Did Muhammad predict the success of the Byzantines? (Q 30:2-4)

Muhammad, at least in the Qur’an, does not make many future proclamations. However in Q 30 we read:

2 The Byzantines have been defeated 3 in [their] nearest land. They will reverse their defeat with a victory 4 in a few years’ time: God is in command, first and last. (Abdel Haleem translation is used unless otherwise indicated)

As Gabriel Said Reynolds (2018, 622) notes, scholars have often seen here a reference to the Sasanian conquest of Jerusalem in 614, or alternatively of Damascus in 613, followed by Byzantine victory over the Sasanians in 627 at Nineveh. A. J. Droge (2013, 264) more loosely suggests that v. 2 could also refer ‘more generally to some victory in the Persian advance against the Byzantines either before or after these events (611-616 CE)’. As for the Byzantine reversal, The Study Qur’an (2015, 985) claims that ‘[i]n 622 the tide began to turn when the Byzantine emperor Heraclius defeated the Persians at Issus…the first in a seires of victories that culminated in the Battle of Nineveh in 627’. We leave all options open the reader.

Whether this is a genuine prophecy of the Qur’an, or an ex eventu prophecy (i.e. a prophecy created after the fact), will also be in the eye of the beholder. Whether the time gap, however one calculates it (see above), fits ‘a few years’ time’ (biḍʿi sinīna) I will leave to both the historian and the grammarian.

As Reynolds (2018, 622) notes, there is an alternative reading to this verse, that the Byzantines have been ‘victorious’ rather than defeated in v. 2. Additionally, in v. 3 they will be ‘defeated’ rather than ‘victorious’. This would flip the meaning of these verses from how they are commonly understood. As Droge (2013, 264) notes, ‘[t]his would transform the passage into a prophecy of the Muslim conquest of Byzantine Syria and Palestine (636-638 CE)’, where the Byzantines, although initially successful, will be defeated at the hands of the ‘believers’ (v. 4). Muslims can of course claim that this was fulfilled, although of course it would be a case of the Muslims actively and consciously attempting to fulfill the prophecy.

But assuming the reading found in the modern 1924 edition of the Qur’an (based on the reading of Hafs ‘an ‘Asim), that the Byzantines are initially defeated but are later to be victorious, and assuming that the time frame can fit in to ‘a few years’ (biḍʿi sinīna), how startling and convincing is this prophecy? If this was spoken immediately upon the defeat of the Byzantines, it might be quite impressive to predict that the underdog might become ‘victorious’. However, observers of great empires or nations may note their ebbs and flows, the alternation of defeat and victory. Furthermore, perhaps there were already signs of the Byzantines re-gathering their forces for another offensive.

Putting aside such speculation, we should note that there is a theological reason for the Qur’an to make this prediction. The Qur’an seems to be on the side of the Byzantines (at least in Ḥafṣ ‘an ʿĀṣim):

2 The Byzantines have been defeated 3 in [their] nearest land. They will reverse their defeat with a victory 4 in a few years’ time: God is in command, first and last. On that day, the believers will rejoice 5 at God’s help. He helps whoever He pleases: He is the Mighty, the Merciful. (Q 30:2-4. Emphasis added)

The believers, whether the Christians or Muslims, rejoice at the Byzantine victory. Elsewhere the Qur’an states that the followers of Jesus will be ‘superior to those who disbelieved’ until the day of resurrection (Q 3:55). Although in context this is about Christian superiority over the Jews, the same may also apply to the Christians in their conflict with the Zoroastrian Sasanids. Similarly, in Q 61:14:

As Jesus, son of Mary, said to the disciples, ‘Who will be my helpers in God?’ cause?’ The disciples said, ‘We shall be God’s helpers.’ Some of the Children of Israel believed and some disbelieved: We supported the believers against their enemy and they were the ones who came out on top. (Emphasis added)

It is therefore in line with the Qur’an’s visions of believers triumphing that the Qur’an sides with the Byzantines over and against the Sasanids in Q 30.

In sum, one’s perspective on this prophecy will typically depend upon one’s pre-existing viewpoint. A Muslim will find here a supernatural foretelling of future events, demonstrating the Qur’an’s divine origins. The non-Muslim might see this as a passage unclear in meaning, possibly created after the events it describes,

Postscript: Though we have not explored it above, Reynolds (2018, 623) makes an interesting comment regarding the geography that one might deduce from this verse:

In his translation Arthur Droge points out (note on 30:3) that the Qurʾān points to the Romans having conquered in a nearby land (Q 30:3, Qarai has “nearby territory”). This suggests that the geographical context in which this passage was proclaimed would presumably be well to the north of Mecca (something also suggested by 37:137-38; see commentary on 37:133-38).

Reynolds here alludes to the Qur’an describing Sodom and Gomorrah, somewhere near the Dead Sea, as being nearby:

133 Lot was also one of the messengers. 134 We saved him and all his family — 135 except for an old woman who stayed behind— 136 and We destroyed the others. 137 You [people] pass by their ruins morning 138 and night: will you not take heed? (Emphasis added)

As for Q 30:2-3, however, the Study Qur’an (2015, 985) suggests that ‘In a land nearby most likely refers to the battles that he lost to Shahrbarāz at Adhriʿat and Busrah, which are the closest parts of Syria to the land of the Arabs.’

We choose to leave such matters to the reader; this author does not feel strongly drawn to any particular proposed historical battle(s), as opposed to others, as the occasion for Q 30:23.

For more on this topic, cf. ‘Geography of the Qur’an in our Blog index.

Bibliography (click to reveal)

Droge, A. J. The Qur’ān: A New Annotated Translation. Sheffield/Bristol: Equinox, 2013.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom (eds.). The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary. New York: HarperOne, 2015.

Reynolds, Gabriel Said. The Qur’ān and the Bible: Text and Commentary. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2018.

2 thoughts on “Did Muhammad predict the success of the Byzantines? (Q 30:2-4)

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