60 – The Siege

Scarcely had the trench been finished -it took them six days in all- when news came that the army of Quraysh were approaching down the valley of ‘Aqiq and were now a little to the south-west of the town, while Ghatafan and the other tribes of Najd were moving towards Uhud from the east. All the outlying houses of the oasis had already been evacuated and their tenants housed within the defenses. The Prophet now gave orders for every woman and child to be allocated a place in one or other of the upper rooms of the fortresses. Then he encamped with his men, about three thousand in all, on he chosen site. His tent of red leather was pitched at the foot of Mount Sal’. ‘A’ishah, Umm Salamah and Zaynab took turns to be with him there.

The Meccan army and their allies pitched separate camps not far from Uhud. Quraysh were dismayed to find that the crops of the oasis had already been harvested. Their camels would have to subsist on the acacias of the valley of ‘Aqiq. Meantime the camels of Ghatafan were living on the two kinds of tamarisk which grow in the thicketed parts of the plain near Uhud. But there was nothing for the horses of either army except the fodder they had brought with them. It was therefore imperative to make an end of the enemy as quickly as possible, and with this intention the two armies joined together and advanced in the direction of the city. Abu Sufyan was commander-in-chief, but by turns each of the various leaders was to have his day of honor in which he would direct the actual fighting. Khalid and ‘Ikhrimah were again in command of the Meccan cavalry, and ‘Amr was in Khalid’s troop. As they approached they were heartened to see the enemy camp in front of them outside the town. They had been afraid that they would find them garrisoned behind their battlements; but out of the open they should be able to overwhelm them by sheer weight of numbers. When they drew nearer, however, they were amazed to see that a broad trench lay between them and the archers who were lined the whole way along it on its further side. Their horse would only be able to reach it with difficulty, and then would come the greater difficulty of crossing it. Even now a shower of arrows told them that they were already within range of the enemy, so they drew back to a safer distance.

The rest of the day was spent in consultation and finally they decided that their best hope lay in the possibility of forcing the enemy to withdraw their troops in large numbers from the north of the town in order to defend it elsewhere. If the trench were sufficiently unmanned, it should not be too difficult to cross it. Their thoughts turned towards the Bani Qurayzah, whose fortresses blocked the approach to Medina from the south-east. According to agreement, Huyay of the Bani Nadir had come from Khaybar to join the army, and he now pressed his services on Abu Sufyan as ambassador to his fellow Jews, assuring him that he could easily persuade them to break their pact with Muhammad; and once their help had been secured the town could be attacked from two directions simultaneously. Abu Sufyan gladly accepted his offer, and urged him to lose no time.

