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The Conquest of Khyber

The Conquest of Khyber

The Conquest of Khyber

Khyber is a town 90 miles north of Medina, in a harra or volcanic tract, well-watered with many springs flowing forth from its basaltic rocks. It has an outstanding irrigation system and generates rich harvests of dates and grain.

Long before the time of the Prophet of Islam, the valley of Khyber and other valleys in its north and south, were settled by the Jews. As noted before, these Jews were not only the best farmers of the country, they were also its commanders in manufacture and business, and they enjoyed a monopoly of the armaments manufacture.

In the times of the Prophet, the best arsenals of Arabia were all in Khyber. Those Jews who had been exiled from Medina, had also resettled in Khyber, and they were noted for their proficiencies in mineralogy.

Betty Kelen

The Qaynuqa were exiled from Medina. Chiefly they were metalworkers, having learned the art of beating out the wonderful shining shield, the moon-curved swords and sun-catching helms that dignified war in the desert. They made wonderful bronze shield , beaten and burnished, with helms to match and illustrious swords whose swift cut could make the very air whistle. (Muhammad – the Messenger of God)

The Jews of Khyber also heard about the compact of Hudaybiyya and its terms. Just as the Quraysh in Makkah and Umar bin al-Khattab and some other “hawks” among the Muslims in Medina had explained the compact  as the “capitulation” of the Muslims, so also did the Jews of Khyber consider it a symptom of the incipient descent of the power of the State of Medina.

Banking on this theory of “descent ,” they started to provoke the Arab tribes between Khyber and Medina to assault the Muslims. One of these tribes was the Ghatafan, the allies of the Jews of Khyber.

They started to send their raiding campaigns into the pastures around Medina. One of these pastures belonged to the Prophet himself. On one occasion, the son of Abu Dharr el-Ghiffari was grazing the camels of the Prophet when the Ghatafan struck. They murdered him, and captured his mother who was with him, and they drove with them the flock of camels. The Muslims, however, were able, just in time, to overtake the marauders and to save the wife of Abu Dharr el-Ghiffari.

Muhammad determined to put an end to these gratuitous provocation. He thought that it would not be judicious to await until the Jews and their allies laid another siege to Medina, and that it would be better to forestall them. He, therefore, commanded the Muslims to stir , and to step on Khyber.

In September 628 the Prophet left Medina with 1600 soldiers. Some Muslim women also escorted the force to work as nurses and to give first aid to the injured and the ill.

Khyber had eight fortresses. The strongest and the most significant of them all was the fortress of al-Qamus. The captain of its garrison was a well-known champion called Merhab. He had, under his order , the best fighting men of Khyber, and they were the best-provided soldiers of the time in all Arabia.

Muhammad Husayn Haykal

The expedition of Khaybar was one of the greatest. The masses of Jews living in Khaybar were the strongest, the richest, and the best provided for war of all the peoples of Arabia. (The Life of Muhammad, Cairo, 1935)

The Muslims, however, were able to capture all the forts of Khyber except al-Qamus which proved to be invincible. Muhammad send Abu Bakr on one occasion, and Umar on another, with hand-picked fighters , to attempt the conquest of al-Qamus. Both made the endeavor and both failed. Some other captains also tried to capture the fort but they also failed. These repeated failures started to undermine the morale of the force .

Muhammad recognized that something dramatic had to be done to restore the wilting morale of the Muslims, and immediately. And when one more endeavor to capture al-Qamus had also aborted, his mind was made up, and he proclaimed : “Tomorrow I shall give the banner of Islam to a hero who loves God and His Apostle, and God and His Apostle love him. He is one who assaults the foe but does not run, and he will conquer Khyber.”

The comarades knew that the prediction of the Messenger of God would come true, and that Khyber would be overcome on the following day. Everyone of them, therefore, became a candidate for the glory and honor of prevailing it. Many of them were kept awake all night by the ambition to become “the beloved of God and His Apostle,” and to become the hero who would capture Khyber.

