Islamic History, Part 13: Ali’s Caliphate (656-661) and the First Fitna

Islamic History Series

Before you read this one, please read part 12 of the series, on Ali and his accession to the Caliphate.

Ali’s record as Caliph is incomplete, to say the least. He reigned for a mere 5 years, and most of that time was occupied by answering the many direct challenges that were made to his rule. This circumstance also makes it incredibly difficult to pull apart the historical account of Ali’s reign, all of which were written over a century after the fact and reflect the more hardened sectarian identities that had developed by then. He declared that he was devoted to purging the community of dissension and corruption, and to this end he replaced the provincial governors who had been appointed by Umar and Uthman and instituted an even distribution of taxes and booty throughout the empire, ending the practice of regional governors collecting and distributing revenue in their own provinces (he seems to have done this against the advice of his closest advisors, who counseled him not to make any drastic changes). Tellingly, Muʿawiyah simply ignored Ali’s message dismissing him from his post, the only provincial governor to do so.The flattening and equalizing of the tax and booty won him considerable support from the non-Qurayshi elements of the empire, particularly the Ansar, the people of Medina who had originally invited Muhammad to relocate there from Mecca, and non-Arabs or mawali.

You see, despite the egalitarianism that seemed embedded in the fabric of the Quran and was a core part of Muhammad’s appeal to new followers, a clearly tiered society was beginning to emerge, with those who had come from Mecca (even if they or their clan had originally opposed Muhammad and participated in the war against Medina) on top and everybody else looking up at them to one degree or another. The ansar, who had invited Muhammad in, protected him, and loyally followed him, were especially aggrieved to see those Meccans who had tried to quash Muhammad’s movement by force rise above them to positions of higher power and greater wealth. But nobody had it worse than the non-Arabs, the mawali (the word expresses a sort of kinship relation with someone). There is nothing inherent to the Quran or in Muhammad’s life that suggests he intended his movement to be an Arabs-only affair (indeed, one of his most prominent and beloved early followers was a man named “Salman the Persian”), but because it grew out of Arabian tribal society it was challenging to incorporate converts into the community who came from outside the tribal system. The mawali had to be “adopted” by a tribe in order to become part of the community, which meant acquiring an Arab patron or sponsor, which ultimately meant that they were subordinated to the Arabs even though that was never supposed to be the case. They were excluded from political and military authority and were at a disadvantage to the Arabs, particularly the Quraysh, in almost every imaginable way. The irony that Muhammad and his followers were themselves effectively outside the Arabian tribal order when they fled Mecca (indeed, that’s more or less why they had to flee) was apparently unnoticed. Ali, or at least the Ali who has been portrayed down through the centuries, was going to end the preferential treatment of the Quraysh, and Arabs in general, and unlock the true egalitarianism of Muhammad’s message, but his assassination stopped that project in its tracks. Part of the enduring power of Shiʿism derives from its appeal to the traditionally disaffected fringes of Islamic society and the promise of equality that was contained in Ali’s political philosophy.

Ali’s accession laid these kinds of simmering factional hostilities out in the open by beginning to upend the established order, but it also inflamed a very new kind of factional tension for the Arabs, one based on imperial geography rather than on tribe or clan. Ali elected to move his capital to the new military garrison town of Kufa, in Iraq, because he had strong support there (among some of the people who had participated in Uthman’s assassination, it should be noted) and also because it was closer to the Empire’s military frontiers than Medina. But if you go way back to the days before Muhammad, you’ll recall that Iraq lay on the Persian side of the Persian/Roman border, and Ali’s decision to move there did not sit well with those, Arab and otherwise, who had been living in Syria and had been on the Roman side of that particular conflict. Now remember that Muʿawiyah, Uthman’s kinsman and the one regional governor who openly resisted Ali’s command that he step down, was the governor of Syria, and you can maybe see where this is headed. Because of the civil strife, Ali’s reign really saw the empire shrink from the size it had reached under Uthman; much of North Africa (a good portion of which was ruled by vassals and not yet under direct Caliphal control) and some frontier territory in eastern Iran/Central Asia was lost as Ali’s attention was focused on suppressing internal revolt.

The Caliphate as it had shrunk under Ali; the light green are the areas that were eventually in open revolt against him.

The Caliphate as it had shrunk under Ali; the light green are the areas that were eventually in open revolt against him.

The first blow to be struck happened at The Battle of the Camel, in November 656 near Basra, when Ali’s army defeated a rebellion led by Muhammad’s widow, Aisha b. Abi Bakr, and the two men who had been considered for the accession along with Ali, Talhah and al-Zubayr. They were demanding that Ali arrest and prosecute (execute) Uthman’s murderers, but it’s not clear that he was powerful enough to do that to the people who had put him in power and it’s also not clear that Aisha, Talhah, and al-Zubayr would have actually been satisfied if he’d done so. Talhah and al-Zubayr both died in the fighting (Talhah supposedly shot down by one of his own men, Marwan b. al-Hakam, who we will definitely see again, when he decided to leave the field rather than fight fellow Muslims), and Aisha was allowed a dignified retirement from state affairs in Medina. The battle takes its name from the camel ridden by Aisha, which became the focal point of the fighting.

