Was Khalid bin Walid the greatest general ever?

Jan 2016
463
Macedonia
#11
Don't forget the Ridda Wars, where he forced all the Bedouins to unite under a central government in less than three months (ask Genghis Khan how difficult it is to unite nomadic tribes). His campaigns from October 632 to January 633 for the unification of Arabia are among some of his most brilliant.

As for Umar being strategically involved, Umar became Caliph in October 634, Khalid's maneuver through the Syrian desert was in June 634. It was Abu Bakr who sent Khalid to Syria. Umar, for his part, strategically directed the Persian campaigns (Qadisiya-Ctesiphon-Nahavand) due to the relative inexperience of his commanders there. In Syria it seems that Umar had given a free hand to Khalid and Abu Ubaida from 634 to 638. Otherwise, I can't explain the fact that Khalid had already reached Armenia by 638, given Umar's extreme caution when it came to letting his commanders venture into unknown territory. If we also see the fact that Umar later left Syria to Muawiya and the Umayyads as a semi-independent fief, we shall understand that in Syria the Arab commanders experienced a much bigger level of freedom from the Caliph than in Persia.

As for Tabari not giving much attention to the Syrian campaigns, that's because Tabari was a Persian and he dedicated much of his history to the Arab-Persian war of the same time. It is Waqidi who reported the Syrian campaigns, and he did so in a very detailed fashion.
 
Last edited:
Jan 2015
5,075
Ontario, Canada
#12
Don't forget the Ridda Wars, where he forced all the Bedouins to unite under a central government in less than three months (ask Genghis Khan how difficult it is to unite nomadic tribes). His campaigns from October 632 to January 633 for the unification of Arabia are among some of his most brilliant.

As for Umar being strategically involved, Umar became Caliph in October 634, Khalid's maneuver through the Syrian desert was in June 634. It was Abu Bakr who sent Khalid to Syria. Umar, for his part, strategically directed the Persian campaigns (Qadisiya-Ctesiphon-Nahavand) due to the relative inexperience of his commanders there. In Syria it seems that Umar had given a free hand to Khalid and Abu Ubaida from 634 to 638. Otherwise, I can't explain the fact that Khalid had already reached Armenia by 638, given Umar's extreme caution when it came to letting his commanders venture into unknown territory. If we also see the fact that Umar later left Syria to Muawiya and the Umayyads as a semi-independent fief, we shall understand that in Syria the Arab commanders experienced a much bigger level of freedom from the Caliph than in Persia.

As for Tabari not giving much attention to the Syrian campaigns, that's because Tabari was a Persian and he dedicated much of his history to the Arab-Persian war of the same time. It is Waqidi who reported the Syrian campaigns, and he did so in a very detailed fashion.
The interior of Arabia was pretty much an empty desert. I can't really see how Khalid would have much trouble conquering these areas. The Bedouin did not have better armies or even a numerical superiority. Same with his campaigns under Muhammad. If anything Muhammad is underrated since he was the one that created Islam, conquered Mecca and then subjected the rest of Arabia into vassalage. The Ridda Wars were waged to "reconquer" those tribes which rejected Muslim suzerainty when Muhammad died.

My mistake Umar became Caliph a few months later. Umar removed Khalid from command, giving command to Abu Ubaidah. Abu Ubaidah seems to have been more obedient and a preferred general of Umar. It was not until Yarmouk that Khalid regained command of the army. Both Umar and Uthman also appointed governors who were given military authority. It is true that Umar appointed Muawiyah but it was really more under Uthman that Muawiyah was greatly empowered to the point that he could fight Caliph Ali.

Not sure why Khalid attempted to invade Anatolia and Armenia. Surely Umar was supportive of the decision, even if he did not involve himself directly he would have been informed. Abu Ubaidah still retained strategic command and gave the order to Khalid and Iyad to invade Armenia and Anatolia. While Armenia rapidly surrendered due to no Byzantine relief forces arrive, the Arabs were unable to take Anatolia. A large famine broke out in Arabia as did a plague throughout the Levant. Moreover Heraclius ordered a withdrawal into Central Anatolia so the Arabs had no way to invade given the many circumstances.
 
May 2018
335
Michigan
#13
How are we empirically defining "greatest general?" I typically shy away from such titles unless there is a quantifiable list of qualities or traits we are using to measure "greatness."
 
