The Jews and "Ashab-al-Ukhdood" / Article

The Jews and "Ashab-al-Ukhdood" / Article
(Wednesday, July 22, 2015) 12:23






أصحاب الأخدود



Yasin T. al-Jibouri




This article/essay takes you back to the time when Arabia was bracing itself for the advent of the Islamic message brought by Prophet Muhammed, peace and blessings of Allah with him, his Progeny and righteous companions.

Saudis accompany German tourists examining ruins of the Ukhdood in Najran

During and prior to the advent of Islam, Jews in Hijaz, northern part of today’s Saudi Arabia, were concentrated mostly in Medina and Mecca, the first contained a much larger population of them perhaps due to its better climate, robust trade and thriving businesses which all awarded the Jews opportunities to do business and to enjoy a measure of prosperity.


Medina’s Jews had migrated from Palestine and Yemen and settled there waiting for the coming of a new Prophet from the seed of Abraham in whom they said they would believe and to be the foremost in following, something which unfortunately did not materialize; on the contrary, they joined ranks with the Pagans to fight the spread of Islam. Only a handful of them embraced Islam, including one man who was a neighbor of Muhammed (ص); he lived in the same alley in Mecca where Khadīja's house stood; his wife, also Jewish, used to collect dry thorny bushes from the desert just to throw them in the Prophet's way.


The Arabs during the Prophet’s lifetime belonged to one ethnic race, but history does not record that they were ever united as one nation. They were divided into tribes and clans, each having its own chief or chieftain. They, no doubt, spoke the same language, but each tribe followed a different dialect. Indeed, even religion was not a binding force. Almost every house had its own god; tribes had their own supreme deities. In the south were the small principalities of Himyar, Awza and Aqyal. In the middle and northern Arabia lived the tribes of Bakr, Taghlib, Shaiban, Azd, Quza`ah, Kandaf, Lakhm, Juzam, Banu Hanifa, Tay, Assad, Hawazin, Ghatfan, and Aws. Khazraj, Thaqif, Quraish and others were frequently engaged in intensive warfare. The Aws and the Khazraj belonged to Banu Qayla. Shortly before Muhammed's arrival, the Battle of Bu`ath, which broke out during the seventh year of the Prophet's mission, between these two clans, had shattered the power of the Khazraj who were now considering making Ibn Ubay, namely Abdullah ibn Ubay Salool, king of Medina. They hoped, by doing so, that they would be guided by him in consolidating their power, especially since they were more numerous than the other clan. But the appearance of the Prophet and the conversion of the majority of the Aws to Islam turned the tide in favor of the Prophet. He proved himself to be the right man who came to the right place at the right time to put an end to the senseless bloodshed. Bakr and Taghlib, too, had been fighting each other for forty years. Blood engagements had ruined many a tribe of Hadramaut. And the Battle of Fijar between Banu Qais and Quraish had not yet ended. If any member of a tribe was killed, the tribe considered itself duty bound to seek revenge not merely on the murderer but also on the tribe to which he belonged. Since there was no effective machinery to settle such disputes, this invariably touched off furious wars which lasted for generations. Tribal might, dash and alacrity, were the only guarantee of a precarious security. The desert and the hills were home to fierce nomadic tribes that lived largely on plunder and depredation, but trade was also a major source of livelihood. Only a few months of the year were regarded as sacred. It was only then that bloodshed was stopped in order to facilitate the performance of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca or to trade at `Okaz. But even this convention was at times relaxed to suit the convenience of individual tribes. Only the precincts of the Ka`ba were considered sacred and were free from bloodshed. It is to this state of affairs that the Qur’an has drawn attention:


Do they not see that we have made a sacred territory secure for them, while men are carried off by force all around them? (Qur’an, 29:67)


The conditions in the country were so insecure that till 5 A.H./626 A.D., the powerful tribe of Abdul-Qais of Bahrain could not think of going to Hijaz outside the sacred months. Even the caravans going to or returning from Syria were sometimes plundered in open daylight.


Muslims' pasture lands were at times raided. Although conditions had considerably improved by then, the route to Mecca from Medina was not altogether safe till the fall of Mecca in 630 A.D.


While the country was so strife-ridden internally, dangers from outside were no less. The Roman and Persian empires had extended their domain to the fertile provinces of Yemen, Oman and Bahrain, extending their sovereignty to their land. The Romans had occupied Syria. Ghassan and some other Arab tribes, who had embraced Christianity, had been set up as the latter's feudatories. The Romans had expelled the Jews from Syria and Palestine in the second Century B.C. These Jews had migrated to Medina and its suburbs and built strong fortresses at Medina, Khaibar, Taima, Fadak and other places. Prospering themselves, the Jews were extremely jealous of prosperity in other races and strongly resented rivalry in trade business. They believed themselves to be God's Achosen people and their conduct was characterized by pride and arrogance intensified by the feeling of being secure inside their formidable fortresses. Only a few of them, including Abdullah ibn Salam, one of their rabbis, embraced Islam. The majority did not believe in Muhammed, the prophet prophecized in their Scriptures, because they expected the Promised One to be one of the Israelites, one who would rise in Syria, not in Arabia, with Hebrew as his language.


