In spite of his noble standing among the Quraysh, Abu Talib, an uncle of the Prophet, was quite poor. He had a large family and did not have enough means to support them adequately. His situation worsened when a severe drought hit the Arabian Peninsula, destroying vegetation and livestock and forcing some people to eat bones to survive.
It was at this time, before his call to prophethood, that Muhammad said to his uncle, al-'Abbas:
'Your brother, Abu Talib, has a large family. People, as you see, have been afflicted by this severe drought and are facing starvation. Let us go to Abu Talib and take on the care of some members of his family. I am ready to look after one of his sons and you might do the same for another'
Al-'Abbas agreed; they went together to Abu Talib and made their offer Abu Talib accepted:
'If you allow me to keep 'Aqil [one of his sons older than Ali], you may do otherwise as you please.
In this way 'Ali came into the household of the future Prophet, upon him be peace, Jafar into the household of al-'Abbas.
Ja'far closely resembled the Prophet. It is said there were five men from the Hashim clan who resembled the Prophet, so much as to mistaken for him. They were: his two cousins Abu Sufyan ibn al-Harith and Qutham ibn al-'Abbas; Al-Sa'ib ibn 'Ubayd, the grandfather of Imam al-Shafi'-i; Hasan ibn 'Ali, the grandson of the Prophet, who resembled him most of all; and Ja'far ibn Abi Talib.
Ja'far stayed with his uncle, al-'Abbas, until he was a young man. Then he married Asma bint Umays, a sister of Maymunah, later to become a wife of the Prophet. After his marriage, Ja'far went to live on his own. He and his wife were among the first persons to accept Islam. He became a Muslim at the hands of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, may God be pleased with him.
The young Ja'far and his wife were devoted to Islam. They bore the harsh persecution of the Quraysh with steadfast patience, because they understood that the way to Paradise must pass through hardship.
The Quraysh made life intolerable for them as for all their brothers and sisters in faith. They would prevent them from observing the duties and rites of Islam or, failing that, from tasting the sweetness of worship undisturbed. They would waylay them and hamper their freedom of movement.
Ja'far eventually went to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and sought permission for himself and a small group of the companions, including his wife, to emigrate to Abyssinia. With great sadness, the Prophet gave his permission. It pained him that these pure, upright souls should be forced to leave their homes, the cherished scenes of their childhood and youth, not for any crime but only because they said, 'Our Lord is One. God is our Lord'.
The group of Muhajirin (Emigrants) left Makka under the leadership of Ja'far and settled down in Abyssinia under the protection of the Negus, its just and righteous ruler. For the first time since becoming Muslims, they enjoyed freedom and security, and could practise their worship undisturbed.
When the Quraysh learnt of the departure of this small group, and of the peace they enjoyed, they made plans to secure their extradition back to Makka. They sent two of their most formidable men, 'Amr ibn al-'As and 'Abdullah ibn Abi Rabi'a, providing them with many valuables to aid their 'persuasion' of the Negus and his bishops.
In Abyssinia, the two Quraysh emissaries first presented their gifts to the bishops and to each of them they said:
'There are some wicked young people moving about freely in the King's land. They have attacked the religion of their forefathers and caused disunity among their people. When we speak to the King about them, advise him to surrender them to us without troubling to ask about their religion. The respected leaders of the people [meaning the bishops] are more knowledgeable of them and understand better what they believe.' The bishops agreed.
'Amr and 'Abdullah then went to the Negus and presented him with gifts which he greatly admired. They said to him;
'O King, there is a group of evil persons from among our youth who have escaped to your kingdom. They practice a religion which neither we nor you know. They have forsaken our religion and have not entered into your religion. The respected leaders of their people, their own parents and uncles included, and from their own clans - have sent us to you to request their return. They know best what trouble they have caused.'
The Negus looked towards his bishops who said:
'They speak the truth, O King. Their own people know them better and are better acquainted with what they have done. Send them back so that they themselves may judge them.'
The Negus was incensed at this suggestion and said:
'No, by God, I will not surrender them to anyone until I myself call them and question them about what they have been accused of. If what you two men have said is true, I will hand them over. If not, I will protect them so long as they desire my protection.'
