looked after the young Muhammad in the tough and bracing atmosphere of the desert.
In their childhood and youth, Abu Sufyan and Muhammad were close and intimate friends. So close were they, that one might naturally have expected Abu Sufyan to have been among the first to respond to the call of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and follow wholeheartedly the religion of truth. But this was not to be, at least not for many, many years.
From the time the Prophet made public his call to Islam and first issued the warning to members of his clan about the dangers of continuing in their existing state of unbelief, injustice and immorality, the fire of envy and hatred erupted in the breast of Abu Sufyan. The bonds of kinship snapped. Where once there was love and friendship, there was now revulsion and hate. Where once there was brotherhood, there was now resistance and opposition.
Abu Sufyan at this time was renowned as one of the best fighters and horsemen of the Quraysh and one of their most accomplished poets. He used both sword and tongue in the battle against the Prophet and his mission. All his energies were mobilized in denouncing Islam and persecuting the Muslims. In whatever battle the Quraysh fought against the Prophet and whatever torture and persecution they meted out to the Muslims Abu Sufyan had a part to play. He composed and recited verses attacking and vilifying the Prophet.
For twenty years almost this rancor consumed his soul. His three others brothers – Nawfal, Rabiah and Abdullah, had all accepted Islam but not he.
In the eighth year after the Hijrah, however, shortly before the Islamic liberation of Makkah, Abu Sufyan’s position began to shift, as he explains: “When the movement of Islam became vigorous and well-established and news spread of the Prophet’s advance to liberate Makkah, the world caved in on me. I felt trapped. ‘Where shall I go?’ I asked myself. ‘And with whom?’ To my wife and children, I said:
‘Get ready to leave Makkah. Muhammad’s advance is imminent. I shall certainly be killed. I shall be given no quarter should the Muslims recognize me.’
‘Now,’ replied my family, ‘you must realize that Arabs and non-Arabs have pledged their obedience to Muhammad and accepted his religion. You are still bent on opposing him whereas you might have been the first to support and help him.’
They continued trying to influence me to re-consider my attitude to Muhammad’s religion and to re-awaken in me affection towards him. Eventually God opened my heart to Islam. I got up and said to my servant, Madhkur: ‘Get ready a camel and a horse for us.’ I took my son Jafar with me and we galloped with great speed towards al-Abwa between Makkah and Madinah. I had learnt that Muhammad had camped there. As I approached the place, I covered my face so that no one could recognize and kill me before I could reach the Prophet and announce my acceptance of Islam directly to him.
Slowly, I proceeded on foot while advance groups of Muslims headed towards Makkah. I avoided their path out of fear that one of the Prophet’s companions would recognize me. I continued in this fashion until the Prophet on his mount came into my view. Coming out into the open, I went straight up to him and uncovered my face. He looked at me and recognized me. But, he turned his face away. I moved to face him once again. He avoided looking at me and again turned away his face. This happened repeatedly.
I had no doubt – as I stood there facing the Prophet that he would have been pleased with my acceptance of Islam and that his companions would have rejoiced at his happiness. When, however, the Muslims saw the Prophet, peace be on him, avoiding me, they too looked at me and shunned me. Abu Bakr met me and violently turned away. I looked at Umar ibn al-Khattab, my eyes pleading for his compassion, but I found him even more harsh than Abu Bakr. In fact, Umar went on to incite one of the Ansar against me.
‘O enemy of God,’ lashed out the Ansari, ‘you are the one who persecuted the Messenger of God, peace be on him, and tortured his companions. You carried your hostility towards the Prophet to the ends of the earth’.
The Ansari went on censuring me in a loud voice while other Muslims glared at me in anger. At that point, I saw my uncle, al-Abbas, and went to him seeking refuge.
‘O uncle,’ I said. ‘I had hoped that the Prophet, peace be on him, would be happy about my acceptance of Islam because of my kinship to him and because of my position of honor among my people. You know what his reaction has been. Speak to him then on my behalf that he may be pleased with me.’
‘No, by God,’ replied my uncle. ‘I shall not speak to him at all after I have seen him turning away from you except if an opportunity presents itself. I do honor the Prophet, peace and blessings of God be on him, and I stand in awe of him.’
‘O uncle, to whom then will you abandon me?’ I pleaded.
‘I do not have anything for you except what you have heard,’ he said.
Anxiety and grief took hold of me. I saw Ali ibn Talib soon after and spoke to him about my case. His response was the same as that of my uncle. I went back to my uncle and said to him: ‘O uncle, if you cannot soften the heart of the Prophet towards me, then at least restrain that man from denouncing me and inciting others against me.’
