Month: September 2014

Battle of the Trench, March 627 CE

‘Do you think you shall enter the garden (of bliss) without such (trials) as those who fought before you? ‘(Qur’an, 2:214)[1]

‘The best victory is when the opponent surrenders of its own accord before there are any actual hostilities…. It is best to win without fighting’ Sun Tzu, Art of war.


Dates: (approx.) March 628. (2-4 weeks)


Meccan Alliance: Abu Sufyan (overall Command) Khalid Ibn Walid (and others) –(Cavalry) Ghatafan chief: Uyayna b. Hisn. Banu Qurayza chief: Ka’b ibn Asad.

Muslim: Prophet Muhammad/’Abd Allah ibn’Abd al-Muttablib ibn Hashim, Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, Abu ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, ‘Umar ibn Al-Khttib, Uthman ibn ‘Affan. Sa’d Ibn Mu’adh.

Other names: Battle of the Khandaq / Al-Ahzab / Siege of Medina. Ghazwah al-Ahzap (‘raid/expedition’ of the confederates’) or battle of the confederates.

Location: Medina, Hijaz, Western Modern Saudi Saudi Arabia, Middle East.

Battles importance: The battle determined whether the new religion of Islam would survive or not.

Reason the Battle was fought: Abu Sufyan and the Meccan Quraysh tribe opposed the rise of a new proselytising religion, Islam, under its prophet Muhammad, and were also keen to guard the existing socioeconomic order. They also resented the Muslim’s attacks on their trade caravans to Syria, which Medina was on the route to.

Meccan Alliance forces: 10,000 troops approx, including 600 cavalry, also 700 Jewish troops of the Banu Qurayza including 36 cavalry. Armament: Mail Hauberks, (Dir’a) some lamellar armour, swords, long spears, shields, and (for the few Abyssinian mercenaries, attached to the Meccans) Javelins.  Training: Mostly tribal, martial, with some individualistic training. Notes: both sides included elite units of Mubarizun, or champions, who would kill and their enemies champions and leaders, demoralising the enemy. Tactics: Cavalry functioned mostly with sword and shield, poor horse-archers. Infantry could function in a spear-wall but it is unclear how often these tactics were used as opposed to simple melee type infantry fighting, though there were definitely organised ranks. Archers fighting along in front of, behind, or next to heavy infantry could help it resist a frontal cavalry charge.[2]

Muslim forces: 3000 troops approx. 36 Cavalry. Armament: roughly comparable with the Meccans, Spears, straight swords, round shields of leather. Training: as above. Tactics: as above.

Muslim forces: 3000 men. Notes: see notes above.

Sources for the battle: The Qur’an, the Hadith Sahih Al-Bukhari, as well as the Islamic historians Ibn Ishaq, Al Waqidi, and Tabari, based on oral trains of transmission handed down each generation, called ‘Isnads’ from which are drawn different stories or easy – to –memorise events, though these are often mutually contradictory. Waqidi in particular has received much criticism for propagating inacuracies, but this view has been reassessed of late.[3]  All are Islamic Sources.









The Religion of Islam is vast. Today’s Muslim population of the world ranges from around 1.42 Billion to 1.57 Billion people or nearly a quarter of the World’s population. It is the dominant religion and way of life in the Middle East and in much of Asia and Africa, with large and growing communities in Europe and the United States.[4] It is the world religion with the largest number of practising adherents, and is a central part of these societies, affecting every part of their way of life.

It has spread to the farthest city in the globe, and in almost every corner of the world everywhere there is a Muslim presence. It has had a profound effect on history through science, the arts, and a way of life and day-to-day reality which is enjoined upon its followers. It has even shaped the evolution of the west through its effect on the sciences and technology, the evolution of Christian theology and western society through the existence of the ‘other’ religion and society against which it took many of its religious and social stands, as well as through the transmission of Greek and Roman texts.

Yet there was a time when this emergent religion’s very existence hung on a knife edge. For in March 627 CE Abu Sufyan, chief of the powerful Quraysh tribe of Mecca, marched at the head of 10,000 men to destroy the heavily outnumbered Muslim community in Medina and kill its leader and founder, the Prophet Muhammad, in what would become known as the battle of the Trench (al-Khandaq).

Muhammad, or Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim was Born around 570 in the central ritual and trading centre of Mecca in the Central Hijaz region of modern day Saudi Arabia. He led a largely unremarkable life as a businessman up till the age of 40. Muslim tradition attests that around the year 610, Muhammad began receiving visions from the Angel Gabriel. These visions enjoined him to preach about a new god, a single, all-powerful deity known as Allah, a practice known as monotheism. He was also enjoined to carry out social reform of Arabia. He began to preach against many things within Arabian society, such as the practice of burying live female offspring, and he slowly began to gain followers. These early followers would be known as ‘companions’ and include foundational figures within Islam including the future founder of Shi’a Islam, the renowned fighter and founder of Shia Islam, ‘Ali, and the Caliphs ‘Abu Bakr, Uthman, and ‘Umar, as well as his warrior uncle Hamza.

Mecca was dominated at that time by the powerful Quraysh clan, which had a monopoly over the pilgrimage and ritual site of the Kaaba, probably a piece of meteoritic rock, which had been hewed into a hollow square at the centre of the town. As in contemporary China and central Asia, Arabia at this time was a land in turmoil. A massive war was going on between the neighbouring Persian and Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empires to the north, and they were beating each other into mutual exhaustion. Their tacit dominance over much of the Arabian Peninsula had been weakened, and numerous small tribes and kingdoms scattered over the peninsula were trying to fill this void. As well as this, Arabia was a land in spiritual turmoil. At this time, as now, religion and political and personal identity were bound up together, though to what degree is hard to know. Arabia was divided roughly between Jewish communities such as the polytheistic (‘pagan’) communities, the Jews of Khaybar to the north of Medina,  and a new type of community called the Hanif or people who believed in one, single god, which was influenced by both Christian and Jewish trends, and it was into this fertile ground that Muhammad’s visions arose.

The Quraysh and much of the rest of the Arab population at this time were polytheistic idol-worshippers, believing in Hubal the moon god and his daughters Manat, al-Uzza and al-Lat, as well as a pantheon of other gods.[5] They saw Muhammad as a threat to their dominance in Mecca, who was upsetting the social order on which their power was based. They increasingly began to persecute Muhammad and his followers. At the same time, Medina, a small town to the north of Mecca was having some problems, with major divisions between and within local Jewish and Arab tribes within the city, and continual blood feuds between all groups, based in large fortified house-forts in the city. They invited Muhammad in to arbitrate between them and bring peace to their city. [6] Muhammad and his followers were eventually forced to migrate to the city of Medina in 622 CE, or year one, as this event is usually seen as the start of the Muslim calendar. Those followers who had emigrated with him to Medina became known as ‘Muhajirun’, or ‘Emigrants’, while those who converted and followed him from Medina became known as ‘Ansar’, or ‘Helpers’, a division which would be of considerable importance in future Islamic history. Muhammad began to knit these tribes together, setting up an agreement or treaty known as the constitution of Medina to regulate most major relations in the city within and between the Arab and Jewish communities.

Muhammad’s followers began raiding caravans going from Mecca to Byzantine Syria to make ends meet.[7] In the year 624 CE the Meccan army, led at that time by Abu Jahl, or the so called ‘father of lies’ set out with a large army to cover a caravan coming from Syria. They met Muhammad and his followers at Badr, and in the ensuing battle Muhammad heavily defeated them, killing several important Meccan leaders, including Abu Jahl. Importantly, victory in this battle was seen to be the result of angelic intervention as part of, possibly, a sandstorm.[8] Subsequently Abu Sufyan ascended to the Meccan leadership, and would prove to be a much more adept opponent of Islam and its prophet. The prophet also used the opportunity to expel the Banu Qaynuqa, one of the more powerful Jewish Tribes, from Medina.

In March 625 CE the Muslims were threatened at the battle of Uhud, not far from Medina itself by a reinforced Meccan army under Abu Sufyan. This time the Meccans killed Hamza Ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib, Muhammad’s uncle. The Meccan Cavalry, under its brilliant leader Khalid Ibn al-Walid, was able to outflank Muhammad’s followers when they were on the verge of victory and crush them, nearly killing Muhammad himself. The Muslims retreated into Medina to lick their wounds, though the Meccans fortunately made no effort to follow up their victory and retreated themselves. This defeat was a heavy blow to Muslim morale, and though the community survived it was now tarnished and in serious danger of being destroyed altogether.[9] Muhammad worked tirelessly to build up new alliances as well as expand the Muslim dominion, and he increased Muslim manpower, though Abu Sufyan did so in tandem as well.[10] He also expelled another Jewish tribe, the Banu Nadir, under their leader Huyayy Ibn Akhtab, from Medina after a long siege. This left the Banu Qurayza under their leader Ka’b b. Al-Asad as the dominant Jewish tribe to Muhammad’s rear in several large house-forts, though the treaty between this community and the Muslims was still in force.

Nevertheless, further, if minor, defeats of the Muslims occurred at B’ir ma’unah and Ar-Raji, and by the start of the year 627 CE the Islamic community was at a low ebb, with Huyayy ibn Akhtab, disgruntled leader of the Banu Nadir drumming up support across the Hijaz for a major campaign against the Muslims.[11] It was now that probably the greatest threat that Islam had known till then came about: ‘al-Ahzab’, or the attack of the allied parties.[12]






Contending armies



Since the Battle of Uhud, Abu Sufyan had stitched together a new alliance of clans, with a large and well-equipped army of 10,000 men to crush the Muslims once and for all.[13] The allied forces were drawn from across the Hijaz, with the powerful nomadic Bedouin tribe of the Ghatafan providing 2,000 men, the Banu Suleim providing 700, the Banu Murra who provided 400 and the Banu Kinana. As well as this there were the Meccans themselves who provided 4000 men including Abysinnian mercenaries renowned for their skill with javelin throwing.[14] The army’s best troops were around 600 skilled cavalry drawn from these different tribes led by Khalid Ibn Walid and the renowned fighter ‘Amr Ibn ‘Abd ‘Wudd amongst others.[15]

Faced with this mortal threat the Muslims were heavily outnumbered, and were only able to assemble 3000 men. Since they had only 36 horsemen of their own, they were especially vulnerable to the Meccan Cavalry as they had been at Uhud.[16]

The two armies would have been roughly similar in terms of equipment, with the better-off troops (especially the cavalry) being armoured with Dir’a chain mail armour hauberks and a very few may have had lamellar armor. Most troops would also have had shields of leather and wood. The Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe for instance possessed 1500 swords, 1000 spears, and 300 suits of armour for around 700 warriors during the siege.[17]

Both sides would have been armed with short, straight swords, not the curved scimitars of later orientalist myth which would not be used in large numbers till centuries later. The two sides were armed with bows made out of the Celia Tenax tree, which were reasonably effective at short range, though archers were often poorly armoured.

The cavalry (who could also fight on foot) would have also fought using long lances and swords, and were especially skilled, though they were not very good at horse-archery, which would turn out to be a disadvantage when the skirmishing at the trench began.

Training on both sides would have emphasised a martial, macho warrior culture based on single combat and brutal hand-to-hand fighting. Tactics were fairly advanced, including ruses, false retreats, and archery.

