The Campaign of Mu'tah

Skirmishes before the Campaign

Knowing that time was on his side, Muhammad was in no hurry to conquer Makkah. The Treaty of Hudaybiyah was hardly more than a year old, and nothing had happened to warrant its abrogation. Being a man of his word who never failed to honor a promise, Muhammad was satisfied to return to Madinah and wait for his time in peace. During the few months that followed his return, a few skirmishes took place. He sent five men to Banu Sulaym for the sole purpose of teaching them Islam, and he endured their cold-blooded murder by their hosts. Only their leader managed to escape, and he did so purely accidentally. He also sent fifteen men to Dhat al Talh on the outskirts of al Sham in order to call its people to Islam. There, too, the messengers of Muhammad and missionaries of the faith were put to death in cold blood. The Prophet also sent some of his men to the Banu al Layth which they successfully raided, bringing back both captives and booty. He also sent a force to punish the Banu Murrah for their previous treachery. A1 Sham and the whole northern district were of particular concern to the Prophet, especially since he had already secured the south through the Treaty of Hudaybiyah and the conversion of the governor of Yaman. The Prophet looked upon the north as the gateway to the spread of Islam beyond the frontiers of the Arabian Peninsula. A1 Sham and the adjoining territories were the first object of his mission beyond Arabia. Consequently, only a few months after his return to Madinah he readied an army of three thousand fighters, some of whom had previously fought at Mu'tah, for possible deployment in the north. According to other versions, the number of the men involved was one or two hundred thousand.

 

Causes of the Campaign

Historians differ in explaining the expedition against Mu'tah. Some give the murder of Muhammad's companions at Dhat al Talh as the cause. Others relate that the Prophet had sent a messenger to the Byzantine governor of Busra, that this messenger was killed by a tribesman of Ghassan in the name of Heraclius, and that Muhammad sent this force as a punitive expedition against that governor and the empire he represented.

Just as the Treaty of Hudaybiyah was the forerunner of the pilgrimage, and this in turn of the conquest of Makkah, so was the campaign against Mu'tah an introduction to Tabuk, and this, in turn, to the conquest of al Sham which took place shortly after the Prophet's death. It is immaterial whether or not the cause which led to the conquest of Mu'tah was the murder of the Prophet's messenger to the governor of Busra or that of the fifteen missionaries he had sent to Dhat al Talh. The fact is that the Prophet-May God's peace and blessing be upon him -called up in the month of Jumada I of the year 8 A.H. (629 C.E.), three thousand of his best men and appointed Zayd ibn Harithah as their leader. In the event of Zayd's fall, Ja'far ibn Abu Talib was to assume command of the army. In the event of Ja'far's death, 'Abdullah ibn Rawahah was to take his place. Khalid ibn al Walid, the recent convert from Makkah, volunteered to join this expedition in order to prove his loyalty to the new faith. The people of Madinah bid the army farewell, and Muhammad saw them off at the outskirts of the city. He commanded them not to kill any women, children, or invalids, and not to destroy either houses or trees. Together with his companions, he prayed for them: "May God be with you! May He shield you with His protection, and may He bring you back to us safe, sound, and victorious." Most of the leaders of this army thought to surprise their enemy, as the Prophet had done on previous occasions, and thus to achieve a quick victory and return home with the spoils of war. They advanced till they reached Ma'an in the territory of al Sham without knowing what lay ahead of them.

 

Byzantine Mobilization

However, the news of their march preceded them. Shurahbil, Heraclius's commissioner in al Sham, mobilized all the tribes around him and sent word to Heraclius asking for more Greek and Arab armies. Some historians assert that Heraclius himself came over with his armies and camped in Ma'ab (Moab], in al Balqa', with one hundred thousand Byzantine soldiers. They also relate that another hundred thousand men joined his main force from Lakhm, Judham, al Qayn, Bahra', and Baliyy. It is also related that Theodorus, Heraclius's brother, rather than Heraclius himself, was the leader of this army. While the Muslims were at Ma'an, they heard of this mobilization, and for two days and nights they did not know what to do. One of them advised that a message be sent to the Prophet-May God's peace and blessing be upon him-informing him of the force of the enemy and asking him for more men or for other orders. This counsel was about to receive unanimous approval when `Abdullah ibn Rawahah, who was as proud and chivalrous as he was eloquent in poetry, rose and said: "0 people! By God, that which you fear might happen to you is precisely why you came here-namely, martyrdom. We Muslims do not fight either with numbers, physical strength, or material equipment. Our only power lies in this religion which God has been gracious enough to give to us. Rise to battle and march forward! One of the two greatest blessings must befall you: either victory or martyrdom." The bravery of this eloquent poet was contagious, and soon the whole army reverberated with the same war cry. Everybody approved of ibn Rawahah's counsel. They marched forward toward al Balqa' and a village called Masharif, where the Byzantine armies were encamped. When the enemy attacked, the Muslims withdrew to the village of Mu'tah which presented to them strategic advantages, and they fortified their position. It was there that the battle was fought by three thousand Muslims against soiree one or two hundred thousand of the enemy.

