Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Murdered by Muhammad

The Brutal Deaths of Islam’s Earliest Enemies 

Consider the following passages about Muhammad and the tolerance of Islam:
[Muhammad] captured the hearts of the people with his boundless sympathy and human kindness. He ruled justly. He did not swerve from truth and righteousness. He did not oppress even his deadly enemies, men who had sworn to kill him, who pelted him with stones, who turned him out of his homeland, who pitched the whole of Arabia against him—nay, not even those who chewed the raw liver of his dead uncle in a frenzy of vengeance. He forgave them all when he triumphed over them. He never took revenge on anyone for his personal grievances. He never retaliated against anyone for the wrongs perpetrated on him.[1]
The ethical and the religious history of the world presents perhaps but one instance of acting up to the idealistic saying “Love thy enemy.” The Holy Prophet had nothing but the tenderest treatment to mete out to such dangerous enemies as the hypocrites. He never punished them for their offenses. . . . The Holy Prophet’s generosity even towards his enemies stands unique in the annals of the world. . . . [T]he Holy Prophet’s forgiveness was unbounded. . . . A report from Aishah says that he never avenged any wrong to his own person. . . . Forgiveness was another most radiant gem in the Holy Prophet’s character. It found its perfect manifestation in him.[2]
There is no ground for the oft-repeated allegation that Islam is intolerant and was propagated by the sword. The Kur’an states clearly “there is no compulsion in religion.”[3]
These passages have much in common. First, they are modern writings that reflect modern notions about Muhammad. Today’s Muslims typically believe that Muhammad wouldn’t have squashed a mosquito unless the mosquito had first waged war against Islam. Second, modern writings of this sort seldom, if ever, provide references for their assertions. They glorify Muhammad and his gentle nature, but they fail to support their claims with early sources (such as Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah or the Sahih Al-Bukhari). Third, modern writings about Muhammad characteristically ignore historical facts that call Muslim views into question. When they do address such facts, they often deny the evidence, choosing instead to hold to their idealized and unrealistic portrait of Muhammad. Indeed, Muslim “explanations” of difficult passages frequently turn out to be nothing more than circular affirmations of faith in Muhammad. When faced with a concerned questioner, the debate often proceeds as follows: 

Muslim: “Muhammad was the greatest moral example ever! He was so kind and tolerant! He never hurt anyone unless they were waging a war against Islam!”
Questioner: “What about all the men and women he assassinated?”
Muslim: “Muhammad couldn’t have done such things, because he’s the greatest moral example ever! Shame on his earliest and closest followers and biographers for making up a bunch of immoral stories about him!”[4] 
Questioner: “But how do we know he was the greatest moral example ever?” 
Muslim: “Because of all the historical evidence!” 
Questioner: “What about the historical evidence that he was sometimes a poor moral example?”
Muslim: “That evidence is all wrong!” 
Questioner: “How do we know it’s wrong?” 
Muslim: “Because Muhammad is the greatest moral example ever! Don’t listen to what the early Muslims said about Muhammad’s murders, tortures, robberies, etc. Just listen to what they said about his acts of kindness!”

This argument may seem convincing to a Muslim who has been taught all his life that Muhammad was morally flawless. But to an unbiased inquirer, such reasoning is silly. If we want to determine whether or not Muhammad was a good moral example, our only reasonable option is to examine the earliest, most reliable writings and to use these writings to get an overall picture of his character. If a Muslim wants to object to a particular story about Muhammad, he should do so on historical grounds, not on dogmatic ones.

The earliest extant biography of Muhammad is the Sirat Rasul Allah by Muhammad Ibn Ishaq, who was born at the beginning of the eighth century AD in Medina. His grandfather, Yasar, became a Muslim shortly after being captured around AD 634. Yasar’s son Ishaq began collecting traditions about Muhammad, and his grandson Muhammad followed in the footsteps of his father Ishaq. By age thirty, Muhammad Ibn (“son of”) Ishaq was recognized as an authority on the traditions about Muhammad. He compiled the most reliable sources into the Sirat Rasul Allah, providing us with an early, largely accurate, and authoritative source on the life of Muhammad.

