Muslim spokespersons must tell the whole truth
James M. Arlandson
In their replies to the uproar over satirical depictions of the prophet Muhammad, Muslim spokespersons who have access to the national media have recently withheld some valuable but unpleasant information about early Islam.
On national television, Feb 2, 2006, Ibrahim Hooper, a leader of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), speaks only of the forgiveness and kindness of his prophet.
HOOPER: Let me tell you how the Prophet Muhammad responded to attacks on himself.
There was a lady who threw garbage in the path of the prophet on a daily basis. One day, she didn't do it. The prophet went to inquire about her health, because he thought she might be sick. This lady ended up converting to Islam. So, that's how you respond to people who attack you, with forgiveness and with kindness. (Source)
On February 8, 2006, Amir Taheri, a reputable journalist who often explains Islam to the West, uses the absolutist word "never" in the context of chopping off the heads of satirists during Islam's founding.
The truth is that Islam has always had a sense of humor and has never called for chopping heads as the answer to satirists. Muhammad himself pardoned a famous Meccan poet who had lampooned him for more than a decade. (Source)
On February 9, 2006, a journalist for al-Jazeera, Abderrahim Foukara, appeared on the Charlie Rose Show saying about the same thing. After Muhammad conquered Mecca "peacefully" (in early AD 630), he forgave a satirical poet. Never mind that twenty-eight Meccans died in the "peaceful" conquest, after their city-weakened by eight years of Muslim raids on Meccan trade-was surrounded by 10,000 jihadists (go here for more information, and scroll down to no. 3, looking for a critique of Karen Armstrong). The transcript is available by purchase only. Here is a video clip of the discussion between Foukara, Rose, and others.
In truth, however, while Muhammad forgave a poet and a singing girl right after his conquest of Mecca, he killed satirical poets more often than he forgave them. And those whom he did not kill repented and conformed to Islam. His forgiveness was conditional on their submission to Islam. He did not allow freedom of speech or religion. Further, Hooper needs to cite the source of the tradition about Muhammad visiting a woman who used to throw garbage at him. The original source is difficult to locate. Finally, the prophet also killed non-poetic or ordinary mockers, and he used a poet to mock a tribe of Jews just before their conquest, slaughter, and enslavement.
These spokespersons presented only Islam's peaceful aspects. This is not full disclosure. This is wrong. The truth about ALL of Islam must be publicized, if we want to fully understand this religion and the motives of the violent protesters. This article is intended to balance out the picture of Islam from the one painted by these spokespersons.
The following four passages in the Quran were revealed before Muhammad's Hijrah (Emigration or Flight) from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. He has to show patience because he has no military power. The last passage in this section was revealed in Medina, when he indeed has a lot of raw power.
(1) Muhammad at Mecca
25:4-6 The disbelievers say, "This can only be a lie he [Muhammad] has forged with the help of others"-they themselves have done great wrong and told lies-5 and they say, "It is just fables of the ancients, which he has had written down: they are dictated to him morning and evening. 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, both insertions are mine)
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." (Haleem; see Sura 8:31)
In these two passages, it is unclear who the mockers are, but the first two storytellers in the next main section are certainly not excluded.
In this next verse, Muhammad is discouraged, so Allah tells him that he is in good company.
6:10 Messengers have been mocked before you [Muhammad], and those who mocked were engulfed by the very punishment they had mocked. (Haleem, his insertion)
The following verses promise Allah's protection from mockers, and order the prophet to keep proclaiming his message:
15:94 So proclaim openly what you have been commanded [to say], and ignore idolaters. 95 We are enough for you against all those who ridicule your message . . . (Haleem, his insertion)
(2) Muhammad at Medina
The next passage was revealed in AD 627, five years after the Hijrah. In these verses Muhammad continues the commands to his wives to wear veils so that insults about them would stop. But he also promises the insulters conquest and death (verse 61) by his own hand, not only by the power of Allah.
33:59 Prophet, tell your wives your daughters, and women believers to make their outer garment hang low over them, so as to be recognized and not insulted [aa-dh-aa]: God is most forgiving, most merciful. 60 If the hypocrites, the sick of heart, and those who spread lies in the city [Medina] do not desist, We shall arouse you [Prophet] against them, and then they will only be your neighbors in this city for a short while. 61 They will be rejected wherever they are found, and then seized and killed. (Haleem, first two insertions are mine, the last one his)
The root aa-dh-aa has the semantic range of hurt, suffer, damage, injure, annoy, insult, or harm. "The word . . . signifies a slight evil . . . or anything causing a slight harm" (Abdul Mannan Omar, ed., Dictionary of the Holy Qur'an, Noor Foundation, 2003, p. 19). The class of rumor-mongers, "those who spread lies," is subjected to the harshest warning. If they do not desist, they will not only be exiled, but also find no rest wherever they go. Then they will be "seized and killed." These verses, though received in 627, predict nicely what will happen to the satirical poets during the conquest of Mecca in 630 (see below), for they spread lies and insult the honor of Muslim women and Muhammad himself.
