Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Siffin (657)

Today is (give or take) the anniversary of the start of the Battle of Siffin, during the First Fitna (civil war) in Islamic history. Regular readers may have heard of it before. The Caliph, Ali, took an army of 80,000 men (allegedly; historical sources are notoriously unreliable when it comes to army sizes) against the governor of Syria, Muʿawiyah, and his 120,000 man army (again, allegedly) in what is now the Raqqa Province of Syria. Ali’s accession as Caliph had been marred by the assassination of his predecessor, Uthman, and by Ali’s inability and/or unwillingness to bring Uthman’s killers to justice. The latter point especially became a pretext for resistance among several leading members of the Islamic community who had done quite well for themselves under Uthman. They were now worried because it looked like Ali was planning to upend the social order in at least three ways:

  • by replacing regional governors
  • by instituting a more equitable distribution of tax revenues and booty that would put all Muslims, Arab and otherwise, on an equal footing
  • by moving his capital from Medina to Kufa (and thus taking sides in the growing Syria-Iraq rivalry)
A reasonable approximation of the caliphate on the eve of Siffin (dark green areas were under Ali’s control) (Wikimedia | Mohammad Adil)

Muʿawiyah refused to acknowledge Ali’s right to replace him as governor of Syria, which meant he was also refusing to acknowledge Ali as rightful Caliph, and Ali determined to make him yield. The two armies met at Siffin and camped opposite each other for what we’re told was 100 days, because neither side wanted to fire the first shot, as it were. Then a faction of Ali’s army, known as the Qurra, who had been implicated in Uthman’s murder and were impatient for a fight, took it upon themselves to attack Muʿawiyah’s lines and start the fighting. Despite being (again allegedly) outnumbered, Ali’s forces won the battle tactically, dealing Muʿawiyah’s army 45,000 casualties to their own 25,000 (allegedly, again, and I’ll stop beating this dead horse), but politically the situation was still in dispute.

Ali was appalled by the loss of life and offered to settle the matter with Muʿawiyah in single combat, but Ali was known as a great fighter, so Muʿawiyah wanted no parts of that deal. Instead, his army took the field again on the third day of the battle (July 28), but this time carrying copies of the Qurʾan, or pages of it anyway. The reminder that they were killing their fellow Muslims sapped the will to fight right out of Ali’s men, and so it was decided that Ali and Muʿawiyah would nominate two arbitrators who would rule on their dispute. Thus, despite the lopsided outcome on the field, Siffin is considered inconclusive, as the battle itself did nothing to resolve the underlying cause of the conflict.

Let’s sum up what happened next, which you can read about in detail in my Islamic history series. The arbitration went extraordinarily badly for Ali, with his own arbitrator ruling that Ali should give up the caliphate in lieu of an election and Muʿawiyah’s declaring that Muʿawiyah should be caliph. Ali wound up ignoring the arbitrators’ decision and then went to war with the Qurra, who were angry that he’d agreed to the arbitration in the first place. The Qurra split from Ali’s army, and became known as the Khawarij (Kharijites to us non-Arabs), which more or less means “the leavers,” because they left Ali’s army. They eventually assassinated Ali as they had Uthman, and Muʿawiyah, who was by this point the last man standing, became caliph.

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