The First Civil Wars In Islam And The Rise Of The Khawarij – Part One

In this two-part article, we will take a historical look at some of the major events during the rule of Ali ibn Abu Talib (ra), the fourth Khalifah in Islam and the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). This was a very difficult period in Islamic history, overshadowed by three major internal battles that took place and which saw the emergence of the infamous ‘Khawarij’.

The aim of the article is to give us some understanding of the fanatical groups we see in our times and where this phenomenon perhaps originated by looking at how the Khawarij came into being, who they were and what events occurred during their time. However, to get a fuller picture, we need to look at events prior to their emergence and we will therefore start with the assassination of the previous leader of the Muslims.

(Disclaimer: It is well documented that there are two main branches of Islamic theology, which are the Sunni and Shi’a strands of Islam. This split goes back to the early period of Islam and mainly revolves around Ali. The theology, sources and historical analysis differs between the two movements. The Sunni viewpoint is that we respect all the companions (The Sahabah) of the Prophet (saw) and we say, ‘May Allah be pleased with him/her’ (‘ra’ is the abbreviation of the Arabic term) for all of them. This article and the content presented from the Sunni perspective.)


The Assassination Of Uthman Ibn Affan

Ali ibn Ali Talib (ra) became the leader of the Muslims (‘Amir ul Mumineen’) after Uthman ibn Affan (ra), the previous ruler was killed when a mob of approximately 5,000-6,000 people surrounded his house and then a group of them entered the property and attacked him. This mob had become discontent with the rule of Uthman some of their complaints included:

  1. Accusing Uthman him of plotting to attack and kill a group of them who protested his rule. There was in a letter (a forgery) that outlined a plan to kill them.
  2. Claiming Uthman gave money from the state (‘Baitul Mal’) to his relatives. Uthman was in fact one of the wealthiest merchants in Arabia and his record of generosity is well documented.
  3. They criticised Uthman for burning copies of the Quran. Uthman ordered this as some copies were found to have missing chapters or had chapters in a different sequence. Contrary to what occurs in some protests we hear of, burning the Quran is actually a ‘respectful’ way of disposing of it.

Despite his house being surrounded for many weeks, with the intent of the mob becoming more apparent and senior Sahabah urging Uthman to take action against this group, Uthman still refused to instigate any type of fighting against them as he did not want any bloodshed between the Muslims. The anger of the mob increased over time and they also started to employ tactics such as not letting food, water or visitors to the house. Some of the Sahabah remained in the house and the surrounding vicinity to protect Uthman and to ensure no one was able to get through. Eventually Uthman accepted the ‘inevitable’ and asked all of those who were protecting him to leave. Upon being presented with a window of opportunity, a number of the individuals then entered the house, attacked and killed the Khalifah of the Muslims. This small group then dispersed and joined the larger mob of thousands which made it difficult to know exactly which individuals carried out the actual killing.

Ali was then installed as the leader of the Muslims and the ‘Bayah’ (pledge of allegiance) was given to him in public.


Battle of Jammal (The Camel)

Almost immediately into the rule of Ali (ra), tensions arose. The first of which was the call for some action to be taken against this group of 5,000-6,000 who sieged the house of Uthman and which later resulted in him being killed. Ali was said to be reluctant to do this. Amongst the reasons were that not all of the protestors had blood on their hands as it was only a handful who actually entered the house and physically attacked Uthman. Another reason was that it was very early into the rulership of Ali and he felt he was not in a position right there and then to gather an army to take such action against this large group. An emperor of the Romans was also monitoring the chaos and situation of the Muslims – something Ali was aware of and was mindful not to present an opportunity for them to be attacked. A more significant reason was the reluctance to have the first civil war amongst the Muslims, because prior to this no two groups of Muslims fought each other in battle – the very same reason Uthman gave for not launching an attack on the protestors and mob that surrounded his house.

This position and stance of Ali did not sit well with many of the Sahabah, including some of the more senior companions. The two most senior Sahabah in Medina at the time were Talha (ra) and Zubair (ra). After a week or so had passed, these two Sahabah visited Ali and pleaded with him to deal with the killers of Uthman. Ali asked them for some time as it was still early days, the two Sahabah then agreed but revisited Ali who again asked for further time. This back and forth became repetitive and continued for weeks and then months. Ali reiterated the objections to launching an offensive and asked the two senior Sahabah to bring forth the actual killers of Uthman, present the witnesses and then he would deal with them appropriately.

