In June 656, Caliph Uthman ibn Affan was murdered in his home by a crowd of angry protestors. Soon after his death, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, assumed the Caliphate.
But Ali would have a difficult time asserting his authority.
Many people wanted him to find and punish the killers of Uthman. However, after nearly five months, there had been no arrests and no punishments.
Some began to suspect Ali did not really want to find them. After all, several of Uthman’s opponents had attained high positions within Ali’s administration.
For his part, Ali insisted he wanted to find the killers, but could not do so without the empire’s support. As it was, most of the high-ranking Sahabah (companions of Prophet Muhammad) did not pledge allegiance to him.
Two of these Sahabah were the powerful governor of Syria Muawiyyah ibn Abi Sufyan who was also Uthman’s cousin, and Aisha bint Abi Bakr, the Prophet’s widow.
Aisha decided to find Uthman’s killers on her own and had cobbled together a force of 3000. They marched on Basra in Iraq, arrested Ali’s governor, and occupied the city.
Ali responded by leading an army to Basra which resulted in the Battle of the Camel, the first official battle between opposing Muslim forces.
Ali defeated Aisha and recaptured Basra. However, his victory came at a price.
His reputation suffered for fighting against Aisha, and turned even more people against him. This was also the beginning of several conflicts between opposing Muslim groups, known as the First Fitnah.
Another unfortunate outcome of the Battle of the Camel was the rise of the Kharijites.
Where most people disapproved of Ali fighting other Muslims, there were some who thought Ali was too lenient with his opponents. These extremists began to doubt Ali’s faith and wondered if perhaps the Muslim world would be better off without him.
Three decades before the Battle of Siffeen, the Muslims were threatened with elimination by a coalition of pagan tribes, led by none other than Muawiyyah’s father, Abu Sufyan.
Word had come to the Muslim city-state of Medina that an army of 10000 soldiers was on its way to put an end to Islam once and for all. This was the third clash between the Muslims of Medina and the pagan Quraish of Mecca since the Prophet migrated five years earlier.
But this time it was different.
In the first conflict, the Battle of Badr, the scrappy Muslims defeated a much larger Meccan force with few casualties. At that time, the Quraish were over confident, and suffered the cost of underestimating the Muslims.
The second conflict was the Battle of Uhud. Seeking revenge for the loss at Badr, Abu Sufyan led a more disciplined and prepared army against Medina. Once again outnumbered, the Muslims came very close to routing the Quraish.
But a rear guard for the Muslims abandoned their post and Khalid ibn Waleed, at that time still a pagan, took advantage of the opportunity. The Muslim army was scattered, but Medina was spared.
Abu Sufyan was satisfied that vengeance had been taken and returned to Mecca.
The following year, Abu Sufyan launched his most ambitious plan yet. Rather than depend on the Quraish alone, he used bribery, promises, and his political connections to create an alliance of pagan tribes.
10000 men was more soldiers than anyone had seen before on the Arabian Peninsula. With a population no bigger than 2000, many Muslims of Medina feared this was the end.
But one of the Prophet’s companions, Salman Al-Farisi, had an idea. He grew up in Persia during the mighty Sassanid Dynasty and had military experience. Unlike most of the Arabs, he was familiar with large-scale warfare.
He suggested the Muslims dig a deep trench around the vulnerable points of Medina. This would slow down the pagan army and help defend the city.
The Prophet liked the idea and put the Sahabah to work digging the trench.
And sure enough, when Abu Sufyan and his army arrived, they were dumbfounded. Abu Sufyan wondered at this deep, long gulf between him and Medina. “This is not how Arabs fight,” he said in disgust.
The pagans were unable to cross that trench and eventually packed up and went home. Ghazwatul Khandaq, or the Battle of the Trench as it came to be known, was a surprising success for the Muslims.
It was during the digging of this trench, that Prophet Muhammad made a prophecy.
“O son of Sumayyah,” he said to Ammar ibn Yasir wiping his head, “you will be involved in trouble and a group of rebels will kill you.”
At that time, no one truly understood what that prophecy meant.
