3/13/13

Battle of the Wells of Badr: Muhammad's Great Victory in 624

On March 20th in the year 624, Islamic prophet and general Muhammad defeated his Meccan (Quraysh) enemies at the wells of Badr southwest of Medina (in what is today Saudi Arabia), in one of the most important battles and decisive victories in the early history of Islam. As the Prophet Muhammad (b.570-d.632) gained followers he gained enemies as well, especially amongst the various tribes of Medina and the outer lying provinces around Mecca and later Medina.

Charge of the Muslims at Badr by the Persian historian Rashid-al-Din (b.1247-1318)

Both the sedentary and nomadic peoples of these regions feared Muhammad’s growing influence, these kuffār (or kafirs, Arabic for unbeliever or infidel) being the greatest threat to the growth of Islam as a major religion. Long persecuted by the Quraysh and the smaller associated tribes near Mecca, the growing Muslim population and its military apparatus, prepared for an inevitable clash with their neighbors after the Prophet and his followers fled Mecca in 622.

The Muslim-Quraysh conflict begins: A War of Faith and Caravans

Quraysh caravans setting out from Mecca were laden with riches and trade goods as they traveled throughout the region on their long journey to and from Syria. This made the merchant tribal leaders ideal targets for opportunistic bandits and raiders looking to plunder these often lightly protected traders. In time, the Muslims would come to attack these same caravans from Mecca. One of the most avowed Meccan enemies of the Muslims at this time, both a caravan merchant and general in his own right, was Sakhr ibn Harb (b.560-652), known better as Abu Sufyan. Another great enemy of Mohammed’s army was Abu al-Hakam, a Meccan wise-man and political leader, known as Abu Jahl (father of ignorance) to the followers of the Prophet.

Very minor skirmishes and duels had been fought between the Muslims of Medina and the Quraysh of Mecca before the battle that would take place at the wells of Badr. Many of these were a series of attacks by the Muslims who had looked to grab some of the plentiful economic largess residing in Mecca and amongst the Quraysh tribes, known as the Caravan Raids, there were more than ten major Muslim raids launched from 623-629.

The Battle at Badr itself came about because the coin-poor Muslims needed to replenish their coffers after loosing most of their wealth when the Prophet fled under violence from Mecca. Muhammad knew from his scouts’ reports (intelligence) that Abu Sufyan had a caravan carrying upwards to 50,000 gold dinar, a relative fortune today as it was then. He was determined to strike out against this rich laden caravan. As it happened Muhammed's followers attacked and plunder these Meccan caravans for both revenge and a very practical source of income.

Muhammads' Caravan raids of the 620's

Likewise Abu Sufyan had his own scouts and spies reporting (counterintelligence) that Muhammad and the Muslims would be looking to ambush his caravan, as a result he was reinforced soon after by 1300-1500 men, including 100 cavalry with a camel or two for each rider, and 600 infantry, armed to the standard of the day in chainmail, defending himself with sword, shield, spear, and bow. The army of Mohammed as traditional holds was very meagerly armed; most soldiers armed with only one weapon; some not armed at all or armed with totally inferior weapons.

Mostly an infantry force, the Muslims had only two horses and some 70 camels amongst their army of 300-315 men, most of whom had volunteered to fight for the Prophet out of personal loyalty. The majority of these men were actually from Mecca, emigrants who fled with the Muslims in 622, nevertheless an important component (and manpower resource) for Muhammad. On paper immediately before the Battle of Badr the Muslims looked to be easily defeated by their Meccan enemies.

The Battle

Through great deliberations with his war council including his father-in-law the respected Abu Bakr (d.634), Muhammad agreed that a battle would be fought against the polytheists, these pagans who denied Allah, the prophets own teachings, and who threatened his people with the lose of property & death. The Muslim army marched to the wells outside Badr where the first clashes of the battle began, between what we can assume were skirmishing men of foot or camel outriders from both sides, breaking spears and exchanging arrows.

Battlemap for the Battle of Badr, March 624

The Battle of Badr began traditionally with a series of individual duels, with both sides sending their most accomplished or senior warriors to kill the other sides champion. Fought in a somewhat ritualized manner, the main spectacle of the pre-battle engagement involved three of Muhammad's champions, his uncle Hamza, his cousin Ubadiah al-Harith, and an emigrant named Ali ibn Abi Talib, then called by some the ‘young lion’, known later as Ali the Magnificent. Ali fought bravely in the coming in the Battle of Badr, with many stories and chronicles telling reflecting a body count of over or just below twenty men slain by his hand alone during the fight.

