This question seeks to investigate the Prophet’s (s) treatment of his enemies. Did he order the assassination of individuals and the execution of captives of war? Is it possible to reconcile this with the Prophet’s image of mercy?
The Mercy of Prophet Muhammed (s)
Before examining this specific case of the Prophet (s) and his interactions with his enemies, it is important to establish his character in general. Allah (swt) says:
It is a reminder that our Prophet (s) was a man of mercy who embodied a religion of peace, Islam; mercy was at the heart of his mission. This is exemplified in the Prophet (s)’s interactions with people. Examples such as offering assistance to a woman in her moment of weakness, kindness to a person who threw garbage at him daily all manifest the love and mercy he had towards others (Sheriff & Alloo, 2012). Similar instances of kindness and generosity have been recounted many times throughout the life of the Prophet (s).
The Prophet’s (s) mercy extended to his enemies as well. This is clear in his overall treatment of war captives after the Battle of Badr: they were given horses to ride to Madina and upon arrival easily given freedom in exchange for ransom or by teaching others to read (Rizvi, 1999). A second example is the restraint the Prophet (s) demonstrated when dealing with the Meccans after they broke the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah (Rizvi, 1999). The Prophet (s) went to confront the Meccans with an army of 10,000 men, yet upon their surrender, not a single drop of blood was shed. It is important to note that these were people who had caused the Prophet (s) much pain and difficulty in the past. The fact that the Prophet (s) chose peace when he had the clear upper hand is a testament to his strength and mercy.
Islam is also a religion of justice which beautifully combines the concepts of turning the other cheek (i.e. no revenge) with an eye for an eye. The Prophet (s) was not foolish to blindly forgive others in the face of injustice and terror. Rather, he stood up for justice and was a source of fear for oppressors. To do so otherwise would have been a disservice to the rest of society and a form of injustice. On this note Imam Ali (a) has said (Qara’ati, 2012):
Islamic justice stipulates that the punishment for an individual who intentionally kills an innocent person or whose actions lead to the killing of innocent lives is death; it is a life for a life. In the Quran, certain circumstances are mentioned in which it is acceptable to kill another;
“Verily the recompense of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and do mischief in the land is only that they shall be killed or crucified’The Quran 5:33.
As an extension of His justice, Allah (swt) says that the punishment for waging a military, ideological, or propaganda war against Him or His messenger as well as committing activities that will disturb the security of the community, may be death, depending on its severity (Leghaei, 2018). Even then, the verse after talks about forgiveness if the person repents – Except for those who repent before you apprehend them. And know that Allah is Forgiving and Merciful (5:34).
Another instance when the penalty is life, is when a person kills someone. The Quran says:
‘O you who believe, prescribed for you is legal retribution for those murdered . . . ‘(2:178). This is justice. But again, it tempered by mercy. The verse continues to say, ‘But whoever overlooks from his brother anything, then there should be a suitable follow-up and payment to him with good conduct. This is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy.’
Taking life without any of these just causes is so serious that the Quran declares, ‘whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely’ (5:32) The Prophet (s) who received the Quranic revelations and commanded people to obey it, would not go against its laws.
The Executions and Assassinations linked to Prophet Muhammed (s)
As per Mansour Leghaei’s article, Was Muhammed (S) a Prophet of Terror?!, the four accounts against the Prophet are as follows:
- Assassination of Ka’ab Ibn Ashraf: a chief of the Bani Nadhir (a Jewish tribe in Medina) who cried over the dead soldiers of the Quraysh and harassed the Muslims. It is said that the Prophet (s) was disturbed by this and asked his companions to end his mischief in the land (i.e. to assassinate him). Ka’ab was assassinated in the outskirts of Medina and his head was taken to the Prophet (s). This was a practice at that time.
- Assassination of Abu Ra`feh: a man who assisted Ka`ab Ibn Ashraf. Some Muslims requested permission to assassinate him from the Prophet (s) and he granted it. They killed him at night in his bed.
- Execution of two captives of war: of the 70 captives of war from the Battle of Badr, two were executed. The first was Uqbah Ibn Abi-Moee’t, a man similar to Abu Lahab, who mobilised many of the Quraysh to fight against the Prophet (s) in the Battle of Badr. The second was Abu Azza, who promised to never again fight against Muslims or incite others to do so once captured at the Battle of Badr, but broke his promise and was executed once captured again at the Battle of Uhud.
The authenticity of the narrations related to these incidents is questionable. In Islam assassination is haram. As outlined earlier, the Quran (and the Prophet) lays down stringent rules for justice. Even if we were to assume that these narrations are true, they align with the concepts of Islamic Justice as all four men were mischief makers and thus their death is acceptable according to the above verse (The Quran 5:33). Also note that in the case of Abu Raf’feh’s assassination, it is mentioned specifically that his family was not harmed, indicating that the Muslims were only killing the one they were authorized to do so. As for the war captives, note that of the 70 captives from Badr, only two were executed, and Abu Azza’s execution was not even after the Battle of Badr.
From this, it is clear that the execution of war captives was not the norm for the Prophet (s).
Leghaei, M. (2018, January 5). Was Muhammad (S) a Prophet of Terror?! Al-Islam.org. https://www.al-islam.org/articles/was-muhammad-s-prophet-terror-mansour-leghaei
Qara’ati, M. (2012). Social Justice (S.M.S. Hyder, Trans.). Islamic Seminary Publications.
Rizvi, S. A. (1975). Inner Voice (2nd ed.). Bilal Muslim Mission of Tanzania.
Rizvi, S. A. (1999). The Life of Muhammad The Prophet | Al-Islam.org. Darul Tabligh North America.
Sheriff, A. H. & Alloo, A. S. (2012). Bilal’s Bedtime Stories. Bilal Muslim Mission of Kenya.