The reason Abu Bakr used strong words about a pagan deity

The reason Abu Bakr used strong words about a pagan deity

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar


 بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم الحمد لله وحده و الصلاة و السلام على من لا نبي بعده و على آله و أصحابه أجمعين

Abu Bakr responded to the representative of pagans of Makkah with strong wording. Missionary critics of Islam like Sam Shamoun and David Wood ignore the context and use it to convey that Muslims attacked religious beliefs of others for no reason. Here is a detailed exclusive response to the misleading propaganda. Yes, Abu Bakr did say what is reported but he was perfectly justified in doing so.

1- Introduction 

Sam Shamoun, the well-known Islamophobe, wrote a long article in which he expressed concern about Muslims’ condemnation of Pagans. This individual has been trying to make an issue of a reply of the Prophet’s companion Abu Bakr -may Allah bless them both- to Urwah bin Mas’ud when he represented the Pagans on the eve of the Truce of Hudaybiya. 

Sam and his friends quote part of a longer narration from History of al-Tabari. As it appears on their pages, it reads:

“Then ‘Urwah said: “Muhammad, tell me:

if you extirpate your tribesmen, have you ever heard of any of the Arabs who destroyed his own race before you? And if the contrary comes to pass, by God I see both prominent people and rabble who are likely to flee and leave you.”

Abu Bakr said, “Go suck the clitoris of al-Lat!” – al-Lat was the idol of Thaqif, which they used to worship – “Would we flee and leave him?” …

(The History of al-Tabari – The Victory of Islam, translated by Michael Fishbein [State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany 1997], Volume VIII (8), p. 76; bold and underline emphasis ours)”[1]

David Wood quotes the same and says:

“Notice that Abu Bakr responds to Urwah’s reasonable comment with an extraordinarily offensive insult against Urwah’s religious beliefs.”[2]

2- Background 

In the sixth year after Hijra the Holy Prophet -peace and blessings of Allah be upon him- along with some 1400 companions, left for Makkah to perform the lesser pilgrimage (Umrah) to the Holy Ka’ba. The Muslims reached close to Makkah and camped at a place called Hudaybiya.

While Muslims stayed there, a series of events took place and a number of emissaries of the people of Makkah came to the Holy Prophet.

Urwah too came and assuming that Prophet had actually come to make a fight, he said:

“O Muhammad! Won’t you feel any scruple in extirpating your relations? Have you ever heard of anyone amongst the Arabs extirpating his relatives before you? On the other hand, if the reverse should happen, (nobody will aid you, for) by Allah, I do not see (with you) dignified people, but people from various tribes who would run away leaving you alone.”[3]

Hearing this Abu Bakr – May Allah be pleased with him- could not contain his anger and said:

امصص ببظر اللات، أنحن نفر عنه وندعه؟

Muhsin Khan (whose translation of Sahih Bukhari is widely used) renders it as:

“Abu Bakr abused him and said, ‘Do you say we would run and leave the Prophet alone?’”[4]

Ustadha Aisha Bewley puts it as:

“Suck al-Lat’s nipples! Would we flee from him and desert him!”[5]

Alfred Guillaume translated it likewise in his translation of Sirat Ibn Ishaq:

“Suck al-Lat’s nipples! Should we desert him?”[6]

Others who translated it literally have put it somewhat differently; Michael Fishbein in his translation of the relevant section of History of al-Tabari gives it as:

Go suck the clitoris of al-Lat! (…) Would we flee and leave him?”[7]

3. The Point Explained

As evident, missionaries assert, the first part of Abu Bakr’s reply was actually an insult to the religion Urwah then professed. David Wood even goes on to say that this was a response to a rather “reasonable comment”[8] of Urwah. 

Before looking at the implication of Urwah’s words and their merit as trigger for Abu Bakr’s flamboyant response, let’s first make a literary analysis of Abu Bakr’s words.

3.1 A proverb

The words that are literally translated as ‘suck the clitoris of so and so’ are actually a proverb. Edward William Lane writes: 

 (أمصص بظر فلانة): a prov. of the Arabs. (TA.)[9]

Al-‘Ayni (d. 855 A.H.) writes;

وقال ابن التين: هي كلمة تقولها العرب عند الذم والمشاتمة، لكن تقول: بظر أمه، واستعار أبو بكر، رضي الله تعالى عنه، ذلك في اللات لتعظيمهم إياها

“And Ibn al-Teen said: This is the phrase Arabs use for condemnation and vilification, but they say: ‘Clitoris of his mother’. And Abu Bakr used it with reference al-Lat due to their [i.e. pagans’] respect for her.”[10]

We shall see the meaning of the shift from the regular use of the idiom in the contextual explanation and a related example in the following lines.

