Muhammad's (non)assassinations of (non)victims

From the mainstream press and even from scholars, we have heard that Islam is the religion of peace. They point out that the three—consonant Arabic word root s—l—m is found in both Islam, which means surrender or submission, and salam, which means peace, soundness, and safety.

This etymology may be accurate, but it also serves merely as a press release that covers up some ambiguities.

Upon reading the original source documents of Islam—the Quran, Hadith (reports of the words and deeds of Muhammad outside of the Quran), biographies, and histories—one is struck by the casual and matter—of—fact way that Muhammad and his Muslims are shown trafficking in violence and bloodshed.

Then, within a page or even a paragraph, the documents switch to simple, casual, matter—of—fact scenes of Muhammad ordaining the proper way of praying or of Muslims sitting down at a meal. 

This zigzagging from scenes of violence to ones of peace jars the Western reader whose expectations have been built up by the claim that Islam, at its essence, is the religion of peace, and that violence is a distortion of Islam, and by his knowledge of early Christianity, which never shows Jesus practicing any violence whatsoever.

Today, some Islamic extremists, reading their source documents, take up the call to violence that is found in the life and times of their Prophet. For example, in 1989 they issued a fatwa (legal decree) to assassinate Salman Rushdie, a novelist, who wrote Satanic Verses, which includes questions about the angel Gabriel's role in inspiring the Quran. The extremists have recently renewed the fatwa.

 Deadly fatwas against Salman Rushdie, other authors, and even against Muslim clerics, have been proliferating. Where do the violent radicals get the idea to put bounties on the heads of poets and authors? Out of thin air?

One direction that the violence in earliest Islam took is the assassination of pagan men and women, and Jews, many of whom were poets and storytellers, and at least one innocent bystander whose crime was being Jewish. The poets wrote the wrong things about Muhammad and his Muslims, so the Prophet ordered their death. Muslims today have explanations for this violence, as we will discuss later.

The larger historical context of these assassinations must be taken into account. First, in seventh—century Arabia, poetry was taken seriously. Poetry contests were even held, with declared winners. It was a powerful way to communicate a message. Second, in March 624, Muhammad, living in Medina, won a surprising victory against a much—larger Meccan army of polytheists (c. 320 Muslims v. 1000 Meccans), called the Battle of Badr, named after wells near a major trade route. Muhammad's standing in Medina was insecure before the battle, but now his position became strong, and he used his new strength to eliminate some enemies.

Though there are more assassinations than the ones listed here (omitted because they involve leaders raising armies against Muhammad), here follow the stories of (non)assassinations of lesser (non)victims, using W. Montgomery Watt's chronology in Muhammad at Medina (Oxford UP, 1956), a book that has won approval from Western and Muslim scholars, for the most part.

1. March 624: Al—Nadr bin al—Harith

Before Muhammad's Hijrah (Emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622), he used to sit in the assembly and invite the Meccans to God, citing the Quran and warning them of God's punishment for mocking his prophets. Al—Nadr 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.'

Al—Nadr is referring to Bible stories about such figures as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, which Muhammad told, but according to his own version, which differed in the some of the details. On other days al—Nadr would interrupt Muhammad until the Prophet silenced him. In reply to al—Nadir's harassment, God sent down these verses to Muhammad:

25:6 Say [Prophet], 'It was sent down by Him who knows the secrets of the heavens and earth. He is all forgiving and merciful.'

83:13—17 . . . [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.'

Muhammad did not take revenge on him—not yet—so this shows Islam as a religion of peace, even though sura (chapter) 83 promises a dismal eternal future for mockers.

It was al—Nadir's bad fortune to join Mecca's army, riding north to protect their caravan, which Muhammad attacked at the Battle of Badr. The story—telling polytheist was captured, and on Muhammad's return journey back to Medina, Ali, Muhammad's son—in—law, at Muhammad's order, beheaded him (religious violence), instead of getting some possible ransom money (religion of peace).

2. March 624: Uqba bin Abu Muayt

The same story about al—Nadir can be told about Uqba. He too mocked Muhammad while in Mecca and wrote derogatory verses about him. He too was captured during the battle, and Muhammad ordered him to be executed. 'But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?' Uqba cried with anguish. 'Hell,' retorted the prophet sternly. Then the sword of one of his followers cut through Uqba's neck.

3. March 624: Amsa bint Marwan

Amsa was a poetess who belonged to a tribe of Medinan pagans, and whose husband was named Yazid b. Zayd. She composed a poem blaming the Medinan pagans for obeying a stranger (Muhammad) and for not taking the initiative to attack him by surprise. When the 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 removed the child, drew his sword, and killed her in her sleep (religious violence).

The following morning, the assassin defied anyone to take revenge. No one took him up on his challenge, not even her husband. In fact, Islam became powerful among his tribe. Previously, some members who had kept their conversion secret now became Muslims openly, 'because they saw the power of Islam' (religion of peace), conjectures an early Muslim source who reports the assassination.

4. April 624: Abu Afak

Abu Afak, an elderly pagan of Medina, wrote a derogatory poem about Muhammad, extolling the ancestors of his tribe who were strong enough to overthrow mountains and to resist submitting to an outsider (i.e. Muhammad) who divides two large Medinan tribes with religious commands like 'permitted' and 'forbidden.' That is, the poet is referring to Muhammad's legal decrees about things that are forbidden (e.g. pork and alcohol) and permitted (e.g. other meats like beef and camel). Before the Battle of Badr, Muhammad let him live, which shows the religion of peace.

After the battle, the prophet queried, 'Who will deal with this rascal for me?' That night, Salim b. Umayr 'went forth and killed him.' One of the Muslims wrote a poem in reply: 'A hanif [monotheist or Muslim] gave you a thrust in the night saying / 'Take that Abu Afak in spite of your age!'' Muhammad eliminated him, which shows religious violence.

5. September 624: Kab bin al—Ashraf

Kab b. al—Ashraf had a mixed ancestry. His father was a nomadic Arab, but his mother was a Jewess from the powerful al—Nadr 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, since it was near a major trade route to Mecca, witnessing the aftermath. Arriving in Mecca, he wrote a widely circulated poem, a hostile lament, over the dead of Mecca. It is important to include most of the political lament to show whether the poem is a serious offence, meriting assassination, as Muslim apologists (defenders of Islam) argue.

 . . . At events like Badr you should weep and cry.
 The best of its people were slain round cisterns,
 Don't think it strange that the princes were left lying.
 How many noble handsome men,
 The refuge of the homeless were slain,
  ............................................

