Chapter 16: The Battle of Yamamah
"Musaylimah! Recant - do not contend,
For in prophethood you have not been given a share.
You lied about Allah regarding His revelation
And your desires are the whims of a stupid fool.
Your people have indulged you instead of preventing you,
But if Khalid comes to them you will be abandoned.
Then you will have no stairway to the heavens
And no path to travel in the earth."
[Thumamah bin Uthal, a Companion from the tribe of Musaylimah]1
When Abu Bakr organised the Muslim forces into 11 corps at Zhu Qissa, he appointed Ikrimah, son of Abu Jahl, as the commander of one of them. Ikrimah's orders were to advance and make contact with the forces of Musailima the Liar at Yamamah, but not to get involved in battle with the impostor. Abu Bakr knew better than most of his generals the power and ability of Musailima, and did not wish to risk fighting him with insufficient forces. Since Khalid was his finest general, the Caliph had made up his mind to use him to deal with Musailima after he had finished with the other enemies of Islam.
Abu Bakr's intention in giving Ikrimah this mission was to tie Musailima down at Yamamah. With Ikrimah on the horizon, the Liar would remain in expectation of a Muslim attack and thus not be able to leave his base. With Musailima so committed, Khalid would be free to deal with the apostate tribes of North-Central Arabia without interference from Yamamah. In selecting Ikrimah for this task Abu Bakr had picked a valiant man. Moreover, Ikrimah was anxious to prove his devotion to Islam and atone for his violent hostility to the Holy Prophet before his entry into the new faith.
Ikrimah advanced with his corps and established a camp somewhere in the region of Yamamah. The location of his camp is not known. From this base he kept the forces of the Bani Hanifa under observation while awaiting instructions from the Caliph, and the presence of Ikrimah had the desired effect of keeping Musailima in Yamamah. However, whether or not he had any intention of ever leaving Yamamah we do not know.
When Ikrimah received reports of the defeat of Tulaiha by Khalid, he began to get impatient for battle. The waiting irked his fiery temperament. Ikrimah was a fearless man and a forceful general, but he lacked Khalid's cool judgement and patience-qualities which distinguish the bold commander from the rash one.
The next development that Ikrimah heard of was that Shurahbil bin Hasanah was marching to join him. Shurahbil too had been given a corps by the Caliph with orders to follow Ikrimah, and await further instructions. In a few days Shurahbil would be with him.
Then came news of how Khalid had routed the forces of Salma the queenly leader of men. Ikrimah could wait no longer. Why let Khalid win all the glory? Why wait for Shurahbil? Why not have a crack at Musailima himself? If he could defeat Musailima single-handed, he would win glory and renown such as would eclipse the achievements of all the others. And what a delightful surprise it would be for the Caliph! Ikrimah set his corps in motion. This happened at the end of October 632 (end of Rajab, 11 Hijri).
A few days later he was back in his camp, having received a sound thrashing from Musailima. Chastened and repentant, he wrote to Abu Bakr and gave him a complete account of his actions, including the inglorious outcome. Shurahbal also heard the bad news and stopped some distance short of Ikrimah's camp.
Abu Bakr was both pained and angered by the rashness of Ikrimah and his disobedience of the orders given to him. He made no attempt to conceal his anger in the letter that he wrote to Ikrimah. "O son of the mother of Ikrimah!" he began. (This was a polite way of expressing doubt regarding the identity of the man's father!) "Do not let me see your face. Your return under these circumstances would only weaken the resolve of the people. Proceed with your force to Oman to assist Hudaifa. Once Hudaifa has completed his task, march to Mahra to help Arfaja and thereafter go to the Yemen to help Muhajir. I shall not speak to you until you have proved yourself in further trials." 2 The three men to be assisted were among the 11 corps commanders.
1. Mukhtasar Sirat al-Rasul sall-Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam, of Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab.
2. Tabari: Vol. 2, pp. 504, 509.
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The officers of the Muslim army paced in front of the regiments, reciting verses of the Quran. They reminded the Faithful of the promise of paradise for the martyrs and of the threat of hell for the faint-hearted.
