There will be two major names that you will be seeing a lot in this post and that is Mu’awiyah bin Abu Sufyan—who was the ex-governor of Syam (now Syria)—and Ali Bin Abu Talib, who some historians refer to as a Caliph2, and others refer to him simply as an Imam3, meaning 'leader' in Arabic.
- To find out what it is exactly, Wikipedia might help a lot!
Also, caliph/caliphate means a person who is considered a religious successor to Prophet Muhammad, and a leader to the entire Muslim community. You'll probably see this term quite often in this post :)
- There are a few sources we found that referred to Ali as a caliph: El-Hibri, 2010 and Olatunde, 2016.
- Aaand there are some scholarly articles that refer to him as Imam: Ja'farian, 2003; Shabbar, 2015.
Ali’s caliphate is a significant era to the Islamic civilisation, because not only it witnessed the first ever civil war between Muslims, but also it was deemed as the fall of the Ar-Rashidun caliphate as things got more chaotic and out of hand (Ahmad Al-Jufri & Ahmad, 131). Since then, this created the division of the Muslim society into the Sunni and Shi'a sects, which is the result of a causal chain of conflicts you will see below. Strap yourselves in for the bumpy ride ahead!
The disagreement between Mu’awiyah and Ali is deemed as the start of the chaos. Mu’awiyah had always believed that he should be the next Caliph after Caliph Osman as he was not only related to Osman but a part of his tribe as well. Mu’awiyah also suspected that Ali was behind the assassination of Osman, and was thus even more determined to prevent Ali's reign as the next Caliph. Mu’awiyah demanded Ali find Osman’s assassin immediately, to provide closure for the Osman’s family. However, this was not his true intentions for demanding the assassin be found and Ali knew this. Ali decided not to give in and ignored his demand. However, Mu’awiyah saw this as a golden opportunity and started spreading rumours about Ali. Mu’awiyah's followers1 believed his rumours as Mu’awiyah was very compelling with his evidence. He hung Osman’s bloody clothes that he had been killed in the mosque and spoke about it, putting Ali in a bad light. He was so convincing that even some of Ali’s followers 2 believed him. This gave Mu’awiyah the confidence he needed to start a war against Ali. This war then, later on, led to The Battle of the Camels.
- Followers here include members of the Caliphate, political and military leaders, as well as common folk who are in support of Muawiya's beliefs.
- Same groups of people involved here, just that they support Ali instead.
We were not kidding when we mentioned camels.
The second conflict also known as the battle of the camels, was a war waged upon Ali and his followers, by Aisha, the prophet’s wife. It was fought near Siffin and Basrah, hence also getting the name ‘Battle of Bussorah’. It is often described as a bloody civil war and a traumatic experience for the islamic community. The hadiths1 often described many scenes as “limbs flying and people dying!”2. While it was led by Aisha, it was initially fuelled by Mu’awiyah and his companions.
Aisha didn’t lead a war simply because she didn’t like Ali, but his character had been in question for some time. She had a couple of disagreements with Ali and it was probably in her favour that everyone was not supportive of Ali as caliph. The battle was mainly centred around the power struggle between Aisha and Ali and the controversy regarding who would become the next caliph after Osman’s assassination and to avenge his death.Phew! Now that all the family drama is out of the way, let's talk about how the war ended. Aisha loses the battle and her army surrenders after her camel's legs are cut off6. But it is important to note that Ali is actually respectable to her since she’s the prophet’s wife after all! But he also firmly advises her to stay away from politics and sends her back to Medina. After defeating Aisha, Ali continues the civil war at the battle of Siffin.
Convinced of the need for war, Mu’awiyah1, heading the Syrian army, reached a village known as Siffin in the spring of 657 CE in preparation. Hearing of this advance, Ali and his army rode to meet them, and the war of Siffin was so named1. Minor clashes begun in May 657 CE and halted with the arrival of Muharram1. During the temporary ceasefire, Ali attempted negotiations with Mu’awiyah, as he was of the belief that fighting within the Muslims would only cause unnecessary bloodshed. His adversary however, refused, as he was of the belief only war could settle their dispute. And so the battle of Siffin begun. After much bloodshed and fighting, Malik ibn Ashter and Ammar, Ali’s close friends and brothers in arms, drastically put the odds in Ali’s favour. Interestingly enough, even in victory, the Caliph, Ali, exemplifies grace, as his troops are commanded to favour defence over offence, pardon those who flee, and to respect both the dead and the modesty of the women imprisoned. In an attempt to prevent even more bloodshed, Ali proposed a duel, which was declined by his rival who believed the proposition to lead only to his own death.
