From Journal of the
Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland,
(1976), pp. 100-107.
IT IS WELL KNOWN THAT at the advent of Islam there were three Jewish
tribes who lived in Yathrib (later Medina), as well as other Jewish
settlements further to the north, the most important of which were
Khaybar and Fadak. It is also generally accepted that at first the
Prophet Muhammad hoped that the Jews of Yathrib, as followers of a
divine religion, would show understanding of the new monotheistic
religion, Islam. However, as soon as these tribes realized that Islam
was being firmly established and gaining power, they adopted an actively
hostile attitude, and the final result of the struggle was the
disappearance of these Jewish communities from Arabia proper.
The biographers of the Prophet, followed
by later historians, tell us that Banu Qaynuqa.,1 and later
Banu al-Nadir,2 provoked the Muslims, were besieged, and in
turn agreed to surrender and were allowed to depart, taking with them
all their transportable possessions. Later on Khaybar3 and
Fadak4 were evacuated. According to Ibn Ishaq in the Sira,5
the third of the Jewish tribes, Banu Qurayza, sided with the
Qurashites and their allies, who made an unsuccessful attack on Medina
in an attempt to destroy Islam. This, the most serious challenge to
Islam, failed, and the Banu Qurayza were in turn besieged by the
Prophet. Like Banu al-Nadir, in time they surrendered, but unlike the
Banu al-Nadir, they were subjected to the arbitration of Sa'd b. Mu'adh,
a member of the Aws tribe, allies of Qurayza. He ruled that the grown-up
males should be put to death and the women and children subjected to
slavery. Consequentiy, trenches were dug in the market-place in Medina,
and the men of Qurayza were brought out in groups and their necks were
struck.6 Estimates of those killed vary from 400 to 900.
On examination, details of the story can
he challenged. It can be demonstrated that the assertion that 600 or 800
or 9007 men of Banu Qurayza were put to death in cold blood
can not be true; that it is a later invention; and that it has its
source in Jewish traditions. Indeed the source of the details in earlier
Jewish history can be pointed out with surprising accuracy.
The Arabic sources will now be surveyed,
and the contribution of their Jewish informants will be discussed. The
credibility of the details will then be assessed, and the prototype in
earlier Jewish history pin-pointed.
The earliest work that we have, with the
widest range of details, is Ibn Ishaq's Sira, his biography of
the Prophet. It is also the longest and the most widely quoted. Later
historians draw, and in most cases depend on him.8 But Ibn
Ishaq died in 151 A.H., i.e. 145 years after the event in question.
Later historians simply take his version of the story, omitting more or
less of the detail, and overlooking his uncertain list of authorities.
They generally abbreviate the story, which appears just as one more
event to report. In most cases their interest seems to end there. Some
of them indicate that they are not really convinced, but they are not
prepared to take further trouble. One authority, Ibn Hajar, however,
denounces this story and the other related ones as "odd
tales".9 A contemporary of Ibn Ishaq, Malik,10 the
jurist, denounces Ibn Ishaq outright as "a liar"11 and
"an impostor"12 just for transmitting such stories.
It must be remembered that historians and
authors of the Prophet's biography did not apply the strict rules of the
"traditionists". They did not always provide a chain of
authorities, each of whom had to be verified as trustworthy and as
certain or likely to have transmitted his report directly from his
informant, and so on. The attitude towards biographical details and
towards the early events of Islam was far less meticulous than their
attitude to the Prophet's traditions, or indeed to any material relevant
to jurisprudence. Indeed Ibn Ishaq's account of the siege of Medina and
the fall of the Banu Qurayza is pieced together by him from information
given by a variety of persons he names, including Muslim descendants of
the Jews of Qurayza.
Against these late and uncertain sources
must be placed the only contemporary and entirely authentic source, the
Qur'an. There, the reference in Sura XXXIII, 26 is very brief:
"He caused those of the People of
the Book who helped them (i.e. the Quraysh) to come out of their forts.
