Female Champion of the Rashidun Caliphate

Parvez Mahmood on the life and legend of Khawla bint Al-Azwar (RA), who went to war against the Byzantines and may have died in a plague

Female Champion of the Rashidun Caliphate
In March of this year, when Aurat March and Convid-19 are making the headlines and some quarters have tangled up both these matters with Islam, I am reminded of a woman in the early history of Islam whose story is related to both these issues.

Khawla bint al-Azwar (RA) came to public attention when Muslim armies were engaged with the conquest of Syria soon after death of the Prophet (PBUH). Her name is as pertinent in the Arab world today as it has been in the preceding fourteen centuries. In Saudi Arabia, many streets and schools are named after her, as are numerous schools and institutions across the Arab world. It also continues to be a popular name for Arab Muslim girls. USA Today reported in July 2005 that an Iraqi all-women military unit had been named after her. The Khawla bint Al-Azwar Military School is a training facility for women in Abu Dhabi established in the previous decade. Jordan issued a stamp in 1981 in her honour as part of the “Arab Women in History” series. She is also mentioned in many school course books. The internet has several references to her.

In the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent, the name has not gained popularity because it projects a female image that is rejected by an orthodox clergy that masquerades as Islamic but is in fact influenced by local misogynistic traditions.

Plagues like that of Imwas struck populations repeatedly. This Byzantine-era basilica was never completed - due to a 6th century plague

She fought with such gallantry that many of the Muslim soldiers thought that Khawlah was Khalid himself – until Khalid appeared

Khawla was daughter of Azwar, a chief of the Banu Asad tribe of Makkah. The tribe held a prestigious position in the hierarchy of Makkah and were believed to have installed the principal idol of Hubal in the Kaabah. They were linked to all the major tribes of Makkah, including the Quraish through marriages and took a significant part in the conquest of Iran and Syria.

Khawla’s brother Al-Zarrar (RA), who is an essential part of this story, was an important Companion and a notable commander. The family was an early convert to Islam. After the Battle of Trench, Zarrar was sent to his tribe to invite them to the new faith.

It is reported that the brother and sister pair had great sibling affinity and Khawla had decided to accompany Zarrar in his campaigns as a medical-nurse to take care of the injured and the sick. Her fighting abilities, however, first became evident in the battles against the Byzantine forces.

Zarrar remained a favourite commander of Khalid bin Walid (RA) and joined him in all his campaigns including the Ridda wars against apostasy. He was known for his tendency to plunge in to a battle without upper clothes or armour. He is honoured in Pakistan by a Main Battle Tank ‘Al-Zarrar’ and a SSG unit ‘Zarrar Company’ named after him.

He later accompanied Khalid on the Iraq campaign. He was part of the small army that undertook the difficult crossing of the Iraqi desert from east to west in April 634 that placed Khalid behind Byzantine forces north of Damascus and enabled him to conquer Palestine, Jordan and Syria in quick succession. If Khawla had been with her brother, as has been reported, she must have made the punishing desert crossing that has been acknowledged as a memorable feat of military endurance.

Jordanian stamp honouring Khawla bint Al-Azwar

Nearly 25,000 Muslim soldiers perished in the plague

The first major Muslim battle and victory against the Byzantine was fought at Ajnadayn, somewhere in the Ella Valley in modern-day Israel and the West Bank. Lord Kitchener, the future British Field Marshal, described the region as one of the most fertile districts in Palestine while conducting a survey of the area in 1874. The area is reported to be inhabited since at least 1000 BC and the place where David slew Goliath.

During the Battle of Ajnadayn, Zarrar was captured by the Byzantine forces. When this news reached Khawla, she wore a soldier’s armour, took up weapons, wrapped herself in a green shawl and rode out on a mare. She fought the Byzantine unit who were attacking Muslim soldiers. She fought with such gallantry that many of the Muslim soldiers thought that Khawlah was Khalid himself – until Khalid appeared. The Muslims defeated the Byzantines, who fled the battlefield. Rafay bin Omeirah Al-Taei, one of the Muslim soldiers, is reported to have been wondering “Who is this fighter? By God, he has no regard for his safety.”

Female students from a number of Arab countries graduate from the Khawla bin Al-Azwar Military School, Abu Dhabi

When Khalid found Khawla, she was covered in blood. He asked her to remove her veil. After refusing several times, Khawla revealed her identity. Khalid ordered his army to chase the fleeing Byzantines, with Khawla leading the attack. After a search, the Muslim prisoners were found and freed. During the battle, one of the principal Muslim army commanders, Shurahbil ibn Hassana, saw Khawla fighting and said: “This warrior fights like Khalid ibn Walid, but I am sure he is not Khalid.”

In another subsequent battle, Khawla fell from her horse and was captured. Being taken to a camp with other women prisoners, Khawla was earmarked for the leader’s tent as war booty. Instead, Khawla roused the other female prisoners, who used the tent poles as weapons to attack the Byzantine guards. They managed to kill thirty Byzantine soldiers, with Khawla taking credit for five, including the Byzantine who had thought to hold her prisoner.

The Al-Zarrar main battle tank of the Pakistan Army is named after the Companion Zarrar bin Al-Azwar (RA), brother of Khawla (RA)

After several subsequent battles, Muslim armies laid siege to Damascus on the 20th of August 634. The siege lasted for a month. On the 19th of September, Khalid defeated a Byzantine force in Battle of Sanita-al-Uqab, 32 km east of Damascus. During the battle, Zarrar, who was leading one of the columns, was wounded and taken prisoner by the Byzantine army. Khalid ibn Walid took his Mobile Guard unit to rescue him. Khawla accompanied the army and rushed on the Byzantine rear-guard all alone. In her armour and typical loose dress of Arabian warriors, she was not recognized as a woman.

Khawla’s next fighting episode is recorded for the famous Battle of Yarmouk that was fought over six days between 15th and 21st of August 636. On the fourth day of the battle, perhaps one of the most difficult days for Muslim army, Khawla led a group of women against the Byzantine army, killed several enemy fighters and later was wounded during her fight with a Greek soldier. It is reported by a Muslim historian, “After seeing the women fight, the men returned and said to each other, ‘If we do not fight then we are more entitled to sit in the women’s quarter than the women’.”

Her brother Al-Zarrar himself played an important part in this battle when Khalid asked him to guard a bridge on the fifth day to cut off the expected Byzantine retreat the next day.

The Rashidun Caliphate during the time of the second caliph, 644 AD­

If the incidents about Khawla are all true – and we do not have sufficient information to make a conclusion – then she must have been trained in horse riding and use of arms by her father and brother as a young girl. This image of a woman in the early days of Islam obviously rankles a number of Muslims of today, who would rather see women totally subjugated to  males.

It was mentioned at the beginning that this story is also about a disease outbreak but actually it is about three epidemics. It is known that the Arab conquest of Persia and Syria was facilitated by the destructive mutual warfare between the Byzantines and the Sassanids. But a little known fact is that both these powers had already been devastated by outbreaks of epidemics prior to their defeat by the Muslims.

The Plague of Justinian, named after the Byzantine Emperor of the time, occurred in 541-542 AD and afflicted the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire in particular, and Europe in general. It killed half the population of Europe, a quarter of the population of the Eastern Mediterranean and up to 25 million people in all in its year long reign of terror. In Constantinople it recorded 5.000 deaths per day at its peak, resulting in the deaths of 40% of the city’s population.
Nearly 25,000 Muslim soldiers perished in the plague

Persia, too, was ravaged by a plague in 627-628, only five years before Muslim Armies destroyed the Sassanid Empire. The Plague of Sheroe, named after the Persian Emperor who also became one of its victims, devastated the western provinces of the Empire, mainly Mesopotamia, killing half of its population. It contributed to the fall of Persia to Muslims.

The third plague occurred in the Muslim army immediately after the conquest of Persia and Syria. One of the viral outbreaks in the region caught up with the Muslim armies in the city of Imwas in Syria in 639 AD, where the Muslim armies were camped. Such stalwarts of the Syrian campaigns as Abu Ubaidah bin Al-Jarrah, the commander of Muslim armies and  Sharjeel bin Hassana, another important commander. Nearly 25,000 Muslim soldiers perished in the plague. Caliph Umar (RA), who was on a tour of the area, did not enter the Muslims’ camp because of this outbreak. His precautionary measure is now cited by Muslim clergy in support of compulsory quarantines.

This plague occurred at a time when Hijaz was experiencing a severe draught and famine, and the State based in Madinah was heavily dependent on grain from Syria. It only proves that contrary to the popular perception of some of the Pakistanis, plagues and famines do not really discriminate between religions or personalities.

Zarrar, and by some reports Khawla too, are reported to have died during the plague. May God bless their souls!

It is true that most of the incidents involving Khawla have been reported by the 8th/9th- century jurist and historian Al-Waqidi – who enjoys a mixed reputation as a reliable historian. However, the authenticity of the messenger is not the issue now.

The courage of Khawla is widely accepted and admired by Muslims and is a beacon of light for generations to come in support of the empowerment and emancipation of women.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at parvezmahmood53@gmail.com

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com