Expedition of Tabuk: A Test of Faith

A Brief Look at the History of Islam
By Adil Salahi
Researcher and writer - UK

Travelling in the desert, a journey of up to 1,000 kilometers on camel back, was almost unbearable. Nevertheless, it had to be done.

The last few months of the eighth year of the Islamic calendar beginning with the Prophet’s settlement in Madinah, brought about a total change in the map of Arabia which was bound to have an effect on the whole region.

The authority of the Byzantine Empire then extended to the area which today forms Palestine and Jordan which, as well as southern Syria, were under the rule of an Arab governor who exercised his limited authority as an agent of the Byzantine Emperor.

Before the advent of Islam, the emperors of Byzantium looked at Arabia as a vast desert which could present no trouble to their Empire. It was thinly populated by tribes who were often at loggerheads with one another, which presented no threat of any kind to any of the two superpowers of the day. This is perhaps why the emperors of Byzantium didn’t try to extend their rule over Arabia itself; there was little to tempt them to do so.

Besides, the Arabs themselves lived in awe of their great neighbor; they tried not to meddle with its affairs. They even were happy to have the reassurance that the Emperor in Byzantium did not concern himself unduly with their own affairs.

All this underwent a radical change over a period of a few years. When Islam moved to Madinah, and established its small state there, this might have looked to the ruler in Byzantium as one of the numerous insignificant developments which constantly took place in that area of tribal warfare.

That ruler however might have felt the need to take a closer look at what was happening in the heart of Arabia a few years later, when Islam scored one success after another against its enemies. The Byzantine Emperor was to find a political map perfectly different; there was no longer any war going on in Arabia, all resistance to the new message of Islam there had collapsed.

Makkah itself, for so long the focus of opposition to the Prophet and his message, had now confirmed its loyalty to him. The new faith was making inroads into Makkan society at a great rate. All other major tribes of Arabia were forced to admit their helplessness against the rising tide of Islam as all Arabia was now loyal to the Prophet.

Call to Arms

When he made up his mind to go on the attack, the Prophet was simply continuing his policy that attack was the best form of defence.

As intelligence reached the Prophet that the Byzantines were mobilizing to attack the Muslim state in Arabia was accurately verified, he was further informed that the Byzantine troops were being raised in Syria with some Arab tribes also mobilizing to join the army.

The choice which the Prophet faced was, according to historians, that he could either allow the Byzantines to penetrate into the desert of Arabia before meeting up with them at a place of his own choosing, or alternatively he could start by launching an attack against them.

The first alternative was the easier one for the Muslims. However, it involved the risk of losing the loyalty of a number of tribes in northern Arabia, which had only recently entered into an alliance with the Muslims. Hence, the Prophet chose the second.

That was not an easy choice; to imagine the dilemma of any small or medium-sized state of today’s world finding itself in a position where it has to choose to launch an attack on a superpower or alternatively allow that superpower to attack it. The Muslim state was in such a position barely four months after Arabia had become united under the leadership of the Prophet.

Needless to say, the Prophet himself did not fear the consequences of challenging such authority. He trusted to God to bring about the desirable victory. When he made up his mind to go on the attack, the Prophet was simply continuing his policy that attack was the best form of defence. Moreover, it was only proper to trust the power of God, Who had never let him down.

The call to arms was announced in the month of Rajab, which happened to fall at the height of summer when the weather was extremely hot and travelling in the desert, a journey of up to 1,000 kilometers on camel back, was almost unbearable. Nevertheless, it had to be done.

Believers’ Response

The Prophet addressed the believers and encouraged them to respond to the call to jihad.

For the first time in his history the Prophet specified his destination, as this time he informed the Muslims exactly where they were going, so that everyone could prepare himself as best he could for the difficult task ahead. It was imperative that there should be a mobilization of all resources; money, horses and camels were badly needed as well as soldiers.

The Prophet addressed the believers and encouraged them to respond to the call to jihad. He also reminded them of the importance of spending their money for the cause of God. He encouraged the rich to spend generously as the emergency the Muslim state was facing necessitated pooling all resources.

The best response came from those companions of the Prophet who had always shown themselves to be in the forefront to meet any emergency donating silver, money and property. When the Prophet asked Abu Bakr, who brought in all his property, what he had kept for his family, he answered: “God and His Messenger.”

The largest donation of all, however, was made by ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan who increased his commitment from 100 to 300 camels fully equipped in addition to financial donation, what showed his unequalled generosity and willingness to help the Islamic cause as much as he could. The Prophet said on this occasion: “The one who has equipped the ‘hardship army’, has been forgiven his past sins by God.”

All believers shared in the mobilization. Women sent in their jewellery to help equip the fighters with arms and transport. Everyone gave what he or she could give. If any believer had a camel to spare, he would give it to one or two of those who responded to the call to arms but did not have any means of transport, to share it between them. The believers realized that they had a difficult task ahead and they had to show that they could always be relied upon to respond well to the challenge facing them.

