Surah 33: The Militia, Part 1

There is a lot of history behind today’s surah, al-Aḥzaab, “The Confederates” or “The Militia.” When a surah dates to the times of Mecca, despite the twelve-year range of Muhammad’s ministry in that city, there are fewer events to map Quranic statements to. When Muhammad transplanted his ministry to the next city north, Yathrib, life picked up its pace and lots of activity unfolded. (It’s really important that you remember Yathrib and Medina are different names for the same city.) Muhammad went from a preacher whose only power was in words, to the absolute head of a political state. The morality he preached shifted from general values of humility and charity to specific legalities and situational edicts. The God-wrought justice he preached grew to include to some more immediate, earthly, man-wrought justice. The contrast is even echoed in his family life: he went from the nuclear family of a monogamous marriage to a rather complicated set of polygamous relationships.

Within today’s surah we get a pie-slice of some of the most polarizing facets of Muhammad’s life: his preaching on hypocrites, his treatment of his enemies, his personal exceptionalism, his women, his expectations of Muslim women, his consolidation of absolute power. I’ve rather been dreading this surah, so buckle in for 73 ayat of controversy.

Battles and Treachery

At this point, the Muslims have seen a number of battles, with mixed results in terms of victory and loss. Here is a list on Wikipedia of all the warfare conducted under Muhammad’s ministry. The battles retrospectively deemed pivotal are rendered in bold text, but the battles in between also include major events which sometimes get overlooked or underplayed in historical importance. An important point is that not all these battles, even the ones in bold, were victorious. There are actually quite a number of losses within that list, some of them pretty bad. Military record alone did not assure Muslims of Muhammad’s claim for divine support, nor give them confidence that they would win every battle they entered into even if Muhammad himself was with them. There was material enough to make sedition amongst the troops a real threat to morale.

Ayat 9-27 make references to the emotional highs and lows of some warfare. Let’s cut to the chase and identify it as a specific battle: the Battle of the Trench in the year 5 AH (627 AD). In this battle, the Meccans attempted to siege Yathrib from without and also to overthrow the city from within by stirring up those residents who were uncomfortable with Muhammad (i.e. the Jews). Muslims deflected the siege by digging a trench outside the city to foil the Meccan calvary, and the Jews within the city could not be rallied into an organized revolt. It was a brilliant victory for Muhammad, and one largely achieved with diplomatic maneuvering and with minimal Muslim casualties (and as ayah 9 declares, winds and an invisible armies of angels). To solidify our guess that this surah is speaking specifically on the Battle of the Trench and not other battles is a reference to its immediate aftermath, the Siege of the Banu Qurayza. More on that in a moment.

So I have in the past said Muhammad has a “paranoia” about hypocrites, but it must be conceded that the threat was very real. Consider the Battle of the Trench, in which Muhammad’s victory was only secured by diplomatic maneuvers that dismantled the unity of the Meccan militia. Muhammad’s enemies were almost exclusively tribal militias, not armies in the purest sense. As recorded in traditional histories, they were people who banded together for reasons either personal, practical, or profitable. They weren’t an organized military. Most of them worked primarily in trade and agriculture, with perhaps some being professional mercenaries. Fighting was still an important skill through which they maintained their own existence, but they wouldn’t have been drilled together into a unit. A common translation for the word azḥaab in the title and spattered throughout this surah is “confederates,” but I prefer militias because “confederates” to my American mind is still more formal and united than what these bands of fighters were. The only common goal we can say was shared between them all was “win fight.” In the face of such fragmented opposition, Muhammad’s greatest advantage was gained by keeping his people unified.

Ayat 10-11 describe the doubt and terror as testing the believers, so all were affected, but responses anything short of confidence in God and Muhammad are amplified to levels of treason. The specific crimes of the hypocrites are for reading the situation as doomed. Furthermore some of them let fear for their homes back in Yathrib almost lead them to splitting up Muhammad’s army. Ayah 13 has some hypocrites seemingly deliberate in their planting of sedition among the troops. I’ve got to note that while the Quran dials the doubts of the hypocrites up to deliberate sedition, that they approached Muhammad for permission to defend their homes shows that these troops are still respectful and loyal to Muhammad. Perhaps they just still think he’s human and haven’t trusted him to be viewing all vulnerabilities, without any intention of disrespect or rebellion. However, the Quran reads motivations and evil into even these folk. Rather than earnestly fearing for their homes (which the Quran denies were under real threat) ayah 13 accuses them of intending to desert. And it goes on: if the battle had started to go wrong, they would’ve defected to the enemy side and committed treason with barely a hesitation. Later on the hypocrites are described as cowards, who only grow brazen when in security. Again, cowardice is their defining trait, with ayah 20 reading into them multiple forms of cowardice.

