The truce with Mecca made it possible to concentrate on the dangers which lay to the north. The greatest of these was the town of Khaybar, occupied by Jews who were for the most part implacably hostile to Islam. The sorcerer Labid had almost certainly been bribed from there, though that could have been the work of an individual. But there were far more evident and general reasons for taking action against the exiled Bani Nadir and their Khaybarite kinsmen. Not that they were likely to invade Yathrib. Except for one or two men, they had not taken any direct part in the campaign of the Trench, but it was they who had given Quraysh every encouragement to attack, and it was their influence which had induced their allies of Ghatafan to side with Quraysh on that occasion. It was also largely through them that Ghatafan still remained virtually at war with the oasis. Medina could never know any fullness of peace while Khaybar remained as it was.
It had long been clear that something must be done, sooner or later, in that direction; and now the time had come, for the Prophet was certain that the near-victory promised in the recent Revelation – a victory which would moreover be rich in spoils – could be nothing other than the conquest of Khaybar. But this was not to be shared by all who professed Islam. The Revelation made it clear that those Bedouin who had failed to respond to his summons to make the Lesser Pilgrimage had been largely prompted by mercenary motives. Since there was no hope of plunder on the Pilgrimage, it was not worth the effort. They were therefore not to be allowed to take part in the conquest of what was, without doubt, one of the richest communities in all Arabia.
This meant setting off with a smaller force, though it had the advantage that their plans could be kept secret until the last moment. But even when the project became known, it was passed from mouth to mouth as a pleasantry rather than a fact. The impregnable strength of Khaybar was almost proverbial. Quraysh and the other enemies of Islam hoped that the news was true because, if so, Muhammad would, at last, receive a crushing defeat; but they feared it could not be true, for they knew he was not mad. As for the men of Khaybar themselves, their confidence was such that they refused to believe it. They did not even trouble to ask their allies for help until certain news came from Medina that Muhammad was about to set forth. Only then did Kinanah, their virtual chief, make a speedy visit to Ghatafan, offering them half the date harvest for that year if they would send them reinforcements. They agreed to do so and promised a force of four thousand men. The Jews of Khaybar were in the habit of donning their armor every day and lining up their full strength of fighting men, ten thousand in all. The help of Ghatafan would bring the number up to fourteen thousand; and according to the news from Medina, the invading army was of sixteen hundred men only.
Before the Prophet set out, one of the men of Aws known as Abu ‘Abs came to him with a problem. He had a camel to ride, but his clothes were in rags and he had no means of procuring any provisions to take on the march and nothing to leave for the upkeep of his family, let alone buying himself a new garment. There were many others in similar circumstances, though this was an extreme case. But much had been spent on the Pilgrimage, and everything that had been gained so far in the way of spoil was outweighed by the increasing number of poverty-stricken converts who came to Medina from every direction. The Prophet gave Abu ‘Abs a fine long cloak, all that was available for the moment; but on the march, a day or two later, he noticed that he had on a much poorer cloak and he asked him: “Where is the cloak I gave thee?” “I sold it for eight dirhams,” said Abu ‘Abs. “Then I bought two dirhams worth of dates as provision for myself, and I left two dirhams for my family to live on, and bought a cloak for four dirhams.” The Prophet laughed and said: “O father of ‘Abs, thou and thy companions are poor indeed. But by Him in whose hand is my soul, if ye keep safe and live yet a little while, ye shall have an abundance of provisions and leave abundantly for your families. Ye shall abound in dirhams and in slaves, and it will not be good for you!’”
At one point on the march, between two camps, the Prophet halted his army and called to a man of Aslam known as Ibn al-Akwa’, who had, as he knew, a beautiful voice. “Dismount,” he said, “and sing us a song of thy camel songs.” The Bedouin would sing to their camels as they rode from place to place. They would chant poems to old melodies, monotonous, haunting and plaintive; and to the sadly serene cadences of one of these Ibn al-Akwa’ now chanted some words which the Prophet had taught them while they were digging the trench:
“God, but for Thee we never had been guided,
Never had given alms, nor prayed Thy prayer.”
