Ka'ab Bin Ashraf: No, the Prophet did not rejoice his Murder
Updated: Jul 18, 2022
The killing of Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf, a poet from the Tayy tribe, is mentioned in Sahih Bukhari, Sahi Muslim, Tabaqat Ibn Sa'd, and Ibn Hisham's work on the life of the Prophet. Many Muslim scholars have challenged the authenticity of the incident related to Asma bin Marwan. Still, many of them accept that Prophet ordered the murder of Ka'b ibn Ashraf. They quote this incident to support killing anyone who insults the Prophet. Others have used this to prove that Islam is inherently violent and the Prophet promoted terror.
Based on the analysis of the incident, the message of the Quran, and the Prophet's character, one can safely say that the Prophet did not have and could not have a share in his killing if it ever took place.
One of the biographers' problems and narrators of the Prophet's campaigns is that they generally narrate untrustworthy and fabulous details of such anecdotes and do not substantiate their assertions with any concrete facts.
The presence of this story in Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari does not make it error-proof. The Prophet's earliest biographer, Ibn Ishaq, did not indicate in his book that the Prophet ever prayed for and asked his followers to get rid of Ka'b. Simultaneously, the later biographers and Muhaditheen (traditionalists) accepted those narratives, wrote extensively about them, and added their details. They even attributed the killings to the Prophet. However, they did not provide substantial evidence supporting their narratives.
Based on the readings of the divine message and the character of the Prophet, there is nothing substantial to prove that the Prophet instigated his followers to murder his opponents, including Ka'b bin Ashraf for their role in initiating the Makkans to destroy the emerging Islamic state.
In Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari, the story giving details about the killing of Ka'b referred to Jabir bin Abdullah, Ibn Abbas, and Akrama. None of them were eyewitnesses of the event. None of them heard the Prophet ordering his killing, and none of them spoke on their authority.
Jabir bin Abdullah was a minor when the alleged incident took place. He was not allowed to participate in Uhud's battle because of his age, which occurred after the alleged killing.
Ibn Abbas was in Makka at the time of this incident and still a child, even younger than Jabir. Ikrama was Ibn Abbas' servant. Yahya bin Saeed al Ansari, Ali Ibn Abdullah bin Abbas, Ibn al Mosayyb, Ata Ibrahim bin Masirua, Muhammad bin Sireen, Kasim, and Abdullah bin Omar called Ikrama a liar. How his accounts did have precedence over the Prophet's character and the dictates of Allah is a matter of further research and investigation.
With so much evidence against the alleged incident, there is no justification by Muslim scholars and hadith narrators to accept it. Yet they preferred to include it in their works due to the lack of authentic sources to verify it or negligence.
Modern scholars did not do better as they followed the old schools of thought in repeating the story without critically examining the information, contents, and sources.
In The Sealed Nectar, Biography of the Noble Prophet, Maulana Saifur Rahman al Mubarakpuri, reproduces the event in the following words.
"Ka'b ibn al-As Ka'b bin Al-Ashraf was the most resentful Jew at Islam and the Muslims, the keenest on inflicting harm on the Messenger of Allah and the most zealous advocate of waging war against him. He belonged to Tai's tribe, and his mother was from Banu Nadeer. He was a wealthy man known for his handsomeness and a poet living in luxury in his fort southeast of Medina at the rear of Banu Nadir's habitations.
"On hearing the news of Bard, he got exasperated and swore that he would prefer death to life if the information were accurate. When confirmed, he wrote poems satirizing Muhammad, eulogizing Quraish and enticing them against the Prophet. He then rode to Makkah, where he started to trigger the fire of war and kindle rancor against Medina's Muslims. When Abu Sufyan asked him which religion he was more inclined to, the faith of the Makkans or that of Muhammad and his companions, he replied that the pagans were better guided. Concerning this situation, Allah revealed His Words:
Are thou not aware of those who have their share of the divine writ? [Now] they believe in baseless mysteries and the powers of evil.
They maintain that those who are bent on denying the truth have sure guidance than those who have attained faith?" (4:51)
"He then returned to Medina to start a new campaign of slanderous propaganda that took the form of obscene songs and amatory sonnets intending to defame Muslim women.
"At this stage, the situation became unbearable and could no longer be put up with. So the Prophet gathered his men and said: "Who will kill Ka'b bin Al-Ashraf? He had maligned Allah and His Messenger." Thereupon, Muhammad bin Maslamah, 'Abbad bin Bishr, Al-Harith bin Aws, Abu 'Abs bin Hibr and Salkan bin Salamah, Ka'b's foster brother, volunteered to do the job.
