It is a historical fact that the Prophet directed the massacre, as a punishment, of those Jewish tribes who had betrayed him and had sided with the polytheists in battle against the Muslims. How many Jews were killed in these massacres and were women, children, and elderly people spared? Also, even though the tribes betrayed him in a military alliance, did that really necessitate wholesale murder?
Some of the important facts that need to be kept in mind while passing any judgments about the killing of the Banu Qurayzah are as follows1:
After the Prophet’s migration to Medinah, the Banu Qurayzah, with the other Jewish tribes of the locality, became a party to the Medinah declaration, according to which, these Jewish tribes and the Muslim state of Medinah were to act as alliances against any foreign attacks. According to this declaration, the Jews were allowed complete religious freedom and were granted protection of life and wealth as long as they honored the declaration;
Previously, the Banu Qurayzah were given a lesser status than the other Jewish tribe – the Banu Nadheer – which is evident from the fact that the blood money that they were granted, if any of their tribesman was killed by Banu Nadheer was half that of what was granted to Banu Nadheer. The Prophet (pbuh) corrected this injustice and granted the Banu Qurayzah the same political status as that of Banu Nadheer. (Abu Dawood, Kitaab al-Diyyaat, Baab al-Nafs bi al-Nafs, Hadith No. 3896);
The Jewish tribes did not honor their part of the Medinah declaration and on the instigation of the Qureish broke the agreement. At this the Banu Nadheer were sent into exile; while the Banu Qurayzah asked forgiveness and requested a renewal of the agreement, to which the Prophet (pbuh) agreed and allowed them another chance (Muslim, Kitaab al-Jihaad wa al-Siyar, Baab Ijlaa al-Yahood min al-Hijaaz, Hadith No. 3312);
Even after all this, the Banu Qurayzah joined the alliance that was gathered by the Qureish against the Muslims.
It was in this background that immediately after the confrontation with the confederates (Ahzaab), the Prophet (pbuh) decided to take the Banu Qurayzah to task. Even then, had the Banu Qurayzah sought forgiveness for their betrayal, the Prophet (pbuh) may have given them respite, as he did so in the past. Nevertheless, the Banu Qurayzah had decided to fight the Muslims. This was evident from the fact that when Ali (ra) reached their fort, they openly abused the Prophet (pbuh)2.
The Muslims kept the forts of Banu Qurayzah under siege for about one month. Ultimately, the Banu Qurayzah requested the arbitration of Sa`d Ibn Mu`aaz (ra) – one of the leaders of the tribe of Aws – a traditional ally of the Banu Qurayzah3nd promised that they would accept whatever Sa`d ibn Mu`aaz decided for them. Later on, Sa`d decided that all those among the Banu Qurayzah, who could fight be killed, while all their women and children be taken as slaves and all their wealth and property be confiscated and distributed among the Muslims. Subsequently, the sentence pronounced by Sa`d was implemented by the Muslims.
It should be clear from the facts given above that in the light of their behavior preceding the judgment the Banu Qurayzah deserved a very strict punishment. Furthermore, it is also clear that the punishment was not decided by the Prophet (pbuh), but was actually decided by a person, who was appointed as arbitrator, by the Banu Qurayzah, themselves.
However, one may still be of the opinion that the Prophet (pbuh) should have softened the punishment, even if it was pronounced by an arbitrator, who was appointed by the Banu Qurayzah themselves. On the contrary, the Prophet (pbuh) not only upheld and implemented the decision pronounced by the arbitrator, but also commended it as: ‘in accordance with God’s law’.
To fully understand why the Prophet (pbuh) did not soften or alter the sentence pronounced by Sa`d ibn Mu`aaz, we should keep in mind that Banu Qurayzah were actually Jews, who were subject to the laws of the Torah. Deuteronomy 20: 10 – 14 says:
When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you.
It was in accordance with this law that Moses (pbuh) ordered the killing of all the men of Midian and taking all their women and children as captives. Numbers 31: 7 – 11 read as:
They did battle against Midian, as the LORD had commanded Moses, and killed every male… The Israelites took the women of Midian and their little ones captive; and they took all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods as booty. All their towns where they had settled, and all their encampments, they burned, but they took all the spoil and all the booty, both people and animals.
Obviously, on reciprocal basis, the Israelites themselves were subject to the same divine law. Thus, Sa`d Ibn Mu`aaz pronounced his judgment according to this law, upon which, the Prophet (pbuh) declared that his decision was ‘in accordance with God’s law’. Furthermore, because of this particular nature and basis of the judgment, the Prophet (pbuh) neither had the right nor the authority to alter it.
Because Sa`d ibn Mu`aaz’s decision was in accordance with the directives of the Torah, which the Jews accepted to be divine and were, therefore, subject to, the Prophet (pbuh) did not alter the decision. It was, in fact, because of this background of the judgment that when Hayee ibn Akhtab – one of the Jewish leaders – was brought to the place where he was to be killed, he looked at the Prophet (pbuh) and said:
أما والله مالمت نفسي في عداوتك . ولكنه من يخذل الله يخذل (السيرة النبوية لابن هشام ج:٤ ص:٢٠١)
By God, I have no regrets in opposing you, but the fact is that whoever tries to deceive God, is Himself, ultimately, deceived.
Then he turned toward his people and said:
أيها الناس إنه لا بأس بأمر الله كتاب وقدر وملحمة كتبها الله على بني إسرائيل (السيرة النبوية لابن هشام ج:٤ ص:٢٠١)
People, there is no harm in the implementation of God’s laws. This was a directive of God, it was decided, it is a punishment, which God had prescribed for the Israelites.
Thus, the Banu Qurayzah were, in fact, slaughtered by the sword of the Torah – the book, which they, themselves, held to be divine.
I hope this helps.
April 6, 2001
- This response is primarily based on Shibli Naumani’s “Seerat al-Nabi”. [↩]
- According to Tareekh al-Tabari:
وقدم رسول الله علي بن أبي طالب برايته إلى بني قريظة ، وابتدرها الناس ، فسار علي بن أبي طالب ، حتى إذا دنا من الحصون سمع منها مقالة قبيحة لرسول الله منهم. ( تاريخ الطبري ج:٢ ص:٩٨)
The Prophet (pbuh) sent Ali Ibn Abi Talib (ra) with his flag to the Banu Qurayzah and people started moving toward them. When Ali (ra) came close to their forts, he heard them say despicable things about the Prophet (pbuh). [↩]
- According to Ibn Katheer’s Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihaayah, the Banu Qurayzah were misguided by some of their allies that if the Prophet (pbuh) were to decide their fate, he would kill them all. [↩]