So it began; and when he had finished the Prophet said to him: “God have Mercy on thee,” at which ‘Umar protested: “Thou hast made it inevitable,O Messenger of God. Would thou hadst let us enjoy him longer!” He meant, as they all knew, that the Prophet had foretold his early martyrdom, for they had come by experience to conclude that when he invoked Mercy upon anyone, that person had probably not long to live. Within two and a half days they were only an evening’s march from their goal. It was now important to take up a position that would put them as a barrier between Khaybar and her allies of Chatafan, With this end in view the Prophet asked for a guide and during the night they reached an open space in front of the walls. It was very dark, for the young crescent moon had already set; and so quiet was their approach that no one stirred in the town, and no domestic bird or beast gave the alert. Only at cockcrow was the silence broken. The call to prayer was hushed that dawn in the Muslim camp; and having prayed, they looked ahead of them in silence at this “garden of the Hijaz” which the increasing light gradually revealed to them as the fortresses began to loom up above the rich palm groves and fields of corn. The sun rose, and when the land workers came out with their spades and mattocks and baskets they were astonished to find themselves face to face with a grimly silent army. “Muhammad and his host,” they cried, and fled back into their strongholds. “ALLAHUAKBAR” said the Prophet, adding, in triumphant play upon the letters of the name: Khaybar! (Khaybar is crushed!). Then he solemnly sealed its defeat by reciting the revealed verse which says of the punishment of God: When it alighteth in front of their dwellings, bad morning then to those who have been warned! 1 But instead of saying it alighteth he said, “we alight.” The Jews held a hurried council of war. But despite the warning of one of their chiefs they decided to trust to their battlements. There was no comparison, they said, between the fortresses of Yathrib and their own mountain citadels, as they liked to call them. This decision to fight in separate groups was largely based on their greatest weakness, which was lack of unity. What the Revelation had told the Prophet about the Jews of Yathrib was also true of the Khaybarites: iII feeling is rife amongst them. Thou countest them as one whole, but their hearts are divided? It was their misfortune to be now suddenly faced by an army which, though small,was penetrated with the discipline implied in the revealed verse: Verily God loveth those who fight for His cause in ranks as if they were a close-built block.’ an army of men whose souls delighted in the promise of the words: How many a little band hath overcome a multitude by God’s leave! And God is with the steadfast.’
On the first day when the Prophet attacked the nearest fortress, the garrisons of the others did not march out in a body to attack the besiegers but remained behind their own walls and busied themselves with strengthening their fortifications. These tactics reduced the disparity of numbers, but they put the steadfastness of the Muslims to the test of a long campaign on alien territory and many battles instead of one. The men of Khaybar were amongst the most expert marksmen of Arabia. Never before had the Muslims had such severe training in the use of their shields; and at the outset of the campaign the women in the camp were kept busy treating arrow wounds. Of the Prophet’s wives the lot had fallen a second time in succession to Umm Salamah; and amongst the other women who accompanied the army to tend the wounded and keep up the supply of water behind the lines were the Prophet’s aunt Safiyyah, Umm Ayman, Nusaybah and Umm Sulaym, the mother of Anas.
For several days nothing was achieved; but on the sixth night, when ‘Umar was in command of the watch, a spy was caught in the camp, and in return for his life he gave them valuable information about the various fortresses, telling them which they could capture most easily and suggesting that they should begin with one which was not well guarded and which had a quantity of weapons stored in its spacious cellars, including some engines of war that had been used in the past against other fortresses, for like Yathrib Khaybar had often been plagued with civil discord. The next day the fortress was taken and the engines brought out to be used in other assaults, a ballista for hurling rocks and two testudos for bringing men up to the walls beneath an impregnable roof so that they could breach an entrance. Partly thanks to these engines, the easier fortresses fell one by one. The first powerful resistance they encountered was at a stronghold named Na’im, Here the garrison came out in great force, and on that day every attack made by the Muslims was repulsed. “Tomorrow,” said the Prophet, “will I give the standard unto a man whom God and His messenger love. God will give us the victory by his hands; he is not one who turneth back in flight.”
