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An Outline of the Life of Muhammad


1. Muhammad and the Jews of Medina.

A constant thorn in the flesh to Muhammad at Medina were the three Jewish tribes quartered near the city - the Banu Qaynuqa, Banu Nadhir and Banu Quraydhah. On his arrival at Medina he negotiated treaties with these tribes and for a short while sought their allegiance through many overtures.

We have already seen that Muhammad made Jerusalem his qiblah at this time and it is noteworthy that the Jewish fast of Ashura was also observed by the Muslims from the time that they first reached Medina. (To this day the tenth of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year, is a holy day and one on which many Muslims fast - compare Exodus 12.3 and see t e section on Muslim festivals and celebrations). The Qur'an also acknowledges the Jews as a people on whom God had bestowed peculiar favours in terms reminiscent of Paul's summary in Romans 9.4-5:

It seems that Muhammad had keenly desired to win their support but was so rudely rejected that they soon became his inveterate enemies. The Jews could hardly be expected to acknowledge an Ishmaelite prophet who proclaimed Jesus as their Messiah! They irked him keenly on two counts - satirical barbs and evidences against his claim to prophethood. The second concerns us more than the first.

Whereas the Meccans had simply ridiculed his message and generally resorted to sheer abuse of their kinsman, the Jews were able to trace many of these teachings to their own folklore and produce more damaging evidence against him. As Muhammad could not read their scriptures they were able to constantly provoke him with their knowledge and often frustrated him with subtle twists of phrases which he could not immediately detect but which entertained the Jewish bystanders. For example, Exodus 24.7 states that the Jews at Sinai answered Moses "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient", but in the Qur'an we discover that the Jews, when commanded to hearken to God's Law on the Mount, allegedly answered "We hear and we disobey" (Surah 2.93). Muhammad later discovered that his informants had subtly misled him on this point and the Qur'an duly censures them for this particular deception:

It was too late, however, to rectify the unfortunate error that they had succeeded in introducing into the text of the Qur'an. As Muir continues, "Mahomet evidently smarted at this period under the attacks of the Jews" (The Life of Mahomet, p. 179). Other authors comment in a similar vein:

The end result was as predictable as it was crucial to the success of Muhammad's ministry - the neutralisatlon of the Jews as an effective force in Medina. This took place chiefly through the deportation of two of the tribes and the annihilation of the third, but at the same time Muhammad also sought to discredit them in other ways and "the portions of the Coran given forth at this period teem with invectives against the Israelites" (Muir, The Life of Mahomet, p.180). Here are a few examples of this trend in the last Surah making up the revelation:

The contemporary Muslim response to the state of Israel has its roots in passages like these which, allegedly being God's own judgments, control the attitudes of the Muslims throughout the world to their Jewish co-religionists. It is not surprising, therefore, to find the Jews constantly slandered in the Hadith as well. The traditionists blacken them in many passages. For example, Ibn Ishaq assesses the relationship between them and Muhammad in these words:

Ibn Sa'd even contains a hadith to the effect that the Jews sought to kill Muhammad in his childhood when they discovered that he might become a prophet. His wet-nurse Halima saved him only by claiming to be his actual mother. (Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol. 1, p. 125). The story is a pure fiction because it speaks of prophetic phenomena which his mother is supposed to have seen at his birth. Such stories are known to be later embellishments. (Muhammad himself always acknowledged that his mother died in idolatry). Nonetheless it is typical of the anti-Jewish element constantly found in early Muslim records. To this day the prejudice is sustained and this comment on a recent biography of Muhammad by a fairly well-known Egyptian author, Abdur-Rahman Ash-Sharqawi, confirms this negative trend which is unfortunately prevalent in most Muslim writings dealing with Muhammad and the Jews:

Against this unfavourable background let us analyse the development of Muhammad's historical dealings with the three Jewish tribes of Medina.

2. The Exile of the Banu Qaynuqa and Banu Nadhir.

Shortly after the Battle of Badr relations between Muhammad and the Jews of Medina began to deteriorate and, suspecting treachery from them as a result of alleged breaches of their covenants with him (Surah 8.56-58), he began to move against them. A small altercation in one of the markets of Medina was the spark that set the process in motion. A Jew pinned the skirt of a kneeling Muslim woman to her upper dress so that when she stood up she was publicly embarrassed. Her companion slew the Jew in revenge and was promptly slain himself by the other Jews in the market.

On hearing of it Muhammad sent his uncle Hamsa to the quarter of the Banu Qaynuqa from whom the offending Jew had come. The Jews answered that even though Muhammad had succeeded in routing the Quraysh, he would find them to be far more resolute. The quarter was besieged for fifteen days. Neither of the other two tribes nor their allies under Abdullah ibn Ubayy gave them any assistance or relief. As the siege wore on the tribe surrendered and was exiled from Medina, leaving their fields and many of their other possessions as spoils for the Muslim warriors.

After the Battle of Uhud the Banu Nadhir were the next to go. Claiming that this tribe was plotting his death, Muhammad sent his men against them, this time under Ali's command. Mindful of the fate of their kinsmen, they immediately prepared to leave but promises of support from Ibn Ubayy and others encouraged them to withstand the siege. Once again no assistance was rendered. After fifteen days Muhammad commanded his companions to cut down the palm trees in their date groves. The Jews cried out to him:

This charge was well-founded as Moses had, under the direct guidance of the will of God, forbidden such destruction of trees which bore food, even if they belonged to a city which waged war against God's people:

Muhammad was once again compelled to resort to a timely revelation to counter the Jews:

Once again, as in the aftermath of the Nakhlah raid, a divine revelation was required to justify a clear breach of Arab custom, let alone a wilful disregard for the Law of God as revealed through the prophet Moses. In his commentary Yusuf Ali has this to say about the verse just quoted:

The reasoning is the same as that in Surah 2 regarding the Nakhlah raid. Although the action was forbidden by law, it suddenly became justified because of the animosity of Muhammad's opponents. It was allowed for "putting pressure" on the stubbornly resistant enemy. This is like saying that when a boxer cannot subdue his opponent, hitting below the belt suddenly becomes admissible to put a bit of "pressure" on him - how different the attitude of Moses who taught that laws were to be observed and ethics sustained no matter what the circumstances. Two wrongs do not make a right.

