[Excerpts, with occasional modest edits, from The Real Muḥammad: In the Eyes of Ibn Isḥāq, copyright 2013, TEI Publishing House. All quotations from the Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (“Life of the Messenger of Allāh”) are from the translation by Alfred Guillaume (Oxford University Press), copyright 1955. These stories are faithfully passed along from the most ancient, extant and authoritative biography of Muḥammad. All Muslims are called to imitate Muḥammad in their daily lives, and Muslim scholars know that Ibn Isḥāq is the best source for the historical Muḥammad, despite concern for various hon-historical material. The question is this: Can Muḥammad satisfy the Muslim thirst for freedom? How many people, of their own volition, would follow Muḥammad if they were free to choose otherwise? The same question is freely received by Muslims who would question Christians who follow Jesus as the Son of God]

The Raid on B. Qurayẓa and Mass Beheadings of the Jews

John C. Rankin

According to what al-Zuhrī told me, at the time of the noon prayers Gabriel [Jibrīl] came to the apostle wearing an embroidered turban and riding on a mule with a saddle covered with a piece of brocade. He asked the apostle if he had abandoned fighting, and when he said that he had[,] he said that the angels had not yet laid aside their arms[,] and that he had just come from pursuing the enemy. “God [Allāh] commands you, Muhammad, to go to B. Qurayẓa. I am about to go to them and shake their stronghold.”

Thus, Muḥammad is profiled as exhausted from war after the siege, but Jibrīl comes as a warring angel, commanding Muḥammad to attack the B. Qurayẓa. They have been successfully driven from the siege, and too, may be tired of any prospect of war at this juncture. As ‘Alī approaches their fort, he hears “insulting language used of the apostle,” and shortly thereafter, as Muḥammad approaches, he answers, calling to them, “ ‘You brothers of monkeys, has God [Allāh] disgraced you and brought his vengeance upon you?’ They replied, ‘O Abū’l-Qāsim, you are not a barbarous person.’ ”

A siege of twenty-five nights ensues as “Gabriel [Jibrīl] [ ] was sent to B. Qurayẓa to shake their castles and strike terror into their hearts” and “until they were sore pressed and God [Allāh] cast terror into their hearts.” Ka‘b b. Asad, their chief, knowing he has broken treaty with Muḥammad at the battle of the Trench, knows the B. Qurayẓa are desperate. So he presents three awful possibilities to his fellow Jews:

“ ‘O Jews, you can see what has happened to you; I offer you three alternatives. Take which you please. (i) We will follow this man and accept him as true, for by God [Allāh] it has become plain to you that he is a prophet who has been sent and that it is he that you find mentioned in your scripture; and then your lives, your property, your women and children will be saved.’ They said, ‘We will never abandon the laws of the Torah and never change it for another.’ He said, ‘Then if you won’t accept this suggestion (ii) let us kill our wives and children and send men with their swords drawn to Muhammad and his companions leaving no encumbrances behind us, until God [Allāh] decides between us and Muhammad. If we perish, we perish, and we shall not leave children behind us to cause us anxiety. If we conquer we can acquire other wives and children.’ They said, ‘Should we kill these poor creatures? What would be the good of life when they are dead?’

“He said, ‘Then if you will not accept this suggestion (iii) tonight is the eve of the sabbath and it may well be that Muhammad and his companions will feel secure from us then, so come down, perhaps we can take Muhammad and his companions by surprise.’ They said, ‘Are we to profane our sabbath and do on the sabbath what those before us of whom you well know did and were turned into apes?’ He answered, ‘Not a single man among you from the day of your birth has ever passed a night resolved to do what he knows ought to be done.’ ”

The three options are these:

  1. Submit to Islām under the threat of death;
  2. Kill innocent people in a desperate attempt to fight Muḥammad; or
  3. Break the Sabbath.

Ka‘b b. Asad behaves as one who may well believe Muḥammad fulfills the Tanakh, but again and if so, no scripture texts are cited. Or he sees no alternative to survival apart from such a profession. In the first instance, submitting to Islām is unacceptable. In the second instance, a cruel suggestion is made for them to murder their own wives and children so as to enter battle with abandon. And in the third instance, the B. Qurayẓa have already refused to break the Sabbath at the battle of the Trench. They are exhausted by the siege, and see no escape or ability to engage in battle. After further variables, Sa‘d b. Mu‘ādh, who earlier refused to allow Muḥammad to compromise at the Battle of the Trench, is selected by Muḥammad to render judgment on the Banū Qurayẓa. He decrees death for the men and captivity for the women and children, fulfilling Jibrīl’s call to fight the Qurayẓa.

“Then they surrendered, and the apostle confined them in Medina in the quarter of d. al-Ḥārith, a woman of B. al-Najjār. 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 Ḥuyayy b. Akhṭab 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.”

Ḥussay says to Muḥammad: “ ‘By God, I do not blame myself for opposing you, but he who forsakes God will be forsaken.’ Then he went to the men and said, ‘God’s command is right. A book and a decree, and massacre have been written against the Sons of Israel.’ Then he sat down and his head was struck off.” In other words, Ḥussay knows he has broken his military treaty with Muḥammad, and even though Muḥammad breaks treaties elsewhere, Ḥussay will not. He has a moral conscience in the sight of Yahweh Elohīm and goes to his death in this sense of accountability. One woman is also beheaded, one who laughs “immoderately as the apostle was killing her men.”

As Muḥammad earlier supervises the beheading of 400 men, and approving of the pleasure of the Khazraj in so doing, he is here in his fifties, and bearing some extra weight in his age as he engages in the extraordinary vengeance of physical strength in wielding heavy sword, again and again, to the necks of 600-900 men. Surrender means death in much ancient warfare, and Islām does not break this pattern. Massacre is permitted in the name of Allāh. No prisoners are taken except as the de facto reality dhimmīs, those who submit to Islām, not in confession, but in paying the jizya or poll-tax.

“Then the apostle divided the property, wives, and children of B. Qurayẓa among the Muslims, and he made known on that day the shares of horse and mule, and took out the fifth … 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.”

As part of the booty, Muḥammad chooses a Qurayẓa woman for himself, Rayḥāna d. ‘Amr b. Khunāfa, proposing to “marry her and put the veil on her.” But “[s]he had shown some repugnance towards Islam when she was captured and clung to Judaism. So the apostle put her aside and felt some displeasure.”

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