Muhammad’s atrocity against the Qurayza Jews
How Sad made him glad
James M. Arlandson
In AD 627, Muhammad committed an atrocity against the last remaining major tribe of Jews in Medina: the Qurayza.
He beheaded the men and the pubescent boys and enslaved the women and children. In doing this, he wiped an entire tribe "off the map" to use the language of the President of Iran, recently.
The purpose of this article is full disclosure and straightforward analysis about early Islam. How and why did this atrocity unfold?
The immediate background of this mass extermination and enslavement is the Battle of the Trench (or Ditch), in February-March-April (the exact calculations vary), AD 627. This battle—though it ended up being a siege—pitted a coalition of Quraysh (a large tribe in and around Mecca) against Muslims and some Medinan non-Muslims. The Quraysh also had allies: the Ghatafan (northern Arab tribes to the east of Medina and Mecca) and an assortment of smaller tribes. As for the Muslims, prominent Islamologist W. M. Watt says that on the eve of battle, Muhammad’s army consisted of "practically all the inhabitants of Medina with the exception of the Jewish tribe of Qurayzah, who seem to have tried to remain neutral. There were some Medinans in league with the Meccans, but they were presumably . . . exiled from Medina for the time being" (Muhammad at Medina, p. 36).
For the size of the two armies, the standard figure for the Meccans and their allies is 10,000, but one Muslim scholar says that the coalition of pagans may have reached 12,000 (Maududi vol. 3, p. 63). However, Watt says of the coalition: "The numbers given for the various contingents [the coalition was divided into three corps], however, do not add up to more than about 7,500. The Meccans themselves had about 300 horses and the nomadic tribes a similar number" (Statesman, pp. 166-67). On the Muslim side, the standard figure that is widely accepted is 3,000. They had no cavalry to speak of.
The larger background of this atrocity against the Jews reveals that Muhammad had already expelled two tribes of Jews: the Qaynuqa in AD 624 and the Nadir in AD 625.
It is unclear why the prophet expelled the first tribe, the Qaynuqa. One source says that these Jews waged war on Muhammad, but this is unlikely since he was flushed with victory over the Meccans at the Battle of Badr, only a month before. But perhaps this exaggeration reflects at least some level of conflict between the two sides. Another source says that some Jews played a trick on a Muslim woman, but this too is unlikely, since the trick is found in Arabic literature. These Jews controlled the market of crafts and trade, and the new Muslim immigrants to Medina were craftsmen, so maybe this is the reason. Regardless, the results worked out the same. After being besieged in their fortress for fifteen days, they were expelled, and the Muslims took over the crafts. "The Banu [tribe] Qaynuqa did not have any land, as they were goldsmiths [and armor-makers]. The Messenger of God took many weapons belonging to them and the tools of their trade" (Tabari, vol. 7, p. 87).
About the Nadir tribe, an early Muslim source says that Muhammad suspected an assassination attempt, while he was collecting some blood-wit money (compensation for bloodshed) from the tribe. Muhammad called on his followers to wage war on them, besieging them in their strongholds for fifteen days in August. Muhammad set about destroying their palm trees. Their livelihood undergoing destruction, they surrendered and departed for the north. Muhammad confiscated their property, just as he took the tools of the Nadir tribe.
The upshot of all of this is clear. The conflict between Muslims and Jews is escalating, and the prophet for all of humanity is about to impose the ultimate penalty on the last remaining major tribe of Jews in Medina. And he will take their property, as well.
Sources: W. M. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, Oxford UP, 1961, pp. 130-31; 148-51; 166-67; Muhammad at Medina, Oxfored UP, 1956; Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi, The Meaning of the Qur’an, vol. 3; Ibn Ishaq, Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume, Oxford UP, 1955, pp. 363-64; 437-45. Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) valuable and reliable source by modern scholars, except for some chronology and the miraculous elements. Tabari, The Foundation of the Community, trans. M.V. McDonald and annotated by W. M. Watt (SUNYP, 1987), pp. 85-87; 156-61. Tabari (d. 923) is also considered a reliable source, except for some chronology and the miraculous elements.
What started the Battle of the Trench?
Many causes feed into any conflict, but one stands out. Muslim raiders harassed Meccan trade. Modern Saudi biographer Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri expresses the right idea: . . . "[I]t was wise for the Muslims to bring the commercial routes leading to Makkah [Mecca] under their control" (p. 201). Then he lists eight raids between 623 and the Battle of Badr in AD 624. In each one, Muslims were the aggressors, to accomplish the big objective of strangling Mecca’s trade. These raids that sometimes involved hundreds of men continued steadily from that time to the Battle of the Trench. The Meccans had had enough. So they wanted to finish off Islam, once and for all.
From Muhammad’s point of view, he wanted the Kabah shrine in Mecca, and if this goal involved hindering Meccan trade, then so be it. Two early Medinan suras or chapters (2 and 8) reveal his outlook. Sura 2:189-196 and 216-218 command Muslims to fight the Quraysh because this tribe wanted to control their own shrine, even if this entailed prohibiting the Muslims, who were hampering the large tribe’s trade, from visiting it. Next, Sura 2:125-129 asserts without a shred of evidence that Abraham built and purified the shrine, and now Muhammad the monotheist is the best representative of this patriarch. He claimed this while he lived in Mecca, too (Sura 14:35-41). So in effect the shrine belonged to him by revelation, before it actually did by conquest (in early AD 630). Finally, in Sura 8:30-40, the prophet recounts his persecution back in Mecca and why the Quraysh are not the rightful guardians of the shrine. They barred people from it—never mind that about eight years later the prophet will bar pagans from the shrine. All Arab polytheists will be forced to convert or die.
It is impossible (for me at least) to escape the impression that if Muhammad had put aside this desire to control the Kabah, then much of the conflict between him and the Quraysh would never have erupted in the first place. But the shrine was a popular place of religious pilgrimage, so how could he allow religious freedom for polytheists?
Were the Jews involved in the start of the Battle of the Trench? The Islamic sources say that they stirred up the Meccans against the Muslims.
Early biographer Ibn Ishaq says:
A number of Jews who had formed a party against the apostle, among whom were Sallam b. Abu’l-Huqayq al-Nadir [he had been assassinated so the chronology or his placement here is off], and Huyayy b. Aktab al-Nadri, and Kinana b. Abu’l-Huaqayq al-Nadri, and Hauda b. Qays al-Wa’ili, and Abu Ammar al-Wa’ili with a number of B. [Bani or tribe or clan] Nadir and B. Wa’il, went to the Quraysh at Mecca and invited them to join them in an attack on the apostle so that they might get rid of him altogether. (p. 450).
How much did the Jews instigate the battle, and how much were the Meccans fed up with Muslim harassment on their own without Jewish provocation? This is unclear. But let us assume only for the sake of argument that the Islamic sources are right. These specific Jews were the principal instigators. In the end, this does not matter, for the following reason.
It is important to cite these (complex) names, above, because today’s Muslim polemicists who defend Muhammad’s extermination and enslavement of the Qurayza Jews overlook the fact that early Islam knew specifically who the enemy Jewish leaders were—by name. So did all the men and adolescent boys have to be executed and all the women and children enslaved? Could only the leaders not have been executed?
Sources: Ibn Ishaq; Tabari, The Victory of Islam, trans. M. Fishbein, vol. 8, (1997), pp. 6-7. Safi-ur-Rahman Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar: Biography of the Noble Prophet, Darrusalam, 1996, p. 201. This biography was awarded first prize by the Muslim World League, but it is an encomium more than an objective biography.
The Battle of the Trench
The Muslims dug trenches to the north of Medina, linking them to or near various high grounds (e.g. Mt. Sal, a hill in the central area of Medina) and other difficult spots (e.g. a marshy ground), in order to neutralize the Meccan cavalry and to avoid hand-to-hand pitched battles. The strategy of trenches was new to Arabia, and the early Islamic sources make much of it. The Muslim army bivouacked south of the trench with Medina at their backs, while the coalition camped north of the trench, facing Medina, with Mt. Uhud at their backs. The Jews retreated south of Medina, facing the back of the Muslim army.
Though the Muslims were under siege, which pressed them hard, the trenches indeed worked well. The coalition’s cavalry was stymied, except a foray that came to nothing. The Meccans tried to assault the trench, but they were easily repulsed. The Muslim sources say that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, fought in a duel, which he won. Some arrows were shot, but that achieved nothing.
This must be emphasized: No real battles or warfare occurred, and this favored the outnumbered Muslims. Early biographer Ibn Ishaq says—and modern historians are in complete agreement—that "[t]he siege continued without any actual fighting" (p. 454). Early historian Tabari agrees: "The Messenger of God and the polytheists stayed in their positions for over twenty nights—nearly a month—with no warfare between the troops, except for the shooting of arrows and the siege" (vol. 8, p. 17). Again, modern western scholars agree on this point.
Even Allah in the Quran confirms this absence of pitched battle: 25 Allah turned back the unbelievers [Meccans and their allies] in a state of rage, having not won any good, and Allah spared the believers battle [q-t-l]. (Sura 33:25; for more analysis, see the section "the Quran," below)
It is important to realize this fact because Muslim polemicists assert or imply that the Jews actually fought the Muslims, so if the Jews were exterminated and enslaved, then it was their fault. But no full-scale battles ever took place, and the early sources say that the Jews remained in their houses and fortresses near Medina—that is, the sources do not depict them forcefully sallying out and attacking Muslims from behind.
Finally, the early sources say that a storm battered the coalition, and the Quran confirms this, implying also that supernatural forces joined in the fight: "You who believe, remember God’s goodness to you when mighty armies massed against you: We sent a violent wind and invisible forces against them. God sees all that you do" (Sura 33:9; Haleem, The Qur’an, Oxford UP, 2004).
In short, the coalition that had amassed against the Muslims in Medina was losing heart.
Besides Ibn Ishaq and Tabari, see the reliable hadith collector and editor Bukhari here and here. The hadith is the traditions about Muhammad outside of the Quran.
