February 25, 2006
Muhammad and Massacre of the Qurayza JewsBy James Arlandson
In AD 627, Muhammad committed an atrocity against the last remaining major tribe of Jews in Medina: the Qurayza. He beheaded the men and the pubescent boys and enslaved the women and children. In doing this, he wiped an entire tribe 'off the map' to use the recent language of the President of Iran.
To understand how and why this atrocity unfolded, some straightforward history of early Islam is helpful.
The immediate background of this mass extermination and enslavement is the Battle of the Trench (or Ditch), in February—March—April (the exact calculations vary), AD 627. This battle—though it ended up being a siege—pitted the Quraysh (a large tribe in and around Mecca) against the Muslims and Medinan non—Muslims.
The Quraysh had allies: the Ghatafan (northern Arab tribes to the east of Medina and Mecca) and an assortment of smaller tribes. As for the Muslims, prominent Islamologist W. M. Watt says that on the eve of battle, Muhammad's army consisted of
As for the size of the two armies, the standard figure for the Meccans and their allies is 10,000, but one Muslim scholar says that the coalition of pagans may have reached 12,000 (Maududi vol. 3, p. 63). However, Watt says of the coalition:
On the Muslim side, the standard figure that is widely accepted is 3,000. They had no cavalry to speak of.
The larger background of this atrocity against the Jews reveals that Muhammad had already expelled two tribes of Jews: the Qaynuqa in AD 624 and the Nadir in AD 625. (The reasons are reviewed here.) The upshot of all of this is clear. The conflict between Muslims and Jews is escalating, and the Prophet is about to impose the ultimate penalty on the last remaining major tribe of Jews in Medina. 
What started the Battle of the Trench?
Many causes feed into any conflict, but one stands out. Muslim raiders harassed Meccan trade. Modern Saudi biographer Safi—ur—Rahman al—Mubarakpuri expresses the right idea: . . .
Then he lists eight raids between 623 and the Battle of Badr in AD 624. In each one, Muslims were the aggressors, to accomplish the big objective of strangling Mecca's trade. These raids that sometimes involved hundreds of men continued steadily from that time to the Battle of the Trench, when the Meccans had had enough. So they wanted to finish off Islam, once and for all.
From Muhammad's point of view, he wanted the Kabah shrine in Mecca, and if this goal involved hindering Meccan trade, then so be it. Two early Medinan suras or chapters (2 and 8) reveal his outlook.
Sura 2:189—196 and 216—218 command Muslims to fight the Quraysh because this tribe wanted to control their own shrine, even if this entailed prohibiting the Muslims (who were hampering the large tribe's trade in the first place) from visiting it.
Sura 2:125—129 asserts without a shred of evidence that Abraham built and purified the shrine, and now Muhammad the monotheist is the best representative of this patriarch. He claimed this while he lived in Mecca, too (Sura 14:35—41). So in effect the shrine belonged to him by revelation, before it actually did by conquest (in early AD 630).
Finally, in Sura 8:30—40, the Prophet recounts his persecution back in Mecca and why the Quraysh are not the rightful guardians of the shrine. They barred people from it—never mind that about eight years later the Prophet will bar pagans from the shrine. All Arab polytheists will be forced to convert or die.
It is impossible (for me at least) to escape the impression that if Muhammad had put aside this desire to control the Kabah, then much of the conflict between him and the Quraysh would never have erupted in the first place. But the shrine was a popular place of religious pilgrimage, so how could he allow religious freedom for polytheists?
Were the Jews involved in the start of the Battle of the Trench? The Islamic sources say that they indeed stirred up the Meccans against the Muslims.
Early biographer Ibn Ishaq says:
How much did the Jews instigate the battle, and how much were the Meccans fed up with Muslim harassment on their own without Jewish provocation? This is unclear. But let us assume only for the sake of argument that the Islamic sources are right. These specific Jews were the principal instigators. In the end, this does not matter, for the following reason.
It is important to cite these (complex) names, above, because today's Muslim polemicists who defend Muhammad's extermination and enslavement of the Qurayza Jews overlook the fact that early Islam knew specifically who the enemy Jewish leaders were—by name.
So did all the men and adolescent boys have to be executed and all the women and children enslaved? Couldn't only the leaders have been executed? 
