First Fitna

Rashidun-era Muslim civil war (656 to 661)
First Fitna
Part of the Fitnas
First Fitna Map, Ali-Muawiya Phase.png
  Region under the control of Caliph Ali
  Region under the control of Mu'awiya
Arabian Peninsula
Result Peace treaty signed;
Mu'awiya I begins the Umayyad Caliphate
Rashidun Caliphate Mu'awiya's forces and Aisha's forces Kharijites
Commanders and leaders
Ammar ibn Yasir 
Malik al-Ashtar
Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr 
Hujr ibn Adi Executed
Zubayr ibn al-Awwam 
Mu'awiya I
'Amr ibn al-'As
Abd Allah ibn Wahb al-Rasibi
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First Fitna

The First Fitna (Arabic: فتنة مقتل عثمان, romanizedfitnat maqtal ʻUthmān, lit.'strife/sedition of the killing of Uthman') was the first civil war in the Islamic community. It led to the overthrow of the Rashidun Caliphate and the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate. The civil war involved three main battles between the fourth Rashidun caliph, Ali, and the rebel groups.

The roots of the first civil war can be traced back to the assassination of the second caliph, Umar. Before he died from his wounds, Umar formed a six-member council, which ultimately elected Uthman as the next caliph. During the final years of Uthman's caliphate, he was accused of nepotism and eventually killed by rebels in 656. After Uthman's assassination, Ali was elected the fourth caliph. Aisha, Talha, and Zubayr revolted against Ali to depose him. The two parties fought the Battle of the Camel in December 656, in which Ali emerged victorious. Afterward, Mu'awiya, the incumbent governor of Syria, declared war on Ali ostensibly to avenge Uthman's death. The two parties fought the Battle of Siffin in July 657. This battle ended in a stalemate and a call for arbitration, which was resented by the Kharijites, who declared Ali, Mu'awiya, and their followers as infidels. Following the Kharijites' violence against civilians, Ali's forces crushed them in the Battle of Nahrawan. Soon after, Mu'awiya also seized control of Egypt with the aid of Amr ibn al-As.

In 661, Ali was assassinated by the Kharijite Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljam. After Ali's death, his heir, Hasan, was elected caliph and soon after attacked by Mu'awiya. The embattled Hasan concluded a peace treaty, acknowledging the rule of Mu'awiya. The latter founded the Umayyad Caliphate and ruled as its first caliph.


Following Muhammad's death in 632, Abu Bakr became the new leader of the Muslim community. After reasserting Muslim control over the dissident tribes of Arabia, he sent the Muslim armies against the empires of Byzantium and Sasanian Persia, initiating a wave of conquests which were continued by his successor Umar (r. 634–644), bringing about the near total collapse of the Sasanians, and restricting the Byzantine Empire to Anatolia, North Africa, and its European holdings.[1] The conquests brought Muslims bounteous revenue and lands.[2] Particularly in Iraq, the former crown-lands and the lands of the Persian aristocracy were now in Muslim hands. These became communal property administered by the state. The revenue was distributed among the conquering troops, who had settled in Iraq.[3] Umar also left the provincial administration to the respective governors, who ruled with considerable autonomy, and provincial surplus was spent on the Muslim settlers of the conquered territories instead of being forwarded to the capital, Medina.[4]

Uthman succeeded Umar after the latter's assassination in 644. His policies elicited discontent among the Muslim elite and accusations of nepotism. He began centralizing the power by reliance on his Umayyad relatives, who had long opposed Muhammad before converting to Islam in 630, to the exclusion of other members of the Quraysh,[a] who had enjoyed significant authority during the reign of his two predecessors. He appointed his kinsmen to all of the provincial governorships.[5] Although Uthman continued the expansion in eastern Persia and west of Egypt, the conquests came to a halt around the later half of his reign.[6] The influx of spoils slowed, and the economic issues that had previously been ignored by the conquest tribesmen due to incoming revenue started coming to the fore.[7] This was coupled with the dislike of the Arab nomads for central authority which had hitherto been superseded by the continued war effort.[8] The continued migration of tribes from Arabia to the conquered territories also resulted in reduced payments from the revenue of the lands, which led to resentment among the earlier settlers.[9] Uthman's interference in provincial affairs, including his declaration of the crown lands of Iraq as state assets, and his demand that the provincial surplus be forwarded to the caliph in Medina, brought about widespread opposition to his rule, especially from Iraq and Egypt, where the majority of the conquest armies had settled.[10] The early settlers also saw their status threatened by the land grants in the conquered territories to prominent Qurayshites like Talha ibn Ubayd Allah and Zubayr ibn al-Awwam and the caliph allowing late-arriving tribal chiefs, such as Ashath ibn Qays, to acquire lands there in exchange for their lands in Arabia.[11]

