Assassinating satirical poets: The historical facts are laid out point by point, victim by victim.
Before laying out the evidence, the larger historical context of these assassinations must be taken into account.
First, in seventh-century Arabia, poetry was taken seriously; even poetry contests were held, with declared winners. It was a powerful way to communicate a message.
Second, in March 624, in the Battle of Badr, Muhammad, living in Medina, won a surprising victory against a much-larger Meccan army of polytheists (c. 320 Muslims v. 1000 Meccans). Muhammad’s standing in Medina was insecure before the battle, but afterwards his position became strong, and he used his new strength to eliminate some enemies.
Though more assassinations are carried out than the ten analyzed in this article (omitted because they involve leaders raising armies against or attempting assassinations of Muhammad), here follow the stories of assassinations or near-assassinations of lesser victims.
1. March 624: Al-Nadr bin al-Harith
Before Muhammad’s Hijrah (Emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622), he used to sit in the assembly and invite the Meccans to Allah, citing the Quran and warning them of God’s punishment for mocking his prophets. Al-Nadr would then follow him and speak about heroes and kings of Persia, saying, “By God, Muhammad cannot tell a better story than I, and his talk is only of old fables which he has copied as I have.” Al-Nadr is referring to legends and opaque histories about Arabs of long ago and possibly to Bible stories about such figures as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, which Muhammad told, but according to his own inaccurate versions. On other days al-Nadr would interrupt Muhammad until the prophet silenced him. In reply to al-Nadir’s harassment, it is possible (scholars sometimes have difficulties matching up Quranic verses with historical events) that Allah sent down these verses to Muhammad concerning him or certainly other mockers in Mecca, according to the account of Ibn Abbas, Muhammad’s cousin, who is considered a reliable transmitter of traditions:
25:6 Say [Prophet], “It was sent down by Him who knows the secrets of the heavens and earth. He is all forgiving and merciful.” (MAS Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, Oxford UP, 2004)
83:13 … [W]hen Our revelations are recited to him, he says, “Ancient fables!” 14 No indeed! Their hearts are encrusted with what they have done. 15 No indeed! On that day they will be screened off from their Lord, 16 they will burn in Hell, 17 and they will be told, “This is what you call a lie.” (Abdel Haleem)
Muhammad did not take revenge on him—not yet—even though the verses in Sura 83 promise a dismal eternal future for mockers. Muhammad’s revenge was not long coming. It was al-Nadir’s bad fortune to join Mecca’s army, riding north to protect their caravan, which Muhammad attacked at the Battle of Badr in AD 624. The story-telling polytheist was captured, and on Muhammad’s return journey back to Medina, Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, at Muhammad’s order, beheaded him, instead of getting some possible ransom money. He was one of two prisoners who were executed and not allowed to be ransomed by their clans—all because they wrote poems and told stories critiquing Muhammad.
Source: Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume, (Oxford UP, 1955, 2004), pp. 136 (Arabic pages 191-92); 163 / 236; 181 / 262; 308 / 458. Reputable historians today consider Ibn Ishaq to be a good source of early Islam, though they may disagree on his chronology and miraculous elements.
2. March 624: Uqba bin Abu Muayt
A similar story as that of al-Nadir can be told about Uqba. He too harassed and mocked Muhammad in Mecca and wrote derogatory verses about him. He too was captured during the Battle of Badr, and Muhammad ordered him to be executed. “But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?” Uqba cried with anguish. “Hell,” retorted the prophet coldly. Then the sword of one of his followers cut through Uqba’s neck.
Source: Bukhari, vol. 4, no. 2934; Muslim, vol. 3, nos. 4422, 4424; Ibn Ishaq, p. 308 / 458. Bukhari and Muslim are reliable collectors and editors of the hadith (words and deeds of Muhammad outside of the Quran). These three passages from the hadith depict Muhammad calling on Allah for revenge on this poet.
