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Muhammad: Jews and the Jihad

The tension that exists today between Muslims and Jews is not an entirely modern phenomenon. Muhammad came into conflict with the Jewish tribes of his time, and this conflict ended in tragedy. Throughout the history of Islam Muhammad's anti-Jewish sentiments, preserved in the Qur'an and Hadith, have affected relations between Muslims and Jews. Today anti-Semitism reverberates throughout the Muslim world with an intensity not seen since the time of Hitler. Muhammad's own teachings are often used to justify it.

Apologists for Islam traditionally blame the Jews for their troubled relations with Muhammad, accusing the Jews of colluding with Muhammad's enemies. The truth is hardly that simple. Even the early Arabic sources, clearly biased in favor of Muhammad, tell a story that puts Muhammad's actions in question. We will look at these sources to understand the roots of this Muslim-Jewish tension.

When the Jewish leaders of Medina first heard of the coming of a prophet preaching belief in one God, they were intrigued. They did not immediately accept or reject him, but they wanted to know more (Ibn Ishaq, 192). Relations began to deteriorate as the Jews discovered Muhammad was not very familiar with their scriptures and traditions. The rabbis would taunt him with questions he could not answer (Ibn Ishaq, 351).

The Jews' rejection of Muhammad's message must have disappointed him greatly. He saw himself preaching the same monotheism to which the Jews subscribed - why then wouldn't they accept him as a prophet? To establish his affinity with the Jews, he borrowed some Jewish practices and prescribed them to his followers. Muslims were to meet for prayer on Friday afternoon as Jews prepare for the sabbath, they were to face Jerusalem in prayer as Jews do, they were to observe some of the Jewish dietary laws, as well as the fast on the Day of Atonement. Muslims called this the fast of Ashura, meaning "tenth," since the Day of Atonement falls on the tenth of the Jewish month of Tishri. When the Jews rejected his prophecy in spite of these practices, Muhammad changed them, and fixed the qibla (direction of prayer) to Mecca in place of Jerusalem.

The First Jewish Tribe: the Fate of the Bani Qaynuqa

At that time there were three Jewish tribes in Medina; the first to be discussed were the Bani Qaynuqa. In his dealings with them, Muhammad's aspirations to be accepted as a Jewish prophet as well as his frustration and anger became very apparent.

After the battle of Badr, Muhammad called the Bani Qaynuqa to assemble in the marketplace. He demanded the Jews accept him as their prophet, he threatened them, and they responded with defiance:

The apostle assembled them in their market and addressed them as follows: "O Jews, beware lest God bring upon you the vengeance that He brought upon Quraysh and become Muslims. You know that I am a prophet who has been sent - you will find that in your scriptures and God's covenant with you." They replied, "O Muhammad, you seem to think that we are your people. Do not deceive yourself because you encountered a people with no knowledge of war and got the better of them; for by God if we fight you, you will find that we are real men!" (Ibn Ishaq, 545)

Muhammad is then said to have received the following revelation:

Say to those who disbelieve: "You will be vanquished and gathered to Hell, an evil resting place. You have already had a sign in the two forces which met"; i.e. the apostle's companions at Badr and the Quraysh. "One force fought in the way of God; the other, disbelievers, thought they saw double their own force with their very eyes. God strengthens with His help whom He will. Verily in that is an example for the discerning." (Ibn Ishaq, 545; Qur'an, 3:12-13)

At this point Ibn Hisham inserts the following incident into Ibn Ishaq's narrative:

The cause of the Qaynuqa affair was that an Arab woman had come with some merchandise to the market of the Bani Qaynuqa. She sat down next to a goldsmith there. Then they began urging her to unveil her face, which she refused. The goldsmith moved close to the hem of her garment and tied it behind her back. When she got up her [privates] were exposed. They laughed at her, and she screamed. Then a Muslim jumped upon the goldsmith who was Jewish and killed him. Then the Jews overwhelmed the Muslim and killed him. The family of the slain Muslim called upon their coreligionists for help against the Jews. The Muslims were furious, and thus there was bad blood created between them and the Bani Qaynuqa. (1)

Watt (130) questions historicity of this incident:

Little credence need be given to the story of the trick, for it also appears in legends of pre-Islamic Arabia; but there may well have been some quarrel between Muslims and Jews. The deeper reason for Muhammad's action, however, are obvious. The Jews were not prepared to become full members of the Islamic community, and therefore he had broken with them. They still had agreements of some sort with him, but he would be on the look-out to take advantage of any failure to fulfil the letter of the agreements. This is presumably what happened here.