The Battle of the Trench
The strategy of digging trenches was new to Arabia, and the early Islamic sources make much of it. The Muslims dug a trench to the north of Medina, linking them to places near or on high ground (e.g. Mt. Sal, a hill in the central area of Medina) and other difficult spots (e.g. a marshy ground), in order to neutralize the Meccan cavalry and to avoid hand—to—hand pitched battles. The Muslim army bivouacked south of the trench with Medina at their backs, while the coalition camped north of the trench, facing Medina, with Mt. Uhud at their backs. The Jews retreated south of Medina, facing the back of the Muslim army.
Though the Muslims were under siege, which pressed them hard, the trenches worked well. The coalition's cavalry was stymied, except a foray that came to nothing. The Meccans tried to assault the trench, but they were easily repulsed. The Muslim sources say that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son—in—law, fought in a duel, which he won. Some arrows were shot, but that achieved nothing.
Therefore, this must be emphasized: No real battles or warfare occurred, and this favored the outnumbered Muslims. Early biographer Ibn Ishaq says—and modern historians are in complete agreement—that
Early historian Tabari agrees:
Again, modern western scholars agree on this point.
Even the Quran confirms the absence of a pitched battle:
It is important to realize this fact because Muslim polemicists assert or imply that the Jews actually fought the Muslims, so if the Jews were exterminated and enslaved, then it was their fault.
But no full—scale battles ever took place, and the early sources say that the Jews remained in their houses and fortresses near Medina—that is, the sources do not depict them forcefully sallying out and attacking Muslims from behind.
Finally, the early sources say that a storm battered the coalition, and the Quran confirms this, implying also that supernatural forces joined in the fight:
In short, the coalition that had amassed against the Muslims in Medina was losing heart.
The bottom line on this siege: the Meccans and their allies had to withdraw because their siege did not work.
The aftermath for the Qurayza Jews
After the withdrawal of the coalition, the Jews were isolated, whereas Muhammad had 3,000 jihadists, signaling disaster for the Jews. The tragic drama unfolds in five stages.
(1) The Angel Gabirel
Traditions state that as the Prophet was taking a bath, (non—Biblical) Gabriel the angel appeared to him.
Gabriel tells him the battle is not finished. Muhammad is ordered to fight the Qurayza Jews.
When Allah's Apostle returned on the day (of the battle) of Al—Khandaq (i.e. Trench), he put down his arms and took a bath. Then Gabriel, whose head was covered with dust, came to him saying,
Allah's Apostle said,
This next hadith shows a regiment of Gabriel (Muslim warriors) marching towards the fortresses of the Jews.
These traditions about Gabriel's leadership are designed to give divine support for the atrocity that is about to be unleashed. Today, we may see this as fanciful, but to millions of Muslims this is real. Be that as it may, one thing is clear. Muhammad had taken off his armor and was enjoying a bath, so he did not feel immediately threatened by these Jews. They had not lined up in battle array to wage war.
But even if Muhammad had felt threatened, why not expel the Jews? Soon Islam will be so powerful that it will expel all Jews (and Christians) from the Arabian Peninsula (see also the hadiths here and here).
Muhammad in fact already had expelled two tribes of Jews a few years earlier. He conquered the mainly Jewish city of Khaybar in AD 628. Some assert that if Muhammad had simply expelled the Jews, they would constitute a later substantial and serious threat. But he had already done so with no threat ever developing. He was on the rise militarily.
(2) The poet warrior
It is odd that during Muhammad's twenty—five—day siege of the Jews, he employed a poet to abuse them.
This demonstrates the high value poetry held was in seventh—century Arabia. Call it the psychological warfare of its day. A smear campaign.
Muhammad believed poetry so powerful that he assassinated poets who mocked him. But now that he has the power, he gets to employ a satirical poet without fear of reprisal. In fact, he refers to the Jews as brothers of monkeys, citing a legend that he believed, namely, that God turned some disobedient Jews into apes. (Ibn Ishaq pp. 461—62).
(3) No strong Jewish resistance.
How could they resist, when Muhammad had just withstood such a large coalition and still had at his command 3,000 jihadists?
Something strange happened while the Jews were negotiating the terms of surrender. They called for a man named Abu Lubaba, a nominal or half—committed Muslim who may have opposed Muhammad on several occasions.
They asked him, 'Abu Lubaba, do you think we should submit to Muhammad's judgment?' He said yes, but then he gestured with his hand to his throat to indicate slaughter.
Immediately afterwards, he felt that he had betrayed Muhammad. But why? Scholars are not sure.
