June 25, 2022
By Missionary Muhammad Ahmad Khurshid
At the advent of Islam there were three Jewish tribes that lived in Yathrib (later called “Medina”), known as the Banu Qaynuqa, Banu al-Nadir and Banu Qurayza, as well as other Jewish settlements further to the north. As soon as these three tribes realized that Islam was being firmly established and gaining power, they adopted an actively hostile attitude, in violation of their own treaty with the Prophet of Islam (sa). The result of this was the expulsion of two of the tribes from Medina, and the execution of the third, the Banu Qurayza, for reasons that we shall shortly review.
It is a common allegation against the Prophet Muhammad (sa) that this execution was at his say so, and that he mercilessly massacred hundreds of Jews of the Banu Qurayza in cold blood.
Are they right?
Many underlying factors were present prior to this incident. It is surprising that Prophet Muhammad’s (sa) name is mentioned in connection with this incident as he had no say in the eventual outcome of the treason committed by the Jews of Banu Qurayza.
With the migration of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) from Mecca, chased as a refugee with his companions into Medina, the nascent Muslim community was brought into direct contact with three Jewish tribes: Banu Qaynuqa, Banu al-Nadir, and Banu Qurayza.
At the time of his migration, the idolatrous tribes of Aus and Khazraj, backed by various Jewish tribes, were close to war. The arrival of a third party, independent of these two groups, moved the Aus and Khazraj, to make Muhammad (sa) the leader of Medina, so as to arbitrate between their differences. Thus, his arrival and appointment as head of the city state, averted war.
The major task of the Prophet of Islam on entering Medina therefore, was to establish peace between different religious and ethnic communities in the milieu of a city-state. He achieved this remarkably, beginning with the Constitution of Medina.
For us to have a deeper understanding of the events surrounding the Banu Qurayza, we need to return to the covenant he established between the various tribes of the city, known today as the Constitution of Medina.
The Constitution of Medina is a historic document which showcased the rights of all citizens of Medina and laid down the foundations of what a civilized society should look like. It is, in many ways, the earliest blueprint of secularism that we have.
The immediate concern of the Prophet Muhammad (sa) was to establish unity of identity out of the three major groups of Medina: the Muslims, the idolaters and the Jews. The rights of each group on each other were stipulated clearly in this document. Notable passages included:
6.2 The Jews of Banu ‘Awf are one community with the believers, the Jews have their religion and the Muslims have theirs, their freedman and their persons except those who behave unjustly and sinfully, for they hurt but themselves and their families. The same applies to the Jews of the Banu al-Najjar, Banur al-Harith, Banu Sa’ida, Banu Jusham, Banu al-’Aws, Banu Tha’laba, and the Jafna, a clan of the Tha’laba and the Banu al-Shutayba. Loyalty is a protection against treachery…Morrow. J. A; “The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World” 1971; p. 30-31
6.5: The Jews must bear their expenses and the Muslims their expenses. Each must help the other against anyone who attacks the people of this document. They must seek mutual advice and consultation, and loyalty is a protection against treachery…
8.3 Quraysh and their helpers shall be given no protection.”
The above passages demonstrate important principles in the Muslim-Jewish relationship of the city-state. In total, the constitution outlined the following general principle:
1. The Muslims and Jews would live together with sympathy and sincerity, and would not oppress or wrong each other.
2. All people would enjoy religious freedom.
3. The lives and wealth of all citizens would be honoured and safeguarded, except that an individual was guilty of oppression or criminality.
4. All disputes and conflicts would be presented before the Messenger of Allāh for his judgement, and all verdicts would be in accordance with Divine Command (i.e., the Sharī‘at of every specific people).
5. No party would set out for war without the permission of the Messenger of Allāh.
6. If another nation waged war against the Jews or Muslims, one would stand up in defense of the other.
7. Similarly, if Madīnah was attacked everyone would defend it collectively.
8. The Jews would not provide any aid or protection to the Quraish of Makkah or their allies.
9. Every community would bear their own expenses.
10. The treaty would protect no tyrant, criminal, or wrongdoer from punishment or retribution.Ahmad, M. B., Seal of the Prophets Vol 2, page 27
The document is clear that the Jews and Muslims must support one another as a single community against each others’ enemies. The Quraysh are singled out in section 8.3 as a people not to be given protection in any way.
