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One of the clearest victories that God granted to His Prophet is the signing of the treaty of Hudaybiya. It is also considered as one of the causes for the conquest of Mecca in the eighth year of the Hijra, for a large number of idolaters had come to believe in Islam during the two years between the treaty and the conquest of Mecca. When the Prophet set out to take Mecca, he was in an army of ten or twelve thousand men, while at the treaty of Hudaybiya, he had only one thousand four hundred according to most accounts.
This manifest victory is mentioned in the beginning of Chapter 48 of the Qur’an: Indeed We have inaugurated for you a clear victory, that Allah may protect you by removing what is past of the evil consequence that they had against you and what is to come, and that He may perfect His blessing upon you and guide you on a straight path, and Allah will help you with a mighty help (48:1-2).
The setting off of the Prophet and the faithful on this mission was extremely dangerous and many did not expect them to return from it, as God alludes to in the verse, Rather you thought that the Messenger and the faithful will not ever return to their folk (48:12).
Most exegetes from both the Sunni and Shia are unanimous that the victory mentioned in the verses quoted above is the victory of the treaty of Hudaybiya and not the conquest of Mecca, based on the contextual indicators. However their interpretation of the verses vary to the point that some of them have focused on the literal meaning of God’s words. The word ghafara in the verse is commonly understood and translated as “to forgive” while dhanb is commonly translated as “fault” or “sin”. Thus the literal translation of the verse would be: Indeed We have inaugurated for you a clear victory, that Allah may forgive you of your past sins and what is to come, and that He may perfect His blessing upon you and guide you on a straight path, and Allah will help you with a mighty help.
For example, Sayyid Maududi, the famous Sunni exegete, says:
“If the context in which this sentence occurs is kept in view, one will certainly feel that the faults referred to (in verse 48:2) imply those shortcomings and weaknesses that had remained in the struggle that the Muslims had been making for the success and victory of Islam, under the leadership of the Holy Prophet, for the past nineteen years or so. These shortcomings are not known to any one because the intellect is absolutely helpless to find out any weakness in that struggle. But according to the highest standards of perfection in the sight of Allah there had remained some such weakness in it because of which the Muslims could not attain a decisive victory so soon over the pagans of Arabia. What Allah means to say is this: If you had carried on your struggle along with those weaknesses, it would have taken you much longer to subdue Arabia, but We have overlooked all those weaknesses and shortcomings and compensated for them only through Our grace, and opened for you at Hudaybiya the door to victory and conquest which you could not have achieved only by your ordinary endeavors”
Maududi goes on to say:
“However, as the address is directed to the Holy Prophet and declared that Allah has forgiven him all his former and latter faults, the general words also give this meaning that Allah pardoned all the shortcomings (which were the shortcomings in view of his high position) of His Holy Messenger. That is why when the Companions saw that he took extraordinary pains over his worship, they would say: Why do you subject yourself to such hardships when all your former and latter errors and shortcomings have been pardoned? The Holy Prophet would reply: Should I not behave as a grateful servant? (Ahmad, Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Da’ud).”
The problem with Maududi’s explanation is that there is obviously no connection between victory and the forgiveness of dhanb (sin or fault), nor is there any intelligible sense in making forgiveness the reason for it.
There are some (exegetes) who say that dhanb (sin) refers to actual sins committed by the Prophet; so what is past of your dhanb (sin) and what is to come refers to that which occurred before he was made a prophet and afterwards. Others say: It refers to that which came before the victory and that which came after. However, this reading is based on the assumption that sins can be ascribed to the Prophets and this is contrary to what is unequivocally stated by the Qur’an and human reason about the infallibility (ʿiṣma) of the Prophets.
The original meaning of dhanb in Arabic is an action that has any kind of evil consequences. Meanwhile, maghfira signifies the covering of something.
Allamah Tabataba’I, in his tafsir al-Mizan, gives the following explanation:
“So the meaning of dhanb (in the verse) – and God knows best – is the evil consequences that resulted from his invitation to the faithless and the idolaters; it was an evil consequence that they had against him. This is exactly like when Moses told his Lord: Also they have a charge (dhanb) against me, and I fear they will kill me (26:14). So what is past of your dhanb means that which was from him in Mecca before the Hijra, while what is to come is what came from him after the Hijra. God’s forgiveness of this dhanb is to cover it by removing its evil consequences, depriving them [the idolators] of their power and destroying their foundations. This reading is supported by the phrases: …and that He may perfect His blessing upon you… (48:2); and God will help you with a mighty help (48:3).”
Allamah Tabataba’i: Al-Mizan, Ar. Vol. 18, under Chapter 48.
Sayyid Maududi: “Understanding the meanings of the Qur’an”, under Chapter 48.