Aṣḥāb al-Ukhdūd (Arabic: أصحاب الأخدود, literally: People of the Ditch) were believers who were thrown into fiery ditches because of believing in God. However, some exegetes believe that People of the Ditch were actually those disbelievers who threw believers in the ditches. People of the Ditch are mentioned in the Qur'an 85, verses 4–8. Exegetes believe the occasion of revelation of these verses was to condemn disbelievers and to encourage resistance in believers.
There are disagreements on the identity of the tribe who suffered in the incident as well as the time of the event. The most famous report is about Dhu Nuwas, the last Himyaritic King in Yemen who burnt a number of people of Najran because they converted to Christianity.
The term "Ukhdud" means a groove in the ground or a trench. It refers to the ditches which believers were put in and set afire because of their faith. Those believers who were killed in this way were called "Ashab al-Ukhdud" (People of the Ditch); however, some believe that Ashab al-Ukhdud actually refers to those disbelievers who tortured believers.
The majority of exegetes believe the term "Qutila" in the 4th verse of Qur'an 85, "Qutila Ashab al-Ukhdud," is in simple present form which gives information about the act of killing Ashab al-Ukhdud who are believers or disbelievers. Because some believe when disbelievers put believers in the ditch, God saved them and instead the fire spread and killed the disbelievers who were watching. Also, some other exegetes believed "Qutila" meant curse, which means "curse on Ashab al-Ukhdud", like the other verse "Qutila al-Insan ma akfara" (Cursed is man! How ungrateful is he!) in Qur'an 80 which states that those who killed them were disbelievers.
A group of disbelievers dug a ditch and filled it with fire, then they told believers to abandon their religion or they had to throw themselves in fire. Believers threw themselves in fire then it was a woman's turn who had a one month old baby in her arms. She wanted to go through the fire but she also wanted to save the baby's life, suddenly the baby started talking and said to her mother to enter the fire together, and she went through fire with her baby.
The number of killed believers were stated differently in Islamic sources, they mentioned 7, 10, 77, and 80 perished people, while the majority of narrations stated that 20 thousand people were killed in that incident; besides, some sources mentioned their number even higher.
Time and Tribe
There are disagreements among exegetes and historians on the time and the tribe who suffered the incident and there are questions on whether it happened only one time or it was series of events. The most famous report is about Dhu Nuwas the last Jewish King of Himyarite in Yemen.
It is mentioned in Islamic sources that the event of the People of the Ditch took place in the time of Dhu Nuwas the last Jewish King of Himyarite in Yemen. They said he was a fierce enemy of Christians of Najran and he attacked them and killed believers. However, a number of reports stated that the event of the People of the Ditch was related to other tribes as well. According to a quotation from Ibn 'Abbas, the People of the Ditch were Banu Isra'il who were probably among those followers of Prophet Daniel (a) who were killed. Ibn Kathir also stated that Nebuchadnezzar ordered people of Babylon to worship idols. Only Daniel (a) and two of his supporters disobeyed and the King ordered to put them in fire, but when they were thrown in fire, it became peaceful to them. In another report, it is said that the killer of the People of the Ditch was a Zoroastrian king. In addition, in one report God chose a person from Abyssinia as prophet who went to a battle against disbelievers, they were killed and their captives were set on fire in a ditch.
Fakhr al-Din al-Razi believed it is probable that different groups of people similar to Ashab al-Ukhdud existed. Some researchers believed the story of Ashab al-Ukhdud repeated in the past a few times. According to 'Abd al-Rahman b. Jubayr, the story of the People of the Ditch took place in the time of Tuba' in Yemen, in the time of Emperor Constantine in Constantinople and in the time of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon.
In the Qur'an and in Christian Reports
Muslims exegetes believe that because in the time of Prophet Muhammad (s) Muslims of Mecca were prosecuted and troubled by Quraysh, the verses of Qur'an 85 were revealed to Prophet (s) in order to condemn disbelievers and encourage Muslims to resist against their enemies; they also praised their patience and resistance.Therefore, some aspects of this event including the patience of Ashab al-Ukhdud were valued and highlighted by exegetes. Besides, Ashab al-Ukhdud were mentioned in Islamic sources as a symbol of patience.
In Christian reports, the story of the People of the Ditch has been brought up to commemorate the martyrs, intensify religious feelings of Christians and stimulate Byzantine and Abyssinian Empires against Jewish Himyarite Kingdom.
Different reports are stated in narrative sources about the conversion of people of Najran to Christianity which was a prelude to the incident of the People of the Ditch.
The Report by Wahb b. Munabbih
According to Wahb b. Munabbih, a man called Fimiyun who was a virtuous and ascetic person, had not introduced himself to people where he was living. Whenever he was recognized in a region, he would immediately leave the place and move to a different region. Once a man called Salih joined him in one of his sojourns and they moved to Najran where they found people worshiping a giant tree which was decorated with jewelries. They invited people to Christianity and after a short period of time they managed to convert a large number of them to that religion.
The Report by Muhammad b. Ka'b al-Qarzi
Based on a report by Muhammad b. Ka'b al-Qarzi, people of Najran were pagans and idolaters and a sorcerer would teach them sorcery in a nearby village. When the divine character in his report (i.e. Fimiyun, not explicitly mentioned) arrived there, he set up a tent and paved the way for monotheism. A man named Thamir encouraged his son, 'Abd Allah, to learn sorcery from the sorcerer. On his way to the house of the sorcerer, 'Abd Allah was so impressed with the conduct of Fimiyun that preferred the latter's company to learning sorcery. Based on this report, he learnt the Great Name of God from Fimiyun and was doing extraordinary acts. When the ruler of the region found out about him, he ordered to kill him, but they failed to do so. 'Abd Allah told them if they wanted to take his life they had to convert to his religion, then the ruler immediately converted and then he hit 'Abd Allah with his stick which killed 'Abd Allah and himself. While people were watching the incident they believed in 'Abd Allah's religion and they converted. Another report has been narrated by Suhayb b. Sinan from the Prophet (s) which is close to the report by Muhammad b. Ka'b.
Generally Zar'a and Yusuf were mentioned in Islamic sources as the original and the second name of the King, while Dhu Nuwas is said to be his title. Also sources stated that Dhu Nuwas was not a follower of Judaism before, however, when he converted to this religion, he intended to encourage people to convert to Judaism and ordered to kill those who rejected to convert.
In Christian Sources
It can be inferred from a number of Christian sources including the letter of Simon about the massacre of Christians in Najran that, Simon was informed of the massacre of Christians in Najran in January 524 and he stated that the event took place a while before. In some Christian sources, those who were killed were called Ukhdud.
Likening Some Companions of Shi'ite Imams to Ashab al-Ukhdud
Based on a narration from Imam Ali (a), he mentioned the death of seven people of virtuous men from Kufa in 'Adhra region and likened them to Ashab al-Ukhdud. In some narrations, the reference was to Hujr b. 'Adi and his men who were prosecuted because of their belief in God.
- Perish the People of the Ditch! (4), The fire abounding in fuel (5), above which they sat (6), as they were themselves witnesses to what they did to the faithful. (7), They were vindictive towards them only because they had faith in Allah, the All-mighty and the All-laudable(8)
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