On the following morning, the camarades assembled in front of the tent of the Prophet. Each of them was decked out in martial array, and was vying with others in looking the most impressive figure.

Presently, the Messenger of God came out of his tent, and the vast throng started to show signs of restlessness. Each of the camarades attempted to make himself more conspicuous than others in the hope of catching the eye of the master. But the latter didn't appear to notice any of them and only posed one question: “Where is Ali?”

Ali at this time was in his tent. He knew that if he was the “beloved of God and His Apostle,” then he, and no one else would capture the fort of al-Qamus. The Prophet sent for him.

When Ali came, the Prophet solemnly put the banner of Islam in his hand. He appealed to God's blessings upon him, prayed for his triumph , and bade him farewell. The young hero then marched toward the most formidable fort in all Arabia where the bravest of the Hebrew fighters were waiting him. He fought against them all, conquered them, and planted the banner of Islam on its main tower.

When the conqueror went back to the camp, the Messenger of God greeted him with smiles, kisses and embraces, and prayed to God to bestow His best rewards upon His lion.

Ibn Ishaq

Burayda b. Sufyan b. Farwa al-Aslami told me from his father Sufyan b. Amr b. Al-Akwa: the Apostle sent Abu Bakr with his flag against one of the forts of Khyber. He combated but returned having suffered losses and not taken it. On the morrow he sent Umar and the same thing happened. The Apostle said: “Tomorrow I will give the banner to a man who loves Allah and His Apostle. Allah will conquer it by his means. He is no runaway.” Next day he presented the flag to Ali. (The Life of the Messenger of God)

Edward Gibbon

North-east of Medina, the ancient and rich town of Khyber was the seat of the Jewish power in Arabia: the territory, a fertile spot in the desert, was covered with plantations and cattle, and protected by eight castles, some of which were esteemed of invincible strength. The forces of Mohammed consisted of 200 horse and 1400 foot: in the succession of eight regular and painful sieges, they were exposed to risk and tiredness, and starvation ; and the most undaunted chiefs despaired of the event.

The Apostle revived their belief and brave by the example of Ali, on whom he granted the surname of the Lion of God, perhaps we may think that a Hebrew champion of gigantic stature was cloven to the chest by his irresistible scimitar; but we cannot praise the modesty of romance, which represents him as tearing from its hinges the gate of a fort and wielding the ponderous buckler in his left hand (sic). (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)

Washington Irving

The city of Khyber was strongly advocated by outworks, and its citadel, Al-Kamus, built on a steep rock, was deemed invincible . The siege of this city was the most significant enterprise the Moslems had yet undertaken. When Mohammed came in sight of its strong and frowning walls, and its rock-built citadel, he is said to have prayed for Lord's succor in capturing it.

The siege of the citadel lasted for some time, and tasked the skill and patience of Mohammed and his troops, as yet little practiced in the assault of fortified places. Mohammed guided the assaults in person; the besiegers protected themselves by ditches , and brought battering-rams to play upon the walls; a breach was at length effected, but for many days every endeavor to enter was vigorously repelled.

Abu Bakr at one time led the assault, bearing the standard of the Prophet; but, after combating with great courage , was compelled to withdraw . The next assault was headed by Omar ibn Khattab, who fought until the close of day with no better success.

A third assault was headed by Ali, whom Mohammed armed with his own scimitar, called Dhu'l-Fiqar, or the Trenchant. On confiding to his hands the sacred flag , he pronounced him “a man who loved God and His Prophet; and whom God and His Prophet loved; a man who knew not fear, nor ever turned his back upon a foe.”

And here it may be well to give a traditional account of the person and character of Ali. He was of the middle height, but robust and square, and of prodigious force . He had a smiling face , exceedingly florid, with a bushy beard. He was distinguished for an amiable disposition, sagacious intellect, and religious zeal, and, from his undaunted bravery , was surnamed the Lion of God.

