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Umm Qirfa was an elderly Arab woman contemporaneous to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. She is said to have belonged to a pagan tribe named Banu Fazara at the valley of 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 and overpowered them. The attack 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.
Umm Qirfa in the sirahs
Ibn Ishaq and Tabari
The "cruel' method used by Muhammad's warriors to kill Umm Qirfa is described in the history of al-Tabari.
Ibn Ishaq adds that Umm Qirfa's daughter, who had been spared and taken captive, was then presented as a bride to one of Muhammad's companions.
According to Ibn Ishaq, Umm Qirfa held a high position among her people; the Arabs said of her: "No man or woman with more power could have done any more than Umm Qirfa”. She was thus perhaps comparable in social status to Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, Muhammad’s first wife. Afterwards, Umm Qirfa was beheaded and her head was brought to Medina and presented to Muhammad as proof of her execution.
Some, citing Sahih Bukhari 9:88:219, have suggested that the motivation for the execution itself and dramatic mode of execution might have been a consequence of Zyad b. Harithah emulating Muhammad's inability to tolerate women in leadership roles in society, especially those in elite positions of leadership such as Umm Qirfa.
The first to report this murder was Ibn Ishaq followed by Tabari, two historians which more recent Muslim scholars are wont to 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 of Umm Qirfa but not the brutal way in which she was killed, Tabari mentions both the killing and the manner in which it was carried out. Sahih sources (Bukhari and Muslim) are also silent regarding the details of Umm Qirfa's killing but nonetheless confirm the raid on Banu Fazara.
Still, 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 internationally and its Arabic version was awarded first prize by the Muslim World League, at the first Islamic Conference on Sirah, following a worldwide competition for a book on the Sirah Rasul Allah (life of Muhammad) in 1979. The occurrence of the event of Umm Qirfa's execution is still acknowledged today in respected Islamic scholarly publications and is by no means hotly contested in circles where traditional Shari'ah punishments, such as stoning and crucifixion, are universally accepted.
Umm Qirfa in the 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 raid as given by both Ibn Ishaq and Tabari are consistent with each other, and are broadly confirmed by the hadith in Sahih Muslim. Though the details of Umm Qirfa's fate are not mentioned, her existence is apparently confirmed, and the details regarding the fate of her daughter are recounted in detail.
There is slight variation in the Sahih Muslim account, however, such variations are extremely common in hadith literature. In the hadith from Sahih Muslim, Abu Bakr is leading the raid in place of Zaid b. Harithah, who both Ibn Ishaq and Tabari describe as the leader. The remainder the account given almost entirely aligns with Ibn Ishaq and Tabari.
Modern perspectives and criticisms thereof
A deserved outcome
Some modern Muslim ulama, confronted with the negative light the incident of Umm Qirfa sheds on Muhammad's companions and potentially Muhammad himself, have felt the need to construe Umm Qirfa's execution as an act of retribution rather than an exercise of the Shari'ah-based permission to execute one's opponents following a successful Jihad.
Drawing on the sequence of accounts found only in Ibn Sa'd and Ibn Hisham, it is presented that Zayd's raid on the Banu Fazara followed an attack led by Umm Qirfa on a caravan led by Zayd en route to Syria. On the other hand, in Ibn Ishaq, an earlier source, the first event in the chronology preceding Umm Qirfa's execution is a raid led by Zayd on the valley of al-Qurra, where the Banu Fazara tribe was located. Mubarkpuri in The Sealed Nectar affirms the sequence of events presented by Ibn Ishaq. It should also be noted that the account of Zayd's trade caravan to Syria is not found in the Sahih sources. The events leading up to Umm Qirfa's execution are just one example of the many contradictions found in early Islamic works of Sirah and history in general.
Evidence for a prohibition on raping slaves
Some modern Muslim ulama have also presented the example of Umm Qirfa's daughter as evidence in support of an Islamic prohibition on raping slaves. In the hadith in Sahih Muslim 19:4345, a companion by the name of Salama (b. al-Akwa') is given Umm Qirfa's daughter, "one of the prettiest girls in Arabia", as "prize" by Abu Bakr. Once in Medina, Muhammad asks Salama for this girl with the intention of using her to ransom some Muslim captives. Salama twice refuses, each time recalling how he has "not yet disrobed her" - in the second of these two instances, Salama tells as much to Muhammad.
The fact of Salama's having "not yet disrobed her" is sometimes presented as evidence that Muslim men are not permitted to rape their slaves. On the contrary, the description of the girl as "one of the prettiest", as a "prize", and as one who "fascinated" Salama; the clear permissions to rape one's females slaves throughout Islamic scripture; and Salama's open and un-criticized admission to the prophet of his disappointment at having "not yet disrobed her" all make it clear that Salama intended to rape the girl, and that Muhammad and his leading companions, far from taking issue with the matter, were otherwise ready to facilitate Salama's aim.
- Abd al-Salam al-Termanini, "الجزء الأول من سنة 1 هـ إلى سنة 250 هـ [The first part of year 1 AH to year 250 AH]", أحداث التاريخ الإسلامي بترتيب السنين [Events of Islamic History in the Order of Years], 1, Damascus: Dar Talas, 1994
- "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
- One source paints the chronology of events as follows: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.
- One source argues as follows: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.