Some you killed, some you took prisoner." There is no reference to
Ibn Ishaq sets out his direct sources as
he opens the relevant chapter on the siege of Medina. These were: a
client of the family of al-Zubayr and others whom he "did not
suspect". They told parts of the story on the authority of
'Abdullah b. Ka'b b. Malik, al Zuhri, 'Asim b. 'Umar b. Qatada, 'Abdullab
b. Abi Bakr, Muhammad b. Ka'b of Qurayza, and "others among our men
of learning", as he put it. Each of these contributed to the story,
so that Ibn Ishaq's version is the sum total of the collective reports,
pieced together. At a later stage Ibn Ishaq quotes another descendant of
Qurayza, 'Attiyya13 by name, who had been spared, and,
directly, a certain descendant of al-Zabir b. Bata, a prominent member
of the tribe of Qurayza who figures in the narrative.
The story opens with a description of the
effort of named Jewish leaders to organize against the Muslims an
alliance of the hostile forces. The leaders named included three from
the Banu al-Nadir and two of the tribe of Wa'il, another Jewish tribe;
together with other Jewish fellow-tribesmen unnamed. Having persuaded
the neighbouring Bedouin tribes of Ghatafan, Murra, Fazara, Sulaym, and
Ashja' to take up arms, they now proceeded to Mecca where they succeeded
in persuading the Quraysh. Having gathered together a besieging force,
one of the Nadir leaders, Huyayy b. Akhtab, in effect forced himself on
the third Jewish tribe still in Medina, the Banu Qurayza, and, against
the better judgement of their leader, Ka'b b. Asad, he persuaded them to
break faith with the Prophet in the hope, presented as a certainty, that
the Muslims would not stand up to the combined attacking forces and that
Qurayza and the other Jews would be restored to independent supremacy.
The siege of Medina failed and the Jewish tribes suffered for their part
in the whole operation.
The attitude of scholars and historians
to Ibn lshaq's version of the story has been either one of complacency,
sometimes mingled with uncertainty, or at least in two important cases,
one of condemnatlon and outright rejection.
The complacent attitude is one of
accepting the biography of the Prophet and the stories of the campaigns
at they were received by later generations without the meticulous care
or the application of the critical criteria which collectors of
traditions or jurists employed. It was not necessary to check the
veracity of authorities when transmitting or recording parts of the
story of the Prophet's life.14 It was not essential to
provide a continuous chain of authorities or even to give authorities at
all. That is obvious in Ibn Ishaq's Sira. On the other hand
reliable authority and a continuous line of transmission were essential
when law was the issue. That is why Malik the jurist had no regard for
One finds, therefore, that later
historians and even exegetes either repeat the very words of Ibn Ishaq
or else abbreviate the whole story. Historians gave it, as it were, a
cold reception. Even Tabari, nearly 150 years after Ibn Ishaq, does not
try to find other versions of the story as he usually does. He casts
doubt by his use of the words, "Waqidi alleged (za'ama) that
the Prophet caused trenches to be dug." Ibn ai-Qayyim in Zad al-ma'ad
makes only the briefest reference and he ignores altogether the
crucial question of numbers. Ibn Kathir even seems to have general doubt
in his mind because he takes the trouble to point out that the story was
told on such "good authority" as that of 'A'isha.16
Apart from mild complacency or doubtful
acceptance of the story itself, Ibn Ishaq as an author was in fact
subjected to devastating attacks by scholars, contemporary or later, on
two particular accounts. One was his uncritical inclusion in his Sira
of so much spurious or forged poetry;17 the other his
unquestioning acceptance of just such a story as that of the slaughter
of Banu Qurayza.
His contemporary, the early traditionist
and jurist Malik, called him unequivocally "a liar" and
"an impostor"18 "who transmits his stories
from the Jews".19 In other words, applying his own
criteria, Malik impugned the veracity of Ibn Ishaq's sources and
rejected his approach. Indeed, neither Ibn Ishaq's list of informants
nor his method of collecting and piecing together such a story would he
acceptable to Malik the jurist.
