The poets were the commentators and social critics in the pre-book world of seventh century Arabia . The Arianna Huffington and Bill O'Reilly of Muhammad’s day were the poets. Their poetry was memorized at fairs and public events, passed from person to person, and their influence was considerable.
That said, there were two kinds of poets. In addition to those described above who were well respected, there were many fortune tellers and soothsayers who did not enjoy good reputations and were often thought of as being public nuisances or slightly mad. Historian Ibn Ishaq describes them as people in contact with spirits and jinn. Muhammad stated that he despised these people so much he could not even look at them. When he received the first Quranic revelation via the angel Gabriel his initial fear was that he had become one of them.
History records four poets of the first type, the real poets, whose lives intersected with Muhammad. One of them accepted Islam, and the other three criticized him. In other words, one lived and three died.
The first was Al-Tufayl Bin Amr Al-Dausi, who visited Mecca soon after Muhammad began to preach. He was warned by friends there to stay away from this self-proclaimed prophet who was saying dangerous things. His response was, “I’m an intelligent person, a poet, and I know the difference between good and evil. I’ll listen to him; if what he says is good I’ll accept it and if it is bad I’ll reject it.” Al-Tufayl visited Muhammad in his home, where Muhammad recited the Quran to him. Al-Tufayl concluded he had never heard anything so beautiful in his life, and converted to Islam. He returned to his hometown and preached his new religion to the people there. When Muhammad later raided the Jewish community at Khaybar, Al-Tufayl and his converts joined him and were given a full share of the bounty.
The next was a Jewish poet, Ka’b Bin Al-Ashraf, who lived in Medina . Following the Muslim victory at the Battle of Badr, Muhammad sent spokesmen to different sections of Medina to proclaim his victory and recite the names of the Quraysh enemies who were killed. Ka’b realized his life was in danger and went to Mecca where he composed poems commemorating those who had been killed in the battle and critical of Muhammad. A few lines from one of them are:
Badr’s mill ground out the blood of its people
At events like Badr you should weep and cry
The best of the people were slain round their cisterns
Don’t think it strange that the princes were left lying
How many noble handsome men
The refuge of the homeless were slain,
Those who were liberal when the stars gave no rain
Who bore others burdens.
As soon as Muhammad learned of this, he asked, “Who will rid me of this man?” Bin Maslama volunteered to go to Mecca to kill Ka’b Al-Ashraf. After Bin Maslama accomplished his mission, he boasted that not a single Jew in Medina did not fear for his life.
The third poet, Abu Afak, was reportedly 100 years old. Following Muhammad’s murder of a man named Al-Harith, Abu Afak wrote critically of his people who had allowed Muhammad to rule over them. One of his verses was:
I have lived a long life and I have never seen
Men who were more faithful when called upon (to fight)
They overthrew mountains and never submitted
But now a rider (Muhammad) has come and split them in two
He divides everything into “halal and haram” (allowed and forbidden)
Why are you following him?
Muhammad’s response was, “Who will deal with this rascal for me?” One of his followers killed Abu Afak that very night. An associate named Umama then wrote a poet of his own, sneering,
Take that Abu Afak, in spite of your age
Even if I knew whether it was a man or a spirit
Who killed you in the middle of the night
I would never tell.
The final poetess was Asma Bint Marwan. In response to the murder of Abu Afak, she courageously wrote a poem critical of “the stranger” who had come to rule over them. Muhammad’s response again was, “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?” A man named Umayr killed her that night in her bed where she was sleeping with her nursing child. The next morning he went to her other five children, mockingly asking which of them wanted to be next.
Muslims sometimes argue that Muhammad did not really give the order to kill the poets noted above, because his comments could be construed as not being a direct order for their deaths. Anyone who has ever watched an episode of the Sopranos or the Godfather knows exactly what was happening. “Hey, Joey, that Luigi on the other side of town has been giving me some trouble. You think maybe you could take care of that problem for me?” “Sure thing, boss”. And the next day Luigi’s body is pulled out of the river.