Battle of the Camel
|Battle of the Camel|
|Part of the First Fitna|
Ali and Aisha at the Battle of the Camel
Forces of Ali
Forces of Aisha, Talha, and Zubayr
|Commanders and leaders|
| Ali ibn Abi Talib|
Hasan ibn Ali
Husayn ibn Ali
Ammar ibn Yasir
Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr
Abdul-Rahman ibn Abi Bakr
Abu Qatadah ibn Rab'i al-Ansari
Jabir ibn Abd-Allah
Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah
Abu Ayyub al-Ansari
Qays ibn Sa'd
Abd Allah ibn Abbas
Khuzaima ibn Thabit
| Aisha |
Muhammad ibn Talha †
Zubayr ibn al-Awwam †
Ka'b ibn Sur †
Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr
Marwan I (POW)
Abd Allah ibn Safwan
Yahya ibn al-Hakam (WIA)
Utba ibn Abi Sufyan
Zufar ibn al-Harith al-Kilabi
Abd al-Rahman ibn Attab ibn Asid †
|Casualties and losses|
The Battle of the Camel, also known as the Battle of Jamel or the Battle of Basra, took place outside of Basra, Iraq, in 36 AH (656 CE). The battle was fought between the army of the fourth caliph Ali, on one side, and the rebel army led by Aisha, Talha and Zubayr, on the other side. Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, while Aisha was a widow of Muhammad, and Talha and Zubayr were both prominent companions of Muhammad.
Ali emerged victorious from this battle, Talha and Zubayr were both killed, and Aisha was sent back to Hejaz afterward. The triumvirate had revolted against Ali ostensibly to avenge the assassination of the third caliph Uthman, though the leading roles of Aisha and Talha in inciting against Uthman are well-cited. The three also called for the removal of Ali and the appointment of his replacement by a Qurayshite council (shura) which was to include Talha and Zubayr.
Opposition to Uthman
Ali and other senior companions frequently accused the third caliph Uthman (r. 644–656) of deviating from the Quran and Sunna (precedents of Muhammad). Uthman was also widely accused of nepotism and corruption, and Ali is known to have protested Uthman's nepotism and his lavish gifts for his kinsmen. Ali also often protected outspoken and upright companions against the caliph's wrath. These included Abu Dharr and Ammar.
Among those actively opposing Uthman were also Muhammad's companions Talha and Zubayr, his widow Aisha, and some supporters of Ali. These supporters might have wanted to see Ali as the next caliph, though there is no evidence that he communicated or coordinated with them. Among them was Malik al-Ashtar, a leader of the religiously-learned qurra (lit. 'Quran readers'). Ali is said to have rejected the requests to lead the rebels, though he might have sympathized with their grievances about injustice. It is likely that some companions supported the protests with the hope of either deposing Uthman or changing his policies, thus underestimating the severity of the opposition to Uthman.
Assassination of Uthman
As their grievances mounted, discontented groups from provinces began arriving in Medina in 35/656. On their first attempt, the Egyptian opposition sought the advice of Ali, who urged them to send a delegation to negotiate with Uthman, unlike Talha and Ammar who are said to have encouraged the Egyptians to advance on the town. Ali similarly asked the Iraqi opposition to avoid violence, which was heeded.
Ali also acted as a mediator between Uthman and the provincial dissidents more than once to address their economical and political grievances. In particular, he was a guarantor for Uthman's promises to the opposition but possibly declined to intervene further when the Egyptians intercepted an official letter ordering their punishment upon their return to Egypt. Uthman was assassinated shortly afterward in 656 by the Egyptians in a raid on his residence in Medina.
Ali played no role in the fatal attack, and his son Hasan was injured while standing guard at Uthman's besieged residence at the request of Ali. He also convinced the rebels not to prevent the delivery of water to Uthman's residence during the siege.
Beyond this, historians disagree about Ali's measures to protect the third caliph. Jafri and Madelung highlight Ali's multiple attempts for reconciliation during the two sieges, and Hinds believes that Ali could not have done anything more for Uthman, supporting whom would have meant supporting the infamous Umayyads. Donner and Gleave suggest that Ali was the immediate beneficiary of Uthman's death, though this is challenged by Madelung, who observes that Aisha would have not actively undermined Uthman's regime if Ali had been the prime mover of the rebellion and its future beneficiary. He and others note the deep-seated enmity of Aisha for Ali, which resurfaced immediately after his accession.
