Muhammad and the Banu Qurayza – Justice or Mass Murder?

Muhammad's men carried out the mass murder and enslavement of the Banu Qurayza tribe. Was this justice or a horrible crime?

Of the charges made against Muhammad by his detractors, the most serious is what is known as the Banu Qurayza incident. Anyone interested in Islam and the life of Muhammad needs to understand what happened.

The incident
The dispute that led to the Banu Qurayza incident started when the Meccans, angry about Muslims raiding the caravans that were economically vital to them, raised an army to attack the Muslims. As they were outnumbered, the Muslims resorted to digging a trench in an unconventional form of warfare for the time in what can be known as the Battle of the Trench.

While it was called The Battle of the Trench, there was in actually very little fighting and only six Muslims were killed. However, after the battle, Muhammad turned his army against his former allies the Banu Qurayza tribe, who, while they had contact with his enemies (there is evidence they were tricked into this contact), did not actively support them and remained neutral during the conflict.

After nearly a month of siege but no real fighting, the tribe surrendered to Muhammad’s mercy. See WikiIslam for more analysis and supporting evidence of these events.

Mass executions and enslavement
Although the exact details of the events leading up to this are beyond the scope of this article (see the link above for more details), there is absolutely no evidence the Banu Qurayza actively supported Muhammad’s enemies (the outcome of the battle would certainly have been very different if they had). In fact, it appears Muhammad’s primary goal in going to war with them was to gain their wealth. It should also be noted that they never killed a single Muslim. Regardless, the treatment they received was very severe and would be condemned as a crime against humanity if it happened today. It was decided that all the men of fighting age (those old enough to have pubic hair) would be killed, and the rest sold into slavery. Estimates of the number of killed ranges around 600-900 with a larger number sold into slavery.

The evidence
What happened to the Banu Qurayza is mentioned in the Quran and is documented in more detail by solid hadith and Muslim historians.

First, it is mentioned in the Quran

Qur’an 33:26-27 And He brought those of the People of the Scripture who supported them down from their strongholds, and cast panic into their hearts. Some ye slew and ye made captive some. And He caused you to inherit their land and their houses and their wealth, and land ye have not trodden. Allah is Able to do all things

Then the Messenger of Allah commanded that ditches should be dug, so they were dug in the earth, and they were brought tied by their shoulders, and were beheaded. There were between seven hundred and eight hundred of them. The children who had not yet reached adolescence and the women were taken prisoner, and their wealth was seized. Ibn Kathir (a respected Muslim historian)

Narrated Atiyyah al-Qurazi: I was among the captives of Banu Qurayzah. They (the companions) examined us, and those who had begun to grow hair (pubes) were killed, and those who had not were not killed. I was among those who had not grown hair. Abu Dawud 38:4390 (solid hadith)

The Messenger of God had commanded that all of them who had reached puberty should be killed. Al-Tabari: Vol 8. (p. 38)

Narrated Aisha, Ummul Mu’minin: “ No woman of Banu [tribe] Qurayzah was killed except one. She was with me, talking and laughing on her back and belly (extremely), while the Apostle of Allah . . . was killing her people with the swords. Suddenly a man called her name: Where is so-and-so? . . . I asked: What is the matter with you? She said: I did a new act. [Aisha] said: The man took her and beheaded her. [Aisha] said: I will not forget that she was laughing extremely although she knew that she would be killed.” Sunan Abu Dawud Book 14, Number 2665

With all the evidence in the given hadith and links, Muslims who have seriously looked into the incident will generally agree that many people were killed and enslaved but will try to justify Muhammad’s actions. To say it was all some kind of fabrication would not only be saying that many respected Muslims defamed Muhammad in writing a story that was not true, but it would also be saying Allah let many untrue things to be said and believed about his prophet by devout Muslims while he did nothing.

Apologetics response
Muslims frequently try to justify Muhammad’s actions by saying the Banu Qurayza betrayed Muhammad. There are several major problems with this:

  1. There is a lot to suggest it was Muhammad who had turned against them and not the other way around. Setting all of that aside, they certainly never did anything that endangered Muhammad, and someone with divine protection shouldn’t have had anything to worry about regardless.
  2. Assuming, contrary to the evidence, that the Banu Qurayza had not only betrayed Muhammad but worked against him, how does that justify punishing everyone in the tribe, from babies to the very old, in the most horrific way? Why not just punish the leaders? At the very least, he certainly could have found punishments less severe than mass murder and enslavement of everyone.

Setting an example
Another disturbing aspect of the story is the precedent it sets. Muhammad was supposed to have been in direct contact with god and a perfect example to emulate (uswa hasana). Assuming there was a need for sanction, there were so many less severe punishments that could have been given. Even killing their leaders and taking all their possessions, which would be a war crime by modern standards, would have seemed like a just and merciful punishment in comparison to what was done.

Some have argued that what Muhammad did was not particularly brutal in the harsh, barbaric standards of his day. However, he was supposed to have been acting at a higher standard and have been an example for all people for all times. Why wouldn’t Allah want him to set a good precedent to allow him to live up to his title instead of setting a terrible one that has been used to justify atrocities and created such a horrible story that is impossible for moral people to even defend?

