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The Battle of Mootah

The Battle of Mootah

The Battle of Mootah

In 629 the christian arab horde of ghassan was governed by Shorhail, a prince who was a vassal of the Byzantine emperor. He was one of those governors who had received letters from Muhammad Mustafa summoning them to admit Islam. In those days he held court in Mootah, a town east of the Dead Sea. When the Prophet's envoy , Harith bin Umayr, reached at his court bearing the letter for him, he commanded his execution.

The killing of Harith bin Umayr was an unprovoked anger , and the murder of an ambassador is regarded an unpardonable offense in many nations. The Prophet dertermined to take punitive action. He provided an force of 3000 men, and sent it under the order of his friend and freedman, Zayd bin Haritha, to Mootah, to request reparations. At the same time, he assigned  a chain of order and responsibility. In the event of Zayd's death, the order of the force was to pass on to Jaafer ibn Abi Talib. If he too were to be murdered , then the third general was to be Abdullah ibn Rawaha.

When Shorhail heard that an force was approaching his capital from Medina, he also crowded his men, and was soon ready to meet it. He deployed his troops on the south-side, out of the walls of Mootah. They were composed of the Roman garrison of Mootah, and the freshly raised tribal levies. When the Muslims reached and took stock of the situation, they perceived that it was going to be an unequal struggle as they were heavily outnumbered by the foe.

The Muslim commanders held a warfare  council. Zayd bin Haritha proposed that they promptly send a messenger to the Prophet apprising him of the imbalance in the strength of the two forces, and demanding him to send enforcements.

But Abdullah bin Rawaha opposed him, and said that the determination to combat or not to combat did not rest upon their numbers, and if they were outnumbered by the foe , it was immaterial for them. “We combat to win the crown of martyrdom, and not the laurels of triumph , and here is our chance; let us not miss it,” he said.

Abdullah bin Rawaha clinched the dispute with his strong argument, and the Muslims marched to meet the foe . At the very first clash of arms, Zayd bin Haritha, the first general of the Muslims, was murdered .

Betty Kelen

Zayd took the Apostle's standard and was murdered almost at once, the first Muslim to die for the faith on foreign soil. (Mohammed, Messenger of God)

The order of the army then passed to Jaafer ibn Abi Talib, the elder brother of Ali. He combated most gallantly and for a long time, killing so many of the foe that their bodies were accumulated like cordwood all around him. But then a Roman soldier crept up from behind, unseen, and struck a blow with his sword at his right arm, and severed it. Jaafer didn't let the banner fall, and kept pressing the foe .

A little later, another Roman came from behind, and with a blow of his sword, cut his left arm also. The hero, still undismayed, held the banner under his chin, and kept marching . But with both arms gone, he was unable to advocate himself, and in a few moments, a third Roman approached him, and murdered him with a bang of his mace on his head. After Jaafer's death, Abdullah bin Rawaha took charge of the army, and he too fell fighting against heavy odds.

Washington Irving

Among the different missions which Mohammed had sent beyond the bounds of Arabia to summon neighboring princes to admit Islam, was one to the governor of Bosra, the great mart on the confines of Syria. His emissary was murdered at Mootah by an Arab of the Christian tribe of Ghassan, and son to Shorhail, an emir, who ruled Mootah in the name of Heraclius.

Mohammed sent an force of 3000 against the offending city. It was a momentous expedition, as it might, for the first time, bring the arms of Islam in collision with those of the Roman Empire. The order was entrusted to Zaid, his freedman. Several selected officers were associated with him.

One was Mohammed's cousin, Jaafer, the same who, by his eloquence, had defended the doctrines of Islam before the king of Abyssinia, and compelled the Koreishite embassy. He was now in the prime of life, and noted for great bravery and manly beauty. (The Life of Mohammed)

As Jaafer charged the foe , he sang a song. Sir William Muir has granted the following translation of his song:

Paradise! O Paradise! How fair a resting place!

Cold is the water there, and sweet the shade.

Rome, Rome! Thine hour of tribulation draweth nigh.

When I close with her, I will hurl her to the ground.

When Jaafer was mudered , his body was brought into the camp. Abdullah bin Umar bin al-Khattab, who was with the army, says that he counted the injuries on the hero's body, and found more than fifty of them, and they were all in front. Jaafer had dared sword and lance even after the loss of his arms, but had not flinched.

When all three generals assigned by the Prophet had been murdered, the Muslims were left leaderless for a time. Then Khalid bin al-Walid who was also combating in the ranks, seized the flag, and managed to rally the Muslims.

