Article: The Three who Stayed Behind

A moving and inspirational story about honesty, sincerity, and forgiveness

The story of the three who stayed behind is a very inspiring and moving story from the seerah. The seerah is an Arabic word that refers to the events of the historical period during the life of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh - peace be upon him). This story is referred to in the holy Quran (Chapter 9: verses 117 and 118). The details of the story are told by Ka'ab ibn Malik, who was actually one of the three men. The story goes as follows.

The Tabuk Expedition

In the 9th year following the Hijrah (immigration) of Prophet Mohammad from the city of Makkah to the city of Al-Madinah (630 AD), the Messenger of Allah (Prophet Mohammad) decided to launch the Tabuk expedition in response to a Roman army that was approaching from the north. The goal of the expedition was a show of strength to prevent an attack from the Romans. Prophet Mohammad asked all able-bodied men to join this expedition, except for those who have special circumstances that would prevent them from traveling and leaving their homes for a long time. Valid excuses would be an illness, having elderly parents who need care, or lacking the necessary provisions to join the army. The companions of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) rushed to obey the Messenger, and they prepared themselves for the long trip.

The Tabuk expedition occurred in a very inopportune time for most people. It was a very hot time of the year, and most people avoided long travels during this time. The distance from Al-Madinah to Tabuk was over 600 kilometers, a trip that would take many days by foot or on camels and horses. Also, it was the time of harvest for many of the owners of gardens around Al-Madinah. Traveling at this time would mean that they would not be able to harvest, and would incur large financial losses.

Yet, even with all of these difficulties, the vast majority obeyed the Messenger (pbuh) without question. They took their provisions, prepared their belongings and were ready to join the army. The holy Quran even mentions people whose tears would flow when they were told by the Messenger that he was not able to accommodate them in the expedition.

There is no blame on the weak, the sick, or those lacking the means (if they stay behind), as long as they are true to Allah and His Messenger. There is no blame on those who do good. And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful (Quran: Chapter 9: verse 91).

Nor (is there any blame on) those who came to you (Mohammad) to transport them, then when you said: “I can find no means of transportation for you,” they left with eyes overflowing with tears out of sadness that they had nothing to contribute (Quran: Chapter 9: verse 92).

The Hypocrites

However, there was another group of people living in Al-Madinah who were hypocrites. They publicly declared their loyalty to Islam while in reality they did not actually believe in it, and they often worked against the Muslims and did not hesitate to betray their community in order to advance their own personal interests. These hypocrites hated the idea of traveling at this time to join the expedition. They preferred to stay at their homes to avoid the heat and the hardship. They wanted to harvest their crops and gain the financial benefits. They thought that it is illogical to travel at this time, and that they must take care of their families and provide for them. They wanted to enjoy the safety and security offered by the Muslims of Al-Madinah without making any sacrifices or contributions. So they started to look for any excuse to stay behind and not join the expedition. They started to tell each other and the believers not to go out in this intense heat, and Allah answered them in the holy Quran in the following verse.

Those (hypocrites) who remained behind rejoiced for doing so in defiance of the Messenger of Allah and hated (the prospect of) striving with their wealth and their lives in the cause of Allah. They said: “Do not march forth in the heat.” Say: “The Fire of Hell is far hotter!” If only they could comprehend! (Quran: Chapter 9: verse 81)

A Test of Faith

The Messenger (pbuh) left with a large number of the companions towards Tabuk. Some of the companions were late making last minute arrangements, but they continued catching up and joining the Messenger (pbuh). Only the hypocrites and those with a valid excuse were left behind. After some time, the Messenger (pbuh) started asking about people whom he didn't see. He wanted to know who obeyed the orders and who rejected them. It is as if he knew that this was more than an expedition. This was a test of faith. Allah (swt) wanted to test the Muslims to see who are the true and sincere believers and who are the people who will make up any excuse to stay in their comfortable lives and to avoid any hardship for the sake of their community and faith.

Indeed, it was a test of faith. There was no battle. After arriving at Tabuk, the Muslims discovered that the army they expected to meet retreated when they got news that a Muslim army was marching towards them. However, the expedition served as a test to see who would be loyal in the face of the hardship of this long and difficult journey. Those who overcame their personal desires and decided to obey Allah (swt) and the Messenger (pbuh), even through intense hardship, passed the test.

When the army arrived back in Al-Madinah, the hypocrites went to the Messenger (pbuh), and one by one they would tell him their excuse. They would lie and make up stories to justify why they refused to obey the order. The Messenger (pbuh) accepted their excuses, although Allah (swt) exposed them in the holy Quran (see verses 90 - 96 of Chapter 9: Al-Tawbah).

The Three Who Stayed Behind

Three of the companions, the three who stayed behind, were different. They were in good health, and had enough wealth and resources that they could have joined the expedition. But they did not. They disobeyed Allah (swt) and the Messenger (pbuh) and gave in to their own personal interests and desires.

Ka'ab ibn Malik was one of those three men, and he later told his story. He said that he was in his full health and strength at the time of the Tabuk expedition. He was also financially able to go. However, he did not prepare when the others prepared, and he told himself that he would delay his travel and catch up with the expedition after a day or two. The days passed, and he kept delaying the travel, until it was too late for him to catch up. So he stayed behind, and he noticed that the only men remaining in Al-Madinah were the hypocrites, the sick and the elderly, which greatly saddened him.

