The Christian missionaries and the enemies of Islam have alleged that the Prophet Muhammad(P) was an “assassin” who would “kill his opponents in the middle of the night using deceit and lies”. They cite the events of the killing of Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf as evidence for their claims. Our contention is that these bigots are abusing the historical events surrounding these incidents. This is because they are unaware of the circumstances leading to their killing, or why the Prophet(P) had allowed it to happen.
It is, therefore, our wish to discuss this issue in its proper perspective, and stifle their lies once and for all, insha’Allah.
Who Was Kaab al-Ashraf?
Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf was a Jew. He used to insult Muslims and especially Muslim women. He had been later killed by a Muslim, through the permission of the Noble Prophet(P). This account is present in Sirat Rasul Allah by Ibn Ishaq.1
The following is the account in our own words:
- The Prophet asked who would get rid of Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf for him. A Muslim man responded that he would. Sadly, the Muslim who agreed with the Prophet did not eat for three days (except for that which was required). When this was informed to the Prophet, the Prophet asked him the reason. The man told him that he had taken a responsibility (to kill Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf) which he could not handle. So the Muslim asked the Prophet’s permission to tell lies or to deceive Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf. The Prophet gave him permission. The Muslim went to Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf, said something deceptive, and made him come out of his house and then killed him.
The attack raised by anti-Islamics here is that the Prophet(P) gave another man to do the job and gave him permission to lie.
We must, first of all, understand that the situation of the Muslims was very precarious, even in the aftermath of their victory at Badr. Even though the Quraysh Meccans were defeated and had retreated back to the city to lick their wounds and mourn their dead, the Muslims still face the danger of internal dissent within the walls of Madinah.
Indeed, the Muslims had just expelled the Banu Qaynuqa from their homes after their open declaration of war against the Prophet and the early Muslim community.
The Banu Qaynuqa were the first of the Jews to break their agreement with the Muslims and go to war and had to be dealt with swiftly so as to quash any ideas of the other Jewish tribes to instigate a war against the Muslims.2
It was within the context of this situation that Ka’ab bin Al-Ashraf took advantage of, by inveighing against the Prophet and reciting verses bewailing the Quraysh who were slain at Badr.
Among the lines of the aforementioned verses are:
Badr’s mill ground out the blood of its people
At events like Badr you should weep and cry
The best of the people were slain round their cisterns
Don’t think it strange that the princes were left lying.
How many noble handsome men,
The refugee of the homeless was slain,
Liberal when the stars gave no rain,
Who bore others’ burdens, ruling and taking their due fourth,
Some people whose anger pleases me say
“Ka’ab 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 all the Banu’l-Mughira were humiliated
And brought low by the death of Abu’l-Hakim
And the two sons of Rabi’a with him,
And Munabbih and the others did not attain (such honour) as those who were slain3
In the last stanza of this poetry by Ka’ab, he had committed a transgression of the earlier covenant signed between the Muslims and his tribe with the following words of incitement:
I was told that al-Harith ibn Hisham
Is doing well and gathering troops
To visit Yathrib with armies,
For only the noble, handsome man protects the loftiest reputation.
Furthermore, Ka’b had composed several amatory verses in defamation of the honour of a Muslim woman by the name of Ummu’l-Fadl bint al-Harith:
Are you off without stopping in the valley
And leaving Ummu’l-Fadl in Mecca?
Out would come what she bought from the pedlar of bottles,
Henna and hair dye.
What lies ‘twixt ankle and elbow in motion
When she tries to stand and does not.
Ibid., p. 366
The significance of “what lies ‘twixt ankle and elbow in motion” is explained in the footnote by the translator of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah as:
Presumably her buttocks are meant; they would be between her ankle and her elbow as she reclined. Large and heavy buttocks were marks of female beauty among the old Arabs.4
A poet of pre-Islamic days expresses the Arab sentiment of chastity and virtuousness in a couplet, which depicts a lovely picture of Arab womanhood: “If my glance meets the looks of a neighbouring maiden, I cast my eyes low until her abode takes her in”.
Hence, it was within the context of the above incitements made by Ka’ab bin Al-Ashraf which was why the Muslims were agitated when their women were being dishonoured and public sentiment called for his punishment.
As we have stated before, Ka’ab’s actions were against a clause in the Madinah Covenant signed between the Muslims and the Jews of Madinah.