Whether or not the incident is historical, its inclusion shows the biographer's need to provide a pretext for Muhammad's actions against the Qaynuqa. Muhammad besieged them and in two weeks forced them to surrender unconditionally - at best, an act of collective punishment. He would have killed them all, but spared their lives only at the behest of the leader of a neighboring Arab tribe, who pleaded on their behalf (Ibn Ishaq, 546). Muhammad then exiled the Bani Qaynuqa from Medina, eventually driving them out of Arabia completely.

By eliminating one community of nonbelievers Muhammad further strengthened his position. But he was not yet finished.

The Second Jewish Tribe: Bani Nadir

Tensions had been growing between Muhammad and the Jewish tribes of Medina. While the Arab tribes were gradually being drawn to Islam, the Jews, already having a monotheistic faith and feeling no need for another prophet, held out. This weakened the ties between the Jews and those Arab tribes with which they were allied. Also, as we have seen, Muhammad began to threaten the Jews once they failed to show enthusiasm for Islam. Because of these developments the Jews felt isolated and endangered, and their sympathies naturally began to incline towards Muhammad's Meccan enemies.

Muhammad's harsh treatment of the Bani Qaynuqa must have alarmed the other Jewish tribes. Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf, a leader and poet of the Bani Nadir, composed verses lamenting the Meccan defeat at Badr and satirizing Muhammad. This enraged Muhammad, so he had Ka'b assassinated, telling the killers it would be OK to lie in order to gain the confidence of their victim. (The story is recounted in Ibn Ishaq 550-51 and also in the Hadith, Sahih Bukhari, 5:59:369.)

The final showdown between Muhammad and the Bani Nadir unfolded in a rather strange way. The narrative is long and somewhat confusing, but the result was that a follower of Muhammad killed two men of the tribe of Amir in a case of mistaken identity. So Muhammad had to pay blood money to the tribe of Amir for the lives of these two men. He agreed to do so both to avoid a vendetta and in hopes of winning the Amir tribe to Islam.

Muhammad now had to raise the money for the blood payment. He went to the Bani Nadir to get them to pay a part of it. He felt that the Jewish tribe should contribute because it had an alliance with the Bani Amir, and also because of the mutual defense pact that Muhammad had imposed on the tribes of Medina.

Muhammad's demands rested on very shaky ground. The Bani Amir were the tribe that his follower had wronged, and so their ally the Bani Nadir could not in justice be held liable. Furthermore, according to the pact that Muhammad himself had written, "The Jews must bear their expenses and the Muslims their expenses," and "A man is not liable for his ally's misdeeds" (Ibn Ishaq, 343). Muhammad thus had no basis for requiring the Bani Nadir to contribute. And in any case, Muhammad's murder of Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf, for which he paid no blood money, effectively annulled any treaty between himself and the Bani Nadir. The Bani Nadir thus most likely regarded Muhammad's approach, with good reason, as an attempt at extortion.

Perhaps not really knowing what to do, the Jews signaled their agreement, then asked Muhammad to wait with his delegation while they prepared a meal. Meanwhile Muhammad excused himself and left the house. His companions went looking for him, and when they found him he told them an angel had revealed to him that the Bani Nadir were plotting to kill him. He then sent the Bani Nadir an ultimatum, demanding that they all leave the country within ten days or else be beheaded (Lings, 202). One hadith provides a direct quote:

Narrated Abu Huraira: While we were in the mosque, Allah's Apostle came out and said, "Let us proceed to the Jews." So we went out with him till we came to Bait-al-Midras. The Prophet stood up there and called them, saying, "O assembly of Jews! Surrender to Allah (embrace Islam) and you will be safe!" They said, "You have conveyed Allah's message, O Aba-al-Qasim" Allah's Apostle then said to them, "That is what I want; embrace Islam and you will be safe." They said, "You have conveyed the message, O Aba-al-Qasim." Allah's Apostle then said to them, "That is what I want," and repeated his words for the third time and added, "Know that the earth is for Allah and I want to exile you from this land, so whoever among you has property he should sell it, otherwise, know that the land is for Allah and His Apostle." (Sahih Bukhari, 9:92:447)

