(The Battle of Mu’tah)
From the Prophet’s envoys sent to the rulers and emperors of neighboring countries for the purpose of conveying the message of Islam and call on them to submit themselves to God, as He requires of all people, Al-Harith ibn Umayr was the one sent to Shurahbil ibn ‘Amr of the Arab tribe of Ghassan, who was the ruler of Busra in the south of present-day Syria.
Busra was a governorate of the Byzantine Empire. It enjoyed a form of political autonomy, since that area was inhabited by immigrant Arabs who belonged to the tribe of Ghassan.
Far from the varying degrees of hospitality the rulers and emperors showed to the prophet’s envoys, with some of them replying cordially, others sending the Prophet some presents and others, such as Negus of Abyssinia and the ruler of Yemen, were soon to become Muslims, Shurahbil ibn ‘Amr exceeded all limits of diplomatic standards and values. He gave orders for Al-Harith to be tied up and then beheaded, whereas the tradition that messengers and ambassadors must be treated well, regardless of the nature of the message they carried, was an age old one.
When the Prophet came to know of this, he felt that the treatment of his envoy represented an insult and a challenge which called for a firm reply. As Islam was still consolidating its position in Arabia itself, the steady progress of the Muslim state was an important factor to ensure that it was held in awe by all neighboring powers.
The people in Arabia were convinced that Islam could not be overcome by any other force. The Muslims enjoyed God’s support, and that support was enough to defeat all their enemies. This general feeling was responsible for the conversion of a large number of people in Arabia who embraced Islam either because they feared it or because they wanted to be part of its success. If Islam was seen to be weakening in front of larger forces, the position of many of those who were prepared to join the ranks of the Muslims would be violently shaken. The implications would then be very serious indeed.
Hence, the Prophet was keen that the position of the new Muslim state should be safeguarded. No one could be allowed to level an insult against Islam or the Muslim state and manage to get away with it. People inside and outside Arabia must feel that Islam was a force to be reckoned with. So, the Prophet decided to send an expedition to teach the aggressor a lesson and to show the world at large that no ambassador of the Muslim state could be killed and forgotten. His killers must be brought to justice and must be made to pay a heavy price for their aggression.
Peace In First Place
The Prophet called on his companions to join the army he was sending to Busra. The response was, as usual, highly favorable. A force of 3,000 soldiers was thus raised. When they were ready to march, the Prophet named three of his companions as commanders who should succeed one another in case any of them was killed. He himself was heavily engaged in Madinah and could not take the command of the army himself. Zayd ibn Harithah, who had been the first man ever to become a Muslim, was appointed as the first leader. The Prophet told the army that if Zayd were to be killed, the commander would be Ja’far ibn Abi Talib. In case he also was killed, Abdullah ibn Rawahah was to assume the command of the army.
The Prophet ordered the army to travel until they reached the district where Al-Harith ibn Umayr was killed, and to call on the people of that area to accept Islam. If they did, the Muslims were to leave them alone. If they did not, then they should fight them, praying God to help them. He also ordered them not to break any promises they gave and not to kill a child, a woman, an old man or a monk praying in seclusion. They were not to cut down any trees or destroy any buildings. The Prophet went out with the army to the outskirts of Madinah, where he bade the commanders and soldiers farewell. The Muslim army tried to conceal its purpose in order to be able to take the enemy by surprise. The news of its march, however, was soon known to its enemies, who started to get ready.
Shurahbil ibn Amr mobilized all the Arab tribes under his control. These tribes were able to provide a very large force indeed. Most historians set the figure of their forces in this encounter at 100,000. Moreover, Heracules, the Byzantine Emperor, sent his local governor a further force of 100,000 Byzantine soldiers. Thus, an army of 200,000 was preparing to meet the Muslim army of 3,000 soldiers only.
Nevertheless, the disparity between the two forces was so marked that the Muslims felt that they needed to stop and think about what they were about to face. When they reached Ma’an, in the south of present-day Jordan, they received intelligence of the size of the forces preparing to meet them. They stopped at Ma’an for two nights in consultation on what their next step should be. Some of them suggested that they should write to the Prophet informing him of the situation and of the forces of their enemies, and await his orders. He might either send some support or give them further instructions. Abdullah ibn Rawahah, the third commander named by the Prophet, felt that the matter did not warrant that sort of delay. He encouraged the Muslims not to hesitate before confronting their enemy:
The cause of your hesitation now is the very prize which you have set out to achieve: namely, martyrdom. We have never fought any enemy on the basis of our numerical strength, or our better equipment, or our superior number of horses. We fight them only with this religion with which God has blessed us. Let us march on. I attended the Battle of Badr when we had only two horses. At the Battle of Uhud, there was only one horseman in our ranks. March on, brothers. We stand to win one of two great prizes: either we will achieve victory – and this is what God and His messenger have promised us, and it is a promise which never fails – or we will achieve martyrdom, in which case we join our brethren who went before us into Heaven.
