How to ‘make sense’ of a Muslim ‘atrocity’?

How to ‘make sense’ of a Muslim ‘atrocity’? May 19, 2014


As a “religious pluralist,” Michael needs to “somehow make sense of the seemingly (in many other instances) peace-loving and merciful Muhammad simultaneously being involved in what in all honesty appears quite atrocious.” He refers to Muslims killing 400 to 1,000 Arabian Jews after winning the pivotal Battle of the Trench in 627 (C.E.).


April’s mass kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram has alarmed multitudes. These insurgents claim to champion true Islam, but leaders of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (sort of a Muslim United Nations) have denounced Boko Haram for violating teachings of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad.

History is full of battles with disputed religious aspects, and the past century added the phenomenon of anti-religious powers committing unimaginable atrocities.

Michael is concerned about the earliest such Muslim controversy over a battle in Medina, named for the Prophet Muhammad’s clever tactic of digging a trench to hobble enemy horsemen. After a long siege, the victorious Muslims killed all the town’s Jewish men, reportedly by beheading, seized their properties and consigned the women and children to slavery. The battlefield triumph and subsequent slaughter assured Muslim control of Medina and aided the capture of Mecca and unification of Arabia under one faith.

Michael says it’s hard to know what to think because information comes from either “pro” or “anti” Muslim sources. Actually, a Muslim wrote the only contemporary account but the Prophet’s defenders say the version that survived is unreliable. Still, though body counts vary there’s general agreement on events among non-Muslim historians and such western Muslim authors as Cyril Glasse. Also note the Quran 33:25-27.

When Muhammad’s Hijra (“Flight”) took him from Mecca to Medina, three Jewish tribes lived there alongside pagan Arabs. The Jews and Muslim newcomers were friendly at first, but relations deteriorated as Jews resisted appeals to convert and sometimes ridiculed the Prophet. The Muslims eventually drove two of the Jewish tribes into exile, leaving the Qurayzah (or Quraiza or Kuraiza) Jews, who allied with pagans against Muhammad, culminating in this battle.

Muslims contend that the Qurayzah broke a pact with Muhammad, secretly conspired with the pagans, and so were properly punished for treason. Muhammad referred the verdict to Sa’d ibn Mu’adh, a heroic Muslim convert who was dying of battle wounds. Islam’s own Hadith traditions indicate that the Prophet chose Sa’d, agreed with his verdict, could have overruled him, and thus bears responsibility for the outcome. Glasse states that Sa’d decided “the adult men should be put to death and the women and children sold into slavery.” (He does not mention beheading.) To this day Jews (also Christians) are barred from entering Medina.

Michael is especially upset because Muhammad’s involvement contrasts markedly with the moral examples of the Buddha and Jesus. Muslims can argue that it’s unfair to compare Muhammad with the founders of Buddhism and Christianity because he was the supreme political and military ruler with duties toward his community, whereas the other two were teachers who never sought such powers.

As Michael notes, his fellow religious pluralist Karen Armstrong was sympathetic toward the Muslims’ situation in her 1991 biography of Muhammad. Armstrong said various historians think it’s unfair to judge a “very primitive society” by modern standards, that the Muslims had “narrowly escaped extermination” so “emotions were naturally running high,” and that Muslim mercy would have inevitably led to further Jewish rebellion. This ex-Catholic writer went further, contending that “anti-Semitism is a vice of western Christianity, not of Islam.” Conservative Mideast expert Reuel Marc Gerecht disagrees: “Classical Muslim bias against Jews is rooted in the communal struggles on full display in the Quran.”

Westerners accuse the Medina Muslims of “extreme cruelty,” Glasse says, but “similar punishment” occurred throughout olden times, citing the Bible’s Deuteronomy 20:10-18. Some Muslims say Sa’d applied that passage as Jewish law appropriate for Jews. Today, Old Testament “holy war” is troubling for many or most Christians and Jews (not just the pacifists). The issue is addressed in current books by Philip Jenkins of Baylor University, Eric Seibert of Messiah College and Kenton Sparks of Eastern University.

Deuteronomy said enemy troops would be offered peace without killings if they agreed to surrender. If they fought and lost, a herem (“ban”) meant men would be executed and the women and children spared to become plunder along with property. Total elimination of an enemy population applied only to civil war within the Holy Land which (as with Armstrong’s view of Medina) was considered necessary to prevent further rebellion.

Some modern Jews and Christians say these laws were idealized and not taken literally. Reform Judaism’s commentary backs that up by stating that Israel never actually applied such wholesale extermination. Whether such interpretations hold up, all sides agree the stated punishments expressed God’s horror of pagan beliefs and practices. The Bible says the harsh treatment was intended to eliminate “abominable practices … in the service of their gods,” which meant idolatry, child sacrifice, and sexual sin.

Say we make allowances for the brutality of combat in Muhammad’s day. Back to the 21st Century. Boko Haram kidnaps, enslaves and is one of many radical “Islamist” factions that kill not enemy soldiers in dire conflicts, as in the Quran (or Bible), but totally innocent civilians, both fellow Muslims and non-Muslims — children, women, teachers, charity workers, believers gathering to worship God and folks simply seeking decent lives. For the foreseeable future, Islam faces an internal moral struggle over terrorism enacted in the name of God.

A Muslim blogger explains the Battle of the Trench.

Muhammad Abdel Haleem, chairman of the Journal of Qur’anic Studies, depicts Muslim tradition on war and violence.


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2 responses to “How to ‘make sense’ of a Muslim ‘atrocity’?”

  1. The question the media avoids discussing (or looking at in depth) is why there is so much violence and killing from and in the Islamic world in the name of Allah TODAY. Until that can be understood talk of the violence all humans operated under in past centuries sounds like just so much media”white-washing” of the bloody example Mohammed gave to his followers and which became enshrined in Islamic culture and religion.
    It is hard to see how a religion can purge itself of a propensity to bloodshed and violence if its founder’s example is one of bloodshed and violence.

  2. It must be difficult to write an “even-handed” treatment of the debates about early Islam and Muhammed, as so many of the defenses are inherently self-refuting. The only contemporary historian is “unreliable,” but the Muslim historians of later times, who may not disparage the name of the prophet, on pain of death, are better sources? Comparisons to Deuteronomy are valid, even though those instructions and events took place two thousand years prior to Muhammed (“ancient times” indeed…)? What Muhammed did historically is more aptly compared to Alexander the Great’s sweep of conquest, where similar brutality was meted out to those cities and peoples who resisted. He wanted to conquer, and create a civilization unified by Hellenic civilization, which is directly comparable to Muhammed’s intent and means. In any case, the Q’uran is hardly a document of peace. Michael should start by reading it.

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