Monday, March 23, 2009

Decisive Battles: Badr 624

Battle of Badr Date: March 17, 624AD (17 Ramadan, 2AH)

Forces Engaged:
Muslims: 313 or 315 mixed spear and sword light infantry, with a sprinkling of bowmen and perhaps a handful of cavalry and camelry; approximately 60 are Meccan followers of Muhammad, identified as “al Muhajir” or “followers”. The remainder are “al Ansar”, “supporters”, Medinan converts to Islam. Under the direct command of Muhammad, Prophet of Islam and his immediate family, in particular his cousin, Ali.

Quraishi Meccans: supposedly about 1,000 in all, mostly footsoldiers similarly armed as above but including 100 true (probably light) cavalry, all from the “Quraishi” tribe of Mecca, under Abu Jahl. The actual total engaged on the day of battle was probably less and possibly much less (see “The Engagement”, below).

General Note: It is worth keeping in mind that these people are NOT the romantic Bedouin desert nomads beloved of both Western and Arabic imaginations alike. They are what a British colonial officer would have called “town Arabs”, rural smallholders, pastoralists and merchants, living in fixed houses in towns and small cities. Their military skills would have been those of a city guard, local militia. A few may have been professional caravan guards. So if you’re picturing Omar Sharif and Tony Quinn in romantic flowing robes with tulwars, get over it. These guys were fellahin, really.

The Situation: Let me start by saying that Badr may be the goofiest – it’s certainly the smallest – “decisive” battle in history. Even by the standards of 7th Century warfare it would have been accounted little more than a skirmish by the warrior peoples of Eurasia, or the great civilizations of Central and South America, where the “flowery wars” waged by the Maya, the Toltec and Aztec merely to procure human sacrifices involved thousands of warriors and a fairly sophisticated logistical train. It seems a little ridiculous to throw this tiny skirmish between a scruffy bunch of town Arabs up there amid the transcontinental wars of the Mongols, or the vast campaigns of the Twentieth Century. Badr set alongside the lofty megalomania ambitions and bottomless charnel wreckage of a Napoleon or a Hitler..? Naaahhh…

Badr, by way of contrast, started as an act of political banditry pure and simple. But first, let’s talk about how the two sides arrived at this fairly insignificant little well in the first place.

Muhammad, son of Abdullah, was born in Mecca in the year 570 by Christian reckoning. He was orphaned at a young age, reared by a paternal uncle as a merchant and pastoralist. His youth and young adulthood were unremarkable as was his entire adult life until about age 40, when in 610 AD he says he received a revelation from God. This revelation, which becomes the founding portion of the Qur’an “The Recitation”, is said to have been held and matured for three years before Muhammad’s first public preaching. Like much about the early years of Islam, there is some question about the veracity and sources for this history.Suffice to say, however, that the Meccans (who must have known the Prophet since his birth – Mecca was a small town in 613) greeted the revelations of their fellow citizen with the same enthusiasm and acceptance that greets most park preachers. They booed and hissed him, threw fruit at him, and when he persisted, began to violently attack him and those who adhered to him.In 622AD Muhammad and his followers up sticks and moved to Medina, a town north of Mecca, where they were generally welcomed (though not by the local Jews, a great disappointment to the Prophet, who considered them as “People of the Book” ,i.e. professors of a revelatory faith transmitted in print and likely allies). Their old enemies in Mecca, however, continued to keep a hate on for the Muslims and seized their property in the old hometown. Since payback is a motherfucker the Muslims took up Meccan caravan-raiding for a living. So it was that in March of 624 the Muslims straggled out to hit a reportedly-rich Meccan caravan moving south from Syria. The Meccans got wind of the ambush and diverted the camel trains west, but decided to put paid to these damn Muslim thieves once and for all. They marched out of Mecca looking for trouble and, by Allah, they found it.