3. March 624: Asma bint Marwan
Asma was a poetess who belonged to a tribe of Medinan pagans, and whose husband was named Yazid b. Zayd. She composed a poem blaming the Medinan pagans for obeying a stranger (Muhammad) and for not taking the initiative to attack him by surprise. When the Allah-inspired prophet heard what she had said, he asked, “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?” A member of her husband’s tribe volunteered and crept into her house that night. She had five children, and the youngest was sleeping at her breast. The assassin gently removed the child, drew his sword, and plunged it into her, killing her in her sleep.
The following morning, the assassin defied anyone to take revenge. No one took him up on his challenge, not even her husband. In fact, Islam became powerful among his tribe. Previously, some members who had kept their conversion secret now became Muslims openly, “because they saw the power of Islam,” conjectures Ibn Ishaq.
Source: Ibn Ishaq, pp. 675-76 / 995-96.
4. April 624: Abu Afak
Abu Afak, an centenarian elder of Medina, belonging to a group of clans who were associated with the god Manat (though another account has him as a Jew), wrote a derogatory poem about Muhammad, extolling the ancestors of his tribe who were strong enough to overthrow mountains and to resist submitting to an outsider (Muhammad) who divides two large Medinan tribes with religious commands like “permitted” and “forbidden.” That is, the poet is referring to Muhammad’s legal decrees about things that are forbidden (e.g. pork and alcohol) and permitted (e.g. other meats like beef and camel). Before the Battle of Badr, Muhammad let him live.
After the battle, the prophet queried, “Who will deal with this rascal for me?” That night, Salim b. Umayr “went forth and killed him.” One of the Muslims wrote a poem in reply: “A hanif [monotheist or Muslim] gave you a thrust in the night saying / ‘Take that Abu Afak in spite of your age!’” Muhammad eliminated him, which shows religious violence. Islam is not the religion of peace.
Source: Ibn Ishaq p. 675 / 995.
5. September 624: Kab bin al-Ashraf
Kab b. al-Ashraf had a mixed ancestry. His father came from a nomadic Arab, but his mother was a Jewess from the powerful al-Nadr tribe in Medina. He lived as a member of his mother’s tribe. He heard about the Muslim victory at the battle of Badr, and he was disgusted, for he thought Muhammad the newcomer to Medina was a trouble-maker and divisive. Kab had the gift of poetry, and after the Battle of Badr he traveled down to Mecca, apparently stopping by Badr, since it was near a major trade route to Mecca, witnessing the aftermath. Arriving in Mecca, he wrote a widely circulated poem, a hostile lament, over the dead of Mecca. It is important to include most of the political lament to show whether the poem is a serious offence, meriting assassination, as Muslim apologists (defenders of Islam) argue.
… At events like Badr you should weep and cry.
The best of its people were slain round cisterns,
Don’t think it strange that the princes were left lying.
How many noble handsome men,
The refuge of the homeless were slain.
Some people whose anger pleases me say,
“Kab b. al-Ashraf is utterly dejected.”
They are right. O that the earth when they were killed
Had split asunder and engulfed its people,
That he who spread the report had been thrust through
Or lived cowering blind and deaf.
I was told that al-Harith ibn Hisham [a Meccan]
Is doing well and gathering troops
To visit Yathrib [pre-Islamic name of Medina] with armies,
For only the noble, handsome man protects the loftiest reputation.
(Translated by Guillaume, p. 365)
To us today this poem does not seem excessive, and other Arab poetry was worse, such as the poem celebrating the assassination of Abu Afak, cited above (no. 4). It seems to be a genuine lament that invokes the Arab concept of revenge. Also, the last four lines is not an explicit plea for the Meccans to exact vengeance because that was a foregone conclusion. Arab custom demanded a riposte against the humiliation of defeat. Rather, the lines seem to reflect reality. A Meccan leader is said to be gathering an army; Kab is not ordering him to do so.
