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THE BATTLE OF THE TRENCH

Towards the battle of the Trench

The Jewish tribe of Banu Nadir were originally sworn allies of the Muslims in Madina but they secretly intrigued with the Makkan pagans and the Madinan hypocrites. They even tried treacherously to take the life of the Prophet while he was on a visit to them, breaking both the laws of hospitality and their own sworn alliance. God’s Messenger asked them to leave the strategic position which they occupied, about three miles south of Madina. They agreed to this but when ‘Adbullah ibn Ubayy, the chief of the hypocrites, assured them that his party would help them in case of war, the Banu Nadir demurred.

The Muslim army then besieged them in their fortresses and, seeing that neither the Makkan polytheists nor the hypocrites in Madina stirred a finger to help them, the Banu Nadir had to leave the city. They were dismayed but their lives were spared, and they were given ten days in which to remove themselves, their families, and such goods as they could carry. Most of them joined their brethren in Syria and the others in Khaybar.

While returning from the Battle of Uhud, Abu Sufyan had challenged the Muslims to another encounter at Badr the following year.1 But when the appointed time arrived, Abu Sufyan’s courage failed him to fight against God’s Messenger. As a face-saving device he sent an agent, Nu‘aym ibn Mas‘ud, who was then an unbeliever, to Madina who spread the rumor that the Quraysh were making tremendous war preparations and that they were gathering a huge army which no other power in the whole of Arabia would resist. However, when the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, reached Badr with an army of fifteen hundred fighters, they found there no one to fight with them. They stayed at Badr for eight days awaiting the threatened encounter, and when no sign of the Quraysh army appeared, they returned to Madina. This campaign was called Badr al-Sughra (Badr the Minor).

In the fifth year after the Hijra, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, was informed that the desert tribes of Anmar and Sa’laba had decided to attack Madina. Accompanied by 400 fighters, he reached Zat al-Riqa’ and hearing that the enemy tribes had fled, returned to Madina.2

After this campaign, God’s Messenger marched upon Banu Mustaliq, a pagan tribe of Arabia. Banu Mustaliq had made preparations of war against the Muslims. With an army of 700 warriors, God’s Messenger attacked them and defeated them.3 On the way back to Madina, the intrigues of the hypocrites to bring about dissension between the Emigrants and Helpers were brought to naught. The verses sent down revealed all their secrets and how polluted their inner world was (al-Munafiqun, 63. 1-11).

 

The battle of the Trench

The Battle of the Trench took place after the campaign against Banu Nadir, who had been expelled from Madina for their treachery and who had mostly joined their Jewish brethren in Khaybar.

In the fifth year of Hijra, a group of those Jews including Sallam ibn Abi al-Huqayq and Huyayy ibn Akhtab, together with a number of Banu Wa’il, left for Makka. They urged the Quraysh to make war on the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, and promised help and support.

The Jewish group then went to the tribes of Ghatafan and Qays Aylan and guaranteeing them help also, encouraged them to fight against God’s Messenger.4

These intrigues of the Jews resulted in the formation of a great confederacy against Islam. It consisted of the Makkan polytheists, the desert tribes of central Arabia, the Jews previously expelled for treacheries from Madina, the Jews (Banu Qurayza) remaining in Madina, and the hypocrites led by ‘Abdullah ibn Ubayy ibn Salul. The last two constituted a treacherous network within Madina.

When God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, heard, through his intelligence service, of the gathering of the allies or confederates (ahzab) against him, and the strength of their desire to fight against him, he consulted his Companions, as he always used to do. It was their unanimous view that they should remain in Madina and fight from there. Salman al-Farisi suggested to God’s Messenger that they should dig a trench around Madina.

