Set in the Year of the Elephant, the year the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was born, the film focuses on the character of Abd al-Muttalib, the grandfather of the Prophet ﷺ, chief of the distinguished Banu Hashim tribe of the Quraysh, and custodian of the Kaaba. A descendant of Abraham and Ismail, he is highly regarded and well-loved in Mecca, and carries out the duties of providing pilgrims with water and food. The film depicts a cross-section of pre-Islamic Meccan society, dramatising Abd al-Muttalib’s rediscovery of the Zam Zam well, his vow to sacrifice one of his sons should he have ten of them, and the imminent arrival of the armies of Abraha who have the intention of destroying the Kaaba.
When Abd al-Muttalib has a tenth son he feels he must fulfil his vow to sacrifice one. The divination arrows indicate that he must sacrifice Abdallah, his favourite son, and the future father of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. The other tribal leaders of Quraysh do not want him to carry out the sacrifice, as they do not want him to set a precedent of sacrificing sons for the tribe. Advised to cast lots between Abdallah and ten camels, ten camels are repeatedly added until a hundred camels are accepted in his place according to the divination.
Other characters who feature prominently in the film are Zayd ibn Amr, who was a monotheist and friend of Abd al-Muttalib, who believed in the prophecy foretelling the coming of Muhammad ﷺ, and Waraqa Ibn Nawfal, the cousin of Khadijah, who was a Christian, and who affirmed Muhammad’s first revelation when it came. He is also said to have composed the following elegy for his companion Zayd:
You were altogether on the right path, Ibn Amr;
You have escaped Hell’s burning oven
by serving the one and only God
and abandoning vain idols …
for the mercy of God reaches men
though they be seventy valleys deep below the earth
In the film Abraha’s plans to destroy the Kaaba are portrayed, with the menace of his impending invasion reported repeatedly to Abd al-Muttalib, who tries to rally the tribes around Mecca to protect the Kaaba. Abraha was the Aksumite Christian king of Himyar, known as scar-face due to injury or disease. He reportedly built a cathedral in Sanaa called al-Qullays to rival the Kaaba, and wanted to destroy the Kaaba as a centre of pilgrimage, paganism and trade.
A Mercy to Mankind introduces us to pivotal characters in pre-Islamic Arabia who were connected to the life of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and helps provide a cultural and historical background to his mission, not only depicting the immediate environment of Mecca, but also its connections with surrounding kingdoms and empires. Charismatic actors play the lead roles in the film which is made in Standard Arabic with good English subtitles (turned on by toggling the CC/Subtitles option at the bottom of the screen) and atmospheric beautifully recited pre-Islamic poetry is woven throughout the narrative, adding a lyrical aspect to the cultural and historical context.