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What Does Islam Teach About...

Forgiveness

Does Islam teach forgiveness or retaliation?

Islam tells Muslims to forgive each other.

Muhammad's attitude toward non-Muslims is best summed up by his massacre of 800 Jewish men and boys who had never harmed him or his people.

Quran

Quran (2:191) And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out

Quran (2:194) Then whoever transgresses the prohibition against you, you transgress likewise against him

Hadith and Sira

The Qurayza Massacre (627)

Verse 5:48 of the Qur’an affirms the Old Testament rule of “an eye for an eye," but also tacks on the Christian principle that forgiveness is more noble than retaliation. If ever there was proof that these words are not intended to apply to the treatment of non-Muslims, however, it is in Muhammad’s conduct toward the Jews in general and the Qurayza tribe in particular.

Muhammad arrived in Medina in 622 with a band of immigrants, completely dependent on the hospitality of the three Jewish tribes that lived there alongside the Arabs. Within less than two years, two of these tribes would be evicted, losing their land and their wealth to the Muslims as soon as their guests gained the power to confiscate and conquer. Muhammad accomplished this by deftly using a strategy of “divide and conquer.”

The first tribe that he attacked, the Banu Qaynuqa, had been aligned against the other two in a recent war, so they did not go to its defense against Muhammad. Neither did the third tribe, the Banu Qurayza assist the second, the Banu Nadir, when it was attacked by the Muslims shortly thereafter, since the two clans had recently suffered a falling out over “blood money” after Muhammad’s arrival (of which he was well aware).

Muhammad was also wise enough not to order the wholesale slaughter of the first two tribes following their defeat, lest that might send the surviving people a stronger incentive to resist. In all three cases, the Jewish tribes, composed of peaceful tradesmen and farmers, surrendered their accumulated wealth to Muhammad without a fight and accepted eviction. It was only after the last tribe, the Qurayza, surrendered that Muhammad felt comfortable ordering mass executions.

Over 800 men and boys (and at least one woman) from the Qurayza tribe were beheaded by the prophet of Islam in a bloodbath that is of acute embarrassment to today’s Muslim apologists. It is an episode that is not only completely at odds with the idea that Islam is a peaceful religion, but also the claim that it is the heir to Christianity, since even that religion’s most dedicated critics could hardly imagine Jesus doing such a thing.

It is only in modern times, as Islam finds itself having to compete with morally mature religions in open debate, that the story of the massacre has become controversial. Some Muslims deny the episode, largely on the grounds of inconvenience. Others are unaware of it altogether. But, not only is the incident well documented in the Hadith and Sira (biography of Muhammad), there is even a brief reference to it in the Qur’an (verse 33:26).

Since Islam makes no apologies, particularly for anything in the life of Muhammad, contemporary Muslims generally try to convince themselves that the victims of Qurayza deserved their fate. They must have turned on the Muslims in battle and inflicted many deaths, forcing Muhammad to yield to the wishes of his people and respond in kind.

Unfortunately, the accounts of what happened, as related to the early Muslim historians by eyewitnesses, do not support this myth. In fact, it was the Qurayza who were caught in an impossible situation at the time between the Muslims and their enemies, the Meccans.

Shortly after arriving in Medina in 622, Muhammad began raiding the merchant caravans traveling to and from neighboring Mecca. He would steal their property and kill anyone who defended it (Ishaq 424-425). The Jews of Qurayza had nothing to do with this. Like the Meccans, the Jews were traders as well. They neither encouraged Muhammad’s raids, nor shared in his ill-gotten gain.

After a few years of this, the Meccans eventually realized that they would have to try and capture Medina, since it was being used as a base of operations by Muhammad and his pirates. In 627, they sent an army to the outskirts of the city and appeared poised to take it in what has been called the Battle of the Trench (Muhammad dug a trench around the exposed northern and western parts of the city to stop the Meccan military advance).

The Qurayza, who lived to the east of Medina, were thus caught in a bad situation. Not responsible for Muhammad’s war, they were nonetheless drawn into it, particularly when they were approached by a Meccan leader and asked not to assist Muhammad in his defense against the siege (to that point, the Qurayza had contributed digging tools to the Muslims, but not fighters).

The chief of the Qurayza did not wish to even entertain the Meccan envoy, but was tricked into allowing him into his home (Ishaq 674). Once there, the Meccan began making his case that the battle was going against Muhammad and that his fall was imminent. The anguish of the Qurayza chief over the trying circumstances of the position that he felt forced into is noted even by Muslim historians:
When Ka'b heard of Huyayy's coming he shut the door of his fort in his face, and when he asked permission to enter he refused to see him, saying that he was a man of ill omen... Then Huyayy accused him of [being inhospitable]... This so enraged Ka'b that he threw open his door. [Huyayy] said to him, "Good heavens, Ka'b, I have brought you immortal fame and a great army... They have made a firm agreement and promised me that they will not depart until we have made an end of Muhammad and his men. "Ka'b said, "By God, you have brought me immortal shame and an empty cloud while it thunders and lightenings with nothing in it. Woe to you Huyayy, leave me as I am." (Ishaq 674)
After much “wheedling” by the Meccans, however, the Qurayza leader finally gave in and agreed to stay neutral in the conflict. He would neither contribute troops to the city’s defense nor to its impending capture at the hands of an army with superior numbers. The Muslims would be left on their own to finish what they started with Meccans.

From Muhammad’s perspective, this was a breach of the original constitution of Medina, which he had drawn up for the tribes five years earlier. Since its signing, however, a lot of water had gone under the bridge.

For one thing, several prominent Jewish leaders and poets had been assassinated on Muhammad’s orders. At least one innocent merchant was slain by his Muslim business partner following Muhammad’s order in 624 for his men to “kill any Jew who falls into your power” (al-Tabari 7:97). The constitution of Medina certainly hadn’t stopped the Muslims from attacking the other two Jewish tribes – parties to the same agreement – looting their property and then evicting them from their land.

