The Death of Asma and Abu Afak
Examining the Historical Basis for these Murders

Sam Shamoun


Muhammad didn’t like people to mock or satirize him and had several persons killed for it. Two of the individuals who were murdered at the orders of Muhammad were a 120-year-old Jewish man named Abu Afak, and a Jewish poetess named Asma bint Marwan.

The killing of these individuals has caused problems for some Muslims who seek to present Muhammad as a tolerant, peace-loving, and merciful prophet akin to Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, not surprising that these Muslims have come up with reasons to reject the veracity of these murders.

The goal of this present article is to present the source material and address the common Muslim responses which question the historicity of these reports.

The Evidence

The following material is taken from the oldest extant history of Muhammad’s life, Sirat Rasulullah, translated by noted Islamicist Alfred Guillaume:


Abu Afak was one of the B. Amr b. Auf of the B. Ubayda clan.  He showed his disaffection when the apostle killed al-Harith b. Suwayd 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!  [Muhammad]
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).

(Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah (The Life of Muhammad), translated by Alfred Guillaume [Oxford University Press, Karachi, tenth impression 1995], p. 675)


When the apostle heard what she had said he said, "Who will rid me of Marwan's daughter?"  Umayr b. Adiy al-Khatmi who was with him heard him, and that very night he went to her house and killed her.  In the morning he came to the apostle and told him what he had done and he [Muhammad] said, "You have helped God and His apostle, O Umayr!"  When he asked if he would have to bear any evil consequences the apostle said, "Two goats won't butt their heads about her", so Umayr went back to his people.

Now there was a great commotion among B. Khatma that day about the affair of bint [girl] Marwan.  She had five sons, and when Umayr went to them from the apostle he said, "I have killed bint Marwan, O sons of Khatma. Withstand me if you can; don't keep me waiting."  That was the first day Islam became powerful among B. Khatma; before that those who were Muslims concealed the fact. The first of them to accept Islam was Umayr b. Adiy who was called the "Reader", and Abdullah b. Aus and Khuzayma b. Thabit.  The day after Bint Marwan was killed the men of B. Khatma became Muslims because they saw the power of Islam. (Ibid., p. 676)

Here is another early Muslim version of the events:


Then (occurred) the sariyyah of Umayr ibn ‘Adi Ibn Kharashah al-Khatmi against ‘Asma Bint Marwan, of Banu Umayyah Ibn Zayd, when five nights had remained from the month of Ramadan, in the beginning of the nineteenth month from the hijrah of the Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him. ‘Asma was the wife of Yazid Ibn Zayd Ibn Hisn al-Khatmi. She used to revile Islam, offend the Prophet and instigate the (people) against him. She composed verses. ‘Umayr Ibn ‘Adi came to her in the night and entered her house. Her children were sleeping around her. There was one whom she was suckling. He searched her with his hand because he was blind, and separated the child from her. He thrust his sword in her chest till it pierced upto her back. Then he offered the morning prayers with the Prophet, may Allah bless him, at al-Madinah… The Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him, said to him: Have you slain the daughter of Marwan? He said: Yes. Is there something more for me to do? He said: No. Two goats will butt together about her. This was the word that was first heard from the Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him. The Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him, called ‘Umayr, basir (the seeing).


Then occurred the sariyyah of Salim Ibn ‘Umayr al-‘Amri against Abu ‘Afak, the Jew, in Shawwal in the beginning of the twentieth month from the hijrah of the Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him. Abu Afak, was from Banu ‘Amr Ibn ‘Awf, and was an old man who had attained the age of one hundred and twenty years. He was a Jew, and used to instigate the people against the Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him, and composed (satirical) verses. Salim Ibn ‘Umayr who was one of the great weepers and who had participated in Badr, said: I take a vow that I shall either kill Abu ‘Afak or die before him. He waited for an opportunity until a hot night came, and Abu ‘Afak slept in an open place. Salim Ibn ‘Umayr knew it, so he placed the sword on his liver and pressed it till it reached his bed. The enemy of Allah screamed and the people, who were his followers rushed to him, took him to his house and interred him. (Ibn Sa'ad's Kitab Al-Tabaqat Al-Kabir, English translation by S. Moinul Haq, M.A., PH.D assisted by H.K. Ghazanfar M.A. [Kitab Bhavan Exporters & Importers, 1784 Kalan Mahal, Daryaganj, New Delhi - 110 002 India), Volume II, pp. 30-31)

The next quotes are taken from the writing of another noted Islamicist, Rev. Prof. William Montgomery Watt. Words in brackets [] are mine:

In Medina itself the victory [Badr] considerably strengthened Muhammad’s position, which had perhaps been deteriorating during the previous few months when it looked as if he was unlikely to achieve anything… Two persons who had written poems against him - ‘Asma’ bint Marwan of Umayyah b. Zayd and Abu ‘Afak of B. ‘Amr b. ‘Awf were killed by persons belonging to their own or related clans, but nothing was said and no blood feud followed. (W. M. Watt, Muhammad at Medina [Oxford At The Clarendon Press, 1956], p. 15)

