Many things had changed in the five months since Caliph Uthman ibn Affan was murdered.
Ali ibn Abi Talib had assumed the position of Caliph. He was the son-in-law and cousin of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). And even though Ali was highly respected, his administration did not have much support.
Many of the influential Sahabah, companions of Prophet Muhammad, were upset that he did not do more to find Uthman’s killers. Ali countered that he could not go after the killers without the full support of the empire.
One of the most influential people in the empire was the Prophet’s widow, Aisha bint Abi Bakr. Like many others, she was upset that Uthman’s killers were freely walking about Medina. She partnered with two of her husband’s closest friends, Talhah and Zubair, to build a force of 1500 people.
They left Mecca for Medina with the intention of finding those responsible for Uthman’s death. But when they had gone about halfway, they decided to change course and head for Basra in Iraq instead. They were hoping to find more supplies and support there.
Their numbers continued to swell as they traveled to Basra. By the time they reached the city, Aisha’s group numbered over 3000.
The governor of Basra refused to allow Aisha into the city. Instead, an emissary shuttled back and forth between the governor and Aisha’s camp, carrying messages between them.
The first question the governor had for Aisha was, of course, why was she there.
Aisha sent back the message that they wanted to take revenge for Uthman’s death.
The governor was perplexed at this response. He replied that no one in Basra was responsible, and that Aisha should return home.
Not surprisingly, Aisha refused.
With the last message, the governor sent soldiers along with his emissary. Aisha’s refusal led to a standoff which quickly escalated to a small skirmish.
With Talhah and Zubair as her lieutenants, Aisha’s forces easily overran Basra’s defenders. The governor’s soldiers were outnumbered and the fighting was very brief with a relatively small number of casualties.
Aisha’s forces captured Basra and arrested the governor. She did not harm him and eventually ordered him set free.
Once free, he headed straight for Medina.
Even though she now controlled Basra, Aisha did not have the full support of the city.
The people of Basra were difficult to please and never showed any leader much loyalty. Along with Egypt and Kufa, they were among the biggest headaches for Uthman during his caliphate.
The modern city of Basra in Iraq does not occupy the exact same space as the one Aisha captured. “Old Basra” as it is sometimes called, is now the town of Zubayr about 10 miles southwest of the modern Iraqi metropolis.
Originally established as a military garrison during Umar’s Caliphate, Basra sits on one of the tributaries to the Tigris River. Just a mere 40 miles from the Persian Gulf, it is sandwiched between the modern nations of Iran and Kuwait.
The word “Basra” means “over watch,” perhaps an allusion to its military origins. While the modern province of Basra has a population of over 3 million, it could not have been more than 30000 back then.
Nonetheless, it was the capital of the Islamic Caliphate’s eastern territories and one of its most important Persian strongholds. From Basra, the Muslim armies had access to Iran, Afghanistan, the Indus Valley, and beyond.
Meanwhile in Medina, Ali was caught by surprise at the sudden turn of events. He was even more shocked when he learned he lost the city to none other than Aisha, the Prophet’s widow.
However, he was most deeply hurt and angered by Talhah and Zubair’s betrayal.
“Talhah and Zubair gave me their pledge,” he said, “and then they broke their trust. They obeyed Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman, yet they stand against me.”
Ali had other problems as well. The Syrian governor, Muawiyyah ibn Affan, had refused to give Ali the pledge of allegiance, and would not step down from his position. This open act of rebellion prompted Ali to plan an invasion of Syria.
But Aisha’s surprising capture of Basra diverted his attention. While he recognized the importance of asserting his authority in Syria, Ali could not bear to lose any territory that he already had. He decided to postpone the invasion of Syria, and focus on putting things right in Basra first.
Ali put out a call to the people of Medina asking them to support him in this struggle against Aisha, Talhah, and Zubair. This must have been a sickening feeling for the residents of Medina. Raising arms against other Muslims, let alone the Prophet’s widow, was unthinkable.
Nonetheless, many people did respond to Ali’s call. Even some of the companions still living in Medina gave their reluctant approval. But the largest contingent of Ali’s Medina forces were from the same rioters lingering around from Uthman’s murder.
Ali departed Medina with a force of 11,000 people.
