Assassination of Ka'ab ibn Al-Ashraf
وَبَرَكَاتُهُ اللهِ وَرَحْمَةُ عَلَيْكُمْ السَّلاَمُ
The assassination of Ka’ab ibn Al-Ashraf is another incident that took place between the Battles of Badr and Uhud. And like the expulsion of the Banu Qaynuqa, this is also one surrounded by controversy, and so it is necessary to be clear with the details and have a full understanding so that we may defend our religion when it is attacked.
Now Ka’ab ibn Al-Ashraf was a man from the Jewish tribe of Banu Nadir, but he was unique in that his father was an Arab and his mother a Jew. But since the religion is passed through the mother’s line he was considered a full Jew, and in fact he was one of the leaders of the Banu Nadir. And he was known for many things: his wealth – he was an extremely rich man; his handsomeness – he was one of the most handsome people of Medina; and his poetry – he was a renowned poet. But as well as this, he was also one of the biggest enemies of the prophet and Islam, and this was clear from very early on.
One of the earliest examples of his animosity was very early on in the Madani phase, right when the qibla was changed. Ka’ab was the one who would mock, ‘Why would they turn away from the qibla that they used to face?’ And in fact Allah even quotes him in the Quran for this.
Another example of his enmity was his reaction when the commandment of zakat was revealed. When he heard of it, he went to his friends among the Ansar who had converted and told them, ‘Do not give any of your money! Because I am worried that you are going to become poor if you keep giving your money away like this. And don’t be hasty in getting rid of this wealth because you don’t know what is going to happen to this man.’ Meaning the prophet may be killed and things would go back the way it used to be.
At this, Allah revealed a description of Ka’ab in Surah Nisa, ‘Those people who are stingy, and they command others to be stingy. And they hide what Allah has given of his blessings.’ And as well as this there are also a few other mentions of Ka’ab and what he said in the Quran.
One major showing of his hatred took place right after Badr, when Zayd ibn Haritha (RA) came rushing back into the city shouting ‘Allahuakbar’ and telling the people of the Muslim’s victory. When Ka’ab heard this he said in his resentment, ‘If Muhammad (SAW) has really killed all of these people – and these are from the noblest of the Arabs – then it is better to be inside the Earth than outside of it.’
When the victory for the Muslims was fully confirmed, Ka’ab undertook a secret expedition to Abu Sufyan with a small group of the Banu Nadir. And here he did something that blatantly broke the treaty of Medina, which was form an alliance with Abu Sufyan against the prophet. Now we don’t know the details of this alliance, but clearly it was going to be some way to overthrow the prophet and destroy the Islamic political state.
But it was only when he returned to Medina that he did something that really was the final breaking point. As mentioned, Ka’ab was a poet, and he had already made a lot of poetry against the prophet and Islam. But now he began to make lewd poetry about specific Muslim ladies, full of unmentionable details and he literally invited people to come visit these women. And this was clearly crossing the line, as this was just a mockery and an absolute disrespect to the Muslims and their ladies, especially for a society that very much valued their women’s dignity. And so something had to be done.
Now there is a point to mentioned here about chronology: according to Ibn Ishaaq and Al-Waqidi, the assassination took place between Badr and Uhud, and this is the stronger opinion. However there is also another strong opinion that Ka’ab was actually killed after Uhud, and that there was actually one more thing that Ka’ab was responsible for against the prophet. And this was the assassination attempt against the prophet by the Banu Nadir, where he was invited to a poisoned meal. And this occurred after Uhud, and some scholars say that it was actually Ka’ab behind it and so it was after this that Ka’ab was actually executed. And the very next day the Muslims marched against the Banu Nadir, but we will get onto that story later.
In any case, whenever it took place the prophet knew he had to do something. And so he asked, ‘Who will take care of Ka’ab ibn Al-Ashraf? Because he has attacked Allah and his messenger.’
So Muhammad ibn Maslamah (RA) stood up and volunteered, ‘I will do it, O Rasulallah.’ Muhammad ibn Maslamah was from the Banu Aws, and as we remember the Aws used to have an alliance with the Banu Nadir and Banu Qurayza before the coming of Islam. And so this was a wise decision, as if a member of the Khazraj committed the assassination then it could have been interpreted as an act of previous tribal rivalry. But he also had a request from the prophet, ‘Allow me to say some things I don’t mean,’ and this was so that he could speak to Ka’ab and seem as if he was on his side. And the prophet allowed him.