3.2 Contextual Explanation- What Trigged this Response?

It might be easy for David Wood to see Urwah’s remarks that invited Abu Bakr’s response as “reasonable”; however, a diligent student of history would have no choice but to strongly differ with him. On this point one needs to understand Abu Bakr’s position before making an assessment.  

Muslims came out of Madinah without any intention for war and therefore without any preparation. However, the pagans of Makkah decided not to let the Muslims enter the city and venerate the Holy Ka’ba.

When the Muslims set on this journey, they received disturbing news about the plans of the Quraysh of Makkah. It was for this reason that the Prophet – peace and blessings of Allah be upon him- had to take an unconventional route so as to ensure that he could reach the holy precincts of Makkah and proceed with the rituals.[11]

Yet the Pagans were not ready to give Muslims an easy passage to the holy sanctuary, and being unarmed they were in a vulnerable state. The severity of the situation can further be known by the fact that later, when some incidents lead to the pledge under the tree (i.e. Bayt al-Ridwan), the attendees were promised abundant reward and blessings.

This was only proportional to the danger Muslims were then exposed to in that particular condition of being unarmed and unprotected in a hostile territory. 

In this backdrop, basing his argument on a baseless assumption of Muslims coming to Makkah with hostile designs, Urwah actually threatened the Muslims. He did not just stop at that; he even went on to attribute cowardice and infidelity to the Prophet’s companions.

This was more than just a mere comment. It was an attempt to make the Prophet feel skeptical of his companions. It was, therefore, natural for the companions to take exception to it and respond with strong words.

The Qur’an in Surah 8:15-16 defines fleeing from an encounter with enemies as a major sin. Further, deserting a prophet in person was even more serious. Therefore, any suggestion to it was a direct attack on the persons and beliefs of the noble companions of the Holy Prophet –may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon them all. 

In this context, it is easy to understand why Abu Bakr verbally attacked Urwah, using the name of his deity. He was actually telling him that a believer in a pagan deity should have never have misgivings about the faithful companions of the Prophet – peace and blessings of Allah be upon him-, whose conviction rested on the belief in the All-Powerful One True God. 

With reference to a classical scholar Ibn Hajr points to rhetoric significance of these words.

وقال بن المنير في قول أبي بكر تخسيس للعدو وتكذيبهم وتعريض بإلزامهم من قولهم إن اللات بنت الله تعالى الله عن ذلك علوا كبيرا بأنها لو كانت بنتا لكان لها ما يكون للإناث

“Ibn al-Munir said, in the words of Abu Bakr there is condemnation and rejection of the adversaries and a response to their allegation that al-Lat is the daughter of Allah –Allah is exalted above this- for if it were a daughter [of Allah] it would have what the females do.”[12]

4. More on the usage of these words

With reference to Lane’s lexicon we have seen that the words used are actually a proverb of the Arabs used for condemnation and to express one’s strong reaction. 

Here are a couple of examples that help us understand the true sense of these words.

Ibn Abd Rabbih (d. 328 A.H.) writes;

ومن أعزّ الناس نفسا وأشرفهم همما: الأنصار، وهم الأوس والخزرج ابنا قيلة، لم يؤدّوا إتاوة قطّ في الجاهلية إلى أحد من الملوك، وكتب إليهم تبّع يدعوهم إلى طاعته ويتوعّدهم إن لم يفعلوا؛ فكتبوا إليه:

العبد تبّع كم يروم قتالنا … ومكانه بالمنزل المتذلّل

إنّا أناس لا ينام بأرضنا … عض الرسول ببظر أمّ المرسل

فغزاهم تبّع أبو كرب، فكانوا يقاتلونه نهارا ويخرجون إليه القرى ليلا، فتذمّم من قتالهم ورحل عنهم.

“Al-Ansar were among the most high-spirited and honorable people, and they were descendants of al-Aws and al-Khazraj, the sons of Qayla. They never paid tribute to any king in the Jahiliyya. [King] Tubba’ wrote to them, calling upon them to obey him and threatening them if they did not. They wrote back to him saying:

How eagerly the slave, Tubba’, yearns to fight us!

Yet his place is ever a home of ignominy.

We are a people in whose land no [enemy] dares sleep.

May the messenger bite the clitoris of the sender’s mother.

So Tubba’ Abu Karib attacked them, and they used to fight him by day and send him a guest’s meal by night. He finally got weary of fighting them and left.[13]

This is a good parallel to what is at hand. The context is almost the same related to sovereignty and chivalry. When an Arab’s chivalry is put to doubt by someone he lashes out with these words at the one who does it. 

Also note another point of comparison; that messenger from King Tubba asked the Ansar to subdue to an alien authority so they used the proverb making the mother of the sender the object, “May the messenger bite the clitoris of the sender’s mother.

