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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:

Ibn Ubayy was a hypocrite 'someone who hides their disbelief and pretends to be a Muslim.' There are two explanations as to why the Prophet (saw) did not punish him:
Firstly, punishment in Islam is only applied when material evidence exists, and there is no confession of disbelief that had been uttered by Ubayy.
Secondly, the Prophet (saw) was waiting for his repentance, thereby avoiding the disbelief of his followers and avoiding civil war in the centre of the Islamic state.

Background

Ibn Ubayy was the chief of hypocrites in Medina. He was implicitly planning and fighting to harm Islam and Muslims. He even implicitly accused the Prophet and his migrant companions as the lowest in status and promised he 'will surely expel them.'

Who is the Munafiq (Hypocrite)?

Munafiq is a post-Islamic term used to refer to a person who pretends he is a Muslim, but he hides his disbelief

The linguist ibn Mandhur said:

وَهُوَ اِسْمٌ إِسْلامِيٌّ، لَمْ تَعْرِفْهُ الْعُرْبُ بِالْمَعْنَى الْمَخْصُوصِ بِهِ ، وَهُوَ الَّذِي يَسْتُرُ كُفْرَهُ وَيُظْهِرُ إيمَانَهُ
"It is an Islamic term, Arab did not know it before with this exact meaning; i.e. who hides his disbelief and shows his Islam." (Ibn Mandhur, Lisan al-'Arab, word Nafaqa)


Why wasn't Munafiq (such as Ibn Ubayy) Punished?

So, in accordance with the definition of Munafiq, they hide their disbelief, and so, they can't be legally punished in this world because of their unexpressed intention.

As the Prophet (saw) said to Khalid (ra) when he wanted to kill a hypocrite, who accused the Prophet (saw) of injustice, how can you murder a Muslim who prays, even if there is a hidden belief inside?

Bukhari and Muslim narrated this event:

قَالَ فَقَامَ رَجُلٌ ... فَقَالَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ، اتَّقِ اللَّهَ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏"‏ وَيْلَكَ أَوَلَسْتُ أَحَقَّ أَهْلِ الأَرْضِ أَنْ يَتَّقِيَ اللَّهَ ‏"‏‏.‏ قَالَ ثُمَّ وَلَّى الرَّجُلُ، قَالَ خَالِدُ بْنُ الْوَلِيدِ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ، أَلاَ أَضْرِبُ عُنُقَهُ قَالَ ‏"‏ لاَ، لَعَلَّهُ أَنْ يَكُونَ يُصَلِّي ‏"‏‏.‏ فَقَالَ خَالِدٌ وَكَمْ مِنْ مُصَلٍّ يَقُولُ بِلِسَانِهِ مَا لَيْسَ فِي قَلْبِهِ‏.‏ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏"‏ إِنِّي لَمْ أُومَرْ أَنْ أَنْقُبَ قُلُوبَ النَّاسِ، وَلاَ أَشُقَّ بُطُونَهُمْ
"There got up a man … said, "O Allah's Messenger (saw)! Be afraid of Allah."
The Prophet (saw) said, "Woe to you! Am I not of all the people of the earth the most entitled to fear Allah?"
Then that man went away. Khalid bin Al-Waleed said, "O Allah's Messenger (saw)! Shall I chop his neck off?"
The Prophet (saw) said, "No, for he may offer prayers."
Khalid said, "Numerous are those who offer prayers and say by their tongues (i.e. mouths) what is not in their hearts."
Allah's Messenger (saw) said, 'I have not been ordered (by Allah) to search the hearts of the people or cut open their bellies.'" (Bukhari 4351, Muslim 2319)

In another situation, a man was fighting Usama ibn Zayd (ra) in a battle; Usama was about to kill him, and the man announced Islam, but Usama thought he was afraid of the sword and did this out of hypocrisy.