Muhammad's accusation of a plot to assassinate him seems an obvious fabrication. Muhammad claimed that a member of the Jewish tribe was planning to climb to the top of a house and drop a heavy stone on his head. Ali Sina makes a telling point:

If these Jews really wanted to kill Muhammad, couldn't they easily capture and kill him along with his companions? Why drop a stone when he and his companions were already in their hands? (2)

Muhammad's motivation was most likely not revenge for an alleged assassination plot. Enmity was increasing between the Muslims and the Jews, Muhammad had murdered the poet of the Bani Nadir, and might well expect them to retaliate. The hadith just quoted supplies another motive as well: Muhammad wanted Arabia only for Muslims.

And so Muhammad laid siege to the Bani Nadir, who held out in their forts as long as they could. Help expected from allied tribes never came - their members had already embraced Islam, or were intimidated by Muhammad. Finally when Muhammad cut down the palm trees of the Bani Nadir and burned them, their courage dissolved. They surrendered and Muhammad forced them into exile, then divided their property between himself and his followers.

The Qur'an attaches religious significance to these events:

Whatever is in the heavens and on earth, let it declare the Praises and Glory of Allah: for He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise. It is He Who got out the Unbelievers among the People of the Book from their homes at the first gathering (of the forces). Little did ye think that they would get out: And they thought that their fortresses would defend them from Allah! But the (Wrath of) Allah came to them from quarters from which they little expected (it), and cast terror into their hearts, so that they destroyed their dwellings by their own hands and the hands of the Believers, take warning, then, O ye with eyes (to see)! And had it not been that Allah had decreed banishment for them, He would certainly have punished them in this world: And in the Hereafter they shall (certainly) have the Punishment of the Fire. That is because they resisted Allah and His Messenger: and if any one resists Allah, verily Allah is severe in Punishment. Whether ye cut down (O ye Muslim!) The tender palm-trees, or ye left them standing on their roots, it was by leave of Allah, and in order that He might cover with shame the rebellious transgressors. (59:1-5)

The chilling vindictiveness of Allah called down upon the Bani Nadir, in this world and in the world to come, places on this episode the stamp of jihad.

The Third Jewish Tribe: Bani Quraiza

Muhammad's dealings with the Jewish tribe of Quraiza may well be the most controversial episode of his career. A number of writers have defended Muhammad's actions against the Jewish tribe, claiming that the Jews betrayed him by supporting his enemies during the crucial Battle of the Trench. Once again, a careful examination of the sources will show that the truth is not that simple. Whether or not one questions the sources' authenticity, one cannot question that they portray Muhammad as Islamic tradition understands him, the supreme example of the Muslim ideal. The conduct of Muhammad as reported in the sources cannot be separated from the values of Islam; in fact, it is an important source of those values.

After having defeated the Meccans at Badr, Muhammad knew that eventually a reprisal would come. The Meccans had to restore their prestige, as well as defend their tribal honor. Muhammad continued to attack their caravans, and the Meccans could not allow it to continue. Their leader Abu Sufyan mobilized his forces and set out against Muhammad at what became known as the Battle of Uhud. He was not totally victorious against the Muslims, but he did inflict a major if temporary setback. Muhammad recovered and increased the scope of his raids.

Finally Abu Sufyan resolved to make an end of Muhammad once and for all. He raised a large army and set out to lay siege to Medina. Muhammad prepared by digging a huge trench around the vulnerable areas of Medina's perimeter. This effectively stopped the Meccans, who greatly depended on their cavalry, now rendered useless. The Meccan tribes gave up and went their separate ways. Greatly humiliated, they never again posed a serious challenge to the Muslims.

We now come to the role of the Jews of Quraiza. The following reconstruction is based exclusively on the Arabic sources. Admittedly these sources are biased against the Jews; but even so they allow an unflattering evaluation of Muhammad's response.

