The Messenger of Allah sent al-Harith ibn 'Umayr al-Azdi with a letter to Shurahbil ibn 'Amr al-Ghassani, provincial governor of Busra, under the Byzantine emperor, Heraclius. Shurahbil ordered that al-Harith be bound and then he had him beheaded. It was unknown for a king or a prince to have an ambassador or envoy put to death. Immense danger would face envoys and ambassadors in the future if Shurahbil was allowed to get away with his action. It also humiliated the sender of the message itself. This man who had exceeded the limits had to be punished.
When the Messenger of Allah heard what had happened, he decided to send a military force to Busra. It was in Jumada al-'Ula in 8 A.H. when three thousand men under Zayd ibn Harithah left Madinah. The Messenger of Allah had appointed Zayd, his freed slave, as their commander and the army contained many of the leading Muhajirun and Ansar.
The Prophet said, 'If Zayd falls, then Ja'far ibn Abi Talib is in charge. If Ja'far falls, then 'Abdullah ibn Rawahah will take over.'
The Muslims bade the soldiers a fond farewell. A long and arduous journey faced them as well as an enemy backed by the strongest empire of the world.
The Muslims advanced to Ma'an where they heard that Heraclius was at al-Balqa' with a hundred thousand Roman troops and an equally strong force drawn from Arab tribes. The Muslims camped at Ma'an for two days while deciding what to do.
Then they said, 'Let us write to the Messenger of Allah to inform him about the strength of the enemy. Either he will send us reinforcements or he will command us to go ahead and we will obey his order.'
However, 'Abdullah ibn Rawahah made a speech of encouragement. 'People! By Allah! You are reluctant to go towards the very thing you came out to search for - martyrdom. We are not fighting the enemy on the strength of numbers nor of our power. We will fight them with the religion Allah has honoured us with. Come on! We will win either way, be it victory or martyrdom.' So they set off again to face their enemy.
When they were on the outskirts of al-Balqa', the Roman and Arab forces advanced towards them. As the enemy drew nearer the Muslims took up positions in a village called Mu'tah and this was where the battle was fought.
Zayd ibn Harithah (may Allah be pleased with him) who carried the standard of the Messenger of Allah, fought bravely until he was martyred. Then thirty-three-year-old Ja'far took the standard and fought until he was hemmed in by the enemy. He jumped off his horse, hamstrung it and fought on foot until his right hand was sliced off. He took up the standard in his left hand but that too was cut off. He then bore the standard between his arms but eventually he fell down dead. He had received ninety wounds on his chest, shoulders and arms from spears and swords, but no injuries were found on his back.
After Ja'far was killed, 'Abdullah ibn Rawahah held the standard aloft. He got off his horse and advanced on foot. His cousin came up to him with a meat-bone saying, 'Strengthen yourself with this. You have had nothing to eat during these battles of yours.' He took the bone, ate only a little and then threw it away. He picked up his sword again and fought bravely until he was killed.
Khalid, a wise general
The Muslims agreed that Khalid ibn al-Walid (may Allah be pleased with him) should take up the standard. He was a wise and courageous leader, famous for his knowledge of military tactics. He withdrew the Muslim army southwards while the enemy withdrew to the north. Night fell. He thought it best to avoid confrontation and any further fighting in the dark. Both forces, tired from fighting, chose the safe option. The Romans had heard of Khalid's technical skills and decided not to pursue the Muslim army. They were so disheartened that they did not resume the fighting the next day and the Muslims were spared.
While the Muslims were fighting at Mu'tah, the Messenger of Allah described the battle scene to his Companions in Madinah. Anas ibn Malik said that he announced the death of Zayd, Ja'far and Ibn Rawahah to them before he had received the news. He said, 'Zayd took the standard and fell. Then Ja'far took it and fell. Then Ibn Rawahah took it and fell.'
The tears were trickling down his face as he spoke. He added, 'The standard was taken by one of the swords of Allah (meaning Khalid) until Allah gave the Muslims their victory.'
He also said that Allah gave Ja'far two wings in place of the two hands he had lost. With them he could fly in the Garden of Paradise wherever he wished. Thereafter he was called 'Ja'far at-Tayyar (the Great Flier'), or Dhu'l-janahayn ('The One with Two Wings').
Come-agains not runaways
When the returning army was near Madinah, the Messenger of Allah and the Muslims went out to meet them. It was the first time a Muslim army had returned without winning a decisive victory. Some people started to throw dust on the soldiers, shouting, 'You runaways! You fled from the path of Allah!' But the Messenger of Allah told the people, 'They are not runaways, but come-agains. They will come again to battle if Allah wills.'
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