The assassination of satirical poets
Once Muhammad reaches Medina and gradually grows in military power, his tone and outlook change. The following murders occur after the Hijrah.
(1) March 624: Al-Nadr bin al-Harith
Before Muhammad's Hijrah, 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. A Meccan named Al-Nadr bin al-Harith 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." On other days al-Nadr would interrupt Muhammad until the prophet silenced him.
It was al-Nadr'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. This battle pitted about 320 Muslims against about 1,000 Meccans, near the north-south trade route following the Red Sea. The story-telling polytheist was captured, and on Muhammad's return journey back to Medina, Ali, Muhammad's cousin and 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 he harassed Muhammad and wrote poems and told stories critiquing him.
Source: Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, (trans. A. Guillaume, Oxford UP, 1955, 2004), pp. 136, 163, 181, 262, 308. Reputable historians today consider Ibn Ishaq to be a reliable source of early Islam, though they may disagree on his chronology and miraculous elements.
(2) March 624: Uqbah bin Abu Muayt
A similar story as that of al-Nadr can be told about Uqba bin Abu Muayt. 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.
After the prophet's victory at Badr, he was not always magnanimous. This passage finds him mocking the enemy dead in the middle of the night, as their bodies lie motionless in a pit:
. . . The apostle's companions heard him saying in the middle of the night, "O people of the pit: O Utbah, O Shayba, O Ummayya, O Abu Jahl," enumerating all who had been thrown in the pit, "Have you found what God promises you is true? I have found that what my Lord promised me is true." The Muslims said, "Are you calling to dead bodies?" He answered: "you cannot hear what I say better than they, but they cannot answer me. (Ibn Ishaq, p. 306)
The reliable hadith collector and editor Bukhari confirms Ibn Ishaq's account.
These were the battles of Allah's Apostle (which he fought), and while mentioning (the Badr battle) he said, "While the corpses of the pagans were being thrown into the well, Allah's Apostle said (to them), 'Have you found what your Lord promised true?" 'Abdullah said, "Some of the Prophet's companions said, "O Allah's Apostle! You are addressing dead people.' Allah's Apostle replied, 'You do not hear what I am saying, better than they.' (Bukhari)
In this tradition the prophet is shown taunting the dead in a well, not a pit, and he seems to have done this in broad daylight. Maybe these are two different episodes in Ibn Ishaq and Bukhari; regardless, they convey the same unpleasant message.
Why should this taunting surprise us, since Muhammad learned it from Allah? Sura 7 was revealed before Muhammad's Hijrah in AD 622, and the Quran in Sura 7:44 says:
And the dwellers of Paradise will call out to the dwellers of the Fire (saying): "We have indeed found true what our Lord had promised us; have you also found true, what your Lord promised (warnings, etc.)?" They shall say: "Yes." Then a crier will proclaim between them: "The Curse of Allāh is on the Zālimūn (polytheists and wrongdoers, etc.)" (Hilali and Khan, their insertions).
This passage, using surprisingly similar language as that recorded in Ibn Ishaq and Bukhari, says that the dwellers of Islamic paradise yell at the dwellers of hell, and this scene apparently takes place in the Last Day. But Muhammad gets a head start after the Battle of Badr and down here on earth.
What makes these double murders so terrible is that the accusations that Muhammad invented fables turn out to be true. This certainly is the case in his retelling of episodes and the lives of characters in the Bible.
Sources: This fine online booklet offers a user-friendly comparative study on Biblical characters as they appear in the Bible and in the Quran. Bukhari, Spoils of War (online source); Muslim nos. 4421, 4422, and 4424; These are parallels on taunting in Bukhari: here and here. Ibn Ishaq, pp. 306-08. Muslim is also a reliable collector and editor of the hadith (records of the words and deeds of Muhammad outside of the Quran).