About 100 miles north of Medina, Ali halted and set up camp. He sent his two stepsons, Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr and Muhammad ibn Jafar, to Kufah to get help from the governor there, Abu Musa Al-Ashari.
Abu Musa Al-Ashari
Abu Musa was originally from Yemen and one of the Prophet’s earliest companions. As a young man, he traveled to Mecca to learn more about Islam and Prophet Muhammad.
Abu Musa eventually converted to Islam at the Prophet’s hands and then returned to Yemen to spread Islam amongst his tribesman.
While in Yemen, he heard rumors that the Prophet was going to leave Mecca. Abu Musa and fifty other Yemeni Muslims caught a ship going in that direction. The rumors turned out to be false as this was several years before the Prophet’s migration to Medina.
The ship carried Abu Musa across the Red Sea to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia, modern day Ethiopia. There, other Muslim refugees had established a small community under the protection of the Abyssinian king.
Coincidentally, the leader of the refugee community was none other than Ali’s brother, Jafar ibn Abi Talib. Abu Musa met with Jafar who convinced them to stay in Abyssinia until conditions improved for Muslims in Arabia.
It would be almost ten years before Abu Musa, Jafar, and the other Muslim refugees met with Prophet Muhammad again. By then, the Prophet had already migrated to Medina. As such, Abu Musa missed out on many of the early Muslim military campaigns.
He did take part in later battles alongside the Prophet and also assisted Abu Bakr in suppressing the Murtad rebellions.
Abu Musa was known to have a magnificent voice. Prophet Muhammad compared his voice to that of the Hebrew Prophet David. The women of the Prophet’s household would stay up at night to listen to Abu Musa reciting his prayers.
Some of the companions used to secretly wish he would recite Suratul Baqarah when he led them in prayer.
Suratul Baqarah, the Chapter of the Cow, is the longest chapter in the Quran and over 280 verses. It would have taken Abu Musa several hours to recite that entire chapter, but evidently his voice was worth it.
Abu Musa was appointed the first governor of Basra by Umar ibn Al-Khattab, before eventually shifting to Kufah during Uthman’s reign.
When Ali became Caliph, he wanted to replace all of Uthman’s governors with his own supporters. When Ali’s replacement arrived at Kufah, Abu Musa turned him away with assurances that he and the people were loyal to Ali.
Ali’s Emissaries to Abu Musa
But now, he was confronted with Ali’s two stepsons asking him to join this battle against the Prophet’s widow. Despite his professed loyalty to Ali, this was something Abu Musa just could not do.
Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr and Muhammad ibn Jafar pressed Abu Musa to support Ali. But he refused and would not allow any of the residents of Kufah to join them either.
When the conversation got heated and the two young men took to insulting Abu Musa, the governor replied, “If there is any fighting to be done, it should be against those who killed Uthman.”
This certainly would have cut Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr deeply. Even though he did not actually kill Uthman, he was the primary instigator in the protesting and rioting that led to his murder.
The two brothers returned to Ali and informed him that Abu Musa refused to help. So, Ali decided to send two more emissaries, Malik Ashtar and Ibn Abbas, instead.
Like Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr, Malik Ashtar was another major instigator in the protests against Uthman. And like Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr, Abu Musa wanted little to do with him.
Ibn Abbas, on the other hand, was a respected companion and relative of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). But if Ali thought that Ibn Abbas would have better luck with Abu Musa, he was wrong.
Malik Ashtar and Ibn Abbas also returned to Ali with no success.
Ali tried one more time to convince Abu Musa. This time he chose the two highest ranking companions in his ranks: Ammar ibn Yasir, and his own son, Hasan ibn Ali.
Hasan ibn Ali was also Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, and Abu Musa was pleased to see him. The two men embraced and exchanged pleasantries.
But Abu Musa was not so cordial with Ammar ibn Yasir. Ammar ibn Yasir was an older companion whose parents were killed by the pagans for accepting Islam many years earlier. Ammar ibn Yasir openly broke allegiance with Uthman when the latter’s guard struck him several times during a confrontation.
“You have joined the criminals,” said Abu Musa to Ammar ibn Yasir reproachfully.
Ammar ibn Yasir denied this accusation and Hasan tried to defend his father’s actions. But Abu Musa would have none of it.
“The Muslims are brothers,” he quoted Prophet Muhammad. “Their blood and possessions are prohibited to each other.”
