The Ridda Wars (632-633 CE): Arabia’s Apostasy Wars Explained

Following Prophet Muhammed’s death, tribes across Arabia rejected Islam and the authority of Abu Bakr, the new caliph. The so-called Ridda Wars ensued.

May 16, 2023By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology
ridda wars arabia wars explained


During his lifetime, the Islamic Prophet Muhammed (c.570-632 CE) faced opposition and persecution from the tribes of Arabia that rejected his teachings. This conflict led to a series of bloody battles and wars, from which Muhammed and the Muslim community emerged victorious. However, following Muhammed’s death, many of these tribes rebelled and apostatized. Led by the first caliph, Abu Bakr (573-634 CE), the Muslims launched a series of desperate campaigns against the rebels. These conflicts, collectively known as the Ridda Wars, were fought across the Arabian Peninsula. When they were over, Abu Bakr and the Muslim community had not merely survived but had successfully reestablished their authority over the disparate Arabs. In doing so, they set the stage for the creation of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen.


The Prophet and the Caliphate: The Background of the Ridda Wars

calligraphy of caliph abu bakr muhammed
Calligraphy of the Prophet Muhammed (left) and Caliph Abu Bakr (right), via Wikimedia Commons


The teachings of the Prophet Muhammed upset the established order of things in the Arabian Peninsula. This forced him to become far more than just a religious leader. Many reacted quite strongly, and he and the Muslim community faced ostracism, boycotts, persecution, and even military campaigns directed against them. However, through persistence, inspired military leadership, and some might argue divine intervention, Muhammed and the Muslim community emerged victorious. By 630 CE, they had established some level of control over the entirety of the Arabian Peninsula. From then until Muhammed’s death in 632 CE, he and the Muslim community were occupied with converting the peoples of the region to Islam and establishing a new social, cultural, and religious order. It was also during this period that the Byzantine Empire began to manifest itself as a possible threat.


Following Prophet Muhammed’s death, the leadership of the Muslim community now passed to Abu Bakr, as the Prophet’s senior companion. He became the first Rashidun or “rightly guided” Caliph or “successor.” Abu Bakr was elected to this office, though his election was not without controversy. Nonetheless, Abu Bakr was elected almost unanimously, though it did take some time to win the fealty of Ali ibn Abi Talib. In the long term, this would have serious consequences for the Muslim community and lead to the Shia-Sunni split. The office of Caliph combined both religious and political duties, so that Abu Bakr and his later successors, at least the initial ones, were not intended to be figureheads.


Before the Ridda Wars Began

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Incense Burner, South Arabian 2nd Century CE; with Sculpture of a mounted warrior and infantryman, South Arabian 5th Century CE, via The British Museum


The Muslim community was not fully accepted across the entirety of Arabia when Abu Bakr became caliph. Many objected on both political and religious grounds. Even during the Prophet Muhammed’s lifetime others had arisen claiming to be prophets. Additionally, there had been clashes with the Byzantines and their Arab vassals, the Christian Ghassanids. Rumors abounded of Byzantine armies preparing to march on Medina and Mecca to destroy the nascent Muslim community. At this time, Arabia was home to many Pagans, Christians, and Jews. Muslims were in the minority, and as it would turn out, many were waiting to renounce Islam at the first opportunity. The death of the Prophet Muhammed gave them the opportunity they were waiting for. Their loyalty and Islamic faith did not last long after the Prophet’s death.

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Immediately after being elected as Caliph, Abu Bakr dispatched an army under the command of young Usama ibn Zayd. His initial mission was to strike at the Byzantines and Ghassanids for having killed several prominent Muslims during a raid on the empire in the battle of Mu’tah (629 CE). There were already rumblings of rebellion and discontent. The purpose of this expedition was as much to reassert Muslim authority as it was to strike at the Byzantines. Militarily the expedition was a success: the Ghassanids were defeated in a minor battle, several rebellious tribes were chastised, and a great deal of booty was brought back. Politically, it changed little. Most of the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula apostatized, that is renounced Islam and revolted. The Ridda Wars, or the “Wars of Apostasy”, had begun.


Defending Medina

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Green Dome of the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi Mosque over the Tomb of Muhammed, Abu Bakr, Umar and Aisha, Arabic 1279 CE, via Wikimedia Commons


While Usama was away on the expedition, Medina came under threat. A coalition of rebellious Apostate tribes, led by the self-proclaimed prophet Tulayha, assembled an army at Zhu Qissa, a mere 30 miles away. When Abu Bakr learned of this, he made immediate preparations for the defense of Medina. An elite guard unit of veterans, known as the al-Haras wa al-Shurta, was formed to defend the city. They rode out under cover of darkness and defeated the Apostates in a daring night attack. Abu Bakr attempted to follow up this victory with the main army but was defeated. His soldiers had been forced to ride untrained baggage camels which they could not control in battle. When the Muslims retreated back to Medina, the Apostates reoccupied their previous positions. At Medina, Abu Bakr reorganized his forces and launched a second night attack which again succeeded in driving back the Apostates.


