Battle of Siffin

Battle of the First Fitna in 657 AD
Battle of Siffin
وقعة صفين
Part of the First Fitna 22
Balami - Tarikhnama - Battle of Siffin (cropped).jpg
DateJuly 26 to July 28, 657 AD (8 Safar to 10 Safar, 37 AH)
Siffin (identified as Tell Abu Hureyra, near Raqqa)


Rashidun Caliphate Muawiya's forces of Syria
Commanders and leaders
80,000 men[2] 120,000 men[2]
Casualties and losses
25,000[3] 40,000[3]

The Battle of Siffin was fought in 657 CE (37 AH) between Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth of the Rashidun Caliphs and the first Shia Imam, and Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, the rebellious governor of Syria.[4] The battle is named after its location, Siffin, on the banks of the Euphrates.[5] The fighting stopped after the Syrians, faced with overwhelming odds of defeat, called for arbitration.[6] The arbitration process ended inconclusively in 658 CE.[7] The battle is considered a part of the First Fitna.


The battlefield was at Siffin, a ruined Byzantine-era village situated a few hundred yards from the right bank of the Euphrates in the vicinity of Raqqa in present-day Syria. It has been identified with the modern village of Abu Hureyra in the Raqqa Governorate.[8]


Uthman's assassination

The reign of the third caliph, Uthman, was marked by widespread nepotism and moral degradation.[9] In 656 CE, as the public dissatisfaction with despotism and corruption came to a boiling point, Uthman was assassinated by the rebels in a raid on his residence.[10]

Ali had acted as the mediator between the rebels and Uthman.[11] According to Jafri, though he condemned Uthman's murder, Ali likely regarded the resistance movement as a front for the just demands of the poor and the disenfranchised.[12] His son, Hasan, was injured by the enraged mobs while standing guard at Uthman's residence at the request of Ali.[13]

Shortly after Uthman's assassination, the crowds in Medina turned to Ali for leadership and were turned down initially.[14] Aslan attributes Ali's initial refusal to the polarization of the Muslim community after Uthman's murder.[15] On the other hand, Durant suggests that, "[Ali] shrank from drama in which religion had been displaced by politics, and devotion by intrigue."[16] Nevertheless, in the absence of any serious opposition and urged particularly by the Iraqi dissidents and the Ansar, Ali eventually assumed the role of caliph and Muslims filled the Prophet's Mosque in Medina and its courtyard to pledge their allegiance to him.[17] According to Shaban, the atmosphere of tumult after Uthman's murder might have compelled Ali into accepting the caliphate to prevent further chaos.[18]

Soon after assuming power, Ali moved to dismiss most of Uthman's governors whom he considered corrupt, including Muawiya, Uthman's cousin. Under a lenient Uthman, according to Madelung, Muawiya had built a parallel power structure in Syria that mirrored the despotism of the Byzantine empire.[19] He had been appointed as the governor of Syria by the second caliph, Umar, and then reconfirmed by Uthman.[20] It has been noted that Muawiya was a late convert to Islam whose mother, Hind, was responsible for mutilating the body of Muhammad's uncle, Hamza.[21] Muawiya's father, Abu Sufyan, had led the Meccan armies against the Muslims during the Battle of Uhud and the Battle of Khandaq.[22]

Ali rejected the suggestion to delay the plans for deposing Muawiya until his own power had been consolidated. According to Hazleton, in response to this suggestion, Ali commented that he would not compromise his faith and confirm Muawiya, a contemptible man in Ali's view, as governor even for two days.[23]

Muawiya's declaration of war

When Muawiya refused to return to Medina, Ali wrote to him that a public pledge in Medina was binding on Muawiya, asserting that this pledge was made by the same people who had pledged their allegiance to the previous caliphs.[24] In response, Muawiya asked for time to seek the views of Syrians, in a move that has been interpreted as a delaying tactic for Muawiya to mobilize his forces against Ali.[25] According to Madelung, Muawiya also launched a propaganda campaign among Syrians which appealed to their patriotism and posing himself as Uthman's next of kin, responsible for his avenge.[26]

Through a representative, Muawiya also secretly informed Ali that he would recognize the caliphate of Ali if he was willing to concede Syria and Egypt to Muawiya.[27] This proposal was made in secret, according to Madelung, because a public proposal would have exposed the fraudulence of Muawiya's claims of revenge for Uthman.[28] Ali likely perceived this proposal as a ruse from Muawiya to take over the caliphate step by step.[29]

When his proposal was rejected, Muawiya declared war on Ali in a letter on behalf of the Syrians, with the objectives of killing the murderers of Uthman, deposing Ali, and establishing a Syrian council (shura) to appoint the next caliph, presumably Muawiya.[30] Regarding this letter, Madelung observes that[31]

Uthman had meant little to him [Muawiya], he [Muawiya] had done nothing to aid him [Uthman], and felt no personal obligation to seek revenge. Yet he [Muawiya] immediately sensed the political utility of a claim of revenge for the blood of the wronged caliph, as long as he, Muawiya, could decide on whom to pin the blame.