Likes: Olleus
Jan 2016
463
Macedonia
#14
The interior of Arabia was pretty much an empty desert. I can't really see how Khalid would have much trouble conquering these areas. The Bedouin did not have better armies or even a numerical superiority. Same with his campaigns under Muhammad. If anything Muhammad is underrated since he was the one that created Islam, conquered Mecca and then subjected the rest of Arabia into vassalage. The Ridda Wars were waged to "reconquer" those tribes which rejected Muslim suzerainty when Muhammad died.
At Yamama the Muslims (under Khalid) were, according to Tabari, outnumbered 3 to 1, which, if a grain of salt is to be taken, means 1.5 or 2 to 1 in real numbers. The Bedouins were led by Musaylima, an able leader who had earlier defeated two Muslim armies and was claiming prophethood. At Buzakha (were the very capable general and later hero of Qadisiya, Tulayha, was leading the Bedouins) Tabari says that Khalid was outnumbered 2.5 to 1, so in real numbers it must be 1.2-1.5 to 1.

The desert was open for the Bedouins as much as it was for Khalid.. Khalid started with a central position (Medina) and an army composed mainly of the elites of Quraysh (not all, as Banu Hashim weren't fighting), while all of Arabia had apostatized. In three months he had defeated all opposition in detail. Not something done easily by an ordinary general.
Not sure why Khalid attempted to invade Anatolia and Armenia. Surely Umar was supportive of the decision, even if he did not involve himself directly he would have been informed. Abu Ubaidah still retained strategic command and gave the order to Khalid and Iyad to invade Armenia and Anatolia. While Armenia rapidly surrendered due to no Byzantine relief forces arrive, the Arabs were unable to take Anatolia. A large famine broke out in Arabia as did a plague throughout the Levant. Moreover Heraclius ordered a withdrawal into Central Anatolia so the Arabs had no way to invade given the many circumstances.
There were campaigns during Umar's lifetime in which Umar didn't have strategic control until later - for example Amr ibn al-As' Egyptian campaign, of which Umar was originally unaware and only later sent al-Zubayr as a supplementary general to "check" Amr's movements. Umar is reported as saying "I wish there was a wall of fire between us and the Romans so they didn't invade us and we didn't invade them" so I'm not sure at all that he was supportive of Khalid's (or anyone eles's) incursions into Armenia and Anatolia.

Abu Ubaida, who had never commanded an army before being appointed as a general by Umar, trusted Khalid in most (if not all) military matters from the start, not from the time of Yarmouk. If anything, the speedy thrusts of the Arabs during 634-638 (when Khalid and Abu Ubaida were "cooperating") look nothing like the cautious approach taken in 638-639 (when Abu Ubaida was working alone).

In my opinion, Khalid has been both the beneficiary of early Arab mythologizing and the victim of Eurocentric negligence. For every Tabari there's a Gibbon.
 
Jan 2016
463
Macedonia
#16
If Tabar'si numbers are wrong. Why must be wrong on some sort of reasonable sacle. Why not 2:1 in his favour?
that's what modern historians have estimated. Medina's original standing army at the start of the Ridda Wars was 2,500-3,000 men, which reached 10,000-13,000 by the time of Yamama. Tulayha and Musaylima had assembled armies from many tribes all over Arabia (especially Musaylima who had taken fealty from all the remote tribes outside the Hejaz), so a 2:1 ratio in favor of Khalid isn't logically plausible.
 
Jan 2015
5,075
Ontario, Canada
#17
The Bedouin would not have been such a major obstacle even if they had a slight numerical superiority. Against the armies of Muhammad and Abu Bakr, well lead and equipped veterans, the Bedouin were outmatched in spite of being deep within the desert .

My point was that Abu Ubaidah had strategic command in 638. If Khalid ventured into Anatolia and Armenia then Umar must have known about it. After all Heraclius ordered a strategic withdrawal into central Anatolia so there wasn't much of a danger marching into Armenia. Had Umar been against this he would have simply ordered Abu Ubaidah to keep Khalid back. We could go into conspiratorial territory and wonder if Khalid had done this one his own initiative and that maybe it was the real motive for his being removed later on, but we would never know.

Definitely a case of positive press from early Islamic sources. Wouldn't say there is Eurocentric anything involved given that the sources for Khalid are in Arabic, which Europeans can't read. Even then the major source for Khalid is Agha Ibrahim Akram's book which I disagree with a lot.
 
Jan 2016
463
Macedonia
#18
The Bedouin would not have been such a major obstacle even if they had a slight numerical superiority. Against the armies of Muhammad and Abu Bakr, well lead and equipped veterans, the Bedouin were outmatched in spite of being deep within the desert .