”Likewise, when Urwah attacked the belief of the companions by making an attempt to cast aspersions on their fidelity to the Prophet – peace and blessings of Allah be upon him- and their chivalry at a certain stage in the long religious conflict, Abu Bakr responded by bringing in his deity for whose sake he and his people were troubling the Muslims. 

In fact, the proverbial phrase is not meant as real abuse. It is a way to strongly condemn or point out to worthlessness of something. Consider the following line by renowned classical Arabic literary critic, Ibn Rashiq al-Qayrawani (d. 463 A.H.);

إن الشعراء ثلاثة: شاعر، وشويعر، و ماص بظر أمه

Literally it would be translated as:

“Verily the poets are of three categories: An excellent poet, an ordinary poet and the one who bites the clitoris of his mother.”[14]

The meaning here is that the third category is of third-class poets who produce valueless work in literary terms. This is the ultimate proof that original sense of the words is not meant as an obscene comment, but it is an expression used for forceful condemnation.

‘Amr bin Bahr al-Jahiz (d. 255 A.H.) referring to this narration, along with a few more, says;

وإنما وُضعت هذه الألفاظ ليستعملها أهل اللغة، ولو كان الرأي ألاّ يُلفظ بها ما كان لأوّلِ كونها معنىً، ولكان في التَّحريم والصَّون للُغة العرب أن تُرفع هذه الأسماء والألفاظ منها.

وقد أصاب كلَّ الصَّواب من قال: “لكلِّ مقامٍ مقال”

“These words were created to be used by all Arabic-speaking people, and to hold that they ought never to be uttered would be to make nonsense of their creation; in that case it would be more logical and better for the purity of the Arabic language if these words were to be withdrawn from it. Verily he uttered the total truth who said, ‘Every single audience and situation has a talk to it.’[15]

This indeed is the truth; every audience has a talk to it! In this given situation Abu Bakr -may Allah be pleased with him- felt absolutely justified in using the words we have shown with reference to Arabic literature to be nothing but a tool for expressing contempt. Urwah, at that time a Pagan, attacked Abu Bakr and received a befitting response.

5. Summary and Conclusion

1- It was Urwah who first hurt the religious feelings of Abu Bakr and other Muslims. Therefore, anyone learning of the incident cannot reasonably object to Abu Bakr’s words, who represented Muslims in this reaction- may Allah be pleased with him. 

2- Abu Bakr used a well-known and then current Arabic proverb that was used for condemnation in different contexts. When used in general description or ordinary personal disagreements, it was related to addressee’s mother (cf. Ibn Rashiq)

When, for instance, the people of Madinah used it speaking about a messenger of a man who wanted them to submit to his authority they made a reference to sender’s mother as it had to be a female anyway. (cf. Ibn ‘Abd Rabbih) 

When used in a religious context to respond to an attack by a believer in idols, a goddess became the object of the scorn invited by one of its devotees. This scorn even had rhetoric against the false belief.

3- ‘Urwa practically asked for and got a befitting response.

— by Waqar Akbar Cheema

[1] Sam Shamoun, Muhammad the Antagonist still!, Accessed April 25, 2013.

[2] David Wood, Why do Muslims get to Insult Other Religions?,, 2010.

Accessed April 25, 2013.

[3] Muhammad  al-Bukhari, Sahih Bukhari, trans. Muhsin Khan

[4]Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih Bukhari, Book 50, Hadith 891

[5] Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih Bukhari, Book of Conditions, Chapter 15, Hadith 2581-, trans. Aisha Bewley. Accessed on May 3, 2013

[6]Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 502

Note that in Sirat Ibn Hisham, the original wording for the second part of the sentence is slightly different.

[7]The History of al-Tabari – The Victory of Islam, trans. Michael Fishbein, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997) Volume 8, 76

[8] Wood, Why do Muslims get to Insult Other Religions?

[9]Arabic-English Lexicon, Book 1, 222

[10] Al- ‘Ayni, Badr al-Din, Umdat al-Qari (Beirut: Dar al-Ahya al-Turath al-‘Arabi), Vol.14, 10

[11]Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, 500-501

[12]ibn Hajr, Fath al-Bari, Vol.5, 340

[13] Ibn Abd Rabbih, Al-‘Iqd al-Farid– The Unique Necklace, trans. Issa J. Boullata (Reading, Garnet Publishing, 2009) Vol. 2, 54

[14] Hasan Ibn Rashiq Al-Qayrawani, Al-Umdah fi Mahasin al-Shi’r wa Adabihi (Beirut: Dar al-Jeel, 1981) Vol.2, 116

[15] Amr Bin Bahr Al-Jahiz, Rasa’il al-Jahiz (Risalah: Mufakhara al-Jawari wal Ghilman), (Cairo: Maktaba al-Khaniji, 1964) Vol.2, 93