BATTLE OF SIFFIN
36-37 A.H. / 657 A.D.
AFTER 'Ali had established himself at Al-Kufa, there followed a short interval of rest. The lieutenants and commanders, from far and near, flocked to the new capital to do homage to the Caliph. Towards one of these, a Bedawi chief; Mu'awiya was known to entertain friendly sentiments. Him, therefore, 'Ali deputed to Damascus with a letter wherein, after making mention of his election to the Caliphate, and the discomfiture of the enemy at Al-Basra, he called on Mu'awiya to follow the example of the Empire, and take the oath of allegiance. As on a former occasion, the envoy was kept long in waiting. At last he was dismissed with an oral promise that submission would be tendered if punishment were meted out to the regicides but on no other condition. With this reply the envoy further reported that 'Othman's blood-stained garment still hung upon the pulpit of the Mosque, and that a multitude of Syrian warriors had sworn that they would use no water to wash themselves withal, neither sleep upon their beds, till they had slain the murderers of the aged Caliph, and all those that sheltered them."
Seeing Mu'awiya thus hopelessly alienated, 'Ali, resolved no longer to delay, proclaimed an expedition against Syria. At first the people were slack in answering the call. But after a time he succeeded in gathering together an imposing force of 50,000 men. His plan was to march through Upper Mesopotamia, and so invade Syria from the north. A detachment was sent as an advance-guard along the
western bank of the Euphrates, but meeting with opposition there, was forced to cross back again into Mesopotamia.
'Ali himself, with the main body, marched up the Tigris; then turning short of Mosul to the west, crossed the desert of Mesopotamia, and outstripping his advanced column, reached the Euphrates in its upper course at Ar-Rakka An unfriendly population lined the banks; and it was not without sanguinary threats that Al-Ashtar forced them to construct a bridge. The army crossed near Ar-Rakka; and then marching some little distance along the right bank, in the direction of Aleppo, met the Syrian outposts.1
On learning of 'Ali's approach, Mu'awiya lost no time in marshalling his forces, which greatly outnumbered the enemy, and, having no desert or river to cross, were soon to the front. 'Amr was in command, with his two sons as lieutenants. 'Ali, desirous of averting bloodshed, had given orders that as soon as his troops came upon the enemy, they should halt, and, confining themselves to the defensive, avoid precipitating hostilities before opportunity was given for friendly overture. The vanguards spent the first few days in skirmishing. Al-Ashtar challenged the Syrian officer to single combat; but he was told that, having imbrued his hands in the blood of the late Caliph, he could not claim the privileges of honourable warfare. When the main armies came in sight of each other, 'Ali found Mu'awiya so encamped as to cut him off from the river, and reduce his army to straits for water. He therefore brought on an engagement, in which Mu'awiya was forced to change his ground, and occupy the memorable field of Siffin.2 Some
1 When the people refused to throw a bridge of boats
over the river at Ar-Rakka, a detachment moved further up, intending to cross by the
standing bridge at Manbij; but meanwhile Al-Ashtar, threatening the inhabitants with
the sword, forced them to construct a bridge at Ar-Rakka. Ar-Rakka (Nicephorium)
is at the junction of the Balikh with the Euphrates, near where the river, having
approached Aleppo, trends thereafter eastward. The outposts met at Sur ar-Rum,
now in ruins, a little to the west of Ar-Rakka. It lies near Thapsacus of the ancients
on the line of Cyrus' march.
2 Siffin lay to the west of Ar-Rakka, half-way to Balis
(one of Chesney's steamer stations), and about 100 miles from the coast; south-east
of Aleppo, and north-east of Hims.
1 When the people refused to throw a bridge of boats over the river at Ar-Rakka, a detachment moved further up, intending to cross by the standing bridge at Manbij; but meanwhile Al-Ashtar, threatening the inhabitants with the sword, forced them to construct a bridge at Ar-Rakka. Ar-Rakka (Nicephorium) is at the junction of the Balikh with the Euphrates, near where the river, having approached Aleppo, trends thereafter eastward. The outposts met at Sur ar-Rum, now in ruins, a little to the west of Ar-Rakka. It lies near Thapsacus of the ancients on the line of Cyrus' march.
