The Genocide of Banu Qurayza
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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 200 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.
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.
Analysis of Qur'anic Account
The people of the scripture 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 who came to fight the Muslims of Medina. A close look at the Qur'anic verses above confirms the Qur'an is mentioning this incident after its occurrence. And it is Allah accusing people of the scripture of supporting Meccans. Muslims usually justify the Banu Qurayza massacre based on these verses as they imply the tribe broke their treaty and joined the Meccans against Muslims. They argue that since breaking a treaty and fighting along with the Meccans was a treacherous act, the Jews of Banu Qurayza deserved total annihilation.
This allegation is totally baseless, and there were no treacherous acts on Banu Qurayza's part that could possibly justify the total annihilation of their tribe. They were being victimized for the incentives of Muhammad. This much will be made clear as we move along with the holy texts of Islam. And for this purpose it is necessary to start from where the Qur'an first mentions the battle of Khandaq (trench). The genocide in question occurred after this battle.
Allah is reminding the believers of the favors he bestowed upon them. "When there came a lot to attack them, he sent a wind to turn the foes away, thus saving the believers from destruction". The above verse implies that the enemies of Muhammad are being turned away by Allah. Doubt still remains whether the enemies were turned away before or after fighting a war. If we move with the Qur'an:
Here, Allah reveals the state of Muslims, when they had to face a huge Meccan army. They (Muslims) started to have doubts, believing a clash with such a vast army would certainly be devastating to them. Ibn Kathir clarifies in his Tafsir:
The Qur'anic verses in conjunction with the above interpretation reveal the fact that Muhammad and his army were not at all in any position to fight a war at Khandaq (Trench). Muhammad had heard of the strength of the Meccan army much earlier, so acting upon the advice of one of his companions, Salman the Persian, there were trenches dug all around them to prevent hostile Meccans from entering Muslim territory. The battle gained the name "the war of trench" due to this tactic employed by Muhammad. The Meccans were a huge army consisting of two tribes, namely the Quraish and Ghatafans. The very fact that Muhammad adopted such an extremely defensive stance in this fight proves the weakness of the Muslim army at the time, and the strength of their foes.
It is clear, the "war of Khandaq" was in fact a war that was never fought. Though they were huge in numbers and could have annihilated the entire population of Muslims at that time, the Meccan army had to halt at the trenches, being unable to find an entry route to the Muslim territory. Their only chance of reaching the Muslims was through the route of Banu Qurayza where Muhammad did not dig trenches, but ultimately, those who came to fight and win a war had to regress and return without success. Allah testifies in the Qur'an, he inflicted terror on the opposition by sending winds and shaking their settlements, so that they had to withdraw. Thus the Qur'an confirms the battle did not occur at all.
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:
This account of Ibn Kathir is supported by sahih (authentic) hadiths:
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:
Ibn Ishaq describes the killing of the Banu Qurayza men as follows:
According to Ibn Kathir:
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:
These captives who were sold for horses were the women of the Banu Qurayza tribe. Ibn Ishaq confirms this:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
- 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?
- 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:
Another source tells us exactly how it was determined, whether a person had reached puberty or not:
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:
Again from the sahih collections:
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.
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.
- List of Killings Ordered or Supported by Muhammad
- Banu Qurayza - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Banu Qurayza
- What really happened to the Banu Qurayza - Collection of articles from Answering Islam
- Muhammad, the Qurayza Massacre, and PBS - Andrew G. Bostom, FrontPageMagazine
- Muhammad and Massacre of the Qurayza Jews - James Arlandson, American Thinker
- Massacre of the Banū Qurayẓa: A Re-Examination of a Tradition - M. J. Kister, Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 8 (1986): 61-96
- Haykal, Muhammad Husayn (Author). Al-Faruqi, Ismail Raji (Translator). (2002). The Life of Muhammad. (p. 337). Selangor, Malaysia: Islamic Book Trust.
- 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.
- Peters, Muhammad and the Origins of Islam, p. 222-224.
- 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.
- Haykal, Muhammad Husayn (Author). Al-Faruqi, Ismail Raji (Translator). (2002). The Life of Muhammad. (p. 338). Selangor, Malaysia: Islamic Book Trust.
- 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