The Banu Qurayza (بني قريظة; بنو قريظة alternate spellings include Quraiza, Qurayzah, Quraytha, and the archaic Koreiza) were a Jewish tribe who lived in northern Arabia until the 7th century, at the oasis of Yathrib (now known as Medina).
Jewish tribes reportedly arrived in Hijaz in the wake of the Jewish-Roman wars and introduced agriculture, putting them in a culturally, economical and politically dominant position. However, in 5th century, the Banu Aws and the Banu Khazraj, two Arab tribes that had arrived from Yemen, gained dominance. When these two tribes became embroiled in conflict with eacher other, the Jewish tribes, now clients or allies of the Arabs, fought on different sides, the Qurayza siding with the Aws.
In 622, the Islamic prophet Muhammad arrived at Yathrib from Mecca and reportedly established a compact between the conflicting parties. While the city found itself at war with Muhammad's native Meccan tribe of the Quraysh, tensions between the growing numbers of Muslims and the Jewish communities mounted.
In 627, when the Quraysh and their allies besieged the city in the Battle of the Trench, the Qurayza entered into (eventually inconclusive) negotiations with the besiegers. Subsequently, the tribe was charged with treason and besieged by the Muslims commanded by Muhammad. The Banu Qurayza eventually surrendered and all the men, apart from a few who converted to Islam, were beheaded, while the women and children were enslaved.
In the 5th century CE, the Qurayza lived in Yathrib together with two other major Jewish tribes: Banu Qaynuqa and Banu Nadir. Al-Isfahani writes in his 10th century collection of Arabic poetry that Jews arrived in Hijaz in the wake of the Jewish-Roman wars; the Qurayza settled in Mahzur, a wadi in Al Harrah. The 15th century Muslim scholar Al-Samhudi lists a dozen of other Jewish clans living in the town of which the most important one was Banu Hadl, closely aligned with the Banu Qurayza. The Jews introduced agriculture to Yathrib, growing date palms and cereals, and this cultural and economic advantage enabled the Jews to dominate the local Arabs politically. Al-Waqidi wrote that the Banu Qurayza were people of high lineage and of properties, "whereas we were but an Arab tribe who did not possess any palm trees nor vineyards, being people of only sheep and camels." Ibn Khordadbeh later reported that during the Persian domination in Hijaz, the Banu Qurayza served as tax collectors for the shah.
Eventually, the Aws and the Khazraj became hostile to each other. They had been fighting possibly for around a hundred years before 620 and at least since 570s. The Banu Nadir and the Banu Qurayza were allied with the Aws, while the Banu Qaynuqa sided with the Khazraj. There are reports of the constant conflict between Banu Qurayza and Banu Nadir, the two allies of Aws, yet the sources often refer to these two tribes as “brothers”. Aws and Khazraj and their Jewish allies fought a total of four wars. The last and bloodiest altercation was the Battle of Bu'ath, the outcome of which was inconclusive.
The Qurayza appear as a tribe of considerable military importance: they possessed large numbers of weaponry, as upon their surrender 1,500 swords, 2,000 lances, 300 suits of armor, and 500 shields were later seized by the Muslims. Kister notes that these quantities are "disproportionate relative to the number of fighting men" and conjectures that the "Qurayza used to sell (or lend) some of the weapons kept in their storehouses". He also mentions that the Qurayza were addressed as Ahlu al-halqa ("people of the weapons") by the Quraysh and notes that these weapons "strengthened their position and prestige in the tribal society".
The continuing feud between the Aws and the Khazraj was probably the chief cause for several emissaries to invite Muhammad to Yathrib in order to adjudicate in disputed cases. Ibn Ishaq recorded that after his arrival in 622, Muhammad established a compact, the Constitution of Medina, which committed the Jewish and Muslim tribes to mutual cooperation. The nature of this document as recorded by Ibn Ishaq and transmitted by Ibn Hisham is the subject of dispute among modern historians, many of whom maintain that this "treaty" is possibly a collage of agreements, of different dates, and that it is not clear when they were made. Watt holds that the Qurayza and Nadir were probably mentioned in an earlier version of the Constitution requiring the parties not to support an enemy against each other.
Aside from the general agreements, the chronicles by Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi contain a report that after his arrival, Muhammad signed a special treaty with the Qurayza chief Ka'b ibn Asad. Ibn Ishaq gives no sources, while al-Waqidi refers to Ka’b ibn Malik of Salima, a clan hostile to the Jews, and Mummad ibn Ka’b, the son of a Qurayza boy who was sold into slavery in the aftermath of the siege and subsequently became a Muslim. The sources are suspect of being against the Qurayza and therefore the historicity of this agreement between Muhammad and the Banu Qurayza is open to grave doubt. Among modern historians, R. B. Serjeant supports the historicity of this document and suggests that the Jews knew "of the penalty for breaking faith with Muhammad". On the other hand, Norman Stillman argues that the Muslim historians had invented this agreement in order to justify the subsequent treatment of the Qurayza. Watt also rejects the existence of such a special agreement but notes note that the Jews were bound by the aforementioned general agreement and by their alliance to the two Arab tribes not to support an enemy against Muhammad. Serjeant agrees with this and opines that the Qurayza were aware of the two parts of a pact made between Muhammad and the Jewish tribes in the confederation according to which "Jews having their religion and the Muslims having their religion excepting anyone who acts wrongfully and commits crime/acts treacherously/breaks an agreement, for he but slays himself and the people of his house."