Most of the following accounts are taken from Ibn Ishaq’s work. As the title of this essay implies, I have focused here on cases displaying Muhammad’s cruelty, for these stories are almost always omitted in modern Muslim accounts of the life of Muhammad. However, it must not be forgotten that the Sirat Rasul Allah contains many instances of Muhammad’s kindness and mercy; thus, the following excerpts should be considered alongside the more favorable traditions.

The Case of Uqba bin Abu Mu’ayt

Of all the people killed by Muhammad, Uqba was among those most worthy of punishment. He ridiculed and tormented Muhammad while the latter was still in Mecca. Indeed, Uqba was so disrespectful that he once spit in Muhammad’s face,[5] and he later fought the Muslims at Badr. He is only listed here because of the particularly callous response that Muhammad gave him at his execution: “When the apostle ordered him to be killed Uqba said, ‘But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?’ ‘Hell,’ he said.”[6]  

The Case of Ka’b bin al-Ashraf

When Ka’b heard of all the men who had been killed by Muslims at the Battle of Badr, he wept for the departed and composed a poem in memory of their good works. The Muslims responded with poetry of their own. One Muslim woman answered: 

Would that those weltering in their blood
Could be seen by those who live between Mecca’s mountains!
They would know for certain and would see
How they were dragged along by hair and beard.[7]

After this, Ka’b wrote poetry against the Muslim women, and Muhammad subsequently called for his assassination:
The apostle said . . . “Who will rid me of Ibnu’l-Ashraf [Ka’b]?” Muhammad bin Maslama . . . said, “I will deal with him for you, O apostle of God, I will kill him.” [Muhammad] said, “Do so if you can.” . . . The apostle said, “All that is incumbent upon you is that you should try.” [The assassin] said, “O apostle of God, we shall have to tell lies.” He answered, “Say what you like, for you are free in this matter.”[8]
Muhammad bin Maslama, having received from Muhammad permission to lie, proceeded with his plan to murder Ka’b. The Muslims sent Silkan, a lover of poetry, to befriend Ka’b. Silkan and Ka’b spent some time reciting verses to one another, until the former asked a favor of his new friend. Silkan said that he and his companions wanted to buy some food from Ka’b and that he would put down a number of weapons as a pledge until payment could be made. He did this so that Ka’b “would not take alarm at the sight of weapons when they brought them.” The Muslims came later with their weapons and invited Ka’b to join them for a walk, and he gladly joined them.

[A]fter a time Abu Na’ila ran his hand through [Ka’b’s] hair. Then he smelt his hand, and said, “I have never smelt a scent finer than this.” They walked on farther and he did the same so that Ka’b suspected no evil. Then after a space he did it for the third time, and cried, “Smite the enemy of God!” So they smote him, and their swords clashed over him with no effect. Muhammad bin Maslama said, “I remembered my dagger when I saw that our swords were useless, and I seized it. Meanwhile the enemy of God had made such a noise that every fort around us was showing a light. I thrust it into the lower part of his body, then I bore down upon it until I reached his genitals, and the enemy of God fell to the ground.”[9]

The assassination of Ka’b had the desired effect: “Our attack upon God’s enemy cast terror among the Jews, and there was no Jew inMedina who did not fear for his life.”[10] 

The Case of Ibn Sunayna 

Ibn Sunayna was a Jewish merchant whose only crime seems to be that he was in town when the Muslims went on a killing spree: 

The apostle said, “Kill any Jew that falls into your power.” Thereupon Muhayyisa bin Mas’ud leapt upon Ibn Sunayna, a Jewish merchant with whom they had social and business relations, and killed him. Huwayyisa was not a Muslim at the time though he was the elder brother. When Muhayyisa killed him Huwayyisa began to beat him, saying, “You enemy of God, did you kill him when much of the fat on your belly comes from his wealth?” Muhayyisa answered, “Had the one who ordered me to kill him ordered me to kill you I would have cut your head off.” He said that this was the beginning of Huwayyisa’s acceptance of Islam. The other replied, “By God, if Muhammad had ordered you to kill me would you have killed me?” He said, “Yes, by God, had he ordered me to cut off your head I would have done so.”  He exclaimed, “By God, a religion which can bring you to this is marvelous!” And he became a Muslim.[11] 

