The Genocide of Banu Qurayza

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Detail from miniature painting: The Prophet, Ali, and the Companions at the Massacre of the Prisoners of the Jewish Tribe of Beni Qurayzah, illustration of a 19th century text by Muhammad Rafi Bazil.

According to the traditional Islamic sources, in 627 AD as a result of the Battle of the Trench and the betrayal of the Muslims by the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza, the Muslims under the direct military command of the prophet Muhammad laid siege to the Banu Qurayza compound. After a siege of around 2 weeks, depending on the source, the Jews of Banu Qurayza surrendered and entrusted their fate to a trusted intermediary from the Muslims of the tribe of 'Aws, Sa'ad bin Mu'adh. Sa'a'd bin Mu'adh, however, claiming to be following the law of the Torah itself, advised Muhammad to slaughter the men folk of the tribe and sell the women and children into slavery. Muhammad took this advice and as a consequence over 900 prisoners of the tribe were slaughtered, many in front of their families, and the rest of the tribe were sold into slavery. Although later Muslim historians such as Tabari and ibn Kathir attest to and provide details of this event, the lack of attestation to this event in any primary sources for over 100 years after the event and the lack of attestation of the existence of the Banu Qurayza in early documents such as the Constitution of Medina, as well as evidence of continued Jewish-Arab (Muhaajir) cooperation well into the period of the early Arab conquests, has caused critical historians to call into question the historicity of the entire event.

Introduction

According to traditional sources, in Hijra year 5 (627 AD), on the orders of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, almost nine hundred Jews of a Medinan tribe named Banu Qurayza were massacred by the muhaajiruun and their Medinese Muslim allies. The killing began early in the day, ending in torchlight. Those who escaped death were taken captive and sold at slave markets. Muhammad’s problems with the Jews had not started here. Before the Abu Qurayza, the Jews of the tribes of the Banu Nadir and Banu Qaynuqaa’ had already been assaulted, stripped of their goods including their precious palm trees and exiled. The Banu Qurayzah had retained their position in Medinah through an alliance with the prophet. All was not well with them, tho, as Muhammad continued to press on them to accept him as the messenger off Allah. As Muhammad had lost the battle of Uhud this had become difficult for him, and there was already doubt in the minds of some Muslims (mostly muhaajiruun) as to their loyalty to the prophet. Compounding matters, the Meccans pagans under the leadership of Abu Sufyan had entered into an alliance with the banished Jewish tribes of Medinah, furthering the suspicion of the Jews of Qurayzah whose fortress lay in the rear of the Muslims’ positions vis-à-vis the attack route of the Meccans. When the Meccans and their Jewish allies advanced with a huge army upon Medinah, at the suggestion of the Persian Salman the prophet ordered his numerically inferior forces to dig a trench between two pools of lava and the mountains in front of the city to cut off the advance of the Meccans and their confederates. For this reason the battle is traditionally known as the “Battle of Trench” or the “Battle of the Confederates.” Unable to break the defenses of the Medinian Muslims, the Meccans sent an emissary, “the enemy of Allah, Huyayy bin Akhtab An-Nadri”, to the Banu Qurayzah in an attempt to bring their aide and end the stalemate with the massacre of Muhammad and the Muslims. Ibn Ishaq does not make it clear how he knows this however he claims that the negotiation came to nought due to the Qurayzah’s insistence that the Meccans offer hostages in order to assure they would not leave the field of battle till Muhammad was defeated (which is exactly what they did). Ibn Ishaq offers as evidence of the Banu Qurayzah’s perfidy an Isnad chain from Yahya bin ‘Abbaad bin ‘Abdullah bin Az-Zubayr with a story that a Muslim woman, Safiyah bint ‘AbdulMuttalib saw a Jewish scout of the Banu Qurayzah reconnoitering a Muslim fort in preparation for an attack. She told the forts commander Hassan of this and asked him to kill the scout, and when he refused she took a club and went out and beat the man to death. Other than this ibn Ishaq relates that Allah “sowed discord” between the confederates and the Banu Qurayzah, which resulted in the Meccans retreating without having defeated Muhammad or engaged in a coordinated attack upon the Muslims with the Banu Qurayzah. According to the traditional narrative the Qur'an refers to this incident in Surah 33:

And He brought those of the People of the Scripture who supported them down from their strongholds, and cast panic into their hearts. Some ye slew and ye made captive some. And He caused you to inherit their land and their houses and their wealth, and land ye have not trodden. Allah is Able to do all things


The battle over, Muhammad and his men put their entrenching tools and weapons down to head home. According to the sira, though, Allah had other plans.