The relevant stipulation of this covenant is as follows:
Loyalty is a protection against treachery. The freedmen of Thalaba are as themselves. The close friends are as themselves. None of them shall go out to war save with the permission of Muhammad, but he shall not be prevented from taking revenge for a wound. He who slays a man without warning slays himself and his whole household unless it is one who has wronged him, for God will accept that. The Jews must bear their expenses and the Muslims their expenses. Each must help the other against anyone who attacks the people of this document. They must seek mutual advice and consultation, and loyalty is a protection against treachery. A man is not liable for his ally’s misdeeds. The wronged must be helped. The Jews must pay with the believers so long as the war lasts. Yathrib shall be a sanctuary for the people of this document. A stranger under protection shall be as his host doing no harm and committing no crime. A woman shall only be given protection with the consent of her family. If any dispute or controversy likely to cause trouble should arise it must be referred to God and to Muhammad the apostle of God. God accepts what is nearest to piety and goodness in this document. Quraysh and their helpers shall not be given protection.
His acts were openly directed against the Commonwealth, of which he was a member. It is therefore clear that Ka’ab bin Al-Ashraf’s antagonism towards the Muslim community was his own undoing, and was no longer protected by the covenant that he himself had violated.
Akram Diya’ al-Umari remarks:
The killing of Ibn al Ashraf might be seen as an act of treachery, but on further reflection, one realizes that Ibn al Ashraf was party to the treaty according to the Document by which the Jews of Banu al-Nadir and others were committed. By slandering the Prophet, who was the head of state, and by showing his sympathy for the enemies of the Muslims (lamenting their dead and inciting them against the Muslims), Ibn al Ashraf had broken the treaty and declared war on the Muslims, and his blood could be shed with impunity. As for his being deceived and killed by those he had trusted, such action is legally permissible (ja’iz) in the case of those who have declared war on the Muslims, and it was carried out by order of the Messenger (See al Tahawi, Mushkil al-Athar). The Messenger, however, did not blame Banu al-Nadir for Ibn al Ashraf’s crime; it was sufficient to have him killed for his treachery. The Prophet, in fact, renewed his treaty with them (Banu al-Nadir).5
However, some may object that Ka’ab bin Al-Ashraf was merely composing “poetries” as a form of “freedom of expression”, and therefore was not causing any “harm” to anyone around him. Those who say this certainly do not understand the significance of the blasphemous poetry by Ka’ab bin Al-Ashraf. Arabic poetry is a priori very influential and cannot be thought of in the terms of English poetry or any other forms of poetry in other languages.
As Philip K. Hitti himself notes:
No people in the world, perhaps, manifest such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression and are so moved by the word, spoken or written, as the Arabs. Hardly any language seems capable of exercising over the minds of its users such irresistible influence as Arabic.6
After noting Ka’ab bin Al-Ashraf’s acts of incitement and false accusations towards Muslim women, Haykal says that:
The reader is perhaps aware of Arab customs and ethics in this regard, and can appreciate the Muslims’ anxiety over such false accusations directed against their women’s honour.7
Certainly, the reader would agree with us that “freedom of expression” certainly does not include the right to defame the honour of another or to incite aggression against a legitimate Government.
Hence it is clear that by modern terms today, Ka’ab bin Al-Ashraf will be duly charged with sedition against the State and for outraging the modesty of a Muslim woman.
A Public Trial for War Criminals?
Controversialists have stigmatized this execution as an “assassination”. And because a Muslim was sent secretly to kill each of the criminals, in their prejudice against the Prophet(P) they shut their eyes to the justice of the sentence, and the necessity of a swift and secret execution. There existed then no police court, no judicial tribunal, nor even a court-martial, to take cognisance of individual crimes.
In the absence of a State executioner, any individual might become the executioner of the law. This man had broken their formal pact — it was impossible to arrest him in public, or execute the sentence in the open before their clans, without causing unnecessary bloodshed, and giving rise to the feud of blood and everlasting vendetta. The exigencies of the State required that whatever should be done should be done swiftly and noiselessly upon those whom public opinion had arraigned and condemned.
It is clear that where the killing of Ka’ab bin Al-Ashraf was concerned, it was done as a deterrent against crimes committed against the public and infringements of the promulgated law. In light of this, there was locus standi to take action on this matter. What was done to stop Ka’ab Al-Ashraf from spreading his mischief was totally justified.
In considering the punishments that were dealt with the enemies of Islam, we must not forget, first, that they were political actions made necessary by the conditions of the time; second, that none of them were excessively unacceptable by the usages or mores of that time.
And only God knows best!
- We have depended upon the translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah by A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad (Oxford University Press, 1978).
- Ibid., p. 363
- Akram Diya al Umari, Madinan Society At The Time of The Prophet, (International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1991)
- Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, 10th edition (Macmillan Press, 1970), p. 90
- M. H. Haykal, The Life of Muhammad (North American Trust Publications, 1976), p. 244