The Case of Mirba bin Qayzi 

News of Muhammad’s victories and assassinations spread rapidly, and many people became angry at him. One such person was a blind man named Mirba bin Qayzi:
[The Muslims] came out in the territory of Mirba bin Qayzi who was a blind man, a disaffected person. When he perceived the approach of the apostle and his men he got up and threw dust in their faces saying, “You may be the apostle of God, but I won’t let you through my garden!” I was told that he took a handful of dust and said, “By God, Muhammad, if I could be sure that I should not hit someone else I would throw it in your face.” The people rushed on him to kill him, and the apostle said, “Do not kill him, for this blind man is blind of heart, blind of sight.” Sa’d bin Zayd . . . rushed at him before the apostle had forbidden this and hit him on the head with his bow so that he split it open.”[12]
In Muhammad’s defense, he did order his men not to kill Mirba. Nevertheless, the passage shows how quick the Muslims were to kill anyone who insulted Muhammad, and that they were growing accustomed to doing so. Further, we have no evidence that Muhammad so much as reprimanded Sa’d for bludgeoning the man. 

The Case of the Qurayza Jews 

The men of Qurayza resisted Muhammad and attempted to form an alliance against him. When the alliance faltered, Muhammad acted quickly. His armies surrounded them and “besieged them for twenty-five nights until they were sore pressed and God cast terror into their hearts.”[13] Muhammad selected Sa’d bin Mu’adh to decide their punishment, and al-Aus, an ally of Qurayza, agreed to let Sa’d choose the punishment. Sa’d declared that “the men should be killed, the property divided, and the women and children taken as captives.”[14] 

Then they surrendered, and the apostle confined them inMedina. . . . Then the apostle went out to the market ofMedina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches. . . . There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900. As they were being taken out in batches to the apostle they asked Ka’b what he thought would be done with them. He replied, “Will you never understand? Don’t you see that the summoner never stops and those who are taken away do not return? By Allah it is death!” This went on until the apostle made an end of them.[15] 

Every male who had reached puberty was killed.[16] A woman named Bunanah was beheaded because she had dropped a millstone on one of Muhammad’s men.[17] Muhammad divided the women, children, and property among his men (taking a fifth of everything for himself). Some of the women were sold for horses and weapons, and Muhammad kept one of the captive women, Rayhana, for himself.[18] 

The Case of Sallam Ibn Abu’l-Huqayq 

The events surrounding the death of Sallam are interesting. Two tribes were competing with one another to see who could do the most for Muhammad: 

One of the things which God did for His apostle was that these two tribes of the Ansar, Aus and Khazraj, competed the one with the other like two stallions: if Aus did anything to the apostle’s advantage Khazraj would say, “They shall not have this superiority over us in the apostle’s eyes and in Islam” and they would not rest until they could do something similar.[19]

The men of Aus had received the honor of assassinating Ka’b bin al-Ashraf, so the men of Khazraj longed to boast of a similar achievement. Hence, they went to Muhammad and asked for permission to murder Sallam Ibn Abu’l-Huqayq, and Muhammad granted their request. 

When they got to Khaybar they went to Sallam’s house by night, having locked every door in the settlement on the inhabitants. Now he was in an upper chamber of his to which a ladder led up. They mounted this until they came to the door and asked to be allowed to come in. His wife came out and asked who they were and they told her that they were Arabs in search of supplies. She told them that their man was here and that they could come in. When we entered we bolted the door of the room on her and ourselves fearing lest something should come between us and him. His wife shrieked and warned him of us, so we ran at him with our swords as he was on his bed. . . . When we had smitten him with our swords Abdullah bin Unays bore down with his sword into his belly until it went right through him.”[20] 

The Case of Kinana bin al-Rabi 

Muhammad and his men conquered a town called Khaybar and distributed its riches and women among themselves.[21] They captured Kinana bin al-Rabi, who was in charge of the treasure of one of the conquered tribes. Muhammad demanded the treasure, but Kinana refused to tell him where it was hidden. 

