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Baha’u’llah’s “Tablet of the Banu Qurayza”

Posted by Sen on March 6, 2010

The Banu Qurayza were a Jewish tribe in Medina in the time of Muhammad. In 627, when the Meccans brought a great army against Muhammad in Medina, he resolved to meet them in the city itself, which meant that the treaty of Medina would oblige all of the clans in the city – including the Jewish ones – to join in its defence. During their brief and unsuccessful siege (known as the Battle of the Trench), the Meccans apparently negotiated with the Jewish clan of Qurayza within the city, hoping that they would switch sides, and did persuade them to renounce their alliance under the treaty of Medina. Once the Meccans had withdrawn, Muhammad attacked the Qurayza. After a siege of three weeks they had to surrender. Their fate was decided by Sa`d b. Mu`adh, an arbiter from among the Aus (the Arabic patrons of the Banu Qurayza), who decreed that the men of the tribe should be executed, their property confiscated, and the women and children sold into slavery. Muhammad carried out the executions himself, of some 600 or 700 adult men, although some reports say that Ali and al-Zubayr performed the executions. In his Tablet of Tribulations, Baha’u’llah says “the Prophet returned to Medina and the army did as Sa`d had commanded.”

One interesting thing about the massacre of the Qurayza is that Muhammad is not in charge of events. It is not his ruling that the men should be killed, and if it had been up to him, Medina would have made peace with the attackers. But the rulers of Medina rejected the treaty he had negotiated. To me this adds up to Muhammad as the Sheriff of Medina, not its ruler. Medina had outsourced its security function to Muhammad and his refugee followers. The execution of those condemned to death was part of his job description. (The historical sources and details are on this blog in ‘Muhammad at Medina‘)

This sad event had an unlikely echo centuries later. A young boy in Tehran, later to be known as Baha’u’llah, was reading Majlisi‘s account of the massacre of the Banu Qurayza sometime around 1830, and he was so shocked by what he read that he spent 12 days in turmoil, and then, after some sort of religious experience, resolved to do something about it. He went on to found the Bahai Faith, and to write:.. the law of holy war hath been blotted out from the Book ..

The first Glad-Tidings which the Mother Book hath, in this Most Great Revelation, imparted unto all the peoples of the world is that the law of holy war hath been blotted out from the Book.
(Tablets of Baha’u’llah, 21)

The tablet in which he describes this experience in his childhood has not been available on line in English, in a searchable form, and a friend asked me for it, so I am posting it here.

The translation is my own. I have used a partial translation by Juan Cole in Modernity and the Millenium page 115 and an almost complete translation by Nader Saiedi in Logos and Civilization 304-5. Their translations are based on two slightly different versions of the original. I have discussed the sources, and the dating of the twelve-day event Baha’u’llah describes here, in the first comment to this posting.

By my name that has unlocked the gates of bounty before all who are in heaven and on earth: the atoms of all created things, and the realities of all beings, testify that this servant did not and does not have any intention in manifesting and proclaiming the Cause [1] other than redeeming mankind and quenching the fire of hatred and fanaticism. In the night season his lamentation has been raised, at dawn his groaning, and his wailing by day.

As certain parties have said, and are proclaiming today, in the scriptures one finds the burning of books and the killing of people, and the prohibition of fellowship, which is the greatest means for the advancement of mankind and the development of nations. In fact, things even more grievous are recorded in the Qur’an and the Bayan.

When this wronged one was a child, he read about the subjugation of the Banu-Qurayza, in a book attributed to Mulla Baqir Majlisi, and immediately became so grieved and saddened that the Pen is unable to recount it, even though what occurred was the command of God and had no purpose except to cut the roots of the oppressors. [2]. Despite this, with the ocean of forgiveness and boundless mercy before his eyes, in those days he beseeched the One True God, exalted be His glory, for whatever would be the cause of universal love, fellowship, and the unity of all the peoples of the earth – until [3] before sunrise on the second day of the month of His birth, [4] all his manners, speech and thought were thrown into confusion, a tumult that gave glad tidings of exaltation. This tumult was sent down and manifest repeatedly, without interruption, for twelve days, after which the waves of the sea of utterance became manifest and the rays of the sun of assurance dawned, until it culminated in the moment of Manifestation.