The Sources: The problematic part of Badr is that there is no “other side of the hill”. The sources are all Muslim, and all the sources are theological in nature, either the Qur’an itself or the compendia of Islamic oral tradition and histories called hadith. There are problems with both.

The Qur’an is a work of theology, not history, and as such is more concerned with the acts of God as they worked on humans rather than the acts of the humans themselves. So the battle in the Qur’an is treated as a “furqan”, a miracle, rather than a human event, and the divine rather than the human is emphasized. The hadiths are even worse; unapologetic oral histories and as contradictory, and confusing, as oral histories always are.

And even more problematic is the issue of authenticity. Islamic theologians and scholars, of course, insist that the Qur’an (as observant Jews would insist of the Torah and Christians the Bible) is an inerrant and divinely-inspired testament of God (although they would, also, of course, disagree on which God). Modern non-doctrinal Qur’an scholars have serious reservations. They note that not only is there not a written copy of the Qur’an from Muhammad’s lifetime or even the lifetime of the next generation, but that the first complete copies (i.e. worded similar to the modern accepted version) extant are from the Ninth Century. These scholars also insist that there are internal contradictions that suggest that the text was probably assembled well after the lifetimes of Muhammad’s generation from sources that may have included the words of others or even influences from the other monotheistic religions.

So that the broad outlines of Badr would seem to been transcribed faithfully between the battle and the first writing seems plausible, the details – and for a tiny engagement fought between largely illiterate pastoralists and merchants there are a vast store of details – may be considered highly speculative...but this does not mean false. Illiterate tribal societies tend to develop ways to transmit stories orally, and one thing that particularly gets reembered are battles and the deeds of the warriors. So stuff like who killed who and Muhammad throwing the stones at the Meccans? These probably happened as they are reported. What we don't and probably may never know are the details like the actual strength of the Meccan force and why they broke so quickly...

The Campaign: Like I said, the Badr campaign starts with plain old highway robbery.

Word arrives in Medina that a caravan, led by the man who at the time was Mecca’s most implacable Muslim-hater, Abu Sufyan ibn Harb, is traveling southeast down the Arabian peninsula from the Levant. Muhammad assembles a force of some 300, the largest Muslim “army” to date, to spoil this rich prize. The force includes his close friend and uncle Hamzah, cousin and son-in-law Ali, and friends and companions Umar and Abu Bakr. Outnumbering the caravan guards by some 10-1 Muhammad doesn’t expect any real fighting; the sources claim that this little army is mounted on only seventy camels and two horses.

However, Abu Sufyan gets word that the Allah-pesterers are planning to waylay him at the water stop at Badr and turns southwest towards the coast and sends a rider to Mecca for assistance. The Meccans turn out in what must have seemed to them overwhelming force to head off their Muslim enemies, who have camped by the wells at Badr.Here’s where things start going badly for the Quraishi of Mecca. First, hearing that the caravan is our of danger several Mecca clans (including Banu Zuhrah, Banu Adi, and some from Banu Hashim, according to the Muslim sources) turn around and go home after some considerable disputation with Abu Jahl. The sources don’t say whether this defection reduced the original 1,000 or whether the original number of Meccan fighters was larger and the 1K figure is what's left after the desertions, but this mess has to have an ill effect on the group than slogs on to Badr.

Then, after a nasty march to Badr (it rained heavily, say the sources, and the going was very bad) the Meccan army gets another one of those weird, militarily implausible surprises that infidel armies in religious literature seem to always get slapped with. Their scout, a fella by the name of Umayr ibn Wahb, returns reporting that although the Muslim force is tiny and shows no chance of reinforcement, he has seen “the camels of Medina laden with death”, i.e., that the coming battle will be exceptionally bloody.Outside of agricultural societies that must defend their crops or die most nomadic, pastoral and tribal cultures treat fighting as a combination sport, exercise and commercial enterprise. Sanguinary struggles to the death have especially little appeal for low-population desert tribes like the Arabs of the Seventh Century. So this report – although why Umayr believes this and what basis he has for assuming it are not reported and do not, in fact, seem plausible to the skeptical reader – occasions much argument among the Meccans. But Muslim tradition says that between them the Meccan leaders Abu Jahl and Amr ibn Hishām manage to get the boys from Mecca all marching the same direction again by reminding them that 1) their enemies are STILL in front of them, 2) that they still owe a blood feud debt to the Muslims over some guy killed earlier, and 3) just STFU and get in line, jackhole (or the 7th Century Arabic equivalent thereof), and the battle begins with a traditional Arab and tribal flourish, the combat between champions.