Overall though, the Muslims had an advantage in terms of cohesion. This was thanks to rigid insistence on prayer, as well as the fact that their army contingents were basically less diverse and had operated with each other before, in contrast to the ad hoc Meccan alliance. In battles like Badr, Muhammad had assigned each man to pair with another. These pairs were not supposed to leave each other during the fighting.[18] This system, perhaps vaguely similar to the US ‘Battle buddy’ system as part of basic training may have still been in operation at the Trench, and would have prevented many Muslim units simply fleeing before the enemy for fear of being sneered at for cowardice. [19]

The Muslims had generally performed better in close-quarter combat up till then, and unless their enemies had a decisive advantage in numbers, the Muslims could usually triumph. Unfortunately, they were outnumbered more than 3 to one at the Trench.[20]

Meccan armies may have brought their own wives and children with them to help encourage the cause. Arab women of this time were far more independent than is often presumed, for instance Abu Sufyan’s redoubtable revenge-crazed wife Hind who had encouraged the troops and chewed out Hamza’s liver at the Battle of Uhud and even wearing bits of his ears as a necklace afterward. [21] Yet there is no mention of their presence on the field and their absence or non-participation may have made a significant motivational difference on the battlefield.

This is not to state that the Muslims were militarily superior man for man – they weren’t. Meccan cavalry, as stated, would more than make up the balance in an open field battle, which is why the trench was so important. To make things worse, some of the Medinan troops in the army of 627 seem to have been young boys with little combat experience.[22]

The difference in fighting strengths was simply one of degree, and that degree was not major, nor was it really enough to make up for the Muslims basic inferiority in numbers. The Muslims best – probably only – chance of winning in the siege was to face the enemy down essentially and prevent an assault coming in the first place, through deception, using the enemies divisions against them, making Medina a decidedly unpleasant prospect to attack, and luck.[23]

Early Islamic historians such as Ibn Ishaq and more contemporary Muslim historians contend that this alliance was the result of the work of the Jews of Kheibar to the north of Medina carefully orchestrating a conspiracy against Muhammad. It seems much more likely that the Meccans, who had been at war with him for several years after all, would have equal cause and far more actual power to assemble this alliance.[24]  The Jews of Kheibar stayed aloof during the entire campaign. apart from their leader Huyayy Ibn Akhtab who acted as Abu Sufyan’s chief negotiator with the Banu Qurayza, promising him their full support.[25]

In fact, it seems that the oral-mnemonic processes from which the historians like Tabari and Ibn Ishaq took these accounts radically exaggerated the Jews role. These oral accounts had been worked through the period of the Umayyad dynasty. As we will see, the Umayyad dynasty was descended from Abu Sufyan, and hence there may well have been much distortion of the oral accounts before they got to the Islamic historians Ibn Ishaq, Tabari and Waqidi.[26] These oral accounts would have gone far to avoid the real implication that their current Umayyad master’s ancestor, Abu Sufyan, was in fact the real architect of the war against Muhammad, though Huyayy did egg him on. A brilliant leader, Abu Sufyan had the resources and will to fight Muhammad, and had consistently proven to be the Muslims greatest enemy. Modern historians like Hamidullah uncritically put this history into the modern post-Palestinian Nakba context, painting Jews as Muslim’s eternal enemies. Though the various Jewish tribes were at best ambivalent toward the rise of Muhammad, they were not uniformly hostile to him.

In spite of this, there was a real chance of assistance from the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in Medina, and many powerful leaders in Medina itself like Ibn Ubayy, chief of the Khazraj tribe were seriously opposed to Muhammad, having betrayed him in the past as at Uhud. The stage was now set for an epic contest of intelligence, morale, and will.



The Construction of the Trench



Faced with this mortal threat, The Prophet held a consultation with his followers, as per the usual democratic traditions in early Islam and Arabia. Understandably many were growing sceptical about their ability to hold Medina. Some were counselling a total retreat from the city, which would have left them without any base from whence to organise, supply or fight from, and would doubtlessly have led to the community’s disbandment. Most tribes in the Hijaz were at best neutral to the Muslims at this time, but not especially friendly. [27] Others recommended fighting on the slopes of the nearby mountains -a strategy which however had not really worked at Uhud, and with the Quraysh having brought an even bigger army, could hardly work now.[28]

According to the Islamic historian Waqidi, it was a recent ascetic convert to Islam, Salman the Persian, who recommended the use of a trench: ‘O Prophet, when we were in Persia, and feared cavalry, we built a ditch around us’.[29] This strategy would prevent the Meccans from using their powerful cavalry, and the prophet agreed. The plan essentially was for a huge trench to be dug across the narrow plain which gave entrance to Medina from the north.

Muhammad erected a red tent for himself at mount ‘Sal overlooking the work and assigned the Muhajirun (emigrants) to dig and guard the area from Ratij to Dhubab, and used the Ansar (which were a larger group) to dig and guard from Dhubab to mount Banu Ubayd, Khurba and al-Madhad, while a third group may have been held in reserve during the siege itself.[30] Accounts differ as to the exact length and location of the trench. The tribes would go out each day to work immediately after the prayers, a powerful routine reinforcing their faith and cohesion.[31] Waqidi tells us that the Banu ‘Abd al-Ashhal dug the trench from around Ratij to what came after, with the trench coming from behind the mosque. The Banu Donar dug from Khurba to the place ‘where the house of Ibn Abil-Junub stands today’ according to Waqidi, writing about 160 years later.[32] While it is hard to completely reconcile these accounts, it is clear that a massive trench was dug all the way across the northern plain giving entrance to Medina on front of mount ‘Sal.

The rest of Medina was protected by the massive lava plains consisting of fields of huge rocks and mountains scattered around the edge of the city, while the rest were protected by interlocking buildings and fortresses within the city itself.[33] Though we have no information on how big the trench was, Richard Gabriel has suggested it may have been sixteen feet wide with a two foot parapet on the side where the Muslims could defend from.[34]

Salman the Persian oversaw the work, with every batch of ten men digging 40 cubits of earth along the Trench. [35] This was a truly communal effort, with young boys being called up to dig, and even the Banu Qurayza Jews lent tools to the effort.[36] The construction was a race against time, because the Alliance was on its way and if they got there before the trench was finished, it could be disastrous.

The prophet himself worked tirelessly alongside his followers, and one of the boys would remember the Prophet years after the event, in a red cloak, his chest sprinkled with earth.[37]  While constructing the trench the Ansar would say ‘we are those who have given the pledge of allegiance to Muhammad for Jihad as long as we live.[38] The prophet would reply ‘Oh Allah! There is no life except the life of the hereafter. So please honor the Ansar and the emigrants’.[39] The Ansar would also sing ‘let paradise, oh lord, our guardians be, helpers and emigrants look for help to thee’.[40] The prophet, along with his closest companions, would share his followers hunger and with his belly covered with earth he would pray to Allah: ‘please bless us with tranquility and make firm our feet when we meet our enemies. Indeed (these) people have rebelled against (oppressed) us but never shall we yield when they try to bring affliction upon us’.[41]

On another occasion, the emigrants and Ansar were digging in a very cold morning. When he noticed their fatigue and hunger Muhammad said ‘O Allah! The real life is that of the here-after. Please forgive the Ansar and the Emigrants’. In reply the Emigrants and Ansar said ‘We are those who have given a pledge of allegiance to Muhammad that we will carry on Jihad as long as we live’.[42] And according to a different oral transmitter, al-Bara, he went around carrying earth, praying ‘without you we would have got no guidance!’[43]

Lacking wheelbarrows, many Muslims gathered up the soil in their garments and dumped it on the parapet at the Muslim side of the trench while others stacked up stones for missiles for the battle.[44]

However many Medinans seem to have held back from the work, and there are hints at serious internal tensions in Medina. If there was a major assault, the community could disintegrate.[45]

Despite this, there was still time for jokes. One Zayd B. Thabit lay asleep at his post in the trench, and his weapons were taken by another fighter called ‘Umara b. Hazm, with the result that Thabit went running around the camp looking for his weapons. Eventually though Hazm returned the equipment, and the Prophet forbade any future pranks like this, as well as Thabit’s original fault of falling asleep.[46] The Prophet also changed the name of another man whom had not been blessed with good looks from the unfortunate title of Ju’ayl or ‘little beetle’ to the name of ‘Amr, inspiring a number of mocking folk diddies.[47]

Many miracles are associated with this siege. For instance, the Prophet is reported to have spat water on a huge rock which had been discovered blocking the digging of the trench, causing it to break apart, while he also caused vast quantitites of bread to appear.[48]

Either way, it would need nothing short of a miracle to save Islam from the coming storm.







  The Siege Begins

The trench had scarcely been finished when the Alliance army showed up. Muhammad assembled the army and prepared to meet his and his community’s fate.[49] The whole plain was filled with Alliance men and horses as far as the eye could see, and many Muslims doubtlessly began to wonder about their movement’s survival.[50] Approaching the trench, the allies despatched scouts forward, while their cavalry leader Khalid also ascertained the trench.[51] When they first saw the trench, they are said to have exclaimed ‘by god, this is a stratagem that the Arabs have never employed’.[52] Having realised that the Muslims would not come out into the open field to fight, they spent the rest of the day in consultations.[53]

The siege itself went on anywhere from 15 days to a month, and consisted mainly of skirmishes, the occasional barrage of arrows, and a flurry of diplomatic activity as both sides sized up the other and waited for a major Meccan attack.[54] It has often been wondered why the Allies did not attack from the south, where dried-up river beds could give entrance to Medina through the lava fields away from the trench to the north. It would seem that to the south Medina was covered by a system of interlocking walls and gardens which in Maxime Robinson’s opinion could hold up a large army, even if they could make their way through the fields of boulders with their army intact and in formation. Either way, it seems that the Meccans chose to ignore this route, and attacked from the north, via the trench instead.[55]

One crucial factor was that the Meccan forces had come to Medina expecting an immediate battle in the field as at Uhud. They had no supplies for a long drawn out siege, nor did they have a permanent camp from which they could base their activities.[56] Muhammad’s forces had drawn in all the harvest several weeks before the Meccan’s arrival, and Abu Sufyan and his allies were forced to disperse their camels and horses to the slopes in the surrounding vicinity and to Wadi Al-Aqiq nearby, where what little fodder was left was quickly consumed. [57] The Muslims also did not have to come out to fight as they had at Uhud, because at that time they had observed the enemy burning their crops – this did not happen this time. To make things worse, there was drought in the area. It is important to understand that these conditions badly affected the Muslims as well, and many began to run short of food.[58] This was as much a battle of supplies and willpower than anything else, and while they would badly effect the Muslims the unpleasant climatical conditions would, as we shall see, have a decisive effect on the outcome of the siege. This meant that the Allies had to take Medina either by assault, treachery, support from the Banu Qurayza Jews, or by some combination of all three.

The Meccans now began pressuring the remaining Jewish tribe in Medina, the Banu Qurayza, to join them. This was extremely important because the Banu Qurayza were strategically located behind the Muslims positions in Medina. Huyayy Ibn Akhtab went to the Qurayza leader Ka’b b. Asad al-Qurazi and continually wheedled him, pointing out the Muslim communities weakness until he decided to sever all links with the Islamic community.[59]

The truth is, very little is known about what precisely the Banu Qurayza position was, and it is clear they were only in a lukewarm alliance with the Quraysh at best. In fact they were almost certainly just trying to avoid involvement in the battle. The Banu Qurayza were not in a very enviable position in any case. The had to choose between two powerful forces – the Muslims, or the apparently far more powerful Meccans, either of whom could decide to vengefully come after them if they aided the side which ultimately lost. The best way to assess their mind-set is to look at their actions: if the Banu Qurayza had really intended to crush Muhammad and his followers, then they certainly would have attacked: Indeed, it seems that at best they were indecisive about joining the campaign, and though there were several minor engagements which frustrated them, as well as Nu’ayms machinations, it frankly seems rather ridiculous that they had an entire week in which to attack and then chose not to. Throughout this engagement they made no direct assault on the Prophet’s lines. Indeed, they had originally lent tools to the Muslims so they could build their trench, indicating that they wanted good terms with him up till the last minute.[60] Obviously though the Muslims may not have known this.