Early on a cold morning in the third week of December 632 (beginning of Shawal, 11 Hijri), began the Battle of Yamamah.
Khalid ordered a general attack, and the entire Muslim front surged forward with cries of Allah-o-Akbar. Khalid led the charge of the centre while Abu Hudaifa and Zaid led the charge of the wings. The two armies clashed and the air was rent by shouts and screams as strong men slashed and thrust at each other. Khalid cut down every man who came before him. The Muslim champions performed prodigies of valour and Khalid felt that his warriors would soon break through the army of disbelief.
But the army of disbelief stood as firm as a rock. Many fell before the onslaught of the Faithful, but there was no break in the infidel front. The apostates fought fanatically, preferring death to giving up an inch of ground; and the Muslims realised with some surprise that they were making no headway. After some time spent in hard slogging, a slight lack of order became apparent in the Muslim ranks as a result of their forward movement and their attempts to pierce the front of the infidels. But this caused no concern. So long as they remained on the offensive and the enemy on the defensive, a certain amount of disorder did not matter.
Then Musailima, realising that if he remained on the defensive much longer the chances of a Muslim break-through would increase, ordered a general counter-attack all along the front. The apostates moved forward like a vast tidal wave, and the Muslims now found to their horror that they were being pressed back. The fighting became more savage as they struggled desperately to stem he advance of the apostates, who paid heavily in blood for every yard of ground that they gained, but strengthened by their belief in the Liar's promise that paradise awaited those who fell, they pressed on relentlessly. Some lack of cohesion was now felt in the Muslim regiments due to the mixture of tribal contingents which were not yet accustomed to fighting side by side.
Gradually the numerical superiority of the apostates began to tell. Fighting in massed, compact bodies against the thinner Muslim ranks, they increased their pressure. The Muslims proceeded to fall back steadily. Then the pace of withdrawal became faster. The apostate assaults became bolder. And the Muslim withdrawal turned into a confused retreat. Some regiments turned and fled, others soon followed their example, causing a general exodus from the battlefield. The officers were unable to stop the retreat and were swept back with the tide of their men. The Muslim army passed through its camp and went on some distance beyond it before it stopped.
As the Muslims left the plain of Aqraba, the apostates followed in hot pursuit. This was not a planned manoeuvre, but an instinctive reaction, like the reaction of the Muslims to the Quraish flight in the first part of the Battle of Uhud. And like those Muslims, the apostates stopped at their opponents' camp and began to plunder it. Again as at Uhud, his opponents' occupation with looting gave Khalid time to prepare and launch a riposte. But more of that later.
In the Muslim camp stood the tent of Khalid and in this tent sat his latest wife, Laila, and the captive chief, Muja'a, still in irons. A few infidels, flushed with success and excited by thoughts of the orgy of plunder that awaited them, entered the tent of Khalid. They saw and recognised Muja'a. They saw Laila and wanted to kill her, but were restrained by the chief. "I am her protector", he warned them. "Go for the men!" 1 In their haste to lay their hands on the booty the infidels did not stop to release their chief.
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 511.
For some time the devastation of the camp proceeded at a horrible pace as the infidels snatched what they could carry and smashed what they could not. They cut the tents to shreds. Then, as quickly as it had started, the looting stopped. The apostates hastened back to the plain of Aqraba, for in the south they could see the Muslim army, formed in perfect order with solid ranks, advancing again.
Amazingly, as they stopped to regain their breath and think about what had happened, there was no fear in the hearts of the Muslims. There was only anger at their own disorganisation and the consequent retreat. Just how had this happened? How could it have happened? They had certainly inflicted greater losses on the enemy than they themselves had suffered.