A number of sources further suggest that the instructions to punish the rebels had been planted by Marwan at the instigation of Muawiya, in order to precipitate the downfall of Uthman.[32] It is alleged that Muawiya deliberately withheld the reinforcements requested by the besieged Uthman shortly before his murder.[32]

In response to Muawiya's declaration of war, Ali wrote to him, pointing out that Muawiya was not Uthman's next of kin to avenge his death but that he was still welcome to bring his case to Ali's court of justice. He then challenged Muawiya to offer any evidence that would incriminate him in the murder of Uthman. Ali also challenged Muawiya to name any Syrian who would qualify for a council.[33]

Muawiya also used this window to expand his alliances.[34] Notably, with the promise of governorship of Egypt, Muawiya brought Amr ibn al-As to his camp.[35] Amr, a political strategist, was widely believed to be the illegitimate son of Muawiya's father, Abu Sufyan.[36] Amr was also a prime instigator in the murder of Uthman and had publicly taken some credit for it.[37] However, Amr later distanced himself from Uthman's murder and allied with Muawiya, both accusing Ali instead.[38]

Start of the hostilities

Following Muawiya's declaration of war, Ali called a council of Islamic ruling elite which urged him to fight Muawiya.[39] Nevertheless, Ali barred his followers from cursing Syrians, adding that it might jeopardise any remaining hopes to avoid the imminent bloodshed.[40] Early in the summer of 657 CE, Ali's army reached Siffin, west of the Euphrates, where Muawiya's forces had been waiting for them.[41] The Syrian forces were ordered to cut off the enemies' access to drinking water. Muawiya, according to Madelung, might have been carried away by his propaganda that these were the murderers of Uthman who should be made to die of thirst."[42] Ali's forces, however, were able to drive off the Syrians and seize control of the watering place. Ali allowed Syrians to freely access the water.[43]

Then, for weeks, the two sides negotiated.[8] Notably, Muawiya repeated his proposition to recognize Ali in return for Syria and Egypt, which was rejected again.[44] In turn, Ali challenged Muawiya to a one-on-one duel to settle the matters and avoid the bloodshed. This offer was declined by Muawiya.[45]

The negotiations failed on 18 July 657 and the two side readied for the battle.[46] Medinans, Kufans, and Basrans made up the rank and file of Ali's army.[47] A considerable number of Muhammad's companions were present in Ali's army.[48] Muawiya's army largely consisted of latecomers to Islam who had been drawn to the frontier provinces by the prospect of rich booty.[48]

The main engagement

Persian miniature, likely depicting Ali at the Battle of Siffin. Created in Safavid Iran, dated 1516

The main battle began on Wednesday, 26 July, and continued to Friday or Saturday morning.[49] Ali fought with his men on the frontline while Muawiya led from his pavilion.[50] At the end of the first day, having pushed back Ali's right wing, Muawiya had fared better overall.[51]

On the second day, Muawiya concentrated his assault on Ali's left wing but the tide of war turned and Syrians were pushed back.[52] Muawiya fled his pavilion and took shelter in an army tent.[53] On this day, Ubayd Allah, son of the second caliph, Umar, and a triple murderer, was killed fighting for Muawiya.[54] On the other side, Ammar ibn Yasir, an octogenarian companion of Muhammad, was killed fighting for Ali.[55] According to both Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, a hadith attributed to Muhammad had prophesied Ammar's death, adding that, "He [Ammar] will invite them [Muawiya's army] to God and they will invite him to hellfire."[56]

On the third day, despite appeals from his army, Muawiya refused to agree to a duel with Ali to end the slaughter.[57] After another indecisive day, the battle continued throughout the night in what is remembered as the Night of Shrieking.[58]

By next morning, the balance had moved in Ali's favor.[59] Before noon, however, some of the Syrians raised copies of the Quran on their lances, shouting the same line, "Let the book of God be the judge between us." The fighting stopped.[60] Of the estimated casualties, Ali was estimated to have lost 25,000 men, while Muawiyah lost 45,000.[61][62][63]


