46 – Bani Qaynuqa’

It had long been clear that the Jews did not consider the Prophet’s covenant as binding upon them, and that most of them preferred the pagan idolaters to the Muslims worshippers of the One God. While affirming the piety and trustworthiness of individuals amongst the Jews, the Revelations were now full of warnings against the majority. The Prophet and his followers  were urged to beware of them: They will do all they can to ruin you, and they love to cause you trouble. Their hatred is clear from what their mouths utter, and what their breasts conceal is greater.[1]

There could be no doubt that the hopes of the Jews were turning more and more to the Prophet’s own tribe as the chief means of obliterating the new religion and thus of restoring the oasis of Yathrib to what it had been in the past. His movements were regularly reported to Mecca; and if Quraysh marched out against him as far as the Jewish fortresses to the South of Medina, that is to within about half a day’s journey from his Mosque, it seemed certain that the Meccan army would be reinforced at the crucial moment by powerful Jewish contingents.

If good befall you, it is evil in their eyes, and if evil befall you they rejoice thereat.[2] This was plainly demonstrated by the Jews’ reaction to the victory at Badr. When the news came, the tribes of Qaynuqa’, Nadir and Qurayzah were unable to conceal their dismay. Particularly striking was the case of Ka’b the son of Ashraf. His father was an Arab of the tribe of Tayy, but Ka’b counted himself as being, through his mother, of the Bani Nadir, who accepted him as one of themselves because his mother was a Jewess. He had become in fact a prominent member of the tribe, partly owing to his wealth and his strong personality, and also because he was a poet of some fame. When he heard the tidings that Zayd and ‘Abd Allah brought, with the names of all the outstanding men of Quraysh who had been killed, he exclaimed: “By God, if Muhammad have slain these men, then is the inside of the earth better than its outside”; and when he had made certain that the tidings were true he immediately left the oasis before the return of the Prophet, and went to Mecca where he composed a lament for Abu Jahl, ‘Utbah, Shaybah and others of the dead. At the same time he urged Quraysh to redeem their honor and take their revenge by mustering an invincible quantity of troops and leading them against Yathrib.

News of Ka’b’s activities came to Medina; but Ka’b was out of reach for the moment, and more immediate action was called for against a Jewish tribe other than his. The Prophet was especially well informed of the treachery and hatred of the Bani Qaynuqa’, because ‘Abd Allah ibn Sallam had been one of their leading men, and was well versed in their ways. Moreover it was they who were the allies of the Khazrajite Ibn Ubayy, leader of the hypocrites; and their presence was more felt than that of the other Jewish tribes because their settlements were close to the city itself, whereas the Bani Nadir and Qurayzah, the allies of Aws, lived at some distance outside it.

The Prophet had recently received the command: If thou fearest treachery from any folk, then throw back unto them their covenant. Verily God loveth not the treacherous.[3] But the Revelation also said: If they incline unto peace, incline thou also unto it, and trust in God.[4] He was therefore unwilling to take irrevocable action if anything could be gained by gentler means, and on one of the first days after his return from Badr he went to meet the Bani Qaynuqa’ in their market place in the south of Medina. Reflecting on the miracle of Badr might lead them to a change of heart, so he warned them not to call down upon themselves to anger of God which had now just fallen upon Quraysh. “O Muhammad,” they answered “be not deluded by that encounter, for it was against men who had no knowledge of war, and so thou didst get the better of them. But by God, if we make war on thee, thou shalt know that we are the men to be feared.” The Prophet turned and left them, and they imagined for the moment that they had triumphed.

A few days later, in the same market-place, an incident occurred which brought things to a climax; a Muslim woman who had come to sell or exchange some goods was grossly insulted by one of the Jewish gold-smiths. A Helper who happened to be present came to her rescue and the offender was killed in the fight which ensued, whereupon the Jews fell upon the Muslim and killed him. His family then demanded vengeance and proceeded to rouse up the Helpers against the Qaynuqa’. But blood had been shed on both sides, and the affair could easily have been settled and reduced to its true proportions if the Jews had demanded the arbitration of the Prophet according to the covenant. But this they scorned to do; and, deciding that the time had come to teach the intruders a lesson, they sent for reinforcements to their two former allies of Khazraj, Ibn Ubayy and ‘Ubaddah ibn Samit, while they themselves withdrew -for the moment, as they thought- into their own powerfully fortified and well provisioned strongholds. They could muster and army of seven hundred men, which was more than double the Muslim army at Badr; and they relied on at least as many men again from Ibn Ubayy and ‘Ubadah. When these appeared they no doubt intended to issue from their fortresses and show the Prophet that their recent threats had not been empty words.

But in fact those threats had been their own self-condemnation; and within a few hours they were astonished and dismayed to find themselves blockaded on all sides by an army which outnumbered their own and which demanded their unconditional surrender.

Ibn Ubayy went to consult with ‘Ubaddah, but ‘Ubaddah was obdurate that no that no former treaty could stand in opposition to the covenant, and he renounced all responsibility for Qaynuqa’. As for Ibn Ubayy, it was not in his nature to cut in one moment the links which he had so deliberately forged over the years between himself and such powerful allies. But it was impossible for him to be blind, as the Jews were blind, the the present devotion of most of his fellow townsmen to the Prophet. He had too often tasted the bitterness of being clearly shown by his once devoted followers that their allegiance to him was far outweighed by another allegiance. Two years previously, with the help of the besieged from within, he could have broken the blockade of a larger army. But now he knew that once the Prophet had taken action he himself could do nothing against him. So the Bani Qaynuqa’ waited in vain behind their battlements, and their hopes dwindled to despair as day after day passed without any sign of help. For two weeks they held out; and then they surrendered unconditionally.

Ibn Ubayy now came to the camp and approaching the Prophet he said: “O Muhammad, treat my confederates well.” The Prophet put him off, and then when the demand was repeated he turned away from him, whereupon Ibn Ubayy clutched him by his coat of mail, thrusting his hand into the neck of it. The Prophet’s face grew dark with anger. “Let go thy hold,” he said. “By God. I Will not,” said Ibn Ubayy, “until thou dost promise to treat them well. Four hundred men without mail and three hundred mailed -they protected me from the red and from the black.[5] Wilt thou cut them down in one morning?” “I grant thee their lives,” said the Prophet. But the Revelation had commanded, with regard to those who broke treaties with him: If thou overcomest them in war, then make of them an example, to strike fear into those that are behind them, that they may take heed;[6] and, having decided that the Bani Qaynuqa’ should forfeit all their possessions and be exiled, he told ‘Ubadah to escort them out of the oasis. They took refuge with a kindred Jewish settlement to the north-west in Wadi l-Qura, and with their help they eventually settled on the borders of Syria.

They were metalworkers by trade, and the Emigrants and Helpers were greatly enriched by the weapons and armor that were divided amongst them after the Prophet had taken his legal fifth for himself and his theocratic state.


[1] Qur’an 3 : 118
[2] Qur’an 3 : 120
[3] Qur’an 8 : 58
[4] Qur’an 8 : 61
[5] See chapter 34 – Yathrib Responsive, note [4]
[6] Qur’an 8 : 57

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