The Prophet’s final definite move against Quraysh had not stopped Hawazin from continuing to consolidate their forces. Nor were their apprehensions allayed by the news of his easy conquest of Mecca and his destruction of all its idols; and great was their alarm at the fate of the temple of al-‘Uzza, which had been the sister-shrine to their own temple of al-Lat, By the time that the invaders had spent two weeks in Mecca, Hawazin had assembled an army of some twenty thousand men in the valley of Awtas, to the north of Ta’if, Leaving a man of ‘Abdu Shams in charge of Mecca, and appointing Mu’adh ibn Jabal, a young but well-informed man of Khazraj, to instruct converts in all matters that concerned the religion, the Prophet marched out with his whole army, now increased by an additional force of two thousand Quraysh. Most of these had recently pledged allegiance to him, but some, including Suhayl and Safwan, had not yet entered Islam and were simply there to defend their city against Hawazin.
Before setting out, the Prophet had sent to Safwan to borrow a hundred coats of mail which he was known to possess and the weapons that went with them. “O Muhammad,” said Safwan, “is it a question of ‘Give or I will take?’” “It is a loan to be returned,” said the Prophet, whereupon Safwan agreed to provide the camels for the transport of the armor and arms which he handed over to the Prophet when they had reached their final camp. The clans of Hawazin which had come out against them were Thaqif, Nasr, jusham, and Sa’d ibn Bakr. Their commander-in-chief was a thirty-year-old man of Nasr named Malik, who had already won for himself, despite his youth, a reputation for great valor and princely munificence. Against the advice of older men, he had ordered them to bring with them all their women and children and cattle, on the grounds that with these in the rear of the army the men would fight more valiantly. He sent out three scouts to bring him information about the army now approaching from Mecca, but it was not long before they returned almost speechless, in a strangely shattered condition, their joints having been loosed by terror, some even to the point of dislocation. “We saw white men on piebald horses,” said one, “and at once we were smitten with what thou seest.” “We are not fighting people of the earth,” said another, “but people of Heaven. Take our advice and withdraw; for if our men see what we have seen they will suffer what we have suffered.” “Shame upon you!” said Malik. “Ye are the cowards of the camp.”
And so wretched was their plight of body and soul he gave orders for them to be put in detention away from the rest of the troops lest they should spread panic throughout the army. Then he said to those about him: “Show me a man of courage.” But the man chosen came back in the same state as the others, having seen the same terrifying horsemen in the van of the opposing host. “The very sight of them is unbearable,” he gasped. But Malik refused to listen, and after dark, he gave orders to advance to the valley of Hunayn, through which he knew the enemy was bound to pass. He called a halt at his end of Hunayn, where the road began to slope down into the valley bed. On either side were ravines, some of them capacious with wide entrances which could be seen from above but which were completely masked from below. In one or two of these, he posted a large part of his horse, with orders to charge down upon the enemy when he gave the signal. The rest of the army was drawn up on the road itself near the top of the gorge. The Prophet encamped that night not far from the other end of the valley; and, having prayed the dawn prayer with his men, he exhorted them, and gave them good tidings of victory if they were steadfast. The sky was overcast so that it was still almost dark as they descended into the valley bed. Khalid was in the van as before, commanding Sulaym and others. Next came the Muslim part of the new Meccan contingent.
The Prophet, mounted on Duldul, was this time in the midst of the army, with the same squadron of Emigrants and Helpers, but surrounded by more members of his own family than ever before, including his cousins Abu Sufyan and ‘Abd Allah, who had joined him on his way to Mecca, and the two eldest sons of ‘Abbas, FaQI and Qitham, and the two sons of Abu Lahab. In the rear of the army were those of the Meccans who had not yet entered Islam. The van had almost finished its descent when in the half-light the stationary host of Hawazin loomed into view above them on the opposite slope. It was a formidable spectacle, the more so because in the rear of the army itself there were thousands of camels, unmounted or mounted by woman, and in the dimness of dawn, they appeared to be part of the army itself. The road was clearly barred in that direction; but before any new instructions could be sought or any new orders were given, Malik gave his signal. The squadrons of Hawazin suddenly wheeled out of the ravines and swept down upon Khalid and his men. The onslaught was so fierce and so sudden that he could do nothing to rally the Bani Sulaym, who made little or no resistance, but turned and fled headlong, scattering the ranks of the Meccans who were behind them and who now followed them in flight up the slope that they had just descended.
