Muhammad's War Against the Jews
The denial of Muhammad’s treatment of the Jews takes many forms: it didn’t happen, it was understandable, or it was a one-time exception. The first form of denial is common among Westerners; recently published books omit the complete story, if they tell it at all. Past scholars were duty-bound to present the full history even as they disagreed on its meaning; I examined a case in point in last year's article.
Islamic critics of my depiction of Muhammad’s actions against the Jews, generally argue that it was understandable – the Jews brought it on themselves. This is often touted as a moderate viewpoint! Since Muhammad didn’t do this out of bigotry, hatred, or malice, the argument goes, Islam is moderate – the Jews only have to behave and they haven’t ever since. This viciousness speaks for itself.
Let’s see what Edward Gibbon says about Muhammad and the Jews in his history of the Roman Empire:
The choice of Jerusalem for the first kebla of prayer discovers the early propensity of Mahomet in favour of the Jews; and happy would it have been for their temporal interest, had they recognized, in the Arabian prophet, the hope of Israel and the promised Messiah. Their obstinacy converted his friendship into implacable hatred, with which he pursued that unfortunate people to the last moment of his life; and in the double character of an apostle and a conqueror, his persecution was extended to both worlds. (135)Ethnic cleansing is achieved either by expulsion or genocide. He drove out the first Jewish tribe. Other Jewish tribes realized that conflict was inevitable.
He seized the occasion of an accidental tumult, and summoned them to embrace his religion, or contend with him in battle. "Alas!" replied the trembling Jews, "we are ignorant of the use of arms, but we persevere in the faith and worship of our fathers; why wilt thou reduce us to the necessity of a just defence?" The unequal conflict was terminated in fifteen days; and it was with extreme reluctance that Mahomet yielded to the importunity of his allies, and consented to spare the lives of the captives. But their riches were confiscated, their arms became more effectual in the hands of the Mussulmans; and a wretched colony of seven hundred exiles was driven, with their wives and children, to implore a refuge on the confines of Syria.
The Nadhirites were more guilty, since they conspired, in a friendly interview, to assassinate the prophet. He besieged their castle, three miles from Medina; but their resolute defence obtained an honourable capitulation; and the garrison, sounding their trumpets and beating their drums, was permitted to depart with the honours of war. The Jews had excited and joined the war of the Koreish: no sooner had the nations retired from the ditch, than Mahomet, without laying aside his armour, marched on the same day to extirpate the hostile race of the children of Koraidha. After a resistance of twenty-five days, they surrendered at discretion. They trusted to the intercession of their old allies of Medina; they could not be ignorant that fanaticism obliterates the feelings of humanity.At this point apologists try to soften criticism of Muhammad by blaming his associate for the final solution.
A venerable elder, to whose judgment they appealed, pronounced the sentence of their death; seven hundred Jews were dragged in chains to the market-place of the city; they descended alive into the grave prepared for their execution and burial; and the apostle beheld with an inflexible eye the slaughter of his helpless enemies. Their sheep and camels were inherited by the Mussulmans: three hundred cuirasses, five hundred piles, a thousand lances, composed the most useful portion of the spoil.It didn't end in Medina:
Six days' journey to the north-east of Medina, the ancient and wealthy town of Chaibar was the seat of the Jewish power in Arabia: the territory, a fertile spot in the desert, was covered with plantations and cattle, and protected by eight castles, some of which were esteemed of impregnable strength. The forces of Mahomet consisted of two hundred horse and fourteen hundred foot: in the succession of eight regular and painful sieges they were exposed to danger, and fatigue, and hunger; and the most undaunted chiefs despaired of the event. The apostle revived their faith and courage by the example of Ali, on whom he bestowed the surname of the Lion of God: perhaps we may believe that a Hebrew champion of gigantic stature was cloven to the chest by his irresistible cimeter; but we cannot praise the modesty of romance, which represents him as tearing from its hinges the gate of a fortress and wielding the ponderous buckler in his left hand. (136)Gibbon, like every historian, has had to rely solely on Islamic sources. One can question their veracity but usually one expects the devout to have a bias in favor of the religion. The description above suggests that Muslims traditionally accepted this narrative; but it might have been worse.
After the reduction of the castles, the town of Chaibar submitted to the yoke. The chief of the tribe was tortured, in the presence of Mahomet, to force a confession of his hidden treasure: the industry of the shepherds and husbandmen was rewarded with a precarious toleration: they were permitted, so long as it should please the conqueror, to improve their patrimony, in equal shares, for his emolument and their own. Under the reign of Omar, the Jews of Chaibar were transported to Syria; and the caliph alleged the injunction of his dying master; that one and the true religion should be professed in his native land of Arabia. (137)
William H. McNeill in his classic 1963 text, The Rise of the West, [p442] describes very briefly Muhammad’s relations with the Jews:
When it became clear that Mohammed could not win the support of the Jewish colony in Medina, he instructed his followers to drive the Jewish farmers from the oasis. He then distributed their land among the faithful. But the community of believers grew so rapidly trough the adherence of outsiders that this entirely failed to solve the economic problem. Territorial expansion beyond the oasis of Medina was the next step. Accordingly, Mohammad’s followers quickly subjugated another Jewish oasis settlement situated some miles north of Medina. This time, however, the victorious Moslems refrained from driving the Jews from their lands, but instead compelled them to pay tribute to the Moslem community, which the Prophet then distributed among the faithful according to their needs and deserts. This incident provided the model for subsequent dealings between Moslem conquerors and their Jewish or Christian subjects, who as “People of the Book” were allowed to retain their own religion, customs, and institutions as long as they paid tribute.Thus, prior to the PC era (politically correct era) it was common to explain, not explain away, Muhammad's ethnic-cleansing. The policy became contingent upon the refusal to submit to Islamic rule but it remains a back-up option for recalcitrant Jews. Today it is the goal of major Islamic leaders in both Shiite and Sunni communities. In the decades after WWII, close to one million Jews were ethnically-cleansed from Tangier to Tehran with two-thirds settling in Israel. In a vast land stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Hindu Kush, Muslims find it intolerable that even this tiny sliver of land remains in Jewish hands. The legacy of Muhammad lives on.