Muhammad makes no decisions on how to deal with these doubters and hypocrites. He sets about discouraging them in ayat 16-17. At this point in the surah the topic is warfare. Later when the topic moves on to respecting Muhammad and his family there is again a return to the hypocrites and the Quran restrains Muhammad from punishing them. However, by the end of this surah the threats to the hypocrites and doubters get a lot more concrete: stop gossiping about the prophet or God will incite Muhammad to kill you (ayah 60).

The Jews

It’s time to return to the Siege of the Banu Qurayẓa. The Banu Qurayza were Yathrib’s last standing Jewish community. There had once been three Jewish tribes, but by the time of the Battle of the Trench the two other tribes had already come into conflict with Muhammad, been expelled, and had their property confiscated by the Muslims. With such a pattern established, and tense relations in general between the Jews and Muslims (as we have seen in the Quran’s references to their interfaith dialogues), the Banu Qurayza had real potential to seek alliance with Muhammad’s enemies to protect themselves from Muhammad. Tradition has it that the Banu Qurayza and Meccans had tried negotiating an alliance, but were foiled by Muhammad’s powers of suggestion. Muhammad’s first action upon that battle’s closure was then return to the city and destroy the Banu Qurayza. We only know about it from the mouths of the victors, so what exactly happened is impossible to say for sure, and people accept/reject details according to whether they want to justify or demonize Muhammad’s decision. The decision was such: kill all the men, take as slaves all the women and children, confiscate their property. This sequence of events is boasted of in ayat 26-27.

This is controversial.


So controversial that I cannot contain the conversation here. Plus it’s a conversation of which the material is largely based in traditional history and not the Quran. This traditional history is highly contested, and also some of the strongest fodder for Islamophobia. This topic will come up again more blatantly in a future surah, so I am electing to put off addressing this for now.

For all that I can say today, if Muhammad was not a religious paragon, this event would be par for the course in terms of political deeds of the era, both long before and after. The nature of any community’s defeat had a lot of impact on the conditions with which they were treated afterwards, and having your men killed off, women and children enslaved, and property seized was one option regularly exercised. The Israelites did it, the Romans did it, The Byzantines did it, the Persians did it, the Mongols did it, etc. Muhammad demonstrated sensibilities and political savvy in what he did to the Banu Qurayza that were contemporary to his time. We wouldn’t even stop and take note of this except for fear that his Quranic designation as Perfect Role Model (ayah 21) calcifies this practice into the far-reaching future.

Perfect Prophet

So at the beginning of this post I reminded you to always remember that Yathrib and Medina are the same city, or else you’ll be confused. Yet to equate the two is not quite true. Yathrib was a fractured agricultural community consisting of three Jewish tribes and two Arab tribes, with rife conflict between all. Five years after Muhammad relocated to the city, it was majority Arab (though not racially defined) and a unanimously Muslim metropolis, and its tribal system was consolidated under the absolutely authority of one man, Muhammad. It was no longer Yathrib, it was Medinat-an-Nabii, “City of the Prophet.”

But of course, absolute power does not guarantee absolute obedience, and the Quran steps in for Muhammad to do the work of demanding complete obedience. The foundation of Muhammad’s power is declared in ayah 6:

An-nabiyyu ‘awlaa bi-mu’miniina min ‘anfusihim…
“The prophet [is] more-close with-believers than themselves…”

The key word at play is ‘awlaa. I’m afraid these roots w-l-a/w-l-y are in the posthumous, incomplete portion of Lane’s Lexicon (entry ولى on the left page), and though basic usage is given there isn’t much depth to the analysis. Wiktionary sums up the basic connotation of these roots as “to do with direction.” Though the morphology of some words reverse the direction to mean “retreat,” most of the words are about “nearness.” But wait! There’s another set of roots in Arabic to do with nearness, q-r-b, and those roots are more common and constitute a larger range of meanings. Why use ‘awlaa instead of the other word available, ‘aqrab, “nearer”? Well, w-l-a words show distinct implications of authority in their definition of nearness. Walaa, “he had custody;” tawallaa, “he conferred upon himself;” waliyy, “gaurdian, manager, custodian;” mawlaa, “master.” Words based on q-r-b don’t have a hierarchy implied in them, words based on w-l-a tend to. So when the Quran says that Muhammad is “nearer” to the believers than they are to themselves using the word ‘awlaa, that nearness has to do with authority, entitlement, custody over the believers. “You are Muhammad’s more than you are your own,” the verse is saying.

