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.