Out of the same awareness of the importance of the ideological aspect sprang events like the assassinations of ‘Asma’ bint Marwan and Abu ‘Afak who had made verses criticizing Muhammad, and the expulsion from Medina of the Jewish tribe of Qaynuqa’. (p. 18)

It is convenient at this point to narrate the subsequent history of this ‘pagan opposition’, since it never was of prime importance in the affairs of Medina. Abu Qays died before Badr, and the other leading men also held aloof from Muhammad, though there were some converts among the rank and file, presumably some younger men. Those who remained pagans were bitter about the advance of Islam. In particular, ‘Asma’ bint Marwan (of Umayyah b. Zayd of Aws Manat), the wife of a man of Khatmah, composed verses taunting and insulting some of the Muslims. If those quoted by Ibn Ishaq are genuine, the chief point was that the persons addressed were dishonouring themselves by submitting to a stranger not of their blood. Shortly after Badr (according to the most probable version), a man of Khatmah called ‘Umayr b. ‘Adi (or Udayy) went to the house of ‘Asma’ by night and killed her. Muhammad did not disapprove, no one dared take vengeance on ‘Umayr, and many of the clan (and perhaps of the rest of Aws Manat) now professed Islam openly; some of these are said to have been secret believers previously. The assassination of ‘Abu Afak of ‘Amr b. ‘Awf about the same time by a man of his clan had similar motives and probably similar effects, since some sections of ‘Amr b. ‘Awf were close to Aws Manat both in outlook and in physical situation. Abu ‘Afak had taunted his hearers with allowing an outsider to control their affairs, a man who confused right and wrong and who aimed at kingship. After these events we may assume that there was little opposition to Muhammad among the pagans… (p. 178)

The Muslim Response to the Evidence

Troubled by these murders, some Muslims have come up with some expedient explanations to undermine their historical veracity. Certain Muslims claim that the chroniclers of these murders do not give an isnad, a chain of transmission by which to know whether these stories come from reliable sources.

There are several main criticisms we would like to make to this oft-repeated assertion. First, many of the collections that do contain an isnad were compiled centuries after Muhammad’s death, as the following site shows:

Collection during the 3rd Century H.: The Hadith was collected and categorized in the latter part of the third century of Hijrah resulting in six canonical collections (Al-Sihaah Al-Sittah)

  1. Sahih of Al-Bukhari, d.256 A.H. [870 A.D.]: 7275 (2712 Non-duplicated) out of 600,000.
  2. Sahih of Muslim, d.261 A.H. [875 A.D.]: 9200 (4,000 Non-duplicated) out of 300,000.
  3. Sunan of Abu Dawood, d.276 A.H. [889 A.D.] 4,800 of 500,000.
  4. Sunan of Ibn Maajeh: d.273 A.H. [886 A.D.]
  5. Jami' of Tirmidhi, d.279 A.H. [892 A.D.]
  6. Sunan of al-Nisaa'i, d.303 A.H. [915 A.H.]. (Source; dates within brackets ours)

As the keen reader can see, there is simply no possible way for someone writing two hundred years after the fact to completely insure that all the names of the chain going back two hundred years prior are correct, or that such men were completely honest. The only way to have such certainty is to consult earlier documents that were compiled closer to the time that these events took place and see if they mention such narrations or narrators.

This leads us to our second point. Consulting such early sources will help verify whether some of the specific persons from that early period that are mentioned in these later lists did indeed transmit such stories. But this is something which Muslims can’t do since they have basically called into question one of the earliest written sources on Muhammad’s life, namely the Sira of Ibn Ishaq. If Ibn Ishaq, who was writing closer in time to Muhammad, is questionable then what makes us assume that the documents written long after Muhammad’s time are any more reliable?

Furthermore, one can easily account for Ibn 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.

Moreover, 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.

Yet other Muslim chroniclers, both past and present, do not question the historicity of these murders and have no problems citing them as genuine events in Muhammad’s life. For instance, Ibn Hisham, one of the oldest editors of Ibn Ishaq's Sira, is known to have omitted material he deemed negative or inauthentic from Ibn Ishaq's work, but retained the stories of Abu Afak and Asma bint Marwan being murdered:

After Abu Afak was murdered, Asma wrote a poem blaming Islam and its followers of killing their opponents.

When Muhammad heard what she had said he said, "Who will rid me of Marwan's daughter?" Umayr b. Adiy al-Khatmi who was with him heard him, and that very night he went to her house and killed her. In the morning he came to the apostle and told him what he had done and he [Muhammad] said, "You have helped God and His apostle, O Umayr!" When he asked if he would have to bear any evil consequences the apostle said, "Two goats won't butt their heads about her", so Umayr went back to his people. Now there was a great commotion among B. Khatma that day about the affair of bint Marwan. She had five sons, and when Umayr went to them from the apostle he said, "I have killed bint Marwan, O sons of Khatma. Withstand me if you can; don't keep me waiting." That was the first day Islam became powerful among B. Khatma.

The day after bint Marwan was killed the men of B. Khatma became Muslims because they saw the power of Islam.

