How the ‘Excellent Example’ Dealt With Criticism (Article #8)

In the previous article of this series on the conduct of Muhammad (supposedly an ‘excellent example’ to be followed by all Muslims) we looked at his treatment of the men of the Banu Qurayza tribe. Treatment that essentially amounted to genocide. With this final article we’ll turn our focus to how he dealt with those who rejected his message.

An important test of the character of a person is the way in which he or she responds to criticism. Upon examination of the evidence, it has to be said that Muhammad’s example in this area shows him to be someone for whom “live and let live” was a totally alien concept. He, instead, sought to silence criticism and dissent in as ruthless a manner as possible.

Perhaps the most famous critic of Muhammad during his lifetime was a poet named Asma bint Marwan who wrote satirical verses against him. Muhammad did not appreciate this (to put it mildly) and made sure that she was silenced in the most brutal way possible. 

This is how Ibn Ishaq relates this story: “When the apostle heard what she had said, he said ‘Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?’ `Umayr b. `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 [Muhammad] 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.” 

The terror and fear caused by the actions of Muhammad quickly convinced the people of his victim’s tribe to embrace Islam. Was this out of deep conviction? That is not how Ibn Ishaq relates it: “The day after Bint Marwan was killed, the men of B. Khatma became Muslims because they saw the power of Islam”. According to Sahih Bukhari (Volume 4 Book 52 Hadith 220), Muhammad declared: “I have been made victorious by terror [cast into the hearts of the enemy]”. 

This seems to be exactly what happened with the men of Asma Bint Marwan’s tribe. Her death cast terror in their hearts causing them to hurriedly convert to Islam. Muslims are obviously very uncomfortable with this story, with some trying to claim that it is based on a weak chain of transmission. In response to this, it can be stated that this story is found in Ibn Ishaq which is, by far, the most authoritative biography of Muhammad. 

Some will also, no doubt, claim that the killing of Asma bint Marwan was a political necessity since she was such a high profile and vocal critic of Muhammad. This can hardly be seen as justification for his actions, however.

Furthermore, there is another hadith that confirms that critics without a great deal of influence were also brutally snuffed out. This is found in a respected hadith collection (Sunan Abu Dawud Book 38 Hadith 4348). It relates the story of a man who killed his slave (who was also the mother of his children) because she insulted Muhammad: “He the murderer [sat] before the Prophet and said: ‘Apostle of Allah! I am her master; she used to abuse you and disparage you. I forbade her, but she did not stop, and I rebuked her, but she did not abandon her habit. I have two sons like pearls from her, and she was my companion. Last night she began to abuse and disparage you. So I took a dagger, put it on her belly and pressed it till I killed her.’ Thereupon the Prophet said: ‘Oh be witness, no retaliation is payable for her blood’” 

This passage proves that Muhammad’s treatment of Asma bint Marwan was entirely consistent with incidents related in other hadiths. It also disproves the notion that Muhammad solicited the killing of the poetess purely for strategic reasons as he here approves the killing of a humble slave who probably did not have any influence outside of her own household. The question needs to be asked. What are we to make of a “prophet” who is so insecure that he incites the murder of those who criticize him instead of responding to their challenges by engaging them in a debate? 

Even more importantly for the purposes of this article series: What are we to make of a religion that enshrines a person who engaged in all of the acts mentioned above as a “perfect example”? It should be very clear that, far from acting as a restraining influence, the words and deeds of the supreme human figure in Islam can, instead, be used as a justification for the kind of violence that some within the Muslim community view as an essential part of the expression of their faith.

For much more about the links between Islamic teaching and violence committed in its name, please see my book “Nothing to do with Islam? Investigating the West’s Most Dangerous Blind Spot”

‘Prophetic’ Genocide – Muhammad and the Banu Qurayza (Article #7)

In the previous article in this series on Muhammad’s conduct we looked at the fate of some of Muhammad’s female captives. It is now time to look at what happened to some men who had the misfortunes to fall into the clutches of the Muslim forces. One, quite horrific, example should suffice.

During his campaigns, Muhammad came across the Jewish tribe of the Banu Qurayza who surrendered to him. After being disarmed, it was judged that the men of the tribe had to be put to the sword. Muhammad declared that this was in line with Allah’s judgment (Sahih Bukhari Volume 5 Book 59 Hadith 447). 

