Victory against all odds: key lessons from the Battle of Ahzab
A feeling of helplessness can sometimes creep into our hearts today when we witness the situation of the ummah. The situation in Syria is a prime example: the powers of the world have gathered together quash a noble uprising that promised much hope for the future. When we look back to history it is apparent that the Ummah has overcome difficult situations that at first glance would look impossible to overcome. One such example is one of the famous battles of our beloved Messenger Muhammad ﷺ, the battle of Ahzab. In this article, we will take a look at the historical context, the events that took place and what lessons we can derive from it all.
The term “Ahzab” in Arabic means alliance, confederates or coalition. Also known as the “battle of Khandaq” (the trench), this battle was against an alliance or coalition not dissimilar to the ones gathered against the Muslims today in Syria and the rest of our lands. The solutions for our problems today undoubtedly lie in the seerah, as is clear in the statements:
Ali ibn Hussain said, “We used to teach the battles of the Prophet ﷺ equally as we used to teach the Suwar of the glorious Qur’an.”
Imam az-Zuhri said, “In studying the battles (of the Prophet) lies knowledge of this world as well as the Akhirah.”
Background to the Battle
After the battle of Uhud there were no less than eight battles. After this there was a period of relative calm for approximately one year. However, the Jews whose treachery and intrigues had made them taste all kinds of humiliation and disgrace had still not learnt their lesson. After they had been exiled to Khaybar, they remained waiting anxiously for the results of the battles taking place between the Muslims and the Mushrikeen.
Contrary to their hopes, the events of the war were in favour of the Muslims, therefore they started a new stage of conspiracy and prepared themselves to deal a deadly blow against the Muslims, but they were too cowardly to manoeuvre directly against them, so they laid a dreadful plan in order to achieve their objectives.
Twenty chiefs of the Jews with some of the influential figures of Banu Nadir went to Makkah to negotiate an unholy alliance with Quraish. They began to goad the people there to attack the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, promising them full support and backing. The people of Quraish, who had been languid and had proved too weak to challenge the Muslims at Badr, seized this opportunity to redeem their stained honour and blemished reputation.
It was the Jews of Banu Nadir who endeavoured to incite the Arabs against the Messenger of Allah ﷺ in order to exact their revenge for being expelled from Madinah. A number of them had formed a party against the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, among whom were Huyai ibn Akhtab, Sallam ibn Abi al-Huqayq and Kinanah ibn Abi al-Huqayq, and from Banu Wa’il were Haudhah ibn Qays and Abu ‘Ammar, and it was this party which approached Quraish in Makkah.
The Quraish asked Huyai about his people and he said, “I left them between Khaybar and Madinah hesitating and waiting for you to march with them against Muhammad and his companions.” They also asked him about Banu Qurayzah and he said, “They remained in Madinah to deceive Muhammad. They are waiting for you to raid Madinah to help you from within.” At that stage Quraish were hesitant, not knowing whether to attack Madinah or not. They considered that there was no difference between them and Muhammad ﷺ except his ﷺ call to Allah ﷻ and Islam. They therefore wondered whether Muhammad ﷺ was in the right? To allay their doubts Quraish asked the Jews, “You, O Jews, are the first scripture people and know the nature of our dispute with Muhammad. Is our deen the best or is his?” The Jews replied, “Certainly your Deen is better than his and you have a better claim to be in the right!”
The Jews were of the people who supposedly called to the Tawheed (Oneness of Allah) and they knew very well that the Deen of Muhammad ﷺ was the right one, but their burning desire to incite the Arabs against him ﷺ landed them in this despicable blunder. To declare that the worshipping of idols was better than the Tawheed was their eternal disgrace and shame, but the Jews did it and they were to ably demonstrate that they could do even worse.
The same delegation set out for Ghatafan, called them to do the same, and they responded positively. The Jewish delegation then started a fresh effort and toured some parts of Arabia and managed to incite a confederation of disbelief against the Prophet ﷺ, His Message and those that believed in Allah ﷻ. Quraish, Kinanah and other allies from Tihama, in the south, rallied, ranked and recruited four thousand men under the leadership of Abu Sufyan. From the east there came tribes of Banu Saleem, Ghatafan, Bani Murrah, etc. They all headed for Madinah and gathered in its vicinity at a time already agreed upon.
It was a great army of ten thousand fighters. They in fact outnumbered all the Muslims in Madinah, women, children and elders included. In reality if they had launched a surprise attack against Madinah, they could have exterminated all the Muslims.