In a later age Ibn Hajar further
explained the point of Malik's condemnation of Ibn Ishaq. Malik, he
said,20 condemned Ibn Ishaq because he made a point of
seeking out descendants of the Jews of Medina in order to obtain from
them accounts of the Prophet's campaigns as handed down by their
forefathers. Ibn Hajar21 then rejected the stories in
question in the strongest terms: "such odd tales as the story of
Qurayza and al-Nadir". Nothing could be more damning than this
Against the late and uncertain sources on
the one hand, and the condemning authorities on the other, must be set
the only contemporary and entirely authentic source, the Qur'an. There
the reference in Sura XXXIII, 26 is very brief: "He caused those of
the People of the Book who helped them (i.e. the Quraysh) to come out of
their forts. Some you killed, some you took prisoner."
Exegetes and traditionists tend simply to
repeat Ibn Ishaq's tale, but in the Qur'an the reference can only be to
those who were actually in the fighting. This is a statement about the
battle. It concerns those who fought. Some of these were killed. others
were taken prisoner.
One would think that if 600 or 900 people
were killed in this manner the significance of the event would have been
greater. There would have been a clearer reference in the Qur'an, a
conclusion to be drawn, and a lesson to be learnt. But when only the
guilty leaders were executed, it would be normal to expect only a brief
So much for the sources: they were
neither uninterested nor trustworthy; and the report was very late in
time. Now for the story. The reasons for rejecting the story are the
(i) As already stated above, the
reference to the story in the Qur'an is extremely brief, and there is no
indication whatever of the killing of a large number. In a battle
context the reference is to those who were actually fighting. The Qur'an
is the only authority which the historian would accept without
hesitation or doubt. It is a contemporary text, and, for the most cogent
reasons, what we have is the authentic version.
(ii) The rule in Islam is to punish only
those who were responsible for the sedition.
(iii) To kill such a large number is
diametrically opposed to the Islamic sense of justice and to the basic
principles laid down in the Qur'an - particularly the verse. "No
soul shall bear another's burden."22 It is obvious in
the story that the leaders were numbered and were well known. They were
(iv) It it also against the Qur'anic rule
regarding prisoners of war, which is: either they are to be granted
their freedom or else they are to be allowed to be ransomed.23
(v) It is unlikely that the Banu Qurayza
should be slaughtered when the other Jewish groups who surrendered before
Banu Qurayza and after them were treated leniently and
allowed to go. Indeed Abu 'Ubayd b. Sallam relates in his Kitab
al-amwal24 that when Khaybar felt to the Muslims there
were among the residents a particular family or clan who had
distinguished themselves by execesive unseemly abuse of the Prophet. Yet
in that hour the Prophet addressed them in words which are no more than
a rebuke: "Sons of Abu al-Huqayq (he said to them) I have known the
extent of your hostility to God and to His apostle, yet that does not
prevent me from treating you as I treated your brethren." That was after
the surrender of Banu Qurayza.
(vi) If indeed so many hundreds of people
had actually been put to death in the market-place, and trenches were
dug for the operation, it is very strange that there should be no trace
whatever of all that - no sign or word to point to the place, and no
reference to a visible mark.25
(vii) 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."
Indeed, Abu 'Ubayd b. Sallam relates a
very significant incident in his book Kifab al-amwal,26 which,
it must be noted, is a book of jurisprudence, of law, not a sira or
a biography. He tells us that in the time of the Imam al-Awza'i27 there
was a case of trouble among a group of the People of the Book in the
Lebanon when 'Abdullab b. 'All was regional governor. He put down the
sedition and ordered the community in question to be moved elsewhere.
Al-Awza'i in his capacity as the leading jurist immediately objected.
His argument was that the incident was not the result of the
cormmunity's unanimous agreement. "At far as I know (he argued) it
is not a rule of God that God should punish the many for the fault of
the few but punish the few for the fault of the many."
