Chapter 31: The Unkind Cut
"Praise be to Allah who decreed death upon Abu Bakr, who was more beloved to me than Umar. Praise be to Allah who gave authority to Umar, who was less beloved to me than Abu Bakr, and compelled me to love him."
[Khalid ibn al-Walid, upon breaking the news of Abu Bakr's death to his army.]
"You have done deeds which no-one has done, but people do nothing, for Allah is the Doer."
[Arabian poet, quoted by Umar to Khalid]1
In Madinah, as the old Caliph lay dying, the sent for writing materials and wrote an order: After him Umar would be the Caliph and the Believers would swear allegiance to him. This was the last order of Abu Bakr.
On August 22, 634 (22nd Jamadi-ul-Akhir, 13 Hijri), Abu Bakr died and Umar became Caliph. On the same day the new Caliph issued his first order: Khalid was dismissed from the command of the Muslim army in Syria! He wrote to Abu Ubaidah as follows:
In the name of Allah the Beneficent, the Merciful.
I urge upon you the fear of Allah who lives eternally while everything else perishes; who has guided us away from wrongdoing and taken us out of darkness into light.
I appoint you commander of the army of Khalid bin Al Waleed. So take charge as is your duty.
Send not the Muslims to their destruction for the sake of plunder; and place not the Muslims in a camp without reconnoitring it and knowing what is there.
Send not expeditions except in properly organised units. And beware of taking any steps which may lead to the annihilation of the Muslims.
Allah has tried me with you and tried you with me. Guard against the temptations of this world lest they destroy you as they have destroyed others before you; and you have seen how they felt. 2
The letter was given to a messenger with instructions to proceed to Syria and hand it personally to Abu Ubaidah.
The next day Umar led the congregational prayer in the mosque of the Prophet. When the prayer was over, he addressed the congregation-the first public address of his caliphate. He started by praising Allah and invoking His blessings on the Prophet; then he continued: "Lo! The Arab is like a camel which follows its master and waits for him wherever it is made to sit. And by the Lord of the Kabah, I shall carry you on the right path."
In the rest of his sermon he emphasised various virtues and duties enjoined upon Muslims, and pledged to do his best to further the interests of Islam. Coming to the end of his sermon, he informed the congregation that he had removed Khalid from the command of the army in Syria and appointed Abu Ubaidah in his place.
This announcement was received by the Muslims in hushed silence. Everyone knew that in the heart of Umar there was little love for Khalid, but none had expected Umar to act so harshly against the Sword of Allah, and in such haste, especially after the great victories which Khalid had won for Islam during the last three years. However, Umar was a much feared, albeit respected man, and few would dare to cross him. Moreover, as Caliph he had the authority to appoint and dismiss commanders as he chose, and his decision had to be accepted and obeyed. All remained silent, with a silence more eloquent than words.
1. Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah, Dar Abi Hayyan, Cairo, 1st ed. 1416/1996, Vol. 7 P. 19.
2. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 622.
But one youth who was present could not contain himself and leapt to his feet. "Do you dismiss a man", he shouted at Umar, "in whose hand Allah has placed a victorious sword and with whom. Allah has strengthened His religion! Allah will never forgive you, nor will the Muslims, for sheathing the Sword and dismissing a commander whom Allah has appointed to command."
Umar knew this youngster, he was from the Bani MakhDhulm-the clan of Khalid. He could also sense the mood of the congregation and knew that its reaction to his announcement was anything but favourable. He decided not to say any more on the subject for the moment., He merely retorted: "The young man is angry on account of the son of his uncle." 1 and walked away from the mosque.
Over the day Umar reflected a great deal on the matter of Khalid's dismissal. He came to the conclusion that he would have to explain his action to the Muslims in order to convince them of its justice. Such a dazzling light as Khalid could not be extinguished without offering adequate justification. The following day he again addressed the Muslims:
"I am not averse to Khalid being in command. But he is wasteful and squanders his wealth on poets and warriors, giving them more than they deserve, which wealth could be better spent in helping the poor and the needy among the Muslims. Let none say that I have dismissed a strong man, and appointed a mild man to command, for Allah is with him (i.e. Abu Ubaidah) and will help him." 2
This time no one said anything.
The messenger carrying the fateful letter arrived at Damascus while the siege was in progress and the action against the Roman relief column was still a few days away. He knew the contents of the letter, and being an intelligent man guessed that its effect on the embattled Muslims would be far from healthy. So he told everyone whom he met that all was well and that reinforcements were on their way. Arriving at the tent of Abu Ubaidah, where no one else was present, he handed over the letter.
Abu Ubaidah read the letter and was astounded. He would not have wished this to happen to Khalid. He knew that Khalid was the idol of the army and his presence as commander-in-chief was a factor of the highest importance in making the Muslims so confident of victory against all odds. The impact of the change of command would be most adverse, especially whilst the Muslims were engaged in a stubborn siege which showed no sign of turning in their favour. It would be difficult to convince them of the justice of Khalid's dismissal or the wisdom of its timing. Moreover, Abu Ubaidah did not feel inclined to take over command in the middle of the operation when Khalid had everything so well organised. He therefore decided to say nothing about the death of Abu Bakr or the change of command until after the siege had been successfully concluded. The messenger, on being questioned, assured him that he had not divulged the contents of the Caliph's letter to anyone; and Abu Ubaidah cautioned him to keep the matter to himself.
