The Prophet (Peace be upon him) had sent Harith b. 'Umayr al-Azdi to deliver his letter to Sharhbil b. 'Amr al-Ghassani, a satrap of the Byzantine Emperor at Busara. Harith was first tied up under the orders of Sharhbil and then beheaded. (Zad al-Ma'ad, Vol. I, p. 414) Howsoever disagreeable a message was conveyed by an emissary, it had never been the custom of kings to condemn the envoys to death sentence. The crime was disgraceful both for the sender of the letter and the addressee as well as it poses a grave danger to the envoys, and could not just assume impunity or ever allowed to go unpunished. The guilt of blood had to be avenged with firmness so that no tyrant would be tempted to repeat a similar crime in the future.
FIRST EXPEDITION TO THE BYZANTINE TERRITORY
The Prophet (Peace be upon him) decided to send a detachment to Busra in Jamada Al-Ula, 8 A.H, A force 3,000 strong was drafted. It was the strongest force sent out so far and a number of leading companions had enlisted for active service, but the Prophet (Peace be upon him) entrusted the expedition to his freed slave Zayd (may Allah be pleased with him) b. Haritha. He instructed that if Zayd (may Allah be pleased with him) will be killed then J'afar (may Allah be pleased with him) b. Abu Talib should take over the command, and if the latter meets the same fate, then the mandate should pass on to 'Abdullah b. Rawaha. When the expedition was already prepared to leave, the people bade farewell and saluted the commanders selected by the Prophet (Peace be upon him). (Ibn Hisham, Vol. II, p. 373) The force had to undertake a long and arduous journey in order to face an enemy backed by he strongest empire of the world.
The force advanced to Ma'an in Syria where Zayd (may Allah be pleased with him) came to know that Heraclius was present at Balqa' with a hundred thousand Roman troops joined by an equally strong force drawn from the Arab tribes of Lakhm and Judham and Bal-Qayn and Bahra and Bali. The Muslims bivouacked for two days at Ma'an so as to assess the situation. Having seen it all, they decided at last to inform the Prophet (Peace be upon him) about the strength of the enemy. If he sends reinforcements, well and good, otherwise they could face the enemy, if so ordered. (Zad al-Ma'ad Vol. I, p. 415)
'Abdullah b. Rawaha made a passionately motivating speech against his comrades, where he said: "Men, you dislike the thing, by God, for which you came out - martyrdom. We do not fight the enemy on the strength of our numbers, or of our power; we fight them with the religion that we have been so honored and entrusted by God. So come on, we shall be successful both ways; either we win or we court martyrdom." So the men got up and forged ahead to meet the enemy.
When the Muslims reached near Balqa', they found the Byzantine forces stationed in a village called Mashrif. With the news of their arrival, the enemy advanced towards them whereas the Muslim troops positioned themselves in a village called Mu'ta where the actual operation took place. (Ibn Hisham, Vol. II, pp. 377-78)
Zayd (may Allah be pleased with him) b. Haritha, who held the Prophet's flag, descended on the enemy and died fighting bravely. He received innumerable wound caused by the spears. The emblem was now held by J'afar (may Allah be pleased with him) who continued the fight. When the battle heated up, he jumped off his charger and hamstrung its forelegs and fought until he lost his right hand. He held the flag in his left hand, which was later cut off together with his arm but still managed to get hold of it through his teeth. He fell down dead in the battlefield after receiving ninety cuts from swords and spears on his chest and arms, but none so far from his back. (33) He was then 33 years of age. (34) Thus fought this young man with reckless courage in the midst of greatest odds, defying the enemy's numbers and strength, until God honored him with martyrdom.
