Sunday, April 18, 2010

THE VEILED WARRIOR - Khawlah bint Al-Azwar

This is a remarkable article that was emailed to me by my brother in law, and I thought that surely some may like to read it too.

It is interesting to analyze how today's modern world perceives a woman's strength. Sometimes, her strength may be judged by her dexterity at weathering trials and tribulations in life; at other times, it could be her relentless hard work at ascending the contemporary corporate ladder beyond the traditional "glass ceiling".

It could also be her ability to multitask that could make her appear strong, efficiently juggling motherhood with her day-job; or when she survives the "dog-eat-dog" world of shrewd business by mastering professional fields that were traditionally dominated by men, such as aviation or martial arts. Whatever the case, today, a woman's strength is determined and judged by outward factors based on monetary success.

In an era when women are donning business suits and revving up their vehicles early in the morning, coffee-to-go in hand, to go to work at offices high up in sky-scraping buildings, the image of an unidentifiable woman wearing a veil that shrouds her whole body is often met with disdain and concern: Disdain for her supposed uneducated backwardness and lack of positive self-image; and concern for her emancipation from supposed male-dominated, patriarchal societies and oppression in the name of religion.

Yet, it is this very image that is found in Muslim history as an epitome of one woman's inner strength, valor and battlefield bravery. On more than one front, as a valiant female warrior of Islam, she broke gender taboos, fought with all her might, and gained respect from male comrades when she ruthlessly went forth to rescue her brother from the clutches of the enemy battalion after he was taken prisoner during battle.

Her name is Khawlah bint Al-Azwar, and the battle was against the Romans.

Suddenly he saw a rider dressed in black, face covered, on a short-necked chestnut brown horse of tall stature.

The Muslim army – under the able commandership of two of the most able companions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): Khalid ibn Al-Waleed and Abu Ubaidah ibn Al-Jarrah – was fighting the Romans when Khawlah's brother, Diraar ibn Al-Azwar, who was bravely leading an assault, lost his spear and was overcome by his opponents. It was when Khawlah heard of her brother's capture whilst sitting with the women, that she was motivated to do the unthinkable: don her full head-to-toe cover and charge forth on her mare into enemy territory to try to rescue him. In this and the ensuing fight with the Roman warriors, her qualities shone through, which are highlighted below.

Pro-Activeness to Rescue a Captured Sibling

After the capture of Diraar, whom the Muslims tried in vain to rescue, the Muslim army felt crestfallen. Khalid ibn Al-Waleed sought the advice of his co-commander, Abu Ubaidah, who prodded him to continue fighting after first leaving one part of the army stationed behind as contingency, as they had realized that the Romans were very large in number. It was at this point that someone caught Khalid ibn Al-Waleed's eye:

"Suddenly he saw a rider dressed in black, face covered, on a short-necked chestnut brown horse of tall stature. In the rider's hand was a long, glistening spear; his style and behavior hinted towards bravery and valor, and this was apparent from every part of the rider. The rider had on a green imaamah [cloth used to wrap around the head as a turban], whose ends were wrapped round from the back and positioned around the chest, and was spurring onwards at the forefront of the army" (Al-Waqidi).

When the Muslim army was re-grouping for a fresh attack on the Romans, Khawlah had gotten up and ridden forth on her mare into the Roman battalion. Her face cover and imaamah made her female form indistinguishable.

What could have inspired her to get up from among the women and ride her horse towards the enemy army? If we analyze her behavior by imagining ourselves in her position, we will be awestruck by the steeliness of her resolve and the determination with which her pro-activeness made her so confidently enter what is still today viewed as a man's territory. Despite being a member of the so-called "weaker sex", her body language belied her gender. Truly, she possessed not just enormous concern and love for her brother, but also a confidence in her own abilities, coupled with sincere trust in Allah (God). Only such a solid foundation of sound, unadulterated faith in Allah and can inspire an action of such courage.

