By Qasim Rashid
Part 1: One of the most vile and unfounded claims levied against Prophet Muhammad (saw) is that he ordered the execution of 900 Jews. While the accusations cite different alleged reasons, each is completely without merit in history or in fact. So, what really happened?
Some historians suggest the possibility that somewhere between 600 and 900 Jews were executed shortly after the Battle of the Ditch. This event is suggested in several references, including the Sahi Hadeeth, or authentic traditions of Prophet Muhammad. Some sources, such as Jewish sources, fail to record the event altogether. However, the writings of one Ibn Ishaq bring much dispute to the event. Ibn Ishaq lived from 704 to 761 (some sources say 767), and is largely credited for writing the first biography of the Prophet Muhammad.
Critics of Islam use the title of “first biography of Muhammad” as a badge of authenticity. In taking every word of Ibn Ishaq as undisputed gospel, these critics fail to consider several crucial points that clearly demonstrate Ishaq’s inaccuracies.
First and foremost, none of Ishaq’s original works have survived. This should raise a red flag for any objective seeker of truth. On the other hand, countless hadeeth reporting the event in question offer an undisputed and authentic line of narration and recording traceable to the very day in question.
Critics then cite that al-Bakki, one of Ibn Ishaq’s students did procure an edited copy of ibn Ishaq’s work. While this is not an exact copy, it is ‘close enough’ they proclaim. Detrimental to their assertion is the fact that none of al-Bakki’s works have survived either. This further demonstrates the unreliability of Ishaq, leaving critics without a leg to stand on. What we are left with today is a twice removed and further edited loose biography at the hands of ibn Hisham, a student of al-Bakki.
Ibn Ishaq’s work was also recorded at the hands of Salamah ibn Fadl al-Ansari. However, al-Ansari’s work too has not survived, and only exists in random and incomplete fragments.
Ishaq’s inconsistencies do not stop here. The Rijal books are a well known and respected series, reporting the biographies of the six authentic recorders of Hadeeth. According to the books of Rijal, Ibn Ishaq often borrowed from completely unreliable sources when recording the battles of Prophet Muhammad. Ishaq’s contemporaries testify in unison that Ibn Ishaq used unreliable sources when recording the life of Prophet Muhammad, especially when it related to his battles.
Needless to say, to rely on Ibn Ishaaq’s clearly corrupted, incomplete, and largely edited writing is simply not a logical or worthwhile approach. Much more authentic sources are available in the six separate books of authentic Hadeeth. Therefore, an objective seeker of truth must give such books the due weight they deserve.
So, if the work of Ibn Ishaq is not reliable, what are we left with? In fact, we are left with plenty. The authentic hadeeth of Prophet Muhammad, while still the work of men, provide consistent and reaffirming evidence as to what truly took place that day.
Prophet Muhammad certainly did not kill, nor give the order to kill, 900 Jews. But, something took place that day. Several questions arise.
Who were these Jews and for what crime were they killed? Who killed them? If Muhammad himself didn’t kill them, why did he not stop their execution?
Part 2: In Part I we dismantled a common misconception that Ibn Ishaq is the premire reliable authority in all matters pertaining to the life of the Prophet Muhammad. We demonstrated through logic and several historical references that in fact, Ishaq falls short on several crucial aspects required for historical accuracy.
In Part II of this series we will analyze the alleged massacre of 900 Jews from a practical perspective. The picture Ishaq paints, if accepted, leaves numerous gaping holes that contradict one another. As gruesome a picture it paints, the execution of 900 human beings results in a domino effect, each making the next situation less plausible than the last.
Let us begin, appropriately at the beginning of the event in question.
The Banu Qurayzah, the tribe Prophet Muhammad allegedly massacred, lived at a 6 hour walking distance outside the city of Medina. The first fallacy in Ishaq’s argument comes to light when he suggests that Prophet Muhammad ordered the entire tribe to come to Medina for sentencing. Including the elderly, women, and children, such a trip must have extended to nearly double the normal length. Medina was not a large city. If the intent was to put to death nearly a thousand people, why do so in the middle of town? Medina had neither the capacity to bury so many corpses, nor the infrastructure to keep captive so many people. Why migrate an entire tribe into town, only to kill them and transport their corpses back out of town?
Next, Ishaq reports that 900 adult males, i.e. heads of households, were put to death Even with a conservative estimate of 2.5 children per family, the entire tribe consisted of roughly 4000 members. Ishaq claims that Prophet Muhammad imprisoned the entire tribe. What prison facility was used? How much rope must have been needed? How were food and restroom facilities provided for? Not one man, woman, or child tried to escape? If we assume Ishaq’s testimony is accurate, it is impossible that these crucial matters were addressed given Medina’s severely limited resources. It becomes quite clear why Ishaq’s contemporaries rightly dismissed him for utilizing unreliable sources when recording history.
However, the fallacies do not stop here. Ishaq reports that after the execution, all 900 corpses were buried in Medina. This is utterly impossible for several reasons. To dig graves, even a mass grave to bury 900 corpses within the limited town of Medina requires resources well beyond what was available to the Muslims of that time. The dimensions of such a grave would need to be quite large and impossible to dig in just a few days. In the meantime, the rotting corpses would no doubt have become diseased and repugnant. Such an incident would have inexorably resulted in the spread of famine. However, nothing of the sort is recorded in any historical document, no matter how accurate or speculative. This further demonstrates the impracticality of Ishaq’s story.
Last, but certainly not least, no Jewish tribes, historians, or scholars record this event. The Jewish people have recorded their history better than perhaps any people in history. Yet, in regards to such a massive execution, every Jewish historian, scholar, and tribe is utterly silent. Meanwhile, the deaths of individual Jews at the hands of Muslims are recorded in great detail. At the time of Umar, the second Khalifa, a Jew was wrongfully killed at the hands of a Muslim. Not only was the event recorded but the Khalifa, Umar, saw to it personally that the family of the Jew was paid blood money for their loss.
