Muhammad and Poetry Revisited

Bassam Zawadi has written a brief reply to my article on Muhammad’s love-hate relationship with poetry.

Zawadi begins by calling into question the veracity of the reports regarding the murdering of Abu Afak and Asma:

My Response:

The stories of the killing of Abu Afak and Asma are not reliable as proven here.


Note the obvious double standard at work here. These same polemicists will use Ibn Ishaq when it presents Muhammad in a favorable light, but discard him on the basis that his sira contains weak material, or that he failed to provide an isnad or chain of transmission for many of his anecdotes. But one can easily account for Ishaq not providing an isnad for some of his reports on the grounds that he didn’t feel he needed to include it since he was writing not too long after these events (at least as far as he was concerned). He may have assumed that these facts were common knowledge by the people he was writing to, and that there was no reason to substantiate them by providing a chain of transmitters.

Furthermore, a major problem with this often repeated lame response is that it fails to explain why would Muslim historians, scholars, expositors etc., pass on or concoct such stories when these anecdotes portray Muhammad in such a negative light? In fact, the most unpleasant events in early Islam have the strongest probability of really having occurred because it is inconceivable that Muslims would make them up on their own or receive them from non-Muslims. These harsh anecdotes and accounts, therefore, cannot be explained away in terms of the (alleged) unreliability of the source documents. Reputable historians, apologists, polemicists and students of Islam correctly reason that these are reliable traditions precisely because no Muslim scholar would dare create such negative portrayals and depictions of his/her prophet, nor would he/she want to preserve such narrations especially if they originated from non-Muslim circles.

It should be further noted that even modern western scholars, specifically those who almost always defend Muhammad and Islam, take these stories as genuine historical episodes. By using modern historical, textual and critical methods, these scholars invariably end up concluding that these anecdotes have a ring of truth to them.

Hence, the preceding factors give us good grounds for assuming that these vicious and cold-blooded murders are genuine events in the life of Muhammad and his followers.

In light of the foregoing, we have the following questions for Zawadi to answer.

  1. Please explain to us why would Muslim sources contain anecdotes which present Muhammad in such a negative light. Why would believers include narrations that present Muhammad as a cold-blooded murderer?
  2. Moreover, why would Muslims create such stories in the first place? It is often the tendency of people to overlook or hide the mistakes, sins, and errors of their leaders or heroes. People normally tend to make their heroes look better, not worse. This would especially be the case with Muslims who love Muhammad more than anything and view him as the greatest prophet and the best of creation. So why would Muslims make up stories that make Muhammad look evil?
  3. If you say that these stories originated from unbelievers then why would Muslims want to circulate them? Why would god-fearing Muslims pass on the lies and fraudulent tales of unbelievers, especially when such stories serve to aid the unbelievers in their attempt to discredit Muhammad?

He continues:

Poetry in its essence is not what is forbidden in Islam. It is poetry that that does nothing but promotes and instigates indecency, illegal lusts and desires, and inspires one towards transgression of the boundaries of Islam. (Just like how Kab ibn Ashraf did, read this article

It is indeed true that the Messenger of Allah (saws) did not like poets and poetry, which sensationalized and encouraged the pursuit of the world and its alluring lusts. But he encouraged those poets whose poetry praised Allah, and contained words of wisdom which related to the guidance to Allah.

And after quoting narrations where Muhammad condemned poetry and yet in other places praised it, Zawadi concludes:

Thus it is not poetry per say which is disliked in Islam, but what is said in those poetry.  If the poetry encourages the believers to believe in Allah and follow His Commands, it would be considered good poetry and absolutely encouraged in Islam. But the poetry which do not inspire faith in Allah, nor strengthen ones belief in Allah’s Oneness, nor kindle one’s heart to love Allah; but rather glamorize lust and the pursuit of the world, etc.;  such poetry is disliked and discouraged in Islam.

Thus in conclusion, it is not poetry which is disliked or discouraged, but what will determine its permissibility is what message the poetry is portraying to its readers.


This is perhaps one of the most amusing and interesting rebuttals that we have ever read. Indeed, it is perhaps one of the best illustrations of circular reasoning that could ever be produced by a Muslim, just as good if not better than what is found in Osama’s rebuttals. Zawadi assumes that what Surah 26:224 is condemning is bad poetry, not good poetry, and assumes this on the basis of those hadiths which permit poetry! In other words, since the hadiths teach that some poetry is in fact good then this proves that Sura 26:224 is not condemning all poetry! Talk about a masterful illustration of circular reasoning!