2 Siffin lay to the west of Ar-Rakka, half-way to Balis (one of Chesney's steamer stations), and about 100 miles from the coast; south-east of Aleppo, and north-east of Hims.
days of inaction followed; after which 'Ali sent three chiefs to demand that, for the good of the commonwealth, Mu'awiya should tender his allegiance. A scene ensued of fruitless recrimination. Mu'awiya demanded that the murderers of 'Othman should be brought to justice; while the demand was stigmatised as a mere cat's-paw covering ambitious designs upon the Caliphate. This was resented as a base calumny by Mu'awiya. "Begone, ye lying scoundrels!" he cried; "the sword shall decide between us." So saying, he drove them from his presence. Finding all attempt at compromise vain, 'Ali marshalled his army into eight separate columns, each under a Bedawi chieftain of note. As many separate columns were similarly formed on the Syrian side.
Every day one of these columns, taking the field in turn, was drawn up against a column of the other army. Desultory fighting in this singular way was kept up throughout the month, there being sometimes as many as two engagements in a day. But the contest was hardly yet begun in earnest. On either side they feared to bring on a common battle, "lest the Muslims should be destroyed, root and branch, in the internecine struggle."
The new year opened on combatants, wearied by such indecisive strife and inclined to thoughts of peace, and so a truce was called, to last throughout the month. The interval was spent in deputations, but they proved as fruitless as those which had gone before. 'Ali, under the influence of the heated Bedawin around him, was hardly now disposed even to blame the attack on 'Othman. When pressed on this point by the Syrian delegates, he avoided a direct reply. "I will not say," was the evasive answer, "that he was wrongly attacked, nor will I say that the attack was justified."
"Then," answered the Syrians, "we shall fight against thee, and against every one else who refuseth to say that 'Othman was not wrongly put to death;" and with these words took their final leave. On his side, Mu'awiya declared to the messengers of 'Ali that nothing short of the punishment of the regicides would induce him to quit the field. "What?" exclaimed some one; "wouldest thou put 'Ammar to death?" "And why not?" answered Mu'awiya; "wherefore should the son of the bondwoman not suffer for having slain the
freedman of 'Othman?"1 "Impossible," they cried; "where will ye stop? It were easier to bale out the floods of the Euphrates."
So passed the month; and 'Ali seeing things still unchanged, commenced hostilities afresh. He caused proclamation to be made along Mu'awiya's front, summoning the Syrians to allegiance. But it only made them rally more closely round Mu'awiya; and a company, girding themselves with their turbans in token of the vow, swore that they would defend him to the death. The warfare thus resumed, daily becoming severer and more embittered, 'Ali at last made up his mind to bring on a general and decisive battle. Thus, ten days after the renewal of hostilities, both armies drawn out in entire array, fought till the shades of evening fell, neither having got the better.
The following morning, the combat was renewed with greater vigour. 'Ali posted himself in the centre with the flower of his troops from Medina; the wings were formed one of warriors from Al-Basra, the other of those from Al-Kufa. Mu'awiya had a pavilion pitched upon the field; and there, surrounded by five lines of his sworn bodyguard, watched the day. 'Amr, with a great weight of horse, bore down upon the Al-Kufa wing, which gave way; and 'Ali was exposed to imminent peril, both from thick showers of arrows and from close encounter. Reproaching the men of Al-Kufa for their cowardice, the Caliph fought bravely, his unwieldy figure notwithstanding, sword in hand, and manfully withstood the charge. AlAshtar at the head of three hundred Readers,2 led forward the other wing, which fell with fury on Mu'awiya's "turbaned" bodyguard. Four of its five ranks were cut to pieces, and Mu'awiya, bethinking himself of flight, had already called for his horse, when a martial couplet flashed on his mind, and he held his ground. 'Amr stood by him;"Courage to day," he cried "to-morrow victory." The fifth rank repelled the
1 'Othman's freedman was one of his followers slain
at Medina in the final onslaught of the conspirators. The life of 'Ammar, son of
the bondwoman Sumeiya, was forfeit for this lesser crime, much more for the
assassination of the Caliph. Such was Mu'awiya's argument.
2 Readers or Reciters of the Koran,
those, namely, who, having it by heart (Hafiz), were able to repeat it from
beginning to end. They were the most fanatical part of the Muslim forces, answering
as they did closely to the Ghazies of our day.
