His Birth and Early Life
We have, in the story of Zakariya AS, given details of how Zakariya's AS sincere supplication to Allah led to his wife conceiving Yahya AS in extreme old age. We also learnt how Allah selected the name Yahya for him, which was a name previously unheard of in human history.
The family tree of Zakariya AS, Yahya AS, Maryam AS and Isa AS is closely linked. Yahya AS would later be related to Isa AS, as his mother, the wife of Zakariya AS, was the maternal aunt of Maryam AS. According to some reports, the wife of Zakariya AS and Maryam AS were with child at around the same time and she told Maryam AS that she had a premonition that the one in her belly (Yahya AS) will one day prostrate to the one in Maryam's AS belly (Isa AS). At this time, prostrating to each other was allowed and denoted a sign of respect.
Arabic scholars speculate that the name Yahya came from the root word "Hayaa" meaning life, because he brought life to his mother's barren womb. It is also said that the name was given because Allah elevated him in the earth with his faith and piety, and to be guided as a messenger. Allah blessed him with plenty of unique qualities that none other possessed.
Even as a child, Yahya AS did not fritter his time on silly things. Once, some children invited him to play with them. He replied that they were not created for play. This showed that from an early age, Yahya AS was single minded and serious about his purpose in life, which was to worship and serve Allah.
Unlike most other Prophets who received the revelation after they turned forty, Yahya AS was given sacred scriptures from a young age. From childhood, Yahya AS was given the upper hand in religious knowledge and wisdom, which reflected in his righteous qualities:
(It was said to his son): "O Yahya! Hold fast the Scripture [the Taurat]." And We gave him wisdom while yet a child. (Al Qur'an 19:12)
The Character of Yahya AS
Yahya AS was, to his community, the best of characters: calm and deeply compassionate to both humans and animals. He was merciful and tender to everyone, and bore a deep love of all of Allah's creations. His manner was gentle and tranquil, and he was not quick to anger.
He was so pure in behaviour and thought that there was not a single action of his that disobeyed Allah. Even though Prophets and Messengers are allowed to take wives, he did not even desire for the pleasure of a woman's companionship because he did not want his heart or attention to be occupied by anyone other than Allah. He remained chaste throughout his life.
He refrained from any form of wrongdoing and his behaviour was so spotless that no one in the community could gossip or even speculate about him. Of him, Allah says:
And (made him) sympathetic to men as a mercy (or a grant) from Us, and pure from sins [i.e. Yahya] and he was righteous. (Al Qur'an 19:13)
He was also a dutiful son, and never once disobeyed his parents. He served and honoured them, being kind, patient and generous even as they became extremely old. In short, his character was flawless, never once transgressing, or showing even any signs of arrogance or disobedience.
And dutiful towards his parents, and he was neither an arrogant nor disobedient (to Allah or to his parents) . (Al Qur'an 19:14)
Imagine such a person, and also the blessed surroundings he grew up in: son of a Prophet and a pious woman, grandson of 'Imran (who as we mentioned, was one of the best families in the eyes of Allah of all time), the cousin of Maryam AS and the uncle of Isa AS.
So honourable was his character that Allah gave him, or will give him salam, on each of the three stages of his life: his birth, his death and his resurrection:
So Peace on him the day he was born the day that he dies and the day that he will be raised up to life (again)! (Al Qur'an 19:15)
The Messenger of Allah SAW said: 'Every son of Adam will come on the day of Resurrection and he will have sin against him except Yahya bin Zakariya.’ (Al-Hakam)
It is reported that one day, Yahya AS was walking with Isa AS. Isa AS asked Yahya AS to ask Allah to forgive him, because Yahya AS was better than he. Yahya AS replied that Isa AS was to make du’a for him instead because Isa AS was better than he.
To this Isa AS replied that "You are better than me, because I called peace on myself, but in your case, Allah sent His peace upon you." This is in reference to when Isa AS addressed his people while still an infant, saying: “And peace is on me the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive. " (Al Qur’an 19:33)
Even Isa AS recognised that in some aspects, Yahya AS was superior, showing their mutual humility and acknowledgement of the station in life that the other had.