When the Prophet (saw) knew that, he severely blamed Usama as he narrated:

قُلْتُ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ إِنَّمَا قَالَهَا خَوْفًا مِنَ السِّلاَحِ ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏"‏ أَفَلاَ شَقَقْتَ عَنْ قَلْبِهِ حَتَّى تَعْلَمَ أَقَالَهَا أَمْ لاَ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ فَمَازَالَ يُكَرِّرُهَا عَلَىَّ حَتَّى تَمَنَّيْتُ أَنِّي أَسْلَمْتُ يَوْمَئِذٍ
"I said: Messenger of Allah, he made a profession of it out of the fear of the weapon.
He (the Prophet) observed: Did you tear his heart in order to find out whether it had (intentionally) professed or not? And he went on repeating it to me till I wished I had embraced Islam that day." (Muslim 96, Bukhari 6827)

Scholars deduced from the above narrations that the rulings in Islam are legally judged according to the apparent deeds, but the intention is left for Allah on the Day of Judgement.

Imam Nawawi commented on the above hadiths and said:

فِيه دَليلٌ لِلْقَاعِدَةِ الْمَعْرُوفَةِ فِي الْفِقْهِ وَالْأُصولِ أَنَّ الْأَحْكَامَ يُعْمَلُ فِيهَا بِالظَّواهِرِ وَاللهُ يَتَوَلَّى السَّرَائِرَ
"It contains evidence of the well-known Fiqhi and Usuli principle; i.e. rulings are judged to the appeared (attitude) and Allah judges the intentions." (Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim, Vol. 2, p. 107)

The Qur'an confirmed this understanding in dealing with hypocrites as Allah described their hypocrisy as their (legally valid) protection they invented to escape the punishment in this world. Allah says narrating their deeds:

اتَّخَذُوا أَيْمَانَهُمْ جُنَّةً فَصَدُّوا عَنْ سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ
"They have taken their oaths as a cover (of protection), so they averted (people) from the way of Allah." (Qur'an 63:2)

This understanding was deduced by the second-century jurist Imam Shafi'i, the founder of the Shafi'i madhab:

وَهَذَا يَدُلُّ عَلَى أَنَّ إِظْهارَ الْإيمَانِ جُنّةٌ – أَيّْ وِقَايَةٌ - مِنَ الْقَتْلِ .
"This demonstrates their showing of faith was Junnah 'protection from killing.'" (Shafi'i, al-'Umm, Vol. 1, p. 296, Vol. 7, p. 310, Ibn Battal, at-Tawdeeh fi Sharh al-Jami' as-Sahih, Vol. 31, p. 514)

So, the judge, as the Prophet at his time was, in Islam does not enforce a decision according to his knowledge but rather the presented evidence.

This was deduced from the Prophet's hadith:

إِنَّكُمْ تَخْتَصِمُونَ إِلَىَّ وَلَعَلَّ بَعْضَكُمْ أَنْ يَكُونَ أَلْحَنَ بِحُجَّتِهِ مِنْ بَعْضٍ فَأَقْضِي لَهُ عَلَى نَحْوٍ مِمَّا أَسْمَعُ مِنْهُ فَمَنْ قَطَعْتُ لَهُ مِنْ حَقِّ أَخِيهِ شَيْئًا فَلاَ يَأْخُذْهُ فَإِنَّمَا أَقْطَعُ لَهُ بِهِ قِطْعَةً مِنَ النَّارِ
"You bring to me, for (judgment) your disputes, some of you perhaps being more eloquent in their plea than others, so I give judgment on their behalf according to what I hear from them.
(Bear in mind, in my judgment) if I slice off anything for him from the right of his brother, he should not accept that, for I sliced off for him a portion from the Hell." (Sahih Muslim 4247)

The same thing was confirmed by Malik, Abu Hanifa, Shafi'i, Sha'bi, Ishaq, ibn Abd al-Bar, ibn Qudamah and others. (Ibn Qudamah, al-Mughni, Vol. 14, pp. 31-33, Ibn Abd al-Barr, al-Istidhkar, vol. 6, pp. 335-336)

The issue of belief and disbelief, however, can't be legally known except by his confession of leaving or embracing the faith.

Regarding the issue of ibn Ubayy, Umar asked the Prophet (saw) the same question asked here; the Prophet (saw) argued they pretend to be Muslims, so if I killed him, people would accuse the Prophet (saw) of murdering his companions.