The prophet sent several of his companions including Sa’d Ibn Mu’adh, the chief of the Medinan Aws tribe to the Jews to inquire about the situation. When it became apparent that the alliance had been broken, there was a rapid exchange of insults: the Banu Qurayza cried out: ‘Sa’ad Ibn Mu’adh, you bit your mothers clitoris!’ Sa’d Ibn Mu’adh, who had a notorious temper responded to the Jewish leader Ka’b ‘You bit your fathers Penis!’ and so on and on this exchange went.[61]

When the Muslim delegation returned to Muhammad with this news, he tried to keep it secret from the Muslim population. Yet soon enough the word got out, with the result that morale plummeted.[62]

This placed the Muslims in a very bad position, caught between two enemies. While the bulk of Muhammad’s troops were facing the Meccans at the trench, the Banu Qurayza with up to 700 additional warriors, were at their rear threatening the house-forts where their women, children and property were being kept. There was much fear that the families would be massacred.[63] Many of the tribes wanted to retire back to Mecca to guard their families, but this would have left the Muslims – who were already seriously outnumbered at the trench – dangerously exposed.[64]

Eventually, Muhammad allowed the Banu Haritha tribe, whose houses were most exposed to the enemy, to depart back to Mecca to face the enemy while he sent Zaid b. Harba and Sulama b. Assam b. Hartha al-Ashhari with 400 men to patrol Medina, shouting to god throughout the night so as to deter the Banu Qurayza by making them think there were more warriors in the town than there actually was.[65]

Nonetheless skirmishes with the Qurayza occurred, as they tried to weigh up whether to attack or not. One man called Jubayr was sent to spy on the Jews, but fell asleep at his post much like Thabit. He woke up to discover he was on the back of a very strong Jewish warrior, having been foisted up. As he was being dragged back to one of the Qurayza’s fortresses, Jubayr’s hands flailed out, finding that the youth was carrying a spade. Jubayr grabbed the spade and hit him over the head, then ran off before the Banu Qurayza could respond.[66]

It should not be assumed that Muslim women were completely passive throughout this siege either. Many of them provided the Muslims with food and other supplies, while others took part in the fighting.[67] Safia d. Abu-l-Muttalib was residing in the fort of Hasan b. Thabit, Muhammad’s official poet, in Medina when she looked outside and saw one of the Banu Qurayza Jews wandering around looking at the forts defences. She realised that if this man got back to the Banu Qurayza, he would tell them how weak the Muslims were. She asked Thabit to go down and kill him. Either because he was sick or through cowardice, Thabit (whom Abu Sufyan had once called the ‘son of a mouldy, date-eating woman’)[68] replied ‘you know I am not the man to do that’. Undaunted, Safia descended the fort by means of a rope, snook up on the Qurazi and bludgeoned him to death with a club. Even at this stage Thabit refused to strip him for spoils, saying he had ‘no need’ for these.[69]

Ka’b also sent out a force of 10 Jews to assess the Muslim position in Medina. Fortunately they were intercepted near Baqi al-Gharqad by a force led by Salama b. Aslam b. Huraysh. There was an exchange of arrows and several Muslims were wounded, yet ultimately the Jews decided to turn away, and Salama even tried to raid the Banu Qurayza forts instead, though one of his men was crushed by a millstone. After this, it would seem that the Jews lapsed into passivity, awaiting a combined assault with the Meccans.[70]

  The Fight between ‘Ali and ‘Amr

 The real action however was at the Trench itself. John Bagot Glubb thinks the houses of the Arabs were unassailable, and even if the allies had crossed the ditch, they would have been unable to take the city.[71] Yet we should not assume this. During a later civil war in 683, a Syrian Muslim expeditionary force attacked Medina: the Medinese Muslims tried to defend themselves using a trench, but this failed, and Medina was overrun.[72] Even with the trench, Medina was quite takeable: the only way Muhammad could win would be through indirect means, by using morale, psychology, political manoeuvring, and by essentially scaring the enemy off. The situation that developed was quite normal for many campaigns of this era: a series of skirmishes and single combats occurred as both sides weighed up the other’s strengths and weaknesses. If one side was successful in these initial engagements, then they would usually be victorious, because the enemy would be demoralised, and would appear to be weak, as had happened to the Meccans at Badr. Therefore, it was important for the Muslims to win, or at least to appear to win, each of these skirmishes. Otherwise they would face a massive assault by an enemy which outnumbered them three to one.

Realising their way into Medina was barred, the Meccan cavalry ranged up and down the trench trying to discover a way across, while there was sporadic arrow exchanges with the Muslims. This was a critical situation: The Muslims were mostly on foot and were slower than the enemy horse, and there was not enough of them to guard the whole length of the Trench. If the Meccan cavalry got across in force before the slower Muslim infantry could arrive to defend these gaps, they would be able to outflank the Muslims and cut them to bits as they had at Uhud. The Meccans finally found a narrow part of the trench on swampy ground near Mount Sal, and immediately rushed their cavalry toward this gap, the Meccans shouting to their allies ‘You will know who the real horsemen are today!’[73]

A small force of cavalry led by ‘Amr b. ‘Abd Wudd was sent forward past the trench to probe the Muslim defences, the ever canny Abu Sufyan stated that if he needed help, he would cross as well. In other words, Abu Sufyan was going to see how the fighting progressed, and if the Muslims were beaten in the initial skirmish, then a full-scale assault would ensue, which would be hard for the Muslims to hold against with the Trench already breached and their infantry outflanked.[74]

Full of energy, ‘Amr b. ‘Abd rode up to the Muslims wearing a distinguishing mark, and pranced up and down, demanding that someone fight him.[75]

When ‘Amr made his call to combat, the Muslim’s best fighter, one of the Prophet’s closest companions and an immensely important leader in his own right, ‘Ali,  got clad up in armour to fight.  But the prophet told him to sit down, for it was ‘Amr b. ‘Abd.[76] According to Waqidi, the Muslims were pessimistic as to ‘Ali’s chances in a fight with ‘Amr.  ‘Amr b. ‘Abd was a renowned fighter who had killed at least one Muslim follower at the Battle of Badr before he had been disabled by wounds, and had sworn revenge on Muhammad and his followers.[77]

Then ‘Amr repeated his challenge: ‘where is your garden of which you say those who lose the battle will enter it? Can’t you send a man to fight me?’ Again ‘Ali asked the prophets permission to go down and fight, but was refused.

‘Amr continued: ‘I’ve become hoarse from shouting. Isn’t there one among you who’ll answer my challenge?’.[78] ‘Ali asked the prophets permission to go and fight, even if it were ‘Amr, and finally the prophet let him go. Muhammad wrapped ‘Ali in a turban, gave him his sword, and prayed, ‘Oh god, help ‘Ali against him’.[79]

‘Ali marched toward ‘Amr saying ‘don’t be in a hurry, no weakling has come to answer your challenge. A man of resolution and foresight, truth is the refuse of the successful. I hope to make the keening women busy over your corpse through the blow of the spear’.

‘Amr had declared that he would take one of three options if asked, so Ali challenged.  ‘Ali said to ‘Amr, loudly: ‘Amr, you used to swear to god that if a man of Quraysh ever summoned you to one of three alternatives, you would accept one of them from him’.

‘Yes’ replied Amr.

‘Ali b. Abi Talib said ‘I summon you to god, to his messenger, and to Islam’.[80]

’Amr replied: ‘I have no need of this’.

Ali then said: ‘Then return to your land’

‘Amr refused this, knowing scorn would be heaped on him by the Meccan women.

‘third?’ said ‘Amr.

‘The duel’.

‘Why, oh son of my brother? By god, I do not want to kill you’ said ‘Amr, for ‘Ali’s father had been a friend of his. Yet ‘Ali said: ‘But I want to kill you’.[81]

‘Amr was enraged but also saddened by this, because he knew his advantage over ‘Ali. He dismounted, hamstrung his horse, and advanced on ‘Ali.[82]

The main Muslim army was watching the fight, as were the Meccans. This fight could well determine how the siege itself went, for any show of weakness could presage an immediate Meccan attack, while ‘Ali’s importance for the future of Islam was immense.

The two combatants circled each other, both armed with a sword and shield, and dust went up so no-one could see what was happening[83]. ‘Amr lashed out with his sword, cutting ‘Ali’s shield in two, hitting his wrist and helmet, drawing some blood.[84] Yet ‘Ali desperately lashed out in return, cutting deep into the base of ‘Amrs neck. A great cry of ‘Allahu Akbar!’ (god is greatest/most high) was raised when ‘Ali, the future founder of Shia Islam, was seen standing there over ‘Amrs body, and those assembled knew the result of the duel.[85]

This had an immediate impact, for ‘Amrs companions who had got past the trench began to flee in some confusion, as did the larger force under Abu Sufyan. Indeed, so fast did the Meccans run away that Ikrima, son of the former Meccan leader Abu Jahl threw away his spear as he was fleeing, prompting Hassan b. Thabit to compose the mocking rhyme: ‘as you turned your back you ran like the ostrich turning its head from right to left, you didn’t turn your back as a human being would, the base of your neck was like a young hyena’.[86]  One man called Mughira was stoned to death as he fell into the trench from his horse as he fled.[87]

Yet the Meccans returned to the attack. A Muslim follower called al-Dar was killed by an arrow, while Wahshi, an Abysinnian in Meccan pay who had killed Muhammad’s uncle Hamza at Uhud managed to slay another Muslim follower with his javelin.[88]

Nevertheless, this engagement deterred the Meccans from a direct assault for another day and would have a significant psychological impact on the Meccans and their allies.

Indeed the Tarikh al-Khatib Al-Baghdadi’s author would later attribute to the Prophet the saying ‘The fighting of ‘Ali bin Abi Talib against ‘Amr bin Abd Wudd on the day of al-Khandaq (the trench) is better than the deeds of my nation until the Day of Resurrection’.

    The trial continues

  Despite this, the Meccans maintained the siege. Their cavalry ranged up and down the trench day and night, trying to goad the Muslims to come out and fight, looking for weaknesses in the defences. The Muslims would drive them off with stones and arrows, but were unable to do any serious damage, and vice versa.[89] At one point, 100 Meccan cavalry got over the trench which had leapt over the trench and were only driven back by timely use of missiles.[90]

To make matters worse for the Muslims, prevailing wind speed directions in that area probably favoured the Meccans in these archery exchanges, as the wind would come from the north.[91]

Though the arrows themselves could rarely kill a man, they could wound, leading to death. Sa’d Ibn Mu’adh was hit by an arrow which penetrated his arm where his armour did not guard it, swearing at the man who had shot the arrow ‘May your face sweat in hell’. Yet this wound caused an infection to spread, as well as his eventual death, with ‘streams’ of blood flowing out of his tent.[92] Khalid Ibn Walid may even have tried to shoot at the prophet himself, and his death would surely have ended or at the least scattered the movement, though fortunately this did not happen.[93]

As a later Meccan poet would bemoan: ‘but for this ditch to which they clung we would have wiped them all out, but it was there before them, and they, being afraid of us, skulked behind it’.[94] Yet it seemed clear that it was just a matter of time before the Meccans got across and started slaughtering Muhammad’s followers.

