Deuteronomy 20 and the Fate of Banu Qurayzha (Discussion with Rabbi Ben Abrahamson)

photo credit: LinkedIn

There has been an intriguing discourse regarding Sa’d ibn Mu’adh’s verdict towards Banu Qurayzha, some contemporary scholars claiming that the said verdict was based on Jewish Law. If have written my initial thoughts and findings about the matter in a previous post, and I am planning to expand this into a more proper research paper (currently searching for a co-researcher).

So I was recommended by my friend to consult Rabbi Ben Abrahamson, a classical orthodox Jewish Rabbi and Director of the Al Sadiqin Institute – Association of Islamic and Rabbinic scholars of History and Jurisprudence. Below is his description on LinkedIn:

"Rabbinical Historian; Consultant for religious courts; Expert witness concerning Halachah and Shari'ah, legal systems interactions, historical development of religious/civil law; Advocate for Islam and Muslims, to be recognized and achieve their proper, respected place in Jewish law; Requested participant in Religious Diplomacy in areas of conflict in the ME and tension in the EU and Africa."

Alhamdulillah, I approached him via Facebook and he was very kind to take his time to respond to my questions. He has allowed me to share the contents of our conversation, hence this post.

Please find it below, I hope it will benefit us all:

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FAJRI:

Greetings, Dear Rabbi.. I hope you are doing well. My name is Fajri from Indonesia, an assistant professor of international law at Universitas Gadjah Mada, but my research mainly focuses on Islamic law.. There has been an issue in my mind for quite some time by now about Jewish Law as applicable in 6-7th century AD (particularly in Hejaz, Arabia), and my good friend Ustaz Wisnu Tanggap Prabowo recommended me to talk to you about this (he has corresponded with you before, it seems).

I am sure you are familiar with the verdict cast by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s companion Sa’d ibn Mu’adh towards the Jews of Banu Qurayzha (kill all grown men, enslave all women+children). An increasing number of contemporary Muslim scholars seem to suggest that this verdict was specifically taken from Jewish Law. After all, Sa’d ibn Mu’adh was the chief of Banu Aws, who allied with the Jews of Banu Qurayzha in previous wars, so it was alleged that he would have known a bit of Jewish law and therefore used it in his verdict.

What are your thoughts on this?

PS: I am very skeptical about this, but I know very little about it. 3 years ago I wrote a short article on my blog explaining my (tentative) view: https://fajrimuhammadin.staff.ugm.ac.id/2019/12/09/did-sad-ibn-muadh-apply-jewish-law-to-banu-quray%e1%ba%93ah/

I plan to make this a proper research, insha’Allah.. So I was wondering if I can have some insight..

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RABBI BEN ABRAHAMSON:

As-salamu ‘alaykum wa rahmat-Ullah wa barakatuH

Your blog post is very good.  The thing to remember is that the verses in Deuteronomy 20 refer to conquest in a holy war, that is to say a war led by a prophet (pbuh).

In addition, the verse “Rather, you shall utterly destroy them: The Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivvites, and the Jebusites, as the Lord, your God, has commanded you.” (Deut 20:17) has been interpreted, based on authorized traditions, to mean that “as long as they remain Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, etc. they must be destroyed, but not if they convert to monotheism (Noahism)”.

So while the punishment of irreconcilable rebels against a just (and prophetic) rule, is similar to the arbitration decree of Sa‘d ibn Mu‘ādh, the circumstances are not the same.

The case of the Banu Qurayzah was not a conquest in the regular sense of the word. In 627 CE, when the Quraysh and their allies besieged the city in the Battle of the Trench, the Qurayza initially tried to remain neutral but eventually entered into negotiations with the besieging army, violating a pact they had agreed to years earlier. Subsequently, the tribe was charged with treason and besieged by the Muslims commanded by the Prophet (pbuh). The Banu Qurayza eventually surrendered. But unlike a conquest, spoils were not discussed.

Also the case of the Banu Qurayzah was not a case of irreconcilable religious principles, there was no question of idolatry or polytheism. In most traditional accounts of the events, conversion was never discussed as an option.

It seems the early sources saw this as an act of treason, and this makes the most sense.  Treason against the king, in Torah law, is punishable by death, although it is not clear how this law would be applied for a group of people.

This latter concern seems to be addressed by saying there was a compact and arbitration, thus putting it within the purview of the Kings Law.  The king would be given the discretion to punish or not punish as he sees fit to achieve the security of the people which he is responsible for.

Considering during these years the Romans and Persians would chain soldiers to each other to prevent desertion, and regularly burned towns and villages, such measures for dealing with treasonous elements would not have been unusual.  In fact there is no mention of these events in any Jewish history.

I think the reason it has been claimed recently that Sa‘d ibn Mu‘adh’s judgement was biblical in nature, is to act as a counter claim to the argument that the execution of the Banu Qurayzah was anti-Semitic.  But upon closer examination of the records that we have, there is no evidence to believe that their execution had anything to do with religion, and everything to do with treason.