Now, had the Imam al-Awza'i accepted the
story of the slaughter of Banu Qurayza, he would have treated it as a
precedent, and would not have come out with an argument against
Authority, represented in 'Abdullah b. 'Ali. Al-Awza'i, it should be
remembered, was a younger contemporary of Ibn Ishaq.
(viii) In the story of Qurayza a few
specific persons were named as having been put to death, some of whom
were described as particularly active in their hostility. It is the
reasonable conclusion that those were the ones who led the sedition and
who were consequently punished - not the whole tribe.
(ix) The details given in the story
clearly and of necessity imply inside knowledge, i.e. from among the
Jews themselves. Such are the details of their consultation when they
were besieged, the harangue of Ka'b b. Asad as their leader; and the
suggestion that they should kill their women and children and then make
a last desperate attack against the Muslims.
(x) Just as the descendants of Qurayza
would want to glorify their ancestors, so did the descendants of the
Madanese connected with the event. One notices that that part of the
story which concerned the judgement of Sa'd b. Mu'adh against Qurayza,
was transmitted from one of his direct descendants. According to this
part the Prophet said to Mu'adh: "You have pronounced God's
judgement upon them [as inspired] through Seven Veils."28
Now it is well known that for the
purposes of glorifying their ancestors or white washing those who were
inimical to Islam at the beginning, many stories were invented by later
generations and a vast amount of verse was forged, much of which was
transmitted by Ibn Ishaq. The story and the statement concerning Sa'd
are one such detail.
(xi) Other details are difficult to
accept. How could so many hundreds of persons he incarcerated in the
house belonging to a woman of Banu al-Najjar?29
(xii) The history of the Jewish tribes
after the establishment of Islam is not really clear at all. The idea
that they all departed on the spot seems to be in need of revision, as
can be seen on examining the sources. For example, in his Jamharat
al-ansab,30 Ibn Hazm occasionally refers to Jews still
living in Medina. In two places al-Waqidi31 mentions Jews who
were still in Medina when the Prophet prepared to march against Khaybar
- i.e. after the supposed liquidation of all three tribes, including
Qurayza. In one case ten Madanese Jews actually joined the Prophet in an
excursion to Khaybar, and in the other the Jews who had made their peace
with him in Medina were extremely worried when he prepared to attack
Khaybar. Al-Waqadi explains that they tried to prevent the departure of
any Muslim who owed them money.
Indeed Ibn Kathir32 takes the
trouble to point out that 'Umar expelled only those Jews of Khaybar who
had not made a peace agreement with the Prophet. Ibn Kathir then
proceeds to explain that at a much later date, i.e. after the year 300
A.H., the Jews of Khaybar claimed that they had in their possession a
document allegedly given them by the Prophet which exempted them from
poll-tax. He said that some scholars were taken in by this document so
that they ruled that the Jews of Khaybar should be exempted. However,
that was a forged letter and had been refuted in detail. It quoted
persons who were already dead, it used technical terms which came into
being at a later time, it claimed that Mu'awiya b. Abi Sufyan witnessed
it, when in fact he had not even been converted to Islam at that time,
and so on.
So then the real source of this
unacceptable story of slaughter was the descendants of the Jews of
Medina, from whom Ibn Ishaq took these "odd tales". For doing
so Ibn Ishaq was severely criticized by other scholars and historians
and was called by Malik an impostor.
The sources of the story are, therefore,
extremely doubtful and the details are diametrically opposed to the
spirit of Islam and the rules of the Qur'an to make the story credible.
Credible authority is lacking, and circumstantial evidence does not
support it. This means that the story is more than doubtful.
However, the story, in my view, has its
origins in earlier events. Is can be shown that it reproduces similar
stories which survived from the account of the Jewish rebellion against
the Romans, which ended in the destruction of the temple in the year AD.
