Civil war has torn the Caliphate apart. In 656 AD, Aisha marches with an army at her back. Ali, newly crowned as Caliph, has no choice but to oppose her. Muawiya sees an opportunity to grab power and start a dynasty of his own. Hussein begins his inevitable path towards Karbala…and martyrdom.
Aisha – The Prophet’s widow. “Mother of the Faithful”. Brave, jealous, and calculating.
Muawiya – Governor of Syria “Son of the Liver Eater”. Master politician, ruthless and cunning.
Ali – The Prophet’s son-in-law. “Lion of God”. The Fourth Caliph.
Hussein – Grandson of the Prophet. Murdered at Karbala. Martyr of the Shi’a faith.
Abu Bakr – Aisha’s father; The Prophet’s oldest friend. The First Caliph.
Umar – Hothead, bruiser, warlord; The Second Caliph.
Uthman – “He of the Two Lights”; The Third Caliph.
Muhammed – The Prophet. A merchant-turned-messenger from God.
Fatima – Wife of Ali. Daughter of Muhammed. Mother to Hussein.
Humphreys, Steven. Mu’awiya ibn abi Sufyan: The Savior of the Caliphate. 2006.
Madelung, Wilferd. The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate. 1996.
Kennedy, Hugh. The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. 2007.
Shah-Kazemi, Reza. Imam ‘Ali: From Concise History to Timeless Mystery. 2019.
Hazleton, Lesley. The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammed. 2013.
Hazleton, Lesley. After The Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shi’a-Sunni Split in Islam. 2009.
Louer, Laurence. Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History. 2020.
Hoyland, Robert G. In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire. 2014.
Betts, Robert Brenton. The Sunni-Shi’a Divide. 2013.
Charles Rivers Editors. The History of the Sunni and Shia Split: Understanding the Divisions Within Islam.2014.
Armstrong, Karen Keishin. Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time. 2007.
Cole, Juan. Muhammed: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. 2018.
Safi, Omid. Memories of Muhammed. 2009.
Holland, Tom. The Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire. 2012.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network, and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
You are listening to the final installment in a three-part series on the origins of the Sunni-Shia divide. If you haven’t listened to parts one and two, definitely go back and do that. There are ton of characters and events and detail in this story, and jumping in right now would be a little bit like starting the Star Wars trilogy 45 minutes into Empire Strikes back. But hey if you like to live dangerously or are just super familiar with the subject matter, then who am I to dissuade you; let’s do it.
But for those who need a quick refresher on what’s been happening in 7th century Arabia, here’s where we’re at:
It’s 656 AD, and Aisha, the Prophet Muhammed’s formidable widow, is marching with an army at her back. She has used her considerable influence and rhetorical talents to incite a revolt against the fourth Caliph, Ali.
If you’ll recall, Ali and Aisha had a very strained, tumultuous history. They were technically family - two of the most important people in the Prophet’s life. But in the twenty years since Muhammed’s death, distrust, animosity, and political tension had taken its toll, culminating in an all-out civil war. Muslim against Muslim. Meanwhile, in Damascus, our sneaky old friend Muawiya, the Governor of Syria, is licking his lips at the prospect of exploiting this instability for his own gain.
It's a fully-stocked chessboard, and the results were virtually guaranteed to be bloody, consequential, and honestly very sad.
As I said, this is the conclusion of our story, and the consequences of what happens in it can still be felt, seen and heard to this very day. What happened to these people very literally shaped the world we live in.
I know this has been a long journey, complex and challenging in a variety of ways – Like I said, I don’t normally do three-parters. But it was very important to me that I get this story right. It is after all, an intensely meaningful one for billions of people around the world.
And that’s a reality that cuts both ways. So much about these events is fiercely debated and emotionally charged. Even the most minute details about the people, places, and events are still in dispute among Sunnis and Shias today. Entire volumes have been written just trying - and often failing – to reconcile the inconsistencies in both sides of the story.
But that’s what we’re all about here on Conflicted, and I can only hope that I’ve treated the issues and the historical figures involved with the level of respect, humility, and nuance they deserve. Because if I’m being honest with myself and with you, I’ve grown intensely attached to all of these dead people. Despite the historical distance of the events, these people are so relatable and human and accessible, in a way that many figures from the middle ages just aren’t.
It's a deeply moving story, and I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to me tell it as much as I’ve enjoyed researching, writing, and learning about it.
With all that said, welcome to Episode 20: Prophet’s Dilemma: The Sunni Shi’a Split Part 3
There is a very specific word, in Arabic, to describe what happened to the Caliphate in the fall of 656 AD.
The word is “fitna”. F-I-T-N-A.
Arabic is an extremely complex language. Not unlike English. It’s notoriously difficult to learn, even more so to master. And that’s because the words themselves have layers and layers of meaning embedded into just a few syllables. The true meaning of a word stems from a huge variety of complex factors, like context, tone, intonation, and cultural baggage.
“Fitna” is one of those words.
In a literal sense, it means to be lost. To be led down a wrong path that is destructive in the most painful way. But it also has an implication of chaos and disarray, it means that something has spun wildly and tragically out of your control. You are a passenger in a vehicle careening towards catastrophe.
But in common parlance, “Fitna” is the Arabic word for a civil war. A split, a division, a time of strife or hatred.
According to one scholar, fitna is “the terrible wrenching apart of the fabric of society, the unraveling of the tightly woven matrix of kinship, and it was seen in the seventh century, as it still is today, as the ultimate threat to Islam, greater by far than that of the most benighted unbelievers.”
Fitna has also been known to mean “the coercion of conscience”. In other words, not only a betrayal of your brothers, but a betrayal of one’s own self, one’s own principle. In essence, fitna means the ummah was betraying itself by dividing against itself.
No one feared fitna more than Muhammed. It was the worst possible thing/scenario that could happen to the ummah, or Islamic community. We’ve talked before about what Muhammed said it was like to receive a recitation from God. A painful, violating experience that removed his sense of autonomy and transformed him into a voice box for divine will. In countless recitations, it was stressed that Muslims were never to kill other Muslims. Ever, ever, ever.
Killing Byzantines or Persians or Christians or Jews or Egyptians or Spaniards was one thing, but to kill your own brothers and sisters in the faith was unforgivable. If that taboo was shattered, there was no going back, Muhammed believed. It would be an irrevocable stain on their mandate from God.
The dead Prophet’s words were doubtless ringing in the ears of his loved ones as they lined up on opposite sides of a battlefield in southern Iraq. Just outside a town called Basra.
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Ali had wanted to be Muhammed’s successor for most of his adult life.
As a 13-year-old boy, he had accepted the Prophet’s message when no one else would, and now four decades after that pivotal decision, he was finally Caliph, ruler of an empire that stretched across North Africa, Arabia, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Iran.
It had not been an easy road. Three times he had put himself forward for the position, and three times he had been passed over. First there was Abu Bakr, Aisha’s father. Then Umar, the stern expansionist, and finally Uthman, the corrupt aristocrat.
Ali, the so-called Lion of God, was the fourth Caliph.
He’d wanted this for a long, long time, but the circumstances of how it came about left a bad taste in his mouth. Ali’s predecessor, Uthman, had been violently overthrown, hacked to death in his own home by rebels and dissidents. The very next day, those same rebels threw their support behind Ali, proclaiming him the new Caliph.
The way it all played out was deeply unsettling to Ali. He’d wanted to be Caliph, without a doubt…but not like this. For a Muslim to kill another Muslim was considered haram, or forbidden. To be elevated to power by men like that turned Ali’s stomach, and initially he rejected their support. But reflection and prayer quickly clarified the reality of the situation for Ali.
It had to be him. There was no one else. At least no one who could command as much respect or have any hope of uniting a splintered community. So, Ali became Caliph, and almost immediately it started disintegrating / falling apart in front of his eyes.
In the first week of November, 656 AD, Ali looked out across a humid plain in the lowlands of Iraq. Staring back at him was an army, ten thousand men that had marched all the way from Mecca with the intent of removing him from his position as Caliph. And leading them, against all probability, was a woman. The Prophet’s powerful widow, Aisha.
As we’ve discussed in previous episodes, Ali and Aisha went way back. They had first met decades ago in Mecca, when Muhammed’s movement was first beginning to take root. They were just kids, teenagers, at the time. But even then, Ali had viewed Aisha with a skeptical, suspicious eye. She was the Prophet’s favorite wife – jealous, vain, and manipulative. The Prophet was infatuated with her. Bewitched by her beautiful, henna red hair. Dazzled by her sharp mind and peerless sense of humor.
It's fair to say that Ali may have felt threatened by Aisha. But then again, everyone felt threatened by Aisha. Even as a teenager she was not a person to be trifled with. And after the Prophet’s death, her influence had only grown. She was undeniably magnetic, enough to inspire ten thousand men to march hundreds of miles to overthrow the rightful ruler of the Caliphate.
