Verses 5:45-48 of the Quran affirm the Old Testament rule of “an eye for an eye,” but also add the Christian principle that forgiveness is more noble than retaliation. If ever there was proof that these words do not necessarily apply to the treatment of non-Muslims, however, it is in Muhammad’s conduct toward the Jews in general and the Qurayza tribe in particular.
Muhammad and his band of immigrants arrived in Medina in 622 completely dependent on the hospitality of the three Jewish tribes that lived there alongside the Arabs. In less than two years, two of the tribes that had welcomed him, the Banu Qaynuqa and the Banu Nadir would be evicted, losing their land and their wealth to the Muslims as soon as their guests gained the power to conquer and confiscate. Muhammad accomplished this by deftly exploiting his opponents divisions.
The prophet of Islam chose the order of the doomed tribes carefully. He knew that the other two tribes would not come to the assistance of the first, for example, since they had been aligned against one another in a recent conflict. He also knew that the third would not assist the second – due to a dispute over “blood money.”
The last tribe to remain was the Banu Qurayza. Like the others, the Qurayza were a peaceful community of farmers and tradesmen who eventually surrendered to Muhammad without a fight. Although the prophet of Islam had been wise enough not to order the wholesale slaughter of the first two tribes following their defeat (which certainly would have stiffened the resistance of the Qurayza), there was no practical reason for Muhammad to repress his genocidal urges once the last tribe had surrendered their wealth and power.
Over 800 surrendered men and boys (and at least one woman) from the Qurayza tribe were beheaded by the prophet of Islam in a bloodbath that is of acute embarrassment to today’s Muslim apologists. It is an episode that is not only completely at odds with the idea that Islam is a peaceful religion, but also the claim that it is the heir to Christianity, since even that religion’s most dedicated critics could hardly imagine Jesus and his disciples doing such a thing.
It is only in modern times (as Islam finds itself having to compete with morally mature religions in open debate) that the story of the massacre has become controversial. Some Muslims deny the episode, largely on the basis of mere inconvenience. Others are unaware of it altogether. But, not only is the incident well documented in the Hadith and Sira (biography of Muhammad), there is even a brief reference to it in the Quran (verse 33:26).
Since Islam makes no apologies, particularly for anything that Muhammad personally did, contemporary Muslims generally try to convince themselves that the victims of Qurayza deserved their fate. They must have turned on the Muslims in battle and inflicted many deaths, forcing Muhammad to yield to the wishes of his people and respond in kind.
Unfortunately, the accounts of what happened, as related to early Muslim historians by eyewitnesses, do not support this myth. In fact, it was the Qurayza who were caught in an impossible situation at the time, between the Muslims and their Meccan adversaries.
Shortly after arriving in Medina in 622, Muhammad began raiding the merchant caravans traveling to and from neighboring Mecca. He would steal their property and kill anyone who defended it (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 424-425). The Jews of Qurayza had nothing to do with this. Much like the Meccans, the Jews were also traders, and they appreciated the value of doing business securely in a crime-free climate. They neither encouraged Muhammad’s raids nor shared in his ill-gotten gain.
After a few years of this, the Meccans eventually realized that they would have to try and capture Medina, since it was being used as a base of piracy operations by Muhammad’s gang. In 627, they sent an army to the outskirts of the city and appeared poised to take it in what has been called the Battle of the Trench (the Muslims dug a trench around the exposed northern and western parts of the city to stop the Meccan military advance).
The Qurayza, who lived to the east of Medina, away from the battle, were caught in a bad situation. Not responsible for Muhammad’s war, they were nonetheless drawn into it, particularly when they were approached by a Meccan emissary and asked not to assist Muhammad in his defense against the siege (to that point, the Qurayza had contributed digging tools to the Muslims, but not fighters).
