Abu Talib ibn Abdul-Muttalib
ابو طالب بن عبدالمطلب (Arabic)
|Born||Abdul Manaf or Imran
c. 549 CE
|Died||c. 620 CE|
|Known for||being the uncle of Muhammad|
|Spouse(s)||Fatimah bint Asad|
Fatimah bint Amr
Abu Talib ibn Abdul-Muttalib (c. 549 – 619) was the leader of the Banu Hashim, a clan of the Quraysh tribe of Mecca in Arabia. After the death of Abd al-Muttalib he inherited this position and the offices of siqaya and rifada. He was well respected in Mecca despite a declining fortune.
Abu Talib was an uncle of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. There is a great debate among Muslim scholars on whether he died a Muslim or a non-Muslim.
Relationship with Muhammad
Abū Ṭālib was a brother of Muḥammad's father, 'Abdullāh ibn Abdul-Muttalib, who had died before Muḥammad's birth. After the death of Muḥammad's mother Āminah bint Wahb, Muḥammad as a child was taken into the care of his grandfather, Abdul-Muttalib. When Muḥammad reached eight years of age, 'Abdul-Muttalib died. One of the Prophet’s uncles was to take him in. The oldest, Al-Harith was not wealthy enough to take him in. Al-‘Abbas was the wealthiest but he was not welcoming. Abu Talib, despite his poverty, took in the Prophet because of his generosity. Although, it is confusing that Abu Talib was responsible for Siqaya & Rifada (Food & Beverages) of Hajj pilgrims, yet he was poor.
Once, as Abu Talib was about to leave for a trading expedition, Muhammad wept and could not bear to be separated from him. To this Abu Talib responded, "By God I will take him with me, and we shall never part from each other." 
Later in life, as an adult, Muhammad saw that Abu Talib was struggling financially after a severe drought. Muhammad decided to take charge of one of Abu Talib’s children and he convinced al-‘Abbas to do the same. They discussed this matter with Abū Ṭālib, who asked that his favorite child 'Aqīl be left with him. Al-'Abbās chose Talib, and Muḥammad chose 'Alī.
In tribal society, a tribal affiliation is important, otherwise a man can be killed with impunity. As leader of the Banu Hashim, Abu Talib acted as a protector to Muhammad. After Muḥammad began preaching the message of Islam, members of the other Qurayshite clans increasingly came to feel threatened by Muḥammad. In attempts to quiet him, they pressured Abū Ṭālib to silence his nephew or control him. Despite these pressures, Abū Ṭālib maintained his support of Muḥammad, defending him from the other leaders of the Quraysh. Leaders of the Quraysh directly confronted Abu Talib several times. Abu Talib brushed them off and continued to support Muhammad even when it put a rift between him and the Quraysh. In one account, the Quraysh even threatened to fight the Banu Hashim over this conflict. In a particular narration of one such confrontation, Abu Talib summoned Muhammad to speak with the Quraysh. The Prophet asked the Quraysh leaders to say the shahada and they were astounded.
The Quraysh even tried to bribe Abu Talib. The Quraysh told Abu Talib that if he let them handle Muhammad he could adopt ‘Umarah ibn al Walid ibn al Mughirah, the handsomest youth in Quraysh.
When this also failed, the Quraysh elicited the support of other tribes to boycott trading with or marrying members of the Banu Hashim lineage. This boycott started seven years after the Prophet first received revelation and lasted for three years. The goal was to put pressure on the Hashimites and even starve them into submission. For the sake of security many members of the Banu Hashim moved near to Abu Talib (Encyclopedia of Islam) and the place became like a ghetto. This didn’t cause undue hardship  because many had family members in other tribes that would smuggle goods to them. Abu Talib’s brother, Abu Lahab, sided with the Quraysh on this issue; he moved to a house in the district of Abd Shams to demonstrate support for the Quraysh. He thought Muhammad was either mad or an impostor.
Protecting Muhammad put considerable pressure on Abu Talib and the Banu Hashim. In one instance Abu Talib exclaimed to Muhammad, “Spare me and yourself, and do not put a greater burden on me than I can bear”. The Prophet responded, "Oh uncle! By God Almighty I swear, even if they should put the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left that I abjure this cause, I shall not do so until God has vindicated it or caused me to perish in the process." Seeing his nephew’s emotion, Abu Talib responded, "Go, nephew, and say what you like. By God, I will never hand you over for any reason."
Abū Ṭālib's died circa 619, at more than 80 years of age, 10 years after the Prophet received revelation. This year is known as the Year of Sorrow because Khadija, Muhammad’s wife, died within a month of Abu Talib.
Before Abu Talib died, Muhammad asked him to say the shahada. According to one tradition, Abu Talib refused because he claimed that the Quraysh (who were present) would mock him and accuse him of saying the shahada because he feared death. In another tradition Abu Talib was dissuaded from saying the shahada by the Quraysh. According to the historiographer Fred McGraw Donner, both of these traditions have very old isnads but the first variation has two different isnads which might suggest that the second variation is a modification of the older, first variation.
In yet another variation of Abu Talib’s death, al-‘Abbas, who was sitting next to Abu Talib as he died, saw Abu Talib moving his lips. Al-‘Abbas claimed that Abu Talib had said the shahada but Muhammad replied that he had not heard it. Some Muslims see this as proof that Abu Talib died a Muslim. However, the majority of sources state that Abu Talib died a pagan.