The Digging of the Trench
The leadership inside the Islamic state was on the alert and the intelligence personnel managed to reconnoitre the area of the enemies, and reported their movement to the people in authority in Madinah. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ as the ruler of the Muslims summoned an advisory committee and conducted a careful discussion of a plan to defend Madinah. After a lengthy talk between military leaders and people who possessed sound advice, they agreed on the proposal of one of the honourable Sahabah, Salman Al-Farsi (رضي الله عنه), to dig trenches as defensive lines.
The Muslims, with the Prophet ﷺ at their head – to encourage, help and remind them of the reward in the Hereafter – actively and diligently started to build a trench around Madinah. Severe hunger, bordering on starvation, could not dissuade or discourage them from achieving their desperately sought objective. Salman Al-Farsi (رضي الله عنه) said; “O Messenger of Allah! When siege was laid to us in Persia, we used to dig trenches to defend ourselves.” It was a plan both unprecedented and wise. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ hurriedly gave orders to implement the plan. Forty yards was allocated to each group of ten to dig. Sahl bin Sa‘d (رضي الله عنه) said, “We were in the company of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, the men used to dig and we [would] evacuate the earth on our backs.”
The Muslims were digging this trench in starvation and the biting cold but Allah ﷻ provided their Rizq. Allah ﷻ in addition showed them many miracles to reassure their souls about the truth and strengthen the Iman of the believers.
One Sahabi called Jabir ibn Abdullah (رضي الله عنه) who was digging the trench could not deal with a rock so he called upon the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, as he climbed down he noticed that the Prophet ﷺ had a stone tied to his belly (due to hunger). So he asked the Prophet ﷺ for permission to go home. He felt uneasy at what he had seen and desired to return home quickly in order to ask his wife what food they had to feed the Prophet ﷺ with. They only had some grain to make a small amount of bread, which his wife started to make and they possessed a small animal that Jabir (رضي الله عنه) sacrificed and cleaned ready for his wife to cook.
Upon returning back to the Prophet ﷺ he said, “O Messenger of Allah I have slaughtered a she-animal of ours and we have ground a Sa’a of barley…So please come, you and another person along with you.”
The Prophet ﷺ got up and shouted out to the men,
“O people of the trench, Jabir has prepared a meal for us, so let’s go.”
Consequently all the men went to the house of Jabir (رضي الله عنه) over one thousand of them. When the Prophet ﷺ arrived he opened the cooking pot and placed some of his saliva into it and invoked the blessings of Allah ﷻ upon it then he opened the oven and did the same. He ﷺ told the people to eat and they ate until they were all completely full and yet the shoulder of mutton and dough that was being baked remained as they were undiminished.
In another incident a woman brought a handful of dates and passed by the Prophet ﷺ, who took the dates, threw them over his cloak and invited his followers to eat. The dates began to increase in number until they dropped over the trim of his robe.
Sparks of Prophecy
Al-Bara’ (رضي الله عنه) said, “On Al-Khandaq (the trench) Day there stood out a rock too immune for our spades to break up. We therefore went to see the Messenger of Allah for advice. He took the spade, and struck the rock uttering, ‘Bismillah, Allahu Akbar (in the Name of Allah, Allah is Great) the keys of Ash-Sham (geographical Syria) are mine, I swear by Allah, I can see its palaces at the moment.’ On the second strike he said; ‘Allahu Akbar, Persia is mine, I swear by Allah, I can now see the white palace of Madain.’ And for the third time he struck the rock, which turned into very small pieces, he said; ‘Allah is Great, I have been given the keys of Yemen, I swear by Allah, I can see the gates of San‘a while I am in my place’” [Ahmad & An-Nasai].
The Prophet ﷺ gave these prophecies of victory whilst the believers were facing a difficult time. Today we have the prophecies of Islam dominating the world however unlike that time we don’t have the Khilafah state to protect us. The prophecies did not deter the Sahabah from struggling to achieve the victory; rather it further pushed them to achieve these victories. Similarly it is not enough for us to wait for the victory to be granted rather we must strive to achieve it with our utmost effort.