Arabian writers dwell with fond exaggeration on the exploits of Khyber, of this their favorite hero. He was clad, they say, in a scarlet vest, over which was buckled a cuirass of steel. Scrambling with his followers up the great stack of stones in front of the breach, he planted the standard on the top, decided never to retreat until the citadel was taken. The Jews sallied forth to drive down the attackers .

In the struggle which ensued, Ali combated hand to hand with the Jewish leader , Al-Hareth, whom he slew. The brother of the slain marched to revenge his death. He was of gigantic stature; with a double cuirass, a double turban, wound round a helmet of proof, in front of which sparked an tremendous diamond.

He had a sword girt to each side, and brandished a three-pronged lance , like a trident. The fighters measured each other with the eye, and accosted each other in boasting oriental style. “I,” said the Jew, “am Merhab, armed at all points, and terrible in battle.” “And I am Ali, whom his mother, at his birth, surnamed Al-Haider (the rugged lion).

The Moslem writers make short work of the Jewish champion. He made a thrust at Ali with his three pronged spear , but it was dexterously parried; and before he could recover himself, a bang from the scimitar, Dhu'l-Fiqar divided his shield , passed through the helmet of evidence , through double turban, and stubborn skull, cleaving his head even to his teeth. His gigantic form fell lifeless to the earth.

The Jews now withdrew into the fort , and a general assault happened . In the heat of the action the shield of Ali was severed from his arm, leaving his body exposed; wrenching a gate, however, from its hinges, he used it as a shield through the remainder of the struggle .

Abu Rafe, a servant of Mohammed, testified to the truth : “I afterwards,” says he, “examined this gate in company with seven men and all eight of us tried in vain to wield it.”

(This stupendous feat is recorded by the historian Abul Fida. “Abu Rafe,” notices Gibbon, “was an eye-witness; but who will be witness for Abu Rafe?” We join with the distinguished historian in his doubt yet if we scrupulously question the testimony of an eye-witness, what will become of history?) (The Life of Mohammed)

Sir William Muir

The Jews rallied round their chief Kinana and posted themselves in front of the citadel Camuss, resolved on a desperate conflict . After some vain attempts to dislodge them, Mohammed planned a general assault . “I will give the eagle,” he said – the great black eagle – “into the hands of one that loveth the Lord, and His Apostle, even as he is beloved of them; he shall gain the triumph . Next morning the banner was put in Ali's hands, and troops marched .

At this moment, a soldier stepped forth from the Jewish line, and affronted his antagonists to single fighting : “I am Merhab,” he cried, “as all Khyber knows, a warrior bristling with arms, when the war fiercely burns.” Then Ali advanced saying: “I am he whom my mother named the Lion; like a lion of the howling wilderness. I weigh my foes in a giant's balance.”

The warriors closed, and Ali cleft the head of Merhab in two. The Moslem line now made a general advance, and, after a sharp struggle , drove back the foe. In this battle, Ali performed great feats of prowess. Having lost his armor , he seized the lintel of a door, which he wielded effectually in its stead. Tradition, in its expansive process, has transformed this extemporized armor into a gigantic beam, and magnified the hero into a second Samson. The triumph was decisive, for the Jews lost 93 men; while of the Moslems only 19 were murdered throughout the whole expedition . (The Life of Mohammed, London, 1877)

R.V.C. Bodley

He (Mohammed) started the campaign (of Khyber) by reducing individually the minor strongholds. When this was done, he advanced against Al-Kamus, the main fort of Khaibar. It was a formidable looking place with frowning walls built out of the living rock. All accesses were strongly fortified, and within the ramparts was a well-provided and well-provisioned garrison.

Siege war was unfamiliar to these nomads accustomed to desert raiding. However, Mohammed had a number of improvised siege engines put together on the spot. The most effective of these were palm-trunk battering rams which, finally , made a small breach in the walls.