This increasingly wore the Muslims down psychologically, and many became increasingly fearful.[95] To make things worse, weather conditions were increasingly and unseasonably cold at this time, causing many believers to become langrous.[96] Though the Muslim supply situation was better than the Meccans, conditions were extremely unpleasant, with the Believers forced to resort to dishes of Barley and meal prepared with oil, fat and butter, which used to stick in their throats and smell badly.[97]

To make things worse, so constant were these skirmishes that the Prophet could not perform the usual prayers and rituals of his new community until after the sun had set. For a nascent religion like Islam, the standard rituals of 5 prayers a day were crucial for knitting them together into one cohesive whole ensuring group solidarity and their disruption was serious.[98]

While later Muslim historians, either during the Caliphal era and more contemporaneously, have tried to paper over divisions within the Muslim community, there was some serious issues which would come to the surface during these times.[99] The Muslim community was relatively young and divisions between the Ansar and Muhajirun, as well as the Aws and Khazraj tribes within Medina were running sores. To make things worse, the disaffected members of the Muslim community (Called ‘Hypocrites’ in the Muslim tradition) were increasingly growing in the vocalisation of their hatred for Muhammad.[100]

It must be understood that these were not Islamic supermen, capable of enduring endless torments, worry and woe. These were thinking, human, family men, whose children, wives and dependents were only one mile away in Medina, and they were being threatened with massacre or rape at any moment, while their hard-earned property and lives were also on the line. Many of the Medinans  wanted to fetch off and protect their families, complaining ‘our houses now lie exposed to the enemy – therefore give us leave’ yet that would have left the trench even more undermanned.[101] It is clear that the community’s very unity was being severely tested, and might break if a major assault occurred.[102]

An entire Sura in the Qur’an, the most contemporary document to these events, is dedicated toward the dangers of this ‘hypocrisy’, noting that many Muslims would flee if given the chance. The Qur’an would note how the enemy came from above them and below them and they believed vain things.[103] Indeed some men under ‘Amr b. Awf were unwilling to assist in the defence of Medina altogether.[104] So great was the fear, and at times confusion, that two groups of Muslims accidently fought each other in the darkness, with several killed.[105]

The combination of this psychological endurance test, hunger, the severe cold, disruption of prayer routine, fear for the children and property, as well as the constant skirmishes may well have been too much for the Muslims. At this stage, it would have been easy for the whole system of alliances which Muhammad had painstakingly built up over the last couple of years to simply collapse of its own accord as different groups sought agreements with the Meccans. So why didn’t it? The answer is simple: Muhammad’s vigorous, confident leadership, his effective management of people, as well as the Muslim community’s sheer unity.

He dealt with problems of morale by maintaining a confident front. Mu’attib b. Quashayr would crow ‘Muhammad promises us the treasure of Khusrau and Caesar, (the rulers of Persia and Byzantium) yet none of us feels sure to go even for his need (relieve oneself). God and his messenger promise us only deception’.[106]

So Muhammad answered this: ‘I will circumambulate the ancient house (the Kaaba) for god will destroy Khusrau and Caesar and their wealth will be paid in the way of god’.[107] Muhammad also immediately proclaimed those killed at night accidentally as martyrs, giving their loss some meaning.

The prophet dealt with the problem of disrupted prayer rituals by offering the prayers after sunset, swearing ‘Allah fill their houses and graves with fire just as they have prevented us from offering the middle prayer till the sun had set’.[108]

The Prophet would constantly try to keep spirits up, shouting ‘Allah, please send us Sakina (calmness) upon us, and make our feet firm if we meet the enemy!’ [109]

According to Asim b. ‘Umar the prophet may even have tried to divide the alliance, offering a third of the Medinan date harvest to the Bedouin Ghatafan tribe, a major alliance member, who however asked for half of the produce.[110] At this stage, the wounded Sa’d Ibn Mu’adh entered into the tent where the negotiations were taking place. He inquired as to when they had ever paid the Ghatafan the date harvest before. He also inquired as to whether god had truly told Muhammad to make this decision: Muhammad responded that he was simply trying to save the Muslims from annihilation, yet Sa’d would have none of it.

He impassionedly persuaded Muhammad not to become a Ghatafan tributary, tearing the paper on which the agreement was being signed while shouting to the Ghatafan leader, ‘Uyayna b. Hisn ‘Now there is nothing between us but the sword! Let it decide the outcome!’[111] This left the Prophet and his men with only two choices: fight a battle they would probably lose, or find some way to divide the alliance.

The siege concludes 

Yet it now seemed as if there would be an immediate assault on Medina from two sides by an overwhelmingly superior force as the Meccans pressurised the Banu Qurayza to assault Muhammad from one side while they attacked him from another.

Faced with this threat, Muhammad realised that arms alone would not win the battle. He responded by careful political manoeuvring instead. He picked the solution in the form of Nu’aym Ibn Mas’ud. Nu’aym belonged to the Ghatafan, the second most powerful tribe in the alliance.[112] He had secretly converted to Islam and wanted to help Muhammad and his followers. Muhammad asked him to try to sow disunity within the alliance, with the hope that it might break up.[113] Nu’aym first went to the Banu Qurayza, with whom he had been on friendly terms before. He first used the death of ‘Amr B. Abd to demoralise the Jews.[114] He pointed out to them that the Meccans, for all their talk about destroying Muhammad, could flee to their homelands whenever they wanted, whereas the Banu Qurayza could not do the same. He proposed that the Banu Qurayza should therefore request for hostages from the Alliance leaders to ensure they stayed until they completely destroyed the Muslims.

Then Nu’aym set out and met with Abu Sufyan, stating that the Banu Qurayza had in fact been in league with Muhammad all along and had only ‘betrayed’ him in order to get the Meccans to hand over 70 hostages to slaughter and this caused great consternation in the camp amongst the Meccans.[115]

Nu’aym then went to his Ghatafan kinsmen, saying ‘you are my stock and my family, the dearest of men to me, and I do not trust that you can suspect me’. Then he repeated the story that he had related to Abu Sufyan, once again causing much concern and suspicion of the Banu Qurayza.[116]

The Jews proposed to Abu Sufyan that he should give them hostages, and sure enough Abu Sufyan refused, believing them to only want to lure some of his prominent men to their deaths.[117] The Alliance which Abu Sufyan had stitched together was at the end of the day an artificial, temporary creation, with many tribes which had come with different agendas. The Ghatafan for instance had come to the siege to get the Medinan date harvest, not to satisfy Abu Sufyan’s need for blood vengeance.[118] This alliance could easily carry out the operation to destroy Muhammad, but any delay, confusion or difficulty could cause these problems to surface.

As they argued over what order they should attack and destroy Muhammad’s forces, Abu Sufyan tried to force the Jews to fight, yet they delayed and equivocated, saying that they would not fight on their Sabbath (Saturday), but would fight on Sunday, and as it happened, this delay was crucial.[119] Huyayy B. Akhtab, Abu Sufyan’s chief link with the Banu Qurayza, even offered his own parents as ransom, but this did not prevent him and Abu Sufyan getting into an enormous

row. [120]

This colourful story should be taken with a pinch of salt however. There are different versions of this tale, with other oral accounts stating that Muhammad simply mentioned to Nu’aym, who was a known gossiper, that the Qurayza were working for Muhammad, knowing he would spill the news to the Alliance troops massed outside.[121] It is also said that Huyayy only related that the Banu Qurayza (and vice versa, to them, that the Meccans) wanted to attack Muhammad to lure the Jews or the Meccans into attacking the Muslims in the first place.[122] Either way, we should not overestimate Nu’aym’s – and therefore the Muslims – role in this. Many of the accounts may be apocryphal or at least exaggerated, and it may be possible that poor coordination, differing motives and communication finally helped to break the alliance and Muslim historians simply attributed the alliances collapse to the action of the Muslim community itself, rather than to chance.

In any event, the Muslims knew about none of this. On Saturday night, the night of the Jewish Sabbath, many Muslims were by now being affected by unusually cold weather conditions and were freezing, waiting in the trenches for the alliance assault.[123] Serious famine was starting to effect the Muslims as well, with morale close to breaking point.[124] ‘By god, we toiled!’ noted one witness, Hudhayfah,ibn al-Yaman, one of the prophet’s companions, when asked by his nephew years later.[125]

To assess the situation out at the Meccan camp, Muhammad called for a volunteer to go out and spy on them, but the men were too exhausted. Muhammad finally called out Hudhayfah. He inched his way over to the Meccan camp in total darkness and managed to blend in to the troops there. He even managed to get as far as Abu Sufyan’s tent. When Hudhayfah returned to the Muslim camp, the prophet waited tensely for his news. The prophet threw the edge of a wrapper over him and blessed him several times. Then Hudhayfah told his story.[126]

When he had gone to the Meccan camp, a massive cold wind was devastating the camp, and it would seem that this was what broke the Meccan siege for good. The Muslim camp was sheltered from the wind, presumably because they were in the Medina valley or sheltered by mount ‘Sal.[127] Cooking pots were turned over, tents blown down, the men freezing and the horses dying.[128] It is hard to explain these strange weather conditions. Muhammad is said to have stated that he was made victorious by the As-Saba (the Easterly wind) and by Ad-Dabur (the Westerly wind).[129]  As stated, prevailing wing conditions usually went from the north-west to the south, suggesting that these may have been very unusual weather conditions, though this is at best a guess, and either way the Meccans were very unlucky.[130]

To many of those around, this seemed as if this was truly divine intervention – the wind was a manifestation of ‘gods troops’ (angels) as Hudhayfah would later state, much like at Badr.[131]

In Abu Sufyan’s tent, Hudhayfah overheard the leader speaking to the assembled alliance leaders: ‘You, by god, are not in a land where one can stay. We are not in a permanent camp, and the horses and camels are dying.[132]  By god, no pot of ours stays put, no fire of ours keeps burning, and no tent of ours holds together. The region is suffering drought, and the Banu Qurayza have broken their promise to us. Be off, for I am going!’[133]

Abu Sufyan shamefully wanted to leave immediately, but was eventually prevailed upon to cover the retreat of the allied forces with Khalid Ibn Walid, the two arguing the rest of the way to Mecca.

Abu Sufyan wrote Muhammad a letter, promising by his gods to return and finish the job. Yet this did not happen. Muhammad wrote a letter back swearing that he would break his Idol-gods, warning ‘I shall remind you of this letter’.[134]

When it became clear the enemy were gone, the Muslims immediately went back to their homes and could not be summoned to return to their posts despite repeated entreaties, at which the prophet laughed. Nonetheless, this illustrates just how close they had been to cracking. It had been a near thing.[135]

The Prophet put down his arms and took a bath, but as the Islamic tradition states, the angel Gabriel came to him saying that he should not put his sword down but rather should finish his business with the Banu Qurayza, who without the Meccans were now dangerously exposed.[136]

So the Prophet with his full forces marched against the by now outnumbered Banu Qurayza, and besieged them in their forts, with ‘Ali crying ‘either I will taste the fate Hamza tasted or I will conquer that fort’ and the Jews surrendered. The Banu Qurayza found little mercy in their captors, and all the males were massacred, with the women and children being taken as slaves.[137]



Losses on both sides were extraordinarily light, because there was really no battle – or at least no physical battle. 6 Muslims and 3 Meccans were killed, though many Meccan horses were wounded (as were, presumably, many men on both sides) and 6-900 Jews were killed in the later massacre.[138] This event would mark the moral defeat of an enemy, which would have an effect out of all proportion to the actual fighting itself. Like many campaigns of the premodern period, the Siege was really a war of manoeuvre as both sides sized up the other. It was a political and psychological battle of wits, manoeuvre and will, supply and intelligence.

Yet if this had been the battle that never was, it was just as well it hadn’t been. Historians like Montgomery Watt are agreed that the siege of al-Khandaq might well have ended Muhammad’s career. Yet it ultimately did not.