The aftermath of the siege
The Meccans and their allies had to withdraw, for at least four reasons.
(1) As we just observed in the previous section, the Muslims had adopted an effective strategy: trenches.
No full-scale battle or warfare could take place, so the coalition was becoming discouraged. It is highly likely that the average soldiers saw that they would not be dividing up any spoils, and this added to their disheartenment.
(2) Early sources say that Muhammad was about to offer the Ghatafan tribe (a major part of the coalition) one-third of the date harvest, if they withdrew.
But before this offer, he consulted two of his own leaders, and they said that he should not make the deal. They would prefer to meet the coalition with the sword. This account may or may not be authentic. However, the prophet was, after all, under siege for nearly a month, and he wanted to relieve the pressure off of his Muslims. Though the offer may not have been made (and perhaps not even conceived), the narrative may reveal a weakening in the coalition, which Muhammad had observed.
(3) This weakening was indeed the case, which comes up in a tradition that scholars seem to accept, if only tentatively.
A recent convert to Islam, Nuaym, of the Ghatafan tribe, volunteered himself in any way that would help. Muhammad set out on a plan, using Nuaym’s affiliations with the Quraysh and the Jews as a ruse: "The apostle said: ‘You are only one man among us. Go and awake mistrust among the enemy to draw them off us if you can, for war is deceit’" (Ibn Ishaq, p. 458; see also Bukhari, and view the two hadiths below this linked one).
First, Nuaym goes to the Jews who were his drinking companions in the "Time of Ignorance." Deceitfully reminding the Jews of his special ties and affection for them, he tells them that the invaders are foreigners, so if the coalition leaves after a fight but wins no spoils and the Jews join them in battle, then the Jews will remain in their homes here in Medina, without any help, leaving them exposed and powerless. Thus, they should not fight with the coalition unless they take some hostages from some leaders of the Quraysh and Ghatafan to ensure that the pagan tribes would fight to the bitter end.
Nuaym then goes to the Quraysh polytheists. Deceitfully reminding them of his affection for them and how he has separated from Muhammad, he informs them that word has reached him that the Jews regretted how the relations between them and Muhammad had devolved. So they told the prophet that they would take some Quraysh leaders hostage, under the subterfuge that ensures that the Quraysh would fight hard. But in reality, the Jews would turn the hostages over to Muhammad. Nuaym said that the Quraysh should not take the deal because of this subterfuge. This would end the siege.
Finally, the Quraysh and the Jews communicated with each other, and they were on the verge of a full onslaught against the Muslims, but negotiations broke down. The Jews indeed asked for hostages to ensure that the Quraysh would fight to the very end, and the (forewarned) Quraysh turned the Jews down, fearing that the Jews would betray the noblemen to Muhammad.
(4) The coalition’s animals were dying.
This practical reason for the coalition’s withdrawal is beyond dispute. Generally, the Arabs did not feed their animals, in this case horses and camels, but allowed them to graze. However, Muhammad had ordered the Medinans to harvest early, so this took away the animals’ food. And even if he had not ordered this, then the pasture lands were gone after nearly a month. Indeed, the source documents say through the mouths of the Quraysh and Ghatafan to the Jews that "[t]hey had no permanent camp, that the horses and camels were dying."
To sum up this section, it may be said fairly that Muhammad won a great victory with little fighting. He had three thousand troops at this disposal. The only opposing tribe left in the region was the Jews. Nuaym the deceitful go-between was right up to a point. When the coalition left, the Jews were left powerless, outnumbered, and alone, without allies. This spells trouble for them.
Sources: Ibn Ishaq, p. 458-59; Tabari vol. 8, p. 23-24.
The aftermath of the withdrawal for the Qurayza Jews
After the withdrawal of the coalition, the Jews were isolated, whereas Muhammad had 3,000 jihadists, signaling disaster for the Jews. The tragic drama unfolds in five stages.
(1) Traditions state that as the prophet was taking a bath, the (non-Biblical) angel Gabriel appeared to him.
Gabriel tells him the battle is not finished. Muhammad is ordered to fight the Qurayza Jews.
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 Bani [tribe] Quraiza. So Allah’s Apostle went out towards them. (Bukhari; see a parallel hadith here.)
This next hadith shows a regiment of Gabriel (Muslim warriors) marching towards the fortresses of the Jews.
Narrated Anas: As if I am just now looking at the dust rising in the street of Banu Ghanm (in Medina) because of the marching of Gabriel's regiment when Allah's Apostle set out to Banu Quraiza (to attack them). (Bukhari; see this parallel hadith: Muslim no. 4370 and see no. 4371)
These traditions about Gabriel’s leadership are designed to give divine support for the atrocity that is about to be unleashed. Today, we may see this as fanciful, but to millions of Muslims this is real. Be that as it may, one thing is clear. Muhammad had taken off his armor and was enjoying a bath, so he did not feel immediately threatened by these Jews. They had not lined up in battle array to wage war.