The Muslims were summoned. Before appearing in the King's court, they consulted one another and agreed that Ja'far lbn Abi Talib and no one else should speak for them all.
In the court, the bishops, dressed in green surplices and impressive headwear, were seated on the right and left of the Negus. The Quraysh emissaries were also seated when the Muslims entered and took their seats. The Negus turned to them and asked:
'What is this religion which you have introduced for yourselves and which has led you to be cut off from the religion of your people? You have not adopted my religion nor the religion of any other community.'
Ja'far ibn Abi Talib then delivered a most moving, eloquent speech, still considered a most compelling brief account of Islam, of the appeal of the noble Prophet, and of the condition of Makkan society at the time. He said:
'O King, we were a people in a state of ignorance and immorality, worshipping idols and eating the flesh of dead animals, committing all sorts of abomination and shameful deeds, breaking the ties of kinship, treating guests badly, and the strong among us exploited the weak. We remained in this state until God sent us a Prophet, one of our own people whose lineage, truthfulness, trustworthiness and integrity were well-known to us.
'He called us to worship God alone and to renounce the stones and the idols which we and our ancestors used to worship besides God.
'He commanded us to speak the truth, to honour our promises, to be kind to our relatives, to be helpful to our neighbours, to desist from all forbidden acts, to abstain from bloodshed, to avoid obscenities and false witness, and not to appropriate an orphan's property or slander chaste women.
'He ordered us to worship God alone and not to associate anything with Him, to uphold salah, to give zakah and fast in the month of Ramadan.
'We believed in him and what he brought to us from God and we follow him in what he has asked us to do and we keep away from what he has forbidden us from approaching.
'Thereupon, O King, our people attacked us, visited the severest punishment upon us to make us renounce our religion and take us back to the old immorality and the worship of idols. They oppressed us, made life intolerable for us, and obstructed us from observing our religion. So we left for your country, choosing you before anyone else, desiring your protection and hoping to live in justice and peace in your midst.'
The Negus was impressed and eager to hear more. He asked Ja'far:
'Do you have with you something of what your Prophet brought concerning God?"
'Yes,' replied Ja'far
'Then read it to me,' requested the Negus.
Ja'far, in his rich, melodious voice recited for him the first portion of sura Maryam which deals with the story of Jesus, the son of Mary, upon him be peace. The Negus was moved to tears and said to the Muslims: 'The message of your Prophet and that of Jesus came from the same source.'
Turning to 'Amr and his companion, he said: 'Go. For, by God, I will never surrender them to you.'
That, however, was not the end of the matter. The wise and determined 'Amr made up his mind to go to the King the following day 'to mention something about the Muslims' belief which will certainly fill his heart with anger and make him detest them'.
'O King, these people, to whom you have given refuge and protection, say something terrible about Jesus the son of Mary [that he is a slave]. Send for them and ask them what they say about him.'
The Negus summoned the Muslims once more with Ja'far again acting as their spokesman. The Negus put the question:
'What do you say about Jesus, the son of Mary?'
'Regarding him, we only say what has been revealed to our Prophet,' replied Ja'far.
'What is that?' enquired the Negus.
'Our Prophet says that Jesus is the servant of God and His Prophet, His spirit and His word which He cast into Mary the Virgin.'
The Negus was obviously excited by this reply and exclaimed:
'By God, Jesus the son of Mary was exactly as your Prophet has described him.'
The bishops around the Negus grunted in disgust at what they had heard, but were reprimanded by the Negus. He turned to the Muslims and said:
'Go, for you are safe and secure. Whoever obstructs you will pay for it and whoever opposes you will be punished. For, by God, I would rather not have a mountain of gold than that anyone of you should come to any harm.'
Turning to 'Amr and his companion, he instructed his attendants:
'Return their gifts to these two men. I have no need of them.'
'Amr and his companion departed broken and frustrated. The Muslims stayed on in the land of the Negus who proved to be most generous and kind to his guests.