Was it Muhammad’s verdict?
It has also been argued that what happened was not Muhammad’s responsibility because the decision to mass murder and enslave the tribe was not his. It is true that Sad bin Muadh, a convert to Islam who was dying from wounds received in an earlier battle, was the one who gave the verdict. There are reasons, covered here, to suspect that Muhammad knew what his verdict would be and had had a role in what it would be. Regardless, there is no doubt that Muhammad certainly approved of what was done and gave his full support to carrying it out.

Some people (i.e. the Jews of Bani bin Quraiza) agreed to accept the verdict of Sad bin Muadh so the Prophet sent for him (i.e. Sad bin Muadh). He came riding a donkey, and when he approached the Mosque, the Prophet said, “Get up for the best amongst you.” or said, “Get up for your chief.” Then the Prophet said, “O Sad! These people have agreed to accept your verdict.” Sad said, “I judge that their warriors should be killed and their children and women should be taken as captives.” The Prophet said, “You have given a judgment similar to Allah’s Judgment (or the King’s judgment).” Bukhari 5:58:148 Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:

Even assuming that Muhammad did not play a role in the verdict, there are still troubling questions.

First of all, it does not make any sense that Muhammad, who was supposed to be in direct contact with the creator of the universe, would need to refer to another for advice on such an important matter. Why refer to a man for a decision when you have the creator of the universe giving advice? Muhammad’s actions resemble that of a man using the age-old tactics of getting others to do your dirty work and not that of a prophet of a god.

Besides, looking past the absurdity of a prophet of a god asking another man for advice, there is still the fact that Muhammad, a man who was supposed to be a messenger of a god that everyone should follow, approved of and carried out crimes against humanity. Muhammad certainly had the power to exercise mercy and change the punishment to something less than the most horrific imaginable. Even if it was not in his heart, wouldn’t Allah want his prophet and example for humanity not to have something on his record that would never be justifiable to so much of humanity?

Muhammad gets another wife
As Ibn Ishaq, a respected Muslim historian reports, after his men had killed her husband, Muhammad took one of the women Rayhana d. `Amr b. Khunafa as a wife/concubine (466).Banu Qurayza

It should be noted that taking of captive women for this purpose is condoned in the Quran.
4:24 “And all married women are forbidden unto you save those captives whom your right hand possess. It is a decree of Allah for you. (Muhammad Pickthall’s English translation of the Quran).

More supporting evidence
In addition to the links mentioned in the article providing more details and documentation of this incident, the following is more proof of what happened. In addition, see more accounts here and here.

The Banu Qurayza could not have been actively supporting Muhammads enemies as the battle was over once they left. It is only afterwards that Muhammad decided to go to war with them.

Narrated ‘Aisha: When the Prophet returned from Al-Khandaq (i.e. Trench) and laid down his arms and took a bath, Gabriel came and said (to the Prophet), You have laid down your arms? By Allah, we angels have not laid them down yet. So set out for them.” The Prophet said, “Where to go?” Gabriel said, “Towards this side,” pointing towards Banu Quraiza. So the Prophet went out towards them. Bukhari 5.59.443-449

How the loot was divided

The Prophet divided the properties, women, and children of Banu Quraiza among the Muslims after he had separated one-fifth for public purposes. Each man of the cavalry received two shares, one for himself and one for his horse. On that day, the Muslim force included thirty-six cavalrymen. Sa’d ibn Zayd al Ansari sent a number of Banu Qurayza captives to Najd where he exchanged them for horses and armour in order to increase Muslim military power. Muhammad Husayn Haykal – The Life of Muhammad. (p. 338)

Muhammad rejects calls for mercy

Banu Qurayzah sent word to Muhammad proposing to evacuate their territory and remove themselves to Adhri’at, but Muhammad rejected their proposal and insisted on their abiding by his judgment. They sent to al-Aws pleading that they should help them as al-Khazraj had helped their client Jews before them. A group of al-Aws tribesmen sought Muhammad and pleaded with him to accept from their allies a similar arrangement to that which he accepted from the allies of al-Khazraj. Muhammad asked, “O men of al-Aws, would you be happy if we allowed one of your men to arbitrate the case?” When they agreed, he asked them to nominate whomsoever they wished. This was communicated to the Jews, and the latter, unmindful of the fate that was lying in store for them, nominated Sa’d ibn Mu’adh. Sa’d was a reputable man of al-Aws tribe, respected for his sound judgment. Previously, Sa’d was the first one to approach the Jews, to warn them adequately, even to predict to them that they might have to face Muhammad one day. He had witnessed the Jews cursing Muhammad and the Muslims. After his nomination and acceptance as arbitrator, Sa’d sought guarantees from the two parties that they would abide by his judgment. After these guarantees were secured, he commanded that Banu Qurayzah come out of their fortress and surrender their armour. Sa’d then pronounced his verdict that the fighting men be put to the sword, that their wealth be confiscated as war booty, and that the women and the children be taken as captives. When Muhammad heard the verdict, he said: “By Him Who dominates my soul, God is pleased with your judgment, 0 Sa’d; and so are the believers. You have surely done your duty.” He then proceeded to Madinah where he commanded a large grave to be dug for the Jewish fighters brought in to be killed and buried. Muhammad Husayn Haykal – The Life of Muhammad. (p. 337)

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Faith can be a very dangerous thing if not backed up by evidence. Question everything and do not blindly follow. Certainty does not necessitate truth. If your God is almighty, he can certainly stand up to human questioning.

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