What makes the Battle of the Camel so momentous is not simply that it was the first battle in a much wider war, but that it was definitively the first case of Muslim fighting Muslim; the Ridda Wars had pitted Muhammad’s followers against those who had stopped supporting the movement after he died, but the latter were not “Muslim” (to the extent that “Muslim” was a defined group at this point) because they’d only pledged their support to Muhammad, not to his message or the movement in general. From the histories it seems as though neither side had a real desire to fight this battle; in fact, they seem to have reached a tentative agreement to avoid combat until the group known at the time as the Qurra, who were this sort of berserker corps in the Arab armies, known for fighting hard and passionately but also uncontrollably, launched a night attack against Aisha’s army. The Qurra were culpable in Uthman’s assassination and had supported Ali’s accession, but they feared that if a settlement were reached between the two sides that Ali’s attention would then fall on them as regicides. So they precipitated the battle to save their own hides.

Now that the floodgates of civil war had opened, the battle was joined in earnest between the two most imposing figures in the Islamic World at the time: Ali, the Caliph, versus Muʿawiyah, the renegade governor of Syria. This period is known as the First Fitna, from the Arabic word fitnah suggesting upheaval, chaos, and possibly secession; i.e., a civil war. Muʿawiyah was supported by another important figure, Amr b. al-ʿAs, who had led the conquest of Egypt; this brought Egypt into Muʿawiyah’s orbit as well. Muʿawiyah was ostensibly fighting for the same reason Aisha had claimed, a desire to see the killers of his kinsman Uthman brought to justice and anger that Ali had not done so, but his actions indicate someone who was really fighting in the service of his greater ambitions. As at the Battle of the Camel, both sides initially pursued a negotiated settlement, but Muʿawiyah’s intransigence and his refusal to accept Ali’s accession seemed to invite battle. The Battle of Siffin in July 657 was technically a lopsided victory for Ali, who according to the sources suffered roughly half the casualties that Muʿawiyah did, but it ended when Muʿawiyah’s soldiers marched onto the field bearing copies of the Quran (or perhaps scrolls with Quranic verses written on them) and demanding that Ali submit to arbitration over Muʿawiyah’s grievances.

Ali was in a bit of a bind here; he couldn’t very well press the attack without looking like the aggressor, which would make him look less than righteous, and his appeal rested on the fact that he was the righteous legitimate caliph and Muʿawiyah was in the wrong for his refusal to recognize that fact. So he agreed to the arbitration. The arbitrators, one from Muʿawiyah’s side and one from Ali’s, inexplicably agreed on what Muʿawiyah wanted: that Ali should be stripped of the Caliphate and the office thrown open to election by the people. Ali absolutely rejected this ruling and thus broke his agreement to abide by the outcome of the arbitration, and his coalition splintered. It’s hard not to assume that this was Muʿawiyah’s intention all along in pursuing the arbitration, and it worked perfectly. The Qurra, who had dictated Ali’s choice of arbitrator, promptly abandoned him for even agreeing to arbitration in the first place, refusing to fight in what they argued was a just cause. The Qurra were from then on known as the Khawarij, the plural of kharij, which means “one who goes out” or “one who leaves.” Modern scholarship also refers to them as “Kharijites.”Ali was now spending his time fighting against his former allies, particularly the Kharijites, while Muʿawiyah’s armies methodically expanded the territory under his control into Iraq and Arabia, as far south as Yemen. In January 661, his Caliphate collapsing around him, Ali was himself assassinated by a group of Kharijites while at prayer in Kufa. The office of Caliph now fell to the only man who could claim it, Muʿawiyah, but no caliph would ever again rule over a united Islamic polity.

Next time: Muʿawiyah, the Umayyads, and the meet the Second Fitna, same as the First

Further Reading:

Wilferd Madelung’s The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate lays out the case that Muhammad intended for Ali to succeed him all along, maybe a little too well since it seems like Madelung is engaging in persuasion rather than simple academic study. If you can filter out his biases, though, it’s indispensable.

Works on the history and development of Shiʿism, like Heinz Halm’s aptly titled Shiʿism or Husain Jafri’s The Origins and Early Development of Shiʿa Islam, are worth reading but keep in mind that Shiʿism is still in its very, very developmental stages here. Hell, Islam is still in its very developmental stages at this point.

Suliman Bashear’s Arabs and Others in Early Islam talks about the problem of assimilating non-Arabs into the Empire in the early centuries.

Hugh Kennedy’s The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 600–1050, his The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live in, and his The Armies of the Caliphs: military and society in the early Islamic State.

Patricia Crone’s God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam.

As always, The Cambridge History of Islam and The New Cambridge History of Islam (also volume 4 of The Cambridge History of Iran) are worthwhile if you’re really looking to immerse yourself, but they’re not for the casual reader.

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16 thoughts on “Islamic History, Part 13: Ali’s Caliphate (656-661) and the First Fitna

  1. Please, please, tell us about the Umayyads!

    I have been to their mosques in Aleppo and in Damascus, before the recent unpleasantness descended, and I would like to understand better how they fit into the story you have been telling up to now.

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