Chapter 4: the battle of Ditch
“You have indeed in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful example for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day, and remembers Allah much.
When the Believers saw the Confederate forces, they said, ‘This is what Allah and His Messenger promised us, and Allah and His Messenger spoke the truth.’ It added only to their faith and obedience.
Among the Believers are men who have been true to their covenant with Allah. Of them, some have completed their vow and some wait, but they have never wavered in the least.
That Allah may reward the men of Truth for their Truth, and punish the hypocrites if He wills, or turn to them in mercy, for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
And Allah turned back the Unbelievers for all their fury – no advantage did they gain, and enough is Allah for the Believers in their fight. And Allah is full of Strength, full of Might.
He took those of the People of the Book who aided them, down from their strongholds, and cast terror into their hearts:some you slew, and some you captured. He made you heirs of their lands, their houses, and their goods, and of a land which you had not frequented before. And Allah has Power over all things.”
For several days after his return to Makkah, the Battle of Uhud occupied the mind of Khalid. He thought time and again of how the opportunity had arisen when the archers abandoned their position, and how quickly and accurately he had grasped the possibilities of manoeuvre. Khalid was to repeat such counterstrokes in later battles of his career. But the one fact that weighed heavily on his mind, and which he found difficult to explain, was the courage and tenacity of the Muslims. It did not seem natural that a small force, so vastly outnumbered and attacked from all directions, should hold out with such rocklike determination and be prepared to fight to the end in defence of its leader and its faith. After all, the Muslims were the same stock as the Quraish and other Arabs. Perhaps there was something that the new faith did to its votaries which other faiths could not do. Perhaps there was something about the personality of Muhammad which other men lacked. Such thoughts would occupy the mind of Khalid, but so far he was not in any way inclined towards the new faith. In fact he looked forward to facing the Muslims again, but without bitterness or rancour. He thought of the next battle as a sportsman might think of his next match.
And Khalid continued to enjoy the good life with the vigour and enthusiasm which were characteristic of the man.
For the next two years there was no direct military clash between the Muslims and the Quraish. There was, however, an incident known as the Incident of Rajee-a brutal and horrible affair which further embittered relations between Makkah and Madinah.
This incident took place in July 625. Some Arabs came to the Prophet as a delegation from their tribe, expressed their desire to embrace Islam and asked him to send some men, well versed in the Quran and the ways of Islam, to explain the faith and its obligations to their tribe. The Prophet nominated six of his Companions for this task, and these men, proud of being selected to spread the true faith, set off with the delegation, entirely unaware of the trap that awaited them. When these men, with their guides, reached a place called Rajee, not far from Usfan, they were ambushed by 100 warriors from the tribe which had invited them. The Muslims drew their swords, but they never had a chance. Three of them were killed and three captured. The prisoners were led to Makkah, en route to which one of them was able to free himself from his bonds and attacked his captors, but he too was killed. The two captives who eventually got to Makkah were Khubaib bin Adi and Zaid bin Al Dasinna. Both of them had killed infidels in battle; and their captors now took them to Makkah and sold them at a high price to the relatives of the dead infidels, who bought them eagerly with the intention of killing them in revenge for those whom they had lost.
For some days no action was taken against the prisoners, as this was the holy month of Safar. As soon as the month ended, the two captives were taken to Tan'eem, a place by the north-western edge of Makkah, where the entire population of the town had gathered, including, slaves, women and children. Two wooden stakes had been dug in the ground, and to these the captives were led. They asked to be allowed to say a final prayer and the request was granted. When the prayer was over, the captives were tied to the stakes.
Each of them was now given the option of returning to the idol worship of the Quraish or death. Both the Muslims chose the option of death. Next Abu Sufyan went up to each captive and said, "Do you not wish that you were safe in your home and Muhammad were here in your place?" Each of them vehemently rejected the suggestion and said that no amount of suffering could put such an idea into his mind. Vexed and angered, Abu Sufyan turned away and remarked to his friends, "I have never seen men love their leader as the men of Muhammad love Muhammad." 1
Zaid was the first to die, and his death was quick and easy. A slave walked up to him and drove a spear through his chest. Next came the turn of Khubaib, and this was to be a show. This is what the people of Makkah had come to watch with joyful anticipation.
At a signal, 40 boys carrying spears rushed to the stake where Khubaib was tied and began to prick him with their spears. Sometimes they would move away and then come rushing at him again with raised spears as if to kill him, but would withhold the blow at the last moment and just prick lightly?sufficient to cut and pierce the skin but not to kill. Some of the boys were clumsy and cut deeper than others, and soon the body of Khubaib was covered with blood that flowed from hundreds of shallow wounds. As each spear pricked him he would wince, but not a sound escaped his lips. And the spectators were thrilled by the spectacle of Khubaib's suffering.
1. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, p. 172
When this had gone on for some time, a man with a spear walked up to Khubaib and dispersed the boys. Perhaps by now the boys had tired of the fun. Perhaps the audience had tired of the game. This man now raised his spear and drove it through the heart of Khubaib, putting an end to his agony. The two bodies were left to rot at the stake.
The man who organised this show and prepared the boys for the part which they had to play was none other than Ikrimah, son of Abu Jahl. Little did Ikrimah know, when he arranged this horrible and gory entertainment, that he could be forgiven his savage opposition to Islam and the Muslim, blood that he had shed at Badr and Uhud, but this he could not be forgiven. On this day Ikrimah became a war criminal.