Into this Abu Bakr led a heroic assault , but he was driven back. Then Omar attempted , but while he arrived the mouth of the breach, he had to retire, losing most of his men. eventually , Ali went up against the wall, bearing the black standard. As he charged, he chanted: “I am Ali the Lion; and like a lion howling in the wilderness, I weigh my enemies in the giant's balance.”


Ali was no giant, but he made up for his lack of height by his great breadth and prodigious force . Today he was formidable in a scarlet tunic over which he wore his shining breastplate and backplate. On his head gleamed a spiked helm encrusted with silver. In his right hand he brandished Mohammed's own scimitar, Dhu'l-Fiqar, which had been entrusted to him with the black flag .

Again and again Jewish veterans rushed at Ali. Again and again they staggered away with limbs or heads severed. eventually , the champion of all the Hebrews, a man called Merhab, who towered above the other warriors, planted himself before Ali. He wore a double cuirass, and round his helmet was a thick turban held in place by an massive diamond. He was girt with a golden belt from which swung two swords. He did not use these, however, and killed right and left with a long three-pronged lance . For a moment the battle paused and the warriors rested on their arms to watch the duel

Marhab, like Goliath of Gath, had never been withdrawn . His size alone fearful opponents before they came close to him. His barbed fork disheartened the most skilled swordsman.

Marhab assaulted first, driving at Ali with his trident. For a moment, Ali, unaccustomed to this form of weapon gave ground. Then he steadied himself and fenced with the Hebrew. A feint and a parry sent the lance flying. Before Merhab could draw one of his swords, Ali's scimitar had cloven his head through his helm and turban so that it fell on either side of his shoulders. The Jews, seeing their champion dead, withdrew into the city.

Mohammed gave the reference for a general attack . The Moslems rushed forward. Ali led the onslaught. He had lost his armor during the duel and, to replace it, had torn a door from its hinges, which he carried before him. (The Messenger – the Life of Mohammed, 1946)

Muhammad Husayn Haykal

Realizing that this was their last stand in Arabia, the Jews combated desperately. As the days went by, the Prophet sent Abu Bakr with a contingent and a flag to the fortress of Na'im; but he was not able to overcome it despite heavy struggle . The Prophet then sent Umar bin al-Khattab on the following day, but he fared no better than Abu Bakr.

On the third day, the Prophet called Ali ibn Abu Talib, and, blessing him, ordered him to storm the fort . Ali led his forces and fought valiantly. In the engagement, he lost his armor and, shielding himself with a portal he had seized, he persisted to combat until the fort was stormed by his troops. The same portal was used by Ali as a little bridge to enable the Muslim soldiers to enter the houses within the fort ... (The Life of Muhammad, Cairo, 1935)

The Results of the Conquest of Khyber
The conquest of Khyber is a landmark in the history of Islam as it is the beginning of the Islamic State and Empire. The Indian historian, M. Shibli, says in his biography of the Prophet:

Khyber was the first expedition in which non-Muslims were made the subjects of the Islamic State. It was the first time that the principles of government in Islam were defined and applied. Therefore, Khyber is the first successful expedition of Islam.

At Khyber, the nascent Islamic State gained new subjects and new territories. It was the beginning, not only of the Islamic State but also of its expansion. If the conquest of Khyber is the beginning of the Islamic State, then Ali ibn Abi Talib, its victors , is its principal architect.

Before the conquest of Khyber, the Muslims were destitutes or semi-destitutes. Khyber suddenly made them rich. Imam Bukhari has quoted Abdullah bin Umar bin al-Khattab as saying: “We were starving at all times until the conquest of Khyber.” And the same authority has quoted Ayesha, the wife of the Prophet, as saying: “It was not until the conquest of Khyber that I could eat dates to my heart's content.”

The Muhajireen in Medina had no means of making a living and therefore had no steady income. They had barely managed to survive until the conquest of Khyber. Once Khyber was overcome , there was a sudden change in their fortunes.

Montgomery Watt

Until the capture of Khyber the finances of the Islamic community were precarious, and the Emigrants lived partly off the charity or hospitality of the Helpers. (Mohammed, Prophet and Statesman)

Khyber spelled the difference for the Muslim community between abject poverty and material abundance.