But even if Muhammad had felt threatened, why not expel the Jews? Soon Islam will be so powerful that it will expel all Jews (and Christians) from the Arabian Peninsula (see also these hadiths here and here). Muhammad had expelled two tribes of Jews a few years earlier. In fact, he conquers the mainly Jewish city of Khaybar in AD 628. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to assert that if Muhammad had simply expelled the Jews, they would constitute a later substantial and serious threat. He is on the rise militarily.
(2) It is odd that during Muhammad’s twenty-five-day siege of the Jews, he employed a poet to abuse them.
The Prophet said to Hassan, "Abuse them (with your poems), and Gabriel is with you (i.e. supports you)." (Through another group of sub-narrators) Al-Bara bin Azib said, "On the day of Quraiza’s (besiege), Allah's Apostle said to Hassan bin Thabit, ‘Abuse them (with your poems), and Gabriel is with you (i.e. supports you).’" (Bukhari)
This shows how valued poetry was in seventh-century Arabia. In some instances, it could resemble a smear campaign, to use the language of today. However, Muhammad assassinated poets who mocked him. But now that he has the power, he gets to employ a satirical poet without fear of reprisal. In fact, he refers to the Jews as brothers of monkeys, citing a legend that he believed, namely, that God turned some disobedient Jews into apes. (Ibn Ishaq, pp. 461-62).
(3) The Jews did not mount a strong resistance.
How could they do this, when Muhammad had just withstood such a large coalition and still had at his command 3,000 jihadists?
Then something strange happened while the Jews were negotiating the terms of surrender. They called for a man named Abu Lubabah, a nominal or half-committed Muslim who may have opposed Muhammad on several occasions. They asked him, "Abu Lubabah, do you think we should submit to Muhammad’s judgment?" He said yes, but then he gestured with his hand to his throat to indicate slaughter. Immediately afterwards, he felt that he had betrayed Muhammad. But why? Scholars are not sure. Maybe Abu Lubabah believed that he had signaled imminent death to the Jews, although Muhammad wanted to keep this brutality a secret. The Jews would have resisted submission on these gruesome terms. Watt speculates that the Muslim go-between may have been standing firm in his own clan’s alliance with the Jews and gave away too much information. Regardless, this must be emphasized: It is not whether he gestured that is in dispute, but the dispute is over why he felt that he betrayed Muhammad. Be that as it may, this means that the outcome was not in doubt—as the hand to the throat indicated.
Source: Ibn Ishaq, p. 462; Watt, Muhammad at Medina, pp. 188-89; 214-17
(4) Muhammad proposed that the Jews submit to the judgment of Sad bin Muadh.
He was the leader of a large Medinan tribe, the Aws (or Aus), some of whom favored old alliances with the Jews. The leader was an elderly man who was wounded during the siege. His verdict was short and simple—but bloody and cruel.
When the tribe of . . . Quraiza was ready to accept Sad’s judgment, Allah’s Apostle sent for Sad who was near to him. Sad came, riding a donkey and when he came near, Allah’s Apostle said (to the Ansar) [or Helpers], "Stand up for your leader." Then Sad came and sat beside Allah’s Apostle who said to him. "These people are ready to accept your judgment." Sad said, "I give the judgment that their warriors should be killed and their children and women should be taken as prisoners." The Prophet then remarked, "O Sad! You have judged amongst them with (or similar to) the judgment of the King Allah." (Bukhari; see parallel hadiths here, here, and here)
It should be noted from this passage that Sad bin Muadh sat next to Muhammad. Was there undue influence from Muhammad on the wounded old man who was about to die and meet Allah? Muhammad had often preached hell fire in the mosque. That is, Sad knew that he was dying, so he wanted to demonstrate his allegiance to the prophet and Islam. The best way, as the circumstances presented themselves, was to decide on death and enslavement, the ultimate penalty signaling the ultimate commitment. Sad made the prophet glad. Shortly after this verdict the elder in fact died from his wound.
Sources: Ibn Ishaq, pp. 463-64; Tabari vol. 8, p. 34.
(5) The sentence: Death by decapitation for around 300-600 men and pubescent boys, and enslavement for the women and children. Ibn Ishaq says that the number may have been as high as 800-900 (p. 464).
Muhammad was wise enough to have six clans execute two Jews each in order to stop any blood-feuds. The rest of the executions were probably carried out by Muhammad’s fellow Emigrants from Mecca, as the heads and bodies were dragged into trenches in the business district of Medina.
Source: Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, p. 174
How did the executioners decide on which boy to slaughter or leave alive? This hadith gives the obvious answer.
Narrated Atiyyah al-Qurazi: I was among the captives of Banu [tribe] 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. (Abu Dawud; see Ibn Ishaq, p. 466)
This next hadith indicates that a woman was delirious. She was killed.
Narrated Aisha . . . No woman of Banu [tribe] Qurayzah was killed except one. She was with me, talking and laughing on her back and belly (extremely), while the Apostle of Allah . . . was killing her people with the swords. Suddenly a man called her name: Where is so-and-so? . . . I asked: What is the matter with you? She said: I did a new act. [Aisha] said: The man took her and beheaded her. [Aisha] said: I will not forget that she was laughing extremely although she knew that she would be killed. (Abu Dawud)
The following narrative says that Muhammad took one woman for himself.
The apostle had chosen one of their women for himself, Rayhana bint Amr . . . one of the women of . . . Qurayza, and she remained with him until she died, in his power. The apostle had proposed to marry and put a veil on her, but she said: "Nay, leave me in your power, for that will be easier for me and for you." So he left her. She had shown repugnance towards Islam when she was captured and clung to Judaism. (Ibn Ishaq, p. 466)
Shortly afterwards, though, she converted to Islam and a messenger informed Muhammad of this, and he reacts to the good news: "This gave him pleasure." It is wrong to believe that this was Muhammad’s motive to execute so many Jews, but this woman does provide an unforeseen, extra benefit.
This hadith gives a hint on how the wealth was distributed.
People used to give some of their date palms to the Prophet (as a gift), till he conquered Bani [tribe] Quraiza and Bani An-Nadir, whereupon he started returning their favors. (Bukhari; see a parallel hadith here)
More specifically, Ibn Ishaq says the spoils were divided among the Muslims thus:
Then the apostle divided the property, wives, and children . . . among the Muslims, and he made known on that day the shares of horse and men, and took out the fifth. A horseman got three shares, two for the horse and one for the rider. A man without a horse got one share (p. 466).
A jihadist horseman was generally wealthier than a horseless jihadist, so this reveals elitism in "egalitarian" Islam. Also, Muhammad was unable to collect any spoils from the departed Meccans and their allies, so how was he supposed to reward his jihadist? The wealth of the Jews. Apart from the details of how the prophet distributed the spoils here, the division of twenty percent for him and eighty percent for his warriors conforms to a "revelation" just after the Battle of Badr in AD 624. In Sura (Chapter) 8:1 and 41, which deals with this battle, Allah grants him and his fighters these percentages.
Allah also allows jihadists to have sex with female slaves. Do we need to discuss this topic any further in the context of these Jewish women and girls?
Sources: Ibn Ishaq, pp. 464-66; Tabari, vol. 8, pp. 27-41.
Summary of the aftermath for the Jews
Since all the names and politics can be confusing, here is a quick overview of the facts found in the previous section "the aftermath for the Qurayza Jews."
1. After the Meccans and their allies depart, the Jews are left powerless and outnumbered before 3,000 Muslim jihadists.
2. While the Jews were negotiating the terms of surrender with Abu Lubabah, he gestures to his throat, which indicates slaughter. This means that the flow of the events headed in one direction.
3. Sad bin Muadh is the leader of the Aws tribe.
4. This tribe had old alliances, whatever they were, with the Qurayzah tribe of Jews.
5. However, the Aws fought alongside Muhammad.
6. The Jews sided with the coalition (though the Jews did not actually fight).
7. Thus, the old alliances between the Aws and Jews are weakening.
8. After Muhammad’s attack on the Jews, some of the Aws plead with Muhammad to be lenient, such as expulsion.
9. Muhammad turns down this request for mercy—a key point, which supports no. 2. The outcome is never in doubt.
10. Instead, Muhammad appoints Sad bin Muadh to decide, and everyone agrees to abide by his decision.
11. Sad decrees slaughter and enslavement, wanting to firm up his allegiance to Islam before he dies. He dies shortly thereafter from his wound.
12. Muhammad says that Sad’s verdict is the judgment of "King Allah." It is right and just. Sad makes him glad.
13. Even though everyone agrees to abide by the verdict, Muhammad still does not show mercy, as the men and boys are handcuffed behind their backs and beheaded, and the women and children are enslaved. He takes one of the beautiful, recently "widowed" Jewish women for himself instead of taking the path of mercy.
14. Muhammad gets twenty percent of the Jewish property (movable, immovable and human), and the jihadists get eighty percent, to be distributed as he sees fit.
In any steps leading up to an atrocity, something wrong is bound to be revealed, and this appears to be no. 9. As noted, Muhammad could have exiled the Jews, as he had done to the Jewish tribes of Qaynuqa and Nadir a few years earlier. Or he could have executed only the leaders, if he believed that they stirred up his enemies—assuming that they really did this, as the Islamic sources allege.
Something is also wrong with step no. 13. Even though everyone agreed to abide by the verdict, who could have complained—justly complained—if Muhammad had announced this? "We agreed to abide by the tribal chief’s verdict, but as I watch the men and boys being handcuffed and observe all the tears from the women and children, I’m sure no one would object if we showed mercy and exiled them and executed only the few trouble-makers. After all, I often say that Allah is most merciful. I set the example for my community and the world!" But this is wishful thinking. He took one of the beauties (now a widow) for himself, instead.
Why does he not show mercy? The answer is found in no. 14. Muhammad needs to reward his jihadists, since they collected no spoils from the departed coalition—Allah gives him permission in Sura 33:27 (see the next section, "the Quran"). And what makes this entire episode doubly heinous is that Muhammad and his jihadists could have had all of the wealth of the Jews after their banishment, but he still did not take this merciful option. But if he had taken it, would he have earned all the money (and a new "bride") coming from the enslavement of Jewish women and children?
