Chapter 8: Battle of Hunain
"Assuredly Allah did help you in many battlefields, and on the Day of Hunayn: behold! Your great numbers elated you, but they availed you nothing. The land, for all that it is wide, did constrain you, and you turned back in retreat.
But Allah did pour His calm on the Messenger and on the Believers, and sent down forces which you saw not, and He punished the Unbelievers: Thus does He reward those without Faith. Again will Allah, after this, turn in mercy to whom He will, for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful."
[Quran 9: 25-27]
Hardly had the people of Makkah sworn allegiance to the Prophet and life returned to normal in the town, when hostile winds began to blow from the east. The powerful tribes of the Hawazin and the Thaqeef were on the war-path.
The Hawazin lived in the region north-east of Makkah and the Thaqeef in the area of Taif. They were neighbouring tribes, who now feared that the Muslims, having conquered Makkah, would attack and catch them dispersed in their tribal settlements. To avoid being taken at a disadvantage, they decided to mount an offensive themselves, hoping to benefit from their initiative. The two tribes concentrated at Autas, near Hunain, where they were joined by contingents from several other tribes. This again was a coalition like the one which had assembled for the Battle of the Ditch. The total strength of the assembled tribes was 12,000 men, and the over-all commander was the fiery, 30-year-old Malik bin Auf. This young general decided to make his men fight in a situation of such serious danger that they would fight with the courage of desperation. He ordered the families and the flocks of the tribes to join the men.
Another leader in the coalition was the venerable Duraid bin As-Simma. Hoary with age, this man had lost the strength and vitality to lead men in battle, but he was a sage with a clear mind who accompanied his men wherever they marched; and since he was an experienced veteran, his advice on matters of war was widely sought. His military wisdom was unchallenged.
At Autas the aged Duraid heard the noises which usually, arise wherever families and animals are gathered. He sent for young Malik and asked, "Why do I hear the call of camels, the braying of donkeys, the bleating of goats, the shouting of women and the crying of children?" Malik replied, "I have ordered the families and the flocks to muster with the army. Every man, will fight with his family and his property behind him and thus fight with greater courage."
"Men fight with swords and spears, not with women and children", said Duraid. "Put the families and the flocks at a safe distance from the field of battle. If we win, they can join us. If we lose, at least they shall be safe."
Malik took this as a challenge to his judgement and his, ability to command the army. "I shall not send them away", he bristled. "You have grown senile and your brain is weak." At this Duraid withdrew from the argument and decided to let Malik have his way. Malik then returned to his officers and, said, "When you attack, attack as one man. As our attack begins, let all scabbards be broken." 1 This breaking of scabbards was practised by the Arabs to signify an attitude of suicidal desperation.
As it happened only the Hawazin brought their families and their flocks to the camp. Other tribes did not do so.
The Prophet did not want any more bloodshed, but had, no choice except to set out to face this new enemy. He had no intention of waiting for another coalition to form against him and attack him as had happened three years before at the Battle of the Ditch. Moreover, if he waited on the defensive in Makkah and the enemy remained poised at Autas, the situation would lead to a stalemate which could last for months; and the Prophet could not afford to waste all that time. He had to attend to organisational matters and set about the conversion of the tribes of Arabia while the psychological impact of the fall of Makkah was still fresh in the minds of the Arabs. With a large hostile concentration at Autas, he would not be able to carry out these tasks. In any case, a strong enemy challenge to his authority at this stage would reduce the impact the Muslim conquest of Makkah had made on the Arab mind. This challenge had to be met. This opposition had to be crushed. The Prophet's decision to advance from Makkah created the unusual situation of both sides moving forward to fight an offensive battle.
On January 27, 630 (the 6th of Shawal, 8 Hijri), the Muslims set out from Makkah. The army consisted of the original 10,000 men who had conquered Makkah plus 2,000 new converts from among the Makkans. These new Muslims were of doubtful value as Islam had not really entered their hearts; they had come because they supposed that this was the right thing to do. Among them were Abu Sufyan and Safwan bin Umayyah. The latter had been given four months in which to make up his mind about the new faith, but was now favourably inclined towards the Prophet and had gone so far as to lend the Muslims 100 coats of mail for the forthcoming battle.
1. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, pp. 438-9.
The Muslim advance from Makkah was led by a contingent of 700 men from the Bani Sulaim, operating under the command of Khalid. During the evening of January 31, the Muslims arrived in the Valley of Hunain and established their camp.
