Battle of Siffin

Battle of Siffin
وقعة صفين
Part of First Fitna
DateJuly 26 to July 28, 657 AD
LocationSiffin, Syria
Result Inconclusive
2nd Major Muslim Civil War
Rashidun Caliphate Bani Umayya
Commanders and leaders

Ali ibn Abi Talib
Hasan ibn Ali

Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah
Malik al-Ashtar
Abd-Allah ibn Abbas
Ammar ibn Yasir  
Khuzaima ibn Thabit  
Hashim ibn Utbah  
Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr
Muawiyah I
Marwan I
Amr ibn al-As
Walid ibn Uqba

The Battle of Siffin (Arabic: وقعة صفين; May–July 657 CE) occurred during the First Fitna, or first Muslim civil war, with the main engagement taking place from July 26 to July 28. It was fought between First Imam of Shi‘as and the Fourth Caliph of Sunnis, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and Muawiyah I, on the banks of the Euphrates river, in what is now Ar-Raqqah, Syria.


Main article: Siege of Uthman

The Islamic State expanded very quickly under Muhammad and the first three caliphs. Local populations of Jews and indigenous Christians, marginalized as religious minorities and taxed heavily to finance the Byzantine–Sassanid Wars, often aided Muslims to take over their lands from the Byzantines and Persians, resulting in exceptionally speedy conquests.[1][2] As new areas joined the Islamic polity, they also benefited from free trade while trading with other areas under Islamic rule; so as to encourage commerce, Muslims taxed wealth instead of trade.[3] The Muslims paid Zakat on their wealth to the poor. Since the Constitution of Medina was drafted by the Islamic prophet Muhammad, the Jews and the Christians continued to use their own laws under Islamic rule and had their own judges.[4][5][6] Therefore, they only paid for policing for the protection of their property. To assist in the quick expansion of the state, the Byzantine and the Persian tax collection systems were maintained and the people paid a poll tax lower than the one imposed under the Byzantines and the Persians. Before Muhammad united the Arabs, the Arabs had been divided and the Byzantines and the Sassanid had their own client tribes that they used to pay to fight on their behalf.

In 639, Muawiyah I was appointed the Governor of Syria by Umar after his elder brother Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan (Governor of Syria) died in a plague, along with Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah (the Governor before him) and 25,000 other people. To stop the Byzantine harassment from the sea during the Arab-Byzantine Wars, in 649 Muawiyah set up a navy, manned by Monophysitise Christians, Copts and Jacobite Syrian Christians sailors and Muslim troops. This resulted in the defeat of the Byzantine navy at the Battle of the Masts in 655, opening up the Mediterranean.[7][8][9][10][11] 500 Byzantine ships were destroyed in the battle, and Emperor Constans II was almost killed. Under the instructions of the caliph Uthman ibn al-Affan, Muawiyah then prepared for the siege of Constantinople.

The Rashidun Caliphate during the Battle of Siffin.

The rapid Muslim conquest of Syria and Egypt and the consequent Byzantine losses in manpower and territory meant that the Eastern Roman Empire found itself struggling for survival. The Sassanid Dynasty in Persia had already collapsed.

Following the Roman–Persian Wars and the Byzantine–Sassanid Wars, deep-rooted differences between Iraq, formerly under the Persian Sassanid Empire, and Syria, formerly under the Byzantine Empire, also existed. Each wanted the capital of the newly established Islamic state to be in their area.[12] Previously, the second caliph Umar was very firm on the governors and his spies kept an eye on them. If he felt that a governor or a commander was becoming attracted to wealth or did not meet the required administrative standards, he had him removed from his position.[13]

Early Muslim armies stayed in encampments away from cities because Umar feared that they might become attracted to wealth and luxury.[13][14][15][16] Some cities also had agreements with the Muslims, such as during the Siege of Jerusalem in 637 CE.