A New Capital
Now that Ali had Basra back under his control, he could refocus on Syria. Muawiyyah was the only obstacle between Ali and a united Muslim empire.
Ali also decided it was time to move his headquarters.
Ever since Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) made the Hijrah thirty-six years earlier, Medina had been the capital of the Muslim world. The first three Caliphs had made it their home and headquarters.
Unlike his predecessors, Ali often led his soldiers into battle. Invading Syria from Medina would have been impractical. He would need a base of operations that was much closer.
Furthermore, Medina was the second holiest city for Muslims and had suffered much since Uthman’s death. It was the home to hundreds of Sahabah as well as the Prophet’s mosque and his grave.
Ali wanted to spare this sacred city any further turmoil. Therefore, he had to choose a different city as his capital. His options were Mecca, Basra, and Kufah.
Mecca was out of the question. It was even holier than Medina, and further away from Syria.
Basra was no good either. Even though they pledged allegiance to Ali, the people of Basra were furious at him for fighting Aisha.
This left Ali with only one option: Kufah, in central Iraq.
Medina would never again serve as the Muslim capital.
The city of Mada’in was too large and complex for military purposes. The name Mada’in actually means “cities” because it was more like a metropolis made up of several smaller towns.
Furthermore, the climate just didn’t cooperate with the mostly Arab Muslim soldiers.
Umar ordered a new garrison to be built in central Iraq. Some reports suggest the Persian companion Salman Al-Farisi and Hudhayfa Yamani discovered a sandy, desert-like plain close to the Euphrates River.
From the beginning, Kufah was a difficult city to govern. For years, there was a revolving door of governors.
The Kufans became known as a restless and unruly people. It is no coincidence that many of those who protested against Uthman originated from this region.
There were many reasons for this restlessness.
As a military town, it attracted soldiers and those who catered to soldiers, such as wandering salesman, entertainers, and others looking to make easy money.
As a new city, it didn’t have the legacy of an established social order. Hence, there was a lot of friction between the conquered Persians, and the new Arab rulers.
As a riverside city, its population exploded, and quickly outgrew its garrison status.
From a strategic point of view, Kufah gave the Muslims access to Iraq, Asia Minor, and the Caucasus.
Today, Kufah is a fairly large city in Iraq, but it is dwarfed by the city of Najaf just 17 miles to the east. Kufah, with a current population of 100000 people, is really a suburb of Najaf with over 1 million residents.
Once Ali had his new capital established, he began making changes in his administration.
The first to go was the governor of Kufah, Abu Musa Al-Ashari. There were two reasons for his dismissal.
With Ali in Kufah, there really was no need for a separate governor. Like the Caliphs in Medina, Ali would govern the capital directly.
But another reason was Abu Musa’s unwillingness to support Ali in the Battle of the Camel.
In the run-up to the battle, Ali commanded Abu Musa to provide soldiers and equipment from Kufah. However, Abu Musa, who was an old Sahabah himself, refused to participate in fighting other Muslims.
Abu Musa’s dismissal cost Ali the support of yet another influential Sahabah.
Ali also made changes in Egypt.
When he first became Caliph, Ali assigned an Ansar (a Sahabah from Medina) named Qais ibn Sa’d as his Egyptian governor.
During the Prophet’s time, Qais ibn Sa’d was known as a dependable, responsible figure who commanded respect.
But as governor of Egypt, he preferred to be more lenient with the people.
Ali did not have the full support of the Egyptians. A large segment of Egyptian society refused to give Ali the bay’ah, or pledge of allegiance.
Qais ibn Sa’d understood the people were uncomfortable with Ali’s Caliphate. He was willing to go easy on those who were hesitant to support Ali, so long as they did not cause trouble.
But some of Ali’s advisors disagreed. They wanted Qais ibn Sa’d to force the people to pledge allegiance to Ali.
At first, Ali agreed with his governor’s methods. But over time, he grew suspicious of Qais ibn Sa’d’s loyalties.
In Syria, Muawiyyah had spies lurking all over Egypt and Kufah. It wasn’t long before he learned of the growing gulf between Ali and his Egyptian governor. Muawiyyah responded by openly praising Qais ibn Sa’d at the grand Mosque in Damascus.