Allah seems to celebrate this slaughter and enslavement in Sura 33:25-27:
25 Allah turned back the unbelievers [Meccans and their allies] in a state of rage, having not won any good, and Allah spared the believers battle [q-t-l]. Allah is, indeed, Strong and Mighty. 26 And He brought those of the People of the Book [Qurayza] who supported them from their fortresses and cast terror into their hearts, some of them you slew [q-t-l] and some you took captive. 27 And he bequeathed to you their lands, their homes and their possessions, together with land you have never trodden. Allah has power over everything. (Majid Fakhry, An Interpretation of the Qur’an, NYUP, 2004; insertions are mine)
These verses reveal three unpleasant truths.
First, Allah helps the Muslims in warfare or battle (three-letter Arabic root is q-t-l in v. 25) against a much-larger foe, so Allah endorses Islam in battle. Also, verse 25 confirms that Muhammad had nothing substantial to fear from the Jews. "Allah turned back the unbelievers . . . and Allah spared the believers battle." In down-to-earth terms, Muhammad still had at his disposal a large, weather-beaten army. The prophet had expelled two other tribes (Qaynuqa and Nadir), so he could have done the same to the Qurayza—as indeed they requested. But the prophet for humanity declined this merciful and humane option.
Second, Allah permits the enslavement and beheading of Jews, so any Muslim familiar with the background of this verse knows that beheading as such has been assimilated into the Quran. The word q-t-l in verse 26 means slaughter. What is so troubling about the verse is that it seems to celebrate the "terror" that Allah threw into the Jews’ hearts. Indeed, when Abu Lubabah the mediator approached the Jews during negotiations, the women and children were crying. Allah gladly terrorized them.
Finally, Allah permits Muhammad to take the Jewish clan’s property on the basis of conquest and his possession of all things. This is a dubious revelation and reasoning. Allah speaks, and this benefits Muhammad materially. This happens too often in Muhammad’s life.
If anyone is looking for a down-to-earth reason for Muhammad’s attack on the Qurayza Jews (instead of "Gabriel’s leadership"), then he does not need to look any further than verse 27. The prophet confiscated wealth. After all, the Meccans and their allies withdrew without allowing Muslims to take their wealth. So how was Muhammad going to reward his jihadists? He was following a bad custom of winner-take-all in seventh-century Arabia. It is a pity that he could not rise above this, as the prophet for all of the world, the last and the best of all the prophets.
For more translations of these verses, the readers may go to three sites: this one has multiple translations; this one has three; and this conservative translation is subsidized by the Saudi royal family.
Defenses of this atrocity
(1) Muhammad was following his culture.
W. M. Watt follows this tact. He writes:
So far were the Muslims who killed them [the Qurayza Jews] from feeling any qualms that one of them, describing the return from the deed, wrote that they returned with the head of their victim "five honorable men, steady and true, and God was with the sixth of us." This is so much in keeping with the spirit of pre-Islamic times that it is almost certainly authentic; but, even if not, it shows the attitude of the early Muslims. (Muhammad at Medina, p. 328)
This is a remarkable statement from Watt. Five Muslims (plus a sixth) returned after the executions, carrying the head of one of the slaughtered victims, and "God was with the sixth of us" (or the sixth Muslim). This represents the attitude of the early Muslims? God was with all of them during the slaughter? The problem with the "he’s only following his culture" defense is that Muhammad is no ordinary tribal leader; if he were, specialists in Arab culture might read about this atrocity and move on, concluding that, though a difficulty, it has no lasting impact. However, Muhammad claims universality for his religion. He and his followers after his death waged wars of worldwide conquest to prove this universality. Thus, the stakes are too high to retreat to this "culture" defense today.
(2) Muhammad was following the Law in the Old Testament.
This line of defense seems to say that the Qurayza Jews got what they deserved from their own Scriptures. If so, then this is a completely misguided comment on this atrocity against the Jews. This sectarian polemicist even quotes Deuteronomy 20:12-14 (see his note 26a. See this article at a Muslim website that quotes this passage in Deuteronomy and one in Numbers.)
In reply, however, this defense turns everything on its head and misapplies the true Scriptures. This severe command was given to Moses for a specific purpose and for a specific time (c. 1,400 BC) and for a specific place (the holy land). It was never intended to be followed outside of the holy land at a later, vaguer time and for self-serving purposes. Were the Qurayza Jews carrying out this ancient command of Moses in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century AD so that Muhammad had to take revenge? The corollary opposite is true. Even if we grant the non-Biblical prophet Muhammad credit for understanding the Torah (and that is giving him way too much credit because the Quran is filled with confusion about the Bible), then he was misinterpreting the Law of Moses by waging war at the wrong time, the wrong place, and for self-serving reasons. He is the one who forced Arab polytheists to convert or die; he is the one who said that all Jews and Christians should be forced out of the Peninsula.