"Muhammad bin Maslamah said: "O Messenger of Allah, do you wish I should kill him?" He said: "Yes." He said: "Permit me to talk (to him in the way I deem fit)." He said: "Talk (as you like)." So, Muhammad bin Maslamah came to Ka'b and talked to him, saying: "This man (i.e., the Prophet) has made up his mind to collect charity (from us), and this has put us to a great hardship." When he heard this, Ka'b said: "By Allah, you will face more trouble with him." Muhammad bin Maslamah answered: "No doubt, now we have become his followers, and we do not like to forsake him until we see what turn his affairs will take. I want that you should give me a loan." He said: "What will you mortgage?" Muhammad answered: "What do you want?" The immoral and heartless Jew demanded women and children as articles of security against debt. Muhammad said: "Should we pledge our women, whereas you are the most handsome of the Arabs, and the son of one of us may be abused by saying that he was pledged for two wasq (measurement unit of weight) of dates, but we can pledge you (our) weapons." Ka'b agreed. Salkan bin Salamah, Abu Na'ilah, at another time, went to see Ka'b for the same purpose, and there were more or less the same subjects, only that Abu Na'ilah would bring him some companions. The plan was successful and provided for the presence of both men and weapons. On Rabi' Al-Awwal 14th, at night, the year 3 A.H., the people said goodbye to the Prophet and set out in the Name of Allah to implement the carefully drawn plan. The Prophet stayed back, praying for them and supplicating Allah to render them success. The men went and called upon him at night. Although his wife warned him not to meet them, he came down, alleging that: "I hear a voice which sounds like the voice of murder." He said: "It is only Muhammad bin Maslamah and my foster brother Abu Na'ilah. When a gentleman is called at night, even if he be pierced with a spear, he should respond to the call." Abu Na'ilah said to his companions: "As he comes down, I will extend my hand towards his head to smell, and when I hold him fast, you should do your job." So when he came down, they talked together for about an hour. They invited him to go out and have a nice time in the moonlight. On the way out, Abu Na'ilah remarked: "I smell the nicest perfume from you." Ka'b said: "Yes, I have a mistress who is the most scented of the women of Arabia." Abu Na'ilah again said: "Allow me to smell (the scent on your head)." He said: "Yes, you may smell." So he caught it and smelt it. Then he said: "Allow me to do so(once again)." He held his head fast and said to his companions: "Do your job." And they killed him. The group of men came back after fulfilling their mission. Al-Harith bin Aws was wounded by mistake with the swords of his men and was bleeding badly. When they reached Baqee' Al-Gharqad, they shouted, "Allah is Great." The Prophet heard them and realized that they had killed the enemy of Allah. As they saw him, he said: "Cheerful faces are yours." They replied, "And yours, O Messenger of Allah." They handed the head of the tyrant over to him. He entertained Allah's praise for their success. He then applied his saliva to Al-Harish's wound, which healed on the spot.
"When the Jews learned about the death of their tyrant, Ka'b bin Al-Ashraf, they were scared, and even their stone-like hearts were in the grip of inexpressible panic. They realized that the Messenger of Allah would never hesitate to use force when the right words and admonition failed. So they remained silent and resigned and faked adherence to covenants.
"Now, the Prophet was free to collect his thoughts and give himself up to resolving foreign affairs and facing dangers that could be carried with the hostile wind blowing again from Makkah."
Mubarakpuri reproduced Sahih Bukhari vol 5 #369 and added details without giving their sources.
"It is narrated Jabir Abdullah: Allah's Messenger said, "Who is willing to kill Ka'b bin al-Ashraf who has hurt Allah and His apostle?" Thereupon Maslama got up, saying, "O Allah's messenger! Would you like that I kill him?" The Prophet said, "Yes." Maslama said, "Then allow me to say a (false) thing (i.e., to deceive Ka'b). The Prophet said, "You may say it."
Maslama went to Ka'b and said, "That man (i.e., Muhammad) demands Sadaqa (i.e., Zakat) [taxes] from us, and he has troubled us, and I have come to borrow something from you." Ka'b said, "By Allah, you will get tired of him!" Maslama said, "Now, as we have followed him, we do not want to leave him unless and until we see how his end will be. Now we want you to lend us a camel load or two of food." Ka'b said, "Yes, but you should mortgage something to me." Maslama and his companion said, "What do you want?" Ka'b replied, "Mortgage your women to me." They said, "How can we mortgage our women to you, and you are the most handsome of the Arabs?" Ka'b said, "Then mortgage your sons to me." They said, "How can we mortgage our sons to you? Later they would be abused by the people's saying that so have been mortgaged for a camel load of food. That would cause us great disgrace, but we will mortgage our arms to you."
"Maslama and his companion promised Ka'b that Maslama would return to him. So he came to Ka'b at night along with Ka'b's foster brother, Abu Naila. Ka'b invited them to come into his fort, and then he went down to them. His wife asked him, "Where are you going at this time?" Ka'b replied None, but Maslama and my (foster) brother Abu Naila have come." His wife said, "I hear a voice as if blood is dropping from him." Ka'b said, "They are none by my brother Maslama and my foster brother Abu Naila. A generous man should respond to a call at night even if invited to be killed."
"Maslama went with two men. So Maslama went in with two men and said, "When Ka'b comes, I will touch his hair and smell it, and when you see that I have got hold of his head, strike him. I will let you smell his head."
