The Story of Umm Qirfa
Umm Qirfa was an old Arab woman contemporaneous to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. She belonged to a pagan tribe named Banu Fazara at Wadi Al-Qurra. This old woman who was also a chief of her clan was brutally killed when Muhammad and his followers raided her tribe and overpowered them. The incident took place almost six years after Muhammad’s Hijra (هِجْرَة Migration) to Medina in 622 AD.
Ibn Ishaq, the first authentic biographer of Muhammad gives us the details in his Sirat Rasul Allah:
Zayd also raided Wadi-l-Qurra where he met Banu Fazara and some of his companions were killed; he himself carried wounded from the field. Ward b. Amr b. Madash one of B. Sad b. Hudhayl was killed by one of B. Badr whose name Sa’d b. Hudhaym. When Zayd came he swore that he would use no ablution until he raided B. Fazara; and when he recovered from his wounds the apostle sent him against them with a force. He fought them in Wadi-al-Qura and killed some of them. Qays b. al-Musahhar al-Yamuri killed Mas’ada b. Hakama b. Malik b. Hudhayfa b. Badr and Umm Qirfa Fatima was taken prisoner. She was a very old woman, wife of Malik. Her daughter and Abdulla b. Mas’ada were also taken. Zaid ordered Qays b al-Musahhar to kill Umm Qirfa and he killed her cruelly.
“And he killed her cruelly”. The cruel method used by the holy warriors of Muhammad to kill Umm Qirfa is described in Al-Tabari:
“By putting a rope into her two legs and to two camels and driving them until they rent her in two....”
Ibn Ishaq continues:
As can be seen in Ibn Ishaq, Umm Qirfa held a high position among her people, perhaps more like Khadijah bint Khuwailid, Muhammad’s first wife. “No man or woman with more power could have done any more than Umm Qirfa” as quoted by Ibn Ishaq was what Arabs used to say then. What was the reason behind Muhammad and his 'holy' warriors killing such a respected and high ranking old woman in one of the most brutal ways imaginable?
The answer is simple; Muhammad could not tolerate a woman enjoying a leadership role in any society, this much about his personal views towards women is made clear in Sahih Bukhari 9:88:219. This old woman became a target for this very reason and as some sources attest, Muhammad had ordered his people to display the old woman’s decapitated head throughout the streets of Medina. This was meant as a lesson to the Arabs and their forthcoming generations that a woman should never hold a high position in society.
Now, let us see whether the horrifying account of the murder of Umm Qirfa is authentic or a mere fabrication as many Muslim apologists claim. The first to report this murder was Ibn Ishaq followed by Tabari, two historians which Muslims sometimes view with suspicion when it casts Muhammad in a negative light. The highly edited version of Ibn Ishaq (by Ibn Hisham) does contain the mention of the murder but not the brutal way in which she was killed. It is Tabari who exposed the brutality of her killing. And not surprisingly, Sahih sources (Bukhari and Muslim) are mute in regards to the killing of Umm Qirfa. Saifur Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, a modern day biographer of Prophet Muhammad has also pointed out the Umm Qirfa incident in his work “The Sealed Nectar”. This book is highly regarded among the worlds Muslims and its Arabic version was awarded first prize by the Muslim World League, at the first Islamic Conference on Seerah, following a worldwide competition for a book on the Sirah Rasul Allah (life of Muhammad) in 1979.
The account found in “The Sealed Nectar” is derived from a Sahih Muslim Hadith in regards to the incident. Though somewhat descriptive, the Sahih Muslim Hadith does not mention the fate of Umm Qirfa. A case of selective ignorance on the Hadith compiler’s part since the horrible killing puts Islam’s credibility at stake.
Those who conveniently cast doubt on Ibn Ishaq and Tabari do not doubt the authenticity of Sahih Muslim Hadiths. And for the same reason not many Muslim apologists can deny the validity of the accounts of the raid as given by Ibn Ishaq and Tabari if they are found to be similar. An evaluation of the Sahih Muslim hadith is therefore necessary to confirm whether the account (of the killing of Umm Qirfa) is factual or not:
There is slight variation in the Sahih Muslim account, but this is to be expected. We see in the above hadith, Abu Bakr, the first Caliph of Islam leading the raid in place of Zaid bin Harith, the person we find in Ibn Ishaq and Tabari. Leaving that aside, the account is extremely accurate, as a raid on Banu Fazara had indeed taken place on the order of Muhammad. Sahih Muslim attests to its authenticity. There was also an old woman among the raided tribe, as Sahih Muslim hadith testifies “Among them was a woman from Banu Fazara. She was wearing a leather coat”. As we read in Sahih Muslim, this woman, her daughter and many others were fleeing the raid and had they reached a nearby mountain, their lives would have been spared but an arrow from Salama bin Al-Akwa (one of the Muslim raiders) decided their fate. The woman was unable to escape with her daughter and all were taken as captives. Falling silent on the fate of the old woman who tried to escape, Imam Muslim instead reports what happened to her daughter. It was a horrid fate that awaited the beautiful girl as Muhammad bought her from the person who possessed her and surrendered the ill-fated as ransom for a number of Muslims who had been kept as prisoners in Mecca.