 Some people whose anger pleases me say,
 'Kab 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 al—Harith ibn Hisham [a Meccan]
 Is doing well and gathering troops
 To visit Yathrib [pre—Islamic name of Medina] with armies,
 For only the noble, handsome man protects the loftiest reputation.

To us today this poem does not seem excessive, and other Arab poetry was worse. It seems to be a genuine lament that invokes the Middle Eastern concept of revenge. Also, the last four lines are not an explicit plea for the Meccans to exact vengeance, because that was a foregone conclusion. Arab custom demanded a riposte against the humiliation of defeat. Rather, the lines seem to reflect reality. A Meccan leader is said to be gathering an army; Kab is not ordering him to do so.

Pro—Muslim poets answered Kab's poem with ones of their own, and that was enough for his hosts in Mecca to turn him out. He returned to Medina, writing some amatory verses about Muslim women, a mistake compounded on a mistake, given the tense climate in Medina and Muhammad's victory at Badr. For example, right after the battle Muhammad assembled a Jewish tribe, the Qaynuqa, and warned them as follows: 'O Jews, beware lest God bring upon you the vengeance that He brought upon Quraysh [large Meccan tribe at Badr], and become Muslims.' . . . In late spring (April—June) Muhammad then exiled the Jewish tribe.

Angered by the poems and now able to strike back after Badr and the exile, 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 [Muhammad], we shall have to tell lies.' He answered, 'Say what you like, for you are free in the matter.' They set upon a clever plan.

Abu Naila and another conspirator visited Kab, and they cited poetry together, the three appreciating the art, and chatted leisurely, so the two would not raise suspicions of their conspiracy. Then, after a long time, Abu—Naila said he was tired of Muhammad because 'he was a very great trial for us.' He has provoked the hostility of the Arabs, and they were all in league against them. He complained that the roads had become impassable and trade was hampered, so that their families were in want, privation, and great distress.

Then the foster—brother asked him for a loan of a camel load or two of food. Kab agreed, but only on the collateral of Abu—Naila's sons. The foster—brother refused, and Kab asked for his women, but he again refused. Finally, Abu Naila offered his and his conspirators' weapons. That arrangement provided the cover they needed to carry weapons right into Kab's presence without alarm. Kab agreed, 'Weapons are a good pledge.'

The two visitors departed, stopped by the other three, and told them of the plan. Not long afterwards, gathering their weapons, they went to Muhammad, who sent them off with this wish: 'Go in God's name; O God, help them.' They set out under a moonlit night until they made it to Kab's fortress, one of many that the Jewish tribe had built in the rough environment of Arabia. In fact, the ruin of Kab's fortress can be seen even today near Medina.

They called out to him. Kab had recently married, and his wife, hearing their yells, said, 'You are at war, and those who are at war do not go out at this hour . . . I hear evil [or blood] in his voice.' But the custom of hospitality in the Arab world was strong. Her husband told her that they were only his foster—brother and his foster—brother's partners, adding that 'a generous man should respond to a call at night, even if invited to be killed.' Kab came down and greeted them. Abu Naila suggested they go for a walk.

The signal to kill was as follows: Abu Naila would run his hand through Kab's hair, complimenting him on his perfume, three times. This he did, yelling, 'Smite the enemy of God!' 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 Kab's genitals, killing him (religious violence).

They made it back to Muhammad, but only after difficulty, since in the dark they had wounded one of their own. They saluted the Prophet as he stood praying (religion of peace), and he came out to them. They told him that the mission was accomplished. He spat on their comrade's wound, and they returned to their families. Their attack on Kab sent shock waves into the Jewish community, so that 'there was no Jew in Medina who did not fear for his life,' reports one source of the anecdote.

6. September (?) 624: Ibn Sunayna

It is on the heels of this assassination that Ibn Sunayna, a Jewish merchant, was assassinated. With the success of the five conspirators, Muhammad said, 'Kill any Jew that falls into your power.' Shortly afterwards, Muhayyisa b. Masud leapt upon and killed Ibn Sunayna (religious violence), with whom Muhayyisa had some social and business relations (religion of peace). However, Muhayyisa's elder brother, not a Muslim at the time, beat the assassin, the younger brother, saying, 'You enemy of God, did you kill him when much of the fat on your belly comes from his wealth?' Muhayyisa retorted that if Muhammad had ordered the elder brother's assassination, he would have carried it out (religious violence). The elder was impressed: 'By God, a religion which can bring you to this is marvelous!' And he became a Muslim (religion of peace). That is, the elder brother is implying that Muhammad must be a great leader and worthy of devotion if he commands such reverence and obedience from his followers.

Then Muhayyisa wrote a poem that celebrates his deadly obedience.

'I would smite his [the elder brother's] neck with a sharp sword, / A blade as white as salt from polishing. / My downward stroke never misses its mark.'

Advancing religious violence, this poem shows how deadly poetry could be, and it matches the Muslim's poem against Abu Afak (no. 4, above): 'a hanif gave you a thrust in the night.' Kab's poem, it should be recalled, was far milder. These poems that a Westerner reads in the early Islamic source are jarring. It seems the early Muslim authors of the documents relish inserting them into their books.

7. After 630: close call for Abdullah bin Sad

Before 10,000 Muslim warriors entered Mecca in January 630, Muhammad ordered that they should kill only those who resisted (religion of peace), except a small number who should be hunted down even if they hid under the curtain of the Kabah stone (religious violence). One of them was Abdullah, an original Emigrant with the Prophet in 622. He had the high privilege of writing down some verses of the Quran, after Muhammad received them by revelation. Doubting, Abdullah on occasion would change the words around to see if Muhammad had noticed the changes, but he did not. Abdullah therefore disbelieved Muhammad's inspiration and apostatized (left Islam) and returned to Mecca a polytheist.

However, his foster—brother was Uthman b. Affan, one of Muhammad's Companions and fierce commander, who hid Abdullah until calm settled on conquered Mecca and who interceded for Abdullah (religion of peace). Muhammad waited a long time before he granted the repentant apostate immunity. After Uthman left, Muhammad said to those sitting around him: 'I kept silent so that one of you might get up and strike off his head!' (religious violence). One of them asked why he did not give them a signal. Muhammad answered that a prophet does not kill by pointing.

Though Abdullah escaped with his life, this story is included because it reveals Muhammad's attitude toward apostates (religious violence), because of the doubt of one of Muhammad's followers who was involved in the revelations, and because Muhammad could forgive under the right conditions (religion of peace).