S. Margoliouth

When the Muslims came to apportion their spoils they found that the conquest of Khaibar surpassed every other benefit that God had conferred on their Prophet. (Mohammed and the Rise of Islam, 1931)

The conquest of Khyber conferred boundless benefits upon the Muslims; some of them were:

1.massive quantities of gold and silver that the Jews had been piling for many generations.

2.The finest arsenals of Arabia containing the newest weapons of the times such as swords, lances , lances, maces, shields, armor, bows and arrows.

3.Vast flock of horses, camels and cattle, and flocks of sheep and goats.

4.Rich arable lands with palm groves.

Sir John Glubb

The people of Khyber, like those of Medina, made their living by agriculture, particularly the date palm. Even today, the tribes have a saying, “To take dates to Khaiber,” which means the same as our expression, “To carry coals to Newcastle.” Khyber was said to be the wealthiest oasis in the Hijaz. (The Life and Times of Mohammed)

After the capitulation of the Jews in Khyber, the Prophet had to make some new arrangements for the administration of the newly-won territories.

S. Margoliouth

Presently Mohammed bethought him of the plan which became a outstanding institution of Islam. To murder or exile the industrious inhabitants of Khaibar would not be good policy, since it was not desirable that the Moslems, who would constantly be wanted for active service, should be settled so far from Medina. Moreover, their skillfullness as cultivators would not equal that of the prior owners of the soil. So he determined to leave the Jews in occupation on payment of half their produce, estimated by Abdullah son of Rawahah at 200,000 wasks of dates. (Mohammed and the Rise of Islam, 1931)

One mighty stroke of Ali's sword solved the economic troubles of the Muslim community, and put an end to its poverty forever. He also put an end to the dependence of the Muslims upon a fickle and temperamental nature, to feed them, once he handed over the fertile lands of Khyber to them.

There is yet another sense in which the campaign of Khyber was of massive significance not only to the Muslims of the time of the Prophet but also to the generations of the future. It was a departure, for the first time, from the classical tradition of Arabian war . The Arab mode of conflict was often chivalrous but most often inefficient. The Arabs knew less than nothing about strategy, and all that they knew about tactics was hit-and­run. They put their hopes of victory in their stregnth to catch their victims by surprise.

For centuries, they had combated against each other, and had consistently followed the ancient pattern of hit-and-run, with no variation in tactics. We have seen how a trench checked an force of ten thousand fighters , and immobilized it at the siege of Medina in A.D. 627. The greatest captains of the idolaters like Khalid bin Walid and Ikrama bin Abu Jahl were confused by the moat, and became helpless before it.

All this was to change after Khyber. Ali ibn Abi Talib taught the Muslims the art of laying siege to, and of capturing fortified positions. He taught them how to map out the strategy of a expedition , and how to combat pitched and decisive battles like disciplined armies. At Khyber, Ali put the key to the conquest of the whole world in the hands of the Muslims.

The Estate of Fadak

Fadak was another Jewish settlement near Khyber. The people of Fadak voluntarily sent their representatives to the Prophet offering to negotiate the terms of surrender. He accepted their offer of capitulation , and presented them the right to stay on their lands as subjects of the Islamic State. Fadak was gained in this manner without any effort on the part of the force of the Muslims. It was, therefore, considered to be the private property of the Prophet.

Muhammad Husayn Haykal

The fortune of Khaybar was to be distributed among the members of the Muslim armed forces according to rule because they had combat to secure it. The wealth of Fadak, on the other hand, fell to Muhammad, as no Muslims and no conflict were involved in its acquisition. (The Life of Muhammad, Cairo, 1935)

In the early days of the history of Islam, the Muslims, when they were still in Makkah, were very poor, and had no means of making a living. Khadija, the wife of the Prophet, fed and housed most of them. She spent all her riches on them so that when she died, there was nothing that she could leave for her daughter, Fatima Zahra.