According to Hadith, Yahya AS will be the leader of the youths in Paradise, together with Hasan RA and Hussein RA (the grandsons of Muhammad SAW through his daughter, Fatimah RA and her husband Ali ibn Abi Talib RA).
Yahya AS used to weep copiously from the fear of Allah, to the extent that his face was etched with the groove of his tears. We are reminded of the Hadith which states that:
“Two eyes will not be touched by Hellfire: An eye that cries from the fear of Allah, and an eye that spent the night in a guard post in the path of Allah (Jihad) .” [Tirmidhi]
He preferred to spend his days in seclusion, shunning the company of others. He also did not have an ordinary diet, preferring to eat leaves and drink water from the spring. It is said that he was so afraid of depriving birds and animals from their share that he would wait for them to finish first, sometimes even eating their leftovers.
It was reported that the scholar Abu Idris Al Khaulani asked: "Shall I tell you who ate the purest food?" He then told the expectant crowd: "Yahya bin Zakariya ate the purest food. He ate rather with animals than with me, because he disliked mixing with people. "
Yahya AS never owned any property or wealth. In fact, during this time, Bani Israel were accustomed to living in luxury and wearing fine clothing. Yahya AS instead preferred to use the hide and pelt of animals, again demonstrating his surrender, humility, fear and love for Allah.
The Qur'an describes every personality type amongst the believers, on one end of the spectrum, Sulaiman AS had everything he wished for, and on the other end, Yahya AS owned nothing of dunia. At this point, we need to stop and think where we are. We always attribute our status to the kind of house we live in, what we wear and the type of food we eat, but we disregard that we should live in accordance to what Allah expects of us, rich or poor.
According to some reports, on one occasion, Yahya AS went missing. His parents found him sitting in the Jordan River, crying. He explained that the people of jannah do not sleep from the pleasure of Allah that they received. How therefore, could he now sleep, not knowing if he had attained the pleasure of Allah?
In another report, on another occasion, they found Yahya AS sitting and weeping in a grave that he had dug for himself. His father, Zakariya AS, asked what he was doing. Yahya AS replied: "Oh father! Did you not yourself tell me that between Jannah and Hell, there is only one crossing which cannot be crossed except by the tears of the weepers? " Zakariya AS then said: "Weep my son, " and they both cried together.
The Message of Yahya AS
The people of Bani Israel loved and respected Yahya AS greatly and his words used to touch their hearts.
Imam Ahmad reported that Allah commanded Yahya AS with five duties which he was asked to command Bani Israel with. Yahya AS delayed for a while in implementing this command, so he was reproached by Isa AS that he if he did not carry out his command, that Isa AS would do it instead.
In response, Yahya AS gathered the Israelites in Jerusalem and delivered the five commandments, which were to worship none other than Allah without associating Him with any partner, because the similitude is like the one who has bought a slave with the best of his wealth, silver or gold, but the slave started working for others.
The second was to offer prayers to Allah, and not to allow themselves to be distracted towards other things.
The third is of the commandment to fast, as its similitude was that of a man who has a bag of musk among a multitude of people, of whom everyone enjoys its fragrance.
The fourth was to give in charity, because the parable is like the one who was captured by an enemy, and they tied his hand up with his neck, and then wanted to behead him. The man at this point would ask his enemy: "Is it possible that I pay ransom and free myself? " After his captors agreed, the man would pay his ransom with everything he had, until he was freed.
The fifth was the frequent remembrance (zikr) of Allah, the similitude being that of a man whom his enemy had chased out, but he had found a fortified castle and entered it. The man is more protected from his enemy (Shaitan) when he is in Allah's remembrance.
The Death of Yahya AS
Accounts differ on the circumstances leading to the death of Yahya AS, although the outcome of these reports coincided. According to one report, the King at the time was incensed because Yahya's AS popularity with the people exceeded his. The King also desired a woman, whom, because of their close blood relationship, was prohibited to him by the laws of Allah, and did not like it that Yahya AS made the people aware of this prohibition.