That chilly day in 656, Ali knew he’d underestimated the woman he’d once dismissed as an adulterer. He had misjudged her then. He would not make the same mistake twice. To counter this threat to his leadership, he’d brought friends of his own. The fourth Caliph had an army at his back too, and if some kind of compromise wasn’t made between the two sides, civil war – fitna - seemed unavoidable.
People on both sides were spooked. They were fully aware of what it would mean if things devolved into open violence. As one man warned Ali:
“No person who has embraced this fitna will be able to extricate himself from it. This will lead to worse than what you most hate. It is a tear that won’t get mended, a fracture that will never be repaired.”
Another tribal elder said:
“Fitna rips the community apart like an ulcer. The winds fan it, from the north and the south, the east and the west. And it will be endless. It is blind and deaf, trampling its halter. It has come at you from a place where you were safe, and leaves the wise man as bewildered as the most inexperienced. He who sleeps through it is better off than he who is awake in it; he who is awake in it is better off than he who stands in it; he who stands in it is better off than he who rides into it. So be wise and sheathe your swords! Remove your spearheads and unstring your bows!”
Ali was determined to settle his dispute with Aisha peacefully, if possible. His reign had began with violence, with the murder of Uthman. And he really, really did not want for bloodshed to be the running theme of his legacy. As he addressed his army:
To set things right is what I intend, so that the community may return to being brothers. If the Meccans give us allegiance, then we will have peace. But if they insist on fighting, this will be a split that cannot be repaired. So men, restrain yourselves. Remember that these people are your brothers. Be patient. Beware of rushing into anything without guidance, for if you win the argument today, you may lose it tomorrow.”
Ali, buckles on his armor, mounts his horse, and rides out to meet with representatives from Aisha’s army. The two men that met Ali were familiar to him. Their names were Tahla and Zubayr, both brothers-in-law of Aisha. It was one of these men whom she intended to replace him with and take over as Caliph. It didn’t matter which one to Aisha – neither of them were Ali – and that was good enough for her.
Ali’s men watched with anxiety as their leader talked quietly with these two guys. They were uncomfortably close to the Caliph, according to one soldier: “so close that the necks of their horses crossed over each other.” If either one of them made a move to kill the Caliph, Ali might not be able to unsheathe his trusty sword Zulfiqar, “the splitter” in time to save himself. The last two caliphs had been murdered in cold blood. Maybe Ali would be the third…But the tension unexpectedly eases when Ali looks back at his men and tells them to set up a tent.
A tent meant shade. Shade meant negotiation. And negotiation meant the possibility of peace. For three days, Ali talks with these two men, Tahla and Zubayr. I wasn’t able to find a detailed account of what they discussed, but the general gist is that the conversation starts slowly drifting towards a peaceful reconciliation. A tenuous detente between the two sides. Aisha was not present at these discussions, she was a woman in 7th century Arabia after all, but her two brothers-in-law were speaking with her voice.
After three days, they reach an agreement to settle their differences through peaceful means. A council, an arbitration, debate. Anything but open battle and bloodshed. As one relieved soldier remembered:
“when they retired to bed that night, there was peace. They slept as they never had before, because they were free from what they had been on the point of doing, and had withdrawn their plans for battle.”
Against all odds, fitna seemed to have been avoided. But in the night, something happens. To this day, no one knows who is responsible. No one can say definitively who is to blame. But in the middle of the night, a small group of unknown assailants attack the tents and burn them, people are killed, it looks really bad. Each side blames the other for the violence and all that diplomatic work goes right out the window. The delicate agreement that had taken three days to hammer out evaporated overnight.
This is an extremely controversial aspect of the story. But it is widely believed that a faction within Ali’s army, who actively wanted war, decided to sabotage the peace talks and make battle unavoidable. These were likely the same people who had a hand in killing the previous Caliph Uthman. They knew that part of the peace negotiations would involve serious punishment for their role in Uthman’s murder. So, to save their skins, they sabotaged the peace talks to ensure a battle would take place. Again, it’s just a popular conjecture, no one knows for sure, but that’s the theory.
So, Ali goes back to his army. Aisha’s representatives go back to theirs. And the next morning, on November 7th, 656 AD, both armies prepared for an all-out battle. Fitna was unavoidable. Muhammed was rolling in his grave, and everybody knew it. But the universal law of political gravity was inescapable. This impasse could only be solved with violence.
The battle that takes place is remembered by a very specific name. Some people call it the Battle of Basra, which is where it took place, geographically. But it’s commonly known as the Battle of the Camel. And here’s why.
Rather than staying in the back of the army, Aisha positions herself right in the middle of her soldiers. To see the movement of her troops, she’s riding on top of a large red camel, and Aisha had transformed this animal into the medieval Arabian equivalent of a tank. She’s fully protected by canopy, attached to the camel. And the whole thing is draped in iron chainmail and then covered with another layer of bright red silk. It was such a striking, iconic visual that the entire battle is named after Aisha and her camel. The Battle of the Camel.
It’s hard to imagine the complex series of emotions that must have been running through Aisha’s mind as her army prepared to clash with Ali’s.
It was the first time a Muslim woman had ever led an army into battle – like ever. And the weight of that responsibility would’ve been pressing on her heavily. Like any person in a high-stakes situation like that, she would’ve felt scared, nervous, even insecure. But Aisha was the kind of person who could push those thoughts aside. She had the power of belief and conviction stiffening her spine. She wasn’t just any woman, she might’ve reminded herself, she was the Mother of the Faithful. Ten thousand men had traveled halfway across Arabia at her command.
And now, she was about to send them to their deaths. Muhammed would be mortified, she knew - in a way she was betraying everything he stood for….But Ali should not, could not be Caliph. By refusing to punish the assassins of Uthman, Ali had proven himself unworthy to lead the Caliphate. He talked a big game, Aisha would argue. Ali loved to tell people how he had been the first male Muslim, the Prophet’s favorite son-in-law. The Lion of God. But it was all talk, Aisha concluded. When push came to shove, Ali would not even punish the assassins that had murdered his predecessor. To her, It was rank hypocrisy, and it disqualified Ali from ruling the Caliphate.
But in addition to political incentive, Aisha was motivated by more selfish desires. This battle was an opportunity for closure. To punish the man who had charged her with adultery, who had slurred her honor, who had almost convinced the man she loved more than life itself, Muhammed, to leave her. This battle presented the opportunity to punish Ali, strip him of the honor he had taken from her, and achieve ultimate satisfaction. Ali’s defeat, would be Aisha’s redemption.
Early on the morning of November 7th, 656, the battle begins.
Aisha was no stranger to sights, smells, and sounds of warfare. She’d been there in the early days when the ummah was just fighting to survive. But the battle of the Camel was particularly nasty. Many of these men knew each other. They were old friends, family members, brothers, sons, cousins – and that intimacy compounded the sense of trauma associated with fitnah. As Lesley Hazelton writes in her book After the Prophet:
There was none of the cool distance of modern warfare, where technology reigns and nobody sees the eyes of the enemy or hears the screams. Hand-to-hand combat was utterly and horribly visceral. When they grappled too close to use swords or daggers, they used whatever they could instead. Two fingers jabbed in the eye here. A knee to the genitals there. A rock to the head. An elbow in the kidneys. Warrior after warrior told of the bite of steel into flesh, the acrid smell of blood spouting from severed arteries, the terrifying, unholy, god-awful messiness of combat, with men soiling themselves in fear, with the stink of guts ripped out, with the wild-eyed panic of horses, the blind frenzy of humans, and the sheer bloody-minded desperation of each and every one to find some way, any way, to end the day alive.”
As the day grinds on and the battle waxes and wanes, Aisha looks through the layer of chainmail …and starts to realize she is losing this thing. For all you military history folks out there, don’t have a whole lot of detail on the exact strategic progression of the battle. We don’t know if Aisha’s army was flanked or the center collapsed or the reserves routed…but Ali’s forces were much more effective.
The fighting takes a long time. Hours and hours. Aisha’s brothers-in-law, Tahla and Zubayr, were dead by noon, and she was now in full tactical control.
As the lines waver and the body count rises, Aisha and her camel become the epicenter of the battle. She was in the thick of it, not as a combatant but as frontline moral support. She’s screaming, shouting, and chanting encouragement to her men. Her soldiers start coalescing around her camel, using her as a rallying point as Ali’s forces start to crush and press them into a rapidly-shrinking circle.
If it weren’t for the chain mail cover over her camel, Aisha would’ve been killed. Ali’s forces were specifically trying to bring her down and they shoot quivers and quivers of arrows at her. Dozens, hundreds even. One warrior remembered that her armored canopy was so full of arrows that it “bristled like a porcupine”.
