The Concept of Treason in Comparative Law

Overview: This lesson explores the theme of treason.


Students should be able to:

  1. identify the significance of the Battle of the Trench to the survival of the Muslim community.
  2. analyze the issue of treason in the United States Constitution and during the Battle of the Trench.


    1. Have students organize into groups and read background information on the Battle of the Trench, the comments of Professor Firestone on the Bani Qurayzah and the clause on treason in the third article of the United States Constitution. (Handout 3:2b) After each reading, have the groups answer the following questions on the readings.

Battle of the Trench:

  • What kept the Quraysh and their allies from capturing Madinah?
  • What would have been the fate of the Muslims and their allies if the Quraysh and their allies had succeeded in capturing Madinah?
  • Why would the siding of the Bani Qurayzah with the Quraysh be seen as treason?

Professor Firestone’s Comments:

  • Why did members of the Jewish community in Madinah oppose Muhammad?
  • What were the terms of agreement between Muhammad and the Jewish tribes in Madinah?
  • Who decided the punishment for the Bani Qurayzah after they were captured by the Muslims?

Article III, Section 3 of the United States Constitution: Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court. The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted.

  • Could the definition of treason given in Section 3, Article 3 of the Constitution apply to the actions of the Bani Qurayzah? If so, why?
  • Why do you think treason is punished so severely in U.S. law? Give several reasons.
  • If there had not been a written agreement (SEE the Constitution of Madinah, #14, 17, 37a, on Handout 3:1a) between the Bani Qurayzah and the Muslims of Madinah, could their actions have been considered treasonous?



A. The Battle of the Trench

The Battle of the Trench occurred in 627 C.E. between the Quraysh and their allies and the inhabitants of Madinah. The year before the battle, one of the three Jewish tribes of Madinah had been expelled by the Muslims due to a foiled plot to kill Muhammad. The tribe left Madinah and went to the walled fortress of Khaybar. A leader of the Bani Nadir asked the Quraysh to help raise an army that would put an end to the Muslims at Madinah. Muhammad received word from friends in Makkah of the coming attack. He called his companions to consult on what to do. Salman al Farisi, a freed slave originally from Persia, suggested that the Muslims dig a deep trench as they did in Persia to keep the enemy cavalry from entering the city. The Muslims had only a week to dig the trench around the part of Madinah that was not protected by walls and natural barriers. They finished the trench in six days, just before the Makkans and their allies arrived.

The armies advanced towards the city of Madinah, hoping to storm the city with their cavalry. When they saw the trench in front of them and the Muslim archers on the opposite side, they were dismayed. The trench frightened their horses, which could not jump across it, and any horseman that rode down into the trench would be trapped and picked off by archers. The Makkans had to take the city quickly though, because they had not brought enough supplies for a long encampment. There was little to feed them or their animals outside the city. The Makkans repeatedly tried and failed to storm the trench. The Muslims guarded the trench in shifts around the clock. No one passed over.

A leader of the banished Jewish tribe then went secretly to the Bani Qurayzah, another Jewish tribe still in Madinah, and convinced its leader to break their agreement with the Muslims and join the Makkan alliance. This would allow the enemy to enter the city through a fortress that protected one side of the city. The defection of the Bani Qurayzah was dangerous to the Muslims who were already weak and tired from the siege. The Makkans planned to send troops into the fortress of the Bani Qurayzah and capture the Muslim women and children while the men were guarding the trench. Upon hearing of the defection, Muhammad sent three hundred troops to the center of Madinah to hold off the attack. As it happened, a dispute broke out between the Makkans and the Bani Qurayzah who kept delaying the attack. A dispute erupted between the two because the Bani Qurayzah wanted to hold some nobles of Quraysh hostage to make sure they were sincere in their offer. During this dispute, the weather turned cold and the wind blew down all of the tents of the Quraysh and their allies. The Quraysh and their allies lost heart and withdrew their troops to go home.

After the Quraysh and their allies left, the Muslims besieged the fortress of their former allies. Seeing that they were trapped, the Bani Qurayzah negotiated a surrender. Muhammad agreed to allow the Aws, former friends of the Bani Qurayzah who asked for leniency, to choose an arbitrator from their own clan to decide the fate of the inhabitants of the fortress. Sa’d ibn Mu’adh, the chief of the Aws, was chosen to pass judgment on the Bani Qurayzah. He had been wounded at the Battle of the Trench and was brought on a stretcher to the fortress of Bani Qurayzah. He judged that the men would be executed and that the women and children would be taken as slaves.


B. Comments by Guest Scholars on the Banu Qurayzah

Professor Firestone: When Muhammad came to town, the organized Jewish community did not accept his prophecy. There were, according to the Islamic sources, some individual Jews that did accept him, but the community as a whole did not. If the Jews would accept his prophethood then he has tremendous and complete confirmation of his prophethood. But the Jews were so well respected that when they rejected his prophethood, and they did it actively, they became a very serious political threat to his very existence in Madinah. Islamic sources say that the Jewish community did indeed aid the enemy in trying to defeat Muhammad. This was absolutely against the terms of the Madinah agreement. The Jews and the Muslims would choose an arbitrator to determine what would be the future of the Jews. The person who was chosen was a man who was mortally wounded in the battle of the Trench. He determined that the women and children of the Banu Qurayzah would be taken as slaves and the men would be killed.

Hamza Yusuf: Muhammad agreed with this judgment when he judged. He said, "You have judged according to God and His messenger." Approximately 700 men were killed. They were executed. This definitely occurred.

C. Article III, Section 3 of the United States Constitution

Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.