In his previous campaigns, the Prophet had used relatively small flags as standards. But to Khaybar, he had brought a great black standard. They called it “the Eagle”, and this he now gave to ‘Ali. Then he prayed to him and his other Companions, that God should give them the victory. After another day of fierce fighting, in which Zubayr and the red-turbaned Abu Dujanah played an eminent part, ‘Ali led his men in a final onslaught which drove back the garrison deep into their stronghold, leaving the Muslims in command of the doors. The fortress surrendered, but not before many of its men had escaped to other fortresses through a back outlet. “Where are the Bani Ghatafan?” was a question that was being asked throughout Khaybar, but not answered. They had in fact set out with an army of four thousand men as promised. But after a day’s march, they had heard during the night a strange voice-they did not know whether it came from earth or heaven – and the voice cried out three times in succession: “Your people! Your people! Your people!”, whereupon the men imagined that their families were in danger, and hastened back whence they had come, only to find everything in order. But having returned, they were unwilling to set out a second time, partly because many of them were convinced that they would now arrive too late to have a share in the defeat of the enemy.
The most impregnable of the strongholds of Khaybar was known as the Citadel of Zubayr. It crowned a high mass of rock with a steep approach to the gates and sheer cliffs on all the other sides..Most of the fighting men who had escaped from the other fortresses had joined the citadel’s garrison, which remained firmly within the walls. The Prophet besieged them for three days, and then a Jew from another stronghold came to him and told him that they had a hidden resource which would enable them to hold out almost indefinitely; and he offered to tell him the secret, on condition that his life and property and family should be safe. The Prophet agreed, and the man showed him where he could dig down to dam an underground rivulet that flowed beneath the rocks of the citadel. They had steps leading down to it from within, and since the stream was never dry they kept no stores of water. So when it was cut off they were soon driven by a thirst to come out and fight, and after a savage battle, they were defeated.
The last of the strongholds to make any resistance was Qamus. This belonged to the family of Kinanah, one of the richest and most powerful clans of the Bani Nadir. Some of them had long lived in Khaybar whereas others of the family, including Kinanah himself, had recently settled thereafter they had been exiled from Yathrib. It was they especially who had been counting on the help of Ghatafan, whose failure to keep their promise had been an unnerving disappointment for them; and they were still further demoralized by the bad news brought by all those fugitives who had now crowded into Qamus. They nonetheless held out for fourteen days; then Kinanah sent word that he wished to come to terms with the Prophet, who said he was willing to negotiate. So the chieftain came down from the fortress with others of his family, and it was agreed that none of the garrisons should be put to death or made captive – neither they nor their families – on condition that they should leave Khaybar and that all their possessions should become the property of the victors. The Prophet then added a further clause, namely that his obligation to spare their lives and let them go free should be annulled with regard to anyone who might try to conceal any of his possessions. Kinanah and the others agreed to this; and the Prophet called on Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Ali and Zubayr, and ten of the Jews to witness the agreement.
But it soon became clear to both Jews and Muslims that much wealth was being hidden. Where was the famed treasure of the Bani Nadir which they had brought with them from Medina, and which they had so lavishly displayed in their procession through its streets? The Prophet questioned Kinanah about this, and he replied that since their arrival in Khaybar the treasure had all been sold to pay for more arms and armor and fortifications. The Jews knew that he was lying, and were all the more apprehensive because many of them now believed themselves to be in the presence of a Prophet. They held that they had no need to follow him because he had not been sent to them, but it would be clearly vain to try to deceive him. One of them, who had Kinanah’s welfare at heart, went to him and begged him to hide nothing, for if he did the Prophet would certainly be informed of it. Kinanah angrily rebuked him, but within less than a day the treasure was discovered, and Kinanah was put to death together with a cousin of his who was found to be privy to the concealment. Their families were made captive.
After the fall of Qamus, the two remaining fortresses surrendered on the same terms. Then the Jews of Khaybar consulted together, and sent a deputation to the Prophet, suggesting that since they were skilled in the management of their farms and their orchards he should allow them to remain in their homes, and they would pay him a yearly rent of half the produce. To this, the Prophet agreed, but he stipulated that if in the future he decided to banish them they must go. It was then rumored that the Muslims intended to extend their campaign to Fadak, a small but rich oasis to the northeast; and when the Jews of Fadak heard of the terms that had been imposed upon Khaybar they sent word offering to surrender on the same conditions. Fadak thus became the property of the Prophet, as did every other asset which had not been acquired by force of arms. When all the terms had been agreed upon, and when the victorious army had rested, the widowed wife of Sallam ibn Mishkam roasted a lamb and poisoned every part of it with a deadly poison which she concentrated especially in the shoulders, having learned on inquiry that the Prophet preferred the shoulder of lamb to the other joints.