To keep Aisha safe, all her men huddle around the camel in a protective circle, and they are slowly, systematically cut apart by Ali’s forces. One man holds the reins of her camel to protect her, and when he’s killed by arrows, another one steps up. When he’s killed another one grabs the reins. And so on and so on and so on. By the afternoon, it is clear to everyone that the battle is over, for all intents and purposes. But Aisha will not surrender. Ali’s men shout at Aisha’s soldiers and beg them to throw down their weapons. It’s a lost cause, they say, please don’t make us kill you. But they keep fighting anyway.
Ali was gob smacked. It was clear his army had won but this woman would not surrender. Ever. She would never leave the field, not until the last breath had wheezed out of her last soldier. Ali realized he had to put a stop to this. Fitnah was bad enough, a line had irrevocably been crossed. But if Aisha, the “mother of the faithful” was killed, things would be much much worse.
Ali pushes through the ranks of his soldiers to where Aisha’s camel and bodyguards are still fighting. He orders his men to stop firing arrows at Aisha, and bring the camel down instead: “Hamstring the camel! If it’s hamstrung, it will fall, and they will disperse!”
One of his soldiers manages to slash the camel’s legs and the animal collapse into the dirt. One soldier remembered: “I have never heard a louder sound than the bellowing of that camel.”
Aisha tumbles out of the protective canopy unto the ground. Her face is covered, but everyone could see the look in her eyes. They were fierce, angry, and in pain. Aisha hissed “I have an arrow in me”. And sure enough, the shaft of an arrow was sunk deep into her upper arm. Out of all the hundreds of arrows that had been fired at her, only one had hit its mark. But she didn’t’ cry or weep or ask for help. She just glared at Ali, who’d made his way to her through the thick of the fighting.
When the camel went down, the will to fight left Aisha’s men. It was over. Finally. The Caliph’s forces had won.
Ali looked at the defeated, bleeding Aisha. The arrow sticking out of her arm, her armored camel twitching and bleeding out into the dirt. He waited for her to speak. It was her responsibility to end this, officially, no matter how much it hurt her pride. She owed that much, at least, to the hundreds of men who had just died for her.
Aisha looked back at Ali. It’s very possible that she expected a death sentence. But it was hard to know what to expect from the victorious Caliph. Ali had her lfie in his hands. The taboo of fitnah had already been breached. Maybe the life of the “Mother of the Faithful” wasn’t as precious as it had been 24 hours ago. She had crossed a line, and she knew it. Aisha had blasted Ali for his leniency towards Uthman’s murderers, but now here she was, at his feet, asking for a little mercy of her own.
Aisha swallows her pride like a lump of bile and says: “Ali son of Abu Talib. You have gained victory. You have put your forces to the test well today, so now… pardon with goodness.”
Ali said one thing back: “Oh Mother, may God forgive you,”
By referencing her official title as Mother of the Faithul, Ali was forgiving Aisha on the spot, in front of everyone. The Caliph was going to let her live, and not only that but refer to her with respect and honor. But - he had to drive home the point that she had been in the wrong to rise against him. Forgiveness was not for him to extend. That was between Aisha and God. Hundreds of men were dead because of her. In essence, he was laying the awful taboo of Fitnah at her doorstep.
“May God forgive you”, he said.
And Aisha, angered by his patronizing tone, could not resist one last barb, even with an arrow hanging out of her slender bicep. She curtly responded: “And you.” May God forgive you too, Ali, she was saying. We both broke Muhammed’s laws today. We both brought about this fitnah. And don’t you forget it.
But Ali didn’t take the bait. He knew that while the wounds of Fitnah were irrevocable, if the Caliphate was to survive, he needed to heal those wounds here and now. Right on the battlefield where so many had lost their lives. He said to all the men assembled:
“By God, men, Aisha has spoken the truth and nothing but the truth. She is the wife of your Prophet now and forever.”
Aisha realized that she had to reciprocate, addressed her own soldiers:
“My sons, it is true that some of us criticized others, but do not hold what you have heard against them. By God, there was never anything between myself and Ali other than what usually happens between a woman and her in-laws. Whatever I have said in the past, he has shown himself one of the best of men.”
And with that theatrical reconciliation, the Battle of the Camel was over.
Both Aisha and Ali were deeply haunted by what had occurred on that empty plain in Iraq. As Aisha said to a close confident: “Oh God - had I but died two decades before this day!” In other words, I wish I had died with Muhammed.
And Ali admitted to his own people a few days later: “I have healed my wounds this day, but I have killed my own people.”
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While Aisha and Ali’s armies were duking it out in Iraq, hundreds of miles away, in Damascus, other plans were taking shape. The Governor of Syria, Muawiya, watched the developing civil war with great interest and a hungry eye.
Last episode, we spent a lot of time getting to know Muawiya. As much as there is to know from those early days – he’s a notoriously enigmatic and slippery figure in Islamic history. But we talked a lot about Muawiya’s ambition, and his political skill, and how he’d ridden the cresting of the early Islamic victories over the Byzantines and Persians to become an extremely powerful political player in the Caliphate.
By 656 AD, the year fitnah broke out, Muawiya was in his mid-fifties, exactly the same age as Ali. But unlike Ali, Muawiya had really leaned in to the perks and privileges of administrative power. By all accounts, he lived an extremely decadent lifestyle; he was overweight, bordering on obese, which triggered frequent onsets of gout and arthritis. Physically, he just wasn’t in great shape.
But Muawiya is not famous in Islamic history for being a top-tier physical specimen.
He’s famous for his 14-cylinder engine of a brain. He had a talent for political subtlety that the fiery Aisha and the uber-pious Ali just did not have. And as civil war exploded across the Caliphate, Muawiya realized that fitnah presented a unique opportunity. As historian Stephen Humphrey’s writes:
His response displayed all the qualities for which he became famous: allowing a situation to ripen before committing himself to a course of action, concealing his own motives and purposes from public scrutiny, long -term planning combined with a capacity to seize unexpected opportunities, a patient seeking for allies even as he relentlessly undermined loyalties among the supporters of his opponents, and a willingness to be perfectly ruthless at critical moments. The sources disagree on many things but on this portrait, they are of one mind.”
But that’s not to say Muawiya was a cruel despot. Or a bloodthirsty authoritarian. Far from it. Under his leadership, the territory of Syria ran like clockwork. As he said: “There is nothing I like better than a bubbling spring in an easy land.”
Even when people used his old nickname, Son of the Liver Eater, he let it ride. As long as everyone obeyed his commands, who cared what they called him behind his back. As he explained: “I do not come between people and their tongues, so long as they do not come between me and my rule.”
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t inspire fear when he wanted to. Even his presence was enough to rattle people. When you looked at him, you got the sense that he knew a little bit more than you did, and that unnerved everyone around him. One of his generals is recorded as saying: “Whenever I saw him lean back, cross his legs, blink, and command someone ‘Speak!’ I had pity on that man.”
By the 650s, you start to get the distinct impression that managing the Caliphate’s interests in Syria wasn’t enough for Muawiya. It was raw, red-hot ambition that had put him in that position, but now he found himself wanting more, more, always more. He decided that he wanted the top job. Muawiya wanted to be Caliph.
So he starts pumping up his own pedigree a bit to lay the groundwork for an eventual bid. In one public address he laid it on thick, saying:
I reiterate to you that the Messenger of God was immune from sin and he bestowed authority on me and included me in his affairs. Then Abu Bakr was named his successor and he bestowed authority upon me. ‘Umar and ‘Uthman did the same on their succession [to the caliphate]. All of them have been satisfied with me.”
When the third Caliph, Uthman, was assassinated in his home in Medina, things moved really, really quickly. The very next day, Ali had been proclaimed the fourth Caliph by the rebels. This was not good for Muawiya. The Lion of God was not someone easily brushed aside.
But Muawiya saw a propaganda opportunity in the grisly assassination of Uthman. As we mentioned last episode, Muawiya made arrangements for Uthman’s bloody shirt and his wife’s severed fingers displayed in Damascus on a pulpit. The intent was to whip up anger against the rebels, which by extension, whipped up anger against the man they supported: The brand new fourth Caliph, Ali.
And Muawiya felt he had a responsibility to demand justice for Uthman. A small wrinke in this story that I have yet to mention is that Muawiya and Uthman were distant cousins. They were related – both members of the Umayyad clan from Mecca. Now, keep in mind, everyone in the story is related, pretty much. These family trees and clans are huge and sprawling. But I would remiss if I didn’t mention it.
In the fall of 656 AD, Muawiya would have been delighted to learn that the Prophet’s hotheaded widow, the “mother of the faithful” Aisha was marching with an army at her back to depose Ali. There are even some sources that claim Muawiya was in covert communication with Aisha, promising to send forces of his own to join her army. But that never materialized and its impossible to really verify. But Muawiya’s thinking was: hey if Aisha wants to do the hard work for me, why not let her. Let’s see where the chips fall.