Before we read that as solidly sinister, let’s clarify that the entitlement also comes tied to responsibility, not just control. The Quran has elsewhere emphasized that guardians are supposed to be responsible. The responsibility that comes with custody can be seen in how disbelievers on the edge of Hell will have no waliyy, “protector, custodian,” in whom to find protection or on whom to offset responsibility for their sin. Immediately after ayah 6 the next two ayat say that Muhammad, Noah, Moses, and Jesus were sworn into a covenant, which conveys that they are themselves subservient to a higher authority and are thus sworn to be responsible. So not only is ayah 6 saying “You don’t own yourselves anymore,” it is also saying “The Prophet is your protector, more so than yourselves.”

Let’s zoom out and put this into context. The context immediately before is a ruling about the practices of adoption (we’ll talk about that next week), which has some implications about family law. Ayah 6 continues on here to say that al-‘arḥaamthe womb-kin” (blood relatives) are more entitled to each other than are the wider community of believers and immigrants…

…though beyond those relationships people are still allowed to extend kindness. While inheritance rights don’t show up in the English translation (and by the way, I translate in a grossly literal fashion here for transparency, not because it’s the most communicative translation), the words being used are very suggestive of inheritance. I discussed the blue word ‘awlaa, “more entitled,” above as having connotations of hierarchy. The yellow word ‘uwlu, “has priority,” trends towards usage concerning firstness and possession. They look the same but they’re different morphologies based on different roots (‘-w-l versus w-l-a). As such, most traditions and translations favor interpreting this ayah as regarding inheritance laws. I think it also is there to affirm the tribal structure of authority already traditional to the Arabs. In this context, Muhammad’s description as the foremost custodian also has to do with his authority over the tribal system. This follows up with idea that Muhammad’s wives are mothers to the believers. Muhammad protects, his wives nurture. They are the meta-family to a society built of families.

One of my contentions about the Quran is how much it centralizes authority upon Muhammad without setting up any continuity of that authority beyond Muhammad or authority structures under him. This ayah is the closest approximation of setting up an authority system under Muhammad. The Quran wasn’t setting up a commune, it wasn’t restructuring its society’s power structures beyond rearranging them underneath Muhammad. It doesn’t explain or describe those authority structures, so it’s not clear how much any society that undertakes self-Islamicization would need to restructure itself into that model, or whether they would need to do so at all.

This idea that “Muhammad is more your protector than yourselves,” was probably at its best chance of good reception after the Battle of the Trench. Exactly how dangerous or difficult the battle was will always be moderated to us by Muslim historians long after the event, but there’s no reason to doubt that it was a precarious moment for Muslim survival. The crime of those who were attributed treasonous hearts in ayat 12-17 was to doubt whether Muhammad was guarding all fronts, and thus treating him as someone whose plans and information were subject to human error. Vindicated by the outcome of the battle, this elevation of Muhammad’s custodianship would be hard to challenge and probably would’ve run afoul of popular approval. If the people had defended themselves by their own judgement, the logic goes, the army would’ve been split up and the battle lost. Therefore to Muhammad must be conceded all authority. We can see the no-questions-allowed continuation of this idea in ayah 36 and ayah 38.

Next Week

Muhammad needs protection from questions because, in the high of a victory and what must’ve surely been a great surge of popular support, his private life took a controversial turn. In the modern West we’re used to seeing Muhammad’s child bride Aisha brought up as his most controversial point, but in Muhammad’s time there’s not a hint anyone was scandalized by Aisha’s age. The real controversy –the one that anti-Muslim polemicists returned to for generations after Muhammad’s death– was when Muhammad married Zaynab bint Jahsh, his adopted son’s freshly-exed wife. But before we get to that, we must first process the changes of family laws that the Quran instated to retroactively defend Muhammad’s private life –laws regarding adoption and incest.

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