Qur'anic Account

According to the traditional narrative the Qur'an refers to this incident in Surah 33:

And He brought those of the People of the Scripture who supported them down from their strongholds, and cast panic into their hearts. Some ye slew and ye made captive some. And He caused you to inherit their land and their houses and their wealth, and land ye have not trodden. Allah is Able to do all things

Analysis of Qur'anic Account

According to the traditional exegetes the people being referred to in the above verse are the Jews of the Banu Qurayza tribe. The reason given for slaying them is their alleged support of the Meccans "ahzaab" or confederates/parties (tribes) who came to fight the Muslims of Medina. Reading the verse in this light, it is Allah accusing people of the scripture of supporting Meccans. According to the sira and the hadith, the Banu Qurayza, upon seeing the size of the enemy army confronting the Muslims, waivered in their allegiance to Muhammad and went over to the enemy, creating a huge strategic problem for Muhammad as the Banu Qurayzah were situated behind his lines and he had made no preparations to go to war with them.

Ibn Jarir said: "Some of those who were with the Messenger of Allah , had doubts and thought that the outcome would be against the believers, and that Allah would allow that to happen."

Analysis of the Accounts in Hadiths

After establishing through Qur'anic text that the war of Khandaq was never fought, it is necessary to investigate other authentic sources of Islam to discover what prompted Muhammad and his army (who had just salvaged their lives and pride without fighting a war) to turn their attentions towards the Banu Qurayza. We saw Allah himself attest to the fact he was the one who drove away the Meccans and helped Muslims escape an otherwise inevitable extermination. Let's now turn to Ibn Kathir to find out what happened next:

...the Messenger of Allah returned to Al-Madinah in triumph and the people put down their weapons. While the Messenger of Allah was washing off the dust of battle in the house of Umm Salamah, may Allah be pleased with her, Jibril, upon him be peace, came to him wearing a turban of brocade, riding on a mule on which was a cloth of silk brocade. He said, "Have you put down your weapons, O Messenger of Allah" He said, "Yes" He said, "But the angels have not put down their weapons. I have just now come back from pursuing the people." Then he said: "Allah, may He be blessed and exalted, commands you to get up and go to Banu Quraiza. According to another report, "What a fighter you are! Have you put down your weapons" He said, "Yes". He said, "But we have not put down our weapons yet, get up and go to these people." He said: "Where?" He said, "Banu Quraiza, for Allah has commanded me to shake them." So the Messenger of Allah got up immediately, and commanded the people to march towards Banu Quraiza, who were a few miles from Al-Madinah. This was after Salat Az-Zuhr. He said, No one among you should pray `Asr except at Banu Quraiza.

This account of Ibn Kathir is supported by sahih (authentic) hadiths:

Narrated 'Aisha: When Allah's Apostle returned on the day (of the battle) of Al-Khandaq (i.e. Trench), he put down his arms and took a bath. Then Gabriel whose head was covered with dust, came to him saying, "You have put down your arms! By Allah, I have not put down my arms yet." Allah's Apostle said, "Where (to go now)?" Gabriel said, "This way," pointing towards the tribe of Banu Qurayza. So Allah's Apostle went out towards them.