However, to imply that Muhammad was carefully following the Old Law is to assume too much. Here are some areas in the Old Testament that Muhammad disobeys: adultery, and divorce; this article is a quick overview of other areas. So why should we take seriously this line of defense that says Muhammad was following the Old Testament?
Hence, this defense is yet another example of tribalism at its worst. Because the ancient Hebrews did this 2,000 years before Muhammad lived, he is justified in doing this to the Jews in his day in Medina. All the Jews of all times meld into one species—the same tribe. But this yanks a Biblical text way out of context and anachronistically misapplies it to another era and context. It is best to analyze Muhammad in his own context and set of circumstances. Did the Qurayza Jews really fight against him? No fighting took place, not even between the coalition and the Muslims.
Finally, Muhammad suffers from the distinct disadvantage of living six hundred years after Jesus, who showed us a better way. We compare—implicitly or explicitly—the two founders, and then the two diverge widely from each other. Thus, all reasonable people sense that this wholesale slaughter and enslavement is an unjustifiable atrocity.
For Christians, Jesus fulfills the aspect of warfare in the Old Testament. See this article on fulfillment and this one on how Christians benefit from the Old Testament. The geographically limited and time-specific wars in the Old Testament have been explained and contrasted with Islamic wars of world conquest in this article and this one. This article replies to Muslim polemics on the topic.
(3) The Jews broke (in this link find Sura 33) the treaty and fought against Muhammad.
Let’s take the two aspects (breaking the treaty and fighting) one at a time.
The Islamic sources say that the Jews broke the treaty, so let’s assume this, only for the sake of argument. Yet the early sources also reveal the specific names of the Jewish leaders who instigated the rupture in the treaty. Why did not Muhammad put only them on trial? Why did he have to exterminate every man and adolescent boy and enslave the women and children? This is tribalism at its worst—and greed for Jewish wealth (Sura 33:27).
As for fighting against Muslims, modern historians, using simple logic and the early sources, agree that the Jews did not march out in battle formation; they never sallied out of their fortresses and killed Muslims en masse or even one of them, so the Jews did not actually fight. In fact, no substantive fighting during the month-long siege took place even between the Quraysh and Ghatafan on the one hand and the Muslims on the other. Moreover, after these allies withdrew from Medina, Muhammad was too strong militarily, for he still had at his disposal 3,000 hardened veterans. This is why the Jews never mounted a vigorous resistance when they were besieged. Finally, the Quran says that the Muslims were spared a battle. Allah says in Sura 33:25 that he turned away the huge coalition. So how was Muhammad really threatened by a Jewish sub-group that was much smaller than the Quraysh and Ghatafan?
Also, as noted briefly, the numbers do not add up for an attack by the Jews after the coalition left. Recall that Ibn Ishaq says that possibly 900 Jewish men and pubescent boys were butchered. Let’s grant that number for a moment. On the other side, the sources say that Muhammad had 3,000 men in his army. How could 900 men and boys fight against 3,000 jihadists? Even if we double the number to 1,800 Jewish men and boys, how could they fight against a large Muslim army that had just withstood a huge coalition of non-Muslim tribes? What about the Medinan Arab tribe, the Aws, who still had alliances, such that they were, with the Jews? The Aws fought for Muhammad; would they now fight against him? No evidence suggests even a hint that the Aws were on the verge of switching sides. The alliances quickly dissolved into thin air. To repeat, Muhammad was never seriously threatened or in real jeopardy from the Jews. If he imagined Gabriel commanding him to fight, then Muhammad was actually adding up these numbers. He correctly concluded that the Jews were isolated and outnumbered and that he could do what he wanted with them.
But Muslim polemicists do not allow this high number for the Jews, for it makes Muhammad’s atrocity seem worse, if that is possible. Sectarian Maulana Muhammad Ali says that the number of Jews was 300 (see note 26a). Paradoxically, and perhaps unwittingly, this commentator makes the prophet of humanity seem worse with this low number. In no way were 300 Jewish men and boys ever a real threat against 3,000 Muslim jihadists. Clearly, expulsion of the Jewish community was the better option, not butchery and enslavement. But Muhammad was unable to collect any spoils from the departed Meccans and their allies, so he looked to the Jews. The women and children became human spoils.
This inconsistency happens too often in Muslim polemics. For example, Muhammad assassinated individual critics and opponents. To justify this, polemicists argue that he was defending a fragile and fledgling community. On the other hand, other polemicists argue that Islam was a strong and full-fledged State, so it was allowed to protect its "dignity. The key is to choose the contradictory argument that fits the need at the moment.
Finally, to the victor goes the writing of the history books. Muhammad is the one who gets to call the actions of the Jews a break in the treaty. But are they the only ones to blame? When Muhammad moved to Medina in AD 622, three major tribes of Jews thrived in Yathrib (pre-Islamic name of Medina). When he dies of a fever in AD 632, no major group was left, and the number of individual Jews is in dispute. In these ten years Muslim polemicists would have us believe that all conflicts were everyone else’s fault. When Muhammad either sent out or went out on seventy-four raids, small assassination hit squads, or full scale wars, he was always acting defensively and hence justly. However, this is absurd on its face, as anyone who knows human nature must conclude. In the complicated give-and-take of many wars and conflicts, it is rarely only one side that is blameless entirely. More to the point, when did the Jews ever slaughter Muslim men and boys and enslave women and children, so that Muhammad would be justified in taking like-for-like revenge on them after the allies left?