As Uthman ibn al-Affan grew older, Marwan I, a relative of Muawiyah I, slipped into the vacuum and became his secretary, slowly assuming more control and relaxing some of these restrictions. Marwan I had previously been excluded from positions of responsibility. Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr, the son of Abu Bakr and the adopted son of Ali ibn Abi Talib and Muhammad bin Abi Hudhaifa, the adopted son of Uthman, had no senior positions.

Start of hostilities

After the Battle of the Camel, Ali returned from Basra to Kufa in Rajab of 36 A.H. (January 657). The Iraqis wanted the capital of the newly established Islamic State to be in Kufa so as to bring revenues into their area and oppose Syria.[17] They convinced Ali to come to Kufa and establish the capital in Kufa. Ali listened to them and moved the capital to Kufa. Ali ibn Abi Talib tried to settle matters peacefully by sending an envoy to Syria. He chose Jarir, who was the chief of Banu Bajila and governor of Hamdan. But Muawiya refused giving allegiance to Ali until he punished men in his Army who murdered Uthman.[18] In Syria, incitement to commotion continued unabated. Uthman's shirt, besmeared with his blood and the chopped-off fingers of his wife, Naila, were exhibited from the pulpit. In this manner, Muawiya raised the entire country of Syria against Ali. Ultimately, both parties converged on Siffin where the armies pitched their camps in 37/657. Even at this stage, Ali sent three men, viz. Bashir bin Amr bin Mahz Ansari, Saeed bin Qais Hamdani, and Shis bin Rabiee Tamini to Muawiya to induce him to settle for union, accord and coming together. According to Tabari, Muawiya replied that, "Go away from here, only the sword will decide between us."[19] Ali's inability to punish the murderers of Uthman and Muawiyahs refusal to pledge allegiance eventually led to Ali moved his army north to confront Muawiyah. Ali gathered his forces, and, after at first planning to invade Syria from the North, he attacked directly, marching through the Mesopotamian desert. Arriving at Riqqa, on the banks of the Euphrates, the Syrian vanguard was sighted, but it withdrew without engagement. The people of Riqqa were hostile to Ali, and his army had great difficulty crossing the river. Eventually, Malik al-Ashtar threatened the townspeople with death, which forced their co-operation. So, finally, the army managed to cross the river, by means of a bridge of boats. Ali's army then marched along the right bank of the Euphrates, until they came across the Syrian outpost of Sur al-Rum, where there was a brief skirmish, but Ali's advance was not slowed. So in Dhu al-Hijjah 36 (May 657), the army of Ali ibn Abi Talib came into sight of Muawiyah's main forces, which were encamped on the river plain at Siffin.

The main engagement

The two armies encamped themselves at Siffin for more than one hundred days, most of the time being spent in negotiations. Neither side wanted to fight. Then on 11th Safar 37 AH, the Iraqis under Ashtar's command, the Qurrā', in Ali's army, who had their own camp started the fighting in earnest which lasted three days.[20]

Historian Yaqubi wrote that Ali had 80,000 men, including 70 Companions who participated in the Battle of Badr, 70 Companions who took oath at Hudaibia, and 400 prominent Ansars and Muhajirun; while Muawiya had 120,000 Syrians.[21]

William Muir wrote that, "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 great vigour. Ali posed himself in the centre with the flower of his troops from Medina, and the wings were formed, one of the warriors from Basra, the other of those from Kufa. Muawiya had a pavilion pitched on the field; and there, surrounded by five lines of his sworn body-guards, watched the day. Amr with a great weight of horse, bore down upon the Kufa wing which gave away; and Ali was exposed to imminent peril, both from thick showers of arrows and from close encounter ... Ali's general Ashtar, at the head of 300 Hafiz-e-Qur'an(those who had memorized the Koran) led forward the other wing, which fell with fury on Muawiya's body-guards. Four of its five ranks were cut to pieces, and Muawiya, bethinking himself of flight, had already called for his horse, when a martial couplet flashed in his mind, and he held his ground."[22]

