Translation & Commentary of Verses from Surah No. 30: Al-Rum (The Romans) [1 – 5]

[1] Alif. Lam. Mim.

[2] The Romans have been overcome.2


1. In the opinion of Ibn `Atiyyah and others there is no difference in opinion among the earliest scholars that without exception of a verse, the whole of this Surah is Makkan (Alusi).

The connection between the previous chapter and this one is apparent. It is, as stated by Jalaluddin Suyuti, as follows: The previous chapter ended with the words, “As for those who struggle in Our cause, We shall guide them to Our ways,” this one opens with the good news of the People of the Book ultimately overcoming pagans – implying that their own defeats here and there should not worry the Muslims. They shall also emerge victorious.

After stating the above opinion, Alusi mentions that he does not think that this is a strong opinion since the wars of the People of the Book cannot be considered as “Jihad in Allah’s cause.” He offers his own understanding of the connection between the two, but to us Suyuti’s opinion seems reasonable enough to be content with (Au.)

2. There is consensus of opinion among the earliest scholars that the allusion is to the victory of the Persians over Romans, that took place before the emigration. The Prophet (saws) and his Companions wished to see the Romans, People of the Book, emerge victorious over the Persians. The latter were Magians, a branch of paganism; which was the prime reason why the Makkan pagans wished to see the Persians victorious. The pagans would tell the Muslims, “Our brothers (in faith), the Persians have overcome the Christians who are as much People of the Book as you are. In the like manner we shall also overcome you.” So Allah (swt) revealed these verses (Ibn Jarir and others). The Roman defeat resulted in the loss of large territories. Heraclius, the Roman emperor, had to flee and seek refuge in his capital Constantinople (Ibn Kathir).

[3] In a land close by,3 but, after their defeat, they shall soon be victorious.4


3. Most scholars have stated that the allusion is to the lands which the Romans had lost: Palestine, Syria, and southern Iraq, which were close to the Arab borders.

4. One may ask, “Why did Allah start off by saying, ‘The Romans have been overcome?’” The answer is, it is to impress that the prediction of their being victorious one day, will be more amazing in the light of the fact that once they were so weak as to have been so thoroughly overcome. After all, it is easier to predict a future victory following present victorious, but not the other way round (Razi, slightly reworded).

This prediction prompted Abu Bakr (according to some reports he was backed by other Muslims) to bet with some pagans (some said it was Ubayy b. Khalf) over some camels. Abu Bakr agreed to five years’ time. But when the Prophet learned of the bet, he recommended that the period be extended to 8-9 years. He also recommended enhancement of the stake – betting being allowed in those early Islamic years (Ibn Jarir).

The above reports are also found in various Hadith works such as Tirmidhi, Nasa’i and Ibn Abi Hatim.

Tirmidhi declared his own report as trustworthy. This last mentioned report adds that since the original betting period that Abu Bakr had agreed to was six, the pagans took away whatever (of the camels) he had betted. But by the seventh year the Romans had begun to overcome the Persians and so a lot of people embraced Islam. Similar reports have also come through many second generation scholars of Islam. (Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir)

According to some reports (having extended the time factor) Abu Bakr received the bet-camels but the Prophet asked him to give away in charity since it was unlawful, or unclean. (Alusi)

[4] In a few years.5 Allah’s is the command, before and after. And that day the believers shall rejoice.6


5. The Prophet interpreted the textual “bid`” as any figure between three and nine.

6. Yusuf Ali places the following note at ayah 3, but is relevant to ayah 4 as well: “The Pagan Quraish of Makkah rejoiced at the overthrow of Rome by Persia. They were pro-Persian, and in their heart of hearts they hoped that the nascent movement of Islam, which at that time was, from a worldly point of view, very weak and helpless, would also collapse under their persecution. But they misread the true Signs of the times. They are told here that they would soon be disillusioned in both their calculations, and it actually so happened at the battle of Issus in 622 (the year of Hijrat) and in 624, when Heraclius carried his campaign into the heart of Persia.. and the Makkan Quraish were beaten off at Badr.”

[5] In Allah’s help.7 He helps whom He will. He is the Almighty,8 the Most Merciful.


7. Ibn Jarir treats the words, “And that day the believers shall rejoice in Allah’s help,” as one sentence. (That is, the last part of verse 6 and the beginning part of verse 7: Au.)

The victory took place at the same time as Muslim victory over pagans at Badr (Ibn Jarir). [Thus, the Qur’an used one sentence for two events of joy: Au.].

