BATTLE OF THE CAMEL
36 A.H. / 656 A.D.
FINDING that the insurgent troops, with 'Aisha, Az-Zubeir, and Talha had already passed, 'Ali, as we have seen, halted for a while on the road to Al-Basra, with the view of Basra, strengthening his army; for, although joined on his march by certain loyal tribes, he still felt too weak for immediate action. To Al-Kufa he addressed a special summons, inhabited as it was by many veterans on whose loyalty he might reasonably depend; and he added force to the call by promising that Al-Kufa should be his seat of government. "See," he wrote, "have not I chosen your city before all other cities for my own? Unto you do I look for succour, if haply peace and unity should again prevail as it behoveth, among brethren in the faith." But the summons was at the first unheeded. The overgrown City was made up of many factions; and from some of these the message of 'Aisha, demanding revenge for 'Othman's blood, had already found response. Abu Musa, its governor, was unequal to the emergency. Loyal to the memory of the murdered Caliph, he yet sought to allay the ferment by a neutral course, and urged the citizens to join neither party, but remain at home. A second deputation meeting with no better success, 'Ali bethought him of sending his elder son Al-Hasan, in Company with 'Ammar, the former governor of Al-Kufa, to urge his cause. The appeal of Al-Hasan, grandson of the Prophet had at last the desired effect. The chord of loyalty in the fickle city's heart was touched; a tumult arose, and Abu Musa, unable to maintain his weak neutrality, was deposed. The Arab tribes rallied, and for the moment heartily, around
the loyalists. Soon 10,000 men, partly by land, partly by river, set out to join the Caliph, who, advancing slowly, awaited their arrival. Thus reinforced, 'Ali was able at last to take the field effectively, and march on the rebellious city.
Al-Basra itself was not wholly hostile, and numbers of the citizens came out to join the camp of 'Ali. The insurgent army, which still nearly equalled that of the Caliph, now marched forth with Talha and Az-Zubeir at their head, and 'Aisha herself seated in a well-fenced litter. But 'Ali's thoughts were for peace if possible. He was a man of compromise; and here he was ready, in the interests of Islam, magnanimously to forget the insult offered him. Apart, indeed, from personal jealousies, there was no disagreement sufficient to bar the hope of reconciliation. The cry of Talha and Az-Zubeir was for vengeance against the murderers of 'Othman; and against these, 'Ali as yet did not deny that justice should be dealt. But he was obliged to temporise. He had in his army great numbers of the very men who had risen against 'Othman; and he felt that to inflict punishment on them, as his adversaries required, would for the present be impossible. Holding these views, he halted, still some little way from Al-Basra, and sent forward Al-Ka'ka' (who with other leaders of renown had joined him from Al-Kufa) to expostulate with Talha and Az-Zubeir. "Ye have slain 600 men of Al-Basra," said Al-Ka'ka' to them, "for the blood of 'Othman; and lo! to avenge their blood, 6000 more have started up. Where is this internecine war to stop? It is peace and repose that Islam needeth now. Give that, and again the majesty of law shall be set up, and the guilty brought to justice." As he spoke, the truth flashed on the minds of Az-Zubeir and Talha, and even of 'Aisha; and they returned word that if these really were the sentiments of 'Ali, they were ready to submit. After several days spent in such negotiations, 'Ali, glad at the prospect of a bloodless compromise, advanced.
But, as we have seen, 'Ali's army, recruited at random from the Bedawi settlements, comprised a great number of notorious regicides. Afraid of bringing these into contact with the heated army of his opponents, still breathing out fire and slaughter against them, 'Ali command that none who had shared in the attack on 'Othman should for
the present accompany him in his advance. These in their turn, with Al-Ashtar at their head, became alarmed. Talha's troops, sworn to their destruction, were double their number if peace were patched up, no hope remained. Reasoning thus, they held a secret conclave, and came to the conclusion that their only safety lay in precipitating hostilities, and thus forcing 'Ali's hand to crush their enemies. Accordingly they remained behind, but with the resolve that at the right moment they would advance and throw themselves upon the enemy.
The army of Al Basra, numbering some 20,000 men, remained encamped on the outskirts of the city. 'Ali's force, advancing unopposed, halted within sight; and negotiations for peace went on, evidently substantial and sincere. 'Ali himself approached on horseback and Talha with Az-Zubeir rode forth to confer with him. "Wherefore have ye risen against me" said 'Ali; "did ye not swear homage to me?" "Yea" replied Talha "but with the sword over our necks; and now our demand is that justice be executed against the murderers of 'Othman." 'Ali replied that he no less than they held the regicides to be guilty; he even cursed them in no measured terms, but added that for their punishment they must bide their time. Az-Zubeir on his side was softened by certain words of the Prophet towards him which 'Ali recalled to his mind, and bound himself by an oath that he would not fight. Then they all retired. Both armies, understanding that negotiations were in progress, went to rest that night in security such as they had not felt for many weeks.
