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Fort of Khayber the Centre of Danger

By: Ayatullah Ja'far Subhani
From the day Islam was preached in Madina the Jews became more inimical towards the Prophet and the Muslims than even Quraysh, and rose with all their intrigues and strength to destroy this religion.
The Jews who lived in Madina itself or in its suburbs met the fate they deserved on account of their noxious activities. A group of theirs was put to death, and others like the tribes of Bani Qaynuqa' and Bani Nuzayr were expelled from Madina, and they settled in Khayber and Wadiul Qura'.
The extensive fertile plain situated in the north of Madina at a distance of thirty two leagues is called the Valley of Khayber and before the appointment of the prophetic mission the Jews had constructed seven strong forts in that area for their residence and safety. As this area was very suitable for agricultural purposes its residents were fully conversant with matters relating to farming, accumulation of wealth, procurement of arms and principles of defence. Its population exceeded twenty thousand and many brave and warlike persons could be seen amongst them.[486]
The greatest crime committed by the Jews of Khaybar was that they instigated all the Arab tribes to destroy the State of Islam, and with their financial support the army of polytheism marched from different places in Arabia and reached the very walls of Madina. As a result of this the Battle of Ahzab took place (details of which have been given earlier). The measures taken by the Prophet and the self-sacrifice of his companions made the attacking army, including the Jews of Khayber, return to their homes after staying on the other side of the ditch for one month and peace and tranquility was restored in the Capital of Islam. Foul play by the Jews, who were previously respected by the Muslims, made the Prophet decide to destroy this central place of danger and to disarm all of them, because it was not improbable that these obstinate and adventurous people might once again spend large sums to instigate the idolatrous Arabs to rise against the Muslims, and the story of the Battle of Ahzab might be repeated, as their intolerance in the matter of religion far exceeded the love of Quraysh for idolatry and it was on account of this blind faith that while thousands of polytheists had embraced Islam, not even one Jew showed his readiness to forsake his religion.
Another factor which prompted the Prophet to destroy the power of the Jews of Khayber, to disarm them, and to appoint his own officers to watch their movements, was that he had corresponded with the princes, kings and rulers of different countries of the world and had invited all of them in a decisive tone to embrace Islam, and in the circumstances it was not improbable that the Jews might become tools in the hands of Kisra and Kaiser and might decide to take revenge on the Muslims with the help of these two emperors and destroy the spiritual movement of Islam or instigate these emperors to rise against Islam, just as they had instigated the idolaters earlier, as in those days the Jews had sided with one emperor or the other during the wars between Iran and Rome and so the Prophet considered it necessary to nip this evil in the bud.
This was the best time for carrying out this step, because after having concluded the Peace Pact of Hudaybiyah the Prophet was free from all embarrassment from the southern side (Quraysh) and knew that if he lays his hands on the organization of the Jews they would not receive any help from Quraysh. As regards prevention of other tribes in the north (like the families of Ghatfan who were the allies and friends of the people of Khayber during the Battle of Ahzab) from helping the Jews, he had a plan in mind about which we will speak later.
Prompted by these factors, the Prophet ordered the Muslims to get ready to conquer the last centres of the Jews in Arabia. He added that only those persons, who were present at the time of conclusion of the Peace Pact of Hudaybiyah, could participate in this battle. As regards to others they could join as volunteers but were not entitled to any share in the booty.
The Prophet appointed Ghayla Laythi to be his representative in Madina. He gave a white standard in the hands of Ali and ordered the Muslims to march. And in order that the caravan might reach the destination as early as possible he permitted his camel-driver, 'Amir bin Akwa' to recite verses while driving the camels. He, therefore, recited these verses: By Allah! If we had not been blessed by Him, we would have been misguided; we would neither have given alms nor offered prayers. We are such a nation that if a nation oppresses us or creates mischief against us, we would not tolerate it. O Allah! Grant us perseverance and keep us steadfast in this path.
The subject-matter of these verses clarifies the motive and causes of this battle. It means that, as the Jews have oppressed us and started mischief at the very threshold of our house, we have undertaken this journey to stop this danger.
The contents of the verses pleased the Prophet so much that he prayed for 'Amir. It so happened that 'Amir achieved martyrdom in this battle.

