This story is by far the bloodiest episode of the period associated with the founding of Islam. It describes the full-scale genocide of a Jewish tribe in Medina. After this event the tribe actually ceased to exist.
The background to the story goes as follows. After Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina and established himself as a political and military leader, he started to attack the commercial caravans of the Meccans. The first major success was an assault on a caravan that turned into a full-scale war. It is known as the battle of Badr.
In one of their counterattacks to curb the growing threat that Muhammad and the Muslims represented, the Meccans besieged Medina. Muhammad ordered a ditch to be dug around Medina, thus the event went down in history as the “Battle of the Ditch”. It was recorded by Ibn Ishaq in his biography of Muhammad, pages 450 through 483 and in a number of Hadith.
An online summary of Ibn Ishaq’s story can be found here and here.
During the Battle of the Ditch no actual fighting took place, though there were some intrigues going on. One of them involved the Jewish tribe named Banu Qurayza. This was the only large Jewish tribe left in Medina after Muhammad had had the two other major Jewish tribes, the Banu Qaynuqa and the Banu Nadir, deported.
The Meccans had asked the Banu Qurayza for permission to enter Medina through their fortified settlement, which was not included in the ditch but which was part of the protection against outside attack. In view of the bloodshed that had been going on since Muhammad came to Medina and the deportation of the other Jewish tribes, it is no surprise that the leadership of the Banu Qurayza should have had a discussion about their future and whether they should still honour the military agreement they had with Muhammad.
In the end the Meccans withdrew without fighting. Shortly thereafter, Muhammad laid siege to the settlement of the Banu Qurayza; and before starving, they surrendered.
Ibn Ishaq reports on p 464:
Then they surrendered, and the apostle confined them in Medina in the quarter of d. al-Harith, a woman of B. al-Najjar. Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches. Among them was the enemy of Allah Huyayy b. Akhtab and Ka`b b. Asad their chief. There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900. As they were being taken out in batches to the apostle they asked Ka`b what he thought would be done with them. He replied, 'Will you never understand? Don't you see that the summoner never stops and those who are taken away do not return? By Allah it is death!' This went on until the apostle made an end of them.
All men (600 to 800) were beheaded. Women and children were forced into slavery. As to how they differentiated a boy (to be enslaved) from a man (to be killed) the following hadith from Abu Dawood 38.4390 explains:
Narrated Atiyyah al-Qurazi: “I was among the captives of Banu Qurayzah. They (the Companions) examined us, and those who had begun to grow hair (pubes) were killed, and those who had not were not killed. I was among those who had not grown hair.“
The properties of the tribe were taken as booty. Ibn Ishaq writes on p 466:
Then the apostle divided the property, wives, and children of B. Qurayza among the Muslims, and he made known on that day the shares of horse and men, and took out the fifth. A horseman got three shares, two for the horse and one for his rider. A man without a horse got one share. On the day of B. Qurayza there were thirty-six horses. It was the first booty on which lots were cast and the fifth was taken. According to its precedent and what the apostle did the divisions were made, and it remained the custom for raids.
The women and children were divided among the Muslims. Following a “common practice” at that time, sanctioned by the Quran in verse 4.24, captive women were liable to be used as sex-slaves. Muhammad also took his share. Ibn Ishaq writes on p 466:
The apostle had chosen one of their women for himself, Rayhana d. `Amr b. Khunafa, one of the women of B. 'Amr b. Qurayza, and she remained with him until she died, in his power. The apostle had proposed to marry her and put the veil on her, but she said: 'Nay, leave me in your power, for that will be easier for me and for you.' So he left her. She had shown repugnance towards Islam when she was captured' and clung to Judaism. So the apostle put her aside and felt some displeasure. While he was with his companions he heard the sound of sandals behind him and said, 'This is Thalaba b. Sa`ya coming to give me the good news of Rayhana's acceptance of Islam' and he came up to announce the fact. This gave him pleasure.
A number of Hadith from Bukhari and Muslim give partial stories about the events. For example Bukhari writes the following in 5.59.443-449:
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.
It is interesting to note that after the enemy had left, Muhammad seemed not to be aware of any alleged treason the Banu Qurayza had committed. Obviously this treason did not have any consequences in the field. Note also that no investigation to assess the alleged treason was undertaken before the attack. Gabriel said he would attack, and Muhammad saw this as an order to follow him.
Bukhari also writes the following in 5.59.362:
Narrated Ibn Umar: Bani An-Nadir and Bani Quraiza fought (against the Prophet violating their peace treaty), so the Prophet exiled Bani An-Nadir and allowed Bani Quraiza to remain at their places (in Medina) taking nothing from them till they fought against the Prophet again) . He then killed their men and distributed their women, children and property among the Muslims, but some of them came to the Prophet and he granted them safety, and they embraced Islam. He exiled all the Jews from Medina. They were the Jews of Bani Qainuqa', the tribe of 'Abdullah bin Salam and the Jews of Bani Haritha and all the other Jews of Medina.
This hadith describes the deportation of the other Jewish tribes and the genocide of the Bani Qurayza, whose males were killed (except for the ones who converted to Islam). They were pardoned for their part in the “treason”: the “convert or die” principle at work.
This leaves us with the question: Why did an entire tribe have to be annihilated, on the pretext of an alleged and disputable treason that could have been adjudicated on by the leadership of the tribe? And why do Muslims and non-Muslim apologists have no problem with this?
This is one of the dramas of Islam. It brings decent, respectable, intelligent people, both Muslims and surprisingly also non-Muslims, to publicly condone and justify mass-murder simply because it was perpetrated by the founder of a religion.
It is inconceivable that anybody with a reasonable mind would defend the annihilation of the Palestinians in the Gaza strip merely because their leadership is launching rockets into Israel, or because the ruling party Hamas has openly vowed to destroy Israel. An actual attack, and the stated intention to destroy a country (Hamas) is really not comparable to the mere suspicion of an intent to commit treason (Bani Qurayza). Nobody called for the killing of all German men after WWII. Only the higher officers were sentenced to death after a due and public trial had established their responsibility.
The story of the genocide is well documented in the Islamic source texts. Muslims and non-Muslim apologists have tried either to deny or justify the atrocities,in the following ways:
Some Muslims say they do not believe the story. Muhammad was very merciful. Islam is based on justice and compassion. The story contradicts the “quranic message of peace and humanity”. Actually the massacre of so many people, if true, would be referred to in the Qur’an, they say.
Unfortunately for them, it is. According to the Qur’an commentary by Ibn Kathir in the following link, reference to the genocide of the Bani Qurayza is made in verses 33.26-27:
33.26 And those of the People of the Book who aided them - Allah did take them down from their strongholds and cast terror into their hearts. (So that) some ye slew, and some ye made prisoners.
33.27 And He made you heirs of their lands, their houses, and their goods, and of a land which ye had not frequented (before). And Allah has power over all things.
Blame the victim:
It was their own mistake. In the following link an Iranian Ayatollah justifies the genocide with the following words: “It was the Jews who conspired with the Meccans and it was them who breached several treaties.” So according to Islamic logic,the breaching of treaties and conspiring against Muslims, or even the fear of these, is sufficient justification for genocide.
Pre-emptive genocide is justified to avoid worse:
Karen Armstrong in her bestseller “Muhammad: a biography of the Prophet” writes a very biased explanation on p 208 (we give our comments in the text in green):
The Muslim umma had narrowly escaped extermination [in reality there had even been no fighting because the Bani Qurayza themselves had not given the enemy from Mecca access to Medina. According to the reasoning of Karen Armstrong, it would be recommended to the Bani Qurayza to help the enemy of the muslims to escape the genocide which they had feared] at the siege and emotions were naturally running high [emotions were running so high that Muhammad was quietly taking a bath; one would expect a Prophet of Allah not to be guided by negative and genocidal emotions but by mercy instead]. Qurayza [Karen Armstrong probably means the Quraish from Mecca instead of the Qurayza] had nearly destroyed Medina [in reality they did not even get into Medina and returned to Mecca, so they were far from destroying it]. If Muhammad had let them [Bani Qurayza] go [this is: had them deported instead of killed] they would at once have swelled the Jewish opposition at Khaybar [there was no indication that he so-called Jewish opposition in Khaybar had any intention to attack Medina, they were getting along with their daily business. Of course Karen Armstrong does not mention that many Jews in Khaybar had moved there after being deported from Medina by Muhammad himself], and have organised another offensive at Medina [by using the word “another”, Karen Armstrong implies that the Jews of Khaybar had already attacked Medina which is not true. Another offensive means: the first offensive by the Meccans and the second (putative) offensive by the Jews of Khaybar. Now such an offensive would not have had much chance of succeeding after the deportation of the Bani Qurayza as Muhammad would have taken over their fortress by now the only way into Medina]: the next time the Muslims might not be so lucky and the bloody struggle for survival would continue indefinitely with more suffering and more deaths. [[Of course this is all speculation by Karen Armstrong herself which makes us wonder what is driving her to justify such an atrocity.]
Did Muhammad have the genocide on this Jewish tribe in mind when he said: “I have been made victorious by terror”?