(3) March 624: Asma bint Marwan
She was a poetess who belonged to a tribe of Medinan pagans. She composed a poem blaming them for obeying a stranger (Muhammad) and for not taking the initiative to attack him by surprise. Perhaps in March 624, 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.
Source: Ibn Ishaq, pp. 675-76.
(4) September 624: Kab bin al-Ashraf
Kab b. al-Ashraf had a mixed ancestry. His father came from a nomadic Arab tribe, but his mother was a Jewess from the powerful al-Nadir 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, witnessing the aftermath. Arriving in Mecca, he wrote a widely circulated poem, a hostile lament, over the dead of Mecca.
Angered by the poems and now able to strike back after the Battle of Badr, 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, we shall have to tell lies." He answered, "Say what you like, for you are free in the matter."
After deceitfully gaining Kab's trust over time, a Muslim yelled to the four other murderers, "Smite the enemy of God!" Though outnumbered, 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 his genitals, killing him.
They made it back to Muhammad. They saluted the prophet as he stood praying, and he came out to them. They told him that the mission was accomplished. Early Muslim historian Tabari (d. 923) reports that the five Muslim thugs severed Kab's head and brought it to Muhammad.
Sources: Bukhari, Military Expeditions (online sources: here (see also the one below); this one and this one show Muhammad giving permission to his assassin to say anything, i.e. lie; Muslim no. 4436; Ibn Ishaq pp. 364-69 ; Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, Vol. 7, (trans. by M.V. McDonald and annotated by W. Montgomery Watt, SUNYP, 1987), pp. 94-98. Reputable historians today consider Tabari to be a reliable source of data on early Islam, though they may not agree on his chronology or miraculous elements.
(5) July-August 625: A one-eyed, unnamed 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."
It is possible to doubt this episode because the mission to assassinate a leader of Mecca would never succeed. However, the narrative fits well in the rest of Islam that too often depicts assassinations (even more than the one described here, see sources, below). Moreover, it is remarkable that this violent scene would be included in an early source as if the violence is no big deal. Murderous Ummayah is portrayed as a hero, praised by the prophet for humanity.
Sources: Tabari, vol. 7, pp. 149-50; A later editor incorporated some of Tabari's account into Ibn Ishaq's biography, pp. 674-75. Here are other victims of peaceful non-assassinations in Islam.
(6) After January 630: One singing-girl
After Muhammad conquered Mecca in early AD 630, a conquest that saw some bloodshed of twenty-eight Meccans, he showed amnesty to the newly conquered. But on the list of those excluded from amnesty was not only Abdullah b. Katal, collector of legal alms, who had killed his slave for incompetence, apostatized from Islam, and took the money back to Mecca. But his two singing-girls who sang satirical verses about Muhammad, which Abdullah had composed, were also excluded from the list. He was killed, even though he was clinging to the curtain of the Kabah shrine. And one of the girls was killed, but the other ran away until she asked for pardon from Muhammad, who forgave her.
Sources: Bukhari, Military Expeditions, (online source); Ibn Ishaq, pp. 550-51.
(7) 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 Muhammad nearly murdered another poet who satirized Muhammad and Muslims, Kab bin Zuhayr (here called Zuhayr to distinguish him from Kab bin al-Ashraf, above, no. 4). 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 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." Finding no way out, Zuhayr 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.
As Zuhayr came into the prophet's presence, one of the Ansars (helpers or native Medinans who helped Muhammad after his Hijrah) leaped upon Zuhayr and asked Muhammad 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. Some Muslim polemicists consider him to be unreliable mostly because he preserves so many traditions that portray Muhammad as violent. But here the prophet is forgiving, so now Ibn Ishaq's reliability cannot be doubted.
Murder of ordinary mockers
Two examples of murder demonstrate that Muhammad did not like mockery even by non-poets. Any ole insulter is vulnerable in original Islam.
(1) A blind man murders his slave-wife.
Narrated Abdullah Ibn Abbas:
A blind man had a slave-mother who used to abuse the Prophet . . . and disparage him. He forbade her but she did not stop. He rebuked her but she did not give up her habit. One night she began to slander the Prophet . . . and abuse him. So he took a dagger, placed it on her belly, pressed it, and killed her. A child who came between her legs was smeared with the blood that was there. When the morning came, the Prophet was informed about it.
He assembled the people and said: I adjure by Allah the man who has done this action and I adjure him by my right to him that he should stand up. Jumping over the necks of the people and trembling, the man stood up.