English historian Edward Gibbon wrote: "The Caliph Ali displayed a superior character of valor and humanity. His troops were strictly enjoined to wait the first onset of the enemy, to spare their flying brethren, and to respect the bodies of the dead, and the chastity of the female captives. The ranks of the Syrians were broken by the charge of the hero, who was mounted on a piebald horse, and wielded with irresistible force his ponderous and two edged sword." Of the estimated casualties, Ali's forces lost 25,000, while Muawiyah's forces lost 45,000. Appalled by the carnage, Ali sent a message to Muawiya and challenged him to single combat, saying that whoever won should be the Caliph. In Gibbon's words, "Ali generously proposed to save the blood of the Muslims by a single combat; but his trembling rival declined the challenge as a sentence of inevitable death."[23][24][25]

The earliest account of the battle is found in Ibn Hisham's book (833) where he quotes Ibn Muzahim died 212 AH and Abu Mikhnaf died 170 AH.[26] It says that after three days of fighting the loss of life was terrible. Suddenly one of the Syrians, Ibn Lahiya, reportedly out of dread of the fitna and unable to bear the spectacle rode forward with a copy of the Quran on the ears of his horse to call for judgement by the book of Allah, and the other Syrians followed suit. Allegedly, those on both sides took up the cry, eager to avoid killing their follow Muslims except for the conspirators. The majority of Ali's followers supported arbitration. Nasr b Muzahim, in one of the earliest source states that al-Ash ath ibn Qays, one of Ali's key supporters and a Kufan, then stood up and said:"O company of Muslims! You have seen what happened in the day which has passed. In it some of the Arabs have been annihilated. By Allah, I have reached the age which Allah willed that I reach. but I have never ever seen a day like this. Let the present convey to the absent! If we fight tomorrow, it will be the annihilation of the Arabs and the loss of what is sacred. I do not make this statement out of fear of death, but I am an aged man who fears for the women and children tomorrow if we are annihilated. O Allah, I have looked to my people and the people of my deen and not empowered anyone. There is no success except by Allah. On Him I rely and to Him I return. Opinion can be both right and wrong. When Allah decides a matter, He carries it out whether His servants like it or not. I say this and I ask Allah's forgiveness for me and you." Then, Nasr b Muzahim says people looked at Muawiya who said "He is right, by the Lord. If we meet tomorrow the Byzantines will attack our women and children and the people of Persia will attack the women and children of Iraq. Those with forebearance and intelligence see this. Tie the copies of the Quran to the ends of the spears." So the fighting stopped.[26]


It was decided that the Syrians and the residents of Kufa, in Iraq, should nominate an arbitrator, each to decide between Ali and Muawiya. The Syrians choice fell on 'Amr ibn al-'As who was the rational soul and spokesman of Muawiya. 'Amr ibn al-'As was one of the generals involved in expelling the Romans from Syria and also expelled the Romans from Egypt.[27] A few years earlier according to Islamic tradition, 'Amr ibn al-'As with 9,000 men in Palestine had found himself confronting Heraclius' 100,000 army until Khalid crossed the Syrian desert from Iraq to assist him.[27] He was a highly skilled negotiator and had previously been used in negotiations with Heraclius the Roman Emperor.[28] Ali wanted Malik Ashtar or Abdullah bin Abbas to be appointed as an arbitrator for the people of Kufa, Iraq, but the Qurrā' strongly demurred, alleging that men like these two were, indeed, responsible for the war and, therefore, ineligible for that office of trust. They nominated Abu Musa al-Ashari as their arbitrator. (During the time of Uthman, they had appointed Abu Musa al-Ashari as the Governor of Kufa and removed Uthman's governor before they started fighting Uthman) Ali found it expedient to agree to this choice in order to ward off bloody dissensions in his army. According to "Asadul Ghaba", Ali had, therefore, taken care to personally explain to the arbitrators, "You are arbiters on condition that you decide according to the Book of God, and if you are not so inclined you should not deem yourselves to be arbiters."[29]

The Iraqis under Ali and the Syrians under Muawiyah were not split over their faith[30] but over when to bring the people who killed Uthman to justice. Ali also wanted to bring them to justice but the dispute was over the timing.

