Battle of Siffin

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Battle of Siffin
وقعة صفين
Part of the First Fitna
Balami - Tarikhnama - Battle of Siffin (cropped).jpg
DateJuly 26 to July 28, 657 AD (8 Safar 37 AH to 10 Safar 37 AH)
Siffin, Syria


Arbitration [1][2]
Rashidun Caliphate Muawiya's forces of Syria
Commanders and leaders
Supported by:
80,000 men[5] 120,000 men[5]
Casualties and losses
25,000[6] 40,000[6]

The Battle of Siffin was the second battle of the First Fitna, after the Battle of the Camel. It was fought between Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth of the Rashidun caliphs, and Muawiyah I on the banks of the Euphrates river in Siffin around the present-day Syrian city of Raqqa. The armies had encamped at the site for more than two months prior to the battle and the offensive was finally launched by the Qurra' in Ali's army on July 26 (8 Safar 37 AH) and the battle lasted till July 28 (10 Safar 37 AH). The battle ended when the Syrian army was about to be routed but in a sudden turn of events both parties agreed to settle their conflict via arbitration.


The battlefield was at Siffin, a ruined Byzantine-era village situated a few hundred yards from the right bank of the Euphrates river in the general vicinity of Raqqa in present-day Syria. It has been identified with the modern village of Abu Hureyra in the Raqqa Governorate.[7]


The Rashidun caliphate expanded very quickly under Prophet 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.[8][9]

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.[10] The Muslims paid Zakat on their wealth to the poor. Since the Constitution of Medina was drafted by the Islamic prophet Muhammad, local Jews and Christians continued to use their own laws under Islamic rule and had their own judges.[11][12][13] 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. To stop the Byzantine harassment from the sea during the Arab-Byzantine Wars, Muawiyah set up a navy in 649, manned by Monophysite 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.[14][15][16][17][18] 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, there were deep-rooted differences between Iraq, formerly under the Persian Sassanid Empire, and Syria, formerly under the Byzantine Empire. Each wanted the capital of the newly established Islamic state to be in their territory.[19]

Start of hostilities[edit]

After the Battle of the Camel, Ali returned from Basra to Kufa in 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.[20]

Ali rested in Mashhad al-Hajar, with the Al-Mashahida tribe before going to Syria.

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. 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, "Go away from here, only the sword will decide between us."[21]

Ali's inability to punish the murderers of Uthman and Muawiyah's refusal to pledge allegiance eventually led Ali to move 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[citation needed]. 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. 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.[citation needed]

The main engagement[edit]

The two armies encamped themselves at Siffin for more than one hundred days, trying to avoid conflict and to settle the situation through negotiations. The Qurrā', in Ali's army, who had their own camp started the fighting on July 26 and the battle lasted three days.[22] Historian Yaqubi wrote in Tarikh al-Yaqubi that Ali had 80,000 men of which 70 had fought in the Battle of Badr, 70 had taken the oath at Hudaibiyah, and 400 prominent Ansar and Muhajirun; while Muawiya had 120,000 Syrians under his command.[23]

William Muir wrote:

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.[24]

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 fleeing 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 was estimated to have lost 25,000 men, while Muawiyah 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.[25][26] 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."[25][26]

'Ammar ibn Yasir was among the martyrs on Ali's side. Madelung quotes Al-Tabari by reporting what Muʿāwiya said to his followers after killing Ali's general, Malik al-Ashtar:

Ali ibn Abi Talib had two right hands. One of them was cut at Siffin, meaning ʻAmmār ibn Yasir, and the other today, meaning al-Ashtar.[27]

Hanzala bin Khawalid narrated: I was sitting with Muawiya. Two people were fighting over the head of Ammar bin Yassar. Each one of them was claiming that “I killed Ammar.” Then Abdullah bin Amro said “Each one of you is getting happy over the killing of this person, surely I heard from the Prophet saying this, Oh Ammar the rebellious group will martyr you.”[28]

The earliest account of the battle is found in Ibn Hisham's book, written in 833 where he quotes Ibn Muzahim.(d. 212 AH) and Abu Mikhnaf (d. 170 AH). He 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 fellow Muslims except for the conspirators. The majority of Ali's followers supported arbitration. Ibn Muzahim, being one of the earliest sources, 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.

Ibn Muzahim goes on to quote Muawiya who in response, 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.


It was decided that the Syrians and the residents of Kufa nominate an arbitrator for themselves, each to decide between Ali and Muawiya.

The Syrians chose 'Amr ibn al-'As, leader of the Muslim conquest of Egypt, to be the spokesman of Muawiya.[29] He was a highly skilled negotiator and was previously brought forward to assist in negotiations with Heraclius, the Byzantine emperor.[30] Ali wanted Malik al-Ashtar or Abdullah bin Abbas to be appointed as an arbitrator for the people of Kufa, but the Qurrā' strongly demurred, alleging that men like these two were responsible for the war and, therefore, ineligible for the office of trust. They nominated Abu Musa al-Ashari as their arbitrator, who they had appointed as Governor of Kufa during Uthman's reign after deposing Uthman's governor. Ali found it expedient to agree to this choice in order to ward off bloody dissensions in his army. According to "Asadul Ghabah", Ali had, therefore, taken care to personally explain to the arbitrators:[31]

You are arbitrators 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 arbitrators.

The Iraqis under Ali and the Syrians under Muawiyah were not split over their faith[32] 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:[32]

The thing began in this way: We and the Syrians were facing each other while we had a 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 saber-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.[33]

Ibn Taymiyyah (1263 to 1328) said:

Muawiyah did not call himself to be a caliph and was not given the oath of allegiance to it when he fought Ali (may Allah be pleased with him). He fought not because he considered himself to be the caliph or deserving of the khilafah. This they all agreed upon and he himself would affirm this to whoever 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 (may Allah be pleased with him) and his companions must pledge allegiance and show obedience to Ali, due to his authority such that there be only one caliph 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.[34]

Encyclopedia of Islam says "According to the non-Muslim view the Syrians were winning".[35] Either way, neither the Syrians nor the Iraqis wanted to fight and the battle was stopped.

The following narration often quoted in History of Islam is reported by a narrator called Abu Mukhnaf Loot Bin Yahya.(Asma Al Rijal).(Reference Tarikh Tabri, Part 3, pages 100-125). 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 favored. 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.[36]

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.[37][38][39] This put Ali in a weak position even amongst his own supporters.[37] 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.[36] Feeling that Ali could no longer look after their interests[40] 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."[36] After the battle of Siffin, the Qurrā' formed their own party called the Kharijites ("the Outsiders") which later developed into an anarchist movement[41] that plagued successive governments as late as that of Harun al-Rashid who died fighting them.[42]

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."[43] 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 cousin 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.[44]

They considered anyone who was not part of their group as an unbeliever.[45] 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.'[44]

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.[46] 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.[44]

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 evilest of all persons and are those whom Satan has put on his lines and thrown out into his way less 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.[47]

Muawiyah's army moved into other areas, which Ali's governors could not prevent and people did not support him to fight against them. Muawiyah overpowered Egypt, Yemen and other areas.[48]

Later, in 661, Ali was stabbed 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.[49]


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  48. ^ See: Nahj Al-Balagha Sermons 25, 27, 29, 39 Archived 2007-09-27 at the Wayback Machine
    • Al-gharat (Plunders) which has written by Abi Mikhnaf is a detailed report about these raids.
  49. ^ Tabatabae (1979), page 192 Archived 2008-03-29 at the Wayback Machine


Coordinates: 35°57′00″N 39°01′00″E / 35.9500°N 39.0167°E / 35.9500; 39.0167