In the first tilt Ali killed Al-Walid bin Utbah, a Meccan warrior known for his skill and ferocity. Moments later Hamza killed another Meccan named Shaiba, however Ubadiah was mortally wounded with Hamza avenging him only seconds later, removing Utbah, the father-in-law of Abu Sufyan’s head with a swing of his sword. Ubadiah, marking himself for battle by wearing a purple ostrich plume in his helmet, had lost his leg in the duel; his comrades carrying him back to the Muslim lines. The first casualty of the battle, Ubadiah would die a martyr days later from his wound. (The Sealed Nectar, al-Mubarakpuri)

Muslim cavalry c.624 by a Persian artist

Enraged by their poor showing in the duels (these famous examples being only three of the many presumably fought before the battle) the Meccan army of Abu Sufyan attacked the Muslim battle lines. Repeated assaults by the Meccans were met with a stubborn defense; we can imagine that the Muslims defended in a sort of phalanx, using spear and shield up-close to turn back their charging enemies. There was at least three full-scale assaults on the Muslim formation, with infantry charging forward and cavalry skirmishing on the flanks attempting to break Muhammad's lines.

Traditional Islamic views hold that angels came from heaven to reinforce Mohammed’s army-certainly his men did use both divine inspiration as well as the Meccans own over-eagerness to defeat them. Coupled with the inspiration and sharp judgment of Mohammed and his closest advisers, and the bravery of his fighting men,  the Muslim “300” stood strong.

Despite having cavalry and a better armed and trained force, the polytheists were turned back by the Muslim army. Sensing that the Meccan assault was broken, Muhammad signaled for his faithful to ready their arms and to charge the enemy. In the ensuing rout the majority of the Meccans fled the field, hundreds wounded and perhaps that many killed, with more than fifty taken captive (and either ransomed later or converted).

The Battle of Badr ended symbolically when the head of Abu Jahl was presented to Muhammad by Abdullah son of Masud, a former shepherd who worked for Abu Jahl. Muhammad upon seeing the corpse of his former pagan enemy remarked, “This is the Pharaoh of this nation”. Though one victory had not made him a conqueror yet, Muhammad had won his first major victory, tactically defeating an enemy that outnumbered his 3 to 1, first proving to many of the tribes of Arabia that he and his movement were a legitimate power-base in the region. For Muhammad and his followers the Battle of Badr was just one great victory in the centuries of warfare to come with the nonbelievers .


Major Battles of Muhammad’s Military Career

623-629-Meccan Caravan Raids, Muslim raids on the Meccan-Quraysh caravans.

624-Battle of Badr, Muhammad's first major victory over the pagan tribes of Arabia fought at the wells outside Badr. The Muslims routed the army of Mecca and Abu Sufyan's caravan.

625-Battle of Uhud, a much larger battle front near Mount Uhud where the Muslims were defeated and Muhammad injured, with rumors of his death spreading. Many Muslims were killed or injured in the battle, their army all but routed by Abu Sufyans' Meccans.

627-Siege of Medina, known also as the Battle of Trench or the Battle of the Confederates. Medina attacked and then put to siege by an allied army as large as 10,000 men, consisting of militants from Mecca and from the Arab/Jewish tribes hostile to Muslim expansion commanded by Abu Sufyan. Muhammad's forces lift the siege and defeat the Confederate army.

629-Battle of Khaybar, Mohammed and Ali’s army besieged the fortress of Khaybar in an Oasis north of Medina. Inhabited by Jews for many years, merchants and traders who had paid the jizyah (non-Muslim tax), and the Banu Nadir, a tribe long enemies of the Muslims. The Banu Nadirs mere presence in the region was a key reason for a Muslim campaign. After taking most of fortresses towers and then the city itself, Mohammed's men were amazed to find the wealth inside the city including a siege machine and immense stockpiles of fine cloths, linens, and other luxury items which had been traded throughout the region with Christians, Muslims, and Pagans alike.

December, Conquest of Mecca by the Muslims. Mohammed is merciful with his long-time enemies, ordering them to relinquish the city and destroy their pagan idols, but nothing else. Abu Sufyan converts to Islam accepting Allah and renouncing his old gods.

630-Battle of Hunayn, Mohammed defeats the Bedouin tribes, Hawazin and Thaqif in a valley outside Mecca, making over 6,000 women and children prisoner, capturing over 20,000 camels in the rout. However many Bedouin escape, forcing Mohammed to fight two more battles at Autas and at the siege of Ta'if, both strategic failures for the Muslims.

Muhammad enters Mecca in December 629

Recommended Further Reading

The Sealed Nectar, Biography of the Noble Prophet. Revised Addition, written by Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri (Dar-us-Salam Publishers, Houston, Texas, 2002).

In Defence of the True Faith: Battles, Expeditions & Peace Treaties during the Prophet's Life written by Imam Ibn Kathir, compiled and revised by Yoosuf Al-Hajj Ahmad. 327 pgs. (Darussalam).

Muhammad: Islam's First Great General (Campaigns and Commanders series) written by Richard A. Gabriel.

2 comments:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    ReplyDelete