Ali fell for the bait. When he heard of Muawiyyah’s speech, he dismissed Qais ibn Sa’d and replaced him with his stepson, Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr.
This turned out to be a poor decision.
Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr had no previous experience in government or politics. And there was a cloud of distrust over him as he was one of the most vocal opponents of Uthman ibn Affan.
Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr would not tolerate any wavering of the hearts. When he became governor of Egypt, he gave an ultimatum. Either give bay’ah to Ali, or leave Egypt.
Some of the nobles of Egypt counseled Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr to be patient. The people had gone through three different governors in less than a year. It would take time to earn their support.
But Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr would have none of it. He persisted with his hardline tactics which alienated many of Ali’s supporters.
Before long, Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr was dealing with a full-on rebellion. With Egypt mired in chaos, Ali could no longer rely on it for support.
Back in Kufah, Ali continued his preparations for an invasion of Syria. Ali held out hope for peace and continuously sent emissaries to Damascus. They implored Muawiyyah to spare the Muslims from more fighting and give bay’ah to Ali.
And Muawiyyah continued to respond that he would do so when Ali either turned over or punished Uthman’s killers.
With this impasse, there was no avoiding the inevitable confrontation.
Over the next six months, Ali diligently built his army. And towards the end of the year, it began to assemble near the Syrian border.
Abdullah ibn Abbas, Ali’s governor of Basra, departed with his army and settled in the plains of Nukhaylah, just north of modern day Baghdad.
Ali reinforced him with two more battalions from Kufah before sending another 7000 soldiers to Mada’in, just south of Baghdad.
The two armies of Ali departed for Syria, eventually converging in Raqqah, about one hundred miles east of Aleppo.
Muawiyyah was not sitting idle. The Battle of the Camel made it clear just how determined Ali was to assert his authority.
Muawiyyah did not have to put in much work building a strong army. His forces were already strong, experienced, and well-prepared.
Unlike Ali, whose support was shaky at best, Muawiyyah had the full, unwavering support of the Syrian people.
While Ali had to fight, cajole, and argue with his followers, Muawiyyah enjoyed the benefit of 18 years of competent and efficient rule in Syria. It is no wonder that the protests against Uthman never reached his territory.
Even though Ali may have been a better battlefield strategist, Muawiyyah was no slouch himself. He fought in the early wars to conquer Syria during the Caliphate of Umar ibn Al-Khattab.
And as governor of Syria, he had to maintain a strong and well-equipped army to defend against the constant Roman incursions.
Muawiyyah was the architect of the first Muslim navy, defeated the Romans in the Battle of Cyprus, and had extended the Muslim empire north into the Caucasus mountains.
And now that he was about to face off with Ali, Muawiyyah was working tirelessly to give himself the upper hand.
He had already taken Egypt out of the picture by influencing the politics there. While we don’t know if he intended the revolt against Muhammad ibn Bakr, he certainly took advantage of the situation.
In Damascus, Muawiyyah made sure to keep the people’s emotions at a high level. He made a big show of displaying Uthman’s bloodied shirt outside the Mosque. And to add an even more gruesome touch, he included the dismembered fingers of Uthman’s wife, Nailah.
Muawiyyah also had the support of his clan, the Banu Umayyah. After Uthman’s murder, most of the Umayyah moved to Syria.
Even before the time of Prophet Muhammad, the Umayyah clan had been active in politics and trade. Before converting to Islam, Muawiyyah’s father, Abu Sufyan, was one of Prophet Muhammad’s staunchest opponents.
Uthman ibn Affan was also from the Umayyah clan, and he was a wealthy merchant both before and after accepting Islam.
The experience, wealth, and connections of the Umayyah clan gave Muawiyyah a significant advantage.
Nonetheless, Ali controlled an area and population ten times the size of Syria. Several things would have to break in Muawiyyah’s favor if he hoped to outlast Ali.
One of those breaks was an alliance with Amr ibn Al-As.
Amr ibn Al-As conquered Egypt for the Muslims during the Caliphate of Umar ibn Al-Khattab. However, he had been politically sidelined since Uthman ibn Affan deposed him.
