The Roots of the Sectarian Split in Islam

The emergence of the first major sectarian division within Islam between what are today called the Shi’a and the Sunni starts at the battle of Siffin in 657 AD between the party of ‘Ali (May God be pleased with him), (referred to as Iraqis in the translation below) the son in law of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the party of Mu’awiya, referred to as Syrians in the translation that follows. This is the account of Abu Mikhnaf, a classical shi’i historian who lived in Kufa and died in 774 AD. This translation appears in The Religio-Political factions in Early Islam by J. Wellhausen, North Holland, Amsterdam 1975.

Being in danger of defeat the Syrians stuck Qur’ans on to the end of their lances, following Amr’s advice. This produced the desired effect upon the Iraqis, in particular the pious Qur’an readers. ‘Ali saw through the ruse, but was unable to prevent its taking effect, and was threatened when he tried to do so. He had to call a halt to the battle, and to bring back Ashtar who was advancing to victory. So as not to expose ‘Ali himself to danger, the latter reluctantly obeyed the repeated command but only after giving vent to his anger against those “pious rascals” who had forced him to give up a certain victory. After ‘Ali had been compelled to submit to this, Ash’ath b. Qays, the chief of the Kinda of Kufa, offered to go to Mu’awiya to plan the next steps. Mu’awiya proposed that each side should choose a representative, and that those chosen should decide to whom hegemony was due, basing their decision on the Qur’an. Ash’ath accepted this proposal and put it to the Iraqis. They at once declared their agreement without consulting ‘Ali. The Syrians immediately chose ‘Amr b. al-‘As, as their representative and the Iraqis chose Abu Musa. ‘Ali protested against the latter in vain, but the same neutrality which made him unacceptable to ‘Ali was what recommended him to the others: (who said)

“We have now fallen into the very situation against which he (Abu Musa) warned us.”

Thereupon a treaty was made in the Iraqi’s camp according to which ‘Ali had to undergo humiliation not unlike that suffered by the prophet at Hudaibiya in similar circumstances. The two sides pledged themselves to lay down their arm and to accept the judgment: the noblest men of the two armies added their signatures. Only Ashtar was obdurate in his refusal, and slandered Ash’ath.

In fact Ash’ath himself was burning with rage, but he continued to play the role of the busily efficient broker. On the completion of the treaty, he rode amongst the Iraqi army and informed them all of its contents. He came close to a group of Tamimites from Basra amongst whom was ‘Urwa b. Udayya al-Hanzali, and read the agreement to them. When ‘Urwa realized that the decision as to who should rule the Theocracy was to lie in the hands of two men, he cried out in anger: “The decision rests with God alone!”, and struck the back of Ash’ath’s mount with his sword, causing it to leap away wildly. Ash’ath’s tribal supporters from Yemen flew into a rage on his behalf against the Tamimites, but their leaders intervened and calmed Ash’ath. But when the Iraqis made their way home, dissatisfaction became widespread with the outcome of the battle. The self same people who had urged ‘Ali to halt the conflict, now blamed him because the future of the Theocracy depended on the opinions of two negotiators. An intense quarrel arose between them and his loyal followers. The former reproached the latter saying that they took ‘Ali’s side even though he was in the wrong, and that they were servants of men, just like the Syrians who went with Mu’awiya through thick and thin, without questioning whether he was right or not. The entry into Kufa became lamentable, almost more miserable than that of a defeated army, because given away so foolishly. The laments for the dead raised by their families cut ‘Ali to the quick, and he was wounded by their open derision of those who were inclined to support ‘Uthman. The traitors rejoiced, while the loyal followers were in distress. Twelve thousand men deserted ‘Ali and did not accompany him into Kufa, but went instead to the small town called harura, with the tahkim as their watchword: “The hukm (that is “the power of decision”) rests with God alone!” Thereafter, they were named the Muhakkimun. Usually they are called the harurites, or more generally, the Khawarij.

As is well known, ‘Ali was assassinated by a Kharijite Abd ur-Rahman in Muljan who struck him with a poisoned sword in the mosque in Kufa on 19th Ramadan, 40 AH. ‘Ali died on the 20th which was January 31, 661 AD.

Wellhausen continues:

It is not at all unlikely that the brandishing of Qur’ans at the height of the danger was an improvisation on the part of the wily ‘Amr b. al-‘As. The idea was obvious, and probably had some precedent. Lances always served as flagstaffs, and the Qur’an was the banner of Islam. In this way the Syrians wanted to show the Iraqis that they were fighting against people whose banner was no less than theirs- the word of God. The Iraqis needed nothing more to understand this, and no wonder it made an impression on them. The struggle for the ruling position in the Theocracy had dragged them into the conflict against ‘Uthman, then against ‘A’isha and the Basrans, and now against Mu’awiya and the Syrians. The jama’a, the unified body of the Theocracy, was split up into the shi’a (party) of ‘Ali and the shi’a of Mu’awiya. This result was a highly dubious one, for Islam had wished to put an end to the fatal divisions and internal strife of the Arabs, and had actually done so. It enjoined the community to revere its peace and unity as something very precious. In the course of the negotiations between the two armies, which lay encamped opposite each other at Siffin for a long time, it became clear in addition that the Syrians were just as God-fearing as the Iraqis, and were equally convinced of their own rights. It is understandable that the Iraqis became somewhat uncertain in their point of view, and that they gave in to the suggestion of sticking the Qur’an on to the lances on the spur of the moment….They were in the grip of a religious dilemma, and did not act from political or military considerations.

I do not agree with Wellhausen’s last sentence. Mu’awiya was an astute leader and ‘Amr b. al-‘As a competent commander. The move to put the Qur’ans on the lances came at the height of the battle as it was turning against the Syrians. It was clearly a calculated move to retrieve a deteriorating situation. It worked in part because of religious feeling and in part because of the weakness of ‘Ali’s leadership.