"Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet", the pious, sanitized presentation of Muhammad's life which recently aired on the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) network, included a discussion of the massacre of the Banu Qurayza, a Medinan Jewish tribe. This brutal massacre was justified in the PBS film by a highly edited amalgam of apologists and apologetics. Moreover, on the accompanying website a patently absurd modern Muslim interpretation (Muhammad Hamidullah, Muslim Conduct of State, Lahore, 1961, §443) was invoked suggesting the gruesome outcome may have resulted from the application of passages from Deuteronomy. It is critical that Muslims and non-Muslims alike consider seriously the implications of accepting at face value the apologetic PBS "analysis" of this massacre.
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, ), 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 (as was done on the PBS website for station KQED) that "Deuteronomy" or 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.
The sanitized PBS narration referring to this massacre omits the following details as chronicled consistently by Muslim sources: the arbiter (Sa’d Mu’adh) was appointed by Muhammad himself; Muhammad observed in person the horrific executions; Muhammad claimed as a wife a woman (Rayhana) previously married to one of the slaughtered Qurayza tribesmen; the substantial material benefits (i.e., property; receipts from the sale of the enslaved) which accrued to the Muslims as a result of the massacre; the extinction of the Qurayza. However, much more disturbing are the concluding narrator comments by Karen Armstrong and M. Cherif Bassiouni. Armstrong, brimming with her infamous apologetic zeal, has the temerity to claim: "…(the massacre) cannot be seen as anti-Semitism..Muhammad had nothing against the Jewish people …or the Jewish religion. The Koran continues to tell Muslims to honor the People of the Book."
In sharp contrast, a serious, respected scholar of anti-semitism, Professor Robert Wistrich, summarizes the overall Koranic image of the Jews as follows:
"..there are some notably harsh passages in which Muhammad brands the Jews as enemies of Islam and depicts them as possessing a malevolent, rebellious spirit. There are also verses that speak of their justified abasement and poverty, of the Jews being '..laden with God's anger..' for their disobedience. They had to be humiliated '..because they had disbelieved the signs of God and slain the prophets unrightfully..' (Sura 2:61/58). According to another verse (Sura 5:78/82), '..the unbelievers of the Children of Israel..' were cursed by both David and Jesus. The penalty for disbelief in God's signs and in the miracles performed by the prophets was to be transformed into apes and swine...(Sura 5:60/65)…The oral tradition (hadith) goes much further and claims that the Jews, in accordance with their perfidious nature, deliberately caused Muhammad's painful, protracted death from poisoning. Furthermore, malevolent, conspiratorial Jews are to blame for the sectarian strife in early Islam, for heresies and deviations that undermined or endangered the unity of the umma (the Muslim nations).."
Bassiouni engages in a frankly obscene moral equivalence assessing equal blame for the modern "transformation" of this event.
"…On the Jewish side, they have used that as a way of saying, well you see, the Muslims hate the Jews and they kill them. And the Muslim side, it says, well you see, the Jews are full of treachery and can't be trusted. Both are wrong."
Bassiouni's comments reflect a warped modern Muslim calculus devoid of any true empathy for the actual victims. Her remarks make one yearn desperately for the clear, timeless assessments of this massacre made long before the current era of politically correct apologism. For example, in his 1895 biography of Muhammad ("Mahomet and Islam", London, 1895, p. 151), which relied entirely on the original Muslim sources, the scholar Sir William Muir observed:
"The massacre of the Banu Coreiza was a barbarous deed which cannot be justified by any reason of political necessity…the indiscriminate slaughter of the whole tribe cannot be recognized otherwise than as an act of monstrous cruelty…"
The scholar Bat Ye'or summarized the impact of the first two centuries of Arab Muslim conquests (The Jerusalem Quarterly 1987; Vol. 42, Pp. 84-85) on indigenous Jews and Christians of the Middle East, as follows: "Muslim chroniclers described the ongoing jihad (holy war), involving the destruction of whole towns, the massacre of large numbers of their populations, the enslavement of women and children, and the confiscation of vast regions. This picture of catastrophe and destruction corresponds to the period of gradual erosion of Palestinian Jewry. According to [the Muslim chronicler] Baladhuri (d. 892 C.E.), 40,000 Jews lived in Caesarea alone at the Arab conquest, after which all trace of them is lost…". The 6 centuries between 640 and 1240 C.E., she further observes: ".. witnessed the total and definitive destruction of Judaism and Christianity in the Hijaz (modern Saudi Arabia), and the decline of once flourishing Christian and Jewish communities in Palestine (particularly in Galilee for the Jews), Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia. In North Africa, the Christians had been virtually eliminated by 1240 C.E., and the Jews decimated by Almohad persecutions… notwithstanding some brighter intervals, these six centuries witnessed a dramatic demographic reversal whereby the Arab-Muslim minority developed into a dominant majority, resorting to oppression in order to reduce the indigenous populations to tolerated religious minorities…"
Viewed from this overall historical perspective, the legacy of the Qurayza massacre resonates tragically, foreshadowing later Muslim conquests, massacres, and the imposition of more than a millennium of dhimmitude on subjugated Jews, Christians, and others. The sacralized PBS presentation of this massacre completely negated the suffering of its victims. Indeed the same disturbing, pious apologism has been employed to negate the suffering of all the millions of victims of genocidal jihad conquests during more than a millennium, from Portugal to Spain, and the Sudan to Hungary. This sacralized historical negationism must be confronted and exposed until it is renounced, and accompanied by a sincere display of empathy for the actual victims.
Andrew G. Bostom, MD, MS, is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Brown University Medical School.