‘Describe him to me,’ said my uncle. I described the man to him and he said: ‘That is Nuayman ibn al-Harith an-Najjari.’ He sent for Nuayman and said to him: ‘O Nuayman! Abu Sufyan is the cousin of the Prophet and my nephew. If the Prophet is angry with him today, he will be pleased with him another day. So leave him…’ My uncle continued trying to placate Nuayman until the latter relented and said: ‘I shall not spurn him anymore.’
“When the Prophet reached al-Jahfah (about four days journey from Makkah), I sat down at the door of his tent. My son Jafar stood beside me. As he was leaving his tent, the Prophet saw me and averted his face. Yet, I did not despair of seeking his pleasure. Whenever he camped at a place, I would sit at his door and my son Jafar would stand in front of me… I continued in this fashion for some time. But the situation became too much for me and I became depressed. I said to myself:
‘By God, either the Prophet, peace be on him, shows he is pleased with me or I shall take my son and go wandering through the land until we die of hunger and thirst.’
When the Prophet came to hear of this, he relented and, on leaving his tent, he looked more gently towards me then before. I so much hoped that he would smile.”
Eventually the Prophet relented and told Abu Sufyan, “There is now no blame on you.” He entrusted the newcomer to Islam to Ali ibn Abi Talib saying: “Teach your cousin how to perform wudu and about the Sunnah. Then bring him back to me.” When Ali returned, the Prophet said:
“Tell all the people that the Messenger of God is pleased with Abu Sufyan and that they should be pleased with him.”
Abu Sufyan continued: “The Prophet then entered Makkah and I too entered in his entourage. He went to the Sacred Mosque and I also went, trying my best to remain in his presence and not separate from him on any account…
Later, at the Battle of Hunayn. the Arabs put together an unprecedented force against the Prophet, peace be on him… They were determined to deal a mortal blow to Islam and the Muslims.
The Prophet went out to confront them with a large number of his companions. I went out with him and when I saw the great throngs of mushrikin, I said: ‘By God. today, I shall atone for all my past hostility towards the Prophet. peace be on him, and he shall certainly see on my part what pleases God and what pleases him.’
When the two forces met, the pressure of the mushrikin on the Muslims was severe and the Muslims began to lose heart. Some even began to desert and terrible defeat stared us in the face. However, the Prophet stood firm in the thick of battle astride his mule “Ash-Shahba” like a towering mountain, wielding his sword and fighting for himself and those around him… I jumped from my horse and fought beside him. God knows that I desired martyrdom beside the Messenger of God. My uncle, al-Abbas, took the reins of the Prophet’s mule and stood at his side. I took up my position on the other side. With my right hand I fended off attacks against the Prophet and with my left I held on to my mount.
When the Prophet saw my devastating blows on the enemy, he asked my uncle: ‘Who’s this?’ ‘This is your brother and cousin. Abu Sufyan ibn al-Harith. Be pleased with him. O Messenger of God.’
‘I have done so and God has granted forgiveness to him for all the hostility he has directed against me.’
My heart soared with happiness. I kissed his feet in the stirrup and wept. He turned towards me and said: ‘My brother! Upon my life! Advance and strike!’
The words of the Prophet spurred me on and we plunged into the positions of the mushrikin until they were routed and fled in every direction.”
After Hunayn, Abu Sufyan ibn al-Harith continued to enjoy the good pleasure of the Prophet and the satisfaction of being in his noble company. But he never looked the Prophet directly in the eye nor focussed his gaze on his face out of shame and embarrassment for his past hostility towards him.
Abu Sufyan continued to feel intense remorse for the many and dark days he had spent trying to extinguish the light of God and refusing to follow His message. Henceforth, his days and nights he would spend reciting the verses of the Quran. seeking to understand and follow its laws and profit by its admonitions. He shunned the world and its adornments and turned to God with every fibre of his being. Once the Prophet. peace be on him, saw him entering the mosque and asked his wife: “Do you know who is this, Aishah?” “No, O Messenger of God.” she replied. This is my cousin. Abu Sufyan ibn al-Harith. See, he is the first to enter the masjid and the last to leave. His eyes do not leave his shoelace.”
When the Prophet, peace be on him, passed away, Abu Sufyan felt intense grief and wept bitterly.
During the caliphate of Umar, may God be pleased with him, Abu Sufyan felt his end drawing near. One day people saw him in al-Baqi, the cemetery not far from the Prophet’s mosque where many Sahabah are buried. He was digging and fashioning a grave. They were surprised. Three days later, Abu Sufyan was lying stretched out at home His family stood around weeping but he said: “Do not weep for me. By God, I did not commit any wrong since I accepted Islam.” With that, he passed away.