وَإِذْ قَالَت طَّائِفَةٌ مِّنْهُمْ يَا أَهْلَيَثْرِبَلَا مُقَامَ لَكُمْ فَارْجِعُوا ۚ وَيَسْتَأْذِنُ فَرِيقٌ مِّنْهُمُ النَّبِيَّ يَقُولُونَ إِنَّ بُيُوتَنَا عَوْرَةٌ وَمَا هِيَ بِعَوْرَةٍ ۖ إِن يُرِيدُونَ إِلَّا فِرَارًا
And when a party of them said: “O people of Yathrib! There is no stand (possible) for you (against the enemy attack!) Therefore go back!” And a band of them ask for permission of the Prophet ( SAW) saying: “Truly, our homes lie open (to the enemy).” And they lay not open. They but wished to flee.
Why is the word “Yathrib” used at [Ahzab 33:13] whereas in other places it’s always “Madinah” (e.g. Munafiqoon 63:8)?
Even more intriguingly, this surah is Madinan (revealed in Madinah), and the word Madinah is used later on in the same surah at verse 60 [Ahzab 33:60]!
One of the wisdoms for doing so (and Allah knows best) is that Madinah is a nickname (short for Madinat-un-Nabi – The City of the Prophet) given after Hijrah [emigration of the Prophet], and so the use of the the term “Madinah” by people signifies allegiance to the Prophet (sal Allah alaihi wasalam).
Now if we look closely at Ahzab 33:13, we see that it captures a part of the saying of the munafiqoon [hypocrites] at the time – they’re exposing their hypocrisy in the battle of/ Khandaq/Ahzab by calling on the people of Yathrib (not Madinah!) to give up and go home!
These were those who had lost their claim to power in the city as a result of Hijrah [emigration of Prophet Muhammad & his companions), and are using old associations to rouse the people, thereby making their nifaaq [hypocrisy] clear.
So the use of Yathrib is not a mistake or slip-up as people might assume, it’s actually perfectly positioned to suit the context of the situation.
1) The city of Medinah was called Yathrib in the past before Islam [because the word carries a bad connotation]. Allah’s Messenger (sal Allah alaihi wasalam) changed it from the name Yathrib, to Medinat-un-Nabi [the city of the Prophet]. So everyone then called it Medinah because of their belief in Allah’s Messenger.
2) When the Battle of Ahzab/Confederates happened, the hypocrites got scared. They said “O people of Yathrib! There is no stand (possible) for you (against the enemy attack!) Therefore go back!” [Ahzab 33:13]
This word is specially chosen by Allah to describe the hypocrites because it makes their hypocrisy apparent. I.e. they wanted to return to the old Yathrib, because Medinah was about to be destroyed by the Ahzab/Confederates. So by the hypocrites saying “Go back to Yathrib”, they are implying – go back to your old lifestyles before Islam, go back to the city which you were secure in before the Prophet came to us. Because – the hypocrites felt – the Prophet has brought them hardship whereas before they were safe.