It will be remembered that before leaving the battlefield of Uhud, Abu Sufyan had thrown a challenge to meet the Muslims, again at Badr in a year's time, and the Prophet had accepted the challenge. This would mean a rendezvous during March 626, but as the time of the rendezvous approached, Abu Sufyan felt disinclined to meet the Muslims. The winter rains had been even more scant than usual, and as the winter passed there was a sudden increase in temperature. The weather was hot and dry and the year promised to be an unusually bad one. Abu Sufyan decided to postpone the operation and sent an agent to Madinah to spread the rumour that the Quraish were assembling in vast numbers, and would this time come in much greater strength than at Uhud. His intention was to frighten the Muslims into remaining at Madinah, but when these reports reached the Prophet, he declared, "I shall keep the rendezvous with the infidel even if I have to go alone" 1
In late March, the Muslims marched from Madinah. They numbered 1,500 men, of whom 50 had horses. The army arrived at Badr on April 4, 626 (the 1st of Dhul Qad, 4 Hijri), but there was no sign of the Quraish.
When Abu Sufyan received news of the movement of the Muslims from Madinah, he got the Quraish together and rode out of Makkah. The army consisted of 2,000 men and a hundred horses, and stalwarts like Khalid, Ikrimah and Safwan again rode with the army. When the Quraish got to Usfan, however, Abu Sufyan decided that he was not under any circumstances going to fight this campaign. He turned to his subordinates and said, "This is a terrible year in which to engage in warfare. There is drought in the land and we have seldom known such heat. These conditions are not suitable for battle. We shall fight again in a year of abundance." 2 Having given these reasons for not continuing the movement, he ordered a return to Makkah. Safwan and Ikrimah protested vehemently against this decision but their protests were of no avail. The Makkans returned to Makkah.
The Muslims remained at Badr for eight days. Then, on hearing of Abu Sufyan's return to Makkah, they struck camp and went home to Madinah.
After the return of the Quraish to Makkah, peace may have prevailed between the Muslims and the Quraish had it not been for the machinations of certain Jews. To understand the reasons for this activity, we must go back to the days when the Prophet arrived at Madinah after his flight from Makkah.
When the Prophet got to Madinah, in what was later to be numbered as the first year of the Hijra, the Muslims formed into two groups, viz. the Emigrants (Muhajireen) those who had migrated from Makkah, and the Helpers (Ansar)?the newly converted Muslims of Madinah who had invited the Prophet to come and live with them. A third small group among the Muslims became known as the Hypocrites (Munafiqeen), and these were inhabitants of Madinah who had accepted the Prophet and his faith in order to conform to the general trend of events but were not Muslims at heart. Their leader was Abdullah bin Ubayy, a man who commanded a position of prestige in Madinah and felt that the arrival of the Prophet had somehow reduced him in status and influence. These Hypocrites were the people who had abandoned the Muslim army on the eve of Uhud. They were to continue to create obstacles in the path of the Prophet, and without openly opposing him or his faith, would make every effort to weaken the resolution of the Muslims whenever they had to go to battle.
Ibn Sad: p. 563
An important element in the population of Madinah consisted of Jews, comprising three tribes known as Bani Qainqa, Bani Nazir and Bani Quraizah. When the Prophet arrived at Madinah, these Jews accepted him without reservation and could see no possible threat to their position from the new faith. Each of the tribes entered into a pact with the Prophet which could be described as a friendship pact or a non?aggression pact. The pact included a clause under which one party would not in any way assist the enemies of the other party, should the other party be engaged in hostilities.
While the Prophet had been in Makkah, the revelations of the Quran had dealt mainly with spiritual and religious matters. Thus the character of Islam then was essentially spiritual and religious, dealing with man's relationship with Allah. When the Prophet migrated to Madinah, Islam took on a more dynamic and vital role in the affairs of men, entering the fields of society, politics and economics. It began to deal with man as a member of society and society as an instrument for the achievement of a more virtuous, more progressive and more prosperous way of life for mankind. This new dynamism which entered the character of Islam was bound to bring it into conflict with the older faiths. A clash was inevitable sooner or later; and the nearest of the older religions with which Islam came in conflict was Judaism. The Jews first became conscious of the threat to their position when the Muslims won a resounding victory at the Battle of Badr. Then the Bani Qainqa broke their pact and came out in open opposition to the Muslims. The Prophet besieged this tribe in its strongholds and forced it into submission. As punishment for violating their pledge, the Bani Qainqa were banished from Madinah, and they migrated to Syria.
The next Jewish tribe to break its pledge was the Bani Nazir, which happened soon after the Battle of Uhud. This tribe received the same punishment from the Muslims. Some of its members migrated to Syria, while others settled down in the area of Khaibar, north of Madinah. In the operations against both these tribes, Abdullah bin Ubayy, the chief of the Hypocrites, first sided with the Jews, secretly inciting them to fight the Prophet and promising active help from his followers. Later, when he saw the fortunes of war turning in favour of the Muslims, he abandoned the Jews to their fate.
