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The Battle of the Trench ( ) also known as Battle of Ahzab, Battle of the Confederates and Siege of medina ( ), was a fortnight-long siege of Yathribmarker (now Medina) by Arab and Jewish tribes. The strength of the confederate armies is estimated around 10,000 men with six hundred horses and some camels, while the Medinan numbered 3000. The battle began on March 31, 627.

The outnumbered defenders of Medina, mainly Muslims led by Islamic prophet Muhammad, opted to dig and fight from a trench rather than face the tribes in the open. The trench together with Medina's natural fortifications rendered the confederate cavalry (consisting of horses and camels) useless, locking the two sides in a stalemate. Hoping to make several attacks at once, the confederates persuaded the Banu Qurayza to attack the city from the south. However, Muhammad's diplomacy derailed the negotiations, and broke up the confederacy against him. The well-organized defenders, the sinking of confederate morale, and poor weather conditions caused the siege to end in a fiasco.

The siege was a "battle of wits", in which Muslims diplomatically overcame their opponents with very few casualties. Efforts to defeat the Muslims failed, and Islam became influential in the region. As a consequence, the Muslims besieged the Qurayza, leading to its unconditional surrender. The defeat also caused the Meccans to lose their trade and much of their prestige.


The battle is named after the khandaq (Arabic الخندق) that was dug by Muslims in preparation for the battle. The word khandaq is the Arabic form of the Persian word kandak (meaning "That which has been dug"). For this reason the word "trench" may be replaced with "ditch". It may also be referred to by its original Arabic name "khandaq".

The battle is also referred to as the Battle of Confederates (Arabic غزوة الاحزاب). The Qur'an uses the term confederates (Arabic الاحزاب) in sura Al-Ahzab to denote the confederacy of pagans and Jews against Islam.


After their expulsion from Mecca, the Muslims fought the Meccan Quraysh at the Battle of Badrmarker in 624, and at the Battle of Uhud in 625. Although the Muslims were defeated at the Battle of Uhud, their strength was gradually growing. In April 626 Muhammad raised a force of 300 men and 10 horses to meet the Quraysh army of 1,000 at Badr, where the latter had threatened to attack. Although no fighting occurred, the coastal tribes were impressed with Muslim power. Muhammad also tried, with limited success, to break up many confederacies against Muslims. Nevertheless, he was unable to prevent the Meccan one.

As with the battles of Badr and Uhud, the Muslim army used unconventional methods against their opponents (at Badr), the Muslims surrounded the wells, depriving their opponents of water; at the Battle of Uhud, Muslims made strategic use of the hills). In this battle they dug a trench to render the enemy cavalry ineffective.

The Confederates

Early 627, the Jews of Banu Nadir met with the Arab Quraysh of Mecca. Huyayy ibn Akhtab, along with other leaders from Khaybarmarker, traveled to swear allegiance with Safwanmarker at Mecca.

The bulk of the Confederate armies were gathered by the pagan Quraysh of Meccamarker, led by Abu Sufyan, who fielded 4,000 foot soldiers, 300 horsemen, and 1,000-1,500 men on camels.

Banu Nadir began rousing up the nomads of Najd. They bribed the Banu Ghatafan with half their harvest. This contingent, the second largest, added a strength of about 2,000 men 300 horsemen led by Unaina bin Hasan Fazari. Bani Assad also agreed to join them led by Tuleha Asadi. From the Banu Sulaym, the Nadir secured 700 men, though it would have been much larger had some of its leaders not been sympathetic towards Islam. The Bani Amir, who had a pact with Muhammad, refused to join.

Other tribes included the Banu Murra with 400 men led by Hars ibn Auf Murri; Banu Shuja with 700 men led by Sufyan ibn Abd Shams. In total, the strength of the Confederate armies, though not agreed upon by scholars, is estimated around 10,000 men with six hundred horses. At the end of March 627 the army which led by Abu Sufyan marched on Medina.

In accordance with the plan the armies began marching towards Medinamarker, Meccans from the south (along the coast) and others from the east. At the same time horsemen from the Banu Khuza'a left to warn Medina of the invading army.

Later the Banu Qurayza, who were in Medina, joined the confederacy.

Muslim defense

The men from Banu Khuza'a reached Muhammad in four days, warning him of the Confederate armies that were to arrive in a week. Muhammad gathered the Medinans to discuss the best strategy of overcoming the enemy. Meeting the enemy in the open (which led to victory at Badrmarker), and waiting for them inside the city (a lesson learnt from the defeat at Uhud) were both suggested. Ultimately, the outnumbered Muslims opted to engage in a defensive battle by establishing deep trenches to act as a barrier along the northern front. The tactic of a defensive trench was introduced by Salman the Persian, who may have adapted it from the Persian army. Every capable Muslim in Medina including Muhammad contributed to digging the massive trench in six days. The ditch was dug on the northern side only, as the rest of Medinamarker was surrounded by rocky mountains and trees, impenetrable to large armies (especially cavalry). The digging of the ditch coincided with a near-famine in Medina. Women and children were moved to the inner city. The Medinans harvested all their crops early, so the Confederate armies would have to rely on their own food reserves.

