The exiled Jews of Bani Nadir who had settled in Khaybar were determined to recover the land they had lost. Their hopes were centered on the preparations of Quraysh for a final attack on the Prophet, and towards the end of the fifth year of Islam – it was about the New Year of AD 627 – these preparations were brought to a head by a secret visit to Mecca of Huyay and other Jewish leaders from Khaybar. “We are one with you,” they said to Abu Sufyan, “that we may extirpate Muhammad.” “The dearest of men to us”, he replied, “are those who help us against Muhammad.” So he and Safwan and other chiefs of Quraysh took the Jews inside the Kaaba, and together they swore a solemn oath to God that they would not fail one another until they had achieved their end and aim.
Then it occurred to Quraysh that they should take this opportunity of asking the opinion of the Jews about the rights of their conflict with the founder of the new religion. “Men of the Jews,” said Abu Sufyan, “ye are the people of the first scripture, and ye have knowledge. Tell us how we stand with regard unto Muhammad, Is our religion the better or his?” They answered: “Your religion is better than his, and ye are nearer the truth than he is.”
On this harmonious basis, the two allies laid their plans. The Jews undertook to rouse up all the nomads in the plain of Najd who had grievances against Medina; and where the desire for revenge was not sufficient the matter was to be clinched by bribery. The Bani Asad readily agreed to help them; as to the Bani Ghatafan, they were promised half the date harvest of Khaybar if they would join the confederacy, and their agreement to do so increased the army by nearly two thousand men, from the Ghatafanite clans of Fazarah, Murrah and Ashja’, The Jews also succeeded in securing a contingent from the Bani Sulaym seven hundred strong, which would no doubt have been larger but for the fact that ever since the massacre at the well of Ma’unah a small but increasing party within this tribe had been favorable to Islam. As to the southerly neighbor of Sulaym, the Bani ‘Amir, they remained altogether faithful to their pact with the Prophet. Quraysh themselves and their closest allies were four thousand strong.
Together with one or two other contingents from the south, they were to march out from Mecca along the west coastal route to Medina, the same route which they had taken to Uhud. The second army, which was considerably less of unity, was to close in on Medina from the east, that is, from the plain of Najd. Together the two armies were estimated at a total of more than three times the strength of Quraysh at Uhud. There the Muslims had been defeated by a force of three thousand. What could they now hope to do against ten thousand? Moreover, instead of a troop of only two hundred horses, Quraysh had this time three hundred and could rely on Ghatafan for another troop of the same strength. They marched forth from Mecca-according to plan; and about the same time, possibly with the connivance of ‘Abbas, a number of horsemen from the Bani Khuza’ah set out with all speed for Medina to warn the Prophet of the impending attack and to give him details of its strength. They reached him in four days, thus giving him only a week to make preparations.
He at once alerted the whole oasis and spoke words of encouragement to his followers, promising them the victory if only they would have patience and fear God and obey orders. Then, as he had done at Uhud, he summoned them to a consultation at which many opinions were expressed as to what would be the best plan of action; but finally, Salman rose to his feet and said: “O Messenger of God, in Persia when we feared an attack of the horse, we would surround ourselves with a trench, so let us dig a trench about us now.” Everyone agreed to this plan with enthusiasm, the more so as they were averse to repeating the strategy of Uhud.
Time was short and all efforts would have to be strained to the utmost if no dangerous gap was to be left in the defenses. But the trench did not need to be continuous; at many places, a long stretch of fortress-like houses at the edge of the city was adequate protection; and to the north-west, there were some masses of rock which in themselves were impregnable and merely needed to be connected to each other. The nearest of these, known as Mount Sal’, was to be brought within the entrenchments, for the ground in front of it was an excellent site for the camp. The trench itself would bound the camp to the north in a wide sweep from one of the rocky eminences to a point on the eastern wall of the town. This was to be the longest single stretch of the trench and also the most important.
As well as being the originator of the strategy, Salman knew exactly how wide and how deep the trench would have to be; and having worked with the Bani Qurayzah, he knew that they possessed all the implements that were needed. Nor were they averse to lending them in the face of the common danger; for although they had no love for the Prophet the majority of opinion amongst them had been that their pact with him was a political advantage, not to be thrown away. So mattocks, pickaxes, and shovels were borrowed from them. They also supplied date-baskets which were strongly woven of palm fiber and could thus be used for carrying the excavated earth.
The Prophet made each section of his community responsible for a part of the trench and he himself worked with them. They went out at dawn every day immediately after the prayers and came home at twilight. As he led them out one of the first mornings he chanted a reminder of their work at building the Mosque:
“O God, no good is but the good hereafter.
Forgive the Helpers and the Emigrants!”
It was immediately taken up by them all, and sometimes they chanted:
“O God, no life is but the life hereafter.
Have mercy on the Helpers and the Emigrants!”
They continually reminded each other that the time was short. The enemy would soon be upon them, and if any man showed signs of flagging he was at once an object of mockery. Salman, on the other hand, was an object of admiration, for he was not only very strong and able-bodied but for years he had been used to digging and carrying for the Bani Qurayzah. “He doth the work of ten men,” they said, and a friendly rivalry started up between them. “Salman is ours,” the Emigrants claimed, in virtue of his having left many homes in search of guidance. “He is one of us,” the Helpers retorted; “we have more right to him.” But the Prophet said: “Salman is one of us, the people of the House.”