1 'Othman's freedman was one of his followers slain at Medina in the final onslaught of the conspirators. The life of 'Ammar, son of the bondwoman Sumeiya, was forfeit for this lesser crime, much more for the assassination of the Caliph. Such was Mu'awiya's argument.
2 Readers or Reciters of the Koran, those, namely, who, having it by heart (Hafiz), were able to repeat it from beginning to end. They were the most fanatical part of the Muslim forces, answering as they did closely to the Ghazies of our day.
danger, and both sides again fought on equal terms. Feats of desperate bravery were displayed by both armies, and heavy was the carnage. On 'Ali's side fell Hashim, the hero of Al-Kadisiya. Of even greater moment was the death of 'Ammar, now over ninety years, and one of the leading regicides. As he saw Hashim fall, he exclaimed, "Paradise! how close thou art beneath the arrow's barb and falchion's flash! O Hashim! even now I see heaven opened, and black-eyed maidens bridally attired, clasping thee in their embrace!" So, singing, and refreshing himself with his favourite draught of milk and water, the aged warrior, fired with the ardour of youth, rushed into the enemy's ranks and met the envied fate. Mohammad had once been heard to say to him: "By a godless and rebellious race, O 'Ammar, thou shalt one day be slain": in other words, that 'Ammar would be killed fighting on the side of right. Thus his death, as it were, condemned the ranks against whom he fought, and spread dismay in Mu'awiya's host. But 'Amr answered readily: "And who is it that hath killed 'Ammar, but 'Ali and the rebellious race that have brought him hither?" The clever repartee ran through the Syrian host, and did much to efface the evil omen.
The fighting this day was in real earnest; darkness failed to separate the combatants; and like Al-Kadisiya that night was called a second Night of Clangour. The morning broke on the two armies still in conflict. With emptied quivers they fought hand to hand. Al-Ashtar, the regicide, resolved to victory at whatever cost, continued to push the attack with unflinching bravery and persistence. Mu'awiya, disheartened, began to speak of a judicial combat with a champion on either side. "Then go forth thyself; and challenge 'Ali," said 'Amr. "Not so," answered Mu'awiya, "I will not do that, for 'Ali ever slayeth his man, and then thou shouldest succeed me." 'Amr, indeed, well knew that this was not Mu'awiya's line, who himself, like his antagonist, was now of an unwieldy mien. It was no time for continuing grim pleasantry like this; and so 'Amr bethought him of a stratagem. "Raise the leaves of the Koran," he cried; "if any refuse to abide thereby, it will sow discord amongst them; if they accept the hallowed symbol it will be a reprieve from cruel slaughter." Mu'awiya caught at the
And so forthwith they fixed the sacred leaves on the points of their lances, and raising them aloft, called out along the line of battle: "The law of the Lord! the law of the Lord! Let that decide betwixt us!" No sooner heard, than the men of Al-Kufa leapt forward, re-echoing the cry: "The law of the Lord, that shall decide between us!" As all were shouting thus with one accord, 'Ali stepped forth and expostulated with them: "It is the device," he cried, "of evil men; afraid of defeat, they seek their end by guile, and cloak rebellion under love of the Word." It was all in vain. To every argument they answered (and the Readers loudest of all):"We are called to the Book, and we cannot decline it." At last, in open mutiny, they threatened the unfortunate Caliph that, unless he agreed, they would desert him, drive him over to the enemy, or serve him as they had served 'Othman. Seeing opposition futile, 'Ali said: "Stay wild and treasonable words. Obey and fight. But if ye will rebel, do as ye list." "We will not fight," they cried; "recall Al-Ashtar from the field." Al-Ashtar, thus summoned, at the first refused. "We are gaining a great victory," he said, "I will not come;" and he turned to fight again. But the tumult increased, and 'Ali sent a second time to say:"Of what avail is victory when treason rageth? Wouldst thou have the Caliph murdered, or delivered over to the enemy?" Al-Ashtar unwillingly returned and a fierce altercation ensued between him and the angry soldiery. "Ye were fighting," he said "but yesterday for the Lord, and the choice among you lost their lives. What is it but that ye now acknowledge yourselves in the wrong, and the martyrs therefore gone to hell?" "Nay," they answered, "yesterday we fought for the Lord and to-day, for the same Lord we stay the fight." On this Al-Ashtar upbraided them as "traitors, cowards, hypocrites, and villains." In return, they reviled him, and struck his charger with their whips. 