The story of Heraclius’ encounter with Islam
All perfect praise is due to Allah; I testify that there is none worthy of worship except Allah and that Muhammad is His Slave and Messenger; may Allah exalt his mention, as well as his family and all his companions.
'Abdullaah ibn 'Abbaas, may Allah be pleased with him, narrated: “Abu Sufyaan ibn Harb informed me that Heraclius had sent a messenger to him while he had been accompanying a caravan from Quraysh. He was part of a delegation of merchants doing business in Sham (i.e., Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan) at the time, and this was when Allah's Apostle had a ceasefire with Abu Sufyaan and the rest of the Qurayshi infidels. So Abu Sufyaan and his companions went to Heraclius at Jerusalem. Heraclius called them into his court while having all the senior Roman dignitaries around him...
Note: Heraclius had received a message from the Prophet sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam inviting him to Islam, and so he wanted to ask his own people about him.
... He called for his translator who, translating Heraclius's question, said to them: 'Who amongst you is closely related to the man who claims to be a Prophet?' Abu Sufyaan replied: 'I am the nearest relative to him (in the group).' Heraclius said: 'Bring him (i.e., Abu Sufyaan) close to me and make his companions stand behind him.' Abu Sufyaan added: 'Heraclius told his translator to tell my companions that he wanted to ask me some questions regarding that man (i.e., the Prophet) and that if I told a lie they (my companions) should oppose me.'
This meant that if Abu Sufyaan lied, his companions would have immediately indicated so.
Abu Sufyaan added: 'I swear by Allah! Had I not been afraid of my companions labelling me as a liar, I would not have spoken the truth about the Prophet. The first question he asked me about him was: 'What is his family status amongst you?'
I replied: 'He belongs to a noble family amongst us.'
Heraclius asked: 'Has anybody amongst you ever claimed the same (i.e. to be a Prophet) before him?'
I replied: 'No.'
He asked: 'Was anybody amongst his ancestors a king?'
I replied: 'No.'
Heraclius asked: 'Do the nobles or the poor follow him?'
I replied: 'It is the poor who follow him.'
He asked: 'Are his followers increasing or decreasing (day by day)?'
I replied: 'They are increasing.'
He then asked: 'Does anybody amongst those who embrace his religion become displeased and renounce the religion?'
I replied: 'No.'
Heraclius asked: 'Have you ever accused him of lying before his claim (to be a Prophet)?'
I replied: 'No. '
Heraclius asked: 'Does he break his promises?'
I replied: 'No. We have a treaty with him but we do not know what he will do during it.'
He was referring to the Hudaybiyyah treaty.
I added: 'I could not find opportunity to say anything against him except that.'
Note: Abu Sufyaan was looking for the opportunity to say anything evil about the Prophet sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam but could not find any, and so this was the only thing he could have said in a negative manner.
Heraclius asked: 'Have you ever been at war with him?'
I replied: 'Yes.'
Then, he asked: 'What was the outcome of the battles?'
I replied: 'Sometimes he was victorious, while at other times it was us.'
Heraclius asked: 'What does he order you to do?'
I replied: 'He tells us to worship Allah alone and not to worship anything along with Him, and to renounce all that our ancestors have said. He orders us to pray, to pay alms, to speak the truth, to be chaste and to keep good relations with our kith and kin.'
Heraclius asked the translator to convey to me the following: ‘I asked you about his family and your reply was that he belonged to a very noble family. The fact is that all messengers (of Allah) come from noble families amongst their respective peoples. I questioned you whether anybody else amongst you claimed such a thing (i.e., prophethood), your reply was in the negative. Had the answer been in the affirmative, I would have thought that this man (i.e., the Prophet) was following the previous man's statements. Then I asked you whether anyone of his ancestors was a king. Your reply was in the negative; had it been in the affirmative, I would have thought that this man wished to regain his ancestral kingdom.
