the extermination of a Jewish tribe in the Arabian Peninsula

INTRODUCTION 

Teaching history — particularly history that is deeply embroiled with people’s religious beliefs — can be really difficult. The unfortunate truth is that the real human history is overwhelmingly ugly. What’s even more difficult for me personally as a Jewish educator is lifting the veil on events that have been widely glorified by dominant societies that far outnumber the Jewish population. For example, educating about the role that the Catholic Church played in the Holocaust is no easy task. Neither is teaching about the oppressive nature of dhimmitude (second class citizenship of “protected” status), which much of the Muslim-majority world has been taught to glorify.

Here’s the thing. Jews form only 0.2 percent of the world population. Christians and Muslims form 31 and 25 percent of the world population, respectively. The narrative of the majority will always dominate the narrative of an oppressed minority (that is not to say that Christians and Muslims have not been — and still are — oppressed in different parts of the world). The harsh truth is that both the spread of Christianity and Islam coincided with the massacre of the Jewish population in their respective regions.

There is so much beauty and so much to admire in both Christianity and Islam. People are entitled to ascribe to whatever set of beliefs resonate with them, and the actions of specific Christians or Muslims, both past and present, should not reflect on Christianity or Islam as a whole (similarly, the actions of specific Jews, past and present, should not reflect on the Jewish People as a whole).

I am keeping the comments closed because I do not tolerate Islamophobia and I worry that my comment section could potentially become unsafe for my Muslim followers. Please respect this decision and remember that we can have difficult, honest conversations about our collective past without resorting to bigotry.

BACKGROUND

Jews have lived in the Arabian Peninsula since Biblical times, when parts of the Arabian Peninsula were a dependency of the Kingdom of Judah. Many of the Jews in the Peninsula can trace their lineage to the period of the Babylonian Exile (~2500 years ago), while others arrived around the second century as merchants. Reportedly, Jews arrived to Hijaz — the region of Saudi Arabia that includes Mecca and Medina — while fleeing the Jewish-Roman wars of the first and second centuries.

For many centuries, the Jewish community flourished. By the seventh century, the Jews of Arabia had divided into various tribes, most notably, the Banu Nadir, Banu Qainuga, and Banu Qurayza.

The tribes existed in an intricate ecosystem of tribal alliances, motivated by political and economic factors.


OPPOSING ALLIANCES

When the Jews arrived to Arabia during the period of the Jewish-Roman wars, they introduced agriculture to the previously nomadic Arabian population, growing date palms and cereals. This put them in an advantageous position. During the period of Persian control over Hijaz, the Banu Qurayza tribe worked as tax collectors for the shah (king).

In the fifth century, two Arab tribes from Yemen, the Banu Aws and Banu Khazraj, became the dominant tribes in the Hijaz. When they warred with each other, the Jewish tribes each allied with a different side. As such, the Banu Qurayza allied with the Aws.


MUHAMMAD COMES TO MEDINA

When Muhammad came to Medina in 622, he was able to negotiate a pact between the warring parties. In 627, Muhammad’s native tribe, the Quraysh, besieged the city. In this atmosphere, tensions mounted between Muhammad’s Muslim followers and the Jewish tribes.

While initially the Jewish Banu Qurayza tried to remain neutral, they later tried to enter into negotiations with the Quraysh tribe. This violated the pact that Muhammad had negotiated years earlier. Subsequently, they were charged with treason.

The now Muslim Aws, who’d allied with the Qurayza years earlier, asked Muhammad to be lenient. The Qurayza agreed to surrender to Muhammad on the condition that their fate should be decided by their allies, the Aws.


QURAYZA JEWS ARE SLAUGHTERED

Muhammad tasked Sa’d ibn Mua’dh, a leader among the Aws, to decide the Qurayza’s judgment. He decided that “the men should be killed, the property divided, and the women and children taken as captives,” to which Muhammad agreed.

All of the men in the Qurayza tribe — as many as 700-900, according to the eighth century Islamic historian Ibn Ishaq — were beheaded. According to most sources, all of the women and children were taken prisoners and sold into slavery.

The Qurayza tribe was completely exterminated, save for some that were able to flee. As such, historians have referred to this event as a genocide. Meanwhile, the other Jewish tribes, the Banu Nadir and Banu Qainuga, were exiled from Medina, despite the fact that they had allied with the Muslims.

Other Jewish tribes in Arabia were able to coexist peacefully in exchange for political loyalty.


HISTORICITY

The narrative of the extermination of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe has long been accepted by historians, though some argue that this behavior was normal or to be expected for the time period (that said, even these historians agree that the massacre was on “a larger scale than usual”). The event is also possibly addressed in the Quran (Surah 33:26) and was described in detail by the seventh century Islamic historian Ibn Ishaq, who interviewed the descendants of survivors who’d fled the battles and subsequent massacre. Al-Tabari, a ninth century Islamic scholar, also attested to the massacre.

Historians from the Revisionist School of Islamic Studies have rejected the long accepted historical narrative, though they’ve been criticized of historic revisionism.


CONCLUSIONS & AFTERMATH

By all accounts, the Banu Qurayza were not exterminated simply for being Jewish, but because they were seen as a political threat. Other Jewish tribes were allowed to partake in their Jewish culture elsewhere in the Arabian peninsula so long as they pledged loyalty to Muhammad. One such example is that of Rabbi Mukhayriq, who allied with Muhammad until his death.

Of course, as we know from Jewish history in the region, in practice, Jews were subjugated, on and off, for many centuries. Jews who chose to remain Jews lived as dhimmis, or “protected” second class citizens, subject to extra taxes and other unequal laws. A flourishing community until the 20th century, today, virtually no Jews remain in the Arabian Peninsula.