The Bani Qurayzah were afraid of Huyay; they looked on him as a bearer of bad fortune, an inauspicious man who had brought disaster upon his own people, and who would do the same for them if they let him have his way. They feared him all the more because he had an overwhelming power of soul that was difficult to counter. If he wanted something, he would wear down all opposition and neither rest himself nor let others rest until he had gained his end. He now went to the fortress of Ka’b ibn Asad, the chief of Qurayzah -it was he who had made their pact with the Prophet- and knocked on the gate, announcing who he was. Ka’b at first refused to unbolt it. “Confound thee, Ka’b,” said Huyay, “let me in.” “Confound the, Huyay,” said Ka’b, knowing well what he wanted. “I have made a pact with Muhammad, and I will not break what is between me and him.” “Let me in,” said Huyay, “and let us talk.” “I will not,” said Ka’b; but finally Huyay accused him of not letting him in simply because he grudged sharing his food with him, and this so angered Ka’b that he opened the gate. “Confound thee, Ka’b,” he said, “I have brought thee lasting glory for all time and power like that of a raging sea. I have brought thee Quraysh and Kinanah and Ghatafan with their leaders and chiefs, a full ten thousand of them, with their horse a thousand strong. They have sworn to me that they will not rest until they have rooted out Muhammad and those with him. This time Muhammad shall not escape.” “By God,” said Ka’b, “thou hast brought me shame for all time -a cloud without water, all thunder and lightning, and naught else in it. Confound thee, Huyay. Leave me and let me be as I am.” Huyay saw that he was weakening, and his eloquent tongue enlarged on the great advantages that would come to them all if the new religion were blotted out. Finally, he swore by God the most solemn oath: “If Quraysh and Ghatafan return to their territories and have not smitten down Muhammad, I will enter with thee into thy fortress, and my fate shall be as thine.” This convinced Ka’b that there could be no possibility of survival for Islam, and he agreed to renounce the pact between his people and the Prophet. Huyay asked to see the document, and when he had read it he tore it in two. Ka’b now went to tell his fellow tribesmen what had passed between them. “What advantage is it,” they said, “if thou art slain, that Huyay should be slain with thee?” and at first he met with considerable opposition. It was amongst the Bani Qurayzah that Ibn al-Hayyaban had come to live, the old Jew from Syria who had hoped to meet the coming Prophet and who had described him and insisted that his advent was at hand, and many of them felt that Muhammad must indeed be the man, though few of these were capable of being interested in a Prophet who was not a Jew, and still fewer were capable of drawing any practical conclusions about the gravity of opposing a Prophet, be he Jew or Gentile. As for the majority, they were simply averse to breaking a political pact; but when some of the hypocrites brought news which confirmed what Huyay had said, and when some of their own men went singly and unobtrusively to see for themselves, the general opinion began to swing in favor of Quraysh and their allies. It was indeed a formidable sight, looking across the trench from the Medina side, to see the plain beyond it surging with men and horses as far and wide as the eye could reach.

Meantime Khalid and ‘Ikrimah were examining the trench, albeit from a distance, to see where it might most easily be crossed. “This piece of trickery!” they exclaimed in exasperation. “Never have Arabs resorted to such a device. There must surely be with him a man of Persia.” To their disappointment they saw that the work had been all too well done, except for a short section which was slightly narrower than the rest, and this was closely guarded. One or two attempts to storm it were a total failure. Their horses had never seen anything like the trench and manifested a strong aversion for it. This might change, but for the moment the fighting could be no more than than an interchange of archery.

The Bani Qurayzah’s renunciation of their pact did not remain hidden. Many of the hypocrites were undetermined as to which side they belonged to, and they were ready to betray the secrets of either side to the other. ‘Umar was the first of the Companions to hear that the Jews were now a potential enemy. He went to the Prophet, who was sitting in his tent with Abu Bakr. “O Messenger of God,” he said, “I have been told that Bani Qurayzah have broken their treaty and are at war with us.” The Prophet was visibly troubled; and he sent Zubayr to find out the truth of the matter. Then, lest the Helpers should feel themselves to have been excluded, he called the two Sa’ds of Aws and Khazraj to him together with Usayd, and having told them the news he said: “Go and see if it be true. If it be false, then say so plainly. But if it be true, then tell me in some subtle way that I shall understand.” They reached the fortresses of Qurayzah soon after Zubayr and found that they had indeed renounced the pact. They adjured them by God to revert to it again before it was too late, but they only answered: “Who is the Messenger of God? There is no pact between us and Muhammad nor any agreement.” In vain they reminded them of the fates of the Bani Qaynuqa’ and the Bani Nadir. Ka’b and the others were now too confident of the victory of Quraysh to listen to them; and when they saw that they were wasting their words they returned to the Prophet. “‘Adal and Qarah,” they said to him, these being the two tribes who had betrayed Khubayb and his companions to the men of Hudhayl. The Prophet understood and magnified God: “Allahu akbar! Be of good cheer, O Muslims.”

It was now necessary to reduce the strength of the forces at the trench and to keep a garrison within the town itself, so the Prophet sent back a hundred men. Then the warning came to him that Huyay was urging Quraysh and Ghatafan to send by night each a thousand man to the fortresses of Qurayzah and from there to raid the center of the town and break into the fortresses of the Muslims and carry off their women and children. The appointed night, for various reasons, was put off more than once, and the project was never realized; but as soon as the Prophet heard of it he sent Zayd with a troop of three hundred horse to patrol the streets, magnifying God throughout each night, and it was as if the city was filled with a mighty host.

