The Battle of Sifﬁ n, Ali’s Death, and the Martyrdom of Husayn
The two ﬁ nally met on the plains of Sifﬁ n, in Syria, where after a desultory battle, Muawiya’s troops resorted to the stunning tactic of placing their Qur’ans on their spears, signifying their readiness to accept divine justice.
When Ali chose to accept human mediation, he lost the support of the Khawarij (those who go out); upon seeing him resort to mediators to solve his political claim to the caliphate, they were furious. “Judgment belongs only to God!” they shouted and immediately deserted Ali’s camp.
And so it was that after the Battle of Sifﬁ n, the Khawarij became yet another political group to oppose the Islamic state as it was being constituted at this very dramatic juncture of its fortunes.The Khawarij deserve more than a passing mention because they embodied a radical but very signiﬁ cant strain among the Muslim umma. The Khawarij were austere, fanatically devoted to the Qur’an and sunna, ﬁ ercely egalitarian and democratic in their relations with one another as well as with Christians and mawali, and adamantly opposed to the easy living of the settler cities in Iraq.
They demanded ﬁ nancial equality for all Muslims in the distribution of the spoils of war, as well as in the disbursement of funds from the treasury. More to the point, they regarded themselves as “the only true Muslims” (Morony 1982, 471) and consigned all non-Khawarij Muslims to perdition. Their attacks against legitimate authority continued throughout the seventh and eighth centuries, embodying an absolute and uncompromising tradition that persisted wherever social injustice and economic inequality existed.
Ali’s caliphate did not last long, for he too was assassinated—in Kufa in 661 by a member of the Khawarij. Muawiya was now absolute ruler, and under him, the Umayyad dynasty, with its capital in Damascus, Syria, began a long period of monarchic absolutism, leaving Iraq a mass of discordant voices and even more confused fealties.
Kufa and Basra, the two garrison cities of Iraq, each with their rebellious traditions, were now leaderless: Kufa had lost its imam, Ali ibn Abu Talib, and Basra, its chief insurrectionists, Talha and Zubayr, two early Companions of the Prophet who had met their deaths earlier at the hands of Ali’s supporters as they were struggling to seize power for themselves and their associates.
Nonetheless, the struggle for succession to Ali, pursued by shiat ali (the party of Ali, whence comes the term Shia) continued unabated. Some of Ali’s supporters at Kufa tried to carry on with the ﬁ ght but were repulsed by Umayyad commanders. After the Umayyad caliph Muawiya’s death in 680, a group of Kufan community leaders asked Ali’s son Husayn to pick up Ali’s fallen banner and lead the Shia movement against “the usurpers.” Husayn agreed, provided the Kufans were sincere.
In a fateful move, he sent his agent to Kufa to meet with the notables in that city and prepare for battle. By some accounts, Husayn received pledges of loyalty from 18,000 Kufans. The plot, however, was discovered, Husayn’s agent was killed, and the governor of the city forbade the Kufans from joining Husayn’s campaign. Left with scant supporters and besieged on all sides, Husayn, his immediate family, and supporters were massacred by the forces of Yazid ibn Muawiya, son and successor of Umayyad caliph Muawiya, on September 28, 680.
The assassination of Husayn on the plain of Karbala, a few miles from Kufa, marks the beginning of a powerful Shia tradition of martyrdom that has developed over the centuries into a full-ﬂ edged movement of protest. Ever since his death in the late seventh century, the Shia leadership has taken up Husayn’s call and militated for social justice for the Shia community. But it was to take a further 90 years to crystallize the disparate teachings of various Shia jurisprudents and community leaders into a doctrine of the imamate, the chief Shia institution.