The third Jewish tribe, the Bani Quraizah, continued to live peacefully in Madinah. Its relations with the Muslims were perfectly normal and entirely peaceful, each side respecting and observing the terms of the pact. But the Jews of the Bani Nazir who had settled at Khaibar did not forgive the Muslims the banishment which they had suffered. After Uhud they came to know of the agreement between the Muslims and the Quraish to fight another battle, and they waited patiently, hoping that in that battle the Muslims would be crushed. But when they found a year later that there was not going to be another battle, they decided to take direct action to bring on an attack against the Muslims.
As the summer of 626 came to an end, a delegation of the Jews of Khaibar set out for Makkah. Their leader was Huyaiy bin Akhtab, who had been the chief of the Bani Nazir in Madinah. On arrival at Makkah this delegation conferred with Abu Sufyan, and set about to organise an expedition against the Prophet. It was necessary for Huyaiy to work on the fears and emotions of the Quraish, and he started off by outlining the danger the Quraish faced from the spread of Islam in Arabia. If the Muslims reached Yamamah, the Quraish trade routes to Iraq and Bahrain would be blocked.
"Tell me, O Son of Akhtab", asked Abu Sufyan. "You are one of the People of the Book. Is it your opinion that the new religion of Muhammad is better than our religion?" Without batting an eye Huyaiy replied, "As one who knows the Book, I can assure you that your religion is better than Muhammad's. You are in the right." 1 This pleased the Quraish no end, and they agreed to fight Muhammad if other Arab tribes would join them.
The Jewish delegation then went to the Ghatfan and the Bain Asad with whom it had similar talks and achieved similar results. These and various other tribes all agreed to take part in a massive expedition to fight and destroy the Muslims.
1. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, p. 214.
After Uhud the Quraish had accepted the loss of trade with Syria as inevitable. Since the Muslims remained in power at Madinah, the coastal route to Syria could not be used by the Makkans. So the Makkans increased their trade with Iraq, Bahrain and the Yemen, and thus more or less made up for the loss which they had suffered in the stoppage of their trade with Syria. As a result of the conference with the Jewish delegation, however, Abu Sufyan became more conscious of the danger to the Meccan trade by the further spread of Islam. If the Muslims reached Yamamah, the Quraish trade would have to be confined to the Yemen, for the routes to Iraq and Bahrain would then be in Muslim hands. And this further curtailment of their trade would be an economic blow which the Quraish could never survive. Abu Sufyan had also been needled a great deal by Safwan bin Umayyah for his lack of spirit in the last expedition. Both these factors combined to make Abu Sufyan determined and zealous to take out another expedition to Madinah.
Preparations for the expedition were begun. Tribal contingents began to concentrate in early February 627. The Quraish provided the largest force, consisting of 4,000 men, 300 horses and 1,500 camels. Next came the Ghatfan with 2,000 men under Uyaina bin Hisn, while the Bani Sulaim sent 700 warriors. The Bani Asad contributed a contingent, whose strength is not known, under Tulaiha bin Khuwailid. While the Quraish and some lesser tribes assembled at Makkah, the Ghatfan, Bani Asad and Bani Sulaim concentrated in their tribal settlements north, north?east and east of Madinah respectively, whence they would march direct to Madinah. The total strength of the force, including smaller tribes which have not been mentioned, was 10,000, and Abu Sufyan assumed over?all command of the expedition. This became known as the collection of tribes. For want of a better name, we shall call them the Allies.
On Monday, February 24, 627 (the 1st of Shawal, 5 Hijri), the Allies, converging from their separate tribal regions, arrived near Madinah and established their camps. The Quraish camped in the area of the stream junction south of the wood, west of Mount Uhud, where they had camped for the Battle of Uhud. The Ghatfan and other tribes camped at Zanab Naqnia, about 2 miles east of Mount Uhud. Having established their camps, the Allies advanced on Madinah.
Hardly had the concentration of the Allies begun when agents brought word of it to Madinah. As more and more tribal contingents gathered, the reports became increasingly alarming. Finally the Prophet received the information that 10,000 warriors bent on destroying the Muslims were marching on Madinah. There was alarm and despondency among the Muslims as this unpleasant intelligence was received. The Muslims had, of course, always been numerically inferior to their enemies. The ratio of relative strengths at Badr and Uhud had been one to three and one to four respectively, and although the number of Muslims at Madinah had now increased to 3,000 able?bodied men, many hundreds among them were Hypocrites on whom no reliance could be placed. And 10,000 seemed a terribly large figure. Never before in the history of the Hijaz had such a vast army assembled for battle.
Then came light in the form of a suggestion by Salman the Persian. He explained that when the Persian army had to fight a defensive battle against superior odds, it would dig a ditch, too wide and too deep to cross, in the way of the enemy. To the Arabs this was an unfamiliar method of warfare, but they saw its virtue and the proposal was accepted.
The Prophet ordered the digging of the ditch. Many of the Arabs who could not comprehend such tactics seemed unwilling to get down to the arduous labour of digging, and the Hypocrites as usual went about dissuading the people from taking all this trouble. But the Prophet got down to digging with his own hands, and after this no self?respecting Muslim could keep away from the task. The ditch was sited and its entire length divided among the Muslims at the scale of 40 cubits per group of 10 men. As the Muslims sweated at this backbreaking task, Hassaan bin Thabit walked about reciting his poetry and infusing fresh spirit into the Muslims. Hassaan was a poet, and perhaps the greatest poet of his day. He could extemporise verses on any subject and on any occasion, and do it so beautifully that his listeners could hardly believe that the composition was extemporaneous. He could move people to a frenzy of emotion. But if Hassaan was one of the greatest poets of his age, that is where his talents ended. To such manly pursuits as fighting, Hassaan was in no way inclined, as we shall see later.
