Khalid ibn Walid and The Art of War

Khalid ibn AI-Walid as a master strategist through Master Sun and The Art of War:

It was Khalid ibn AI-Waleed who managed to cause the defeat of the Muslim army at Uhud before his conversion to Islam. Prophet Muhammad said, ‘The better ones of you in the Days of Ignorance are the better ones of you in Islam when they understand (Islam).” These words of The Prophet were best proved in the case of Khalid ibn AI-Walid.

After his acceptance of his new faith – Islam, Khalid ibn AI-Walid led many decisive battles in favour of the Muslims. Khalid ibn Al-Walid was a military strategist and commander who turned a potential defeats into victories.

Let’s take the first military encounter in which Khalid ibn AI-Walid showed his strategies which was the Battle of Uhud, which he caused to be the worst for Muslims in the early days of Islam.  This battle initiated by the Mecca polytheists in revenge for their defeat at the Battle of Badr, where more than thousand of them were defeated by only a little over three hundred Muslims warriors.

In the Battle of Uhud, The Prophet placed a group of archers on a nearby hill to give protection to the back of the Muslim army with specific instructions not to leave their posts under any circumstances. As the battle turned in favour of the Muslim army, the archers left their positions from the hill. Khalid ibn AI-Waleed took advantage of this and led the Meccan fighters with him around the hill to attack the Muslim army from the rear, where they least expected their enemy – and the loss on the part of the Muslims became a great one. 

In Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Master Sun advises to take high ground and let the enemy attack from a lower position. Fighting from an elevated position is easier for a number of tactical reasons. In holding the high ground in this case the hill offered an elevated vantage point with a wide field of view, enabling surveillance of the surrounding landscape.

In this battle The Prophet was wounded and his uncle Hamza killed, along with many other distinguished companions of The Prophet. Uhud teaches the lesson that due to disobedience of the order of the leader (The Prophet) it can lead to the loss of battle and life.

The Battle of Uhud taught Muslims important lessons about how greed, lack of discipline and ego can harm if not destroy them. Previously success at the Battle of Badr, the egos were subdued and the Muslims victory was focused for a higher purpose – Allah, whilst this battle showed the Muslims willingness to give in to their own passions. The Quranic verse was revealed soon after the battle that chastised the Muslims’ disobedience, lack of discipline and greed as the reason for defeat. Allah describes the battle as both a punishment and a test of their steadfastness.

Allah certainly fulfilled His promise to you when you were fighting them with His leave, until you lost courage, disputed about the matter, and disobeyed after He showed you what you loved. Some of you desire this world, and some of you desire the Hereafter. Then He turned you away from them so that He might test you. Certainly He has excused you, for Allah is gracious to the faithful. (Quran 3:152)

In the eighth year after the Hijra. one day Khalid ibn AI-Walid sat pondering on the new religion (Islam) “The message is fast spreading, and the man is certainly a Messenger. What am I waiting for? For how long shall I postpone my conversion to Islam?” He travelled Madina and announced his acceptance of Islam, the first thing he asked the Prophet was to pray to Allah to forgive him for his earlier aggression against Islam and the Muslims. The Prophet told him that in sincerely converting to Islam that all his past sins were forgiven by Allah.

Now Khalid ibn AI-Walid in joining those who fought for higher values he found an honourable cause to fight for, and the Muslims gained an excellent strategist and commander.

The first battle in which Khalid ibn AI-Walid won the day for Muslims was the Muslims’ first encounter with the Byzantine army in the Battle of Mu’tah on the Northern borders of the Arabian Peninsula. Due to the dangerous nature of the battle, The Prophet Muhammad chose three commanders to succeed one another. The reason for sending these fighters was that the Byzantine rulers in the Syrian region had killed some Muslim missionaries and converts to Islam; thus, proving their hostility not only to the Faith, but also, and even worse, to the principle of freedom of belief which Islam considers to be the most important cause for which a believer should fight for. The Byzantine army proved to be too large in number in comparison with the small number of the Muslims. But the Muslim army still entered the battle.