Perhaps realizing Abu Musa would never willingly cooperate with them, Hasan and Ammar took matters into their own hands. Acting as official representatives of the Caliph, they launched a campaign to convince the people of Kufah to support Ali.
Hasan and Ammar gave speeches at the Masjid and at local gatherings pleading Ali’s case. They mentioned how Talhah and Zubair betrayed Ali. They reminded the people of their duty to their Caliph. They insisted they only wanted to set things right and would do everything in their power to avoid bloodshed.
Despite Abu Musa’s defiance, Hasan and Ammar were successful. They returned to Ali with nine thousand soldiers from Kufah.
While Ali was organizing the new additions to his army, he sent Qaqa ibn Amr as an emissary to Aisha in Basra. Qaqa was another companion and a respected veteran of the Persian conquest during Umar’s Caliphate.
His sole objective was to convince Aisha, Talhah, and Zubair to abandon their quest and give Ali their pledges.
During her brief occupation of Basra, Aisha had put her time to good use. She conquered Basra with only 3000 soldiers. Since then, she had recruited several thousand additional men. By the time Qaqa arrived at her camp, she had nearly 10000 soldiers under her command.
Qaqa and Aisha negotiated for three days. Meanwhile, Ali completed his preparations and continued the march to Basra.
The negotiations allowed both sides to explain their actions.
Aisha, Talhah, and Zubair insisted they did not want to go to war with Ali. Their only intention was to avenge Uthman’s death.
From their perspective, they explained to Qaqa, it did not look like Ali was serious about finding Uthman’s killers. So many months had passed and no progress had been made.
To make matters even worse, they argued, many of Uthman’s killers had joined Ali’s side. This only made Ali look all the more suspicious.
Qaqa listened to their arguments and responded with his own.
First of all, he said, Ali wanted to find the killers as much as anyone. But his first priority as Caliph was to ensure the safety and stability of the entire Muslim community.
He could not do this with Aisha rebelling in Basra and Muawiyyah rebelling in Syria. How could Ali assert his authority on those who hated Uthman, when he could not assert his authority on those who loved Uthman?
Qaqa also questioned the logic of Aisha fighting in Basra. Whatever her original intentions were, they had already led to death and fighting among Muslims. This would surely worsen if she continued on this path.
And if this situation escalated, he continued, what would happen with Uthman’s killers? If a full-fledged civil war broke out, then Uthman’s killers would never receive justice.
Qaqa’s reasoning had the desired effect. Aisha, Talhah, and Zubair realized the potential danger of the situation. They continued negotiating with Qaqa, and on the third day, had reached an agreement.
First, Ali had to remove the unruly and dangerous elements from Medina. It was pointless to talk about stability in the Empire when the capital wasn’t even safe.
Second, Ali had to expel everyone from his ranks who had anything at all to do with the death of Uthman.
This did not just mean those responsible for killing Uthman. This included:
- Those who besieged his house
- Those who protested against him
- And even those who sympathized with those who protested against him
This would also include Aisha’s troublesome half-brother, Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr.
Third, Ali must immediately begin an investigation into Uthman’s death. No more hesitating. No more waiting. No more delays.
Aisha, Talhah, and Zubair promised that if Ali agreed to all of this, they would put down their arms, abandon Basra, and return to their homes.
By now, Ali had arrived at Basra and made camp just outside its gates. Qaqa met him at his tent and gave the details of Aisha’s demands.
Ali immediately agreed to her terms and everyone breathed a sigh of relief that fighting had been averted.
Unfortunately, the details of the agreement leaked out and began to spread among Ali’s camp. Many of those who protested against Uthman were able to hide in plain sight by joining Ali’s army.
Aisha’s demands were very broad and made many of them uncomfortable. If Ali were to fulfill her wishes, it could have devastating consequences for those who opposed Uthman.
And so, a small party from within Ali’s army came up with an idea to derail the peace process.
On the night of Ali’s acceptance of the treaty, a group of his soldiers sneaked out and broke into two parties.
One group headed for Aisha’s camp. The other turned towards Ali’s camp.
Talhah, Zubair, and Ali all woke to loud screams and the sounds of battle.
Talhah and Zubair were informed that Ali’s forces were attacking them without notice.
Ali was informed that Aisha’s forces were attacking them without notice.
