Did Prophet Muhammad assassinate those who criticized him?

Question:

It is said Prophet Muhammad assassinated a man only for criticizing him. Is Islam intolerant of criticism?

Answer:

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

The story references in this regard is the killing of Ka’b ibn Al-Ashraf, who was a leader among the armies that were fighting a war of extermination against the Muslims, as is made clear in the several narrations concerning this incident.

Badr ud-Din Al-Ayni, a scholar of the Hanafi school, writes:

في هذا كله أنه لم يقتلهم بمجرد سبهم وإنما كانوا عونا عليه ويجمعون من يحاربونه ويؤيده

In these narrations it is shown that they were not killed merely for their insults. Indeed, they were only killed due to their aid of the enemy and gathering together for war and supporting it.

Source: Umdat al-Qari fi Sharh Sahih Al-Bukhari 34/413

Ka’b ibn Al-Ashraf had made known his support for violence against the Muslim community, so killing him was done as a legitimate act of self-defense, not simply because he had criticized the Prophet. Rather, the Prophet condemned any assassination that violates a peace treaty or security agreement.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

الْإِيمَانُ قَيَّدَ الْفَتْكَ لَا يَفْتِكُ مُؤْمِنٌ

Faith has prevented treacherous assassination. A believer does not assassinate.

Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 2769, Grade: Sahih

In fact, the Prophet never took revenge for acts of abuse against himself, but instead he would only implement justice with due process.

Aisha reported:

وَمَا انْتَقَمَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لِنَفْسِهِ إِلَّا أَنْ تُنْتَهَكَ حُرْمَةُ اللَّهِ فَيَنْتَقِمَ لِلَّهِ بِهَا

The Messenger of Allah did not take revenge for anything against himself, but if the sacred law of Allah was violated then he would take retribution for the sake of Allah.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 3367, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi 

There were many instances in the Prophet’s life in which he was insulted, mocked, and harmed by his enemies, and he responded with patience, forbearance, and forgiveness.

Aisha reported: A group of Jews asked permission to visit the Prophet and when they were admitted they said, “Death be upon you.” I said to them, “Rather death and the curse of Allah be upon you!” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

يَا عَائِشَةُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ رَفِيقٌ يُحِبُّ الرِّفْقَ فِي الْأَمْرِ كُلِّهِ

O Aisha, Allah is kind and He loves kindness in all matters.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 6528, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi

This was because the Prophet would apply the teachings of the Quran which council forbearance and forgiveness in the face of insults and mockery.

Allah said:

خُذِ الْعَفْوَ وَأْمُرْ بِالْعُرْفِ وَأَعْرِضْ عَنِ الْجَاهِلِينَ

Show forgiveness, enjoin what is good, and turn away from the ignorant.

Surah Al-A’raf 7:199

And Allah said:

وَعِبَادُ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الَّذِينَ يَمْشُونَ عَلَى الْأَرْضِ هَوْنًا وَإِذَا خَاطَبَهُمُ الْجَاهِلُونَ قَالُوا سَلَامًا

The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth in humility and when the ignorant address them harshly, they say words of peace.

Surah Al-Furqan 25:63

And Allah said:

وَإِذَا سَمِعُوا اللَّغْوَ أَعْرَضُوا عَنْهُ وَقَالُوا لَنَا أَعْمَالُنَا وَلَكُمْ أَعْمَالُكُمْ سَلَامٌ عَلَيْكُمْ لَا نَبْتَغِي الْجَاهِلِينَ

When they hear ill speech, they turn away from it and say: For us are our deeds, and for you are your deeds. Peace be upon you, for we seek not the way of ignorance.

Surah Al-Qasas 28:55

And Allah said:

فَاصْبِرْ عَلَىٰ مَا يَقُولُونَ وَسَبِّحْ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّكَ قَبْلَ طُلُوعِ الشَّمْسِ وَقَبْلَ الْغُرُوبِ

Be patient over what they say and exalt the praise of your Lord before the rising of the sun and before its setting.

Surah Qaf 50:39

And Allah said:

وَاصْبِرْ عَلَىٰ مَا يَقُولُونَ وَاهْجُرْهُمْ هَجْرًا جَمِيلًا

Be patient over what they say and avoid them with gracious avoidance.

Surah Al-Muzammil 73:10

The tradition of patience and forbearance in the face of insults was continued by the Prophet’s companions.

Ibn Abbas reported: A man came to Umar while has was the Caliph and he said to him, “O son of Khattab! You do not give us enough, nor are you just with us!” Umar became angry and was about to strike him when Hurr said:

يَا أَمِيرَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ تَعَالَى قَالَ لِنَبِيِّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ خُذْ الْعَفْوَ وَأْمُرْ بِالْعُرْفِ وَأَعْرِضْ عَنْ الْجَاهِلِينَ وَإِنَّ هَذَا مِنْ الْجَاهِلِينَ

O leader of the believers, Allah said to His Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him: Show forgiveness, enjoin what is good, and turn away from the ignorant (7:199), and indeed, this man is ignorant.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 4366, Grade: Sahih

Ibn Abbas said, “By Allah, Umar became still when this verse was recited upon him. He always adhered strictly to the Book of Allah.”

Therefore, the Prophet did not kill anyone merely because he was insulted, but rather he performed military operations against aggressors in defense of the Muslim community.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.