He then proceeded to actively participate in the massacre of these unfortunate unarmed men. According to Ibn Ishaq: “The apostle went out to the market of Medina (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.” At least 600 unarmed males were killed in this way. 

It is clear that this massacre did not only include men of fighting age, but also young boys. This is the testimony of a survivor: “Narrated Atiyyah al-Qurazi: I was among the captives of Banu Qurayzah. They [the Companions] examined us, and those who had begun to grow hair [pubes] were killed, and those who had not were not killed. I was among those who had not grown hair” (Sunan Abu Dawud Book 38 Hadith 4390). 

The common response by Muslim apologists to charges related to this terrible massacre is to point to the alleged treachery of the tribe and to say something along the lines of “they deserved it”. This assertion can be challenged, but I will not do so here. Instead, I want to focus on the fact that boys of around 10-11 (the average age of the onset of male puberty) were massacred. The following questions should be asked to those who attempt to defend Muhammad’s actions in this instance: 

  • What influence could these poor children have had on the policies of their elders that would justify their execution? 
  • Why was such an utterly arbitrary measure (looking for pubic hair) used to decide who will die? 
  • Is this kind of rough justice really what we would expect from an “excellent example”(Qur’an 33:21)?

In the final article of the series we will focus on how Muhammad dealt with his critics. 

For much more on the links between Islamic teaching and violence please see my book ‘Nothing to do with Islam? – Investigating the West’s Most Dangerous Blind Spot

The ‘Prophet’ of Islam on Rape (Muhammad’s Example Article #6)

With this series we are continuing our look at the conduct of Muhammad. The person who is supposed to be the ‘excellent example’ (Qur’an 33:21) for all Muslims to follow. In the previous article I focussed on the way in which Muhammad treated some of his captives. This article continues along the same line by shining a light on how Muhammad responded to the sexual abuse of women captured by his forces. What follows should perhaps be avoided by sensitive readers. 

In one of the most disturbing hadiths of the Sahih Muslim collection, some of Muhammad’s followers came to him with a question about the treatment of captive women. His answer was staggering in its callousness and its implications for later Muslim conduct during war. Here is the relevant hadith in full: “We went out with Allah’s Messenger [may peace be upon him] on the expedition to the Bi’l-Mustaliq and took captive some excellent Arab women; and we desired them, for we were suffering from the absence of our wives, [but at the same time] we also desired ransom for them. So we decided to have sexual intercourse with them but by observing “azl” [withdrawing the male sexual organ before emission of semen to avoid conception]. But we said: ‘We are doing an act whereas Allah’s Messenger is amongst us; why not ask him?’ So we asked Allah’s Messenger [Muhammad] [may peace be upon him], and he said: ‘It does not matter if you do not do it [withdraw before climaxing], for every soul that is to be born up to the Day of Resurrection will be born’” (Sahih Muslim Book 8 Hadith 3371; see also Sahih Bukhari Volume 3 Book 34 Hadith 432). 

In case it needs to be spelled out, what we have here is a group of Muslim men raping captive women while taking care to withdraw before they reach the point of climax. Instead of furiously commanding them to stop such vile conduct and taking the women into his protection, Muhammad cheerfully instructs his followers to do to the women whatever they desired. To make matters even worse, Muslim tradition states that the following verse of the Qur’an was revealed precisely to ease the qualms of Muslim warriors about having sex with enslaved captives: “Also [prohibited are] women already married, except those whom your right hands possess” (Qur’an 4:24). 

So, according to the word of Allah, if “your right hand possesses” a woman, sex with her is totally lawful even if she is married. It does not take much imagination to work out that untold miseries were visited upon women who were unfortunate enough to be captured by Muslim forces as a direct consequence of Muhammad’s actions and the Qur’anic approval of rape that followed on from it. 

In the next article in the series we will turn our focus to one of the most infamous incidents in Muhammad’s life as related by Ibn Ishaq, the massacre of the men of the Jewish tribe known as the Banu Qurayza. 

For much more on the links between Islamic teaching and violence, please see my book ‘Nothing to do with Islam? Investigating the West’s Most Dangerous Blind Spot’

‘Prophetic’ Torture and Trafficking (Muhammad’s Example Article #5)

In the previous article in this series on the conduct of Muhammad we looked at the fact that he was perfectly willing to deceive people in order to gain political or strategic advantage. With this article we’ll begin to look at how he treated those who were unfortunate enough to come under his power. 