On the other extreme, Veccia Vaglieri believes that Ali did not defend the caliph, and Caetani goes further, labeling Ali as the chief culprit in Uthman's assassination, even though the evidence seems to suggest otherwise.
Election of Ali
After Uthman's assassination, his tribesmen (the Umayyads) fled Medina, and the rebels and their Medinan allies controlled the city. While Talha enjoyed some support among the Egyptian rebels, Ali was preferred by the most of the Ansar (early Medinan Muslims) and the Iraqi rebels, who had earlier heeded Ali's opposition to the use of violence. Poonawala, Momen, Jafri, Donner, and Anthony add the (prominent) Muhajirun (early Meccan Muslims) to the above list of Ali's supporters.
The caliphate was offered by these groups to Ali, who was initially reluctant to accept it, possibly wary of implicating himself in Uthman's regicide by becoming the next caliph. Ali eventually accepted the role, and some authors suggest that he did so to prevent further chaos, compelled by popular pressure. For others, that Ali allowed himself to be nominated by the rebels was an error for it left him exposed to accusations of complicity in Uthman's assassination.
Opposition to Ali in Mecca
Talha and Zubayr
Talha and Zubayr, both companions of Muhammad with ambitions for the high office, gave their pledges though they later broke their oaths, claiming that they had pledged allegiance to Ali under duress. They left Medina on the pretext of performing the umra (lesser pilgrimage).
Veccia Vaglieri views their claims of violence as their invented justification for violating their pacts, adding that Ali had refused to give the two any posts in his government. Poonawala similarly writes that the two were unsuccessful in securing the governorships of Basra and Kufa for themselves. For the Shia Tabatabai (d. 1981), the equal distribution of the treasury funds among Muslims by Ali might have been the main objection of Talha and Zubayr. Abbas suggests that the two jumped ship when Ali began to reverse Uthman's lavish entitlements for the ruling elite, while Jafri observes that Talha and Zubayr had amassed considerable wealth under Uthman. Alternatively, Gleave dismisses the (Sunni) reports that Tahla and Zubayr did not pledge or did so under duress, saying that these reports reflect their authors' attempts to provide a fuller context for their subsequent rebellion against Ali.
Madelung argues that the election of Ali could have not happened without the pledge of Talha, as Ali's main rival, though he also suggests that Talha did not come to the ceremony voluntarily and was dragged there by al-Ashtar. In contrast, Mavani refers to Nahj al-balagha in which Ali rebukes Talha and Zubayr before the Battle of the Camel for breaking their oaths after voluntarily offering their support to Ali. Madelung also rejects the report by al-Tabari about Zubayr's refusal to pledge as legendary.
Muhammad's widow Aisha was already in Mecca at the time of the assassination, having left Medina earlier for the umra despite the pleas of Uthman, who believed her presence in Medina would restrain the rebels from attack. When she learned about Ali's election, she immediately began to mobilize the rebel party against Ali in favor of her close relatives, namely, Talha and Zubayr. She did so ostensibly to seek justice for Uthman, though McHugo and others question her motives, noting that she had earlier actively incited the Muslims against Uthman. Citing Tarikh al-Ya'qubi and Tarikh Abulfeda, the Shia Tabatabai writes that Aisha only reacted after learning about Ali's accession (rather than Uthman's murder).
Shortly before the assassination, writes Madelung, Aisha had told Marwan that she wished to toss the caliph into the sea. Immediately after Ali's succession, however, she blamed the murder on him, saying that a mere fingertip of Uthman was better than the whole of Ali. Veccia Vaglieri similarly writes that Aisha had been an opponent of Uthman, though she did not condone his murder, saying that she could not bear to witness that Ali, whom she deeply hated, had benefited from the assassination. In addition to complaining to Uthman for reducing her pension, she was critical of him for religious innovations and nepotism. The opposition of Aisha as a Mother of the Faithful added credibility to the subsequent rebellion against Ali.
The Umayyads fled Medina after Uthman's assassination, notable among them Marwan. Most of them gathered in Mecca, though some made their way to Damascus. The Umayyads joined Talha and Zubayr in their opposition to Ali though their objectives were different. Mecca was thus in open rebellion against Ali. Some of the Umayyads later left the campaign as it became clear for them that Talha and Zubayr were eying the caliphate upon victory. These included Sa'id ibn al-As and Abd Allah ibn Khalid ibn Asid. Those who remained with the rebels included Marwan and Uthman's sons, namely, Aban and Walid.