8. After 630: One of Abdullah bin Katal's two singing—girls

On the list of those excluded from amnesty after the conquest of Mecca was not only Abdullah b. Katal, collector of legal alms, who had killed his slave for incompetence, apostatized, and took the money back to Mecca, but also his two singing—girls who sang satirical verses about Muhammad, which Abdullah had composed. He was killed. And one of the girls was also killed (religious violence), but the other ran away until she asked for pardon from Muhammad, who forgave her (religion of peace).

 

From all of these stories it should be clear that the zigzagging from peace and forgiveness to beheading and assassination is jarring to the reader expecting to find the religion of peace.

It is understandable that Muslims and some Western scholars would be anxious to explain these circumstances in a favorable light. Their defense or explanations usually take six lines of argument. Our analysis follows each point.

First, reputable scholars remind us of the brutality of Arab culture. When a stranger or enemy in this culture was left unprotected outside of a tribe, he or she was vulnerable to attack and murder. Who could take revenge? Blood feud was never ignited. Thus, the only check on violence in this culture is revenge or more violence, when adequate law courts and law enforcement did not exist, as they did, say, in the Roman Empire. Muhammad was therefore only following Arab culture.

This is a reasonable explanation, which any scholar can agree with. We should see Muhammad as a man of his own times and region. However, it seems that many Muslims today look to his sunna ('path' or 'example' outside of the Quran and Hadith), and this lands Islam in interpretative difficulties, as noted in an earlier article and in the fatwas against various authors.

How are Muslims today, especially those with a radical bent, supposed to interpret Muhammad's willingness to eliminate political opponents or slanderers? One would hope that a holy prophet would rise above the dubious customs like blood feuds, rife in his own culture. But he did not, and one of the unique qualities of Muhammad was his deft handling of blood feuds and sizing up opponents based on their strength or weakness. That is why the assassinations did not take place before the Battle of Badr when his stance in Medina was less secure, but after the battle, when he was strong. It is true that the victims listed in this article belonged to tribes that should have taken revenge, but evidently they were too weak to do so. Muhammad was wise in his calculations.

Second, the assassination of Kab b. al—Ashraf (see no. 5, above) is the only anecdote recounted in this article that made it into Imams Bukhari's and Muslim's collection of the Hadith, which are considered completely reliable. Therefore, Muslims today take his story seriously. One commentator points out that Kab was a combatant and a leader of the Jews. Also, others say that since Kab was willing to take his foster—brother's sons and women as collateral, he had a wicked heart and deserved his death. Neither was he willing to commit his crime openly, but secretly, so he had to be assassinated secretly. Still another commentator says that he led a large contingency of horsemen (forty? two to three hundred?) to Mecca (so much for the secrecy), presumably to provoke the Meccans to avenge their loss at Badr, as if they needed this one man and his posse to do that.

That is, these commentators must magnify Kab's crimes beyond the ordinary because only then will the assassination appear just. This is a tacit admission that assassinating Kab only for blasphemous poetry is too severe and excessive.

However, even if it is admitted that Kab was an unsavory character who used bad judgment with his insulting poetry, and even though he was living in the hostile environment of Medina, he was not a formal combatant in a battle. He seems to have lived in a 'gray' area between his mother's Jewish tribe and his father's distant nomadic tribe, and Muhammad correctly judged he was weak enough to assassinate. As to Kab's wicked heart and his secret crimes, Muhammad could have sent him into exile for wickedness (see 5:33), and his poetry was circulated widely; it was not a secret. His living in a fortress near Medina was not so secret that the five assassins could not find him. Finally, did he openly, not secretly, lead a band of forty or hundreds of horsemen in an age when horses were costly, thereby indicating Kab's power and leadership of a Jewish tribe? Answer: neither Imams Bukhari nor Muslim reports this.

Succinctly put, despite all of these unusual and conflicting explanations, it just seems more likely that Muhammad was simply following Arab culture and eliminated an opponent who was vulnerable after the Battle of Badr. Ockham's razor cuts out needless explanations.

Third, one scholar says that the Muslim community in Medina, even after Badr, was still weak, so Muhammad was forced to take a hard line against mockers and enemies (as he perceived them), just to survive. These scholars use language like 'oppression' and 'persecution' and 'conspiracy,' which came from both the Jewish and pagan communities in Medina.

However, Muhammad did not see himself as so weak that he would not carry out the assassinations. It should be recalled that Asma bint Marwan (no. 3), Abu Afak (no. 4), and Kab (no. 5) belonged to tribes, but they could not carry out the required custom of blood feud: revenge. Therefore, Muhammad correctly discerned their weakness and his strength and followed the Arab custom of assassination.

Fourth, at least one Muslim scholar argues in regards to Kab (and the same could apply to the other poets) that Kab insulted the Head of an Islamic State (Muhammad) and the State itself. The Head could not allow immoral poetry, which drags the honor of Arab women 'into the mire,' and political poetry that insults the Head and instigates the enemies of the State. In other words, Kab (and the others) deserved what he (and they) got. Therefore, all of them were (non)victims in the sense of (non)innocence, so the cause of their deaths were (non)assassinations, but just(ified) executions.

The tact of this scholar goes in the opposite direction from the third explanation. Early Islam was not fragile, but strong, and it was a fully fledged State, not a community growing in power in a city with competing tribes and interests. But this is questionable, for at this stage in early Islam Muhammad was still feeling his way. However, even if the explanation were true, the question still remains: did the Head of State have to assassinate? He had banishment at his disposal (5:33), which he applied to the Jewish Qaynuqa tribe, regardless of how seriously Arab culture took poetry. After all, Muhammad employed poets to counter his enemies, but apparently his enemies did not have the power to assassinate or to banish Muhammad or his poets.

Moreover, Muhammad's policy, if coming from a strong State, only gives permission to the extremists in Islam today to attack weak dissidents and satirists. If Muhammad did it, why cannot the extremists follow his sunna or example? Those who issue deadly fatwas are doing just that.

Fifth, Muslim apologists recount the atrocities perpetrated in and by the Western world, committed in the name of Christianity, so who are Christians or Westerners (the two are not identical) to complain?

But this comparison is uneven and unfair. A better comparison is made between the earliest stage of Islam, during the life of Muhammad, and the earliest stage of Christianity, during the life of Christ. And then the similarities break down completely. At no time did Jesus behead or assassinate or even wish for the beheading or assassination of his opponents, many of whom mocked or challenged him face—to—face. Maybe this is why Christianity turned the world upside down for the first three centuries without warfare—Constantine comes around in the fourth century and does not set the genetic code for Christianity, nor do the Medieval Crusades, especially not.