The ditch ran from Shaikhan to the hill of Zubab, and thence to the Jabal Bani Ubaid. All these hills were included in the area protected by the ditch, and on the west the ditch turned south to cover the left flank of the western of the two hills known as Jabal Bani Ubaid. East of Shaikhan and south?west of Jabal Bani Ubaid stretched vast lava fields-areas of broken, uneven ground covered by, and at times formed of, large black boulders, impassable for major military movement. A little south of the centre of the ditch stood the prominent hill of Sil'a, about 400 feet high, a mile long and a little less across, running generally north?south but with spurs extending in all directions. In fact the little hill of Zubab lay just off the north?eastern spur of Sil'a, though our map does not show this clearly. (See Map 3 below) 1
Once the digging of the ditch was complete, the Muslims established their camp just ahead of the hill of Sil'a. Their total strength was 3,000 which included Hypocrites whose fighting value and reliability were uncertain. The Prophet's plan was to keep the bulk of his army uncommitted to strike at any spot where the enemy managed to get a foothold across the ditch. To guard against surprise, the ditch was lightly covered along its entire length by 200 men, most of whom were placed as picquets on the hills commanding the ditch. A mobile force of 500 men was employed to patrol the various settlements of Madinah and deal with any infiltrators who might enter unseen, and also give some protection to areas not covered by the ditch. (Madinah was not then a city as it is now but consisted of a group of settlements and forts. The centre of Madinah, physical and spiritual, was the Prophet's Mosque.) The women and children were placed in forts and houses away from the main front, which faced north and north?west.
The winter that was now passing had been a severe one. It was also to prove a long winter.
When the Quraish saw the ditch they were first dismayed and then moved to indignation. They had come in such strength that victory had seemed certain. Abu Sufyan had joyfully expected to fight a victorious battle, and now here was this blessed ditch in the way!
"By Allah!" Abu Sufyan exploded. "Such stratagems are not the way of the Arab!" 2 In the simple mind of the average Arab there was no room for such tactics. To the chivalrous Arab this was definitely 'not cricket'?
However, the Allies moved up their camp, deployed along the ditch on the north and north?west, and settled down to a siege that was to last 23 days. By day the Allies would come up to the ditch which the Muslims covered lightly from the home side. There would be an exchange of archery which would go on for most of the day, and for the night the Allies would return to their camp. Mostly by day and sometimes by night, Allied patrols would move up and down the ditch trying to find a place at which a crossing could be attempted. They were eventually to find one such place, but more of that later.
For 10 days the siege continued with no decision and no let?up on either side. The morale of both sides came under considerable strain, but tended to harden rather than weaken. The Muslims began to feel the pangs of hunger. There were no large stocks of food in Madinah, and the Muslims were now on half rations. The Hypocrites became louder and more open in their criticism of the Prophet. While the ditch was being dug, the Prophet had promised the Muslims that within a few years they would destroy the might of Rome and Persia and possess themselves of the wealth of those empires. The Hypocrites now began to say, "Muhammad promises us the treasures of Caesar and Chosroes, but he cannot get us out of this simple predicament!" 3 The true Believers, however, remained firm and steadfast, and their faith in their leader remained unshaken.
The situation gradually worsened for the Allies too, so that discontent raised its head in their ranks. The Arabs were not used to long sieges and preferred a quick, lively battle to this form of warfare. The weather had remained unpleasant and began to cause a good deal of distress among the Allies. Food also ran short, as Abu Sufyan had made no arrangements for provisions to tide them over such a long period of time. But since the Allies were not themselves under siege some measures were hastily taken to gather provisions from outlying areas. The men began to grumble and Abu Sufyan had to think hard to find some way out of this impasse. Finally, he consulted Huyaiy the Jew, and between them they hit upon a new plan which showed every promise of success.
1. The western end of the ditch is also reported to have ended at Mazad. This too is correct, for the three western hills shown on Map 3-the two southern ones of Jabal Bani Ubaid and the little one to their north-are also called Mazad.
2. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, p. 224.
3. Ibid: Vol. 2, p. 212.
On the night of Friday, March 7, Huyaiy stole into the settlement of the Bani Quraizah. He knocked at the door of their leader, Kab bin Asad; but the latter, guessing that Huyaiy had come as a Jew and probably intended to incite his fellow Jews against the Prophet, refused to see him. After some wrangling, however, Huyaiy was allowed in, and he gently and cleverly began to work on Kab, pressing him to join the Allies in the war against the Muslims. At first Kab refused. "Muhammad has kept his pact with us, and we have no reason to complain", he said. "In any case you have no certainty of victory. If we join you and the campaign fails, your idol?worshippers will go back in peace to their homes and we will have to bear the brunt of the wrath of Muhammad." 1 But the visitor continued to press, now threatening, now tempting, now begging, and eventually got Kab to agree to a pact with the Allies. According to the terms of this pact there would be a simultaneous attack by the Allies and the Bani Quraizah. These Jews had their settlement and their forts two miles south?east of Madinah, and they would attack from this direction and draw some of the Muslims away from the ditch while the Allies attacked frontally. In case the attack failed, the Allies would leave a strong garrison in the Jewish forts to defend the Jews against the Muslims who were bound to turn against them in revenge. The Bani Quraizah asked for 10 days to prepare themselves before the attack was begun, during which period the Allies could continue minor operations from the north.