 

Fall of the Martyrs

The majesty of religious conviction! The sublimity of the strength of faith! Zayd ibn Harithah raised the banner of the Prophet and marched forward toward the enemy. He plunged deep into their ranks fully certain of the death that awaited him. But to die under such conditions is precisely to fall a martyr in the cause of God. Martyrdom is not one whit lesser a blessed fate than victory. Zayd fought desperately until he was torn apart by enemy arrows. Ja'far ibn Abu Talib, then a brave man of thirty-three, picked up the Prophet's banner and fought valiantly until his horse was completely surrounded by enemy soldiers. When his horse fell under him, he pressed ever forward on foot to cut the enemy ranks down with the sword. He was carrying the banner in his right hand. When it was cut of, he picked up the banner with his left; and when he lost his left hand, he kept the banner high by pressing it between his legs until he died. It is related that a Byzantine soldier struck him with his sword and cut him in two. At the death of Ja'far, Ibn Rawahah seized the Prophet's banner, mounted on his mare but hesitated to advance toward the enemy's lines. His mind being braver than his will, he composed the following verses to encourage himself: "0 Soul, I have sworn that you will fight in battle deliberately, or that I shall force you to fight. When people assemble and shout the war cry, why do you not advance with them? Or do you hate to enter Paradise?" Aroused by his own eloquence, he drew his sword, plunged into the thick of battle and fought valiantly until he died.

The three commanders, Zayd, Ja'far, and ibn Rawahah, all fell as martyrs in the cause of God in the first engagement. When the Prophet learned of their death, he was extremely sad. He said of them that they were lifted to Paradise on thrones of pure gold, just as men see in their dreams. He pointed out that in his vision of the three martyrs, he noticed the throne of 'Abdullah ibn Rawahah hovering in the heights and not rising as rapidly as the other two; upon enquiry he was told that the other two advanced straight forward whereas 'Abdullah hesitated. What sound advice and good counsel the Prophet meant to give! Surely, he meant to impress upon the Muslims that the believer should not hesitate or fear to die in the cause of God, but rather he should carry his life on his palm ever ready to lay it down when he marches forward in the cause of God and homeland. He should firmly realize that his fate is either to succeed and realize that cause or to fall martyr and give the supreme example to posterity. In martyrdom lies a final and lasting memory that one has deemed the value of life to be wholly in that for which the sacrifice had taken place; that tenacity to life in humiliation and subjection is indeed a betrayal and destruction of life. To hold the contrary is, in fact, to lose the right to be counted among the living. Likewise, the man who exposes himself to the danger of death but dues so for a mean cause; or saves his life from the danger of death when God, the Lord of Majesty, calls upon him to lay down that life in the cause of truth, has already met his death-but in ignominy. If the slight hesitation of ibn Rawahah merited for him a place inferior to that of Zayd arid Ja`far despite the fact that he still fought and laid down his life as a martyr; if, in short, he was unworthy of the reward of those who plunge into the thick of battle and fly to martyrdom with joy, what would be the fate of one who retraced his steps and withdrew altogether in order to save his life or to attain the advantage of wealth or glory? His is surely the fate of a miserable insect, no matter how great his glory among the multitudes, or how abundant his wealth. Is the human soul capable of any joy greater than that which sacrifice for the sake of conviction brings? Is man capable of any nobler fate than that of martyrdom in the cause of truth ?

 

Ibn al Walid's Strategy

Upon the death of ibn Rawahah, Thabit ibn Arqam, a tribesman of Banu `Ajlan, picked up the Prophet's banner and asked the Muslims to appoint a leader. Many nominated him, but he declined. The people then asked Khalid ibn al Wa15d to assume command. Khalid accepted despite the disintegration of Muslim power and the disorganization of their ranks. Making full use of his great military experience and unique wisdom and foresight in battle, he first commanded the Muslims to reorganize their ranks and recoup their forces. He allowed only skirmishes with the enemy in order to gain time. Soon night came and the two armies disengaged until the following morning. During the night, Khalid carefully laid out his plan. He sent a number of men toward the rear deploying them in such a way as to give the impression the next morning that massive reinforcements from Madinah were arriving to join the battle. The ruse worked. Recalling their losses and the Muslims' fierce acts of war on the previous day, the Byzantines decided to abandon the battlefield. The Muslims, pleased by the withdrawal of the enemy, withdrew toward Madinah. It was a battle in which the Muslims were not victorious. Neither did they lose.