It was during such times that the Prophet started his great mission. For preparing the ground and the proper climate, the first step that he took was to unite the Ansar and the Muhajirun.



Having thus welded the Ansar and the Muhajirun into one Brotherhood, the Prophet now set himself to the task of establishing a stable society, a commonwealth based on equality of rights and on the concept of universal humanity. Granting equality of status and rights as well as full freedom of religion and of conscience to the Jews, he invited them to enter into a pact with the Muslims. He drew up a charter which has been reproduced by the historian Ibn Hashim thus:


In the Name of the Most Merciful and Compassionate God. Granted by Mohammed, the Prophet, to the Believers, whether of Quraish or of Yathrib, and all individuals of whatever origin who have made common cause with them, all these shall constitute one nation.


Then, after regulating the payment of the diyya (blood money) by the various clans and fixing some wise rules regarding the private duties of Muslims among themselves, the document proceeds thus:


The state of peace and war shall be common to all Muslims; none among them shall have the right of concluding peace with, or declaring war against, the enemies of his co-religionists. The Jews who enter into this covenant shall be protected from all insults and vexations; they shall have an equal right with our own people to our assistance and good offices. The Jews of the various branches of `Awf, Najjar, al-Harith, Jashm, Tha`labah, Aws, and all others domiciled in Yathrib shall form with the Muslims one composite nation. They shall practice their religion as freely as the Muslims. The clients and allies of the Jews shall enjoy the same security and freedom. The guilty shall be pursued and punished. The Jews shall join the Muslims in defending Yathrib against all enemies. The interior of Yathrib shall be a sacred place for all those who accept this Charter. The clients and allies of the Muslims and of the Jews shall be as respected as the principals. All Muslims shall hold in abhorrence anyone found guilty of a crime, injustice, or disorder. None shall uphold the culpable, even if he may be his nearest in kinship.


Then, after some other provisions regarding the internal management of the State, this extraordinary document concluded thus:


All future disputes between those who accept this Charter shall be finally referred, after God, to the Prophet.


The Jews of Medina accepted this Pact. After some time, the neighbouring Jewish tribes of Banu Nadir and Banu Quraizah signed it, too. But, as later events proved, it was only expediency that had dictated this course of action to the Jews. There was no change of heart on their part and they secretly nursed the same hostile feelings against the Aws and the Khazraj as before and viewed the growing confederation of the Muslims with grave concern and animosity. In the course of time, they started taunting and abusing the Muslims, frequently quarrelling with them and resorting to treachery and sedition. They were assisted by some people of the Aws and the Khazraj who had become lukewarm converts: the Munafiqun (hypocrites). These were headed by Abdullah ibn Ubay who had his own designs to become the king of Medina and, together with the Jews, they became a constant source of danger to the newborn religion and to its adherents.


The Jews, who had thriving business deals with Quraish of Mecca, conspired with them to eradicate the infant religion before it assumed formidable proportions. As the head of the religion, and a general in a time of almost continuous warfare, Muhammed (ص) was the guardian of the lives and liberty of the people. The very existence of the nascent religion was in serious peril. Islam preaches the brotherhood of mankind; it insists on toleration of all religions and creeds; it enjoins kindness and compassion, but it does not permit its followers to submit to the forces of disintegration.


Being in league with the Jews and the Munafiqun, the Meccans started harassing the Muslims. Under the leadership of Karz ibn Jabir al-Fahri, they started raiding up to the very outskirts of Medina, destroying fruit-bearing trees and carrying away flocks. News began pouring into Medina that the Meccans were allying with other tribes to launch a massive attack against the Muslims. Muhammed sent out small ambassadorial missions to these tribes to contract alliances and treaties. One of those missions entered into a treaty with Banu Zamra. The terms of the treaty were as follows:


This is the document of Muhammed, Messenger of God, for Banu Zamra. Their lives and property are safe. If they are attacked by anyone, they will be assisted except when they themselves fight against the religion (Islam). In return, they will come to the help of the Prophet when called on by him.


A similar pact was made with Banu Madlaj at Dhul-`Ashira place. Quraish had sent a threatening letter to Abdullah ibn Ubay who was the chief of his tribe prior to the arrival of the Prophet: AYou have given shelter to our man (Muhammed). You should either kill him or turn him out of Medina or else we swear that we will attack you and, killing all the males, we will capture and enjoy your women.


The attack was considered so imminent, and the small band of Muslims was in such peril, that the Prophet used to remain awake throughout the night. Al-Darmi and al-Hakim have recorded that AWhen the Prophet and his companions came to Medina and the Ansar sheltered them, the Arabs decided to attack them. The Prophet's companions used to sleep holding to their weapons.”


This was the prelude for the Battle of the Khandaq, moat, which took place in the month of Shawwal of 5 A.H./February of 627 A.D.



