Robert Spencer’s Interpretation of the Banu Qurayza “Massacre” Myth - updated 6/11

Dr. Robert D. Crane

Posted Sep 30, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Robert Spencer’s Interpretation of the Banu Qurayza “Massacre” Myth

Dr. Robert D. Crane

Identifying the Principal Perversions

It may seem ironic that there is much overlap between the accusations levied by the professional Muslim bashers against the clear message of divine revelation in the Qur’an and those promoted by Muslim extremists themselves.  Therefore, a concerted and coordinated campaign to counter the perversions of the Muslim bashers also serves to counter the perversions by Al Qa’ida and its legions.  And the reverse is also true.  To counter the lies spread by the Wahhabi religion serves equally to counter those spread by professional Islam bashers in America.

There are two distinct approaches to exposing the lies about Islam and its principal exemplar, the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam.  The first is to explain positively or proactively the teachings of the Qur’an and its expression in the sayings of Prophet Muhammad and the sirah of his life.  The second is to explain reactively what they are not.

The second approach is to identify the leading distortions of the Qur’an and of the sayings and life of the Prophet Muhammad and then expose the questionable and fraudulent sources of these errors through scholarly analysis.  The leading dozen of these principal distortions are illustrated clearly in the recent book by Robert Spencer, The Truth about Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.

These dirty dozen, as well as many more, are found in all the major attacks on Islam and on the Prophet Muhammad, but Spencer alleges that his latest book is the most scholarly because he bases all his claims on statements over the centuries by Muslims themselves.  These dirty dozen range from the accusation that the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, was a pedophile, to the bizarre contention, shared by many Muslims, that Islamic law requires women to be stoned to death.  This article highlights perhaps the most spectacular one of these dirty dozen to illustrate the bias that mars the scholarship of Robert Spencer’s use of sources.  This one concerns the Prophet Muhammad’s alleged massacre of Jews in Medina.

Bias in Selecting Sources

The underlying problem in most of what Robert Spencer writes to demonize Islam and the Prophet Muhammad is his bias in the selection of sources.  He claims that his scholarship is impeccable because he relies entirely on Muslim sources.  Unfortunately, he relies heavily on sources that are either bogus or biased and reflect the strain of extremism that is found in every religion. 

From the very beginning, there has never been a shortage of extremist Muslims to provide ammunition for those with a biased agenda.  The first Wahhabis were the Mukharijun who condemned Ali bin Abi Talib, ‘alayhi as-salam, in the earliest period of the Muslim community for offering to compromise with the tyrant Mu’awiya.  They declared that all who disagreed with themselves are infidels who should be executed, and eventually in the year 661 they succeeded in murdering Ali whom they had once supported.  One could quote Kharijites (Mukharijun), who survived in one form or another for centuries, but no scholar, not even Spencer, has ever quoted them to prove anything about Islam.

The most extreme example of Robert Spencer’s bias, and one shared by many ignorant Muslims over the centuries, is the apocryphal story about the massacre led by The Prophet Muhammad against an entire Jewish tribe in Medina, the Banu Qurayzah.  They were one of the three Jewish tribes that together with the resident Arab tribes had originally invited the Prophet Muhammad to Medina in order to bring peace among the warring parties in the city.  All of these tribes signed the Medina Covenant, which was the first known constitution of any city or country.  In it, each tribe promised to support the others in the common defense and to work together for their common good.  When an alliance of the Quraish and surrounding warlike tribes was threatening to annihilate the Muslims in Medina, the Banu Qurayza committed treason by allying with these tribes. 

This much is a known fact, but the story of the Prophet massacring all male members of the tribe, some 700 men, is pure fabrication.  Spencer gets this story from the supposedly reliable account by the first historian of Islamdom, Abu Ishaq (704-773).  Unfortunately, the original history by Abu Ishaq disappeared without a trace sometime after it was written 150 years after the death of the Prophet.  The only extant version of this first biography of the Prophet Muhammad was written half a century later by Ibn Hisham, who admitted that he had condensed and revised the original to fit his own agenda.  Malik ibn Anas (715-801), founder of one of the four surviving schools of law in the Sunni world, called Ibn Ishaq a “Dajjal” or anti-Christ for including ahadith that were invented by Jews to glorify their ancestors.  Spencer admits on page 28 that the accuracy of Ibn Ishaq’s life of Muhammad is questionable, yet he says on page 30 that Ibn Ishaq’s biography of the Prophet Muhammad is his principal source for much of his book.    Many good scholars even today rely on Ibn Ishaq or what remains of his rewritten writings, but not as the sole source of stories that almost certainly were forgeries.