The sixth and final line of defense questions the reliability of the early traditions that narrate these anecdotes. As noted, only the narrative about Kab in our article makes it into the most reliable Hadith, that of Imams Bukhari and Muslim. Therefore, one Muslim scholar dismisses every tradition except Kab's, whereas other conservatives accept other narratives, like those about Asma (no. 3) and Abu Afak (no. 4). Whatever the case, along with this dismissal comes the presupposition that a holy prophet like Muhammad would never assassinate poets, singing—girls and an innocent Jewish bystander.

We have seen this absolutist logic before:

(1) If A, then B. If Muhammad was a perfect prophet, he would never order the assassination of poets, poetesses, singing—girls, and an innocent Jewish bystander.
(2) A obtains (to traditional Muslims). Muhammad was a perfect prophet.
(3) So does B. Therefore, he would never order the assassination of poets, poetesses, singing—girls, and an innocent Jewish bystander.

This (unspoken) logic may lurk behind the desire to find extraordinary crimes in Kab's behavior (see the second defense, above). Surely this is how Muslims today must eliminate the violence that jars any reasonable person. But does the evidence support this logic? It does not seem so thus far.

Yet, let us assume for the sake of argument that all of these stories, even Kab's, are fictitious and should be dismissed, especially the one about Ibn Sunayna, the Jewish innocent bystander, which even scholarly Western biographers omit. This means that all of these assassinations are (non)assassinations because they do not exist. And it seems difficult to believe that all of these stories coming from pro—Muslim sources are fabrications. But even if they are all fictions, regardless of the motives behind the absolutists' logic to assert as much, this question still needs to be asked about the earliest stage of Islam, during Muhammad's life:

What is it about Islam at that time that would produce such stories of assassinations for the crime of insulting poetry and being Jewish?

The authors of such 'fictions' seem eager to write them up.

After all, fictions were invented about Jesus, but they do not involve assassinations that are situated in non—miraculous social contexts, which therefore aim at giving the assassinations a ring of historical accuracy or plausibility (as we see with Muhammad). Rather, the fictions are usually outlandish miracles, such as Jesus as a baby in a cradle, speaking like an adult, or Jesus as a young boy making a bird out of clay, breathing into it, and causing it to fly away (two legends that Muhammad incorporated into the inerrant Quran; see 19:29—34; 3:49).

It is true that the anti—Semitic Infancy Gospel of Thomas (where, incidentally, is found the clay birds episode) has the child Jesus cursing a teacher who then died. Yet, the social context of this myth is supernatural, whereas Muhammad's beheadings are set in non—miraculous social contexts, two of which, moreover, are attested in Bukhari's reliable Hadith.

In contrast to these legends about Jesus, the culture of first—century Israel saw the assassinations of politicians and other harsh punishments like crucifixion. But the real Jesus handled an angry crowd who threatened to throw him off a cliff by simply walking out of trouble confidently and going on his way (Luke 4:28—29). Thus, Jesus did not promote or use violence to fulfill his own political agenda. Nor did he endorse, for example, amputation of hands or feet or stoning for any sin whatsoever, and Paul suggested that a thief should work with his hands, not get his hands cut off (Ephesians 4:28); and in fact Jesus stopped the imminent stoning of an adulteress (John 8:1—11). Thus, the known message and life of Jesus did not include beheadings and other punishments, so an inventor of such extreme legends would have been laughed out of court.

To counter the claim that Jesus only preached and worked miracles without threats or use of violence, some Muslims cite Matthew 10:34 (in bold print, below), which mentions a sword. But the verse is found in the following context, which must be quoted in full to explain the meaning of 'sword':

32 'Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.  34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn

 a man against his father,
 a daughter against her mother,
 a daughter—in—law against her mother—in—law—
 36 a man's enemies will be the members of his own household
[Micah 7:6]

37 Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.'

The sword in v. 34 indicates that following Jesus in his original Jewish society may not bring peace to a family, but may divide it up, the precise function of a sword. Are his disciples ready for that? Therefore, the metaphorical sword invisibly severs a man from his father, and daughter from her mother, and so on (Micah 7:6). A true disciple who is worthy of following Christ, and who comes from a possible hostile family environment, has to use a spiritual sword of the will to sever away all opposition, even to the point of taking up his cross. It is only natural that Matthew, the traditional author of the most Jewish of the Gospels, would include a pericope (a unit or section) like 10:32—39.

Muslims today can appreciate the imagery, for if they apostatize and become Christians, their family may disown them, or worse. Mark A Gabriel, former lecturer of Islamic History at al—Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, in his book Jesus and Muhammad, (pp. 1—20; 208—13), narrates his conversion to Christianity from Islam, the ensuing death threats, his near—assassination by a hit squad sent out for that purpose, and a near—murder even by his own father who fired five shots at him.

In Muhammad's own life and times, beheadings and assassinations of weak opponents, as noted in the first defense, above, were part of the social environment. More importantly, reliable Hadith show beyond all doubt that Muhammad practiced amputations for theft, enshrined in the Quran (5:38), stoning for adultery, and the Hadith reliably report Kab's and a Jewish leader's assassinations (not mentioned here). Thus, we see a coinciding of the facts of Muhammad's harsh culture and his known harsh practices, unlike the situation with Jesus, who did not have harsh practices, though he lived in a harsh culture.

The life and message of the two Founders differ widely, so the fictitious legends about them differ widely.

However, reputable historians accept the historicity of most of the assassinations cited in this article. That is, in all probability Muhammad did in fact assassinate enemies of Islam, even for the crime of insulting poetry. After all, the numerous stories come from pro—Muslim early sources that seem eager to portray Muhammad as ordering assassinations.

More importantly, this debate is academic.

Should we doubt whether the violent radicals today accept the early assassinations as historical? What does the prophet's sunna communicate to these radicals who feel holy as they apply seventh—century Arabian customs to the twenty—first century world?

It seems the terrorists and assassins are terrorized by this logic:

(4) If A, then B. If Muhammad was a perfect prophet, he would never order the assassination of poets, poetesses, singing—girls, and an innocent Jewish bystander.
(5) Not—B. But Muhammad did order their assassinations.
(6) Therefore, Not—A. Muhammad was not a perfect prophet.

To counter this logic and the jarring aspect of early Islamic violence, terrorist—assassins must assume and remain with (1)—(3), above, regardless of the evidence and the cost that truth must pay. God had to have guided Muhammad perfectly, so, to be obedient, they now have to follow or are permitted to follow in Muhammad's footsteps and carry out assassinations of authors today for the sin of blasphemy. God wills it. It never occurs to them that God did not guide Muhammad perfectly (4)—(6); that would be too jarring.

The seeds of jihad have been planted in the earliest soil of Islam, and now the seeds have grown up.

Jim Arlandson (PhD) teaches introductory philosophy and world religions at a community college in southern California and has published a book, Women, Class and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997).