During the first few months after Muhammad's arrival in Medina, the Banu Qurayza were involved in a dispute with the Banu Nadir: The more powerful Nadir rigorously applied Lex talionis against the Qurayza while not allowing it being enforced against themselves. Further, the blood money paid for killing a man of the Qurayza was only half of the blood-money required for killing a man of the Nadir, placing the Qurayza in a socially inferior position. The Qurayza called on Muhammad as arbitrator, who delivered the surah and judged that the Nadir and Qurayza should be treated alike in the application of lex talionis and raised the assessment of the Qurayza to the full amount of blood money.
Tensions quickly mounted between the growing numbers of Muslims and Jewish tribes, while Muhammad found himself at war with his native Meccan tribe of the Quraysh. In 624, after his victory over the Meccans in the Battle of Badr, Muhammad expelled the Banu Qaynuqa from Medina. The Qurayza remained passive during the whole Qaynuqa affair, apparently because the Qaynuqa were historically allied with the Khazraj, while the Qurayza were the allies of the Aws.
Soon afterwards, Muhammad came into conflict with the Banu Nadir. He had one of the Banu Nadir's chiefs, the poet Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf, assassinated and after the Battle of Uhud accused the tribe of treachery and plotting against his life and expelled them from the city. The Qurayza remained passive during this conflict, according to R. B. Serjeant because of the blood money issue related above.
Ibn Ishaq writes that during the siege, the Qurayza readmitted Huyayy ibn Akhtab, the chief of the Banu Nadir whom Muhammad had exiled and who had instigated the alliance of his tribe with the besieging Quraysh and Ghatafan tribes. According to Ibn Ishaq, Akhtab persuaded the Qurayza chief Ka'b ibn Asad to help the Meccans conquer Medina. Ka'b was, according to Al-Waqidi's account, initially reluctant to break the contract and argued that Muhammad never broke any contract with them or exposed them to any shame, but decided to support the Meccans after Huyayy had promised to join the Qurayza in Medina if the besieging army would return to Mecca without having killed Muhammad. Ibn Kathir and al-Waqidi report that Huyayy tore into pieces the agreement between Ka'b and Muhammad.
Rumors of this one-sided renunciation of the pact spread and were confirmed by Muhammad's emissaries, Sa'd ibn Mua'dh and Sa'd ibn Ubadah, leading men of the Aws and Khazraj respectively. Sa'd ibn Mua'dh reportedly issued threats against the Qurayza but was restrained by his colleague. As this would have allowed the besiegers to access the city and thus meant the collapse of the defenders' strategy, Muhammad "became anxious about their conduct and sent some of the leading Muslims to talk to them; the result was disquieting." According to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad ordered Nuaym ibn Masud, an well-respected elder of the Ghatafan who had secretly converted to Islam, to go to Muhammad's enemies and sow discord among them. Nuaym went to the Qurayza and advised them to join the hostilities against Muhammad only if the besiegers provide hostages from among their chiefs. He then hurried to the invaders and warned them that if the Qurayza asked for hostages, it is because they intended to turn them over to the Medinan defenders. When the representatives of the Quraysh and the Ghatafan came to the Qurayza, asking for support in the planned decisive battle with Muhammad, the Qurayza indeed demanded hostages. The representatives of the besiegers refused, breaking down negotiations and resulting in the Banu Qurayza becoming extremely distrustful of the besieging army. The Qurayza did not take any actions to support them until the besieging forces retreated. Thus the threat of a second front against the defenders never materialised.
The circumstances of the Qurayza's demise has been related by Ibn Ishaq and other Muslim historians. Since their accounts are contradictory, modern scholars have interpreted them differently:
According to Watt, Peters and Stillman, the Qurayza surrendered to Muhammad's judgement - a move Watt classifies as unconditional. The Aws, who wanted to honor their old alliance with the Qurayza, asked Muhammad to treat the Qurayza leniently as he had previously treated the Qaynuqa for the sake of Ibn Ubayy. (Arab custom required support of an ally, independent of the ally's conduct to a third party.) Muhammad then suggested to bring the case before an arbitrator chosen from the Aws, to which both the Aws and the Qurayza agreed to. Muhammad then appointed Sa'd ibn Mua'dh to decide the fate of the Jewish tribe.
According to Hashmi, Buchanan and Moore, the tribe agreed to surrender on the condition of a Muslim arbitrator of their choosing. According to Khadduri (also cited by Abu-Nimer), "both parties agreed to submit their dispute to a person chosen by them in accordance with the Arabian tradition of arbitration.