It had a fundamental impact on the way the war went, despite the low casualties. The break-up of the confederacy marked the utter failure of the Meccans to deal with Muhammad.[139] The trench broke Abu Sufyan’s alliance, damaged his prestige, and marked the beginning of his fall. As has been explained at the start of this book, alliances and tribes in this day and age were far more brittle than they were now, and setbacks could undermine them seriously.[140]  Most of the major political players of the Hijaz had been present during the siege and had seen its results. They had come expecting, if not an easy victory, at least glory, booty, and the destruction of a new power in their midst. Instead, the Campaign had been a gigantic waste of time. It was hardly a rout, but it was no glorious victory, and in the religious-material-symbolic way that these tribes weighed things up, this counted for a lot. For Muhammad, this was a triumph, acting as a demonstration ground for all the other tribes that he could not be beaten.[141] It also the Medinan malcontents known as the ‘hypocrites’, who might have turned against Muhammad and the Muslims.[142]

For a society which was in spiritual turmoil, looking for new ways to organise their society and new ways to look at the world, the wind and the failure of the alliance to crush Muhammad when they had had their boot on his throat was a clear indication that God was on the Muslims side. This was especially when combined with similar events at Badr.[143]  It was also a clear indication to the more materially-minded Bedouin tribes like the Ghatafan that Abu Sufyan could not provide any opportunities for loot in future, and they were better off siding with Muhammad. During negotiations, individuals like Uyayna B. Hisn, leader of the Ghatafan tribe realised that the people in Medina would ‘give themselves’ for Muhammad, and that any booty or tribute from the Muslim community would not come cheaply, and it was better sought in alliance with the Muslims, not against them.[144] The taking of large quantities of booty – weapons, animals, horses, property of various types, and slaves – from the Jews at relatively little cost was a further indication, both to the hypocrites, and also to these different tribes, that this new movement would be the source of any future booty, as was clearly outlined in the Qur’an ‘Some you slew and some you took captive. And he bequethed to you in their land and the dwellings, their riches, and a land you have not trodden, for god is omnipresent’.[145]

Another crucial factor in this process was the use of media. Most media throughout Arabia at this time was oral, and culture was dominated by poets as well as those who could whip up crowds into religious fervour: Muhammad could clearly do this himself as can be seen in the Qur’anic verses on Badr, (sura 8) and on the new Al Ahzab verse (Sura 33) which outlined the role of booty. Yet Muhammad was also careful to use poets like Hasan b. Thabit to eulogise on each of the major military events in his life, and the events of the trench were no exception.[146] The high drama of ‘Ali’s fight with ‘Amr, the tenacity of the Muslims, and the presence of ‘Gods troops’ in the destruction of the Meccan camp by the wind were all helpful oral-mnemonic ‘texts’[147] which could be integrated into mythmaking and religious symbolism quite easily. All helped to demonstrate that even at its lowest ebb, the Muslim community could always escape destruction and ultimately had god’s favour.

While the battle of Badr was certainly very important as the first major victory of Islam, it did not fundamentally threaten the Muslim community’s existence – Muhammad’s forces could retreat to Medina if beaten, bloodied, but not finished, as at Uhud. But at the trench they had nowhere to go. If they lost, the movement would be destroyed. Winning at Badr did not stop the Meccans putting new armies in the field. Not losing at the trench did.

Ultimately, Muhammad’s letter to Abu Sufyan (above) was born out, and the Meccans would never be able to organise an effective assault against Medina or even Muhammad’s army in the field ever again. Muhammad and the Muslim movement would grow, as one tribe after another allied with him or was defeated by his forces. So chastened, divided and demoralised had the Meccans become that when in 628 Muhammad’s forces boldly marched into the region of Mecca, the Meccans, who still probably outnumbered his forces heavily, were unable to unify long enough to crush him or even assemble an army. Instead they decided to draw up a treaty with him. Eventually, though, Muhammad’s power grew too great. In January CE he marched on Mecca with his full army, forcing Abu Sufyan to surrender and convert to Islam, though he would continue to be a major figure within the Islamic hierarchy and his son Mu’awiya would create the ruling Umayyad dynasty 30 years hence. The epitome of the Muslim victory was a moral victory. Arms had been used and considerable blood had been spilt, but it had been focused, designed to eliminate or co-opt the leadership class, through demonstration and manoeuvre. This strategy was immensely succesful, and left the Muslim leadership in control of a large amount of skilled military manpower.

Muhammad promptly demolished most of the polytheist idols in the Kaaba. He also unified most of Arabia for the first time, gradually changing its society from a dispersed set of tribes into one major community, or Umma, though tribal and other affiliations would remain to some degree. Yet Arabia had been irrevocably changed. It had gained a new way of life, something which affects the lives of nearly of a quarter of humanity to this very day.

So why did the Muslims win? Ultimately, the Muslims internal divisions proved to be less than those of the allies. This was achieved through their rigid insistence on a routine of prayer, and greater communal cohesion. Ultimately their leadership proved to be better, despite Sufyan’s great intelligence. Muhammad’s skilled management of the right people for the right job, like Salman the Persian for his construction of the trench, ‘Ali for his defeat of ‘Amr, and Nu’aym to stir up trouble in the alliance was also decisive. Ultimately, their supplies proved to hold out longer than their enemies did. And ultimately their willpower proved to hold out longer than their enemies did.[148]

Indeed, the lines from the Qur’an 2.214 ‘Do you think that you shall enter the gates of bliss without such trials as went before’ are of special importance – Muhammad’s forces had to face the trial of being so close to annihilation that they could almost taste it. Their success was that they triumphed in adversity, using psychology, intelligence, and extreme willpower and determination to face down their enemy and would emerge to become the world religion with the greatest number of practising adherents today.[149]

Would the world be better or worse without Islam? It is easy to make the superficial argument that modern terrorism generally would be lessened. Yet in reality the world would not be better off. Islam reunified – however briefly – the Middle East, and led to an efflorescence of civilisation in areas such as Baghdad and Cordoba in Spain. The massive good that Islam has done throughout its history would be severely lessened: the scientific golden age of Cordoba is something well-known to have acted as a crucial step in the march to the renaissance, enlightenment and Industrial revolution from which all the modern things we take for granted – algebra, blood circulation, chemistry, colleges, and modern astronomy have developed.

Had Muhammad and the Muslim movement been crushed, surely the chain of events we associate after him would have been quite different. The invasion of Byzantium would, if it had been made at all, been made by far less united tribal Arabs, as can be seen with Abu Sufyan’s ultimate failure to unify and inspire the tribes under his leadership. Arabia, divided as it was between so many different tribal structures, needed a new vision, and a powerful, relatively unified military force to achieve this. And it must be borne in mind that even with Islam, the Ummah very nearly collapsed on the prophet Muhammad’s death with the division between the Ansar and Emigrants. Even if the Arabs were successful, any polity they would have generated would probably have ultimately collapsed due to lack of Islamic religiously-based unity, and would have had little importance except as yet another transient nomadic invasion that would have had no real long – term impact on humanity. Yet the religion of Islam, tempered by experiences like the Trench and mediated by a new leadership class under the Rashidun Caliphs(‘Rightly guided’, or first four Caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and ‘Ali), would keep the community unified. The Caliphs harnessed the nomadic Bedouin for the first time and unified the settled and nomadic communities in Arabia into one major power, which would have immense military potential, something which the Byzantine and Sassanian empires would soon discover.

 A story is told of the prophet while he was digging the trench: One day, a huge rock was discovered in the way of the trench, preventing any further digging of this trench. The prophet took a mattock and swung it at the rock, causing lightning to emit from it when he struck, with the lightening travelling south, to Yemen. He struck it again, and lightning struck north to the land of Al-Sham (Syria.) Then he struck a third time, and the lightening passed toward the east, and the rock broke.

With these blows, Muhammad declared that he had claimed Yemen, then Syria from the Byzantine empire and then the East from the Sassanians. This is the next chapter in the story of Islam.[150]


© Ronan Stewart.

Written by Ronan Stewart.  


DEAR ALL: Please note I intend to write a book about decisive, non-Western battles called ‘World battles’ which should be coming out over the next few years, so if you are interested in this, keep an eye out!


 Primary sources

‘Ali, Abdullah Yusuf (Trans), The Holy Qur’an (Hertforshire, Wordsworth, 2000)

Ibn Anas, Malik,  Muwatta Hadith. (PDF)

al-Bukhari, Muhammad ibn Ismail  Sahih al – bukhari,  trans. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, (Beirut, dar-al-arabia, 1959)

Different version:

Bukhari, Abu Abdullah.   M. Muhsin Khan (trans), Sahih Bukhari, (2009)

Al-Tabari, Muhammad Ibn Jarir trans. Michael Fishbein, The history of al-Tabari, the victory of Islam, vol. 8 (New York, State university of New York Press, 1999)

Ishaq, Ibn.  Guillaume Alfred (trans) Life of  Muhammad, (Oxford, Oxford university press, 1955)

Al Waqidi, Rizwi Faizer, The Life of Muhammad, (London, Routledge, 2011)


                                                            Online sources


Konkar, pp. 34-36. Encyclopaedia of nations: Saudi arabia,  accessed 9 October 2012. , ‘complete survey of wind behaviour over the Arabian Gulf’, King Abdulaziz city for science and technology, Energy research institute, Riyadh.


                                                             Journal article



Eberstadt, Nicole and Shah, Apoorva ‘Fertility decline in the Muslim world, c. 1975-c. 2005’, in Population dynamics on Muslim countries: Assembling the Jigsaw Hans Goth, Alfonso Souso-Goso (Berlin, Springer, 2012)






Bushamail, Muhammad Ahmad. the Great Battle of Badr, (Lahore, Islamic publications, 1971)

Donner, Frederick M. Muhammad and the believers: at the origins of Islam (Harvard, Harvard university press, 2010)

Gabriel, Richard A.  Muhammad, Islam’s first general (Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma press 2007)

Glubb, John B. The life and times of muhammad, (London, hodder and stoughton, 1965)

Hamidullah, Muhammad.  The Battlefield of the Prophet Muhammad, (New Delhi, Kitab Bhavan, 1983/2003)

Jones, JMB  ‘Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi: the dream of ‘Atika and the raid to Nakhla in relation to the charge of plagiarism’ in Uri Rubin ed., Lawrence I Conrad gen. ed., The life of Muhammad, vol. 4, (Aldeshot, Hampshire, Ashgate publishing 1998)

Kennedy, Hugh. Armies of the Caliphs, (Oxford, Oxford university press, 2001) The prophet and

and  the age of the Caliphates, (Harlow, Pearson education ltd., 2004)

Lings, Martin. Muhammad, his life based on the earliest sources (Cambridge, George Allen, 1983/2002)

Narayan, B.K.  Mohammed the prophet of Islam (Delhi, Lancer publishers, 1989)

Nicolle, David. Armies of the Muslim Conquest (Oxford, Osprey, /2004)7th reprint.

Rodinson, Maxine. Mohammed, (Club Francais de Livre, 1968/1971)

Stillman,Yedida Kalfon.  Stillman, Norman A. Arab dress: a short history, (Leiden, Koninklijke, 2003)

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Watt, Mongomery. Muhammad at Medina, (Oxford, Oxford university press, 1956/1968)

[1]Al Waqidi, Rizwi Faizer, trans, The Life of Muhammad, (London, Routledge, 2011) p. 242

[2]This reconstruction of Islamic arms, armor and tactics is based heavily around Hugh Kennedy, Armies of the Caliphs, (Oxford, oxford university press, 2001) and the Popularising David Nicolle, Armies of the Muslim Conquest (Oxford, Osprey, /2004)7th reprint. As well as Yedida Kalfon Stillman, Norman A. Stillman, Arab dress: a short history, (Leiden, Koninklijke, 2003)p. 19. Also note the sources on the specific armies at the trench below, especially Ibn Ishaq, Waqidi, and Tabari.