As the two sides prepared for battle, the Bani Quraiza wanted to remain neutral, but after strong and unrelenting pressure from the chief of the exiled Bani Nadir, Ka'b ibn Asad, the head of the the Bani Qurayza, decided to support the Meccan coalition. Through his intelligence sources Muhammad found this out, so he devised a clever plan to neutralize the support from Quraiza. He sent an infiltrator to sow dissension between Quraiza and the Meccans, leading each to suspect a sellout by the other. Thus when the time of battle arrived and the Meccans approached Quraiza for aid, the latter refused, asking for a sign of trust the Meccans were unwilling to give (Ibn Ishaq, 682). And so help from Quraiza, which might have been decisive, never came.

When Muhammad sent this infiltrator he made his often-quoted statement that "war is deception" (Ibn Ishaq, 681). Those words have been used for centuries to justify lying by Muslims in the name of jihad.

When Muhammad returned from battle, he received an angelic revelation directing him to attack the Jews:

When the Prophet returned from Al-Khandaq (i.e. Trench) and laid down his arms and took a bath, Gabriel came and said (to the Prophet ), "You have laid down your arms? By Allah, we angels have not laid them down yet. So set out for them." The Prophet said, "Where to go?" Gabriel said, "Towards this side," pointing towards Banu Quraiza. So the Prophet went out towards them. (Sahi Bukhari, 5:59:443; parallel in Ibn Ishaq, 684)

Muhammad marched against the Quraiza and besieged them for 25 days. The Quraiza, desperate and terrified, knew they had run out of options. They asked Muhammad to send them Abu Lubaba of the tribe of Aws, a tribe with which the Quraiza had formerly been allied. Even though many of the Aws had now become Muslims, they and the Quraiza had once been friends, and the Quraiza needed someone to turn to for advice.

Then they sent to the apostle saying, "Send us Abu Lubaba... That we may consult him." So the apostle sent him to them, and when they saw him they got up to meet him. The women and children went up to him weeping in his face, and he felt sorry for them. They said, "Oh Abu Lubaba, do you think that we should submit to Muhammad's judgment?" He said, "Yes," and pointed with his hand to his throat, signifying slaughter. (Ibn Ishaq, 686)

The next morning the Quraiza surrendered. The tribesmen of Aws approached Muhammad to intercede on their behalf, pleading for leniency. Muhammad then asked them if they would be satisfied if one of their own might make the determination of Quraiza's fate. The Aws enthusiastically agreed. Muhammad then chose Sa'd ibn Mu'adh, one of their leaders.

The choice of Sa'd was significant, and hardly accidental. Sa'd had a well-known reputation for being both extremely ruthless and an enemy of the Jews. At the battle of Badr he objected when he saw some of Muhammad's men holding some enemy prisoners, and he told Muhammad: "It is the first defeat that God has brought on the infidel and I would rather see them slaughtered than left alive" (Ibn Ishaq, 446). And when Sa'd was seriously wounded at the Battle of Badr he said, "O God, seeing that you have appointed war between us and them grant me martyrdom and do not let me die until I have seen my desire upon B. Qurayza" (Ibn Ishaq, 679). Elsewhere Sa'd is described as "a man of hasty temper" (Ibn Ishaq, 675).

Muhammad surely knew all this about Sa'd, and this must have figured into his choice. A hadith tells us what happened next:

When the tribe of Bani Quraiza was ready to accept Sad's judgment, Allah's Apostle sent for Sad who was near to him. Sad came, riding a donkey and when he came near, Allah's Apostle said (to the Ansar), "Stand up for your leader." Then Sad came and sat beside Allah's Apostle who said to him. "These people are ready to accept your judgment." Sad said, "I give the judgment that their warriors should be killed and their children and women should be taken as prisoners." The Prophet then remarked, "O Sad! You have judged amongst them with (or similar to) the judgment of the King Allah." (Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:280)

In the corresponding place in Ibn Ishaq (689) Muhammad says to Sa'd: "You have given the judgment of Allah above the seven heavens." Clearly Muhammad is pleased. This is the outcome he wanted and expected. And this should come as no surprise. Muhammad wanted to do the same to the other two Jewish tribes, but was restrained and settled for exiling them.