Thus I attained unto that which God hath made the source of joy to all mankind and the dawning-place of His bounty to all who are in heaven and on earth. Afterwards, by means of an ineluctable and irrevocable decree of the Most Sublime Pen, we eliminated whatever had been the cause of suffering, distress, and discord, and rained down the instruments of unity and fellowship. None can deny the overflowing bounty of this Revelation, except for heedless ones who are veiled and the detested oppressor. The sacred tablets which have been sent down and the Tablet of the Sacrifice [5] bear witness. “Blessed are those who are fair in their judgement, and happy are they who are trustworthy and sincere.”

Truly, if you have heard my voice from my tablet, and if you perceive what has shone forth from the horizon as a token of my grace, say:

O my God, O my God. Praise be to thee that Thou didst cause me to hear Thy call and enable me to know the things hidden in Thy knowledge, and concealed from the eyes of Thy servants. I beseech Thee, O King of Creation, who rules over the seen and the unseen, to aid me to remember Thee and serve Thee and Thy loved ones. Strengthen me with a constancy unaffected by the changes and chances of Thy creation or the doubts of Thy servants. Verily, Thou art the Powerful, the Mighty and the Most Bountiful.

Corrections and improvements on the translation are welcome: please use the comments section.

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12 Responses to “Baha’u’llah’s “Tablet of the Banu Qurayza””

  1. Sen said

    Notes to my translation of Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of the Banu Qurayza.

    Source texts:

    Saiedi’s translation is based on a text edited by Mazandarani published in Asraru’l-Athar 2:17-18, whereas I, like Cole, have used Ishraq-Khavari’s version, in Ma’idih-yi Asmani, 7:135 (published electronically on the Bahai Reference Library site). The differences are not essential, and I see nothing in the two texts to indicate which is more reliable. Ishraq-Khavari’s has the virtue of being clear and readily available in electronic format.

    1. Mazandarani’s text says ‘this cause.’
    2. Mazandarani has dubr rather than daabir here, giving ‘break the backs of the oppressors.’
    3. Mazandarani’s text inserts ‘suddenly’ here.
    4. That is, on his birthday. Baha’u’llah was born on the second day of Muharram in 1233 AH (1817).
    5. Mazindarani has Lawh-e Nidaa’ (Tablet of the Call) here, which Saiedi suggests is another name for the Lawh-e Bisharat. I think this is likely, but the reference need not be to a literal tablet, it could be that the sacrifice Baha’u’llah has made, along with the tablets he has revealed, testify to the truth of his words.

    Date of the twelve-day event:

    It has been suggested that Baha’u’llah read about the killing of the Banu Qurayza in his childhood, and was upset, but that he continued to “beseech God” for many years until, aged 35, he was in the Siyah Chal where, on his birthday, he had the revelatory experience described here as lasting twelve days.

    I think the “twelve days” in the tablet is referring to an event in Baha’u’llah’s childhood that followed on from his reading about the killing of the Banu Qurayza: the point at which he resolved that the Shariah, the path of God, the Law of God, needed to be changed for the modern world, and that he would be the one to do it.

    The Siyah Chal event of August-December 1853, (with its maiden, and dream setting, his companions there, its distinct words heard on every side, the promise of help in form of true believers — not to mention the impossibility of an hour of sunrise underground) is quite different, it’s the moment in which he knew that the path towards that goal would be through regenerating the Babi community.

    The description of the first, translated above, reads in part:

    … When this wronged one was a child, he read about the subjugation of the Banu-Qurayza …. and immediately became so grieved and saddened that the Pen is unable to recount it, …. he beseeched the One True God, exalted be His glory, for whatever would be the cause of universal love, fellowship, and the unity of all the peoples of the earth – until before sunrise on the second day of the month of His birth, all his manners, speech and thought were thrown into confusion, a tumult that gave glad tidings of exaltation. This tumult was sent down and manifest repeatedly, without interruption, for twelve days, after which the waves of the sea of utterance became manifest and the rays of the sun of assurance dawned, until it culminated in the moment of Manifestation….

    While the final “until it culminated in the moment of Manifestation” might refer to either Siyah Chal or Ridvan, Baha’u’llah had attained the “sea of utterance” and received “the sun of assurance” long before either of those events — those around him remarked on it, even in his childhood. He knew he was special.

