Chapter 6: Mutah and the Sword of Allah
"What an excellent slave of Allah: Khalid ibn al-Walid, one of the swords of Allah, unleashed against the unbelievers!"
[Prophet Muhammad (SAWS)]1
Three months after his arrival at Madinah, Khalid got his chance to show what he could do as a soldier and a commander for the faith which he had just embraced. The Prophet had sent an envoy to the Ghassan 2 Chieftain of Busra, with a letter inviting him to join Islam. While passing through Mutah this envoy was intercepted and killed by a local Ghassan chieftain by the name of Shurahbil bin Amr. This was a heinous crime among the Arabs, for diplomatic envoys held traditional immunity from attack no matter how hostile a power they represented. The news of this outrage inflamed Madinah.
An expedition was immediately prepared to take punitive action against the Ghassan, and the Prophet appointed Zaid bin Harithah as the commander of the force. If he were killed, the command was to be taken over by Jafar bin Abi Talib. If he were killed, the command would devolve upon Abdullah bin Rawahah. Having appointed these officers in the chain of command, the Prophet said, "If all three of these are killed, let the men select a commander from among themselves." 3
The expeditionary force consisted of 3,000 men, one of whom was Khalid, serving as a soldier in the ranks. The mission the Prophet gave to Zaid was to seek out and kill the person responsible for the murder of the Muslim envoy, and to offer Islam to the people of Mutah. If they accepted Islam, they were not to be harmed. At the time this force was sent out the Muslims had no knowledge of the enemy strength that they would have to deal with.
Spirits were high as the expeditionary force began its march from Madinah. When the force arrived at Ma'an, reports were received for the first time that Heraclius, the Eastern Roman Emperor, was in Jordan with "100,000 Romans" and had been joined by "100,000 Christian Arabs"-mainly from the Ghassan. The Muslims remained in Ma'an for two days debating their next move. There was a certain amount of hesitation and nervousness. Some suggested that the Prophet be informed of the large strength of the enemy so that he could give them fresh orders on what course of action they should adopt; but Abdullah bin Rawahah (the third?in?command) did not agree with this suggestion, as it would entail unnecessary delay and would give the impression that the Muslims were afraid. He recited a few verses and made a stirring speech to raise the spirits of the men. He concluded by saying, "Men fight not with numbers or weapons but with faith. By going into battle we have a choice of two glorious alternatives: victory and martyrdom." 4 This speech dispelled all doubt from the minds of the Muslims, and they promptly resumed their march towards Syria.
The Muslims reached a place near the frontier of Balqa-a district in the east of what is now Jordan-where they made contact with a large force of Christian Arabs. Not finding this place suitable for battle, the Muslim commander withdrew his force to Mutah. The Christian Arabs followed the Muslims, and the two forces again met at Mutah. Both sides now decided to fight. It was the second week of September 29 (the third week of Jamadi-ul-Awwal, 8 Hijri).
Zaid deployed his force in the normal pattern of a centre and two wings. The right wing was commanded by Qutba bin Qatadah and the left wing by Ubaya bin Malik. Zaid himself commanded the centre, and in the centre, too, was Khalid. The battlefield lay to the east of, and stretched up to about a mile from, the present village of Mutah. The ground here was even, but had a slight undulation, and the gentle slope of a low ridge rose behind the Muslims as they faced the Christian Arabs to the north. 5
1. Tirmidhi and Ahmad from Abu Hurayrah, Sahih Al-Jami’ Al-Saghir No. 6776.
2. A large and powerful tribe inhabiting Syria and Jordan.
3. Ibn Sad: p. 636.
4. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, p. 375.
5. A new mosque is being built by the Jordanian Government to mark the site of this battle.
The Christian Arabs, who were commanded by Malik bin Zafila, formed themselves into a deep mass confronting the Muslims. Some historians have given their strength as 100,000, while others have doubled that figure. These estimates are clearly mistaken. The enemy probably consisted of between 10 and 15 thousand men. In this battle the Muslims failed to gain a victory. If the enemy had been only twice their strength, they would undoubtedly have thrashed him; and an enemy had to be many times their strength to, inflict a defeat on them. It is largely on this basis that the above estimate of the enemy's strength is made.
The battle began, and both armies very quickly got to grips with each other. This was essentially a battle of guts and stamina rather than military skill. The commander himself fought at the head of his men with his standard, and after a short while Zaid was killed. As the standard fell from his hands, the second?in?command, Jafar, picked it up and continued fighting at the head of the army. After his body had been covered with scores of wounds, Jafar also fell; and the standard went down for the second time. This distressed the Muslims, for Jafar was held in great esteem and affection as a cousin of the Prophet. A certain amount of confusion became noticeable among the Muslims, but soon the third?in?command, Abdullah bin Rawahah, picked up the standard and restored order. He continued to fight until he also was killed.