Ja'far and his wife Asma spent about ten years in Abyssinia which became a second home for them. There, Asma gave birth to three children whom they named 'Abdullah, Muhammad and 'Awn. Their second child was possibly the first child in the history of the Muslim ummah to be called Muhammad after the noble Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace.
In the seventh year after the Hijra, Ja'far and his family left Abyssinia with a group of Muslims and headed for Madina. When they arrived there, the Prophet was just returning from the conquest of Khaybar. He was so overjoyed at meeting Ja'far that he said:
'I do not know what fills me with more happiness, the conquest of Khaybar or the coming of Ja'far
Muslims in general and the poor among them especially, were just as happy with the return of Ja'far as the Prophet was. Ja'far was so concerned for the welfare of the poor and indigent that he got the nickname, the 'Father of the Poor'. Abu Hurayrah said of him:
'The best of men towards us indigent folk was Ja'far ibn Abi Talib. He would pass by us on his way home and give us whatever food he had. Even if his own food had run out, he would send us a pot in which he had placed some butter-fat and nothing more. We would open it and lick it clean...'
Ja'far's stay in Madina was not long. At the beginning of the eighth year after the Hijra, the Prophet mobilized an army to confront Byzantine forces in Syria after one of his emissaries, who had gone there in peace, had been treacherously killed by a Byzantine governor. He appointed Zayd ibn Haritha as commander of the army and gave the following instructions:
'If Zayd is wounded or killed, Ja'far ibn Abi Talib must take over the command. If Ja'far is killed or wounded, then your commander must be 'Abdallah ibn Rawaha. If Abdullah ibn Rawaha is killed, then let the Muslims choose for themselves a commander.
The Prophet had never given such instructions to an army before. The Muslims took it as an indication that he expected a tough battle with major losses.
When the Muslim army reached Muta, a small village situated among hills in Jordan, they discovered that the Byzantines had amassed a hundred thousand men hacked up by a massive number of Christian Arabs from the tribes of Lakhm, Judham, Quda'a and others. The Muslim army numbered only three thousand.
Despite the great odds against them, the Muslim forces engaged the Byzantines in battle. Zayd ibn al-Haritha, the beloved companion of the Prophet, was among the first to fall. Ja'far ibn Abi Talib then assumed command. Mounted on his ruddy-complexioned horse, he penetrated deep into the Byzantine ranks. As he spurred his horse on, he called out:
'How wonderful is Paradise as it draws near!
How pleasant and cool is its drink!
Punishment for the Byzantines is not far away!'
Ja'far continued to fight vigorously but was eventually slain. The third in command, Abdullah ibn Rawaha, also fell. Khalid ibn al-Walid, the inveterate fighter who had recently accepted Islam, was then chosen as commander. He made a tactical withdrawal, redeployed the Muslims and renewed the attack from several directions. Eventually, the bulk of the Byzantine forces fled in disarray.
The news of the death of his three commanders reached the Prophet in Madina. The pain and grief he felt was intense. He went to Ja'far's house and met his wife Asma. She was getting ready to receive her absent husband. She had prepared dough and bathed and clothed the children. Asma said:
'When the Messenger of God approached us, I saw a veil of sadness shrouding his noble face and I became very apprehensive. But I did not dare ask him about Ja'far for fear that I would hear some unpleasant news. He greeted and asked, "Where are Ja'far's children?" I called them for him and they came and crowded around him happily, each one wanting to claim him for himself. He leaned over and hugged them while tears flowed from his eyes.
"O Messenger of God," I asked, "Why do you cry? Have you heard anything about Ja'far and his two companions?"
"Yes," he replied. "They have attained martyrdom."
The smiles and the laughter vanished from the faces of the little children when they heard their mother crying and wailing. Women came and gathered around Asma.
'O Asma,' said the Prophet, 'don't say anything objectionable and don't beat your breast.' He then prayed to God to protect and sustain the family of Ja'far and assured them that he had attained Paradise.
The Prophet left Asma's house and went to his daughter Fatima who was also weeping. To her, he said:
'For such as Ja'far, you can (easily) cry yourself to death. Prepare food for Ja'far's family, for today they are beside themselves with grief.