The Murder of Theo Van Gogh

By Samuel Green

On the 2nd of November 2004, in Amsterdam, Theo Van Gogh was stabbed and shot dead by a Muslim. Van Gogh was killed because he publicly opposed Islam and made critical comments about it, including a movie on the position of women in Islam. Moderate Muslims condemned his murder, but other Muslims believed it was right. This type of division is often seen in the Muslim community and can lead to confusion as to which of these two groups represents authentic Islam.

What is authentic Islam? This is a question that Muslims may disagree about too, but it certainly is valid to consider the life of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. In fact, any definition of Islam that excludes Muhammad is false. The earliest biography (sirat) of Muhammad's life is the work of Ibn Ishaq (85-151 A.H.) who was born in Medina. In this we learn how Muhammad dealt with those who opposed him. Here are two examples.


Abu `Afak was one of B. (tribe) `Amr b. `Auf of the B. `Ubayda clan. He showed his disaffection when the apostle killed al-Harith 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!
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 Rasul Allah, translated as, The Life of Muhammad, (tr. A. Guillaume), Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 675.)

Here we read of public opposition to Muhammad. Muhammad had killed a leading person in a particularly tribe. Abu `Afak, was a member of this tribe, and an old man, he spoke out against Muhammad and encouraged his tribe to resist him. When his actions were brought to Muhammad's attention Muhammad's response was simple, he said, "Who will deal with this rascal for me?" Salim b. `Umayr fulfilled Muhammad's wishes by killing Abu `Afak.

Ibn Ishaq's account continues with another example:


She was of B. Umayya b. Zayd. When Abu `Afak had been killed she displayed disaffection. `Abdullah b. al-Harith b. al-Fudayl from his father said that she was married to a man of B. Khatma called Yazid b. Zayd. Blaming Islam and its followers she said:

I despise B. Malik and al-Nabit
And `Auf and B. al-Khazraj.
You obey a stranger who is none of yours,
One not of Murad or Madhhij.
Do you expect good from him after the killing of your chiefs
Like a hungry man waiting for a cook's broth?
Is there no man of pride who would attack him by surprise
And cut off the hopes of those who expect aught from him?

Hassan b. Thabit answered her:

Banu Wa'il and B. Waqif and Khatma
Are inferior to B. al-Khazraj.
When she called for folly woe to her in her weeping,
For death is coming.
She stirred up a man of glorious origin,
Noble in his going out and his coming in.
Before midnight he dyed her in her blood
And incurred no guilt thereby.

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 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 that 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. (Ibn Ishaq, pp. 675-676.)

After the killing of Abu `Afak another person dared to publicly speak out against Muhammad. Her name was `Asma bint Marwan. Again we see how Muhammad dealt with opposition. He asked, "Who will rid me of Marwan's daughter?" `Umayr b. `Adiy al-Khatmi fulfilled Muhammad's wishes by killing `Asma at night.

There are several interesting observations from these events. The first is about Muhammad's character. Muhammad was the type of man who used assassinations to remove opposition. Whether it was an old man like Abu `Afak, or a woman like `Asma bint Marwan, if they opposed him he had them dealt with. There are more examples of Muhammad doing this [1] and he also used torture [2]. In this regard Muhammad is just like most rulers who have used murder and intimidation to establish their rule. It is no wonder that as Muhammad conquered he said:

I extend to you the invitation to accept Islam. Embrace Islam and you will be safe. (Sahih Muslim, book 19, number 4380) [3]

How can Muslims say Muhammad was a man of peace when he established his rule like this and gave this type of example?

Secondly, it shows us one way in which Islam spread to the early Arab tribes. The account specifically says that after these two murders, "Islam became powerful among B. (the tribe of) Khatma". In fact, "The day after Bint Marwan was killed ... (the tribe of) Khatma became Muslims because they saw the power of Islam." What was the "power of Islam" they saw? It was the power to kill its opponents. In this case Islam clearly spread by fear and intimidation, and Muhammad approved of this.

Theo Van Gogh publicly spoke out against Islam and he was murdered in much the same way as Abu `Afak and `Asma bint Marwan. I believe, and hope, that most Muslims disapprove of Van Gogh's murder, but if we consider the founder of Islam we see that this is how he dealt with those who opposed him. This is not an example we should follow. It is a weak man who has to kill those who speak against him. If you really want to know about the wisdom of peace that can deal with opposition without killing them, then may I suggest you read the life of Jesus.


[1] Other examples of Muhammad having his opponents assassinated or approving of their murder:

[2] Read about Muhahammad's use of torture.
[3] For otther examples see Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 53, Number 392

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