The three commanders were killed, and the banner was about to fall on the ground when Thabit ibn AI-Arqam rushed to save it; and he gave it to Khalid ibn AI-Walid telling him that he he was more knowledgeable in matters of war.  Khalid ibn Walid refused because he felt Thabit was more worthy of leading the army due to his age and service to the Muslims. But he accepted at Thabit’s insistence.

Remember this battle was not in favour of the Muslims, due to the huge number of the Byzantines forces and the death of the three commanders appointed by The Prophet. They could have retreated, but that was almost impossible as the Muslim army was surrounded. It was here that we see Khalid ibn AI-Walid the Military Strategist come into play.

Khalid ibn Walid reshuffled the right and left flanks of the Muslim army and introduced forward a division from the rear in order to cast fear in the hearts of the enemy forces who thought that fresh reinforcements had arrived. Khalid ibn walid managed to make an opening within the lines of the enemy through which the Muslim army managed to break out safely.

After the death of The Prophet, Abu Bakr was elected the head of the Muslims and during his time there appeared imposters who claimed prophethood like Musaylimah. Abu Bakr formed an army which he wanted to lead himself, were it not for the insistence of the leaders of the community that he stayed at the capital, Madina.

Abu Bakr divided the army into eleven divisions with a commander for each. One of those divisions was put under the command of Khalid ibn AI-Walid, who won all the battles entered by his army. Khalid ibn Walids most dangerous was that in which the Muslims had to fight Musaylimah and his violent cultlike followers.

Abu Bakr chose Khalid to lead the fighting against Musaylimah.
In the beginning, a large number of the Muslim warriors were killed. Khalid ibn Walid went up to the top of a nearby hill and studied the situation to discover the weak spots of the enemy. So then he re-organised his forces.

Musaylimah was killed in this battle and his cult decimated.

So then Abu Bakr gave more tasks to Khalid ibn Walid due to his experience and knowledge of war. Abu Bakr as the leader of a fast growing nation realised that two hostile empires on the borders of the Peninsula had to be confronted sooner rather than later and gave orders to Khalid ibn AI-Walid to proceed to Iraq (then a part of the Persian Empire). Which Khalid ibn Walid liberated from the Persians.

Where the Roman Empire was concerned Abu Bakr sent armies under the command of distinguished companions of the Prophet – Abu ‘Obaidahh ibn Al-Jarrah and ‘Amr ibn AI-‘As.

But the Roman Empire prepared a huge army whose news was sent to Abu Bakr.Khalid ibn AI-Walid was then ordered to Syria to take charge of the Muslim armies.

Khalid ibn Walid realised that the former commanders may not be happy with that decision of the Abu Bakr and he suggested that he, along with others, take command by rotation.  In studying the situation and positions of the enemy, Khalid ibn Walid laid down a strategy.

The Muslim army was outnumbered and the Romans were better equipped and experienced and there were also many new converts from the region he was about to engage in battle and Khalid was afraid that some of his soldiers might try fleeing, which would have a devastating effect on the morals of the rest of the Muslim army.

To avoid this Khalid ordered that Muslim women must also be armed too and wait in the rear and they were given orders to kill anyone who might attempt to flee from the battle. Sun Tzus’ The Art of War said “When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home.” The commander of a military force must focus his army on the job in hand.

As the battle commenced it became a fierce one, and the Muslim armies has faith to move forward and a conviction that if they die they will do so win honour – which is martyrdom. So the Muslims fought fearlessly, to the extent is is said by some that with a band of only 100 fighters Khalid faced a whole division of many thousands of Roman soldiers.

