‘The Battle of Tabouk’

Surah 9 (Al-Tawbah/Repentance): 93

God’s judgment comes down on those with might,
Who despite their riches, refuse to fight,

Coming to you, for exemption they plead,
Woe unto them, they are weaklings indeed!

A long life they wanted, and with women to stay,
But their lives were destroyed, they were chased away.

Their hearts we have tightly sealed,
The good tidings remain from them concealed,

And revelation with its light
Is forever hidden from their sight.

[Dr Sayfal al-Din Taha, 2005
(a poetic interpretation of the Qur’an, believed to be unpublished)]


According to the traditional narrative, Muhammad sent four expeditions north to the border of the Byzantine Empire. Ibn Ishaq tells us that:

‘(In) the fourth year of his sojourn in Medina, … (the Prophet) raided Damat al-Jandal. Then he returned, not having reached the place, without fighting and stayed in Medina for the rest of the year.

Four years later, during the peace with Mecca, an expedition led by Muhammad’s formerly adopted son Zayd, was sent to Mu’tah in Syria. Zayd’s force was said to have numbered three thousand and to have received word that the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius was in the region with an army of one hundred thousand. Despite the overwhelming odds, the Muslims did not retreat from Mu’tah, but stood and fought, leading to the death in battle of Zayd. In Muhammad is Not the father of Any of Your Men, The Making of the Last Prophet, David S Powers draws attention to the symbolism of the account of Zayd’s death in battle at Mu’tah (a place that has not been identified and whose name literally means ‘death’ or ‘madness’ ). Whilst it is by no means impossible that a raiding party sent into Byzantine Arabia in 629 might have had the bad luck to have encountered a large imperial army on manoeuvres during the Byzantine-Sassanian War, 〈1.〉, Zayd’s virtual suicide mission fits the theological model of son-sacrifice in Abrahamic religious tradition, that started with Abraham‘s binding of Isaac (for the Qur’an, possibly Ishmael), and culminates in Christianity’s understanding of God sending Jesus to die as the paschal sacrifice. The story of Muhammad’s having earlier taken Zayd’s wife, Zaynab, as his own, also gives the story an echo of King David’s sending of Uriah the Hittite to certain death in battle, in order to conceal his infidelity with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, see 〈23.〉 Muhammad as David, Abraham.


The year following his conquest of Mecca, Muhammad is said to have led an army three hundred and fifty miles north of Medina to the neck of the Arabian Peninsula in order to attack the town of Tabouk on the frontier of Byzantium, and it is with this expedition that {9.93} is associated. Ibn Ishaq tells us that before the expedition left Medina ‘the heat was oppressive and there was a drought. Fruit was ripe and the men wanted to stay in the shade with their fruit and disliked travelling in that season.’ The fighters may well have been discouraged by the fate of Zayd’s expedition the previous year. The verses said to have been announced before and during this expedition repeatedly chide the Qur’an’s audience for their lack of enthusiasm for fighting. Further exhortations to sally forth and denunciations of those who ‘when it is said unto (them): ‘Go forth in the way of God’ … sink down heavily to the earth’ are found elsewhere in Surah 9: {9.38-39, 42-47, 57-58 & 81-84} in which laggards are incentivised with threats of ‘a painful punishment’ and of being replaced ‘with another people in their stead’.


If one accepts Ibn Ishaq’s account of the expedition to Tabouk, there is a perfectly feasible motivation for Muhammad having commanded his fighters north, namely to avenge the slaying of his emissary and the defeat of the force led by Zayd, and a similarly plausible explanation for his fighters’ poor morale. Furthermore, if Muhammad had presented his march upon Mecca the previous year as being an opportunity for plunder, and then his expedition against the Banu Hawazin as an opportunity for them to compensate themselves for Muhammad’s acceptance of Mecca’s surrender 〈48.〉, his acceptance of the surrender of the Hawazin and ordering that his followers hand back the captured spoils would have made the problem of rewarding his ever-expanding army even more urgent. On the other hand, it is also understandable that his fighters, having been twice denied promised opportunities to enrich themselves, and now being required to embark upon a long and arduous journey to face a far more powerful enemy than the one that they had originally anticipated, may not unreasonably have begun to have reservations about the whole project .


Unlike the previous two forays to the north, this third expedition was a great success. As Muhammad approached Tabouk, the Byzantine regional governor ‘came and made a treaty with him and paid him the poll tax.’ A smaller raiding party was then dispatched to Dumat al-Jandal and was fortunate in capturing the settlement’s Christian ruler Ukaydir and his brother whilst they were outside of his fortress hunting. After killing the brother, they secured Ukaydir’s promise of submission and agreement to pay jizya protection money along with the Byzantine governor.


The year after the expedition to Tabouk, in 632, Muhammad is said to have ordered a major expedition to Palestine, to be led by Zayd’s son, Usama. This army departed Medina on the day before Muhammad died.


Muhammad’s Syrian campaign

There are good reasons to doubt the reliability of Ibn Ishaq’s account of Muhammad’s rise to power in the Hijaz.