Concerning the Bani Qaynuqa, we read:

'Abdullah b. Ubayy b. Salul [of the tribe of Khazraj in Medina] went to him when God had put them [the Qaynuqa] in his power and said, "O Muhammad, deal kindly with my clients" (now they were allies of Khazraj), but the apostle put him off. He repeated the words, and the apostle turned away from him, whereupon he thrust his hand into the collar of the apostle's robe; the apostle was so angry that his face became almost black. He said, "Confound you, let me go." He answered, "No, by God, I will not let you go until you deal kindly with my clients. Four hundred men without mail and three hundred mailed protected me from all mine enemies; would you cut them down in one morning? By God, I am a man who fears that circumstances may change." The apostle said, "You can have them." (Ibn Ishaq, 546)

Concerning the Bani Nadir, we have already quoted from the Qur'an above:

And had it not been that Allah had decreed banishment for them, He would certainly have punished them in this world. (59:3)

Ibn Ishaq (654) takes "punished them in this world" to mean "with the sword." In other words, the Bani Nadir, like the Bani Qaynuqa, got off easy, something not to be repeated with the Quraiza.

This time Muhammad obtained an endorsement of his murderous intent from someone known to be hostile toward the Jews, yet from a tribe formerly allied to them, the Aws, thus making impossible any further protest by members of that tribe.

Muhammad went to the market in Medina and dug trenches. Then the men of Quraiza were brought out in batches, and Muhammad and his followers cut off their heads. According to Ibn Ishaq (690), the number of dead ranged between 600 and 900. Afterwards Muhammad divided their property, their women, and their children among his followers.

A number of ahadith supply additional details. How did Muhammad distinguish the adult males, who would be executed, from the children, whose lives would be spared?

Narrated Atiyyah al-Qurazi: I was among the captives of Banu Qurayzah. They (the Companions) examined us, and those who had begun to grow hair (pubes) were killed, and those who had not were not killed. I was among those who had not grown hair. (Sunan Abu Dawud, 38:4390)

"Adult" males marked for death could be very young indeed.

The following hadith is one of the most widely quoted even today to justify anti-Semitic hatred:

Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree Gharqad would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews. (Sahih Muslim, 41:6985; see also 41:6981-84 and Sahih Bukhari, 4:52:176,177 and 4:56:791)


How do we evaluate this material? Many have tried to justify Muhammad's actions: Seventh-century Arabia was a tough neighborhood. Tribal vengeance was common. Members of different tribes had no responsibilities towards each other. Had Muhammad allowed the Quraiza to live, they would have continued to be a threat to him.

Even Karen Armstrong, who takes great pains to justify everything Muhammad did, can hardly keep from showing her revulsion:

It is probably impossible for us to dissociate this story from Nazi atrocities and it will inevitably alienate people irrevocably from Muhammad. But Western scholars like Maxime Rodinson and W. Montgomery Watt argue that it is not correct to judge the incident by twentieth-century standards. This was a very primitive society - far more primitive than the Jewish society in which Jesus had lived and promulgated his gospel of mercy and love some 600 years earlier. At this stage the Arabs had no concept of a universal natural law, which is difficult - perhaps impossible - for people to attain unless there is a modicum of public order, such as that imposed by a great empire in the ancient world. (3)

This is quite astonishing. Muhammad, held up as a great spiritual leader and founder of a great religion, is to be judged by the standard of his time, as a member of "a very primitive society" which knew no "universal natural law" but only the law of the jungle. The great spiritual figures of other religious traditions were conciliators. Muhammad made no attempts at conciliation, except when it was politically expedient. In general he demanded that others convert to Islam and recognize him as a prophet; otherwise he fought them ruthlessly. Those who refused were not approached with peace and tolerance but preemptively eliminated. Muhammad was a man of extreme vengeance and cruelty, quite the antithesis of Jesus, whom Armstrong uses for comparison. To justify his actions is to defend religious values totally incompatible with those we cherish in the West.

