The Prophet preached to the Jews and hoped and prayed for their salvation. He did not teach his followers to hate or exterminate the Jews. The incident at Banu Qurayza is often cited as the brutal murder of innocent Jews, but what is often left out is its historical context. The conflict was not about the Jewish faith but about a war that the tribe of Banu Qurayza had chosen to involve themselves in.
When the Prophet came to Medina he made a constitutional pact with the Jews who were a minority. They were afforded rights and freedoms which they enjoyed and for a time being they lived in peace. Muslims did not harm them.
To give an example, once a Jew and a Muslim quarreled. When the Jew praised Moses over the Prophet Muhammad the Muslim insulted the Jew. The Jew complained to the Prophet who said: “Don’t confer on me superiority over Moses.” It was before this backdrop of religious coexistence that the incident of Banu Qurazya occurred.
The pact the Prophet Muhammad made with the Jews along with the other tribes in Medina was part of a written constitution that is considered to be one of history’s oldest. A whole section of the constitution pertained specifically to the Jews.
The main clauses of the constitution that dealt with Muslim-Jewish relations stated that Muslims and Jews must reside peacefully with one another and that they must not transgress against each other. The two were to both protect the city of Medina, and if there was to be any foreign aggression, everyone must defend the city together and share in the financial burden.
This peace treaty included the major Jewish tribes of Medina at that time: Banu Quraiza, Banu Nazir, and Banu Qaynuqa. While there were other Jewish tribes that lived with the Muslims in peace, these particular tribes did not abide by the treaty, and one after another, the three tribes breached the pact.
First, the Banu Nazir attempted to assassinate the Prophet, which led to a war between the Muslims and this tribe.
Second, Banu Qaynuqa breached the right of a Muslim woman by forcibly exposing her private parts while she was in the market. This led to another conflict between Muslims and Jews. Consequently both Jewish tribes were expelled from Medina, due to their violation of the treaty and constitution.
As for Banu Qurayza, not only did they breach the treaty, but they conspired with Meccan and other Arab tribes to launch an assault on Medina to wipe out the Muslims once and for all. Nowadays such actions would be categorized as treason and insurgency.
The Jews and their allies had an army of ten thousand as they marched towards Medina. The Prophet had only three thousand soldiers. The ensuing battle was called the “Battle of the Ditch” because the Muslims dug a trench around Medina as a defensive ploy.
Never did the Prophet face such a critical and alarming situation in all of his military experience. He even had to send Muslim women and children to the outskirts of Medina for their safety. The Muslims feared that the community would be exterminated.
The Qur’an depicts the situation: “Remember what you felt when they came upon you from above you and from below you, and when your eyes became dim and your hearts came up to your throats, and when most conflicting thoughts about God passed through your minds: for there and then were the believers tried, and shaken with a shock severe.” (33:10)
Suddenly a storm wind blew violently, but strategically in favour of the Prophet and his army. Interminable strife and difficult climatic conditions eventually forced their enemies to leave. Admitting utter defeat, the Meccans and the other tribes left Medina. The Prophet immediately marched to Banu Qurazya. After a siege of almost one month, Banu Qurayza surrendered.
The Prophet Muhammad then had to deal with the 700 prisoners of war from Banu Qurayza. He did not make any decision regarding them, but left it to an arbitrator, Sa’d bin Muadh, who was an ally of Banu Qurazya and the chief of a major Medinian tribe.
Sa’d took a pledge from both sides—the Prophet and the leaders of Banu Qurayza—that his verdict would be binding. Sa’d’s final verdict was that those who fought against the Muslims should be killed, and that the women and children should be taken as prisoners. This judgment was applied in accordance with the voluntarily agreement of the Jews to be bound by the final verdict.
Banu Qurayza unfortunately faced this harsh punishment due to their very serious act of treason, which entirely undermined the fragile stability of the community. In fact, the Jews did not object to this judgment, as Sa’ad’s decision was based on Jewish law, as expounded in the Torah:
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace.
If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labour and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engaged you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it.
As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. (Deuteronomy 20:10-16)
A Hindu writer, Nadhuran, after a detailed study of the historical account and the judgment made upon Banu Qurayza, concluded: “…though it seems harsh, Sa’d’s verdict was fair. First, this verdict accorded with [the Jews’] own laws. Second, the verdict was made by a mediator who was their own ally and they themselves had chosen him to arbitrate between them and Muhammad.”
The prolific author and scholar of comparative religions, Karen Armstrong, states “… It is, however, important to note that the Qurayzah were not killed on religious or racial grounds. None of the other Jewish tribes in the oasis either objected or attempted to intervene, clearly regarding it as a purely political and tribal matter… The men of Qurayzah were executed for treason. The seventeen other Jewish tribes of Medina remained in the oasis, living on friendly terms with the Muslims for many years, and the Qur’an continued to insist that Muslims remember their spiritual kinship with the People of the Book…”
Therefore, it is clear from the detailed context of this incident that the charge of ethnic cleansing or genocide of the Jews of Medina is a baseless accusation.