Now there was real disorder in the ranks of the Muslims. A few of them fled from the scene of battle, but stopped not far from the battlefield. Others continued to offer confused resistance in twos and threes and larger groups. Fortunately the enemy did not press his advantage, for had he done so the Muslims, without a commander, could easily have been routed. Perhaps the gallantry of the Muslim commanders and the valour with which the Muslims had fought made the enemy overcautious and discouraged him from taking bold action.
When Abdullah had fallen, the standard was picked up by Thabit bin Arqam, who raised his voice and shouted, "O Muslims, agree upon a man from among you to be the commander." He then spied Khalid, who stood next to him, and offered him the standard. Khalid was conscious of the fact that as a new convert he did not hold a high position among the Muslims, and Thabit bin Arqam was a Muslim of long standing. This consideration was important. He declined the offer of Thabit, saying: "You are more deserving than I" "Not I," replied Thabit, "and none but you!" 1 This was really a windfall for the Muslims, for they knew of the personal courage and military ability of Khalid. They all agreed to his appointment, and Khalid took the standard and assumed command.
The situation now was serious and could easily have taken a turn for the worse, leading, rapidly to the total defeat of the Muslims. The commanders before Khalid had shown more valour than judgement in fighting this battle. Khalid regained control over his small army and organized it into a neatly deployed fighting force. He was faced with three choices. The first was to withdraw and save the Muslims from destruction, but this might be regarded as a defeat and he would then be blamed for having brought disgrace to Muslim arms. The second was to stay on the defensive and continue fighting; in this case the superior strength of the enemy would eventually tell and the battle end in defeat. The third was to attack and throw the enemy off balance, thus gaining more time in which to study the situation and plan the best course of action. The last choice was closest to the nature of Khalid, and this is the course that he adopted.
The Muslims attacked fiercely along the entire front. They surged forward with Khalid in the lead. The example of Khalid gave fresh courage to the Muslims, and the battle increased in violence. For some time desperate hand?to?hand fighting continued; then Qutba, commanding the Muslim right, dashed forward and killed the Christian commander, Malik, in a duel. This resulted in a setback for the enemy and led to, a certain amount of confusion. The Christian Arabs now pulled back, still fighting, with a view to gaining time for reorganization. At this moment Khalid had his tenth sword in his hand, having broken nine in fierce combat.
1. Ibn Sad: p. 638.
As the Christian Arabs stepped back, Khalid restrained the Muslims and broke contact, pulling his force back a short distance. The two armies now faced each other out of bow range, both seeking time to rest and reorganize. This last round of the battle had ended in favour of the Muslims of whom so far only 12 had been killed. There is no record of enemy casualties but they must have been considerable, for each of the Muslim commanders before Khalid was a brave and skilful fighter and the nine swords that Khalid broke were broken on the bodies of Christian Arabs. The situation, however, offered no further prospect of success. Khalid had averted a shameful and bloody defeat and saved the Muslims from disgrace and disaster; he could do no more. That night Khalid withdrew his army from Mutah and began his return journey to Madinah.
The news of the return of the expedition preceded it at Madinah, and the Prophet and those Muslims who had remained in Madinah set out to meet the returning soldiers. The Muslims were in an ugly temper, for never since the Battle of Uhud had a Muslim force broken contact with the enemy and left him in possession of the battlefield. As the army arrived among the Muslims, they began to throw dust into the faces of the soldiers.
"O you who have fled!" they cried. "You have fled from the way of Allah." The Prophet restrained them and said, "They have not fled. They shall return to fight, if Allah wills it." 1 Then the Prophet raised his voice and shouted, "Khalid is the Sword of Allah." 2
Later the resentment against Khalid died down, and the Muslims realised the wisdom, judgement and courage which he had shown in the Battle of Mutah. And the name stuck to Khalid. He now became known as Saifullah, i.e. Sword of Allah. When the Prophet gave Khalid this title, he virtually guaranteed his success in future battles.
Some historians have described the battle of Mutah as a victory for the Muslims; others have called it a defeat. As a matter of fact it was neither. It was a drawn battle; but drawn in favour of the Christians, for the Muslims withdrew from the battlefield and left it in possession of their opponents. It was not a big battle; it was not even a very important one. But it gave Khalid an opportunity to show his skill as an independent commander; and it gained him the title of the Sword of Allah.
1. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, p. 382.
2. Waqidi: Maghazi, p. 322.