It has, previously been noted that in many instances his Muhammad seems to be a montage of biblical pericopes. In receiving the ‘Preserved Tablet’ 〈4.〉 of God’s law and in leading the believers out of the city of idolaters in the hijra (never explicitly described in the Qur’an) he is Moses, 〈22.〉, in the impregnating of Maryam he is Abraham, in his protection by a spider whilst hiding in a cave, his lust for Zaynab and the deaths of Zayd and his son Ibrahim he is David 〈21.〉, in his ascension to heaven to converse with God and the prophets he is Enoch, Ezekiel and Jesus 〈34.〉. and in fulfilling the covenant made between God and Abraham by establishing a land governed by God’s law, he is Joshua and Saul. Even where there is no specific biblical typology, the overall narrative pattern of alternating internal and external threats with three major confrontations with the Meccans interspersed with three confrontations with Jewish tribes within Yathrib seems rather too tidy to be factual. Many of the individual elements of these stories – the dishonouring of the Muslima by the Jewish goldsmith, the uncontrollable greed of the archers at Uhud, the story of the lighting of the campfires to deceive Abu Sufyan, the premonition of a stone about to be dropped upon Muhammad by the Banu Nadir, the skilful sowing of distrust in the minds of the Meccans and the Banu Qurayza – seem to be the sort of details that an Arabian-Nights type story-teller might insert into a series of expedition reports to render them entertaining and salutary stories of cunning and derring-do. This is not to say that they are morality tales. There is little in Ibn Ishaq’s account of Muhammad that would be held up as laudable conduct by contemporary standards; but much that might have been considered suitable for inspiring future generations of warriors back in the eighth century.


Those parts of the traditional narrative that might have been supported by evidence are not so supported. As referred to above, the Constitution of Medina describes the Jews of Yathrib as divided amongst non-Meccan tribes, and makes no reference to the three tribes that Ibn Ishaq claims that Muhammad waged war on. No archaeological evidence of a trench, large enough to have held back an army for a month has ever been found on the outskirts of Medina, and it is hard to see where such a trench could have been dug, still less why anyone should have later troubled themselves to fill it in.


Yet some surahs of the Qur’an were undoubtedly composed in a time of war. The exhortations to fight or stay firm on the battlefield in the especially belligerent Surahs 3, 4, 8, 9, 33 and 48 are very unlikely to have emerged from the author’s imagination alone. And the evidence of the Qur’an is that, despite some setbacks, it was a war that went well for the community to whom the Qur’an was addressed. Verses address such issues as the treatment of captives and the allocation of booty, the renouncing of alliances with unreliable partners, the testing of would-be allies and the punishment of deserters. These are the sorts of problems that a warlord hopes to be able to address.


Whilst no accounts of the rise of Muhammad on the Arabian Peninsula have been found in contemporary sources, three near contemporary Christian sources do describe a warlord, that two of them name as Muhammad and the third identifies merely as a false prophet, carrying out raids across Palestine in the 630s.


  • A Palestinian chronicler called Thomas (sometimes referred to as Thomas the Presbyter) wrote in the eighth century:

‘In (634) on Friday, 4th February at the ninth hour there was a battle between the Romans and the nomads of Muhammad (‘tayyaye d-Mhmt’) in Palestine, twelve miles east of Gaza. The Romans fled leaving behind the patriarch Bryrdn, whom the tayyaye killed. Some 4000 poor villagers of Palestine were killed there, Christians, Jews and Samaritans. The tayyaye ravaged the whole region.’

  • A Syrian manuscript of the Gospel of Mark held at the British Library has been found with a partially legible note written in the margin, including the following passage:

‘In January, the people of Ḥomṣ took the word for their lives and many villages were ravaged by the killing of …[unclear text, probably ‘the Arabs of’]
Muḥmd and many people were slain and … [unclear text]
prisoner from Galilee as far as Beth…’

It is thought by some that the writer had been copying out a passage from a now lost chronicle, possibly to test a new pen.


  • A Christian devotional tract, the Doctrina Iacobi nuper baptizati (The Teachings of Jacob the newly baptised) apparently written in Palestine between 634 and 640 is also very likely to refer to Muhammad, although his name is not given:

When the (commander of the Byzantine army) was killed by the Saracens, I was at Caesarea and I set off by boat to Sykamina. People were saying … that the prophet had appeared, coming with the Saracens, and that he was proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come.’

I … stopped by a certain old man well-versed in scriptures, and I said to him: ‘What can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens?’
He replied, groaning deeply: ‘He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword…’

So I, Abraham, inquired and heard from those who had met him that there was no truth to be found in the so-called prophet, only the shedding of men’s blood. He says also that he has the keys of paradise, which is incredible.’


Stephen J. Shoemaker, in The Death of a Prophet, The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam identifies a further nine seventh or eighth century sources that support the view that Muhammad in fact led the expeditions into Palestine. There is little doubt from these and other sources, which long predate any references to the Qur’an or to a religion that is readily identifiable as Islam, that in the mid-seventh century fighters commanded by somebody known as Muhammad was conducting largescale raids into both Gaza in the west and Persia in the east. This indicates a very different theatre of operations than that depicted by Ibn Ishaq in the traditional Islamic narrative. Since the Constitution of Medina places Muhammad at Yathrib, the evidence of other sources suggest that he used this as a base beyond the reach of the Byzantine and Sassanian empires from which to raid the territory of those ancient but militarily exhausted superpowers, rather than a war over the control of an otherwise unknown Arabian shrine.