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.

The Reports

Ibn Ishaq and Tabari

Ibn Ishaq, the first authentic biographer of Muhammad gives us the details in his Sirat Rasul Allah:

Zayd B. Haritha’s raid on Banu Fazara and the Death of Umm Qirfa


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.
Ibn Ishaq 980

“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....”[1]

Allah’s Messenger sent Zayd to Wadi Qura, where he encountered the Banu Fazarah. Some of his Companions were killed, and Zayd was carried away wounded. Ward was slain by the Banu Badr. When Zayd returned, he vowed that no washing should touch his head until he had raided the Fazarah. After he recovered, Muhammad sent him with an army against the Fazarah settlement. He met them in Qura and inflicted casualties on them and took Umm Qirfah prisoner. He also took one of Umm’s daughters and Abdallah bin Mas’adah prisoner. Zyad bin Harithah ordered Qays to kill Umm, and he killed her cruelly. He tied each of her legs with a rope and tied the ropes to two camels, and they split her in two.
Tabari Vol.8:Page.96

Ibn Ishaq continues:

Then they brought Umm Qirfa’s daughter and Mas’ada’s son to the apostle. The daughter of Umm Qirfa belonged to Salama b. Amr b. al-Akwa who had taken her. She held a position of honor among her people, and the Arabs used to say, “Had you been more powerful than Umm Qirfa you could have done no more”. Salama asked the apostle to let him have her and he gave her to him and he presented her to his uncle Hazn b. Abu Wahb and she bare him Abdul-Rahman . Hazn.
Ibn Ishaq 980

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.[2]

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.[3]

Authenticity

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.

An expedition led by Abu Bakr As-Siddiq or Zaid bin Haritha was despatched to Wadi Al-Qura in Ramadan 6 Hijri after Fazara sept had made an attempt at the Prophet’s life. Following the morning prayer, the detachment was given orders to raid the enemy. Some of them were killed and others captured. Amongst the captives, were Umm Qirfa and her beautiful daughter, who was sent to Makkah as a ransom for the release of some Muslim prisoners there. Umm Qirfa’s attempts at the Prophet’s life recoiled on her, and the thirty horsemen she had gathered and sustained to implement her evil scheme were all killed.
Saifur Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar: Page 152

Sahih hadiths

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.

It has been narrated on the authority of Salama (b. al-Akwa') who said: We fought against the Fazara and Abu Bakr was the commander over us. He had been appointed by the Messenger of Allah. When we were only at an hour's distance from the water of the enemy, Abu Bakr ordered us to attack. We made a halt during the last part of the night to rest and then we attacked from all sides and reached their watering-place where a battle was fought. Some of the enemies were killed and some were taken prisoners. I saw a group of persons that consisted of women and children. I was afraid lest they should reach the mountain before me, so I shot an arrow between them and the mountain. When they saw the arrow, they stopped. So I brought them, driving them along. Among them was a woman from Banu Fazara. She was wearing a leather coat. With her was her daughter who was one of the prettiest girls in Arabia. I drove them along until I brought them to Abu Bakr who bestowed that girl upon me as a prize. So we arrived in Medina. I had not yet disrobed her when the Messenger of Allah met me in the street and said: Give me that girl, O Salama. I said: Messenger of Allah, she has fascinated me. I had not yet disrobed her. When on the next day, the Messenger of Allah again met me in the street, he said: O Salama, give me that girl, may God bless your father. I said: She is for you. Messenger of Allah! By Allah, I have not yet disrobed her. The Messenger of Allah sent her to the people of Mecca, and surrendered her as ransom for a number of Muslims who had been kept as prisoners at Mecca.

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.

Counter perspectives

Zaid went on a trading journey to Syria and with some merchandise. The Banu Fazara tribe, whose leader was Umm Qirfa, attacked him and his companions and snatched all their merchandise. They killed some Muslims. So Umm Qirfa and her tribe deserved their fate.

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.

Salama said that he had not disrobed the daughter of Umm Qirfa when they reached Medina, and again when Muhammad met him in the street, he told that he had not disrobed her. This is enough proof that she was not raped or molested.

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:

What happened to Umm Qirfa and her daughter is against the teachings of Islam.

Comics

See Also

External Links

References

  1. The History of Al-Tabari: the Victory of Islam, trans. Michael Fishbein, vol. 8, SUNYP, 1997, pp. 95-97
  2. Al nass Al Muases wa Mujtamahu – Khaleel Abdalkareem Manshurat Aljamal, Dar massar Al Muhrusa page 174
  3. "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