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The Unlettered Prophet (45)
Khalid Masud
(Tr. by:Nikhat Sattar)

Battle of Tabuk


It has been stated above that the areas north of Arabia, adjoining the current Syria and Jordan were loyal to the Roman Empire. The leaders of the Arab tribes who lived there also had their loyalties with the Roman king. The influence and establishment of Islam in these regions and the acceptance of Islam by some leaders was not a matter to be ignored by the most powerful government in the world. Heraclius knew that if the prophet who had gained power in Arabia was the same whose arrival had been announced in sacred books, his success was written on the wall and he would destroy his kingdom too. However, due to pressure from his courtiers and priests, he could not gather courage to accept Islam and adopted a path of political conflict. In 9 AH, he started collecting his armies in Syria in order to stop any further successes of the Muslims and to intimidate them. Wishing to proceed towards Madinah, he gained support from loyal tribes of Lakhm, Jadhdham, Ghassan and ‘Amilah and sent the vanguards of his army to the Balkans. The Prophet (sws) found out about his aims and selected northern Arabia for combat. That place was very far from Madinah and the climate very hot, hence special considerations were required for the preparation for battle. The Prophet (sws) appealed to Muslims to donate whatever they could afford: funds, weapons, animals for riding and then come out to war with full preparation. This was necessary so that Muslims not consider this as an ordinary exercise but as a major confrontation between Islam and its enemy forces.


Preparations for the Battle  

The Prophet’s appeal had desired results. Sincere Muslims spent more than they could afford in this jihad. Narratives related to this battle state that Abu Bakr Siddiq (rta) gave everything in his house for this mission and when the Prophet (sws) asked him what was left, he answered that God and His Messenger remained in his house. ‘Umar (rta) thought that he would supersede Abu Bakr (rta) in giving in the way of God and brought half of what was in his house. When he found that Abu Bakr (rta) had given everything that he had possessed, he realized that he could not surpass him. Uthman (rta), whose generosity was demonstrated by his enthusiasm and energy in such cases gave equipment and provisions for one third of the army. Women handed over their jewellery to pay for the preparations. The poorest of the poor companions, who could barely earn for an evening meal, gave barley and wheat as food for the journey. Some people who did not have animals to ride on came to the Prophet (sws) requesting him to provide them so that they could take part in the battle. Since the available resources did not allow for this provision, the Prophet (sws) made his apologies and these men returned, dejected. Seeing their sorrow, some wealthy companions made animals available to them; but even then, many men were not able to take part in the journey.

Narratives state that the Asharites sent Abu Musa Ash‘ari to the Prophet (sws), asking him to provide them with animals. When he arrived, he found the Prophet (sws) expressing his displeasure over some matter. When Abu Musa stated his request, he said that, by Allah, he could not make this provision. In view of the Prophet’s displeasure, Abu Musa returned to his people, considerably depressed and informed them of the situation. A while later, Bilal (rta) called him and when he went, the Prophet pointed towards some camels and said: “Take this pair, and this one and this one. Take them to your friends and tell them that Allah has made provision for animals for you to ride on.” Abu Musa obeyed his orders and told his companions that the Messenger of God had given orders for them to ride those animals but that, by Allah, he would like to suggest that from among those who had heard him earlier, one person would go with him to the Prophet (sws), to ensure that he had not assigned a wrong statement to the Prophet (sws). The people went and reminded the Prophet (sws) that when he had refused to give the animals, he had sworn by Allah. Did he forget his oath when he had given away the animals? The Prophet (sws) answered that when he takes an oath and then later finds a better solution, he atones for breaking it and adopts the better way.1

The order for every Muslim to come out for battle was thus: “Come out, whether you are light or heavy.” The words light and heavy indicate that they applied to every man: the rich and poor, armed or unarmed, cavalry man or foot soldier. Other tribes and Arabs had also been mobilized for this battle. Hence, the real demand was that everyone should offer his services for this trumpet call and not care if he possessed any provisions or riding animals. It was enough to present oneself for this service to demonstrate one’s loyalties. But the period of the battle became one of great trial for many people. It was high summer and harvests were ready. This was the best time to cut the crops and store them. People would have found a way to fight against the intense heat and to postpone the handling of the harvest had the battle been closer. But here they faced a journey of hundreds of miles. Along with other dangers, they would require many weeks just to arrive at their destination. In view of these factors, the weak faith and hypocrisy of the hypocrites became evident at that time.

One of the groups openly suggested that it was not wise to proceed to battle and hence, the mission should be postponed. If people insisted on going, there was a danger that many Muslims would die of the heat. Some people tried to create fear of the Roman army in an attempt to cool down the enthusiasm for jihad. The leader of the hypocrites, ‘Abdullah ibn Ubayy went to the extent of saying that it was no game to go out in that weather and face the Romans; he feared that those who went to Tabuk would be tied in chains and thrown in mountains. The people of that group tried to de-motivate sincere Muslims. When people presented their support for the jihad and the giver gave more wealth, they accused him of insincerity. If the giver was a poor man, they ridiculed his modest offering. At times, this cacophony became so loud that they even made fun of the instructions of God and His and His Messenger. When they were reprimanded for this, they said that they were just joking and it was nothing serious.