One may wonder what brought those Jews to Medina to live among people whom they regarded as their inferior, polytheist pagans who regarded as profession other than trade to be beneath their status. There are two theories. One says that those Jews were motivated by the desire to be the first to believe in the new Arabian Prophet whose name was written in their religious books and whose mission was about to start, so they made a mass immigration to Medina.

Their high rabbis had told them that Medina would be the place where the new Prophet, Muhammad (ص), would be preaching the divine message. This view is supported by verses 40 – 103 of Surat al-Baqara (Chapter of the Cow, i.e. Ch. 2) which repeatedly admonishes the Israelites and strongly rebukes them for seeing the truth but turning away from it. According to this theory, those Jews with religious fervor had come from Jerusalem in particular and Greater Syria (Sham) in particular.

The other theory seeks an explanation from the historic events that took place in southern Arabia, particularly Yemen, concluding that those Jews had migrated from there seeking religious freedom and better economic conditions. This is how advocates of this theory reason: The immigration of the majority of Jews into Yemen from abroad appears to have taken place about the beginning of the 2nd century A.D. But Yemen province is mentioned neither by Josephus, better known as Yoseph ben (ibn, i.e. son of) Mattithyahu (37 – cir. 100 A.D.), a Romano-Jewish historian and hagiographer, nor by the main books of the Jewish oral law, namely the Mishnah and Talmud.

According to some sources, the Jews of Yemen enjoyed prosperity until the 6th century A.D. The Himyarite King, Abu-Karib Asad Toban, converted to Judaism at the end of the 5th century, while laying siege to Medina. It is likely some of his soldiers preferred to stay there for economic and perhaps other reasons. His army had marched north to battle the Aksumites who had been fighting for control of Yemen for a hundred years. The Aksumites were only expelled from the region when the newly Jewish king rallied the Jews from all over Arabia, together with pagan allies. But this victory was short-lived.

In 518 A.D., the kingdom of Yemen was taken over by Zar’a Yousuf, who was of “royal descent” but was not the son of his predecessor, Ma'di Karib Ya’fur. Yousuf converted to Judaism and instigated wars to drive the Aksumite Ethiopians from Arabia. Zar'a Yousuf is chiefly known by his cognomen “Thu Nuwas”, in reference to his curly hair. The Jewish rule lasted till 525 A.D., only 85 years before the inception of the Islamic Prophetic mission.
Some historians, however, date it later, to 530, when Christians from the Aksumite Kingdom of Ethiopia defeated and killed Thu Nuwas, taking power in Yemen. According to a number of medieval historians, Thu Nuwas announced that he would persecute the Christians living in his kingdom, mostly in Najran, because Christian states had persecuted his fellow co-religionists (the Jews) in their realms. This persecution, which took place in the year 524 A.D., is blamed on one Dimnon in Najran, that is, modern al-Ukhdood area of Saudi Arabia.

Road sign marking the Ukhdood area

Najran is a city now located in southwestern Saudi Arabia near the border with Yemen, whereas Yemenis have always claimed it as their own area which the Saudis seized by force and annexed to their kingdom in May of 1934. It is the capital of the Najran Province. Local tradition says that the land derived its name from the first man to settle in the area, Najran ibn Zaydan ibn Saba ibn Yahjub ibn Ya`rub ibn Qahtan قحطان (Joctan).

Najran was the Yemeni centre of cloth making. Originally, the kiswa or the cloth of the Ka`ba was made there. The tradition of clothing the Ka`ba was first started by the Yemeni kings of Saba (Sheba). There used to be a Jewish community at Najran renowned for the garments they manufactured. According to Yemenite Jewish tradition, the Jews of Najran traced their origin to the Ten Tribes of Israel.

Aerial view of the Ukhdood

Any reader of the Holy Qur’an must have come across verse 4 of Surat al-Buruj (Chapter 85) of the Holy Qur’an which refers to أَصْحَابُ الأُخْدُودِ, fellows of the Ukhdood, which is imprecisely translated as “the ditch self-destructed” in some English translations of the Holy Qur’an. To the author of this book, who speaks Arabic as his mother tongue, my dear reader, “the ditch self-destructed” does not make much sense at all.

Actually, this “Ukhdood” was a long ditch filled with firewood. It was lit and the believers were thrown into it if they refused to abandon their faith. Some ran away from this inferno, which may remind one of a similar situation which took place with Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) at the hands of Nimrud of 13th Century B.C. Assyria. The survivors, most likely Christians and Jews, fled up north in the direction of Medina which they made home. The Almighty in 85:4 condemns this massacre in the strongest of terms, and Christians and Jews ought to appreciate this fact.

According to some sources, after seizing the throne of the Himyarites, in 518 or 523 A.D., Thu Nuwas attacked the Aksumite (mainly Christian) garrison at Zafar, capturing them and burning their churches. He then moved against Najran, a Christian and Aksumite stronghold. After accepting the city's capitulation, he massacred those inhabitants who would not renounce Christianity in this Ukhdood incident. Estimates of the death toll from this event range up to 20,000 in some sources. So, believers in God, Christians and Jews, had reasons to go somewhere else where they would practice their religion freely while enjoying better business opportunities among Arabs who, at the time, were mostly nomads.