Hunain is a valley running from Shara'i-ul-Mujahid (new), which is 11 miles east-north-east of Makkah, to Shara'i Nakhla (old) which is 7 miles further east. The valley continues eastwards for another 7 miles and then turns north towards Zaima. (None of these places were then in existence.) Between the Shara'i's the valley is quite wide, about 2 miles in most places, but beyond the old Shara'i it narrows down to between a quarter and a half-mile, and as it approaches Zaima it gets narrower still. It is this second portion of the Hunain Valley which is a defile, and the defile is narrowest near Zaima. Beyond Zaima the Taif route winds into the Wadi Nakhlat-ul-Yamaniya. (See Map 6.)
While the Muslims were moving towards Hunain, each side had sent out agents to get information about the other side. Both sides were well informed of opposing strengths, locations and movements. An agent sent by the Prophet mixed with the Hawazin at Autas, got to know the exact strength of the coalition and slipped out unseen to give this information to the Prophet. When he gave his report, Umar was also present, and for some reason did not believe the intelligence conveyed by the agent. He called the agent a liar, whereupon the agent replied, "If you call me a liar, you call the truth falsehood. And you had called a liar one who is better than me." The man was alluding to the time when Umar, before his conversion, was a violent enemy of the Prophet.
Umar suddenly turned to the Prophet and said, "Did you hear that?" "Steady, O Umar!" replied the Prophet. "You were once misguided, and Allah showed you the way." 1 Umar said no more.
As the Muslims arrived at their new camp in the Hunain Valley, news of their arrival was conveyed to Malik bin Auf by his agents. He guessed that the Muslims would know that his army was at Autas, and would expect to fight him at or near Autas. And he put into effect his plan to outwit the Muslims.
Before dawn on February 1, 630 (the 11th of Shawal, 8 Hijri) the Muslims formed up in marching order to advance to Autas where they expected to engage the enemy. It was their intention to get through the defile of Hunain before the enemy came to know of their movement. The advance guard again consisted of the Bani Sulaim under Khalid, and behind it marched various Muslim units, including the group of 2,000 Makkans. The camp was left standing as the base of the operation.
As the first glow of dawn appeared in the eastern sky, the advance guard entered the defile (about 2 miles short of Zaima.) Eagerly anticipating a lively battle with a surprised enemy at Autas, Khalid increased his pace. And then the storm broke!
Khalid was the first to receive the shock of the ambush. The quiet of the dawn was shattered by a thousand piercing yells, and the arrows came not in tens or twenties but in hundreds. They came like hailstones, whistling and hissing, striking horse and man. The Bani Sulaim did not stop to act against the enemy. They did not stop to think or take cover. They turned as one man and bolted. Khalid's shouts to his men to stand fast were lost in the noise and confusion. He himself was badly wounded and was carried away with the tide of fleeing men and horses; but after riding a short distance he fell off his horse and lay still, unable to move because of his wounds.
As the Bani Sulaim turned in panic and fled, they ran into other units which occupied the narrow track, who now became aware that something terrible had happened. The half-hearted Makkans turned and joined the flight, followed by several other Muslim units. Some of the Muslims fled to the camp, but the majority of them merely dispersed and took cover some distance behind the scene of the ambush on the other side of the track. No one knew quite what happened. The confusion increased as camel mounted camel and horses and men ran into each other in a blind urge to get away.
1. Ibn Hisham: Vol.2, p. 440.
Malik bin Auf had surprised his would-be surprisers. During the night he had moved his army into the defile of Hunain which allowed no room for manoeuvre. His men moved into position on both sides of the track and hid behind boulders and in broken ground which afforded excellent cover. In front were the Hawazin, with a few groups of Thaqeef. Then came the Thaqeef and behind them were other tribal contingents. Malik had devised a masterly plan. He had delayed his move till after dusk, so that the Muslims would continue to believe that his army was at Autas, and then placed it in ambush in the defile of Hunain with the intention of annihilating the Muslims or driving them back in panic to Makkah and beyond. Behind the site of the ambush was a narrow pass 1 to which Malik could withdraw in case the battle did not go according to his plan. As long as this pass was secure, the Muslims would not be able to advance to Autas, Malik's base.
