The Massacre of the Banu Qurayzah
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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 Qurayzah compound. After a siege of around 2 weeks, depending on the source, the Jews of Banu Qurayzah surrendered and entrusted their fate to a trusted intermediary from the Muslims of the tribe of 'Aws, Sa'd bin Mu'adh. Sa'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 take the women and children as captives. Muhammad took this advice and as a consequence between 400 and 900 male prisoners of the tribe including any boys showing signs of puberty were beheaded, many in front of their families, and the rest of the tribe were taken or sold into slavery. The event is well attested to in the Islamic historical tradition, and has served as the basis for multiple rulings throughout history dealing with the treatment of captured non-Muslims by Muslim military forces.
According to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad's constant aggressive raids and warmongering against the Meccans had driven them, in alliance with the Jewish tribes he had expelled from Yathrib and the north Arabian tribe of Ghatfan, to put an end to him and his movement once and for all. The three original Jewish tribes of Medina, the Banu Nadir, the Banu Qaynuqaa', and the Banu Qurayza, had seen their number dwindle to one as Muhammad had expelled the Banu Nadir and the Banu Qaynuaqaa' from Medina on different pretexts. Meanwhile their property, including their precious palm trees, had been seized by Muhammad and the Muslims. Together with the Meccans and the Ghatfan, the exiled Jewish tribes of Medina had formed an alliance and gathered an army whose numbers are given in the sira as being around 10,000 strong, including over 600 mounted horsemen against very few cavalry for the Muslims, and 7,000 stronger than the army which had defeated Muhammad and the Muslims at Uhud. Muhammad at this time could call on a force of only around 3,000 men. Muhammad received word of their advance and began to make preparations. A Persian companion of the prophet named Salman, an apparent veteran of the Sassanid's many wars against the Romans, advised that when facing a great number of enemy horseman such as the confederate Jews and Meccans possessed, a good stratagem was to dig a defensive trench. It was decided to pursue this strategy . The Banu Qurayzah did not provide men to help but did provide entrenching tools and the Muslims strategy relied on the Banu Qurayza, whose fort lay in the rear of the Muslim defenses, not breaking their alliance with Muhammad and joining with the confederates. The strategy of the trench worked to win the battle against the Meccans and their allies, and the confederates were beaten back without many casualties for the Muslims, but this proved to be no end to the fighting.
Narrative from the Sira
The series of events leading to the destruction of the Banu Qurayzah started during the battle of the trench. Unable to break the defenses of the Medinian Muslims, the Meccans sent an emissary from their Jewish allies, “the enemy of Allah, Huyayy bin Akhtab An-Nadri” , to the Banu Qurayzah in an attempt to bring their aide and end the stalemate by attacking Muhammad and the Muslims in the rear of their defenses. According to Ibn Ishaq, initially the leader of the Banu Qurayzah Ka'b bin Asad al-Qurayzi did not even allow Huyayy bin Akhtab to enter the compound, but was goaded into doing so be Huyayy's accusation that bin Ka'b did not want to share his food. Ibn Ishaq does not make it clear how he knows this however he claims that the negotiation came to naught due to the Qurayza’s insistence that the Meccans offer hostages in order to assure they would not leave the field of battle till Muhammad was defeated (though they did in fact end up leaving without defeating Muhammad). According to Ibn Ishaq, the Banu Qurayzah after much "wheedling" agreed only to not aide the Muslims or to obstruct or fight the confederates. Ibn Ishaq offers as evidence of the Banu Qurayza’s perfidy an Isnad chain from Yahya bin ‘Abbaad bin ‘Abdullah bin Az-Zubayr with a story that a Muslim woman, Safiyah bint ‘AbdulMuttalib, who saw a Jewish scout of the Banu Qurayzah reconnoitering a Muslim fort in preparation for an attack. She told the fort's 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 presents no evidence that the Jews of the Banu Qurayzah were in league with the confederates. He does, however, relate that Allah “sowed discord” between the confederates and the Banu Qurayza, which resulted in the Meccans retreating without having defeated Muhammad or engaged in a coordinated attack upon the Muslims with the Banu Qurayzah
The battle of the trench being won, Muhammad and his men put their entrenching tools and weapons down to head home. According to the sirah, though, Allah had other plans. The angel Jibreel appeared to Muhammad just as he had put down his weapon, and informed him that the battle was not yet over for the Jews of the Banu Qurayzah still needed to be dealt with due to their treachery, mentioned above. Muhammad informed his men that they were not to pray the 'asr prayer until they reached the Banu Qurayzah compound, meaning he wanted them to go there quickly. The Muslims laid siege to the compound for differing amounts of time depending on the source (Ibn Ishaq claims 25 days before "Allah cast terror in their hearts"). The Banu Qurayzah were told to surrender and accept Islam, something they swore they would never do. Despairing of their position, according to Ibn Ishaq, they discussed three options: accepting Islam, killing their wives and children and engaging in a banzai-style attack against the numerically superior Muslim forces (perhaps, modern commentators have added, in emulation of their religious forbearers at Masada in Palestine), or engaging in a sneak attack on the Jewish Sabbath. The Jews of the Banu Qurayzah found none of these options acceptable.
