The Loyal Messenger (ʿAbbān ibn Fayrūz)
It is late at night; only two hours are left until Fajr. Suddenly, there is a pounding at the door. ʿAbbān rises from his prayer mat and walks cautiously toward the door. The door swings open to reveal ʿAbbān’s teacher and close friend, Salīm, clutching a leather bound book to his chest.
“Salāmun ʿalaykum, Uncle Salīm!” ʿAbbān says, surprised. He ushers Salīm inside and quickly shuts the door behind him. “What’s going on? Are you alright? It’s dangerous to be out so late. Is there any way I can help you?”
“Wa ʿalaykum salām, ʿAbbān,” Salīm replies. He leans against the wall for support, breathing heavily. He is an old man; and each strand of hair in his silver beard seems to radiate a soft light. “I’m sorry for disturbing you, but I have nowhere else to go. You know how the Umayyads treat the followers of ʿAlī (ʿa). They are searching for me, but now I’ve put you in danger as well--”
“Don’t say that,” ʿAbbān says, pressing Salīm’s hand reassuringly. “Please, stay. I can protect you here in my home. If the soldiers come searching for you, I will find a way to hide you, or we will face them together. We Shīʿah must stand with each other against those who want to harm us. Our shared love for ʿAlī (ʿa) and his children makes us closer than brothers.”
Salīm sighs and gives ʿAbbān a small, sad smile. “I don’t think I can ever thank you enough.”
“Besides,” ʿAbbān continues earnestly, “You are like a father to me. You have taught me so much. When I first came to Basra, you and your tribe took me in like one of your own. This is only my humble way of thanking you.”
For the next few weeks, ʿAbbān guards his house as if it is a fortress. There are soldiers waiting at every corner. Sometimes they are even in disguise. They pretend to be friendly neighbors as they ask about someone who they think might be a Shīʿah. These days, the ruler of Basra treats being Shīʿah as the greatest crime. Like the rest of the corrupt Umayyad government, he is determined to find and punish anyone who loves and follows the Ahl al-Bayt. Those who spread the teachings of the Ahl al-Bayt--teachers, like Salīm--are the biggest targets.
Each day, ʿAbbān and Salīm come up with a strategy for how to go about their business without being noticed by soldiers and spies.
“I can’t just hide here and do nothing,” Salīm tells ʿAbbān. “If members from my tribe come to visit, they won’t know why my house is empty. My students will wonder where I’ve gone. I wish I could do something, something even as simple as saving you a trip to the market for food!”
“Don’t worry,” ʿAbbān says. “We will figure out a way. We will pray that Allah helps us figure out a way.”
Over the next few days, ʿAbbān maps out his route to the market and back. He takes a long, winding way home that leads past where his sister and aunt live. This way, he is able to visit them as well and see if there is anything they need. It is also the perfect way to shake off anyone who might be trying to follow him.
“It’s safest if I go to buy our food,” he tells Salīm, “There are too many people in the market who might recognize you. You are needed here.”
While ʿAbbān takes care of errands outside, Salīm arranges to meet secretly with his students in ʿAbbān’s home. His students come, one or two at a time, dressed as if they are delivering packages. Together, he and his students engage in learning and worship. When ʿAbbān returns home, he joins them as well. They share what they have learned from the Imāms and discuss how they can practice what they have learned, especially in such dangerous times. Each day, they pray for Allah’s protection from the ruthless ruler of Basra.
One day, during their discussion, they hear several people hammering angrily at the door. “Open up!” a harsh voice demands. “We have been ordered to search this house.”
The two students spring to their feet, grab a large basket that is filled with dates, and pretend to be date-sellers. They bring it into the middle of the room and fill a small sack with dates as if preparing to sell them. ʿAbbān helps Salīm stand and guides him to a back room of his house. He lifts a rug to reveal a trapdoor built into the floor.
“Inshā’Allāh, you will be safe in here.” ʿAbbān promises as Salīm opens the trapdoor and begins to carefully climb down into the secret hiding space. “It’s where I keep my books to protect them from unfriendly hands.” Then, ʿAbbān quickly covers the secret door with the rug, hurries to the front door, and opens it.
