Reflections & Thoughts | For those interested in this new format called “Reflections & Thoughts”, please read the first two paragraphs in this post.
Popularly, most Muslims seemed to agree that the Prophet (p) passed away due to some sort of illness. A large number of them seemed to have acknowledged this was due to some poison he had consumed after the battle of Khaybar. One of the earliest confessions of a Shi’a scholar on this matter is by Shaykh Saduq who writes:
Our belief concerning the Prophet is that he was poisoned during the expedition of Khaybar. The poison continued to be noxious to him until it cut his aorta and then he died from its effects.1
This incident is not only reported in Sunni works, but it is also recorded in Shi’a works such as:
حَدَّثَنَا أَحْمَدُ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ عَنِ الْحُسَيْنِ بْنِ سَعِيدٍ عَنِ الْقَاسِمِ بْنِ مُحَمَّدٍ عَنْ عَلِيٍّ عَنْ أَبِي بَصِيرٍ عَنْ أَبِي عَبْدِ اللَّهِ ع قَالَ: سُمَّ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ص يَوْمَ خَيْبَرَ فَتَكَلَّمَ اللَّحْمُ فَقَالَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ ص إِنِّي مَسْمُومٌ قَالَ فَقَالَ النَّبِيُّ ص عِنْدَ مَوْتِهِ الْيَوْمَ قَطَّعَتْ مَطَايَايَ الْأُكْلَةُ الَّتِي أَكَلْتُ بِخَيْبَرَ وَ مَا مِنْ نَبِيٍّ وَ لَا وَصِيٍّ إِلَّا شَهِيدٌ.
Imam Sadiq (a) said: The Messenger of Allah was poisoned on the day of Khaybar, and the meat spoke to him and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, I am poisoned.’ So the Prophet (p) said at the time of his death, ‘Today the food which I ate on Khaybar has cut up my body. There is no Prophet nor an executor except that they are shaheed.2
There is also narration in Usul al-Kafi3 as follows:
عِدَّةٌ مِنْ أَصْحَابِنَا عَنْ سَهْلِ بْنِ زِيَادٍ عَنْ جَعْفَرِ بْنِ مُحَمَّدٍ الْأَشْعَرِيِّ عَنِ ابْنِ الْقَدَّاحِ عَنْ أَبِي عَبْدِ اللَّهِ ع قَالَ: سَمَّتِ الْيَهُودِيَّةُ النَّبِيَ ص فِي ذِرَاعٍ وَ كَانَ النَّبِيُّ ص يُحِبُّ الذِّرَاعَ وَ الْكَتِفَ وَ يَكْرَهُ الْوَرِكَ لِقُرْبِهَا مِنَ الْمَبَالِ
Ibn al-Qaddah said: “I once heard Imam Sadiq (a) say, ‘The Jewish woman poisoned the Holy Prophet with shoulder meat and the Holy Prophet liked it greatly but he disliked meat from the hip area because it is close to the urinating part.’”
This has been a standard narrative accepted by many Muslims, but it has also been questioned by many in recent times. How did the Prophet consume the meat given to him by a Jewish lady in Khaybar, or how can poison take this many years to take its toll? A few – contemporary – Shi’a scholars even had to entertain the idea that perhaps the Prophet (p) was poisoned twice, once at Khaybar which did not have any impact on him, and a second time by ‘Ayesha and Hafsa which led to his (p) death. This completely alternative theory suggests it was ‘Ayesha – the wife of the Prophet – who was the ultimate culprit for poisoning the Prophet (p). There seem to be two main reports that are often highlighted by proponents of this theory. One of the more clear reports is from Tafsir al-‘Ayyashi4 as follows:
عن عبد الصمد بن بشير عن أبي عبد الله ع قال تدرون مات النبي ص أو قتل- إن الله يقول: «أَ فَإِنْ ماتَ أَوْ قُتِلَ انْقَلَبْتُمْ عَلى أَعْقابِكُمْ» فسم قبل الموت إنهما سقتاه [قبل الموت] فقلنا إنهما و أبوهما شر من خلق الله
From ‘Abd al-Samad b. Bashir from Imam Sadiq (a) who said: “Do you know whether the Prophet died (a natural death) or was murdered? Indeed Allah says [3:144] “Whether he dies or is killed, will you then turn back on your heels (as disbelievers)?”, he was poisoned before death, the two (women) both fed it (the poison) to him before death.” We (narrator and his companions) said “Those two women and their fathers were the worst creation of Allah.”