Before long, Muawiya received news of what had happened at the Battle of the Camel. How Aisha’s coalition had been crushed in spectacular fashion. How 70 bodyguards had died one after another protecting her, and countless more soldiers on the wider battlefield. But he did not anticipate Ali’s response to the treachery. In a shocking move of magnanimity, Ali had forgiven Aisha on the spot. Not only that, he’d had Aisha escorted, safe and sound, back to Mecca, where she could live the rest of her life in peace.
For Muawiya, this was not the ideal outcome. It would’ve been much better for his plans if Ali had executed Aisha for crimes against the Caliphate. That was a juicy piece of rhetoric that Muawiya could really use. A bloody shirt and a couple of fingers were effective tools of propaganda, sure…but it he could say Ali had mercilessly slain the Mother of the Faithful? That was an invaluable political weapon.
But – to Muawiya’s disappointment, Ali was a better man than that. And he sent Aisha home with a wounded arm and aa bruised ego, but otherwise unharmed. Ali had even set the enemy prisoners from the battle free and returned all of their possessions. Some people even said that the Lion of God had lingered on the battlefield for three days, praying over the bodies of every man that fell.
It was almost comically good-hearted. For someone as ruthless and pragmatic as Muawiya, Ali’s display of genuine kindness might’ve looked performative and insincere. But Ali was sincere; he was a good man. And Muawiya ate good men for breakfast.
Ali’s mercy at the Battle of the Camel was not the ideal political outcome for Muawiya, but the engagement had been useful in weakening the fourth Caliph’s already precarious position. Now was the time, Muawiya believed, to really turn up the heat. The Battle of the Camel was a victory for the fourth Caliph, but it had revealed his sentimentality, his susceptibility to emotion and need for reconciliation at all costs.
Muawiya realized could use Ali’s bleeding heart to his advantage. All he had to do was bait him into an open battle.
A few months after the Battle of the Camel, a letter arrives in Damascus, addressed to Muawiya himself and signed by Ali. It demanded that Muawiya step down as governor of Syria and make way for a replacement, handpicked by the Caliph.
Ali was not stupid; he knew that The Son of the Liver Eater had been whipping up sentiment against him, displaying Uthman’s bloody shirt like a flag, tempting the people into open revolt. A man like Muawiya was too dangerous to be kept in a position of authority. He had to go.
Muawiya, unsurprisingly, sends no response.
Back in Iraq, which had become Ali’s base of power, the new Caliph considers what to do about Muawiya. One of his advisors suggests a more underhanded solution to the intransigent governor:
“If you persuade him to give you allegiance, I will undertake to topple him. I swear I will take him to the desert after a watering, and leave him staring at the backside of things whose front side he has no idea of. Then you will incur neither loss nor guilt.”
In other words, give him what he wants for now, then look the other way, and let me kill him for you. Easy-peasy. But assassination was not Ali’s style. He believed in facing his enemies head-on. Just like he’d done since those early battles fighting beside Muhammed:
“I will have nothing to do with such underhanded schemes, neither yours nor Muawiya’s. I do not compromise my faith by cheating, nor do I give contemptible men any say in my command. I will never confirm Muawiya as governor of Syria, not even for two days.”
Back in Syria, Muawiya calculated his next move. To an outside observer, he seemed in a bind. But he reassured his supporters: “I have never been trapped in any situation from which I needed to extricate myself.”
Muawiya decides to provoke Ali even further, sending a response outright accusing him of sheltering the previous Caliph’s assassins and even orchestrating the murder himself.
Ali was incredulous at the accusation, writing in response:
“You think that you can avoid pledging allegiance to me by accusing me of murdering 'Uthman. Everyone knows that I have not killed him. 'Uthman's heirs are better-positioned than you to ask for his vengeance. You are one of the people who disobeyed 'Uthman, and when he asked for your help, you did not help him until he was killed.
Muawiya just keeps baiting him, needling him with more taunts and accusations:
“Ali, be firm and steady as a fortress, or you will find a devouring war from me, setting wood and land ablaze. Othman’s murder was a hideous act, turning the hair white, and none can settle it but I.”
And in one final twist of the knife, Muawiya’s rubs Ali’s nose in his very long road to becoming Caliph:
“Ali, to each Caliph you had to be led to the oath of allegiance as the camel is led by the stick through its nose”
That was the last straw. Ali’s advisors urged caution and restraint, but Ali was furious:
“By God, if Muawiya does not pledge allegiance, I will give him nothing but the sword! Do you want me to be like a hyena cornered in his lair, terrified at the sound of every loose pebble? How then can I rule? This is no situation for me to be in. By God, I tell you, nothing but the sword!”
And so, just six months after the Battle of the Camel, two Muslim lined up to fight each other at a place called Siffin, in Northern Syria. Ali had marched a massive army all the way from Iraq, up the Euphrates and overland to Syria, with the intent of taking control of Damascus, Muawiya’s capitol. But the Son of the Liver Eater was waiting for him with an army of his own.
We’re very used to the classic Hollywood conception of what a battle looks like. The “Braveheart” model, right? Two sides line up, they trash talk for a bit, and then they throw themselves at each other for a couple hours until one side loses. But that’s not how this battle went at all.
Ali and Muawiya were not warlords. Not really. They were statesmen. Muawiya was a slick administrator and Ali was more of a religious leader - an Imam, to use the correct term. So they do what an Imam and an administrator would do. They try and talk it out. The men with swords were more of an insurance policy.
These negotiations last for three months. Basically, the entire summer of 657 AD. Just like at the Battle of the Camel, they set up a big tent, and each side has teams of scholars and scribes and negotiators arguing and counterarguing, trying to hash out some kind of agreement. It was a far-cry from the intimate pow-wow that had decided the issue of Muhammed’s succession less than 30 years prior.
At one point, to break the deadlock, Muawiya makes a proposition. He says – Look Ali, let’s just split the Caliphate in two. You take all the Persian lands and I’ll take all the Byzantine lands. That’s fair right? I won’t bother you; you won’t bother you. It’s a win-win, whaddya say?
Ali sees right through this little bit of theatre. Muawiya was not the kind of guy who wanted just one slice of the pie. He wanted the whole thing. Agreeing to a partition of the empire would only deepen the polarization even further, and give Muawiya a foothold of legitimacy from which to attack him later.
So, Ali dismisses Muawiya’s suggestion, but he offers a counter-proposal. He says, “How about this? There are tens of thousands of men here. I don’t want them to die, and you don’t want them to die. Why don’t we settle this in single combat? Mano e mano. You and me, in a fight to the death.”
Muawiya says hmmm he’ll think about it, and retires to talk shop with his advisors. Behind closed doors, to Muawiya’s surprise, they urge him to take Ali up on his offer. To accept the challenge: “It is not fitting that you refuse such a challenge. Ali has made you a fair offer.”
Muawiya spits back: “It is not a fair offer. Ali has killed everyone he has ever challenged to single combat.”
He couldn’t’ believed what he was hearing. Were they delusional? This was the Lion of God they were talking about. One of the most celebrated warriors of their generation. And even if Ali wasn’t a prolific swordsman, Muawiya wasn’t exactly in peak fighting condition. His feet were swollen from gout, he was overweight, and out of shape.
Ali had Zulfiqar, “the Splitter”. But Muawiya had a sharper tool, what was between his ears. And there was no way the Son of the Liver Eater would go toe-to-toe with Ali if he could help it. Crossing swords with the Caliph was the same as surrendering to him right now.
So, Muawiya refuses Ali’s challenge. And with that, the fates of all those men at Siffin were sealed. A clash between the armies was unavoidable. The next day, Ali and Muawiya’s forces slam into each other in the triple-digit heat of the Syrian desert.
The Battle of the Camel was bad enough, but this battle, called the Battle of Siffin, is famous for being even uglier and more contentious. It lasts for three days, attack and counter-attack, skirmish and retreat. At night, none of the men can sleep because they can hear the soldiers who’d been left for dead on the battlefield screaming in pain. They called this the “night of shrieking”.
Over the course of 72 hours, the fighting grinds on and on, but eventually Ali’s forces gain the upper hand. Muawiya realized he is being pushed back, and in a moment of terrifying clarity the Son of the Liver Eater understands that he’s going to lose this thing.
After years and years of ambitious maneuvering and careful planning, he’s about to be undone by Ali. Muhammed’s pet prince. The zealot who had killed so many of Muawiya’s family members in the early battles of the Mecca-Medina feud, back when the Prophet had been alive.
But Muawiya has one last trick up his silk sleeve. Ali’s army was motivated, above all, by their faith in Islam. They saw their Caliph as a pious leader, the rightful heir to the spiritual legacy of Muhammed. If Muawiya couldn’t beat them with swords and spears, he would use their own faith against them.
