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The Wishy Washy Emperor

The Muslims had experienced one disastrous encounter with the soldiers of the Roman Empire at Mu’tah, when both Jafar and Zaid had been martyred. A second skirmish near the Syrian border, led by Amr , had met with no sign at all of the imperial troops. However, after the battle of Hunain, the threat from the Roman Empire was the greatest remaining danger facing the Muslim state. Rumors abounded that the Caesar, or emperor, was planning a prolonged campaign against the increasingly influential Muslim state. According to reports, the Arab tribes along the Syrian frontier had been mobilized to join forces with the army of the Roman Empire in preparation for battle.

It was under these circumstances that the Prophet had begun to assemble the largest Muslim army ever to march out and meet the imperial troops. This was the campaign which Ka’b ibn Malik and two other companions had missed, causing them to be ostracized by the whole Muslim community after the return of the army to Madina (read the story). Muslim allies began arriving in Madina by the thousands and they all had to be properly equipped and provided for. The wealthier Muslims contributed vast amounts of money towards that end. Usman gave enough to equip ten thousand troops. Not only weapons and food had to be provided, but also horses or camels upon which to make the journey. The army camped outside the city of Madina, a vast gathering of thirty thousand men, with ten thousand horse.

At last the day came when the army set out northward towards Syria. It was a hot grueling journey that took several weeks to complete. A little more than halfway between Madina and Jerusalem, the army made camp at a place called Tabuk. For twenty days they remained at Tabuk, searching for information about the rumored imperial army buildup. But it soon became apparent that the reports had been greatly exaggerated or untrue. Like the second 'Battle' of Badr, the enemy never showed! A few treaties were signed with the leaders of some tribes which were located near Tabuk, but the army never even saw a hostile army. It became apparent that there was no threat and that the time was not right for the conquest of Syria, and so the Muslims returned to Madina.

That is the story of the ‘Battle of Tabuk,’ which was really a march to Tabuk without any fighting. But the story of what may have been the reason for the absence of the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor is what this story is really about.

The name of the Roman Emperor was Heraclius. Shortly after the rout at Mu’tah, he had had a dream in which he saw ‘the victorious kingdom of a circumcised man’. The vision was so vivid that he could not put it out of his mind. He knew the kingdom included the regions which he now ruled. When he inquired about which peoples practiced circumcision, the first answer was naturally the Jews. But then one messenger spoke of an Arab man who claimed to be a prophet and whom many people were following. Heraclius ordered his police to find someone from the same tribe as the alleged prophet so that he could question him.

It so happened that Abu Sufyan was in the region with a caravan from Makkah and it was he who was summoned before the emperor. When he was asked about his kinsman, Muhammad , Abu Sufyan immediately started putting him down (this was before Abu Sufyan had accepted Islam). But the emperor wanted only answers to his specific questions. The emperor asked about Muhammad’s family lineage and learned that it was of the best. He asked if any other kinsman had made similar claims and the answer was no. The man who claimed to be a prophet was not trying to regain a political position which he had lost. His followers were the weak and the poor and slaves and women, and none had left him once they had committed themselves to his teachings. He was not treacherous or dishonorable in any way, even Abu Sufyan had to admit that. All these answers convinced Heraclius that Muhammad was indeed a prophet and that the Muslims would eventually be victorious over the kingdom of the Roman emperor.

Heraclius wanted to follow the Prophet but he was a weak man. He received a letter from the Prophet inviting him to Islam, but when Heraclius showed it to his advisors, they all shrank away from it. So intense was their aversion that he was afraid to reveal to them his true feelings. He told them he was just testing them, that he had never seriously considered submitting to Islam. This was the mighty emperor of a vast empire, afraid to stand up for his heartfelt convictions!

Later, just before the Muslims’ march to Tabuk, Heraclius had tried once again to accept what he knew was to be the inevitable. He suggested to his advisors that they make a peace treaty with the Prophet in which he would be given the province of Syria in exchange for a promise not to advance any further north. Again his advisors were so strongly against it that he let the matter drop. This was the conqueror of the mighty Persian empire, afraid of his own advisors.

However, if Heraclius feared to make his feelings known towards the Prophet , neither did he show any inclination towards mounting a campaign against Madina and its allies. He was at least able to influence his advisors in that respect. Perhaps the rumors that had started about the huge imperial buildup were wishful thinking on the part of the emperor’s more aggressive advisors. In any event, the emperor never did gather up the courage to offer his allegiance to the Prophet , and the huge army of the Prophet at Tabuk never was given the opportunity to face the mighty forces of the emperor.


Published: April 1997

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Last modified 08/12/05 09:25 AM - Iqra - ISSN #1062-2756