It is believed that Muawiya adopted the above arbitration strategy when he was informed by his top general, Amr ibn al-As, that Syrians could not win the battle.[64]

Faced with an appeal to their holy book, Ali's forces stopped fighting, despite the warnings from Ali that Muyawiya was not a man of religion and raising the Quran was for deception.[65] Ash'ath ibn Qays al-Kindi, the most powerful tribal leader of Kufa, reportedly told Ali that no one from his tribe would fight for him if he did not accept the call to arbitration.[66] Ali's appeals to his army were also met with threats of mutiny, in particular, by those who would later become leading Kharijites.[67] Ali was therefore compelled to recognize these demands and recall his top commander, al-Ashtar, who had advanced far towards the Syrian camp.[68] It was agreed that representatives from both side would arbitrate in accordance with the Quran.[69]

When the details of Muawiya's proposal became clear, a considerable minority in Ali's army objected to arbitration, evidently realizing the political motivations of Muawiya.[70] This minority demanded that Ali resume the war.[71] Even though Ali is reported to have favored it, he declined this proposal, pointing out that this minority would be crushed by the majority and the Syrians who all demanded arbitration.[71] Some of the dissidents left for Kufa, while others stayed, hoping that Ali might later change his mind.[71] Facing strong peace sentiments in his army, Ali accepted the arbitration proposal, against his own judgement.[72]

The majority in Ali's army now pressed for the reportedly neutral Abu Musa al-Ashari as their representative, despite Ali's objections about Abu Musa's political naivety.[73] Nevertheless, the arbitration agreement was written and signed by both parties on 2 August, 657 CE.[74] Abu Musa represented Ali's army while Muawiya's top general, Amr ibn al-As, represented Muawiya's forces.[75] The two representatives committed to adhere to the Quran and Sunnah, and to save the community from war and division, a clause placed evidently to appease the peace party.[76] However, it has been noted that Amr was far from neutral and acted solely for the benefit of Muawiya.[77]

Two days after this agreement the two armies left the battlefield.[78] Upon his return to Kufa, Ali largely succeeded in regaining the support of the opponents of arbitration.[79] He reminded the remaining opponents that they had opted for the arbitration despite his warnings.[80] They agreed and told Ali that they had repented for their sins and demanded that Ali do the same.[81] Ali, however, upheld the formal agreement with Muawiya and the dissidents gradually formed the Kharijites, meaning the seceders, who later took up arms against Ali in the Battle of Nahrawan.[82] Kharijites have been regarded as the forerunners of Islamic extremists.[83]

After several months of preparation, the two arbitrators met together, first at Dumat al-Jandal and then at Udhruh.[84] The proceedings lasted for weeks, likely extending to mid April 658 CE.[85] At Dumat al-Jandal, the arbitrators reached the verdict that Uthman had been killed wrongfully and that Muawiya had the right to seek revenge.[86] This has been viewed as a political verdict, rather than a judicial one, and a blunder of the naive Abu Musa.[87] The verdict strengthened the Syrians' support for Muawiya and weakened the position of Ali.[88]

According to Madelung, the second meeting at Udhruh broke up in disarray.[7] At its conclusion, one account is that Abu Musa, per his agreement with Amr, deposed both Ali and Muawiya and called for a council to appoint the new caliph. When Amr took the stage, he confirmed that the arbitrators had indeed agreed on deposing Ali but added that Muawiya should remain in power, thus violating his agreement with Abu Musa.[89] The Kufan delegation reacted furiously to Abu Musa's concessions.[90] He was disgraced and fled to Mecca, whereas Amr was received triumphantly by Muawiya on his return to Syria.[91]


After the conclusion of the arbitration, Syrians pledged their allegiance to Muawiya as the next caliph in 659 CE.[92] Ali denounced the conduct of the two arbitrators as contrary to the Quran and began to organize a new expedition to Syria.[93] However, with the news of their violence against civilians, Ali had to postpone his campaign for Syria to subdue Kharijites in the Battle of Nahrawan in 658 CE.[94] Upon learning that Muawiya had declared himself caliph, Ali broke off all communications with him and introduced a curse on him, following the precedent of Muhammad.[95] Muawiya reciprocated by introducing a curse on Ali, his sons, and his top general.[96] Just before embarking on his second campaign to Syria in 661 CE, when praying at the Mosque of Kufa, Ali was assassinated by a Kharijite fanatic.[97]


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