The Prophet was very much interested in camouflage[487] in the movement of troops. He wished that none should know his destination so that he might come upon the enemies unawares and besiege their environs before they could take any necessary decision. It was also his idea that everyone of the allied enemies should think that he was the Prophet's target and they should, therefore, remain confined to their houses as a measure of precaution and should not join one another.
Some people thought that possibly the Prophet had undertaken this journey towards north to suppress the tribes of Ghatfan and Fazarah who were the allies of the Jews in the Battle of Ahzab. However, after reaching the desert of Raji', he directed the forces to move towards Khayber and thus cut off liaison between these two allies, and prevented the said tribes from coming to the help of the Jews of Khayber. The result was that, although the siege of Khayber continued for one month, the said tribes could not render any assistance to their allies.[488]
The great leader of Islam advanced towards Khayber with 1600 warriors who included two hundred mounted soldiers.[489] When they came near the region of Khayber the Prophet made the following invocation which is a proof of his pure intentions: "O Allah, Who are the Lord of the heavens and of whatever is below them, and the Lord of the earth and of whatever has thrown weight on it!........ I seek from You the goodness of this habitation and the goodness of its inhabitants and of whatever is in it and seek refuge in You from its evil and from the evil of its inhabitants and from the evil of whatever is placed in it".[490]
This invocation, made as an entreaty and that too in the presence of 1600 brave soldiers, is an evidence of the fact that he had not come to this land for conquest i.e. to expand his territory, or to take revenge. On the contrary he had come to destroy this centre of danger which could possibly become a base for the idolaters, and his object was that the Islamic movement should not be threatened from this quarter. And, as the respected reader will observe, the Prophet, after conquering the fort and disarming the Jews, made over their farms to them and contented himself with providing them full protection and exempted them from paying jizyah (tribute).

The seven forts of Khayber had a particular name as: Na'im, Qamus, Katibah, Nastat, Shiq, Watih and Sulalim. Out of these forts some were at times associated with the names of the chiefs of the particular forts. For example, one of them was called the Fort of Marhab. In order to protect the forts and to remain informed of the external state of affairs, watch towers had been constructed at the corners of all the forts so that the sentries posted there might report the external events to the inmates. The towers and the forts were constructed in such a manner that their inhabitants were in full control of the area outside the forts and could stone the enemies by means of catapults etc.[491] This population of twenty thousand included two thousand brave and warlike persons who were perfectly well-off from the point of view of water and food reserves. These forts were so strong that it was not possible to drive a hole in them and those who attempted to approach them were wounded or killed by the stones flung from within. These forts were considered to be strong fortifications for the Jewish warriors.
It was necessary for the Muslims who were faced with a well-equipped and powerful enemy to make maximum use of military skill and war tactics to conquer these forts. The first thing which was done was that all the important points and paths and gates were occupied by the soldiers of Islam overnight. This job was performed so secretly and so quickly that even the sentries of the watch towers did not become aware of it. In the morning, when the farmers, having no knowledge of the developments, came out of all the forts of Khayber with agricultural implements, their eyes fell on the brave soldiers of Islam, who had, with the strength of faith and strong hands and sharp weapons, closed all paths for them; so much so that if they had come one step forward they would have been arrested. This scene frightened them so much that they took to their heels at once and all of them began saying: "Muhammad is here with his soldiers". They immediately fastened the gates of the forts tightly and held war councils inside. When the eyes of the Prophet fell on the destructive equipment like spades and picks, he considered it to be a good omen and said these words for strengthening the morale of the soldiers of Islam: "Allah is Great! Ruined be Khayber. When we descend upon a nation what a bad time it will be for those who have been warned!"
The Jews decided, after discussions among them, that the women and children should be accommodated in one fort and the stores of foodstuffs should be shifted to another. Then the brave and warlike persons of every fort should defend themselves from above by means of stones and arrows. On some particular occasions the champions of every fort should come out of it and fight with the Muslims. The Jewish warriors did not abandon this plan till the end of hostilities and were consequently able to withstand the strong army of Islam for a month. At times it took ten days making efforts to conquer a fort but the purpose was not achieved.