I would be happy to assist you in any way I can with your research.

Best regards

Rabbi Ben Abrahamson

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FAJRI:

Wa’alaykumsalaam, I also love long replies 😊 Alhamdulillah this has been very insightful, I really thank you for taking the time. Your conclusion that the verdict was all about punishing treason is what I feel to be the case. If you don’t mind, I have some follow up questions:

  1. I have put some thought (but honestly not much research) after writing that blogpost in 2019, and it came to me that perhaps the biggest absurdity of the claim that Ibn Mu’adh applied Jewish law is: Deuteronomy 20 was about what the Jews are supposed to punish others with, not Jews being punished. Would you agree?
  • It has become clearer, alhamdulillah, that the factual circumstances between Deuteronomy 20 and the fate of Banu Qurayzha are far different. But what do you think about the ‘wrong verse’ point I made? If we force the circumstances to fit Deuteronomy 20 as much as possible, would you agree that it would be more correct for Ibn Mu’adh to apply 20:16-17 (which he did not) instead of 20: 13-14 (which he did), if he indeed wanted to apply Jewish law?
  • You mentioned that the events (verdict of Sa’d ibn Mu’adh and fate of Banu Qurayzha) were not mentioned in any Jewish history. Do you have any thoughts why it is so? I am sure you are aware of some orientalists in the 1970s used that as one among many reasons why the verdict actually never happened at all (some recent scholars are repeating this argument). I published an article last year criticizing that opinion from a hadith perspective because my concern was legal rulings, so certainly it does not answer why the Jewish historians did not mention it.

Thank you very much for your insights. Jazakallaahu khayran kathiira

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RABBI BEN ABRAHAMSON:

<<1.    I have put some thought (but honestly not much research) after writing that blogpost in 2019, and it came to me that perhaps the biggest absurdity of the claim that Ibn Mu’adh applied Jewish law is: Deuteronomy 20 was about what the Jews are supposed to punish others with, not Jews being punished. Would you agree?>>

There is a general principle in the Torah that there must be one law for the citizen and stranger.  It is conceivable that if a community of Jews adopted the ways of the Canaanites (irreconcilable, socially destructive culture) that they would fall under the same law, and be punished accordingly.

<< If we force the circumstances to fit Deuteronomy 20 as much as possible, would you agree that it would be more correct for Ibn Mu’adh to apply 20:16-17 (which he did not) instead of 20: 13-14 (which he did), if he indeed wanted to apply Jewish law?>>

I was not aware that Sa‘d ibn Mu‘adh ever cited a Torah verse as justification for his decision.   That being said, I believe the verse in Deut 20 express three levels of conquest:

Verse 11 those who have a moral culture and submit without fighting, they pay jizya and become a vassal.

Verses 12-13 those who have a moral culture, yet fight irreconcilably, their soldiers are killed and their property is forfeit to the state.

Verses 16-17 those who have a socially destructive culture, and fight irreconcilably, they must be entirely destroyed as long as they continue to adhere to their socially destructive culture. The association with this socially destructive culture is not limited to soldiers but includes men, women, children and property. This is summed up in the next verse “So that they should not teach you to act according to all their abominations”  Essentially this means “either convert to Noahism or Judaism, otherwise if you remain you will be killed” and applies to men and women and their associated children and property.

Since  Sa‘d ibn Mu‘adh’s arbitration included men, but not women or booty, it is most similar to verses 12-13.

<<3. You mentioned that the events (verdict of Sa’d ibn Mu’adh and fate of Banu Qurayzha) were not mentioned in any Jewish history. Do you have any thoughts why it is so?>>

I believe it is because the Jews of Madinah were sectarian, a form of Sadducees, which fell outside the scope of Rabbinic histories.  This would be similar to events which concerned Samaritan Jews, which were not recorded.  Sadducean Judaism did not have a literary tradition, so we don’t have their record either.

What is interesting is that Seder HaDorot and various Midrashei Geulah which speak briefly about a persecution of Jews by Muhammad (pbuh), claim that it was instigated by former Christians who became Muslims, specifically Bahira.  According to this tradition, when Salman Farsi joined the Prophet (pbuh), the persecutions stopped.  Salman Farsi is, in Jewish tradition, said to be a Rabbinic Jew, son of the reigning Exilarch.   It is telling that a Rabbinic Jew should lead the siege of Khaybar, without complaint in Rabbinic Jewish history.

Another point, Deut 20 speaks of the killing of combatants during battle.  It does not apply after the fact.  To that end, it is prohibited to enclose one of these cities on all four sides, one side must be left open to allow the option of exile.

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FAJRI :

I see.. thank you very much for taking your time to explain this, alhamdulillah this is all crystal clear.. I think I now have a much clearer picture and direction from which to work on.. Jazakallaahu khayran kathiira.. 😊🙏

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RABBI BEN ABRAHAMSON:

Masha’Allah

If you do write anything on this topic, I would be delighted if you could include me with a copy.

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