Not long after the battle of Hunayn the Emperor Heraclius had restored the Holy Rood to Jerusalem, and this marked the final fulfillment of the victory of the Byzantines over the Persians – the victory which the Revelation had predicted and of which it had said that day the believers will rejoice. There was indeed cause for rejoicing that the Persians had been forced to evacuate their troops from both Syria and Egypt. But as regards Syria, one danger seemed to have been replaced by another. It was from that direction alone that the new Islamic state appeared to be threatened. There were growing rumors in Medina that Heraclius had advanced a year’s pay to his army in view of a lengthy campaign against Yathrib. It was said, moreover, that the Byzantines had already marched south as far as Balqa’ and had mustered the Arab tribes of Lakhm, Judham, Ghassan, and ‘Amilah. These reports were partially exaggerated and partially the reverse of the truth.
Above all, it was not yet generally known that during the Persian campaign Heraclius had had a dream in which he saw the triumph throughout Syria of the kingdom of “a circumcised man”, whom he had identified with the writer of the letter that had summoned him to Islam. The dream was of such power and clarity as to inhibit his movements towards the south and even, to some extent, his defense of Syria itself. He had now withdrawn from Jerusalem to Horns; and there, in his certainty that the whole province would eventually be overrun, he proposed to his generals that a treaty should be made with the Prophet, giving him the province of Syria on condition that beyond its northern frontiers there should be no further advance. Their amazement at this idea and their extreme aversion to it caused him to abandon it, but he never forgot his dream.
The Prophet likewise was certain that God would open up Syria to his armies of Islam; and whether because he thought the time had come or whether because he wished to give his troops some training for the inevitable northern campaign, he now announced an expedition against the Byzantines, and set about mustering by far the largest and best-equipped army which he had led. Hitherto it had been his practice not to divulge his true objective at first, and to keep preparations as secret as possible. But this time .there was no attempt at secrecy, and orders were sent to Mecca and to the allied tribes that they must send at once to Medina all their available armed and mounted men for the Syrian campaign. It was the beginning of October in the year AD 63O. The season was always a hot one, but that year there was a drought and the heat was more oppressive than usual. It was also the time when there was much ripe fruit to be eaten so that there were two reasons for not wanting to take part in the expedition; and a third reason was the formidable reputation of the imperial legions.
The hypocrites and many of the less devout amongst the Muslims came to the Prophet with various excuses, asking his permission to stay behind, and many of the Bedouin did the same. There were also four men of good faith, Ka’b ibn Malik and two others of Khazraj and a man of Aws, who did not deliberately decide to remain at home, nor did they proffer excuses; but it seemed to them so undesirable to leave Medina at that season that they could not bring themselves to make preparations, and they put off the task from one day to the next until the day dawned when it was too late and the troops had gone. But the majority set about making ready with all speed, and the richer men vied with each other in their contributions of money. ‘Uthman alone gave enough for the mounting and equipment of ten thousand men. Even so, there was not enough for all those who wished to go, and a subsequent Revelation! has enshrined in memory “the seven weepers” – five needy Helpers and two Bedouin of Muzaynah and Ghatafan – whom the Prophet turned reluctantly away because he was unable to mount them, and tears filled their eyes as they left his presence.
When all the Bedouin contingents had arrived the army was thirty thousand strong, with ten thousand horses. A camp was made outside the town, and Abu Bakr was put in charge of it until, when all was ready for the march, the Prophet himself rode forth and took command. He had left ‘Ali to look after his family, but the hypocrites spread the rumor that the Prophet found him a burden and was relieved to be rid of his presence. Hearing this, ‘Ali was so distressed that he put on his armor, seized his arms, and overtook the Prophet at his first halt, intending to beg his permission to accompany him. He told him what the people were saying, and the Prophet said: “They lie. I bade thee remain for the sake of what I had left behind me. So return and represent me in my family and in thine. Art thou, not content, O ‘Ali, that thou shouldst be unto me as Aaron was unto Moses, save that after me there is no Prophet.”
During the northward march, it happened one day at dawn that the Prophet was delayed in making his ablution. The men were in lines for the prayers and they waited for him until they feared that the sun would rise before they had prayed. Then it was agreed that ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn ‘Awf should lead them, and they had already prayed one of the two prayer cycles when the Prophet appeared. ‘Abd ar-Rahman was about to drawback, but the Prophet motioned him to remain where he was, and he himself joined the congregation. When they had uttered the greeting of Peace which ends the prayer the Prophet rose and prayed the cycle he had missed. When he had finished he said: “Ye have done well, for verily a Prophet dieth not until he hath been led in prayer by a pious man of his people.”
Meantime in Medina, about ten days after the army had marched out, one of the four believers who had stayed behind, Abu Khaythamah of Khazraj, went out into his garden amid the shade of the trees on a day of great heat. There were two huts there, and he found that his wives had sprinkled each one with water, and in each, a meal was prepared for him, and water had been cooled in earthenware jars for him to drink. He stood at the threshold of one of the huts and said: “The Messenger of God is in the glare of the sun, blown on by hot winds, and Abu Khaythamah is in the cool shade with food made ready for him, and two fair women, abiding at rest on his own estate!” Then he turned to his wives and said: “By God, I will not enter either of your huts until I have first overtaken the Messenger, so make ready provisions for me.” They did so, and saddling his camel, he set off with all speed in the wake of the army.
About halfway between Medina and Jerusalem, the Prophet said one night: “Tomorrow, God willing, ye will come unto the spring of Tabuk. Ye will not reach it until the sun be hot. And whoso cometh unto it, let him not touch its water until I myself be come.” But two of the first men to reach it drank from the spring, and when the main part of the army arrived the water had become less than a trickle. The Prophet severely rebuked the two men, and then told some of the others to scoop up what water they could in the hollows of their hands and to empty it into an old skin. When enough had been collected he washed his hands and face in it and poured it over the rock which covered the mouth of the spring, passing his hands over it and praying as God willed him to pray. Then with a sound as of thunder, the water gushed forth; and it continued to flow undiminished after all the men had satisfied their needs. He turned to Mu’adh’ who was beside him and said: “It may be, O Mu’adh, that thou shalt live to see this place as a vale of many gardens.” And it was as he had said.
He had been disappointed and saddened by the default of the four believers who had failed to march out with the army, not least as regards Abu Khaythamah, who overtook them a few days after they had reached Tabuk. When the lone rider was seen approaching, but before he was distinguishable, the Prophet said, as it were in prayer: “Be Abu Khaythamah!” Then, when the man rode up and greeted him, he said: “Alas for thee, Abu Khaytharnah!”; but when told what had happened, he blessed him.
The army stayed for twenty days in Tabuk. It was evident that the rumors of danger from the Byzantines had been quite unfounded. Nor was it yet time on the other hand, for the promised conquest of Syria. But during those days the Prophet made a treaty of peace with a Christian and Jewish community who lived at the head of the Gulf of ‘Aqabah and along its eastern coast. In return for a yearly tribute, they were to be guaranteed protection by the Islamic state. He then returned to Medina with the main part of the army, having sent Khalid with four hundred and twenty horses to Dumat al-jandal, to the northeast of Tabuk. This important stronghold was on the road to Iraq from Medina, as well as being on one of the roads to Syria. Ukaydir, its Christian ruler, was surprised when out hunting by Khalid, who took him prisoner and brought him to Medina, where he made an alliance with the Prophet and entered Islam.