The Engagement: Studying the Badr story from a military standpoint one gets the strong impression that Abu Jahl was the George MacClellan of his day. Outnumbering the Muslims 3-1 and with the only organized force of cavalry, ol’ Abu does absolutely nothing with it.

He tries no maneuvering, no stratagem, no nothing. He just boots his probably grumbling Meccan jawans into line and marches out to meet the fanatics from the north.

The storyline of Badr starkly simple:

1. The champions meet.

The entire business starts with farce, as the Muslims send out three guys from Medina (“ansars”, non-hijra Muslims) to meet the Meccan trio, Utbah Ibn Rabi-ah, his son Al Walid and his brother Sheibah. The Meccans, not wanting to start any NEW blood feuds, wave the Medina guys off like a hockey referee kicking the Montreal center out of the face-off circle. So Muhammad sends out three of his homies: Ali, Al Hamza and Obeidah Al Harith. Ali kacks Al Walid and Al Hamza does for Utbah; then they both have to help poor dumb Obeidah against Sheibah. Sheibah bites the dus but not before lopping off Obeidah’s leg, who becomes the first battlefield martyr for Islam. But clearly the Meccans have taken it in the shorts - call it 3-1 Muslims.

2. The bowmen shoot.

Both sides exchange fire, resulting in two dead Muslims and a larger number of Meccans dead and probably a fair number of wounded. The sources don’t say how long this went on, but it mustn’t have been very long given the low Muslim casualties.3. The Muslims charge.

At some point Muhammad gives the order to close and attack. Normally the idea of charging to close with an enemy that outnumbers you 3-1 would seem like an invitation to suicide. Muhammad, whatever the peculiarity of certain of his modern-day adherents, was NOT suicidal. So he must have seen something that gave him confidence. The low numbers of Muslim dead during the arrow exchange suggests that the Quraishi were not shooting well. Perhaps the Prophet saw that groups and individuals were edging away from the Meccan flanks and rear, or noted that the Meccan line itself was shaky and looked breakable. Perhaps he knew something of the commanders opposing his people and their incapability.

Perhaps it was just faith and dumb luck.

Whatever it was, the Muslims charge, the Meccans break, and the Battle of Badr is all over but the butchering.

The Meccans run until the Muslims get tired and then keep running until they get back to their city. Between the brief melee when the Muslim charge goes in and the slaughter during the pursuit the Meccans lose something like 70 killed and another 70 captured; Ali is said to have killed or captured almost 1/3rd of the total – the man was a fucking beast! If the original Meccan strengths are correct then the losses are less than 15% of their number. A modern military unit is considered combat-ineffective if the casualty rate reaches 30% - this should give you a good sense of the military fragility of these early Arab fighters.

Especially important are the losses among the Meccan notables. So many of the Meccan commanders are killed, including the luckless Abu Jahl and Amr ibn Hishām, that Abu Sufyan becomes the Meccan headman. In the end this makes all the difference; Hishām or Jahl would never have compromised with the Muslims – the hate was just too deep. But Sufyan isn’t that sort of hard man. Six years later, after much more fighting, scheming and betrayal, Sufyan makes a deal with Muhammad, converts to Islam and helps the Prophet accomplish the bloodless (okay, well, sorta bloodless; ten people including “four women who had been guilty of murder or other offences or had sparked off the war” were given the chop) conquest of Mecca that begins the incredible century that ends with this:The Outcome: Decisive Muslim tactical victory.