It was not long after the success of the Battle of Badr that the Jewish tribes took up a hostile attitude against the Muslims. They repeatedly warned the Muslims that, despite their covenant, they should not become arrogant for having won at Badr. Mirza Bashir Ahmad, quoting Tabari, narrates in his work, Seal of the Prophets Vol. 2 that among their taunts was their saying:
“So what if you have defeated the army of the Quraish. Let Muḥammad fight us and we shall demonstrate how wars are fought.”Ahmad, M. B., Seal of the Prophets Vol 2, p. 285
Their actions did not stop at words. The Banu Qainuqa were the first to adopt an actively hostile posture against the Muslims. This was to such an extent that the Muslims became fearful of the Prophet Muhammad (sa) going out at night, for fear that the Banu Qainuqa would attempt to assassinate him (Al-Iṣābah Fī Tamīziṣ-Ṣaḥābah, Al-Asqalani, Vol. 3; p. 425-6). Finally, their hostility culminated in their sexual assault of a Muslim woman, resulting in a street riot between Muslims and Jews. When the Prophet Muhammad (sa) rode to the situation, he sought to calm it down, but received only further threats. At this, he rode to the fortress of the Banu Qainuqa, and before long, had them expelled from the city for repeated violations of their covenant.
The condition of the Banu Nadir was not much better. One of their chiefs, Salam bin Mashkam, provided information to Abu Sufyan after the battle of Badr, on account of which he killed Muslims in a raid (Ahmad, M. B. Seal of the Prophets Vol 2, p. 279). Further, they went so far as to attempt an assassination of the Prophet Muhammad (sa). One Jew by the name of ‘Amr bin Jahshash attempted to throw a large stone on the Prophet’s head as he was resting beside a wall. The consequence of this was that the Prophet Muhammad (sa) commanded the Banu Nadir to vacate Medina, for violation of their pact. They eventually succumbed after a siege of their fortress, described in the following words by the Quran:
“He it is Who turned out the disbelievers among the People of the Book from their homes at the time of the first banishment. You did not think that they would go forth, and they thought that their fortresses would defend them against Allah. But Allah came upon them whence they did not expect, and cast terror into their hearts, so that they destroyed their houses with their own hands and the hands of the believers. So take a lesson, O ye who have eyes!”Holy Quran 59:3
Interestingly, Banu Nadir and Banu Qainuqa were expelled from Medina and were not given any further punishment. The Holy Prophet (sa) expelled them from Medina for the sake of social harmony and once this was achieved, further retribution was deemed unnecessary.
The Meccan pagans were continuously sending hostile messages to the idolaters and the Jews, threatening them with war if they did not eject the Muslims and Muhammad (sa) from Medina. One such letter sent to the idolaters read as follows:
“Abdur Rahman ibn Ka’b ibn Malik reported on the authority of a man from among the companions of the Prophet (sa): The infidels of the Quraysh wrote (a letter) to Ibn Ubayy and to those who worshipped idols from al-Aws and al-Khazraj, while the Apostle of Allah (sa) was at that time at Medina before the battle of Badr. (They wrote): You gave protection to our companion. We swear by Allah, you should fight him or expel him, or we shall come to you in full force, until we kill your fighters and appropriate your women. When this (news) reached Abdullah ibn Ubayy and those who were worshippers of idols, with him they gathered together to fight the Apostle of Allah (sa). When this news reached the Apostle of Allah (sa), he visited them and said: The threat of the Quraysh to you has reached its end. They cannot contrive a plot against you, greater than what you yourselves intended to harm you. Are you willing to fight your sons and brethren? When they heard this from the Prophet (sa), they scattered. …”Abu Dawud Book 19, Hadith 2998
A similar letter was sent by the Meccan pagans to the Jewish tribes after the first battle between the Muslims and the pagan Meccans, the Battle of Badr, which the Muslims won. It stated:
…The infidels of the Quraysh again wrote (a letter) to the Jews after the battle of Badr: “You are men of weapons and fortresses. You should fight our companion (Muhammad) or we shall deal with you in a certain way. And nothing will come between us and the anklets of your women.” When their letter reached the Prophet (sa), they gathered Banu an-Nadir to violate the treaty….Ibid
In this letter, the Jews were told that they, being a well-fortified people, could attack the Prophet of Islam. They were warned that if they did not, their Jewish women would be enslaved by the Quraysh.
The hatred for Islam and Prophet Muhammad (sa), with the addition of the great threat from the Quraysh, was the catalyst for the Banu Qurayza to violate their treaty in the most brazen manner.
Having established the continuous rebellion by the Jewish tribes despite the constitution being in place, we now turn towards the Battle of the Trench, which sheds light upon the treason committed by Banu Qurayza.
