Slaughter of Infidels in Jihãd: The Evidence of the Sunnah

The generosity shown by the Prophet to his kinsmen at Mecca was not matched by anything in relation to the Jews of Medina, nor, for the matter of that, to any Jewish tribe of Arabia. Actually, the Prophet’s uniformly stringent measures adopted against the Jews contrasted most signally with his leniency towards the Arabs. To account for the contrast, D.S. Margoliouth credits the Prophet with being a “champion of the national idea” of the Arabs, and this supposition does give a national explanation of his uniform hostility to the Jews. As Margoliouth puts it, “With this attitude [namely the Prophet’s supposed nationalism] agreed his ordinary tenderness for the lives of Arabs when he massacred Jews without mercy.” Whatever the explanation, the Prophet’s treatment of the Jews brings out a most important body of Sunnah connected with one aspect of jihãd, namely, “making slaughter in the land” (K 8/67). To illustrate this aspect, a short account of the massacre of the Jewish clan of Kuraizah is in order.

This event had taken place three whole years before the conquest of Mecca, and it may be said that the Sunnah regarding slaughter of infidels in jihãd had been well established by it, so that the Prophet’s lenient treatment of the Meccans was an exception designed to prove the rule. To understand the rule clearly we must remember that the destruction of Banu Kuraizah was an episode connected with the Battle of the Ditch. This battle took place in 627 AD following a siege of Medina by a body of the Koreish and sundry other tribes. By that time Banu Kuraizah had been left as the only considerable Jewish tribe in Medina, those of Banu Kainuka and Banu Nazir having been banished a few years previously. It was alleged by most of the early Muslim writers that Banu Kuraizah were in league with the Koreish and this opinion has been broadly accepted by most of the latter-day scholars. The Jews did not in fact participate in the battle, but their hostile movements kept the Muslim army on tenterhooks during the month-long siege. As soon as the siege was raised, the angel Gabriel is said to have visited the Prophet and asked him to punish the “traitors” immediately without thinking of rest or repose. As a hadîs puts it:

“Gabriel said: you have laid down arms. By God, we haven’t laid them down. So march against them. The Messenger of Allah asked: Where? He pointed to the Banu Quraiza” (Sahih Muslim, No. 4370).

What transpired after this is easily described. The Prophet laid siege to the stronghold of Banu Kuraizah, who were starved into suing for submission. The Jews offered to face banishment leaving their property behind. The Prophet did not agree. They appealed for mediation by the Arab tribe of Aus of which they were clients. The Prophet agreed to this and asked the Ausite chief, Sa’d bin Muã‘z, to administer judgement. Sa’d pronounced the verdict in the name of Allah. All male members of the Kuraizah (barring children) were to be put to death, their women and children were to be sold into slavery, and their property was to be distributed among Muslims. The Prophet praised Sa’d as having “adjudged the case with the judgment of God, the Exalted and Glorified”.1

The slaughter of Banu Kuraizah sheds a lurid light on the early annals of Islam. A big pit was dug in the market place of Medina, and 800 Jews (according to Muir’s calculation) were brought down, chained and manacled, to be beheaded in cold blood. The Prophet himself presided over the massacre. The able-bodied prisoners were brought in companies of five or six, seated in a row on the brink of the pit, and beheaded in a leisurely manner, their bodies being cast into the pit. A woman whose husband had just perished, admitted to having killed a Muslim by throwing a big stone during the siege and, having refused the gift of life granted to the enslaved womenfolk, was promptly despatched at her own request. Her smiling face as she stepped forward for execution is said to have haunted the Prophet’s child-wife Ayesha to the end of her days.2 The Kuraizah showed signal courage in facing death, but for Islam the punishment meted out to them merely constituted the canonical precedent for “making slaughter in the land”.

It must be mentioned that barring Muir few European scholars have found fault with the Prophet for the gruesome murder of the men of Banu Kuraizah. According to D.S. Margoliouth “Those who had taken part openly with the invaders of Medina could not very well be permitted to remain there. To banish them was unsafe; to permit them to remain was yet more dangerous. Hence they must die… And since it would appear that the Kuraizah had turned against the Prophet merely because he was in extreme danger, their fate, horrible as it was, does not surprise us. If they had not succeeded in harming him, they had manifested the will to do so.”

More recently a French scholar, Maxime Rodinson, has defended the Prophet in stronger language. As he puts it, “from a purely political point of view, the massacre was an extremely wise move. The chosen solution was undeniably the best.”

The Muslim apologist Syed Amir Ali too has defended the Prophet. He argues that as the Jews themselves had wanted the Ausites to arbitrate, no question of blaming the Prophet can possibly arise.

It is not necessary to comment on these judgments pronounced by latter-day critics. But the reader must be reminded of one thing even at the risk of tiresome repetition. To the devout followers of Islam, the massacre of Banu Kuraizah is part of the Prophet’s Sunnah. It is not as if the matter ended with the slaughter that took place in 627 AD in the market place of Medina. Over the centuries, the mujãhids have been inspired by this part of the Sunnah to emulate the Prophet in similar massacres of the infidels. Timur at Delhi, towards the close of the 14th century, followed the Prophet’s seventh century exploit at Medina by murdering in cold blood one hundred thousand Hindu prisoners captured by him during his prolonged jihãd. A devout follower of the Koran and the Sunnah he “made slaughter in the land” rather than seek ransom for his helpless victims. It is not the 800 Jews of Medina, but the millions of infidels slaughtered in subsequent centuries that should make us pause and reflect. Not only that. Those who defend the Prophet should reflect on the fate of the millions of infidels for whose heads the mujãhid’s knife is being sharpened in all Islamic countries right at this moment.


1 Sahih Muslim

2 This indicates that the women of Medina had been invited to feast their eyes upon the gruesome spectacle.

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