Islamophobes often quote the Banu Qurayza incident as evidence that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) acted brutally and Islam is a religion of war and barbarism. This article will uncover the truth and expose the reality of the incident in light of the authentic historical sources and detailed analysis of the events.
The alleged narrative is as follows:
The year was 627 AD, the battle of the trench was over and a victory for the Muslims. However the Banu Qurayza had a treaty with the Muslims that they had broken, they had allied with Abu Sufyan’s forces against the Muslims. The Muslims laid siege for around 25 days to the Banu Qurayza all the men be killed and the women and children be take as slaves.
People like the serial Islamophobe Tommy Robinson uses the Banu Qurayza incident as evidence that Islam is barbaric. He has been recently on Al Jazeera repeating his propaganda against Islam.
So what is the reality of the situation?
Before the Prophet of Islam arrived in Medina there were primarily two groups in Medina, the Jews and Pagans. The Jews which descended from the 12 tribes, three of which were the Banu Qainuqa, Banu Nazir and Banu Qurayza which are likely to be descendants of the Judham tribe. According to some oral narratives of Jews, Banu Qurayza are descendants of Harun (a) (Aaron), the brother of Moses (a), who were in Yathrib before the flood of ‘Arim, which caused the emigration of Arab tribes of Aws and Khazraj to Yathrib. The other inhabitants of the town were the Aws and Khazraj. Of the two chief clans of the Jews, the Banu Qurayza were the allies of the Aws, while Banu Nazir joined the Khazraj. Fighting frequently broke out between the Aws and the Khazraj , and their Jewish allies however once the Muhammad (SAW) arrived in Medina the Aws and Kharzaj both converted to Islam.
In an effort to unite the city in peace, the Prophet Muhammad drafted the Covenant of Medina (mithaq-i-Medina) in 622 CE, whose general terms were – Muslims and Jews shall live as one people, each one of the parties shall keep to its own faith, and neither shall interfere with that of the other. In the event of a war with a third party, each was bound to come to the assistance of the other, provided the latter were the aggrieved and not the aggressors. In the event of an attack on Medina, both shall join hands to defend it and peace, when desirable, shall be made after consultation with each other.
So the allegation is that the Muslims, led by the Prophet SAW killed a whole tribe of people and took their woman and children. This article will outline the credibility of this account, the actual events, and the underlying issues.
Sources for the Banu Qurayza Story
The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that the common narrative have reached us via Sirah Rasul Allah (Sīrat Nabawiyya) by Ibn Isḥaq (Muḥammad ibn Isḥaq ibn Yasār, 704-767 CE), the first biography of Prophet Muhammad SAW, but he was not a contemporary of the Prophet. He was born nearly 80 years after the death of the Prophet and, according to Arafat, he based his narrations about the killing of the Jews of Bani Qurayza based on the testimonies of the descendants of that tribe.
This does not mean everything in Ibn Ishaq’s works are worthless, but certainly some of his methodology is open to criticism and therefore doubt. Even the best authors, scientists or sports people can make mistakes. Ibn Ishaq’s contemporary, the early traditionalist and jurist Imam Malik ibn Anas, called him a unequivocally “liar” and “an impostor” in regards to his claims regarding Banu Qurayza, whom he said he “transmits his stories from the Jews”. In a later age, Allama Ibn Hajar further explained the point of Malik’s condemnation of Ibn Ishaq. Malik, he said, condemned Ibn Ishaq because he made a point of seeking out descendants of the Jews of Medina in order to obtain from them accounts of the Prophet’s campaigns as handed down by their forefathers. Ibn Hajar then rejected the stories in question in the strongest terms referring to them as “such odd tales as the story of Banu Qurayza and al-Nadir”.
The criticism laid against Ibn Ishaq was not absolute, but rather focused on a few areas, such as the story of Banu Qarayza etc, most of what he had produced was seen to be useful and well received by his peers. Even Ibn Ishaq may not have believed the details that he transmitted, but chose to include what information he had.
The original work of Ibn Ishaq which detailed these events has actually never reached us, so how have we do know about these events? There are two sources, both students of Ibn Ishaq, the first was Ziyad al-Bakka’i who had a copy of Ibn Ishaq original work (which has also been lost) who Ibn Hisham (Abu Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik bin Hisham) later quoted. The second source was also one of Ibn Ishaq’s students, Salamah ibn Fadl al-Ansari, whose work is also lost. However it is extensively quoted by Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari. It is important to note the indirect link between what was originally produced by Ibn Ishaq and what has reached us, and secondly that Ibn Ishaq had already been criticised by the scholars of his time for quoted things from biased sources.
So the first point is that the details of the story are unreliable. However lets explore the possibility of this narration being true. Lets examine what has happened to other Jewish tribes that have broken agreements with the Muslims. The two other main tribes were the Banu Qaynuqa who descended from the Manasseh (one of the 12 original Jewish tribes) and the Banu Nadir. The Banu Qaynuqa broke the constitution of Medina, the details of which mean that in such a case, the Prophet SAW will rule on the punishment. The punishment was to be banished, so the Banu Qaynuqa were allowed to leave with their belongings unharmed. The Bani Nadir tried to overthrow the Prophet SAW and conspired with the enemies of the Muslims to attack them, the Prophet SAW ordered that they be banished from Medina with their belongings unharmed.