73, the night of the Jewish zealots and sicarii to the rock
fortress of Masada, and the final liquidation of the besieged. Stories
of their experience were naturally transmitted by Jewish survivors who
fled south. Indeed one of the more plausible theories of the origin of
the Jews of Medina is that they came after the Jewish wars. This was the
theory preferred by the late Professor Guillaume.33
As is well known, the source of the
details of the Jewish wars is Flavius Josephus, himself a Jew and a
contemporary witness who held office under the Romans, who disapproved
of certain actions which some of the rebels committed, but who
nevertheless never ceased to be a Jew at heart. It is in his writings
that we read of details which are closely similar to those transmitted
to us in the Sira about the actions and the resistance of the
Jews, except that now we see the responsibility for the actions placed
on the Muslims.
In considering details of the story of
Banu Qurayza as told by the descendants of that tribe, we may note the
following similar details in the account of Josephus:
(i) According to Josephus,34 Alexander,
who ruled in Jerusalem before Herod the Great, hung upon crosses 800
Jewish captives, and slaughtered their wives and children before their
(ii) Similarly, large numbers were killed
(iii) Important details of the two
stories are remarkably similar, particularly the numbers of those
killed. At Masada the number of those who died at the end was 960.35
The hot-headed sicarii who were eventually also killed
numbered 600.36 We also read that when they reached the point
of despair they were addressed by their leader Eleazar (precisely as
Ka'b b. Asad addressed the Banu Qurayza),37 who suggested to
them the killing of their women and children. At the ultimate point of
complete despair the plan of killing each other to the last man was
Clearly the similarity of details is most
striking. Not only are the suggestions of mass suicide similar but even
the numbers are almost the same. Even the same names occur in both
accounts. There is Phineas, and Azar b. Azar,38 just as
Eleazar addressed the Jews besieged in Masada.
There is, indeed, more than a mere
similarity. Here we have the prototype - indeed, I would suggest, the
origin of the story of Banu Qurayza, preserved by descendants of the
Jews who fled south to Arabia after the Jewish Wars, just as Josephus
recorded the same story for the Classical world. A later generation of
these descendants superimposed details of the siege of Masada on the
story of the siege of Banu Qurayza, perhaps by confusing a tradition of
their distant past with one from their less remote history. The mixture
provided Ibn Ishaq's story. When Muslim historians ignored it or
transmitted it without comment or with cold lack of interest, they only
expressed lack of enthusiasm for a strange tale, as Ibn Hajar called it.
One last point. Since the above was first
written, I have seen reports39 of a paper given in August
1973 at the World Congress of Jewish Studies by Dr. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin,
in which she challenges Josephus' assertion that 960 besieged Jews
committed suicide at Masada. This is highly interesting since in the
story of Qurayza the 960 or so Jews refused to commit suicide. Who
knows, perhaps the Story of Banu Qurayza is an even more accurate form
of the original version.
1. Ibn Ishaq, Sira (ed. Wustenfeld,
Gottingen, 1860), 545-7; (ed. Saqqa et al., Cairo, 1955), II,
47-9. See also al-Waqidi, Kitab al-maghazi (ed. M. Jones, London,
1966), II, 440 ff.; Suhayl, al-Rawd al-unuf (Cairo, 1914), I, 187
et passim; Ibn Kathir, al-Sira al-Nabawiya (ed. Mustafa `Abd
al-Wahid, Cairo, 1384-5/1964-6), II, 5, et passim.
2. Sira, 545-56, 652-61/II, 51-7,
190-202; Ibn Kathir, oop. cit., III, 145 ff.
3. Sira, 755-76, 779/II, 328-53,
356, etc. More on Khaybar follows below.
4. ibid., 776/II, 353-4.
5. ibid., 668-84/II, 214-33.
6. ibid., 684-700/II, 233-54.
7. ibid., 689/II, 240; `Uyun al-athar
(Cairo, 1356 A.H.), II, 73; Ibn Kathir, II, 239.
8. In his introduction to `Uyun al-athar,
I, 7, Ibn Sayyid al-Nas (d. 734 A.H.), having explained his plan
for his biography of the Prophet, expressly states that his main source
was Ibn Ishaq, who indeed was the chief source for everyone.