The horses were not needed at the camp, but the troops were sorely missed, for the trench had to be manned day and night, so that each man now kept watch for longer hours. The days passed and the strain was very great, with Khalid and ‘Ikrimah and their men ever seeking to take advantage of a moment of slackness. But only once did they succeed in crossing the trench, and that was when ‘Ikrimah suddenly noticed that the narrowest section happened for the moment to be badly guarded. He succeeded in making his horse leap the gap, and he was followed by three others. But by the time the fourth man had crossed, ‘Ali and those with him had remanned the narrow sector and made it once more impregnable, thereby also cutting off the retreat of the horsemen who were now on their side. One of these, ‘Amr, shouted a challenge to single combat. When ‘Ali offered himself he refused, saying: “I hate to kill the like of thee. Thy father was a boon companion of mine. Therefore go back, thou art but a stripling.” But ‘Ali insisted, so ‘Amr dismounted and both men advanced. A cloud of dust soon hid them from view; then they heard ‘Ali’s voice raised in magnification and they knew that ‘Amr was dead or dying. Meantime ‘Ikrimah and his fellows took advantage of the distraction to regain the other side, but Nawfal of Makhzum failed to clear the gap and his horse fell with him into the trench. They began to stone him but he called out: “O Arabs, death is better than this,” so they went down and dispatched him.

The crossing of the trench, although abortive, had shown that it was a possibility; and the next day attacks had been made at various points even before sunrise. The Prophet exhorted the believers and promised them the victory if they were steadfast, and steadfast they remained, despite their initial weariness from the strain of overlong watches. The site of the camp had been well chosen, for the slope of the ground away from Mount Sal’ meant that the near bank was considerably higher than the far bank. Again and again throughout the day the enemy tried to force their way across, but they could achieve nothing, and the actual fighting was limited, as on previous days, to a discharge of archery. Nor was anyone killed on either side, but Sa’d ibn Mu’adh was struck in the arm by an arrow which severed a vein, and many of the horses of Quraysh and Ghatafan were wounded.

The time for the noon prayer came, but there was no question of any man relaxing his vigilance for a moment. When the time was running out, those who were nearest the Prophet called to him: “O Messenger of God, we have not yet prayed” -an obvious fact but greatly disturbing because such a thing had never happened before since the outset of Islam. His rejoinder reassured them somewhat: “Nor I, by God, I have not prayed.” The time for the mid-afternoon prayer came, and went with the setting of the sun. But even so the enemy kept up their attacks, and it was only when the last light had faded from the west that they moved back to their two camps. As soon as they were out of sight the Prophet withdrew from the trench, leaving Usayd to continue on guard with a detachment of men, while he himself led the remainder in the four prayers which were now incumbent. Khalid suddenly reappeared later that evening with a body of horse in the hope that he would find the trench unguarded, but Usayd and his archers kept them at bay.

The Revelation referred to the strain of those days as the time when eyes could no longer look with steadiness, and when men’s hearts rose up into their throats, and ye were thinking strange thoughts about God. There the believers were tested and tried, and their souls were quaked with a mighty quaking.[1]

The question arose in every mind as to how many more such days could be endured. Food was beginning to run short and the nights were exceptionally cold; and many of the weak in faith, unnerved by hunger and cold and lack of sleep, were almost ready to join the hypocrites, who were passing round the word that it was not possible to continue to resist such an enemy with only a trench between them, and that they should withdraw behind the city walls. But the faith of the true believers was confirmed by the hardship, and they received praise from the Revelation for having said, at the times of greatest stress, when they saw the clans massed together against them:

This is that which God and His Messenger did promise us. That which God and His Messenger foretold hath truly come to pass.

