Islam and Poetry:

Analyzing Muhammad’s Love-Hate relationship with Poets

Sam Shamoun

The Quran looks down upon those who follow poets:

Shall I tell you, O people, on whom the shaitans descend? They descend on every slandering sinner. Those who listen to hearsay - and most of them are liars - and those poets who are followed by those who go astray. S. 26:221-224 F. Malik

Here, the Quran mentions satans coming down in connection with poetry, with the implication being that these demonic entities inspire poetry. The above verses also state that it is those who are false, who are erring, that are following people who compose poems. In light of this, does it surprise anyone that the Quran has such a negative view of poetry?

In fact, Muhammad is reported to have made some pretty harsh statements about poetry:

Narrated Ibn ‘Umar:
The Prophet said, "It is better for a man to fill the inside of his body with pus than to fill it with poetry." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 73, Number 175)

Narrated Abu Huraira:
Allah’s Apostle; said, "It is better for anyone of you that the inside of his body be filled with pus which may consume his body, than it be filled with poetry." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 73, Number 176)

He even had certain poets killed who lampooned him through poetry.


Abu `Afak was one of B. (tribe) `Amr b. `Auf of the B. `Ubayda clan. He showed his disaffection when the apostle killed al-Harith b. Samit and said:

Long have I lived but never have I seen
An assembly or collection of people
More faithful to their undertaking
And their allies when called upon
Than the sons of Qayla when they assembled,
Men who overthrew mountains and never submitted.
A rider who came to them split them in two (saying)
"Permitted", "Forbidden" of all sorts of things.
Had you believed in glory or kingship
You would have followed Tubba`.

The apostle said, "Who will deal with this rascal for me?" Whereupon Salim b. `Umayr, brother of B. `Amr b. `Auf one of the "weepers", went forth and killed him. Umama b. Muzayriya said concerning that:

You gave the lie to God's religion and the man Ahmad!
By him who was your father, evil is the son he produced!
A hanif gave you a thrust in the night saying
"Take that Abu `Afak in spite of your age!"
Though I knew whether it was man or jinn
Who slew you in the dead of night (I would say naught)

(The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume [Oxford University Press, Karachi, Tenth Impression 1995), p. 675)


Muslims Kill Abu ‘Afk and Asma

Before the victory of Badr the Muslims used to fear the Madinese non-Muslims, for they were still too weak to return any aggression inflicted upon them. But when they returned victorious from Badr, Salim ibn ‘Umayr took upon himself the job of getting rid of Abu ‘Afk, a tribesman of Banu ‘Amr ibn ‘Awf. The latter was a poet who composed verses disparaging Muhammad and the Muslims and inciting his own tribe to rise against them. Even after Badr, Abu ‘Afk still composed and disseminated abusive verse. Salim attacked Abu ‘Afk in his sleep in his own yard and killed him. Likewise, ‘Asma’, daughter of Marwan, of the tribe of Banu Umayyah ibn Zayd, used to insult Islam and the Prophet by encouraging bad feeling against the Muslims. The Battle of Badr did not make her reconsider. One day, ‘Umayr ibn ‘Awf attacked her during the night while she was surrounded by her children, one of whom she was nursing. ‘Umayr was weak of sight and had to grope for her. After removing the child from his victim, he killed her; he then proceeded to the Prophet and informed him of what he had done. When her relatives returned from the funeral, they asked him whether he had killed her. "Indeed so," said ‘Umayr, "You may fight me if you wish. By Him Who dominates my soul, if you should deny that she composed her abusive poetry, I would fight you until either you or I fall." It was this courage of ‘Umayr that caused the Banu Khutmah, the tribe of ‘Asma’s husband, to turn to Islam. Having converted to Islam but fearing persecution at the hand of their fellow tribesmen, some of them had hidden their conversion. Henceforth, they no longer did so. (Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, tran. Isma'il Raji al-Faruqi [American Trust Publications, USA 1976; Malaysian edition by Islamic Book Trust], p. 243; online edition; bold and underline emphasis ours)

One Muslim scholar and jurist provides several examples of people who were killed for satirizing or making fun of Muhammad:

In a sound hadith the Prophet commanded that Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf be killed. He asked, "Who will deal with Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf? He has harmed Allah and His Messenger." He sent someone to assassinate him without calling him to Islam, in distinction to other idol-worshippers. The cause of that lay in his causing harm to the Prophet. That indicates that the Prophet had him killed for something other than idol-worship. It was for causing him harm. Abu Rafi', who used to harm the Messenger of Allah and work against him, was also killed.

Similarly on the Day of the Conquest, he ordered the killing of Ibn Khatal and his two slavegirls who used to sing his curses on the Prophet.

