The primary source material for this clash is the Qur’an as well as some of the contemporary biographers of Muhammad. You can make of that as you will, but the Qur’an is considered to have a great deal of historical relevance.
Name: The Siege of Medina (or Ahzab) more commonly known as “The Battle of the Trench”.
The War: The Muslim-Quraish Wars, part of the campaigns of Muhammad.
When: Late March to Mid April 627
Where: The perimeter of Ahzab, known today as Medina
Force/Commanders: 3’000 Muslim Medinian soldiers under Muhammad against a confederacy of Mecca and various Arab and Jewish tribes under Abu Sufyan numbering around 10’000 men.
“Total faith is going against total infidelism.”
“When the Believers saw the Confederate forces, they said: “This is what Allah and his Messenger had promised us, and Allah and His Messenger told us what was true.” And it only added to their faith and their zeal in obedience.”
– Surah 33rd of the Qur’an
Islam was a very minor religion in 627, little more than a Medina based faith following their expulsion from Mecca in 622. Muhammad and his followers found themselves constantly harassed by various Arab and Jewish groups, fighting several small battles in the lead-up to the siege.
In early 627, a confederacy was formed around the leader of Mecca, Abu Sufyan, with the intent of ending the Muslim threat once and for all. It included a large number of different Arab tribes, Jewish groups and nomads from the surrounding area. Together, they numbered around 10’000 men who began marching on Medina immediately.
With around a weeks worth of time to prepare, Muhammad and his followers decided on a defensive response. Utilizing natural barriers of hills and forests around Medina, they focused their own efforts on digging a gigantic trench to the north. Nearly every person capable, including Mohammed, joined in the effort, completing the trench system with just a day or so to spare. Many of their soldiers were no more than 15.
The attacking Confederates were unused to siege warfare and their primary offensive weapon, cavalry, was nullified by the trench system. The siege settled down into an exchange of arrows and insults with actual casualties light on both sides. The Confederates soon began to feel the effects of hunger as the Medinians had collected the surrounding harvest. The defenders weren’t that much better off, but the morale situation began to turn very quickly.
A brief sortie made it past the trench but was repelled quickly, thanks to Medina’s success in a single combat duel (says the Qur’an). Night attacks along the line were similarly ineffective. With no headway being made, Safyan attempted to organise an attack from all sides. He reached out to the Banu Qurayza, a large southern Jewish tribe. Though they had previously made a pact with Medina, they choose to accept the Confederate offer and began a march towards the siege throwing Muhammad and his followers into a panic.
With defeat through hunger and despair looming, Muhammad turned to subterfuge and his own wits. Finding that a key Confederate leader, Nuaym ibn Masud, had secretly converted to Islam, Muhammad used him to grow dissension in the enemy ranks. He did so by suggesting that the Qurayza should demand hostages from the rest of the Confederates to ensure no future treachery in the event of the siege failing before conversely telling Abu Safyan that the Jews would betray him by demanding hostages and turning to the Medinians side.
The Confederacy began to split, as accusations flew back and forth between its various groups. With no united offensive possible, no plunder on the horizon, the Medinians still resolutely entrenched, the weather turning bad and food rapidly running out, the besiegers broke apart, withdrawing from the outskirts of the city by mid-April. Medina, and Islam, was saved.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect on that War:
It continued, and the Muslims went from strength to strength. The Confederate siege was really the last chance the surrounding territories had to end the threat of Islam – never again would they achieve such a unity of purpose. The Muslims, under Muhammad, began to sweep all before them starting with the treacherous Qurayza who were destroyed within a year. Mecca fell in 630 and the Muslim conquests were in full swing.
The siege of Medina not only ensured the survival of Muhammad and his followers, but gave the new religion a morale and propaganda boost. From the single combat sortie, to the subtle machinations of Muhammad, Islam found itself with new legends and heroes to acclaim and preach. Muhammad became the undisputed master of Medina’s politics while Pagan Mecca lost much of its trade power and prestige.
Not much, but Medina was a rare example of siege warfare in the era and location. The Arabs were far from experienced in the doctrine which goes some way to explaining why the Confederates could not deal with the trench. Medina successfully created an intricate defensive barrier from scratch in just a week, which hadn’t been seen before in the area.
For a religious movement that was soon to become synonymous with offensive action, the Siege of Medina is a rare example of Islam’s power as a defensive force in the seventh century.
Pretty huge. Islam went on a conquering spree after the siege, ending up with a territory that stretched from the southern border of France to western India in just over a century. They became the chief enemy of the Christian west for centuries and the pagan religions of the Middle-East were ground underfoot.
If Medina had fallen to the Confederate siege, it’s likely Muhammad and a large number of his followers would have been killed before they could even really begin to achieve such a momentous feat. Islam might not have died out straight away – the religion had groups of followers all over the place – but it would have been dealt a terrific blow that would have been difficult to recover from. Certainly the Jihadist conquests of the following century would never have occurred. No Crusades. No Ottoman Empire in Europe. No Reconquista. No great leaps in art, science and technology. No screen against the Mongols. It’s nearly impossible to predict what could have happened within just a few years.
This is its main decisive quality. The entire western world would have been radically different if that trench hadn’t been finished in 6 days.
In National Counsciousness
From a military perspective, limited. Medina is largely overshadowed by the resulting conquests and the battle is primarily remembered by Islam as a demonstration of the diplomatic, subterfugic and political talents of Muhammad. It’s a story of the plucky early Muslims surviving brute force and treachery from the rear, rather than that of a masterful defensive effort (which it was). Islam has bigger battles it can remember, though this one deserves more attention for the long-lasting effect that it had.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles check out the index here.