The chief of the Qurayza did not wish even to entertain the Meccan envoy, but he was tricked into allowing him into his home (Ishaq/Hisham 674). Once there, the Meccan began making the case that the battle was going against Muhammad and that his fall was imminent. The anguish of the Qurayza chief over the trying circumstances of the position that he felt forced into is noted even by Muslim historians:
When Ka’b heard of Huyayy’s coming he shut the door of his fort in his face, and when he asked permission to enter he refused to see him, saying that he was a man of ill omen… Then Huyayy accused him of [being inhospitable]… This so enraged Ka’b that he threw open his door. [Huyayy] said to him, “Good heavens, Ka’b, I have brought you immortal fame and a great army… They have made a firm agreement and promised me that they will not depart until we have made an end of Muhammad and his men. “Ka’b said, “By God, you have brought me immortal shame and an empty cloud while it thunders and lightenings with nothing in it. Woe to you Huyayy, leave me as I am.” (Ishaq/Hisham 674)
After much “wheedling” by the Meccans, however, the Qurayza leader finally gave in and agreed to remain neutral in the conflict. He would neither contribute troops to the city’s defense nor assist its impending capture at the hands of an army with superior numbers. The Muslims would be left on their own to deal with the conflict they had provoked with the Meccans.
The first twenty days of the conflict passed “without fighting” (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 676) other than a few exchanges of arrows across the trench. A half-hearted effort on that day to breach the defenses proved fatal to the Meccan tribe, thus convincing their leader that they could not win unless the Qurayza joined the battle from the other side. However, the Qurayza refused, ironically enough, thus prompting the Meccans to abandon the siege.
A grand total of just six Muslims had been killed at the Battle of the Trench. Each of their names were carefully recorded (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 699) – none were killed by the Qurayza or by anything done by the Qurayza.
With the battle over, however, Muhammad surprised his army by turning them against the Qurayza fortress, claiming that the neutrality of the leader was a breach of the original constitution of Medina which the prophet of Islam had personally drawn up for the tribes five years earlier. The original language of this ‘treaty’ is not known, however, and later guesses as to what it might have said seem suspiciously tailored.
It is unlikely, for example, that the tribes of Medina would have given Muslims the right to slaughter them for merely speaking out against him, yet several prominent Jewish leaders and poets had been assassinated on Muhammad’s order prior to the Qurayza affair. At least one innocent merchant was slain by his Muslim business partner following Muhammad’s order in 624 for his men to “kill any Jew who falls into your power” (al-Tabari 7:97). Muhammad had also attacked the two other Jewish tribes – parties to the same agreement – looting their property and then evicting them from their land.
It is likely that the troubles Muhammad brought on Medina, through his mistreatment of the Jews and his relentless pursuit of hostilities against the Meccans, were part of the sales pitch made by the Meccans to the Qurayza leader to win his neutrality – along with the implicit threat of slaughter if the city were taken by the Meccans. From Kab’s perspective, it would only be a matter of time before Muhammad found an excuse to attack and plunder his tribe as well.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, however, the Qurayza had not attacked the Muslims. In fact, had they attacked, then it surely would have been the end of Muhammad and his band of pirates since the southern end of the city was completely exposed to the Qurayza. In a terrible irony, it was the decision not to engage in violence that later sealed the fate of the Jews, who were only the first in a very long line of victims to horribly overestimate the value that Islam places on the lives of unbelievers.
According to Muhammad, it was the angel Gabriel (seen only by himself, of course) who ordered the siege on the Qurayza. After twenty-five days of blockade, the Jews gave in and surrendered to the prophet of Islam. As Ibn Ishaq/Hisham puts it, they “submitted themselves to the Apostle’s judgment” (Ishaq/Hisham 688).
Another misconception is that Muhammad did not render the death sentence against the Qurayza and was therefore not responsible for it. There is a partial truth in this, in that Muhammad clearly attempted to offload responsibility onto another party. However, from the narrative, it is obvious that Muhammad clearly approved of the subsequent massacre – a fact further verified both by his choice of “arbitrator” and his subsequent reaction.
