Organization of the Article
This article consists of a first part which is the
background and context of the two stories that are told in the second and third
part. The main story is the narration of Abu Sufyan ibn Harb to Abdullah ibn Abbas concerning his
meeting with Heraclius in Jerusalem, recorded in the collection of Saheeh al-Bukhari.
Appended to this narration is another, whose source was the Governor of
Jerusalem, ibn al-Natur. From the events recorded in each story, it seems
obvious that the invitation to Islam by Heraclius to his people in Homs happened
at a later date than the meeting of Abu Sufyan with him in Jerusalem. However,
it also seems clear that Heraclius must have called for Abu Sufyan after he had
heard news of the Prophet in Arabia. Moreover, it is without doubt that when
Abu Sufyan met Heraclius, the latter was in possession of the letter from the
Prophet. Thus I have split the narration of ibn al-Natur into two episodes
which coincidentally occurred in two different locations. The first episode took
place in Jerusalem, before the meeting of Abu Sufyan with Heraclius there.
while the second in Homs, after Heraclius left Jerusalem. I have also placed
the split narration before and after Abu Sufyan’s story. Both stories were
narrated by ibn Abbas.
Abu Sufyan ibn Harb
Although Abu Sufyan was to eventually embrace
Islam, for most of his career during the life of the Prophet, he was bitterly
opposed to it. He was the leader of the Umayyad clan of the Quraish tribe and
was the chieftain of the entire Quraish tribe, making him one of the most
powerful men in Mecca during the lifetime of Muhammad. His great-grand father
was Abdul Shams ibn Abd al-Manaf, whose brother was Hashim, the
great-grandfather of Muhammad, so there was a distant cousin relationship
between them. It was Abu Sufyan’s position that made him an enemy of Muhammad,
whom he viewed as a threat to his power and a blasphemer of the Quraish gods. The
enmity between the Quraish, of whom Abu Sufyan was a prominent leader, and the
early Muslims reached such heights that many battles were fought between the
two parties after the Muslims settled in Medina in which he participated, and
it was he who led the army of Quraish in the Battle of Uhud in 625CE. After
the Treaty of Hudaybiyya in 628CE, he took a trading caravan to Greater Syria,
and was called to Caesar in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the treaty with Muhammad was
broken by allies of the Quraish while Abu Sufyan was on the way back to Mecca. Knowing the Muslims were now free from the treaty made a year and a half earlier,
he personally went to Medina to try and patch it up, but came away empty handed.
The Muslims subsequently attacked Mecca in 630CE. Seeing the writing on the
wall, Abu Sufyan fled the city, but later returned in order to embrace Islam.
The Prophet and the Emperor
The Prophet Muhammad and the Emperor Heraclius
were contemporaries. Born only 5 years apart, they both lived into their
sixties. The reign of Heraclius was marked by ups and downs in military success.
In 609CE, when he was 40, Muhammad received the first revelations that marked
the beginning of his prophetic mission. In 610CE Heraclius deposed Procus as Emperor
and took his place, but the beginning of his reign was marked by the defeat of
his armies in Palestine and Turkey between 614 and 619CE.
These defeats, and the subsequent victory the Romans would enjoy, were
mentioned in the Quran at the time:
“The Romans have been defeated in the nearer land; and
they, after their defeat, will be victorious. Within three to nine years.”
The reconquest by the Romans of the lands ceded
to Khosrau started in 625 and ended in triumph in 627CE. The following year,
Muhammad, may Allah praise him, sent the following letter to Heraclius by the
hand of Dihya al-Kalbi, by way of the governor of Bostra al-Sham, in Syria.
The letter Muhammad sent is incorporated in the
narration of Abu Sufyan, and I reproduce it below word for word as Heraclius
read it out before all his Grandees.
In the name of God, the Beneficent, the
This letter is from Muhammad the slave of
God and His Messenger to Heraclius, the ruler of the Byzantines.
Peace be upon him who follows the right
I am writing this invitation to call you to
If you become a Muslim you will be safe - and God will double your reward, but
if you reject this invitation of Islam you will bear the sin of having
misguided your subjects.
Thus do I urge you to heed the following:
“O People of the Scriptures! Come to a
word common to you and us that we worship none but Allah and that we associate
nothing in worship with Him, and that none of us shall take others as Lords
beside Allah. Then if they turn away, say: Bear witness that we are Muslims.”
Muhammad, the Messenger of God
contrast to Khosrau II, who had been sent a similar letter earlier, the
Byzantine Emperor Heraclius kept the letter and sought to find confirmation
concerning what it contained. This is quite different to the treatment
accorded to his letter to Khosrau II of the Sassinid Empire. According to
Abdullah ibn Abbas, the latter was sent with Abdullah
ibn Hudhafa al-Sahmi by way of the Governor of Bahrain.
“So, when Khosrau
read the letter he tore it up. Saeed ibn al-Musaiyab said, ‘The Prophet then
invoked God to destroy and disperse Khosrau and his followers fully and with
severity”. (Saheeh Al-Bukhari)
Sassinid Empire was to utterly dissolve almost immediately, first through the
defeat by the Romans, and then by the onslaught of the new Muslim nation. The
Byzantine Empire, too, while still under Heraclius, dissolved in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. However, unlike the Sassinid Empire, the Byzantine Empire continued
on in various forms for another 800 years until Constantinople finally fell,
and this may be because of the contrast in the way each of the letters was received.