The Story of Umm Qirfa
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Umm Qirfa was an old Arab woman, reportedly contemporaneous to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. She is said to have belonged to a pagan tribe named Banu Fazara at Wadi Al-Qurra. The elderly woman was also said to be a chief of her clan, which 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. Traditional sources recount how Muhammad's companions tied Umm Qirfa to a pair of camels which, after being made to run in opposite directions, tore her body in half.
Ibn Ishaq and Tabari
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 Muhammad's warriors 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:
According to 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. Some sources add that Muhammad had ordered his people to display the old woman’s decapitated head throughout the streets of Medina.
Some have suggested that the motivation for the execution itself, the mode of execution, and possible subsequent display was Muhammad's inability to tolerate women enjoying leadership roles in society, as suggested by Sahih Bukhari 9:88:219.
The first to report this murder was Ibn Ishaq followed by Tabari, two historians which Muslims sometimes view with suspicion when Muhammad is cast by them in what is today a negative light. While, the highly edited version of Ibn Ishaq (by Ibn Hisham) does contain the mention of the killing but not the brutal way in which she was killed, Tabari details the brutality of her killing. Sahih sources (Bukhari and Muslim) are also silent in regards to the killing of Umm Qirfa. Saifur Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, a widely-read 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.
The accounts of the generally raid as given by both Ibn Ishaq and Tabari are consistent with each other, and are broadly confirmed by a hadith in Sahih Muslim, though the details of Umm Qirfa's fate are not mentioned.
There is slight variation in the Sahih Muslim account, however, this is common with the hadiths. 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. Apart from this, the account given almost entirely aligns with Ibn Ishaq and Tabari, as a raid on Banu Fazara is said to take place on the order of Muhammad. 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. Silent on the fate of the old woman who tried to escape, Imam Muslim instead reports what happened to her daughter: the beautiful girl, now enslaved, that Muhammad acquired from the person who possessed her was given to the Meccans in exchange for some Muslim prisoners. Importantly, the account in Sahih Muslim does not disagree with the additional details provided in Ibn Ishaq and Tabari.
The above quote reflects the claim made by some modern scholars and influential apologists 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) suggests that Zaid was on a reconnaissance mission. Additionally, the Sahih sources do not even hint at any trading journey by Zaid. There is indeed a contradiction present in the accounts of the historians.
On this reading, where the killing of Umm Qirfa is usually justified rather than denied, the basic story is that after Zaid is hurt and some Muslims are killed by a pagan tribe, Zaid comes back for vengeance, kills 30 horsemen, kills Umm Qirfa brutally, and captures her beautiful daughter who is eventually given away as ransom.
That Salama says "I had not yet disrobed her" twice in Sahih Muslim 19:4345 indicates that disrobing a captive woman was common or at least acceptable. That Umm Qirfa's beautiful daughter escaped this fate as a result of political necessity, does little, it would seem, to rectify the moral standing of story.
The same Sahih hadith mentions that Abu Bakr first gave the girl to Salama as a prize, and in the context of Islamic sexual slavery, it can only be assumed that this was to be a sexual prize:
- The story of Umm Qirfa - Indonesian language (archived), http://web.archive.org/web/20090912064912/http://kisahummqirfa.wordpress.com/
- Violence Against Women - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Violence Against Women
- The Genocide of Banu Qurayza
- 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
- Al nass Al Muases wa Mujtamahu – Khaleel Abdalkareem Manshurat Aljamal, Dar massar Al Muhrusa page 174
- "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