These episodes became a source of frustration and tension, as it was viewed as disinterest and a reluctance by Ali to take sufficient action. Around 4 months had passed since Ali became ruler.

At this time, Aisha (ra) is in Makkah along with the other wives of the Prophet (saw) as they were performing Hajj and it was also better to avoid the situation of Medina due to the siege of Uthman and various problems that were occurring. Talha (ra) and Zubair (ra) then leave Medina to travel to Makkah and upon meeting Aisha the situation of avenging the death of Uthman was discussed. The three Sahabah then decided to travel to Basra. (As per the disclaimer, there are different interpretations or slightly varying reports as to why they travelled to Basra). One theory as to why they travelled to Basra was that many of the senior military commanders were based in that region and therefore they may be able to get the military support that was not available to Ali in Medina. Another understanding was for them to be in a neutral location in order to plan and bring a resolution to the situation in Medina (Makkah may have been deemed as being too close by). Some reports indicate that a few of those who were responsible for the death of Uthman travelled back to Basra, so this could be another possibility as to why the three Sahabah went there so they could deal with them directly. What is widely agreed upon and can be taken from the statements of Aisha, Talha and Zubair (may Allah be pleased with them) was that ultimately, they wanted to deal with the tensions and seek a reconciliation to the problems.

Muawiyah ibn Abu Sufyan (ra) was appointed Governor of Syria by the Khalifah Umar ibn Khattab (ra). At one point Ali chose a different governor for Syria and wanted Muwaiyah to step down. However, this move was unsuccessful as the newly selected governor was intercepted by the troops of Muwaiyah and told to go back. Muawiyah was a relative of Uthman (ra) and did not give the Bayah to Ali and refused to do so until Ali would pledge to avenge the death of his cousin. As a result, there were some major tensions between Ali and Muwaiyah. Ali however, had to pause this issue with Muwaiyah because of what was happening with Aisha, Talha and Zubair (may Allah be pleased with them).

During the journey, Aisha travelled on a camel that was distinctly recognised by the special encampment that shielded her from others. The Quran instructs the ‘mothers of the believers’ to be covered by a hijab (the Quranic reference to hijab is actually a curtain or screen, whereas the term Khimar in the Quran is what we refer to as hijab in our times, i.e. the headscarf).

The main reason given as to why Aisha was asked to accompany Talha and Zubair was to gain support for the cause because of the great status of Aisha. When the three left Makkah, there were around 600 people that travelled with them. By the time they got to Basra, their numbers swelled to around 30,000. The purpose of gaining support and having such numbers was to demonstrate to Ali that there was now enough backing and numbers to take action against those who protested and sieged the house of Uthman.

From the Sunni perspective and theology, it is impossible and inconceivable that the motivation behind all of this was to take up arms against Ali (ra) himself. The fact that Talha and Zubair had given their Bayah to Ali to be the Khalifah, demonstrates this. Ibn Taymiyyah reports that Aisha did not participate in fighting nor did she have any intention of engaging in war with Ali, rather her motivation was that her presence would benefit the believers and hopefully gather enough support to reconcile the situation and tensions. Ibn Taymiyyah further states that later on, Aisha realised that it may have been better if she had remained and not taken this action and every time she recalled the incident of ‘the camel’ she would cry “until her khimar would become wet”. Likewise, Talha, Zubair nor Ali (may Allah be pleased with them) ever intended for the day of the camel to become a battle between them. However, as we will later discuss, fighting broke out amongst their ranks.

As Aisha was marching and reached the outskirts of Basra, the caravan passed by an oasis and they could hear the barking of dogs. Aisha then asked: “What oasis is this?” to which the response was the oasis of Hawab. Aisha then recalled a hadith of the Prophet (saw): What shall be the state of one of you (wives of the Prophet) when you hear the dogs at Al-Hawab barking at you?.

Upon recalling this, Aisha wanted to abandon this mission and return to Medina but was persuaded to continue.

