Muhammad and the Qurayza Massacre

The following is excerpted from Muhammad and the Qurayza Massacre – the massacre of the Banu Qurayza, a Medinan Jewish tribe.

A consensus Muslim account of the massacre of the Qurayza has emerged as conveyed by classical Muslim scholars of hadith (sayings of Muhammad), biographer’s of Muhammad’s life (especially Ibn Ishaq), jurists, and historians. This narrative is summarized as follows:

Alleged to have aided the forces of Muhammad’s enemies in violation of a prior pact, the Qurayza were subsequently isolated and besieged. Twice the Qurayza made offers to surrender, and depart from their stronghold, leaving behind their land and property. Initially they requested to take one camel load of possessions per person, but when Muhammad refused this request, the Qurayza asked to be allowed to depart without any property, taking with them only their families. However, Muhammad insisted that the Qurayza surrender unconditionally and subject themselves to his judgment. Compelled to surrender, the Qurayza were lead to Medina. The men with their hands pinioned behind their backs, were put in a court, while the women and children were said to have been put into a separate court. A third (and final) appeal for leniency for the Qurayza was made to Muhammad by their tribal allies the Aus. Muhammad again declined, and instead he appointed as arbiter Sa’d Mu’adh from the Aus, who soon rendered his concise verdict: the men were to be put to death, the women and children sold into slavery, the spoils to be divided among the Muslims.

Muhammad ratified the judgment stating that Sa’d’s decree was a decree of God pronounced from above the Seven Heavens. Thus some 600 to 900 men from the Qurayza were lead on Muhammad’s order to the Market of Medina. Trenches were dug and the men were beheaded, and their decapitated corpses buried in the trenches while Muhammad watched in attendance. Male youths who had not reached puberty were spared. Women and children were sold into slavery, a number of them being distributed as gifts among Muhammad’s companions. According to Muhammad’s biographer Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad chose one of the Qurayza women (Rayhana) for himself. The Qurayza’s property and other possessions (including weapons) were also divided up as additional “booty” among the Muslims.

These events have been documented and interpreteted by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. As reported by the scholar M.J. Kister (Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam. Vol. 8: p.69, [1986]), al-Mawardi (d. 1072 C.E.), the eminent Muslim jurist from Baghdad, characterized the slaughter of the Qurayza as a religious duty incumbent on Muhammad. Professor Kister quotes al-Mawardi as follows: “…it was not permitted (for Muhammad) to forgive (in a case of ) God’s injunction incumbent upon them; he could only forgive (transgressions) in matters concerning his own person.”. The notion that this slaughter was sanctioned by God as revealed to Muhammad was, according to Kister, reflective of “…the current (as of 1986) Sunni view about the slaughter of the Banu Qurayza.” . This remains the orthodox Sunni view regarding the treatment of such prisoners as expressed in current versions of “Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law” from Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Accordingly, it is bizarre to suggest that any “sacred” law other than (nascent) Muslim law was applied in determining the fate of the Qurayza.

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, the Muslims benefited substantially from the Qurayza’s assets which they seized as booty. The land and property acquired helped the Muslims gain their economic independence. The military strength of the Muslim community of Medina grew due to weapons taken, and the fact that captured women and children taken as slaves were sold for horses and more weapons, facilitating enlargement of the Muslim armed forces for further conquests.

Conversely, the Jewish tribe of the Qurayza ceased to exist.