The opposition to Ali decried his leniency towards the rebels, and accused him of complicity in the assassination. They demanded that Ali punish those responsible for Uthman's assassination. They also called for the removal of Ali and for a (Qurayshite) council (shura) to appoint his replacement. While Ali was openly critical of Uthman's conduct, he generally neither justified his violent death nor condemned the killers. Ali likely held Uthman responsible through his injustice for the protests which led to his death in an act of war. He nevertheless insisted that he would bring the murderers to justice in due course.
Talha, Zubayr, and Aisha had actively roused Muslims against Uthman. In particular, Talha and Aisha had most likely written to the provinces encouraging them to revolt against Uthman. Some, therefore, suggest that the aim of the rebels was the removal of Ali rather than justice for Uthman. The election of Ali had frustrated the ambitions of Talha and Zubayr for the caliphate, who also did not want to see the power leave the Quraysh after Uthman.
These two and some others within the Quraysh wished to restore the caliphate of Quraysh on the principles laid by Abu Bakr (r. 632–634) and Umar (r. 634–644). Fearing that Ali would end their privileged status as the ruling class of Islam, the Quraysh thus challenged Ali to safeguard their entitlements. Their fears were indeed soon confirmed as Ali opened the governorships to the Ansar. In the same vein, Veccia Vaglieri writes that the "popularity-seeking and anti-Qurayshi policies" of Ali were among the causes of the rebellion. Another camp that opposed Ali within the Quraysh was the Umayyads, who seem to have believed that the caliphate was their right after Uthman.
Rebels' march on Basra
Under the leadership of Aisha, Talha and Zubayr, six to nine hundred Meccan rebels marched in October 656 on the garrison city of Basra, some 1300 kilometers away from Hejaz, where they were unable to muster much support. The war efforts were funded by the likes of Ya'la ibn Munya, Uthman's governor of Yemen who had brought Yemen's public funds with him to Mecca. Among others, al-Tabari (d. 923) and al-Hamawi (d. 1229) write that Aisha was disheartened by the incessant howling of dogs at a place called Hawab on the way to Basra, which reminded her of Muhammad's warning to his wives years ago, "The day will come that the dogs of Hawab will bark at one of you, and that would be the day when she would be in manifest error." She was dissuaded from any change of plans by Talha and Zubayr. The two also quarrelled for leading the prayers throughout the campaign, possibly reflecting their rivalry for the caliphate, while Aisha mediated between them.
Rebel occupation of Basra
The arrival of the rebels and their propaganda divided the Basrans for and against Ali, though they largely remained loyal to him, who had earlier replaced Uthman's unpopular governor with the upright Uthman ibn Hunayf from the Ansar. After a fierce but inconclusive fight, in which the chief of police Hukaym ibn Jabala and many others were killed, the two sides agreed to a truce until the arrival of Ali and the rebel army camped outside of Basra. Soon they raided the town on "a cold, dark night with wind and rain," killing many and seizing the control of Basra. The governor was tortured and then imprisoned.
Some (Sunni) traditions praise the moderation and self-defense of the rebels, though these are dismissed by Veccia Vaglieri. She notes that the rebels must have instigated the violence as they needed provisions and money, and it was unfavorable for them to wait for Ali. This last point is also echoed by Madelung. The rebels then asked Basrans to surrender those who had participated in Uthman's siege and some six hundred men were thus killed by the rebels. The murders and the distribution of town supplies among the rebels are said to have angered the residents, a large number of whom soon joined Ali in fighting.
Ali's march on Basra
Ali had set off in pursuit earlier with about seven hundred men but had failed to intercept the rebels in time. In al-Rabadha, he thus changed direction to Kufa and sent delegates to raise an army there. When his efforts were hampered by Abu Musa al-Ash'ari, the governor of Kufa whose support for Ali was only lukewarm, Ali deposed him, saying that he had not found Abu Musa trustworthy and that he would have removed him earlier had it not been for al-Ashtar's advice to confirm him after Uthman's assassination. Ali then sent his son Hasan and Ammar ibn Yasir or al-Ashtar himself to rally the support of the Kufans, who met the caliph outside of the town with an army of six to seven thousand men. Ali marched on Basra when his forces were ready.