Now with the Empire in turmoil, Amr ibn Al-As saw a chance to make himself relevant again. On top of that, he also hoped to bring peace to Muslim world.
Amr ibn Al-As traveled to Damascus and requested an audience with Muawiyyah. At first, Muawiyyah was suspicious of Amr’s motives. After all, he had been deposed twice by Uthman.
And there were rumors that Amr ibn Al-As may have helped foment unrest against Uthman in Egypt.
But after talking with Amr over several days, Muawiyyah was convinced of his sincerity. Muawiyyah knew that Amr ibn Al-As was an excellent politician and warrior.
Amr ibn Al-As quickly proved his worth. One of the first pieces of advice he gave Muawiyyah was to cut back on displaying Uthman’s bloody shirt and Nailah’s fingers.
If the people continued to see these items every day, Amr argued, they would become indifferent to them and the effects would wane over time. He suggested they only be displayed on Fridays to continuously rekindle the passion and anger over Uthman’s death.
With this, Amr ibn Al-As found himself not as a peacemaker, but as an active contributor to the hostilities. Amr ibn Al-As would continue to be a significant player in future events.
The Two Holy Months
As soon as Muawiyyah heard that Ali was on the move, he mobilized his forces. The two sides set up camp in Siffeen in Dhul Hijjah 36 AH, or May 657.
Siffeen lies on the shores of the Euphrates River near the modern city of Raqqa in central Syria. Siffeen is not a city or a town, but simply the name of this region.
However, since it was the month of Dhul Hijjah, there was no fighting.
The Islamic calendar, like the Gregorian calendar used in the west, has twelve months. There are four sacred months in which fighting is prohibited.
Contrary to popular opinion, Ramadan is not one of them. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is famous as the month of fasting and devotion for Muslims. And it is certainly a holy month when devout Muslims try to increase their worship.
But it is not one of the four sacred months mentioned in chapter nine, verse 36 of the Quran.
Indeed, the number of months with Allah is twelve months in the book of Allah from the day He created the heavens and the earth. From those are four sacred months. That is the correct religion. And do not wrong yourselves during them. And fight the polytheists altogether just like they fought you altogether. And know that Allah is with the Pious.
Three of the four sacred months run in succession: Dhul-Qa’dah, the month before Hajj, and Dhul-Hijjah, the month of Hajj, are both sacred months and are the last two months of the Islamic year.
The third sacred month is Muharram, which actually means “Sacred”. Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar.
Therefore, Ali and Muawiyyah would have to wait two consecutive months before any fighting could take place. They would have to wait through Dhul-Hijjah, the twelfth and final month of the year 36 AH, and Muharram, the first month of the year 37 AH.
This offered the two sides an opportunity to negotiate peace and avoid warfare.
For nearly seven weeks, Ali and Muawiyyah’s representatives went back and forth between each other’s camps.
Though both sides wanted to avoid fighting, their arguments by now were firm and unwavering.
Some from Ali’s camp accused Muawiyyah of wanting the Caliphate for himself which he flat out denied.
He admitted Ali’s superiority as a relative of Prophet Muhammad and early convert to Islam. Muawiyyah swore that he did not want to depose Ali as Caliph.
But Muawiyyah was the head of the Umayyah clan, and his cousin Uthman had been murdered. And one year after that murder, no justice had been done.
And it was rather suspicious that so many of Uthman’s opponents had high positions in Ali’s administration.
Ammar ibn Yasir, Malik Ashtar, and Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr were all known to be outspoken critics of Uthman. In fact, Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr was one of those who broke into Uthman’s house on the day he was killed.
Ali not only protected him, but made him the governor of Egypt.
Muawiyyah had another question.
What sort of precedent would this set? What example was the Muslim government making when the Caliph could be murdered and no one was punished? What faith would the people have in the system when the most powerful man in the Empire was not safe?
Ali was insulted by the implication. No one showed such disrespect to the other Caliphs.
None of these people dared to disobey Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman. Yet, they found reason to disobey and betray him, even though he was on the same level as the others.
Ali insisted he wanted to find Uthman’s killers just as much as anyone else. But Muawiyyah had lost perspective.