Muhammad established headquarters at the hillock of Sala' and the army was arrayed there; this position would give Muslims an advantage if the enemy crossed the trench.

The final army that would defend the city from the invasion consisted of 3,000 men, and included all inhabitants of Medina over the age of 15, except the Banu Qurayza (the Qurayza did supply the Muslims with some instruments for digging the trench). Later, 200 men were sent inside the city to guard the women and children, after an attack from the Banu Qurayza was apprehended.

There were many hypocrites among the Muslims who circulated frightening rumors, which added to the fear of the Muslims. The Holy Qur'an tells of the psychological crisis with which the Muslims lived during that period:

"Behold! They came upon you from above you and from below you, and when the eyes grew wild and the hearts gaped up to the throats, and ye imagined various (vain) thoughts about God! In that situation the believers were tried: They were shaken with a mighty Shock. And behold! The hypocrites and those in whose hearts there is disease (even) say: God and His Apostle promised us nothing but delusion! Behold! A party among them said: O people of Yathrib (Medina), you cannot stand (the attack), therefore turn back! And a band of them ask for leave of the Prophet, saying: Truly our houses are bare and exposed though they were not exposed; they intended nothing but to flee." (33:10-13)

The pagan army, on the contrary, was enjoying an extremely high morale. Victory to them was certain. Medina was under their siege, and its inhabitants did not possess the courage to come out of it. Their confidence in victory and morale went higher when Banu Quraidhah joined them. This made them change their strategy from the siege of Medina to a direct invasion.

Siege of Medina

Battle of Khandaq (Battle of the Trench)

The siege of Medina began on March 31, 627 and lasted for two weeks. Since sieges were uncommon in Arabian warfare, the arriving confederates were unprepared to deal with the trenches dug by the Muslims. The Confederates tried to hurl bodies of horsemen in hopes of forcing a passage, but the Medinans entrenched rigidly prevented such a crossing. Both of the armies gathered on either side of the trench spent two or three weeks exchanging insult in prose and verse, backed up with arrows fired from a comfortable distance. According to Rodinson, there were three dead among the attackers and five among the defenders. On the other hand, the harvest had been gathered and the besiegers had some trouble finding food for their horses. Those horses were no use to them in the attack.

The Quraysh veterans grew impatient with the deadlock. A group of militants led by ‘Amr ibn ‘Abd Wudd and Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl attempted to thrust through the trench and managed to cross the trench occupying a marshy area near the hillock of Sala. 'Amr's challenge to the Muslims to a duel was accepted by Ali ibn Abi Talib. After a short engagement, Ali killed 'Amr and the confederates were forced to withdraw in the state of panic and confusion. Although the Confederates lost only two men during the encounter, they failed to accomplish anything important.

The Confederate army made several other attempts to cross the trench during the night and failed every time. Although the confederates could have deployed their infantry over the whole length of the trench, they were unwilling to engage Muslims at close quarter as the former regarded the latter as superior in hand-to-hand fighting. As the Muslim army was well dug in behind the embankment made from the earth which had been taken from the ditch and prepared to bombard attackers with stones and arrows, any attack could cause great casualties.

Banu Qurayza

The Confederates then attempted several simultaneous attacks, in particular by trying to persuade the Banu Qurayza to attack the Muslims from the south. From the Confederates, Huyayy ibn Akhtab, a Khaybarianmarker, the leader of the exiled Jewish tribe Banu Nadir, returned to Medina seeking their support against the Muslims. So far the Qurayza had tried to remain neutral, and were initially hesitant to join the Confederates since they had earlier made a pact with Muhammad. When Akhtab approached them, their leader refused to allow him entry.

Akhtab eventually managed to enter and persuade them that the Muslims would surely be overwhelmed if they opened a second front against them, and tore into pieces the agreement between the Qurayza and Muhammad. The sight of the Confederate armies, surging the land with soldiers and horses as far as the eye could see, swung the opinion in the favour of the Confederacy.

News of Qurayzah's one-sided renounciation of their pact with Muhammad leaked, and Umar promptly informed Muhammad. Such suspicions were reinforced by the movement of enemy troops towards the strongholds of the Qurayza. Muhammad became anxious about their conduct, and realized the grave potential danger the Qurayza posed. Because of his pact with the Qurayza, he had not bothered to make defensive preparations along the Muslims' border with the tribe. The Qurayza also possessed large numbers of weaponry: 1,500 swords, 2,000 lances, 300 suits of armor, and 500 shields.