    His descriptions of the Siyah Chal event, in contrast, read:

    One night, in a dream, these exalted words were heard on every side: “Verily, We shall render Thee victorious by Thyself and by Thy Pen. Grieve Thou not for that which hath befallen Thee, neither be Thou afraid, for Thou art in safety. Erelong will God raise up the treasures of the earth — men who will aid Thee through Thyself and through Thy Name, wherewith God hath revived the hearts of such as have recognized Him.” … During the days I lay in the prison of Tihran, though the galling weight of the chains and the stench-filled air allowed Me but little sleep, still in those infrequent moments of slumber I felt as if something flowed from the crown of My head over My breast, even as a mighty torrent that precipitateth itself upon the earth from the summit of a lofty mountain. Every limb of My body would, as a result, be set afire. At such moments My tongue recited what no man could bear to hear.
    (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, 21-22)

    and at the beginning of the Suriy-ye Haykal (translated in The Summons of the Lord of Hosts), he says (page 5)

    While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden — the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord — suspended in the air before Me. …Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outer being tidings which rejoiced My soul, and the souls of God’s honoured servants. Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, … O people of the Bayan! If ye aid Him not, God will assuredly assist … The day is approaching when God will have, by an act of His Will, raised up a race of men

    While this does not specify that it happened in the Siyah Chal prison, it echoes “We shall render Thee victorious” and “Erelong will God raise up the treasures of the earth” in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, so I think it is likely to be another description of the Siyah Chal experience. Clearly, neither of these resembles what Baha’u’llah says he experienced, over a period of twelve days, after reading about the killing of the Banu Qurayza. The first is a waking experience beginning before dawn and lasting twelve days, the latter is an intermittent experience in “moments of slumber.” If the Siyah Chal event is the birth of Baha’u’llah’s mission in the world (Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith 71), the childhood experience is the conception of that Mission. We cannot speak of a “messianic secret” at that time, because like a pregnant woman, he did not yet know what he harboured. But he knew he had been made ready, and something had been planted. The child was born in the Siyah Chal, but was concealed from all but a few until 1863 (the Ridvan disclosure), and formally announced to the world in the Tablet to the Kings, from late 1867.

    Return to the translation

  2. Umm Yasmin said

    Greetings Sen,

    You might be interested to read this article published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, that criticises the story of the Banu Qurayzah.

  3. Sen said

    There are indeed questions about the authenticity of the sources for this story: I remember reading an article similar to the one by Arafat you found, based on a critique of the hadith, but I also remember reading a reply to it by, I think, Motzky. To my mind he rebutted some of the arguments effectively (as I could rebutt some of those used by Arafat), but the clincher of his argument was: the Banu Qurayza had lived in Medina for some centuries, but from the time of this supposed incident onwards, they disappear from history.

    I would like to be convinced that it never happened, that the Banu Qurayza lived happily ever after, converted and took Islamic names, or migrated somewhere else. But either of those events would leave traces in history, and I haven’t seen any evidence of them. The same may be said of the trenches full of men’s bodies, which have not turned up, but that only puts a question-mark beside this detail (and it must be said that there are many other people killed at the time in Medina, whose bones have also not been found).

  4. There are similar incidents recorded in the Hebrew Bible, such as when all of the inhabitants of Jericho, including women and children, were put to death by Joshua, discussed by a Christian scholar here:

    And also I Kings 27:9, “And David smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive, and took away the sheep, and the oxen, and the asses, and the camels, and the apparel, and returned, and came to Achish.”


  5. Sen said

    The article you link to is truly revolting example of reason corrupted: the writer thinks the killing of a whole people is justified if some of them engage in child sacrifice, and then justifies the killing of the Canaanite children “it may be that even the smallest children were beyond civilizing. Apparently even they were abused and forced to participate in obscene conduct, such that they would have grown up psychologically and spiritually scarred-and perhaps threatened to perpetuate the cycle.” So – we had to kill the children to save them? If this was God’s reasoning, God is indeed no better than Moloch.

    However I do not think that the OT account is historical. If Joshua had been as thorough in conquest as the account says, there would have been no Canaanites living and ruling in Jerusalem for David to conquer in his time. Such accounts of the slaughter of a native population serve to ‘prove’ that the outsiders (non-Hebrews in this case) are immigrants, and that the actual immigrants (Hebrews here) hold title by right of conquest.

