Chapter Scripts

Surah Al-Ahzab: 33:11-20

33:11 [For] there and then were the believers tried, and shaken with a shock severe.

Explanation

This parenthetic passage connects with verses 1-3 above and relates to every prophet’s “pledge” – i.e., sacred duty – to convey God’s message to man, and thus to act as “a bearer of glad tidings and a warner”. (For my rendering of idh, in this context, as “lo”, see surah 2, note 21.)

33:12 And [remember how it was] when the hypocrites and those with hearts diseased said [to one another], “God and His Apostle have promised us nothing but delusions!”

Explanation

Cf 5:109 and, more particularly, 7:6 “We shall most certainly call to account all those unto whom Our message was sent, and We shall most certainly call to account the message-bearers [themselves]”.

33:13 And when some of them said, “O you people of Yathrib! You cannot withstand [the enemy] here, hence, go back [to your homes]!” – whereupon a party from among them asked leave of the Prophet, saying, “Behold, our houses are exposed [to attack]!” – the while they were not [really] exposed, they wanted nothing but to flee.

Explanation

Cf. 3:124-125 and the corresponding note 93. The present passage (verses 9-27) relates to the War of the Confederates (al-ahzab) – also called the War of the Trench (al-khandaq) – which took place in 5 H. At the instigation of the Jewish tribe of Banu ‘n-Nadir, who had been expelled from Yathrib (Medina) after they had broken the treaty binding them to the Muslims, several of the most powerful Arabian tribes formed a confederacy with a view to overcoming, once and for all, the threat posed by Islam to the beliefs and many of the customs of pagan Arabia. In the month of Shawwal, 5 H., a force of well over 12,000 men, composed of the Quraysh and their allies the Banu Kinanah, Banu Asad, and the people of the coastlands (the Tihamah), as well as the great Najdi tribe of Ghatafan and its allies, the Hawizin (or Banu ‘Amir) and Banu Sulaym – converged upon Medina. Forewarned of their coming, the Prophet had ordered a deep trench to be dug around the town – a defensive measure unknown in pre-Islamic Arabia – and thus brought the assault uf the Confederates to a halt. At that point, however, another danger arose for the Muslims. The Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayzah, who lived in the outskirts of Medina and until then had been allied with the Muslims, broke the treaty of alliance and openly joined the Confederates. Nevertheless, during a siege lasting several weeks all the attempts of the latter to cross the trench – manned by the numerically much weaker and less well-armed Muslims – were repulsed with heavy losses to the attackers; dissensions, based on mutual distrust, gradually undermined the much-vaunted alliance between the Jewish and the pagan Arab tribes; in the month of Dhu’l-Qa’dah their frustration became complete when a bitterly-cold stormwind raged for several days, making life unbearable even for hardened warriors. And so, finally, the siege was raised and the Confederates dispersed, thus ending the last attempt of the pagans to destroy the Prophet and his community.

33:14 Now if their town had been stormed, and they had been asked [by the enemy] to commit apostasy, [the hypocrites] would have done so without much delay.

Explanation

The Ghatafan group tried to take the trench by assault from the upper, eastern part of the Medina plain, while the Quraysh and their allies launched an attack from its lower, i.e., western part (Zamakhshari), and this obviously in consonance with their original lines of approach – the Ghatafan having come from the highlands (Najd), and the Quraysh from the coastal lowlands (the Tihimah).

33:15 Although were that they had vowed before God that they would never turn their backs [on His message], and a vow made to God must surely be answered for!

Explanation

Lit., “[when] you thought all [manner of] thoughts about God”: i.e., “whether He would save you or allow your enemies to triumph”.

33:16 Say “Whether you flee from [natural] death or from being slain [in battle], the flight will not profit you – for, however you fare you are not [allowed] to enjoy life for more than a little while!”

Explanation

This phrase obviously denotes here the weak of faith among the believers.

33:17 Say “Who is there that could keep you away from God if it be His will to harm you, or if it be His will to show you mercy?” For, [do they not know that] besides God they can find none to protect them, and none to bring them succour?

Explanation

This is a reference to Muhammad’s prophetic vision, at the time of digging the trench, of the future Muslim conquest of the whole Arabian Peninsula as well as of the Persian and Byzantine Empires (Tabari). Several authentic Traditions testify to the Prophet’s announcement of this vision at the time in question.

33:18 God is indeed aware of those of you who would divert others (from fighting in His cause], as well as of those who say to their brethren, “Come hither to us (and face the enemy)!” – the while they (themselves] join the battle but seldom. 

Explanation

i.e., outside the city, defending the trench.

33:19 Begrudging you all help. But then, when danger threatens, thou canst see them looking to thee [for help, O Prophet], their eyes rolling [in terror] like [the eyes of] one who is overshadowed by death, yet as soon as the danger has passed, they will assail you [believers] with sharp tongues, begrudging you all that is good! [People like] these have never known faith – and therefore God will cause all their works to come to nought, for this is indeed easy for God.

Explanation

Lit., “if entry to them had been forced”.

33:20 They think that the Confederates have not [really] withdrawn, and should the Confederates return, these [hypocrites] would prefer to be in the desert, among the bedouin, asking for news about you, [O believers, from far away] and even were they to find themselves in your midst, they would but make a pretense at fighting [by your side].

Explanation

Lit., “and would not have tarried more than a little [while]”.

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