So, what happened to the mother of this daughter who also had been taken as prisoner? Sahih sources stay mute on the old woman’s fate, so there has to be an alternative account to rely on for those who seek the truth. We have two historians reporting she had been killed by the followers of Muhammad. If Muslims accept the account given in Sahih Muslim, they are in no position to reject the killing of Umm Qirfa since there is no logical reason to dismiss the murder accounts found in Ibn Ishaq and Tabari as the remainder of the accounts given by them match that which has been given by the authentic sources.
Sahih Muslim hadith brings up the fact there was an old woman among the captives of Banu Fazara. Her daughter was sold by Muhammad into slavery. This much is clear, But what happened to the mother of the unfortunate girl? Ibn Ishaq and Tabari answer that question; a noble woman of high rank who did nothing wrong other than adhere to her traditional beliefs had been brutally killed by Islam’s holy warriors.
Responses to apologetics
Some apologists make this claim by citing the books of Ibn Sa'd and Ibn Hisham. On the other hand, Ibn Ishaq says that the first event in the chronology was Zaid's raid on a place called Wadi-al-Qurra and then came a skirmish with Banu Fazara. Mubarakpuri (a 20th century author) claims that Zaid was on a reconnaissance mission. Moreover, the Sahih sources do not even hint at any trading journey by Zaid. So, seemingly, the historians have contradicted each other.
Let's give some benefit of doubt to these narrations and focus only on the fate of the people involved. As the story goes, Zaid is hurt and some Muslims are killed by a pagan tribe. So he comes back with a vengeance, kills 30 horsemen, kills Umm Qirfa brutally and captures her beautiful daughter who is eventually given away as ransom. This is a typical case of small-scale battles, skirmishes and taking of POWs, all of which have been happening in the world since time immemorial—since the dawn of humanity. What did Muhammad do about it that was exemplary or extraordinary? Muslims consider him a messenger of God, the best of all mankind, the best of creation and an example to follow (imitate). But here, the minimum conclusion we can make is that a much-glorified Muhammad didn't even condemn the bloodshed, the deaths of several humans, and the suffering that their families had to go through. We are yet to take into account the fact that he and the early Muslims carried out dozens of more raids and conflicts.
The fact that Salama says "I had not yet disrobed her" twice in Sahih Muslim 19:4345 is ironically an indicator that disrobing a captive woman was common or at least acceptable at that time. Otherwise, we must wonder why he made such a statement in the first place.
The same Sahih hadith mentions that Abu Bakr first gave the girl to Salama as a prize. It is now more than obvious how the early Muslims used to treat their female captives.
If the fate of these women and their tribe is really contrary to the teachings of Islam, why is the story a part of several hadith and sira books? The very purpose of these books is to preach the deeds and habits of Muhammad (the sunnah), his mindset included. Muhammad's followers and their deeds are the fruit of his teachings. Only what he condemned or banned is un-Islamic, and that does not include the persecution of Umm Qirfa and her tribe.
- The story of Umm Qirfa - Indonesian language (archived), http://web.archive.org/web/20090912064912/http://kisahummqirfa.wordpress.com/
- Report: Jewish woman murdered, cut in two in Iran - Israel Hayom, November 29, 2012
- The History of Al-Tabari: the Victory of Islam, trans. Michael Fishbein, vol. 8, SUNYP, 1997, pp. 95-97
- "Narrated Abu Bakra: ... When the Prophet heard the news that the people of the Persia had made the daughter of Khosrau their Queen (ruler), he said, "Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler."" - Sahih Bukhari 9:88:219
- Al nass Al Muases wa Mujtamahu – Khaleel Abdalkareem Manshurat Aljamal, Dar massar Al Muhrusa page 174