Shia Islam(9): Major challenges during Imam ʿAlī’s reign

 Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī

Chapter 9: Major challenges during Imam ʿAlī’s reign

Even though ʿAlī was chosen as Caliph in a massive gathering in the Prophet’s Mosque, this added nothing to his status, since he had already been appointed to this position by God. However, it remains true that without a popular consensus even a divinely appointed Caliph could not be influential in society.

Unfortunately, after ʿAlī’s election, whispers of dissent could be heard from many quarters. These came mostly from those who stood to lose materially from ʿAlī’s accession, whether by being removed from their current posts or, due to not being qualified in terms of faith and moral virtue, saw opportunities being closed to them. During his caliphate, the Imam confronted three groups of opponents, all of whom he overpowered and suppressed. However, in the end, he was assassinated and became a martyr.

In a famous sermon, known as the sermon of al-Shaqshaqiyya, ʿAlī refers to these groups: ‘When I took up the reins of government one party broke away and another turned disobedient while the rest began acting wrongfully as if they had not heard the word of Allah saying: This is the abode of the Hereafter which We shall grant to those who do not desire to domineer in the earth nor to cause corruption, and the outcome will be in favor of the Godwary (Q28:83). Yes, by Allah, they had heard it and understood it but the world appeared glittering in their eyes and its embellishments seduced them’ (Nahj al-Balāgha, Sermon 3).

In the above passage, the Imam describes these three groups. In what follows we refer to their story.

Those who ‘broke away’

Those who ‘broke away’ (nākithīn) are Ṭalḥa, Zubayr, and their followers, who after publicly making the pledge of allegiance because they feared that this pledge would go against them, broke their pledge and claimed that it had not been given in earnest. the Imam said in response to such a claim: ‘He claims that he swore allegiance to me with his hand but did not swear with his heart. So he does admit pledging allegiance! As regards his claiming it otherwise then with his heart he should come forward with a clear argument for it. Otherwise, he should return to wherefrom he has gone out.’ (Nahj al-Balāgha, Sermon 8).

On one occasion they claimed; ‘We are prepared to swear allegiance to you on condition that we have a share with you in this matter,’ but the Imam rejected their claim saying, ‘No, but you will have a share in strengthening it and in affording assistance, and you will both be helping me at the time of need and hardship.’ (Nahj al-Balāgha, Aphorism 198).

In reality, they had assumed that the Imam would appoint Zubayr to govern Iraq and Ṭalḥa to govern Yemen. But what he did instead, with regards to distributing the public wealth (Bayt al-mal) and appointing people other than them, added to their opposition and antagonism. Accordingly, they left Medina in secret and went to Mecca. Then, in a public meeting in Quraysh, Zubayr stated: ‘Is this what we deserve? We revolted against ʿUthmān and paved the way for his ruin, while ʿAlī was sitting at home and doing nothing; but now that he is in the position of power and the Caliph, he gives all the executive and administrative jobs to others!’

Ṭalḥa and Zubayr did not enjoy sufficient popularity to gather a large group of people to revolt against ʿAlī, the chosen Caliph of the Muslims. Therefore, inevitably they attempted to use ʿĀʾisha’s popularity and reputation to build up an army.

On her return from Mecca to Medina, ʿĀʾisha stopped at Sarf, a stopping place and met a man called Ibn Umm Kallāb. She asked him about the state of affairs in Medina. He said, ‘The Caliph’s house was besieged for eighty-two days, then he was killed and people took oaths of allegiance to ʿAlī.’

Upon hearing this, she became so anxious and disturbed that she exclaimed: ‘May the sky falls down on me!’ then immediately turned back to Mecca.

ʿĀʾisha was among those who were constantly critical of ʿUthmān; she called him Naʿthal (Na‘thal was a long-bearded Jew who resembled Uthman) and used to say: ‘Kill that Na‘thal’ (Amīnī, 9/81). But when she learned that Imam ʿAlī had been elected Caliph, she changed her mind and said: ‘I swear to God that ʿUthmān was killed unjustly and I will avenge him.’ At this moment, the one who gave her news of ʿAlī’s election questioned her: ‘You were the first person to call ʿUthmān a disbeliever! What has become of you now that you have changed your opinion?’ She hastily replied: ‘The murderers of ʿUthmān made him repent and then killed him. Previously, all the people used to talk about ʿUthmān, just as I did, but my recent comment is better than the previous ones.’