Maybe Abu Lubaba believed that he had signaled imminent death to the Jews, although Muhammad wanted to keep this brutality a secret. The Jews would have resisted submission on these gruesome terms. Watt speculates that the Muslim go—between may have been standing firm in his own clan's alliance with the Jews and gave away too much information.
Regardless of the scholarly debate, his gesture at his throat is not in dispute.At issue is why he felt that he betrayed Muhammad.
This means that the outcome was not in doubt. The hand to the throat unmistakably indicated the Jews would die.
Source: Ibn Ishaq p. 462; Watt, Muhammad at Medina, pp. 188—89; 214—17
(4) Muhammad proposed that the Jews submit to the judgment of Sad bin Muadh.
He was the leader of a large Medinan tribe, the Aws (or Aus), some of whom favored old alliances with the Jews. The leader was an elderly man who was wounded during the siege. His verdict was short and simple—but bloody and cruel.
It should be noted from this passage that Sad bin Muadh sat next to Muhammad. Was there undue influence from Muhammad on the wounded old man who was about to die and meet Allah? Muhammad had often preached hell fire in the mosque. That is, Sad knew that he was dying, so possibly he wanted to demonstrate his allegiance to the Prophet and Islam. The best way, as the circumstances presented themselves, was to decide on death and enslavement, the ultimate penalty signaling the ultimate commitment. Sad made the Prophet glad. Shortly after this verdict the elder in fact died from his wound. Sources: Ibn Ishaq pp. 463—64; Tabari vol. 8, p. 34.
(5) The sentence: Death by decapitation for around 300—600 men and pubescent boys, and enslavement for the women and children. Ibn Ishaq says that the number may have been as high as 800—900 (p. 464).
Muhammad was wise enough to have six clans execute two Jews each in order to stop any blood—feuds. The rest of the executions were probably carried out by Muhammad's fellow Emigrants from Mecca, as the heads and bodies were dragged into trenches in the business district of Medina. Source: Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, p. 174
How did the executioners decide on which boy to slaughter or leave alive? This hadith gives the obvious answer. Narrated Atiyyah al—Qurazi:
I was among the captives of Banu [tribe] 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. (Bukhari; see Ibn Ishaq p. 466)
This next hadith indicates that a woman was delirious. She was killed. Narrated Aisha . . .
The following narrative says that Muhammad took one woman for himself.
Shortly afterwards, though, she converted to Islam and a messenger informed Muhammad of this, and he reacted to the good news: "This gave him pleasure." It is wrong to believe that this woman was Muhammad's motive to execute so many Jews, but she did provide an unforeseen, extra benefit.
This hadith gives a hint on how the wealth was distributed.
More specifically, Ibn Ishaq says the spoils were divided among the Muslims thus:
A jihadist horseman was generally wealthier than a horseless jihadist, so this rewarded those with wealth in 'egalitarian' Islam. Also, Muhammad was unable to collect any spoils from the departed Meccans and their allies, so how was he supposed to reward his jihadists? The wealth of the Jews. Apart from the details of how the Prophet distributed the spoils here, the division of twenty percent for him and eighty percent for his warriors conforms to a 'revelation' just after the Battle of Badr in AD 624. In Sura (Chapter) 8:1 and 41, which deals with this battle, Allah grants him and his fighters these percentages.
Allah also allows jihadists to have sex with female slaves. Do we need to discuss this topic any further in the context of these Jewish women and girls? Sources: Ibn Ishaq, pp. 464—66; Tabari, vol. 8, pp. 27—41.
The steps to the massacre
Since all the names and politics can be confusing, here is a quick summary of the facts found in the previous section.
In any steps leading up to an atrocity, something wrong is bound to be revealed, and this appears to be no. 9. As noted, Muhammad could have exiled the Jews, as he had done to the Jewish tribes of Qaynuqa and Nadir a few years earlier. Or he could have executed only the leaders, if he believed that they stirred up his enemies—assuming that they really did this, as the Islamic sources allege.
Something is also wrong with step no. 13. Even though everyone agreed to abide by the verdict, who could have complained—justly complained—if Muhammad had announced the following?
Why does he not show mercy? The answer is found in no. 14. Muhammad needs to reward his jihadists, since they collected no spoils from the departed coalition—Allah gives him permission to do this in Sura 33:27 (see the next section, 'the Quran'). And what makes this entire episode doubly heinous is that Muhammad and his jihadists could have had all of the wealth of the Jews after he banished them, but he still did not take this merciful option.
Allah seems to celebrate this slaughter and enslavement in Sura 33:25—27:
These verses reveal three unpleasant truths.