The stability and unity of the Empire was paramount. The people had to know the authority of the Caliph was sound and unquestioned.
While he did have some of Uthman’s detractors working with him, he would never knowingly accept one of his killers. Besides, with so little support coming from the companions, what choice did Ali have?
They wanted Ali to fulfill his duties of establishing justice, yet they did not want to fulfill their duty of obeying the Caliph.
Obedience to the Caliph, Ali’s delegates argued, was unconditional.
Some of Ali’s delegates even hinted that Muawiyyah sought benefit from Uthman’s death. It was curious, they suggested, that he did not offer to help Uthman in his time of need. And now that Uthman was dead, Muawiyyah had a good opportunity to stake a claim for the Caliphate.
This finger-pointing and arguing continued for several weeks with no progress.
Eventually, the two sacred months drew to a close, and it became obvious an agreement would not be reached.
The Battle of Siffeen
On the seventh day of Saffar, in the 37th year of the Hijrah, Muawiyyah launched the opening attack.
The two armies clashed, but just like in the Battle of the Camel, it was a mostly reluctant affair. No one relished the idea of killing another Muslim.
When the enemy fled, they were not pursued. The property of the dead was not plundered. The dead bodies were never mutilated. And the women from both sides were left alone.
And perhaps most saddening of all, both sides would take time out to pray.
However, this engagement did differ from the Battle of the Camel in one significant way: it was a deliberate fight.
The Battle of the Camel caught both sides by surprise and was caused by a rebellious faction within Ali’s camp.
But the Battle of Siffeen came after several rounds of failed negotiations. Both sides drew up in ranks and marched against each other with the intent to kill another Muslim.
Commanders from both sides led huge columns of armored soldiers into battle. And there were various duels and clashes between companions and sons of companions.
Walid ibn Uqbah, a companion and former governor of Uthman, fought on Muawiyyah’s side against Ali’s governor, Abdullah ibn Abbas, one of the Prophet’s cousins.
Ammar ibn Yasir on Ali’s side, led a column against Amr ibn Al-As on Muawiyyah’s side.
Ubaidullah, the son of Umar ibn Al-Khattab, challenged one of Ali’s sons, Muhammad ibn Al-Hanafiyyah, to a duel. They were about to go at it before Ali intervened and dragged his son back to camp.
At one point during the chaos, Ali challenged Muawiyyah to a duel, stating that it would spare both sides needless suffering.
But Ali’s skill with the sword was legendary, and Muawiyyah wisely declined.
Despite these clashes, it is reported that overall, very few Sahabah actually took part in the fighting. There were many companions present at Siffeen on the day of the battle, but most remained on the sidelines, refusing to participate.
Some reports state that less than thirty Sahabah drew their swords at Siffeen. And considering there were tens of thousands of Sahabah still alive at that time, it was a very small percentage.
The fighting dragged on for seven days and the body count piled up. Some estimates suggest there were 40000 casualties from Ali’s side, and 20000 from Muawiyyah’s side.
If these numbers are accurate, it would mean that more Muslims were killed in the Battle of Siffeen, than all of their previous combined battles since the time of Prophet Muhammad.
The tide of battle swung back and forth between Ali and Muawiyyah. Sometimes Ali had momentum, and sometimes Muawiyyah had momentum.
Though many men lost their lives during this battle, there was one life above all that shocked both sides.
When Ammar ibn Yasir was struck down, the will to fight seeped away. He was one of the earliest companions, his parents died as martyrs, and he had fought in almost every major battle alongside the Prophet.
Along with his death, came the fulfillment of the prophecy made at the Battle of the Trench. Thirty years earlier, Prophet Muhammad predicted that Ammar ibn Yasir would be killed by a group of rebels.
This prophecy was well known to all the major companions at that time. Besides reminding the Muslims of the gravity of their situation, it also brought home one crucial fact.
Muawiyyah was in the wrong. He and his soldiers were the rebels mentioned in the prophecy.
A Temporary Peace
It was at this point, that peace became possible.
