Sunday, December 31, 2017

What happened in the First Fitna?

Rashidun Caliphate
In 656, the young religion of Islam faced a crisis, its Caliph murdered and pass issues regarding succession of the Prophet Mohammed reemerged fueling the civil war called the First Fitna

Fitna is an Arabic word meaning test or temptation. But it is also used to describe a conflict where Muslim fought fellow Muslim - a civil war. And the first Fitna cemented a divide that continued to plague Islam to this day.

Caliph Murdered

The first Fitna began with the news of the murder of the unpopular Caliph Uthman ibn Affyan of the Rashidun Caliphate. The fact that the Caliph came from the Umayya Clan which persecuted and fought the Prophet Mohammed in the battlefield earned him detractors. Worst, allegations of nepotism and favoritism towards his clansmen brought ever more criticism to his rule.
Uthman ibn Affan
Eventually, it boiled out in 656 when an angry mob from Egypt attacked the home of Uthman in Medina killing the Caliph ultimately. The death of Caliph Uthman triggered another election that brought Ali ibn Abi Talib as the fourth Caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate.

Many Muslims hailed the election of Ali with delight. They viewed the election as long overdue and believed that he should have been the successor of Mohammed from the start. Ali gained tremendous support as he had close ties with the Prophet. He was the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed after marrying the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. He also was the first male convert of Islam. He fought well for the Prophet during the Holy War or Jihad to retake Mecca.

In 632 when the Prophet took his last breath, many Muslims believed that Mohammed had designated Ali as his successor. This belief caused controversies over the election of Abu Bakar as first Caliph and succeeding Rashidun Caliphs. Ali, however, desired the unity of the Islamic community and recognized the first 3 Rashidun Caliph’s authority. Nonetheless, supporters of his leadership lingered and became known as the Shia’t Ali (simply Shia) or Supporters of Ali. While supporters of the traditional choosing of the Caliph became known as the ahl al-sunna wa-l-jama’ah (simply Sunni) or people of custom and community. For years Ali remained active in the development of Islam contributing in the creation of the first Quran.

Tragically, a murder brought Ali to power in 632. Muawiya Abu Sufyan, a relative of Uthman and head of the Umayya Clan, sought Ali’s action to punish the murderers of the late Caliph. Many other remaining companions including the youngest wife of the Prophet Mohammed Aisha bint Abi Bakar called the same. Ali, however, hesitated as he knew the murders supported his Caliphate. His hesitation soon brought him challenges to his authority.

Ali soon purged the officialdom, removing those he suspected of criticizing him. This included Talhah ibn Ubaydullah and Zubayr ibn al-Awam. Ali refused to give them the governorship of Basra and Kufa.

The 2 who also were Companions of the Prophet allied themselves with Aisha bint Abi Bakr who wielded tremendous influence. She married Mohammed at a young age in 623. She stayed by the Prophet’s side and became his favorite wife. This made her well-verse in the teachings of Islam. She, Talhah, and Zubayr, disappointed of Ali’s injustice, fled to Basra where they declared their rebellion.

Soon Muawiya also raised his banner of rebellion against Ali refusing to pledge his allegiance to him. He returned to Syria where he had established his powerbase years before.

For Ali, he faced a widely divided Rashidun Caliphate. In Syria, Muawiya refused to recognize him as Caliph. In modern day Iraq, Aisha (his mother-in-law) and 2 Companions of his cousin rebelled against him. He must then defend his position and reestablish control throughout the Caliphate.

Caliphate in State of Civil War

Ali soon decided to move his government to Kufa. From there he also enlisted support of other influential Companions of the Prophet then moved his forces against Aisha. He and Aisha’s forced soon met near Basra in a fight called the Battle of Camel derived from Aisha ridding a palanquin on top of her camel Askar during the battle.
Ali and Aisha at the Battle of the Camel
In the end, Ali triumphed over his adversaries. Talhah and al-Zubayr fell in battle. Aisha became her prisoner and as an act of compassion allowed her to live and retire in Medina. She spent her later years recounting her memories with the Prophet passing them down to Muslims as Hadiths or traditions. She passed away in 678 at the age of 66.