The Battle of the Trench was a battle in which the Quraysh mustered all their allies and forces, to descend upon the city of Medina with the intention of razing it to the ground and killing all therein. They raised an army of 10,000 against a Muslim community of barely 3000. In response, to defend the city, the Muslims dug a trench along the exposed portion of the city, against which the Quraysh would approach. The other two approaches to the city were defended by a mountainous region on one side, and the Banu Qurayza on the other. Being in a pact of defense with the Banu Qurayza, the Muslims relied upon them to cover the flank of the city.
The Holy Quran speaks about the extremely dangerous conditions of the battle and how vulnerable the Muslims were at the time.
“O ye who believe! remember the favour of Allah on you when there came down upon you hosts, and We sent against them a wind and hosts that you saw not. And Allah sees what you do. When they came upon you from above you, and from below you, and when your eyes became distracted, and your hearts reached to the throats, and you thought diverse thoughts about Allah.Holy Quran 33:10-11
The verse of the Quran mentioned above shows how the Muslims were surrounded from all sides by the enemy, and only a trench stood in their way to attack Medina. Little did the Muslims know that where an enemy was right at their doorstep, another enemy lay inside and was ready to commit the ultimate treason, thereby risking the lives of the citizens of an entire city. “Above you” refers to the enemy attacking from the outside, and “from below you” refers to the enemy within.
Instead of defending the city from the flank, the Banu Qurayza discreetly joined hands with the Arabs against the Muslims and were looking to expose that part of the town. If the enemy had succeeded in their plan, the women and children sheltered in that part of the town would have certainly been killed.
In these extremely troubling times, only divine help could save the Muslims. And so it proved. Na‘īm bin Mas‘ūd had come to join the war against the Muslims, but in reality was a Muslim in his heart and wanted to provide find a way to protect them.
Na’im was chosen as the liaison between the Qurayzah tribe and the Arab tribe, to negotiate the terms of attack and the division of spoils after victory. Using this position, he created uncertainty about the intentions and expectations between both parties. This was a tactical move which disturbed the plan of the enemy and lessened the risk of an attack from the rear of Medina.
Na’im first met with the chiefs of Qurayzah and reminded them of the risks attached.
“Just remember that when the Quraish, etc. leave from here, they shall not give you the least consideration and shall leave you here at the mercy of the Muslims. In the least, you should demand the Quraish and Ghaṭafān to hand over a few men as hostages, so that you may be reassured that you will not suffer betrayal in the end.”Ahmad, M. B., Seal of the Prophets Vol 2, page 474-475
He then went to the confederates and pointed out a concern for them.
“The Banū Qurayẓah are afraid that after you leave, they may be faced with difficulty on your account; hence, they are beginning to doubt this alliance and intend to demand a few hostages as a guarantee. However, you should not give them any hostages at all, lest they betray you and hand over your hostages to the Muslims, etc., etc.”Ibid
This was enough to cause doubt amongst the different enemy groups and the uncertainty fell in favour of the Muslims.
Because the confederates did not solely rely on the treason of the Jews to attack the town, they were firm in their attempts to overcome the Muslims. This leads us to the second crucial divine intervention as mentioned in the Quran.
“O ye who believe, remember the favour of Allah upon you when there came against you hosts, and We sent against them a wind and hosts that you saw not. And Allah sees what you do.”Holy Quran 33:10
The reference in the word ریحا [wind] is to the strong cold wind which blew upon the confederated hosts and uprooted their tents and extinguished their fires. Says William Muir:
“Forage was obtained with the utmost difficulty; provisions were running short, and the camels and horses dying daily in great numbers; wearied and damped in spirit, the night set in upon them, cold and tempestuous wind and rain beat mercilessly on the unprotected camp. The storm rose to a hurricane. Fires were extinguished, tents blown down, cooking vessels and other equipage overthrown.”The Holy Quran with English Translation and Commentary, Vol. 5, p. 2557
This divine intervention caused panic in the enemy ranks and superstition overwhelmed them, causing them to leave the siege overnight.
After the dispersing of the Arabs who intended to eliminate Islam, the next and very crucial step was to deal with the treason committed and to identify the reasons behind the broken covenant. The Banu Qurayza had retreated into their forts and were not ashamed of their actions. The Prophet Muhammad (sa) sent Ali (ra) to speak to the Jews, where he was received with abuse and insults were aimed at Prophet Muhammad (sa) and his wives.
The leader of the Banu Qurayza, Ka`b b. Asad put forward three proposals as solution to his own people:
“Choose whichever option you prefer from the three. The first option is to accept Muḥammad [sa] and become Muslim, because in actuality, the truth of Muḥammad [sa] has become clear upon us, and our scriptures also attest to his truthfulness. If we become Muslim, this war shall come to an end by itself.Ahmad, M. B., Seal of the Prophets Vol 2, page 487
Then my second proposal is that we slay our women and children, so that we may have no fear of consequences, take up our swords and enter the field of battle. Then come what may.