Most of the new Meccan converts were delighted at this setback to the Muslims. Abu Sufyan remarked, "This retreat will not stop until they get to the sea!" Present with Safwan bin Umayyah was his half-brother, who said, "Now the sorcery of Muhammad will be exposed." "Silence!" Safwan snapped at him. "May Allah break your mouth! I would rather see a man of the Quraish ruling over us than a man of the Hawazin!" 2
The Prophet was left standing on the track with nine of his Companions, including Ali, Abu Bakr, Umar, and Abbas. As the Muslims ran past, he shouted to them, "O Muslims! I am here! I, the Messenger of Allah! I, Muhammad, son of Abdullah!" 3 But his cries were of no avail. The leading elements of the Hawazin got to the place where the Prophet stood, and here Ali brought down the first infidel to fall at Hunain-a man mounted on a red camel, carrying a long lance at the end of which flew a black pennant. This man was chasing the Muslims as they fled. Ali pursued the man, along with a fellow Muslim, and catching up with him cut the tendons of the camel's hind legs with his sword. The infidel fell with the camel, and the other Muslim cut off his head.
The Prophet now moved towards the right with his group and took shelter on a rocky spur. A few men of the Thaqeef came towards the Prophet's group, but were driven back by the Companions.
Malik bin Auf had done to the Muslims what no one had ever done before. For the Muslims this was the first, and bitter, experience of being ambushed, and many of them lost their heads and fled from the scene of action. In such a situation, however, the bravest are wont to panic.
Malik had struck brilliantly; but unfortunately for him, his men had not performed as expertly as he had hoped. They had not waited until the main body of the Muslims had entered the trap, but had opened up when just the advance guard was in their field of fire. And Malik now made the mistake of being satisfied with what he had achieved so far; beyond advancing a few hundred yards he made no attempt to pursue the Muslims. If he had done so, the story of this battle might have read differently. Moreover, the archery of the Hawazin was extremely poor. While several Muslims and their mounts were wounded, none were killed in the ambush.
The Holy Prophet surveyed the scene before him, and the scene was anything but promising. He decided not to let Malik get away with such an easy victory. He turned to Abbas and ordered him to call the Muslims to rally around him. Abbas was a large man with a powerful voice which, according to some accounts, could be heard miles away. Now he yelled at the top of his voice: "O Muslims! Come to the Messenger of Allah! O Ansar…O Companions…O …" He called each tribe in turn to report to the Prophet.
The call was heard by most of the Muslims and they at once began to move to where the Prophet stood. As soon as the first 100 men had gathered beside the Prophet, he ordered a counter?attack. These men assailed those of the Hawazin who were nearest to the Prophet and drove them back. Soon the assembling Muslims increased in number until thousands of them had rejoined the Prophet. When the Prophet felt that sufficient strength had been gathered around him, he ordered a general attack against the Hawazin.
I have not been able to place this pass. It was probably at or near Zaima.
2. Ibn Hisham: Vol.2 pp. 443-5.
This time it was Malik who was surprised. Having been certain that victory was his, he now found that his own army was under attack. The hand-to-hand fighting became more desperate, and this is just what the Muslims wanted, for in this sort of violent fighting their superiority in swordsmanship put the odds in their favour. In close-quarter battle the Muslims had no equal. Gradually the Hawazin were pressed back and as the Prophet saw their men fall before the onslaught of the Muslims, he affirmed
"In truth, I am the Prophet,
I the son of Abdul Muttalib."
He then turned to those who stood next to him and remarked, "Now the oven heats up!" 1
Malik decided that he was getting the worst of the fighting and put his withdrawal plan in action. The Thaqeef were already in position a short distance behind the Hawazin. Leaving the Thaqeef to act as a rearguard, he pulled the Hawazin back to safety. The Muslims moved forward and made contact with the Thaqeef, who now began to receive heavy punishment from the Believers. Soon after this contact, the Thaqeef turned and took to their heels, followed by other tribal contingents, some of which had taken no part in the fighting. In the mean time Malik had got the Hawazin safely to the pass, and here he deployed them to fight a defensive battle while waiting for stragglers to catch up. As long as he held this pass, the families and the flocks of the Hawazin were safe.
The Muslims had not only recovered from the shock of the ambush but had counter-attacked, regained their position and driven the enemy from the battlefield. This was a tactical victory, but more was to come.