Thus the last of the Jews of Madinah, following in the footsteps of their co?religionists, broke their pact with the Muslims. Little did they know how heavily they would pay for their perfidy!
It was not long before the Prophet came to know about this pact. He got the intelligence through one of his agents who entered the camp of the Allies one night and unknown to them, overheard certain conversations. Then rumours of the pact also spread, and the report was ultimately confirmed by the incident of 'Safiyyah and the Jew'.
Safiyyah was an aunt of the Prophet, and along with other women and children had moved to a small fort in the south-eastern part of Madinah. Present in the fort was Hassaan the Poet, and he was the only man there! One day Safiyyah, looking down from the fort, saw a fully armed Jew moving stealthily beneath the wall as if seeking a way around the fort. Safiyyah at once concluded that he was a scout of the Bani Quraizah who had been sent to reconnoitre a route which the Jews might take in their attack. This Jew would act as a guide, leading his tribe into the unprotected rear of the Muslims.
Safiyyah went to the poet and said, "O Hassaan! There is a Jew who is seeking a way by which he can lead the Bani Quraizah to attack our settlements from the rear. You know that the Messenger of Allah and all the men are busy at the front and cannot detach forces to protect us. This man must be killed. Go and kill him at once!" "May Allah bless you, O Daughter of Abdul Muttalib," replied Hassaan, "you know that such work is not for me." Throwing a glance of contempt at the poet, Safiyyah picked up a club, tied a waist?band around her waist and went down to meet the Jew. The brave lady killed the Jew. Leaving him lying with a crushed skull in a pool of blood, she returned to the fort and said to Hassaan, "I have killed him, O Hassaan! Now go and take the booty from his body, for it is not right for a woman to undress a man." "May Allah bless you, O Daughter of Abdul Muttalib," replied Hassaan, "I have no need for such booty!" 2
When the news of this incident reached the Muslims, there was no doubt left in their minds about the treachery of the Bani Quraizah. The situation now became more tense, and the Hypocrites became more outspoken. From half rations the Muslims came down to quarter rations. (Later it was to become no rations!) Their resolution was still unshaken; but if the siege continued very much longer, sheer starvation would force the Muslims to submit. And the Muslims could find no direct military solution to the problem.
1. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, p. 221; Waqidi: Maghazi p. 292.
2. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, p. 228.
The Prophet now decided to use diplomacy to achieve results which were not attainable by force of arms. He started secret negotiations with Uyaina, the commander of the Ghatfan contingent. (Uyaina was a brave and simple soul. A one?eyed man possessing more brawn than brain, he was to earn from the Prophet the nickname of 'the willing fool' 1). The aim of the negotiations was to create a rift between the two major Allies, the Ghatfan and the Quraish-by drawing the Ghatfan away from the siege. If this were achieved, other tribes might also pull away from the Quraish; but even if they did not, the absence of the powerful Ghatfan contingent of 2,000 warriors would reduce the Allied strength to manageable proportions, where after military action could be taken to drive the Allies away from Madinah.
"If the Ghatfan secede from the alliance and return to their homes, they shall be given one?third of the date produce of Madinah", were the terms offered by the Prophet. This offer was accepted by Uyaina who had by now lost all hope of military victory. The pact was drawn up, but before it could be signed and sealed (without which it would not be binding), the Prophet decided to mention the matter to some of the Muslim leaders. These Muslims protested vehemently. "Dates!" they exclaimed. "Let the infidels get nothing from us but the sword!" 2 This disagreement with the Prophet was so general and so strong that he decided to submit to the wishes of the Muslims, and the negotiations were dropped.
These stout hearted Believers could not understand the seriousness of the military situation or the intricacies of diplomacy as well as the Prophet did. He knew that the only solution to the problem lay in breaking the siege by diplomatic manoeuvre, and he now began to look about for another opening. Soon an opening presented itself. Among the Ghatfan was a man by the name of Nuaim bin Masud who had become a Muslim but had kept his conversion a secret. A prominent figure in the region, he was well known to all the three major partners in the alliance-the Quraish, the Ghatfan and the Jews of Bani Quraizah. He was also a very capable man.
Nuaim left the Ghatfan camp one night and slipped into Madinah. He came to the Prophet, explained his position and expressed his desire to be of service to the Muslims. "Send me where you will", he said 3 . This was just the opportunity for which the Prophet had prayed. In a conference with Nuaim the Prophet went over the entire situation and laid down the course of action which Nuaim was to take.
The same night Nuaim stole into the settlement of the Bani Quraizah and visited Kab. He outlined the dangers of the situation as they applied to the Jews. "Your situation is not like the situation of the Quraish and the Ghatfan", he explained. "You have your families and your homes here, while their homes and families are at a safe distance from Madinah. They have no great stake in this battle. If they do not succeed in defeating Muhammad, they will return to their homes and leave you to face the wrath of the Muslims. You must take no action in collaboration with them unless they give you hostages from their best families. Thus you will have an assurance of their good faith."