 

Muslim Disappointment and Muhammad's Assurance

As soon as Khalid and the army reached Madinah, Muhammad and the Muslims went out to meet them, Muhammad carrying on his arm `Abdullah, the son of Ja'far, the second commander of the Muslim force. Upon learning of the news, the people flung dust in the face of the Muslim soldiers and accused them of fleeing in the face of the enemy and abandoning the cause of God. The Prophet of God argued with his people that the soldiers did not flee but simply withdrew in order, with God's will, to advance again. Despite this justification on the part of Muhammad of the Muslim army, the people were not willing to forgive them their withdrawal and return. Salamah ibn Hisham, a member of this expedition, would neither go to the mosque for prayer nor show himself in public in order to avoid being chastized for fleeing from the cause of God. Were it not for the fact that these same men, especially Khalid ibn al Walid, later distinguished themselves in battle against the same enemy, their reputations would have remained forever stained.

Muhammad was deeply saddened by the death of Zayd and Ja'far. After hearing the sad news, he went to the latter's house where his wife, Asma', daughter of `Umays, had baked her bread, washed and dressed up her children, and awaited the return of her husband. The Prophet embraced Ja'far's children and cried. Asma' immediately grasped what the Prophet was about to say to her and said: "0 Prophet of God, woe to me if you should cry? Have you heard any news about Ja'far and his companions?" The Prophet answered: "Yes indeed, and they have fallen this very day." The Prophet cried and sobbed and Asma' began to cry and shout in mourning. Before leaving the house, Muhammad commanded the people who assembled to take care of Ja'far's family and to provide food for them. Upon meeting the daughter of his client, Zayd, he picked her up and cried on her shoulder. When those who saw them expressed astonishment, he explained to them that it was all too natural. The martyrs were not only his people, but his own personal friends.

According to one version, the remains of Ja'far were carried to Madinah where he was buried three days after the return of Khalid and the army. On that day, the Prophet commanded the Muslims to stop mourning their lost ones. To reassure the bereaved relatives, he announced that God had given Ja`far, instead of the two arms he lost on the battlefield, two wings with which to fly to Paradise.

 

The Campaign of Dhat al Salasil

A few weeks after the return of khalid, Muhammad sought to make up the losses in Muslim prestige in the northern parts of the Peninsula which the previous engagement with the Byzantines had caused. He therefore commissioned `Amr ibn al `As to rouse the Arabs to march against al Sham. He chose `Amr for this task because the tatter's mother belonged to one of the northern tribes, and he hoped that `Amr could use this connection to facilitate his mission. As he arrived at a well called al Salasil, in the land of Judham, fearing the enemy might overtake him, he sent word to the Prophet asking for more forces. The Prophet sent Abu `Ubaydah ibn al Jurrah at the head of a corps of Muhajirun which included Abu Bakr and `Umar. The Prophet feared that `Amr, new as he was in his conversion to Islam, might disagree with Abu `Ubaydah, one of the earliest and oldest among the Muhajirun. He therefore advised Abu `Ubayah when he assigned to him the leadership of the expedition not to disagree with `Amr. When Abu `Ubaydah and his men joined forces with `Amr, the latter reminded Abu `Ubaydah that he had come not as a commander but only as a relief force to operate under `Amr's command. Abu `Ubaydah was a very affable, ascetic, and humble man, and he instantly assured `Amr that he stood under the Prophet's commandment to obey `Amr at all costs and under all circumstances. `Amr led the army in prayer as well as in battle. With his reinforcements, he not only engaged the enemy but dispersed and routed them, thereby recovering the Muslim prestige lost in the campaign of Mu'tah.

At the same time, Muhammad was thinking of Makkah and of its affairs. In this regard, he was bound by the Treaty of Hudaybiyah for two years, and he meant to abide by its terms. Therefore, the only engagements he allowed his forces in the south were small skirmishes designed merely to calm down the tribes inclined toward rebellion. This was not difficult to do, and many delegations were already arriving in Madinah from all corners of Arabia to declare their conversion. It was during this interval that the Quraysh violated the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, thereby triggering the chain of events which led to the conquest of Makkah and the establishment of Islam therein. Unlike any other conquest, the Muslim conquest of Makkah conferred upon it the greatest sanctity ever enjoyed by any city.