First, Allah helps the Muslims in warfare or battle (three—letter Arabic root is q—t—l in v. 25) against a much—larger foe, so Allah endorses Islam in battle. Also, verse 25 confirms that Muhammad had nothing substantial to fear from the Jews. 'Allah turned back the unbelievers . . . and Allah spared the believers battle.' In down—to—earth terms, Muhammad still had at his disposal a large, weather—beaten army. The Prophet had expelled two other tribes (Qaynuqa and Nadir), so he could have done the same to the Qurayza—as indeed they requested. But the Prophet for humanity declined this merciful and humane option.
Second, Allah permits the enslavement and beheading of Jews, so any Muslim familiar with the background of this verse knows that beheading as such has been assimilated into the Quran. The word q—t—l in verse 26 means slaughter. What is so troubling about the verse is that it seems to celebrate the 'terror' that Allah threw into the Jews' hearts. Indeed, when Abu Lubaba the mediator approached the Jews during negotiations, the women and children were crying. Allah gladly terrorized them.
Finally, Allah permits Muhammad to take the Jewish clan's property on the basis of conquest and his possession of all things. This is a dubious revelation and reasoning. Allah speaks, and this benefits Muhammad materially. This happens often in Muhammad's life.
If anyone is looking for a down—to—earth reason for Muhammad's attack on the Qurayza Jews (instead of 'Gabriel's leadership'), then he does not need to look any further than verse 27. The Prophet confiscated wealth. After all, the Meccans and their allies withdrew without allowing Muslims to take their wealth. So how was Muhammad going to reward his jihadists?
Muslim polemical and outreach websites often assert that Islam promotes human rights. It is impossible to see how they can say this honestly and at the same time appeal to the origins of their religion.
This whitewash is deceitful at best and dangerous at worst, if or when Islam gets a foothold in a region on the pretence of 'peace and love.' Maybe sleepy Westerners and others will accept this benign version of Islam—in fact too many do, right now. But what happens later when hard—line Muslims (not to mention nonviolent and violent fanatics) cite the numerous brutal verses in the Quran and passages in the hadith to inflict barbarity on people, especially on Jews?
The evidence in this article alone demonstrates that violence is embedded in original Islam. Even a reliable hadith shows Allah reprimanding Muhammad for another of his cruelties (see this article). Sadly, though, Allah did not reprimand his favorite prophet for this clear atrocity against the Jews, but celebrates it (Sura 33:25—27).
It is time for Muslim leaders to renounce violence clearly and specifically, not vaguely: 'Yes, we denounce all forms of violence' They must go deeper than this. They must stop denying the dark past, found in the Quran itself and in the example of their Prophet. They must, instead, be clear. 'We denounce these specific verses and passages in the Quran and hadith that are violent. These specific acts and words happened in the seventh century (and later centuries), and we have moved beyond all of them. We now want peace.'
A peaceful presentation of Islam is not full disclosure. It is time to be honest. Only then can interfaith dialogue even begin.
James M. Arlandson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Sources: Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, Oxford UP, 1961, pp. 166—67; Muhammad at Medina, Oxfored UP, 1956; Sayyid Abul A'La Maududi, The Meaning of the Quran, vol. 3; Ibn Ishaq, Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume, Oxford UP, 1955, pp. 363—64; 437—45. Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) valuable and reliable source by modern scholars, except for some chronology and the miraculous elements. Tabari, The Foundation of the Community, trans. M.V. McDonald and annotated by W. M. Watt (SUNYP, 1987), pp. 85—87; 156—61. Tabari (d. 923) is also considered a reliable source, except for some chronology and the miraculous elements.
 Sources: Ibn Ishaq; Tabari, The Victory of Islam, trans. M. Fishbein, vol. 8, (1997), pp. 6—7. Safi—ur—Rahman Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar: Biography of the Noble Prophet, Darrusalam, 1996, p. 201. This biography was awarded first prize by the Muslim World League, but it is an encomium more than an objective biography.
This article is the longer version. It has a section that replies to Muslim defenses of this indefensible atrocity. Another section shows in more detail why the Meccan coalition had to withdraw from its siege of Medina.
See this series of articles for more information on Muhammad's atrocity against the Qurayza Jews.
My own article, Muhammad and the Jews, examines early Islam and the Jews more broadly than the Qurayza tribe. It also has replies to Muslim defenses.
This webpage has many fine articles on Muhammad's other questionable policies and practices.