The nature of Khalid ibn Walid is revealed in another manner in this famous battle of Yarmouk. For in the midst of the battle Khalid ibn Walid received a letter in which he was informed of the death of Abu Bakr and the instructions of the new Caliph that he make Abu Obaidahh in charge. To avoid any confusion in his army which was focused on the battle in hand, Khalid ibn Walid kept the death of Abu Bakr secret until victory was achieved. He then went to Abu Obaidahh to placed himself under his command.

To Khalid ibn Walid it made no difference whether he was in command or a soldier.

When Khalid ibn Walid ‘burned the bridge at Yarmouk,’ in 636, he employed Sun Tzu’s “desperate ground” strategy by cutting off his own army’s avenue of escape. Ibn Zaid also used this same strategy at Gibraltar in 711.

Now take the following ‘strategies’ of Sun Tzu:

  1. Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight. If they will face death, there is nothing they may not achieve. Officers and men alike will put forth their uttermost strength.
  2. Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. If there is no place of refuge, they will stand firm. If they are in hostile country, they will show a stubborn front. If there is no help for it, they will fight hard.
  3. Thus, without waiting to be marshaled, the soldiers will be constantly on the qui vive; without waiting to be asked, they will do your will; without restrictions, they will be faithful; without giving orders, they can be trusted.

Summary of Khalid ibn al-Walid

Khalid ibn al-Walid, lived in the 7th Century CE, was a companion to the Prophet Muhammad and the greatest of military leaders. He is known for the incredible range and variety of the military strategies he designed and their determined implementation. It was under his leadership that the Arabian peninsula, united under a single political entity, the Caliphate. Never before had nomadic bedoiuns waged such a successful wave of conquests over such a vast territory. Tradition records that he was victorious in over a hundred battles against the numerically superior armies of Rome, Byzantium and the Persians.

The defining characteristics of Khalid ibn al-Walid was the speed of his military operations. He was a great exponent of rapid and disruptive guerrilla tactics that demoralised the enemy. This ‘bias to action’, together with very well disciplined troops, invariably stood him in good stead.
Modern military theorists now consider Khalid ibn al-Walid to be a chief proponent of military ‘Operational Art’, i.e. the superlative design, planning and conduct of military operations. It was, in particular, his ability to command, motivate and lead from the front that endeared him to his men and produced fear in his enemies.

Strategic lessons from Khalid ibn Walid:

 Be proactive, take action and take advantage of being the first to make the move.
 Use your own and your enemies beliefs and convictions as energies to your own efforts
 Be aware of the situation your find yourself in, look at things logically and respond with tactics and flexibility
 Protect and develop your family, team, friends reputations, good names and honour

Two questions to consider:

 Who can you work with to build the future you want ?
 Are you talking or planning too much and not taking enough action ?

We all are leaders. Leadership is about teamwork as no one can alone accomplish anything without followers. And the important one is that effective leaders are those who are servant leaders, leaders that are there for others, they teach, coach and guide. Good leaders are good followers, humble, simple and they realise that success only comes as the ego is subdued and the leader moves towards building something for the future generations – the fruits of which he or she may not live to see.

Khalid ibn Al-Walid taught that:

Leadership is not simply an honour but a trust (Amanah) from Allah (Higher purpose) given and that those given this trust must fulfill their responsibilities to the best of their abilities without ego.

As a Muslim Khalid ibn Walid believed that he will be questioned about his leadership at the Day of Judgement. With this in mind how many of us who find ourselves in leadership positions can truly say we have such awareness of our temporary lives and how we too will face judgements one way or another after we die? Business leaders, leaders within organisations, teachers/coaches, head of families even – we will all die. What will we leave behind?

Khalid Ibn Al-Walid’s showed obedience and discipline to his faith and leader The Prophet. We all have different types of faith and beliefs – and we can see if this faith guides us towards better manners and understanding of those around us or if it makes us more egotistical and selfish. If this is the case we need to understand why and how our ego can manipulate a noble faith for its own ends.

That is true leadership.

Mohammed Abbasi

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