Once they reached Basra there were minor skirmishes between this group and a party sent out by the Governor of Basra who was loyal to Ali. The Governor then called for Ali to come to Basra to deal with the situation. Some of the Munafiq (hypocrites) also then sent reports back to Ali that the reason this party arrived in Basra, was to break their pledge of allegiance and to create a new leadership. Ali by now had gathered a force to deal with the problems of Muawiyah but because of the call to Basra, he was diverted and then headed to Basra with this army. When they were close by, Ali then sent an envoy to speak to Aisha to find out why they are there and he is told they are there to seek revenge for the death of Uthman and to find a reconciliation between all parties including the tensions and problems with Muwaiyah. This envoy then went back and forth between the two parties to negotiate and inform the other of the demands that were set. A compromise was then reached and conditions were put to Ali to expel anyone from amongst his ranks that was sympathetic to the protestors of Uthman or was a part of the mob and to also identify the actual killers so action could be taken against them. This appeared to be a positive turn of events that would have resolved the tensions.

Ibn Kathir reports that on the night the compromise was reached, both parties then went back to their camps and resting places and were satisfied with the outcome and that reconciliation had taken place. However, the mob and killers of Uthman were not satisfied and devised a plan to reignite tensions. Around 2,000 of this mob joined the ranks and then split amongst the two camps. In the middle of the night, they launched a surprise attack against the other. This caused causalities on both sides and each camp was told that the other side initiated the attack. A battle then took place between the two armies that lasted around one day. It was reported that Aisha went in between the two armies with her camel in order to stop the battle. Arrows were fired in her direction and her camel was also attacked with swords. Reports indicate that 10,000-25,000 people died in this battle that became the very first civil war in Islamic history. Among the dead were Talha and Zubair, the two most senior Sahabah of that time. Talha was on his horse, trying to calm the tension and asking people not to draw their weapons and fight, however he was then killed by an archer. Zubair did not want to participate in battle either and left, but he was followed and then killed whilst in prayer. Ali instructed his army not to pursue anyone that flees from the battle, not to kill anyone that was injured and not to take anyone’s wealth or possessions. Ali was particularly distraught at the deaths of Talha and Zubair.

After this incident, Ali visited Aisha and they made dua (supplication) for the other. Ali then arranged for a house to be made available for Aisha so she was safe and then to later be taken back to Medina with an entourage. There were some individuals who began to blame Aisha for this episode and upon hearing this, Ali ordered anyone who was found guilty of disrespecting or criticising Aisha to be lashed 100 times. Upon departing Basra, Aisha also advised the people of the city not to criticise, blame or backbite Ali and his party.


Battle of Siffeen

After the episode of the Battle of the Camel, Ali (ra) had to then revisit the issue with Muwaiyah (ra) that he previously delayed. Ali requested that Muwaiyah give him the pledge of allegiance. Muwaiyah was the governor of Syria throughout the reign of Umar ibn Khatabb (ra) and Uthman (ra) which spanned around 22 years. Ali felt that it was right that he was given Bayah and that this would also help unite the Muslims after all the chaos and problems it was going through. There were also reports that Muwaiyah was given Bayah by his own supporters.

The Prophet (saw) said: “Whosoever obeys the ruler has obeyed me and whoever obeys me has obeyed Allah” (Hadith Bukhari and Muslim) and “If the pledge of allegiance is given to two rulers, kill the latter of them” (Hadith Muslim)

However, Muwaiyah insisted that the death of Uthman needed avenging as he was a relative of his and he was a guardian over that affair. If the people who killed him were handed over to him, Bayah would then be given to Ali. Allah (swt) says: “And whoever is killed unjustly – We have given his heir authority, but let him not exceed limits in taking life” (Quran 17:33). Another issue was that Muwaiyah said that some of those that sieged the house of Uthman were now deeply embedded within the army of Ali. A justification used by Muwaiyah in delaying the Bayah was that Ali himself only gave Abu Bakr the Bayah six months after he was appointed Khalifah after the death of the Prophet (saw).

