Did the Holy Prophet (pbuh) Die A Natural Death or Was He Killed?
In the Hijri calendar, the 28th of Safar, according to many opinions, marks the anniversary of the death of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Other historians mention that the date of his death falls on the 12th or the 2nd of Rabi’ Al-Owel. Our Holy Prophet, the best of all creation, undoubtedly left his mark on mankind, and his physical absence is a toll on every lover of Allah and His messenger.
Surprisingly, the circumstances and cause of the death of the greatest of mankind seem to be under-discussed among Muslims circles. As a testament to this, it may surprise the reader to hear that the vast of majority of Muslims (i.e., according to scholars and scholarly books) – if not all – inherently believe that the Holy Prophet was in fact killed and died as a martyr.
What evidence is there that the Holy Prophet was murdered? And which perpetrators do the Islamic texts point to? This article will seek to examine the various opinions on the circumstances surrounding his death.
One of the biggest hints that the Holy Prophet was killed is the number of times there were assassination attempts on his life. The Holy Prophet brought incredible change to Arabia, and this did not sit well with those in power or with those who wanted power.
Some narrations suggest that the earliest attempt on his life was actually when he was a child, with a group of Jewish people telling his wet nurse, Haleemah Al-Sa’diya, that they would have killed him were he not an orphan. This is narrated by Ibn Sa’d in Al-Tabaqat.
One of the more famous attempts on his life was during the migration of the Muslims to Medina, at the time known as Yathrib. The Quraysh plotted to kill the Prophet before he left Makkah, and planned to have one warrior from each Makkan tribe simultaneously attack him so as to avoid retaliation. The Prophet was aware of this plan and asked Ali ibn Abu Talib to sleep in his bed so he could escape. When the Quraysh stormed the house, they found Ali in his bed, who lay his life on the line to protect the Holy Prophet. It was then that the following verse was revealed:
“Among the believers are men who have [always] been true to what they have vowed before God; and among them are such as have [already] redeemed their pledge by death, and such as yet await [its fulfillment] without having changed [their resolve] in the least.”
The Holy Quran, 33:23
Another famous attempt on the life of the Holy Prophet is during the Battle of Tabuk in a very interesting event, narrated in Ibn Kathir. The Prophet was riding on a cliff route when he was divinely made aware of a group of masked men (around twelve) planning to attack him. The men had planned to throw stones at his camel or mule so that the animal would become startled and fall off the cliff. Upon being made aware of the event, he sent his companion Hudhaifah to chase them away. When Hudhaifah returned, the Prophet told him their names, despite the fact that their masks were covered, showing that there were indeed hypocrites who wanted the Holy Prophet dead. This shows that even during his lifetime, there were hypocrites with proximity to the Holy Prophet that wanted to have him killed. (Source: Tafsir Ibn Kathir. Vol 4, Pg. 181 – 182)
Foreshadowing of Martyrdom
One Quranic verse seems to foreshadow if not outright predict that the Holy Prophet will be martyred. Allah (swt) says:
وَمَا مُحَمَّدٌ اِلَّا رَسُوۡلٌ ۚ قَدۡ خَلَتۡ مِنۡ قَبۡلِهِ الرُّسُلُ ؕ اَفَا۟ـئِنْ مَّاتَ اَوۡ قُتِلَ انْقَلَبۡتُمۡ عَلٰٓى اَعۡقَابِكُمۡ ؕ وَمَنۡ يَّنۡقَلِبۡ عَلٰى عَقِبَيۡهِ فَلَنۡ يَّضُرَّ اللّٰهَ شَيۡـئًا ؕ وَسَيَجۡزِى اللّٰهُ الشّٰكِرِيۡنَ
Most translators translate the above verse to say:
Muhammad is not but a messenger. [Other] messengers have passed on before him. So if he was to die or be killed, would you turn back on your heels [to unbelief]? And he who turns back on his heels will never harm Allah at all; but Allah will reward the grateful.