Nuaim next went to the Quraish and spoke to Abu Sufyan, who knew him well and had respect for his judgement. "You have made a pact", he said, "with a people who are treacherous and unreliable. I have come to know through friends in Madinah that the Bani Quraizah have repented and entered into a fresh pact with Muhammad. To prove their loyalty to Muhammad, they are going to ask you for hostages from your best families, whom they will promptly hand over to Muhammad, who will put them to death. The Jews will then openly come out as allies of the Muslims and both will make a joint attack against us. On no account must you give hostages to the Jews!"
He then went to the Ghatfan where he painted the same picture. By the time Nuaim had finished, the seeds of doubt and discord had been firmly planted in the minds of the Allies.
The uncertainty began to tell on Abu Sufyan, who had relied unquestioningly on the alliance with the Jews. He decided to hasten the course of battle and put the intentions of the Jews to test. During the night of Friday, March 14, following the visit of Nuaim, he sent a delegation headed by Ikrimah to the Bani Quraizah. "This is a terrible situation", explained Ikrimah. "This cannot be allowed to continue any longer. We attack tomorrow. You have a pact with us against Muhammad. You must join in the attack from the direction of your settlement."
1. Ibn Qutaiba: p. 303.
2. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, p. 223.
3. Ibid: Vol. 2, p. 229.
The Jews hummed and hawed for a while and then came out with their terms. "Our position is more delicate than yours. If you have no success you may abandon us, and then we will be left alone to face the wrath of Muhammad. To make sure that this does not happen, you must give us hostages from your best families who will stay with us until the battle has been fought to a satisfactory conclusion. Anyway, tomorrow is Saturday and Jews are forbidden to fight on the Sabbath. Those who break the Sabbath are turned by Allah into pigs and monkeys." Ikrimah returned empty?handed. Abu Sufyan then decided to make one more attempt at persuading the Jews to join battle on the morrow, and sent another delegation to Kab; but the stand of the two sides remained the same:
Quraish: No hostages; fight tomorrow!
Jews: No fighting on the Sabbath; anyway, hostages first!
All three groups now said, "Nuaim was right. How wise he was in his advice to us!" 1 Nuaim had done his work well. The Bani Quraizah had been neatly detached from the alliance.
The next morning, Saturday, March 15, Khalid and Ikrimah, tiring of the delay and seeing no hope of concerted action by the Allies, decided to take matters into their own hands and try to force a decision one way or another. They moved forward with their cavalry squadrons to a place just west of Zubab, where the ditch was not as wide as in other places and where it could be cleared on horseback or by men scrambling across on foot. This place was right in front of the Muslim camp, which nestled at the foot of Sil'a.
Ikrimah's squadron moved up first and a small group jumped the ditch, the horses landing neatly on the Muslim side. There were seven men in the group, including Ikrimah and an enormous man who urged his enormous horse ahead of the group and began to survey the Muslims, who were surprised by the sudden appearance of the Quraish. The stage was now set for one of the most remarkable duels of history, which, because of its unusual course, is here described in full detail.
This huge man was of a tremendous height and bulk, and while on his feet would tower above his fellow men. Sitting on his great horse, he looked positively unreal. Big, strong and fearless, he had a fierce countenance-an aspect which thrilled his comrades and dismayed his enemies.
This was Amr bin Abdu Wud. (We shall call him the Giant!) Horse and rider stood motionless as he let his gaze wander scornfully over the ranks of the Muslims.
Suddenly the Giant raised his head and roared, "I am Amr bin Abdu Wud. I am the greatest warrior in Arabia. I am invincible. I... I. . ." He certainly had a high opinion of himself. "Is there anyone among you who has the courage to meet me in personal combat?"
The challenge was received by the Muslims in silence. They looked at one another. They looked at the Holy Prophet. But no one moved, for the Giant was famous for his strength and skill, and though wounded several times, had never yet lost a duel, nor spared an opponent. It was said that he was equal to 500 horsemen; that he could lift a horse bodily and hurl it to the ground; that he could pick up a calf with his left hand and use it as a shield in combat; that he could... The stories were endless. The vivid Arab imagination had created around this formidable warrior a legend of invincibility.
So the Muslims remained silent, and the Giant laughed with contempt-a laugh in which the Quraish also joined, for they stood quite close to the ditch and could see and hear all that went on.
1. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, pp. 230 - 231; Ibn Sad: p. 574.
"So is there none among you who has the courage of a man? And what of your Islam? And your Prophet?" At this blasphemous taunt, Ali left his position in the front rank of the Muslims, approached the Holy Prophet and sought permission to engage the challenger and silence his insolent tongue once and for all. The Prophet replied, "Sit down. This is Amr!" Ali returned to his position.
There was another burst of scornful laughter, more taunts, another challenge. Again Ali went up to the Prophet. Again the Prophet declined permission. More laughter, more taunts. Again the challenge from Amr, and this time more insulting than before. "Where is your paradise?" He shouted, "Of which you say that those who lose in battle will enter it? Can you not send a man to fight me?"
