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People of the Ditch: A Different Type of Victory (Quran Story)

In the early days of Islam, Muslims suffered relentless persecution at the hands of tyrants in Makkah. Amid such debilitating circumstances, Quranic verses were sent down to resolutely establish the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him), as well as his companions. Quranic stories played a significant role in this regard.

The agony of a particular group of elder believers is portrayed in Surah Al-Buruj [chapter 85, the Constellations], which depicts the insufferable persecution they endured for the sake of their faith.

Their story is started with formidable vows asserting that the sinful “People of the Ditch” were cursed and ultimately perished as a manifestation of the wrath of Allah upon them.

The verses delineated abominable crimes and a sinful resolve to set a huge blazing fire that the tyrant King would order believers to be thrown into while watching their torment with frenzied zeal; sadly, a sadistic mentality shared by cruel dictators throughout human history.

In a prophetic narration, the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) provided additional details expanding the story’s dimensions.

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Persecuted believers lived under the reign of a tyrant King, whose sorcerer was charged with intimidating them through the dissemination of superstitions and the sway of black magic. The same concept, i.e., deluding media, has been utilized throughout history.

Deluding Media Throughout the Years

Eventually the King’s faithful sorcerer grew old and it was decided that a boy should be chosen to be trained as a replacement. That was the plan, but Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala is the Best of Planners; the boy was destined to be a catalyst in ending the King’s reign of tyranny.

On his way back and forth from home to the sorcerer, the boy met a pious hermit, thereafter undeniably altering the course of the boy’s life.

After repeated visits to the hermit, faith in Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala deeply penetrated the boy’s heart and he became a strong believer supported by miracles.

The first miracle was when he managed to kill a large beast that blocked the road with a small stone. That was a sign from Allah that the boy was under His divine care and support.

That also marked the commencement of his mission to serve people and call them to believe in Allah AlmightyIt was the beginning of confrontation between truth and falsehood.

Thereafter, the boy’s preponderance for miracles superseded those of the master hermit, who acknowledged the achievement of his protégé and anticipated the coming persecution as a result of the confrontation.

Serving the community is a fast way to win people’s hearts and this is how the boy managed to spread the call to Islam. Through his divinely answered prayers, the boy helped people to be cured of serious diseases, asserting that it was Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala who healed them.

Naturally, with passage of time the boy became famous. A blind companion of the King heard about the boy and decided to visit him in search of a remedy to his blindness. The boy’s words won over his heart; He believed that Allahsubhanahu wa ta`ala would restore his sight; and so it was.

Thus, belief in Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala permeated the King’s palace. “Who restored your sight to you?” the King asked of his companion. “My Lord,” the companion answered. The tyrant King became enraged and tormented the man until he revealed the identity of the boy.

The boy was subsequently arrested and tormented until identified the hermit who was also arrested.

Both, the companion of the King and the hermit were ordered to renounce their faith, but they refused. This is how faith gives strength to a believer.

The tyrant King could not bear their firmness of faith. He commanded them to be sawed to pieces in front of the boy.

Tyrants kill brutally to enjoy revenge. They think that such deaths have the power to wipe out the truth.

Thereafter, the King tried twice to kill the boy. First, he ordered throwing him off the a mountain summit. In the second attempt, he ordered  casting the boy into the sea.

Each time the boy prayed to Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala and was delivered.

The King was perplexed as to why he was unable to kill the boy, who informed the King that he would remain unable to do so unless he followed the boy’s instructions.

A Great Sacrifice

Now, all the might and power of the King were of no avail. Indeed, he was in such a weak position that he had to take the boy’s directions seriously and implement them strictly.

The boy was wise, choosing to make use of the occasion of his death to send a message to the people that their King was merely a weak person and that nothing takes place in this world without the permission of Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala.

The boy instructed the King to kill him in front of a large crowd, by shooting him with an arrow while saying, “In the Name of Allah, the Lord of the boy.”

The King followed the instructions and the boy was thus martyred.

However, the people perceived the boy’s death as being a sacrifice, declaring, “We believe in the Lord of the boy!”

The King realized that he had been deceived and that his vengeful plan had backfired.

Enraged, the King commanded his soldiers to dig a ditch, set it afire, and throw those who believed in the Lord of the boy into it.

Why such a horrible torment? What was the crime committed by those sent to their deaths?

It was only that they believed in Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala – an unforgivable crime in the eyes of any tyrant.

Tyrants establish domination over their subjects through fear and servitude because they know that belief in Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala sets them free from meaningless shackles.

The Quran asserts, however, that this was not the end of the story.

Those who persecute believing men and women – anytime or anywhere, – for them, the next life will be one of torment in the hellfire.

As for those who believe and do righteous deeds, for them the Hereafter promises gardens beneath which rivers will flow; this is the real end that every believing person can be certain of.

Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala does all that He intends and wills from wisdom and an all-encompassing knowledge.

In the oft-occurring encounter between right and wrong, belief and disbelief, truth and falsehood, sometimes truth-holders triumph; and sometimes they suffer persecution or martyrdom at the hands of their enemies and sometimes, Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala, takes revenge against His/our enemies through catastrophic calamities.

The story of the King, the boy and the hermit is one of consolation for those enduring persecution; a lesson for early Muslims and for those who follow their example to the end of time.

The believers in this story refused to bargain their faith, electing instead to believe in the promises of the hereafter. They preferred the sacrifice of their own lives in this dunya over denying their faith or see it defeated in the eyes of its enemies.

It was faith in Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala that gained triumph over disbelief; the same faith that uplifts the hearts and minds of believers as they perceive the insignificance of this world in comparison to the promised reward for steadfastness.

The story inspires young men and women in believing they can make great changes in their communities if they maintain strong faith in Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala and are ready to make sacrifices in their lives for His sake.

Because the companions of the Messenger of Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala implemented the lessons of Surah Al-Buruj in their lives, they remain great examples in sacrifice for the sake of Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala to this day.

The moral of the story?

Sow seeds of truth wherever you are; only Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala knows where they will flourish.

About Dr. Muhammad Salama
Dr. Muhammad Salama, PhD, Islamic Studies in English, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Islamic Sciences al-Madinah International University (Mediu)