In another hadith about a man who used to curse the Prophet, the Prophet said, "Who will save me from my enemy?" Khalid said, "I will," so the Prophet sent him out and he killed him.

'Abdu'r-Razzaq mentioned that a man cursed the Prophet, causing the Prophet to say, "Who will save me from my enemy?" Az-Zubayr said, "I will." He sent az-Zubayr and he killed him.

It is related that a woman used to curse the Prophet and he said, "Who will save me from my enemy?" Khalid ibn al-Walid went out and killed her.

It is related that a man forged lies against the Prophet and he sent 'Ali and az-Zubayr to kill him.

Ibn Qani' related that a man came to the Prophet and said, "Messenger of Allah, I heard my father say something ugly about you, so I killed him," and that did not distress him.

Ibn 'Abbas said that a woman from Khatma satirised the Prophet and the Prophet said, "Who will deal with her for me?" A man from her people said, "I will, Messenger of Allah." The man got up and went and killed her. He told the Prophet who said, "Two goats will not lock horns over me." (Muhammad Messenger of Allah (Ash-Shifa of Qadi 'Iyad), Qadi 'Iyad Musa al-Yahsubi, translated by Aisha Abdarrahman Bewley [Madinah Press, Inverness, Scotland, U.K. 1991; third reprint, paperback], pp. 378-379)

The translator has a note identifying the woman from Khatma:

2. A tribe allied to the Aws. She was 'Usma' bint Marwan. (Ibid., p. 378)

Finally, here is another renowned scholar and commentator:

Also among them was ‘Abdallah b. Khatal, a member of the Banu Taym b. Ghalib. The Messenger of God ordered that he should be killed only for the following reason: He was a Muslim, and the Messenger of God sent him to collect alms, sending with him one of the Ansar. With him went a mawla of his, also a Muslim, to serve him. He halted at a resting place and commanded the mawla to slaughter him a goat and make him a meal; then he went to sleep. When he woke up, the mawla had done nothing for him; so he attacked him and killed him. He had two singing girls, Fartana and another with her. The two used to sing satire about the Messenger of God; so the latter commanded that the two of them should be killed along with him

Also among them were ‘Ikrimah b. Abi Jahl and Sarah, a mawla of one of the sons of ‘Abd al-Muttalib. She was one of those who used to molest the Messenger of God in Mecca

‘Abdallah b. Khatal was killed by Sa‘id b. Hurayth al-Makhzumi and Abu Barzah al-Aslami: the two shared in his blood. Miqyas b. Subabah was killed by Numaylah b. ‘Abdallah, a man of his own clan…

As for Ibn Khatal’s two singing girls, one was killed and the other fled. The Messenger of God later was asked to grant her a promise of safety, and he did so. [As for Sarah, he was asked to grant her a promise of safety, and he did so.] She lived until someone in the time of ‘Umar b. al-Khattab caused his horse to trample her at al-Abtah and killed her. Al-Huwayrith b. Nuqaydh was killed by ‘Ali b. Abi Talib.

According to al-Waqidi: The Messenger of God commanded that six men and four women should be killed. Of the men, [al-Waqidi] mentioned those whom Ibn Ishaq named. The women he mentioned were Hind bt. ‘Utbah b. Rabi‘ah, who became a Muslim and swore allegiance; Sarah, the mawla of ‘Amr b. Hashim b. ‘Abd al-Muttalib b. ‘Abd Manaf, who was killed on that day; Quraybah, who was killed on that day; and Fartana, who lived until the caliphate of ‘Uthman. (The History of Al-Tabari, translated b Michael Fishbein [State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany 1997] Volume VIII, pp. 179-181; bold and underline emphasis ours)

For more on this please consult the following articles:

Yet Muhammad was very inconsistent at this point since he praised one specific poet named Hassan bin Thabit and encouraged him to lampoon the pagans. He even dared say that Gabriel assisted Hassan in composing these poems!

Narrated Al-Bara:
The Prophet said to Hassan, "Lampoon them (the pagans) in verse, and Gabriel is with you." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 73, Number 174)

Narrated Al-Bara:
The Prophet said to Hassan, "Abuse them (with your poems), and Gabriel is with you (i.e., supports you)." (Through another group of sub narrators) Al-Bara bin Azib said, "On the day of Quraiza’s (besiege), Allah’s Apostle said to Hassan bin Thabit, ‘Abuse them (with your poems), and Gabriel is with you (i.e. supports you).’" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 59, Number 449)

This sounds eerily similar to the satan-inspired poetry condemned by the Quran, suggesting that Hassan was actually being inspired by a demon masquerading as Gabriel in composing mock poetry against Muhammad's enemies! This further suggests that Muhammad was one of the erring and false ones for following and encouraging Hassan to write such poems.