The Revelation added:

And it did but increase them in faith and in submission.[2]

They had spoken thus in recollection of a verse that had been revealed to the Prophet two or three years previously:

Think ye to enter Paradise, while yet there hath not come unto you the like of what came unto those who passed away before you? Affliction smote them and injuries and they were made to quake until the Messenger of God said, and with him those who believed: When cometh the help of God? Lo, verily the help of God is nigh.[3]

The Prophet knew that in many souls amongst his people the powers of endurance were nearing their end. But he knew also that as each day passed the enemy likewise felt the grip of hardship tighten upon them. So he found a way of sending word by night to two of the chiefs of Ghatafan, offering them a third of the date harvest of Medina if they would withdraw from the field. They sent back word: “Give us half the dates of Medina.” But he refused to increase his offer of a third, and they agreed to this, whereupon he sent for ‘Uthman and told him to draw up a peace treaty between the believers and the clans of Ghatafan.  Then he sent for the two Sa’ds and they came to his tent -the chief of Aws with his wounded arm bound up- and he told them of his plan. They said: “O Messenger of God, is this something which thou wouldst have us do, or which God hath commanded and must be done? Or is it something which thou doest for our sake?” He answered them: “It is something which I do for your sakes, and by God I would not do it but that I see the Arabs have shot at you from one bow and assailed you from every side, and I would break some of the sharpness of their assault against you.” But the wounded Sa’d said to him: “O Messenger of God, we and these folks were believers in gods together with God, worshippers of idols, not truly worshipping God nor knowing Him. They then had no hope to eat one date of ours, save as guests or by barter. And now that God hath endowed us with Islam and guided us and strengthened us with thee and with it, shall we give them our goods? By God, we will give them naught but the sword, until He decide between us.” “Be it as thou wilt,” said the Prophet, and Sa’d took the pen and the vellum from ‘Uthman and struck through what had been written, saying: “Let them do their worst!”[4]

These negotiations which now came to nothing had been with the chiefs of the two clans of Fazarah and Murrah. The third Ghatafanite ally of Quraysh was the clan of Ashja’ to which Nu’aym belonged, the man whom Abu Sufyan and Suhayl had bribed to intimidate, if he could, the Muslims from keeping their promise to meet the Meccans at the second Badr. His stay in Medina had profoundly affected him, and it was therefore with mixed feelings that he had now come out with the rest of his clan to support the Meccans on this occasion. His admiration for the men of the new religion had been confirmed and increased by their resistance to an army more than three times their strength. Then came the hour when, as he himself said, “God cast Islam into my heart”; and that night -it was almost immediately after the project of a separate truce with Ghatafan had been abandoned- he made his way into the city and thence to the camp, where he asked to see the Prophet. “What hath brought thee here, Nu’aym?” he said. “I have come,” he answered, “to declare my belief in thy word and testify that thou has brought the truth. So bid me do what thou wilt, O Messenger of God, for thou hast but to command me, and I will fulfill thy behest. My people and others know naught of my Islam.” “To the utmost of thy power,” replied the Prophet, “set them at odds with each other.” Nu’aym asked permission to lie and the Prophet said: “Say what thou wilt to draw them off from us, for war is deception.”[5]

Nu’aym went back through the town and made his way to the Bani Qurayzah, who welcomed him as an old friend and offered him food and drink. “I came not for this,” he said, “but to warn you of my fears for your safety and to give you my counsel.” Then he proceeded to point out to them that if QUraysh and Ghatafan failed to inflict a decisive defeat on their enemy they would return home and leave the Jews at the mercy of Muhammad and his followers. Therefore they should refuse to strike one blow for Quraysh until they had been given leading men as hostages, in guarantee that they would not withdraw until the enemy had been overwhelmed. His advice was accepted with enthusiasm by the Bani Qurayzah, who had been increasingly beset by the very fears he had touched on. So they agreed to do what he had said, and promised not to tell his own people or Quraysh that it was he who had given them this counsel.