When [Muhammad] asked him about the rest he refused to produce it, so the apostle gave orders to al-Zubayr bin al-Awwam, “Torture him until you extract what he has,” so he kindled a fire with flint and steel on his chest until he was nearly dead. Then the apostle delivered him to Muhammad bin Maslama and he struck off his head, in revenge for his brother Mahmud [who had been killed in battle while conquering the town].[22] 

The Case of an Anonymous One-Eyed Shepherd 

After failing at one of their assassination attempts, some Muslims were returning to Muhammad when one of them, an assassin named Amr, went into a cave. He soon encountered a one-eyed shepherd driving a sheep. The one-eyed man laid beside Amr (not realizing that he was a Muslim) and began to sing: 

 I won’t be a Muslim as long as I live,
 Nor heed to their religion give.[24] 

Amr didn’t miss his chance to kill an infidel: 

I said (to myself), “You will soon know!” and as soon as the badu was asleep and snoring I got up and killed him in a more horrible way than any man has been killed. I put the end of my bow in his sound eye, then I bore down on it until I forced it out at the back of his neck.[25] 

A couple of other people were killed during this failed expedition, yet when Amr reported the details to Muhammad, the Prophet blessed him for his work.[26] 

The Case of Abu Afak 

Abu Afak, saddened because Muhammad had killed someone named al-Harith, composed the following song in memory of the departed: 

Long have I lived but never have I seen
An assembly or collection of people
More faithful to their undertaking
And their allies when called upon
Than the sons of Qayla when they assembled,
Men who overthrew mountains and never submitted.
A rider who came to them split them in two (saying)
‘Permitted’, ‘Forbidden’ of all sorts of things.
Had you believed in glory or kingship
You would have followed Tubba.[27] 

These words were too much for Muhammad to bear, so the Prophet of Islam flew into a rage that ended with the death of Abu Afak.[28] 

The Case of Asma 

A woman named Asma (who had five sons) was appalled at the murder of Abu Afak, so she wrote a poem against the Muslims in retaliation. Ibn Ishaq relates the account of what followed: 

When the apostle heard what she had said he said, “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?” Umayr bin Adiy al-Khatmi who was with him heard him, and that very night he went to her house and killed her. In the morning he came to the apostle and told him what he had done and he said, “You have helped God and His apostle, O Umayr!” When he asked if he would have to bear any evil consequences the apostle said, “Two goats won’t butt their heads about her,” so Umayr went back to his people.[29] 

The Case of Abdullah bin Khatal and His Two Singing Girls 

Abdullah bin Khatal was a Muslim who later apostatized. He had two singing girls who sang satirical songs about the Prophet. As soon as Muhammad had the power, he ordered that all three be killed. Abdullah was killed by two Muslims. One of the singing girls was killed. The other was later given immunity, for unknown reasons.[30] 

The Case of al-Huwayrith 

All that is known of al-Huwayrith is that he insulted Muhammad, that Muhammad demanded he be killed, and that Ali carried out Muhammad’s wishes.[31] 

The Case of Sara, a Freed Slave 

Sara was a freed slave who had insulted Muhammad inMecca. Muhammad commanded his men to kill her wherever they find her. She was eventually found and trampled to death by a mounted soldier.[32] 


Muhammad ordered the murders of numerous people, often because they had insulted him years earlier or written poems against Islam, and he permitted lying as long as it would lead to the deaths of his enemies. He also commanded that apostates be killed.[33] Muhammad’s followers murdered both men and women, including a blind man, and they beheaded hundreds of Jews who had surrendered to the Muslims.  

Of course, these assassinations and executions do not necessitate the conclusion that Muhammad was a bloodthirsty tyrant, as is often claimed about him in Christian and Jewish writings. As I have previously stated, Muhammad also performed many kind and noble deeds, and he forgave many who fought against him. However, while Muhammad probably wasn’t as bad as some of his critics now claim, neither was he nearly as good as his admirers claim. As Thomas Lippman has noted,   

It seems safe to say that Muhammad was sincere, dedicated, courageous, generous, compassionate, and committed to social justice and reform. The uncritical admiration of him that one hears from ordinary Muslims, however, overlooks the evidence that the Prophet was also sometimes vengeful, spiteful, and duplicitous. He was, after all, human and ambitious too.[34] 