Muawiya has his scribes bring up several copies of the Quran from the rear. And he tells them to start ripping pages out of the books. The scribes are taken aback by the outrageous order, but they do it. Then Muawiya orders his soldiers to each place a single page of the Quran on the tips of their spears.
On the third day of the battle, Ali’s soldiers see Muawiya’s troops advancing towards them with the Prophet’s words hanging from their spear tips. They realize the spearmen are chanting something. It was single phrase, over and over:: “Let the Book of God be the judge between us!”
The immediate effect of Muawiya’s stunt is hard to overexaggerate. The Son of the Liver Eater had engineered a brilliant rhetorical display, weaponizing the piety of Ali’s own troops against him. It was a symbolic act, daring Ali’s men to attack them while the words of God hung from their spears. If they struck them down, the Caliph’s men would be committing a crime against the Prophet’s memory, perhaps even God himself.
To Ali, it was a cynical, desperate bid by Muawiya to stop a battle that he was losing. But the stunt worked. Ali’s soldiers start laying down their weapons, and refuse to fight. They say: “When we are called to the Book of God, we must answer the call. We cannot fight against the Quran itself.” Ali tries to snap them out of it, saying: “They have raised up the Holy Book only to deceive you. All they want is to outwit you and trick you.”
But…no dice. The battle was over. A stalemate grinds the engagement to a halt, and the Caliph’s forces lose their momentum and tactical advantage. In the end, Muawiya didn’t need to face the Lion of God in single combat. He just needed to outthink him.
The Battle of Siffin was a turning point not only for Ali and Muawiya, but all of Islam. Ali would reign as Caliph for 4 more years, but this was arguably the moment when he lost it all.
Muhammed had once said of Ali: “If you want to see a dead man walking, look at Ali”. That sounds very ominous when translated into English, but what the Prophet had meant was that Ali was so close with God that his soul was already beyond the veil of the mortal world.
But after the Battle of Siffin, Ali really was a dead man walking. He just didn’t know it yet.
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Religious extremism has existed in many different times, in many different places, in many different forms. Whether it’s the infamous Catholic Inquisitions of Italy and Spain, the purges in medieval France, or militant branches of Buddhism in feudal Japan – wherever there is God, violence tends to follow.
No matter how peaceful or good-intentioned a religion may be, there will always be people on the fringes who hold extreme, rigid interpretations of it. It’s something that just happens naturally, it’s an organic cancer that always seems to take root in most organized religions. That’s nothing against organized religion, it’s just an objective truth. When people believe in something on a visceral, existential level, there will always be a subset of them who are willing to kill for that belief system.
Well, in the aftermath of the Battle of Siffin in 657 A.D., Islam experiences its very first breakaway extremist movement. Something that the modern Islamic scholar Reza Shah-Kazemi called “a violent form of religious hypocrisy”.
It starts as scattered incidents of violence at first. A murder here, a mugging there. But targeted killings start to crop up all over the Caliphate. And it wasn’t Muslims targeting Jews or Christians or Persian Zoroastrians. It was Muslims murdering other Muslims.
One of the most shocking and vicious of these incidents takes place in southern Iraq, shortly after the battle of Siffin. A group of armed men descend on a small date farm. They ask the date farmer some questions about the Quran, and God, and his political beliefs. Well, the farmer does not answer these questions correctly, so the trespassers promptly cut off the man’s head, and disembowel his pregnant wife under a date tree.
These murderers were not shy about who they were or what they believed. They were members of a radical new insurgency, a group that quickly became known as the Kharijites, which in Arabic means “those who depart” or “those who secede”.
Naturally, everyone wanted to know: why were these Kharijites brutally murdering people in the countryside? Why were they interrogating peaceful Muslims about their beliefs and killing them when they didn’t like the answers?
Well, the Kharijites were waging this domestic terror campaign because they were very, very angry at their ruler. The Lion of God, the fourth Caliph, Ali. In particular, they were very, very angry about the decisions he had made in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Siffin against Muawiya.
Let’s back up just a smidge.
The Battle of Siffin ended in a stalemate. When Muawiya ordered his soldiers to put the pages of the Quran on their spear tips, it stopped the battle cold. In a matter of hours, Ali had completely lost his momentum and now there was no choice but to negotiate even more.
With crushing lucidity, Ali realized that Muawiya was not going anywhere. He’d tried everything to bring the rebellious governor of Syria to heel. He’d tried diplomacy, political pressure, challenges of single combat, even outright battle – but the Son of the Liver Eater was just too clever, too crafty, too resourceful.
So the two sides agree to what is called an arbitration.
An arbitration, in this context, just means a means the settling a dispute. The idea was: Look let’s wipe the slate clean and have a scholarly religious debate about who should lead the Caliphate. Is it gonna be Ali… or is it gonna be Muawiya? The issue would be resolved by a careful examination of the Quran itself. That’s what Muawiya was trying to say with the whole “Quran on the spear tips” stunt. Battle and bloodshed should not decide who rule the Islamic empire, God should decide.
Ali was furious. The idea that Muawiya, a “convert of convenience” who had fought against the Prophet so many years ago, then accepted Islam once it served his purposes – that he, of all people, would be considered as a rightful successor to Muhammed? – had have left Ali apoplectic. But Ali’s closest supporters urge to him back off from armed conflict and submit to the arbitration. This was the path to peace, they said.
Ali knew it was a mistake, but he didn’t have any other options; the pressure to avoid further bloodshed was enormous. He did, however, leave them all with a parting rebuke: “This will only demolish strength, destroy right, and bequeath lowliness. Shame on you!”
Well, sure enough, the results of the arbitration are inconclusive. Neither representative can make a persuasive case, at least to the other side, on why their candidate was the rightful Caliph. And this is exactly what Muawiya had wanted all along. To muddy the waters, to seed doubt, and slowly erode the legitimacy of Ali’s Caliphate. Any hopes of ending the civil war quickly, went right out the window. Each side settled in for a long, ugly struggle. Muhammed’s worst nightmare, Fitnah, was not a passing phenomenon, it was here to stay.
Now, this brings us to the Kharijites. The kill-crazy extremists. After the Battle of Siffin, there was a large segment of Ali’s army that was enraged at this submission to Muawiya. In their eyes, by agreeing to the arbitration, Ali was abdicating his responsibilities as Caliph. He was basically tainted goods. As much of a traitor to Islam as Muawiya.
As Lesley Hazelton writes:
Blaming Ali for the very act they had forced him into, they would form an entirely new kind of enemy, not from Mecca or from Syria but from within his own ranks—an enemy all the more dangerous since they were fueled not by the desire for power but by the blind, implacable logic of embittered righteousness.
The leader of the Kharijites addressed Ali during a fiery sermon in Iraq:
“You and the Syrians have vied with each other in unbelief like two horses in a race. God’s ruling on Muawiya and his followers is that they should repent or be killed, yet you have made an agreement with them to let men decide. You have given men authority over the Book of God, and so your deeds are worthless, and you are lost!”
The Kharijites invoked the words of God to justify their political aims. But as Ali remarked: “you twist them and use them to mean something false.”
Ali had been there, in the room, when the Prophet Muhammed had first unveiled the recitations in Mecca, back when Ali was just a skinny-legged kid. To hear those same exact words spat back at him to justify the murder of fellow Muslims must’ve broken his heart. What was once beautiful poetry had been transformed by the Kharijites into something ugly, something unclean.
When he begged them to stop the senseless killing of innocent people, what he called “clear depravity”, the Kharijites gave a chilling response:
“All of us are their killers. And all of us say: Your blood, Ali, is now halal—permitted—for us.”
What they were saying was: You’re next, buddy.
With Ali’s Caliphate falling apart and crumbling from the inside, all Muawiya had to was it back and watch the fireworks. As he wrote many years later: “After Siffin, I made war on Ali without armies and without exertion.”
The Kharijites rolled across Ali’s empire, killing and murdering and sermonizing. Striking from the shadows and turning what was supposed to be a Muslim utopia into a fearful, cynical version of the Prophet’s original vision. Ali lost Egypt, then Yemen, then Mecca, even Medina. By 661 A.D, his last refuge was at his capital of Kufa in Southern Iraq.
But the whole time, Ali prayed and prayed and prayed.
It’s impossible to imagine the doubts and anguish he must’ve been feeling. Maybe he wasn’t meant for any of this after all? Maybe Muhammed had never intended for him to be Caliph. Maybe it really was supposed to be Abu Bakr all along? Abu Bakr had expanded the Caliphate, ruled over a prosperous and peaceful empire. Umar had done the same. Maybe Ali wasn’t much of a Lion for God after all. Just a sad old man who’d failed to live up to his father-in-law’s ideals.
But whatever doubts Ali harbored in his own head, he stayed as strong as he could outwardly. He gave sermon after sermon. He preached kindness, fairness, and piety even as the Caliphate was crumbling around him. He could never live up to Muhammed’s example, but he tried as best he could to embody the teachings of his long-dead friend and mentor.
