Book review/recommendation

The Battle of the Trench and the Banu Quraiza

The external enemy had been repulsed. Muhammad now turned his attention to the Banu Quraiza, who had openly conspired with the allied forces to kill him and destroy the Muslim community. Their fort was besieged. The siege lasted for 25 days, with fighting limited to throwing stones and shooting the occasional arrow. Eventually, the Banu Quraiza decided to surrender. They asked to be allowed to leave the city, with their belongings and armor, just as the Banu Nadir had done before. Muhammad refused.

What followed is regarded as one of the most controversial incidents of Muhammad’s life. Muslim scholars argue that Banu Quraiza had signed a treaty not to assist his enemies, yet that is exactly what they did. According to the Constitution of Medina, they were traitors. Muhammad asked the Banu Quraiza to choose an arbitrator from among themselves: their fate would be determined by him. They chose Saad bin Maadh, a respectable man of the Jewish tribe of al Aws. Before undertaking to arbitrate, Saad took an oath from sides that they would abide by his decision. When both sides agreed, he gave his verdict:

‘I give judgement that the men should be killed, the property divided, and women and children taken as captive.‘

The harsh sentence was carried out.

Why did Saad condemn Banu Quraiza to such a horrible fate? Clearly the Banu Quraiza did not expect a man of their own choosing to pass such a judgement. It might have occurred to Saad that, if the Banu Quraiza had succeed in their plot, the Muslims would have met a similar fate at the hands of the Quraysh and their allies. He therefore imposed on them the fate to which they wished to subject the Muslims.  If they had been spared, they might, like other Jewish tribes including the Bani Nader, go and join the enemies of the Muslims, thus strengthening their ranks.

The incident is in sharp contrast to Muhammad’s earlier treatment of Jews in Medina.  However most Western scholars describe the execution of the Banu Quraiza as a barbaric act unworthy of a prophet and religious leader. This line of reasoning rests on a very specific ideal of prophethood that is asserted irrespective of context and circumstance. It ignores the numerous battles and acts of violence recorded for various Old Testament  prophets. Indeed, it owes a great deal to a concept of prophethood honoured more in the breach throughout history but which has gathering appeal to modern sensibilities, if not modern practice. Certainly, it was a product of escalating tensions between Muhammad and the Jews of Medina, leading to a military confrontation. Yet, it cannot be seen, as some would have it, as evidence of an anti-Jewish policy, either at the time or in setting a pattern for the course of Muslim history. Rather grimly, it has also been suggested that the incident reflects ‘the politics of mercy’.

The fate of the Banu Quraiza did not end the Jewish presence in Medina. Some Jewish clans remained in the city.

From Muhammad by Ziauddin Sardar (Hodder Education 2012) pp. 88-90.

Barnaby Rogerson in his fascinating book about the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, comments perceptively:

For by the inescapable logic of human nature, mercy is only really appreciated if it has first been combined with fear. If the Prophet had not revealed at least one incident of implacable judgement the clemency that he would later show (at Mecca, for instance) could have been mistaken as a weakness.

B. Rogerson, The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography (Abacus 2003) p. 167.

23 replies »

  1. “The incident is in sharp contrast to Muhammad’s earlier treatment of Jews in Medina. However most Western scholars describe the execution of the Banu Quraiza as a barbaric act unworthy of a prophet and religious leader”

    According to Jewish Law (Halacha) the punishment for traitors is death penalty. The Quran gives other options such as exile…….My Opinion is that previously the Prophet choose the Quranic options when the decision was his to make. Clearly—in the arbitration by Saad bin Maadh—Jewish Law was applied to the Jewish tribe.

    As Karen Armstrong points out—none of the other Jewish tribes of the region (of that time)objected to this sentence.

  2. The Jews were self-governing so it was not possible for them to commit treason against Mohammed. They were not under his rule.

    Jewish law applied to the Jewish tribe?

    What Jewish law? The fact that Mohammed held these Jews as prisoners, stole their land and families and subsequently put them to death was a serious breach of the Mosaic law.

    Humans can not make treaties which forfeit the lives of men as a penalty for breaking them. The lives of men belong to God as his property to dispose of as he will. Men do not have this power over the lives of other men.

    ” It might have occurred to Saad that, if the Banu Quraiza had succeed in their plot, the Muslims would have met a similar fate at the hands of the Quraysh and their allies. He therefore imposed on them the fate to which they wished to subject the Muslims. If they had been spared, they might, like other Jewish tribes including the Bani Nader, go and join the enemies of the Muslims, thus strengthening their ranks.”

    If the plot did not materialise in to any actual attack it did not constitute a physical attack on the Muslims, therefore it did not constitute any wrongdoing which warranted a violent response in return. Thus it was simply wrong to attaqk or kill these men They had done nothing to warrant such a course of action. Of course if that was Mohammed’s intention from the get go it all fits in to place. It was just a show trial and they were duly disposed of.

    • You forget that the Banu Quraiza had signed a treaty not to assist Muhammad’s enemies, yet that is exactly what they did. According to the Constitution of Medina, they were traitors.

      Your comments about ‘Jewish law’ are odd as it was not mentioned in the article. Muhammad asked the Banu Quraiza to choose an arbitrator from among themselves: their fate would be determined by him not by Muhammad.

      ‘Humans can not make treaties which forfeit the lives of men as a penalty for breaking them.’

      Yes they can and they do. In your country, the USA, there are treason laws with the death penalty for transgressors.

      Paul in Romans 13 said:

      ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.’

      The sword was a symbol of capital punishment.