According to early Shia sources Ali later wrote:[30]

"The thing began in this way: We and the Syrians were facing each other while we had common faith in one Allah, in the same Prophet (s) and on the same principles and canons of religion. So far as faith in Allah and the Holy Prophet (s) was concerned we never wanted them (the Syrians) to believe in anything over and above or other than what they were believing in and they did not want us to change our faith. Both of us were united on these principles. The point of contention between us was the question of the murder of Uthman. It had created the split. They wanted to lay the murder at my door while I am actually innocent of it.

I advised them that this problem cannot be solved by excitement. Let the excitement subside, let us cool down; let us do away with sedition and revolt; let the country settle down into a peaceful atmosphere and when once a stable regime is formed and the right authority is accepted, then let this question be dealt with on the principles of equity and justice because only then the authority will have power enough to find the criminals and to bring them to justice. They refused to accept my advice and said that they wanted to decide the issue on the point of the sword.

When they thus rejected my proposal of peace and kept on sabre rattling threats, then naturally the battle, which was furious and bloody, started. When they saw defeat facing them across the battlefield, when many of them were killed, and many more wounded, then they went down on their knees and proposed the same thing, which I had proposed before the bloodshed had begun.

I accepted their proposal so that their desire might be fulfilled, my intentions of accepting the principles of truth and justice and acting according to these principles might become clear and they might have no cause to complain against me.

Now whoever adheres firmly to the promises made will be the one whose salvation will be saved by Allah and one who will try to go back upon the promises made, will fall deeper and deeper into heresy, error and loss. His eyes will be closed to realities and truth in this world and he will be punished in the next world."[31]

Ibn Taymiyyah (1263 to 1328) said: "Muawiyah did not call himself to be a khaleefah and was not given the oath of allegiance to it when he fought Ali. He fought not because he considered himself to be the khaleef or deserving of the khilaafah. This they all agreed upon and he himself would affirm this to whomever asked him. He and his companions did not consider it permissible that they initiate the fight against Ali and his companions. But Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) and his companions believed that Muawiyah and his companions must pledge allegiance and show obedience to Ali, due to his authority such that there be only one khaleefah for the Muslims. Considering them defecting from this obligation he decided that Muawiyah and his companions should be fought until they fulfilled it. All this so that obedience and unity occur. Muawiyah and his companions did not see that it was obligatory upon them and if they were fought against they would consider themselves oppressed because Uthman was killed oppressively as was agreed by all the Muslims at the time and his killers were in Ali's camp, he having authority over them."[32]

Encyclopedia of Islam says "According to the non Muslim view the Syrians were winning" [33] Either way, neither the Syrians nor the Iraqis wanted to fight and the battle was stopped.

When the arbitrators assembled at Daumet-ul-Jandal, which lay midway between Kufa and Syria and had for that reason been selected as the place for the announcement of the decision, a series of daily meetings were arranged for them to discuss the matters in hand. When the time arrived for taking a decision about the caliphate, Amr bin al-A'as convinced Abu Musa al-Ashari into entertaining the opinion that they should deprive both Ali and Muawiya of the caliphate, and give to the Muslims the right to elect the caliph. Abu Musa al-Ashari also decided to act accordingly. As the time for announcing the verdict approached, the people belonging to both parties assembled. Amr bin al-A'as requested Abu Musa to take the lead in announcing the decision he favoured. Abu Musa al-Ashari agreed to open the proceedings, and said, "We have devised a solution after a good deal of thought and it may put an end to all contention and separatist tendencies. It is this. Both of us remove Ali as well as Muawiya from the caliphate. The Muslims are given the right to elect a caliph as they think best."[34]