Even as Ali was receiving daily death threats from Kharijites, he preached the peaceful ideal he had heard so many years ago from the Prophet in Mecca:
“Infuse your heart with mercy for the subjects, love for them and kindness towards them. Be not like the ravenous beast of prey above them, seeking to devour them. For they are of two types: either your brother in religion or your equal in creation.”
That passage, taken from a sermon Ali gave towards the end of his life, is, according to Reza Shah-Kazemi:
“One of the most explicit articulations of the principle of the essential unity of the human race, and the consequent equality of all human beings. It is a powerful antidote against the poison of religious prejudice.”
Despite all his eloquence and wisdom, Ali must have felt like a failure. He had failed to protect his young wife, Fatima, the Prophet’s own daughter, who had died of a miscarriage. He had failed to assert his vision of Muhammed’s ummah, constantly being brushed aside by more politically savvy men for decades. He had failed to keep Muhammed’s own recitations from being corrupted and weaponized by fanatics like the Kharijites.
But there was one thing Ali could still try and protect: His two sons, Hasan and Hussein.
The boys had been 6 and 8 years old when their mother had died. It had been sudden and scary and heartbreaking, but they had adjusted, tried to move forward. Their dad had helped them stay strong, using faith as a tether to their mother, and their grandfather the Prophet. They were the last male descendants of Muhammed, and the pressure on them to live up to that must have been extraordinary.
Well now they were grown men, in their thirties. Hasan was outgoing, sociable. Hussein was more quiet, contemplative. They’d fought alongside their father at The Battle of the Camel, and at Siffin, and the boys could see the toll the years had taken on their dad. At one point, they’d expressed concern for his safety. Ali had tried to reassure them:
“My sons, the fateful day will inevitably come for your father. Going fast will not make it come later, and going slow will not make it come sooner. It makes no difference to your father whether he comes upon death, or death comes upon him.”
Death came for Ali on January 6th, 661 AD. He was at the Mosque in Kufa for morning prayers, when he heard a voice behind him say: “Judgment belongs to God alone, Ali. To God alone”
The Kharijite assassin’s knife struck Ali on the forehead. The cut wasn’t deep enough to kill him, but the poison on the blade began working its way into his veins. Historians seem to believe that the assassin’s dagger was coated with a toxic herb called monkshood, which once it enters the bloodstream, induced respiratory paralysis and cardiac arrest.
As he laid dying over the next several hours, Ali gasped through the pain and dictated a letter to his sons, specifically his eldest, Hasan. He knew he didn’t have much time, but he tried to impart a few final lessons to his boys through the agonizing fog of the poison:
“Do not seek this world even as it seeks you. Do not weep for anything that is taken from you. Pursue harmony and goodness. Avoid fitna and discord. Do not fear the blame of any man more than you fear God.”
“I admonish you to have constant awareness of God. Oh my sons, to abide by his commandments, to fill your heart with his remembrance, and to cling to the rope He has held out to you; for no protection is greater than that which extends from Him to you – provided you take hold of his rope. With absolute trust.”
Ali’s boys, his adult sons, buried their Dad in accordance to his wishes. They washed his body, strapped it tightly to his favorite camel, and let the animal wander into the wilderness. Ali had said that wherever the camel stopped to rest, that was where God intended for him to be buried. The camel walked six miles east of the city of Kufa, and then laid down. And that was where the Lion of God was buried.
Hasan, his eldest, gave a short eulogy:
The angel Gabriel rode at his right hand, and the angel Michael at his left. By God, none who came before him are ahead of him, and none who come after him will overtake him.”
You don’t have to be a Muslim to be moved by Ali’s story. I certainly was. Under all the fluffy titles and epithets is a deeply relatable person. He is frail, warm, weak, and wise. He wants to do great things, but he falls short, makes mistakes. He experiences love and loss and pain and anger. He believes in something with absolute sincerity, even though he is riddled with doubt and resentment.
Now, it would be naïve not to acknowledge that some of the more colorful details of Ali’s life were likely invented after the fact by admirers or partisans, although how much we can never know. As writer Omid Safi put it: “After the Prophet Muhammad, perhaps no other Muslim figure has been the subject of so much idealization. Ali has come to embody the brave knight, the perfect chivalrous soul, the just ruler, and the quintessential mystic.”
But through all that extra noise and puffery, you can see the core of the man underneath. A good man, brave, honest, and kind. One caught in impossible circumstances, who frankly, it sounds like, did his best.
Ali’s legacy is complicated, but Sunnis and Shias alike agree that he was the last of the Rashidun or “Rightly Guided” Caliphs. Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali all had their faults and failings, but Muslims generally agree that all four were sincerely following the righteous example of the Prophet, as they each interpreted it.
When the poison completed its work, paralyzing Ali’s respiratory system, it was instantly clear who would be the next Caliph. And it wasn’t his eldest son, Hasan. Or his youngest, Hussein. After the Fitnah that had tore the Caliphate apart, there was only one man left standing:
Far away in his Green, marbled palace in Damascus, Muawiya basked in satisfaction. His great rival was finally gone.
Some suspected he’d had a role in Ali’s death. Muawiya was famously fond of poison as a political lubricant and it was feasible that he could’ve been behind the murder. But in the end, it didn’t really matter. The Lion of God was dead, and there was nothing but a yawning power vacuum in his place, begging Muawiya to fill it.
It had been a long road to power. Four Caliphs and thirty long years since the Prophet croaked his last beath into Aisha’s lap. Muawiya had started out an up jumped scribe from a disgraced aristocrat family, but now, he was about to take control over one of the most powerful empires in the history of the world. As Muawiya summarized in his own words:
“May God have pity on Abu Bakr, for he did not want this world, nor the world him. Then the world wanted Umar, but he did not want the world. And then Othman used up this world, and it used up him. But me—I revel in it!”
Muawiya had to admit, The Lion of God been a formidable enemy. But his sons were weak and unmotivated. Hasan and Hussein would fall into the dust just like they’re unfortunate predecessor. Muhammed had once jokingly dubbed Ali the “father of dust” while building a brick house in Medina. To Muawiya, Ali’s sons were just that – dust, meaningless mites. He moved quickly to pressure Hasan into abdicating the position his father Ali had left him. And the elder son conceded.
Hasan’s abdication is a huge point of controversy. Shias say he gracefully stepped aside. Sunnis say he was paid off with a massive lump sum by Muawiya. As with all these issues, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. But the end result was the same, Ali’s sons would not be succeeding him. The Umayyads (that’s the name of Muawiya’s family) were in control of Islam’s destiny.
In 661 AD, Muawiya became the fifth Caliph of the Islamic Empire. The Fitnah was over, peace was restored, and an aristocratic family, the very same one Muhammed had preached against in the first place back in Mecca, was back on top. The circle was complete. The proper order had been restored.
Islam had been a convenient trampoline for Muawiya. Without Muhammed’s movement, a son of an Arabian merchant would never had dreamed of ruling over territory occupied by the Byzantines and Persians. But the Son of the Liver Eater had been patient. And he ruled over the Caliphate for another twenty years.
The story might have ended there. But Ali’s youngest son, Hussein, could not accept Muawiya’s usurpation of his father’s legacy. Many years later, Hussein would make a final stand at the infamous Battle of Karbala, where he would become “the Prince of Martyrs” as some call him.
And it was at Karbala, that the Sunni-Shia divide transcended its status as a factional squabble and ossified into the permanent, painful schism we know today.
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If Aisha had any misgivings about the assassination of Ali, she kept it to herself.
In the decades after the Battle of the Camel, Muhammed’s famous and fiery widow had lived quietly in the Caliphate’s spiritual capital of Medina. Her ill-fated foray into politics had ended in bloody disaster, forced to grovel in front of her lifelong rival Ali next to a dead camel with an arrow sticking out of her arm.
But to her surprise, Ali had shown an astonishing amount of grace in his treatment of her after the battle. This was the same man who had basically called her a cheating whore back when she was a teenager. And yet – when he had complete power over her, he treated her wounds, prayed over her fallen men, and sent her back to Mecca with an armed escort to ensure her safety.
This gesture seems to have prompted a profound shift in Aisha’s feelings toward Ali. In the years that passed, she rarely spoke about the battle, but when she did, she expressed a distinct sense of gratitude and even reverence for Ali that is very out of character for her, frankly
On one occasion, she’s reported to have said that if God had given her the choice between bearing ten sons for the Prophet and *not* fighting Ali…she would’ve chosen to not fight Ali. That doesn’t sound like Aisha to me…but who knows.