Spencer devotes an entire chapter to the Prophet’s alleged fondness for shock and awe.  This chapter in his book, The Truth about Muhammad, is entitled “Casting Terror into Their Hearts.”  According to Ibn Ishaq and several ahadith that derive from his account, the Prophet Muhammad laid siege to the Banu Qurayza’s stronghold in the city.  When they surrendered, The Prophet announced that Allah had ordered all the male members of the Qurayzah tribe to be executed for disloyalty.  Spencer quotes Ibn Ishaq’s account on page 130 as follows: “The apostle went out to the market of Medina and dug trenches in it.  Then he sent for the men of the Qurayzah and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought to him in batches.”

This is a great story.  The only problem is that subsequent scholarship shows that it was almost certainly a total fabrication from the very beginning.  The most detailed expose of this story was published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society thirty years ago in 1976 on pages 100-107 under the title, “New Light on the Story of Banu Qurayza and the Jews of Medina”.

This scholarly analysis quotes contemporary and later scholars who described the rewritten biography of the Prophet, known as Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, as a collection of “odd tales” similar to the mythology popular among ignorant desert tribes.  Scholars have always been skeptical of the popular Sirah or histories of early Islam because in this genre of writing the evidentiary rules of the muhadithin or collectors of ahadith, and especially of sources deemed valid as sources for jurisprudence, did not have to be followed.  It was not necessary to give any chain of authorities or even to give any authorities at all.  As a result, the first mention of this massacre occurred a hundred and fifty years after the event.

Ibn Ishaq himself admitted that his account of the so-called massacre of the Banu Qurayzah was pieced together from fragmentary accounts, including the tribal memories of the Banu Qurayzah themselves, who like all tribes in the world are known to embellish their ancestral histories to mythical proportions.  Even Tabari, who is one of the earliest and most reliable historians of early Islam, cites Ibn Ishaq’s story about the alleged slaughter with skepticism and provides no supporting evidence as he does for the rest of his historical research.

The only authentic account is in the chapter of the Qur’an entitled “The Confederates,” Surah al Ahzab 33:26, which relates the siege of Medina by the Quraish and their confederates and the treacherous assistance given the besiegers by some of the Banu Qurayzah.  These traitors were killed during battle. “He [Allah] caused those of the People of the Book [the Banu Qurayzah] who helped them [i.e., helped the Quraish] to come out of their forts and cast terror into their hearts, so that some you killed, and some you took prisoner.”  This is a statement about the battle, and no figures of casualties are given. 

Only later were Jewish tribal accounts embellished with statements that all the men of the Banu Quraysh, as many as 900 men, were personally murdered by the Prophet Muhammad, salah Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, who publicly and enthusiastically chopped off their heads one by one in the main square of Medina.

Modern scholars point out the great resemblance of the above Jewish tale to the early history of the Jews that has survived throughout the ages, according to which the predecessor of Herod the Great hung upon crosses 800 Jewish captives and slaughtered their wives and children before their eyes.  At Masada, the number of those who died at the end was 900.  The inside story was that the leader of the Banu Qurayzah suggested that all the Banu Qurayzah kill their women and children and then commit suicide, which is the same story told about the last holdout at Masada.  A giveaway is that even the same names were given in accounts of these two heroic last stands.  It is interesting that modern historians now question the authenticity of the Masada account that 960 Jews committed suicide, which would mean that the Banu Qurayza account of their own refusal to commit suicide might unknowingly have been a more accurate rendition of the original prototype.

Robert Spencer accepts this bogus history as proof for his insistence that the Prophet Muhammad is the perfect model for Al Qa’ida and those who get a thrill from personally beheading captives. 

The real significance of Spencer’s reliance on this Jewish tribal history to make his point is found in his reasons for rejecting the Muslim scholars’ skepticism, because this reveals strikingly the bias that poisons everything else in his book. 

The scholars argue that this story has to be apocryphal because the strict rule in Islamic law is to punish only those who are responsible for the sedition.  The large number of those allegedly beheaded contradicts the Qur’anic prohibition of collective guilt ordained in Surah Fatir 35:18: “No soul shall bear another’s burden.”  The leaders of the Banu Qurayzah even in the apocryphal story were well known and even named. 

Equally important is the strict rule, never violated at the time of the Prophet, that prisoners of war must be either freed or allowed to be ransomed by their families.  This was the rule applied to the other Jewish tribes.

The classical Islamic scholars have another clinching argument.  If such a slaughter had actually occurred, it would have been used as a precedent for legal rulings, whereas, in fact, there have never been any such rulings.

Spencer’s argument against the classical Islamic scholars, including the modern scholar, W. N. Arafat, in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, is Spencer’s charge on page 132 that they rejected the very possibility of such a slaughter “chiefly for the anachronistic reason that it would have violated Islamic law.” 

This is an all-time classic case of biased and circular reasoning.  His careful reversal of everything in the Qur’an related to the universal human rights to life and dignity are demonstrated in Part Four of my article, “Marginalizing Extremists by Revealing the Real Truth About Muhammad,” which was published in, June 25th, 2007.  Throughout his book Spencer relies on extremist Muslim sources to prove that human rights have never existed in Islam, and then he cites this biased conclusion to justify his acceptance of events that never occurred.