By this time, Ali’s greater numbers were beginning to bear fruit. Muawiyyah’s flanks were weakening and it looked as though a winner might soon be decided.
Taking the death of Ammar and Ali’s growing momentum into consideration, Amr ibn Al-As knew it was time to put an end to it all. He knew Ali and Muawiyyah would never surrender and would fight to the bitter end.
And such an attitude would only lead to more bloodshed.
On the seventh day, after both sides had retreated for the night, Amr ibn Al-As approached Muawiyyah with an idea.
“Send the Quran to Ali,” Amr ibn Al-As advised Muawiyyah, “and call him to the Book of Allah. He will not deny you.”
Muawiyyah agreed, and later that night, sent a delegation to Ali’s tent carrying a heavy scroll of Quran.
“The Book of Allah,” the delegate said, “is all that stands between us.” Then he recited a verse of Quran reprimanding the Christians and Jews for not using scripture in their disputes.
Have you not seen those who were given a portion of the Scripture? They are called to the Book of Allah to arbitrate between them; then some of them turn away and they are refusing.
Chapter 3, verse 23.
Hearing this, Ali replied: “We are the first to obey.”
And this brought an end to the Battle of Siffeen. Even though Ali agreed to negotiations, he wasn’t entirely happy about it.
He had the advantage and was reluctant to let this drag out any further. He was hoping to settle matters once and for all. But many in his camp had urged him to accept the peace offering from Muawiyyah, and he was compelled to do so.
There is an alternate version of this event, but most likely, it is not true.
Some say Muawiyyah and Amr ibn Al-As realized they were on the verge of defeat. To deceive Ali, Amr suggested they tear pages from the Quran, stick them to the top of their spears, and begin shouting “Let the Quran decide!”
Seeing this spectacle, the story goes, Ali’s devout soldiers couldn’t bring themselves to fight any longer. The put down their arms and clamored for Ali to “let the Quran decide.” Ali, against his better judgement, agreed and disaster followed.
But this version is improbable for several reasons. For one, people did not carry copies of the Quran in their pockets back then.
Secondly, the Quran was not written on paper and there was no printing press in Arabia.
Every copy of the Quran in the entire world at that time, would have been written by hand.
And the Quran was usually written on long scrolls of heavy parchment made from camel skin.
Finally, there are hadiths clearly stating Ali received Muawiyyah’s delegation at night. If true, fighting would have ceased for the day.
The next day, Ali and Muawiyyah agreed to follow the commandments of Allah in the Quran and utilize arbitration. Each man would choose a representative for their side. The two representatives would then work independently on an agreement away from the influence of either Ali or Muawiyyah.
Ali and Muawiyyah both swore to accept whatever terms came from the arbitration.
Muawiyyah chose Amr ibn Al-As to represent him, and Ali chose Abu Musa Al-Ashari.
On the 13th day of Safar 37 AH, July 30, 657, both sides broke camp, and returned to their respective homes; Ali to Kufah, and Muawiyyah to Damascus.
However, on the long journey back to Kufah, some of Ali’s men were not happy at the way things turned out. They did not expect Ali to agree to arbitration. To them, this was a gross violation of Islamic law.
When they asked Ali to “let the Quran decide” they expected him to find a verse that clearly vindicated his cause; not leave it to the whims of mortal men.
These were the same men who took exception with Ali’s leniency towards Aisha after the Battle of the Camel. They began to have second thoughts about the man they chose to support.
They were beginning to believe Ali had lost his way. After all, they reasoned, so many other companions had violated Allah’s commandments. In their extremist views, they felt Aisha, Talha, Zubair, Muawiyyah, and others who opposed the Caliph had left Islam.
Perhaps the entire Muslim leadership had gone astray after the Prophet’s death. If that was the case, it might be time to tear down the old guard, and rebuild from scratch.
But another segment within Ali’s camp thought differently. To this group, Ali could do no wrong. In their love and devotion to Ali, they even began to exaggerate his qualities.
His actions were not only wise, they said, but divinely inspired. After all, who was closer to Prophet Muhammad than Ali ibn Abi Talib? Ali was the Prophet’s cousin, son-in-law, and father of his grandchildren.
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