Then she brought it to the camp and set it before him, whereupon he thanked her and invited those of his Companions who were present to sup with him. It happened on this occasion that seated next to the Prophet was a Khazrajite named Bishr, the son of that Bara’ who had led the Muslims of Yathrib to the Second ‘Aqabah and who had been the first ever to pray the ritual prayer in the direction of Mecca. When the Prophet took a mouthful of lamb, Bishr did the same and swallowed it, but the Prophet spat out what was in his mouth, saying to the others: “Hold off your hands! This shoulder proclaimeth unto me that it is poisoned.” He sent for the woman and asked her if she had poisoned the joint. “Who told thee?” she asked. “The shoulder itself,” said the Prophet. “What made thee do it?” “Well, thou knowest,” she said, “what thou hast done unto my people; and thou hast slain my father and mine uncle and my husband. So I told myself: ‘If he be a king, I shall be well quit of him; and if he be a Prophet he will be informed of the poison.’ ” The face of Bishr was already ashen pale, and he died shortly afterward. But the Prophet nonetheless pardoned the woman.
She was not the only woman who had lost a father and a husband at the hands of the Muslims. Among the captives taken as a result of Kinanah’s hiding, the treasure was his widow Safiyyah, the daughter of that Huyayy who had persuaded the Bani Qurayzah to break. their treaty with the Prophet, and who had been put to death with them after the Battle of the Trench. She was seventeen years old and had only married Kinanah a month or two before the Prophet set out from Medina. The marriage, while it lasted, had not been a happy one. Unlike her father and her husband, Safiyyah was of a deeply pious nature. From her earliest years, she had heard her people talk of the Prophet who was soon to come, and this had filled her imagination. Then they had spoken of an Arab in Mecca, a man of Quraysh, who claimed to be that Prophet; and then came the news that he had arrived at Quba’. That was seven years ago when she was a child of ten, and she well remembered her father and her uncle setting confidently out for Quba’ in order to reassure themselves that the man was an impostor; but what had imprinted itself on her memory above all was their return late at night, both in a state of extreme dejection. It was clear from what they said that they believed the newcomer to be the promised Prophet, but that they intended to oppose him, and her young mind was puzzled.
Soon after her marriage, and not long before the Prophet arrived in front of Khaybar, she had had a dream. She saw a brilliant moon hanging in the sky, and she knew that beneath it lay the city of Medina. Then the moon began to move towards Khaybar, where it fell into her lap. When she woke she told Kinanah what she had seen in her sleep, whereupon he struck her a blow in the face and said: “This can only mean that thou desirest the King of the Hijaz, Muhammad.” The mark of the blow was still visible when she was brought as a captive to the Prophet. He asked her what had caused it, and she told him of her dream. Now Dihyah of the Bani Kalb, who had entered Islam shortly after Badr, had asked that Safiyyah should be given him as his share of the booty of Khaybar, or as part of his share, and the Prophet had agreed; but on hearing her dream he sent to Dihyah and told him he must take her cousin instead. He then told Safiyyah that he was prepared to set her free, and he offered her the choice between remaining a Jewess and returning to her people or entering Islam and becoming his wife. “I choose God and His Messenger,” she said; and they were married at the first halt on the homeward march.
The campaign was not yet finished, for instead of returning by the direct way they had come, the Prophet turned a little to the west and besieged the Jews of Wadi l-Qura in their fortresses. They had been in league with Khaybar, and after three days they surrendered on the same terms. Ibn al-Akwa’, the Aslamite who had sung to them on their northward march, had been killed at Khaybar during the attack upon the Citadel. His own sword had somehow turned against him and given him a mortal wound, and one of the Helpers remarked that he could not be counted as a martyr. “He lieth who so sayeth,” said the Prophet. “Verily he passeth through the Gardens of Paradise as freely as a swimmer passeth through the water.”l Another question about martyrdom arose at Wadi l-Qura, where the Prophet’s black slave Karkarah was killed by an arrow as he was unsaddling a camel. But the Prophet answered: “He is burning even now in Hell beneath a cloak which he stole at Khaybar and which hath become a cloak of flames.” It was his wont to warn them continually that the privilege of living with him in his community brought with it a grave responsibility, for God was Just and would judge them more severely than those who lived in worse ages when it was more difficult to resist evil. He said: “Verily ye are in an age when whoso omitteth one-tenth of the law shall be doomed. But there will come an age when whoso fulfilleth one-tenth of the law shall be saved.”