The Battle of the Trench

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Prophet Muhammad as Commander

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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. (1)

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 Abd Allah 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 tranquillity
And make our feet firm if we confront the enemy! (2)

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. (3)

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.

The sagacity and military genius of God's most noble Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, showed themselves once more during the Battle of the Trench. 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. (4)

1. I. Hisham, 3.225–6; Waqidi, 441.
2. Bukhari, Manaqib al-Ansar, 9, Maghazi, 29; Muslim, Jihad, 123–5.
3. Bukhari, Manaqib, 9; Muslim, Jihad, 127.
4. I. Hisham, 3.239.

While the war was continuing with exchanges of arrows and stones, God's Messenger 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. (5)

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 'Abd Allah 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. (6)

Dirar, Hubayra and Nawfal were also killed by 'Ali. (7) 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!' (8) 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)

5. I. Hisham, 3.240–2.
6. I. Hisham, 3.235–6.
7. I. Kathir, al-Bidayah, 4.123.
8. I. Hisham, 3.243.

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. (9)

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. (10)

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'. (11)

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 judgement 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. (12)

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. (13)

The Treaty of Hudaybiya which took place in the sixth year of Hijra and is presented as a manifest victory by the Qur'an, is of a very great significance with respect to understanding both the way leading to and the rapid spread of Islam and the conquest of Makka within a very short period and the unequalled commandership, leadership and statesmanship of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings. However, it had better be dealt with under the of 'A man of deliberate action' while discussing the leadership of the Prophet as the last chapter.

9. I. Hisham, 3.230; I. Kathir, al-Bidayah, 4.116.
10. Bukhari, Maghazi, 29; I. Hanbal, 4.262.
11. Bukhari, Maghazi, 30.
12. I. Hisham, 3.249–51.
13. I. Hisham, 3.238, 262; I. Sa'd, 3. 423–4; Tabari, Tarikh, 3.49.