9. Tahdhib al-tahdhib, IX, 45. See
also `Uyun al-athar, I, 17, where the author uses the same words,
without giving a reference, in his introduction on the veracity of Ibn
Ishaq and the criteria he applied.
10. d. 179.
11. `Uyun al-athar, I, 12.
12. ibid, I, 16.
13. Sira, 691-2/II, 242, 244; `Uyun
al-athar, II, 74, 75.
14. Ibn Sayyid al-Nas (op. cit., I, 121)
makes precisely this point in relation to the story of the Banu Qaynuqa'
and the spurious verse which was said to have appeared in Sura LIII of
the Qur'an and at the time was taken by polytheist Meccans as a
recognition of their deities. The author explains how various scholars
disposed of the problem and then sums up by stating that in his view,
this story is to be treated on the same level as tales of the maghazi
and accounts of the Sira (i.e. not to be accorded unqualified
acceptance). Most scholars, he asserts, usually treated more liberally
questions of minor importance and any material which did not involve a
point of law, such as stories of the maghazi and similar reports.
In such cases data would be accepted which would not be acceptable as a
basis of deciding what is lawful or unlawful.
15. See n. 18 below.
16. Tabari, Tarikh, I, 1499 (where
the reference is to al-Waqidi, Maghazi, II, 513); Zad al-ma`ad
(ed. T. A. Taha, Cairo, 1970), II, 82; Ibn Kathir, op. cit., IV, 118.
17. On this see W. Arafat, "Early
critics of the poetry of the Sira", BSOAS, XXI, 3, 1958, 453-63.
18. Kadhdhab and Dajjal min al-dajajila.
19. `Uyun al-athar, I, 16-7. In
his valuable introduction Ibn Sayyid al-Nas provides a wide-ranging
survey of the controversial views on Ibn Ishaq. In his full introduction
to the Gottingen edition of the Sira, Wustenfeld in turn draws
extensively on Ibn Sayyid al-Nas.
20. Tahdhib al-Tahdhib, IX, 45.
See also `Uyun al-athar, I, 16-7.
22. Qur'an, XXXV, 18.
23. Qur'an, XLI, 4.
24. ed. Khalil Muhammad Harras, Cairo,
25. Significantly, little or no
information is to be found in general or special geographical
dictionaries, such as al-Bakri's, Mu`jam ma'sta`jam; al-Fairuzabadi's
al-Maghanim al-mutaba fi ma`alim taba (ed. Hamad al-Jasir, Dar
al-Yamama, 1389/1969); Six treatises (Rasa'il fi tarikh al-Madina
ed. Hamad al-Jasir, Dar al-Yamama, 1392/1972); al-Samhudi, Wafa' al-wafa'
bi-akhbar dar al-Mustafa (Cairo, 1326), etc. Even al-Samhudi seems
to regard a mention of the market-place in question as a mere historical
reference, for in his extensive historical topography of Medina he
identifies the market-place (p. 544) almost casually in the course of
explaining the change in nomenclature which had overtaken adjacent
landmarks. That market-place, he says, is the one referred to in the
report (sic) that the Prophet brought out the prisoners of Banu
Qurayza to the market-place of Medina, etc.
26. p. 247. I am indebted to my friend
Professor Mahmud Ghul of the American University, Beirut, for bringing
this reference to my attention.
27. d. 157/774. See EI2,
28. Sira, 689/II, 240; al-Waqidi,
op. cit., 512.
29. Sira, 689/II, 240; Ibn Kathir,
op. cit., III, 238.
30. e.g., Nasab Quraysh (ed. A. S.
Harun, Cairo, 1962), 340.
31. op. cit., II, 634, 684.
32. op. cit., III, 415.
33. A. Guillaume, Islam (Harmondsworth,
34. De bello Judaico, I, 4, 6.
35. ibid., VII, 9, 1.
36. ibid., VII, 10, 1.
37. Sira, 685-6/II, 235-6.
38. Sira, 352, 396/I, 514, 567.
39. The Times, 18 August 1973; and
The Guardian, 20 August 1973.
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