Their courage remained steadfast, but they also felt baffled. Their frustrated anger found an outlet in mutual tribal recrimination-tribe against tribe, clan against clan, city against desert. They blamed each other for the debacle. "We know more about war than you", said the city dwellers. "No", replied the desert Arabs, "we know more." A clamour went up: "Let us separate into our tribal groups. Then we shall see who vindicates his honour." 1
Khalid could see what had gone wrong. The apostate front had not given way under the terrible onslaught of the Muslims, as all fronts had done before this. What is more, the apostates had counter-attacked while the Muslims were somewhat disorganised. The Muslims had lost their balance and under the pressure of the counter-attack were unable to regain it. There had been no lack of bravery.
Khalid saw that forming regiments out of mixed tribal contingents had been a mistake, for the clan feeling was still very strong among the Arabs. It added another pillar of strength to the Islamic zeal and the individual courage and skill which distinguished the Muslim army. In face of the three-to-one superiority of the enemy and the blind, fanatical determination of Musailima's followers, the absence of tribal loyalty had resulted in a weakening of cohesion in the Muslim regiments.
Khalid corrected this mistake and regrouped the army. He deployed it in the same battle formation with the same commanders, but the soldiers were now formed into clan and tribal units. Thus every man would fight not only for Islam but also for the honour of his clan. There would be healthy rivalry among the clans.
Once the reorganisation was complete, Khalid and his senior commanders went about the regiments. They spoke to the men and strengthened their resolve to punish Musailima for the disgrace that they had suffered. The men swore that if necessary they would fight with their teeth.
Khalid also picked a handful of warriors and formed them into a personal bodyguard. It was his intention to set an example for his men by throwing himself into the thick of the fighting. This bodyguard would prove useful. "Stay close behind me", he told these men.
Thus reorganised and reformed into orderly ranks, the Muslims once again advanced to the plain of Aqraba. They returned to battle not like lions, but like hungry lions!
Meanwhile Musailima the Liar had redeployed his army in the same battle formation as before. He awaited the second strike of the Sword of Allah, confident that he would once again send the Muslims reeling from the battlefield.
On the orders of Khalid, the Muslim army again swept forward with cries of Allah-o-Akbar and the war cry of this battle: "Ya Muhammad!"2 The smaller army again engaged the superior massed forces of the apostates. The wings clashed with the wings and the centre with the centre. The commander of the Muslim right, Zaid, confronted Rajjal the renegade who commanded the infidel left. Wishing to save the renegade from the fire of hell, Zaid called, "O Rajjal! You left the true faith. Return to it. That would be more noble and virtuous." 3 The renegade refused, and in the fierce duel that followed Zaid despatched Rajjal to the Fire.
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 513.
2. This is a misunderstanding. The actual slogan, as recorded by Ibn Kathir in Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah, Vol. 6 P. 397, was 'Ya Muhammadah! (O for Muhammad!)', rather than 'Ya Muhammad! (O Muhammad!)'; this is like the cry 'Ya Islamah! (O for Islam!)'. The Ya here is for exclamation, not for prayer, as in the Prophet's statement (SAWS), 'Ya tuba lil-Sham! (O joy for Syria!)', and this is further confirmed by the suffix "ah". The Companions understood Islam far too well to pray to the Prophet (SAWS)!
3. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 511.
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Many apostates ran in despair to Musailima. "Where is the victory that you promised?" they asked. "Fight on, O Bani Hanifa!" was the impostor's set answer. "Fight on till the end!" 1
Musailima knew that he would get no quarter from Khalid, that he was doomed, and evil genius that he was, he decided to take his tribe down with him. The blood of several Muslims dripped from his sword, and his guards, as fanatical as ever, fought around him. Then he came under the hawk-like gaze of the Savage. The Savage was one of the 'war criminals' whose names had been announced by the Holy Prophet on the eve of the conquest of Makkah. Fearing the worst, he had fled Makkah and gone to Taif, where he lived among the Thaqeef for some time. In 9 Hijri, when the Thaqeef submitted to the Prophet, he too embraced Islam and went personally to swear allegiance to the Prophet.
The Prophet had not seen him for many years, and was not certain if he was the man. "Are you the Savage?" he asked.
"Yes, O Messenger of Allah!"
