Khawala Bint Al Azwar - the Islamic heroine
Khawala Bint Al Azwar - heroine of Islam. By Ma'n Abul Husn
There is not an Arab city that does not have a school carrying the name of Khawala Bint Al Azwar, the extraordinary woman who was so contemporary of the early years of Islam. Most of what history tells us about her childhood and environment is quite vague, but provides rich information about her courage that had most likely played a role in strengthening the new religion.
Notably, whatever we have come to know about Khawla shows that she was very close to her brother Derar, who was a hero of Islam and one of the commanders, which served under the famous Khalid Bin Al Walid, who conquered and put an end to the Roman presence and rule in Greater Syria.
The recorded history of that era mentions repeatedly the feats of Khawla in battles that took place in Syria, Jordan and Palestine. In one instance, she fought in disguise to rescue her brother Derar after the Romans captured him. Witnesses say that she was in fact much braver than many men. In addition to that, and whenever she did not carry her sword, she took the responsibility of organizing medical care to treat the wounded during the battles. This is 13 centuries before Florence Nightingale did the same in Europe.
Khawla was the daughter of one of the chiefs of Bani Assad tribe, and her family embraced Islam in its first days. Her father’s name is either Malik or Tareq Bin Awse. Al Azwar was his nickname. Her brother, Derar, was the knight and poet of his tribe, and was well known as well for his wisdom. His love for his sister and confidence in her capabilities were legendary. In fact, the brother and sister were so attached to each other that she was his companion wherever he went. He trained her on all arts of swordsmanship and she became also a perfect knight. Besides that, Khawla was a poet who mastered that noble art. She was a brunette, tall, slim and of great beauty.
Her name remained greatly unknown, until the battle of Ajnadin, not far from Jersalem, where Derar lost his spear, fell from his horse, and was taken prisoner. She donned a male knight’s attire, took her arms and rode her mare through the Roman ranks, using her sword skillfully against whoever tried to stop her. The Muslim soldiers, and their leader Khalid, watched her with great admiration, presuming that she was a man.
The Arab Historian, Al Waqidi, tells us in his book “The conquering of Al Sham (greater Syria)” that: “In a battle that took place in Beit Lahia near Ajnadin, Khalid watched a knight, in black attire, with a big green shawl wrapped around his waist and covering his bust. That knight broke through the Roman ranks as an arrow. Khalid and the others followed him and joined battle, while the leader was wandering about the identity of the unknown knight.”
Rafe’ Bin Omeirah Al Taei was one of the fighters. He described how that knight scattered the enemy ranks, disappeared in their midst, reappeared after a while with blood dripping from his spear. He swerved again and repeated the deed fearlessly, several times. All the Moslem army was worried about him and praying for his safety. Rafe’ and others thought that he was Khalid, who won great fame for his bravery and genius military plans. But suddenly Khalid appeared with a number of knights. Rafe’ asked the leader: “ Who is that knight? By God, he has no regard for his safety!”
Khalid answered that he didn’t know the man, though he greatly admired his courage. He called on the arm to attack as one man and to make sure that they protect our hero(ine). They were fascinated as they watched the knight appear with a number of Roman knights chasing him. Then he would turn around and kill the nearest before resuming his attacks.
The Romans eventually lost the battle and fled, leaving many dead and wounded in the battlefield. Khalid looked for the knight till he found him. By then he was covered in blood. He praised his bravery and asked him to remove his veil. But the knight did not answer, and tried to break away. The soldiers wouldn’t let him do that. And everyone asked him to reveal his identity.
When the knight found that there was no way to avoid that, he replied in a feminine voice: “My prince, I did not answer because I am shy. You are a great leader, and I am only a woman whose heart is burning.”
“Who are you?” Khalis insisted.
“I am Khawla Bint Al Azwar. I was with the women accompanying the army, and when I learnt that the enemy captured my brother, I did what I did.”
Khalid ordered his army to chase the fleeing Roman Army, with Khawla leading the attack, looking in all directions for her brother, but in vain. By noontime, the victory was decisive. Most of the Roman soldiers were killed.
Knowing that the prisoners had to be somewhere, Khalid sent Khawla with a number of knights to find them. After a hot chase, they managed to catch up with a Roman detachment that was taking the prisoners to their headquarters. Another fight took place, the Roman guards were all killed and the prisoners saved.
In another battle in Ajnadin, Khawla’s spear broke, and her mare was killed, and she found herself a prisoner. But she was astonished to find that the Romans attacked the women camp and captured several of them. Their leader gave the prisoners to his commanders, and order Khawla to be moved into his tent. She was furious, and decided that to die is more honourable than living in disgrace. She stood among the other women, and called them to fight for their freedom and honour or die. The others were enthusiastic to her plan. They took the tents’ poles and pegs and attacked the Roman guards, keeping a formation of a tight circle, as she told them.
Khawla led the attack, killed the first guard with her pole, with the other women following her. According to Al Waqidi, they managed to kill 30 Roman knights, while Khawla was encouraging them with her verses, which in fact cause the blood to boil.
The Roman Leader was infuriated by what happened, and led a detachment of his knights against the women, though he tried first to tempt them with many promises. He told Khawla that he planned to marry her and make her the first lady of Damascus. But she answered him calmly and with great contempt: “I wouldn’t even accept you to be a shepherd of my camels! How do you expect me to degrade myself and live with you? I swear that I’ll be the one to cut off your head for your insolence.”
In the ensuing battle, the ladies proved their mettle, kept their grounds for some time, encouraging each other and driving off the attackers with their long poles. Suddenly, Khalid and the army reached the battlefield. In the ensuing fight, over 3.000 Romans were killed. The women who took part in the fighting were proud to say that Khawla killed five knights, including the leader that insulted her.
In another battle, the Moslems were overwhelmed by a much bigger Roman army. Many soldiers fled away, but not for long. Khawla and the other women met the fleeing soldiers, questioning their claims of bravery and forced them to return to the battle. The men were stunned when they saw Khawla drawing her sword and leading a counter-attack. They turned their horses and joined the battle, which was eventually won.
One of the knights present that day said: “Our women were much harsher with us than the Romans. We felt that going back to fight and die was much easier than facing the fury of our women later on”.
Khawla became a legend during her life and remains a legend till this day. She set an example to men and women alike that one should fight for what he or she believes in, and never accept defeat.