But anon the spell was rudely broken. Towards morning, a sudden shock changed the scene. The regicides, during the night, carried their design into execution. Led by them, squadrons of Bedawi lances bore down, while yet dark, upon the Al-Basra tents. In a moment all was confusion. Each camp believed that it had been attacked by the other; and the dawn found both armies drawn up, as the conspirators desired, in mortal combat against each other. In vain 'Ali endeavoured to hold back his men. The sense of treachery embittered the conflict. It was a strange engagement,the first in which Muslims had crossed swords with Muslims. It resembled a battle of the old Arab times, only that for tribal
rivalry were now substituted other passions. Clans were broken up, and it became in some measure a contest between the two rival cities; "The Beni Ar-Rabi'a of Al-Kufa fought against the Beni Ar-Rabi'a of Al-Basra, the Beni Modar of the one against the Beni Modar of the other;" and so on, with the various tribes, and even with families, one part arrayed against the other. The Al-Kufa ranks were urged on by the regicides, who felt that unless 'Ali conquered, they were all doomed men. The fierceness and obstinacy of the battle can be only thus accounted for. One of the combatants tells us that "when the opposing sides came together breast to breast, with a furious shock, the noise was like that of washermen at the riverside."1 The attitude of the leaders was in marked contrast with the bitter struggle of the ranks. Az-Zubeir, half-hearted since his interview with 'Ali, left the battlefield according to his promise, and was killed in an adjoining valley.
Talha, disabled by an arrow in the leg, was carried into Al-Basra, where he died. Bereft of their leaders, the insurgent troops gave way. They were falling back upon the city, when they passed by the camel of 'Aisha. Attacked fiercely all around, she from within her litter kept crying out with fruitless energy,"Slay the murderers of 'Othman." The word ran through the retiring ranks, that "the Mother of the Faithful was in peril," and they gallantly stayed their flight to rescue her. Long and cruelly the conflict raged around the fated camel. One after another brave warriors rushed to seize her standard; one after another they were cut down. Of Koreish seventy perished by the bridle. At last, 'Ali, perceiving that her camel was the rallying-point of the enemy, sent one of his captains to hamstring, and thus disable it. With a loud cry the animal fell to the ground. The struggle ceased and the insurgents retired into the city. The litter, bristling with arrows like a hedgehog, was taken down, and, by desire of 'Ali, placed in a retired spot, where 'Aisha's brother Mohammad pitched a tent for her. As he drew aside the curtain, she screamed at the unknown intrusion;"Are thine own people, then," he said, "become strange unto thee?" "It is my brother! she exclaimed, and suffered herself to be led into the tent. The brave but wayward lady had escaped without a wound.
1 The metaphor will be appreciated by the Eastern traveller.
1 The metaphor will be appreciated by the Eastern traveller.
The carnage in the ill-starred Battle of Camel (for so it came to be called) was very great. The field was covered with 10,000 bodies in equal proportion on either side; and this, notwithstanding that the victory was not followed up. For 'Ali had given orders that no fugitive should be pursued, nor any wounded soldier slain nor plunder seized, nor the privacy of any house invaded. A great trench was dug, and into it the dead were lowered, friends and foes alike. 'Ali, encamped for three days without the city, himself performed the funeral service. It was a new experience to bury the dead slain in battle not against the infidel, but believer fighting against believer. Instead of cursing the memory of his enemies (too soon the fashion in these civil wars), 'Ali spoke hopefully of the future state of such as had entered the field, on whatever side, with an honest heart. When they brought him the sword of Az-Zubeir he cursed the man who took his life; and calling to mind the feats displayed by the brave man that wielded it in the early battles of Islam, exclaimed:"Many a time hath this sword driven care and sorrow from the Prophet's brow." The Muslims might well mourn the memory both of Talha and Az-Zubeir, remembering how on the field of Ohod the former had saved the life of Mohammad at the peril of his own; and how often the latter had carried confusion into the ranks of the idolaters of Mecca. Their fall, and that of many of the Companions, was a loss to the Empire itself, because seriously weakening Koreish in the struggle yet to be fought out betwixt them and the Arab tribes. In fact, this victory of 'Ali was virtually the victory of the regicides, supported by the factious citizens of Al-Kufa. Thenceforward 'Ali was wholly dependent upon them. If, instead, he had effected a compromise with Talha and Az-Zubeir, his position would have been incomparably stronger.
The bearing of 'Ali was generous towards his fallen foe. Having entered the city, he divided the contents of the treasury amongst the troops which had fought on his side, promising them a still larger reward "when the Lord should have delivered Syria into his hands." But otherwise he treated friends and foes alike, and buried in oblivion animosities of the past. Merwan and the adherents of the house of Umeiya fled to their homes, or else found refuge
in Syria. All that remained in the city swore fealty to 'Ali. The only class dissatisfied was that of the slaves and rabble, who murmured at having no share in the treasure, nor any chance of plunder. These, gathering into marauding bands, occasioned much disquietude to the Caliph, and hastened his departure from the city, with the view of checking the mischief they were bent on.
