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.

This article discusses the genocide of the Jewish Banu Qurayza Tribe in 627 AD.

Introduction[edit]

Hijra year 5 (627 AD), on the orders of Prophet Muhammad, almost nine hundred Jews of a Medinan tribe named Banu Qurayza were massacred by Muslims. The killing began early in the day, ending in torchlight. Those who escaped death were taken captive and sold at slave markets.

Qur'anic Account[edit]

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[edit]

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.

"O ye who believe Remember Allah's favor unto you when there came against you hosts, and we sent against them a great wind and hosts ye could not see. And Allah is ever Seer of what ye do"

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:

"When they came upon you from above you and from below you, and when eyes grew wild and hearts reached to the throats, and ye were imagining vain thoughts concerning Allah”

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:

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."

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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

  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