Pro-Muslim poets answered Kab’s poem with ones of their own, and that was enough for his hosts in Mecca to turn him out. He returned to Medina, writing some amatory verses about Muslim women, a mistake compounded on a mistake, given the tense climate in Medina and Muhammad’s victory at Badr. For example, right after the battle Muhammad assembled a Jewish tribe, the Qaynuqa, and warned them as follows: “O Jews, beware lest God bring upon you the vengeance that He brought upon Quraysh [large Meccan tribe at Badr], and become Muslims.” … In late spring (April-June) Muhammad then expelled the Jewish tribe.
Angered by the poems and now able to strike back after Badr and the exile, Muhammad had had enough. He asked, “Who would rid me of [Kab]?” Five Muslims volunteered, one of whom was Kab’s foster-brother named Abu Naila. They informed him, “O apostle of God [Muhammad], we shall have to tell lies.” He answered, “Say what you like, for you are free in the matter.” They set upon a clever plan.
Abu Naila and another conspirator visited Kab, and they cited poetry together, the three appreciating the art, and chatted leisurely, so the two would not raise suspicions of their conspiracy. Then, after a long time, Abu-Naila lied just as he said he would. He said he was tired of Muhammad because “he was a very great trial for us.” Muhammad provoked the hostility of the Arabs, and they were all in league against the Medinans. Abu Naila complained that the roads had become impassable and trade was hampered, so that their families were in want, privation, and great distress. Kab, in effect, said to his foster brother, “I told you so.”
Then the foster-brother asked him for a loan of a camel load or two of food. Kab agreed, but only on the collateral of Abu-Naila’s sons. The foster-brother refused, and Kab asked for his women, but he again refused. Finally, Abu Naila offered his and his conspirators’ weapons. That arrangement provided the cover they needed to carry weapons right into Kab’s presence without alarm. Kab agreed, “Weapons are a good pledge.”
The two visitors departed, stopped by the other three, and told them of the plan. Not long afterwards, gathering their weapons, they went to Muhammad, who sent them off with this wish: “Go in God’s name; O God, help them.” They set out under a moonlit night until they made it to a fortress, one of several that the Jewish tribe had built in the rough environment of Arabia. In fact, the ruin of the fortress where Kab resided can be seen even today near Medina. They called out to him.
Kab had recently married, and his wife, hearing their yells, said, “You are at war, and those who are at war do not go out at this hour … I hear evil [or blood] in his voice.” But the custom of hospitality in the Arab world was strong. Her husband told her that they were only his foster-brother and his foster-brother’s partners, adding that “a generous man should respond to a call at night, even if invited to be killed.” Kab came down and greeted them. Abu Naila suggested they go for a walk. The signal to kill was as follows: Abu Naila would run his hand through Kab’s hair, complimenting him on his perfume, three times. This he did, yelling, “Smite the enemy of God!” Kab mounted a strong defense, so their swords were ineffective. Finally, one of the conspirators remembered his dagger, stabbed Kab in the belly, and then bore it down until it reached Kab’s genitals, killing him.
They made it back to Muhammad, but only after difficulty, since in the dark they had wounded one of their own. They saluted the prophet as he stood praying, and he came out to them. They told him that the mission was accomplished. He spat on their comrade’s wound, and they returned to their families. Their attack on Kab sent shock waves into the Jewish community, so that “there was no Jew in Medina who did not fear for his life,” reports Ibn Ishaq.
Muslim historian Tabari reports that the five Muslim thugs severed Kab’s head and brought it to Muhammad. How can the terrorists who are also thrilled to sever heads not be inspired by early Islam?
Sources: Bukhari vol. 5, no. 4037; Muslim vol. 3, no. 4436; Ibn Ishaq 364-69 / 548-53; Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, Vol. VII, trans. W. Montgomery Watt (SUNYP, 1987), pp. 94-98 / 1368-73. Reputable historians today consider Tabari to be a good source of data on early Islam, though they may not agree on his chronology or miraculous elements.