My final proposal is that tonight is the night of Sabbath. Muḥammad and his Companions shall consider themselves safe on our account. Hence, tonight we should emerge from our fortresses and attack Muḥammad and his Companions by night. It is most probable that due to their being unaware, we should be able to defeat them.”
The Banu Qurayza refused all the proposals and were not ready to accept their war crimes. This led to them to remain in their fortress, unwilling to negotiate. Finally after tiring from the siege, the chiefs of Banu Qurayzah requested for Abu Lubabah, an Ansari chief of the Aws, a now Muslim-converted tribe, friendly to the Jews. They wanted to come to a settlement with Prophet Muhammad (sa). Although Abu Lubabah said that they should make peace with the Prophet Muhammad (sa), at the same time he signalled with a hand across his throat that that death appeared inevitable for them. On returning from the Jewish fortress, he realised he had done wrong by signalling in this manner, and was overcome with remorse for suggesting that the Prophet Muhammad would have them executed. So tormented was he by his action that he tied himself to a pillar in the mosque of Medina stating “I will not leave this place until God forgives me for what I have done”. After six days, God revealed forgiveness for Abu Lubabah.
It was wrong of him to suggest that death was the only option for the tribe, as he knew the compassion of Prophet Muhammad (sa). Even for those who had sought to kill the Prophet directly, the Banu Nadir, death was not given, and they were expelled instead. It is likely that he would have treated them in the same way as he treated the other Jewish tribes.
Following Abu Lubabah’s false information, the Jews refused any decision by the Prophet Muhammad (sa) and requested for one Muslim, Sa’d bin Muadh, whom they had good relations with, to decide the appropriate punishment for their crime.
Sa’d bin Muadh had each of the parties line up outside the fortress of the Banu Qurayza, facing one another. On his horse he came between them and asked the leader of the Banu Qurazya and the Prophet Muhammad to both pledge that they would agree to his decision as final. They both agreed. What happened next is recorded in Sahih Bukhari:
“When the tribe of Bani Qurayza was ready to accept Sa`d’s judgment, Allah’s Messenger (sa) sent for Sa`d who was near to him. Sa`d came, riding a donkey and when he came near, Allah’s Messenger (sa) said (to the Ansar), “Stand up for your leader.” Then Sa`d came and sat beside Allah’s Messenger (sa) who said to him. “These people are ready to accept your judgment.” Sa`d said, “I give the judgment that their warriors should be killed and their children and women should be taken as prisoners.” The Prophet (sa) then remarked, “O Sa`d! You have judged amongst them with (or similar to) the judgment of the King Allah.”Sahih Bukhari, 3043
In making this judgement, Sa’d explicitly stated that this judgement of his was given not in accordance with the Quran, but in accordance with the judgement of the Torah, the law of the Jews, themselves, as recorded in Deuteronomy 20:10:
“When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: And when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.”Deuteronomy 20:10
The number of combatants from Banu Qurayzah who were killed is not known; different reports point to different numbers. The following research points out many problems with the high numbers presented with regards to this incident.
“According to Ibn Ishaq, 600 to 900 men of the B. Qurayzah were executed. It is not known what was the total strength of the B. Qurayzah. If each family is taken to consist of six persons—and this is a low average—3,600 to 5,400 men, women and children must have surrendered. They were all confined in the house of Bint al-Harith, a woman of the B. al-Najjar, and bound with ropes. Incarceration of four to five thousand persons can create problems even in a large town in the present age of crime, police and jails. If Ibn Ishaq is to be believed, Medina must have been a very well-organized town which could provide detention arrangements for such a large number of prisoners. How much rope was used and what was the area of Bint al-Harith’s house?”Ahmad, Barakat. Muhammad and the Jews: A Re-examination. Page 82
The author also points out other crucial points which infer that the number simply does not match the state and the size of Madina.
“We have already pointed out that Medina in the Apostle’s time was not equipped to imprison four to five thousand people and execute 600 to 900 people in a day. Killing such a large number of people and disposing of the dead bodies created problems even for Nazi Germany, with hydrogen cyanide as an efficient lethal agent. A massacre in the midst of a town where people live is very different from a massacre in a town which is being sacked by a conquering army marching onwards from town to town with dead bodies left to make it uninhabitable.”Ibid
The number of combatants killed varies and can be disputed but one thing is for certain is that they were punished for treason and for endangering the lives of the innocent public and ultimately rejected the judgment of the Holy Prophet (sa). Ultimately, judgment was given by a judge they chose, in accordance with their own teaching.
In summary, the following points are worth considering when presented with this allegation: