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A Balanced Explanation of the Banu Qurayza Controversy

Answered by Ustadh Abdullah Anik Misra

Question 1: Assalamu Alaykum,

My questions relate to the treatment of Banu Qurayzah after they committed treason during the time of the Prophet (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him). First, how do we explain this hadith:

Narrated Atiyyah al-Qurazi: I was among the captives of Banu Qurayza. 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. (Abu Dawood)

How do we explain this when those who just reached puberty were still very young and most likely not directly involved in the treason?  Also, there may have been some older males who were not involved in the treachery? Were both of these groups were killed?

Answer:

In the Name of God, Most Merciful and Compassionate,

Wa alaikum as-salam,

Thank you for reaching out to us and sharing your question. It is very important to seek clarification if any doubt enters one’s mind, and the treason and subsequent sentencing of the Qurayza tribe is a topic which many people grapple with due to a lack of understanding of the event, its context and the realities of pre-modern tribal warfare. God-willing, we will address each question briefly, with some explanation.

The Realities of Pre-Modern Tribal Warfare

Firstly, in the norms of ancient tribal warfare, all able-bodied males were considered combatants. Fighting for one’s tribe was a collective duty for survival, and in ancient societies when life expectancy was not as high, the onset of puberty was often the mark that a young male was ready to be initiated into the tribe as a warrior (or for adulthood in general).

The Qurayza, a tribe who lived in Medina alongside the Muslims, had broken their treaty of non-hostility with the Muslims at the height of the Battle of the Trench, and intended to attack them from within, but before they could, the siege on Madina suddenly ended, leaving the Qurayza alone and caught red-handed. They quickly fortified themselves, and finally surrendered after a 25-day siege of their fort.

Those punished for treason were all who qualified as fighting men of the tribe, since they were the ones who would have taken part in the hostilities out of tribal obligation. Excluded were the pre-pubescent boys, and one elderly man (though he later chose punishment voluntarily).

Some of the Qurayza and their families had broken ranks with their tribe early on and left to seek protection from the Muslims, and they were granted it; others were afforded amnesty through the intercession of some Muslims, due to some good deed they had done in the past. The rest, even though those who now regretted and disagreed with the treason, chose to be judged with those guilty out of tribal loyalties.

The Mosaic Penalty is Pronounced After Arbitration

As for choosing the sentence, the Prophet (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) gave the Qurayza tribe the choice of whom from amongst the Muslims they desired to judge the punishment for their treason. They selected Sa’d ibn Mu’adh, the Ansari chief who was a former ally before Islam, but was now on his deathbed after being wounded during the Battle of the Trench, which the Qurayza helped provoke through their treason. [al-Salihi, Subul al-Huda wal-Rashad]

Sa’d swiftly pronounced that all fighters would be executed, and the women and children become captives. He claimed his decision was based on the Mosaic penalty for their crime; some say he was referring to the passages of Deuteronomy 20:12-14. As a hadith in Bukhari narrates, this was the second time the Qurayza intended hostilities towards their Muslim neighbors; after the first incident, they had been forgiven, while another affiliated tribe was expelled from Madina. The second violation, however, was an existential threat, as it was an act of treason in the thick of a siege by the Meccans.

Question 2: Also, what happened to the women prisoners of war afterwards. It says in al Raheeq ul Makthum, the famous biography, that “Women captives were sent to Najd to be bartered with horses and weaponry.” Were the children also sent to Najd to be bartered? Why would these groups be punished if they took no part in treason?

Please assist in explaining these events has they have caused some doubts in my faith.

Answer:

The Treatment of the Captives

The women and children were not harmed because they were true non-combatants, and it was one of the hallmarks of Islam that in times of war, the Prophet (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) forbade their killing. The one exception was the capital punishment of a woman from Qurayza who had killed one Muslim man during the war.

Hence, this incident was not a genocide or massacre or extermination as some would try to portray, nor was it about religion. It was about tribal warfare and treaties, and the punishment for treason during a time of war with an external enemy.

In ancient tribal warfare, when one tribe lost a war, the surviving captives would often be used for manual labor, or sold into slavery elsewhere, which was that situation that Islam found the world in at the time of its inception. After all the warriors of the Qurayza tribe had been executed, in ancient Arabia, a tribe of now-defenseless women and children would have been impossible to maintain, and in those times, they saw bondage as a way to forcefully integrate a subdued tribe into their society.

Slavery is not a positive thing in Islam, and it is a blessing that it has been abolished in most of the world. According to the ancient world-order however, the Prophet’s (Allah’s peace be upon him) treatment of the captives was exemplary and unheard of. A mother and her children were forbidden to be separated; under-age siblings were to be kept together also [Waqidi, al-Maghazi].

Captives were given food and drink, and were not ravaged nor abused. No mainstream Muslim scholar says, however, that just because there were laws governing the treatment of slaves in pre-modern situations, that Islam justifies slavery today.

Some of the captives were distributed amongst the Muslims, many of which were later freed due to the exhortation that Islam gave to the emancipation of slaves. Others were ransomed to individuals from fellow Jewish tribes of outlying areas, such as Khaybar and Tayma. Still others were purchased by polytheist tribes in the Najd (who later became Muslims), in exchange for weapons and equipment that would go to ensure that such an existential threat and treason would never occur again to the nascent community. [al-Waqidi, al-Maghazi]

Many of these captives would go on to lead free lives and thrive in Muslim society, and the early Muslim biographical works list some of their descendants, such as Muhammad ibn Ka’b al-Qurazi, who became a prominent scholar and narrator of hadith. [al-Dhahabi, Siyar A’lam al-Nubalaa’]

The Responsibility Falls on the Shoulders of the Leaders

One of the unfortunate aspects of warfare, both then and now, is that the people collectively suffer for the mistakes of their leaders. It was the corrupt leaders of the Qurayza tribe who planned the treachery and broke the covenant, thus bearing responsibility for what they led their people into.

Even in modern times, the soldiers of a dictator often suffer a collective punishment for the crimes of their misguided leadership, while innocent people become collateral damage, while each individual’s intention cannot be looked into. The blame falls squarely on the leaders, who lead their own people to destruction in trying to further their twisted motives, and this was the case with the Qurayza tribe also.

Dealing With These Types of Incidents

The treason and subsequent sentencing of Banu Qurayza is indeed a difficult topic from many to grapple with in our times for a number of reasons, which unless addressed, will prevent them from understanding and coming to terms with what took place.

Firstly, there is a lack of knowledge of the complete context and details of the incident; secondly, since we are far removed from the pre-modern realities of tribal warfare, we tend to selectively judge this event based on contemporary conventions of war, which have developed greatly since then (often while overlooking warfare in the Bible, for example); thirdly, due to contemporary political situations, the event is often taken out of context and used to demonize Muslims, so Muslims themselves begin to see their own history in this way; and fourthly, there is a fear that if we come to terms with this difficult event as it occurred in its own time and context, it means it is applicable in our time and context, and this is simply not true, and others need to be reassured that history is history, and today, Muslims are interested in working towards a peaceful co-existence with others .

Finally, as believers we must strengthen our faith and certainty that the Messenger of God (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) was right and true in everything he did, even if we do not have a full understanding of the details. Others might never agree with us on some things, but we don’t seek to validate our faith through their value systems and opinions. This comes only through actively increasing one’s faith through learning, and loving devotion.

We must also learn about the over-arching human values which Islam teaches and embody them, so that we are confident in its truth and can be a benefit to mankind, and not feel disturbed when someone tries to claim otherwise. And we leave the final knowledge of all things to Allah Most High.

Wassalam,

Abdullah Anik Misra

Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani

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