The two armies camped across from each other outside of Basra. After Ali appealed to the opposite camp, large numbers defected to his side, possibly tipping the numerical strength in his favor. Alternatively, Kennedy writes that Ali had brought a large following from Kufa whereas the rebels' support in Basra was modest. Afsaruddin has a similar view. In contrast, both armies are set at about 10,000 men by Hazleton. Both armies were also multi-tribal and many tribes had fighters on both sides, which must have created hesitation among the soldiers. Many also withdrew, either because they did not wish to fight other Muslims or because they did not want to take a side in a war between the prophet's cousin and his widow. This was apparently what the pro-Ali al-Ahnaf ibn Qays told Talha and Zubayr to keep his pro-Aisha tribesmen from fighting against Ali.
A tent was pitched between the two armies where Ali, Talha, and Zubayr negotiated to avoid the impending war. There are some reports that Ali reminded Zubayr of an incident in their childhood when Muhammad had predicted that Zubayr would one day unjustly fight Ali. The details here are legendary for Madelung but he does conclude that the negotiations broke the resolve of Zubayr, who might have realized his small chances for the caliphate and perhaps the immorality of his bloody rebellion.
At the negotiations, Aisha's party demanded the removal of Ali from office and a council to elect his successor, while Ali considered himself the legitimate caliph. The two sides also accused each other of responsibility in Uthman's assassination. The negotiations failed after three days and the two sides readied for battle. Alternatively, Nasr and Afsaruddin write that the negotiations were nearly successful but were sabotaged by Uthman's murderers, though Madelung argues that this account of al-Tabari is fictitious.
Rules of war
Before the battle, Ali ordered that the wounded or captured enemies should not be killed. Those throwing away their arms should not be fought, and those fleeing the battlefield should not be pursued. Only captured weapons and animals were to be considered war booty.
After three days of failed negotiations, the battle took place near Basra on a December day in 656, lasting from noon to sunset. Ali is said to have barred his men from commencing the hostilities. Possibly in a last-ditch effort to avoid war, early sources widely report that he instead ordered one of his men to raise a copy of the Quran between the battle lines and appeal to its contents. When this man was shot and killed by the rebel army, Ali gave the order to advance. The rebels were thus the aggressors and Ali might have wanted them to be seen as such.
The sources are silent about the tactical developments and Veccia Vaglieri suggests that the battle consisted of a series of duels and encounters, as this was the Arab custom at the time. Aisha was also led onto the battlefield, riding in an armored palanquin atop a red camel, after which the battle is named. Aisha was likely the rallying point of the rebel army, urging them to fight on with the battle cry of avenging Uthman. Adamec similarly suggests that Aisha was on the battlefield to give moral support to rebels. As a result of her presence on the battlefield, the fighting was particularly fierce around Aisha's camel.
Death of Talha
Talha was soon killed by the Umayyad's Marwan, another rebel, who later told Uthman's son that he had taken care of one of the murderers of Uthman for him, indicating that he held Talha responsible in Uthman's assassination. Even so, Abbas suggests that Marwan's main motive in killing Talha was to rid his kinsman Mu'awiya of a serious contender for the caliphate. Marwan received only minor wounds during the battle and afterward joined the court of Muawiya in Damascus. Madelung similarly believes that the murder of Talha was premeditated and postponed by Marwan long enough for him to be confident that he would not face any retribution from a victorious Aisha.
Death of Zubayr
Zubayr, an experienced fighter, left shortly after the battle began, possibly without having fought at all. Madelung and Veccia Vaglieri suggest that it was the serious misgivings of Zubayr about the justice of Aisha's cause that led Zubayr to desertion. Al-Ahnaf ibn Qays, a pro-Ali chief of the Banu Sa'd who had remained on the sidelines of the battle, learned about Zubayr's desertion. Some of his men then followed and killed Zubayr, not much so to please Ali, suggests Madelung, but rather for the dishonorable act of leaving his fellow Muslims behind in a civil war he had ignited.
When the news of his death reached Ali, he commented that Zubayr had many times fought valiantly in front of Muhammad but that he had come to an evil end. For Madelung, the account preferred by Sunnis in which Ali cursed the killers of Zubayr and commended him is not credible.
Capture of Aisha
The deaths of Talha and Zubayr likely sealed the fate of the battle, despite the intense fighting that continued possibly for hours around Aisha's camel. One by one, Aisha's warriors stepped up to lead the camel and, one by one, they were killed. The fighting stopped only when Ali's troops succeeded in killing Aisha's camel and capturing the Mother of the Faithful. Surviving poems about the battle portray this final episode, while the lowest figures for the battle are 2500 dead from Aisha's side and 400-500 from Ali's army.
Our Mother brought us to drink at the pool of death. We did not leave until our thirst was quenched. When we obeyed her, we lost our senses. When we supported her, we gained nothing but pain.