Thus, even if we assume that the Jews broke the treaty, and even if we assume—contrary to fact—that the Jews forcefully fought against Muhammad before and after the coalition left, he still did not have to kill every man and every pubescent boy and enslave all the women and children, did he? Could he not have set the example for the world and punish them in a more lenient and humane way?
(4) Sad bin Muadh, the leader of the Aws, made the decision, so Muhammad is blameless.
As already noted, this line of defense is wrong. Muhammad could have called off the trial. Some of the Aws begged him to show mercy, but he turned down this request. Next, he could have told imaginary Gabriel (read: the prophet’s calculations) to get lost. Further, passing off the verdict to Sad bin Muadh reveals not only extra-sly political acumen in Muhammad, but also cowardice. He did not want to make this hard decision. Maybe he feared the old alliances between the Aws and the Jews, but the alliances did not last. The Aws fought for Muhammad, whereas the Jews opposed him. Would the Aws flip-flop so easily? This did not happen in point of fact. Be that as it may, Sad sat next to Muhammad, and when Sad issued the verdict, he made the prophet glad. "O Sad! You have judged amongst them with (or similar to) the judgment of the King Allah." Was there undue influence from Muhammad on Sad who was dying and about to meet Allah?
(5) Put in perspective, the atrocity is no big deal.
Reza Aslan, a young intellectual Iranian, in his book No god but God (Random House, 2005), says that the Qurayza tribe amounted to a tiny fraction of Jews in Medina and its environs (p. 94). Therefore, Muhammad’s execution of them is not a "genocide" (Aslan’s word). His implication is that this act against one tiny tribe of Jews is minor and therefore not extreme, but proportional.
In reply, however, the number of the Jews who remained in Medina is under dispute, but the evidence suggests that there was not one dominant group, though individuals may have been left (Watt, Muhammad at Medina, pp. 216-17). Next, tribalism ruled in Arab culture (and still does in many places), and Muhammad eliminates an entire tribe. Though not a genocide, it is excessive even for the Jews’ "brazen" (Aslan's word) crime. It is simply underhanded to throw in the word "genocide" as if it is supposed to make Muhammad’s excessive punishment seem acceptable. Eliminating a tribe? That’s no big deal when we compare it to a genocide, so Aslan implies. This kind of confused defense of Muhammad’s indefensible actions permeates Muslim literature today.
(6) The West has committed atrocities, so who are Christians to complain?
The answer to this is simple. First, the West and Biblical Christianity are not identical. Second, it is always better to compare a founder (Jesus) of a religion with another founder (Muhammad). And this is where the similarities break down completely. Third, the Medieval Crusaders are not foundational for Christianity. Only Jesus and the New Testament authors are. Fourth, the "West" does not claim divine inspiration, but Muhammad did.
Despite these six defenses, anyone whose mind has not been steeped in a lifetime of devotion to Islam knows that Muhammad’s action was factually and objectively excessive, regardless of his culture that he lived in. And excess is never just, as even Allah himself states when he rebukes his favorite prophet for another of his acts of cruelty (see this hadith, Abu Dawud 4357, and this article). Sadly, though, Allah does not reprimand his favorite prophet, but celebrates the atrocity in Sura 33:25-27.
Muslim polemical and outreach websites often assert that Islam promotes human rights. It is impossible to see how they can say this honestly and at the same time appeal to the origins of their religion.
This whitewash is deceitful at best and dangerous at worst, if or when Islam gets a foothold in a region on the pretence of "peace and love." Maybe sleepy Westerners and others will accept this benign version of Islam—in fact too many are, right now. But what happens later when hard-line Muslims (not to mention nonviolent and violent fanatics) cite the numerous brutal verses in the Quran and passages in the hadith to inflict barbarity on people, especially on Jews?
The evidence in this article alone demonstrates that violence is embedded in original Islam. Even a reliable hadith shows Allah reprimanding Muhammad for another of his cruelties.
It is time for Muslim leaders to renounce violence clearly and specifically, not vaguely: "Yes, we denounce all forms of violence" . . . . They must go deeper than this. They must stop denying the dark past, found in the Quran itself and in the example of their prophet. They must, instead, be clear. "We denounce these specific verses and passages in the Quran and hadith that are violent. These specific acts and words happened in the seventh century (and later centuries), and we have moved beyond all of them. We now want peace."
A peaceful presentation of Islam is not full disclosure. It is time to be honest. Only then can interfaith dialogue even begin.
See this series of articles for more information on Muhammad’s atrocity against the Qurayza Jews.
This article is an overview of Muhammad’s relations with the Jews.
My own article, Muhammad and the Jews, provides background information on the other tribes of Jews.
This webpage has many fine articles on Muhammad’s other questionable policies and practices.
Copyright by James Malcolm Arlandson.
Articles by James Arlandson
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