it was the most significant and the fiercest battle during the lifetime of the messenger of allâh [pbuh], a preliminary and a prelude to the great conquests of the land of the christians. it took place in jumada al-ula 8 a.h. / september 629 a.d. mu’tah is a village that lies on the borders of geographical syria.
the prophet [pbuh] had sent al-harith bin ‘umair al-azdi on an errand to carry a letter to the ruler of busra. on his way, he was intercepted by sharhabeel bin ‘amr al-ghassani, the governor of al-balqa’ and a close ally to caesar, the byzantine emperor. al-harith was tied and beheaded by al-ghassani.
killing envoys and messengers used to be regarded as the most awful crime, and amounted to the degree of war declaration. the prophet [pbuh] was shocked on hearing the news and ordered that a large army of 3000 men be mobilized and despatched to the north to discipline the transgressors. [za'd al-ma'ad 2/155; fath al-bari 7/511] it was the largest muslim army never mobilized on this scale except in the process of the confederates battle.
zaid bin haritha was appointed to lead the army. ja‘far bin abi talib would replace him if he was killed, and ‘abdullah bin rawaha would succeed ja‘far in case the latter fell.[sahih al-bukhari 2/611] a white banner was raised and handed over to zaid. [mukhtasar seerat ar-rasool p.327]
the prophet [pbuh] recommended that they reach the scene of al-harith’s murder and invite the people to profess islam. should the latter respond positively, then no war would ensue, otherwise fighting them would be the only alternative left.
he ordered them:
"fight the disbelievers in the name of allâh, neither breach a covenant nor entertain treachery, and under no circumstances a new-born, woman, an ageing man or a hermit should be killed; moreover neither trees should be cut down nor homes demolished. [mukhtasar seerat ar-rasool p.327; rahmat-ul-lil'alameen 2/271]"
at the conclusion of the military preparations, the people of madinah gathered and bade the army farewell. ‘abdullah bin rawaha began to weep at that moment, and when asked why he was weeping, he swore that it was not love for this world nor under a motive of infatuation with the glamour of life but rather the words of allâh speaking of fire that he heard the prophet [pbuh] reciting:
"there is not one of you but will pass over it (hell); this is with your lord, a decree which must be accomplished." [al-qur'an 19:71]
the muslim army then marched northward to ma‘ân, a town bordering on geographical syria. there news came to the effect that heraclius had mobilized a hundred thousand troops together with another hundred thousand men of lakham, judham and balqain — arabian tribes allied to the byzantines. the muslims, on their part had never thought of encountering such a huge army. they were at a loss about what course to follow, and spent two nights debating these unfavourable conditions. some suggested that they should write a letter to the prophet [pbuh] seeking his advice. ‘abdullah bin rawaha was opposed to them being reluctant and addressed the muslims saying: "i swear by allâh that this very object which you hold in abhorrence is the very one you have set out seeking, martyrdom. in our fight we don’t count on number of soldiers or equipment but rather on the faith that allâh has honoured us with. dart to win either of the two, victory or martyrdom." in the light of these words, they moved to engage with the enemy in masharif, a town of al-balqa’, and then changed direction towards mu’tah where they encamped. the right flank was led by qutba bin qatadah al-‘udhari, and the left by ‘ubadah bin malik al-ansari. bitter fighting started between the two parties, three thousand muslims against an enemy fiftyfold as large.
zaid bin haritha, the closest to the messenger’s heart, assumed leadership and began to fight tenaciously and in matchless spirit of bravery until he fell, fatally stabbed. ja‘far bin abi talib then took the banner and did a miraculous job. in the thick of the battle, he dismounted, hamstrung his horse and resumed fighting until his right hand was cut off. he seized the banner with his left hand until this too was gone. he then clasped the banner with both arms until a byzantine soldier struck and cut him into two parts. he was posthumously called "the flying ja‘far" or "ja‘far with two wings" because allâh has awarded him two wings to fly wherever he desired there in the eternal garden. al-bukhari reported fifty stabs in his body, none of them in the back. [sahih al-bukhari 2/611]
‘abdullah bin rawaha then proceeded to hold up the banner and fight bravely on his horseback while reciting enthusiastic verses until he too was killed. thereupon a man, from bani ‘ajlan, called thabit bin al-arqam took the banner and called upon the muslims to choose a leader. the honour was unanimously granted to khalid bin al-waleed, a skilled brave fighter and an outstanding strategist. it was reported by al-bukhari that he used nine swords that broke while he was relentlessly and courageously fighting the enemies of islam. he, however, realizing the grave situation the muslims were in, began to follow a different course of encounter, revealing the super strategy-maker, that khalid was rightly called. he reshuffled the right and left flanks of the muslim army and introduced forward a division from the rear in order to cast fear into the hearts of the byzantine by deluding them that fresh reinforcements had arrived. the muslims engaged with the enemies in sporadic skirmishes but gradually and judiciously retreating in a fully organized and well-planned withdrawal.
the byzantines, seeing this new strategy, believed that they were being entrapped and drawn in the heart of the desert. they stopped the pursuit, and consequently the muslims managed to retreat back to madinah with the slightest losses. [fath-al-bari 7/513, 514; za'd al-ma'ad 2/156]
the muslims sustained twelve martyrs, whereas the number of casualties among the byzantines was unknown although the details of the battle point clearly to a large number. even though the battle did not satisfy the muslims’ objective, namely avenging al-harith’s murder, it resulted in a far-ranging impact and attached to the muslims a great reputation in the battlefields. the byzantine empire, at that time, was a power to be reckoned with, and mere thinking of antagonizing it used to mean self-annihilation, let alone a three-thousand-soldier army going into fight against 200,000 soldiers far better equipped and lavishly furnished with all luxurious conveniences. the battle was a real miracle proving that the muslims were something exceptional not then familiar. moreover, it gave evidence that allâh backed them and their prophet, muhammad, was really allâh’s messenger. in the light of these new strategic changes, the archenemies among the desert bedouins began to reconcile themselves with the new uprising faith and several recalcitrant tribes like banu saleem, ashja‘, ghatfan, dhubyan, fazarah and others came to profess islam out of their own sweet free will.
mu’tah battle, after all, constituted the forerunner of the blood encounter to take place with the byzantines subsequently. it pointed markedly to a new epoch of the islamic conquest of the byzantine empire and other remote countries, to follow at a later stage.