From the mainstream press and even from scholars, we have heard that Islam is the religion of peace. They point out that the three—consonant Arabic word root s—l—m is found in both Islam, which means surrender or submission, and salam, which means peace, soundness, and safety.

This etymology may be accurate, but it also serves merely as a press release that covers up some ambiguities.

Upon reading the original source documents of Islam—the Quran, Hadith (reports of the words and deeds of Muhammad outside of the Quran), biographies, and histories—one is struck by the casual and matter—of—fact way that Muhammad and his Muslims are shown trafficking in violence and bloodshed.

Then, within a page or even a paragraph, the documents switch to simple, casual, matter—of—fact scenes of Muhammad ordaining the proper way of praying or of Muslims sitting down at a meal. 

This zigzagging from scenes of violence to ones of peace jars the Western reader whose expectations have been built up by the claim that Islam, at its essence, is the religion of peace, and that violence is a distortion of Islam, and by his knowledge of early Christianity, which never shows Jesus practicing any violence whatsoever.

Today, some Islamic extremists, reading their source documents, take up the call to violence that is found in the life and times of their Prophet. For example, in 1989 they issued a fatwa (legal decree) to assassinate Salman Rushdie, a novelist, who wrote Satanic Verses, which includes questions about the angel Gabriel's role in inspiring the Quran. The extremists have recently renewed the fatwa.

 Deadly fatwas against Salman Rushdie, other authors, and even against Muslim clerics, have been proliferating. Where do the violent radicals get the idea to put bounties on the heads of poets and authors? Out of thin air?

One direction that the violence in earliest Islam took is the assassination of pagan men and women, and Jews, many of whom were poets and storytellers, and at least one innocent bystander whose crime was being Jewish. The poets wrote the wrong things about Muhammad and his Muslims, so the Prophet ordered their death. Muslims today have explanations for this violence, as we will discuss later.

The larger historical context of these assassinations must be taken into account. First, in seventh—century Arabia, poetry was taken seriously. Poetry contests were even held, with declared winners. It was a powerful way to communicate a message. Second, in March 624, Muhammad, living in Medina, won a surprising victory against a much—larger Meccan army of polytheists (c. 320 Muslims v. 1000 Meccans), called the Battle of Badr, named after wells near a major trade route. Muhammad's standing in Medina was insecure before the battle, but now his position became strong, and he used his new strength to eliminate some enemies.

Though there are more assassinations than the ones listed here (omitted because they involve leaders raising armies against Muhammad), here follow the stories of (non)assassinations of lesser (non)victims, using W. Montgomery Watt's chronology in Muhammad at Medina (Oxford UP, 1956), a book that has won approval from Western and Muslim scholars, for the most part.

1. March 624: Al—Nadr bin al—Harith

Before Muhammad's Hijrah (Emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622), he used to sit in the assembly and invite the Meccans to God, citing the Quran and warning them of God's punishment for mocking his prophets. Al—Nadr 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.'

Al—Nadr is referring to Bible stories about such figures as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, which Muhammad told, but according to his own version, which differed in the some of the details. On other days al—Nadr would interrupt Muhammad until the Prophet silenced him. In reply to al—Nadir's harassment, God sent down these verses to Muhammad:

25:6 Say [Prophet], 'It was sent down by Him who knows the secrets of the heavens and earth. He is all forgiving and merciful.'

83:13—17 . . . [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.'

Muhammad did not take revenge on him—not yet—so this shows Islam as a religion of peace, even though sura (chapter) 83 promises a dismal eternal future for mockers.

It was al—Nadir's bad fortune to join Mecca's army, riding north to protect their caravan, which Muhammad attacked at the Battle of Badr. The story—telling polytheist was captured, and on Muhammad's return journey back to Medina, Ali, Muhammad's son—in—law, at Muhammad's order, beheaded him (religious violence), instead of getting some possible ransom money (religion of peace).

2. March 624: Uqba bin Abu Muayt

The same story about al—Nadir can be told about Uqba. He too mocked Muhammad while in Mecca and wrote derogatory verses about him. He too was captured during the battle, and Muhammad ordered him to be executed. 'But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?' Uqba cried with anguish. 'Hell,' retorted the prophet sternly. Then the sword of one of his followers cut through Uqba's neck.

3. March 624: Amsa bint Marwan

Amsa was a poetess who belonged to a tribe of Medinan pagans, and whose husband was named Yazid b. Zayd. She composed a poem blaming the Medinan pagans for obeying a stranger (Muhammad) and for not taking the initiative to attack him by surprise. When the 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 removed the child, drew his sword, and killed her in her sleep (religious violence).

The following morning, the assassin defied anyone to take revenge. No one took him up on his challenge, not even her husband. In fact, Islam became powerful among his tribe. Previously, some members who had kept their conversion secret now became Muslims openly, 'because they saw the power of Islam' (religion of peace), conjectures an early Muslim source who reports the assassination.

4. April 624: Abu Afak

Abu Afak, an elderly pagan of Medina, wrote a derogatory poem about Muhammad, extolling the ancestors of his tribe who were strong enough to overthrow mountains and to resist submitting to an outsider (i.e. Muhammad) who divides two large Medinan tribes with religious commands like 'permitted' and 'forbidden.' That is, the poet is referring to Muhammad's legal decrees about things that are forbidden (e.g. pork and alcohol) and permitted (e.g. other meats like beef and camel). Before the Battle of Badr, Muhammad let him live, which shows the religion of peace.

After the battle, the prophet queried, 'Who will deal with this rascal for me?' That night, Salim b. Umayr 'went forth and killed him.' One of the Muslims wrote a poem in reply: 'A hanif [monotheist or Muslim] gave you a thrust in the night saying / 'Take that Abu Afak in spite of your age!'' Muhammad eliminated him, which shows religious violence.

5. September 624: Kab bin al—Ashraf

Kab b. al—Ashraf had a mixed ancestry. His father was a nomadic Arab, but his mother was a Jewess from the powerful al—Nadr 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, since it was near a major trade route to Mecca, witnessing the aftermath. Arriving in Mecca, he wrote a widely circulated poem, a hostile lament, over the dead of Mecca. It is important to include most of the political lament to show whether the poem is a serious offence, meriting assassination, as Muslim apologists (defenders of Islam) argue.

 . . . At events like Badr you should weep and cry.
 The best of its people were slain round cisterns,
 Don't think it strange that the princes were left lying.
 How many noble handsome men,
 The refuge of the homeless were slain,
  ............................................