Pardon of Aisha
Aisha was treated with respect and temporarily housed in Basra. Nevertheless, both Ali and his representative Ibn Abbas severely reprimanded Aisha as they saw her responsible for the death and destruction and for leaving her home in defiance of the Quran's instructions for Muhammad's widows. Ali later ordered Aisha's half-brother Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr to escort her back to Mecca or Medina.
Following her defeat, Cappucci writes that Aisha acknowledged Ali's caliphate, and some traditions show Aisha's remorse and that she wished not to have lived to witness the battle. Her view of Ali might have not changed though, suggests Madelung. He cites a tradition related by Kabsha bint Ka'b ibn Malik, in which Aisha praises Uthman and regrets that she incited revolt against him (but not against Ali). At any rate, her defeat put an end to her political ambitions, and Aisha only engaged in a few minor political events henceforth. Her defeat was presumably cited to discourage medieval Muslim women from engaging in politics.
Ali announced a public pardon after the battle, setting free the war prisoners and prohibiting the enslavement of their women and children. The properties seized were to be returned to the enemy soldiers or their legal Muslim heirs. Ali instead compensated his army from the treasury of Basra. Ali's orders upset those who Madelung and Veccia Vaglieri describe as the radicals in his camp. These orders later became a rallying cry for the Kharijites against Ali. The discontented soldiers questioned why they were not allowed to take the enemy's possessions and enslave their women and children when shedding their blood was considered lawful. If that was to be the case, Ali retorted, they should have first decided whom among them would take possession of the prophet's widow.
Ali also extended his pardon to high-profile rebels such as Marwan and the sons of Uthman, Talha, and Zubayr. As related by a Qurayshite prisoner named Musahiq ibn Abd Allah ibn Makhrama al-Amiri, Ali asked them if he was not the closest to Muhammad in kinship and the most entitled to the leadership after his death. He then let them go after they pledged allegiance to him. A different report on the authority of Abu Mikhnaf states that a defiant Marwan was still let go without giving his oath of allegiance. Marwan soon joined Mu'awiya after the battle. For Madelung, that Ali released such a "dangerous and vicious enemy" signals how little he was willing to engage in the ongoing political games of the civil war.
Kufa as the de facto capital
Before leaving Basra, Ali chastized its residents for breaking their oath of allegiance and dividing the community. He then appointed Ibn Abbas as the governor of Basra after receiving their renewed pledges. Shaban writes that Ali also divided the treasury funds equally there. Basra nevertheless remained a haven for years for pro-Uthman sentiments. The caliph soon set off for Kufa, arriving there in December 656 or January 657. He refused to reside in the governor's castle, calling it qasr al-khabal (lit. 'castle of corruption') and instead stayed with his nephew Ja'da ibn Hubayra. Kufa thus became Ali's main base of activity during his caliphate. With this move, the Medinan elite permanently lost their authority over the Muslim community, remarks Dakake. Kennedy highlights the strategic disadvantages of Medina, saying that it was far from population centers of Iraq and Syria, and heavily depended on grain shipments from Egypt.
- Malik al-Ashtar
- Hasan ibn Ali
- Hussain ibn Ali
- Ammar ibn Yasir
- Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr
- Abdul Rahman ibn Abi Bakr
- Muslim ibn Aqeel
- Harith ibn Rab'i
- Jabir ibn Abd-Allah
- Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah
- Abu Ayub Ansari
- Abu Qatada bin Rab'i
- Qays ibn Sa'd
- Qathm bin Abbas
- Adi ibn Hatim
- Talha ibn Ubayd-Allah
- Muhammad ibn Talha
- Zubayr ibn al-Awwam
- Marwan ibn al-Hakam
- Abdullah ibn al-Walid (KIA)[failed verification]
- Abdullah ibn Hakim (KIA)[failed verification]
- Abdullah ibn Safwan ibn Umayya ibn Khalaf
- Yahya ibn Hakim[failed verification]
- Amir ibn Masud ibn Umayya ibn Khalaf
- Ayyub ibn Habib ibn Alqama ibn Rabia
- Utba ibn Abi Uthman ibn al-Akhnas
- Abdullah ibn Abi Uthman ibn al-Akhnas ibn Sharlq (KIA)
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|Preceded by|| Muslim battles |
Year: 656 CE
Coordinates: 30°30′00″N 47°49′00″E / 30.5000°N 47.8167°E / 30.5000; 47.8167