What is interesting here is Allah’s use of the word ‘or’, saying ‘if he was to die or be killed’. While this is not far off from the actual Arabic script (Allah says اَفَا۟ـئِنْ مَّاتَ اَوۡ قُتِلَ ۡ, and اَو can literally translate to ‘or’), some question why Allah would use the word or at all here, as it suggests that Allah does not know what will happen. Therefore many scholars suggest that اَو doesn’t translate to ‘or’ here, but rather ‘or indeed’, an affirmation rather than a conjunction for alternatives. Allah (swt) does something similar in Surah As-Saffat, where He says:
وَاَرۡسَلۡنٰهُ اِلٰى مِائَةِ اَلۡفٍ اَوۡ يَزِيۡدُوۡنَۚ
While the typical translation for the above verse is ‘and We sent him to a hundred thousand (folk) or more’, the literal translation is one of affirmation, i.e., ‘We sent him to a hundred thousand folk, or indeed even more than that‘.
Therefore, it is entirely plausible to suggest that the Holy Quran itself foresaw the martyrdom of the Holy Prophet.
Interestingly, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) alluded to his own upcoming death in his sermon at Ghadir Khumm a few months earlier, saying:
O ye people! Listen to my words, for I know not, if another year will be vouchsafed to me after this year, to find myself amongst you at this place.
One hadith that stands out amongst the crowd is from Ibn Mas’ood, where he says:
“If I were to swear by Allah nine times that the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was killed, that is more beloved to me than swearing once, because Allah made him a Prophet and made him a martyr.”
Musnad Ahmad, 3617
Khaybar and the Poison
The most prevalent theory regarding the Prophet’s martyrdom is that he was fed poisoned meat after the Battle of Khaybar.
During the Battle of Khaybar, where the Jewish tribe of Bani Qaynaqa’ were conspiring against the state, the Muslims captured the castle of Khaybar after a famous battle between Ali ibn Abu Talib and Marhab ibn Harith, a famous and feared Jewish warrior. After the battle, it is said that Marhab’s sister, Zainab Bint Harith, poisoned a sheep and fed it to the Holy Prophet. Bukhari narrates the incident as follows:
When Khaybar was conquered, a roasted poisoned sheep was presented to the Prophet as a gift (by the Jews). The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “Let all the Jews who have been here, be assembled before me.” The Jews were gathered and the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “Will you now tell me the truth, if I ask you about something?” They replied, “Yes.” He asked, “Have you poisoned this sheep?” They said, “Yes.” He asked, “What made you do that?” They said, “We wanted to know if you were a liar in which case we would have got rid of you, and if you are a Prophet then the poison would not harm you.”
It is said that the poison remained in the Prophet’s body for four years before finally taking his life. One hadith narrates that the Prophet would occasionally feel ill due to its effects and get himself treated using cupping (Musnad Ahmad 2784).
While the poisoning at Khaybar is generally the most accepted theory, there are a few issues with this story. Some critics ask just how poison can take four years to take someone’s life. Poison would take, at the most, a few days to kill its victim, and it is unheard of for poison to take years to kill its victim. While there are ahadith that the Holy Prophet would occasionally feel ill, he was generally of sound health and didn’t seem to be deteriorating. Even if the poison were to remain in his body somehow, one questions how its effects could come back with such force to take his life years later.
Another issue with this theory is that, according to the narration, the Jews of Khaybar poisoned the Prophet with the intention that it would not affect him if he were a Prophet. Therefore if he did succumb to the poison, by their logic, they would be proven correct, which obviously cannot be the case.
Therefore, if one accepts the idea that the Holy Prophet was indeed killed, it could be suggested that he was poisoned by someone who had close proximity to him before he passed away. Interestingly, the incident at the Battle of Tabuk points to the fact that there were others who wanted the Holy Prophet killed as close to 2 years before his actual death.
Unfortunately, given that there was no confession or testimony to who may have murdered the Holy Prophet, it is a factoid may be lost to the pages of history.
Commemorating His Martyrdom
Regardless of what one may believe about how he died, we can unanimously agree that the date of his death should be one of commemoration, where Muslims come together to revere our beloved, remember his sufferings and learn from his sea of lessons. While there exist plenty of celebrations and programs to commemorate the anniversary of his birth, it seems we have neglected the anniversary of his death, which undoubtedly was a dark and sad day for the Muslims of the time.
Our moral exemplar may have physically passed over one-thousand years ago, but his name is alive and well, with over one billion people around the world being rejuvenated by his words and the lessons he left behind. Perhaps, by annually commemorating his martyrdom, we can remind ourselves of the greatness of our beloved Prophet Muhammad.