 Some people whose anger pleases me say,
 'Kab 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 al—Harith ibn Hisham [a Meccan]
 Is doing well and gathering troops
 To visit Yathrib [pre—Islamic name of Medina] with armies,
 For only the noble, handsome man protects the loftiest reputation.

To us today this poem does not seem excessive, and other Arab poetry was worse. It seems to be a genuine lament that invokes the Middle Eastern concept of revenge. Also, the last four lines are not an explicit plea for the Meccans to exact vengeance, because that was a foregone conclusion. Arab custom demanded a riposte against the humiliation of defeat. Rather, the lines seem to reflect reality. A Meccan leader is said to be gathering an army; Kab is not ordering him to do so.

Pro—Muslim poets answered Kab's poem with ones of their own, and that was enough for his hosts in Mecca to turn him out. He returned to Medina, writing some amatory verses about Muslim women, a mistake compounded on a mistake, given the tense climate in Medina and Muhammad's victory at Badr. For example, right after the battle Muhammad assembled a Jewish tribe, the Qaynuqa, and warned them as follows: 'O Jews, beware lest God bring upon you the vengeance that He brought upon Quraysh [large Meccan tribe at Badr], and become Muslims.' . . . In late spring (April—June) Muhammad then exiled the Jewish tribe.

Angered by the poems and now able to strike back after Badr and the exile, 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 [Muhammad], we shall have to tell lies.' He answered, 'Say what you like, for you are free in the matter.' They set upon a clever plan.

Abu Naila and another conspirator visited Kab, and they cited poetry together, the three appreciating the art, and chatted leisurely, so the two would not raise suspicions of their conspiracy. Then, after a long time, Abu—Naila said he was tired of Muhammad because 'he was a very great trial for us.' He has provoked the hostility of the Arabs, and they were all in league against them. He complained that the roads had become impassable and trade was hampered, so that their families were in want, privation, and great distress.

Then the foster—brother asked him for a loan of a camel load or two of food. Kab agreed, but only on the collateral of Abu—Naila's sons. The foster—brother refused, and Kab asked for his women, but he again refused. Finally, Abu Naila offered his and his conspirators' weapons. That arrangement provided the cover they needed to carry weapons right into Kab's presence without alarm. Kab agreed, 'Weapons are a good pledge.'

The two visitors departed, stopped by the other three, and told them of the plan. Not long afterwards, gathering their weapons, they went to Muhammad, who sent them off with this wish: 'Go in God's name; O God, help them.' They set out under a moonlit night until they made it to Kab's fortress, one of many that the Jewish tribe had built in the rough environment of Arabia. In fact, the ruin of Kab's fortress can be seen even today near Medina.

They called out to him. Kab had recently married, and his wife, hearing their yells, said, 'You are at war, and those who are at war do not go out at this hour . . . I hear evil [or blood] in his voice.' But the custom of hospitality in the Arab world was strong. Her husband told her that they were only his foster—brother and his foster—brother's partners, adding that 'a generous man should respond to a call at night, even if invited to be killed.' Kab came down and greeted them. Abu Naila suggested they go for a walk.

The signal to kill was as follows: Abu Naila would run his hand through Kab's hair, complimenting him on his perfume, three times. This he did, yelling, 'Smite the enemy of God!' 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 Kab's genitals, killing him (religious violence).

They made it back to Muhammad, but only after difficulty, since in the dark they had wounded one of their own. They saluted the Prophet as he stood praying (religion of peace), and he came out to them. They told him that the mission was accomplished. He spat on their comrade's wound, and they returned to their families. Their attack on Kab sent shock waves into the Jewish community, so that 'there was no Jew in Medina who did not fear for his life,' reports one source of the anecdote.

6. September (?) 624: Ibn Sunayna

It is on the heels of this assassination that Ibn Sunayna, a Jewish merchant, was assassinated. With the success of the five conspirators, Muhammad said, 'Kill any Jew that falls into your power.' Shortly afterwards, Muhayyisa b. Masud leapt upon and killed Ibn Sunayna (religious violence), with whom Muhayyisa had some social and business relations (religion of peace). However, Muhayyisa's elder brother, not a Muslim at the time, beat the assassin, the younger brother, saying, 'You enemy of God, did you kill him when much of the fat on your belly comes from his wealth?' Muhayyisa retorted that if Muhammad had ordered the elder brother's assassination, he would have carried it out (religious violence). The elder was impressed: 'By God, a religion which can bring you to this is marvelous!' And he became a Muslim (religion of peace). That is, the elder brother is implying that Muhammad must be a great leader and worthy of devotion if he commands such reverence and obedience from his followers.

Then Muhayyisa wrote a poem that celebrates his deadly obedience.

'I would smite his [the elder brother's] neck with a sharp sword, / A blade as white as salt from polishing. / My downward stroke never misses its mark.'

Advancing religious violence, this poem shows how deadly poetry could be, and it matches the Muslim's poem against Abu Afak (no. 4, above): 'a hanif gave you a thrust in the night.' Kab's poem, it should be recalled, was far milder. These poems that a Westerner reads in the early Islamic source are jarring. It seems the early Muslim authors of the documents relish inserting them into their books.

7. After 630: close call for Abdullah bin Sad

Before 10,000 Muslim warriors entered Mecca in January 630, Muhammad ordered that they should kill only those who resisted (religion of peace), except a small number who should be hunted down even if they hid under the curtain of the Kabah stone (religious violence). One of them was Abdullah, an original Emigrant with the Prophet in 622. He had the high privilege of writing down some verses of the Quran, after Muhammad received them by revelation. Doubting, Abdullah on occasion would change the words around to see if Muhammad had noticed the changes, but he did not. Abdullah therefore disbelieved Muhammad's inspiration and apostatized (left Islam) and returned to Mecca a polytheist.

However, his foster—brother was Uthman b. Affan, one of Muhammad's Companions and fierce commander, who hid Abdullah until calm settled on conquered Mecca and who interceded for Abdullah (religion of peace). Muhammad waited a long time before he granted the repentant apostate immunity. After Uthman left, Muhammad said to those sitting around him: 'I kept silent so that one of you might get up and strike off his head!' (religious violence). One of them asked why he did not give them a signal. Muhammad answered that a prophet does not kill by pointing.

Though Abdullah escaped with his life, this story is included because it reveals Muhammad's attitude toward apostates (religious violence), because of the doubt of one of Muhammad's followers who was involved in the revelations, and because Muhammad could forgive under the right conditions (religion of peace).

8. After 630: One of Abdullah bin Katal's two singing—girls

On the list of those excluded from amnesty after the conquest of Mecca was not only Abdullah b. Katal, collector of legal alms, who had killed his slave for incompetence, apostatized, and took the money back to Mecca, but also his two singing—girls who sang satirical verses about Muhammad, which Abdullah had composed. He was killed. And one of the girls was also killed (religious violence), but the other ran away until she asked for pardon from Muhammad, who forgave her (religion of peace).