Right in front of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, ʿĀʾisha came out of her litter and went toward the Stone of Ismāʿīl and draped a veil over it. People gathered around and ʿĀʾisha addressed them: ‘People! The murder of ʿUthmān was unfair and I will avenge him’ (Ṭabarī, 3/172).

No doubt the mustering of an army from Mecca to fight against ʿAlī or to take Basra so as to prevent any help from its governor to the Caliph required substantial funding, which was provided by the former governors of ʿUthmān. At last, after a series of secret communications with ʿĀʾisha via ʿAbd Allāh the son of Zubayr, ʿĀʾisha, together with Ṭalḥa and Zubayr, departed for Basra. At the time of their departure from Mecca, they proclaimed:

‘Behold! The Mother of the Believers, Ṭalḥa, and Zubayr are setting off for Basra. Anyone who desires to support Islam, to fight against permit the blood of Muslims to be shed and to revenge the murder of ʿUthmān, come with us and you need not be worried as to the financial requirements of this journey’ (Ṭabarī 3/167).

The army of Ṭalḥa and Zubayr, accompanied with ʿĀʾisha, quickly left Mecca for Iraq. On their way, people were bewildered by ʿĀʾisha’s presence in the army. They criticized Ṭalḥa and Zubayr, and probably her as well. Now we refer to one instance of such criticisms.

When the army stopped at a place which was the territory of Banū Saʿd tribe, a man of the tribe addressed ʿĀʾisha: ‘O, Mother of the Believers! The Killing of ʿUthmān was easier and more endurable for us than your leaving the house and sitting on this cursed camel. Are you not aware that you have been granted the veil of sanctity and respect by God?’ (This alludes to the verse directed to the Prophet’s wives: ‘Stay in your houses and do not display your finery with the display of the former ignorance.’ (Q33:33))

A young man from the same tribe addressed Ṭalḥa and Zubayr and said: ‘Zubayr, you were the Prophet’s disciple, and you Ṭalḥa, who protected the Prophet from dangers, I can see your mother (meaning ʿĀʾisha) is with you. Have you brought your wives with you as well?’ They retorted: ‘no. ’ Then he continued, ‘At this moment, I will leave your camp.’ Then he composed some verses: ‘You have left your wives at your houses, but brought your mother / This is among the most unfair deeds’ (Ṭabarī 3/482 and al-Kamil 3/213-14).

Ultimately they pitched their tents at Basra and besieged the city. After a series of negotiations and conversations, they decided to attack by night and capture the mosque and the governor’s office. This resulted in them killing the guards stationed at the mosque and the office. At first, they had in mind to kill ʿAlī’s governor, ʿUthmān b. Hanīf but they sufficed with torturing him, fearing his brother, Sahl b. Hanīf, who lived in Medina. Afterward, when they broke into the treasury and were surprised by the huge wealth of the city. Zubayr recited the following verse: ‘Allāh has promised you abundant spoils which you will capture. He has expedited this one for you…’ (Q48:20)

Having been informed of the coup, ʿAlī dispatched Muḥammad b. Abū Bakr, Imam Ḥasan, and ʿAmmār to Kufa, and set off for Basra with a well-equipped force. Before the battle began, Imam ʿAlī gave them an ultimatum to the rebels. He told his men: ‘Do not hasten to fight before the ultimatum is delivered.’ Then he gave a copy of the Qur’an to Ibn ʿAbbās and instructed him: ‘With this Qur’an in your hands, go to the leaders of the oath-breakers and invite them to the reference to the Qur’an. Moreover, ask Ṭalḥa and Zubayr: “Have you not taken an oath of loyalty to me? Why did you break it? May the Qur’an be our judge.”’

However, the Imam’s message fell on deaf ears and it had no effect on those blinded by greed and power. At last, a bloody battle began. It culminated in ʿAlī’s victory and the deaths of both Ṭalḥa and Zubayr, the decimation of their army, and needless slaughter of 14,000 people as the result of their ambition and lust for power (al-Jamāl, 223).