This single weak report is not really enough to prove anything, especially something as significant as accusing the wife of the Prophet (p) of murder. So usually a number of other pieces of evidence are gathered together to prove this theory. That is where the second report comes into play. One of the most important incidents is the story of ladud, where the Prophet (p) is severely ill, but yet asks his companions to not feed him any medicine. Despite this command, ‘Ayesha supposedly forces medicine down the Prophet’s (p) mouth – a process called ladud. Before going on about this story, let us look at what the Mu’tazali scholar Ibn Abi al-Hadid (d. 656/1258) writes under the commentary of sermon 202 of Nahj al-Balagha which Imam ‘Ali (a) gives after burying Fatima (s). He expands on the different opinions scholars had on what caused the Prophet’s (p) demise as follows:
Ibn Abi al-Hadid says:
1) Some who believed he died due to dhat al-janb, which is a pain in the ribs or pleurisy. This group of scholars believed this is why the Prophet (p) was unable to stand up and was bedridden.
2) Others believed he died due to severe fever and phrenitis – an inflammation in the brain – but his (p) household thought he had pain in his ribs. As he (p) fell unconscious, they forced medicine down his throat which was meant to be for rib pain.
3) Others believed he died due to the poison he consumed on the day of Khaybar.5
Ironically he does not mention any group of people, not even amongst the Twelver Shi’a, who believed it was ‘Ayesha who poisoned the Prophet (p). So what exactly are the reports on the incident of ladud, which are supposedly clear evidence of foul play in the case of the Prophet’s death at the hands of his own wife? Let us look at this report as reported in al-Bukhari:
Abu Bakr kissed (the forehead of) the Prophet (p) when he was dead. ‘Ayesha added: We put medicine in one side of his mouth but he started waving us not to insert the medicine into his mouth. We said, “He dislikes the medicine as a patient usually does.” But when he came to his senses he said, “Did I not forbid you to put medicine (by force) in the side of my mouth?” We said, “We thought it was just because a patient usually dislikes medicine.” He said, “None of those who are in the house but will be forced to take medicine in the side of his mouth while I am watching, except al-Abbas, for he had not witnessed your deed.”6
This report is supposedly evidence proving ‘Ayesha poisoned the Prophet (p). A few quick remarks can be made: Firstly, there is no reason for the Shi’a to even accept this report as it is not an authentic report as per Shi’i standards, even if it shows the shortcomings of some of the companions through their confessions. These confessions do not automatically prove the actual incident occurred, because the confession – which is dependent on the occurrence of the event – itself has to be proven first. Secondly, even if we say this incident occurred, then ‘Ayesha confessing to the blunder of the wives only proves that they gave the Prophet (p) medicine which he did not want. This is what the confession is about and it does not prove she poisoned the Prophet (p). Thirdly, it seems very strange for someone to give the Prophet (p) poison when he is already severely ill, bedridden, and approaching his demise anyways. Fourthly, if this event truly occurred, then the strange behaviour of the Prophet (p) has to be explained away. Why would he punish all the wives – or others that may be present – if only a few selected individuals forced fed him (p)?