 

From all of these stories it should be clear that the zigzagging from peace and forgiveness to beheading and assassination is jarring to the reader expecting to find the religion of peace.

It is understandable that Muslims and some Western scholars would be anxious to explain these circumstances in a favorable light. Their defense or explanations usually take six lines of argument. Our analysis follows each point.

First, reputable scholars remind us of the brutality of Arab culture. When a stranger or enemy in this culture was left unprotected outside of a tribe, he or she was vulnerable to attack and murder. Who could take revenge? Blood feud was never ignited. Thus, the only check on violence in this culture is revenge or more violence, when adequate law courts and law enforcement did not exist, as they did, say, in the Roman Empire. Muhammad was therefore only following Arab culture.

This is a reasonable explanation, which any scholar can agree with. We should see Muhammad as a man of his own times and region. However, it seems that many Muslims today look to his sunna ('path' or 'example' outside of the Quran and Hadith), and this lands Islam in interpretative difficulties, as noted in an earlier article and in the fatwas against various authors.

How are Muslims today, especially those with a radical bent, supposed to interpret Muhammad's willingness to eliminate political opponents or slanderers? One would hope that a holy prophet would rise above the dubious customs like blood feuds, rife in his own culture. But he did not, and one of the unique qualities of Muhammad was his deft handling of blood feuds and sizing up opponents based on their strength or weakness. That is why the assassinations did not take place before the Battle of Badr when his stance in Medina was less secure, but after the battle, when he was strong. It is true that the victims listed in this article belonged to tribes that should have taken revenge, but evidently they were too weak to do so. Muhammad was wise in his calculations.

Second, the assassination of Kab b. al—Ashraf (see no. 5, above) is the only anecdote recounted in this article that made it into Imams Bukhari's and Muslim's collection of the Hadith, which are considered completely reliable. Therefore, Muslims today take his story seriously. One commentator points out that Kab was a combatant and a leader of the Jews. Also, others say that since Kab was willing to take his foster—brother's sons and women as collateral, he had a wicked heart and deserved his death. Neither was he willing to commit his crime openly, but secretly, so he had to be assassinated secretly. Still another commentator says that he led a large contingency of horsemen (forty? two to three hundred?) to Mecca (so much for the secrecy), presumably to provoke the Meccans to avenge their loss at Badr, as if they needed this one man and his posse to do that.

That is, these commentators must magnify Kab's crimes beyond the ordinary because only then will the assassination appear just. This is a tacit admission that assassinating Kab only for blasphemous poetry is too severe and excessive.

However, even if it is admitted that Kab was an unsavory character who used bad judgment with his insulting poetry, and even though he was living in the hostile environment of Medina, he was not a formal combatant in a battle. He seems to have lived in a 'gray' area between his mother's Jewish tribe and his father's distant nomadic tribe, and Muhammad correctly judged he was weak enough to assassinate. As to Kab's wicked heart and his secret crimes, Muhammad could have sent him into exile for wickedness (see 5:33), and his poetry was circulated widely; it was not a secret. His living in a fortress near Medina was not so secret that the five assassins could not find him. Finally, did he openly, not secretly, lead a band of forty or hundreds of horsemen in an age when horses were costly, thereby indicating Kab's power and leadership of a Jewish tribe? Answer: neither Imams Bukhari nor Muslim reports this.

Succinctly put, despite all of these unusual and conflicting explanations, it just seems more likely that Muhammad was simply following Arab culture and eliminated an opponent who was vulnerable after the Battle of Badr. Ockham's razor cuts out needless explanations.

Third, one scholar says that the Muslim community in Medina, even after Badr, was still weak, so Muhammad was forced to take a hard line against mockers and enemies (as he perceived them), just to survive. These scholars use language like 'oppression' and 'persecution' and 'conspiracy,' which came from both the Jewish and pagan communities in Medina.

However, Muhammad did not see himself as so weak that he would not carry out the assassinations. It should be recalled that Asma bint Marwan (no. 3), Abu Afak (no. 4), and Kab (no. 5) belonged to tribes, but they could not carry out the required custom of blood feud: revenge. Therefore, Muhammad correctly discerned their weakness and his strength and followed the Arab custom of assassination.

Fourth, at least one Muslim scholar argues in regards to Kab (and the same could apply to the other poets) that Kab insulted the Head of an Islamic State (Muhammad) and the State itself. The Head could not allow immoral poetry, which drags the honor of Arab women 'into the mire,' and political poetry that insults the Head and instigates the enemies of the State. In other words, Kab (and the others) deserved what he (and they) got. Therefore, all of them were (non)victims in the sense of (non)innocence, so the cause of their deaths were (non)assassinations, but just(ified) executions.

The tact of this scholar goes in the opposite direction from the third explanation. Early Islam was not fragile, but strong, and it was a fully fledged State, not a community growing in power in a city with competing tribes and interests. But this is questionable, for at this stage in early Islam Muhammad was still feeling his way. However, even if the explanation were true, the question still remains: did the Head of State have to assassinate? He had banishment at his disposal (5:33), which he applied to the Jewish Qaynuqa tribe, regardless of how seriously Arab culture took poetry. After all, Muhammad employed poets to counter his enemies, but apparently his enemies did not have the power to assassinate or to banish Muhammad or his poets.

Moreover, Muhammad's policy, if coming from a strong State, only gives permission to the extremists in Islam today to attack weak dissidents and satirists. If Muhammad did it, why cannot the extremists follow his sunna or example? Those who issue deadly fatwas are doing just that.

Fifth, Muslim apologists recount the atrocities perpetrated in and by the Western world, committed in the name of Christianity, so who are Christians or Westerners (the two are not identical) to complain?

But this comparison is uneven and unfair. A better comparison is made between the earliest stage of Islam, during the life of Muhammad, and the earliest stage of Christianity, during the life of Christ. And then the similarities break down completely. At no time did Jesus behead or assassinate or even wish for the beheading or assassination of his opponents, many of whom mocked or challenged him face—to—face. Maybe this is why Christianity turned the world upside down for the first three centuries without warfare—Constantine comes around in the fourth century and does not set the genetic code for Christianity, nor do the Medieval Crusades, especially not.

