Some of the commentators have stated that these hypocrites were encouraging them to reject Islam and return to their former religion of kufr and shirk. They tried to scare the Muslims by saying that they ‘had no stand or strength’ against the enemies, and if they were to engage in battle, they will be wiped out. Thus, they said to them, ‘you cannot stay here’.
Another trick of the hypocrites was that some of them came to the Prophet (S.A) and sought permission to return home saying that their homes were exposed and not protected against the enemies. Hence, they feared that the enemies can attack their homes in their absence, so they wanted permission to return home. In the verse Allah made it clear that were liars. Their homes were not open/exposed to the enemies. They only wished to run away from the battlefield.
Allah goes further in verse 14 to show their hypocrisy and their lies. The verse states:
14. And if the enemy had entered from all sides (of the city), and they had been exhorted to Fitnah (i.e. to renegade from Islam to polytheism) they would surely have committed it and would have hesitated thereupon but little.
Here, Allah says that if a situation arose where the enemies had entered upon these hypocrites from all the corners of Madina to attack them, and then they (the hypocrites) were asked to reject Islam and fight the Muslims, then they would have surely done this and would not have hesitated to do so except for a short while. At this time, they would not be bothered about their homes being unprotected, but would hasten to follow the wishes of the enemies. They would do this because they harbor hatred for the Muslims and display allegiance to the unbelievers.
The verse states that ‘they would surely have committed it and would not have hesitated thereupon except a little’. This means that when invited to fitnah (mischief by fighting the Muslims and committing kufr) by the enemies of Islam, the hypocrites would have hastened to do so and they would not have delayed from causing harm to the Muslims, even though they showed themselves as being Muslims. That which encourages them to do this is their love for mischief and causing harm to the Muslims. The truth has disappeared from their hearts, hence, they will not protect their Imaan (faith).
Sura Ahzab goes further in verse 15 and states:
15. And indeed they had already made a covenant with Allah not to turn their backs, and a covenant with Allah must be answered for.
This verse highlights the fact that the hypocrites had already given their pledge before the battle of Ahzab and after the battle of Badr, that they will not run from the battle. Some commentators like Qatada have stated that this refers to the hypocrites who were absent from the battle of Badr. When they saw the victory and miracle which took place at Badr, they made a pledge (to Allah) saying that if Allah causes them to witness any other battle, they will fight fiercely. However, when battles came upon them and the fighting grew intense, they breached their pledge and deserted the battlefield. (Tafseer Al Qurtubi vol.14 pg. 134; Tafseer At Tabari vol.21 pg. 155)
Other commentators like Yazeed bin Ruman have stated that the verse refers to the Banu Haritha (tribe) who had intended to desert the battlefield on the day of Uhud together with the Banu Salima (tribe). However, when Allah revealed certain verses about them, they made a pledge to Allah that they would not desert the battlefield. In this verse, Allah reminds them of the pledge which they gave to Him. (Tafseer Al Qurtubi vol.14 pg. 134; Tafseer At Tabari vol.21 pg. 155)
In both cases, Allah reminds them (the hypocrites) that ‘A covenant with Allah must be answered for’. It means that Allah will question them about the pledge they made which was necessary to fulfill.
Allah goes further in verse 16 to give a warning to the hypocrites (who deserted the battlefield) and states:
16. Say (O Muhammad to these hypocrites): “Flight will not avail you if you flee from death or killing, and then you will enjoy no more than a little while!”
The verse tells them that their ‘running away’ from the battle will not delay their time of death nor will it lengthen their lives. Each person will die when his time has ended. This time has already been fixed by Allah, whether it is on the battlefield or not. Hence, death cannot be delayed by running away from the battlefield. The hypocrites were also informed ‘then you will enjoy no more than a little while’. This explains that since death did not come to them on the battlefield, it means that it was not written upon them. Hence, their running away from the battle did not help them to safeguard themselves from death. However, seeing that they had already deserted the battlefield (thinking that they ran away from death), they will benefit a little from the worldly life (by living for a few more days, since death was not decreed for them). But, the benefit will be short-lived, and death shall soon overtake them.
Sura Ahzab goes further in verse 17 and states:
17. Say: “Who is he who can protect you from Allah if He intends to harm you, or intends mercy on you?” And they will not find, besides Allah, for themselves any Walî (protector, supporter, etc.) or any helper.
Here, Allah informs the hypocrites that whenever He wishes to cause harm to them, it will surely come, and no one can protect them from Allah. Hence, if Allah had intended harm for them, it would have certainly come to them whether they were in the battlefield or not. Similarly, if Allah had intended mercy, by protecting them and assisting them in the battlefield, then He would have certainly done that even if they were in the thick of the battle, fighting fiercely. No one will be able to stop Allah’s punishment from coming, and no one can prevent His mercy from descending. In truth, the hypocrites have no one to protect them against Allah, nor do they have anyone to help them besides Allah.
Highlighting another conduct of the hypocrites during the battle of Ahzab, verse 18 states:
18. Allah already knows those among you who keep back (men) from fighting in Allah’s Cause, and those who say to their brethren “Come here towards us, “while they (themselves) come not to the battle except a little.
The verse states that Allah has full knowledge of those who dissuaded the Muslims from participating in the battles with the Prophet (S.A). He also knows those who were inviting others to follow them when they said to the true Muslims, ‘Come here towards us’. Allah had full knowledge of these schemes perpetrated by the hypocrites and thus, dealt with them in accordance to their wicked actions.
While commenting on this verse, some commentators have stated that the verse refers to the hypocrites who said to the Muslims (in the battle of Ahzab), ‘Muhammad and his companions are only a very small group. They and those who are with them will be destroyed, so come to us’. Other commentators have stated that the verse refers to the Jews of Banu Quraiza who said to their friends from (the hypocrites), ‘Come to us and leave Muhammad, for he will be destroyed. As for Abu Sufyan, even if he has the upper hand, none of you will remain alive’.
Another narration states that the verse was revealed about an incident where a true believer from the companions of the Prophet (S.A) was fighting fiercely in the battle of Ahzab while shooting arrows and fighting with his sword. At this time, he saw his brother (who was not a true Muslim) busy eating roasted meat and drinking ‘nabeedh’ (a sweet drink made from dates). He (the Sahabi) said, ‘You are here while the Prophet (S.A) is amidst the spears and arrows?’ His brother replied, ‘Come and join me, you and your companions have been besieged’. The sincere Muslim said, ‘You are a liar. By Allah! I shall inform the Prophet (S.A) about you’. He then went to the Prophet (S.A) to inform him and found that Jibraeel (A.S) had already brought the above verse of Sura Ahzab (i.e. verse 18). (Tafseer Al Qurtubi vol.14 pg. 136; Tafseer At Tabari vol.21 pg. 157-158)
The verse also states that as for the hypocrites, ‘they do not come to the battle except for a little while’. They come to the battlefield only to show themselves and to be seen by others. While commenting on this verse, the great commentator, Abu Hayyan writes, ‘It means that they do not come to the battle except for a short while. They accompany the believers to the battlefield so that the believers may think that they (the hypocrites) are with them (the believers). But they would not be seen fighting except if they are forced to do so. Their fighting therefore is only to show others, and it is not the ‘true fighting’. (Tafseer Al Bahrul Muheet vol.8 pg. 463)