Mu’awiyah’s imminent defeat forced his hand, and in a last resort, exploited greed, for he had bribed a good number of leaders in Ali’s army. They would be awarded with gold, silver, and power for their betrayal, and many of them were swayed. At the sight of copies of Quran speared on lances1, an indication of their wish to defer to the Judgement of God found in the Quran 1, the traitors coerced Ali and his loyal followers into agreeing to a ceasefire. This marks the beginning of Ali’s political decline, as arbitration was agreed upon.
- Muawiya is a Shadow King of sorts, instigating Aisha and the previous conflicts. In this battle though, he plays a primary antagonistic role ↩
- Creative, huh? ↩
- Muharram is the first month of the Islamic year. In observing this, both sides come to a temporary truce ↩
- This is an apparent symbol of treachery and betrayal, as the Quran is sacred and central to the culture ↩
- A scheming manoeuvre, essentially. When the odds were previously in his favour, Muawiya had completely no intention of actually defering to the Judgement of God and preventing any more bloodshed ↩
Since nobody technically admitted defeat in the battle of siffin, the two leaders called for an event to resolve the dispute once and for all. The two arbitrators chosen has to agree to impeach both of their own leaders and allow the public to elect a new caliph of their own choice. However there was little room for justness; Mu’awiyah had chosen someone from his tribe that was dexterous in politics but cunning in person, while Ali only thought it was fair that he chose one of the Prophet’s trusted people, who unfortunately had no plans prior to involve himself in any politics at all.1
However, when the official day came, Mu’awiyah told Ali's arbitrator to read out the agreement first since it has already been discussed beforehand that both leaders were meant to be put down. However, when it was Mu’awiyah’s turn, it was prepared with a little twist: Ali was to be fired, but Mu’awiyah still remained as the governor of Syria. The reasoning behind the plot twist was that Mu’awiyah played the family card, hence it was only fair that he kept the leadership.2
In the aftermath of the wars, a final line was drawn: some people resented the way Ali handled the conflicts, while others remained loyal to him. This marked the beginning of a new era, as those who remained steadfast in their allegiance to Ali came to be known as the Shi'as, and the Sunnis are those who maintained in believing that the muslim community is lead by who was deemed by the elite of the community, as well as the Prophet's choice.The Shi'a and Sunni sect split thus came to be, with Ali at the center of it all. And that, my friends, is the story of the bloody divide!
Blanchard, C.M. Islam: Sunnis and Shiites. (2009) Congressional Research Service.
El-Hibri, Tayeb. Parable and Politics in Early Islamic History: The Rashidun Caliphs. (2010) Google Books.
History of The Caliphs. From Al- Islam.org. Accessed 24 February 2017.
Mikaberidze, Alexander. Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia [2 volumes]: A Historical Encyclopedia. (2011) Google Books.
Rose, C. (2014, November 12). Episode 58: Islam’s First Civil War. Retrieved from https://15minutehistory.org/2014/11/12/episode-58-islams-first-civil-war/#more-1526
Shabbar, S.M.R. Story of the Holy Ka’aba And its People. (2014) Al- Islam.org.
The Battle of Siffin. From Al- Islam.org. Accessed 23 February 2017.
THE FIRST FOUR CALIPHS: FAILURES AND ACHIEVEMENT. From African Theology. Accessed on 25 February 2017.
The First Imam, ‘Ali (as) Ibn Abu Talib. From Al- Islam.org. Accessed 25 February 2017.
Ahmad Al-Jufri, S.A, & Ahmad, M.A. (2007) Pengetahuan Islam: Buku teks untuk menengah empat [Islamic Knowledge: Textbook for secondary four]. Singapore, Pustaka Nasional Pte Ltd.
Shuster, Mike. The Origins Of The Shiite-Sunni Split. (12 February 2007) National Public Radio.
Battle of the Camel. New world Encyclopedia. Accessed on 19 March 2017.