Excavated rocks and stones that might serve as missiles were piled up along the Medina side of the trench; the earth they carried away in baskets on their heads, and having dumped it they filled the baskets with stones which they brought back to the trench. The best stones were to be found at the foot of Mount Sal’. The men were all stripped to the waist, and those who could not lay hands on baskets knotted into sacks the outer garments they had doffed and used them to shift the earth and also the stones. On the first morning, they had been followed out to the camp by a number of boys, all eager to take part in the work. The youngest had been sent home forthwith, but the Prophet allowed many of the others to dig and carry on the understanding that they would have to leave the camp as soon as the enemy appeared.
As to those who had been sent home from Uhud, Usamah and ‘Umar’s son ‘Abd Allah and their friends, they were now fifteen years old, and they and others of their age were allowed to join the ranks of the men not only for the work but also for the battle when it came. One of them, Bara’ of the Harithah clan of Aws, would tell in after years of the great beauty of the Prophet as he remembered him at the trench, girt with a red cloak, his breast sprinkled with dust and his black hair long enough to touch his shoulders. “More beautiful than him I have not seen,” he would say. Nor was he alone conscious of this beauty, and of the general beauty of the scene. In particular, the Prophet himself, as he looked about him, rejoiced at their simplicity and their nearness to nature – the nearness to man’s primordial heritage – and he started a song in which everyone joined:
“This beauty not the beauty of Khaybar.
More innocent it is, O Lord, and purer.”
He worked now with the Emigrants, and now with the Helpers, sometimes with a pickaxe, sometimes with a shovel, and sometimes as a carrier. But wherever he might be, it was understood that he must be informed of any unusual difficulty. Despite the hardness of the work, there were moments of merriment. A convert from the Bani Damrah, one of the People of the Bench who lived in the Mosque, was a man of considerable piety but in looks, he was not well-favored and his parents had moreover given him the name Ju’ayl, which has the secondary meaning of “little beetle”. The Prophet had recently changed this to the fine name of ‘Amr, which means life, spiritual well-being, religion.
He repeated this to ‘Amr, and those who overheard it took it up and made a song of it, not without laughter. The Prophet joined in this only at the words” ‘Amr” and “help”, which he pronounced each time with considerable emphasis. The first cry for help came from Jabir, who had dug down to a rock that none of their implements could loosen. The Prophet called for some water and spat into it; then having prayed, he sprinkled the water over the rock, and they were able to shovel it out like a heap of sand.’ Another day it was the Emigrants who needed help. After many vain attempts to split or dislodge a rock he had struck, ‘Umar went to the Prophet, who took the pickaxe from him and gave the rock a blow at which a flare as of lightning flashed back over the city and towards the south. He gave it another blow and again there was a flash but in the direction of Uhud and beyond it towards the north.
A third blow split the rock into fragments, and this time the light flashed eastwards. Salman saw the three flashes and knew they must have some significance, so he asked for an interpretation from the Prophet, who said: “Didst thou see them, Salman? By the light of the first, I saw the castles of Yemen; by the light of the second I saw the castles of Syria; by the light of the third, I saw the white palace of Kisra’ at Mada’in. Through the first hath, God opened unto me Yemen; through the second hath He opened unto me Syria and the West, and through the third the East.”
Most of the diggers at the trench had not normally enough to eat, and the hard work increased the pangs of hunger. In particular, Jabir had been struck by the Prophet’s exceeding leanness the day he had needed his help at the trench, and that evening he asked his wife if she could not cook him a meal. “We have naught but this ewe,” she said, “and a measure of barley.” So he sacrificed the ewe, and the next day she roasted it and ground the barley and made some bread. Then, when it was too dark to continue working, Jabir went to the Prophet as he was leaving the trench and invited him to the meal of mutton and barley bread. “The Prophet put his palm against mine”, said Jabir, “and knotted his fingers through my fingers. I wanted him to come along, but he told a crier to call out: ‘Go with the Messenger of God unto the house of Jabir, Respond, for Jabir inviteth you.”’
Jabir spoke the verse which the faithful are recommended to utter at a moment of disaster: Verily we are for God, and verily unto Him are we returning, and he went on ahead to warn his wife. “Didst thou invites them or did he?” she said. “Nay, he invited them,” said Jabir. “Then let them come,” she said, “for he knoweth best.” The meal was placed in front of the Prophet and he blessed it and uttered the Name of God over it and began to eat. There were ten sitting down with him, and when they had all eaten their fill they rose and went to their homes, making room for ten more, and so it went on until all the workers at the trench had satisfied their hunger, and there still remained some mutton and some bread.
On another day the Prophet saw a girl enter the camp with something in her hand, and he called her to him. It was the niece of ‘Abd Allah ibn Rawahah, In her own words: “When I told the Messenger of God that I was taking some dates to my father and my uncle, he bade me give them to him. So I poured them into his hands, but they did not fill them. He called for a garment, which was spread out for him, and he threw the dates upon it in such wise that they were scattered over its surface. Then he bade those who were with him invite the diggers to lunch, and when they came they began to eat, and the dates increased and they were still overflowing from the edges of the garment when the men turned away from them.”