The terrible stampede of horses and camels choked the defile in its narrowest parts, but the Prophet was at a point where he could withdraw a little to his right, and he now made a firm stand at the side of the road with a small body of those who had been riding near him – Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and others of the Emigrants, some of the Helpers, and all the men of his family who were present. Harith’s son Abu Sufyan stood beside him and took hold of the ring of Duldul’s bridle. The Prophet called for others to join him, but his words were drowned by the din of battle. So he turned to ‘Abbas, who had a voice of exceptional power, and told him to shout: “O Companions of the Tree! O Companions of the Acacia!” Immediately the summons was answered from all sides – Labbayk!, “Here at thy service” – as Helpers and Emigrants rallied to him. He soon had with him a hundred men and spreading out across the defile they momentarily checked the onslaught of the enemy. ‘Abbas continued to shout and many of those who had fled now returned to the fight. The Prophet stood up in his stirrups, the better to be seen and the better to see. The enemy was preparing a fresh onslaught, and he prayed: “O God, I ask of Thee Thy promise!” Then he told his foster-brother to give him some pebbles, and taking them in his hand he flung them in the face of the enemy as he had done at Badr. The tide of the battle suddenly turned for no apparent reason – or rather, it was not apparent to the believers, but it was apparent to the enemy, as it had been previously to their scouts; and afterward there came the Revelation: God hath helped you on many fields, and on the day when ye exulted in your numbers and they availed you naught, and the earth for all its breadth was straitened for you, and ye turned back in flight. Then God sent down His Spirit of Peace upon His Messenger and upon the faithful, and sent down hosts that ye saw not, and punished those who disbelieved. Such is the wage of the disbelievers; and afterward God relenteth unto whom He will, for God is Forgiving, Merciful.
The rout was tremendous: Malik fought with great bravery, but finally retreated with the men of Thaqif to their walled city of Ta’if. The main part of Hawazin was pursued with much slaughter as far as Nakhlah. From there they returned to their camp at Awtas; but the Prophet sent a force to dislodge them, and they took to the hills. The Muslims had lost many men at the outset of the battle, in particular the Bani Sulaym who had borne the brunt of the initial ambush. But after the first onslaught, relatively few had been killed. One of these few was Ayman, Usamah’s elder brother, who was struck down at the side of the Prophet. The Hawazin women and children who had been behind the lines were all made captive; and in addition to the camels, sheep, and goats there were also 4, OOO ounces of silver amongst the spoils. The Prophet put Budayl in charge and gave orders that it should all be taken, including the captives, to the nearby valley of ji’ranah, about ten miles from Mecca. Among the divisions of Hawazin was a contingent from the Bani Sa’d ibn Bakr, the clan with whom the Prophet had spent his infancy and early childhood; and one of the older captives rebuked her captors saying: “By God, lam the sister of your chief.” They did not believe her but nonetheless brought her to the Prophet. “O Muhammad, I am thy sister,” she said. The Prophet gazed at her wonderingly: she was an old woman, of seventy or more. “Hast thou any sign of that?” he said, and she at once showed him the mark of a bite. “Thou didst bite me,” she said, “when I was carrying thee in the valley of Sarar. We were there with the shepherds. Thy father was my father, and thy mother was my mother.” The Prophet saw that she was speaking the truth: it was indeed Shayma’, one of his foster-sisters; and spreading out his rug for her, he bade her be seated.
His eyes filled with tears as he asked her for news of Halimah and Harith, his foster-parents, and she told him that they had both died in the fullness of years. After they had talked he offered her the possibility of staying with him or returning to the Bani Sa’d. She said she wished to enter Islam, but chose to return to her clan. The Prophet gave her a rich present and intending to give her more he told her to remain with those of her people who were in the camp, saying that he would see her again on his return. He then set off with the army for Ta’if. Thaqif had enough provisions in their city to last them for a year. They had also ample means of resisting the engines of war which the Prophet ordered to be used against them when all else had failed, and they were expert archers. There were many fierce exchanges of arrows, but half a month passed and the Muslims were no nearer to capturing the town than they had been on the first day.
All that had been achieved was the entry of some men into Islam, for the Prophet had one day announced by means of a crier that any slave of Thaqif who joined the Muslims would be set free. About twenty slaves contrived to make their way out of the city, and coming to the camp, they pledged their allegiance. Almost another week had passed when the Prophet had a dream that he was given a bowl of butter, and a cock came and pecked at it, and spilled it. “I do not think thou wilt gain from them this day what thou desirest,” said Abu Bakr, and the Prophet agreed. Perhaps he had already come to the conclusion that to besiege Thaqif was not the best way to overcome them. However that may be, he now gave orders to raise the siege and to proceed to ji’ranah. As they moved away from the city, some of the men asked the Prophet to curse its inhabitants. Without replying, he raised his hands in supplication and said: “O God, guide Thaqif and bring them to us.” Amongst those killed beneath the walls of Ta’if was Umm Salamah’s half-brother, the Prophet’s cousin ‘Abd Allah, who had so recently entered Islam.