    • You ask what Jewish law? The jewish law given in Deut 20:10-14 which states “The Lord your God will hand it over to you; you must kill all the city’s males with the sword. 14 However, you can take for yourselves the women, the children, the animals, and all that is in the city—all its plunder. You can then enjoy your enemies’ plunder, which the Lord your God has given you.”
      So Saad being of the jewish tribe of al Aws clearly imposed upon them the law for defeated enemies of the Israelites stated in the Torah Deut 20:10-14. In other words Jewish law was imposed on these Jews by a fellow Jew not by Muhamad instead of a Quranic ruling. Notice it says the same thing stated in the Hadith about Killing all the males and taking the women and Children for yourselves. This clearly comes for the Torah. If they had let Muhammad decide instead of Saad they would have gotten a better Judgement from the Quran instead of from the Torah.

  3. Both Halacha (Jewish law) and Sharia (Islamic law) are based on the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty. This means that proofs and witnessess are required (for example—the Quran requires 4 witnessess for some crimes). Possibly Jewish Law may have been preferred by the Jews—as the process is vigorous and the judicial system long-standing.(—this is just an opinion)

    Both Judaism and Islam are religions of “law” and Justice is one of the central concepts in both religions.

  4. It was a pre-emptive strike against a peaceful group of Jews who had not done any harm to Mohammed previous to the attack.

    Plotting against people and wishing them harm was something that Mohammed was obviously not averse to himself. So why was he allowed to do it and others not? Double standard?

    • you clearly have no knowledge of the events whatsoever. Did you even bother to read the article above?

      According to the Constitution of Medina (which Banu Quraiza were apart of) they were traitors to Medina. Muhammad asked the Banu Quraiza to choose an arbitrator from among themselves: their fate would be determined by him.

      The Banu Quraiza had openly conspired with the allied forces to kill Muhammad and destroy the Muslim community.

      To say they were peaceful is laughable. Their punishment was just.

      Contrast this with Bible stories where God is portrayed as ordering the Israelites to kill innocent women and babies. As a Christian, tell me your justification for killing babies please…

      See 1 Samuel 15

      Samuel said to Saul, ‘The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” ’

  5. They took what steps they thought were necessary to stay free and not be persecuted by the Muslims for not believing that Mohammed was God’s prophet. They broke the pact because they saw no other possibility to practice their religion in freedom.

    • The Constitution of Medina guaranteed the rights of non-Muslims:

      The non-Muslims included in the ummah had the following rights:

      Non-Muslim members have equal political and cultural rights as Muslims. They will have autonomy and freedom of religion.

      Non-Muslims will take up arms against the enemy of the Ummah and share the cost of war. There is to be no treachery between the two.

      Non-Muslims will not be obliged to take part in religious wars of the Muslims.

  6. The Banu Qurayza are not in the document. They are not a party to this agreement. They did not pledge their loyalty to Mohammed. They can not be considered to be traitors.

    “To the Jews who follow us belong help and equality”. In other words the Jews who subjugated themselves could enjoy protection. The other Jews would not.

    • What is your evidence that Banu Qurayza did not betray the Muslims and the Constitution of Madina?

      Remember, after the battle, Muhammad asked the Banu Quraiza to choose an arbitrator from among themselves: their fate would be determined by him. They chose Saad bin Maadh, a respectable man of the Jewish tribe of al Aws. So a fellow Jew was chosen by Banu Qurayza . Before undertaking to arbitrate, Saad took an oath from sides that they would abide by his decision. When both sides agreed, he gave his verdict:

      ‘I give judgement that the men should be killed, the property divided, and women and children taken as captive.‘

      Why did Saad condemn Banu Quraiza to such a horrible fate? Clearly the Banu Quraiza did not expect a man of their own choosing to pass such a judgement. It might have occurred to Saad that, if the Banu Quraiza had succeed in their plot, the Muslims would have met a similar fate at the hands of the Quraysh and their allies. He therefore imposed on them the fate to which they wished to subject the Muslims. If they had been spared, they might, like other Jewish tribes including the Bani Nader, go and join the enemies of the Muslims, thus strengthening their ranks.

    • Even if we assume that they broke no treaty (which they did), they still deserved punishment for the mere fact of playing a role in attempting to destroy the Muslims.

  7. I like your ethic here. Whatever a man wishes to be done to others should be done to him. So the mere fact that the B Quraiza considered Mohammed to be a threat to their existence and wished his death justifies the killing of all their men, in accordance with the principle of killing all those who might become a threat so they don’t have a chance to kill you first. I guess that means for a Muslim that all non-Muslims should be killed because they might become a threat to Muslims. Surah 9 and Muslim violence makes perfect sense in the light of your comments.

    • Not all non-Muslims break treaties. There even potential Muslim threats (e.g. spies, sell-outs, etc.), that doesn’t mean we kill each other!

  8. To Shadid Lewis,

    You employ the usual tactic of Islamic apologists which is to cut out the parts of passages which contradict your arguments and ignore them to achieve a different meaning than is actually in the passage.

    Deuteronomy 20 v 10 When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. 11And 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. 12 And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it:

    if Mohammed was following this law then he had to declare peace to the city before he could besiege it and only after this offer was refused could he make war on the city. He obviously did not do this so he was not following this law. He had no intention of offering peace and sparing all the inhabitants.

    • Context is everything. You cannot offer peace an infinite number of times.

      Offering peace is done in the beginning (i.e. you cannot start a war with a people without ever having offered them peace). If they refuse, you fight. If they break the treaty, YOU PUNISH THEM FOR IT.

      This is not a game where someone could accept peace and then break it and then you are forced to offer peace again. Get real.

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