Who Were Banu Qurayza?
Before the Prophet of Islam arrived in Medina there were primarily two groups in Medina, the Jews and Pagans. The Jews were subdivided into three clans, the Banu Qainuqa, Banu Nazir and Banu Quraiza. The other inhabitants of the town were the Aws and Khazraj. Of the two chief clans of the Jews, the Quraiza were the allies of the Aws, while Banu Nazir joined the Khazraj. Fighting frequently broke out between the Aws and the Khazraj , and their Jewish allies however once the Muhammad (SAW) arrived in Medina the Aws and Kharzaj both converted to Islam.
In an effort to unite the city in peace, the Prophet Muhammad drafted the Covenant of Medina (mithaq-i-Medina) in 622 CE, whose general terms were - Muslims and Jews shall live as one people, each one of the parties shall keep to its own faith, and neither shall interfere with that of the other. In the event of a war with a third party, each was bound to come to the assistance of the other, provided the latter were the aggrieved and not the aggressors. In the event of an attack on Medina, both shall join hands to defend it and peace, when desirable, shall be made after consultation with each other.
Battle of the Trench (Ghazwah al-Khandaq)
In 627, the Quraish (the chief aggressors towards Muhammad) decided to go against the Prophet Muhammad once again, after failing at the battles of Badr and Uhud. The level of duplicity in which Banu Qurayza dealt with these circumstances varies with reports, but whether or not it was responsible for instigating the confrontation between the Quraish and Muhammad or merely betrayed the Prophet they did openly align themselves with the Quraishi campaign . This act of treason was designed to encompass the Muslims in battles on all sides, one that would eventually fail them.
After the siege ended, the Quraish defeated again, Banu Qurayza were left alone to face the Muslims they betrayed (going against virtually every principle outlined within the Covenant of Medina). Forced to surrender, the leader of Banu Qurayza was asked “Will you be satisfied, o Aus, if one of your own number pronounces judgement on them? When they agreed he said that Sa'd b. Mu'adh was the man...Sa'd said, Then I give judgement that the men should be killed, the property divide, and the women and children taken as captives.”
This incident if often recounted as the mass slaughter of between 800-1000 ‘innocent’ Jews, and is given credence as being documented by a Muslim historian. The events are often twisted and manipulated, however, when one looks deeper it becomes clear that there were extenuating circumstances.
Documentation – Questionable Methodology
This incident is primarily noted, or cited as recorded in Sirah Rasul Allah (Sīrat Nabawiyya) by Ibn Isḥaq (Muḥammad ibn Isḥaq ibn Yasār, 704-767 CE). While this work has been lost it has been recounted, at least in recensions, by that of Ibn Isḥaq’s student Ziyad al-Bakka’i (which has also been lost) and that of Ibn Hisham (Abu Muhammad 'Abd al-Malik bin Hisham) whose work had been based upon the work of Ziyad al-Bakka’i; Ibn Hisham’s recounting is the only version to have survived and subsequently has become the basis for any editions of Sīrat Nabawiyya by Ibn Ishaq.
Before we enter into discussion regarding the events surrounding Banu Qurayza we must approach this from the view of Islamic sciences. In the Islamic sciences (such as Hadith collection) there are very clearly defined and stringent rules regarding authenticity, and the validity of the isnad (chain of narration) was based upon these rules. While these rules were meticulously followed by some (most famously by the likes of Al-Bukhari and Muslim) it was not followed by all, which is why there are varying classifications of hadith based on their isnad.
"A Sahih hadith is the one which has a continuous isnad, made up of reporters of trustworthy memory from similar authorities, and which is found to be free from any irregularities (i.e. in the text) or defects (i.e. in the isnad)." As defined by Ibn al-Salah
Since the writing of Sirah (history) did not have to meet the same standards that hadith or fiq (jurisprudence), the collection of its sources did not require the same standards of verification and consequently the Sirah itself could not be classified as sahih as hadith are. While the intentions of Ibn Ishaq may have been good, the veracity of his work can be called into question, in particular his use of questionable sources. This use of questionable sources was openly condemned by one of the most well known mujtahid (authoritive Jurist), and author of al-Muwatta, Imam Malik ibn Anas who called him unequivocally a liar and an impostor . Later scholars such as Ibn Hajar and Ibn Taymiyyah also spoke out against the work of Ibn Ishaq due to his use of questionable or spurious narrators. The validity of many of the hadith and stories relayed by Ibn Ishaq have been called into question due to lack of source material or chain of narration. Further complicating the issue is that Ibn Hisham’s work is based upon that of al-Bakka’i who had been viewed as an unreliable or weak narrator by Abu-Hatim, Al-Nasa’i, and even Ibn-Madini (the teacher of al-Bukhari).