The Prophet (saw) replied:

لاَ يَتَحَدَّثُ النَّاسُ أَنَّهُ كَانَ يَقْتُلُ أَصْحَابَهُ
"(No), lest the people should say that Muhammad used to kill his companions." (Bukhari 3518, Muslim 2584)

Thus, as long as they don't show up as enemies and apostates, they are Muslims. Their blood is guaranteed; they inherit from Muslims and their relatives inherit from them; they are buried as, and with, Muslims and go through all the rulings of Islam as Muslims. (Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu' al-Fatawa, Vol. 4, p. 334)

Some scholars (such as ibn al-Qayim, Ibn Hajar, Qurtubi, Qadi 'Ayad, Nawawi, and others) argued the Prophet (saw) did not punish Ubayy and his like hoping they would repent; they were rulers in their tribes and their whole tribe would apostatize after them leading to a wildness and an unabated civil war. (Ibn al-Qayim, Zad al-Ma'ad, Vol. 3, p. 497, Qadi 'Ayad, Ikmal al-Mu'alim, Vol. 3, p. 533, Ibn al-Arabi, Ahkam al-Qur'an, Vol. 1, p. 20, Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, Vol. 9, p. 59)

The seventh century Hanbali mujtahid jurist ibn Taymiyyah suggested both probabilities and argued both are valid in our time when we go through similar circumstances:

أن الْحَدَّ لَمْ يَقُمْ عَلَى وَاحِدٍ بِعَيْنَه ، لِعَدَم ظُهورُهِ بِالْحُجَّةِ الشَّرْعِيَّةِ الَّتِي يَعْلَمُهُ بِهَا الْخاصُّ وَالْعَامُّ ، أَوْ لِعَدَمِ إِمْكانِ إقامَتِهِ ، إلّا مَعَ تَنْفِيرِ أَقْوَامٍ عَنِ الدُّخُولِ فِي الْإِسْلامِ ، وَاِرْتِدَادُ آخَرِينَ عَنْهُ ، وَإِظْهارُ قَوْمٍ مِنَ الْحَرْبِ وَالْفِتْنَةِ مَا يَرْبَى فَسَادُهُ عَلَى فَسَادِ تَرْكِ قَتْلِ مُنَافِقٍ ، وَهَذَانِ الْمَعْنَيَانِ حُكْمُهُمَا بَاقٍ إِلَى يَوْمِنَا هَذَا .

"The hadd (fixed punishment) was not enforced on anyone (of the hypocrites) because there is no legal evidence knowable by (the Prophet) and general people.It may also be that it was not done because it would lead to a lot of people not embracing Islam and many others would apostatize.In order to avoid the readiness of war and fitnah by some people it is better leaving a hypocrite unexecuted.These two understandings are valid today." (Ibn Taymiyyah, as-Sarim al-Maslul, Vol. 3, pp. 673-681)

But – according to Imam Nawawi – this rule can't be valid today, rather special for the case of the Prophet. (Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim, Vol. 15, p. 108)

Conclusion

Ibn Ubayy was a hypocrite 'someone who hides the disbelief and pretends to be a Muslim.' There are two explanations as to why Prophet (saw) did not punish him:

  • Punishment in Islam is only applied when material evidence exists and there was no confession of disbelief uttered by Ubayy.

  • The Prophet (saw) was waiting for his repentance, thereby avoiding the disbelief of his followers and avoiding civil war in the centre of the Islamic state.


References

Shafi'i, Kitab al-'Umm;
Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim;
Ibn Battal, at-Tawdeeh fi Sharh al-Jami' as-Sahih;
Ibn Qudamah, al-Mughni;
Ibn Abd al-Barr, al-Istidhkar;
Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu' al-Fatawa;
Ibn Taymiyyah, as-Sarim al-Maslul;
Ibn al-Qayim, Zad al-Ma'ad;
Qadi 'Ayad, Ikmal al-Mu'alim;
Ibn al-'Ararbi, Ahkam al-Qur'an;
Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari;
Ibn Mandhur, Lisan al-'Arab, word Nafaqa.


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