When for the third time Ali moved towards the Prophet, the latter saw in Ali's eyes a look which he knew well; and he knew that Ali could no longer be restrained. He looked at Ali fondly, for Ali was dearer to him than any other man. He took off his turban and wound it around Ali's head. He next took off his sword and girded it at Ali's waist. And he prayed: "O Lord! Help him!" 1
This sword which the Prophet now gave to Ali had once belonged to an infidel by the name of Munabba bin Hajaj. This man had been killed at the Battle of Badr, and the sword had come to the Muslims as part of the spoils of war. The Prophet had taken the sword for himself. Now in Ali's hand this was to become the most famous sword in Islam, killing more men in fair combat than any sword in history. This was the Zulfiqar.
Ali hastily collected a small group of Muslims and strode out towards the unbelievers. The group stopped at some distance from the Giant, and Ali stepped forward and got to within duelling distance of the challenger. The Giant knew Ali well. He had been a friend of Ali's father, Abu Talib. He now smiled indulgently at Ali as a man might smile at a boy.
"O Amr!" called Ali. "It is believed that if any man of the Quraish offers you two proposals, you always accept at least one of them."
"Then I have two proposals to offer you. The first is: accept Allah and His Messenger and Islam."
"I have no need of them."
"Then dismount from your horse and fight me."
"Why, O son of my brother? I have no desire to kill you."
"But I", replied Ali, "Have a great desire to kill you!" 2
The Giant's face flushed with anger. With a cry of rage he sprang off his horse, displaying a degree of agility surprising in so huge a monster. He hamstrung his horse, drew his sword and rushed at Ali. The fight was on.
Amr struck at Ali many times, but Ali remained unharmed. He would parry the blow with his sword or shield or nimbly step aside to let the Giant's sword whistle past him harmlessly. At last the Giant stood back, panting and baffled. He wondered how this could be. Never before had any man survived so long in personal combat against him. And now this boy was looking at him as if he was playing a game!
Then things happened so fast that no one could quite follow the sequence-neither the Muslims nor the Quraish nor the Giant himself. Ali dropped his sword and shield to the ground; his body shot through the air like a missile and his hands grasped the Giant's throat; with a wrestler's kick he knocked the Giant off balance, and the Giant came crashing to the ground-all in a matter of seconds. Now the Giant lay on his back with Ali sitting astride his chest. The two armies gasped and murmured, then held their breath.
1. Ibn Sad: p. 572.
2. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, p. 225.
The bewilderment on the Giant's face changed to fury. At last he had been thrown, and by this young upstart who was less than half his size! But although he was down, he was not finished. He would still win the battle and re?establish his position as the greatest warrior in Arabia. He would toss this youngster into the air as a leaf is tossed by the wind.
The Giant's face went purple, the veins stood out on his neck and his huge biceps and forearms trembled as he strained to break Ali's grip. But he could not move it an inch. There was the quality of steel in the muscles of Ali.
"Know, O Amr", said Ali gently, "that victory and defeat depend upon the will of Allah. Accept Islam! Thus not only will your life be spared, but you will also enjoy the blessings of Allah in this life and the next." Ali drew a sharp dagger from his waistband and held it close to Amr's throat.
But this was more than the Giant could take. Was he whom Arabia considered her greatest champion to live the rest of his life under the shadow of defeat and disgrace? Was it to be said of him that he saved his life in personal combat by submitting to the conditions of his opponent? No! He, Amr bin Abdu Wud, had lived by the sword. He would perish by the sword. A life spent in violence must end with violence. He gathered the spittle in his mouth and spat into the face of Ali!
He knew what would happen. He knew that there would be a sharp intake of breath, that Ali's right arm would shoot into the air and then plunge the dagger into his throat. Amr was a brave man and could face death without flinching. He arched his back and raised his chin?to offer his throat to Ali, for he knew what was to come. At least he thought he knew!
But what happened next left him even more bewildered. Ali rose calmly from Amr's chest, wiped his face, and stood a few paces away, gazing solemnly at his adversary. "Know, O Amr, I only kill in the way of Allah and not for any private motive. Since you spat in my face, my killing you now may be from a desire for personal vengeance. So I spare your life. Rise and return to your people!"
The Giant rose. But there was no question of his returning to his people a loser. He would live a victor, or not at all. Intending to make one last attempt at victory, he picked up his sword and rushed at Ali. Perhaps he would catch Ali unawares.
Ali had just enough time to pick up his sword and shield and prepare for the fresh assault. The blow which the Giant now delivered in furious desperation was the most savage blow of the encounter. His sword shattered Ali's shield, but in doing so lost its force and impetus, and could then do no more than inflict a shallow cut on Ali's temple. The wound was too slight to worry Ali. Before the Giant could raise his sword again, the Zulfiqar flashed in the sunlight, and it's tip slashed open the Giant's throat. The blood of the Giant gushed forth like a fountain.
For a moment the Giant stood motionless. Then his body began to sway as if he was drunk. And then he fell on his face with a crash and lay still.
The earth did not shake with the impact of that colossal body. The earth is too big. But the hill of Sil'a shook with the cry of Allah-o-Akbar that thundered from 2,000 Muslim throats. The triumphant cry echoed through the length and breadth of the valley before it faded away into the stillness of the desert.