By this point, Usama had returned to Medina. His soldiers were left to rest and recuperate in Medina, which freed up more soldiers for Abu Bakr’s army. With this reinforced army, Abu Bakr was able to defeat the Apostates at Abraq. In response, Tulayha gathered his forces at Buzakha and prepared for battle. Abu Bakr sought to weaken the Apostates before the battle. He dispatched the legendary Khalid ibn al-Walid to overawe potentially hostile tribes and bring them into the fold, while Adi ibn Hattim was sent on a separate mission to negotiate possible alliances. Both missions were successful, and the Muslims were able to defeat Tulayha’s army in battle at Buzakha. Over the next several weeks, Khalid won a series of victories over the Apostates, crushing Tulayha and pacifying several other tribes. With these victories, Medina was now secure.


Planning the Conquest

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Grave stele depicting two armed men riding a camel, South Arabian c.3rd Century CE, via The British Museum


With Medina secure, Abu Bakr and the Muslim community could now plan to suppress the rebellious Apostate tribes of Arabia. The army was divided into 11 separate corps, each under its own commander and with its own standards. Some of these corps were given missions that they were to immediately undertake. Others were given missions that were to be launched later. Each corps was also capable of acting independently of the others. The reason for adopting this approach was to make the best use of the available manpower and to exploit the division among the enemy. Just because the Apostates were opposed to the Muslims did not mean that they were allied with each other.


The army was divided in the following manner. Khalid ibn al-Walid’s force was to suppress Tulaiha bin Khuwailad Al-Asdee from the Asad tribe and then Banu Sulaim. His force was the first to move out and faced the hardened core of the rebellion. Ikrimah ibn Abi-Jahl was instructed to confront Musaylima at Yamamah but to not engage until more manpower could be built up. Shurahbil ibn Hasana was to follow Ikrimah, but to await further instruction from the Caliph. Amr ibn al-As was tasked with suppressing the Apostate tribes of Quza’a and Wadi’a in the area of Tabuk and Daumat-ul-Jandal. Khalid bin Saeed was assigned to suppress several Apostate tribes along the Syrian frontier. Turaifa bin Hajiz was tasked with handling the Apostate tribes of Hawazin and Bani Sulaim in the area east of Medina and Mecca. Further to the east, Ala bin Al Hadhrami was detailed with Bahrain, and Hudhaifa bin Mihsan was sent to Oman, while Arfajah was tasked with Mahra. In the south, Muhajir bin Abi Umayyah was sent first to Yemen and then to the Kinda in Hadhramaut. Finally, Suwaid bin Muqaran was dispatched against apostates in the coastal area north of Yemen.


The Ridda Wars of Central and Northern Arabia

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Spangenhelm type helmet, Byzantine 7th Century CE, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


The main campaign of the Ridda Wars was launched by Khalid ibn al-Walid in central Arabia. He was supported by several other armies, such as those of Ikrimah ibn Abi-Jahl and Shurahbil ibn Hasana but his effort was the most critical. In central Arabia, the Apostates were now led by Musaylima, another self-proclaimed prophet who controlled the fertile Yamamah region. Tulayah was also still active, though his power was greatly reduced. Khalid first rode to Najd, where he was able to overawe the Apostates before executing their leaders. While Khalid was securing Najd, Ikrimah marched to Yamamah and engaged Musaylima. In the resulting battle, the Muslims were defeated by the Apostates. Abu Bakr, therefore, sent Ikrimah to assist Hudhaifa in Oman, Arfajah in Mahra, and Muhajir in Yemen. Khalid was then dispatched to deal with Musaylima. However, before he arrived, Shurahbil engaged Musaylima without orders and was also defeated.


At this point, the Ridda Wars were not going well for the Muslims in Central Arabia. Khalid managed to link up with the remnants of Shurahbil’s army so that he now possessed a force of 13,000. He engaged Musaylima at the Battle of Yamama, which was a decisive Muslim victory. After this victory, Khalid established his headquarters in Yamamah and mopped up Apostate opposition. With this, the most powerful core of Apostate opposition was broken. Shortly thereafter Amr was able to march north to the Syrian frontier. However, he was not able to decisively defeat the Apostate tribes of Quza’a and Wadi’a. In early 633 CE, with Khalid now in control of central Arabia Shurahbil was dispatched to the north and, together with Amr, finally defeated the Apostates. With this, the Ridda Wars were brought to a close in Central and Northern Arabia.


