By Andrew Latham and Zain Ijaz
“I would throw myself in the ranks of the enemies until I would be certain that I would not come out alive. And here I am, dying in my bed, like cattle die.” ~ Khalid Ibn Al-Walid
Widely regarded as one of the most consequential Muslim military leaders of all time, Khalid ibn al-Walid ibn al-Mughira al-Makhzumi was an Arab Muslim commander in the service of the prophet Muhammad and the caliphs Abu Bakr (r. 632–634) and Umar (r. 634–644). He played a key role in the Ridda wars against rebel tribes in Arabia in 632–633 and the early Muslim conquests of Sasanian Iraq in 633–634 and Byzantine Syria in 634–638. Khalid is widely regarded as the military leader responsible for the world-changing expansion of Islam beyond its initial home in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century. His story is fascinating.
In 624 AD, a 30,000 strong Qurayshi Meccan army marched towards the Muslim stronghold in Madinah. They were met in a valley near Mount Uhud, in present-day Saudi Arabia, by a Muslim army one-tenth its size. Although outnumbered, Muslim archers took control of high ground and forced the Meccan army to retreat. Seeing the enemy fall back, the archers left their posts to loot the Meccan camp thus weakening the Muslim army’s flank. Khalid, commanding a small contingent of 700 soldiers, capitalized on the Muslims’ mistake and led his men to a decisive victory – inflicting on his Muslim enemy the only serious battlefield defeat they suffered during the course of the entire Muslim-Qurayshi war.
A few years later Muhammad and his followers met Meccan emissaries outside Mecca and negotiated to reach a peace treaty, the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, between the Quraysh and the Muslims. Khalid Ibn Al-Walid was amongst the few influential Meccans that converted to Islam following the treaty. Following his conversion, Khalid devoted his military expertise to support the nascent Islamic state.
Khalid’s first military expedition under the Muslim banner was at Mu’ta (modern-day Jordan). The Muslim army, expecting to engage Byzantine-affiliated Arab tribesmen, instead encountered the Byzantine army proper. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the well-trained Roman forces, the Muslim army was on the verge of defeat. One Muslim commander after another was killed. Formations were breaking up. Foot soldiers were beginning to flee.
At that point, Khalid assumed command. Grasping the desperation of the situation, he took desperate measures. First, he launched a lightning strike against the Roman flanks, disrupting their charge, and momentarily draining their momentum. Then he ordered his archers, positioned at high ground, to stop the Byzantines from advancing. The strategy was effective as the Romans retreated and camped just outside of the archers’ range for the night.
Knowing that he had merely bought some time and that the enemy forces would soon resume their attack, Khalid broke his army into small groups, placed them at different points, and ordered them to arrive at the Muslim camp at different times during the day. This created the illusion that more and more Muslim reinforcements were arriving. This caused the Byzantine army to panic and retreat.
Many Eastern and Western historians have not only lauded Khalid’s penchant for quick hit-and-run attacks, and skirmishes rather than the traditional heavy infantry and cavalry prevalent in Arabia at the time, but also credit him with being one of the first generals to make effective use of psychological warfare.
On his return to Madinah, Muhammad appointed Khalid as a commander of the Muslim army based on his military prowess and gave him the title of Sayf Allah (Sword of God). Up until Muhammad’s passing in 632 AD, Khalid helped the Muslims capture Mecca, Yalamlam, and Tabuk thus, solidifying the Islamic state under Muhammad. After 632 AD, Khalid took the helm of the Muslim army under the Abu-Bakr, a close companion of Muhammad who was appointed caliph of the Muslim state after Muhammad’s demise. During this period, some tribes around Madinah and Mecca discontinued their allegiance to the Muslim state.
Moreover, some people from these tribes, claiming that they were the new prophets of Islam, rose to power. Abu-Bakr realized that these claims to prophethood could dismantle the nascent Islamic state and hence, sent Khalid Ibn Al-Walid to dispatch these “false” prophets in what came to be known as the Ridda wars. This also marked the first divide between Khalid and the leader of the Muslim state as he did not strictly abide by the caliph’s directive defeating whoever was there to be defeated. Khalid led the Muslim forces first to Buzakha defeating Tulayha, a self-proclaimed prophet, then went on to suppress opposition from a powerful clan known as Bani Tamim, and finally conquered Yamama in 633 AD. The conquest marked the end of the Ridda wars, but Khalid marched northwards towards the Neo-Persian territory of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).