It was observed at that time that many people made requests to be exempted from going to war on the basis of different excuses. They swore while explaining their difficulties. The Prophet (sws) understood that these were made-up stories, but he accepted their excuses. Many of such people were those whose hypocrisy had already been revealed earlier. Hence their attitude was understandable: they were not ready to take part in a difficult journey for jihad and, at the same time, also wanted permission from the Prophet (sws) so that no blame come to them later. Some among them made their religiosity a reason for their absence. According to them, staying away from their families could become a great trial for their faith and morality. All of them were wealthy and in full health and were able to participate in jihad. The barriers for them were the long journey, the excessive heat and the fact that they would be encountering the Roman army which was the most disciplined and trained army of its time and which had recently defeated the very strong army of Persia. Also, there were not many chances of winning war booty. Who would then disturb their luxurious and comfortable life? Thus hypocrites continued to go to the Prophet (sws) with applications for permission to stay away. However, they appointed some men of their own to spy on the Muslims during the journey.

From narratives of the Battle of Tabuk, it seems that the People of the Book who had suffered at the hands of the Muslims and who had been exiled were responsible for inciting the Romans against the Muslims. They motivated them to play their role and save their religion. The religious leaders held positions of influence at the King’s court and convinced him to help his co-religionists. The People of the Book prepared a conspiracy to communicate and keep in contact with the hypocrites by building a mosque in the suburbs of Madinah. The purpose of this was to gather the hypocrites at one place and develop a cohesive conspiracy. The mosque would have created differences among Muslims and been a centre for spies. The hypocrites built the mosque in Qaba to meet these objectives. To obtain formal acceptance of this mosque, they requested the Prophet (sws) to go there and inaugurate it by leading the first prayer. It was a busy time and because of preparations for the battle, the Prophet (sws) excused himself because of his extremely busy schedule and the event was postponed until after Tabuk.

It had been made compulsory for every able-bodied Muslim man to participate in the battle; thus it was not acceptable for anyone to remain behind. However, there were some sincere Muslims who could not leave with the main army. They thought they would join the army later, but afterwards, they could not, either because of their laziness or because they became busy in other work. Some Muslims did join the army but the remaining did not and thus joined the ranks of those who had remained behind to avoid the battle deliberately. Three Ansars belonging to the early Muslims: Ka‘b ibn Malik (rta), Hilal ibn Umayyah (rta) and Murrah ibn Rabi‘ (rta) were among them. They had made great sacrifices for their faith in the past, but subsequently, they were not part of the army due to laziness and were unaware of their mistake in view of their earlier sacrifices.

The Prophet (sws) in Tabuk

At the time of departure from Madinah, ‘Abdullah ibn Ubayy played the same game which he had at the Battle of Uhud. He came out with his army but when the Prophet (sws) gave instructions to march, he retreated along with his soldiers, saying that he did not wish to expose his people to danger. According to narratives, the army which arrived at Tabuk included 30,000 soldiers and 10,000 horses. The Prophet (sws) waited at the border of Syria for three weeks for the Romans to arrive, but it seems that the Roman army was discouraged because of the Prophet’s courageous arrival with ten times the size of the army at the Battle of Mutah and they decided not to confront the Muslims. It is also possible that Heraclius thought that since the Prophet of Arabia would, in any case, take over his kingdom, he lost courage and decided to lengthen his rule by not sending his army to fight against the Prophet (sws). The Prophet (sws) stayed at Tabuk for three weeks and, after gaining many political successes, announced return to Madinah. This return took place in 9th AH.

Conquests and Peace Treaties

During his stay at Tabuk, the Prophet (sws) sent Khalid ibn Walid (rta) to attack Dumah al-Jandal. Its Christian ruler, Akidar surrendered and requested amnesty. Khalid (rta) arrested him and took him to the Prophet (sws), who made a contract of peace after taxing him and writing up an agreement. The significance of Dumah al-Jandal was that it controlled the routes to both Syria and Iraq. Other rulers of northern Arabia who were subjects of the Byzantine state became afraid of the presence of Muslims in the region. They preferred to develop peaceful relations with the Muslims and decided to stop supporting the Byzantines. The king of Aylah, Junah ibn Rubah, accompanied by individuals from the regions of Jarba’ and Adhrah came to the Prophet (sws). The Prophet (sws) levied a tax on him and wrote up the peace agreement. According to narratives from Abu ‘Ubayd, the Prophet (sws) sent another letter to Heraclius, in which he again invited him to Islam, saying that if he accepted Islam, he would have the same rights as that of other Muslims and would need to follow the same obligations which they did according to the shari‘ah. If this was not acceptable to him, he may accept to pay a tax and agree on peace. Otherwise, he was not to intervene between his people and Islam. They were to be allowed to accept Islam if they wished to, or else pay a tax. At that time, it was clear that the great power was not willing to accept the leadership of the Arabs. Therefore, the letter was never answered. Had it been, there would been some mention of the same in the annals of history.