Encouraged by the Medinese elite including prominent figures like Talha, Zubayr, Amr ibn al-As, the conqueror of Egypt whom Uthman had deposed, and Muhammad's widow A'isha, the provincial opposition subsequently broadened into open rebellion. Dissidents from Egypt and Iraq marched on Medina, killing the caliph in June 656.[12] Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, was subsequently recognized caliph.[13]

Battle of the Camel

A'isha, Talha, and Zubayr opposed Ali's succession and gathered in Mecca, where they called for vengeance for Uthman's death and the election of a new caliph, presumably either Talha or Zubayr, through consultation.[14] The rebels raised an army and captured Basra from Ali's governor, inflicting heavy casualties on his men, with the intention of strengthening their position.[15] Ali sent his son, Hasan, to mobilize troops in Kufa.[16] He soon followed them and the combined army marched to Basra.[17]

The two armies met outside of Basra. After three days of failed negotiations, the battle began in the afternoon of 8 December 656 and lasted until the evening.[18] Zubayr left the field without fighting but was pursued and killed by the troops of al-Ahnaf bin Qays, a chief of the Banu Sa'd who had remained on the sidelines of the battle, likely for the dishonorable act of leaving his fellow Muslims behind in a civil war for which he was partly responsible.[19] Talha was killed by the Umayyad Marwan ibn al-Hakam, another notable rebel.[20]

With the death Talha and Zubayr, the fate of the battle was sealed in favor of Ali. However, as the rallying point of her army, the fight continued until Ali's troops succeeded in killing A'isha's camel, from which the battle received its name.[21] After admonishing A'isha, Ali sent her back to Medina, escorted by her brother.[22] Ali also announced a public pardon and set the prisoners free.[23] This pardon was also extended to high-profile rebels, including Marwan, who soon joined with his Umayyad kinsman Mu'awiya ibn Abi Sufyan, the governor of Syria, as a senior advisor.[24]

Battle of Siffin

Combat between the forces of Ali and Mu'awiyah I during the Battle of Siffin, from the Tarikhnama

Shortly after assuming power, Ali moved to dismiss most of Uthman's governors whom he considered corrupt, including Mu'awiya, Uthman's cousin.[25] Mu'awiya refused to step down and instead, through a representative, informed Ali that he would recognize the caliphate of Ali in return for the governorship of Syria and Egypt for life.[26] Ali rejected this proposal.[27] Earlier, he had also refused to temporarily confirm as governor Mu'awiya, whom Ali viewed as a contemptible man.[28]

Mu'awiya now declared war on Ali on behalf of the Syrians, with the objectives of vengeance for Uthman's death, deposing Ali, and establishing a Syrian council to appoint the next caliph, presumably Mu'awiya.[29] In a letter to him, Ali wrote that Mu'awiya was welcome to bring his case for Uthman to Ali's court of justice. Ali then challenged Mu'awiya to offer any evidence that would incriminate him in the murder of Uthman. He also challenged Mu'awiya to name any Syrian who would qualify for a council.[30] Following Mu'awiya's declaration of war, Ali called a council of Islamic ruling elite which urged him to fight Mu'awiya.[31]

The two armies met at Siffin, west of the Euphrates, early in the summer of 657 CE.[32] There, the two sides negotiated for weeks.[33] Notably, Mu'awiya repeated his proposition to recognize Ali in return for Syria and Egypt, which was rejected again.[34] In turn, Ali challenged Mu'awiya to a one-on-one duel to settle the matters and avoid the bloodshed. This offer was declined by Mu'awiya.[35] The negotiations failed on 18 July 657 and the two side readied for the battle.[36] The main battle began on Wednesday, 26 July, and lasted for three or four days.[37] By its last day, the balance had gradually moved in Ali's favor.[38] 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.[39]