In chapter 9 of the Qur’an, At-Tawbah, Repentance, a lengthy passage is devoted to describe the attitude of the hypocrites as there were people who pretended to be in the Muslim camp, but were not true Muslims. It was not surprising, therefore, that most of them decided to give that expedition a miss. They certainly had to seek excuses mostly absurd for not joining the Muslim army. Some of them said that the hot summer was not suitable for war, and advised the Muslims not to go to war in that time. The Qur’an replies to this: “The fire of Hell is much hotter.”

The hypocrites did not seek excuses only for themselves; they tried to discourage the believers from joining the army and to portray the impending encounter with the Byzantines as one of great danger. They spoke ill of the Prophet and tried to show that the decision to fight the Byzantines was not the result of proper and careful planning and consideration.

A highly contrasting attitude was shown by some of the believers whose poverty did not enable them to arrange transport for themselves. Realizing that they were missing a valuable chance of going on a campaign with the Prophet, they went back to their homes with tears in their eyes.

As the hypocrites were able to mix with Muslim society with ease, to all appearances, they were Muslims. Only at a time when true feelings were tested was the reality of their lack of faith apparent.

Faith to the Test

As the army left Madinah in the height of summer under excessive desert heat, many hypocrites stayed behind.

The expedition of Tabuk was full of invaluable lessons for the advocates of Islam in all generations and societies. It posed a very hard test which could have been passed only by a person whose faith was his prime motivator. Anyone who harbored doubts about the truth of Islam was certain to fail that test. That expedition was to show clearly who the true believers were and who could be relied upon in times of difficulty.  Their response was highly gratifying to the Prophet. The hypocrites, on the other hand, sought all sorts of excuses to relieve themselves of the task of keeping up appearances.

As the army left Madinah in the height of summer under excessive desert heat, many hypocrites stayed behind. Yet the believers did not hesitate to join the army, the largest ever during the Prophet’s time. There were some people who had genuine reasons to stay behind, and there were some who were asked by the Prophet to do so.

Thus, the expedition of Tabuk presented a challenge to every single man to give credence to his claim to belong to the Muslim nation. To do that he had to pass a number of tests, the first of which was when the Muslims were called upon by the Prophet to put in all their resources in order to raise a large and properly equipped army to take on the much larger forces of the Byzantine Empire.

As the army marched on in those most difficult circumstances, there was no chance that anyone would contemplate going back, but the prospect of taking on the Byzantine forces in battle was drawing ever nearer. Genuine believers, however, did not mind that prospect as it could bring them one of two eventualities: victory over the Byzantines or martyrdom for the cause of God. When the Muslim army arrived there it encamped, ready to take on the might of the Byzantines. According to the information received by the Prophet, the encounter should have taken place in those parts. The Muslims, however, found no traces of any Byzantine forces.

It was probably that the Byzantines withdrew their forces when they heard of the strength of the Muslim army. Had there been any confrontation in Tabuk, it would have been the second clash between the two sides within a short span of time. The first was Mu’tah, when the Byzantine forces suffered heavy casualties by Muslim army, which was only 3,000 strong. Now, although the Muslim forces could not overrun their far superior forces, it was ten times stronger. Hence, the prospect of fighting the Muslims did not appeal to the Byzantine Emperor.

In any case, the expedition stopped at Tabuk where the presence of the Muslim army was a demonstration of the strength of the Muslim state. Extremely useful to the Muslim community, the expedition gave those Muslims who had embraced Islam only recently, after the conquest of Makkah and the Battle of Hunayn, a chance to discover for themselves what the requirement of jihad meant to every Muslim. There were also certain political gains to be made.
This article is excerpted from Adil Salahi's book Muhammad: Man and Prophet, published by the Islamic Foundation. This summarized version is republished here with kind permission and with slight editorial changes.
Related Links:
Prophet Muhammad’s Message Goes Abroad
Makkah Goes Muslim: Causes & Morals
Muhammad…Prophet And Mentor (The Battle of Mu’tah)
The Battle of Hunayn: Victory with Lessons
Makkah Period Compiled
Adil Salahi is the Executive Director of Al-Furqan Heritage Foundation. He teaches Islamic Studies at the Markfield Institute of Higher Education, Leicester, England. After working for the BBC Arabic Service for several years, he worked for the Arabic daily, al-Sharq al-Awsat. He continues to publish a column, "Islam in Perspective", in its sister publication, Arab News, an English daily published in Saudi Arabia. He has produced an English translation of several volumes of Sayyid Qutb's commentary, In the Shade of the Quran (Leicester, Islamic Foundation), as well as several other books on Islamic subjects.

Add comment

Security code