The trench took six days of feverish work to dig. God’s Messenger had divided them into groups of ten people and put them to a competition. It was a hard task and time was restricted; what was more, hunger struck them all; yet all the Companions worked enthusiastically. In order not to feel hunger, each fastened a rock around his belly. While digging they recited:

We are those people who
Took the oath of allegiance to Muhammad;
Therefore we shall fight in the way of God
As long as we live.
By God, if God had not enabled us to,
We would have neither been guided
Nor given alms, nor performed prayers.
Send down unto us calmness and tranquility
And make our feet firm if we confront the enemy!5

The Messenger, who dug alongside them, and had fastened around his belly two rocks, answered them with the couplet:

O God, the real life is the life of the Hereafter
So, forgive the Helpers and the Emigrants.6

Madina under threat

The allies advanced against Madina in the hope of destroying the Muslims in a battle to be fought in an open field. However, when they faced a new strategy of God’s Messenger, they took the first blow. Numbering around 20,000 men, they camped near the ditch. The Madinan fighting strength was no more than 3,000, and the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza and the Hypocrites were a source of weakness as they were treacherously intriguing with the enemy. As stated in the verses of the Qur’an (al-Ahzab, 33.12-20) when the Hypocrites first saw the enemy, they were already in a defeatist mood. Not content with disloyalty themselves, they tried to infect others, who made paltry excuses to withdraw from the fight. If the enemy were to gain entrance, they were ready to betray the city to the enemy.

God’s Messenger’s sagacity and military genius showed themselves once more during this war. He had kept them confined within the city and stationed them in a way that they could safeguard their homes against possible attacks from Banu Qurayza. It was the most critical moments of the war when Banu Qurayza sent a man into the city to spy into the conditions of the Muslim women. However, when this man was killed by Safiyya, the Prophet’s aunt, their hopes were frustrated.7

While the war was continuing with exchanges of arrows and stones, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, did not neglect to make diplomatic attempts to disunite the Allies. He contacted the leaders of Ghatafan and, offering them peace, urged them to withdraw with their people from the war. Nu‘aym ibn Mas‘ud was one of the leaders of the Allies, who before the battle, had come to Madina to sow discord; instead, he then began to incline towards Islam. During the battle, he secretly entered Islam and, ordered by God’s Messenger, proceeded to stir up Banu Qurayza. Nu‘aym set Banu Qurayza against the Quraysh by telling them that they would be abandoned by the Makkans and should refuse to help unless they were given hostages from the Quraysh. To the Quraysh, on the other hand, he said that Banu Qurayza would not fulfil their promise to help and would attempt to stall by asking for Qurayshi hostages to share their plight in the case of defeat. This stratagem succeeded. Dissension among the Allies grew.8

God’s Messenger, supported by the mountain Sal behind, had ordered a point in the trench to be made narrower. He had expected that leading horsemen of the Quraysh would try to cross the trench through that narrow spot. It happened as he had expected, and some of the most renowned warriors of the Quraysh attempted to cross the trench and volunteered for single combat with Muslim fighters. Among them were ‘Amr ibn ‘Abd Wudd, Ikrima ibn Abi Jahl, Hubayra ibn Abi Wahb, Durar ibn al-Khattab and Nawfal ibn ‘Adbullah ibn al-Mughira.

Boasting of his strength and fighting ability, ‘Amr ibn ‘Abd Wudd dismounted from his horse in the face of ‘Ali, who was ordered by the Messenger to fight against ‘Amr. ‘Amr advanced towards ‘Ali with his sword drawn. He brought his sword quickly against him but he got his sword caught in the shield of ‘Ali. ‘Ali, in return, struck a fierce blow against ‘Amr and the dust rose up around them. Then the words, Allahu akbar - God is the Greatest - were heard: ‘Ali had killed his opponent.9

Dirar, Hubayra and Nawfal were also killed by ‘Ali.10 The attempts of other horsemen or generals of the Quraysh to cross the trench were all brought to naught.

The siege lasted 27 days. It caused the Muslims much suffering, from hunger, cold, an unceasing shower of arrows and stones, and attempts and concentrated assaults to cross the trench, and betrayals and intrigues within the city. The Qur’an describes this situation as follows:

When they come against you from above you and from below you, and when your eyes swerved and your hearts reached your throats, while you thought thoughts about God; there it was that the believers were tried, and shaken most mightily. And when the hypocrites, and those in whose hearts is sickness, said, ‘God and His Messenger promised us only delusion.’ And when a party of them said, ‘O people of Yathrib, there is no abiding here for you, therefore return!’ And a party of them were asking leave of the Prophet, saying, ‘Our houses are exposed’; yet they were not exposed; they desired only to flee. (al-Ahzab, 33. 10-13)