Then he went to his one-time friend Abu Sufyan and told him and the other chiefs of Quraysh who were with him that he had a very serious piece of information to impart, on the condition, which they agreed to, that they would swear to tell no one that he was their informer. “The Jews regret their treatment of Muhammad,” he said, “and they have sent to him saying: ‘We regret what we have done, and will it satisfy thee if we take as hostages some of the leading men of Quraysh and Ghatafan and give them to thee that thou mayst cut off their heads? Then will we fight with thee against those that be left.’ Muhammad hath sent them his agreement; so if the Jews ask you for some of your men as hostages, give them not one man of yours.” Then he went to his own people and the other clans of Ghatafan and told them the same ad he had told Quraysh.

After consultation, the leaders of the two invading armies decided to say nothing for the moment to Huyay, but to put to the test what Nu’aym had said. So they sent ‘Ikrimah to the Bani Qurayzah with the message: “Make ye ready to fight on the morrow, that once and for all we may rid ourselves of Muhammad.” They answered: “Tomorrow is the Sabbath; nor in any case will we fight with you against Muhammad unless ye give us hostages who shall be for us as a security until we have made an end for him. For we fear that if the battle go against you ye will withdraw to your own country, leaving us with that man in ours, and we cannot face him alone.” When this message reached Quraysh and Ghatafan they said: “By God, what Nu’aym told us is indeed the truth.” And they sent again to Bani Qurayzah saying that they would not give them a single man, but bidding them fight none the less, which drew from the the answer that they would not strike one blow until they had received hostages.

Abu Sufyan now went to Huyay and said: “Where is the help thou didst promise us from thy people? They have deserted us, and now they seek to betray us.” “By the Torah, nay!” said Huyay. “The Sabbath is here, and we cannot break the Sabbath. But on Sunday the will fight against Muhammad and his companions like blazing fire.” It was only then that Abu Sufyan told him about the demand for hostages. Huyay was visibly taken aback, and interpreting his disconcertedness as a sign of guilt, Abu Sufyan said: “I swear by al-Lat that this is naught but your treachery, theirs and thine, For I account thee as having entered into the treachery of thy people.” “Nay,” he protested, “by the Torah that was revealed unto Moses on the day of Mount Sinai, I am no traitor.” But Abu Sufyan was unconvinced, and fearing for his life, Huyay left the camp and made his way to the fortresses of the Bani Qurayzah.

As to the relations between Quraysh and the tribes of Najd, there was little need for any action on the part of Nu’aym. Nearly two weeks had passed and nothing had been achieved. The provisions of both their armies were running out, while more and more of their horses were dying every day, of hunger or of arrow wounds or of both. Some camels had also died. Nor could Quraysh fail to perceive that Ghatafan and the other Bedouin were at the best reluctant allies. They had taken part in the campaign far more in hopes of plunder than out of hostility to the new religion; and those hopes by which they had been lured to the Yathrib oasis had proved totally vain. Recriminations were on many tongues, and mutual distrust spread throughout the two invading armies. The expedition had virtually failed; and now the final seal of failure was placed upon it by Heaven.

For three days, after the ritual prayer, the Prophet had uttered the supplication: “O God, Revealer of the Book, Swift Caller to account, turn the confederates to flight, turn them to flight and cause them to quake.”[6] And when all was over this verse was revealed:

O ye who believe, remember God’s favor unto you when hosts came at you and We sent against them a wind and hosts ye saw not.[7]

for days the weather had been exceptionally cold and wet; and now a piercing wind came from the east with torrents of rain which forced every man to take shelter. The night fell, and a tempest raged over the plain. The wind rose to hurricane force and what the wind did not accomplish was done by unseen hands. Throughout the two camps of the invaders there was soon not one tent left standing nor any fire left burning, and the men crouched shivering on the ground, huddled together for warmth.