He 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. (Abu Dawud no. 4348; he is another reliable hadith collector and editor)
The last line of this hadith shows Muhammad not allowing even blood-wit (compensation for bloodshed) to be paid on her behalf. Apparently, she was worth nothing, even though she bore the blind man two sons.
(2) An unnamed man strangles an unnamed Jewish woman.
Narrated Ali ibn Abu Talib:
A Jewess used to abuse the Prophet . . . and disparage him. A man strangled her till she died. The Apostle of Allah . . . declared that no recompense was payable for her blood. (Abu Dawud no. 4349)
This hadith communicates that a Jewish woman is worth nothing. In early Islamic sources, Jews too often appear as extra-bad. Who was killed? Who is a murderer? A Jew? That's no big deal. Of course. That's to be expected. So what else is new?
Is it any wonder why so many Muslims who are educated in their source documents hate Jews? How can Muhammad's example and Islam's sacred text stop them?
Regardless, in both cases of murder, no one was arrested or executed, like-for-like. No one was even scolded. The murderers were let go on the grounds that insulting the prophet deserves death. The translator of Abu Dawud informs us that all Jews or any non-Muslims who insult the prophet should also be killed (vol. 3, note 3800).
Muhammad uses a satirical poet
Muhammad is fresh off a victory against a coalition of 10,000 Meccans and their allies in AD 627. After they depart, the last remaining major tribe of Jews, the Qurayza, is left alone, without allies. During Muhammad's twenty-five-day siege of this tribe, which resulted in the slaughter of the men and pubescent boys and the wholesale enslavement of the women and children, he employed a poet to abuse them.
The Prophet said to Hassan, "Abuse them (with your poems), and Gabriel is with you (i.e. supports you)." (Through another group of sub-narrators) Al-Bara bin Azib said, "On the day of Quraiza's (besiege), Allah's Apostle said to Hassan bin Thabit, 'Abuse them (with your poems), and Gabriel is with you (i.e. supports you).'" (Bukhari)
This shows how valued poetry was in seventh-century Arabia. In some instances, it could resemble a smear campaign, to use the language of today. Now that Muhammad has the power, he gets to employ a satirical poet without fear of reprisal. In fact, he refers to the Jews as brothers of monkeys, citing a legend that he believed, namely, that God turned some disobedient Jews into apes. (see also Ibn Ishaq pp. 461-62).
Muslim spokespersons who have access to the national media recently withheld some unpleasant truths about the origins of their religion. While it is true that Muhammad forgave a satirical poet and a singing girl (see no. 7 in "Assassination of satirical poets," above), he murdered more than he forgave. Omitting the violent episodes in the prophet's life, the spokespersons act irresponsibly in their television appearances. Their strategy and goal is to make Islam and its prophet seem only peaceful and loving, perhaps so that the uninformed may be drawn to this religion or at least not be turned off by it.
However, aggressive Islam is on the march. The riots over the cartoons are only one symptom. The stakes are high. Thus, the peaceful spokespersons' partial presentation of Islam is misleading at best and dangerous at worse. When or if Islam gets a foothold in a region on the basis of "peace and love," what happens when the hard line and traditional (not to mention nonviolent and violent fanatics) Muslims come to the region later and impose all sorts of violent laws and policies and practices in the Quran and hadith?
This article is intended to fill out the picture of early Islam from the one presented by these spokespersons.
They must stop withholding difficult information about the origins of their religion. They must denounce specific verses in the Quran and specific passages in the hadith. Honesty demands full disclosure, even if it hurts and especially if they have the privilege of appearing in the national media.
Here is the longer version of the present article. It has a section that replies to Muslim defenses and a longer section analyzing verses in the Quran.
Here is an archive of a wide variety of articles on the depiction of Muhammad.
This mid-length article has a number of links to the protests and violence. Now bounties have been put on the head of the cartoonist(s).
This article contrasts the reactions of Jesus and Muhammad when they were insulted and threatened.
This article argues that the West must keep and protect its freedom of speech, regardless of whether sharia (Islamic law) denies this freedom.
This short analysis discusses the similarities between assassinations in early Islam and the ones today.
This analysis examines the many causes of assassinations of journalists and intellectuals in several Islamic countries, notably Algeria, but the analysis fails to go back to the ultimate source: Muhammad himself.
This ironical article gives five "reverse" pillars of Islam. The third one includes assassinations.
In November 2004, Theo Van Gogh was assassinated by a Muslim because the descendant of the brother of the famous artist had made a film that depicted a Muslim woman who was forced into an arranged marriage, abused by her husband, and raped by her uncle.
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