Refutation: Banu Qurayzah Incident

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?

Part 3: In Part I we dismantled the ideology that Ibn Ishaq is the premier authority on the life of Prophet Muhammad(sa).In Part II we demonstrated that the fact pattern critics put forth regarding the Banu Qurayzah incident has no basis in history.In Part III we will explain through authentic references what actually happened.  It should be noted that even Hadeeth have their limits.  Some collectors of Hadeeth recorded nearly half a million Hadeeth, and proceeded to discard all but a few thousand due to lack of reliability in the chain of narration.  While this certainly helped improve the accuracy of those Hadeeth kept, no work of human hands is fool proof.

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

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11 thoughts on “Refutation: Banu Qurayzah Incident

  1. Nice math, but who needs 75 men to work for 2 days when “There was a ready-made trench dug outside Medina just a month before for the Battle of the Ditch. Why, rather than digging a new trunch, was it not used for disposal of bodies to avoid sanitation problems in Medina?” (http://muslimsunrise.com/dmddocuments/2010_spring.pdf, page 17). Please read this article for more arguments.

  2. I am reluctant to take on conjecture. Usually it is just followed by more and more conjecture. Eventually one has to deal in historically based fact. Once you do that, we can perhaps have a more thoughtful discussion. Until then, it is just conjecture, circular arguments and explaining away real arguments with philosophy.

  3. “…Schacht / Goldziher formulated arguments.” Never heard of him.
    But a Google search of that brought this up:
    http://wikiislam.net/wiki/The_Origins_of_the_Qur%27an
    A slightly different set of opinions.

    You never addressed any salient points in what I suggested.
    If my conjectures are not wholly unreasonable, say so, and demonstrate their pitfalls.
    If their is anything worthwhile in them that leads to further investigation and enlightenment, then say so. Or refuse to comment, as is your right.

  4. 1. No academic worth his weight would agree with what you said. The world has moved on from these kind of Schacht / Goldziher formulated arguments. So much is out there to rubbish this perspective that I need not add anything further. The Einstein argument is of no relevance – he was an accredited, peer-reviewed genius. With all due respect, I do not imagine that either of us match up.

    2. Again, you have yourself provided a circular argument. You must first prove your point of view or your argument remains no more than, as you put it, a ”guestimate.”

    3. ” ”

    4. The current world position amongst 99% of academics stands against you. In such an instance the onus is on you to provide evidence against the majority opinion and not the other way round.

    5. Your arguments are not philosophical ones, as pointed out by you through the language you use in refuting the first quote of mine. You cannot on the one hand base an argument on [erroneous] historical based moot and then reduce it to a philosophical argument. Historiography is not built on the basis of philosophical argument.

  5. theartofmisinformation on October 21, 2011 at 10:16 am said:
    “…the hadith literature, which holds great weight as an historical source,…”
    Can you please quantify that weight? Considering the (haphazard) method of recording, then later uncertain codifying and sorting, all sent down to us in its own writings; that is another circular argument. What is needed is believable, verifiable, contemporary physical texts from other sources, by accepted historians, the more the better.
    “…you have presented argumentation based on pure conjecture.”
    Was Einstein’s thought pure conjecture? Which facts and figures in my conjecture do you find troubling or in error?

    Let me try some different questions:
    1/. What is the nature of the soil in the area which was historical Yathrib; sand, rock, mixed?
    (If it was pure sand, The Trench would have been very difficult to dig, but just so effective against an armed enemy trying to scramble up the slope.)
    2/. Are there any sketches of historical Yathrib, or its layout, maybe showing dimensions?
    3/. Are my guesstimates for grave size or time to dig outrageously wrong? I think someone would have challenged those figures as nonsense.
    4/. Does anyone have valid arguments against any my theoretical figures?

    “I am sure you can well appreciate that that is not an acceptable historical methodology.”
    I am not sure if your statement is an acceptable philosophical argument against my proposals.
    Why not say: “We don’t wish to discuss this.”?

  6. @ TimBus – For your arguments to be valid, you cannot just attempt to “logically refute” the arguments that the author brings up. That logic must be based on historical fact and authentic references – none of which are provided – otherwise your arguments are not actually arguments, but merely empty statements.

    The article, and the book it references at the end, cite authentic historical sources. The article notwithstanding, for you to prove your point, you must be able to dismantle the arguments in the book, “Muhammad and the Jews,” and show why the references that author cites are not valid by providing more authentic arguments.

    Otherwise, while your comments, while they make your position clear, do not actually validate your position in the least bit.

  7. I am not a historian; are you?
    The ‘gedankenexperiment’ I used, is a technique very much used by practical historians. If we don’t know how something was done, we freely conjecture, and discuss with our peers. Some ideas are immediately shot down for reasons which are obvious when mentioned. Others are discussed at greater lengths. Then, a certain class of historian or archaeologist will dirty their hands and try. Many conjectured that it would take too many man-hours to dig holes at Stonehenge, when the only tools found were deer antlers. Then someone tried it, and found it to be considerably faster than expected.
    I am always thinking about measures of things, about what is the right order of magnitude, i.e. my answer is within 1/3 to 3 times the correct value.

  8. Thank you for your message. I am glad that a person such as yourself has come here in order to challenge the Islamic position. I will post a response, unless someone does so before me, over the next two or three days. Please do keep sharing your thoughts on various issues and we will say where dialogue takes us.

    May I just quickly point out that while the position adopted in the article is based on the hadith literature, which holds great weight as an historical source, you have presented argumentation based on pure conjecture. No doubt your facts may be true regarding dimensions, etc., but you must find a direct historical link in the records to be able to connect the two. Otherwise it is just a theory with no substantive basis. I am sure you can well appreciate that that is not an acceptable historical methodology.

  9. You have records of the size of Yathrib/Medina at that time? How big was it? Even if there was a genocide just outside the ‘town’ limits (was there a wall?), might that be called ‘in’ or ‘at’ Medina?
    “…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.”
    What resources?
    “The dimensions of such a grave would need to be quite large and impossible to dig in just a few days.”
    Let’s say that a generous space for a body is 2m long x 0.5m wide x 0.3m deep, that’s 0.3 cubic metres per body. In a single trench, side by side, that trench would be 450m long x 2m wide x 2m deep. But if the bodies were layered six deep; 6 x 0.3 m = 1.8m; plus 2m cover = 3.8m depth. But now the length is 450/6 = 75m. So a trench 75m long x 2m wide x 3.8m deep would suffice. That’s large, but how large was The Trench that defended Medina; and how quickly was it dug? Now let’s guess at the time. If one man could dig 2m x 0.5m x 3.8m in a 5-8 hour day, that would take 150 days. But 75 men working together could do that in just two days. And who’s to say that the prisoners of war were not forced to dig their own grave? Not mentioned? Anything else not mentioned, what booty/how many women/children/animals/gold/silver?
    “Such an incident would have inexorably resulted in the spread of famine.” That is your mistake; not hadith. You could spread disease, not famine!
    “This is beacuse [sic] the Qur’an is the infallible word of God that God Himself has promised to safeguard…”
    Circular reasoning. It is the word of God because it says so. It is actually the Uthmanic recension.

  10. I wonder why the enemies of Prophet Muhammad (saw) in this age consider it rational to think that – even if he ordered to – killed women and children as well from the Banu Qurayza. You have done a wonderful job in your article. Mashallah. This is a very serious allegation they raise because it very clearly says in a Hadith of Sahih Bukhari that the warriors were killed but the women and children were taken captive.

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