Islam's flag was now held aloft by 'Abdullah b. Rawaha. He too dismounted from his horse and pressed onwards. One of 'Abdullah's cousins came up to offer him a meat bone, saying, "Take it for you have not had anything for the last few days. It will give strength to fight." 'Abdullah took it and ate a little. Then he threw it away and taking the sword in his hand fought bravely until he was also killed.(35)
KHALID ASSUMES COMMAND
Now the Muslim troops rallied around Khalid b. Walid who took the standard in his hand. With his strategic mind, Khalid made his way to the south while the enemy forces turned aside towards the north.(36) The day was gone by this time and both forces, exhausted by a daylong fight, thought it prudent to stop fighting. Khalid stationed a part of his force at a distance from his camp in the hush and middle of the night. At the first flush of morning, the detachment set apart by Khalid started shouting cries of war which gave an impression to the enemy that fresh reinforcement had arrived from Madinah. The enemy had the dreadful experience of fighting the small force of 3,000 Muslims the previous day. Now they no longer want to fight with them for fear that they had all the more been strengthened by the presence of additional troops. The Roman militia was disheartened, annoyed and did not take the field. Muslims were thus spared the trouble of putting up a fight again. (Al-Maghazi Lil-Waqidi)
A GLIMPSE OF THE BATTLEFIELD
While the Muslims were fighting the enemy at Mu'ta, the Prophet (Peace be upon him) was on the other hand, giving a description of the conflict in Madinah. Anas b. Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) relates that the Messenger of God (Peace be upon him) had announced the death of Zayd, J'afar and Abdullah b. Rawaha (may Allah be pleased with them) before the report about them reached Madinah. Anas (may Allah be pleased with him) reports that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said: "Zayd (may Allah be pleased with him) took the standard and was smitten; then J'afar (may Allah be pleased with him) took it and was smitten, then Ibn Rawaha took it and was smitten", the tears meanwhile tricking down from his eyes. The Prophet (Peace be upon him) continued, according to Anas, "Finally one of God's swords (meaning Khalid b. Walid) took the standard till God granted them success." (Bukhari, Chap. Gazwah Mu'ta)
JAFFAR TAYYAR (may Allah be pleased with him)
Another report about J'afar (may Allah be pleased with him) says that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said about him, "Allah has given two wings to J'afar (may Allah be pleased with him) in place of his arms. He flies in the Paradise, whenever he likes."(37) Thereafter J'afar (may Allah be pleased with him) came to be known as J'afar (may Allah be pleased with him) Tayyar and Dhil Jinahin, meaning one who has two wings.
WORDS, KIND AND COMFORTING
The Prophet (Peace be upon him) went to the house of J'afar (may Allah be pleased with him) and asked his wife to bring her children. When they were around, the Prophet (Peace be upon him) took them to his face, tears running down his eyes. Then he told them about the death of J'afar (may Allah be pleased with him). When the news about J'afar (may Allah be pleased with him) reached the Prophet (Peace be upon him) from the front, he sent a word to his family, "Prepare food for the family of J'afar (may Allah be pleased with him). They would be too shocked to cook their food." The Prophet's (Peace be upon him) face at that time reflected his grief. (Ibn Hisham, Vol. II, pp. 380-81)
NOT DESERTERS BUT BATTLERS
When the army returning from Mu'tah got near Madinah, the Prophet (Peace be upon him) and the Muslims went out to receive them. The boys also came running while the Prophet (Peace be upon him) was on his camel. The Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, "Take the boys and give me J'afar's (may Allah be pleased with him) son. J'afar's son, 'Abdullah was brought to the Prophet (Peace be upon him) who sat down in front of him.
This was the first time that a Muslim army had returned without winning a decisive victory. Some of the people started throwing dust on the men, saying all the while, "You defectors, you fled from the way of God." The Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, "They are not deserters, but battlers, if God wills." (Musnad Ahmad b. Hanbal)
In between the two major expeditions to Mu'ta and Mecca, some smaller ones were also undertaken. One of them was the raid of Dhat as-Salasil in the country of Khuza'a near Wadil-Qura, in Jamada-al-Ukhra, 8 A.H. The raiding party returned after smearing the enemy. Another raiding party consisting of 300 Ansaars and Muhaajirun was sent to chastise a clan of Juhayna. The army was enervated by hunger and had to live a few days on the leaves of the trees until God provided them a whale named 'Anbar' from the sea. The men feasted for fifteen days on the flesh and fat of the whale and regained their strength. They brought back a portion of it, which was taken by the Prophet (Peace be upon him) who said to the men, "It was sent by God for you."(38) This expedition goes by the name of Sif-al-Bahr and Khabat.