My point was that Abu Ubaidah had strategic command in 638. If Khalid ventured into Anatolia and Armenia then Umar must have known about it. After all Heraclius ordered a strategic withdrawal into central Anatolia so there wasn't much of a danger marching into Armenia. Had Umar been against this he would have simply ordered Abu Ubaidah to keep Khalid back. We could go into conspiratorial territory and wonder if Khalid had done this one his own initiative and that maybe it was the real motive for his being removed later on, but we would never know.

Definitely a case of positive press from early Islamic sources. Wouldn't say there is Eurocentric anything involved given that the sources for Khalid are in Arabic, which Europeans can't read. Even then the major source for Khalid is Agha Ibrahim Akram's book which I disagree with a lot.
The Arab armies that won Yarmouk and Qadisiya were 80-85% Bedouin, the officer corps itself being half Quraysh and half Bedouin. I wouldn't say these same Bedouins with this pretty much same leadership didn't stand a chance in the Ridda Wars. Khalid made it look easy.

There is "Eurocentric" bias already in the Byzantine narratives of Yarmouk as "divine punishment" (the same narratives that have no problem calling Khosrau II or Shahrbaraz great generals but nowhere do they praise an Amr or a Khalid or even a Muawiya). From these onwards, the Western narrative of the Arab-Byzantine wars has always been one of Byzantium somehow losing "all by itself" and its own faults and not of the Arabs winning by their capability. There are some Western historians even to this day that repeat the story of a "sandstorm" as the cause for Arab victory in Yarmouk, although no Arab source mentions it (the sandstorm occured in Qadisiya, not Yarmouk).
 
Jan 2015
5,075
Ontario, Canada
#19
The Arab armies that won Yarmouk and Qadisiya were 80-85% Bedouin, the officer corps itself being half Quraysh and half Bedouin. I wouldn't say these same Bedouins with this pretty much same leadership didn't stand a chance in the Ridda Wars. Khalid made it look easy.

There is "Eurocentric" bias already in the Byzantine narratives of Yarmouk as "divine punishment" (the same narratives that have no problem calling Khosrau II or Shahrbaraz great generals but nowhere do they praise an Amr or a Khalid or even a Muawiya). From these onwards, the Western narrative of the Arab-Byzantine wars has always been one of Byzantium somehow losing "all by itself" and its own faults and not of the Arabs winning by their capability. There are some Western historians even to this day that repeat the story of a "sandstorm" as the cause for Arab victory in Yarmouk, although no Arab source mentions it (the sandstorm occured in Qadisiya, not Yarmouk).
You're not understanding my meaning. The Bedouin on their own is one thing and under the Caliphate another. Plus various generals were successful in the Ridda Wars, which supports that the Caliphate armies were just better overall. It isn't just leadership, that can only take an army so far if the army is incapable.

Don't think that the Byzantines even knew who they were fighting. They probably can't name various individuals.

As for misinformation, well as I said the sources are in Arabic and therefore mostly inaccessible. I wouldn't be surprised if various authors just use A.I. Akram as their source.
 
Jan 2016
463
Macedonia
#20
You're not understanding my meaning. The Bedouin on their own is one thing and under the Caliphate another. Plus various generals were successful in the Ridda Wars, which supports that the Caliphate armies were just better overall. It isn't just leadership, that can only take an army so far if the army is incapable.
what were the names of those other generals? Wiki gives the names of 11 corps, of which 8 were dispatched much later, and the three that fought from the start were those of Khalid, Amr ibn al-As and Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl. We know that Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl was defeated twice by Musaylima and as a result lost independent command and his corps was placed under the orders of Khalid. Amr's name (in L. V. Vaglieri's History of Islam which sources Baladhuri and Tabari) is mentioned only once (in the suppression of the Quza'a). The rest of the operations of the Ridda Wars, from start to end, were commanded by Khalid, first as corps commander and then as head of the entire army.

It's during these campaigns that he rose from a corps commander (that he had been under Abu Sufyan and Muhammad) to the level of the leader of an entire army. So it is obvious that his contribution was outstanding.

The mere fact that for 13 centuries European historians writing on the Arab conquests didn't mentioned their generals, didn't evaluate their talent, or just called it a matter of luck, is negligence in my book. At least Gibbon - who had read Tabari, Waqidi and Baladhuri - calls Khalid "the fiercest of the Arab warriors". Just that. That's as much as serious Western historiography cared to say about him (of course, not a word about his tactics/strategy or the tactics/strategy of the Arabs in general). I do call this negligence.
 
Last edited: