This episode describes one of the endless series of attacks that were carried out by the followers of Muhammad with his approval. The attacks started when Muhammad felt that the Muslims were strong enough. The biographer Ibn Ishaq does not give a justification for the attack that he describes here. There are very few attacks that were justifiable and those are often preventive attacks based on some vague information that a certain tribe was mobilising its forces. In practice the purpose was to subdue all tribes in the area to make Islam “prevail” as the Quran prescribes in verses 8.39 and 2.193. The target to make Islam victorious justified all means.
Who was this Zayd bin Haritha who was responsible for this “action”? Well, Zayd was not just anybody. He was a freed slave who was adopted by Muhammad (that was before Allah abolished adoption). He was one of the most fervent followers of Muhammad. Zayd was married with Zaynab (a cousin of Muhammad) until Muhammad himself fell for her charms and let them get divorced so that he could marry her. This was a huge scandal at that time. Until now, under islamitic law, you are not allowed to marry your daughter-in-law after she has been divorced from your son. At that time, they did not make a disctinction between your own children and the ones you adopt. So the solution for this problem was that Allah simply abolished the principle of adoption and told that Zayd was not really the son of Muhammad. To justify this scandal up, a revelation from Allah was badly needed.
Zayd is one of the few contemporaries of Muhammad who is actually mentioned in the Quran:
33.37. Behold! Thou didst say to one who had received the grace of Allah and thy favour: "Retain thou (in wedlock) thy wife, and fear Allah." But thou didst hide in thy heart that which Allah was about to make manifest: thou didst fear the people, but it is more fitting that thou shouldst fear Allah. Then when Zaid had dissolved (his marriage) with her, with the necessary (formality), We joined her in marriage to thee: in order that (in future) there may be no difficulty to the Believers in (the matter of) marriage with the wives of their adopted sons, when the latter have dissolved with the necessary (formality) (their marriage) with them. And Allah.s command must be fulfilled.
With this verse Allah gives Zayd a special status. Allah has given him “grace”. We assume that the cruel murder on Umm Qirfa also had the blessing of Allah and Muhammad otherwise verse 33.37 would be a false statement. Where is the Muslim who pretends that some verses in the Quran are untrue?
There is no indication that Muhammad disapproved of the act of cruelty, perpetrated by Zayd, or that he would have been punished for it.
This episode is a classical example of how flexible the regulations, that Muhammad had issued, were applied or not applied, in this case the prohibition to kill children and women unless they fought against the Muslims or Islam. In Islam fighting can have various meanings and Muhammad himself has given the order to kill female critics (of his person) or he he has approved of the murder on those female critics. The rule is that the women of the enemy may not be killed, ..., unless, ... They may be killed for example during an attack at night or because they have a long tongue.
Most likely, Umm Qirfa was in this case. What could an “old woman” have done to deserve such a cruel fate knowing that mothers and elderly ladies have are treated with a lot of respect amongst muslims?
Did Muhammad have this episode in mind when he said: “I have been made victorious by terror”?
Ibn Ishaq reports:
Zayd also raided Wadi’l-Qura, where he met Banu Fazara and some of his companions were killed; he himself was carried wounded from the field. Ward bin Amr bin Madash, one of Banu Sa’d bin Hudayl, was killed by one of Banu Badr.
When Zayd came he swore that he would use no ablution until he raided Banu Fazara; and when he recovered from his wounds the Apostle [Muhammad] sent him against them with a force.
He fought them in Wadi’l-Qurq and killed some of them. Qays bin al-Musahhar al-Ya’muri killed Mas’ada bin Hakama bin Malik bin Hudhayfa bin Badr and Umm Qirfa [the mother of Qirfa], Fatima daughter of Rabi’a bin Badr was taken prisoner.
She [Umm Qirfa] was a very old woman, wife of Malik. Her daughter and Abdullah bin Mas’ada were also taken. Zayd ordered Qays bin al-Musahhar to kill Umm Qirfa and he killed her cruelly (by putting a rope to her two legs and to two camels and driving them until they rent her in two).