The Defeat of Muslims At Mootah

The Cause of The Battle of Mootah:
Among the different missions which Muhammad had sent beyond the bounds of Arabia to invite neighboring princes to accept Islam, was one to Shorhail, an Arab of the Christian tribe of Ghassan, who governed Mootah in the name of Heraclius, the emperor of Byzantium. When the Prophets' envoy, Harith bin Umayr, reached his court at Mootah, Shorhail ordered his execution.

The murder of Harith bin Umayr was an unprovoked and unpardonable offence and so the Prophet decided to take strong action. Muhammad sent an army of 3000 against the offending city under the command of his freedman, Zayd bin Haritha. He also designated a chain of command. In the event of Zayd's death, the command of the army was to pass on to Jaafer ibn Abi Talib. If he too were to be killed, then the third general was to be Abdullah ibn Rawaha.

Romans Outnumber Muslims:
When Shorhail heard that an army was approaching Mootah from Medina, he also organised his army. It was composed of the Roman garrison of Mootah, and the freshly raised tribal levies. When the Muslims arrived and took stock of the situation, they realized that it was going to be an unequal fight as they were heavily outnumbered by the enemy.

The Muslim leaders held a war council. Zayd bin Haritha proposed that they should immediately request the Prophet to send reinforcements. But Abdullah bin Rawaha opposed him, and said "We fight to win the crown of martyrdom, and not the laurels of victory, and here is our chance; let us not miss it," and the Muslims decided to advance and meet the enemy.

The Battle of Mootah:
At the very first clash of arms, Zayd bin Haritha, the first general of the Muslims, was killed. Then Jaafer ibn Abi Talib, the elder brother of Ali commandered the army. He fought most gallantly killing so many of the enemy that their bodies were stacked all around him. But then a Roman soldier crept up from behind and struck a blow with his sword and severed his right arm. Jaafer didn't let the banner fall, and kept advancing. A little later, another Roman came from behind, and cut his left arm also. When both his hands were cut off gripping the banner, he still stood firm, holding the staff between his two stumps, until a Byzantine soldier struck him a mortal blow. After Jaafer's death, Abdullah bin Rawaha took charge of the army, and he too was martyred.

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

The Retreat from Mootah:
When all three generals appointed by the Prophet had been killed, the Muslims were left leaderless for a time. Then Khalid bin al-Walid who was also fighting, seized the banner, and managed to rally the Muslims. At night the armies disengaged, and this gave him the opportunity to regroup his men. Next day, he fought a defensive battle but realizing that victory was impossible, ordered a retreat from Mootah, and brought the remaining army back to Medina.

The Reception at Medina:
After the campaign of Mootah, the Muslim army led by Khalid ibn al Walid returned to Medinah neither victorious nor vanquished, but happy to be able to return at all. When the defeated Muslims approached Medina, Muhammad and the Muslims went out to meet them, Muhammad carrying on his arm, Abdullah, the son of Jaafar.

It was a terrible homecoming for these men who had returned from battle alive, following Khalid, while the Prophet's own relatives and beloved companions had fallen. The people of Medina picked up sand and dirt along the way to throw at the returning force, shouting, "Cowards! Runaways! You fled from Allah."

Next morning in the mosque, the Prophet announced 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, stained on their feathers with the blood of martyrdom. It was as a result of this vision that the martyr has since been known as Jaafer the Flyer, Jaafar at-Tayyar.

Muslim Historians: Mootah - a Glorious Victory:
Some Muslim historians have made desperate efforts to prove that Mootah was a Muslim victory which it was not. Abul Kalam Azad, the Indian biographer of the Prophet, says that the Muslims inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Romans at Mootah. He attributes the reception that the citizens of Medina gave to the victors when they came home, to their ignorance, and says that they had received wrong reports of the outcome of the battle.

Facts Point the Other Way:
Even if the citizens of Medina had been misinformed, as Azad claims, 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 manhandled them. Also, some among them were too embarrassed to go out of their homes. Their greatest desire was to hide themselves from everyone else. 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 fleeing from the cause of Allah.

Some accounts pretend that Khalid rallied the army, and either turned the day against the Romans, or made it a drawn battle. But besides that the brevity of all the accounts is proof enough of a reverse, the reception of the army on its return to Medina, admits of only one conclusion, viz. a complete, ignominious, and unretrieved discomfiture.

Another proof that Abul Kalam Azad has found of the victory 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.

But the Romans might have had other reasons for not pursuing the Muslims. One of them was that with their cavalry, they could not maneuver in the desert. If the Arabs retreated into the desert before an active foe, their safety was assured. The Romans were simply not equipped to penetrate the desert. The logistical problems alone of attacking Arabs in their own element discouraged them. The desert was the fortress which protected the Arabs.

If the Arabs had defeated the Romans and had routed them, then why did the Muslims failed to enter and occupy the city of Mootah. The Arabs were notorious for their love of booty and historians like Abul Kalam Azad cannot be ignorant of it. He says the enemy forces had two lac men.

If the Muslims had defeated the Romans, then they ought to have captured thousands of Romans, and they ought to have returned to Medina laden with plunder and the treasures of Mootah. But there is no reference to any booty or to any prisoners of war in the accounts of the battle of Mootah. This proves beyond doubt that the Muslims were not the victors. Actually, they considered themselves lucky to have escaped alive from the battlefield.

We admire those Muslims who were aware and ashamed of their cowardice in the battle of Mootah. But there were other Muslims, some of them companions of the Prophet, who fled from battle, not once, but several times, and they were not ashamed of their conduct. To save their own dear lives, they could flee from a battlefield, and then return to it when the scales tilted in favor of the Muslims.