6. September (?) 624: Ibn Sunayna
It is on the heels of this assassination that Ibn Sunayna, a Jewish merchant, was assassinated. With the success of the five conspirators, Muhammad said, “Kill any Jew that falls into your power.” Shortly afterwards, Muhayyisa b. Masud leapt upon and killed Ibn Sunayna, with whom Muhayyisa had some social and business relations. However, Muhayyisa’s elder brother, not a Muslim at the time, beat the assassin, the younger brother, saying, “You enemy of God, did you kill him when much of the fat on your belly comes from his wealth?” Muhayyisa retorted that if Muhammad had ordered even the elder brother’s assassination, he would have carried it out. The elder was impressed: “By God, a religion which can bring you to this is marvelous!” And he became a Muslim. That is, the elder brother implies that Muhammad must be a great leader and worthy of devotion if he commands such lethal reverence and deadly obedience from his followers.
Then Muhayyisa wrote a poem that celebrates such obedience. “I would smite his [the elder brother’s] neck with a sharp sword, / A blade as white as salt from polishing. / My downward stroke never misses its mark.” Advancing religious violence, these lines in the poem show how deadly poetry could be, and they match the Muslim’s poem against Abu Afak (no. 4, above): “a hanif gave you a thrust in the night.” Kab’s poem, it should be recalled, was far milder. These poems that a Westerner reads in the early Islamic source are jarring. It seems the early Muslim authors of the documents relish inserting them into their books.
Source: Ibn Ishaq p. 369 / 534.
7. July-August 625: A One-eyed Bedouin
In revenge for an ambush on some Muslim missionaries, Muhammad sent Amr bin Umayya and a companion to assassinate Abu Sufyan, a leader of the Meccans. This shows that the prophet could get caught up in the cycle of violence that went on endlessly in seventh-century Arab culture. Umayyah failed in his attempt, and he had to flee under pursuit, hiding in a cave, murdering a man named Ibn Malik along the way. As the pursuit was dying down, a tall, one-eyed, unnamed Bedouin entered the cave, driving some sheep. Umayyah and the Bedouin introduced each other. After they settled down, the shepherd sang a simple two-line song in defiance of Muslims and Islam:
I will not be a Muslim as long as I live,
And will not believe in the faith of the Muslims. (Watt)
Another translation reads:
I won’t be a Muslim as long as I live,
Nor heed to their religion give. (Guillaume)
Unfortunately for this Bedouin, he was in the cave with a radical Muslim, who said: “You will soon see!” The Bedouin fell asleep, snoring. Umayyah recounts what he did: … “I went to him and killed him in the most dreadful way that anybody has ever been killed. I leaned over him, stuck the end of my bow into his good eye, and thrust it down until it came out of the back of his neck.” He fled back to Muhammad, who said, “Well done!” The account ends: The prophet “prayed for me [Umayyah] to be blessed.”
This poor shepherd’s only sin was to compose a little two-line ditty against Islam. Therefore, he was assassinated, with the blessing of Muhammad—the prophet did not arrest the assassin or even scold him for killing a man who had nothing to do with the ambush.
Source: Tabari, vol. 7, pp. 149-50 / 1440-41; A later editor incorporated some of Tabari’s account into Ibn Ishaq’s biography, pp. 674-75.
8. After January 630: close call for Abdullah bin Sad
Before 10,000 Muslim warriors entered Mecca in January 630, Muhammad ordered that they should kill only those who resisted, except a small number who should be hunted down even if they hid under the curtain of the Kabah stone. One of them was Abdullah, an original Emigrant with the prophet in 622. He had the high privilege of writing down some verses of the Quran, after Muhammad received them by revelation. Doubting, Abdullah on occasion would change the words around to see if Muhammad had noticed the changes, but he did not. W. Montgomery Watt provides an example: “When Muhammad dictated a phrase of the Quran such as sami‘ ‘alim, ‘Hearing, Knowing’ (with reference to God), he had written, for example, ‘alim hakim ‘Knowing, Wise,’ and Muhammad had not noticed the change” … (Muhammad at Medina, Oxford UP, 1956, p. 68). Abdullah therefore disbelieved Muhammad’s inspiration and apostatized (left Islam) and returned to Mecca a polytheist.