It is evident from this account, that Muhammad and his followers were relaxed and reclining after the withdrawal of Meccan troops. The campaign against the Banu Qurayza was not on their agenda until the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) appeared with Allah's orders. It also reveal the fact that the tribe of Banu Qurayza did not do anything atrocious to Muslims during the siege at Khandaq while the Meccan army were stranded at the trenches. Sources say the siege lasted for almost a month, but ultimately the Meccans departed without a fight. It was not possible for them to engage in battle, as the trenches were a new tactic that they had never expected from Muhammad's side. Still they waited for a green light from the Banu Qurayza stronghold, as that was the only route to enter in which they could reach the Muslims, a green light which never appeared. Eventually losing all hope of crossing and engaging in a full-scale war which would have resulted in wiping all Muslims from the face of the earth, the Meccans retreated.

Once the enemy had left, it was time for the Muslims to lay down their arms and relax, but not so for Muhammad. He felt it inadequate to regress without any gains. Whenever he fought a war prior to it, he and his followers emerged victorious and victory brought them booties in means of materials and human beings. Uhud was the only exception. This time, though they had survived, there was something still lacking; booty. The Meccan's resignation left them without any.

It was time for Jibreel to show up. Muhammad needed war booty to satisfy himself and his followers. A small fraction stationed in a castle nearby would make an easy target to acquire these means of satisfaction. So Jibreel appears with orders from Allah. "No Muhammad, you laid arms without meeting the objective." And the prime objective here is slaughter, then the acquisition of booty through this means.

If Banu Quraiza were in fact treacherous, Muhammad and the religion of Islam would have been buried in those trenches they had dug. That did not happen and Muhammad's fellow warriors did not feel any need to carry on. They were not aware of any alleged treachery, for this reason they reclined once the Meccans had left. All that changed, once Muhammad intervened with the aid of Jibreel and Allah. This proves the alleged treason is nothing but a made up excuse or a pretext Muslims use in our period to justify genocide.

Later, the warriors of Islam besieged a weak tribe for almost a month until they surrendered; Not fighting, but enduring. The siege ended with the unconditional surrender of Jews. Now the fate of the surrendered tribe lay in the hands of Muhammad.

To recount what happened to the then subjugated tribe who were on their knees to Muhammad and his fellow warriors, let us see the details as provided in Muhammad Husayn Haykal's The life of Muhammad:

Banu Qurayzah sent word to Muhammad proposing to evacuate their territory and remove themselves to Adhri'at, but Muhammad rejected their proposal and insisted on their abiding by his judgment. They sent to al-Aws pleading that they should help them as al-Khazraj had helped their client Jews before them. A group of al-Aws tribesmen sought Muhammad and pleaded with him to accept from their allies a similar arrangement to that which he accepted from the allies of al-Khazraj. Muhammad asked, "O men of al-Aws, would you be happy if we allowed one of your men to arbitrate the case?" When they agreed, he asked them to nominate whomsoever they wished. This was communicated to the Jews, and the latter, unmindful of the fate that was lying in store for them, nominated Sa'd ibn Mu'adh. Sa'd was a reputable man of al-Aws tribe, respected for his sound judgment. Previously, Sa'd was the first one to approach the Jews, to warn them adequately, even to predict to them that they might have to face Muhammad one day. He had witnessed the Jews cursing Muhammad and the Muslims. After his nomination and acceptance as arbitrator, Sa'd sought guarantees from the two parties that they would abide by his judgment. After these guarantees were secured, he commanded that Banu Qurayzah come out of their fortress and surrender their armour. Sa'd then pronounced his verdict that the fighting men be put to the sword, that their wealth be confiscated as war booty, and that the women and the children be taken as captives. When Muhammad heard the verdict, he said: "By Him Who dominates my soul, God is pleased with your judgment, 0 Sa'd; and so are the believers. You have surely done your duty." He then proceeded to Madinah where he commanded a large grave to be dug for the Jewish fighters brought in to be killed and buried.[1]

Ibn Ishaq describes the killing of the Banu Qurayza men as follows:

Then they surrendered, and the apostle confined them in Medina in the quarter of d. al-Harith, a woman of B. al-Najjar. Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches. Among them was the enemy of Allah Huyayy b. Akhtab and Ka`b b. Asad their chief. There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900. As they were being taken out in batches to the apostle they asked Ka`b what he thought would be done with them. He replied, 'Will you never understand? Don't you see that the summoner never stops and those who are taken away do not return? By Allah it is death!' This went on until the apostle made an end of them. Huyayy was brought out wearing a flowered robe in which he had made holes about the size of the finger-tips in every part so that it should not be taken from him as spoil, with his hands bound to his neck by a rope. When he saw the apostle he said, 'By God, I do not blame myself for opposing you, but he who forsakes God will be forsaken.' Then he went to the men and said, 'God's command is right. A book and a decree, and massacre have been written against the Sons of Israel.' Then he sat down and his head was struck off.[2][3][4]
Ibn Ishaq

According to Ibn Kathir:

Then the Messenger of Allah commanded that ditches should be dug, so they were dug in the earth, and they were brought tied by their shoulders, and were beheaded. There were between seven hundred and eight hundred of them. The children who had not yet reached adolescence and the women were taken prisoner, and their wealth was seized.

It is worth mentioning here, not all were lucky enough to be beheaded among Banu Quraiza. Those whose lives were spared had a worse fate awaiting them. Again from Haykal:

The Prophet divided the properties, women, and children of Banu Quraiza among the Muslims after he had separated one-fifth for public purposes. Each man of the cavalry received two shares, one for himself and one for his horse. On that day, the Muslim force included thirty-six cavalrymen. Sa'd ibn Zayd al Ansari sent a number of Banu Qurayza captives to Najd where he exchanged them for horses and armour in order to increase Muslim military power.[5]

These captives who were sold for horses were the women of the Banu Qurayza tribe. Ibn Ishaq confirms this:

Then the apostle sent for Sa'd bin Zayd al-Ansari brother of bin Abdul-Ashhal with some of the captive women of Banu Qurayza to Najd and he sold them for horses and weapons.
Ibn Ishaq: 693

Muslim Apologetics

The most common Muslim argument is that Muhammad was dealing with treachery and he had taken the maximum punitive actions against it. But this alleged treachery on Banu Qurayza’s part is very hard to accept for a rational mind. To be treacherous, Banu Qurayza must have joined the confederate army who had come to attack the Muslims. If that were the case (had Banu Qurayza joined the Meccan army) it would have ended in the total eradication of Muslims. But Abu Sufyan's (the Meccan chief’s) words before retreating, testifies Banu Qurayza did not ally with the Meccans in a war against the Muslims. To quote Ibn Ishaq:

Then Abu Sufyan said: “O Quraish, we are not in a permanent camp; the horses and camels are dying; the Banu Qurayza have broken their word to us and we have heard disquieting reports of them. You can see the violence of the wind which leaves us neither cooking-pots, or fire, nor tents to count on. Be off, for I am going”
Ibn Ishaq: 683

Besides, Muhammad nor his followers accused the Banu Qurayza of being treasonous. After Meccans left, the prophet had to bring Jibreel down to 'testify' that any such thing had taken place, before they even considered besieging the tribe. This attests to the fact there was no treason from the tribe that warranted their total annihilation. The account given in the Qur'an of the Banu Qurayza siding with the Muslims’ enemy at Khandaq is after the incidents occurred, not during it. Muhammad would have felt it necessary to give a reason to justify the annihilation of an entire Jewish tribe, so he came up with holy verses later.

Another argument often brought up by Muslims is “Banu Qurayza were given the choice of deciding their judge”. They argue Banu Qurayza were massacred because of Sad bin Muadh, the arbitrator they agreed to. So Muhammad is innocent of shedding their blood.

This argument is not without its problems:

First of all, it is not clear from Islamic sources whether it were Banu Qurayza or their allies, the tribe of “Aws”, who agreed to Sad bin Muadh being the judge. The sahih hadith in Bukhari below points to this fact:

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: Some people (i.e. the Jews of Bani bin quraiza) agreed to accept the verdict of Sad bin Muadh so the Prophet sent for him (i.e. Sad bin Muadh). He came riding a donkey, and when he approached the Mosque, the Prophet said, "Get up for the best amongst you." or said, "Get up for your chief." Then the Prophet said, "O Sad! These people have agreed to accept your verdict." Sad said, "I judge that their warriors should be killed and their children and women should be taken as captives." The Prophet said, "You have given a judgment similar to Allah's Judgment (or the King's judgment)."