“Salāmun ʿalaykum, brothers,” he says calmly to the three soldiers standing on his doorstep. He gestures for them to come inside. “Don’t mind the mess; I was just finishing up some business with these date-sellers.”
The soldiers grunt in reply and walk past ʿAbbān into the house. They glance at the ‘date-sellers’ and rummage through the large basket of dates, as if a grown man could be hiding in there. They check behind the curtains hanging in front of the window. After thoroughly searching every room of the small house, they are forced to admit there is nothing there and leave without saying another word.
ʿAbbān sighs in relief and thanks Allah. He had almost forgotten to hide Salīm’s bed and belongings that morning as he usually did, but then Allah sent a little reminder. He nods gratefully at the ‘date-sellers’ and then goes to tell Salīm that the danger has passed for now.
As weeks turn to months, Salīm falls ill. ʿAbbān stays by his bedside to care for him. It is difficult to watch as strength slowly leaves his teacher’s body. It is like watching his father fade away before his eyes.
Since the time of Imām ʿAlī (ʿa), Salīm has been a loyal follower of the Ahl al-Bayt. Being a guardian of the knowledge of the Ahl al-Bayt has been his lifelong mission. While the Umayyads burn books out of hatred for the Ahl al-Bayt, Salīm has made it his job to protect books with his life so that people can continue to learn from the Imāms. When he was younger, he even maintained a secret book trading network, so people could more easily access the knowledge of the Imāms. Now, in his old age, though his love for Imām ʿAlī (ʿa) is stronger than ever, his body is beginning to weaken. He knows he will not remain in this world for much longer. But there is one more thing he must do before his soul leaves his body. Even during the last moments of his life, he wants to make sure he can leave something special behind for his community.
One evening, he calls out to ʿAbbān, who is kneeling by his side. His voice is very faint, but ʿAbbān notices it is filled with a new kind of strength. “ʿAbbān, you are like a son to me, and you have been very kind. I can feel that my death is near, but there is something very important to me that I haven’t been able to do. I want to entrust this task to you.” Salīm looks into ʿAbbān’s eyes, searching for a response.
ʿAbbān takes Salīm’s hand and gently kisses it. “You are like a father to me. Tell me what I need to do, and with Allah’s help I will do it.”
Encouraged, Salīm continues. “These past few years, I have been compiling a book of ḥadīth. There is so much I have learned from my master ʿAlī (ʿa), and I want others to be able to learn from his teachings as well.” Salīm struggles to sit up. He reaches for his cloak, folded beside him, and begins to unfold it. Hidden inside is the leather-bound book he had brought with him that first night. “I want to entrust it to you,” he says again, offering ʿAbbān the book. “Make sure that it reaches the children of ʿAlī (ʿa) safely. It must never be lost or destroyed.”
ʿAbbān carefully takes the book from Salīm and holds it close to his chest. “I will guard it with my life,” he promises. “I can only imagine how hard you must have worked to preserve this knowledge. It is truly a treasure.”
ʿAbbān looks at Salīm for a long moment and gently strokes his papery wrinkled hand. Salīm’s eyes are closed, but his lips slowly mouth the shahādah. There is no god but Allah. Muḥammad (ṣ) is his messenger. ʿAlī (ʿa) is the Prophet’s (ṣ) rightful successor. Then his lips stop moving, and the old man lies still.
After burying Salīm with his own hands, ʿAbbān gazes at the book, wiping tears from his eyes. Although it is light, it feels heavy in his hands because of how precious it is, and because of how much Salīm sacrificed for its sake. Remembering the circumstances under which the book has come to him, ʿAbbān feels the weight of this trust. The Umayyads have destroyed so many treasure troves of knowledge out of their hatred for everything good, including students, scholars, and even entire libraries. Only a handful of books have survived.
He begins to flip through the book and is awed by the beauty and wisdom of the words on each page. Truly, it is a priceless treasure.
Finally, he closes the book. He knows he must take it to the family of the Prophet (ṣ) without delay. The month of Dhul Ḥijjah is drawing near, and people from all over the Muslim ummah will flock to Mecca for Ḥajj. He knows that is one place where the Shīʿah will be able to come together without facing outright persecution. He knows that is one place where he will be able to find the Imām (ʿa). Above all, he knows that Allah is the Lord of the Kaʿbah, and that if he seeks refuge in Allah and His house, he may finally be able to find some peace after the struggles and hardships he has faced in the past months. He prays to Allah that he will be able to enjoy the blessings of this sacred pilgrimage, fulfill his promise to Salīm, and find comfort in meeting his beloved Imām Sajjad (ʿa). He decides it is best to make preparations for his journey at once. The road from Basra to Mecca is a long one.