The Muslims at Damascus remained ignorant of the change of command during the rest of the siege. Even on the day of conquest Abu Ubaidah made no reference to it in his altercation with Khalid, for doing so would have amounted to hitting below the belt and would have belittled Khalid in the presence of friend and foe. Thus it was Khalid who signed the pact with the Damascenes and not Abu Ubaidah. In fact it was not until a few hours after Khalid's return from the raid at the Meadow of Brocade that Abu Ubaidah drew him aside, told him of the death of Abu Bakr and the appointment of the new Caliph, and gave him Umar's letter to read.
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 622.
Slowly Khalid read the letter. It was quite clear: he had been sacked! Abu Ubaidah was the new Commander-in-Chief. Perhaps he should have expected that this would happen if Umar became Caliph; but he had not expected it because he had never considered the possibility of Abu Bakr's death or of Umar's becoming Caliph.
From the date on the letter Khalid saw that it was more than a month old and must have reached Abu Ubaidah at least three weeks before now. He looked up at Abu Ubaidah and asked, "Why did you conceal this from me? May Allah have mercy upon you!" Abu Ubaidah replied, "I did not wish to weaken your authority while you were engaged with the enemy." 1
For a few moments Khalid remained lost in his thoughts-thoughts of Abu Bakr, his friend, guide and benefactor. Abu Ubaidah looked at him, partly in sympathy, partly in embarrassment. Then Khalid remarked: "May Allah have mercy upon Abu Bakr! Had he lived, I would not have been removed from command." 2 Slowly, with bowed head, the Sword of Allah walked away to his tent.
That night Khalid wept for Abu Bakr. 3
The following morning, October 2, 634 (3rd Shaban, 13 Hijri), the army was assembled and informed of the two changes-in the Caliphate and in the command in Syria. On this day the Muslims in Damascus took the oath of allegiance to the new Caliph.
If any resentment or bitterness existed in Khalid's heart-and some must undoubtedly have existed-he showed no sign of it. He remarked casually to his friends, "If Abu Bakr is dead and Umar is Caliph, then we hear and obey." 4 There was nothing that Khalid could do to air his grievance without causing serious harm to the Muslim army and the Muslim cause in Syria, for any anti-Umar action would probably have split the army, and this was the last thing that the true soldier and true Muslim would wish.
Once a commander-in-chief is dismissed from his command, he normally does not serve, if he serves at all, in the same theatre where he has been in command. He retires. Or he asks to be transferred or is transferred anyway in consideration for his feelings. Sometimes he is "kicked upstairs." But it was Khalid's destiny to fight and to conquer, and nature had gifted him with all the military virtues needed to fulfil that destiny. Thus we see here the remarkable phenomenon of the greatest general of the time (indeed the greatest general of the first millennium of the Christian Era) being prepared to serve in a lower capacity, even as a common soldier, with the same drive and zeal which he had shown as an army commander. This willingness to serve also reflects the Muslim spirit of the time. And all this became evident a fortnight later in the crisis of Abul Quds.
A week after Abu Ubaidah assumed command of the army, a Christian Arab, seeking the favour of the Muslims, came to the new Commander-in-Chief and informed him that in a few days a great fair would be held at Abul Quds. At this fair visitors and merchants from all the lands in the Asian zone of the Byzantine Empire would come with costly wares to buy and sell. Should the Muslims wish to acquire more spoils, they only had to send a raiding column to pick up all the wealth they wanted (Abul Quds is now known as Abla and lies at the eastern foothills of the Lebanon Range, near Zahle, about 40 miles from Damascus on the road to Baalbeck.) 5 The informer could not say if there would be any Roman soldiers guarding the fair, but there was a strong garrison at Tripolis, on the Mediterranean coast.
Abu Ubaidah spoke to the warriors who sat around him, and asked if anyone would volunteer to take command of a column and raid Abul Quds. He was hoping that Khalid would offer his services for the task, but Khalid remained silent. Then a youth, on whose face the beard had only just begun to grow, volunteered himself with bubbling enthusiasm. This boy was Abdullah, son of Jafar, the Prophet's cousin who had been martyred at Mutah. This young nephew of the Prophet had only just arrived from Madinah and was anxious to win glory in the field. Abu Ubaidah accepted the youth's offer and appointed him commander over a body of 500 horsemen.