Umayr was the first one to convert amongst the men of Khatma, he was called "the reciter" and Abdallah ben Aws and Khazima bin Thabit. (Hisham, Al-Sira al-Nabawiyya, p. 306; source)

Another Muslim authority, the renowned Qadi 'Iyad Musa al-Yahsubi, whose work Ash-Shifa’ bi-ta’rif huquq Mustafa ("Healing by the Recognition of the Rights of the Chosen One") is still considered a classic and must reading by Muslim scholars till this day, used these murders as an example of what happens to people who mock 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; source)

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; source)

Wasn’t this renowned scholar aware that such stories were fraudulent, that they had no basis in historical fact, and that they should not be submitted as evidence?

A more recent biography also refers to these murders:

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; source)

In fact, just recently the following Salafi Muslim site used this incident to justify the killing of a Jewish slavegirl who disparaged Muhammad to her master:

4 – Similar things happened at the time of the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him), such as the hypocrite who was killed by ‘Umar without the permission of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him), when the hypocrite did not agree with the ruling of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him). Then Qur’aan was revealed approving ‘Umar’s action. And there was the daughter of Marwaan who was killed by that man, and the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) called him the supporter of Allaah and His Messenger. That is because the one whose execution becomes necessary because of his plot to corrupt the religion is not like one who is executed because of his sin of zina and the like. End quote from al-Saarim al-Maslool (285-286). And Allaah knows best. (Question No. 103739, Regarding the hadeeth about the blind man who killed his slave woman who had borne him a child (umm walad) because she reviled the Prophet; source; bold and underline emphasis ours)

Obviously, these Muslims must have known not to use fraudulent tales, especially anecdotes that cast their prophet in such a bad light. Yet they still went ahead and used them and the reason why they did should be obvious: they believed that, despite the fact that an isnad wasn’t provided, the early date of these works was a sufficient basis to assume that Muhammad did commit these murders.

This now leads us to another point. This oft-repeated Muslim rebuttal fails to explain why Muslim historians, scholars, expositors etc., would include such stories when these anecdotes portray Muhammad in such a negative light. 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. After all, if the enemies of Islam created these reports to discredit Muhammad why would respectable Muslims such as Ibn Ishaq and Qadi Iyad include them? Why didn’t they simply omit such details especially when they make Muhammad look so cruel and evil?

In fact, one of the arguments that Muslims employ to demonstrate the veracity of the Quran is to point to references where Muhammad is rebuked for some mistakes or sins he committed (cf. Q. 9:43; 40:55; 47:19; 8:1-2; 80:1-10). Muslims claim that these examples prove that Muhammad couldn’t have authored the Quran since he wouldn’t rebuke himself if he did. But this same logic also applies to these Islamic narrations that present Muhammad as a cold-blooded murderer, since why would any god-fearing Muslim want to paint such a picture of his/her prophet being a vicious cold-blooded killer? The fact that such anecdotes exist argues quite strongly for their veracity, since Muslims normally omit negative references to their prophet. They wouldn’t retain or concoct them.

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 due to how embarrassing they are for the Muslim position. 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 s/he want to preserve such narrations especially if they originated from non-Muslim circles.

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. These harsh anecdotes and accounts cannot, therefore, be explained away in terms of the (alleged) unreliability of the source documents.

In light of the foregoing, we have the following questions for Muslims to answer:

And finally, we saved the best for last. There is a specific hadith report, which provides a chain deemed to be reliable by specific scholars, to substantiate the historicity of the murder of Asma bint Marwan. It comes from the hadith collection of Abu Dawud. The following Sira, after citing the murder of Asma bint Marwan, notes that:

  1. Reported by Ibn Ishaq – Ibn Hisham (4/379), through a chain about which he did not mention clearly whether he himself heard. It is part of a report narrated in connection with the death of ‘Asma’, and so is weak. However it obtains strength from the trustworthy narrative in Abu Dawud as in the following note.
  2. Ibid. It was also documented by Abu Dawud in his Sunan (4/528-29/The Book of Hudud, rulings on those who insulted the Prophet. He follows a chain other than that of Ibn Ishaq through a chain that is Connected and its transmitters reliable as ruled by Ibn Hajar in Bulugh Al-Maram (2/241). Nasa’i has also collected this report in his Sunan (7/107-108) as well as Tabarani in his Kabir. (A Biography of the Prophet of Islam In the Light of Original Sources: An Analytical Study, by Dr. Mahdi Rizqullah Ahmad, translated by Syed Iqbal Zaheer [Darussalam Publishers and Distributors, Riyadh, Jeddah, Sharjah, Lahore, London, Houston, New York; First Edition: November 2005], Volume 1, Chapter 6: Events and Expeditions between Badr and Uhud, pp. 431-432; underline emphasis ours)

This should sufficiently put to rest the Muslim arguments that are raised to undermine the fact that Muhammad murdered a helpless poetess and an older man.

Yet despite the above criticisms to the typical Muslim attempts which aim to undermine the historicity of these murders, some Muslim apologists think that they have found conclusive evidence that castigates these stories, some "irrefutable" points that are supposed to conclusively prove that these murders could not have occurred. It is to these claims that we now turn our attention.

Continue with Part 2.

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