Commanders on both sides rushed their soldiers to the front lines and into formation. While Ali, Talhah, and Zubair were still trying to figure out what was happening, their lieutenants gave the order to attack, and the battle began.
The Battle of the Camel
It was a reluctant battle. Despite the bitterness and anger of the false flag attacks, neither side was really committed to fighting.
For certain, there was fighting and death on both sides. But it was not done with the gusto and blood lust of most battles. In fact, the Muslims on both sides fought with an attitude of disgust; not at their enemy, but that things had actually come to this.
- When soldiers broke rank and fled, they were not pursued.
- When soldiers were killed, their possessions were not plundered.
- And when they were wounded, they were left alone and not put to death.
As the sun rose and it became easier to see, the fighting intensified and the bodies began to pile up. One of Aisha’s aids rushed to her tent and informed her of the situation.
Horrified and confused, Aisha immediately called for her howdah and camel. While she knew entering the battlefield was dangerous, she was hoping she could calm things down and open an avenue for peace.
Perhaps she could convince both sides to stop fighting and try to figure out what happened. Or at the very least, her presence may take some of the bitterness out of the fighters.
Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect.
When her soldiers saw her camel on the battlefield, it reinvigorated their spirits and motivated them to fight even harder. Though they were outnumbered by Ali’s forces, they were determined to fight to the death.
Aisha’s arrival on the battlefield had another undesired outcome. In order to protect her, her soldiers quickly surrounded her camel, creating a human buffer.
This cluster of soldiers surrounding her camel attracted Ali’s forces to the same spot, and the most intense fighting of the day ensued.
Ali’s forces were determined to break through the human buffer, while Aisha’s forces were determined to protect her at all costs.
Both Talhah and Zubair were aghast at how quickly things had changed. Just a few hours earlier they were comforted by the idea of peace and averting warfare. Now they were witnessing a horrific battle between two Muslim forces.
Talhah rode his horse through the ranks of warring soldiers pleading with them to stop fighting and put down their arms. As he did so, a stray arrow hit him in the thigh, puncturing his femoral artery. Within minutes, Talhah had bled to death atop his horse.
Zubair probably did not see what happened to his friend. Most reports say he did not even enter the battlefield.
Instead, unable to bring himself to kill another Muslim, he decided to leave the whole thing behind. He gathered his belongings and began the long journey back to Mecca.
However, one of Ali’s soldiers recognized Zubair and followed him at a distance. Later that evening, Zubair made camp and began performing his prayers. The hidden soldier snuck up behind Zubair, and struck him down.
It is reported that when Ali found out about Zubair’s murder, he gave the killer the glad tidings of hell.
But for now, Ali was in the middle of a fight he did not want. Without Talhah and Zubair, Aisha’s army did not really stand a chance. Ali, with his years of military experience, could have easily crushed her forces.
But in order to do that, he would have to inflict major casualties which was something he wanted to avoid. Aisha’s soldiers, though leaderless, ill-equipped and disorganized, were putting up a strong resistance.
And most of that resistance was taking place around her camel. Ali realized that it was Aisha herself that was the focal point of their motivation. If he could take her out of the equation, their resolve would collapse.
Of course, he had to do that without actually harming her. So he issued orders for his soldiers to target the camel and bring it down.
After several attempts, someone finally managed to slash the camel’s legs so badly, it screamed and crashed to the ground. Aisha’s howdah was now exposed and unprotected.
Not sure if she was hurt or not, many of her soldiers panicked and took flight. Qaqa, Ali’s emissary, rushed forward with several soldiers and surrounded her howdah.
This was done to both protect her and keep her from escaping.
Ali’s assumption was correct. With Aisha captured, her soldiers had little motivation to continue fighting and most began to lay down their arms.
Ali ordered his men not to fight anyone who didn’t fight them. He rode forward to Aisha, who was still hidden from view inside her howdah.
“Dear mother,” he called to Aisha. “May Allah forgive you of all your sins.”
Aisha responded, “And may Allah forgive you of yours as well. I wish I had died twenty years before this.”
Ali ordered Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr to take his sister back into the city and keep her safe.
Though victorious, Ali was devastated at what happened. The Battle of the Camel, as it came to be known, led to the death of thousands of Muslims killed at the hands of other Muslims.