There is little doubt that the troubles brought on Medina by Muhammad, through his mistreatment of the Jews and his relentless pursuit of hostilities against the Meccans, influenced the Qurayza to consider how much better life had been for them prior to his arrival. From their perspective, it would just be a matter of time before Muhammad found an excuse to attack them as well.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, however, the Qurayza did not attack the Muslims. Had they attacked, then it surely would have been the end of Muhammad and his band of pirates, since the southern end of the city was completely exposed to the Qurayza. In a terrible irony, it was the decision not to engage in violence that later sealed the fate of the Jews, who were only the first in a very long line of victims, all off whom horribly overestimated the value that Islam places on the lives of unbelievers.

Interestingly, neither the Meccans nor the Muslims suffered more than a few dozen casualties combined during the entire Battle of the Trench. The weather and the city’s unexpected defenses caused the Meccans to eventually give up and go home after only a handful of attempts to breach the perimeter.

According to Muhammad, the angel Gabriel appeared (disguised with a turban and riding a mule) and provided yet another remarkably convenient revelation, this time telling him to lay siege to the Qurayza stronghold. After twenty-five days, the Jews gave in and surrendered to the prophet of Islam. As Ibn Ishaq puts it, they “submitted themselves to the Apostle’s judgment” (Ishaq 688).

Another misconception is that Muhammad did not render the death sentence against the Qurayza and was therefore not responsible for it. It is interesting that Muhammad did in fact attempt to offload responsibility on another party, even though later claiming to know what Allah's judgment was in the matter. Still, from the person that he chose to "arbitrate" the judgment to his subsequent reaction, it is obvious that the prophet of Islam both desired and approved of the executions.

First, Muhammad appeared to trick the Qurayza into agreeing with whatever decision on their fate might be rendered by “one of their own.” In fact, this was a Jewish convert to Islam, a Muslim who had fought in the Battle of the Trench. Unbeknownst to the Qurayza, Sa’d bin Muadh had also been one of the few Muslims injured in the battle (Ishaq 689), which one can reasonably assume to have influenced his judgment. According to the Hadith, he was quite eager to continue slaying "unbelievers" even as he lay dying in his tent (Bukhari 59:448).

Secondly, when Sa’d did render his decree that the men of Qurayza should be killed and their women and children pressed into slavery, Muhammad did not express the slightest bit of disapproval. In fact, the prophet of Islam confirmed this barbaric sentence to be Allah’s judgment as well (Bukhari 58:148). (This must have been before Allah handed down the verse "... no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another" (Quran 53:38)).

Consider the contrast between the historical Muhammad and the man of “peace and forgiveness” that today’s Muslims often assure us that he was. In light of the fact that the Qurayza had not killed anyone, wouldn’t a true man of peace have simply sought dialogue with them to try and determine their grievance, find common ground and then resolve the matter with dignity?

Instead, the prophet of Islam had the men bound with rope. He dug trenches and then began beheading the captives in batches. In a scene that must have resembled the footage of Hitler’s death squads, small groups of helpless Jews, who had done no harm to anyone, were brought out and forced to kneel, staring down at the bodies of others, before their heads were lopped off and their own bodies were pushed down into the ditch.

There is strong evidence that Muhammad personally engaged in the slaughter. Not only does Ibn Ishaq bluntly say that the Apostlesent for them” and “made an end of them,” but there is also support for this in the Qur’an. Verse 33:26 says of the Qurayza, “some you slew, some you took captive.” The Qur’an is supposed to be Allah’s private conversation with Muhammad, so it makes no sense that he would not be included in the word “you” (even though the Arabic is in the plural form).

In any event, there is no denying that Muhammad found pleasure in the slaughter, particularly after acquiring a pretty young Jewish girl (freshly "widowed" and thus available to him for sexual servitude) (Ishaq 693). Other women were not quite as complaint. Ibn Ishaq records the reaction of one woman who literally lost her mind as her family was being killed. The Muslims found her maniacal laughter annoying and beheaded her as well. As Aisha later recounted:
“I shall never forget my wonder at her good spirits and her loud laughter when all the time she knew that she would be killed.” (Ibn Ishaq 691)
(One can forgive her obtuseness. At that time she and her husband observed the slaughter, the wife of Muhammad was only 12-years-old).

Boys as young as fourteen were executed as well, provided that they had reached puberty. The Muslims ordered the boys to drop their clothes. Those with pubic hair then had their heads chopped off (Sahih Muslim 4390). There was no point in trying to determine whether or not they were actual combatants because there were none. There had been no combat!

Muhammad parceled out the widows and surviving children as slaves to his men. The wealth accumulated by the Qurayza was also divided. Since the tribe had been a peaceful farming and trading community, there were not enough weapons and horses taken to suit Muhammad’s tastes, so he obtained more of these by trading off some of the Qurayza women in a distant slave market (Ishaq 693).

Notes

As the saying goes, history is written by the winners. We have only the account of Muslim historians to go by in this case, which is all the more reason to take the Qurayza massacre seriously - and wonder at what other atrocities may have been conveniently forgotten over the years.

Today’s Muslims seem to want the rest of us to believe that theirs is a peaceful and tolerant religion. To this end, they sometimes quote from the tiny handful of Qur’anic verses that speak well of such virtues. But if even the most sympathetic historians are unable to obscure the cruelty of Muhammad toward those outside his religion, then the rest of us are probably wise harboring a healthy skepticism toward the “Religion of Peace."

Note: For a solid refutation of the examples that Muslims often use to claim that Muhammad was a forgiving man see Was Muhammad a Forgiving Man?

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