An important test of a man’s character is his conduct towards those who are weak or in a vulnerable position. In Muhammad’s case, the group to which this description could be most readily applied was the captives who came under his control when their tribes were defeated by the Muslims. Muhammad may have been teaching his followers to call upon Allah as “Merciful and Compassionate”, but his treatment of those whom his forces captured was often exactly the opposite of these values. In this article, it will be shown how Muslim forces engaged torture and human trafficking with his full approval and, sometimes, active participation. It should be stressed, once again, that what is related here comes from impeccable Islamic sources. 

In the aftermath of the Battle of Khaibar, Muhammad was desperate to get his hands on some of the wealth of the Jewish tribes that were vanquished by the Muslims. So desperate, in fact, that he did not shrink from torture as a means of gaining information. Ibn Ishaq relates the following: “Kinana al-Rabi, who had the custody of the treasure of Banu Nadir, was brought to the apostle who asked him about it. He denied that he knew where it was. A Jew came to the apostle and said that he had seen Kinana going round a certain ruin every morning early. When the apostle said to Kinana, ‘Do you know that if we find you have it I shall kill you?’ He said ‘Yes’. The apostle gave orders that the ruin was to be excavated and some of the treasure was found. When he asked him about the rest he refused to produce it, so the apostle gave orders to al-Zubayr 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 b. Maslama and he struck off his head, in revenge for his brother Mahmud.” 

Little more needs to be added to Ibn Ishaq’s account of this horrible incident and the way in which it gives us an insight into the character of Muhammad. Suffice it to say that lighting a fire on the chest of a fellow human being to satisfy your greed is not something that most of us would readily associate with a “beautiful pattern of conduct” (Qur’an 33:21)

As if the fate that befell Kinana al Rabi was not bad enough, Muhammad also had his wife in his sights. In line with the practice of the Muslim armies, the women of the Jewish tribe were captured after the Battle of Khaibar. One of his followers named Dihya came to Muhammad and asked: “O Allah’s Prophet! Give me a slave girl from the captives”. Instead of scolding Dihya for seeking to enslave a vulnerable fellow human being, Muhammad says: “Go and take any slave girl”. It should be noted at this point that the man who requested a slave girl was probably not looking for someone to clean his house. The Qur’an makes it clear that Muslim men are allowed to have sex with “those whom your right hand possesses” (Qur’an 4:24) – in other words, sexual slavery is in view here. 

Encouraged by Muhammad, Dihya goes and picks a “slave girl”, Safiya bint Huyai. It is, however, pointed out to Muhammad that she was the wife of the now dead “head of the tribe of Jews”: “A man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! You gave Safiya bint Huyai to Dihya and she is the chief mistress of the tribes of Quraiza and An-Nadir and she befits none but you.’ So the Prophet said, ‘Bring him along with her.’ So Dihya came with her and when the Prophet saw her, he said to Dihya, ‘Take any slave girl other than her from the captives.’ Anas added: ‘The Prophet then manumitted her and married her’” (Sahih Bukhari Volume 1 Book 8 Hadith 367). 

So, on the very day when her world is destroyed by the violent actions of the Muslims (including the horribly violent and gruesome murder of her husband), and while she was no doubt still deeply in shock, she is “married” to Muhammad, the leader of the group who carried out the atrocities against her and her people. It is clear that she had no say in the matter. This is confirmed by the fact that Muhammad changed her name to Safiya, a humiliating wordplay indicating that she is part of the fifth of the booty that is due to Muhammad (Qur’an 8:41). This is related as follows in Sunan Abu Dawud 2987: “Qatadah said: ‘When the Apostle of Allah participated in a battle, there was for him a special portion which he took from where he desired. Safiya was from that portion’”. 

It is interesting to note that the memory of the shocking and terrible circumstances under which Safiya was married to Muhammad lingered on in the Muslim community, often manifesting in questions about her loyalty. At least some members of the community clearly thought that it would be only natural for her to take revenge for what was done to her. 

In the next article we will look at some more people who learned that mercy was often in short supply when it came to the ‘apostle of Allah’.

For much more on the links between Islamic teaching and violence, please see my book ‘Nothing to do with Islam? – Investigating the West’s Most Dangerous Blind Spot’