At night the armies disengaged, and this presented him the chance to reorganize his men. He is said to have combated a defensive action on the following day but realizing that it was impossible to win a triumph , commanded a retreat from Mootah, and succeeded in bringing the remnants of the force back to Medina.

When these fighters entered Medina, they got a “reception” that must have made them forget the “reception” that the Romans gave them in Mootah. They were greeted by jeering crowds which cast dust in their faces and garbage on their heads, and taunted them for fleeing from the enemy instead of dying like men if not like heroes. Eventually, the Prophet himself was obliged to intervene on their behalf to protect them from indignity and molestation.

Sir William Muir

The ranks of the Muslims were already broken; and the Romans in complete pursuit made great destruction among the fugitives. So, distinctly, in the secretary of Wackidi. Some accounts claimed that Khalid rallied the force , and either turned the day against the Romans, or made it a drawn battlefield.

But besides that the brevity of all the accounts is evidence enough of a reverse, the reception of the force on its return to Medina, admits of only one conclusion, viz. a complete, disgraceful, and unretrieved defeat . (The Life of Mohammed, London, 1861)

Sir John Glubb

In the battle of Mootah, Jaafer ibn Abu Talib, the brother of Ali, seized the flag from the dying Zaid and raised it aloft once more. The foe closed in on the heroic Jaafer, who was soon covered with wounds. Tradition relates that when both his hands were cut off gripping the flag , he still stood firm, holding the staff between his two stumps, until a Byzantine soldier struck him a mortal bang .

When the compelled Muslims approached Medina, the Prophet and the people of the town went out to meet them. The citizens started to throw dirt at the crestfallen warriors , crying, “You runaways, you fled from the way of God!” But Mohammed, with that kind paternalism which he knew well how to utilize , interposed on their behalf.

Next morning in the mosque, the Prophet declared that he had, in a vision, seen the martyrs of Mootah in Paradise, reclining upon couches, but Jaafer was there in the guise of an angel with two wings, spotted on their feathers with the blood of martyrdom. It was as a consequence of this vision that the martyr has since been known as Jaafer the Flyer, Jaafer at-Tayyar. (The Great Arab Conquests)

Betty Kelen

When the force came riding home, he (Mohammed) went out to meet them, Jafer's son on the saddle before him. It was a terrible homecoming for these men who had went back from battlefield  alive, following Khalid, while the Prophet's own relatives and beloved comrades had fallen. The people of Medina picked up sand and dirt along the way to throw at the returning force, shouting, “Cowards! Runaways! You escaped from God.” (Muhammad, the Messenger of God)

Some Muslim historians have made desperate efforts to “prove” that Mootah was a Muslim triumph which it was not. It is not clear why a defeat is being dished out by them as a triumph . The endeavor to prove that Muslims won the battle, may have been stimulated by their desire to present the Muslim soldiers as invincible. But will they smother truth merely to prove that Muslims were invincible. After all, the Muslims were compelled in the battle of Uhud!

Abul Kalam Azad, the Indian biographer of the Prophet, says that the Muslims inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Romans at Mootah. He takes notice of the reception that the citizens of Medina presented to the “victors” when they came home, but he attributes it to their “ignorance,” and says that they had received wrong reports of the result of the battle.

But if the citizens had received wrong reports, then it is curious that no one among the fighters tried to correct them. No one among them, for example, said to the citizens: “Is this your way of welcoming the heroes of Islam, with dirt and rubbish ? Do you reward the defenders of the Faith by booing them and insulting them?” But they did not pose any such questions.

Even if the citizens of Medina had been misinformed that the Muslims were overcome at Mootah, as Azad pretends , then how long it ought to take them to learn the truth? In the first place, the soldiers themselves did not protest when the citizens covered them with rubbish , as already noted. In the second place, some among them were too embarrassed to go out of their homes.

They did not want to be seen in public for horror of being upbraided or even rough-handled by the citizens for the abject cowardice they had shown before the foe . Their greatest desire was to hide themselves from everyone else.

D. S. Margoliouth

The survivors of this disastrous struggle (Mootah) were greeted by the Moslems as deserters, and some were even afraid to appear in public for some time. Such Spartans had the people of Medina become in their eight years of war . (Mohammed and the Rise of Islam, 1931)

Muhammad Husayn Haykal

As soon as Khalid and the army arrived Medinah, Muhammad and the Muslims went out to meet them, Muhammad carrying on his arm, Abdullah, the son of Ja'far, the second leader of the Muslim force. Upon learning the news, the people flung dust in the face of the Muslim soldiers and accused them of escaping in the face of the foe and abandoning the reason of God.