I further asked whether he was ever accused of telling lies before he said what he is now saying, and your reply was in the negative. I therefore came to the conclusion that he would not refrain from lying to people and then tell lies about Allah. I then asked you whether the rich or poor follow him, and you replied that it is the poor; in fact, all the messengers have been followed by this very class of people. Then I asked you whether his followers were increasing or decreasing, and your reply was that they were increasing, and this is the characteristic of true faith, until it is complete in all respects. I further asked you whether there was anybody, who, after embracing his religion, became displeased and discarded it. Your reply was in the negative, and in fact this is the sign of true faith when its delight enters the hearts and blends completely in them. I asked you whether he has ever betrayed. You replied in the negative, and likewise, messengers never betray. Then I asked you what he ordered you to do. You replied that he ordered you to worship Allah alone and not worship anything along with Him, and that he forbade you from worshipping idols, and that he also ordered you to pray, to speak the truth and to be chaste. If what you have said is true, he will very soon occupy this territory beneath my feet. I knew it (from my readings of the scriptures) that he was going to appear, but I did not know that he would be from you, and if I could reach him for sure then I would go immediately to meet him; and if I were with him, I would certainly wash his feet.' Heraclius then asked for the letter that was sent to him by the Prophet and delivered by Dihyah to the Governor of Busraa, who forwarded it to Heraclius to read. The contents of the letter were as follows: "In the name of Allah the Beneficent, the Merciful (This letter is) from Muhammad the slave of Allah and His Messenger to Heraclius the ruler of Byzantine. who follows the right path. Furthermore, I invite you to Islam, and if you become a Muslim you will be safe, and Allah will double your reward, but if you reject this invitation to Islam, you will be committing a sin by misguiding your Arisiyeen (i.e., peasants). (then he quoted Allah's saying) which means: “…O people of the scripture! Come to a word that is equitable between us and you – that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah. But if they turn away, then say: 'Bear witness that we are Muslims [submitting to Him.]'” [Quran 3: 64]
Abu Sufyaan then added: 'When Heraclius had finished his speech and had read the letter, there was a great cry in the Royal Court. So we were turned out of the court. I told my companions that the question of Ibn Abu Kabshah (i.e., Prophet Muhammad) had become so prominent that even the King of Al-Asfar (Byzantine) was afraid of him. Then I began being certain that he (i.e. the Prophet) would be a victorious conqueror in the near future, until I embraced Islam (i.e. Allah guided me to it)."
A sub-narrator added: "Ibn An-Naathoor was the governor of Jerusalem and Heraclius was the head of the Christians of Shaam; both of them were Christian scholars who were well learned regarding their religion. Ibn An-Naathoor narrated that once, while Heraclius was visiting Jerusalem, he woke up one morning depressed and in a bad mood. Some of his priests asked him why he was in such a mood. Heraclius was a foreteller and an astrologer; he replied: 'At night, when I looked at the stars, I saw that the leader of those who practice circumcision had appeared (i.e., become conquerors). Who are these people who practice circumcision?' The priests replied: 'Nobody except the Jews practice circumcision, so you should not be afraid of them (the Jews). Just issue orders to kill every Jew present in the country.'
While they were discussing this, a messenger sent by the king of Ghassaan to convey the news of Allah's messenger to Heraclius was brought in. Having heard the news, he (i.e. Heraclius) ordered the people to go and see whether the messenger sent by Ghassaan was circumcised. The people, after seeing him, told Heraclius that he was indeed circumcised. Heraclius then asked him about the Arabs in general. The messenger replied: 'The Arabs also practice circumcision.'
After hearing this, Heraclius remarked that sovereignty of the Arabs had appeared. Heraclius then wrote a letter to his friend in Rome who was as knowledgeable as Heraclius. Heraclius then left, heading towards Hims (a town in Syria) and stayed there until he received the reply to a letter that he had sent to one of his friends inquiring about the emergence of the Prophet – his friend agreed with him that this was indeed the emergence of a true Prophet. With that, Heraclius invited all the heads of the Byzantines to assemble in his palace at Hims. When they assembled, he ordered that all the doors of his palace be closed. Then, he emerged and said: 'O Byzantines! If success is your desire and you seek the correct guidance, and wish for your empire to remain, then give a pledge of allegiance to this Prophet (i.e. embrace Islam).'
(On hearing the views of Heraclius) the people ran towards the gates of the palace like wild beasts, but found the doors closed. Heraclius then realised their hatred of Islam, and when he lost hope of their embracing Islam, he ordered that they be brought back to him. (When they returned) he said: 'What I said was only to test the strength of your conviction about your religion, and I have seen it.' The people then prostrated before him and were delighted by him, and so this was the end of Heraclius's story (regarding his faith.)” [Al-Bukhari]
This story was also reported by Imaam Muslim, At-Tirmithi, Abu Daawood and Ahmad, with a few variations that clarify certain matters in the message sent from the Prophet sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam to Heraclius.
The variations in some of these narrations state that the Prophet gave Heraclius three choices, which the latter conveyed to his priests and army leaders: “This man is a messenger and he has sent a letter giving you three choices: To follow his religion; or to agree to pay him taxes in return for him allowing you to remain upon your faith; or, to prepare for war against him”. His people angrily shouted: "We will never follow him and leave the religion of our forefathers; nor will we pay him any taxes, but instead we will fight him.” After this, Heraclius requested to be sent a man who knew Arabic, so a man by the man of Ibn Al-Khaytham was sent to him. Heraclius sent him with a reply to the Messenger . The Prophet invited the messenger of Heraclius to Islam, but he refused to leave the religion of his people; upon hearing this from him, the Prophet smiled and recited the verse which means: “Indeed, [O Muhammad], you do not guide whom you like, but Allah guides whom He wills…” [Quran 28: 56] This messenger of Heraclius had gone to the Prophet whilst he was in Tabook¸ so the Prophet said to him: “You are our guest, but you have come to us while we are out without anything to offer you.” (This was because they were travelling and had nothing to offer him.) ‘Uthmaan, may Allah be pleased with him, said: “I will gift him a garment of two pieces (of cloth).” Another man from the Ansaar, may Allah be pleased with them, offered to give him some food.