A map showing key sites in the battle
The northern part of Madinah was the most vulnerable, all the other sides being surrounded by mountains and palm tree orchards – the Prophet ﷺ understood that the alliance (Ahzab) would march in that direction, so the trench was ordered to be on that side. The Muslims went on digging the trench for several days – working on it during the day and going home in the evening – until it had assumed its full dimensions in front of the huge army of the Mushrikeen (idolaters) that had arrived and settled in the vicinity of Madinah in places called Al-Asyal and Uhud.
“And when the believers saw ‘Al-Ahzab’ (the confederates), they said: ‘This is what Allah and His Messenger had promised us, and Allah and His Messenger had spoken the truth, and it only added to their Faith and to their submissiveness (to Allah)” [TMQ Al-Ahzab: 22].
Three thousand Muslims, with Muhammad ﷺ at their head, came out to encounter the idolaters, with Allah’s ﷻ Promise of victory deeply established in their minds. They entrenched themselves in Sila’ Mountain with the trench standing as a barrier between them and the disbelievers.
On attempting to attack the Muslims and break into Madinah, the Quraish were surprised to see a wide trench, a new stratagem unknown in Arabia before, standing as an obstinate obstruction. Consequently they decided to lay siege to Madinah and began to manoeuvre around the trench trying hard to find a vulnerable spot through which they could infiltrate into Madinah. To deter their enemies from approaching or bridging any gap in their defences, the Muslims hurled arrows, and engaged in skirmishes with them. The veteran fighters of Quraish were averse to this situation waiting in vain in anticipation of what the siege might reveal. Therefore they decided that a group of fighters led by ‘Amr bin ‘Abd-e-Wudd, ‘Ikrima bin Abi Jahl and Dirar bin Al-Khattab, should work its way through the trench. They did in fact manage to do that and their horsemen captured a marshy area between the trench and Sila’ Mountain. ‘Amr challenged the Muslims to a duel, and Ali bin Abi Talib (رضي الله عنه) was deputed. Ali accepted the challenge and said to him, “I call on you to dismount.” ‘Amr replied, “O son of my brother, I do not want to kill you.” Ali said, “But I want to kill you.” So they fought and Ali killed him and obliged the others to evacuate in a state of panic and confusion. However, some days later, the polytheists conducted fresh desperate attempts but all of them failed due to the Muslims’ steadfastness and heroic confrontation.
Missing of the Asr prayer
In the context of the events of the Battle of Ahzab, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ failed to observe some prayers in their right time.
Jabir (رضي الله عنه) narrated, “On the Day of the Trench ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab (رضي الله عنه) came, cursing the disbelievers of Quraish and said: ‘O Allah’s Messenger! I have not offered the afternoon prayer and the sun has set.’ The Prophet ﷺ replied: ‘By Allah! I too have not offered the prayer yet.’ The Prophet then went to Buthan, performed ablution and observed the afternoon prayer after the sun had set and then offered the sunset prayer after it.” Ali (رضي الله عنه) narrated that on the day of Khandaq, the Prophet ﷺ said, “(Let) Allah fill their houses and graves with fire just as they have prevented us from offering the Asr prayer” [Bukhari].
It was narrated by Ahmad and Shafi‘i that the events of that battle detained him from the noon, afternoon, evening and night prayers, but he observed them combined. The different narrations point to the fact that the situation lasted for a few days.
It is clear that because of the trench standing between the two parties no direct engagement took place, but rather there were military activities confined to arrow hurling – consequently the fight claimed the lives of a small number of fighters, six Muslims and ten polytheists, one or two of those killed by the sword.
During the process of fighting, Sa‘d bin Mu‘adh (رضي الله عنه) was shot by an arrow that pierced his artery. Perceiving his end approaching, he invoked Allah saying: “Oh, Allah, you know nothing is closer to my heart than striving in Your way against those people (disbelievers) who belied Your Messenger and banished him from his town. Oh, Allah, I deeply believe that You have decreed that we should fight them, so if there is still more fighting to go with them, let me stay alive in order to strive more against them. If it has settled down, I beseech you to ignite it again so that I breathe my last in its context.” He concluded his supplication beseeching Allah ﷻ not to let him die until he had had full revenge on Banu Qurayzah.
The Treachery of Banu Qurayzah
In the midst of these difficult circumstances, plots and intrigues were in fervent action against the Muslims. The chief criminal of Banu Nadir, Huyai, headed for the habitations of Banu Qurayzah to incite their chief Ka’b bin Asad Al-Qurazi, who had drawn a pact with the Messenger of Allah ﷺ to run to his aid in times of war. Ka’b, in the beginning resisted all Huyai’s temptations, but Huyai was clever enough to manipulate him and managed to win Ka’b to his side and persuade him to break his covenant with the Muslims. Banu Qurayzah then started to launch war operations against the Muslims especially the secluded garrisons that housed the women and children of the Muslims.