Muir holds that the Qurayza surrendered on the condition that "their fate was decided by their allies, the Bani Aws".
In all accounts, the appointed arbitrator was Sa'd ibn Mua'dh, a leading man among the Aws. During the Battle of the Trench, he had been one of Muhammad's emissaries to the Quarayza (see above) and now was dying from a wound he had received later in the battle. When Sa'd arrived, his fellow Aws pleaded for leniency towards the Qurayza and on his request pledged that they would abide by his decision. He then pronounced that "the men should be killed, the property divided, and the women and children taken as captives". Muhammad approved of the ruling, calling it similar to God's judgment.
Sa'd dismissed the pleas of the Aws, according to Watt because being close to death and concerned with his afterlife, he put what he considered "his duty to God and the Muslim community" before tribal allegiance. Tariq Ramadan argues that Muhammad deviated from his earlier, more lenient treatment of prisoners as this was seen as "as sign of weakness if not madness and Peterson concurs that the Muslims wanted to deter future treachery by severe punishment.
According to Stillman, Muhammad chose Sa'd so as not to pronounce the judgment himself after the precedents he had set with the Banu Qaynuqa and the Banu Nadir: "Sa`d took the hint and condemned the adult males to death and the hapless women and children to slavery." Furthermore, Stillman infers from Abu Lubaba's gesture that Muhammad had decided the fate of the Qurayza even before their surrender.
Ibn Ishaq describes the killing of the Banu Qurayza men as follows:
Then they surrendered, and the apostle confined them in Medina in the quarter of d. al-Harith, a woman of B. al-Najjar. 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 Huyayy b. Akhtab 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. Huyayy was brought out wearing a flowered robe in which he had made holes about the size of the finger-tips in every part so that it should not be taken from him as spoil, with his hands bound to his neck by a rope. When he saw the apostle he said, '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.
Several accounts note Muhammad's companions as executioners, Ali and Al-Zubayr in particular, and that each clan of the Aws was also charged with killing a group of Qurayza men. Subhash Inamdar argues that this was done in order to avoid the risk of further conflicts between Muhammad and the Aws. According to Inamdar, Muhammad wanted to distance himself from the events and, had he been involved, would have risked alienating some of the Aws.
It is also reported, that alongside all the men, one woman who had thrown a millstone from the battlements during the siege and killed one of the Muslim besiegers, was put to death. Ibn Asakir writes in his History of Damascus that Banu Kilab, a clan of Arab clients of the Banu Qurayza, were killed alongside the Jewish tribe.
Three boys of the clan of Hadl, who had been with Qurayza in the strongholds, slipped out before the surrender and converted to Islam. The son of one of them, Muhammad ibn Ka'b al-Qurazi, gained distinction as a scholar. One or two other men also escaped.
The spoils of battle, including the enslaved women and children of the tribe, were divided up either upon the warriors that had participated in the siege or among the emigrees from Mecca (who had hitherto depended on the help of the Muslims native to Medina. Muhammad himself took a fifth of the value, as was customary among Muslims. As part of his share of the booty, Muhammad selected one of the women, Rayhana, and took her as part of his captives. She is said to have later become a Muslim. and Muhammad offered to free and marry her. According to some sources she accepted his proposal, while according to others she rejected it.
Some of the women and children of the Banu Qurayza were bought and sold by Jews ,in particular the Banu Nadir. Peterson argues that this is because the Nadir felt responsible for the Quarayza due to the role of their chieftain in the events.
Walid N. Arafat and Barakat Ahmad have disputed that the Banu Qurayza were killed on a large scale. Arafat disputes large-scale killings and argued that Ibn Ishaq gathered information from descendants of the Qurayza Jews, who embellished or manufactured the details of the incident. Ahmad argues that only some of the leaders of the tribe were killed, while some of the fighters were taken prisoners. Watt finds Arafat's arguments "not entirely convincing", while Meir J. Kister has contradicted the arguments of Arafat and Ahmad.
In the 8th and early 9th century Muslim jurists, such as Ash-Shafii, based their judgements and decrees about collective punishment for treachery on the accounts of the demise of the Qurayua, with which they were well acquainted. However, the proceedings of Muhammad with regard to the Banu Nadir and the Banu Qurayza were not taken as a model for the relationship of Muslim states toward its Jewish subjects.
Paret and Watt say that the Banu Qurayza were killed not because of their faith but for "treasonable activities against the Medinan community". Watt relates that "no important clan of Jews was left in Medina" but he and Paret also note that Muhammad did not clear all Jews out of Medina.
Aiming at placing the events in their historical context, Watt points to the "harsh political circumstances of that era" and argues that the treatment of Qurayza was regular Arab practice. Similar statements are made by Stillman, Paret, Lewis and Rodinson. On the other hand, Michael Lecker and Irving Zeitlin consider the events "unprecedented in the Arab peninsula - a novelty" and state that "prior to Islam, the annihilation of an adversary was never an aim of war." Similar statements are made by Hirschberg and Baron.
Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam, University of Chicago Press, 1991.