The above was the opinion of Ibn `Abbas, Thawri, Suddi and many others. Abu Sa`id also held this opinion as one of Tirmidhi’s report suggests. However, `Ikrimah, Zuhri, Qatadah and many others believe the prediction came true after Hudaybiyyah, because Heraclius had vowed that if he became victorious, he would walk up to Bayt al-Maqdis from Hims in thanks to Allah. He was there when Dihya Kalbi arrived with the Prophet’s letter to him. Heraclius ordered that any other Arabs visiting his lands be brought forth. Abu Sufyan happened to be in Ghazza. He was taken to the royal court and one of the several questions that he asked him was, “Has the person who claims to be a Messenger ever deceived you?” Abu Sufyan said, “Not in the past. But just now we have entered into a treaty with him, and it is to be seen whether he will honor it.” He was referring to the Hudaybiyyah treaty (that took place in the sixth year after Hijrah). The two opinions can be reconciled, adds Ibn Kathir, in effect, by saying that the original victory took place earlier, but by the time Heraclius had wrested all his territory, had reorganized the affairs, and went up to Bayt al-Maqdis, another four years had elapsed. (The time between Badr and Hudaybiyyah was four years).

The Romans

In what follows we present an account, taken from various sources, to illustrate the historical conditions prevailing at the time the astonishing Qur’anic prediction of Roman victory over its Persian adversary was issued.

The Arabia of the Prophet’s time was, although not geographically, but from the point of view of important activities, in a remote corner of the world. At best it was known to the outside world for its hungry, ferocious, untamed desert-dwellers, and God-forsaken desert lands.  The so-called civilized world – although as far away from true civilization as our contemporary world – was divided into two major powers.  Both were vast, powerful, and several centuries old. They were the Roman and the Persian.  The Romans (known by the later historians as the Byzantine) ruled over some parts of Europe, the whole of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa.  The Persian Empire had its roots in Persia, spread eastward, as well as down into the Yemen.  Iraq was shared between the two. The two super powers had long been warring with each other in their efforts to control territories and collect taxes.

If the year 570 was significant for the humanity for the fact that it was the Prophet’s year of birth, it was significant for the Persians for the death of the renowned Anaushairwan. He was succeeded on the throne by an unworthy son Hurmuz (570-590). Had it not been for the talents of his able General Bahram, his Empire would have been ruined by the invasions of the Turks on one side and Romans on the other.

Eventually Bahram rebelled, and Hurmuz was deposed and killed. His son KhusrauParwez (Chosroes II) took refuge with the Byzantine Emperor Maurice. The latter practically adopted him as a son, gave him a daughter in marriage, and when time became ripe, restored him to the Persian throne with Roman arms. Khusrau reigned over Persia from 590 to 628. It was to him that the holy Prophet had sent his letter of invitation to Islam, which might have reached him, or might not have gone beyond one of his Governors.

On the Roman side, the army mutinied against the emperor Maurice (582-602) replacing him with Phocus. The latter promptly executed five sons of Maurice, then Maurice himself, and later the former empress and her three daughters also. This enraged Khusrau, who promised to avenge the killing of his godfather Maurice and family. Thus started a series of wars which lasted until his death. Phocus himself proved too tyrannous to bear the throne, and a Governor of African territories sent his son Heraclius to depose him. The mission succeeded and Heraclius (Hiraql of Arabic) was installed in 610 to rule until 642. The year in which he was installed emperor, was the year Prophet Muhammad was commissioned as a Messenger. It was Prophet Muhammad whose tongue pronounced ultimate Roman victory against the Persians. Yet, it were his own Muslim forces who ultimately took away the Empire from the Emperor.

To continue with the Persians, Khusrau’s armies began their attack on the Romans in 603, and tore through their defenses. They reached Edessa in Asia Minor on the one side and Syrian territories on the other in quick time. Their sweeping victories brought them Damascus in 611. Jerusalem fell to their arms in 614-615, about 7 to 8 years before the Prophet’s migration to Madinah. Some 90,000 Christians were massacred. The city was burnt and pillaged, churches were pulled down, the burial place of Christ was insulted, and many relics, including the “Holy Cross” on which the Christians believed Christ had been crucified, were carried away to Persia. The priests of the Persian religion celebrated an exultant triumph over the priests of Christ (Yusuf Ali). In this pillage and massacre the Persians were assisted by the ever discontent crowds of Jews and ever undependable Pagans. The sympathies of the Nestorians, Jacobites and other Christian sects – which had been excommunicated by the Roman Church and tyrannized for years – were also with the Magian (Zoroastrian) invaders. Thus, it might be proper to say that the Pagans, Persian Zoroastrians, Magians, Jews and a few Christian sects were all pitted against the Qur’anic prediction.