The Muslim group now rushed at the six remaining Quraish. In the sword fighting that ensued, one more Quraish was killed and one Muslim fell. A few minutes later the Quraish group turned and hastily withdrew across the ditch. Ikrimah dropped his spear as he jumped the ditch, on which Hassaan the Poet wrote many a rude verse. A man known as Nofal bin Abdullah, a cousin of Khalid's, was not successful in clearing the ditch and fell into it. Before he could rise, the Muslims were on the bank and hurling stones at him. Nofal wailed, "O Arabs! Surely death is better than this!" 1 Thereupon Ali obliged the man by descending into the ditch and cutting off his head.
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 240.
The Muslim group now returned to camp, and a strong guard was placed at the crossing.
On the afternoon of the next day, Khalid moved up with a squadron, intending to succeed where Ikrimah had failed. He tried to cross the ditch, but this time the Muslim guard at the crossing saw him advance and deployed in sufficient time to prevent his crossing. There was a heavy exchange of archery in which one Muslim and one Quraish were killed, but Khalid was unable to cross.
Since the opposition at the moment appeared too strong to overcome, Khalid decided to resort to stratagem. He moved his squadron back, as if he had given up his intention of crossing the ditch, and placed it at some distance from the ditch. The Muslims took the bait, and believing that Khalid had abandoned his attempt to cross the ditch, withdrew and began to relax, waiting for the peace and quiet of the night. Suddenly Khalid galloped back with his squadron; and before the Muslim guard had time to re-deploy, a few of the Quraish, led by Khalid, managed to cross the ditch. But they had not advanced far from the ditch when the Muslims formed up again and held Khalid within the small bridgehead which he had occupied. (See Map 3) Khalid tried hard to break through, but the Muslim resistance was too strong, and he had no success. There was some hand?to-hand fighting between the Quraish group and the Muslim guard in which Khalid killed one Muslim. The Savage also was there; and with the same javelin that he had used against Hamza at Uhud, he killed a Muslim in this sally across the ditch. Before long, however, seeing the situation as hopeless, Khalid broke contact and withdrew across the ditch. This was the last major military action in the Battle of the Ditch.
For the next two days there was no activity except for a certain amount of sporadic archery which did no damage to either side. The Muslims now ran out of food; but their courage was hardened by desperation and they were determined to starve rather than surrender to the hated infidel. In the Allied camp tempers rose and spirits fell. Everyone knew that the expedition, which had been expected to lead to a glorious victory, had ended in fiasco. There was widespread grumbling, and what made the situation intolerable was the fact that no one could find a way out of the impasse.
Then on Tuesday night, March 18, the area of Madinah was struck by a storm. Cold winds lashed at the Allied camp and howled across the valley. The temperature dropped sharply. The Allied camp was more exposed than the Muslim camp and the storm appeared to strike the Allies with a vengeance. It put out fires, knocked down cooking pots, carried away tents. The Allies sat huddled under their blankets and cloaks as the storm raged around them, waiting for an end that would not come.
Abu Sufyan could take no more. He leapt to his feet, and raising his voice against the storm, shouted to his men: "This is no proper abode for us. Men and animals have suffered grievously from exposure. The Bani Quraizah have turned out to be pigs and monkeys and have betrayed us in our hour of need. The storm has ravaged our camp, put out our fires, knocked down our tents. Let us return to Makkah. Lo, I am one who goes!" 1
Having made this last speech, Abu Sufyan jumped on to his camel and rode out with his men, hoping to get away from the pitiless storm. But the demons of the storm were to pursue him the whole night. The Ghatfan now came to know of the movement of the Quraish and so did the other tribes. Without further delay they mounted their camels and departed for their settlements and pastures. In the rear of the Quraish army rode Khalid and Amr bin Al Aas with their cavalry squadrons acting as a rear guard in case the Muslims should come out of Madinah and attempted to interfere with the Quraish movement. It was a bitter and disillusioned Abu Sufyan who led his army back to Makkah. The burden of failure lay heavy on his heart.
The next morning the Muslims found the Allies gone, and returned to their homes. This was the last attempt by the Quraish to crush the Muslims; henceforth they would remain on the defensive.
1. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, p. 232.
The Battle of the Ditch was over. Each side had lost four men. It was a victory for the Muslims in that they achieved their aim of defending themselves and their homes against the Allies, while the Allies failed in their attempt to crush the Muslims. In fact the Allies failed to do any damage at all. The siege had lasted 23 days and had imposed a terrible strain on both sides. It had been ended by the storm, but the storm was not the cause of the raising of the siege. It was the last straw. Strictly speaking, this operation was a siege and a confrontation rather than a battle, for the two armies never actually came to grips.
This was the first instance in Muslim history of the use of politics and diplomacy in war, and it shows the interplay of politics and arms in the achievement of the national aim. The use of armed force is one aspect of war-a violent and destructive aspect-to be used only when political measures fail to achieve the aims of the State. When a shooting war becomes inevitable, politics, with diplomacy as its principle instrument, prepares the ground for the use of armed force. It sets the stage, weakens the enemy, and reduces his strength to a state where armed force can be employed against him with the maximum prospect of success.
And this is just what the Prophet did. He used the instrument of diplomacy to split and weaken the enemy, not only in numbers but also in spirit. Most of the Muslims could not understand this, but they were learning from their leader. The Prophet's words, "War is stratagem" 1 , were to be remembered and frequently quoted in later Muslim campaigns.
1. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, p. 229; Waqidi: Maghazi, p. 295.