Now when the estate of Fadak was gained by the Prophet, he determined to make it a boon to his daughter as a recompense for the great sacrifices her mother had made for Islam. He, therefore, presented the estate of Fadak to his daughter, and it became her property.

The Jews of Wadi-ul-Qura and Tayma, other oases in Hijaz, also agreed to give up to the Prophet on the same terms as those of Khyber and Fadak, and remained on their lands.

Jaafer ibn Abi Talib

Muhammad, the Messenger of God, was still in Khyber when his cousin, Jaafer ibn Abi Talib, went back from Abyssinia after an absence of nearly fourteen years. When Jaafer learned in Medina that his master was in Khyber, he at once headed there. By a coincidence, his arrival in Khyber, synchronized with the capture of the fort of Al-Qamus by his brother, Ali. Muhammad loved Jaafer as his own son. He threw his arms around him and said: “I do not know what makes me more glad ; the conquest of Khyber or the return of Jaafer.”

Muhammad Husayn Haykal

Muhammad was so pleased to be reunited with Ja'far that he said he could not tell which was the greater: victory over Khaybar or reunion with Ja'far. (The Life of Muhammad, Cairo, 1935)

The Umra or the Lesser Pilgrimage – A.D. 629 (8 A.H.)

One year after the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, Muhammad, the Messenger of God, visited Makkah to do the pilgrimage. He was escorted by two thousand Muslims. As per the terms of the convention , the polytheists vacated Makkah for three days. The Muslims entered the city from the north, and hardly saw any Makkan. The Messenger of God rode his she-camel, al-Qaswa. His friend, Abdullah ibn Rawaha, held her reins as he entered the precincts of the Kaaba. He was reading the verses of the chapter called, triumph , from the Qur’an. Other Muslims were chanting “At Thy command, O Lord! At Thy command, O Lord!”

When all Muslims had gathered in the concourse of the Kaaba, Bilal went on top of the building and called Adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) – the first one in the House of Allah, and two thousand believers answered to his call.

The polytheists were testifying the scene from the heights of the hills surrounding the valley of Makkah. They had never seen such discipline before, when high-born Muslims were tamely obeying the call of a former slave nor they had seen such a demonstration of equivalence and unity. The huge mass of the Muslims stirred as one body, and the Quraysh could see with their own eyes that it was a body in which there were no distinctions between rich and poor, high and low, black and white, and Arab and non-Arab.

The Quraysh could also see that the brotherhood, equivalence and unity of men which Islam fostered, were not theoretical concepts but were very real. It was a most impressive scene and could not have failed to touch the hearts of even the most hard-bitten pagans .

The deportment of the Muslims was exemplary. They were most worried not to do anything that was forbidden, and they were most eager to do only one thing – to obey the testaments of Allah.

And yet this demonstration in the Kaaba of discipline by the Muslims, was so unrehearsed, so spontaneous. To nothing in this world was the Arab more allergic than to discipline; but he was transformed, within a few years, by the magic of Islam. The “touch” of Islam had made him a model of discipline among the nations of the earth.

M. Shibli, the Indian historian, writes in his Sira-tun­Nabi (Life of the Prophet), Volume I, page 504, 11th printing (1976), published by the Maarif Printing Press, Azamgarh, U.P., India, that at the end of three days, the commanders of Quraysh called on Ali ibn Abi Talib, and said to him: “Please inform Muhammad that the specific time has passed and he and his followers should, therefore, leave Makkah.” Ali presented the message to the Prophet. The latter immediately complied, and command the Muslims to vacate Makkah whereupon they left Makkah and began their long advance toward home.

The Muslims had performed the Umra, and then they went back to their homes in Medina. It was at this time that Khalid bin al-Walid and Amr bin Aas determined to accept Islam. They went to Medina, accepted Islam and joined the ranks of the Muhajireen. They were both destined to become well-known in later days as the generals of Abu Bakr and Umar bin al-Khattab respectively.

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