The place chosen by the officers of Islam as the headquarters of the army in this Islamic jihad was not very important from the military point of view. The Jewish army had complete control over it and there was no obstacle or impediment to their taking aims upon the headquarters of the army of Islam. In view of this one of the experienced warriors of Islam named Hubab bin Munzir came to the Prophet and said: "If you have encamped at this spot under the orders of the Almighty, I don't have the least objection to it, because the commandments of Allah are above all our opinions and precautions. However, if it is a usual matter on which the officers can express their opinions, I am obliged to say that this point is within the view of the enemies and is situated near the Fort of Natah and as there are no trees or houses here the archers of the fort can very easily take aim at the centre of our army".
The Prophet, acting on one of the most important principles of Islam (viz. the principle of consultation and of according respect to the views of others), spoke thus: "If you mention a better place I shall shift my camp there". After examining the land of Khayber, Hubab suggested a place which was situated behind the date-palm trees and the army staff and headquarters were accordingly transferred there. Thereafter, till the conquest of Khayber, the officers and the Prophet of Islam came to the forts everyday from that place and returned to their camping place at night.[492]
No decisive view can be expressed with regard to the details of the war of Khayber. However, it is learnt from all the books on history and biography of the Prophet that the soldiers of Islam besieged the forts one by one and endeavoured to cut off communication of the besieged fort from other forts and resorted to besiege another fort after conquering the former one. The conquest was delayed of those forts which were connected with one another by underground passages or whose warriors put up a stubborn resistance, whereas those forts, whose commanders were over-awed or whose connection with other forts was completely cut off were conquered easily. In such cases much lesser bloodshed took place and matters were settled expeditiously.
According to some historians the first fort of Khayber which surrendered to the Islamic forces after great effort and sufferings was the Fort of Na'im. The conquest of this fort cost the martyrdom of Mahmud bin Maslamah Ansari, one of the greatest commanders of Islam. In this battle fifty soldiers of Islam were wounded. Mahmud bin Maslamah was struck by a stone which was flung from above and died instantly. However, according to Ibn Athir,[493] he died after three days. As regards the fifty soldiers who were wounded they were carried to a place in the camping place which was meant for dressing of wounds.[494] A group of the women of Bani Ghifar tribe came to Khayber with the permission of the Prophet to assist the Muslims, to dress their wounds and to render all other services permissible for women in the army encampments. They rendered these services whole-heartedly and sincerely.[495]
The war council decided that after conquering the Fort of Na'im, the Muslim soldiers should attack the Fort of Qamus. Its chief was Ibn Abil Haqiq. As a consequence of the self-sacrifice of the soldiers of Islam, this fort was also conquered and Safiyah, daughter of Hay bin Akhtab, who later became the wife of the Prophet, was arrested.
These two great conquests strengthened the morale of the soldiers of Islam and awe and fear prevailed over the Jews. However, the Muslims were in a great fix on account of foodstuffs, so much so that they were obliged to eat the meat of some animals, whose meat is abominable (though not unlawful). The fort which contained abundant foodstuffs had not yet come into the hands of the Muslims.

At a time when the Muslims were faced with extreme hunger and satisfied it by using the meat of animals, whose meat is disapproved, there came before the Prophet a black faced shepherd who served as a cattle-man of the Jews and requested that the reality of Islam might be explained to him. On hearing the impressive and penetrating words of the Prophet, he embraced Islam at once and said: "All these sheep have been entrusted to me (by the Jews). What am I to do with them now when my contact with their masters has been cut off?" The Prophet said to him in clear terms in the presence of hundreds of hungry soldiers: "In my religion breach of trust is one of the greatest crimes. It is necessary that you should take all the sheep to the gate of the fort and hand them over to their masters". He complied with the Prophet's orders and then participated in the battle immediately and met martyrdom in the path of Islam.[496]
No doubt, the Prophet who had acquired the title of Amin (righteous) during his early age continued to be righteous and honest in all circumstances The traffic of the herds was free in the morning as well as in the afternoon throughout the period of siege and not even one Muslim thought of taking away the sheep of the enemy, because Muslims too had become righteous and honest under the sublime teachings of their great leader. Only on one day, when all of them were fully overpowered by hunger, he permitted them to catch only two sheep from the herd and let the others enter the fort. This too would not have been done if acute hunger had not obliged them to do so. Hence, as and when the soldiers complained of hunger the Prophet raised his hands in prayer and said: "O Lord! Make the soldiers conquer the fort in which foodstuffs are stocked". He did not, however, allow them to acquire the property of the people until victory had been achieved.[497]
By taking these facts in view the baselessness of the statements of some biased contemporary orientalists become patent, because, in order to belittle the sublime aims of Islam, they endeavour to prove that the battles fought by the Muslims were aimed at plundering and collecting booty, and the rules of justice at the time of fighting battles were not observed by them. However, the incident mentioned above as well as other similar incidents recorded in history prove the falsehood of these statements, because the Prophet did not permit, even in the most difficult circumstances (e.g. when his self-sacrificing soldiers were faced with hunger and death), that the shepherd should commit breach of trust with his Jewish employers, although he could confiscate all the sheep at that time.

