A Test Too Hard
They came upon you from above and from below you. Your eyes rolled (with fear) and your hearts leapt up to your throats, and confused thoughts about God passed through your minds. That was a situation when the believers were sorely tested and severely shaken.
The hypocrites and the sick at heart said: “God and His Messenger promised us nothing but delusions.” Some of them said: “People of Yathrib! You cannot withstand (the attack) here, so go back.” And a group of them asked the Prophet’s permission to leave, saying: “Our houses are exposed,” while they were not exposed. They only wanted to run away. (The Confederates Al-Ahzab: 33: 10-13)
The Qur’an is not merely a book to be read and understood: it is a motivating force. Its texts are ready for implementation at every point. It only needs a heart that warms to it in circumstances that enable its resources to be fully tapped. We may read a particular Qur’anic text tens or hundreds of times, then we look at it again when we are facing a particular situation only to discover that it gives us what it had not given before. It provides a straight answer to our complex problem, shows a way that we overlooked, clears our doubts and replaces these with firm and perfect reassurance. Nothing else, old or new, gives us what the Qur’an gives.
The surah begins its discussion of the encounter with the confederate forces by reminding the believers of God’s favors when He repelled the armies that were intent on exterminating them. The first verse in the passage sums up the nature of the event, its beginning and end, before giving any details or explaining any attitudes. Thus, God’s favor is brought into focus so that the Muslims will always remember it. It also makes it clear that as God commands the believers to follow His revelations, place their trust in Him and not yield to the unbelievers or the hypocrites, it is also He who protects those advocating His message and code for human life against aggression: “Believers! Remember the blessings God bestowed on you when hosts came down upon you. We let loose against them a windstorm and hosts that you could not see. Yet God sees all that you do.” (Verse 9)
In this short opening verse we have a picture of the beginning and end of the battle, along with the decisive factors that combine to produce its result: the arrival of the enemy forces; God’s sending strong winds and other troops unseen by the believers; and His support which is dependent on their attitude and action as God is fully aware of all that they do.
The surah then gives details of the situation: “They came upon you from above and from below you. Your eyes rolled (with fear) and your hearts leapt up to your throats, and confused thoughts about God passed through your minds. That was a situation when the believers were sorely tested and severely shaken. The hypocrites and the sick at heart said: ‘God and His Messenger promised us nothing but delusions.’ Some of them said: ‘People of Yathrib! You cannot withstand (the attack) here, so go back.’ And a group of them asked the Prophet’s permission to leave, saying: ‘Our houses are exposed,’ while they were not exposed. They only wanted to run away.”
The verses paint an image of the whole of Madinah in the grip of great alarm and distress, with the idolaters of the Quraysh and Ghatafan allied with the Jews of Qurayzah moving in from all sides. These feelings of alarm and distress affected all of the people, but their reactions and responses differed. Needless to say, people’s thoughts about God, their behavior, and their evaluation of causes and results were much at variance. Therefore, the test was extremely difficult and the distinction between believers and hypocrites was decisive.
We can see today the whole situation: its elements, feelings, actions and reactions as if it were happening before our eyes. We see it though from the outside: “They came upon you from above and from below you.” We also see people’s reactions to what was unfolding: “Your eyes rolled (with fear) and your hearts leapt up to your throats.” This is a picture of profound fear, anxiety and distress, imparted through people’s expressions and feelings. “Confused thoughts about God passed through your minds.” The surah does not tell us about these thoughts in detail. In fact the adjective “confused” is implied rather than stated in the Arabic text. This gives a more vivid picture of the confusion in people’s feelings and ideas, leaving minds bewildered and perplexed. Such a state of fear and confusion is then further heightened: “That was a situation when the believers were sorely tested and severely shaken.”
A test that left the believers severely shaken must have been truly fearful. Muhammad ibn Maslamah and others said: “During the Moat Encounter our nights were days. The unbelievers took it in turns to confront us, with Abu Sufyan showing up at the head of his troops one day, Khalid ibn Al-Walid with his forces the next day, Amr ibn Al-As the next, Hubayrah ibn Wahb the next, followed by Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl, and lastly by Dirar ibn Al-Khattab. This was very hard for us, and people were really in fear.”
A further description of the state in which the Muslims found themselves is given by Al-Maqrizi in Imta Al-Asma: “The idolaters appeared at dawn, and the Prophet (peace be upon him) mobilized his companions and the two sides engaged in fighting throughout the day and part of the night. Neither the Prophet nor any Muslim could move out of position. The Prophet could not offer any of the Dhuhr, Asr, Maghrib and Isha’ prayers. His companions said to him: ‘Messenger of God! We have not prayed.’ He said: ‘Nor have I.’ Then the idolaters withdrew and each side went back to their encampments. On another day, Usayd ibn Hudayr stood guard on the edge of the moat, at the head of 200 Muslims. Mounted forces of idolaters, commanded by Khalid ibn Al-Walid tried to take them unawares, but the two sides were engaged in fighting for sometime. Wahshi, who had killed Hamzah, the Prophet’s uncle, during the Battle of Uhud, stabbed Al-Tufayl ibn Al-Nu’man Al-Ansari with a spear and killed him. On that day, the Prophet said: ‘The idolaters have kept us from our middle prayer of Asr. May God fill their bellies and hearts with fire.'”