[3]Jones, JMB  ‘Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi: the dream of ‘Atika and the raid to Nakhla in relation to the charge of plagiarism’ in Uri Rubin ed., Lawrence I Conrad gen. ed., The life of Muhammad, vol. 4, (Aldeshot, Hampshire, Ashgate publishing 1998).

[4] Nicole Eberstadt and Apoorva Shah ‘Fertility decline in the Muslim world, c. 1975-c. 2005’, in Population dynamics on Muslim countries: Assembling the Jigsaw Hans Goth, Alfonso Souso-Goso (Berlin, Springer, 2012)p. 12.

[5] It is hard to explain to Westerners the deep disgust ancient and many modern Muslims had for the idea of ‘idols’ or associating ‘partners’ with god, yet it was a major issue which affected Islamic interaction with most other faith systems throughout its history.

[6] Tribes at this time dominated individual urban spaces in Arabian cities.

[7] Fred Donner, Muhammad and the believers: at the origins of Islam (Harvard, Belknap press, 2010) pp. Xiv, 57-58. According to Fred Donner, they were initially called ‘the believers movement’, basing his assessment on the far more common references to ‘Believers’ in the Qur’an (the most contemporary document to these events) rather than to ‘Muslims’. This piece shall mainly use the term ‘Muslims’ in this specific context.

[8] See Qur’an, Sura 8 and its description of the battle of Badr. The importance of religious literature and its legitimation by battle is something which this study shall skirt, however it is of immense importance.

[9]  Muhammad Ibn Jarir Al-Tabari, trans. Michael Fishbein, The history of al-Tabari, the victory of Islam, vol. 8 (New York, State university of New York Press, 1999)p. xiv.

[10]Richard A. Gabriel, Muhammad, Islam’s first general (Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma press 2007)p.131.

[11]Watt, Mongomery. Muhammad at Medina, (Oxford, Oxford university press, 1956/1968), p. 31-34.

[12]Fishbein in Tabari, the history p. xiv. This is an immensely crude summary of the first years of the Muslim community and much has been left out or oversimplified.

[13] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 217.

[14] Gabriel, Islam’s first general, pp. 132-133. Hamidullah, battlefield, p. 72.Black mercenaries: Ishaq, Life, p. 452. B.K. Narayan, Mohammed the prophet of Islam (Delhi, Lancer publishers, 1989)p. 89. Meccans: Martin Lings, Muhammad, his life based on the earliest sources,(George Allen,  Cambridge 1983) 4th impression, p. 215.

[15] Glubb, John B. The life and times of muhammad, (London, hodder and Stoughton, 1965) p. 245.Watt, Medina, p. 37.

[16] Cavalry: Al Waqidi, the life, pp. 244, 256. The Banu Qurayza are also supposed to have had ‘36’ cavalry during the siege, suggesting that this number may be an approximate guess or numerical platitude of some sort applied to Jewish tribes and cavalry or soldier numbers in general rather than the exact number, though the number was clearly very small and they had limited impact in the siege apart from one sally where they supposedly drove off Khalid’s cavalry.

[17] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 250. The number of ‘700’ warriors seems to have applied to the Banu Nadir as well, suggesting another numerical platitude.

[18]Watt, Medina, p. 249.

[19] Another comparative is the Theban sacred band, though obviously the main difference is that these were paired homosexual warriors.

[20]Watt, Medina, p. 37. That said, this idea is largely based on two battles, at Badr and Uhud. In the first, the Meccan troops had been made extremely tired due to lack of water as well as internal disagreements. In the second battle, it is possible that the initial Meccan ‘almost-defeat’ was really an elaborate false retreat (kar-wa-farr) to get the Muslims off the mountain of Uhud so their cavalry could fall on their exposed flanks and rear. It must be borne in mind that Meccan leaders like Khalid ibn Walid certainly did employ these tactics later on in the wars with Byzantium. So the Muslims may not have had any great superiority over the Meccans  in close quarter combat after all– it must also be borne in mind that in many cases these two groups knew or were related to each other, and whatever surprises Muhammad would have had may not have been great.

[21]We will be seeing more of this lady at the battle of Yarmuk.

[22]Al-Bukhari, sahih, 5.423.Lings, His life, p. 217.

[23] Obviously, most god-fearing Muslims would see more in this event than luck.

[24]Martin Lings, Muhammad, his life based on the earliest sources (Cambridge, 1983/2002)p.215. Gabriel, Islam’s first general, p. 132. Ibn Ishaq, Guillaume Alfred (trans) Life of  Muhammad, (Oxford, Oxford university press, 1955) p. 450. Tabari, the history, p. 8. Ultimately, Many of the Meccans would subsequently become the Umayyad ruling elite who would have every reason to distort the oral accounts on which Tabari, Ishaq, and Waqidi based their works, so as to escape their own responsibility to destroy Muhammad and his followers.

[25]Hamidullah, battlefield, p. 62. He further states ‘this was all a deep plot laid by the Jews of Khaibar’,  p. 64.

[26]See John Tosh, The pursuit of history (Harlow, Pearson education ltd, 2006) pp. 310- 332, for more on oral history and its potential for misuse as history goes on: oral accounts, by and of their nature became more distorted as time went on.

[27] That stated, Muhammad did have an alliance with the Nanu Yamama.

[28] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 218. Obviously, these speeches, much like those that are related from many other traditions, must be especially taken with a pinch of salt. Each historian often gives a rather different version of the speech, while elements can be distorted. It is hard to believe that someone took down everything that was said during all these events (especially for ‘Ali and ‘Amr’s fight) and that everything survived later editing – especially since many of the records of these events were from oral testimony of doubtful authenticity.

[29] Tabari, the history, p. 8.Al Waqidi, the life, p. 218.

[30] Narayan, Muhammad, p. 90.Al Waqidi, the life, pp. 218, 220, 222. Precise deployment of the armies is as usual open to question, and Narayan may simply mean the group which was later sent into Medina to guard against Qurayza attack.

[31] Lings, His life, p. 216.

[32] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 220.

[33]Gabriel, Islam’s first general, pp. 133-135. For instance, according to Muhammad B. Bashar-Muhammad b. Khalid Ibn ‘Athmah – Kathir b. Abdullah b. ‘Amr b. ‘Awf al-Muzani, his father said ‘the messenger of god laid out the trench in the year of the parties, from the fortress of the two shaykhs (Ujum al-Shaykhayn) on the side of the Banu Harithah (this was a tribe which had land on the northeast side of medina until it reached al Madhad.)

[34]Gabriel, Islam’s first general, p. 136.

[35]Hamidullah, battlefield, p. 68.

[36]Al-Bukhari, sahih, 5.423.Lings, His life, p. 217. Al Waqidi, the life, pp. 218, 221.

[37]Lings, His life, p. 217.

[38]Al-Bukhari, sahih, 5.140.

[39]Al-Bukhari, sahih, 5.140.

[40] Glubb, life and times, p. 242. Glubb’s translation, as with many English translations of Arabic documents, must be taken as somewhat distorted due to the problems of mutual translations between these two great but poorly compatible languages.

[41]Al-Bukhari, sahih, 4.90. Al Waqidi, the life, p. 221. Hamidullah, battlefield, p. 70.

[42]Al-Bukhari, sahih, 4.87.

[43]Al-Bukhari, sahih, 4.89. Obviously, much of this religious language will seem quite alien to many western readers. The thing to understand here is that the Muslim (and early Christian) worlds tended to assume and place most of their political, economic, and social stances in religious terms, trying to relate their concept of reality to their conception of god in some way.

[44]Lings, His life, p. 217. Al Waqidi, the life, p. 220.

[45] Ishaq, Life, p. 450.

[46] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 219.

[47] Ishaq, Life, p. 451.Lings, His life, p. 218.

[48] Ishaq, Life, p. 451. This may be a distorted version of the Prophet’s use of boiling vinegar (or water) to break the rock apart: Hannibal used a similar method to destroy a rock in the Alps which was blocking his army getting over the mountains.

[49] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 216.

[50]Lings, life, p. 222.

[51]Narayan, Muhammad, p. 90.

[52]Tabari, the history, p. 18. Lings, life, p. 222.

[53]Lings, life, p. 220. Al Waqidi, the life, p. 218.

[54]Kennedy, prophet, p. 39. Ishaq, Life, p. 454.Tabari, the history, pp. 5, 17. Al Waqidi, the life, pp. 216, 241. Watt, Muhammad, p. 35.

[55]Rodinson, Mohammed, p. 211. Hamidullah, battlefield, p. 66.

[56] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 218. Glubb, life and times, p. 245.

[57]  Al Waqidi, the life, p. 218.

[58] Al Waqidi, the life, pp. 218, 232.

[59]Tabari, the history, p. 15. Al Waqidi, the life, p. 222. The speeches here are especially hard to believe as most of these individuals were killed by the Muslims, unless they dictated everything at their trial.

[60] Ishaq, Life, p. 453. Al Waqidi, the life, p. 222.

[61] Ishaq, Life, p. 453. Tabari, the history, p. 16.

[62] Ishaq, Life, p. 453. Tabari, the history, p. 16.

[63] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 225. Narayan, Muhammad, p. 91. The number ‘700’ may be yet another numerical platitude applied to Jews as it is applied to other Jewish tribes.

[64] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 221.

[65] Lings, His life, p. 222.Al Waqidi, the life, p. 225-227.

[66] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 225.

[67] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 232. As we will discover, early Arab and Islamic women, coming from a culture where women were quite independent in some respects, often taking part in the fighting during battles, but they had a much bigger impact when fighting the Byantines at Yarmuk.

[68]Ishaq, Life, p. 449.

[69] Tabari, the history, p. 22. Ishaq, Life, p. 458. It is possible that this story is a literary error of some sort, because a similar story is told about Safia in a different context at Uhud.

[70] Al Waqidi, the life, pp. 221, 234.

[71] Glubb, life and times, p. 245.

[72]Kennedy, prophet, p. 90. Even if the Meccans did not have tools, it frankly seems rather ridiculous that they could not simply fill the trench in under cover from their archers. Rather it seems that Abu Sufyan, busy trying to secure a relatively costless victory, exhausted himself and his alliance.

[73]Tabari, the history, p. 18. Ishaq, Life, p. 454. Al Waqidi, the life, p. 230.

[74]Al Waqidi, the life, p. 229. The Muslim infantry would presumably have been pinned down trying to stop the far more numerous alliance heavy infantry coming over the trench – and the second they moved to counter the cavalry, the infantry would get over the trench: they were simply spread too thin.

[75] Ishaq, Life, p. 455.

[76] Ishaq, Life, p. 455.

[77] Al Waqidi, the life, pp. 74, 230. Ishaq, Life, p. 453. Of course a lot of this could be exaggerated to play up ‘Ali.

[78]Al Waqidi, the life, p. 230. Ishaq, Life, p. 455.

[79] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 230.

[80]Tabari, the history, p. 18. It is possible that it was one of two alternatives – Islam or death – according to Ibn Ishaq or Tabari. Ishaq, Life, p. 455.

[81] Ishaq, Life, p. 455.

[82]Tabari, the history, pp. 18-19. Or possibly there was only two options as in Ishaq, Life, p. 456.

[83] Ishaq, Life, p. 455.

[84] Ishaq, Life, p. 456.

[85] Ishaq, Life, p. 456.

[86] Ishaq, Life, p. 457. This poetic propaganda was as we will see of immense importance to Arabians.

