Anas, a close Companion of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) reported:
“A Jewish woman brought a poisoned lamb to the Prophet, and he ate of it. When the woman was brought to him, people suggested:
‘Shall we kill her?’
The Prophet said:
I have recognized the effects of that poisoning in the Prophet’s throat ever since.” (Al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood, Ahmad, and others).
Following the Prophet’s example in any situation is to make sure of choosing the right course of action. Some people may think that this applies to matters of religion only. In Islam there is no differentiation between religious and “worldly” matters. Everything in people’s lives is evaluated from the Islamic viewpoint. Hence the Prophet’s example provides guidance to us in all spheres of life.
It is needless to say that this applies, in perhaps greater measure, to social behavior and relations with other people. It is important to study how the Prophet treated other people in a comprehensive range of situations in order to understand the Islamic approach to social relations. Here, we are giving a few brief notes on one characteristic that manifested itself in the Prophet’s behavior in a variety of situations. That characteristic is forgiveness of one’s enemies.
Perhaps the description “a personal enemy” cannot be attached more appropriately than to one who tries to kill someone. When the attempt is the result of careful plotting, then the hostility is deeply rooted. During his life, the Prophet had many enemies who plotted against his life. One such attempt took place soon after the Prophet won the battle of Khaibar that he fought against the Jews of Madinah, resulting in the destruction of the Jewish military power in Arabia. Khaibar fell to the Prophet after a long siege culminating in a fierce fighting to win several of the many forts of which this Jewish stronghold consisted.
In order to appreciate the significance of the story quoted in the hadith at hand, we have to remember that the Prophet was the head of the Islamic state, in addition to his being a Prophet and a messenger from Allah to all humankind. In any state, an attempt on the life of the president or monarch is always viewed very seriously.
Anyone caught making or preparing to make such an attempt is normally charged with high treason and with making an aggression on the state and all its people. Such a person hardly ever escapes the death penalty. Yet the immediate reaction of the Prophet was that the woman must not be killed. Moreover, there was no question about the identity of the perpetrator of that ghastly attempt on the life of the Prophet. The woman herself brought the lamb and told the Prophet that she had prepared it as a present to him.
When the woman was brought before the Prophet, he asked her about her motives. She did not deny having poisoned the lamb. She said:
“I thought that if you were truly a Prophet, you would not be harmed. If you were a king (meaning that if his claim to prophethood was false), then I would have rid people of you.”
When that woman contemplated her attempt, she must have realized that if she were to be successful, she would have avenged the defeat of her people. She was certain that the Prophet accepted any gift given to him and always tried to please the person who gave him a gift by eating from it if it was food or using it if it was something to be used.
Moreover, she realized that the Prophet would not be the only one to eat of that lamb. Any of his Companions who would be attending with him would be invited to join him in his meal. Quite a number of them, probably some of the leading figures, would die with him. That could very well have been the outcome of her attempt. Indeed one of them, Bishr ibn Al-Baraa’ was the first to eat. The Prophet himself ate one or two bites. He immediately signaled his Companions to stop. He told them:
“Do not touch it. One of its organs is telling me that it is poisoned.”
Bishr ibn Al-Baraa’ soon died.
The Prophet himself complained of the effects of the poison for the rest of his blessed life. Anas, who continued in the Prophet’s service for 10 years until he passed away, was able to recognize the change that affected the Prophet as a result of this poisoned lamb. She must have used a very powerful poison to produce such a lasting effect.
It is indeed reported that the Prophet said during his illness, just before passing away, that he continued to complain from the poisoned food he ate at Khaibar. For this reason, a number of scholars have argued that the Prophet was also a martyr. That means that Allah has given him the honor of being a martyr in addition to the honor of being a Prophet and a messenger.
In the light of the foregoing, the Prophet’s tendency to forgive that woman, which was manifested in his immediate reaction to the suggestion of his Companions that they should kill her, is highly significant. He always forgave even the most hardened of his enemies, if the choice to forgive was his. In this case, it was his own life that was the immediate target of that woman. Allah foiled her attempt and the Prophet was inclined to forgive her.
Most hadiths and history books give this report the same as it has been given in this article. They do not mention whether the woman, who incidentally, was called Zainab bint Al-Harith, was punished in anyway. Indeed, Al-Bukhari includes this hadith in his highly valuable compilation entitled Al-Adab Al-Mufrad under the chapter heading “Forgiveness of other People.”
It is mentioned, however, by a number of scholars that the Prophet subsequently ordered that the woman be executed. There is no contradiction between his earlier forgiveness of her and subsequent punishment. The Prophet first pardoned her for making an attempt on his life. Her attempt failed and he survived. He himself was the only one who had the authority to forgive her, since the attempt was made on him personally. Her punishment was for killing one of his Companions (i.e. Bishr ibn Al-Baraa’) who ate of the poisoned lamb.
It is well known in Islam that no one, not even the Prophet, has the authority to waive punishment when one of the crimes for which a particular punishment is prescribed by Almighty Allah Himself. One of these is murder, which earns capital punishment. Once it is established beyond doubt that a certain person has committed a murder, no one may pardon or reduce such person’s punishment. This applies to all similar crimes such as theft, adultery, and high way robbery.
This means that while the Prophet was always prepared to pardon an offender who might try to injure or kill him, he could not pardon a murderer, because it is the responsibility of the head of the state to make sure that Allah’s law is implemented. When it came to personal injury, harm, or insult, the Prophet never hesitated to pardon such offenders. The Prophet pardoned the Jewish woman for plotting to assassinate him. She was, however, executed for poisoning to death one of his Companions.