In both cases no one was harmed, despite Muslims being killed and laws broken. They were ordered to leave with their belongings, this is not disputed. So the issue of the Banu Qurayza happened after the other two tribes had been banished, what is interesting is that there were similar incidents after the siege of Banu Qurayza, at the battle of Khayber.
Around 629, a few years after the events of the three other Jewish tribes, the battle of Khayber took place, the Muslims were victorious, and the Jews surrendered. The Prophet SAW set the terms of their surrender. The Jews of Khaybar were to evacuate the area, and surrender their wealth. The Muslims would cease warfare and not hurt any of the Jews. After the agreement, some Jews approached Muhammad with a request to continue to cultivate their orchards and remain in the oasis. In return, they would give one-half of their produce to the Muslims.
After hearing about this battle, the people of Fadak, allied with Khaybar during the battle, sent Muḥayyisa b. Masūd to Muhammad. Fadak offered to be “treated leniently” in return for surrender. A treaty similar to that of Khaybar was drawn with Fadak as well.
So it seems odd that in previous and subsequent conflicts the Prophet SAW offers very generous conditions, and yet in the case of the Banu Qurayza there is no mercy? Also if the tribes at Khayber knew of the events for Qarayza, why did they agree to surrender if they feared execution?
Its very important to review the points so far, the first being that we have reliable statements that say both before and after Banu Qurayza there were people who were banished. Then we receive a story through a third party, which has reached us via two sources which contradict each other, and the basis of both of those sources are biased testimonies of a people which were reportedly all killed, yet they were still able to witness events and pass them on.
There is just one verse discussing the issue of Banu Qurayza:
وَأَنزَلَ الَّذِينَ ظَاهَرُوهُم مِّنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ مِن صَيَاصِيهِمْ وَقَذَفَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمُ الرُّعْبَ فَرِيقًا تَقْتُلُونَ وَتَأْسِرُونَ فَرِيقًا
33|26|And He brought down from their strongholds those of the People of the Book who backed them, and He threw terror into their hearts. Some of them you killed, and some you took captive.
Sayyid Ja’far Murtada al-‘Amili in al-Sahih in the exegesis of the verse 26 of Sura al-Ahzab says: the part of the verse “… you killed a part of them, and took captive [another] part of them”, the word used for taking captive (تأسرون, ta’sirun) is used for men; because in Arabic, for taking women captive, another word is used; but some exegetes have incorrectly interpret the word killed about men and the word took captive for women and children
There is no mention of all the men being killed, it does mention that it was those who had committed treason (those who “backed them”), those who had attacked the Muslims. I suspect the reality of the events is that some of Banu Qurayza were banished, and the ring leaders and soldiers were killed as per the term of surrender, on the orders of the arbiter that the Qurayza agreed to, Sa’ad ibn Muadh. This is narrated in Seerah-i Ibn Hisham, vol. II, p. 240; Mughazi-i Waqidi, vol. II, p. 510. These ring leaders are actually named in Ibn Ishaq’s Sira as Huyayy b. Akhtab and Ka`b b. Asad, and I suspect only these and the soldiers were killed. It was said that the ones to be executed were held in the house of Bint al Harith, a woman of Banu al-Najjar. It would be very unusual for a house to contain hundreds of people. Additionally, there are many accounts of Jews from Medina in later events, so if two of the tribes had been banished and one wiped out, then where did these other Jews come from?
There is a narration in Kitab Al Arshad which says there were 9 heads of the executed near the house, this is reported in the Chapter of the “The Military missions of the Commander of the Faithful”.
Sa’ad ibn Muadh was mentioned to have come to the conclusion of executing those guilty of treason based on Jewish law, the Jewish source was :
And when the LORD your God has delivered it into your hands, you shall smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword.
Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the LORD your God has given you
Deuteronomy 20:13 and 14
Its important to state that the Banu Qurayza did not just simply break a treaty. They conspired and attacked the Muslims, attacking the residential areas of Medina which housed the woman and children, in absolute contrast to the treaty conditions, that they would help defend Medina if it was attacked. What punishment is suitable for a person who has agreed in writing to protect women and children, then attacks them? Treason is a serious crime, then and now, it still holds the death penalty in many countries, so it was necessary that someone be held accountable for these actions.
In conclusion, the evidence points to the fact the Soldiers of Banu Qurayza and its leaders were killed, the others were banished, converted to Islam or remained Jewish but under the protection of the Islamic state. So immediately the question of justice has been changed from the massacre of a whole tribe, to that of the terrorists within it, the next issue raised is that, was is just to kill those terrorists? Considering their murders of innocent women and children and treason many would say yes, they also made a fatal mistake of not asking the Prophet SAW to be the judge of the case, as he was known to be much more merciful.
I hope this sheds more light on this issue, please feel free to comment.