Often when we hear extremists promoting violence against Jews and people of other religions and also, when others want to debunk the claims of the majority of Muslims that Islam promotes peaceful coexistence and justice, they tend to cite the myth of the “Marketplace Massacre.”
Basically, the fable states that after the Muslim victory at the Battle of the Confederates, during the winter of 627 CE, the Muslims wanted to punish the Jewish tribe of Banu Quraythah, who were suspected of treacherously siding with the anti-Muslim Confederation. The slaughter and burial of all Jewish males above the age of twelve supposedly took place in the marketplace outside the Prophet’s Mosque.
This legend has been quoted by extremist groups the world over as justification for indiscriminate killing.
To Traditional Islamic scholars and the faithful, the legend presents many questions of concern and displeasure. Not only does it contradict the known compassionate nature of Prophet Muhammad and his disciples, but chiefly contradicts the Islamic Scriptures, namely, “No soul shall bear the burden of another,” which is strongly stated in no less than three passages in the Qur’an along with “Whoever takes one life, it is as though they massacred all of humanity.”
When the Prophet’s Mosque was expanded in 649 CE (22 years after the alleged incident), much of the surrounding homes were demolished and the area was dug up, including the place the mass grave was alleged to have been. At that time many animal bones from butcher shops in the market were found, but no human remains. If as many as 960 bodies were buried there, why were no bones found? Not even a distal phalange!
During the past twenty years with the demolition of hundreds of heritage sites and buildings in Medina to make way for hotels, many artifacts and scrolls were found buried beneath the ground, but no bodies. If the myth of a great massacre in the marketplace had any basis, why haven’t we found the remains? Moreover, how can so few people remember a massacre of such great intensity?
So where does this slanderous legend originate? It is first mentioned in Muslim literature by Ibn Ishaq around 756 CE in his Sirah Rasul Allah “Biography of the Messenger of God.” It is important to note that Ibn Ishaq wrote the “biography” as an inspirational storybook. I doubt he intended it to be seen as an authentically concise historical treatise, especially considering he was not an eyewitness to the events he writes about.
The Abbasid Dynasty took power in the year 750 after annihilating the Umayyads in a bloody coup. To “justify” such savagery in the eyes of his adolescent son Al-Mahdi, who was then 12 years old, the second Abbasid ruler Al-Mansur, commissioned Ibn Ishaq to compose the biography and to include such a preposterous tale.
The story hearkens back to the Roman siege of Masada in 73 CE, when we are told that 960 Jews committed mass suicide. Similar to the narrative of Josephus regarding the alleged mass suicide, in the marketplace massacre myth, the decree was believed to have been divine-judgment, in this case against the Jews. It appears that the Masada story was borrowed by Ibn Ishaq and interpolated, with no regard for historical accuracy or legacy, down to specific details.
Imam al-Awza’i, a contemporary of Ibn Ishaq, greatly objected to such a legend, stating, “As far as I know it is not a decree of God that God should chastise the many for the fault of the few; rather to reprimand the few for the fault of the many.”
Another contemporary of Ibn Ishaq, the great jurist of Medina, Imam Malik, decried this and other stories of Ibn Ishaq as “lies and fables” going as far as to declare him a “liar” and an “imposter” as transmitted in ‘Uyun-al-Athar. It is important to note that Imam Malik met the children of eyewitnesses to the life of Prophet Muhammad and had ascertained that the legend was a fabrication.
Among the many scholars and historians who rejected the myth of the massacre were Imam Ibnu Hajar Al-‘Asqalani who called the legend a “deviant tale” in his Tahthib-ut-Tahthib and Imam At-Tabari who called the fable an “unsubstantiated allegation.”
Several manuscripts and historic records show that Jews were living freely throughout Arabia even during the year 922 CE — three hundred years later — when they sought to be exempt from paying taxes.
Islamic scholars and historians have raised many questions about the credibility and authenticity of the Medina Massacre, a tale that bears neither spiritual nor moral benefit, rather incites indiscriminate violence and transgression. Not surprisingly, the cult that calls itself “The Islamic State” models itself after the early Abbasid Dynasty.
It is important to note that at Prophet Muhammad’s death, not only were there Jews still living in Medina, but, according to the narration in the Compilation of Bukhari, the Prophet’s armor was pawned to a Jewish merchant, and his next door neighbors were Jewish. From such an example, Muslims learn to coexist with others, remembering our shared humanity.
Mohamad Jebara is Chief Imam and Resident Scholar at the Cordova Spiritual Education Center in Ottawa, Canada.