Medina During the Time of the Prophet
The preponderance of epithets and criticisms of Jews found in the Qur’an and the early literature relate to friction between three Jewish tribes and the Muslim community in Medina during the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the three wars initiated by the Meccans against Medina’s Muslim community.
Prior to the Hijrah, the Jewish tribes in Medina allowed the pagan Arab tribe of Banu Qaylah to settle on uncultivated land around the small desert community. The Banu Qaylah was divided into two major clans – the Aws and the Khazraj. Various developments in the latter part of the 6th century weakened the Jewish community’s hold on Medina, and the Banu Qaylah tribe became dominant. However, hostility among the Arab clans resulted in continual fighting. The Arab clans had allies among the Jewish tribes, who aided them in their conflicts. In a decisive battle fought just before the Prophet’s migration, the victorious Aws clan became the dominant authority in Medina.
Ten years after Muhammad’s first revelation on Mount Hira’, a delegation consisting of representatives from Medina’s Arab clans, including the Aws and Khazrai, invited the Prophet to come to Medina. They pledged to protect Muhammad if he would come as a neutral outsider and serve as chief arbitrator for the tribal community, which had been fighting with each other for decades. A few months prior to the Prophet’s migration, Jewish converts to Islam from Medina also invited Muhammad to Medina. It is estimated seventy Jewish men and women from Medina accepted Islam while performing pilgrimage in Mecca. The significance of these events was the fact that Muhammad was esteemed and trusted by both Arabs and Jews, and that Islam’s message was able to unite women and men from different regions, clans, social classes, and religious beliefs.
In 622 c.e., the Prophet migrated to Medina amid its contentious political environment, prepossessing a symbolic presence rivaling Medina’s embattled leaders. Accordingly, his arrival was perceived as a threat to those in power, as well as to those benefiting from the status quo. The Jewish tribes were concerned about the Prophet’s intentions, and were divided in their recognition of the similarities of Islam’s monotheistic message with their own scriptures. Some of Medina’s Jewish leaders had spoken out before the Prophet’s arrival opposing his claim to being the “final” Prophet, and questioning elements of the Qur’an which were thought to contradict elements of the Hebrew scriptures.
The amalgam of political, social, and religious conflicts in Medina were destabilizing and fraught with danger. Given the terms of his invitation, the Prophet proceeded to create peace in the community upon his arrival. His efforts resulted in a tripartite agreement between Medina’s Muslim converts and those who had migrated from Mecca, the Arabs from the Khazraj and Aws clans, and Medina’s Jewish tribes. The agreement, known as the Sahifah in Arabic, is better known today as the Constitution of Medina.(1)
The Sahifah was based on an inclusive conception of the rule of law, with two basic principles: the safeguarding of individual rights by impartial judicial authority, and the principle of equality before the law.The terms of the agreement recognized the diverse ethnic, religious and secular affiliations of the signatories — Jews, Muslims, Medina natives, Meccan immigrants, the Arab Aws and Khazraj clans, and did not demand conversion to Islam. The community created by the Sahifah became known as the ummah, a term describing the totality of individuals living in Medina who were bound to one another by the Sahifah.
As a rudimentary basis of civil law, the primary purpose of the Sahifah was the resolution of conflicts without violence. Accordingly, blood feuds were abolished, and all rights were given equally to Medina’s citizens, regardless of religion, ethnicity or social position. The salient principles of the visionary Constitution of Medina included:
1- The signatories formed a common ummah, or nationality.
2- The signatories were to remain united in peace and in war.
3- If any of the parties were attacked by an enemy, the others would defend it with their combined forces.
4- None of the parties would give shelter to the Quraysh of Mecca, or make any secret treaty with them.
5- The various signatories were free to profess their own religion.
6- Bloodshed, murder and violence were forbidden.
7- The city of Medina was to be regarded as sacred, and any strangers who came under the protection of its citizens were to be treated the same as Medina’s citizens.