The civil war, or fitnah, had been deeply traumatic to everyone involved. And it’s very possible that the sight of all those men dying to protect her left a few scars on her soul, and she regretted her role in the uprising. It’s also possible she realized how lucky she was to have engaged in open rebellion against the Caliph and lived to tell about – so she kept her mouth shut and sang Ali’s praises. It’s hard to know for sure – but one thing is for certain: Aisha never entered the political arena again.
She stayed in Medina, teaching, writing, lecturing, and making pilgrimages to Mecca. She was a silent spectator as Muawiya bled Ali dry and the Kharijites waged a campaign of terror across the Caliphate. Aisha knew she was lucky to be alive, and she focused her energies on preserving her beloved husband Muhammed’s memory in the form of the hadith.
Well one day, Aisha received a visitor at her home in Medina. This man entered her home flanked by guards, dressed in finery that contrasted starkly with Aisha’s own simple, homespun robes. She knew instantly who this man was. They’d grown up in the same city, Mecca. The gouty limp and generous paunch were new developments, but Aisha knew Muawiya, Son of the Liver Eater when she saw him.
He was the Caliph now. Ali was dead, Hasan had abdicated, and there were no more rivals left to crush.
Muawiya was the most powerful man in the Arab world, but even he had to pay the occasional courtesy call to the “Mother of the Faithful”. Still, Muawiya made Aisha nervous. The Son of the Liver Eater was notorious for his guile, trickery, and in particular the use of poison as a political weapon. Maybe he was here, in her home, to do what Ali had refused to do. To remove one of the last living threads to the Prophet and rewrite history in his own image.
Muawiya was kind and polite, he insisted he was only there to pay his respects. But Aisha’s guard was up the entire time. Even in her fifties, she was a force to be reckoned with, and she tried to throw the Caliph off with not-so-veiled threat:
“Are you not afraid I will poison you?”
It was brazen, and a little foolish. The whole thing is just quintessential Aisha.
Muawiya was amused, and he reassured her in the most biting, backhanded way possible. I’m paraphrasing, but he essentially said: I have no interest in killing you. What’s it in for me? I won. I’m the undisputed ruler of all Islam. Now, if you had died at the Battle of the Camel, that would have been politically useful to me. It’s a shame Ali didn’t kill you when he had the chance.
Aisha probably wanted to strike him for saying something that disrespectful to her, but she kept her cool. The meeting ended amicably, and Muawiya slithered back to Syria, confident in his absolute control over the Caliphate. He later said of Aisha: “there was never any subject I wished closed that she would not open, or that I wished opened that she would not close.”
No harm ever came to Aisha, and she was allowed to live out the rest of her life in peaceful retirement. The Mother of the Faithful passed away on July 13th, 678. She was 68 years old.
Her husband Muhammed had died 44 years earlier, and in that time she had narrated 2,210 hadith. A huge amount of what we know about the Prophet comes directly from her. If you remember, we started this story with Aisha, all the way back in Part One. When she was just a 12 year old girl, flung into a tempest of political intrigue, which she went on to bend to her will in a way that we will never stop talking about.
From the second I started researching this topic, I knew Aisha had to be one of the primary perspectives, if not *the* primary one. She and Ali, despite their animosity towards one another form the heart & soul of this story.
And now we have to say goodbye to her. And honestly it makes me a little sad. Like I said at the top, I’ve grown really attached to these historical characters.
In a time, place and culture dominated by men, Aisha managed to be a force of nature unto herself. She was a scholar, a theologian, and a military commander. Today she is respected and venerated by both Shi’as and Sunnis alike. A truly amazing, yet flawed woman who I’ve deeply enjoyed learning about.
But that’s not the end of our story. We have one last thing to talk about. Honestly, I’ve been dreading it a bit. You might even say I’ve been kinda putting it off.
We have to talk about Karbala. If you recall, back in the very first episode of this three-part series, we talked about how important the Battle of Karbala is to the Shia faith, and how it manifests today in Ashura, a day of remembrance, mourning, and in some cases self-flagellation. Well, all the stuff we’ve talked about – Muhammed, Aisha, Abu Bakr, Ali the Caliphate, the fitnah, it has all been leading up to this pivotal event.
Karbala is more than just a battle. It’s a bifurcation point in Islamic history. Just like Ali’s famous sword, the Splitter, with its two tongues veering off into different directions. For Sunnis and especially Shias, there is Before Karbala and After Karbala.
We’ve said our goodbyes to the primary perspectives of this series, Aisha and Ali. Now it’s time to wrap things up by looking at this event through the eyes of Karbala’s star character, Ali’s youngest son, the Imam Hussein.
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With Ali assassinated and Aisha confined to retirement, Muawiya ruled the Caliphate for another twenty years.
And honestly, it brought some much-needed stability back to the Islamic empire. The Son of the Liver Eater turned out to be one of the best, if not the best, administrator the Caliphate had ever seen. That didn’t mean he wasn’t ruthless and repressive. Muawiya tolerated zero dissent and ruled over his empire with an airtight grip.
But there was still one loose end: Ali’s youngest son, Hussein.
Hussein took after his dad a lot; he was deeply religious, and he inherited his father’s title of Imam, or “teacher”. He served as a spiritual leader in the Caliphate, independent from Muawiya’s regime.
Muawiya didn’t really consider Hussein a threat personally; in private he referred to him as a “weak and insignificant man”. But as a symbol, Hussein was dangerous. He was the son of Ali, the grandson of Muhammed, and a superb example of Islamic ideals.
Well, Muawiya finally died in 680 A.D. at the ripe old age of 78. The man who had brought so much chaos and violence to the Caliphate passed away safe and warm in his bed. But before he did, he made a decision about who would succeed him. He decided that his own son, a man named Yazid, would be the new Caliph. By doing that, Muawiya was effectively transforming the Caliphate into a hereditary monarchy. A dynastic institution.
If you’ll recall, that was a big no-no in Arabic culture. Leaders were always chosen through debate and consultation, eventually settling on the best man for the job. It’s how Abu Bakr was chosen, according to the Sunnis of course. It’s how Umar was chosen. How Uthman was chosen. Ali had been a special case and Hasan had abdicated. So, this was entirely uncharted territory.
Part of the arrangement with Hasan had been that in exchange for his abdication, Muawiya would promise to never, ever, under any circumstances, hand the Caliphate down to his own flesh and blood. So - by appointing Yazid as his successor, Muawiya virtually insured that there would be significant political pushback.
When Muawiya died, his son Yazid moved quickly to neutralize any dissent. He had a long list of people who needed to be arrested, detained, or executed. And right at the top of that list was the Imam, Hussein.
On his deathbed, Muawiya had warned Yazid to leave Hussein alone. His connection to the Prophet was too strong, the memory of Ali’s death was too fresh. Better to let sleeping dogs lie. But Yazid was not the savvy political operator his father was. He could not resist the temptation to snuff out Ali’s bloodline once and for all.
So, almost immediately after “Yazid the First” was crowned, he puts out a warrant for Hussein’s arrest. He tells his enforcers to: “act so fiercely that he has no chance to do anything before giving public allegiance to me. If he refuses, execute him.”
But Hussein manages to slip away from Yazid’s assassins. He and his extended family flee to Mecca, the birthplace of Islam. There they would be safe – at least for a little while. Hussein must have felt trapped. The most powerful man in the Arab world wanted him dead, or at the very least locked away in a cell. His options were extremely limited. As a 20th century Iranian academic named Ali Shariati writes:
“There is nothing left for Hussein to inherit. No army, no weapons, no wealth, no power, no force, not even an organized following. Nothing at all. The Umayyads (that’s Yazid’s new dynasty) occupy every base of society. The power of the tyrant, enforced with the sword or with money or with deception, brings a pall of stifled silence over everyone. All power is in the hand of the oppressive ruler. Values are determined solely by the regime. Ideas and thoughts are controlled by agents of the regime. Brains are washed, filled, and poisoned with falsehood presented in the name of religion, and if none of this works, faith is cut off with the sword. It is this power which Hussein must now face.”
But what could Hussein do? He wasn’t a famous warrior like his dad, Ali. He wasn’t a Lion of God. He was just a teacher. A middle-aged man trying to live up to the memory of his father and grandfather.
But then something amazing happens. Hussein starts receiving messages from southern Iraq, from his father’s old capital at Kufa. Thousands of people say they will stand behind him in an uprising against Yazid and his brutal autocracy. They ask Hussein to travel, covertly, from Mecca to Iraq. And that when he gets there, there will be an army of 12,000 men ready to follow his every command. Their ultimate goal being to, as Lesley Hazelton puts it, “reclaim the caliphate and restore the soul of Islam.”
So Hussein sets out from Mecca with 72 followers, his family, and a prayer that the messages he’d received were legitimate. It would take three weeks to get to Iraq overland. Every day they got closer and closer. And every day, doubt crept into Hussein’s mind. Some of his followers started to have second thoughts. What if this was a trap? What if Yazid had baited him into a final decisive showdown? But despite their anxiety, this tiny caravan kept marching onwards across the deserts, the lowlands and the river valleys into Iraq.