These words were very touching to the Muslim army. This was no vain discourse. What Abdullah ibn Rawahah said was something in which they all believed. To a Muslim, any fight for the cause of Islam can end either in an honorable victory or in martyrdom. It is a case of either a victory for the community or a victory for the individual. Hence, they marched on. Two more nights and they reached the area to which they were sent. They found out that the enemy forces were encamped in a village called Masharif. As enemy forces started to draw near them, they, therefore, moved to a village called Mu’tah, where they took their positions.
Although the decision reached by the Muslim army may seem unwise, considering the enormous disparity between their forces and those of their enemies, the Muslims always had their own criteria when they considered any serious matter. That particular army, which included many soldiers who took part in earlier battles the Muslims fought against their enemies, was generally aware that numerical inferiority could be compensated for by superior spiritual strength. The speech of Abdullah ibn Rawahah rekindled the enthusiasm of the Muslim soldiers to the extent that they were eager to face their enemy.
When the Muslim army took its position at the village of Mu’tah, the Byzantine forces marched towards them in great numbers, seeking to overwhelm the Muslims by sheer numerical strength. The Muslims deployed their forces, adopting the tactics of concentrated pressure at the centre while preventing the outside flanks of their enemy from trying to encircle them. The Muslim commander of the right flank was Qutbah ibn Qatadah; his counterpart on the left flank was Ubadah ibn Malik. These two commanders and their units fought very hard to protect the central units from being overwhelmed.
Till The Last Breath
The battle was now being fought in earnest as Zayd ibn Harithah, the first Muslim commander, carried the Muslim flag and fought hard. Apparently the Byzantine forces concentrated their efforts on trying to kill the Muslim commander, so they pressed hard where Zayd was fighting and were soon able to kill him. The banner was taken over by Ja’far ibn Abi Talib, who again was the target for a concentrated enemy attack. Ja’far was a great fighter who struck the enemy soldiers right, left and centre.
He could not, however, withstand the continuous pressure against him and he felt that he could fight better if he were to dismount. He continued to fight on foot, still carrying the flag in his right hand. As he fought on, he was hit several times. Then an enemy soldier was able to chop off his right hand, but Ja’far automatically carried the flag with his left hand. Again, he was hit hard, and his left hand was chopped off. Nevertheless, he would not drop the flag. He held it tightly with the upper parts of his arms and faced the enemy. His position was no longer tenable and he was soon killed. It is reported that when he was about to be buried, they counted on his body something like ninety wounds.
The flag was taken over by Abdullah ibn Rawahah, who had demonstrated, ever since he joined the army that he dearly wished to be killed in battle. The fighting was so hard that the Muslim soldiers did not have any food because they were preoccupied with the battle.
A cousin of Abdullah, however, gave him a piece of meat and said: “Eat this and strengthen yourself. You have nearly exhausted your energy today.” When he had his first bite Abdullah heard the noise of fighting from one side and said to himself: “And I am still in this world?” He dropped the piece of meat and fought hard until he was killed.
A Veteran’s Strategy
It was nearly evening when Abdullah ibn Rawahah was killed and before the Muslims, according to the Prophet’s instructions, were to choose their own commander should all three commanders appointed by him be killed. Their choice was Khalid ibn Al-Walid, who had joined the Muslim ranks only a few months earlier.
It was Khalid’s first battle with the Muslims. He was a gifted military commander. He realized that total victory could not be achieved by the Muslims in such a greatly ill-balanced confrontation. His immediate thoughts were to engage the enemy for the rest of the day in such a way as to avoid heavy casualties among the Muslims.
When darkness fell and the two armies were separated for the night, Khalid still had a great deal to do. Taking stock of the situation, he realized that the best that the Muslims could achieve in that confrontation was to try to maximize the losses of their enemies while minimizing their own and avoiding an outright defeat. He redeployed his forces completely, moving his right flank to the left and his left flank to the right. He also exchanged the positions of the front and rear forces. This total redeployment was completed during the night. He then ordered a detachment of his forces to raise as much dust as possible behind the army and to cause a great deal of noise.