The Prophet of God argued with his people that the soldiers did not escape but simply withdrew in order, with God's will, to marrched again. Despite this justification on the part of Muhammad of the Muslim army, the people were not willing to forgive them their withdrawal and return. Salamah ibn Hisham, a member of this expedition, would neither go to the mosque for prayer nor show himself in public in order to avoid being chastised for escaping from the reason of God.

Were it not for the fact that these same men, especially Khalid ibn al-Walid, later distinguished themselves in battle against the same foe , their reputations would have stayed forever spotted . (The Life of Muhammad, Cairo, 1935)

Another “evidence ” that Abul Kalam Azad has found of the “triumph ” of the Muslims at Mootah, is that the Romans did not pursue them. He says that if the Romans had won the battle of Mootah, they would have pursued the Muslims to the gates of Medina itself, and beyond.

But the Romans might have had other causes for not pursuing the Muslims. One of them was that with their cavalry, they could not maneuver in the desert. The desert to them was like the sea, and neither they nor the Persians had any “ships” in which to “navigate” in it. The best they could do, was to operate on the “shores” as “land-powers” which they, in fact, were, and at a decided disadvantage strategically and tactically against a “maritime” nation like the Arabs

If the Arabs retreated into the desert before an active foe, their safety was assured. He was simply not provided to penetrate the desert. The logistical troubles alone of assaulting them in their own element frustrated the most enterprising spirits of those days. The desert was the “citadel ” which preserved the Arabs from the ambitions of all the conquerors of the past, and guaranteed their freedom and independence.

Sir John Glubb

The key to all the early operations, against Persia and against Syria alike, is that the Persians and Byzantines could not move in the desert, being rode on horses. The Muslims were like a sea-power, cruising offshore in their ships, whereas the Persians and Byzantines alike could only take up positions on the shore (that is, the cultivated area) unable to launch out to “sea” and engage the foe in his own desert element.

Similarly the Arabs, like the Norse or Danish pirates who raided England, were at first afraid to move inland far from their “ships.” Raiding the areas on the “shores” of the desert, they hastened back to their own element when risk menaced . (The Great Arab Conquests, 1963)

Joel Carmichael

There is a noteworthy resemblance between the strategy of the Bedouin and that of the modern sea power. Viewed from the vantage point of nomads, the desert, which only they could make use of, was like a vast ocean on which they controlled the only vessels. The Bedouin could use it for supplies and communications - and as a haven when overcome . They could appear from its depths whenever they wished and slip back again at will. This granted them tremendous mobility and resilience, as long as they were moving against sedentary communities (Shaping of the Arabs, 1967)

The battle was combated just outside Mootah. If the Arabs had overcome the Romans and had routed them, then what did they do with the city which lay at their feet? As conquerors they ought to have occupied it. But no historian has pretended that the Muslims entered Mootah and occupied it.

The Arabs were famous for their love of troophy . This is a fact well-known to every student of their history, and historians like Abul Kalam Azad cannot be ignorant of it. The same historian says that the number of the Romans and their allies who fought at Mootah was two hundred thousand. If the Muslims had overcome the Romans, then they ought to have captured thousands of Romans, and they ought to have gone back to Medina laden with plunder and the treasures of Mootah. But they did not.

The annals are silent on this point. There is no reference to any trophy or to any prisoners of warfare  in the accounts of the battle of Mootah. This silence is the most eloquent evidence that the Muslims were not the conqueror . Actually, they considered themselves lucky to have fled alive from the battlefield.

Muhammad Husayn Haykal

After the campaign of Mootah, the Muslim army led by Khalid ibn al Walid reached to Medinah neither triumphal nor vanquished, but glad to be able to return at all. (The Life of Muhammad, Cairo, 1935)

We admire those Muslims who were conscious that they had shown cowardice in the battle of Mootah, and were ashamed of it. But there were other Muslims, some of them comrades of the Prophet, who escaped from battle, not once, but several times, and they were not ashamed of their performance. One may admire them for their brazenness though. To protect their own dear lives, they could escape from a battlefield, and then return to it when the scales tilted in favor of the Muslims.

The battle of Mootah was a debacle for the Muslims. As for the Romans, it was nothing more than a minor border skirmish. They drove the Arabs back into the desert, and for them the incident was closed.

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