On the authority of Ibn Ishaq, Safiyah (رضي الله عنه), daughter of ‘Abdul Mutallib happened to be in a garrison with Hassan bin Thabit as well as some women and children. Safiyah said, “A Jew was spotted lurking around our site, which was vulnerable to any enemy attacks because there were no men to defend it. I informed Hassan that I was suspicious of that man’s presence near us, [and that] he might take us by surprise now that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and the Muslims are too busy to come to our aid, [so I said] why don’t you get down and kill him? Hassan answered that he would not do it, so I took a bar of wood, went down and struck the Jew to death. I returned and asked Hassan to loot him but again Hassan refused to do that.” This event had a far-reaching effect and discouraged the Jews from conducting further attacks thinking that those sites were fortified and protected by Muslim fighters. They, however, went on providing the idolaters with supplies in token of their support against the Muslims.
The site of the battle today
On hearing this bad news, the Messenger ﷺ despatched four prominent Muslim leaders, Sa‘d bin Mu‘adh (رضي الله عنه), Sa‘d bin ‘Ubada (رضي الله عنه), ‘Abdullah bin Rawaha (رضي الله عنه) and Khawat bin Jubair (رضي الله عنه), for investigation but warning against any sort of spreading panic amongst the Muslims and advising that they should declare in public that the rumours are groundless if they happen to be so. Unfortunately the four men discovered that the news was true and that the Jews announced openly that no pact of alliance existed any longer with Muhammad ﷺ. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ was briefed on this situation, and the Muslims understood their critical position with the horrible danger implied therein. Their back was vulnerable to the attacks of Banu Qurayzah, and a huge army at the front, while their women and children were unprotected standing in between. In this regard, Allah ﷻ says,
“And when the eyes grew wild and the hearts reached to the throats” [TMQ Al-Ahzab: 10].
Response of the Hypocrites
Now that the Muslims were shut in within the Trench on the defensive, just as the hypocrites today taunt the Muslims saying that the re-establishment of the Khilafah is a dream, the hypocrites then taunted the Muslims.
One man, Mu’attib ibn Qushair said, “Muhammad used to promise us that we should eat the treasures of Khosrau and Caesar and today not one of us can feel safe in going to the toilet.”
They began to sow the seeds of defeatism, and pretended to withdraw for the defence of their homes, though these were in no way exposed to danger. Allah ﷻ then revealed:
“And when the hypocrites and those in whose hearts is a disease said, ‘Allah and His Messenger promised us nothing but delusions!’ And when a party of them said: ‘O people of Yathrib (Al-Madinah), there is no stand (possible) for you (against the enemy attack!) therefore go back!’ And a band of them asked for permission of the Prophet saying: ‘Truly, our homes lie open (to the enemy).’ And they lay not open. They but wished to flee” [TMQ Al-Ahzab: 12-13].
Response of the Believers
According to Ibn Kathir twelve days went by without fighting; only the occasional shooting of arrows. When the condition pressed hard upon the people, the Prophet ﷺ had in mind to conclude a sort of reconciliation with the chiefs of Ghatafan on the basis of donating them a third of Madinah’s fruit crops. He sought the advice of the two leaders of the Ansar, namely, Sa‘d bin Mu‘adh (رضي الله عنه) and Sa‘d bin ‘Ubadah (رضي الله عنه), the leaders of the Aws and Khazraj, whose reply went as follows:
They first asked, “Oh Messenger of Allah, is it mere plan for you, or a Divine order”, He ﷺ replied, “It is my plan to protect you against the allied forces” Sa’d bin Mu’adh (رضي الله عنه) then said,
“Allah has honoured us with Islam, guided us to Him, and granted us dignity by believing in him and following you. How could we give them our money! By Allah we will give them nothing but swords (fighting) until Allah judges between us and them.”