First, the prophet of Islam tricked the Qurayza by getting them to agree to put their fate in the hands of “one of their own.” In fact, this was a convert to Islam, a Muslim who had fought in the Battle of the Trench. Unbeknownst to the Qurayza, Sa’d bin Muadh had also been one of the few Muslims fatally injured in the battle (Ishaq/Hisham 689), which one can reasonably assume to have influenced his judgment. According to the Hadith, he was quite eager to continue slaying “unbelievers” even as he lay dying in his tent (Bukhari 59:448).
Secondly, when Sa’d did render his decree that the men of Qurayza should be killed and their women and children pressed into slavery, Muhammad did not express the slightest bit of disapproval. In fact, the prophet of Islam confirmed this barbaric sentence to be Allah’s judgment as well (Bukhari 58:148).
Consider the contrast between the historical Muhammad and the man of “peace and forgiveness” that today’s Muslims often assure us he was. In light of the fact that the Qurayza had not killed anyone, wouldn’t a true man of peace have simply sought dialogue with them to try and determine their grievance, find common ground and then resolve the matter with dignity to both parties?
Instead, the prophet of Islam had the men bound with rope. He dug trenches and then began beheading the captives in batches. In a scene that must have resembled footage of Hitler’s death squads, small groups of helpless Jews, who had done no harm to anyone, were brought out and forced to kneel, staring down at the bodies of others before their own heads were lopped off and their bodies were pushed down into the ditch.
There is some evidence that Muhammad personally engaged in the slaughter. Not only does the earliest narrative bluntly say that the apostle “sent for them” and “made an end of them,” but there is also support for this in the Quran. Verse 33:26 says of the Qurayza, “some you slew, some you took captive.” The Arabic “you: is in the plural, but the Quran is supposed to be Allah’s conversation with Muhammad, so it makes no sense that he would be excluded.
In any event, there is no denying that Muhammad found pleasure in the slaughter, particularly after acquiring a pretty young Jewish girl (freshly “widowed” and thus available to him for sexual servitude) (Ishaq/Hisham 693).
Other women were not quite as compliant. The historians record the reaction of one woman who literally lost her mind as her family was being killed. The executioners apparently found her maniacal laughter annoying and beheaded her as well. As Aisha later recounted:
“I will not forget that she was laughing extremely although she knew that she would be killed” (Abu Dawud 2665)
(One can forgive Aisha’s obtuseness. At the time that she and her husband sat observing the carnage together, the wife of Muhammad was only 12-years-old).
Boys as young as 13 or 14 were executed as well, provided that they had reached puberty. The Muslims ordered the boys to drop their clothes. Those with pubic hair then had their throats cut (Abu Dawud 4390). There was no point in trying to determine whether or not they were actual combatants because there were none. There had been no combat!
Muhammad parceled out the widows and surviving children as slaves to his men for sexual servitude and labor. The wealth accumulated by the Qurayza was also divided. Since the tribe had been a peaceful farming and trading community, there were not enough weapons and horses taken to suit Muhammad’s tastes, so he obtained more of these by trading off some of the Qurayza women in a distant slave market (Ishaq 693).
In addition to the main question as to why people who had not killed anyone were put to death and enslaved, there are several others raised by Muhammad’s massacre of the Qurayza. For example, the Quran says that no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another” (Quran 53:38) yet every member of the tribe was punished for a decision pressed on one reluctant member.
And what of the places in the Qur’an where violent passages are sometimes mitigated by the occasional admonishment to cease killing those who stop fighting? The surrendered Qurayza had never even fought in the first place.
While Muslim apologists grapple with the challenges posed by this episode, the fate of the Qurayza is only the first of many such massacres that the Religion of Peace has provided the world. Whether it be the 4,000 Jews at Granada in 1066, the 100,000 Hindus on a single day in 1399, or the million or so Christian Armenians in the early 1900’s, untold tens of millions of innocents have perished in mass executions at the hands of Islam’s dedicated disciples…
Yet, there has never been, nor will there ever be in the future, an apology from those who follow Muhammad, since the massacre of infidels was the example personally set by their prophet at Qurayza.