Expedition to Muta
In the section on the Prophet’s letters to various kings and potentates, we have mentioned that Harith bin Umayr Azdi, the Prophet’s envoy to the ruler of Basra, was slain en route by Sharahbeel bin Amr Ghassani. The Prophet took the killing as an act of war and readied a force of three-thousand men under Zayd bin Haritha. He nominated Ja’far bin Abi Talib and Abdullah bin Rawaha to take charge in consecutive order in case Zayd fell in battle. The Prophet prepared a white standard and handed it to Zayd bin Haritha. He instructed Zayd to go to the area where Harith had been martyred, and to invite the populace to Islam. The Muslims were to fight only if the people rejected the call.
As he saw the troops off, the Prophet uttered these memorable words: “In the name of Allah and in the way of Allah – fight against those who blaspheme Him. Behold! Commit no breach of promise, nor of trust, nor kill their children, women, old men on the verge of death, nor the recluse in the hermitage, and do not cut down date trees, not demolish any building.” (Al-Bukhari)
The Prophet escorted the troops up to Thaniyat Al-Wada and then bade them farewell. The army pitched its tents at Ma’an in southern Jordan. There they found out that Heraclius was stationed close by at Ma’ab with a hundred thousand forces, and another hundred thousand Christians had joined his forces. The news disconcerted the Muslims who were unsure of what to do. For two nights, they sat conferring about the situation wondering whether to wade into the battlefield outnumbered or to send for reinforcements. Then Abdullah bin Rawaha made this impassioned speech to his brother Muslims:
Men, you evade that, by Allah, for which you came out – martyrdom. We do not fight the enemy on the strength of our power. We fight them with the religion we have been granted by Allah. Come, we shall profit both ways. Either we win or we court martyrdom.
Fierce fighting broke out in one of the most striking yet little mentioned engagements in human history, when 3,000 soldiers from the nascent Muslim state challenged the might of 200,000 heavyweights of the Roman empire. The Roman army lumbered on, fighting the whole day but utterly failing to break a small formidable side. Their array of weaponry failed to give them the edge because they lost their best fighters. The standard of the Muslim detachment was held by Zayd bin Haritha. He kept fighting ferociously until he was pierced by the enemy lances. The standard was taken up by Ja’far. As the battle surged to its bloodiest and fiercest point, he jumped off his charger and pounced on his enemies. When his right hand was hacked off, Ja’far took the standard in his left hand. When it too was cut off, he took the standard in his lap to keep it aloft. Ja’far remained on the battlefield until more than ninety wounds were inflicted on his chest, and he succumbed to them to join the rest of the Muslim martyrs. The Prophet’s standard was then taken up by Abdullah bin Rawaha. He moved ahead and then dismounted from his horse and pressed onward until he too attained martyrdom.
Thabit bin Arqam, who was nearby, flew to the side of the sinking Abdullah bin Rawaha to save the Prophet’s standard from fluttering to the ground, and it was he who asked the Muslims to nominate by consensus Rawaha’s successor. Their choice was Khalid bin Waleed, who had so often proved his strength against them as a general for the Quraysh. Thus, the standard was transferred to Khalid, who came to be known as one of the swords of Allah. Khalid advanced towards the Romans and fought against them with such fierceness that nine swords were broken at his hands.
Sitting in Madinah that same day, the Prophet was inspired by Allah with the knowledge of the events on the battlefield far away in Muta. He gave the people the news of the martyrdom of the three Muslim commanders and informed them that the command had been handed over to Khalid bin Waleed, whom he referred to as one of Allah’s swords.
As the sun set, both armies went back to their respective camps. The following morning, Khalid bin Waleed changed the order of his troops. He put the front-line soldiers behind while the rear guard was brought forward. The soldiers on the left flank were put to the right, and those on the right were moved to the left. The Romans were misled into thinking fresh reinforcements had arrived, and they were completely dismayed at this development.
After a mild skirmish, Khalid ordered his troops to retreat, but the enemy dare not advance for they thought the Muslim retreat was a ruse. Thus, the Muslims drew closer to Muta and the skirmishes continued for seven days until both sides retreated and the battle ended, in part, because the Romans thought that the Muslim troops were receiving continual reinforcements. They feared that the Muslims planned to lure them into the desert from where it was almost impossible to come out safe.