One day, when they’re about a third of the way, a messenger rides up to Hussein. The guy is on horseback, and he’s so tired, he can barely sit up straight. His lungs are on fire, he can barely talk. He’d clearly been riding non-stop for days to bring news to the Imam. And the news was this:
There was no army of 12,000 men waiting for him. No one had come.
There had been lots of talk, lots of promises, but when push came to shove, the Kufans were too afraid of Yazid’s enforcers to rise up in support of Hussein. The ringleaders who did show up were brutally beheaded and strung up in the streets. Hussein’s reclamation of the Caliphate was over before it even began.
Isolated in the desert with a handful of friends and family, Hussein found himself completely alone. It was him and 72 other people against the entire might of Yazid’s army. He realized that he had two choices. He could run and hide, turn back towards Mecca. Or he could press onwards. And he knew what pressing onwards meant. As the Iranian scholar Shariati writes:
“This is the man who embodies all the values that have been destroyed, the symbol of all the ideals that have been abandoned. He appears with empty hands. He has nothing. The Imam Hussein now stands between two inabilities. He cannot remain silent, but neither can he fight. He has only one weapon, and that is death. If he cannot defeat the enemy, he can at least disgrace them with his own death. If he cannot conquer the ruling power, he can at least condemn it. For him, martyrdom is not a loss, but a choice. He will sacrifice himself on the threshold of the temple of freedom, and be victorious.”
When the messenger begged Hussein to turn back, the Imam answered:
“No, by God. I will neither give my hand like a humiliated man nor flee like a slave. May I not be called Yazid. Let me never accept humiliation over dignity.”
Hussein and his caravan made it all the way to Iraq, until they were surrounded about 20 miles outside of Kufa. Yazid had sent an army of 4,000 men to stamp out this movement before it could reach the city. Yazid, the man who called himself Caliph – or successor to Muhammed, was intent on killing the Prophet’s last living relatives.
That cruel, horrible irony was not lost on Hussein. The Imam realized that this dusty, barren place in southern Iraq – a spot called Karbala – was going to be where his life’s journey ended for good.
Rather than immediately converge on the small campsite Hussein and his followers had set up, Yazid’s army decides to toy with its prey. The Caliph’s forces completely block access to the local river, so that Hussein and his people would slowly, painfully wither away from thirst and heat exposure. Anyone still strong enough to lift a sword would be hacked apart by Yazid’s well-armed, well hydrated soldiers.
Theologians will often make comparisons between the Passion story from Christianity and Hussein’s ordeal at Karbala. In former story, which you’re probably much more familiar with, Jesus of Nazareth is literally tortured to death by the Romans. Through his suffering and sacrifice, a greater goal is achieved and a profound spiritual statement is made.
Hussein’s martyrdom is also slow and painful; but that prolonged torment is more psychological, rather than physical. Hussein isn’t strapped to a cross and forced to bleed out, but he is tactically immobilized, unable to retreat or advance, forced to watch Yazid’s forces slowly kill his followers and family members.
This siege of Hussein’s encampment lasts for about a week. One by one, Hussein’s 72 companions went out to face Yazid’s men in single combat. And one by one, they were cut down. It’s often called “The Battle of Karbala”, but it’s not really a battle at all – at least not in the traditional sense. It’s basically a protracted series of duels that take place over an entire week.
It was pointless to fight, but none of these men wanted to die from dehydration, they wanted to die with swords in their hands and sandals on their feet. In one of the more famous stories, one of Hussein’s cousins has his arm cut off in a duel, but he keeps fighting, saying that that’s why God gave him two arms.
But there weren’t just warriors in Hussein’s encampment. His entire family was there, cousins, wives, sisters, sons, daughters. For days and days, Hussein had to watch them suffer from thirst and hunger.
Hussein’s young son, only three months old, was so dehydrated that he stopped making sounds. He was too weak to even cry. Hussein cradled his baby boy in his arms and went out to Yazid’s soldiers. He begged them to at least – at the very least – let the children have water. The response he got… was an arrow, which whistled through the air and buried itself in his infant son’s neck.
There are countless individual anecdotes like this. In a way, the week at Karbala almost feels like a slow-motion destruction of the Prophet’s descendants. It became too much for Hussein to bear. He pleads with the remaining warriors in his company to lay down their weapons and escape:
“All of you, I hereby absolve you from your oath of allegiance to me, and place no obligation upon you. Go home now, under cover of darkness. Use the night as a camel to ride away upon. These men of Yazid’s want only me. If they have me, they will stop searching for anyone else. I beg you, leave for your homes and your families.”
They could barely stand from lack of water, but they just answered:
“We will fight with you until you reach your destination,”
Hussein would never reach the city of Kufa. But with their help, he could reach martyrdom. A symbolic act that would be as Omid Safi puts it, both “simultaneously a political failure and a spiritual success.”
On October 10th, 680 AD, Hussein rides out to face his destiny. It’s an extremely iconic image that’s still used in Ashura celebrations to this day. Hussein takes off all his armor, and puts on a plain white robe. All he has is a sword. And he rides directly towards Yazid’s army, completely alone. It was just as striking a visual then as it is now. One of Yazid’s soldiers remembered: “By God I have never seen his like before or since.”
A lot of things probably went through his mind. He’d been six years old when his grandfather Muhammed had died. He could still remember the wailing and screaming when Medina realized the Prophet was gone. He remembered his mom, Fatima, who had died so young and so sad, following her miscarriage. He remembered fighting alongside his Dad Ali and his brother Hasan during the Fitnah. First against Aisha at the Battle of the Camel. Then against Muawiya at Siffin.
It was a long road, and it was ending in the middle of nowhere.
Hussein makes a brave, lonely mad dash towards the army, but he doesn’t get far.
The arrows start flying, and the spears start puncturing, and the swords start cutting. From the campsite, Hussein’s family saw the bright white cloak swallowed up into the belly of Yazid’s army. The soldiers cut Hussein apart, literally. Then they trample the fragments of his body with their horses, over and over again, until it’s essentially pulp. The one thing they keep intact, is the Imam’s head, which they place on a pike as a trophy to take back to their Caliph, Yazid.
The surviving members of Hussein’s family are shackled, and led in chains all the way to Damascus, Syria – the seat of Yazid’s empire, the house Muawiya had built. Hussein’s sister, a woman named Zaynab, had one thing to say to the triumphant Caliph:
“You will never take from us our memory.”
Karbala and all the drama surrounding it is hard to approach from a historical perspective. Because it’s very hard to know where the myth ends and the real-life events begin. But whatever really happened out there in the badlands of Iraq, it left a deep, indelible mark on the world.
As Shia scholar Ali Shariati wrote:
“Martyrdom has a unique radiance. It creates light and heat in the world. It creates movement, vision, and hope. By his death, the martyr condemns the oppressor and provides commitment for the oppressed. In the iced-over hearts of a people, he bestows the blood of life and resurrection.”
The Shia branch of Islam never forgot Karbala.
It has become the defining inflection point that distinguishes Sunni Islam from Shia Islam. In the end, it’s all a matter of perspective. All these different people - Abu Bakr, Umar, Aisha, Ali, Muawiya, Hussein, Hasan, and Fatima – they all hold different levels of significance for Muslims all over the world. People find resonance or hope or clarity in these stories, and these narratives will continue to influence the trajectory of history and the lives of billions of people, long after you and I are dead and gone.
In recent years, the tensions between Sunnis and Shias have become more inflamed than ever. The controversies, grudges and grievances from Islam’s early days are very fertile ground for propaganda. These stories, as beautiful and moving as they are, are easily weaponized to turn people against each other. To kill each other. So it’s absolutely critical that we understand how they resonate across the centuries and into the modern world.
A lot happened in the 14 centuries after Karbala. The Crusades. The Mongols. The Mamelukes. The Muhgals in India. The Ottomans. Two World Wars. The Creation of Israel. The rise of Saudi Arabia. The Iranian Revolution. The Arab Spring.
But underneath all of those historical tempests, the currents of Sunni-Shia dynamics have been influencing the hearts and minds of people all over the Muslim world. And to understand this origin story is to take a first, wavering step into grasping all of those complex conflicts.
It's unclear if Sunnis and Shias will ever be able to reconcile the fundamental disagreements they have about the early days of Islam. The honest answer is…probably not. But there’s always hope.
As Omid Safi writes:
“Both the later Sunni and Shi‘i traditions contain profound internal diversity, and surely one can find strands of each that stand closer to one another than to other perspectives within each school. And yet each provides an important fundamental perspective. Like much else within Islam, their differences are perhaps not a matter of absolute right or wrong, or of one school containing all of the truth, but rather a reminder that the reality of existence is too grand to be entirely contained by one perspective or one school of thought.
This had been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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