The woman in question, enraged that Yahya AS was an obstacle to their marriage, continued to entice the King. She kept on trying to lure and seduce him, until the King, inflamed by desire, promised to give her anything she wanted for her hand in marriage, regardless that the marriage was unlawful in Islam. She was so evil that she requested for the head of Yahya AS to be served to her on a platter. The King agreed to her demand, and deployed his army to Yahya's AS mihrab (prayer sanctuary) where they decapitated him and brought his severed head to the King.
In another version, it is reported that Yahya AS was delivering a sermon when a very pretty prostitute desired him. He refused her advances, which left her furious and scheming for revenge. Over time, the King at that time grew to desire her. As a payback for spurning her earlier, she stipulated that if the King wanted her, he would have to deliver Yahya's AS head to her. This story has the same ending, in that Yahya AS was brutally murdered because of the spite of one woman, and his head was delivered to them. Imagine how heinous the people were then, to have slain a Prophet and Messenger, without any fear of Allah.
Say: "Verily, there came to you Messengers before me, with clear signs and even with what you speak of; why then did you kill them, if you are truthful?" (Al Qur'an 3:183)
Lessons to be Learnt
The Physical Life
When we study the stories in the Qur’an, whether of Prophets and Messengers or of ordinary people, we should realize an important truth: no matter what our circumstances are, there is a story, or a character in the Qur’an, that matches our station in life. Whether we are rich or poor, with a high status or just a commoner, man or woman, these stories teach us how we are to behave, and also the behaviour we should avoid.
In the story of Yahya AS, the message is that there is nothing to be ashamed of if living a very frugal life, and that one does not have to indulge in a luxurious lifestyle to gain the pleasure of Allah. On the other hand, one should also not blame poverty or lack of means to stop from being thankful and appreciative to Allah. What made Yahya AS so beloved to Allah was his level of piety, devotion and humbleness, being totally disinterested and disconnected from any worldly pleasures. He did not worry that he owned virtually nothing – all of this was irrelevant to him in his journey of iman.
Therefore, even if we do not own very much in this life, what is our excuse? Lack of means should not be a barrier of our worship and devotion to Allah, as demonstrated time and time again by most Prophets. However, we get anxious, blame and complain and then use our lack of wealth as a justification not to be diligent in our devotion. The story of Yahya AS shows us that the opposite of this behaviour is the correct one.
The Physical Death
Yahya AS led a life close to perfection – and this is the behaviour and utter devotion that all of us should aspire to. He spurned dunia, and guarded his heart and limbs from any distraction that would divert him from the remembrance of Allah. Undoubtedly, he was one of the most beloved creations of Allah, living his life in complete and utter devotion to Allah from childhood.
Yet, despite his piety and status, Allah allowed him to die in the most hideous and brutal manner. Some of us may consider this to be a disgraceful and humiliating death. The point to be made here is that the humiliation of the physical body is not something that we should worry about, on the condition that our soul, status of the heart, and strength of our faith grants us the closeness and pleasure of Allah. Today, we see many brothers and sisters in Islam murdered, humiliated and brutalized at the hands of infidels and wicked and corrupted so-called Muslims – if they died with their iman intact and with the love of Allah embedded in their hearts, they are indeed the victors.
Death is beyond our control, and what is important is how we lived our lives, and how firm our faith in Allah is at the moment of our deaths. What we should strive for is to live for Allah, gain the honour in Allah’s kingdom and pray for Allah to honour us, despite how the moment of death actually arrives.
Through the passage of time, Bani Israel became increasingly bold in their disobedience, to the extent that they were willing to murder Prophets with their own hands. As we come close to the conclusion of our series on the Prophets and Messengers, the question that remains for us is: Why did Allah grant us numerous examples of the disbelievers, the criminals and the disobedient, starting from the first generation of mankind born on earth, all the way to the despicable behaviour of Bani Israel, and later the behaviour of the Quraish (before they submitted to Islam)? These all provide stern warnings for us, for each of the stories describe their characteristics to the point that they became spiritually blind: arrogant, envious, stingy, leading to hypocrisy and disbelief. Allah will never guide those who are oppressors, or are stingy or arrogant. The Bani Israel during this time strayed so far from fear of Allah that they were willing to kill Prophets with their own hands and their actions are condemned by Allah until the end of time.
May Allah protect us from all these evil qualities, and make us amongst the rightly guided, ameen.