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Mu'awiya carried out the above strategy of appealing to the Quran when he was informed that his army could not win the battle.[40] Faced with an appeal to their holy book, Ali's forces stopped fighting, despite Ali's warnings that raising the Quran was for deception.[41] Compelled by the strong peace sentiments in his army and threats of mutiny, Ali accepted the arbitration proposal.[42]

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.[43] In the final agreement on 2 August, 657 CE, Abu Musa represented Ali's army while Mu'awiya's top general, Amr ibn al-As, represented the other side.[44] The two representatives committed to adhere to the Quran and Sunnah, and to save the community from war and division.[45]

The two arbitrators met together, first at Dumat al-Jandal and then at Udhruh, and the proceedings likely lasted until mid April 658 CE.[46] At Dumat al-Jandal, the arbitrators reached the verdict that Uthman had been killed wrongfully and that Mu'awiya had the right to seek revenge.[47] This was a political verdict according to Madelung, rather than a judicial one, and a blunder of the naive Abu Musa.[48] This verdict strengthened the Syrians' support for Mu'awiya and weakened the position of Ali.[49]

The second meeting at Udhruh likely broke up in disarray when, at its conclusion, Amr violated his earlier agreement with Abu Musa.[50] The Kufan delegation reacted furiously to Abu Musa's concessions.[51] He was disgraced and fled to Mecca, whereas Amr was received triumphantly by Mu'awiya on his return to Syria.[52] After the conclusion of the arbitration, Syrians pledged their allegiance to Mu'awiya in 659 CE as the next caliph.[53] Ali denounced the conduct of the two arbitrators as contrary to the Quran and began to organize a new expedition to Syria.[54]

Battle of Nahrawan

Following the Battle of Siffin, a group separated from Ali when he agreed to settle the dispute with Mu'awiya through arbitration, a move considered by the group as against the Quran.[55] Most of them had earlier forced Ali to accept the arbitration, but now exclaimed that the right to judgment belonged to God alone.[56] While Ali largely succeeded in regaining their support, the remaining opponents of arbitration gathered in Nahrawan, on the east bank of the Tigris.[57] In view of their exodus, this group is known as the Kharijites, from the Arabic for "to go out" or "to rise in revolt".[58][59]

The Nahrawan Canal ran parallel to the east bank of the Tigris.

The Kharijites denounced Ali as caliph, declared him, his followers, and the Syrians as infidels, and instead elected Abd Allah ibn Wahb al-Rasibi as their caliph. They declared the blood of such infidels to be licit.[60] The Kharijites later started the practice of interrogating civilians about their views on Uthman and Ali, and executing those who did not share their views.[61] In a notable incident, the Kharijites disemboweled a farmer's pregnant wife, cut out and killed her unborn infant, before beheading the farmer.[62] Kharijites have been viewed as the forerunners of Islamic extremists.[63]

A 1909 photograph of the Nahrawan Canal

Ali received the news of the Kharijites' violence and moved to Nahrawan with his army.[64] There, he asked the Kharjites to surrender the murderers and return to their families.[65] The Kharijites, however, responded defiantly that they were all responsible for the murders as they all considered it licit to kill both Ali's followers and the Syrians.[65] After multiple failed attempts for deescalation, Ali announced an amnesty (that did not apply to murderers) and barred his army from commencing hostilities.[66] The remaining Kharijites, estimated at 2800, attacked and were vanquished by the vastly superior army of Ali. The injured, estimated at 400, were pardoned by Ali.[67] In January 661, when praying at the Mosque of Kufa, Ali was assassinated by the Kharijite Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljam.[68]