"Ka'b bin al-Ashraf came down to them wrapped in his clothes and diffusing perfume. Maslama said, "I have never smelt a better scent than this." Ka'b replied, "I have got the best Arab women who know how to use the high-class perfume." Maslama requested Ka'b, "Will you allow me to smell your head?" Ka'b said, "yes." Maslama smelt it and made his companions smell it as well. Then he requested Ka'b again, "Will you let me (smell your head)?" Ka'b said, "Yes." When Maslama got a stronghold over him, he said (to his companions), "Get at him!" So they killed him and went to the Prophet and informed him."
In Sahih Muslim, the incident is narrated in the following manner.
It has been narrated under the authority of Jabir.
"The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said: Who will kill Ka'b bin Ashraf? He has maligned Allah, the Exalted, and His Messenger. Muhammad b. Maslama said: Messenger of Allah, do you wish I should kill him? He said: Yes. He said: Permit me to talk (to him as I deem fit). He said: Talk (as you like). So, Muhammad b. Maslama came to Ka'b and talked to him, referred to the old friendship between them, and said: This man (i. e. the Prophet) has made up his mind to collect charity (from us) has put us to a great hardship. When be heard this, Ka'b said: By God, you will be put to more trouble by him. Muhammad b. Maslama said: No doubt, now we have become his followers, and we do not like to forsake him until we see what turn his affairs will take. I want that you should give me a loan. He said: What will you mortgage? He said: What do you want? He said: Pledge me your women. He said: You are the most handsome of the Arabs; should we pledge our women to you? He said: Pledge me your children. He said: The son of one of us may abuse us, saying that he was pledged for two wasqs of dates, but we can pledge you (cur) weapons. He said: All right. Then Muhammad bin Maslama promised he would come to him with Harith, Abu 'Abs b. Jabr and Abbad b. Bishr. So they came and called upon him at night. He came down to them. Sufyan says that all the narrators except 'Amr have stated that his wife said: I hear a voice which sounds like the voice of murder. He said: It is only Muhammad b. Maslama and his foster-brother, Abu Naila. When a gentleman calls at night, even if it is pierced with a spear, he should respond to the call. Muhammad said to his companions: As he comes down, I will extend my hands towards his head, and when I hold him fast, you should do your job. So when he came down and was holding his cloak under his arm, they said to him: We sense a wonderful smell from you. He said: Yes, I have a mistress who is the most scented of the women of Arabia. He said: Allow me to smell (the scent on your head). He said: Yes, you may smell. So he caught it and smelt it. Then he said: Allow me to do so (once again). He then held his head fast and said to his companions: Do your job. And they killed him."
The two narratives in the books of ahadith differ in detail. In Bukhari's story, two men accompany Maslama, while in the description of Sahih Muslim, four men accompany him. In the narratives of Mubarakpuri, we read about one of the people bleeding due to injuries, while in the accounts of the Bukhari and Muslim, no such details are found.
Based on these two accounts, many Muslim scholars have argued that Allah's enemies and Prophet can be killed through deception and secretive planning.
Ibn Taymiyyah, one of the most respected Muslim scholars, commented on the incident in his book As-Saarim Al-Maslool' Alaa Shaatim Ar-Rasool. "The way the ruling of the Prophet regarding Ka'b bin Al-Ashraf was executed indicates that Muslim public interest may necessitate that the execution is done secretly. Secrecy becomes a must if there is potential tribulation or danger that might harm Muslims greatly if the execution is not carried out in secret. This indicates that confrontation with the disbelievers, enemies of Islam, and fighters against the Islamic state is not restricted to the battlefield but transcends into any action that would spite them, provided it is within the limits of Shariah."
Ibn Taymiyyah did not try to verify the authenticity of the incident. He did not confirm it from the Quranic text. Nor did he evaluate its accuracy from the perspective of the character of the Prophet.
The Prophet's authority was well established in Medina after the battle of Badr. A treaty had existed among the people of Medina, involving Jews and pagans, that had spelled out the process to discuss issues related to accusations of treason. The treaty had established the Prophet as the chief arbitrator in disputes between Muslims and Jews. It is unthinkable that the Prophet would violate this treaty by secretly calling for the killing of Kaa'b, especially when the Quran says clearly: to be steadfast in prayer and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts which you have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah fearing. (2:177)
"Fulfill the Covenant of Allah when ye have entered into it, and break not your oaths after ye have confirmed them; indeed ye have made Allah your surety; for Allah knows all that ye do." (16:91)
About secretive talks, the Quran says: "No good comes, as a rule, out of secret confabulations - saving such as are devoted to enjoining charity, or equitable dealings, or setting things to rights between people: and him who does this out of a longing for God's goodly acceptance We shall in time grant a mighty reward." (4:114)
One cannot accuse the Prophet of violating the Quran and betraying his character presented as the best example of forgiveness and patience.
Thus, we can conclude that the Prophet did not have any share in the killing of Ka'b because it was against his character and the Quran. We are told in the Quran that the Prophet does not say of (his own) Desire. (53:3) To say that the Prophet ordered the killing is almost saying that Allah wanted Ka'b to be killed because He perceived his presence as a threat to His majesty is ridiculous. It is an absurd idea; unfortunately, it is part of our literature and jurisprudence. Moreover, various writers' accounts about the story are contradictory and highly untrustworthy.