The story has more details which were reported by Imaam Al-Haakim as was mentioned by Imaam Ibn Katheer, in the interpretation of the saying of Allah which means: “Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered prophet, whom they find written [i.e., mentioned] in what they have of the Torah and the Gospel, who enjoins upon them what is right and forbids them what is wrong …” [Quran 7: 157] He said: Hishaam Al-Amawi, may Allah be pleased with him, narrated: “I was sent with another man to Heraclius to call him to Islam. We headed out until we reached an area called Al-Ghootuh, in which lived Jabalah, which was one of the sections of the Ghassaan Christian tribe, who were allies of the Romans. Their leader sent his messenger to talk to us and inquire about what we wanted, but we refused to talk to him and said: 'We swear by Allah! We will never talk to a messenger, we were sent to talk to the king of Ghassaan himself, and if the king refuses to talk to us then we will return to our land.' The messenger of the leader returned to him and informed him of our request, so he granted us our wish. When we entered into the presence of the leader, he said: ‘Talk' so Hishaam spoke to him and invited him to Islam. Hishaam had a black garment on; the leader asked him about the garment (which looked old) to which Hishaam answered: ‘This is a garment which I swore never to take off until we (Muslims) expel you from Shaam (i.e., ancient Syria). I swear by Allah! We will (Allah willing) expel you from your position and from your land, and will overpower the kingdom of Ghassaan; we were informed that we would do this by our Messenger, Muhammad.’ Then he added: 'You will not be able to face them (i.e. the Muslims) for they fast during the days and pray during the nights.” The leader then inquired about the way they fast and so he informed him. Upon hearing the answer, his face turned black and he was enraged, then he told us to leave, and sent a man with us to take us to the king of the Ghassaan tribe. When we approached the city, the messenger who was sent with us told us that we were not allowed to enter it riding our own animals and that we had to ride with them, but we refused and told him that we would never enter except riding our own animals. The messenger sent a message to the king seeking permission for us, and he approved. We entered wearing our swords until we reached the hall in which the king was, then we tied our animals in the courtyard of the hall whilst he was watching us, and then we shouted: 'Laa Ilaaha Illallaah, Allahu Akbar (i.e., none has the right to be worshipped except Allah, Allah is the Greatest).' I swear by Allah that the entire hall began shaking like a branch of a tree on a windy day’. The king then sent a man telling us that we had no right to proclaim our religion in his land. After that, he allowed us entry, and when we entered we saw that he was wearing a red garment, and that he was surrounded by Roman priests - and everything in the hall was red in colour. When we came close to him, he laughed and said: ‘Why don’t you greet me the way you greet each other?’ So we said: ‘It is prohibited for us to greet you with the greeting we use amongst ourselves, and it is also prohibited for us to answer you using the greeting you use amongst yourselves.’ He then asked us about the greeting we use amongst ourselves, and we informed him that it was 'As-Salaamu ‘Alaykum.' Then he asked us: ‘How do you greet your king (i.e., the Prophet )?' We told him that we say the same to him, and then he asked us: ‘How does he answer you?’ We told him that we use the same greeting to answer him as he does to us. He remarked: ‘How wonderful are your words!’ Upon hearing this, we again shouted: 'Laa Ilaaha Illallaah, Allahu Akbar (i.e., none has the right to be worshipped except Allah, Allah is The Greatest)' I swear by Allah that the entire hall began shaking again. He raised his head and then addressed us saying: ‘These words that you just uttered, to which the entire hall shook… do they shake your rooms when you say them in your land?’ We replied: ‘No! The first time we have seen this happen is in your palace.” He asked this question because it was a clear indication of the prophethood of the Prophet .
The following are some of many benefits that can be derived from the abovementioned story:
1. The necessity of assuring authenticity of what one hears by means of asking around, just as Heraclius requested the friends accompanying Abu Sufyaan about the Prophet .
2. Truthfulness was a praiseworthy quality even during the pre-Islamic era.
3. The weak and poor are usually the followers of the truth.
4. The outcome of the wars and conflicts between the truth and falsehood alternate in defeat and victory for the believers.
5. The Prophet sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam was known for his truthfulness, and even his most vicious enemies testified to this.
6. The people of the Book recognise the Prophet by his characteristics which they find in their books, and they know that he is the awaited messenger from Allah.
7. Arrogance and the keenness to maintain their worldly positions prevented the people of the Book from adhering to the truth and accepting the message of the Prophet sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam.
8. Allah grants guidance to whomever He wills.
9. As a sign of prophethood, Allah made the Prophet aware of some of the matters of the unknown and unseen.
10. Being hospitable is a part of the teachings of the Sunnah.
11. A Muslim must display might and pride regarding his religion, especially whilst inviting disbelievers to Islam.
12. It is not permissible to greet disbelievers with Salaam.
13. Allah supports the righteous with Karaamaat (i.e. supernatural abilities or occurrences), such as that which happened to the hall which shook when the companions, may Allah be pleased with them, shouted: “Laa Ilaaha Illallaah, Allahu Akbar (i.e., none has the right to be worshipped except Allah, Allah is The Greatest).”