The Muslims’ camp was somewhat sheltered from the wind, which blew down none of their tents. But its bitterness filled the air, and together with the accumulated strain of the siege it reduced the believers to a weakness of soul that they would not have thought possible. The Prophet prayed late into the night; then he went among the men who happened to be nearest to his tent, and one of them, Hudhayfah the son of Yaman, told afterwards how they had heard him say: “Which of you will rise and go to see what the enemy are about and then return, and I will ask of God that he shall be my Companion in Paradise?” But there was no response. “We were so unnerved,” said Hudhayfah, “so cold and so hungry that not one man rose to his feet.” When it became clear that no one was intending to offer himself, the Prophet called to Hudhayfah, who rose and went to him, spurred into action by being singled out from the rest. “I could not but rise,” he said, “when I heard my name upon his lips.” “Go thou,” said the Prophet, “and enter in amongst the men and see what they are about; but do naught else until thou hast returned unto us.” “So I went,” said Hudhayfah, “and entered amongst the people while the wind and the hosts of God were doing their work against them.” He told how he made his way amongst the crouching figures of Quraysh -for it was to their camp that he had gone- until he came near to where their commander was seated. They spent the night benumbed with cold, and then towards dawn, when the wind began to abate, Abu Sufyan cried out in a loud voice: “Men of Quraysh, our horses and our camels are dying; the Bani Qurayzah have failed us, and we have been informed that they seek to betray us; and now we have suffered from the wind what your eyes behold. Therefore begone from this place, for I am going.” With these words he went to his camel and mounted it, so eager to set off that he forgot to untie its hobble, which he did only after he had forced it to rise on three legs. But ‘Ikrimah said to him: “Thou art the head of the people and their leader. Wilt thou be clear of us so hastily, and leave the men behind?” Whereupon Abu Sufyan was ashamed, and making his camel kneel once more, he dismounted. The army broke camp and moved off, and he waited until most of them were on the homeward march. Then he set off himself, having agreed with Khalid and ‘Amr that they should bring up the rear with a detachment of two hundred horse. While they were waiting, Khalid said: “Every man of sense now knoweth that Muhammad hath not lied,” but Abu Sufyan cut him short saying: “Thou hast more right not to say so than any man else.” “Wherefore?” said Khalid. And he answered: “Because Muhammad belittled the honor of thy father, and slew the chief of thy clan, Abu Jahl.”

As soon as Hudhayfah had heard the order to march he made his way to the camp of Ghatafan, but found the place deserted, for the wind had broken their resistance also and they were already on their way to Najd. So he returned to the Prophet, who was standing in prayer, cloaked against the cold in a wrapper belonging to one of his wives. “When he saw me,” said Hudhayfah, “he motioned me to sit beside him at his feet, and threw the end of the wrapper over me. Then, with me still in it, he made the bowing and the prostrations. When he had uttered the final greeting of peace, I told him the news.”[8]

Bilal made the call to the dawn prayer; and when they had prayed it, the half-light of the approaching day revealed the total emptiness of the plain beyond the trench. The Prophet gave out that every man had permission to return home, whereupon most of them set off at great speed for the town. Then, fearing that the confederates might have left some spies, or that Bani Qurayzah might be on the watch and that they might try to persuade the enemy to return, telling them that the trench was no longer guarded, he sent Jabir and ‘Umar’s son ‘Abd Allah in the wake of their departed comrades to call them back. They both went after them, shouting as hard as they could, but not one man so much as turned his head. Jabir followed the Bani Harithah all the way, and stood for a while shouting outside their houses, but no one came out to him. When he and ‘Abd Allah finally returned to the Prophet to tell him of their complete failure, he laughed and set out for the town himself with those of his Companions who had waited to escort him.


[1] Qur’an 33 : 10 – 11
[2] Qur’an 33 : 22
[3] Qur’an 2 : 214
[4] I.I. 676
[5] I.I. 681; W. 480 – 481
[6] I.S. 2/1, 53; W. 487
[7] Qur’an 33 : 9
[8] I.I. 683 – 684; W. 488 – 490

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