Another narration, also reported by ‘Ayesha seems to describe the events in this way:
‘Ayesha narrates: The Prophet (p) went unconscious and the house was full of his wives, such as Umm Salamah, Maymuna and Asma bt. ‘Umays, and with us was his uncle al-‘Abbas b. ‘Abd al-Muttalib. We collectively decided to give him medicine, so al-‘Abbas said, ‘I will not feed him,’, but they fed him. When the Prophet regained consciousness, he said, ‘who did this to me?’ They said, ‘Your uncle. He told us this is a medicine which has come to us from those lands – and he pointed towards Abyssinia.’ The Prophet said, ‘So why did you do this (i.e. give it to me?). Al-‘Abbas said, ‘We feared O Messenger of Allah that you may have pain in your ribs.’ He (p) said, ‘That is not an illness that Allah will afflict me with. No one in this room should remain except that they should also be given this medicine, other than my uncle (Abbas).’ Maymuna was fasting yet she was still forced to take the medicine, due to the Prophet’s (p) vow of reprimanding them for what they did.
Other variations of these two reports also exist in earlier Sunni works. Over here, I want to summarize the comments of Ibn Abi al-Hadid, after he cites both these reports. He says he is astonished at the contradictions in these two reports: one of them says ‘Abbas did not witness anyone feed the Prophet (p) medicine, and hence the Prophet (p) forgives him and instead forced everyone else to take the medicine, but in the second report not only did ‘Abbas witness the Prophet (p) being fed the medicine, he first says he will not feed the Prophet (p) the medicine, but then when the Prophet (p) regains consciousness, the wives say it was ‘Abbas who fed you the medicine and that this medicine is for pleurisy. Ibn Abi al-Hadid asks a very prominent scholar of his time, Abu Ja’far Yahya b. Abi Zayd al-Basri (d. 613 AH) regarding the narration of ladud and whether Imam ‘Ali (a) was also a participant in feeding the Prophet (p) medicine, because the Imam (a) was present besides the Prophet (p) during his last moments. Abu Ja’far says if that was the case, ‘Ayesha would have surely mentioned it due to her reservations and issues with Imam ‘Ali (a). Besides Imam ‘Ali (a), Fatima (s) and her children Hasan and Husayn were also present in the house, and is it possible for the Prophet (p) to have forced them to also consume the medicine? This is not possible – Abu Ja’far says, and that the hadith of ladud was made up by someone in order to gain proximity to some people
Ibn Abi al-Hadid does not make it clear what motives Abu Ja’far was referring to when he says someone may have coined this report to gain proximity to some people. Perhaps the motive may have been to show ‘Abbas in a positive and elevated light in order to legitimize the Abbasid government, perhaps it was done to legitimize the other incident in which the Prophet (p) asks for a paper and pen, but ‘Umar says that he (p) is delusional and the Book of Allah is enough for us. Otherwise, it is strange to think that the Prophet (p) was fed a medicine against his wishes by certain individuals, but yet he reprimands almost everyone in the room that is present, and then on top of that also decides to make an exception for Abbas for some reason. The Ahl al-Sunnah have generally accepted the event and have justified the Prophet’s (p) reaction by arguing that this was the Prophet (p) reprimanding them for their behaviour, but such a justification seems very problematic on the views of infallibility mainstream Twelver Shi’a have. In fact, such descriptions of the Prophet (p) are often enough to dismiss the validity of these reports, and perhaps this is the reason why we do not see this report being mentioned in any significant Shi’a work. It would be interesting to see when did polemical works begin citing this report as evidence against the Ahl al-Sunnah while enumerating the shortcomings of the companions or the wives of the Prophet (p), because it does not seem to have been as prominent as the hadith of the pen & paper.
There are some other dimensions to this discussion as well which I haven’t addressed: 1) Verse 3:144 of the Quran and the use of “aw” (or) to mean “bal” (rather); 2) The generic narrations about the Prophet (p) and the Imams (a) not dying a natural death, rather they will either be killed by the sword or by poison. Perhaps some thoughts will be shared regarding these two matters another time, God-willing.
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.
- A Shi’ite Creed
- Basa’ir al-Darajat, pg. 503
- Vol. 6, pg. 315
- Pg. 200
- The entire discussion can be read in volume 10, pg. 265 onwards (the edition available on Jami‘ al-Ahadith CD)