When he heard that the Messenger (pbuh) arrived back in Al-Madinah, he went to the masjid to welcome him back. He initially thought of any excuse or lie to tell the Messenger (pbuh) in order to avoid angering him. But then he remembered Allah (swt), and he knew that Allah (swt) knows the truth that is in his heart. He realized that he should be honest, and that lying will not help him. In fact, it will only add more sins to the one he has already committed by not joining the Messenger (pbuh).

He arrived at the masjid, and found the hypocrites making excuses and lying to the Messenger (pbuh). He saw the Messenger (pbuh) was accepting their excuses, forgiving them and even praying to Allah (swt) to forgive them. However, being a true, sincere and honest person, he could not lie. He was just not able to lie.

He went up to the Messenger (pbuh), who smiled to him but was visibly angry. The Messenger told him to come close and sit beside him. He then asked him: "What made you stay behind, didn't you prepare to come with us?" Ka'ab ibn Malik replied: "By Allah, I was never in better health or wealth than I was on the day you left, and I had no excuse and no reason for not joining". The Messenger (pbuh) told him to get up and leave until Allah (swt) reveals his judgement. Only two other men had the courage and moral character to do the same as Ka'ab ibn Malik, accepting full responsibility for their actions and refusing to lie or make up excuses like the hypocrites did.

The Messenger (pbuh) asked the Muslims to boycott the three men. No one was allowed to talk to them, not even return their greetings. Even their own families would not talk to them. The boycott continued for fifty days!

A Lesson in Honesty and Sincerity

The honesty of Ka'ab ibn Malik serves as an important lesson to us. Even though he saw the Messenger (pbuh) accepting the excuses and forgiving anyone who made up any excuse, he simply refused to lie. As a Muslim and a believer, he knew that lying was forbidden. He knew that he could not correct one sin by adding another sin to it. He knew that even if he lied and got away with it in this life, that Allah (swt) knows the truth and will hold him accountable for this lie on the Day of Judgement. He knew how bad the consequences of saying the truth would be for him in this life. But he chose hardship and misery in this life over saying one lie and deserving the punishment from Allah (swt) for it on the Day of Judgement.

We really should learn a lesson from the honesty of this man. How many of us would do what he did? How many of us would have just lied and made up an excuse and then said to ourselves that it's just a small lie, and that we will ask Allah (swt) to forgive us later? How many of us would have passed this test of sincerity and honesty? We should follow his example, because this is the example of true and sincere Muslims. In fact, Allah (swt) pointed to this beautiful moral character in these three men who stayed behind in verse 119 of surat Al-Tawbah, where Allah (swt) advises all believers:

"Oh believers, fear Allah, and stand with the truthful ones" (Quran: Chapter 9: verse 119).

This verse comes directly after the verse that mentioned the story of the three men, and although they committed a mistake by not adhering to the order of the Messenger (pbuh) to go on the Tabuk expedition, Allah (swt) forgave them and accepted their repentance, and Allah (swt) mentioned them as "the truthful ones" in the Quran. Their truthfulness and high moral character saved them from their sins and ensured their forgiveness. On the other hand, the hypocrites who thought that they got away with their lies, they did not gain the forgiveness of Allah (swt) and their lies were exposed in the Quran.

Forgiveness and Mercy

The story has a happy ending of course. Allah (swt), after 50 days, revealed verse 118 of surat Al-Tawbah:

"And to the three who were left behind until the earth became narrow with all its vastness, and their souls became narrow for them, they knew there was no shelter from Allah except in Him. Then He turned to them (in mercy) so that they might also turn (in repentance). Allah is the One who accepts repentance, the Most Merciful."

Their forgiveness was revealed in the holy Quran, it has been recited since that day, and will continue to be recited forever by billions of Muslims around the world. Allah (swt) replaced their hardship and misery with the honour of vindication and of being mentioned in the holy Quran. This was their reward for their sincerity and honesty, even though they committed a sin and made a mistake. But they were sincere in their hearts, and they truly loved Allah (swt) and the Messenger (pbuh).

From this we learn that it's never too late to seek forgiveness. It's never too late to turn a new page. Allah (swt) forgives all sins, as long as we are sincere. As long as we love Allah (swt) and the Messenger (pbuh) in our hearts, and we ask for forgiveness sincerely, God-willing we shall be granted forgiveness by the Most Gracious and the Most Merciful.

When these verses were revealed, the people raced to the home of Ka'ab ibn Malik to give him the good news that his forgiveness had been revealed in the Quran. One of them even got on top of a house and shouted out the news. Everyone wanted to be the first to tell Ka'ab that he has been forgiven. They went to his home, hugged him and congratulated him on the forgiveness that he was granted from Allah (swt).

What a beautiful example of brotherhood. Even though he had made a mistake, and even though these same people had boycotted him for 50 days because of this mistake, when Allah (swt) forgave him they raced to congratulate him! They were eager for him to be forgiven, and they were quick to forgive him as well.

This is a wonderful lesson on how to deal with those who commit sins. This is how the companions who lived with the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) and learned from his character behaved. Islam teaches us to help those who make mistakes and commit sins to stop those bad actions. While we may hate the sins, such as lying, cheating, or stealing, we should not hate the person themselves. Unfortunately, our human nature sometimes leads us to treat those who commit sins badly, to judge them, and to act as if we are better than them. Even when a person who made a mistake repents, sometimes people will still suspect them and never forget their mistake. These are not the manners that Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) and his companions taught us. We should follow the beautiful example of the companions, and follow their high moral character. We should rush towards those who repent, and love for others to repent. We should love them and work with them to help them stop committing sins, not accuse, judge, and fight them. We are all in this together, and we must help each other pass the difficult tests of this life. After all, one day it could be us who make a mistake and need help to get back on the right path.