So ibn Maslamah went to Ka’ab during his business hours, and said to him, ‘I have something very private I need to talk to you with.’ They moved away from the gathering. ‘This man [the prophet] has come and caused us irritation for the last few years. And the Arabs are now all against us. And on top of that, he’s asking for our money and he has put us through so much trouble and hardship with these wars.’
When Ka’ab heard this he felt so relieved, because it seemed as if ibn Maslamah was now on his side again even though he had converted. And he conferred, ‘By Allah, this is just the beginning; he is going to put you through so much more hardship just wait.’
And the two of them continued along this line of conversation, complaining and gossiping, until finally ibn Maslamah said, ‘Well now we are his followers and we cannot forsake him until the situation turns a little bit. Until that time, I need you to lend me to pay him that money.’ Now Ka’ab was known money lender, and he would not lend money without insurance. And so he began to inquire about what ibn Maslamah would use as his guarantee if he could not pay off the loan. But ibn Maslamah complained, ‘I don’t have anything to give, that’s why I’m here.’
‘Ok, leave your wife in my house.’
‘By Allah, you are the most handsome of men. And you expect me to trust a woman in your presence? I can’t do that.’
So Ka’ab was flattered, and said instead, ‘Ok, then leave your sons with me.’
‘My sons? So they will grow up for the rest of their lives and their friends will tease them that you were the guarantee for some grain? No I can’t- this is a permanent dishonour. I can’t give you my sons.’
‘What then?’ He had to have some collateral.
‘What if I bring you weapons? My weapons. And you know we need these now because of all of these wars going on, so I am desperate to get them back. So this is a very urgent guarantee that you will possess.’ And Ka’ab agreed.
We can see in retrospect the intelligence of this exchange, as now Muhammad ibn Maslamah would be able to turn up to Ka’ab armed to the teeth without any question. And it also seems that some other sahaba also managed to get loans with Ka’ab along similar lines, and they arranged a secret time in the middle of the night to meet as the sahaba made the excuse that they could not be seen making this transaction in public otherwise their loyalties to the prophet would be questioned.
And so on the date, the group of sahaba went to the fortress of Ka’ab outside of Medina and called out to him from below. Ka’ab came down to them (and he was also armoured), and they began to talk for a while. And then ibn Maslamah said, ‘I smell the nicest perfume coming from you. Where is this from?’
‘Yes,’ Ka’ab responded, ‘I have with me a young lady who is the most scented of all of the women of Arabia.’ The Arabs prized their scents.
‘Allow me to smell it- it smells so good.’ And he came closer. ‘Oh it’s coming from your hair, please let me smell it.’
So Ka’ab lowered his head, and immediately ibn Maslamah grabbed his head and put him in a lock and his companions finished the man off. However it was not easy due to Ka’ab’s armour, and one sahabi was actually injured by the others on accident. However when the group returned to Medina the prophet put his saliva on the sahabi’s wound and it healed miraculously. And this was the end of Ka’ab ibn Al-Ashraf.
As we can see, this incident can be seen as problematic in a modern light. The prophet clearly authorised an assassination attempt and some see that as a bad thing, especially as nowadays we go through the process of having a trial before a judge gives a verdict and a punishment is then meted out by the state. Most people do not have a problem with the actual reasoning behind his killing – he clearly went against the prophet, formed alliances with enemies of the Muslims and wrote disgusting and shameful erotic poetry about Muslim women. Some do claim that he was killed just because he was a poet and wrote things personally against the prophet, but this makes little sense as we clearly see from the rest of the Seerah that the prophet would never take revenge for any personal attack against him.
No, the main issue some people have it with the way the execution was carried out, which was assassination. One of the problems with this view is that we are judging the political situation of that time against the laws and customs of modern day. In that time and society assassinations were much more common and understood as a legitimate way to deal with someone who had committed some crime whilst minimizing bloodshed. Remember, there was no real judiciary system or police in that time, and so no defined way to enforce any sort of rule without either all scale war or assassination. And so the prophet was perfectly in the right at the time to order this execution, and as he was the leader of the city and as the true messenger of Allah he had been given the right to be the judge and decide what was the best course of action. The fact that in our time this would not be done is completely fine, as we have a much less war oriented society with different systems in place to deal with this kind of rule breaking. And so there is no sense at looking at the dynamics of that society with the context of ours.
Dr.Yasir Qadhi’s Seerah of The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) 044