Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 33, “The Confederates,” verses 1-27

This Medinan sura provides a principal foundation for the central role of Muhammad, and hence of the Hadith (traditions of his words and deeds), in the formulation of Islamic law. It also contains a dramatic example of Allah’s solicitude for his prophet, further solidifying his pivotal role.

In verses 1-8, Allah tells Muhammad not to listen to the unbelievers and hypocrites (v. 1), but rather to follow divine inspiration (v. 2). We get a hint of what this is about when Allah says that no man has two hearts, a man cannot make his wife his mother, and a man cannot make an adopted son a real son (v. 4). In those days men would divorce their wives by telling them, “You are to me like the back of my mother” – the Qur’an is here saying that this doesn’t affect any real change or make them actually into their mothers, but the point here is not about divorce. Rather, the passage is intended to end the practice of adoption, starting with Muhammad’s own family. Ibn Kathir explains: “This was revealed concerning Zayd bin Harithah…the freed servant of the Prophet. The Prophet had adopted him before prophethood, and he was known as Zayd bin Muhammad. Allah wanted to put an end to this naming and attribution.” An adopted son should be known by the name of his natural father: he can never truly enter into his adoptive household (v. 5).

Why was Allah so intent on ending the practice of adoption? Because Muhammad wanted to marry Zayd’s ex-wife, Zaynab bint Jahsh — and as a result of his dalliance with his former daughter-in-law, says Maududi, “the hypocrites and the Jews and the mushriks [unbelievers] who were already bent on mischief would get a fresh excuse to start a propaganda campaign against Islam.” So Allah here emphasizes that an adopted son cannot be a true son, and so by extension Zaynab was never really Muhammad’s daughter-in-law at all, and there is no cause for scandal.

This sura will return to this subject later, but at this point it turns, in verses 9-27, to a discussion of the Battle of the Trench. Anticipating an attack by the pagan Arabs, whereupon Muhammad had a trench dug around Medina. According to Muhammad’s earliest biographer, Ibn Ishaq, once when Muhammad was helping the trench diggers, he wielded a pick at a large rock, and every time he hacked at the rock, lightning shot from the pick. One of the Muslims asked Muhammad: “O you, dearer than father or mother [cf. v. 6], what is the meaning of this light beneath your pick as you strike?”

Muhammad replied: “The first means that God has opened up to me the Yemen; the second Syria and the west; and the third the east.”

As the Quraysh, along with another tribe, the Ghatafan (known collectively in Islamic tradition as “the Confederates,” as in v. 20), laid siege to Medina, the trench prevented the invaders from entering the city. Yet the Muslims were unable to force them to end the siege. Then to make matters even worse, a tribe of Jews in Medina, the Banu Qurayzah, broke their covenant with Muhammad (perhaps after seeing how Muhammad had exiled two other Jewish tribes, the Banu Qaynuqa and Banu Nadir) and began collaborating with the Quraysh.

As the siege dragged on, according to Ibn Ishaq, one Muslim remarked bitterly about Muhammad’s designs on the Persian empire of Chosroes and the Byzantine empire of Caesar: “Muhammad used to promise us that we should eat the treasures of Chosroes and Caesar and today not one of us can feel safe in going to the privy!” Allah responded by saying that those who complain that “Allah and His Messenger promised us nothing but delusion!” have diseased hearts (v. 12). Allah accused these hypocrites of demoralizing the Muslims and of treasonous plotting with the enemies of Islam (vv. 13-14). Allah also told Muhammad to tell the people that desertion would be useless (v. 16).

The Qurayzah agreed to attack the Muslims from one side while the Quraysh besieged them from the other. But then a new convert to Islam, Nu’aym bin Mas’ud, came to Muhammad offering to trick the Confederate tribes, since his own people, the Ghatafan, did not know that he had become a Muslim. Muhammad responded, according to Ibn Ishaq: “You are only one man among us, so go and awake distrust among the enemy to draw them off us if you can, for war is deceit.” Nu’aym’s deception turned the Confederates against each other and against their Jewish allies; soon afterward, they ended the siege. Nu’aym’s deception had saved Islam.

According to Aisha, “When Allah’s Apostle returned on the day (of the battle) of Al-Khandaq (i.e. Trench), he put down his arms and took a bath. Then Gabriel whose head was covered with dust, came to him saying, ‘You have put down your arms! By Allah, I have not put down my arms yet.’ Allah’s Apostle said, ‘Where (to go now)?’ Gabriel said, ‘This way,’ pointing towards the tribe of Bani Quraiza. So Allah’s Apostle went out towards them.”

Ibn Ishaq recounts that Muhammad addressed the Qurayzah Jews contemptuously: “You brothers of monkeys, has God disgraced you and brought His vengeance upon you?” (The Qur’an three times — 2:62-65; 5:59-60; and 7:166 — says that Allah transformed the disobedient Jews into pigs and monkeys.) The Muslims laid siege to the Qurayzah strongholds until, said Ibn Ishaq, the Jews “were sore pressed” and Allah “cast terror into their hearts.” Muhammad entrusted the fate of the tribe to the Muslim warrior Sa‘d bin Mu’adh, who decreed: “I give the judgment that their warriors should be killed and their children and women should be taken as captives.”

Muhammad exclaimed: “O Sa‘d! You have judged amongst them with the judgment of the King Allah.” According to Ibn Ishaq, “The apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for [the men of the Qurayzah] and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches.” Ibn Ishaq puts the number of those massacred at “600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900.” Ibn Sa‘d says “they were between six hundred and seven hundred in number.”

One hadith summarizes Muhammad’s dealings with the three Jewish tribes of Medina: “Bani An-Nadir and Bani Quraiza fought (against the Prophet violating their peace treaty), so the Prophet exiled Bani An-Nadir and allowed Bani Quraiza to remain at their places (in Medina) taking nothing from them till they fought against the Prophet again). He then killed their men and distributed their women, children and property among the Muslims, but some of them came to the Prophet and he granted them safety, and they embraced Islam. He exiled all the Jews from Medina.”

The Qur’an refers obliquely to the massacre, saying that Allah “cast terror” into the hearts of the People of the Book who aided the pagans, “(so that) some ye slew, and some ye made prisoners” (v. 26). Victory came from Allah alone (vv. 9-11).

Next week: Allah scolds Muhammad for his reluctance to marry the former wife of his adopted son.

(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic Qur’an, with English translations available; here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)

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