The mission of Tabuk had established the awe of Muslims within the northern Arab states and Romans regions outside. Hence, many tribes of Syria and the Banu Bakr ibn Wa’il and the Banu Taghlib who were settled close to the borders of Iraq made a peace agreement based on tax twice that of the amount of zakah.

Hardened Attitude with the Hypocrites

During the journey of Tabuk, the Prophet (sws) was given instructions to leave his soft behaviour with hypocrites and be hard on them. He was informed that the mission had made a clear distinction between sincere Muslims and those who remained attached to Islam merely for personal gains, and that matters would proceed henceforth on this basis. In the light of these instructions, when he was close to Madinah on the return journey, he told the companions that unless he gave permission, no one was to speak with any hypocrite nor to attend any of their gatherings. When, therefore, at Dhu Awan which was a place close to Madinah, the hypocrites came to greet them, the Muslims followed these orders. Then the Prophet (sws) gave responsibility to ‘Asim ibn ‘Adi al-‘Ajlani and Malik ibn al-Dakhsham al-Salimi to demolish the mosque that had been built by the hypocrites and to set fire to its rubble so that the centre of conspiracy would end forever. In this manner, the fort of the enemies of Islam was shattered to the ground. Similarly, the Prophet (sws) treated the sincere Muslims who had remained behind with extreme coldness. They were so overcome with embarrassment that life became impossible for them. Some of them tied themselves to the pillars of Masjid-i Nabawi, to express their penitence and desire for forgiveness. They resolved that they would free themselves only after receiving pardon. Three early companions, Ka‘b ibn Malik (rta), Hilal ibn Umayyah (rta) and Murarah ibn Rabi‘(rta) were boycotted socially until they became penitent and received pardon. At this time, some companions desirous of pardon and forgiveness demonstrated incomparable sacrifice in seeking acceptance of their prayers. One companion, Abu Lubabah (rta) came to the Prophet (sws), saying that he would like to relinquish his house in the way to God because its comforts and luxury had restrained him from going to jihad. He would also give up all of his wealth to God and His Messenger. The Prophet (sws) said that he should give only one-thirds in the way of God and ask Him for forgiveness.

Some of the villagers living around Madinah did not think it necessary to be penitent and continued to give excuses and avoid responsibility. Those among the hypocrites who came to present excuses were told that they were not believed and that God had already informed Muslims that their excuses were lame ones. They would swear upon their loyalty but were informed that their behaviour would be kept in mind for the future and their actions would present proof of their loyalty. Those, whose hypocrisy was in no doubt, were not considered to be worthy of any relaxation. They were not to be taken for jihad in future even if they offered to go and were to be told clearly that since they were satisfied with remaining at home even during the public call for jihad, they would not be allowed now. Their participation in any battle against enemies of Islam was not acceptable. They would give explanations and swear oaths of commitment, but were to be told that God knew their actions well and had also told the Muslims. Therefore they were not to be trusted. Hence their attitude would be decisive towards God Himself.


Impact of the Battle of Tabuk   

On the whole, the lack of participation of the worst of hypocrites in the battle of Tabuk benefitted Muslims in that no trouble was created during the journey, of the sort which had occurred during earlier missions and in which the Ansars and Muhajirs had come to swords with each other. There were some spies of the hypocrites, but they could not take the risk of creating a problem without a cohesive group of their own. The second advantage was that the hypocrites were clearly identified. The future policy for them was made so strong that they could not hide themselves, let alone remain on their earlier dual policy through which they had fanned chaos and trouble to weaken Muslims. The third big advantage of Tabuk was that the weaknesses in the character of sincere Muslims too became clear and could be corrected. At that stage, neutral accountability of early Muslims also opened their eyes. They assessed their own weaknesses and corrected themselves. Similarly the Bedouin Muslims realized that they had not made any preparations to become true Muslims and just by getting their names registered as Muslims believed that they had fulfilled their obligations to Islam. The higher obligations towards their faith were something else without which they could not provide any service for their religion. These benefits of the battle of Tabuk were internal. On the external front, the invitation of Islam spread far and wide in northern Arabia. Its Arab tribes were attracted to Islam and the oppressed people under the Romans began to observe an alternate political power that could challenge the rule of the Romans any time. These people could, therefore, have expectations from them in their need to be rid of the oppressive regime of the Romans.

 The army of Islam had left for the battle of Tabuk on 1st Rajab, 9th AH. This was the month of April. They returned towards the end of Shawwal.


(Translated by Nikhat Sattar)






1. Sahih Muslim.


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