While Islamic history is replete with extraordinary examples of military prowess and feats of arms, the majority of military historians tend to focus on the more familiar masters of the art of war. Historians usually count the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, and even the feared Mongol steppe warrior, Genghis Khan, among the lofty ranks of the world’s Great Captains.
Clearly these are all highly accomplished men of war and rightly deserve their recognition as some of the most gifted battlefield commanders and strategists in history, there are yet others who deserve to be held in similarly high esteem. Chief among these is Khalid bin al-Waleed, Islam’s first great general and a man so accomplished in war and personal combat that the Islamic Prophet Muhammad himself gave him the title of “The Unsheathed Sword of Allah”.
Khalid had war in his veins. Born sometime in the late 6th Century CE, and hailing from the Bani Makhzum clan of the Quraish tribe of Mecca in Arabia, Khalid’s people were responsible for matters of war and breeding horses for combat. From an early age, Khalid was instructed in wrestling, riding, and the use of a variety of weapons. He was also taught how best to move quickly across the desert by using camels for transportation and switching to horses for raiding and attacking enemy caravans and pastures.
Anecdotal and other historical evidence even suggests that his father was so fixated on preparing his son for war that he not only honed his martial skills, but took the odd parenting decision to feed him small amounts of different toxins and poisons to toughen Khalid’s constitution. A 12th-Century Zengid era historian, Ibn ‘Asakir, reported that Khalid drank some poison in front of a parleying dignitary from one of the citadels he was besieging just to frighten them into submission without committing his forces to what might have been a bloody siege.
Before his conversion to Islam, Khalid is renowned as being the only commander to have inflicted a serious battlefield defeat against the Prophet Muhammad at the Battle of Uhud in 625CE. However, after his conversion to Islam, Khalid was not only fully accepted into the nascent Muslim community unconditionally, but he was also put to good use in Muhammad’s army. It was here that he truly began his military career, and he did not have to wait for long until he was sent to face the Byzantines at the Battle of Mu’tah in 629CE, which took place in modern day Jordan.
Muhammad dispatched a force of 3,000 men led by three of his most trusted men to punish the Ghassanid tribe who had killed two of his ambassadors, a heinous crime even in Classical Greece. Fearing this punitive action, the Ghassanids, who were vassals to the Eastern Roman Empire, called upon the Byzantines for help and together they managed to raise of force of tens of thousands of men (some sources say 20,000 and possibly many more), significantly outnumbering the Muslim force. In order to negate their advantage, the Muslim army withdrew to a deep, narrow valley in order to offset the Ghassanids’ and Byzantines’ numerical superiority and to prevent envelopment. However, the battle was still incredibly intense, and the three commanders Muhammad had appointed had all died in battle. This was Khalid’s opportunity.
Due to the lack of leadership, Khalid stepped in to fill the gap and devised an ingenious plan to withdraw the Muslim army from this untenable position. He certainly understood that his army could not hold its ground forever, but he did not want them to break and flee in disgrace. Khalid ordered for his cavalry to withdraw under cover of darkness before coming back in smaller units of riders when day broke. Before returning to the main force, he commanded them to ride around in circles to kick up the sand and give the enemy the impression that larger numbers were reinforcing the Muslim army. Not only did this reduce enemy morale, but Khalid ordered a particularly ferocious attack across the front with the aim of killing as many of the enemy forces as possible, all while their commanders saw “reinforcements” arriving.
By nightfall, Khalid withdrew his army back to the Muslim capital at Medina, and the ferocity of his attack in addition to the fear of facing a reinforced Muslim force somewhere else in an ambush deterred the joint Byzantine-Ghassanid force from finding out where the Muslims had gone. Khalid fought so fiercely during the battle that he broke nine swords himself, proving himself as a commander who led from the front. Upon his return to Medina, and after his masterful display of how to conduct a tactical withdrawal, the Prophet declared Khalid as the Unsheathed Sword of Allah, a title he would demonstrate he was worthy of over the next decade. He not only put down a large rebellion and reconquered the entire Arabian Peninsula, but subsequently defeated all the armies sent against him from both the Sassanid Persian and the Byzantine empires during his campaigns of conquest in modern day Iraq and Syria.
As a final honour to this illustrious commander, and unlike some of the other Great Captains previously mentioned, Khalid had the rare distinction of never being defeated in any battle, skirmish or even duel. Khalid and his trusted officers would issue personal challenges to kill off an enemy army’s leadership before the main battle had even begun, thus crippling their morale and making their armies easier to rout.
When it came to war, Khalid was an unstoppable force of nature. Such was his prowess, that had his Byzantine foes still believed in the Ancient Greek gods of antiquity, they would have certainly believed that he was Ares incarnate. Proud warrior that he was, the only thing that would stop him was old age. As much as he sought it, Khalid never found death on the battlefield in service to his people and ideals. He was so distressed by this that on his deathbed he said;
“I have fought in many battles seeking martyrdom that there is no spot on my body without a wound made from a sword, lance or arrow. Yet now I lay dying on my bed like an old camel. May the eyes of cowards never find joy”.
Khalid desired nothing more than to live and die by the sword, but fate would decree that not even the best military minds of two great empires and cultures could produce a soldier of his caliber to defeat him. This has cemented his place in the annals of military history as a peerless warrior.