middle east

Khalid ibn al-Walid, the “Sword of God”

Khalid ibn al-Walid

I’ve always been fascinated by Khalid ibn al-Walid. He is a sort of folk hero in the early Islamic tradition. Nicknamed the “Sword of God,” he is credited with helping spread Islam in the days of the prophet and after his death.

Outside of the old texts, I’ve only found one biography about him, written by a Pakistani General in 1969.

Inside the tradition, he is described as being a fearless warrior. Today, his name often appears alongside modern day Islamic radicals as a source of inspiration, as it did in the 2011 shooting of US Airmen in Germany.

The site of al-Walid’s mausoleum in Syria was being used as a headquarters for anti-Syrian rebels until it was wrestled away from them last summer.

While in graduate school, I wrote a paper on the way he is depicted in the Islamic tradition (read here). At times, al-Walid is revered as a magnificent warrior, while simultaneously disdained for being reckless. Here are some of the excerpts from that paper that readers of this blog might find interesting:

According to al-Waqidi, after the three appointed Muslim commanders were killed, Khalid assumed command and rallied the shaken Muslim troops bringing the battle to a draw.  The maghazi details the tactics Khalid uses to effect the outcome, such as making it appear [to the Byzantines] that Muslim reinforcements were arriving by circling his troops and changing the color of their [the Muslims’] banners.  These depictions seem to be an attempt to highlight Khalid’s military prowess and skill as a tactician. 

After being publicly censured for killing some prisoners:

Although the misdeed appears to be serious, Khalid is not dismissed and faced no real punishment.  In relation to this event, al-Waqidi informs us that Muhammad says (presumably later) “Do not curse Khalid b. al-Walid for surely he is one of the swords of God who drew his sword against the polytheists!”  Khalid’s actions are not explained away, but they appear to be tolerated given his overall service to the Muslims.

On Khalid’s dedication to the prophet and military prowess:

The last narrative in the maghazi concerning Khalid’s actions against the B. Jadhima eulogize Khalid by denoting in quick sequence the highlights of his career.  These include Khalid’s panic when his cap fell from his head in the midst of battle, and he ignored the battle to find his headgear, which contained a forelock of the Prophet’s hair.  Upon Khalid’s death, an attendant describes his body saying “no part of him was left unmarked by either a blow from a  sword, the piercing of a spear or the throw of an arrow head.”  Lastly, al-Waqidi claims that Umar forgives Khalid for his actions, saying “He was one of the swords of God!”

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