8- All disputes were to be referred to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) for arbitration and decision
Many Medians converted to the faith of the new Meccan immigrants, particularly amongst the pagan and polytheist tribes. However, the Jews were wary, although there were a few converts to Islam.
The growing Muslim influence in Medina was not readily accepted by those among the Jewish tribes whose influence had waned in the face of the Prophet’s growing authority. Their opposition was less about theological disagreement than political alliances and their attendant economic benefits. Many Jews in Medina had close links with the chief of the Khazraj clan, `Abd Allah ibn Ubayy ibn Salul. Ibn Salul was partial to the Jews, and would have been Medina’s prince if not for Prophet Muhammad’s arrival.
A significant commercial dimension further contributed to Medina’s turbulent socio-political scene. The Prophet’s Muslim followers had established a tax-free marketplace that grew in competition with Medina’s existing Arab-controlled market. In Mecca, the ruling Quraysh tribe, who had clashed previously with the Prophet and his followers in Mecca, began to view Medina’s Muslims as a serious threat. Mecca was the epicenter of major trade routes crisscrossing the Hijaz, and also the central place of worship for Arabia’s pagan religious deities. Religion and trade were the sources of Quraysh power and tribal influence across the Hijaz, and they could not allow their dominant position to be undermined by Medina’s Muslims.
In 624 c.e., the conflicts erupted into three wars between the Meccans and the Muslims. In the Battle of Badr, the small, ill-equipped Muslim army, led by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), defeated the Quraysh army outside Medina. A second war, the Battle of Uhud, was fought in 625 c.e., and resulted in heavy Muslim losses, including injury to the Prophet. A third war, known as Khandaq or Trench, was fought in 627 c.e. when the Meccans, allied with Arab nomadic tribes and two exiled Jewish tribes, launched a final push to defeat the Muslims.
After the first Battle of Badr, the Muslims’ relations with the Jewish tribes began to deteriorate. An isolated street fight between a few Muslims and Jews from the Banu Qaynuqa`, a Jewish tribe openly hostile toward Prophet Muhammad, escalated in a series of volatile confrontations. The Muslims marched towards the stronghold of the Banu Qaynuqa` and besieged them for a fortnight, whereupon they surrendered on condition that their lives and property be spared. The Prophet accepted the Banu Qaynuqa` terms, and expelled the tribe from Medina.
The Khazraj clan chief `Abd Allah ibn Salul, whose power had diminished considerably with the rise of the Prophet’s influence, conspired with the exiled Jewish tribe to assist the Meccans in their second war with the Muslims, the Battle of Uhud fought in 625 c.e. Ibn Salul’s clan and the Jewish tribe had formed a coalition known as the Hypocrites. The conspiracy against the Muslims became evident when Ibn Salul deserted the Muslim army with 300 of his followers. The reduction in the Muslim army coalition was a severe setback, and they suffered defeat due to the Meccans’ superior tactics and the betrayal of the Khazraj clan and the Jewish tribe.
This defeat emboldened Ibn Salul to conspire with another Jewish tribe, Banu al-Nadir, to kill the Prophet after he had rendered a decision against them in a dispute with another Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayzhah. The Prophet escaped the attempt on his life, and ordered the Banu al-Nadir tribe to leave Medina. When the order was defied, the Muslims laid siege to their stronghold for two weeks, after which the Banu al-Nadir surrendered and were expelled from Medina.
Although the Muslims suffered defeat at Uhud, their efforts to spread Islam were somewhat successful. With the growth of Islam and the success of Medina’s Muslim marketplace, the citizens of Medina began to enjoy status and prosperity rivaling Mecca. The Quraysh were losing revenue as desert trade caravans rerouted from Mecca to the Muslims’ tax-free marketplace in Medina, and they viewed the growth of Islam and its monotheistic message with increasing alarm. To counteract the growing influence of Medina’s Muslims, the Quraysh sought and received support from their nomadic tribal allies and the two Jewish tribes who had been expelled from Medina.
