The Affair of Ka‘b b. Zuhayr, and Death Sentence for Insults in Poetry
John C. Rankin
“When the apostle arrived (at Medina) after his departure from al-Tā’if, Bujayr b. Zuhayr b. Abū Sulmā wrote to his brother Ka‘b telling him that the apostle had killed some of the men in Mecca who had satirized and insulted him[,] and that the Quraysh poets who were left – Ibn al-Ziba‘rā and Hubayra b. Abū Wahb – had fled in all directions. ‘If you have any use for your life[,] then come quickly to the apostle, for he does not kill anyone who comes to him in repentance. If you do not do that, then get to some place.”
Ka‘b is attributed some poetry where he refuses to give up the religion of his fathers, and Bujayr responds, in part:
“To God [Allāh] alone not al-‘Uzzā and al-Lāt you will escape and be safe while escape is possible, on a day when none will escape except a Muslim pure of heart. Zuhayr’s religion is a thing of naught …”
“When Ka‘b received the missive he was deeply distressed and anxious for his life. His enemies in the neighborhood spread alarming reports about him saying that he as good as slain. Finding no way out, he wrote an ode in which he praised the apostle and mentioned his fear and the slanderous reports of his enemies. Then he set out for Medina and stayed with a man of Juhayna whom he knew, according to my information. He took him to the apostle when he was praying morning prayers, and he prayed with him. The man pointed out the apostle to him and told him to go and ask for his life. He got up and went and sat by the apostle and placed his hand in his, the apostle not knowing who he was. He said, “O apostle, Ka‘b b. Zuhayr has come to ask security from you as a repentant Muslim. Would you accept him as such if he came to you?” When the apostle said that he would, he confessed that he was Ka‘b b. Zuhayr.”
” ‘Āṣim b. ‘Umar b. Qatāda told me that one of the Anṣār leapt upon him, asking to be allowed to behead the enemy of God [Allāh], but the apostle told him to let him alone because he had come repentant breaking away from his past.
Insulting Muḥammad deserves the death penalty, per the Sīra, the pressure lands on a poet with such a history, and thus he submits to Islām to save his life. And Muḥammad still has to rebuke his companions who want to behead such converts, due to past insults.