Unable to come to a decision and under siege for weeks, the Banu Qurayzah asked to speak with Abu Lubaba, a man of the tribe of 'Aws, their allies. Abu Lubaba, when asked what the Banu Qurayzah should do, advised them to surrender to the prophet, but at the same time raised his hand to his neck, indicating they would be slaughtered . After he left, he felt that his action in telling the Banu Qurayzah of their fate was a betrayal of the prophet, and he tied himself to a pillar to ask for Allah's forgiveness, an act that Muhammad approved of. Despite this warning, the Banu Qurayzah surrendered to the Muslims the following day .
The tribe of 'Aws, allies of the Banu Qurayzah from the time of jahilliyah, asked for mercy for them from the prophet. The prophet, not wanting to cause dissension in his ranks (oaths and alliances of loyalty were very important in tribal Arab society, as in the absence of courts and established governments the only guaranty of security and justice which could be obtained was the promise of protection from allies in the case of murder, family feuds or war), entrusted the fate of the Banu Qurayzah to a trusted elder shaykh of the 'Aws, Sa‘d bin Mu‘adh, who had been mortally wounded during the battle and would in fact die a shortly after the slaughter of the Banu Qurayza. Once Sa'd bin Mu'adh had ascertained that both the Banu Qurayzah and the prophet would abide by his judgement, whatever it be, he gave it without hesitation: the men of the Banu Qurayzah were to be executed to the last, while the women and children should be taken as captives. Sa'd bin Mu‘adh justified this decision as being from the Torah of the Jews itself. Ibn Ishaq does not cite the verse and chapter from the Bible but this is usually taken as a reference to the book of Deuteronomy 20:12-14:
But if the city makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves; and you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you.
Although modern Muslims cite this verse in justification of Mu'adh's verdict, it should be noted that neither Jewish nor Christian tradition understands this verse as a blanket rule for warfare, but rather as a specific command to the Jews under the command of Joshua who were fighting the pagan peoples of the Holy Land. It has not, generally, been used by either religion to justify the sort of massacre that took place in Medina in other historical contexts.
The prisoners, thus condemned, were kept in the house or compound of a Muslim woman d. Al-Harith of the banu al-Najjaar tribe. In the morning they were marched out to a trench which had been dug in the city's market, and executed by decapitation  . According to the sira of Ibn Ishaq, one woman was amongst them. The other women and the children were given as sexual and labor slaves to the Muslims, with only boys who had not yet reached puberty being allowed to live. According to the sira, the haul of weapons and plunder was substantial, but Muhammad still sent some of the women and children to be sold in the Najd for more horses and weapons . Muhammad as was custom received his pick of the loot including his pick of the females, a beautiful Jewish named Rayhana whose husband was decapitated, and the rest went to all the rest of the Muslims, with a Muslim on horse receiving 3 times the spoils of a foot soldier .