After the conquest of the said forts the besieging forces turned their attention to the Forts of Watih and Sulalim.[498] However, the attacks by the Muslims were strongly resisted by the Jews outside the fort and the warriors of Islam could not gain victory in spite of their dauntless courage. The figures of the heavy losses sustained by them have been recorded by the great biographer of Islam, Ibn Hisham, under a special column. They fought with the Jews for ten days but returned to the camping-place everyday without achieving any success.
On one of these ten days Abu Bakr was nominated to fight for victory. He came up to the edge of the fort carrying a white standard and the brave soldiers of Islam moved under his command. However, after some time they returned without achieving any result and the commander and the army held each other responsible for failure and fleeing the battlefield.
On the following day the command of the army was entrusted to Umar. He also repeated the story of his friend and, according to Tabari,[499] frightened the companions of the Prophet by praising the chief of the fort, Marhab, for his extraordinary valour and bravery. The Prophet and the commanders of Islam were very much displeased at this.[500] In the meantime the Prophet called the officers and warriors of the army together and uttered the following stirring sentences which are recorded in the history: "Tomorrow I shall give this standard to a person who loves Allah and the Prophet and who is loved by Allah and the Prophet and Allah will accomplish conquest of this fort at his hands. He is a man who has never turned his back towards the enemy and does not flee the battlefield".
And as quoted by Tabarsi and Halabi he used the words 'Karrar Ghayr-i Farrar' which mean one who attacks the enemy and does not run away[501] (i.e. he is quite the opposite of the aforesaid two commanders).
This sentence, which is an evidence of the superiority, spiritual excellence and valour of the commander, who was destined to be the victor, created a clamour of joy coupled with agitation of mind amongst the soldiers and commanders of the army, and everyone of them was desirous[502] that this great military medal might fall to his share.
The darkness of night spread everywhere. The soldiers of Islam went to sleep and, the sentries took their positions at elevated places to watch the movements of the enemy. At last the day dawned. The commanders came round the Prophet. The two defeated commanders also attended with protracted necks and were anxious to know as early as possible as to whom the glorious standard was going to be given.[503]
The silence of the anxiously waiting persons was broken by the Prophet's words "Where is Ali?" He was informed that he was suffering from an ailment of the eyes and was resting in a corner. The Prophet said: "Bring him". Tabari says: "Ali was mounted on a camel and was made to alight before the tent of the Prophet". This sentence shows that the ailment of the eye was so severe that it had made the commander incapable of movement. The Prophet drew his own hand on his eyes and prayed for him. This action and this prayer had an effect like the breath of Prophet 'Isa, for thereafter the eyes of Ali, the great commander of Islam, had no complaint throughout his life.
The Prophet ordered Ali to advance. He reminded him in this connection that before resorting to fighting he should send his representatives to the chiefs of the fort and should invite them to embrace Islam. In case, however, they declined to do so he should inform them of their obligations under the banner of the Government of Islam viz. that they should disarm themselves and lead a free life under the protection of Islam on payment of jizyah.[504] In case, however, they refused to accept any of these proposals he should resort to fighting. And the last sentence which the Prophet uttered as a guideline to Ali was this: "If the Almighty Allah guides even one person through you it is better than that you should be possessing red-haired camels and should spend them in the path of Allah".[505] There is no doubt that the Prophet thought of showing the right path to the human beings even during the battle and this in itself shows that these battles were fought for the guidance of the people.
[486] Seerah-i Halabi, vol. III, page 36 and Tarikh-i Ya'qubi, vol. II, page 46.
[487] At times it is said that in spite of this perfect camouflage the chief of the hypocrites (Abdullah Sallul) informed the Jews of Khayber of the plan and advised them that besides defending themselves from above the forts they should also fight with the Muslims outside the forts.
[488] Seerah-i Ibn Hisham, vol. II, page 330.
[489] Amali Tusi, page 164.
[490] Tarikh-i Kamil, vol. II, page 147.
[491] Seerah-i Halabi, page 38.
[492] Seerah-i Halabi, vol. III, page 39.
[493] Usudul Ghabah, vol. IV, page 334.
[494] Seerah-i Halabi, vol. III, page 40.
[495] Seerah-i Ibn Hisham, vol. III, page 342.
[496] Seerah-i Ibn Hisham, vol. III, page 344.
[497] Seerah-i Ibn Hisham, vol. II, page 335.
[498] Some historians believe that the said forts were occupied peacefully through negotiations and the events now being narrated, relate to the Forts of Qamus or Nastat.
[499] Tarikh-i Tabari, vol. Il. page 300.
[500] Majma'ul Bayan, vol IX, p. 120 and Seerah-i Halabi, vol. II, p. 43.
[501] The story of the fleeing of the two commanders touched Ibn Abil Hadid, the great historian of Islam, extremely. He says in his famous Qasidah (poem ): "Even if I forget everything I cannot forget the story of these two great commanders of Islam, because they proceeded towards the enemy with swords in their hands, but turned their backs towards the enemy and ran away although they knew that it is unlawful to run away from jihad. They took the great standard of Islam towards the enemy, although, in fact, their lot was humiliation and degradation. A swift man from amongst the descendants of Prophet Musa was turning them away. He was a tall man who was mounted on a swift-running horse".
[502] When Ali heard these words of the Prophet in the tent he said with a strong desire in his mind: "O Lord! If you reward somebody, nobody can deprive him; and if you deprive somebody, nobody can reward him". (Seerah-i Halabi, vol. III, page 41).
[503] The words used in Tarikh-i Tabari in this behalf are: Fa tatawala Abu Bakr wa Umar.
[504] Biharul Anwar, vol. XXI, page 28.
[505] Sahih Muslim, vol. V, page 195; Sahih Bukhari, vol. V, pp. 22-23,

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