After the battle, the Imam decided it was best to make his capital in Kufa since he enjoyed strong support in the city.

‘The wrongdoers’

After establishing the caliphate in Kufa, and appointing new and effective governors while removing the corrupt ones, everywhere people were speaking about ʿAlī’s Caliphate except in one region: Syria. Syria was still under the influence and dominance of Muʿāwiya, who had made his oath of allegiance to the Imam conditional on being given those responsible for ʿUthmān’s murder.

Clearly, this was a mere pretext for refusing to pledge allegiance so that, in the long run, Muʿāwiya would become the ruler of Syria, just as had happened during the reign of the previous two caliphs. However, his scheming stood in opposition to ʿAlī’s virtue, and thus Muʿāwiya had to be dealt with head-on.

In the end, the Imam set off for Ṣiffīn to confront Muʿāwiya’s forces. When he reached the battleground, he saw that Muʿāwiya had blocked access to the Euphrates in order to deprive ʿAlī’s army of water. the Imam was worried about the thirst and dehydration of his soldiers. He delivered a short sermon then, in a sudden attack broke Muʿāwiya’s lines and took the control of the water source. However, he did not repeat what Muʿāwiya had done and allowed everyone access.

When the battle eventually began in earnest, the two sides engaged in some heavy fighting, but ʿAlī’s soldiers were mainly the winners. In this situation, ʿAmr b. al-ʿĀs, the keenest and most intelligent of Muʿāwiya’s subordinates, devised a plan in order to arouse dissension among the Imam’s army. On the dawn of Tuesday 13th of the month Rabīʿ al-Awwal, the Syrian army, under the command of Amr b. al-ʿĀs lifted Qur’ans aloft on their spears, and even the huge Qur’an of Damascus was raised aloft by two soldiers on two spears. Then, all of them began to cry out unanimously that God alone will be the judge between the two armies.

The moving scene of the Qur’ans on the spear-heads, accompanied by the obliging moans and groans of the Sham’s soldiers greatly affected ʿAlī’s army. As a result, the fighting men, who mere hours ago were on the verge of victory, acted as if they were under a spell, while only a few like Mālik al-ʿĀshtar continued fighting. As a result of this ploy, ʿAlī’s soldiers became averse to fighting, a fact which compelled him to reluctantly yield to their demands for peace negotiations. Accordingly, it was decided that two individuals, each from one side of the battle, go in a place far from the battleground and decide over the confrontation of ʿAlī and Muʿāwiya; however, regrettably, Abū Mūsā al-Ashʿarī, the representative ʿAlī’s soldiers imposed on him, was deceived by Amr b. al-ʿĀs, who had persuaded him that each of them should remove their the Imam and then a new one would be elected by the vote of the Muslims. But, in practice, first, Abū Mūsā removed ʿAlī, then, Amr b. al-ʿĀs, standing atop of the pulpit, announced: ‘Just as Abū Mūsā removed ʿAlī, I appoint Muʿāwiya as the Caliph, just as I wear this ring.’

The Imam had not consented to this arbitration and was determined to continue the battle, yet the majority of the army was insisting on accepting the peace offer. At last, the Imam unwillingly accepted Muʿāwiya’s peace offer. It was now that those very same people who had been so insistent on accepting the peace proposal, thereafter, became the most obstinate opponents of ʿAlī. This group is known as the Khawārij, with whom ʿAlī later engaged in serious battles.

When the Imam was informed of the results of Abū Mūsā’s and Amr b. al-ʿĀs’ arbitration, he became furious and said: ‘Their judgment is unjust; it was supposed that they decide based on the Qur’an and the Prophet’s tradition.’

The ‘disobedient’

The ‘disobedient’ (māriqīn) refers to those who, in the Battle of Ṣiffīn, forced Imam ʿAlī to accept Muʿāwiya’s offer of peace negotiations but, after a short while, changed their minds and demanded that ʿAlī break the peace. However, ʿAlī would not go back on his agreement without adequate reasons. Around Kufa, this group had already begun to cause trouble and attempt robbery. When he was making his preparations to go to Ṣiffīn, Imam ʿAlī heard about their activities and some advised ʿAlī to do away with this group before going to war against Muʿāwiya.