The famed mufassir Ibn Kathir, drawing upon his own sources as well as many other classical commentators, in his commentary on sura 33 Al-Ahzab الأحزاب "The Confederates" reaffirms many of the pertinent details from the sira narrative. In particular, Ibn Kathir reads into the Quran's denouncement of the people of the book the perfidious Jews of the tribe of Banu Qurayzah and their betrayal of the prophet:
For thus the most-High said "Those how had backed them (the confederates) came down" meaning: they assisted the confederates and helped them to make war on the Apostle of God (sala allah 'aleyhi wasallam). "From the people of the book" that is to say the Banu Qurayza of the Jews, descendants of the sons of Israel, who had come down to the Hijaz in olden times, doing so (aiding the Meccans) greedily against the followers of the illiterate prophet (Muhammad) whom they found written about in the Torah and the Gospel "when he came to them they did not know him and disbelieved in him" (surah al-baqarah 89)
He refers here to Surah 33:
Ibn Kathir confirms that it was the angels themselves who implored Muhammad not to stop fighting:
إِذْ تَبَدَّى لَهُ جِبْرِيلُ مُعْتَجِرًا بِعِمَامَةٍ مِنْ إِسْتَبْرَقٍ، عَلَى بَغْلَةٍ عَلَيْهَا قَطِيفَةٌ [مِنْ](٥) دِيبَاجٍ، فَقَالَ: أوضَعت السِّلَاحَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ؟ قَالَ: "نَعَمْ". قَالَ: لَكِنَّ الْمَلَائِكَةَ لَمْ تَضَعْ أَسْلِحَتَهَا، وَهَذَا الْآنَ رُجُوعِي مِنْ طَلَبِ الْقَوْمِ. ثُمَّ قَالَ: إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَأْمُرُكَ أَنْ تَنْهَضَ إِلَى بَنِي قُرَيْظَةَ. وَفِي رِوَايَةٍ فَقَالَ لَهُ: عذيرَك مِنْ مُقَاتِلٍ، أَوَضَعْتُمُ السِّلَاحَ؟ قَالَ: "نَعَمْ". قَالَ: لَكِنَّا لَمْ نَضَعْ أَسْلِحَتَنَا بَعْدُ، انْهَضْ إِلَى هَؤُلَاءِ. قَالَ: "أَيْنَ؟ ". قَالَ: بَنِي قُرَيْظَةَ، فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ أَمَرَنِي أَنْ أُزَلْزِلَ عَلَيْهِمْ. فَنَهَضَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ﷺ مِنْ فَوْرِهِ، وَأَمَرَ النَّاسَ بِالْمَسِيرِ إِلَى بَنِي قُرَيْظَةَ، وَكَانَتْ عَلَى أَمْيَالٍ مِنَ الْمَدِينَةِ، وَذَلِكَ بَعْدَ صَلَاةِ الظُّهْرِ، وَقَالَ: "لَا يُصَلِّيَنَّ أَحَدٌ مِنْكُمُ الْعَصْرَ إِلَّا فِي بَنِي قُرَيْظَةَ".
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.
Thus in the view of Ibn Kathir the fate of the Banu Qurayzah was the work of their own hand, a fate approved of and commanded by heaven itself. According to Ibn Kathir, their fate was exactly what Ibn Ishaq had described:
Then he (Sa'ad) said: My judgement is that their fighting-age men be killed, and their families and wealth be taken as booty. The prophet (sala allah 'aleyhi wasallam) said "You have judged with the judgement of Allah above the seven heavens." In another narration: "You have judged with the judgement of the King (Allah)." 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.
Accounts in Hadiths
The hadith of Bukhari provide witness for the incidents described by Ishaq. Bukhari confirms that it was the angels who decree that the war be carried to the Banu Qurayza:
Similiarly, he confirms that it is was Sa'ad who condemned them to their fate:
Incidentally, Bukhari mentions that even though Ibn Sa'd was called upon to provide a fair judgement to the Banu Qurayzahas a former ally, in fact he went to his death, caused by wounds suffered during the battle of the trench, wishing for death to the infidels:
Bukhari also mentions the fate of the Banu Qurayza, carried out in accordance with Sa'd's judgement:
Sunan Abi Dawud tells us exactly how it was determined, whether a male youth would be spared, based on whether he had reached puberty or not:
I was among the captives of Banu Qurayza. 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.