Many historians cite Abu-Bakr’s disinterest in Iraq and argue that Khalid’s push towards Iraq was “a natural continuation of his work” subduing the tribes of northeastern Arabia and in line with Medina’s policy to bring all nomadic Arab tribes under its authority.
The 18,000 strong Muslim army met an equally strong Persian army in modern-day Kuwait for the first time where Khalid’s light infantry wore out the heavily armored Persian infantry before launching a decisive attack. This was followed by a quick succession of Muslim victories at Mazar, Walaja, and Ullais which helped the Muslims establish a stronghold in Mesopotamia.
Khalid fought his last battle in Mesopotamia at Firaz against 60,000 soldiers of the combined Persian and Roman army. The Persian-Roman army had to cross the Euphrates to get to the Muslim forces and as soon as they did so, Khalid used his light infantry to flank the enemy, capture control of the bridge, and envelop the enemy forces into a pincer movement. The Muslims emerged victorious at Firaz and thus, the conquest of Mesopotamia was complete.
While legend of Khalid’s military brilliance grew in Mesopotamia, he would not stay there for long as he was ordered by Abu-Bakr, the caliph, to march to Byzantine occupied Syria. According to Islamic historians, Abu Bakr had invaded Syria with four armies with a combined strength of 28,000 men but failed to capture important urban centres because of the large concentration of the Byzantine armies. Khalid took 9,000 men with him to aid the Muslim forces already posted in Syria and on his way defeated the Byzantine forces at Ajnadayn (near modern-day Israel) and Fahl. The remnants of the Byzantine forces retreated to Damascus, where the combined Muslim army laid siege in August 635. Each of the five commanders were put in charge of a gate to the city. As popular narrative dictates, Khalid got news that the Byzantines were celebrating the birth of a nobleman’s son and used this opportunity to breach the Eastern gate and kill the guards. Another Muslim contingent entered through the Western gate after peacefully negotiating a surrender agreement. In September, Damascus surrendered, and the Muslim empire expanded into Syria.
Khalid’s greatest victory against the Byzantine empire came at Yarmouk in 636 AD (under the second caliph, Umar). By now Khalid had established himself as the greatest commander in Islamic history and an unrivaled tactician so perhaps it comes as no surprise that the Muslim army under Khalid was able to deflect attacks from a much larger Byzantine host. John Walter Jandora, in his book, Militarism in Arab Society, assesses that the Battle of Yarmouk was one of the most important battles of World History as it led to subsequent Muslim conquests between the Pyrenees and Central Asia. Moreover, Khalid was the first Arabian military leader to meet the Persian and Roman superpowers head-on and be victorious in all conflicts. His conquests served as a blueprint for future conquests by the second caliph, Umar.
However, in 638, soon after his victory at Yarmouk, Umar relieved Khalid from his position as the supreme commander of the Muslim armies because of his failure to coordinate his actions with the leadership in Madinah. Some sources state that Umar was uneasy with Khalid’s legendary reputation among Muslim armies and feared that they would start looking up to him instead of God for help during battles. Umar’s concerns were not baseless as Khalid was the only one to be given the title of “Sword of God” by Muhammad himself. It was because of Khalid defying Abu-Bakr’s orders and marching into Iraq that the Persian-Roman stronghold in the East was weakened which resulted in the first expansion of the Islamic state outside of Arabia. Khalid Ibn Al-Walid died in 642 was buried in Homs, Syria, his final resting place commemorating his 50 major victories.
Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, to be published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press. You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham
Zain Ijaz is a Research Assistant at Macalester College.
Top Image: Illustration of the Battle of Yarmouk (636) at the bottom of the page of BNF Nouvelle acquisition française 886 fol. 9v (early 14th century).