  6. Hi Sen,

    Thanks very much for your translation work. A few thoughts – one at a time, for light-headed ones. 🙂

    “and the prohibition of fellowship, which is…” I see you have a singular verb there, “is”, so the “which” refers only to the prohibition on fellowship and not the other activities in the list (burning books, killing people)? Seems odd semantically.


  7. Sen said

    The ‘which’ refers to fellowship, not to the prohibition on fellowship!

  8. Matt said

    I have had issues with this particular story of the Baha’i Faith for a few reasons.

    1.) In my observation it makes Baha’u’llah look like he’s doing the Prophet Mohammed a favor for “still believing” in him even after knowing that he did such a “bad” thing.

    2.) It equates this supposed event (which as Umm Yasmin pointed out, may have not even occurred) with the Baha’i abolition of “holy war”. Even if this event happened, it couldn’t be categorized as an aspect of “holy war” that is now graciously abolished by the new Prophet Baha’u’llah, but of protecting the security of the State (not taking into account the harshness of the penalty.) According to the story, an act of treason was committed that endangered the lives of innocent citizens.

    3.) In accordance with some narrations of the story, the arbiter was actually a Jewish man who became a Muslim, which according to Jewish beliefs does not invalidate his Jewishness. Thus, according to that version the tribe was judged by one of their “own” people, even if he adopted another religion.

    4.) In relation to the above, I have also read that the way in which they were punished was actually laid out in the Torah, their own holy book. So even if this event did occur, their punishment tells more about Jewish law than Islamic harshness.

  9. Sen said

    The tablet I translated does not indicate whether Baha’u’llah thought this ruling was “Islamic” or in accordance with the Torah. You may be right that the ruling was based on the understanding of Torah at that time, that the Banu Qurayza were judged according to their own law. Does that change the point of the story, one way or the other? Baha’u’llah doesn’t say that Muhammad did a bad thing (God forbid!), he says that he, Baha’u’llah, was thrown into turmoil by the story, and (as I interpret it) began to ‘wrestle with God’ in good Jewish fashion: “in those days he beseeched the One True God, exalted be His glory, for whatever would be the cause of universal love, fellowship, and the unity of all the peoples of the earth…” What he was seeking was a revealed message that would unequivocally relegate such events to the past.

    The Tablet of the Banu Quyrayza does not mention Jihad by name; that’s a connection I have drawn, to the first section of Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of Bisharat. (However if you look at the textual notes to my translation, you will see that “the tablet of sacrifice” that Baha’u’llah refers to, towards the end, in one version reads “the tablet of the call” – which is an alternative name for the Tablet of Bisharat. I don’t know which is the better text here.) I don’t think it’s unlikely that this childhood event contributed BOTH to Baha’u’llah’s elimination of jihad from religious law (specified in the Bisharat), AND to his call for international peace and disarmament through a mechanism of collective security. It would be inconsistent to be horrified by mass killing in the religious sphere and not in the political sphere, or vice versa, would it not?

    In short, this tablet does not specify whether Baha’u’llah understood the killing of the Banu Qurayza as a political or religious decision, and if the latter, as an Islamic or Jewish one. It does tell us that he had a transformatory experience, asked God for an assurance that would be the cause of “unity of all the peoples of the earth,” and apparently received it.

  10. Sen said

    I’ve tracked down the elusive memory: it was Kister, not Motzky, writing in Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, vol. 8 (1986) p 61ff. It’s a direct response to Arafat’s article. I scanned over it again and my recollection was confirmed: he shows the weakness in some of Arafat’s arguments, and concludes that the Banu Qurayza incident is in any event not fictional.

  11. tailorofthegoodgarment said

    The best of greetings to you,

    Thanks for placing this work online. You might also be interested in my own take on these events (from a Sufi perspective):

    Love and Light,

    Musa the Tailor

  12. Barb said

    Thank you for this story, Sen. For the first time in my Baha’i life, I have a “feeling” for Baha’u’llah. He has always seemed a distant figure – not cold, exactly, but incomprehensible as a human being, somehow. Though I could have a sense of Abdu’l-Baha as an individual, I never could achieve that with Baha’u’llah, despite all the stories I’ve read about him. At last, this story makes him understandable and human for me, and I can have a sense of empathy with him. Perhaps it is significant that it is his own story, in his own words.


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