The tribe, deserted by its allies, finally surrendered and was exiled. Most of its members went north to Khaibar while others joined their kinsmen in Syria. The Qur'an censures those who offered help but withdrew their support:

3. The Destruction of the Banu Quraydhah.

The Banu Quraydhah, quartered in a sector to the east of Medina, were the last to go but in an extreme way. During the siege of Medina by the Quraysh and the Confederates, a pact was made with them by the Banu Quraydhah which seriously exposed the eastern flank of the city. The Jews acted treasonably but, with the fate of the other two tribes fresh in the memory, their gamble was hardly surprising.

Muhammad succeeded in creating distrust between the Quraysh and the Jews and, when the former withdrew, he promptly laid siege to the latter's quarter. Twenty-five days later the tribe surrendered and sought to be exiled like the other two before them. It was agreed, however, that one of the Aus tribe, traditionally the allies of the Jews, should decide their fate. Sa'd ibn Mu'adh, one of the few Muslims injured during the siege of Medina who was shortly to succumb to his wounds, was appointed their judge. (Some say the Jews themselves requested him). What followed is recorded in a matter of-fact way by an early biographer:

The ruthless execution of nearly a thousand men has been generally denounced by Western writers while Muslim writers have, as is to be expected, sought to justify the massacre. The following are typical examples of the spirit of Western criticism of the slaughter:

Muslim writers invariably claim that such authors are prejudiced against Islam but the following quote comes from a Western author who wrote a fervent apology on behalf of Muhammad and whose book has been widely acclaimed and reprinted in the Muslim world:

In contrast let us examine a few quotes by Muslim writers in support of Muhammad's action to see the nature of the defence that they raise on his behalf:

A recent Muslim writer has questioned whether this whole story is historically genuine. "A detailed scrutiny indicates that the whole story of this massacre is of a very doubtful nature" (Ahmad, Muhammad and the Jews, p. 85). He argues that the narratives contain contradictions about it and that it was right out of character with Muhammad's general magnanimity towards his defeated foes, if not always individually, at least in the main (as at the conquest of Mecca where almost the whole city was spared). There seems to be some support for the latter contention - more of his enemies were slain on that one day than in all the other battles Muhammad was engaged in during his lifetime. The contradictions between the narratives are, however, typical of those found in almost all the historical records of his life and do not affect the main story.

Ahmad takes the words of Surah 33.26, "Some ye slew, and some ye made prisoners" as the foundation of his theory that, while some of the more serious offenders may have been proscribed, the bulk of the tribe was probably exiled like the others. At first sight it does seem strange that Muhammad should despatch the whole tribe while he had let the others go free, but there is concrete evidence that he had intended to execute the Banu Qaynuqa in the same way.

According to Ibn Sa'd (Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol. 2, p. 32-33), when the tribe surrendered, Muhammad ordered his companions to tie the men's hands behind their backs to prepare them for beheading. It was only the remonstrances of Abdullah ibn Ubayy, then still too influential to be refused that made him abandon their execution and order their banishment instead.

What is most significant about Ahmad's assessment of the historical genuineness of the massacre is that, in querying it, he finds himself free from the need to justify Muhammad and accordingly treats it for what it really was - an unjustifiable atrocity. He says:

To behold the slaughter of many men in battle is indeed one thing - to unemotionally witness the execution of a whole tribe is another entirely. Ahmad continues:

Ahmad has challenged a story whose historical accuracy has hitherto never been questioned and, while the external evidences may weigh against him, he is to be commended for seeing the tragedy for what it truly was - in his own words, a "massacre" and a "holocaust".

In their determination to exonerate Muhammad the Muslims have found themselves in an awkward situation. If they admit the story, they find themselves obliged to counter the suggestion that it had the nature of an atrocity. If, however, this is conceded, they strive to challenge the reliability of the narratives! Either way none dares admit that Muhammad was the leading figure, or at least a willing accomplice, in a "holocaust".

Shortly before the conquest of Mecca Muhammad attacked the remaining Jewish fortress at Khaibar and, while not gaining an outright victory, nevertheless brought it into subjection. Here he was poisoned by a Jewish woman. Although she did not succeed in killing him, Muhammad complained to the day of his death of the effects of her act of revenge. Ibn Sa'd says she was put to death (Vol. 2, p. 249), but this is disputed by Bukhari who states that Muhammad refused to sanction her execution (Vol. 3, p. 475). Which of the two is true, "God only knows".

By the end of his life Muhammad's relationship with the Jews had deteriorated to the point of irreconcilable hostility. We have not spoken of his relationships with the Christians, which seem to have been a bit more amicable though much less frequent, but his contacts with their armies during his latter days seems to have hardened his heart against them also. The later passages of the Qur'an breathe out denunciations of both groups in vehement language. This tradition tells its own story:

This same Umar, on becoming Caliph just two years after Muhammad's death, proceeded dutifully to put this injunction into effect and by the end of his reign all the Jews in the Hijaz had duly been expelled, never to return.

Muhammad and The Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

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