Did the Prophet Muhammad Assassinate His Critics? The True Story of Ka’b ibn Al-Ashraf

The enemies of Islam frequently accuse of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم of committing acts of treacherous assassination against his critics. But what is the true story?

Ka’b ibn Al-Ashraf was a Jewish leader in Medina at the time of the Prophet. When the Prophet arrived in Medina, he established the Constitution of Medina which promised peace and religious freedom for Jews and Muslims. However, Ka’b did not like that the equality of believers was threatening his position of power, and so he decided to wage war against the Prophet. Uri Rubin writes:

Ibn Ishaq relates that Muhammad ordered to kill Ibn al-Ashraf because the latter had gone to Mecca after Badr and provoked Quraysh to fight the prophet. He also composed verses in which he bewailed the victims of Quraysh who had been killed at Badr.

[Rubin, U. (January 01, 1990). The Assassination of Kaʿb b. al-Ashraf. Oriens, 32, 65-71.]

Indeed, according to Ibn Hisham, Ka’b had “raised confederates حزّب الأحزاب” against the Messenger of Allah. Therefore, he was to be killed because of “his aggression عداوته against the Messenger of Allah and his incitement (to war) وتحريضه عليه against him.” The Prophet Muhammad had to defend his community from the violent aggression of Ka’b ibn Al-Ashraf and his propagandizing the people to make war on the Muslims.  Thus, the order was given to execute K’ab.

In modern terms, Ka’b was what we could call an enemy combatant, and this incident can be described as a “targeted killing.” Targeted killings in self-defense are widely recognized to be a legal method of warfare. They are not the same as an “assassination” which involves breaking a peace treaty or security agreement. In fact, the Prophet strongly warned against committing any acts of treachery. He said:

إِذَا جَمَعَ اللَّهُ الأَوَّلِينَ وَالآخِرِينَ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ يُرْفَعُ لِكُلِّ غَادِرٍ لِوَاءٌ فَقِيلَ هَذِهِ غَدْرَةُ فُلاَنِ بْنِ فُلاَنٍ

When Allah gathers together the earlier and later generations on the Day of Resurrection, He will raise a banner for every treacherous person and it will be announced that this is the treachery of so-and-so the son of so-and-so.

[Sahih Muslim, Book 019, Number 4301]

Interestingly enough, the enemies of Islam – without fail – will cite the story of Ka’b Ibn Al-Ashraf while ignoring this important historical context. They also neglect what Imam Abu Dawud رحمه الله records immediately after the Hadith about Ka’b ibn Al-Ashraf. Lest anyone think that the story of Ka’b allows general permission to commit assassinations, Abu Dawud records the words of the Prophet:

الْإِيمَانُ قَيَّدَ الْفَتْكَ لَا يَفْتِكُ مُؤْمِنٌ

Faith has prevented treacherous assassination.  A believer does not assassinate.

[Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 15, Number 2769]

Abu Dawud recorded in a chapter shortly before the story of Ka’b that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said:

مَنْ قَتَلَ مُعَاهِدًا فِي غَيْرِ كُنْهِهِ حَرَّمَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ الْجَنَّةَ

If someone kills a person protected by a covenant, before its term expires, then Allah has made Paradise forbidden for him.

[Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 15, Number 2760]

Again, you see the enemies of Islam cherry-picking verses and traditions – taking them out of context – while they ignore other verses and traditions that debunk their hateful caricature of Muslims.

So how did the Prophet handle his non-violent critics? With mercy, kindness, and peace, of course! As the Noble Quran says:

وَعِبَادُ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الَّذِينَ يَمْشُونَ عَلَى الْأَرْضِ هَوْنًا وَإِذَا خَاطَبَهُمُ الْجَاهِلُونَ قَالُوا سَلَامًا

The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth humbly, and when the ignorant address them, they say, “Peace!”

[Surah Al-Furqan 25:63]

وَإِذَا سَمِعُوا اللَّغْوَ أَعْرَضُوا عَنْهُ وَقَالُوا لَنَا أَعْمَالُنَا وَلَكُمْ أَعْمَالُكُمْ سَلَامٌ عَلَيْكُمْ لَا نَبْتَغِي الْجَاهِلِينَ

When they hear ill speech, they turn away from it and say, “For us are our deeds, and for you are your deeds. Peace will be upon you; we seek not the ignorant.”

[Surah Al-Qassas 28:55]

Let’s not forget the story of when some Jews came to the Prophet and declared, “Death be upon you!” Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, returned their curses, but what did the Messenger of Allah say?

يَا عَائِشَةُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ رَفِيقٌ يُحِبُّ الرِّفْقَ فِي الْأَمْرِ كُلِّهِ

O Aisha, Allah is kind and He loves kindness in all matters.

[Sahih Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 84, Number 61]

If only the enemies of Islam could learn from such a beautiful example!

Conclusion

Ka’b Ibn Al-Ashraf was an enemy combatant who was actively involved in a war of extermination against the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم and the Muslims. He openly declared war against the Muslims and thus the Prophet ordered him to be killed out of self-defense for his community. The specific rule to be taken from the incident is that targeted killings in self-defense are a legitimate tactic in war, having been accepted by renowned jurists from the time of Sun Tzu up until the present day. The general rule is that assassinations (breaking a peace treaty) are forbidden, as many authentic Hadith strongly warn us that treachery leads to the Hellfire. Likewise, terrorism is forbidden in every circumstance.

(www.faithinallah.org / 20.02.2012)

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