Before we proceed to highlight Zawadi’s circular reasoning for our readers, it is important that we quote Sura 26:224 once again:

And as for the poets - it is the erring ones who follow them. Sher Ali

As for the poets, they are followed only by the strayers. Khalifa

The text plainly states that only those who are astray, those who are in error, follow poets. It doesn’t qualify the statement by saying that they are only astray if they follow bad poets, or poets who speak of worldly things. This is something that Zawadi needs to read into the text, which is a classic example of eisegesis, since he apparently realizes how damaging this reference is to Muhammad’s credibility and/or to the authenticity of the so-called sound hadiths. This text clearly shows that Muhammad was a strayer, one of those who erred, since he followed a poet named Hassan and encouraged others to recite poetry (assuming, of course, that these Islamic narrations are correct).

Moreover, all communication, whether written or oral, has form and content. Texts can be in the form of prose or poetry. Basically every kind of content can be put either in prose or into poetry. Creating poetry needs skill, it is a form of art, but any content that exists in poetry can also be stated in a prose text. There is nothing that makes the content of poems inherently worse than the content of prose texts. The moral value of a text is independent from it being in prose or poetry. Granted, good poetry can increase the emotional reaction to a text, both evil and good messages can have more impact when they are put into poetry. But it is not the form that makes a message good or bad.

Talking about poetry is talking about the form. Zawadi commits the fallacy of talking about content when the issue is form.

The Quran/Muhammad did not attack in these verses those who "say bad things" whether they say it in prose or in poetry, but he specifically attacked/condemned the poets or poetry without qualifying the content of that poetry.

Similarly, audio messages can be more powerful than a written text. Condemning poetry but allowing prose would be similar to condemning audiotapes but allowing transcripts. The audiotapes are not inherently more evil. No, the content is the same. It is the content that makes a message bad or good. Just as forbidding audiotapes but allowing the same text in written form would be ludicrous, it is equally ludicrous to condemn poetry but not say anything about prose texts.

If the Quran/Muhammad meant to attack BAD content, but condemned bad FORM then that is a categorical error.

So the Quran either made an error in its command, since it meant bad content not bad form, or the Quran meant what it said, and therefore Muhammad is inconsistent.

Moreover, the immediate context suggests that poetry in general is a work of satans or evil spirits, much like alcohol and gambling:

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

The evil spirits descend upon those who listen to hearsay as well as on the poets! Again, the text doesn't qualify its statement by saying certain kinds of poets, but simply speaks of the poets in general as being those who are followed only by persons that are astray.

With the foregoing in mind we now turn to our illustration that highlights just how circular Zawadi’s response is:

Christian: The Quran condemns poetry. Muhammad went against the Quran since he permitted his followers to write poetry, especially verses attacking the unbelievers. As if this weren’t bad enough there are other narrations stating that he condemned poetry, especially poetry written against him personally.

Zawadi: The Quran is not condemning all types of poetry.

Christian: How do you know?

Zawadi: Because there are hadiths that show Muhammad permitting certain kinds of poetry, the good kinds.

Christian: But this is precisely the point that Muhammad went against the teachings of the Quran since he allowed poetry. Besides, the verse in the Quran doesn’t make any exceptions to its condemnation of poetry, i.e. that good poetry is acceptable but not bad poetry.

Zawadi: This is where you are wrong. Muhammad wouldn’t contradict the Quran since he is a prophet.

Christian: On the contrary, wouldn’t this actually prove that he wasn’t a prophet or at least prove that he acted inconsistently and didn’t follow the Quran perfectly?

Zawadi: Wrong again, we know that Muhammad didn’t act inconsistently.

Christian: On what basis do you say this when he clearly violated the Quran’s directive against following poets?

Zawadi: Because the Quran doesn’t condemn all kinds of poetry.

Christian: It seems that we are repeating ourselves. How do you know it doesn’t?

Zawadi: Because there are hadiths that show Muhammad permitting certain kinds of poetry, the good kinds.

Christian: What in the world??!!!

The other problem with Zawadi’s position is that by his own criteria he ends up exposing Muhammad. He claims that poetry which promotes lusts, pursuit of this world and that do not focus on Allah and his commands are bad. Apart from the fact that the Quran itself never qualifies its position regarding poetry, i.e. that only bad poetry is unacceptable whereas good ones are alright, Zawadi forgot to read these hadiths carefully:

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)

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)

These hadiths show Muhammad permitting poetry that had nothing to do with either Allah or his commands. Muhammad encouraged his poet to abuse and lampoon the pagans, insulting their families, ancestry etc. Basically, Muhammad permitted Hassan to ridicule, insult and degrade people, thereby causing them grief and anger which in turn would lead them to abuse Muhammad. Hassan was basically glamorizing the lusts of the flesh, the carnal desire to return insult for insult as opposed to turning the other cheek.

In light of the foregoing, we again come to the same conclusion that we had arrived at in our original article: Muhammad’s inconsistency is glaringly obvious.

Sam Shamoun (with some input from Jochen Katz)

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