While the Muslims were stripping the Thaqeef dead of their weapons and clothing, an interesting incident involving two Muslims took place. One was an Ansar from Madinah and the other a man by the name of Mugheerah bin Shu'ba, who belonged to the tribe of Thaqeef. Among the Thaqeef dead was a Christian slave who had died beside his master. As the Ansar stripped this slave, he noticed that the dead man was not circumcised. Amazed at this discovery, for circumcision was a universal practice among the Arabs, he called aloud to those who stood around him: "O Arabs! Did you know that the Thaqeef are not circumcised?" Mugheerah, who stood next to the Ansar, was horrified to hear this, as the spread of such a report would mean disgrace for the Thaqeef. He knew the dead slave and could understand how the misunderstanding had arisen. "Don't say that!" he hissed at the Ansar. "This man was a Christian slave."
"No, he was not", insisted the Ansar. "I am sure that he is one of the Thaqeef." And he remained unconvinced until Mugheerah had undressed several bodies of the Thaqeef and pointed out familiar signs! 2
The Muslim army having fully re-assembled, except for a few who had fled, the Prophet decided to press his advantage. He organised a strong cavalry group and sent it forward to clear the valley before the Hawazin had time to recover and reorganise. This group was formed of several contingents, including the Bani Sulaim, over whom Khalid had regained control. Khalid had missed the Muslim counter-attack. He had lain where he fell in the flight of the Bani Sulaim until the counter-attack was over. Then the Holy Prophet came to him and blew upon his wounds, whereupon Khalid arose, feeling strengthened and fit for battle again. 3 He quickly got the Bani Sulaim together.
The entire group was placed under command of Zubair bin Al Awwam, who now advanced along the valley and contacted Malik at the pass. After a short, brisk engagement, Malik was driven off the pass. The whole valley was now in Muslim hands. The Prophet left Zubair's mounted group at the pass, to hold it as a firm base and guard it against a possible return of the Hawazin, and sent another group under Abu Amir to Autas. This was the camp of the Hawazin, who on being driven off the pass had taken up positions around the camp to defend their families and flocks. On the arrival of the Muslims, a fierce clash took place at Autas. Abu Amir killed nine men in personal combat and was killed by his tenth adversary, whereupon the command of the Muslim group was taken over by his cousin, Abu Musa, who continued the attack on Autas until the Hawazin broke and fled. The camp of the Hawazin fell into Muslim hands, and here this Muslim group was joined by the cavalry group of Zubair, with Khalid in the lead.
1. Ibn Sad: p. 665.
2. Ibn Hisham: Vol. 2, p. 450.
3. Isfahani: Vol. 15, p. 11.
The enemy coalition had now completely disintegrated. The Hawazin and other tribes dispersed to their various settlements while the Thaqeef, led by Malik, hastened to Taif where they decided to resist till the bitter end. The Battle of Hunain was over. Muslim casualties in this battle were surprisingly few, thanks to the indifferent archery of the Hawazin. While many Muslims had been wounded, only four lost their lives. The reason for this lay in the superior skill and courage of the Muslims, which enabled their champions to take on three or four opponents at a time, killing them one by one. Seventy of the unbelievers were killed in the valley, at the pass and at Autas, and these included the sage, Duraid, who had given such sound advice but in vain. In the enemy camp at Autas, the Muslims captured 6,000 women, children and slaves and thousands of camels, goats and sheep. 1
This was the first time that the Muslims had been ambushed in a large?scale operation by their enemies. This was the second instance in history of the ambush of an entire army by an entire army (the first being the ambush of the Romans by Hannibal at Lake Trasimene in 217 B.C.). Malik had made a brilliant and flawless plan to annihilate the Muslims, but because of the poor performance of his men could not achieve the mission that he had set himself. In spite of this poor performance, however, he would have won a resounding victory had his enemy not been the Muslims. It was the determination of the Prophet not to accept defeat, and the faith of the Muslims in their leader, which turned defeat into victory for them. Unlike Malik, the Prophet was not content with a limited gain and pressed his advantage to rout the enemy and capture the entire enemy camp with all its booty.
This was the first time that Khalid had been taken by surprise. He had always known the value of surprise, but this time he had been at the receiving end of it. He saw how his otherwise brave men had panicked at the sudden appearance of the enemy at an unexpected time and an unexpected place. He made up his mind never again to be caught unawares. And he never was.
1. No one today knows the location of Autas, but it must have been in the valley proper, as a camp with 6,000 people (excluding soldiers) and thousands of camels, goats and sheep could not be established on a hillside or in some little wadi. I have placed it a little beyond Zaima, but it could have been elsewhere.