"Tell me how you killed Hamza." 2
The Savage recounted the whole story from beginning to end. It never occurred to him that there was an ethical angle too to this episode, that he had killed one of the noblest and most gallant of the Faithful. He narrated the story as a proud veteran would regale his audience with tales of his daring exploits. And the killing of a matchless warrior like Hamza was undoubtedly a military achievement. The Savage excelled himself as a story-teller.
But there was no applause. On the face of the Prophet was a look of deep sorrow as he said "Never let me see you again." 3 Something inside him warned the Savage that to remain in Madinah, where the memory of Hamza was deeply cherished, might be unhealthy for him. He left at once.
For the next two years he lived in various settlements around Taif, seeking obscurity and avoiding travellers. He was troubled by his conscience and feared for his life. It was a wretched existence. Then came the apostasy. The Savage remained loyal to his new faith and elected to fight for Islam against the unbelievers. Now he was serving under the banner of the Sword of Allah.
The Savage tightened his grip on his javelin when he saw Musailima-the javelin that had sent so many men to their death. The Liar was fighting ferociously. In beating off the assaults of Muslims who strove to get to him, he would fight now in front of his guards, now amongst them. At times he was covered by his guards, but he was never lost to the unblinking gaze of the black killer. The Savage had chosen his next victim-one whose death might ease the gnawing pain in his heart.
From his position some distance behind the Muslim front, the Savage stealthily moved forward to get within javelin range of his target. The throng of swearing, sweating, blood-covered warriors around Musailima seemed to disappear from his sight. In the terrible mind of the Savage only his victim remained.
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 514.
2. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, p. 72.
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The pact was drawn up accordingly. It was signed on behalf of the Muslims by Khalid and on behalf of the Bani Hanifa by Muja'a bin Marara. 1
When the pact had been signed, Muja'a returned to the fort, and soon after the gates of the fort were thrown open. Khalid, accompanied by his mounted warriors and Muja'a, rode into the city, expecting to see hordes of armed warriors, but wherever he looked, he saw nothing but women and old men and children. He turned in amazement to Muja'a. "Where are the warriors I saw?"
Muja'a pointed at the women. "Those are the warriors you saw", he explained. "When I came into the fort I dressed these women in armour, gave them weapons, and made them parade on the battlements. There are no warriors!"
Furious at being tricked, Khalid swore at Muja'a, "You deceived me, O Muja'a!"
Muja'a merely shrugged his shoulders. "They are my people. I could do nothing else."
But for the pact, Khalid would have torn Muja'a apart with his bare hands. However, the pact had been signed and its terms had to be respected. The Bani Hanifa, those of them who were in the city, were safe. Soon they had come out of their city roamed freely in the neighbourhood.
A day or two later a message arrived from the Caliph, who was not yet aware of the end of the Battle of Yamamah, instructing Khalid to kill all the apostates of the Bani Hanifa. Khalid wrote back explaining that the Caliph's order could not be implemented because of the pact that he had signed. Abu Bakr agreed to the observance of the terms of the pact.
But the pact only applied to those who had been in the fort. The rest of the vast tribe of Bani Hanifa-tens of thousands of people living in the region around Yamamah-were not covered by the pact. The most important element of the Bani Hanifa now was the remnants of the army of Musailima which had fled from the plain of Aqraba. These warriors, amounting to more than 20,000 men, were moving at random in clans and groups. After Musailima's death they posed no great danger to Islam, but they could nevertheless cause considerable mischief. They had to be crushed. Under the harsh laws of war, they had no claim to immunity from attack until they had fully submitted.
Khalid was determined to wipe out all resistance among the Bani Hanifa so that undisturbed peace might prevail in the region. He allowed his army a couple of day's rest: then he divided it into several columns which he despatched to subdue the region around Yamamah and to kill or capture all who resisted. These columns fanned out in the countryside.
The fugitives were sought out wherever they had taken shelter. Thousands remained unrepentant and defiant, these were attacked and wiped out, and their women and children taken captive. But other thousands submitted and were spared. Eventually all the survivors re-entered Islam.