In Mawdudi’s words: How puffed up was KhusrauParvez at this victory can be judged from the letter that he wrote to Heraclius from Jerusalem. It said: “From Khusrau, the greatest of all gods, the master of the whole world: To Heraclius, his most wretched and most stupid servant: ‘You say that you have trust in your Lord. Why then did not your Lord save Jerusalem from me?’”

It was at this juncture that the Prophet announced the Qur’anic prediction of ultimate Roman victory. But, despite the prediction, nothing visible happened. The situation got worse for Heraclius, who (as Gibbon wrote), being more a man of the pleasantries of the palace than the battlefields, watched with complete helplessness the on-going destruction of his empire. As if the Persian scourge was not enough, he had to now to deal with the Avars who were attacking from the northern side of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), which was, with Persian armies pitched at the southern side, practically in a state of siege. Famine and pestilence added to the horrors of the situation.

By 619 A. D. the whole of Egypt had passed into Persian hands and their armies shortly arrived at the gates of Tripoli. In Asia Minor they pushed back the Romans to Bosporus, stationing their army right at the gates of the capital of Rome: Constantinople. The helpless Emperor Heraclius begged for peace but Khusrau’s reply was: “I shall not give protection to the emperor until he is brought in chains before me and gives up obedience to his crucified god and adopts submission to the fire god!” (Mawdudi)

He who was promised victory, was denied peace.

Referring to the Qur’anic prediction delivered in the 4th  or 5th  year of Apostleship the famous English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) wrote the following lines in one of the greatest of historical works, “The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire”  (vol. 5 p. 79, London, 1911):

“At the time when the prediction is said to have been delivered, no prophecy could be more distant from its accomplishment, since the first twelve years of Heraclius announced the approaching dissolution of the empire.”

But then something happened to Heraclius. He changed. He gave up pleasantries of the palace, assumed the role of a hero, and borrowing all the gold that the churches could lend him (on interest: Mawdudi), he set sail quietly into the Mediterranean Sea with a small band of soldiers. As he was sailing down – a fugitive – the Prophet was in his emigration journey from Makkah to Madinah. Little did the unbelieving world realize what the two journeys meant for future history.

Heraclius landed at the shores of Syria and defeated the Persian army sent to intercept him. The vigor and valor of his army surprised the Persians, especially when Heraclius advanced further, handing them defeat after defeat. (The Persians had still a large force in Asia Minor, which they could have brought into play against the Romans if Heraclius had not made another and equally unexpected dash by sea from the north. He returned to Constantinople by sea, made a treaty with the Avars, and with their help kept the Persians at bay around the capital: Yusuf Ali). Then he returned to the Syrian region and marched on carrying in the process his victorious armies as far as the royal cities of Casbin and Ispahan, which had never been approached by a Roman emperor before. There he faced the largest-ever Persian army, so fearful that his bravest veterans were left speechless with awe. Although he knew nothing of the prophecy of the Qur’an, Heraclius addressed his commanders in prophetic words:

“Be not terrified by the multitude of your foes. With the aid of Heaven, one Roman may triumph over a thousand barbarians.”

The victory was his.  The decisive battle was at Ninevah.  And a little later he recovered the “Holy Cross.” In seven years Heraclius had liberated all the provinces that had been lost in thirty years. The prediction of the Qur’an had come true.  And astonishingly again, Heraclius went back thereafter to the same old life of pleasure and ease, forcing Gibbon to state:

“Of the characters conspicuous in history, that of Heraclius is one of the most extraordinary and inconsistent. In the first and last years of a long reign, the emperor appears to be the slave of sloth, of pleasure, and of superstition, the careless and impotent spectator of public calamities.”

It was as if Heraclius had woken up from his sloth only to fulfill the prophecy of the Qur’an.

In pursuance of a vow, Heraclius went south to Emessa (Hims) from where he marched on foot to Jerusalem to celebrate his victories, and restore to its place the “Holy Cross” which had been recovered from the Persians. Heraclius’s route was strewn with costly carpets, and he thought that the final deliverance had come for his people and his empire. But, either on the way, or in Jerusalem, he met a messenger from the holy Prophet. The Prophet’s letter of invitation to Islam was a Divine announcement of the end of his duties. His job was done, he had to be relieved, and the people under his yoke had to be relieved from the slavery of men and put into the slavery of God. The Prophet had announced another prediction coming from on High, though not in the Qur’an but in the hadith, preserved in Bukhari and others:

On Abu Hurayrah’s authority, the Prophet (saws) said: “When Kisra (Persian emperor) dies there will be no Kisra after him, and when Qaysar (Roman emperor) dies, there will be no Qaysar after him. By Him in whose hands is my life, you shall surely spend their treasures in the way of Allah.”

(To be continued)


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