This bias is strikingly evidenced in the contrast between Spencer’s unquestioning acceptance of falsehood and his rejection of truths that are beyond question.  He accepts the Banu Qurayzah massacre, because doing so serves to prove the points he is trying to make throughout his book, but he is skeptical about the very existence of the Medina Covenant which granted equal rights to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

This whole episode is perhaps the most dramatic of the falsehoods perpetrated by Robert Spencer in his superficially very scholarly book, The Truth about Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion, but it is merely the first of the dirty dozen.

This was originally published as a section of an article originally published September 17, 2007 titled Forging a Common Front Against the Totalitarian Mind: A Case Study in Religious Demonization **

UPDATE 6/14/2011

A prime example in the Sirah is the myth about the so-called massacre of the Banu Qurayza.  This case of an alleged massacre of Jews is an example of uncritically using sirah accounts as a source and of the need to apply higher standards in the use of the sirah as history.

This myth is found in the first full-length biography of the Prophet, by Muhammad ibn Ishaq ibn Yasar (704-773 A.C.), which appeared some 150 years after his death.  Moreover, since the original text of Ibn Ishaq was lost, the account available to us is a later revised and shortened version by Ibn Hisham, who died in 834, sixty years after Ibn Ishaq, and in fragments quoted by other early Muslim writers, including Muhammad ibn Jarir al Tabari (839-923 A.C.).

The Sirah is accepted by all Muslims as a source of early Islamic history and as an historical account of the life of the Prophet Muhammad.  The Sirah differs, however, from Ahadith, because the hadith were subjected to an evaluation process that required authentication of the chain of narrations (isnad) as well as the coherence of its substance (matn) with the Qur’an.  This standard was not always met, but at least the requirement was there.

The historical background of this myth is that Arabia was home to several Christian and Jewish communities at the time of the Prophet Muhammad.  The Christians originated largely as refugees from the Byzantine Empire, which imposed the doctrine of the dual nature of Jesus and therefore persecuted primarily the Nestorians, who emphasized the human nature of Jesus, and the Monophysites, who emphasized his divine nature.  Jewish communities had been present throughout Arabia for many centuries.  The largest of them was the Jewish kingdom of Nawas in the far south, but major Jewish tribes lived in the Khaybar Oasis in the north and in the two major cities, Medina and Mecca.  The three Jewish tribes in Medina were the Banu Qurayzah, the Banu Qaynuqa, and the Banu Nadir.  The latter two were expelled for treason.

The Banu Qurayzah was one of the three Jewish tribes that together with the resident Arab tribes had originally invited the Prophet Muhammad, salah Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, to Medina in order to bring peace among the warring parties in the city.  All of these tribes signed the Medina Covenant, which was the first known constitution of any city or country.  In it, each tribe promised to support the others in the common defense and to work together for the common good of the interfaith community (designated as the umma).

The alleged massacre of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayzah in Medina came in the Year 627 immediately after the third of the three great battles between the Quraysh from Mecca and the Medinans, known as the Battle of the Trench (Al Khandaq),the first two being the Battle of Badr in 624 and the Battle of Uhud in 625.  When it became known that the Makkans were planning to bring a great army from many Arabian tribes to annihilate the Muslims in Medina, the Medinans dug a trench (khanduq) around the city to hold off the attack.  After three weeks of siege, when conditions in the city were becoming desperate, the Banu Qurayzah leaders in Medina secretly connived with the Makkans to attack the Muslims from within.  Beaten up and disarrayed by an unexpected hurricane, however, the Makkans took to their heals and retreated to Makkah, leaving the Banu Qurayzah to their fate.

After the siege was over, the Prophet decided that the Banu Qurayzah had to be held accountable for their violation of the pact with the Muslims.  He organized his followers to lay siege to the Banu Qurayzah.  The Banu Qurayzah surrendered after about 25 days and it was decided that their punishment for treason would be determined according to their own laws.  This called for the death penalty for treason, which used to be standard in America and everywhere else.  Thus some of the male members of the tribe were killed, in punishment for breach of the pact.

The Qur’an refers to this incident in Surah Al-Ahzab (The Confederates) where no numbers are mentioned:

… and He brought down from their strongholds those of the followers of earlier revelation who had aided the aggressors, and cast terror into their hearts: some you killed, and some you made captive.  (Surah al Ahzab, 33:26)

The story of how many were killed and who carried out the punishment has been a subject of speculation.  It was first explored in modern times by W. N. Arafat in 1946 in his article, “New Light on the Story of Banu Qurayza and the Jews of Medina,” published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.  Regardless of the details and how many Jews may have been killed in this incident, it is important to note that it involved punishment according to Jewish law for betrayal of a treaty between the two communities and of the Madina Covenant.

The second part of this article was published on June 14, 2011 as part of an article Shari’ah Thought:  Guidelines and Qualifications for Knowledge **