Expertise in Sword-Fighting and Horse-Riding

She rode her horse at full speed and charged into the Roman army, fighting several men single-handedly, dexterously handling her sword and horse simultaneously.
Khawlah was a skilled warrior who has been described as "a flash of lightening" (Al-Waqidi). She had been very emotionally close to her brother Diraar, who was also a skilled warrior. She was well versed in fighting with the spear and riding her horse; undoubtedly, both brother and sister trained for these fighting skills together, as he had been valiantly leading the Muslim army himself before his spear lost its blade.

Muslim women at the time of Prophet Muhammad were not just trained in fighting, but also had the nursing skills needed to tend to the injured warriors during battles, and the innate stamina to keep the men motivated. They did this by reciting emotional poetry with motivational words when incessant fighting exhausted the fighters' morale, or when the martyrdom of comrades lowered their spirits.

Khawlah had wrapped a green imaamah (the cloth wound on a man's head to make a turban) around herself in such a way that it fell over her chest. She was dressed otherwise completely in black, and had covered her face as well.

With such a garb on, it was impossible to tell that she was a woman. She rode her horse at full speed and charged into the Roman army, fighting several men single-handedly, dexterously handling her sword and horse simultaneously. As she had sped ahead of the Muslim army, they stood back and watched her admiringly – whom they assumed to be a man like them – commenting on her great courage and skill.

Aversion to Showing off Accomplishments

The Muslim army beheld Khawlah fighting several Romans with great resilience. "He" seemed to be in need of aid, and hence they reached "him" and warded off the enemy. Commander Khalid bin Al-Waleed then approached the rider and asked him to reveal his face. But Khawlah did not wish to reveal her identity and so did not respond to the commander's request. The Muslim army began urging her to obey his command saying:

"O slave of Allah, the leader of the Muslim army is talking to you and you are not taking heed and ignoring him and fleeing from him. With all due respect, you should go to him and tell him your name and lineage so that your status can be raised!" (Al-Waqidi).

But still, Khawlah did not respond. The commander himself then approached the masked warrior saying, "It is with great remorse that all the Muslims and I are restless to know more about you and you are totally unconcerned. Who are you?" (Al-Waqidi). Khawlah had no choice but to respond to his request, and the army was shocked to hear a female voice emanating from the masked warrior that had so impressed them. Khawlah said,

"O Commander, I was not intending to disobey you when I did not answer you, but I was too shy to answer, as I am of those who treasure their privacy and take cover from exposure. I only came here because of my aching heart and my grieving soul" (Al-Waqidi).

Khawla was not only a modest and chaste woman, but she also possessed a humility that is in stark contrast to her valiant battlefield accomplishments. In Islam, fighting in the way of Allah is considered one of the loftiest of deeds that a Muslim can perform. Yet, if she had sought worldly honor and recognition from her comrades, or fame and publicity for her bravery, she would have readily volunteered her name and revealed her identity.

Eventually, Khawlah joined the Muslim army under the commandership of Khalid bin Al-Waleed for a final attack aimed at rescuing her brother, Diraar, from the Romans, and they were successful in freeing him alive from the clutches of the enemy.

Khawlah demonstrated how her honed skills, coupled with her strength of spirit and trust in Allah, came into indispensable use at a time critical for their victory in the battlefield. From this, we can learn an invaluable lesson: It is not enough for modern-day Muslim women just to have a noble intention to perform righteous deeds, such as benefiting others through medicine, education, philanthropy, or fighting for the sake of Allah. They must couple their intention with the necessary skills and expertise in these fields to ensure success.

Khawlah bint al-Azwar's valiant courage did more than just save her brother's life, aid the Muslim army, or skillfully fight the enemy. Her resolute and unbridled gallantry set an unparalleled and inspirational practical example of strength and trust in Allah for thousands of Muslim women to come, centuries ahead in time.

Works Cited; Al-Waqdi, Muhammad ibn Umar. The Islamic Conquest of Syria. Trans. Sulayman al-Kindi. London: Ta-Ha Publishing, 1995.