Badr, as simple as it is, drives home Sun Tzu's maxim about knowing your capabilities and knowing your enemy's. My assessment would be that the Meccan failure resulted from a combination of:

1. Leadership. On the Meccan side, Abu Jahl comes across as a bullheaded tribal elder who lacked the diplomacy to hold together what amounted to a coalition expeditionary force. Coupled with his tactical sterility, he ended up leading a fractured and badly demoralized rabble straight into a small, cohesive group of religious fanatics fighting for a man they venerated. For the Muslims, Muhammad just has to avoid making mistakes and act inspired, which he does. It helps that he has Ali, his personal 7th Century Arabic Johhny Rambo, to cut through the Meccans like a razor.

2. Motivation. The Meccans have no unity of purpose, and what esprit they have to begin with is badly undercut, first by the loss of their original purpose (defense of the caravan), then by the defection of the clans, then by the whole oddball "death camel" thing. On the other side, the Muslims are fighting for God, a frighteningly implacable and effective morale builder. When it comes to killing people, having someone tell you (or believing) that God wants you to kill those people is a hell of a good fifth column...

The Impact: Badr is, in a sense, a one-sided “decisive battle”. The Muslims didn’t win the war with their Meccan rivals at Badr. Six more years of war, and several battles, would separate Badr and the fall of Mecca. But a Muslim defeat at Badr might well have meant the end for Islam as a global religion. Had Muhammad been killed, or the Muslim force scattered and defeated (which would have gone a long way to discrediting him as a religious leader), the next fourteen hundred years or so might have been very different.So to have won at Badr was Islam’s Cannonde of Valmy. It kept the faith, and the adherents of that faith, alive for another day. And sometimes, that’s all a great leader needs…

Touchline Tattles: I’m afraid that I don’t have any fun gossip and backstairs tattle about Badr. The battle was recorded, transmitted and probably sanitized by prophets, preachers and holy men. These sort of people usually have little time and less patience for levity. So although I’m sure that, like all battles, Badr had its idiotic moments, it’s silly, pointless, and even comic (although usually humor in battle is the grim sort that consists of getting an arrow in the ass or something…) moments these are lost in the sands of the Arabian desert and time.

I will say that I consider Badr, like Milvian Bridge, to be one of history’s meaner jokes. Religion is a harsh master, and religion coupled with the sword usually makes for a hard and ruthless time. Islam is a great and powerful religion, and, like almost all great and powerl religions the first thing it did, after it was spared at Badr, was begin killing people. We're still killing each other over Islam, Christianity and Judaism, even now, more than thirteen hundred years later.

So when you read something like this from the Qur’an:
“And be not like those who started from their homes insolently and to be seen of men, and to hinder from the path of Allah. For Allah compasseth round about all that they do. Remember Satan made their acts seem alluring to them, and said: "No one among men can overcome you this day, while I am near to you": But when the two forces came in sight of each other, he turned on his heels, and said: "Lo! I am clear of you; lo! I see what ye see not; Lo! I fear Allah, for Allah is strict in punishment.” (Qur'an 8:47 )
It would be well to remember this:
"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe.”“O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead;help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!“We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”"Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!"


sheerahkahn said...

I love that poem/story of the old man coming into the church before the start of the civil war.

"In wars, boy, fools kill other fools for foolish causes. Thats enough for anyone to know."

Thom Merrilin, Gleeman character from The Eye of the World, in what I believe to be his channeling of Robert Jordan's sentiment about his experience in Vietnam.

However, for me, the best quote ever is Bilbo Baggin's,
"there is nothing wrong with living a simple life."

Simple, nice and easy.

Thank you for the history lesson Chief, I haven't studied any of "The Prophets" personal military campaigns. A deficit I mean to rectify.

The Wanderers' Daughter said...

Fascinating post! Thanks for this. I covered a series of seminars on the Qur'an and its interpretations that was held in Vail after 9/11, and that, too, was fascinating. It was (and is) an area of world history with which I am little acquainted. I felt like a kid out of school (OK, more accurately a kid IN school...but this kid loves school) when my then-editor let me cover the series for the local paper. I got to sit in on each seminar and just basically abridge it to 1500 words for the paper. SO much more fun than covering ski resort revenue rates, let me tell you.

mike said...

Now I always had the thought in the back of my head that Uncle Hamzah was a wise old veteran and that his guidance and tactics were what won the battle that day. Other than 'miracles' and 'acts of God' of course. Not sure where I got that notion, having never read the pertinent sources that you quote.

So was cousin Ali the father of the Muhammed's grandson of the same name who was martyred at Ramallah???

Great prayer at the end. Was that Patton?? Or an original from the Chief?

Ael said...

I believe it was Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) who wrote that prayer.

You gotta admit, he does get the tone, just right.

FDChief said...

Sheerah, WD: I didn't include the part where the Muslims built a little rock hut or sangar for the Prophet so he wouldn't have to sully his eyes (?) with the sight of slaughter. The sources indicate that

1. Muhammad's style was very much collaborative. He called several councils of war during the Badr campaign, and the implication is that cousin Ali did most of the actual battlefield leadership.

2. Muhammad wasn't what you'd call tactically sophisticated. His job was to act as the focus for Muslim devotion and to enlist the aid of Allah, and he did that in spades.

I haven't looked at the latter hijran battles, the Battle of Uhud and the Battle of the Trench, but my impression is that the Prophet was 2-1 (won Badr & the Trench, lost Uhud) but not through some divine tactical acumen. He's there mostly as a sort of human rally point and reminder that man proposes and Allah disposes.

FDChief said...

mike, Ael: Yep, it was the river pilot his own self. You gotta admit, when the guy got assed up he could shoot fire from his pen. Great stuff.

mike: I thought that, too, but the accounts I read stressed that Ali was the "warrior leader" on the day. But Hamzah seems like the most likely candidate for the Muslim S-3; he was older and had fought actual battles (caravan raids and defenses, at least) before.

mke said...

Chief -

Looked up Uncle Hamzah on Wiki. Nothing about being a great tactician.

But it did say that he was revered highly by Muslims on the Indian subcontinent. More so, I guess than in Arabia itself. They called him the 'Lion of God'. So I am thinking now that maybe Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" was where I picked that up.

I also need to see that Antony Quinn movie where he played Hamzah.

FDChief said...

mike: I get the sense that the sources - since they're all essentially part of the Qur'anic literary tradition - don't really have any notion of the "strategy" or "tactics" of these battles. It's all about how Muhammad intercedes with God, angels, divine intervention, etc.

But IMO it makes sense that the old heads like Hamza and Abu Bakr, the older guys who probably had some experience with Arabic tribal warfare, were probably the planners and organizers. The Prophet in his stone hut is the central figure, the commander, but ISTM that his senior relatives would be a good guess to be his "staff".

Hard to say at this remove.

FDChief said...

But I agree about "The Messenger". I'd be fascinated to see what seems like the Muslim version of one of the old Bible epics. Tony Quinn as a disciple of Muhammad's rather than Jesus'. Gofigger...

Serving Patriot said...


Thanks for the history lesson and the most excellent sardonic wittery within! Great stuff!


Lisa said...

I was intimidated, and am only now getting to this. I am totally an idiot about this period in history, so thank you for sharing your considerable erudition.

[It was hard to get Omar Sharif out of mind, however. I think I shall soon be abed pondering that one :)]

FDChief said...

SP: Ta.

Lisa: Lucky Omar, to share your bed! "Lick up the honey, stranger, and ask no questions." May your dreams be sweet indeed...

Lisa said...

Thank you for your kind wishes, but how could they not be ;)