General Social Boycott
Four events of special significance occurred within less than four weeks — the conversion of Hamzah, the conversion of ‘Umar, Muhammad’s (Allah bless him and give him peace) refusal to negotiate any sort of compromise and then the pact drawn up between Banu Muttalib and Banu Hashim to immunize Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) and shield him against any treacherous attempt to kill him. The polytheists were baffled and at a loss as to what course they would follow to rid themselves of this obstinate and relentless obstacle that had appeared to shatter to pieces their whole tradition of life. They had already been aware that if they killed Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) their blood would surely flow profusely in the valleys of Makkah and they would certainly be exterminated. Taking this dreadful prospect into consideration, they grudgingly resorted to a different iniquitous course that would not imply murder.
The pagans of Makkah held a meeting in a place called Wadi Al-Muhassab, and formed a confederation hostile to both Bani Hashim and Bani Al-Muttalib. They decided not to have any business dealings with them nor any sort of inter-marriage. Social relations, visits and even verbal contacts with Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) and his supporters would discontinue until the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was given up to them to be killed. The articles of their proclamation, which had provided for merciless measures against Bani Hashim, were committed to writing by an idolater, Bagheed bin ‘Amir bin Hashim and then suspended in Al-Ka‘bah. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) invoked Allâh’s imprecations upon Bagheed, whose hand was later paralysed. [Za'd Al-Ma'ad 2/46]
Abu Talib wisely and quietly took stock of the situation and decided to withdraw to a valley on the eastern outskirts of Makkah. Banu Hashim and Banu Al-Muttalib, who followed suit, were thus confined within a narrow pass (Shi‘b of Abu Talib), from the beginning of Muharram, the seventh year of Muhammad’s mission till the tenth year, viz., a period of three years. It was a stifling siege. The supply of food was almost stopped and the people in confinement faced great hardships. The idolaters used to buy whatever food commodities entered Makkah lest they should leak to the people in Ash-Shi‘b, who were so overstrained that they had to eat leaves of trees and skins of animals. Cries of little children suffering from hunger used to be heard clearly. Nothing to eat reached them except, on few occasions, some meagre quantities of food were smuggled by some compassionate Makkans. During ‘the prohibited months’ — when hostilities traditionally ceased, they would leave their confinement and buy food coming from outside Makkah. Even then, the food stuff was unjustly overpriced so that their financial situation would fall short of finding access to it.
Hakeem bin Hizam was once on his way to smuggle some wheat to his aunt Khadijah [R]Ç when Abu Jahl intercepted and wanted to debar him. Only when Al-Bukhtari intervened, did Hakeem manage to reach his destination. Abu Talib was so much concerned about the personal safety of his nephew. Whenever people retired to sleep, he would ask the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to lie in his place, but when all the others fell asleep, he would order him to change his place and take another, all of which in an attempt to trick a potential assassin.
Despite all odds, Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) persisted in his line and his determination and courage never weakened. He continued to go to Al-Ka‘bah and to pray publicly. He used every opportunity to preach to outsiders who visited Makkah for business or on pilgrimage during the sacred months and special seasons of assemblies.
This situation ultimately created dissension amongst the various Makkan factions, who were tied with the besieged people by blood relations. After three years of blockade and in Muharram, the tenth year of Muhammad’s mission, the pact was broken. Hisham bin ‘Amr, who used to smuggle some food to Bani Hashim secretly at night, went to see Zuhair bin Abi Omaiyah Al-Makhzoumy and reproached him for resigning to that intolerable treatment meted out to his uncles in exile. The latter pleaded impotence, but agreed to work with Hisham and form a pressure group that would secure the extrication of the exiles. On the ground of motivation by uterine relations, there emerged a group of five people who set out to abrogate the pact and declare all relevant clauses null and void. They were Hisham bin ‘Amr, Zuhair bin Abi Omaiya, Al-Mut‘im bin ‘Adi, Abu Al-Bukhtari and Zam‘a bin Al-Aswad. They decided to meet in their assembly place and start their self-charged mission from the very precinct of the Sacred House. Zuhair, after circumambulating seven times, along with his colleagues approached the hosts of people there and rebuked them for indulging in the amenities of life whereas their kith and kin of Bani Hashim were perishing on account of starvation and economic boycott. They swore they would never relent until the parchment of boycott was torn to piece and the pact broken at once. Abu Jahl, standing nearby, retorted that it would never be torn. Zam‘a was infuriated and accused Abu Jahl of telling lies, adding that the pact was established and the parchment was written without seeking their approval. Al-Bukhtari intervened and backed Zam‘a. Al-Mut‘im bin ‘Adi and Hisham bin ‘Amr attested to the truthfulness of their two companions. Abu Jahl, with a cunning attempt to liquidate the hot argument that was running counter to his malicious goals, answered that the issue had already been resolved sometime and somewhere before.
Abu Talib meanwhile was sitting in a corner of the Mosque. He came to communicate to them that a Revelation had been sent to his nephew, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to the effect that ants had eaten away all their proclamation that smacked of injustice and aggression except those parts that bore the Name of Allâh. He contended that he would be ready to give Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) up to them if his words proved untrue, otherwise, they would have to recant and repeal their boycott. The Makkans agreed to the soundness of his proposition. Al-Mut‘im went to see the parchment and there he did discover that it was eaten away by ants and nothing was left save the part bearing (in the Name of Allâh).
The proclamation was thus abrogated, and Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) and the other people were permitted to leave Ash-Sh‘ib and return home. In the context of this trial to which the Muslims were subjected, the polytheists had a golden opportunity to experience a striking sign of Muhammad’s Prophethood (the white ants eating away the parchment) but to their miserable lot they desisted and augmented in disbelief:
"But if they see a Sign, they turn away, and say ‘This is continuous magic." [Al-Qur'an 54:2]
[Bukhari (in several chapters); Za'd Al-Ma'ad 2/46; Ibn Hisham 1/350]