The sixth and final line of defense questions the reliability of the early traditions that narrate these anecdotes. As noted, only the narrative about Kab in our article makes it into the most reliable Hadith, that of Imams Bukhari and Muslim. Therefore, one Muslim scholar dismisses every tradition except Kab's, whereas other conservatives accept other narratives, like those about Asma (no. 3) and Abu Afak (no. 4). Whatever the case, along with this dismissal comes the presupposition that a holy prophet like Muhammad would never assassinate poets, singing—girls and an innocent Jewish bystander.

We have seen this absolutist logic before:

(1) If A, then B. If Muhammad was a perfect prophet, he would never order the assassination of poets, poetesses, singing—girls, and an innocent Jewish bystander.
(2) A obtains (to traditional Muslims). Muhammad was a perfect prophet.
(3) So does B. Therefore, he would never order the assassination of poets, poetesses, singing—girls, and an innocent Jewish bystander.

This (unspoken) logic may lurk behind the desire to find extraordinary crimes in Kab's behavior (see the second defense, above). Surely this is how Muslims today must eliminate the violence that jars any reasonable person. But does the evidence support this logic? It does not seem so thus far.

Yet, let us assume for the sake of argument that all of these stories, even Kab's, are fictitious and should be dismissed, especially the one about Ibn Sunayna, the Jewish innocent bystander, which even scholarly Western biographers omit. This means that all of these assassinations are (non)assassinations because they do not exist. And it seems difficult to believe that all of these stories coming from pro—Muslim sources are fabrications. But even if they are all fictions, regardless of the motives behind the absolutists' logic to assert as much, this question still needs to be asked about the earliest stage of Islam, during Muhammad's life:

What is it about Islam at that time that would produce such stories of assassinations for the crime of insulting poetry and being Jewish?

The authors of such 'fictions' seem eager to write them up.

After all, fictions were invented about Jesus, but they do not involve assassinations that are situated in non—miraculous social contexts, which therefore aim at giving the assassinations a ring of historical accuracy or plausibility (as we see with Muhammad). Rather, the fictions are usually outlandish miracles, such as Jesus as a baby in a cradle, speaking like an adult, or Jesus as a young boy making a bird out of clay, breathing into it, and causing it to fly away (two legends that Muhammad incorporated into the inerrant Quran; see 19:29—34; 3:49).

It is true that the anti—Semitic Infancy Gospel of Thomas (where, incidentally, is found the clay birds episode) has the child Jesus cursing a teacher who then died. Yet, the social context of this myth is supernatural, whereas Muhammad's beheadings are set in non—miraculous social contexts, two of which, moreover, are attested in Bukhari's reliable Hadith.

In contrast to these legends about Jesus, the culture of first—century Israel saw the assassinations of politicians and other harsh punishments like crucifixion. But the real Jesus handled an angry crowd who threatened to throw him off a cliff by simply walking out of trouble confidently and going on his way (Luke 4:28—29). Thus, Jesus did not promote or use violence to fulfill his own political agenda. Nor did he endorse, for example, amputation of hands or feet or stoning for any sin whatsoever, and Paul suggested that a thief should work with his hands, not get his hands cut off (Ephesians 4:28); and in fact Jesus stopped the imminent stoning of an adulteress (John 8:1—11). Thus, the known message and life of Jesus did not include beheadings and other punishments, so an inventor of such extreme legends would have been laughed out of court.

To counter the claim that Jesus only preached and worked miracles without threats or use of violence, some Muslims cite Matthew 10:34 (in bold print, below), which mentions a sword. But the verse is found in the following context, which must be quoted in full to explain the meaning of 'sword':

32 'Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.  34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn

 a man against his father,
 a daughter against her mother,
 a daughter—in—law against her mother—in—law—
 36 a man's enemies will be the members of his own household
[Micah 7:6]

37 Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.'

The sword in v. 34 indicates that following Jesus in his original Jewish society may not bring peace to a family, but may divide it up, the precise function of a sword. Are his disciples ready for that? Therefore, the metaphorical sword invisibly severs a man from his father, and daughter from her mother, and so on (Micah 7:6). A true disciple who is worthy of following Christ, and who comes from a possible hostile family environment, has to use a spiritual sword of the will to sever away all opposition, even to the point of taking up his cross. It is only natural that Matthew, the traditional author of the most Jewish of the Gospels, would include a pericope (a unit or section) like 10:32—39.

Muslims today can appreciate the imagery, for if they apostatize and become Christians, their family may disown them, or worse. Mark A Gabriel, former lecturer of Islamic History at al—Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, in his book Jesus and Muhammad, (pp. 1—20; 208—13), narrates his conversion to Christianity from Islam, the ensuing death threats, his near—assassination by a hit squad sent out for that purpose, and a near—murder even by his own father who fired five shots at him.

In Muhammad's own life and times, beheadings and assassinations of weak opponents, as noted in the first defense, above, were part of the social environment. More importantly, reliable Hadith show beyond all doubt that Muhammad practiced amputations for theft, enshrined in the Quran (5:38), stoning for adultery, and the Hadith reliably report Kab's and a Jewish leader's assassinations (not mentioned here). Thus, we see a coinciding of the facts of Muhammad's harsh culture and his known harsh practices, unlike the situation with Jesus, who did not have harsh practices, though he lived in a harsh culture.

The life and message of the two Founders differ widely, so the fictitious legends about them differ widely.

However, reputable historians accept the historicity of most of the assassinations cited in this article. That is, in all probability Muhammad did in fact assassinate enemies of Islam, even for the crime of insulting poetry. After all, the numerous stories come from pro—Muslim early sources that seem eager to portray Muhammad as ordering assassinations.

More importantly, this debate is academic.

Should we doubt whether the violent radicals today accept the early assassinations as historical? What does the prophet's sunna communicate to these radicals who feel holy as they apply seventh—century Arabian customs to the twenty—first century world?

It seems the terrorists and assassins are terrorized by this logic:

(4) If A, then B. If Muhammad was a perfect prophet, he would never order the assassination of poets, poetesses, singing—girls, and an innocent Jewish bystander.
(5) Not—B. But Muhammad did order their assassinations.
(6) Therefore, Not—A. Muhammad was not a perfect prophet.

To counter this logic and the jarring aspect of early Islamic violence, terrorist—assassins must assume and remain with (1)—(3), above, regardless of the evidence and the cost that truth must pay. God had to have guided Muhammad perfectly, so, to be obedient, they now have to follow or are permitted to follow in Muhammad's footsteps and carry out assassinations of authors today for the sin of blasphemy. God wills it. It never occurs to them that God did not guide Muhammad perfectly (4)—(6); that would be too jarring.

The seeds of jihad have been planted in the earliest soil of Islam, and now the seeds have grown up.

Jim Arlandson (PhD) teaches introductory philosophy and world religions at a community college in southern California and has published a book, Women, Class and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997).