'Ali interposed. The tumult was stayed. And Al-Ash'ath, chief of the Beni Kinda, was sent to ask Mu'awiya "What his meaning in raising the Kor'an aloft might be." "It is this," he sent answer back, "that we should return, both you and we, to the will of the Lord, as set forth in the Book. Each side shall name an umpire, and their verdict shall be binding." 'Ali's army shouted assent. The unfortunate Caliph was forced to the
still deeper humiliation of appointing as his arbiter one who had deserted him. The soldiery cried out for Abu Musathe temporising governor of Al-Kufa who had been deposed for want of active loyalty. "This man," answered 'Ali, "did but lately leave us and flee; and not till after several months I pardoned him. Neither hath he now been fighting with us. Here is a worthy representative, the son of Al-'Abbas, the Prophet's uncle; choose him as your umpire." "As well name thyself;" they answered rudely. "Then take Al-Ashtar." "What!" said the Bedawi chiefs in the same rough imperious strain, "the man that hath set the world on fire! None for us but Abu Musa." It was a bitter choice for 'Ali, but he had no alternative. The Syrian arbiter was 'Amr, for whose deep and crafty ways the other was no match. He presented himself in the Caliph's camp, and the agreement was put in writing.
As dictated from 'Ali's side, it ran thus: "In the name of the Lord Most Merciful! This is what hath been agreed upon between the Commander of the Faithful, and " "Stay!" cried 'Amr (like Koreish to the Prophet at Al-Hodeibiya1); "'Ali is your commander, but he is not ours." Again the helpless Caliph had to give way, and the names of the contracting parties were written down simply as between "'Ali and Mu'awiya." The document bound them "to follow the judgment of the Kor'an; and, where the Kor'an was silent, the acknowledged precedents of Islam." To the umpires, the guarantee of both 'Ali and Mu'awiya was given of safety for themselves and for their families, and the promise of the people that their judgment should be followed. On their part, the umpires swore to judge righteously, and thus, so far as in them lay, to reconcile the Faithful. The decision was to be delivered after six months, or later if the umpires saw cause for delay, and at some neutral spot midway between Al-Kufa and Damascus. Meanwhile hostilities should be suspended. The writing having been duly executed and signed, was numerously witnessed by leading chiefs on either side. Al-Ashtar alone refused: "Never should I acknowledge this to be mine own right hand," he said, "if it did but touch a deed like this."
And so the armies buried their dead, and quitted the memorable but indecisive battlefield. 'Ali retired to
1 Life of Mohammad p. 359.
1 Life of Mohammad p. 359.
Al-Kufa, and Mu'awiya, his point for the present gained, to Damascus. As 'Ali entered Al-Kufa, he heard wailing on every side. A chief man, whom he bade to pacify the mourners, answered: "O Caliph, it is not as if but two or three had been slain; of this clan alone hard by, an hundred and four score lie buried at Siffin. There is not a house but the women are weeping in it for their dead."
The slaughter, indeed, had been great on both sides. And what gave point to 'Ali's
loss was that the truce was but a hollow thing, with no hope in it of lasting
peace or satisfaction. The Arab faction, to whose insolent demands he had yielded,
was more estranged than ever. When the men of Al-Kufa murmured at the compromise,
'Ali could but reply that the mutinous soldiery had extorted the agreement from him;
and that having pledged his faith, he could not now withdraw. He had thrown in his
lot with traitors and regicides, and was now reaping the bitter fruit. Mu'awiya
alone had gained.1
1 The accounts of this battle are all by persons
who favoured the cause of 'Ali. Each author exalts the deeds of his own tribe.
The one thing that comes out clearly is the heroism of Al-Ashtar.Wellhausen,
Arabisches Reich, p. 51 ff.
1 The accounts of this battle are all by persons who favoured the cause of 'Ali. Each author exalts the deeds of his own tribe. The one thing that comes out clearly is the heroism of Al-Ashtar.Wellhausen, Arabisches Reich, p. 51 ff.
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