In the USC translation, "Jews of Banu Qurayza" has been given in brackets when mentioning the people agreed to accept Sad bin Muadh’s verdict. But the original Sahih Bukhari hadith in Arabic does not have this. So, it is most probably the tribe of Aus were who agreed to accept the verdict of Sa’d, not the Banu Qurayza. It does not make any sense for a subjugated people like the Banu Qurayza who were on their knees at the time to be given a choice in selecting their judge. So, the evidence we have available is against the Muslims claim that the surrendered Banu Qurayza tribe were given a choice in the case of adjudicator.

Moreover, even if one accepts the Muslim arguments that the Banu Qurayza were given a choice in selecting their judge, it does not let Muhammad off the hook. A careful analysis of the sahih hadiths on this account reveals Saad bin Muadh was just echoing Muhammad’s intention as his verdict. Soon after Saad bin Muad gave his verdict, Muhammad rushed to applaud him stating Saad's judged was in accordance with the judgement of Allah. Again from Sahih Bukhari:

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: The people of (Banu) quraiza agreed to accept the verdict of Sad bin Muadh. So the Prophet sent for Saad, and the latter came (riding) a donkey and when he approached the Mosque, the Prophet said to the Ansar, "Get up for your chief or for the best among you." Then the Prophet said (to Sad)." These have agreed to accept your verdict." Sad said, "Kill their (men) warriors and take their offspring as captives, "On that the Prophet said, "You have judged according to Allah's Judgment," or said, "according to the King's judgment."

Muhammad always intended to massacre the tribe, ever before Saad bin Muadh had come into the picture. He had this plan in mind when besieging the tribe. He sent an envoy (Abu Lubaba) to the Banu Quraiza fort during the siege. Below is the account of this incident as mentioned in Sirah Ibn Ishaq:

Apostle sent him (Abu Lubaba) to them (Banu Quraiza), and when they saw him they got up to meet him. The women and children went up to him weeping in his face, and he felt sorry for them. They said, ‘Oh Abu Lubaba, do you think that we should submit to Muhammad's judgement? He said ‘yes' and pointed with his hand to his throat signifying slaughter.
Ibn Ishaq: 686

Remember, this incident occurred during the siege and Saad bin Muadh became involved in this affair after the siege. Here we see Muhammad's envoy revealing Muhammad's intentions to the Banu Quraiza. Again, we see a remorseful Abu Lubaba who later felt contrite for revealing Muhammad's plan to the besieged tribe. This man soon left the place and tied himself to one of the pillars in the mosque. Again, it is recorded in Ibn Ishaq:

Then he (Abu Lubaba) left them and did not go to the apostle but bound himself to one of the pillars in the mosque saying ‘I will not leave this place until god forgives me for what I have done' and he promised god that he would never go to Banu Quraiza and would never be seen in a town in which he had betrayed god and his apostle
Ibn Ishaq: 686

If all that befell the Banu Qurayza were solely the fault of Saad bin Muaad, how does one deal with the account given by Ibn Ishaq? It reveals Muhammad besieged the Banu Qurayza with the intention of ethnically cleansing them.

Another favorite argument is the Jews of Banu Qurayza were put to death according to "their own laws" within the Torah. Saad bin Muadh's verdict matches that which is found in Deuteronomy 20:10-18 thus, Islam nor the Muslims can be blamed for it.

In reality, Deuteronomy 20:10-18 is not the "law of the Torah." It is a specific direction from the Judeo-Christian God for a specific program of conquest. No longer relevant, as the Promised land mentioned in the Torah had been settled. It has nothing to do with "treason," or the treatment of treasonous allies. So if Muhammad or Saad bin Muaad had indeed applied these laws to the tribe, it was the wrong application of the wrong law to the wrong situation. Being the prophet of Allah, Muhammad could have easily annulled such a faulty application of the wrong laws.