The third war began in 627 c.e., designated as The Battle of the Confederates by the Arabs. Led by the Quraysh, the Confederates attacked Medina with a large army and laid siege to the city. The Prophet and his Muslim army defended the city with roughly three thousand men. By digging a strategic trench around the vulnerable parts of Medina, the Muslims were able to hold the Confederates at bay.
In the midst of hostilities, which subsequently became known as the Trench War, the Quraysh sought an alliance with the Banu Qurayzhah, a Jewish tribe allied with the Prophet yet sympathetic with the Meccans. After being persuaded by the Meccans, the Banu Qurayzhah agreed to support the Quraysh. When the Meccan-Qurayzhah plot was discovered, the Prophet stationed people to guard against a surprise attack from the Qurayzhah. The Confederates were unable to continue their siege without the support of the Jewish tribe, and they withdrew.
The Muslim army proceeded to lay siege to the Banu Qurayzhah fortress. The tribe offered to surrender on the condition that one of their former allies determine their fate according to Jewish law. The Prophet appointed Sa`d bin Mu`adh, the chief of the Aws clan, to be the arbiter. Sa`d judged the Banu Quryzhah according to the Torah, for which the punishment for treason was death. The Aws chief’s decision called for the execution of all fighting-age male members of the Banu Qurayzhah tribe, and for their women, children and elders to be expelled from Medina. In passing the sentence, Sa`d reminded the Banu Qurayzhah that if they had succeeded with their conspiracy, all Muslims in Medina would have been killed, including Prophet Muhammad.
As stories of the Trench War spread through the region, Prophet Muhammad came to be held personally responsible for the execution of the Jewish tribe’s male combatants. The tale, which became known as “the massacre of Medina“, has been employed to support the portrayal of Islam and the Prophet as anti-Semitic. The falsehood of the accusation is self-evident, given the fact that the executions were the result of sentencing by a non-Muslim tribal chief according to the Torah, and under terms of surrender requested by the Banu Qurayzhah themselves. In fact, given the severity of the circumstances, the way in which the Prophet dealt with this issue demonstrated his deep commitment to justice and fairness under law.
The critical references to Jews in the Qur’an that are alleged to be anti-Semitic are embedded in secular commentaries pertaining to Muslim-Jewish relations in 7th century Medina. Although the Jewish tribes and Arab clans were signatories with the Muslims to the Sahifa, three of the Jewish tribes abandoned the Charter and engaged in conspiracies with the Meccans to defeat the Muslims and subvert the Prophet’s authority. In view of the fact that the Jewish tribes were comprised of Arabs who had converted to Judaism, and were not Israelites, their shifting allegiances conformed with Arab tribal tactics during wartime. The conflicts irrupted into war for the same reasons that underlie all wars — money and power. The basic issues driving these conflicts were secular, involving commerce and political relations among the Muslim, Jewish and Arab tribes of the Hijaz.
Still, these conflicts had religious connotations. Religious authority and political power were conjoined in virtually all ancient civilizations. The Meccans led the Arab pagan and polytheistic tribes in the Hijaz, and they viewed Muhammad and Islam’s monotheistic message as threats to their dominant religious position in the region. Medina’s Jews, on the other hand, did not recognize the prophethood of Muhammad, nor did they accept the Divine revelations received by Him, even though they were congruent with their own Hebrew scriptures.
In summary, the conflicts with the errant Jewish tribes cannot be interpreted as evidence of religious persecution or anti-Semitism on the part of Prophet Muhammad and his Muslim followers, and any attempt to do so contravenes historical facts. The passages in the Qur’an critical of Jews and Medina’s Jewish tribes have been extracted out of context and manipulated to stereotype all Jews, and to characterize the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad as anti-Semitic. However, as has been shown, the critical references cannot be understood out of their historical context, nor can they be employed to stereotype the contemporary Jewish diaspora or applied to current political events.
To be continued…
This series of articles is published with kind permission from the author.