Islamic History Podcast 2-20: Ali And Muawiyyah

Islamic History Podcast 2-20: Ali And Muawiyyah


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.

Show Notes

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Links related to this episode

Podcast: Lost Rings and Lost Opportunities

Podcast: Murder and Chaos

Podcast: Ali and Aisha

Podcast: Camel and Kharijites

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