More importantly, if this same Gabriel also inspired Muhammad then what does this say about the true source of the Quran?

Narrated Masruq:
Hassan came to Aisha and said the following poetic Verse: "A chaste pious woman who arouses no suspicion. She never talks against chaste heedless women behind their backs." ‘Aisha said, "But you are not," I said (to ‘Aisha), "Why do you allow such a person to enter upon you after Allah has revealed: ‘…and as for him among them who had the greater share therein?’" (24.11)

She said, "What punishment is worse than blindness?" She added, "And he used to defend Allah’s Apostle against the pagans (in his poetry)." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 280)

Narrated ‘Aisha:
Hassan bin Thabit asked the permission of Allah’s Apostle to lampoon the pagans (in verse). Allah’s Apostle said, "What about my fore-fathers (ancestry)?" Hassan said (to the Prophet) "I will take you out of them as a hair is taken out of dough."

Narrated Hisham bin ‘Urwa that his father said, "I called Hassan with bad names in front of ‘Aisha." She said, "Don't call him with bad names because he used to defend Allah’s Apostle (against the pagans)." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 73, Number 171)

Here Muhammad’s only concern is not with Hassan reciting poetry, a thing condemned in the Quran, but with Hassan mocking Muhammad’s ancestors!

Narrated Hasan:
Sa’id said: Umar passed by Hassan when he was reciting verses in the mosque. He looked at him. Thereupon he said: I used to recite verses when there was present in it the one who was better than you (i.e. the Prophet). (Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 41, Number 4995)

Muhammad had others recite poetry and is said have recited it himself:

867. Shurayh said, "I ask 'A'isha, may Allah be pleased her with, 'Did the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, recite any poetry?' She said, 'He used to recite some of the poetry of 'Abdullah ibn Rawaha: 'Someone to whom you have not given provision brings you news.'"

869. Ash-Sharid said, "The Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, asked me to recite the poetry of Umayya ibn Abi's-Salt and I recited it. The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, began to say, 'Go on, go on!' until I had recited a hundred lines.' The Prophet said, 'If only he had become Muslim.'" (Al-Adab al-Mufrad Al-Bukhari, XXXV. Poetry; online edition)

... Thus the Prophet recited (by way of proverb) the poem of some Muslim poet whose name is unknown to me. (Ibn Shibab said, "In the Hadiths it does not occur that Allah's Apostle recited a complete poetic verse other than this one.") (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 58, Number 245)

Narrated Al-Bara:
When it was the day of Al-Ahzab (i.e. the clans) and Allah's Apostle dug the trench, I saw him carrying earth out of the trench till dust made the skin of his abdomen out of my sight and he was a hairy man. I heard him reciting the poetic verses composed by Ibn Rawaha while he was carrying the earth, "O Allah! Without You we would not have been guided, nor would we have given in charity, nor would we have prayed. So, (O Allah), please send Sakina (i.e. calmness) upon us and make our feet firm if we meet the enemy, as they have rebelled against us. And if they intend affliction (i.e. want to frighten us, and fight against us) then we would not (flee but withstand them)." The Prophet would then prolong his voice at the last words. (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 59, Number 432)

Narrated Abu Huraira:
The Prophet said, "The most true words said by a poet were the words of Labid. He said, i.e. 'Verily, everything except Allah is perishable and Umaiya bin Abi As-Salt was about to embrace Islam ' (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 73, Number 168)

These statements regarding Muhammad reciting poetry leads to another contradiction:

And We have not taught him poetry, nor is it meet for him; it is nothing but a reminder and a plain Quran, S. 36:69 Shakir

This text says it is not fitting for Muhammad to recite poetry, and yet other so-called sound narrations claim that he did!

What is even more interesting is that this same source claims that Allah abrogated part of Sura 26:224 so as to allow for certain exceptions:

871. In respect of "And as for the poets, is the misled who follow them. Do you not see how they ramble on in every style and that they say things which they do not do?" (26:223-225), Ibn 'Abbas said that it was abrogated and that an exception was made in His words, "except for those who believe and do right actions ... the kind of reversal they will receive." (26:226)

It is quite apparent as to why Ibn Abbas made such a claim, since he was obviously trying to cover up Muhammad's confused stance and inconsistency regarding poetry.

Muhammad’s inconsistency is glaringly obvious.

Further discussion on the topic: [1, 2, 3] (rebuttals to Muslim responses to the above article), and the paper, Is Islam above criticism? shows that the Muslim relationship to poetry (art, cartoons, etc.) is still the same today.

Muhammad's Inconsistency
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