Once a man who was sitting in the company of Hudhaifah (رضي الله عنه) started talking about how if he had been alive at the time of the Prophet ﷺ he would have fought by his side and striven for his causes. Hudhaifah (رضي الله عنه) said, “You might have done that (but do not make a flourish of your enthusiasm), I was with the Messenger of Allah ﷺ on the night of the battle of Ahzab and we were gripped with a violent and severe cold. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, ‘The man who brings me news of the enemy shall be ranked with me in the Day of Judgement by Allah, Most High.’ We all kept quiet and none of us responded to him. He said it again and again and all kept quiet, then he said it again, and again no response, then he said, ‘Stand up, Hudhaifah bring me the news of the enemy and do nothing that may provoke them against me.’”
Hudhaifah said that as he walked over to the enemy camp he felt warm as if he was walking in a heated bath, then he saw Abu Sufyan and pointed an arrow at him then remembered the instructions of the Prophet ﷺ so he didn’t shoot. When he walked back he felt warm as if he was walking in a heated bath and gave the information to the Prophet ﷺ and then he felt cold again.
In this terrible situation with all of these problems internally and externally let us see how Allah ﷻ fulfilled his promise of victory.
Relief came in the form of Nu’aym ibn Mas’ud. He had already embraced Islam though his own people did not know it and he came to the Messenger of Allah ﷺ. Nu’aym proposed to the Messenger of Allah ﷺ a way in which he could awaken distrust amongst the disbelievers. So Nu’aym was instructed by the Messenger of Allah ﷺ to go to Banu Qurayzah, with whom he had been a companion in Jahiliyyah days, and remind them of his affection and the special ties that existed between them; remarking to him in a most famous statement, “For war is deceit.” [Muslim]
Nu’aym thus set about achieving this by speculating what would be their fate should things go badly for them and Ghatafan together with Quraish were to leave them to face Muhammad ﷺ alone. He emphasised that Quraish and Ghatafan might not bear waiting for a long time because they were not inhabitants of that land and hence had much less motivation to stay. He told them that if they were left to face Muhammad on their own they would not be able to do so. Finally, he suggested to them not to fight alongside the Allies until they had taken hostages from their chiefs who would remain in their hands as security. Only then should they fight Muhammad ﷺ with their allies until they made an end of him. Qurayzah thought that this was excellent advice. Nu’aym then went to Quraish and told them that the Jews of Qurayzah had regretted their action in opposing Muhammad ﷺ and that they had sent him to tell them so. He stated that they were prepared to make it up with him by handing over some chiefs of the two tribes, Quraish and Ghatafan, so that he could cut their heads off. He said to them, “So if the Jews send to you to demand hostages, do not send to them a single man.” Then he went to Ghatafan and told them the same story that he had told Quraish.
The Arabs’ suspicion of the Jews grew and Abu Sufyan sent for Ka’b informing him that they had been besieging Muhammad ﷺ for a long time and that they should make ready for battle the next day. Ka’b replied that it was the Sabbath, a day on which they did nothing, no fighting and no work. Abu Sufyan was enraged and he came to believe what Nu’aym had told him. He sent an envoy back to Qurayzah to tell them to make another Sabbath instead of this one for it was essential to fight Muhammad ﷺ the next day. The envoy also told them that if Quraish and Ghatafan went out to fight and they were not there, their agreements would be cancelled and they might be fought before Muhammad ﷺ. When Qurayzah heard Abu Sufyan’s comments they asserted their stand that they would not violate the Sabbath, then they mentioned the hostages whom they should hold as security. When Abu Sufyan heard this he had no doubt left concerning what Nu’aym had told him. He began to think of a new strategy and he liaised with Ghatafan only to find out that they too had second thoughts about fighting Muhammad ﷺ. That night Allah ﷻ sent a bitter wind and a thunderous storm which overthrew their tents and upset their cooking-pots. They were panic-stricken and thought that the Muslims would seize the chance to direct their onslaught against them, so Tulayha arose up and shouted, “Muhammad has come after you, so run for your lives”. Abu Sufyan said, “O Quraish! Be off, for I am going.” So they grabbed hurriedly whatever they could carry and fled. Ghatafan and the rest of the Allies did the same. In the morning they were all gone.
Allah ﷻ says,
“O you who believe! Remember the grace of Allah, on you when there came down on you hosts (to overwhelm you). But we sent against them a hurricane and forces that you did not see. But Allah sees (clearly all that you do)” [TMQ Al-Ahzab: 9].
The battle of Ahzab should make us realise that no matter how difficult our present predicament is, Allah ﷻ will definitely provide us with the victory, all that is upon us is the effort. We have to remain strong, patient and work for this victory.
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