Modern Views and Perspectives
In the clip above Muslim scholar Yasir Qadhi, well respected for his degrees from the Islamic University of Medina as well as from Yale, makes the argument that Muhammad was dealing with treachery and he had taken the maximum punitive actions against it. Qadhi argues that the prophet was justified in every step and showed as much restraint as necessary, being motivated purely by concerns on statecraft and practicality, not by malice. As he says, it is possible to accuse the prophet of being "harsh" but not of acting with malice towards the Banu Qurayza or the Jews in general, as this would not be "academically valid." Yasir Qadhi states that the punishment was "harsh" and yet it is sometimes necessary to be harsh. Yaqeen institute scholar Abu Amina Elias (Justin Parrott) makes the cases that killing the "fighting men" prisoners of the Banu Qurayzah was an "act of self-defense" on the part of the Muslim community and cites Deuteronomy 20:12-14 to justify the actions of the Muslims, agreeing with Ibn Ishaq that Sa'd was judging the Jews by their own law. He also claims that the prophet only sent his men their with arms to "defend themselves" and that the women and children of the Banu Qurayzahwere taken "into captivity" for their protection since all of their men folk had been slaughtered . Karen Armstrong, in her book A Short History of Islam, likewise claims "The struggle did not indicate any hostility towards Jews in general, but only towards the three rebel tribes. The Quran continued to revere Jewish prophets and to urge Muslims to respect the People of the Book." These arguments are all echoes of the original arguments found in the material above. Ibn Ishaq claims that the Jews of Banu Qurayzah posed a threat to the Muslims via their betrayal and does portray Muhammad as hesitating to decide their fate. Ibn Ishaq even recounts of how "harsh" the punishment was:
Yet critics of these pro-Islam viewpoints have pointed out that the verse cited by modern Muslims from Deuteronomy to justify the extermination of the Banu Qurayzah was not viewed in this way by traditional Christian or especially Jewish scholarship. According to Jewish doctrine, these verses were revealed to Moses before the Israelites entered the Holy Land, specifically instructing them on how to deal with the people living there. Morever, the claim that there was no apparent animus towards the Jews of Banu Qurayza on the part of Muhammad is contradicted by Ibn Ishaq's account:
Banu Qurayza replied: "O Abul Qasim (Muhammad), you are not a barbarous person"
In mocking them as apes, Muhammad is here echoing the Qur'an, which claims that (some) Jews were turned into apes for violating the sabbath (Qur'an 50:60). Ibn Ishaq also records that Muhammad took one of the Jewish women of the Banu Qurayza, Rayhanah, for himself. Indeed, according to this account the destruction of this tribe allowed Muhammad to reward his fighters handsomely (and Muhammad himself took a fifth of the booty). Abu Amina Elias's view that the Muslims took such women and children as Rayhana captive simply for their protection also cannot be true, as Ibn Ishaq also recounts that some of them were taken to the far-off region of the Najd to be sold for weapons and horses. Yasir Qadhi himself points out that the Banu Qurayzah were offered freedom to live on were they to accept Islam, and according to the sirah only their hard, petulant hearts which rejected Muhammad despite knowing he was a prophet of the Lord prevented them from allowing themselves to be saved by conversion to Islam. So clearly, at least in the eyes of the sirah, their Jewish religion did, in fact, have something to do with the pitilessness with which Muhammad dealt with them, going against Qadhi's point that the prophet acted without malice or religious animus according to the sources we have. Bukhari also mentions that the prophet commanded his men to abuse the Banu Qurayzah with poetry, which was in ancient Arab times one of the premier ways of promoting enmity with an enemy (Muhammad ordered poets who did this to him to be killed):
Problems with the Traditional Narrative
The narrative of the Banu Qurayzah is an accepted part of Islamic law, and multiple Islamic jurists have cited it, including when ruling that certain populations of Jews and other non-believers be massacred. As such there is no question amongst orthodox Muslims that it happened . Yet the historiography of the subject is not without its own problems.
Within the Islamic tradition, Ibn Ishaq was frequently criticized for giving too much weight to Jewish stories and being biased in general in his retellings of certain events. Malik ibn Anas accusses Ibn Ishaq of being a "liar" for listening to "Jewish stories" .
Modern scholarship has cast much more serious doubts on the scholarship of Islamic scholars working in the 8th century (2nd Islamic century) such as Ibn Ishaq. As Fred Donner points out, one of the earliest documents we have from the nascent proto-Islamic movement is the Constitution of Medina صحيفة مدينة also known as the Ummah Document or صحيفة الأمة. This remarkable document, preserved by the Islamic historian Al-Tabari, lays out a compact for the "believers" of Medina, an "ummah" or national community that includes the Jews as "believers" on the same level as the Arab believers. Fred Donner believes this document actually points to an early, occulted history of Islam in which Arab monotheists joined with Jews into one "ummah" under the command of Muhammad. Troublingly for the historical narrative, this document makes mention of many different Jewish tribes, but the main 3 tribes of the sira, the Banu Qurayza, the Banu Qaynuqaa', and the Banu Nadir are conspicuously absent. It is in fact the absence of these tribes which convinces scholars that the document must be very old despite being preserved only in the 9th-century works of Tabari, since a younger document would presumably would have been changed to agree with the established historical narrative. Donner mentions that many early 7th century mosques do not include the qibla facing towards Mecca, and concludes that this story of the massacre of the Banu Qurayzah may have been invented or embellished in order to explain a much later break between the Jewish and Muslim communities .