After a close investment of four weeks, during which the enemy were disheartened by their ill success and the believers proved their steadfastness and loyalty, there was a piercing blast of the cold east wind. The enemy’s tents were torn up, their fires were extinguished, the sand and rain beat in their faces, and they were terrified by the portents against them. They had already well nigh fallen out among themselves. Hudayfa al-Yamani, who was sent by God’s Messenger to spy on the movements of the enemy, heard Abu Sufyan’s shouting: ‘Come on, we are returning!’11 The Muslims were victorious by God’s help; there were hidden forces - the Angels - that helped them:

O believers, remember God’s blessing upon you when hosts came against you, and we loosed against them a wind, and hosts you saw not; and God sees the things you do. (al-Ahzab, 33.9)

The predictions of the Messenger

While digging the ditch, the Companions had been unable to break a huge rock and referred the matter to God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings. The Messenger struck the rock with the pickaxe in his hand. In the light of the sparks caused by the blow, he predicted: I have been given the keys to the Kingdom of Persia; my Community will conquer it. He struck the rock a second time and, again in the light of the sparks caused by the blow, declared: God is the Greatest. I have been given the keys to the Empire of Byzantium. My Community will conquer it.12

The Battle of the Trench was the last attempt of the Quraysh to destroy Islam and the Muslims. Following their withdrawal in defeat and humiliation, God’s Messenger declared: From this moment we will march upon them; they will no longer be able to raid us.13

Marching upon the Banu Qurayza

When the Allies were routed and turned their backs in flight from the Muslims, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, turned his attention to Banu Qurayza. They had betrayed their agreement with God’s Messenger and been allied with the Quraysh against the Muslims. They had also given asylum to the leaders of Banu Nadir, like Huyay ibn Akhtab, who had been expelled from Madina, and never refrained from conspiracies against the Muslims.

No sooner had God’s Messenger arrived home from the Battle of the Trench than Archangel Gabriel came and said to him: ‘I have not taken off my coat of mail, and I am going upon Banu Qurayza’.14

God’s Messenger ordered his Companions to march upon Banu Qurayza and had his tent pitched opposite their fortresses. If Banu Qurayza had asked the Messenger for forgiveness, he would have forgiven them, but they preferred resistance. The Messenger remained besieging Banu Qurayza for twenty-five days. At last they asked the Messenger for surrender terms, agreeing that they should submit to the judgment of Sa‘d ibn Mu’adh, who decreed the sentence according to the Torah. This was the end of the conspiracies of Banu Qurayza, as well as the Jewish presence in Madina.15

Sa‘d ibn Mu‘adh was among the leaders of the Helpers. He had been wounded in the Battle of the Trench and prayed to God: ‘O God! If I am able to fight once more beside God’s Messenger, make me live. Otherwise, I am ready to die’. So, he died a martyr shortly after the Jewish conspiracies ended.16

1. I. Hisham, 3.94; I. Sa‘d, 2.59.
2. I. Hisham, 3.213.
3. I. Kathir, 4.178-9.
4. I. Hisham, 3.225-6; Waqidi, 441-3.
5. Bukhari, “Manaqib al-Ansar,” 9, “Maghazi,” 29; Muslim, “Jihad,” 123-5.
6. Bukhari, “Manaqib,” 9; Muslim, “Jihad,” 127.
7. I. Hisham, 3.230; I. Kathir, al-Bidaya, 4.116.
8. I. Hisham, 3.239.
9. I. Hisham, 3.240-2.
10. I. Hisham, 3.235-6.
11. I. Kathir, 4.123.
12. I. Hisham, 3.243.
13. Bukhari, “Maghazi,” 29; I. Hanbal, 4.262.
14. Bukhari, “Maghazi,” 30.
15. I. Hisham, 3.249-51.
16. I. Hisham, 3.238, 262; I. Sa‘d, 3. 423-4; Tabari, Tarikh, 3.49.


Recommended Reading:
Towards the conquest of Makka

Last Updated on October 09, 2000

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