[87]Tabari, the history, pp. 18-19. Al Waqidi, the life, p. 230.

[88]Tabari, the history, pp. 18-19. Ishaq, Life, p. 456. Al Waqidi, the life, p. 231.

[89]Lings, His life, p. 223. Narayan, Muhammad, p. 90. Some Meccan horses may have been wounded, (and many presumably died from starvation) but their losses were certainly not that serious – The Meccan cavalry stayed more or less intact to the end.

[90] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 227.

[91]Konkar, pp. 34-36. Encyclopaedia of nations: Saudi arabia,  accessed 9 October 2012. Obviously, prevailing wind directions may well have changed since then so this is merely a guess.

[92]Ishaq, Life, p. 457.Tabari, the history, pp. 20-21.

[93] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 228.

[94]Ibn Hisham, p. 701, as quoted in Maxine Rodinson, Mohammed, (Club Francais de Livre,1968/1971)2nd ed. p. 210.

[95] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 229.

[96] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 227.

[97]Glubb, life and times, p. 245.Watt, Medina, p. 38. Al-Bukhari, sahih, 5.426.

[98]Malik Ibn Abbas, Muwatta Hadith, 11.1.4

[99]Hamidullah, battlefield, p. 69. For instance tries to pooh-pooh idea of arguments between the Ansar and Muhajirun over whether Salman the Persian should help one or the other. Watt, Medina, p. 180.

[100]Watt, Medina, p. 191.

[101]Tabari, the history, p. 16. This was Aws b. Qayzi, one of the Banu Harithah b. Al –Harith.

[102]Watt, Medina, p. 191. Qur’an, 33: 10-25. Aisha notes that this Qur’anic verse came down during the very events of the Khandaq itself in Al-Bukhari, sahih, 5.429. One should also bear in mind that Ibn Ubayy and his forces had deliberately not participated in the battle of Uhud.

[103] Ishaq, Life, p. 454.

[104]Watt, Medina, p. 187.

[105] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 231.

[106] Ishaq, Life, p. 454.Tabari, the history, p. 13.Al Waqidi, the life, p. 225.

[107] Ishaq, Life, p. 454. Al Waqidi, the life, p. 225. Note that this speech, as indeed are many of the others, is a very retrospective in its understanding of history.

[108]Al-Bukhari, sahih,  5.438, 1.570- 1.574.

[109]Al-Bukhari, sahih, 5.430.

[110]Narayan, Muhammad, p. 91. A tributary position would have essentially been an admittance that Medina was in an inferior position to the Ghatafan.

[111]Ishaq, Life, p. 454.Lings, life, p. 224. Al Waqidi, the life, pp. 234-235.

[112]Lings, His life, p. 225.

[113]Ishaq, Life, p. 458.Tabari, the history, p. 23. Al Waqidi, the life, p. 235.

[114]Al Waqidi, the life, p. 236.

[115] Ishaq, Life, p. 459. Al Waqidi, the life, p. 235.

[116] Ishaq, Life, p. 458.

[117]Al Waqidi, the life, p. 236.

[118] Fishbein, the history p. xiv. Gabriel, Islam’s first general, p. 137. Lings, His life, p. 215. Al Waqidi, the life, p. 237. Many of the tribesmen amongst the Bani Sulaym had converted to Islam, though most were not present in the alliances army for that very reason.

[119] Ishaq, Life, p. 459. Al Waqidi, the life, pp. 236-237.

[120]Al Waqidi, the life, p. 237.

[121]Al Waqidi, the life, p. 238.

[122]Al Waqidi, the life, p. 238. This seems a fairly likely story.

[123]Lings, His life, p. 224.

[124]Gabriel, Islam’s first general, p. 140. Lings, His life, p. 227.Al Waqidi, the life, p. 232.

[125]Tabari, the history, p. 26.

[126]Tabari, the history, p. 27.

[127]Lings, His life, p. 227.

[128] Ishaq, Life, p. 460.Al Waqidi, the life, pp 239- 240.

[129]Al-Bukhari, sahih, 5.431. Al Waqidi, the life, p. 218.

[130]Hussam Konkar, ‘complete survey of wind behaviour over the Arabian Gulf’, King Abdulaziz city for science and technology, Energy research institute, Riyadh, p. 35.

[131] Ishaq, Life, p. 460.Al Waqidi, the life, pp. 239- 240. Similar angelic intervention in the form of wind and sandstorms is attributed to the battle of Badr, suggesting a group psychological process of placing events into a religious context which was in turn placed on paper and canvass.

[132]The effect of a wind may seem like a minor issue, however the loss of horses or camels would have been a subject of horror to an equestrian people such as this: as well as this, it would have been an immediate indication of the death of the army soon if supplies were running out.

[133] This speech is an amalgam of all three of these sources: Ishaq, Life, p. 460. Tabari, the history, p. 27.Al Waqidi, the life, p. 248.

[134]Al Waqidi, the life, p. 245. The Ghatafan parted company with the Meccans on the road to Mecca and dispersed to their pastures.

[135]Al Waqidi, the life, p. 241.

[136]Al-Bukhari, sahih, 4.68. Ishaq, Life, p. 461.Tabari, the history, p. 28.

[137]Al-Bukhari, sahih, 5.448. Fishbein, the history p. xv. Gabriel, Islam’s first general, p. 142.Ishaq, Life, pp. 456- 469, 479-482. Kennedy, prophet, p. 38. Narayan, Muhammad, p. 93. Tabari, the history, p. 28. Al Waqidi, the life, pp. 234-261. Watt, Medina, p. 214. Rather than getting pinned down in this controversial topic, it has been decided to focus on the overall importance of these events.

[138]Watt, Medina, p. 37.

[139]Watt, Medina, p.39.

[140]Kennedy, Age of Caliphates, p. 18.

[141]Rodinson, Mohammed, p. 211. Or at least not beaten without an expenditure of effort which most Hijazi groups calculated as being too costly

[142]Watt, Medina, p. 39. Kennedy, prophet, p. 39.

[143]The clear legitimacy being imparted on Islam at the battle of Badr by the Qur’an Sura 8 ‘al Anfal’, can be seen in verse 8.9, as well as in most of the early verses of this Sura which clearly outline spoils of war.

[144]Al Waqidi, the life, p. 235.

[145] See Qur’an 33.9-33:28, esp. 33.27-33.29.

[146] That stated though, it is not unlikely that much of the poetry written about the trench in fact comes from long after it and was produced for, or distorted by the time it got to, Waqidi Ishaq and Tabari.

[147] See again Tosh, pursuit of history pp. 310- 332.

[148]Watt, Medina, p.38. Fishbein, the history p. xiv.

[149]Al Waqidi, the life, p. 243.

[150] Al Waqidi, the life, p. 220.


A History of Granby Park

On Thursday, 22nd August 2013 a new, if brief, ‘pop-up’ park staffed by volunteers was opened on Dublin’s north-side inner city. This is Granby park, the newest addition to many new exciting voluntary projects going on around the city. This is also an opportunity for us to reflect on the problems of lack of services such as parks and general recreational facilities, and of course, housing, for most of Dublin, especially in the recession-lashed Northside inner city.

Yet it is also an opportunity to reflect on the city’s past, and learn from it, as well as some of the mistakes and problems which have occurred when it came to making decisions about how to manage housing. It is an opportunity to reflect on the past greatness which the recently derelict site of Granby possesses. And it is an opportunity to reflect on the vivid and varied tapestry of humanity and stories of people who lived out their lives here, growing up, marrying, having children then finally passing away.

I will thus attempt to provide a brief history of Dominick Street, focusing on the area around Granby Park wherever possible.

A composite map of Dublin up till 1540. Note St. Mary’s Abbey as well as the few roads which would form the basis of the Northside. Courtesy: Ordinance Survey Ireland, and Richview library.

The area of Granby and Dominick Street did not exist before the 18th century. Before that, this area had been in the medieval parish of St. Mary’s Abbey, then the following church. Though it is hard to conceive now, the concrete-enclosed Dominick street area seems to have consisted mainly of orchards and vegetable gardens up till the 1720s at least.

The first construction work on the future Dominick Street was commissioned by Sir Christopher Dominick in the early 1720s. Dominick was a physician who had originally purchased the land in 1709. With other landlords already constructing housing estates around the local area, he built a large house on the present Dominick Street, and he leased an adjoining site to Lady Alice Hine.

This 1728 side-on map by Charles Brooking shows the area around Dominick Street as fields, with Trinity College (church tower on left) and Dublin castle (towers to the right) and the Dublin mountains in the background. This was at a time when this area was an expanding suburb not unlike noughties Dublin. Courtesy: Richview library and OS Ireland.

Dominick died in 1743 and his widow let in lots for building a new street which would be called ‘Dominick Street’ a decade later, though she kept a hold of the property in number 13. These lots were essentially carved up by different builder-speculators who were forerunners of today’s failed Celtic-boomers, though their works, unlike their distant descendants, were not destined for the ghost-town scrap-heap.

John Roque’s map of 1756, showing the first few houses of Dominick Street built on the future Granby Park, on the bottom south-east right hand side of the street. Note the Orchards and vegetable plots nearby. Courtesy: OS Ireland and Richview library, UCD.

The 1756 map of John Rocque above records five houses already constructed, on the present site of Granby Park. It is ironic that these first houses were amongst the first to meet the acquaintance of the wrecking ball during the later 1950s culls. Further building was proceeding along by 1757, with Dominick’s son-in-law, Usher St. George, letting out further lots.

Thus commenced the construction of one of the most beautiful Georgian areas of Dublin. In fact, up till 1957 Dominick Street was the grandest surviving Georgian Street north of the Liffey, long, broad and flanked by terraces of tall spare brick houses with pedimented stone door cases.

Amongst the most well-known builders was Robert West, who took on at least five plots on this street alone. Several of the surviving houses there were built and decorated by West (though it is possible his role in this is somewhat exaggerated), such as Nos. 39-43 and 21-22, which have surviving Rococo and Italianate frames.

No. 40 has a rather elaborate tripartite door case made of Portland stone with Scamozzian Ionic columns carved foliage panels above side lights. But the piece de resistance is at No. 20 lower Dominick Street. Its outside is very poor, but the inside sumptuously beautiful, with cherubs and various depictions of naturalistic scenes such as birds and garlands, angle cartouches, chinoiseries borders, strap work elements and busts. It was built by Robert West from 1758-1760 for the Hon. Robert Marshall, a justice in the court of Common pleas. Upper Dominick Street would have to wait and was only completed in the 1820s.

In the meantime, the area from which Granby Park itself takes its name was taking shape.

A block away to the East, the west side of Parnell square, originally known as Granby row, was laid out between 1758 and 1773 , with the first houses opening in 1766, though some sort of line had existed in Granby row as early as 1728. This Granby row was named after the then-famous Marquis of Granby, John Manners, (1721- 1770) a war hero from the Seven year’s war between Britain and France.

Granby led cavalry regiments with immense bravery during a charge at the battle of Warburg (Germany) in 1760 where they drove the French cavalry across the river Diemel, killing hundreds. His hat and wig were shot off during the battle, and he was forced to salute his commander without them. This was unusual – usually, officers had to be wearing headdress before they saluted officers. As a result, Granby’s cavalry regiment, the prestigious Royal horse guards (Blues) were allowed the tradition of saluting without their headdresses. Granby would go on to help win the battle of Villinghausen in 1761, and would eventually have numerous pubs named after him in England thanks to good treatment of troops who would go on to found these premises.

Granby lane and Granby place, which back on to Granby Park, were named after his son, Charles Manners, the fourth duke of Rutland (1754-1787) who was the viceroy and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, dying in Phoenix park lodge thanks to excessive claret (wine) consumption.