Patricia Crone and Michael Cook in their groundbreaking work Hagarism likewise report on an Armenian historian writing in the 7th century known as pseudo-Sebeos. This historian imputes the Arab invasions to a confederation of Jews and Arabs led by Muhammad himself, contradicting the Islamic narrative that Muhammad died before the invasion of Palestine and the Middle East. Pseudo-Sebeos likewise imputes to the Arabs and Jews a shared monotheism and brotherhood through their ancestry to Abraham and his wife Hagar . If this account is to be believed, there could not have been any great massacre of the Jews by Muhammad as we has working with them when he invaded Palestine. Stephen Shoemaker in his work The Death of a Prophet adds further evidence to thesis of Crone and Cook, marshaling evidence from a wide variety of sources, almost all of which predate the first Islamic sources, that Muhammad himself was actually the leader of the believers when they entered Palestine and he died only after its conquest. In particular he calls attention to a Jewish apocalypse from the 7th century, the Secrets of Rabbi ben Shim'on, which seems to paint Muhammad as the redeemer of the Jews from the oppression of the Romans in the Holy Land. If this is to be believed, and this source predates every Islamic source we have, the massacre of the Banu Qurayzah could not have taken place, since Muhammad, the leader of the invasion of Palestine, was seen as a savior of the Jewish people . This would seem to indicate that the break between the Muslims and the Jews took place after his death, and would indicate that stories such as the massacre of the Banu Qurayzah were fabricated in order to "back date" the break with the Jews to the prophet's own lifetime.
- What really happened to the Banu Qurayza - Collection of articles from Answering Islam
- Rebuttal to Answering Islam's Article "The Bani Quraytha Jews: Traitors or Betrayed? - Muslim Rebuttal to Answering Islam's Article "The Bani Quraytha Jews: Traitors or Betrayed?"
- Muhammad and Massacre of the Qurayzah 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
- Martin Lings Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources Inner Traditions 2006, pages 222-223
- Ibn Hisham, Ibn Ishaq, Alfred Guillaume (translator), The life of Muhammad: a translation of Isḥāq's Sīrat rasūl Allāh Oxford Universite Press 2005, p.453
- ibid, 458
- ibid, 459
- ibid, 462
- ibid, 463
- ibid, 465
- ibid, 466
- ibid, 466
- "Did the Prophet commit genocide against Jews?" Faith in Allah There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger https://abuaminaelias.com/prophet-genocide-banu-qurayza/ April 8, 2013
- Islam:A Short History Karen Armstrong Modern Library 2002
- "Muhammad’s atrocity against the Qurayza Jews" James M. Arlandson Answering Islam https://www.answering-islam.org/Authors/Arlandson/qurayza_jews.htm
- "The Apostle had chosen one of the women for himself, Rayḥāna d. ʿAmr b. Khunāfa, one of the women of B. ʿAmr b. Qurayẓa, and she remained with him until she died, in his power."
Ibn Hisham, Ibn Ishaq, Alfred Guillaume (translator), The life of Muhammad: a translation of Isḥāq's Sīrat rasūl Allāh Oxford Universite Press 2005, p.466
- "Extended Interview: The legacy of Islamic Antisemetism" Andrew Bostom andrewbostom.org 13 June 2008
- "New Light on the Story of Banu Qurayza and the Jews of Medina", W.N Arafat 2001 p. 100-107
- Muhammad and the Believers: At the Orgins of Islam, Fred Donner, Harvard University Press 2010, p. 72-73
- Hagarism: Making of the Islamic World, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Cambridge University Press 1977, p. 6-8
- The Death of a Prophet, Stephen Shoemaker, University of Pennsylvania Press 2012, p. 27-33