The Ridda Wars of Oman and Bahrain

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Grave Stele domestic and hunting scenes, South Arabian c.500 CE, via The Louvre Museum


In Oman Hudhaifa bin Mihsan was tasked with reasserting control over the region. Here the Apostates were led by the Azd tribe and their chief Laqeet bin Malik, who was also known as “the Crowned One” and who may have also been a self-proclaimed prophet. Hudhaifa’ army was not strong enough to defeat Laqeet, so he was forced to request reinforcements. These were led by Ikrimah, who had recently been defeated in central Arabia by Musaylima. The combined army was victorious in the subsequent battle of Dibba, and Laqeet was killed in the fighting. Hudhaifa now became governor of Oman while Ikrimah led the army and mopped up all remaining resistance. In this way, he was able to defeat the Azd and bring the Ridda Wars to a close in Oman.


After finishing his mission in Oman, Ikrimah next marched to Mahra. He arrived before Arfajah and immediately moved against the Apostates. Faced with two rebel armies, he convinced the smaller army to convert to Islam and join him. With this combined force, he crushed the Apostates in the region, and Ikrimah decided to encamp and rest his forces while awaiting further developments. Ala bin Al Hadhrami, meanwhile, now moved against the Apostates in Bahrain. Here he found them entrenched in a strong position near Hajr. Rather than immediately attacking, he launched a surprise night attack and succeeded in capturing the city. The Apostates fled to their various coastal strongholds but were defeated one by one. In early 633 CE, the Ridda Wars were brought to a close in Bahrain and Mahra.


The Ridda Wars of Yemen 

great mosque of zabid
Al-Asha’ir Mosque or Great Mosque of Zabid, Arabic 628 CE, via UNESCO World Heritage Centre


Yemen was the first region to revolt during the Ridda Wars. The rebels were led by Al-Aswad Al-Ansi, “The Black One,” a self-proclaimed prophet and chieftain. At one time, Yemen had been part of the Sassanian empire, and the descendants of the Sassanian governor and garrison had a great deal of influence in the region. They were known as the Al-Abna. Al-Aswad murdered the Al-Abna governor but was himself murdered. Two Yemenite chieftains then rebelled as they did not agree with Abu-Bakr choice for the new governor. While Muhajir was sent to suppress this revolt, it was Ikrimah who successfully suppressed the rebellion. The leaders of the revolt were captured by the Al-Abna governor, who sent them to Medina. Invited to once again accept Islam, they did so and were pardoned.


The last great revolt during the Ridda Wars was that of the Kinda tribe, who occupied eastern Yemen, Najran, and Hahramaut. This revolt did not begin until early 633 CE and was led by Ash’ath ibn Qays. The Apostate forces were equally matched with those of the Muslim governor, Ziyad bin Lubaid. It was not until the arrival of Muhajir’s forces that any progress was made toward suppressing the revolt. After taking Zafar, the capital of Hahramaut, the Muslim army was reinforced by the arrival of additional troops under Ikrimah. The combined army then moved on to the fortified city of Nujair, the last stronghold of the Kinda. Nujair was captured after a siege lasting several weeks. With the fall of Nujair, the last of the apostate rebellions collapsed. By March 633 CE, the Ridda Wars were over, and the Arabian Peninsula had been secured for Islam.


Ridda Wars: Aftermath & Legacy

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Birmingham Quran, Arabic c.568-645 CE, via Wikimedia Commons


During the Caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab (r.634-644 CE), there was a third and final apostasy rebellion in Yemen. However, it was nowhere near as serious as what had been faced during the Ridda Wars. This conflict posed a serious threat to the very survival of the Muslim community in Arabia. The final Muslim victory in the Ridda Wars left them in a far stronger position than they had been in previously. The various tribes of the region had been subdued and united in a far more thorough manner than they had been previously. This meant that after the Ridda Wars, the caliph was in a far stronger political, economic, and military position. It also meant that they faced less religious dissent and competition from other faiths. Though they had been delayed for a year, the armies of Islam were no far better poised to launch their grand invasions of the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires. If not for the Ridda Wars, the success of the Arab Conquest may not have been possible.


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Depiction of the Rashidun Army, from Farouk Omar (2012), via IMDB


The early triumph of the Muslim community in the Ridda Wars so soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammed was critical to the development of Islam. It ensured that the Islamic faith would not only survive, but also grow and spread. The compilation of the Quran in written form was also, in part, a result of the Ridda Wars. Many of those who had memorized the verses fell in the fighting in Yamamah. To ensure that the verses were not lost, Abu Bakr ordered that they be written down. As such, the Ridda Wars were important politically, economically, socially, militarily, and religiously.

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By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.