Even though Armstrong mentions W. Montgomery Watt, his assessment is more balanced:

So much must be said in fairness to Muhammad when he is measured against the Arabs of his time. Muslims, however, claim that he is a model of conduct and character for all mankind. In so doing they present him for judgment according to the standards of enlightened world opinion. (4)

This is the real question. Muhammad undoubtedly was a gifted, even brilliant military leader and statesman. But do those qualities make him an outstanding spiritual leader, to be admired and imitated even today?

Muslim writers often fail to judge Muhammad by a uniform standard. They condemn the Quraiza for their "treachery," but this is unfair even by the standards of Muhammad's own time. The Quraiza had every reason to distrust and to oppose Muhammad. He had previously exiled Medina's other two Jewish tribes. Why should the Quraiza have expected to be treated any better? Why should they not have tried to resist him? By remaining faithful to their own religion, they stood in the way of Muhammad's vision of a unified Arabia under Islam. It is hypocritical to defend Muhammad's tribalism while blaming the Quraiza for theirs.

The fact is that the Quraiza inflicted no damage on Muhammad. He had effectively neutralized their opposition, and they refused to cooperate with the Meccans against Muhammad. One hadith from the respected collection of Imam Ahmad (d. 855) reports:

Abu Sufyan said, "O ye people of Quraysh, by Allah your [current] dwelling isn't a place to be dwelled in; the horses [and camels, mules, etc..] have died, Bani Quraytha has turned us down - we received from them what we don't like, and this wind is giving us what you see [a hard time]. By Allah, our cauldrons aren't standing, the fires aren't lasting, and the structures aren't holding. So retreat for I am retreating." (Musnad Ahmad, 22823 [parallel in Ibn Ishaq, 683])

The Bani Quraiza never did give active support to the Meccans at the Battle of the Trench. Nevertheless, they were punished severely. Instead of being exiled, as were the Bani Qaynuqa and Bani Nadir, they were executed, in a tribal conflict in which Muhammad cannot be said to have held any moral advantage. Yes, everybody did it, that is what Arabia was like in those days. Members of rival tribes attacked each other all the time, and no tribe was morally superior to another. While Arabian society had no legal system similar to what we have today, it did have a respected custom of blood-guilt. Those who drew blood from another tribe were responsible for making it up, either in blood or in kind. One did not respond to an offense by liquidating the whole tribe. Such collective punishment is even prohibited by the Qur'an: "Every soul draws the meed of its acts on none but itself: no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another" (6:164).

In intent and in action, Muhammad was a mass murderer. He engaged in the practice of beheading his enemies, as do some of today's terrorists who claim to follow him. Today we have a name for forced large-scale exile. We call it ethnic cleansing. We have a name for the extermination of an entire tribe. We call it genocide.

In a weakly argued and logically flawed piece, W. N. Arafat tries to show that the massacre of the Quraiza never took place (5). Even if he is correct, the point is moot. The Muhammad whom Islam has venerated for centuries is the Muhammad who carried out this mass murder. And he is a man whom Muslims are asked to imitate, a model for humanity. What kind of a world would it be if the values that guided him, the values of seventh-century Arabia, were to prevail and become universal? If one defends Muhammad as both a great spiritual leader and a man of his time, then one makes his time normative for our time.

As Muhammad's power grew, so did his ambition. His mission became the unification of the Arab tribes under one faith, as a nation strong enough to challenge even the great empires. There was no room in this new nation for those who would not accept his prophecy. This meant in particular the Jews, since they were the major holdouts - even the Meccan tribes eventually adopted Islam. Any continuing organized Jewish presence in Arabia was a threat to Muhammad's vision, and so had to be eliminated.

Thus some time after his defeat of the Jewish tribes of Medina, shortly after the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, Muhammad marched against the rich Jewish settlement of Khaybar. In addition to his religious mission, Muhammad was motivated by desire for the Jews' wealth. He had one custodian of the treasury tortured and beheaded for not revealing where it was (Ibn Ishaq, 764). Muhammad besieged the forts of Khaybar, defeated the Jews, and took their property. He allowed the Jews to continue to cultivate the land, which the Muslims now owned, and demanded that half the produce be given to the Muslims - a severe application of the jizya tax.

Because of his talents and accomplishments, Muhammad deserves a place among the great influential figures of history. But one must search one's own conscience asking the question: Are these the same qualities one would revere in a great spiritual leader?

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