1. Balazuri: p.122
2. Yaqubi: Tareekh, Vol. 2, p. 140.
3. Waqidi: p. 62.
4. Waqidi: p. 62.
5. Gibbon (Vol. 5, p. 321) calls this place Abyla. It may have been so named in his time, but it is now called Abla.
On October 14, 634 (the 15th of Shaban, 13 Hijri), the column marched by the light of a bright full moon. With young Abdullah rode a dedicated and saintly soldier by the name of Abu Dharr Al Ghifari. The following morning the impetuous boy launched his small group against a Roman force of 5,000 men which was guarding the fair. Since Abdullah sought glory and Abu Dharr sought martyrdom, there was no one to restrain the Muslims; and the result was disastrous. After some heroic fighting, the Muslims were surrounded by the Romans, and it became evident that none would escape. But when the Muslim turned at bay he was a deadly fighter. The veteran soldiers knew how to defend themselves and quickly formed a tight ring to keep the Romans out; and thus surrounded, they continued to fight, their desperate courage imposing caution on the Romans. But their annihilation was only a matter of time.
One Muslim, however, had escaped the Roman encirclement, and realising the gravity of the situation, he galloped off to Damascus for help. Abu Ubaidah was sitting with his generals when this man arrived to report the disaster and ask for immediate help, without which not a single Muslim would return from Abul Quds. Abu Ubaidah was aghast. His thoughts flew to the words of Umar: "Send not the Muslims to their destruction for the sake of plunder." Moreover, this was his first military decision as Commander-in-Chief and if Abdullah and his men were not saved, the effect on the army would be devastating. And who could do the job but the Sword of Allah!
Abu Ubaidah turned to Khalid: "O Father of Sulaiman, I ask you in the name of Allah to go and rescue Abdullah bin Jafar. You are the only one who can do so."
"I shall certainly do so, Allah willing", replied Khalid. "I waited only for your command."
"I felt hesitant to ask you", remarked Abu Ubaidah, alluding to the embarrassment which he felt over the recent change of command.
Khalid continued: "By Allah, if you were to appoint a small child over me, I would obey him. How could I not obey you when you are far above me in Islam and have been named the Trusted One by the Prophet? I could never attain your status. I declare here and now that I have dedicated my life to the way of Allah, Most High."
In a voice choking with emotion, Abu Ubaidah said, "May Allah have mercy upon you, O Father of Sulaiman. Go and save your brothers." 1
Within half an hour the Mobile Guard was galloping in the direction of Abul Quds with Khalid and Dhiraar in the lead. Of course Khalid saved the trapped Muslims, though many of them had been killed by the Romans. And not only that; he also raided the market of Abul Quds and brought back an enviable amount of booty! He also brought back many wounds on his person, but getting wounded was now such an everyday affair in Khalid's life that he took little notice of them.
The result of the action at Abul Quds left no doubt (if there ever was any) about Khalid's reaction to his dismissal. Abu Ubaidah wrote an account of this action to Umar, giving generous praise to Khalid for the part that he had played in it. But the windows through which the light of such praise could shine at Madinah were closed. They would never open again.
This dual change of personalities-the Caliph at Madinah and the Commander-in-Chief in Syria-was to have its effect on the conduct and pace of military operations. Umar's methods were very different from his predecessor's. While Abu Bakr would give his commanders their mission and area of operations and leave to them the conduct of the campaign, Umar would order specific objectives for each battle. Later in his caliphate he would even lay down such details as who should command the left wing, who should command the right wing, and so on. He also started a system of spies to watch his own generals. These spies were placed in all armies and corps, and everything that any officer said or did was promptly reported to the Caliph. 2
1. Waqidi: p. 66.
2. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 658.
Umar confirmed the various corps commanders in the roles allotted to them by Abu Bakr. Amr bin Al Aas would command in Palestine, Yazeed in Damascus, Shurahbil in Jordan and Abu Ubaidah in Emessa-after it was taken. These roles included not only the military command of the various corps, but also political control over the provinces. Thus, for instance, Shurahbil was not only the corps commander for operations in Jordan but also the governor of the District of Jordan. And yet Abu Ubaidah remained the Commander-in-Chief of the army as a whole, although he would command the army only when the corps fought together against the Romans. For Khalid there was no role. By the order of Umar he would operate under Abu Ubaidah, and the latter confirmed him as the commander of the corps of Iraq which included the Mobile Guard. In military status Khalid was equal to the other corps commanders; but politically he was now a nobody.
There was inevitably a slowdown in the pace of operations. Abu Ubaidah was a great man and personally a fearless and skilful fighter. Over the next few years he would also become a good general as a result of Khalid's coaching. He would rely heavily on the advice of Khalid, whom he kept beside him as much as possible, but he never possessed the strategic vision or the tactical perception of Khalid. More often than not, he would hold councils of war or write to Madinah to seek the Caliph's decision regarding his next objective. Whereas Khalid would rush like a tornado from battle to battle, using surprise, audacity and violence to win his battles, Abu Ubaidah would move slowly and steadily. Yet, he too would win his battles.
With this new arrangement, with the mutual respect and affection between Abu Ubaidah and Khalid unimpaired, and with Khalid throwing the great weight of his genius behind the new Commander-in-Chief, the conquest of Syria continued.
1. Waqidi: p. 66.
2. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 658.