Ali refused to accept the verdict of him stepping down and for an election to be held and found himself technically in breach of his pledge to abide by the arbitration.[35][36][37] This put Ali in a weak position even amongst his own supporters.[35] The most vociferous opponents of Ali in his camp were the very same people who had forced Ali to appoint their arbitrator, the Qurrā' ("Quran readers"), called so for their literalist reading of the Quran and their zealous commitment and militant devotion to it.[34] Feeling that Ali could no longer look after their interests [38] and fearing that if there was peace, they could be arrested for the murder of Uthman, they broke away from Ali's force, rallying under the slogan "arbitration belongs to God alone."[34] After the battle of Siffin, the Qurrā' formed their own party called the Kharijites ("the Outsiders") which later developed into an anarchist movement [39] that plagued successive governments as late as that of Harun al-Rashid who died fighting them.[40]

In his book, In the Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland writes that the Kharijites argued that a true believer "would have trusted his fate, not to diplomacy, but to ongoing warfare and the will of God."[41] This is in spite of the fact that they themselves had put forward their representative out of hope that the negotiations could go in their favor and to satisfy their own political and economic interests. Tom Holland says that they then condemned Ali "as the unbeliever, as the man who had strayed from the Straight Path. The fact that he was Muhammad's nephew only confirmed them in the militancy of their egalitarianism: that the true aristocracy was one of piety, and not of blood. Even a Companion of the Prophet, if he did not pray until he developed marks on his forehead 'comparable to the callouses of a camel', if he did not look pale and haggard from regular fasting, if he did not live like a lion by day and a monk by night, ranked, in the opinion of the Kharijites, as no better than an apostate."[42] They considered anyone who was not part of their group as an unbeliever.[43] Tom Holland writes, "Other Kharijites, so it was reported, might 'go out with their swords into the markets while people would stand around not realising what was happening; they would shout "no judgement except God!" and plunge their blades into whomever they could reach, and go on killing until they themselves were killed.'"[42]

In 659 AD, Ali's forces finally moved against the Kharijites and they finally met in the Battle of Nahrawan. Although Ali won the battle, the constant conflict had begun to affect his standing.[44] Tom Holland writes that Ali "won a victory over them as crushing as it was to prove pyrrhic: for all he had done, in effect, was to fertilize the soil of Iraq with the blood of their martyrs. Three years later, and there came the inevitable blowback: a Kharijite assassin struck him down while he was praying in Kufa. The Prophet's dream of brotherhood, of a shared community of believers, seemed dealt a fatal blow too."[42]

The Kharijites caused so much trouble, that it is recorded in both the early Sunni and the early Shia books that Ali said: "Certainly you are the most evil of all persons and are those whom Satan has put on his lines and thrown out into his wayless land. With regard to me, two categories of people will be ruined, namely he who loves me too much and the love takes him away from rightfulness, and he who hates me too much and the hatred takes him away from rightfulness. The best man with regard to me is he who is on the middle course. So be with him and be with the great majority of Muslims because Allah’s hand of protection is on keeping unity. You should beware of division because the one isolated from the group is a prey to Satan just as the one isolated from the flock of sheep is a prey to the wolf. Beware! Whoever calls to this course [of sectarianism], kill him, even though he may be under this headband of mine."(Nahjul Balagha, Sermon 126)

Muawiyah's army moved into other areas, which Ali's governors couldn't prevent and people didn't support him to fight against them. Muawiyah overpowered Egypt, Yemen and other areas.[45]

Later, in 661, Ali was assassinated on the 19th of Ramadan, while Praying in the Great Mosque of Kufa. The Kharijite, Abd-al-Rahman ibn Muljam, attacked him during the Fajr prayer, inflicting him a deadly wound with a poisoned sword.[46]


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    • Al-gharat (Plunders) which has written by Abi Mikhnaf is a detailed report about these raids.
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Coordinates: 35°57′00″N 39°01′00″E / 35.9500°N 39.0167°E / 35.9500; 39.0167

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