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The Battle of Tabuk


category: History & Biographies


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Some of the tribes were still trapped in the delusion that the rise of Islam was transient like a cloudburst, whose tide would be stemmed before long. It was therefore necessary to warn or even threaten such people before they device an opportunity to strike at the Muslims. The expedition of Tabuk had the desired effect on such lukewarm tribes much in the same way as the conquest of Mecca had gone a long way in clearing away the clouds of opposition. This expedition against the Byzantine Empire whose might and magnificence was well-known to the Arabs, virtually meant that the Muslims were ready to fling down the gauntlet even to the greatest power of the day. As to how much respect the Arabs had for the Byzantines whom they called Romans, is well illustrated by the remarks made by Abu Sufyan after he had seen Heraclius rendering honor to the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam)'s letter sent through Dihya b. KhAli (radiallahu 'anhu)fa al-Kalbi. He had heard Heraclius saying that he, too, expected a Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) to be born. Abu Sufyan had then gotten up, as he related later on, rubbing his hands and saying that the affair of Ibn Abi Kabsha(69) (i.e. the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam), sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) had become so great that the King of t he Romans dreaded him. Abu Sufyan further says that he was then convinced that the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) would ultimately emerge victorious and this was how Islam originated in his heart. (Bukhari)

The Arabs could not then dream of attacking the Byzantine Empire; they themselves feared Byzantine invasion or rather did not rate themselves so high as to be converted by any great power. Whenever the Muslims of Madeenah were confronted with a grave danger or their safety was imperiled, their immediate action was to seek the aid of the Gassanid King who was a plyarch of East Syria under the rule of Caesar. What 'Umar (radiallahu 'anhu) said during the affair of Aylah, which took place in the beginning of 8 A.H., shed sufficient light on the state of affairs during those days. He said that he had an Ansaari friend with whom he had convinced that one of them should alternately remain in attendance upon the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) and inform the other about the incidents transpiring in his absence. 'Umar (radiallahu 'anhu) further said that in those days they were alarmed by a rumor that the Gassanid King intended to invade Madeenah and were thus constantly agitated by it. Once, when his Ansaari friend came to his house and knocked at his door so he could get in, 'Umar (radiallahu 'anhu) inquired of his friend if the Gassanids had attacked Madeenah. (Bukhari and Muslim)

The Byzantine star was on the ascent in those days. Its armies had, under Heraclius, dealt a death blow to the Iranian forces and carried their arms to the Iranian capital. The glorious victory was celebrated by the Emperor's stately march from Hims (Emessa or Edessa) to Ayleh (Elath or 'Aqabah) in the seventh year of the Hijrah. Heraclius himself carried, in the guise of a penitent pilgrim, the True Cross retrieved from the Persians while carpets were spread and rose water sprinkled beneath his feet all over the path by the people who went forth to meet their hero with tears and acclamations. (Muslim, Kitab ul-Jihad)

Hardly two years had passed after this splendid victory won by the Emperor of the Romans, when the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) led an army to face him. The Prophet's (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) daring venture made such a deep impression on the minds of the Arabs that it would be no exaggeration to claim that the expedition of Tabuk served as prelude to the conquest of Syria during the reigns of Abu Bakr (radiallahu 'anhu) and 'Umar (radiallahu 'anhumaa). The Tabuk Expedition really brought the match to a chain of victories which eventually catapulted the Muslims as the masters of Syria.

What was the genesis of this expedition? It is related that the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) got reports of Byzantine forces converging in the northern frontiers of Arabia with the intention of mounting an attack on the Muslims. Ibn S'ad and Waqidi had reported that the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) was informed by the Nabataeans that Heraclius was intending to come upon him and that his advance party had already reached Balqa'. (70) This was after stocking one year's provision for his army and drafting the pro-Byzantine tribes of Lakhm, Jodham, 'Amla and Ghassan under his banner.

Even if we ignore this report, it can hardly be denied that the purpose of the expedition was to strike terror into the neighboring force which was a potential threat to the rising power of Islam. The Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) intended to forewarn the Byzantines that they should not consider the Muslims weak nor should they take any precipitate action to violate their territorial sovereignty. The expedition was thus considered a precautionary measure since one that does not have enough strength could neither dare shake one's fist at a great power nor could one take the risk of descending on its borders. It is certain, at all events, that the true purpose of the expedition was what the revelation in this connection had explained in these words: "O Ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty (unto Him)." [Qur'an 9:123]

This objective was more than achieved as was subsequently borne out by the far-reaching consequence of the expedition. No retaliatory action was taken nor any detachments were moved to their borders by the Byzantines to drive back the Muslim army. The Emperor, exhausted by his Persian campaigns, remained an impotent spectator to the raid on his confederate border tribes or perhaps he thought it fit to wait and see before taking up the cudgels against the new power rising up in the East.

The first rattle of the new Arabian power impressed the pro-Byzantine Christian tribes in northern Arabia. This was a great advantage accruing from the expedition of Tabuk for it made these tribes shift their allegiance from Constantinopole to Madeenah which eventually led them to accept the religious aspects akin to the Islamic power. The Expedition also went as far as proving that the rise of Islam was for real and not just meteoric, or one which is fated to burst like a bubble, as some of the Arabs had hitherto been thinking about it. Moreover, the expedition showed that its climb to power was solid as a rock with a great future lying ahead of it. In fact, severance of the ties between these border tribes and the Byzantium was a prerequisite before they could pay attention to Islam, their new source of power and strength which was taking roots and shaping up in their own homeland. The divine revelation, too, makes an allusion to this aspect of the expedition as culled from a verse of Surah at-Taubah: "Nor step they any step that angereth the disbelievers, nor gain they from enemy a gain, but a good deed is recorded for them therefore." [Qur'an 9:120]

The battle of Mu'ta was still fresh in the minds of the Byzantines who had failed to humble the Muslim army in spite of their vastly superior numbers. The Muslims, on the other hand, having once traded swords with the Byzantines, had overcome their traditional terror of the impregnable Roman legions.

In short, the expedition of Tabuk was a landmark in the life of the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) as well as in the continuity of the Islamic mission for it provided long-term effect on the future course of events leading to the glorious conquest of Islam developing throughout the course of time.

The Time of Expedition

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