With the defeat of Aisha, Ali then moved to defeat Muawiya in 657. He marched his army towards Syria and into the banks of the Euphrates where Muawiya’s army faced him. In the town of Siffin the 2 armies clashed from July 26 to the 28 with no victorious in sight. The battle ended as story went with Muawiya, upon the advice of Amr ibn-al-As, ordering his troops to impale verses of the Quran to their spears and face Ali’s army. This led to a ceasefire negotiation where Amr ibn al-As representing Muawiya to deal with Abu Musa Ash’ari representing Ali.

The 2 sides ended with a compromise. Ali agreed to settle issues through an arbitration or Takhim. A Shura or a council of experts in the Quran deliberated in January of 659 in Adruh. The main deliberation focused in the central issue: Was Uthman’s murder justifiable? In the end, the Shura judged in favor of Uthman, they judged the murder as unjustifiable and the denial of justice undermined the rule of Ali. Ali refused to recognize the ruling. Muawiya continued his resistance.

Ali by then faced dissention within his supporters. Hardline Shias voiced against Ali’s decision to agree to the arbitration. They believed Allah had the last say in the matter and would be shown who emerges victorious in a battle. This faction within Ali’s ranks broke away becoming known as the Kharijites or those who walk out.

The Kharijites rebelled and soon made their presence felt to Ali through their attacks in the countryside. Ali then moved against them in 659 culminating in the Battle of Nahrawan. He crushed the Kharjites and forced them underground. But little did he knew a Kharjite named Abd al-Rahman bin Muljam would end his life in 661 in his capital of Kufa. He passed away at the age of 63.

In the Aftermath

The death of Ali marked the end of the First Fitna. Muawiya had claimed the Caliphate in 660. The death of Ali cemented this claim and thus the Umayyad Caliphate began.
Umayyad Caliphate during the reign of Muawiya
On the other hand, Ali’s death did not mark the end of the Shia’t Ali or Shias. They continued to rally to the descendants of Ali and other relatives of the Prophet. Ali became a martyr for the Shias adored as a saint. The place where his burial site believed to be, in Najaf, became a major pilgrim site for Shias. The said appointment of Ali as successor by the Prophet is celebrated as the Feast of Ghadir Khumm.

The First Fitna came as a result of the controversy in succession. Even in religion, politics continued and war as a tool in politics. It cemented a divide within the Islamic world that persist till the present. 

General Reference 
“Fitna (Arabic: punishment by trial, temptation).” In Encyclopedia of Islam. Edited by Juan Campo. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009.

“Fitnah.” In A Concise Encyclopedia of Encyclopedia. Edited by Gordon Newby. Oxford, England: One World Publications, 2004.

Campbell, Sandra. “Fitna.” In Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Edited by Richard Martin et. al. New York, New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004.

Dangor, Suleman. “Mu’awiya.” In Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Edited by Richard Martin et. al. New York, New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004.

Hidayatullah, Aysha. “Aisha bint Abi Bakr ibn Abi Quhafa.” In Encyclopedia of Islam. Edited by Juan Campo. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009.

Jones, Linda. “Ali ibn Abi Talib.” In Encyclopedia of Islam. Edited by Juan Campo. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009.

Shaikh, Sa’diyya. “’A’isha.” In Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Edited by Richard Martin et. al. New York, New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004.

Steigerwald, Diana. “’Ali.” In Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Edited by Richard Martin et. al. New York, New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004.


Wynbrandt, James. A Brief History of Saudi Arabia. New York, New York: Facts On File, 2010.

Saunders, J.J. A History of Medieval Islam. New York, New York: Routledge, 1965.

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