ʿAbbān arrives in Mecca some time before the rituals of Ḥajj officially begin. The Kaʿbah looms into view as he enters the ḥaram. Many worshippers have already gathered to pray or to read Qurʾān in the blessed shadow of the Kaʿbah. ʿAbbān notices that many wear rings on their right hands. As he comes closer, he sees that one group is loosely clustered around Maqām Ibrāhīm, the stone that Prophet Ibrāhīm (ʿa) used as a stepping stool when rebuilding the Kaʿbah, which has his footprints miraculously embedded in it forever. Standing on the tips of his toes, ʿAbbān peers into the center of the cluster and notices a man in sajdah. Even from a distance, ʿAbbān can sense the intensity of the man’s conversation with Allah. In this moment, the world around him no longer matters. ʿAbbān stands, mesmerized, watching who he knows to be the Imām (ʿa). After a long while, the Imām (ʿa) lifts his head from sajdah.
ʿAbbān feels himself trembling uncontrollably. His heart urges him to rush to the Imām’s (ʿa) side at once. After the turmoil and grief of the past months, he longs to embrace the Imām (ʿa) and let all his worries slip off his shoulders. But at the same time, he is hesitant, and butterflies flutter in his stomach. To be so close to the Imām (ʿa) fills him with awe. Unsure of how to proceed, ʿAbbān walks toward the cluster, sits off to the side, and begins to recite Qurʾān to calm his nerves. Even though Arabic is not his first language, his beautiful recitation outmatches that of most Arabs. Even as he recites under his breath, a wonderful melody fills his mind and he loses himself in the meaning of the verses.
“Salāmun ʿalaykum, ʿAbbān,” says a voice beside him. ʿAbbān looks up and sees the Imām (ʿa) smiling at him. “Your recitation is beautiful, even when it is barely louder than a whisper. It reflects the beauty of your soul.”
ʿAbbān scrambles to his feet to kiss the Imām’s (ʿa) hand. “Wa ʿalaykum salām, my Imām. I can only try to bring the beauty of Allah’s words to life.”
The Imām looks into ʿAbbān’s eyes. “You seem tired,” he observes. “You’ve come a long way. Either you carry a very great treasure or a very heavy burden, or both.”
ʿAbbān gives a small half-smile. “Both,” he says. ʿAbbān brings out the book from his bag and holds it out for the Imām (ʿa) to take. “Here is the treasure. It is a gift, an offering from Salīm ibn al-Qays. It is his compilation of hadīth from your fathers. His dying wish was that you should have it, so it will be safe from your enemies.” He pauses as Salīm’s death flashes before his eyes.
“May Allah grant him a special place in Paradise,” says the Imām (ʿa) in a low voice as he takes the book. “It saddens me to hear that he has passed away. Thank you, ʿAbbān. You have been a loyal messenger.”
The two embrace and share a moment of silent mourning before ʿAbbān continues, spilling out everything he has kept bottled up for so long. “But the burden--it’s just that we’ve had to hide for so long. We’ve had to live in fear, afraid that every move we make is being watched by those who want to hurt us. How much longer will we have to hide?”
“This is a difficult time for our Shīʿah,” replies the Imām (ʿa). “It is Allah’s way of testing our devotion and strengthening our trust and faith in him. But it will not always be like this. InshāʾAllāh, there will come a day when we no longer have to hide. ʿAbbān, you will live to see better times, when my son, Muḥammad (ʿa), and my grandson, Jaʿfar (ʿa), will be able to teach much more freely than I. Continue to cherish the love you have for us, and Allah will continue to reward you for it and guide you on your way.”
ʿAbbān nods. He feels the burden he has carried with himself for so long slip off his shoulders. Here, in the shadow of Allah’s house, where Islam first took root, at Imām Sajjad’s (ʿa) side, ʿAbbān is able to find peace at last.