On this road, No. 29 was another house completed by Robert west in 1770. Ironically, No. 29 would supposedly be a safe-house for the Irish nationalist leader Michael Collins during the war of independence (1919-1921).

The area was heavily dominated by the aristocracy, however there was already a spattering of barristers, attorneys and physicians as well as other professionals, who would slowly become the dominant classes on these streets, because they (unlike most of the other lower classes) could afford the heavy rents.

In 1775 Emily Olivia St. George, who was the granddaughter of Sir Christopher Dominick, married the Second duke of Leinster, William Fitzgerald (1749-1804) and number 13 Dominick Street became Fitzgerald’s property.

According to Seamus Scully, the daughter of a caretaker in these two houses would later happily recount: ‘Number 13 was the residence, with lovely period furniture and a number of valuable pictures- original paintings by old masters – on the drawing and dining rooms. The hall, covered with black and white large tiling, held a cosy, covered ‘booth’ for the hall porter. Number 13’s mews were covered with an ornamental pear tree, number 14’s with Virginia creeper… a gravel path ran down the garden and there were lawns on each side, with two raised circular groups of ornamental shrubs. The Fitzgerald family, aunts, uncles, of the duke all stayed at number 13 when visiting or passing through Dublin…. they were charming people – kind, interested in their employees and their families’. Numbers 13 and 14 were the Leinster estate offices early on, with gardens running back to Granby lane.

This area was fully a part of greater historical events happening at that time, and it knew its fair share of scandal. No. 11 was occupied in the 18th century by Sir Hercules Langrishe, who helped form the Irish volunteers with Henry Grattan and Napper Tandy. However, in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion, when the act of Union (1801) had been pushed through the Irish parliament linking both countries ‘forever’ and demolishing any sense of home rule, it would transpire that Sir Henry had accepted a bribe to abstain from the momentous vote against it!

The act of Union would cause a property crash in Dublin as many of the nobility and lords who were connected with the Irish parliament were forced to go to London to join the parliament there, taking their money, and often many dependents with them, and property prices bottomed out.

This property crash would help cause the long-term flight of large numbers of the nobility from Dominick Street, and the street slowly became poorer, though the increasing population crisis which would lead to the Irish famine probably played its part along with other factors like the predominant flight of the nobility to the suburbs.

For the time being however, Dominick Street / the future Granby Park was still a prosperous area, and was increasingly occupied by working professionals like solicitors and surgeons. If we take number 1 lower Dominick street, this was occupied by William Dargan, a railroad contractor. 20 years later, Sandham Symes, an architect, and Robert Symes, a Barrister, were at number 58, though no. 13 remained in the possession of the Dukes of Leinster. The Earl of Howth had a house at no. 41, though it was eventually sold to the Carmelite friars in 1854. This house along with numbers 39-42 were converted to a school and from 1902 it was occupied by the Sisters of the holy faith. This property was only sold in 1981 following closure.

When the Broadstone railway station opened in 1847 up the road and near the entrance to upper Dominick Street, several hotels and boarding houses were introduced to the street catering to its passengers. For example the Midland hotel took on guests from the great Midland railway from Mullingar and beyond.

By 1850, the formerly ornate no. 20 had become the school for the parish of St. Mary’s, and Dominick Street also appears in some of the later Sean O’Casey’s writings, referring to a miserable and sadistic school run by the ‘scowl-faced, pink, baldy, whorey old-headed teacher, Slogan!’

From 1846-1861 the church of St. Saviour was laid down and completed in an elegant Gothic revival style, influenced by French designs by the architect James Joseph McCarthy and now the key church for the then-expanding Dominican order.

Records of the time indicate that the population was fairly varied. Granby lane in 1847 had an inspector-general for lunatic asylums, a surgeon and a vintner, amongst others, while George cook owned one of the local board and lodging houses.

For the local area, the most common surnames, in descending order of numbers, perhaps indicates the increasing importance of Irish – Catholic Irish – in the area as time went on: Byrne, Murphy, Doyle, Lynch, Moore, Kelly, Kennedy, Smith, Farrell, Martin.

No. 36 was the birthplace of Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865), an Irish physicist and astronomer as well as mathematician, whose work included a re-assessment of the old Newtonian laws of physics and would help lead to new theories on electro-magnetism and eventually quantum mechanics. His daughters Laetitia and Eva Hamilton would go on to become Irish landscape painters.

JS Sheridan le Fanu (1814-1873), was born at 45 Lower Dominick Street into a family of Huguenots, and amongst many works he would complete one of the first modern vampire stories, Carmilla, which predated Bram Stoker’s own work by 25 years. It is a lurid tale of a vampire which winds its way into a family and starts feeding off of the daughter of an English officer.

But by then, conditions in the street were worsening. The creation of the slums started in the 1880s, and this has been blamed on the so-called slum landlords. These individuals bought the Georgian houses cheaply and sublet them, often with up to eighty people occupying one of the large houses so that they could gain maximum rent.

By 1900, half of Dominick Street had undergone a savage conversion into tenements and was essentially a slum. Often, large families (Census reports frequently indicate up to eight to a room) were reared in one room, poorly fed and clothed, and these were cruelly ideal conditions for disease.

This was not helped by an often fractious county council guided by Laisse-Faire as well as divide-and-rule policies (depending on the presiding British government of the time).

We still see glimpses of the past here, and the census reports of 1901 and 1911 along with other sources indicate that the situation was not simply a constant depression-wrought period of continuous social degradation with no hope at all reminiscent of Angela’s Ashes. Attempts were made to maintain and improve some of the dwellings there. For instance in no. 13, there was work done on the stables kept by the Duke of Leinster, probably by the contractor J and P Good around 1902-1903. Indeed, the Earl of Antrim, continued to live just around the corner in Granby row.

In 1914, two shops were reconstructed in no. 28-29 by the contractor W.A. Clarke, from Fairview. Even later on in the middle of the darkest days of the 1950s, number 24 would see the rear of a store there rebuilt so not everything was ‘Bug-Ridden, Rat infested’ doom and gloom as one later author would put it.

So what struggles did many of these, to us, seemingly anonymous individuals who lived there face? Did they find love? Did they serve in the Great War, the War of Independence, or the Civil War, either for or against any side or not care at all? Did they squander their meagre (or perhaps not-so-meagre) money, or slowly claw their way up the social ladder? Did they enjoy drinking or abstain? This cannot be answered here – but suffice it to say that for many, conditions were not pleasant. But it wasn’t always as simple as that.

At John West’s number 20, the former school, the Dominican order ran an orphanage there from 1927. Seamus Scully, who grew up here later, remembered ‘the scared children [from the orphanage] with shaven heads, clad only in unhappily uniforms and noisy hobnailed boots’

With independence, religious devotionalism was high in the 1920s, and many resorted to extreme asceticism to combat the scourge of drinking which had so badly affected many Irish people. A well-known incident involves Matt Talbot, (1856-1925) a reformed alcohol addict who had turned into an ascetic. On 7 June 1925 he apparently dropped dead on his way to the Dominican church in Granby Lane. He was found to be bound in chains and cord, revealing the full extent of the devotion to his god. He was known for his extreme devotion to the Virgin Mary and he is well respected – even revered – by religious Catholics both in Ireland and abroad and is regarded as a patron of men and women suffering from alcoholism for his battle with addiction and asceticism.

Later on in the 1930s, the Midland hotel was owned by a supporter of the Right-wing Irish politician / Soldier Eoin O’Duffy, where men would gather prior to being sent on the failed expedition to support Franco’s nationalists in the Spanish civil war.

By the 1950s the whole area was severely run-down, and moves were made to demolish much of Dominick Street so that the county council could construct new accommodation which would be better suited to the local’s needs. The demolitions started with the lower east side, then finished with the lower west side buildings.

The tenements which had been so vividly evoked by Sean O’Casey, former residences of lords and ladies past as well as the touchstones for so many stories of the great and good, were replaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s by undistinguished brick-clad galleried apartment buildings by Desmond Fitzgerald. Out of sixty-six houses recorded in 1938, only ten survived the tenement-pogroms of these once magnificent if shabby buildings.

An angered Desmond Guinness would bemoan the destruction: ‘In 1957 alone, Dublin has lost half of Dominick Street’. Nonetheless, No. 20 would survive and indeed, much of its stucco and plasterwork ceilings have recently been restored, thanks to help from the heritage council. It is currently the headquarters of the National Youth Federation.

The flats which replaced the Dominick street tenements themselves have received their fair share of criticism as being unsuited for modern living conditions, poorly fitted out, lacking in facilities and so on, and the housing project cannot really be considered a long-term success, though it has been considered that they provided ‘much needed’ accommodation for the residents. Until Now.

It is important to understand that the present plans of Dublin city council to regenerate the local economy and then placed in suspended animation due to the economic crash of 2008 is just the latest in a long line of similar debacles which were caused by unforeseen circumstances.

The planning of Dublin city’s housing has, much like any other city, been fraught with the danger of dealing with unexpected political events, environmental occurrences, and of course, recessions which can vivisect the most grandiose plans by hitting where it hurts: at the nation’s or individual’s purses.

For instance, in Eccles street prior to the 1798 rebellion, there had been plans for an extensive ring-road and railed park at the centre with roads radiating outward, yet this was scuppered unexpectedly by the death of its patron, Luke Gardiner or Lord Mountjoy, during the battle of New Ross as well as the following act of Union.

Similarly the development of the buildings around D’Olier Street which now house the Irish times was also delayed by the same act of Union which would help scupper Dominick street’s long-term prosperity, and it would hang in the air, undeveloped and looking for interested developers, for years.

Obviously, an appreciation of the history of previous failure and the consequences for residents is always something we should keep in mind – yet this is preaching a well-worn sermon that needs little further telling.

In any case, the visitors to Granby park should know one thing: they are arriving in the latest in a long line of developments of this area, however temporary. It will be exciting to see how the next chapter of Dominick Street and Granby Park will unfold. Perhaps, at last, it is time for Dominick Street to return to its former greatness.


# Please note that all map and photograph references are below the photographs themselves, and all efforts have been made to acquire permission from the relevant parties.

Douglas Bennett, The Encyclopaedia of Dublin.

Joseph V. O’Brien, Dear, Dirty Dublin: a city in distress.

Cristine Casey, Dublin, the buildings of Ireland.

Paul Clerkin, Dublin street names

Maurice Craig Dublin 1660-1860

Frederick O’Dwyer Lost Dublin

CT McReady Dublin street names

Peter Pearson, The heart of Dublin, resurgence of a historical city.

Seamus Scully, The Dublin Rover

Author unknown, The Dublin Almanac and register for 1947

Edel Sheriden, ‘Designing the capital city’, in Joseph Brady, Anngret Simms, Dublin through space and time

R.A. Stradling. The Irish and the Spanish civil war, 1936-1939: Crusades in conflict

Cathal Crimmins, Julia Crimmins and John Greene, ‘Architectural appraisal and environmental report on the former Irish times premises, D’Olier street and fleet street, Dublin 2’

Sources online

Archaeological Survey of Ireland Map viewer : , accessed 15/09/2013.

Census of Ireland 1901 & 1911: , accessed 15/09/2013.

Dictionary of Irish architects:   ,   accessed 15/09/2013.

Ordnance Survey Ireland online:,591271,743300,0,10 , accessed 15/09/2013.

‘The battle of Warburg’ : , accessed 15/09/2013.


Special thanks to Julia Crimmins, Building conservationist, as well as the staff of Richview library, University college Dublin.

About the Author: Ronan Stewart

Independent researcher living in Dublin, recently completed a masters in History from the University of Cambridge.