Because Muwayiah refused to step down, be replaced and to also give the Bayah, Ali then prepared his army and made his way to Syria. Muwaiyah prepared his army and said if they were attacked in Syria, they will defend themselves. A number of prominent Sahabah visited both sides in order to avert a battle and this set of discussions went back and forth which lasted for a few weeks. During these talks Muwayiah himself famously said “I know Ali is better than me and I know that he is more entitled to the Khalifah than me and I am not contesting his position”. However, his position remained that he would be forced to fight because of the following reasons:

  1. He was insistent that the killers of Uthman were either handed over to him or dealt with appropriately.
  2. Some of the mob and possibly the actual killers of Uthman were in this opposing army that was coming to fight him.
  3. What happened to Uthman could happen to Muwaiyah.

No reconciliation nor compromise was met and Ali informed them that he will proceed with the war. The battle between the two armies then ensued in a place known as ‘Siffeen’ and the fighting was fierce. It lasted for a number of days; some reports suggest it was around 3 to 4 days whilst others suggest it lasted slightly longer than this.

Fighting would occur during the day with both sides resting at night. The army of Muwaiyah occupied the watering holes and permitted the other side to have access to the water at night. Both sides would stop the fighting for Salah (prayer) times and both would pray Janazah (funeral prayer) over the dead. Similar to the conditions of the battle of ‘Jammal’, there was an agreed understanding that a person who turned his back and fled would not be pursued or killed. If a person was injured and wounded he would not be killed. Both sides agreed not to take Ghaneemah (war booty), i.e. wealth, captives and possessions of the other.

Ibn Kathir estimates that 120,000 people were on the side of Ali and 60,000 on the side of Muwayiah. Around 60,000 (40,000 from the side of Ali and 20,000 from the latter) people were killed. Around 100 of the Sahabah were present and the majority of them refused to take part in the actual fighting and remained on the sidelines.

However, one famous name that was amongst the casualties on the side of Ali was Amar ibn Yasir (ra). The Prophet (saw) once said to Amar: “Woe to Amar; he will be killed by the transgressing group.” (Hadith Bukhari). When the news of Amar reached Muwaiyah and a reminder of the hadith also presented to him, Muwaiyah said he did not kill him but rather it was his own people who caused him to be killed as they brought him to this situation. It was then suggested that the fighting should stop and the army of Muwaiyah did this by raising parchments of the Quran on to their banners and spears and to call for the Quran to judge between them as they knew Ali would not continue a battle with this in front of him. Ali then instructed his army to stop fighting.

Both parties then sent a representative to meet to reconcile the matter and they agreed on a number of conditions to end the fighting. Part of the treaty included a condition that the title of ‘Amir ul Mumineen’ be removed as Muwaiyah was not willing to give the pledge of allegiance to Ali until the issue of Uthman was resolved. Some of the other conditions included:

  1. Fighting will cease.
  2. Muwaiyah (ra) can remain as governor of Syria.
  3. Neither side will attack the other.

Commenting on the battle of Siffeen, Ibn Taymiyyah stated that by unanimous consensus of the scholars of Islam, Ali was the better of the two, the more correct and more rightly guided. Ibn Taymiyyah further mentions that this fighting was a battle of politics rather than theology (i.e. this was not about religious beliefs). This can be illustrated (as mentioned earlier) by the fact that both sides would stop to pray and to also pray over the dead of the other. Neither side saw the other as disbelievers and rules were adhered to such as not taking war booty or pursuing those who turned their backs and fled.



We briefly discussed the assassination of Uthman (ra) which then led to Ali (ra) being installed as the Amir of the Muslims. Two internal battles then took place; ‘The battle of Jammal’, which saw an unintended war between a group led by Aisha, Talha and Zubair (may Allah be pleased with them) and another group led by Ali (ra). Later, another conflict known as ‘the battle of Siffeen’ took place between the forces of Ali and Muwaiyah after the latter refused to step down or give Bayah.

This concludes part one of ‘The First Civil Wars In Islam And The Rise Of The Khawarij’. In the second part of this article, we will take a look at one of the consequences of these battles which was the emergence of the group known as the ‘Khawarij’. The background story and emergence of the Khawarij is very significant and we will demonstrate how this group and their characteristics are relevant to what we see happening in some parts of the World today.

Main image – from a Tarikhnama (Book of history) by Balami

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