With Basra under his control, Ali tried to be gracious to his defeated opponents. He had Aisha safely escorted back to Medina and ordered lashes for anyone who spoke ill of her.
A massive trench was dug and the dead soldiers of both sides were placed inside. Ali himself led the funerals prayers for all the fallen.
There are varying accounts of the number of casualties at the Battle of the Camel. One likely estimate is about 5000 from each side.
Ali ordered the wealth and possessions of the fallen soldiers from Aisha’s side to be placed in the Masjid of Basra. He then instructed the families of the dead soldiers to claim their property. He did not allow his soldiers to touch any of it.
Ali named Ibn Abbas the new governor of Basra and took the pledge of allegiance from the people.
Ali’s victory was a foregone conclusion for many reasons.
- His forces outnumbered Aisha’s.
- He was an experienced warrior and commander.
- Aisha did not leave Mecca with the intention to fight.
- And Aisha’s presence on the battlefield put her soldiers at a disadvantage.
The Battle of the Camel was the first in a string of battles known as the First Fitnah. The word “fitnah” in Arabic means “trial” or “difficulty.”
It was the unofficial name of the civil war between Ali and his opponents and would have devastating consequences for the Muslim world.
This “fitnah” would be the first tear in the split between Sunnis and Shiites. It would also lead to the end of the era of the Righteous Caliphs.
The Battle of the Camel also damaged the reputations of the primary figures. Aisha’s reputation would never recover, at least among the Shiites.
Ali’s reputation also suffered and many people blamed him for the fighting. Even though later generations of Sunni Muslims would come to revere him, it became standard practice in the Umayyad dynasty to curse Ali after every prayer.
Another more pernicious faction was born from the Battle of the Camel. These were mostly made up of those same protestors who formed a large part of Ali’s army. But over time, others would gravitate to them.
For many of these people, it was in their best interest to maintain chaos in the empire. So long as Ali was distracted with fighting, he couldn’t focus on prosecuting them for Uthman’s murder.
But some of them had other gripes with Ali.
- Some were upset that he had shown such leniency to Aisha and her followers
- Others were upset that he did not allow them take the spoils from their fallen enemies
- And some felt Ali was unfair in paying their wages
This group would eventually turn on Ali and fight against him and his opponents, declaring both to be disbelievers.
This unstable, self-destructive faction would become known as the Kharijite, coming from the Arabic verb, kha-ra-ja, meaning to exit or go out.
Their kind was first foretold by Prophet Muhammad, many years earlier.
The Prophet was distributing gold to some newly converted chiefs from central Arabia. He was hoping that this gift would win their loyalty and ease their transition to Islam.
But some of them disputed with the distribution and tempers flared. One withered, old Bedouin approached the Prophet and warned him: “Fear Allah, O Muhammad.”
Khalid ibn Waleed, the future general, unsheathed his sword and was about to remove the man’s head from his body.
The Prophet raised his hand to stop Khalid and responded to the Bedouin: “Who would obey Allah if I disobeyed
him? Allah has entrusted all of humanity to me, yet you do not trust me?”
After the Bedouin departed, the Prophet warned his companions about this man. “Among the descendants of this man,” he told them, “will be some who recite the Quran but it will not go past their throats. They will go in and out of Islam like the arrow goes through its target. They will kill Muslims, but leave the pagans.”
Over the years, the Kharijites have taken many forms and worked under various names and groups.
Whatever their brand, the Kharijites always have certain easily recognizable trademarks:
- Their willingness to kill other Muslims
- Their desire to bring instability and chaos to the Muslim world
- And their extreme, unfounded interpretation of Islamic texts
During Abu Bakr’s caliphate, they were called the Murtadeen. During Ali’s caliphate, they called themselves Ash-Shurah.
In the middle ages, they took the form of the Hashhahshin, or the Assassins, and had no problem killing both Muslims and Crusaders.
Sometimes they were Shiites, like the Assassins, and sometimes they were Sunni like the early Abbasid movement.
When it suited their needs, they’ve worked under the banner of communism, freemasonry and democracy.
Today we see them operating under names such as Al-Qaeda and Ad-Doolatil Islamiyyah fil Iraq wa Sham, also known by its Arabic acronym, DAESH, and in English as ISIS.
Khutbah: The End of Revelation
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