The completely gentle, infinitely forgiving, perfectly merciful Prophet who is proclaimed in Muslim writings simply never existed. The historical Muhammad bears more resemblance to the above passage from Lippman. Yet if Muslims truly believe that Muhammad was the most wonderful moral example in history, they should embrace all of his actions, not just the ones that fit in with the Christian morality that has been advanced in the West. In Islamic thought, Muhammad is the standard with which everyone else is to be compared; that is, whatever Muhammad did is, by definition, moral. If another standard of comparison is introduced, Islamic belief falls to pieces. For instance, when Muslims try so desperately to explain away Muhammad’s atrocities, they are attempting to show that Muhammad fits in with Christian moral standards. But such an attempt is absurd. Muhammad killed countless people (torturing many of them), robbed people, married thirteen women (one of them a juvenile), took part in the slave trade, and permitted women to be beaten by their husbands.[35] When he is judged by the standards laid down by Jesus, Muhammad fails miserably. Thus, when Muslims find themselves defending the moral character of Muhammad, they may be doing so because they find the moral standards of Jesus more compelling than the moral standards of Muhammad, and they may be consciously or unconsciously trying to replace the spotted life of Muhammad with the spotless life of Jesus. If so, it is time for Muslims to look to a different messenger, one who is truly worthy of our admiration, praise, reverence, and worship.


[1] Abul, A’la Mawdudi, Towards Understanding Islam (New York: Islamic Circle of North America, 1986), p. 60.
[2] Maulana Muhammad Ali, Muhammad the Prophet (St. Lambert: Payette and Sims, 1993), pp. 144-145, 165, 169.
[3] Allama Sir Abdullah Al-Mamun Al-Suhrawardy, The Wisdom of Muhammad (New York: Citadel Press, 2001), p. 17.
[4] For instance, Maulana Muhammad Ali responds to allegations of murders and assassinations with the following: “How could the Prophet in the face of such a plain injunction order the murder of those who abused him, and how could the Muslims carry out an order which was directly opposed to the Holy Qur’an? It was simply impossible, and if Ibn Hisham or Waqidi says that the Prophet ordered the assassination of his abusers, it is Ibn Hisham or Waqidi—a frail authority after all—that must be rejected” (Ali, p. 199).
The “plain injunction” that supposedly refutes all the historical details of Muhammad’s assassinations is found in the Qur’an:
“You shall certainly be tried respecting your wealth and your souls, and you shall certainly hear from those who have been given the Book before you and from those who are polytheists much annoying talk; and if you are patient and guard (against evil), surely this is one of the affairs (which should be) determined upon” (3:186).
This passage doesn’t seem sufficient to overrule the numerous historical accounts of Muhammad’s atrocities.
[5] Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah (The Life of Muhammad), A. Guillaume, tr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 164.
[6] Ibid., p. 308.
[7] Ibid., p. 366.
[8] Ibid., p. 367. This account is corroborated in Sahih Al-Bukhari, Dr. Muhammad Matraji, tr. (New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2002), Number 3032.
[9] Ibid., p. 368.
[10] Ibid., p. 368.
[11] Ibid., p. 369.
[12] Ibid., pp. 372-373.
[13] Ibid., p. 461.
[14] Ibid., p. 464.
[15] Ibid., p. 464. See also Al-Tabari, The History of Al-Tabari: Volume 8, Michael Fishbein, tr. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), pp. 27-41.
[16] Al-Tabari, Volume 8, p. 38.
[17] Ibid., p. 41
[18] Ibn Ishaq, p. 466.
[19] Ibid., p. 482.
[20] Ibid., pp. 482-483.
[21] Ibid., pp. 510-517.
[22] Ibid., p. 515.
[23] Sahih Al-Bukhari, Dr. Muhammad Matraji, tr. (New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2002), Number 3022. This assassination is confirmed in Numbers 3023, 4038, 4039, 4040.
[24] Ibn Ishaq, p. 674.
[25] Ibid., p. 674.
[26] Ibid., p. 675.
[27] Ibid., p. 675.
[28] Ibid., p. 675.
[29] Ibid., p. 676.
[30] Ibid., p. 551.
[31] Ibid., p. 551. See also Al-Tabari, pp. 179-181.
[32] Ibid., p. 551.
[33] Al-Bukhari, Number 3017 relates that Muhammad said, “If somebody discards his religion, kill him.”
[34] Thomas W. Lippman, Understanding Islam: An Introduction to the Muslim World(New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002), p. 52.
[35] For references, see “Islam Beheaded.”

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