Ja’far ibn Abi Ṭālib (A.S.) was one of the most distinguished Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (S) and a member of his family (the Ahl al-Bayt), being the older brother of the fourth rightly-guided caliph ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (d. 661). Ja’far was raised by his uncle, al-‘Abbās, until he was a young man. Then he married Asmā’ bint Umays, a sister of Maymunah who was later to become a wife of the Prophet. After his marriage, Ja’far went to live on his own. He and his wife were among the earliest converts Islam. He became a Muslim at the hands of Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq (may God be pleased with him), who was himself the earliest adult male convert to Islam. Like all other members of the early Muslim community, he suffered immense persecution at the hands of the Quraysh in Mecca. He was personally appointed by the Prophet to lead a small group of believers on the first migration to Abyssinia, where he delivered a beautiful oration in the court of the Ethiopian king in which he underscored the oppression faced by the believers in Mecca, as well as the shared love of Christ (A.S.) which both Muslims and Christians had in common:
“O King, we were a people in a state of ignorance and immorality, worshiping idols and eating the flesh of dead animals, committing all sorts of abomination and shameful deeds, breaking the ties of kinship, treating guests badly, and the strong among us exploited the weak. We remained in this state until God sent us a Prophet, one of our own people, whose lineage, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and integrity were well-known to us.
He called us to worship God alone, and to renounce the stones and the idols which we and our ancestors used to worship. He commanded us to speak the truth, to honor our promises, to be kind to our relations, to be helpful to our neighbors, to cease all forbidden acts, to abstain from bloodshed, to avoid obscenities and false witness, and not to appropriate an orphan’s property nor slander chaste women. He ordered us to worship God alone and not to associate anything with him, to maintain regular prayers, to give alms, and fast in the month of Ramadan.
We believed in him and what he brought to us from God, and we follow him in what he has asked us to do and we keep away from what he forbade us from. Thereupon, O King, our people attacked us, visited the severest punishment on us, to make us renounce our religion and take us back to the old immorality and the worship of idols. They oppressed us, made life intolerable for us, and obstructed us from observing our religion. So we left for your country, choosing you before anyone else, desiring your protection and hoping to live in Justice and in peace in your midst.”
The Negus was impressed and was eager to hear more. He asked Ja‘far, “Do you have with you something of what your Prophet brought concerning God?” “Yes,” replied Ja‘far.
“Then read it to me,” requested the Negus. Ja‘far, in his rich, melodious voice, recited for him the first portion of Chapter 19 (Surah Maryam) of the Qur’an which deals with the story of Jesus and his mother Mary.
On hearing the words of the Quran, the Negus was moved to tears. To the Muslims, he said: “The message of your Prophet and that of Jesus are like two beams of light which emanate from the same lamp…” He then permitted the Muslims to seek refuge and dwell in Abyssinia as long as they desired. Ja’far was the effective leader of the Muslims who lived in Abyssinia (where the stayed for over a decade) and, upon his return to the Arabian Peninsula was honored by the Prophet above many of the other Companions. He was considered to be among the closest Companions of the Prophet and his name is often mentioned alongside that of Abū Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthmān, ‘Alī, Bilāl, Salmān al-Farisī, al-Zubayr ibn ‘Awwām, Abu Dharr and many other senior members of the Muslim community.
In the seventh year of the Hijrah, around 628, Ja’far and his family left Abyssinia with a group of Muslims and headed for Medina. When they arrived the Prophet was just returning from the successful conquest of the fortress of Khaybar. He was so overjoyed at meeting Ja’far that he said: “I do not know what fills me with more happiness, the conquest of Khaybar or the coming of Ja’far.”
Muslims in general and the poor among them especially were just as happy with the return of Ja’far as the Prophet was. Ja’far quickly became known as a person who was much concerned for the welfare of the poor and indigent. For this he was nicknamed, “the Father of the Poor”. Abū Hurayra said of him:
“The best of men towards us indigent folk was Ja’far ibn Abi Talib. He would pass by us on his way home and give us whatever food he had. Even if his own food had run out, he would send us what he could”
Ja’far’s stay in Medina was not long. At the beginning of the eighth year of the Hijrah, around 629, the Prophet mobilized an army to confront Byzantine forces in Syria because one of his emissaries who had gone in peace had been killed by a Byzantine governor. He appointed Zayd ibn al-Ḥāritha as commander of the army and gave the following instructions:
“If Zayd is wounded or killed, Ja’far ibn Abī Ṭālib is to take over the command. If Ja’far is killed or wounded, then your commander would be ‘Abd Allāh ibn Rawāḥa. If ‘Abd Allāh ibn Rawāḥa is killed, then let the Muslims choose for themselves a commander.”
The Prophet had never given such instructions to an army before and the Muslims took this as an indication that he expected the battle to be tough and that they would even suffer major losses. When the Muslim army reached Mu’ta, a small village situated among hills in Jordan, they discovered that the Byzantines had amassed a hundred thousand men backed up by a massive number of Christian (Ghassanid) Arabs from the tribes of Lakhm, Judham, Qudah and others. The Muslim army only numbered thirty thousand. Despite the great odds against them, the Muslim forces engaged the Byzantines in battle. Zayd ibn al-Hāritha, the beloved companion of the Prophet, was among the first to fall. Ja’far ibn Abī Ṭālib then assumed command. Mounted on his horse, he penetrated deep into the Byzantine ranks. As he spurred his horse on, he called out:
“How wonderful is Paradise as it draws near!
How pleasant and cool is its drink!
Punishment for the Byzantines is not far away!”
Ja’far continued to fight vigorously but was eventually slain. The third in command, ‘Abd Allāh ibn Rawāḥa, also fell. Khālid ibn al-Walīd, the inveterate fighter who had recently accepted Islam, was then chosen as the commander. He made a tactical withdrawal, redeployed the Muslims and renewed the attack from several directions. Eventually, the bulk of the Byzantine forces fled in disarray.
The news of the death of his three commanders reached the Prophet in Medina. The pain and grief he felt was intense. He went to Ja’far’s house and met his wife Asma’. She was getting ready to receive her absent husband. She had prepared dough and bathed and clothed the children. Asma’ said:
”When the Messenger of God approached us, I saw a veil of sadness shrouding his noble face and I became very apprehensive. But I did not dare ask him about Ja’far for fear that I would hear some unpleasant news. He greeted and asked, ‘Where are Ja’far’s children?’ I called them for him and they came and crowded around him happily, each one wanting to claim him for himself. He leaned over and hugged them while tears flowed from his eyes.
‘O Messenger of God,’ I asked, ‘Why do you cry? Have you heard anything about Ja’far and his two companions?’
‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘They have attained martyrdom.’ ”
Ja‘far (A.S.) was mourned by all the Companions and he continues to be beloved by all Muslims and his tomb–located in Kerak in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan–remains an important holy site to this day, visited by pilgrims from all across the Muslim world. May God sanctify his soul.
[This summary was my own adaptation of Ja’far’s biography as found in Maqātil al-Ṭālibiyyīn (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 2005), pp. 25-34, by Abū Faraj al-Isfahānī (d. 967)]