Muhammad sent three leading Muslims to bring him details of the recent developments. He advised the men to openly declare their findings, should they find the Qurayza to be loyal, so as to increase the morale of the Muslim fighters. However, he warned against spreading the news of a possible breach of the pact on the Qurayza's part, so as to avoid any panic within Muslim ranks.

The leaders found that the pact indeed had been renounced, and tried in vain of convincing the Qurayza to revert by reminding them of the fates of Banu Nadir and Banu Qaynuqa. The findings of the leaders were signaled to Muhammad in a metaphor: "Adal and Qarah". Because the people of Adal and Qarah had betrayed the Muslims and killed them at the opportune moment, Maududi believes the metaphor means the Qurayza intended to do the same.

Crisis in Medina

Muhammad attempted to hide his knowledge of the activities of Banu Qurayza; however, rumor soon spread of a massive assault on the city of Medina from Qurayza's side designed to capture the defenders' families which severely demoralized the Medinans.

Muslims found themselves in greater difficulties by the day. Food was running short, and nights were colder. The lack of sleep made matters worse. So tense was the situation that, for the first time, the canonical daily prayers were neglected by the Muslim community. Only at night, when the attacks stopped due to darkness, could they resume their regular worship. According to Ibn Ishaq, the situation became serious and fear was everywhere.

Quran describes the situation in surah Al-Ahzab:

Muslim response

Immediately after hearing the news of the Qurayza , Muhammad had sent 100 men to the inner city for protection. Later he sent 300 horsemen (cavalry was not needed at the trench) as well to protect the city. The loud voices, in which the troops prayed very night, created the illusion of a large force.

The crisis showed Muhammad that many of his men had reached the limits of their endurance. He sent a word to Ghatafan trying to negotiate their defection, offering them a third of Medina's date harvest if they withdrew. Although the Ghatafan demanded half, they eventually agreed to negotiating with Muhammad on those terms. Before Muhammad began the order of drafting the agreement, he consulted the Medinan leaders. They sharply rejected the terms of the agreement, protesting Medina had never sunk to such levels of ignominy. The negotiations were broken off. While the Ghatafan did not retreat they had compromised themselves by entering negotiations in with Medina, and Confederacy's internal dissension had increased.

According to historian Ibn Ishaq, at about that point, Muhammad received a visit from Nuaym ibn Masud, an Arab leader well respected by the entire confederacy, but who had secretly converted to Islam. Muhammad asked him to end the siege by creating discord amongst Confederates. When Nuaym asked permission to lie, Muhammad replied "Say what thou wilt to draw them off of us - war is deception."

Nuaym then came up with an efficient stratagem. He first went to the Banu Qurayza and warned them about the intentions of the rest of the Confederacy. If the siege fails, he said, the Confederacy will not be afraid to abandon the Jews, leaving them at the mercy of Muhammad. The Qurayza should thus demand Confederate leaders as hostages in return for cooperation. This advice touched the fears the Qurayza had harbored.

Next Nuaym went to Abu Sufyan, the Confederate leader, warning him that the Qurayza had defected to Muhammad. He stated that the Jewish tribe intended to ask the Confederacy of hostages, ostensibly in return for cooperation, but really to handover to Muhammad. Thus the Confederacy should not give a single man as hostage. Nuaym repeated the same message to other tribes in the Confederacy.But some Muslim scholars completely reject this story as Ibn Ishaq gave no Sanad of this story.

Collapse of the Confederacy

Nuaym's stratagem worked. After consulting, the Confederate leaders sent Ikrimah to the Qurayza, signaling a united invasion of Medina. The Qurayza, however, demanded hostages as a guarantee that the Confederacy would not desert them. The Confederacy, considering that the Qurayza might give the hostage to Muhammad, refused. Messages were repeatedly sent back and forth between the parties, but each held to its position stubbornly.

Abu Sufyan summoned Huyayy ibn Akhtab, informing him of Qurayza's response. Huyayy was taken aback, and Abu Sufyan branded him as a "traitor". Fearing for his life, Huyayy fled to the Qurayza's strongholds.

The Bedouins, the Ghatafan and other Confederates from Najd had already been compromised by Muhammad's negotiations. They had taken part in the expedition in hopes of plunder, rather than any particular prejudice against Islam. They lost hope as chances of success dwindled, uninterested in continuing the siege. The two confederate armies were marked by recriminations and mutual distrust.

The provisions of the Confederate armies were running out. Horses and camels were dying out of hunger and wounds. For days the weather had been exceptionally cold and wet. Violent winds blew out the camp fires, taking away from the Confederate army their source of heat. The Muslim camp, however, was sheltered by such winds. During the night the Confederate armies withdrew, and by morning the ground was cleared of all enemy forces.

