Friday, December 17, 2010

The Qurayza Jews: Not a Topic I Would Choose for a Short History of Islam

When teaching the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, I am keen to point out that at the same time that the Qur'an demands that we redress wrongs, commanding the early Muslims to fight (9:13-16), it also urges us towards the higher road of forgiveness and patience (42:36-43).

"There is no cause to act against anyone who defends himself after being wronged, but there is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice...though if a person is patient and forgives, this is one of the greatest things" (42:41-43).

I was moved by Shaykh Hamza's 2010 Eid sermon when he reminded us that the Qur'an instructed the Prophet Muhammad to argue with his enemies in the most beautiful way. As we face attacks against Islam in the current climate, we should respond to them in the footsteps of our beloved Prophet, with forgiveness, forbearance, and patience.

I thought to share the sermon with my friend Rebecca (see previous post) who I had been meaning to write since moving to Malaysia.

This was her response: 

"Thank you for your thoughtfulness and the link to the utube message. I have been reading the Qur’an rather slowly but also have a book called Islam in Context: Past, Present, and Future by Peter Riddell and Peter Cotterell. In one of the sections as it gives some of the history of Muhammad’s life it tells of the massacre of the Qurayza Jews. I am confused by what Shaykh Hamza Yusuf said in the first part of his message (7.40) “…you saw how the Messenger of Allah behaved. You read his Sirah. You saw how he dealt with his enemies. You saw how he dealt with them with magnamity.” 

"I am not trying to find fault with his talk, I just wondered how what he said can be reconciled with this event. I do not know if this subject is brought up often by critics because I really only have a limited knowledge of Islam, so it is an honest question of mine."

Here's my response:

I was very happy to receive this thoughtful response from you. I won't be able to respond to everything in this short note. I wanted to write to at least let you know that you and your questions are important to me.

The question about the handling of the treason of the Qurayza Jews is not an issue in the forefront for everyday Muslims. In other words, this event is certainly not foremost in how we understand and love the Prophet. The traditions and stories of his generosity and mercy are most emphasized. 

The Qur'an states that he was sent as a mercy to humanity. Also, the Qur'an repeatedly tells Muhammad not to grieve over the fact that his tribe does not initially accept the message. (And remember, we believe the Qur'an is God's word, speaking to Muhammad, his tribe, and all humanity.) God tells him this over and over because he is saddened by the consequences they will face if they continue in their unjust, evil ways. Muhammad's concern was not to dominate people with his religion, it was to bring them a message that would save them from hardship in this life and the next.

I'm not escaping your question. I hope to get to the issue. Just wanted to emphasize that Sh. Hamza's appeal to Muslims to remember Muhammad's mercy and love is one that resonates with us and softens the hearts of many. Muhammad's gentleness is how Muslims most know him.

Also, everyday Muslims don't engage in the process of reconciling the Qurayza story with other more beautiful traditions about the Prophet because many don't even know about the Qurayza massacre. Again, it's not what is emphasized which means that it doesn't immediately instruct or inform our behavior as Muslims.

I did not learn about the story of the Qurayza Jews until I read a biography of the Prophet for college (and remember, I was born Muslim). And I thought about this topic more when I taught the biography of the Prophet and how I would explain it to students.

To really understand this topic from my perspective and other academics, Muslim and non-Muslim, would require a paradigm shift in how you think about a sacred figure. The author Karen Armstrong, a non-Muslim,  is most useful in helping you do this. I assign her book Muhammad: Biography of a Prophet to my students, and I recommend that you read this book carefully, especially the chapters "Holy War" and "Holy Peace." 

But in a nutshell, what Armstrong encourages Christian readers to do is take a moment to realize that unlike Jesus, Muhammad is both a sacred figure and a political leader. He is forced to become a political figure because his tribe persecutes his community simply because they want freedom to practice their religion. They seek asylum in Medina, but even there, they are not safe from their tribe determined to wage war. What makes matters worse, the Jews of Medina who signed a contract to never go to war with Muhammad and his followers, secretly help the enemy tribe attack the Muslims. In other words, they commit treason. 

If you look up treason on Wikipedia, you find the following:

"In English law, high treason was punishable by being hanged, drawn and quartered (men) or burnt at the stake (women), or beheading (royalty and nobility)."

Death as one of the crimes for treason is almost universal, and especially in the premodern societies of which Muhammad's community is one example.

I understand that Muhammad was actually enforcing the Jewish punishment since he was dealing with Jews, and it was actually a close ally of the Jews, now in Muhammad's community, who came up with the punishment, but of course Muhammad approved.

But the point is that Muhammad had to make some tough political decisions that most Christians are not used to seeing associated with a sacred figure.

Even still, as a political figure, he made overwhelming concessions and demonstrated mercy countless times. This is why you should read "Holy Peace" in Armstrong's book.

Also I can't help but note that the pre-modern English Law savagely killed women traitors. In the case of Qurayza, the women and children were spared.

If you study Muhammad's life, you will find that he made several reforms in several areas including war, women's rights, orphan's rights, and slave rights. And while these reforms do not always measure up to our post-enlightenment American ideals, they actually surpass what Europeans and Americans were doing as it relates to women and slaves in the 19th century. (For example, Muhammad did not abolish slavery, but he ruled that once a slave woman had a child by her master, the child was no longer a slave.* This prevented slavery from becoming generational. Imagine how that ruling would have totally reduced the scope and impact of slavery in the US.)

I hope this helps. I have to run. Here is a short clip of Armstrong on understanding Muhammad:

This concludes my letter. 

* When commenting on the Islamic legal ruling on the children of slave owners, I made a mental note to check and see if there is a Prophetic tradition on this matter. My sources indicate that the ruling came about later but is often linked back to the Prophet's precedent with the slave woman Mariya.

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