Khalid set up his headquarters near Yamamah, where he was to stay about two months before receiving his next military task from the Caliph.
With the successful conclusion of the Battle of Yamamah, most of Arabia was freed of the mischief of the apostasy. Some of it still remained on the fringes of the peninsula, but this posed no serious threat. Some battles were still to be fought, but they were minor affairs compared with the great clashes which have been described in this and the preceding chapters.
1. There is some difference of opinion among early historians about the exact terms of the pact, but the details are not important.
The Battle of Yamamah was the fiercest and bloodiest battle so far fought in the history of Islam. Never before had the Muslims been faced with such a trial of strength, and they rose gloriously to the occasion under the leadership of the Sword of Allah. By crushing the vastly superior forces of the Bani Hanifa led by the redoubtable Musailima, the Muslims proved themselves to be men of steel. Half a century later old men would describe this battle in vivid detail to their grandchildren and end the account with the proud boast: "I was at Yamamah!"
The casualties were staggering. Of the apostates 21,000 were killed-7,000 in the plain of Aqraba, 7,000 in the Garden of Death, and 7,000 in the mopping up operations of the columns sent out by Khalid.
The Muslims suffered lightly in comparison with the apostates, but compared with their own past battle losses, their casualties were heavy indeed. Twelve hundred Muslims fell as martyrs-most of them in or near the wadi. 1 Half this loss was suffered by the Ansars and the Emigrants-the closest and most revered Companions of the Prophet. It is also said that the martyrs included 300 of those who knew the whole Quran by heart. Some of the finest of Muslims fell in this battle-Abu Dujanah, Abu Hudaifa (the commander of the left wing), Zaid (brother of Umar and commander of the right wing). While Zaid fell, Umar's son, Abdullah, survived.
When Abdullah returned to Madinah he went to pay his respects to his father, but there was no welcome in the eyes of Umar as he looked at his son. "Why were you not killed beside Zaid? Zaid is dead and you live! Let me not see your face again!"
"Father", pleaded this brave young man, "my uncle asked for martyrdom and Allah honoured him with it. I also sought martyrdom but did not attain it." 2
In the Battle of Yamamah, Abu Bakr's campaign against the apostates reached its high-water mark. This was the climax. Abu Bakr's strategy of using Khalid as his right arm to fight the main apostate chiefs in turn, going from nearer to farther objectives, had met with admirable success. Henceforth things would be easier.
One episode remains to be narrated before we finish with the Battle of Yamamah. On the day that the city of Yamamah opened its gates, Khalid sat outside his tent in the evening. Beside him sat Muja'a. They were alone.
Suddenly Khalid turned to Muja'a. "I want to marry your daughter!"
Muja'a stared in amazement at Khalid. He could not possibly have heard aright!
Khalid, his tone more insistent, repeated, "I want to marry your daughter!"
Muja'a now realised that Khalid was not mad, that he knew what he wanted. Yet in view of the occasion, the whole idea seemed utterly ridiculous. "Steady, O Khalid!" he replied. "Do you want the Caliph to break your back and mine also?"
"I want to marry your daughter", repeated Khalid. And that very evening he married the beautiful daughter of Muja'a bin Marara.
A few days later Khalid received an angry letter from Abu Bakr. "O son of the mother of Khalid!" wrote the Caliph. "You have time to marry women while in your courtyard the blood of 1,200 Muslims is not yet dry!" When he had read the letter Khalid muttered, "This must be the work of that left-handed one!" 3
However he continued to enjoy his new bride. It seems that he had discarded the glamorous widow of Malik bin Nuwaira. We do not know what happened to that lady, for history makes no further mention of the beautiful Laila with the gorgeous eyes and the lovely legs.
1. The visitor to Jubaila today is shown a graveyard on the southern bank of the wadi where the Muslim martyrs lie buried, and on the northern bank he is shown a low mound between the village and the gully, where the apostate dead were buried.
2. Tabari: Vol. 2, pp. 512-3.
3. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 519.