Besides, this argument of Muslims begs the questions:

  1. Why are the Muslims now accepting the judgment of Deuteronomy [scripture which they allege is corrupt] as righteous and just when on other occasions they attack this as being a cruel and harsh command, and a clear example of genocide?
  2. The Islamic sources say that Muhammad did not only have the fighting men killed, such as the leaders of Banu Quraiza, but also their young men who had nothing whatsoever to do with the decisions of their leaders/elders, were massacred. Why the unnecessary slaughter of innocents?

Some Muslims claim only those who were able to fight among the tribe of Banu Quraiza were killed. According to their own sources, this is not true. How did Muhammad determine who from among the Jews were capable of fighting? See it in their sources:

The Messenger of God had commanded that all of them who had reached puberty should be killed.[6]
Al-Tabari: Vol 8. (p. 38)

Another source tells us exactly how it was determined, whether a person had reached puberty or not:

Narrated Atiyyah al-Qurazi: I was among the captives of Banu Qurayzah. They (the Companions) examined us, and those who had begun to grow hair (pubes) were killed, and those who had not were not killed. I was among those who had not grown hair.

As has been shown, Muhammad testified that Saad's verdict was in proportion to the laws of Allah. Therefore Muslims should stop attacking the Torah and instead focus on Muhammad who attested the verdict of Saad with applause.

As a final point, it would be interesting to learn how Muhammad dealt with the Jews of Banu Qurayza prior to besieging them. Let the sources speak for themselves:

"When the apostle approached their forts he (Muhammad) said: "You brothers of monkeys.., has god disgraced you and brought his vengeance upon you?" Banu Qurayza replied: "O Abul Qasim (Muhammad), you are not a barbarous person"
Ibn Ishaq: 684

Again from the sahih collections:

Narrated Al-Bara: "On the day of Qurayza’s (besiege), Allah's Apostle said to Hassan bin Thabit, 'Abuse them (with your poems), and Gabriel is with you"

How appropriate is it for a religious leader to abuse helpless people with words like "brothers of monkeys" and to incite his followers to do as he did? Not to mention, he traded these insults prior to besieging them.

Conclusion

Muslims propose many apologetic arguments to excuse this crime. The most favored argument they use is the alleged treachery of Banu Quraiza. Its flaws are evident when considering any act of treachery from this tribe would have put an end to Islam at Khandaq, and as a result, Islam would never have existed outside of Arabia.

The excuses they forward using Deuteronomy (contained within religious scripture they themselves consider to have been altered since the incident in question), and a man who came into the picture much later, do not stand up to scrutiny, for the very reason that Muhammad had planned to slaughter the tribe before Saad bin Muadh, the arbitrator, had been invited.

Moreover, when the latter pronounced his verdict, it was Muhammad who rushed in favor of it, proclaiming it to be Allah's judgment. Taking all of these issues into account, there is no valid argument that can be used in its defense. After this incident, there remained not a tribe named Banu Qurayza in Arabia.

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References

  1. Haykal, Muhammad Husayn (Author). Al-Faruqi, Ismail Raji (Translator). (2002). The Life of Muhammad. (p. 337). Selangor, Malaysia: Islamic Book Trust.
  2. Guillaume, Alfred, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah. Oxford University Press, 1955. ISBN 0-1963-6033-1; p. 461-464.
  3. Peters, Muhammad and the Origins of Islam, p. 222-224.
  4. Norman Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979. ISBN 0-8276-0198-0; p. 141f.
  5. Haykal, Muhammad Husayn (Author). Al-Faruqi, Ismail Raji (Translator). (2002). The Life of Muhammad. (p. 338). Selangor, Malaysia: Islamic Book Trust.
  6. The History of Al-Tabari: The Victory of Islam, translated by Michael. F. State University of New York Press, Albany 1997, Volume 8. page. 38