In the aftermath, after sending a series of messages to the Khawārij, the Imam personally went to them and delivered a sermon saying: ‘You were the ones who obliged me to accept that arbitration. And now you are the ones who reject the same arbitration!’

Finally, a battle between them and ʿAlī’s army took place. ʿAlī’s forces surrounded and attacked them. All but nine of the Khawārij were killed; two of whom escaped to Khorasan, two to Oman, two to Yemen, two to the Jazīra of Iraq, and one to Tell Mozan in Syria. It is through these figures that the Khawārij would continue’ (Kashf al-Ghamma, 1/267–70).

The Companions of the Imam thought that Khawārij had been utterly defeated, but Imam ʿAlī told them: ‘By Allāh! No, not yet. They still exist in the loins of men and wombs of women. Whenever a chief would appear from among them, he would be cut down till the last of them would turn thieves and robbers.’ (Nahj al-Balāgha, Sermon 60)

These three events, each of which requires a book to be fully explained, mostly occupied the Imam, who was supposed to occupy the position of Caliph in order that his knowledge and teachings could be heard, instead of becoming embroiled in civil wars and the suppression of rebel factions.

The Events after the Battle of Nahrawān

After the three battles of the Camel, Ṣiffīn, and Nahrawān, the Imam’s army did not respond to his calls to fight against Muʿāwiya. The more he called them to fight, the less interest they showed. This is best illustrated by the occasion on which the Imam addressed them as follows:

Which is the house beside this one to protect? And with which leader would you go fighting after me? By Allāh! Deceived is one whom you have deceived while, by Allāh! He who is successful with you receives only useless arrows! You are like broken arrows thrown over the enemy. (Nahj al-Balāgha, Sermon 29; Al-Ghārāt al-Thaqafī 2/416; Ṭabarī, Tārīkh, 4/104; Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd, Sharḥ, 2/111-125)

The indifference of ʿAlī’s army opened the way for Muʿāwiya’s new plot, which was to cause insecurity, chaos, and the slaughter of the innocent people within ʿAlī’s domain, especially in Iraq and Yemen. Now we refer to some instances of these attempts:

Muʿāwiya dispatched Ḍaḥḥāk b. Qays al-Fihri with 4000 soldiers to Kufa, raiding those tribes who were loyal and obedient to the Imam. They moved with such speed that if they entered a city in the morning they would be gone by afternoon. When Ḍaḥḥāk arrived at the village of Thaʿlabiyya, which was located on the route of the Ḥajj pilgrims coming from Iraq, he looted whatever they had and killed ʿAmr b. Umays, the nephew of ʿAbd Allāh b. Masʿūd.

He sent Basr b. Arṭāh with 3000 soldiers towards Hijaz. He entered Medina, where he burned many houses to the ground and looted civilian properties on his way to Mecca. Then he went to Ta’if, where he killed a dozen of people for no reason. After Ta‘if, he set off toward Yemen. There, he learned that the two children of ʿUbayd Allāh b. ʿAbbās, the Imam’s governor in Sana’a, were in that land with their mother; so Basr, with extraordinary brutality, murdered the two children. This was but one instance of Basr’s wickedness and savagery, a full account of what he did demands a complete book.

Finally, the Imam made resolved to confront Muʿāwiya militarily, despite his shortage of manpower. In his last days of life, he said: ‘Servants of God! Jihād is your obligation. Today, I will make camp and prepare; anyone who wants to accompany me should make ready to depart.’

The words of the Imam were so inspiring that they roused the Iraqis and almost 40,000 of them gathered to join him for a second campaign to Ṣiffīn. Imam ʿAlī gave his son, Ḥusayn, Qays b. Saʿd, and Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī a banner each, and ordered them to be the commander in chief of groups each consisting of 10,000 soldiers. He gave some other banners to other individuals and appointed them as leaders of other groups. Alas, only a few days later, the Imam is martyred by the blade of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Muljam. This was the Imam who came into this world in the House of God (the Ka’ba) and died in the house of God (the mosque). As the Brilliant poet says: ‘No one is so blessed as ʿAlī / In Kaʿba to be born, in the mosque to be martyred.’

Shia Islam (8): Why did Imam ʿAlī remain silent for 25 years?

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