If anything, at least the enemies of the Prophet Muhammad would have recorded this event. Yet, every other source is absolutely silent. Coincidence? Impossible. All these facts further demonstrate that Ibn Ishaq not only recorded inaccurate history, but took an unjustified liberty in exaggerating the history he did record.
We are then left with only a few final questions. What do the accurate records of history demonstrate actually took place that day? If Prophet Muhammad did not kill 900 Jews, then what is the truth? Why were the Banu Qurayzah deserving of any punishment at all?
Therefore, when considering a Hadeeth, we must always apply the following strategy. Regardless of the Hadeeth’s alleged accuracy, if the Hadeeth contradicts a teaching of the Holy Qur’an, and cannot in any capacity be understood to coincide with Quranic teachings, then the Qur’an always takes precedence. This is beacuse the Qur’an is the infallible word of God that God Himself has promised to safeguard (15:10), while Hadeeth are collected teachings of man with no promise of Divine protection.
With this premise in mind, the most accurate scenario proceeds as follows. The Battle of the Ditch was a viciously lopsided battle, in which an army of nearly 20,000 attacked the Muslim army of roughly 1200. Salman Farsi, a Persian companion of the Prophet Muhammad suggested that the Muslims build a ditch along the most exposed side of Medina to ward off attackers, hence the name of the battle.
While natural barriers protected Medina from the sides, the rear was still exposed. To remedy this situation, Prophet Muhammad forged a treaty alliance with the Banu Qurayzah to guard the back of the city. However, once the battle commenced, the Banu Qurayzah secretly sided with the enemy army. Essentially, the Muslims were now responsible for two fronts with an army less than 1/15th the size of their opponents. The Holy Qur’an makes reference to this event in Chapter 33:11-14.
For the sake of brevity we cannot entertain all the details of the battle. With God’s grace the Muslim army still prevailed victorious, despite the overwhelming odds and despite Banu Qurayzah’s treason. However, due to their open treason, justice demanded they be held accountable. When asked of their actions, the Banu Qurayzah showed no signs of remorse, nor did they ask for clemency, and instead engaged the Muslims in battle.
Soon the Banu Qurayzah stopped fighting and asked for negotiations. It is of note that this was the second time the Banu Qurayzah broke a pact with the Muslims. Upon their first act of treason years earlier, Prophet Muhammad exiled them from Medina as their punishment. Eventually he allowed them to return. Therefore, stare decisis, or historical precedent held that Prophet Muhammad would simply have exiled them once again. As further evidence, a Jewish leader named Amr bin Ma’di rebuked his people for going back on their word. He showed remorse for his actions of treason, asked forgiveness, and was released. The Prophet, upon learning Amr bin Ma’di had been released, decisively approved. This again demonstrates that the Jews knew they had committed an illegal act, and that the Prophet Muhammad was ready to forgive those who merely acknowledged their error and asked to be forgiven.
However, the Banu Qurayzah neither asked for forgiveness, nor did they let the Prophet enter his judgment during the negotiation. Instead of the Prophet’s judgment, they said they would only accept the judgment of Sa‘d bin Mu‘adh, chief of their allies, the Aus. They would agree to any punishment he proposed. This is recorded in Bukhari, Tabari, and Khamis. Sa’d bin Mu’adh first asked and received personal confirmation from the Prophet Muhammad that he would bind himself and the Muslims to whatever decision he, Sa’d, delivered. The Prophet agreed. Sa’d asked for the same confirmation from the Banu Qurayzah. They agreed. Upon receiving unhindered confirmation from both parties, Sa’d bin Mu’adh recited the following verses of the Holy Bible.
“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. Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amoiites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the Lord your God.” (Deut. 20: 10-18).
Any person can see that Prophet Muhammad has absolutely nothing to do with Sa’d bin Mu’adh’s decision. The Prophet was bound to Sa’d’s decision as the arbitrator the Banu Qurayzah themselves chose. Prophet Muhammad still forgave those who repented and asked for forgiveness. Under what rationale then, can the blame for such a punishment be placed on a man who had nothing to do with said punishment? Justice was meted, not by the hands of Muhammad or Islam. Rather, by the hands of Mosaic and Biblical law. The Banu Qurayzah sealed their fate with their own hands and their own law, upon the decision of their own arbitrator.
So let us quickly recap this crucial series of events. The Banu Qurayzah signed a treaty alliance and then committed treason. Rather than asking for forgiveness and admitting their error, they continued to oppose the Muslims. Then, rather than accepting Prophet Muhammad’s lighter sentence, they chose an arbitrator, Sa’d bin Mu’adh, who was the chief of their own allies. Sa’d bin Mu’adh then chose to deliver a punishment not in accordance with Islamic law, but in accordance with Jewish Law as written in the Holy Bible. That Jewish law required that the Jews who committed treason be put to death. Therefore, any objective mind can clearly see that Prophet Muhammad is entirely innocent of any wrong doing, and he most certainly did not kill 900 Jews. Indeed, Prophet Muhammad was a lover of humanity and peace.
The Banu Qurayzah, if in fact 900 were killed, were given a fate of their own choosing–and not of the choosing of Prophet Muhammad. This is the factual reality that history records.
For More Info: While this article has been lengthy, there is much more detail to these events that we could not cover for the sake of brevity. Dr. Barkat Ahmad has written a superb book entitled Muhammad and the Jews. This book is a must read for any person studying this event. Dr. Ahmad offers perhaps the most comprehensive and detailed account of this event based on detailed and authentic historical references.
Find Qasim Rashid on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MuslimIQ