At daybreak, fighting was resumed. The Byzantine forces were surprised to see new faces all round. They thought that the Muslims must have received fresh help. They were somewhat scared to go into battle in earnest. The Muslims were able to take the initiative and fought hard, killing a large number of enemy soldiers.
Historians agree that this withdrawal was a great success as it was indeed, in that very confrontation, much more difficult than achieving victory
Khalid, however, did not intend the battle to go on indefinitely. As his forces were fighting hard, he was, at the same time, drawing back very slowly and skillfully. The Byzantine commanders thought that he was trying to drag them slowly into the desert. They felt that if they were to be dragged that far, they would lay themselves open to greater risks. Hence, they thought it was wiser to resist the temptation. They stood their ground. Khalid, on the other hand, was able to disengage his forces in that way, without incurring any great losses.
Not Victorious, Yet Victory
Historians agree that this withdrawal was a great success as it was indeed, in that very confrontation, much more difficult than achieving victory, had the forces of the two sides been equally balanced. A lesser commander would not have been able to withdraw safely.
Moreover, the Muslims managed to inflict heavy losses on their enemies. The Muslims lost only 12 martyrs in this battle. Among these were the three commanders of the army named by the Prophet. This was because the Byzantine army concentrated its attack on those commanders because, in those days, killing the commander ensured winning the battle.
The discipline of the Muslims, however, brought new factors into the equation and the Muslims lost three commanders without their morale being affected in any way. In order to describe the ferocity of that battle, one need only remember how Ja’far ibn Abi Talib fought until he was killed. Khalid ibn Al-Walid said about that battle: “Nine swords were broken in my hand at the Battle of Mu’tah.” That was a large number of swords for the Muslim commander to use.
The great achievement of that battle was that it gave the Byzantines and their Arab agents an idea of what fighting the Muslims meant and what they can do. At no time afterwards did the Byzantine forces look forward to meeting the Muslim forces. Every time a battle was looming on the horizon, and there were many battles to come between the two sides, the Byzantines approached it with fear in their hearts. Moreover, this battle inspired great respect for the Muslims among the Arabian tribes in the north, such as those of Sulaym, Ashja’, ‘Abs and Dhubyan, who started to join the Muslim ranks.
Back in Madinah, the Prophet informed the Muslims of the events of the battle: “Zayd took the banner until he was killed. It was then taken over by Ja’ far until he was killed. Then Ibn Rawahah carried the flag until he was killed.” The Prophet’s eyes were tearful as he said this. “It was taken over,” he continued, “by a man who is one of God’s swords, and he fought until God granted them success.” This is a testimony by the Prophet that what Khalid and the Muslims did in that battle was a great success. No other testimony or opinion is needed in addition to this one.
Nevertheless, when the army arrived back in Madinah, children met them with jeers and denunciation. They said to them: “You deserters. You desert a battle being fought for God’s cause?” The Prophet, however, set things right when he said to them: “These are no deserters. They will live to fight another day.” The children’s attitude gives an impression of what sort of society the Prophet built in Madinah, and in Arabia at large.
A few days later, the Prophet was speaking about the commanders who were killed at the Battle of Mu’tah. He said to his companions: “They would not wish to be with us now.” This is most certainly the case. No martyr would like to return to his home after enjoying God’s blessings which come with his martyrdom.
The Prophet also visited the family of his cousin, Ja’far, the second commander. He said to them: “Do not cry for my brother’s death any more. Let me see his children.” The three boys were brought to him and he called in a barber to cut their hair. He said to them:
“Muhammad, son of Ja’far, resembles our uncle, Abu Talib. Abdullah has a likeness to me in shape and manners.” He then took ’Abdullah by the hand and waved his hand, praying in these words: “My Lord, look after Ja’far’s family. Bless every transaction ’Abdullah makes.”
He repeated that three times. ’Abdullah was to grow up as one of the most generous people that ever lived. Their mother spoke about their being orphans and the Prophet said to her: “Do you fear that they will live in poverty when I am their patron in this world and in the world to come?” This is just an example of the sort of care the Prophet took of his companions, especially those who fought hard for the cause of Islam.
This article is excerpted from Adil Salahi's Muhammad: Man and Prophet, published by the Islamic Foundation. It is republished here with kind permission and with slight editorial changes.