Aftermath:Siege and demise of the Banu Qurayza

Following the retreat of the Confederate army, the Banu Qurayza strongholds were besieged by the Muslims. After a 25 day siege the Banu Qurayza unconditionally surrendered. WhenBanu Qurayza surrendered, Muslims seized their stronghold and their stores. On the request of the Banu Aus, who were allied to the Qurayza, Muhammad chose one of them, Sa'ad ibn Mu'adh, as an arbitrator to pronounce judgment upon them. Sa'ad, who would later die of his wounds from the battle, decided the men shall be killed and women and children left alone. Muhammad approved of this decision, and the next day the sentence was carried out. The men - numbering between 400 and 900 - were bound and placed under the custody of Muhammad ibn Maslamah, who had killed Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf, while the women and children were placed under Abdullah ibn Salam, a former rabbi who had converted to Islam.

Scholars argue that Muhammad had already decided upon this judgment before the Qurayza's surrender, and that Sa'ad was putting his allegiance to the Muslim community above that to his tribe. One reason cited for such punishment is that Muhammad's previous clemency towards defeated foes had been repeatedly betrayed, was in contradiction to Arab and Jewish laws of the time, and seen as a sign of weakness.


The failure of the siege marked the beginning of Muhammad's undoubted political ascendancy in the city of Medina. The Meccans had exerted their utmost strength to dislodge Muhammad from Medina, and this defeat caused them to lose their trade with Syria and much of their prestige with it. Watt conjectures that the Meccans at this point began to contemplate that conversion to Islam would be the most prudent option. From the magnitude of the defeated army, it had become clear that the Arab military forces regardless of size would not be able to exterminate Islam.


The main contemporary source of the battle is the Surah 33rd of Quran. Although Quran doesn't speak about the events, it reveals psychological and social situation of people of Medina and different approaches toward the battle among them. The most trustworthy source for reconstruction of the life of the historical Muhammad is the Quran. The Qur'an in its actual form is generally considered by non-Muslim academic scholars to record the words spoken by Muhammad because the search for variants in Western academia has not yielded any differences of great significance.

Next in importance are the historical works by writers of third and fourth century of the Muslim era. These include the traditional Muslim biographies of Muhammad and quotes attributed to him (the sira and hadith literature), which provide further information on Muhammad's life. The earliest surviving written sira (biographies of Muhammad and quotes attributed to him) is Ibn Ishaq's Life of God's Messenger written some 120 to 130 years after Muhammad's death. Although the original work is lost, portions of it survive in the recensions of Ibn Hisham and Al-Tabari. Another early source is the history of Muhammad's campaigns by al-Waqidi (d. 823).


  1. Nomani, Sirat al-Nabi, p. 368-370.
  2. Peters, Muhammad and the Origins of Islam, p. 211—214.
  3. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, p. 135.
  4. Watt, Muhammad at Medina, p. 34-37.
  5. al-Halabi, al-Sirat al-Halbiyyah, p. 19.
  6. Lings, Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources, p. 215f.
  7. Buchanan, States, Nations, and Borders: The Ethics of Making Boundaries, p. 200.
  8. Rodinson, p.209
  9. Glasse & Smith , New Encyclopedia of Islam: A Revised Edition of the Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, p. 81.
  10. Watt, Muhammad at Medina, p. 36f.
  11. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, p. 167-174.
  12. Rodinson , p. 209f.
  13. Zafrulla Khan, Muhammad, Seal of the Prophets, p. 177-179.
  14. Nomani, p. 382.
  15. Lings, p. 221-223.
  16. Watt, "Kurayza, Banu" Encyclopaedia of Islam.
  17. Ramadan, In the Footsteps of the Prophet, p. 137-145.
  18. Heck, "Arabia Without Spices: An Alternate Hypothesis", p. 547-567.
  19. Maududi, The Meaning of the Quran, p. 64f.
  20. Peterson, Muhammad. Prophet of God, p. 123f.
  21. Peters Muhammad and the Origins of Islam, p. 221f.
  22. Lings, p. 224-226.
  23. Lings, p. 227f.
  24. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, p. 170-176.
  25. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, p. 461-464.
  26. Muir, A Life of Mahomet and History of Islam to the Era of the Hegira, p. 272-274.
  27. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, p. 96.
  28. Rodinson, p. 211.
  29. Alford Welch, Muhammad, Encyclopedia of Islam
  30. Peters (1991) , p. 291–315.
  31. Watt, Muhammad at Mecca, p. xi.
  32. Reeves, Muhammad in Europe: A Thousand Years of Western Myth-Making, p. 6–7.
  33. Donner, Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing, p. 132.

See also


Primary source
  • Guillaume, Alfred, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah. Oxford University Press, 1955. ISBN 0-1963-6033-1

Secondary source

External links

Moulana Shabbiri of IEC Houston

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