However, his foster-brother was Uthman b. Affan, one of Muhammad’s Companions, who hid Abdullah until calm settled on conquered Mecca and who interceded for Abdullah, in the presence of Muhammad. The prophet waited a long time before he granted the repentant apostate immunity. After Uthman left, Muhammad said to those sitting around him: “I kept silent so that one of you might get up and strike off his head!” One of them asked why Muhammad did not give them a signal. He answered that a prophet does not kill by pointing.
Though Abdullah escaped with his life, this story is included because it reveals Muhammad’s attitude toward apostates, because of the doubt of one of Muhammad’s followers—a literate scholar who was involved in writing down the revelations, and because Muhammad’s anger could be assuaged under the right conditions.
Source: Ibn Ishaq, p. 550 / 818.
9. After January 630: One of Abdullah bin Katal’s two singing-girls
On the list of those excluded from amnesty after the conquest of Mecca was not only Abdullah b. Katal, collector of legal alms, who had killed his slave for incompetence, apostatized, and took the money back to Mecca, but also his two singing-girls who sang satirical verses about Muhammad, which Abdullah had composed. He was killed, even though he was clinging to the curtain of the Kabah shrine. And one of the girls was also killed, but the other ran away until she asked for pardon from Muhammad, who forgave her.
Source: Bukhari vol. 4, 3044; Ibn Ishaq, pp. 550-51 / 819.
10. After February 630: close call for Kab bin Zuhayr
Confident with the victory over Mecca, Muhammad returned to Medina a hero and firmly in charge of the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula. In this context we come to another poet who satirized Muhammad and the Muslims, Kab bin Zuhayr (called Zuhayr to distinguish him from Kab bin al-Ashraf, above, no. 5). Zuhayr’s brother wrote him that Muhammad had killed a number of satirical poets during his conquest of Mecca, but that the prophet would forgive a poet who came to him in repentance, which really means becoming a Muslim. His brother told him that the poets who were left had fled in all directions. “If you have any use for your life, then come to the apostle [Muhammad] quickly, for he does not kill anyone who comes to him in repentance,” wrote the brother, continuing: “if you do not do that, then get to a safe place.”
However, Zuhayr responded with a poem that says their fathers and father had never held Islam dear, so why should he change? His brother replied with a poem of warning of his own; if he would not repent, then Zuhayr will be guilty on Judgment Day. Poetry penetrated deeply in Arab culture, and, receiving the letter, Zuhayr was distressed until finally he gave in. Finding no way out, he wrote a letter extolling Muhammad. Soon afterwards, he traveled up to Medina to ask for security as a Muslim. Muhammad was saying his morning prayers, and a friend took Zuhayr into Muhammad’s presence. “Would you accept him as such if he came to you?” his friend asked. The prophet said he would.
One of the Ansars (or helpers: native Medinans who offered help to Muhammad after his Hijrah) leaped upon Zuhayr and asked the prophet if he could behead the enemy of God, for some of Zuhayr’s verses mocked the Ansars, too. The apostle said to leave him alone, for Zuhayr was breaking free from his past. The implication is clear: if Muhammad had caught Zuhayr before his repentance, Muhammad would have allowed him to be beheaded. Either he converts or he dies—for writing derogatory poetry. What is remarkable about the anecdote is how the morning prayer provides the setting for a Muslim leaping on a poet and threatening to cut his head off, as if this is an ordinary day and act.
Source: Ibn Ishaq, pp. 597-602 / 887-93
Freedom of speech must be retained and fought for. Poets and all writers deserve to live, even when they mock people. The 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack against cartoonist who sometimes satirized Islam, was wrong.
1 Introduction to the Sword in Early Christianity and Islam (begin a twelve-part series)