After Abu Talib’s death, the Prophet was left unprotected. Abu Talib’s successor, Abu Lahab, did not protect him. Muhammad and his followers faced incredible persecution. Muhammad is quoted as exclaiming, "By God, Quraysh never harmed me so much as after the death of Abu Talib." The early Muslims relocated to Medina in order to escape persecution by the Quraysh.
Muhammad's references to Abu Talib after his death
As is well known in the biographies and hadith collections, the Prophet, at the age of 12, traveled with his uncle, who had adopted him and raised him, to Syria for trade. There they met the monk Bahira, who recognized that the child (Muhammad) is a Prophet. Bahira asked Abu Talib, "What is this boy’s relation to you?" Abu Talib replied, "This is my son." Bahira replied, "His father should not be alive. He died before he was born." Abu Talib replied, "My nephew." On this occasion, Abu Talib loved Muhammad so much that he would call his nephew Muhammad as “my son.” Likewise, the Prophet Muhammad called Abu Talib his "father."
As is narrated in the hadith collection of Al-Muslim, some time after Abu Talib had passed away, a man whose father also passed away came to the Prophet and asked, “Oh Prophet! Where is my father now?” The Prophet replied: “In the fire.” The man became distressed at the fact that his father who passed away was suffering in the hellfire. As the man walked away, the Prophet wanted to console him, so he said to him, “Both my father (Abu Talib) and your father are in the fire.” Here, the Prophet was referring to his uncle who raised him, Abu Talib. He called him that not only because it is normal in the language of the Arabs, but because it was more effective in consoling the man. The hadiths describing Abu Talib’s punishment in the fire and how he was the least of all of people there in punishment make it clear that he was being punished as a sinning believer. How could he not believe when Bahira had told him that his nephew was to be a Prophet, and when Abu Talib composed many lines of poetry praising his nephew’s religion as the best religion?
Instead, Abu Talib was being punished for fearing the people of Quraysh and what they would say about him if he declared his Shahada. But when Allah removes the sinning believers from the fire, Abu Talib will be rescued with them and will eventually enter Paradise, and God knows best. There is a large work on this subject by the Mufti of Mecca, Shaykh Ahmad Zayni Dahlan (d. 1886). We know that the Prophet Muhammad could not have meant his actual father Abdullah because all of the Prophet’s ancestors were monotheists, as many of the Islamic scholars have declared. After all, the Prophet had said in the hadith narrated by Abu Nu’aym, “Allah continued moving me from the pure backs of fathers to the pure wombs of mothers. Never would a family line branch out in two except that I was in the best of the two.” As the scholars say, only the believing men and women are described as pure, and this shows that all of his ancestors, fathers and mothers from Adam and Eve, to Ibrahim’s parents, until Abdullah and Aminah were believers.
Sunni and Shia views
Originally, the Abbasids and Shias worked together to overthrow the Umayyad dynasty, and both tried to legitimize their claim to power through ancestral relationship to the Prophet. The Abbasids traced their ancestry to al-Abbas, while the Shias traced their ancestry to ‘Ali, son of Abu Talib. Therefore, in order to assert their credibility, the Abbasids (who embraced Sunni Islam) tried to discredit Abu Talib by emphasizing that he died a pagan.
Historical Sunni view
Traditions differed about the role of Abu Talib and his relation to Muhammad. According to Uri Rubin, traditions that present Abu Talib's heroic role remained outside the Sunni musannaf compilations, and only ones which present him as a "cowardly old man who will not renounce the old religion of his fellow tribesmen" were admitted. They emphasize his pagan conduct and some sources even assert that Abu Talib demanded that Muhammad worship pagan idols.
The Abbasids tried to emphasize the Prophet's disappointment in Abu Talib; in one tradition recorded by the historian al-Mada'ini, and widely circulated by the Abbasids, one of two men states, "I wish that Abu Talib had embraced Islam, for the Apostle of God would have been delighted at that. But he was an unbeliever."
Along the same lines, there is a similar account where ‘Ali informs Muhammad of Abu Talib’s death by saying, "Your uncle, the erring old man, has died."
Historical Shia view
Shia’s believe that the father of the first imam, ‘Ali, must be nearly as great as the imam himself. Shias elevate Abu Talib and see him as a heroic defender of the Prophet. Many sources from this perspective claim that Abu Talib was indeed Muslim, he just kept his faith a secret so that he could better protect the prophet (150 Rubin).
In one account, when Abu Talib was ill, Muhammad fed grapes to him that God forbade unbelievers to eat. This implies that Abu Talib had accepted Islam despite his outward actions.
Others claimed that even if Abu Talib did not accept Islam, he did a great service to Islam by protecting the Prophet from the Quraysh. They put the blame of Abu Talib’s failure to convert on the Quarysh. Abu Talib was not to blame, because he had been intimidated.
Abu Talib was married to Fatimah bint Asad. They had four sons:
and two daughters:
His ancestors and some of the important descendents
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- Rubin, Uri (2013). Gudrun Kramer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Everett Rowson, ed. Encyclopaedia of Islam, Three. Brill Online.
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Zubayr ibn 'Abd al-Muṭallib
|Head of Banū Hāshim