There are other issues which arise upon closer inspection of ibn Ishaq’s sira and the subsequent retelling of it, most notably “There never existed a unified text for the traditions of ibn Ishaq to which the transmitters and later authors could have referred” because ibn Ishaq often delivered them orally according to Sadun Mahmud al-Samuk. This led to different people taking different aspects of his work and creating their own; notably, besides al-Bakka’i’s recension used by ibn Hisham, there was that of Salama al-Fadl al-Razi used by Tabari. Having noted the potential for errors, we cannot however overlook the fact that Ibn Ishaq was known to have relied primarily on the descendants of Banu Qurayza for details of the prophets campaign against them as handed down by their forefathers, causing Ibn Hajar to then reject the stories in question in the strongest terms: "such odd tales as the story of Qurayza and al-Nadir"
In a more generally historical perspective one can look at the allegations made regarding this incident and wonder why an incident of this caliber was not preserved. The significance of such an act, and its implications would be indelibly inscribed in the works of Muslim and Jewish historians alike; instead it was preserved primarily in the questionable integrity of one persons work. Having firmly established the qualifications of the very foundation of which the story of Banu Qurayza has been built, let us now turn our attention to the actual events in terms of Islamic precedence.
The Islamic Perspective of Banu Qurayza
From the Islamic point of view, the issue of Banu Qurayza was addressed only 3 times, which we will examine now:
Noble Quran Surah Al-Ahzab (33:25-26)
And Allah turned back the unbelievers for all their fury: no advantage did they gain; and enough is Allah for the believers in their fight. And Allah is full of strength, able to enforce his will. And those of the people of Al-Kitab who aided them Allah did take them down from their strongholds and cast terror into their hearts, so that some you slew, and some you made prisoners.
Sahih Al-Bukhari (Volume 5, Book 59, Number 443)
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.
Sahih Muslim (Book 019, Number 4370)
It has been narrated on the authority of A'isha who said: Sa'd was wounded on the day of the Battle of the Ditch. A man from the Quraish called Ibn al-Ariqah shot at him an arrow which pierced the artery in the middle of his forearm. The Messenger of Allah (may peacce be upon him) pitched a tent for him in the mosque and would inquire after him being in close proximity. When he returned from the Ditch and laid down his arms and took a bath, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and he was removing dust from his hair (as if he had just returned from the battle). The latter said: You have laid down arms. By God, we haven't (yet) laid them down. So march against them. The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) asked: Where? He pointed to Banu Quraiza. So the Messenger of Allah (may peace he upon him) fought against them. They surrendered at the command of the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him), but he referred the decision about them to Sa'd who said: I decide about them that those of them who can fight be killed, their women and children taken prisoners and their properties distributed (among the Muslims).
From the Quran we have only a very brief mentioning of the subject, and in it we learn nothing of slaughtering the masses, on the contrary, we actually see the word of Allah stipulate only “so that some you slew, and some you made prisoners.” which can in no way be seen as an endorsement for mass slaughter.
Once the view is shifted towards the hadith one will notice that of the only two hadith available referencing of Banu Qurayza incident, one mentions nothing of killing leaving just one reference towards the punishment faced by the tribe. This hadith as related in Sahih Muslim refers to the punishment as “that those of them who can fight be killed, their women and children taken prisoners and their properties distributed (among the Muslims)”
The punishment at first glance seems brutal, and would tend to lead credence to the stories of a wholesale slaughter, however there is more to this below the surface. When the enemy had surrendered, the Prophet of Alah did not immediately saly them all. Instead it was asked of the Jewish leader, “Will you be satisfied, o Aus, if one of your own number pronounces judgement on them? When they agreed he said that Sa'd b. Mu'adh was the man” The significance behind this was simple, Sa’ad b. Mu’adh was a Jewish convert to Islam. As a former Jew, Sa’ad knew the Jewish law and according to al mithaq-i-Medina Jewish law dictated the Jewish community, which meant handing down a sentence in accordance with Jewish law:
Deuteronomy 20: 12-14
“And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword but the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee”
If in fact this event happened as described, perhaps the fact that this was a application of Jewish law on a Jewish community for the crimes of treason, may well explain why this incident was not recorded or preserved by other contemporary scholars, nor does it offer precedence in Islamic jurisprudence. An incident of this magnitude, had it been truly the deaths of nearly a thousand people, surely would have either had precedence or set it however the contrary is actually presented by Islam:
Noble Quran Surah Al’An’am (6:164)
“Say: "Shall I seek a lord other than Allâh, while He is the Lord of all things? No person earns any (sin) except against himself (only), and no bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another. Then unto your Lord is your return, so He will tell you that wherein you have been differing."
Amongst the reasons that this account of Banu Qurayza can clearly be refuted are:
1.) As stated above, the authority of Islam, al Quran clearly states the rule in Islam is to punish only those who were responsible for the sedition.
2.) Qur'anic refence to this event is minimal. An event of magnitude would have surely been expounded upon for matter of jurisprudence.
3.) Had this slaughter actually happened, jurists would have adopted it as a precedent. In fact exactly the opposite has been the case. The attitude of jurists, and their rulings, have been more according to the Qur'anic rule in the verse, "No soul shall bear another's burden."
4.) In the story of Qurayza specific people were named as having been put to death, thus it is a reasonable conclusion that those were the ones who led the sedition and who were consequently punished - not the whole tribe.
5.) The veracity of the work must come under scrutiny after the authenticity of such events, and the integrity of the authors or their work has so clearly been shown to have substandard quality.
While there are numerous other reasons to refute this account of the Banu Qurayza, I will simply leave off with the fact that nowhere before, or after has such an event happened. The very idea of such an event is diametrically opposed to the principles of Islamic justice. In the end there will be those who continue to perpetuate a story of hate and violence, to further their own virulent ideologies and promote hate and fear, and there will be those who fight such malicious intent. I hope this information will rest in the latter category.