For anyone with knowledge of the Koran or early Islamic history, the allusion is unsubtle. The speech’s title quotes the Koran: “This is What God and His Messenger Promised Us,” a reference to the 22nd verse of the Koran’s Surah al-Ahzab. The word “Ahzab” is the plural of hizb, meaning “party” or “clan” (as in Hizbullah, “the party of Allah”). In the Koranic context, the clans in question are a coalition of Bedouins led by Muhammad’s own tribe of Quraysh. The Quraysh had not taken kindly to Muhammad when he urged them to discard their pagan gods and worship God alone, and in 622, they drummed him out of town to live as a refugee in Medina. There he raised a formidable monotheistic army, and in 627, the Ahzab were the alliance that prepared to sack Medina and end his reign.
For months now, Islamic State supporters have likened the coming battle for Mosul to the battle between Muhammad and the Ahzab. Baghdadi’s speech is the most prominent document to make the analogy. (I have seen it previously in individuals’ posts on Telegram, the Islamic State’s current favorite messaging app.) Those eager to see parallels between the present and the past, and take from them confidence that the Islamic State will prevail just as Muhammad did, will find them in abundance.
The Ahzab outnumbered Muhammad’s army 10,000 to 3,000, and—at least as important—they had cavalry, and Muhammad had only infantry. He overcame these disadvantages with an ingenious engineering tactic on the northern outskirts of Medina. In the days before the attack, his army dug a trench large enough to stop cavalry, and he denuded the nearby fields of barley, so the Ahzab horses, in addition to being useless in combat, had nothing to eat. (The other sides of the city had natural defenses against cavalry and therefore needed no trenches.) The Ahzab could respond only by besieging Medina—but they lacked the resources and political cohesion for a long operation. After less than a month, they packed up and retreated to Mecca. Muhammad’s army followed them and conquered Mecca in 630.
Baghdadi refers twice to this battle: once in the beginning of his speech and its title, and a second time toward the end. The first reminds his followers that the righteous path is difficult, and that difficulty is a sign of divine favor: The fact that a coalition has amassed against the Islamic State, vastly outnumbering its fighters, only strengthens the comparison between the Battle of the Trench and the Battle of Mosul. These trials are all part of the process of purifying the ranks of the believers, and sorting the strong of faith from the weak. The second reference (to Koran 33:16) urges the soldiers to hold their ground, because those who turn their back on jihad will trade the pleasures of paradise for short-lived benefit in this world, since the enemy will kill those who retreat. Why not instead die magnificently, for a full helping of reward in the hereafter? Then he quotes a saying of the Prophet, reported by Salman the Persian (the Muslim tactician who had the brilliant idea of digging the trench): “A day and a night [fighting for Islam] is more meritorious than a month of fasting.” Fight, in other words, to the death.