'Aisha was treated by 'Ali with the reverence due to one who bore the title of "the Prophet's Spouse in this life and also in the life to come." She was now five-and-forty years of age, but had lost little of the fire and vivacity of youth. After the battle, the Caliph visited her tent, and expressed his satisfaction at finding her unhurt; adding mildly, but half reproachfully:"The Lord pardon thee for what hath passed, and have mercy upon thee." "And upon thee also!" was the pert and ready answer. The best house in Al-Basra was given up to her and there she was waited on by her own adherents. Not long after, she left with a retinue of forty handmaids, attended by her brother. 'Ali himself accompanied her a short distance on foot; and a large party went as far as the first stage to bid her farewell. Proceeding to Mecca, she performed the lesser Pilgrimage; and then retiring to Medina, no more attempted to interfere with the affairs of State. Her nephew 'Abdallah son of Az-Zubeir,1 retired with her. He became famous in the subsequent history of the Caliphate; but that was not till 'Aisha had passed away. She spent the remainder of her days at Medina. There crowds of pilgrims visiting the Prophet's grave (her own apartment) gazed wonderingly at the once beautiful and favourite wife of Mohammad; while she, garrulous in old age, became the fertile source of tradition and the narrator of incidents in the Prophet's life beginning with her earliest childhood. She died in the 58th year of the Hijra, aged sixty-six, having passed forty-seven years in widowhood.2
1 His mother Asma, 'Aisha's sister, is famous because
on the occasion of Mohammads flight from the cave she tore her girdle to tie up his
wallet, and was hence called "She of the two shreds" (Life of Mohammad p. 141).
2 Tradition abounds in anecdotes about 'Aisha. 'Ali's
army taunted her as "the unnatural Mother of the Faithful." The soldiers on her
1 His mother Asma, 'Aisha's sister, is famous because on the occasion of Mohammads flight from the cave she tore her girdle to tie up his wallet, and was hence called "She of the two shreds" (Life of Mohammad p. 141).
2 Tradition abounds in anecdotes about 'Aisha. 'Ali's army taunted her as "the unnatural Mother of the Faithful." The soldiers on her
'Ali did not stay long in Al-Basra. Having appointed his cousin, 'Abdallah son of Al-'Abbas, governor of the city, with Ziyad, the able administrator, to aid him in charge of the treasury, he set out for Al-Kufa.
side, in reply, extemporised a couplet, extolling her as "the noblest and best of
Mothers." When they told this to her, she was much affected, and exclaimed, "Would
that I had died twenty years before this!" 'Ali, also, when he heard it, said,
"WouId that I too had died twenty years ago!"
'Aisha, always ready in repartee, was not very particular in her language. 'Asim
approaching her litter on the field, she cursed him for the liberty he had taken.
"It was but a little something red and white," he said impudently, "that I caught
a glimpse of." "The Lord uncover thy nakedness," she cried angrily; "cut off thy
hands and make thy wife a widow!" All which (they say) came to pass. A saucy
passage related between her and the aged 'Ammar, who said, as she was leaving,
"Praise be to the Lord that we shall hear no more that vile tongue of thine."
When starting for Mecca, with 'Ali and a company around her, she said, "Let us not
entertain hard thoughts one against the other; for verily, as regardeth 'Ali and
myself, there happened not anything between us" (alluding to her misadventure in
the Prophet's lift-time, Life of Mohammad, p. 301), "but that which is wont
to happen between a wife and her husband's family; and verily 'Ali was one of the
best of them that entertained suspicions against me." 'Ali replied "She speaketh
the truth; there was not beyond what she saith, between her and me." And then he
went on to quote Mohammad's own words regarding 'Aisha, that "she was not only
his wife in this world but would be equally his wife in the world to come."
'Aisha, always ready in repartee, was not very particular in her language. 'Asim approaching her litter on the field, she cursed him for the liberty he had taken. "It was but a little something red and white," he said impudently, "that I caught a glimpse of." "The Lord uncover thy nakedness," she cried angrily; "cut off thy hands and make thy wife a widow!" All which (they say) came to pass. A saucy passage related between her and the aged 'Ammar, who said, as she was leaving, "Praise be to the Lord that we shall hear no more that vile tongue of thine."
When starting for Mecca, with 'Ali and a company around her, she said, "Let us not entertain hard thoughts one against the other; for verily, as regardeth 'Ali and myself, there happened not anything between us" (alluding to her misadventure in the Prophet's lift-time, Life of Mohammad, p. 301), "but that which is wont to happen between a wife and her husband's family; and verily 'Ali was one of the best of them that entertained suspicions against me." 'Ali replied "She speaketh the truth; there was not beyond what she saith, between her and me." And then he went on to quote Mohammad's own words regarding 'Aisha, that "she was not only his wife in this world but would be equally his wife in the world to come."
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