‘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’


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