Peace treaty with Hasan

After the assassination of Ali in January 661, his eldest son, Hasan, was elected caliph in Kufa.[69] Mu'awiya shortly marched on Kufa with a large army, while Hasan's military response suffered defections in large numbers, in part facilitated by military commanders and tribal chiefs who had been swayed to Mu'awiya's side by promises and offers of money.[70] After a failed assassination attempt on his life, a wounded Hasan, who by now only ruled the area around Kufa, agreed to a peace treaty with Mu'awiya in 661.[71] Under this treaty, Hasan ceded the caliphate to Mu'awiya in exchange for a general amnesty for the people and the return of the caliphate to Hasan after Mu'awiya's death.[72] However, Hasan died in 669 at the age of forty six.[73] It is believed that he was poisoned at the instigation of Mu'awiya.[74] Mu'awiyah was crowned as caliph at a ceremony in Jerusalem in 661.[75]


  1. ^ Grouping of the Meccan clans to which Muhammad and the caliphs, including Uthman, belonged.


  1. ^ Lewis (2002, pp. 49–51)
  2. ^ Donner (2010, p. 148)
  3. ^ Kennedy (2016, p. 59)
  4. ^ Kennedy (2016, pp. 60)
  5. ^ Wellhausen (1927, pp. 41–42). Lewis (2002, p. 59)
  6. ^ Donner (2010, p. 148). Lewis (2002, p. 60)
  7. ^ Wellhausen (1927, pp. 43)
  8. ^ Lewis (2002, p. 60)
  9. ^ Donner (2010, p. 148). Kennedy (2016, p. 63)
  10. ^ Kennedy (2016, pp. 61–62)
  11. ^ Donner (2010, pp. 149–150). Kennedy (2016, p. 63)
  12. ^ Kennedy (2016, pp. 64–65). Lewis (2002, p. 60)
  13. ^ Kennedy (2016, p. 65)
  14. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 157, 158). Rogerson (2006, pp. 289, 291)
  15. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 162, 163). Hazleton (2009, p. 107). Rogerson (2006, p. 294). Abbas (2021, p. 137). Veccia Vaglieri (2021b)
  16. ^ Madelung (1997, p. 166). Hazleton (2009, p. 107). Rogerson (2006, p. 295). Poonawala (1982). Veccia Vaglieri (2021). Veccia Vaglieri (2021b)
  17. ^ Donner (2010, p. 158–160)
  18. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 169, 170). Rogerson (2006, p. 295). Poonawala (1982). Gleave (2008)
  19. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 170, 171). Rogerson (2006, pp. 295, 296). Veccia Vaglieri (2021b)
  20. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 171, 172, 181)
  21. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 172, 173). Hazleton (2009, pp. 118–121). Abbas (2021, p. 140). Rogerson (2006, pp. 296, 297). Veccia Vaglieri (2021b)
  22. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 168–174)
  23. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 175, 179, 180). Hazleton (2009, p. 122). Abbas (2021, p. 141). Rogerson (2006, p. 298). Veccia Vaglieri (2021b)
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  27. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 204). Hinds (2021)
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  30. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 205, 206)
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  33. ^ Lecker (2021)
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  46. ^ Donner (2010, p. 162). Madelung (1997, pp. 254, 255). Hazleton (2009, p. 210)
  47. ^ Madelung (1997, p. 255). Abbas (2021, p. Uthman had indeed been wrongfully killed). Aslan (2011, p. 137)
  48. ^ Madelung (1997, p. 256). Rogerson (2006, p. 312)
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  52. ^ Madelung (1997, p. 257). Hazleton (2009, pp. 212). Rogerson (2006, p. 312)
  53. ^ Madelung (1997, p. 257). Hazleton (2009, pp. 212). Rogerson (2006, p. 312). Bowering et al. (2013, p. 31). Donner (2010, p. 163). Hinds (2021)
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  55. ^ Poonawala (1982). Hazleton (2009, p. 141)
  56. ^ Poonawala (1982). Hazleton (2009, p. 141). Veccia Vaglieri (2021)
  57. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 248, 249, 251, 252). Abbas (2021, pp. brought many of them out). Rogerson (2006, pp. 311, 313). Donner (2010, p. 163). Wellhausen (1901, p. 17). Poonawala (1982). Veccia Vaglieri (2021)
  58. ^ Francesca, Ersilia. Dammen McAuliffe, Jane (ed.). "Khārijīs". Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. Georgetown University. doi:10.1163/1875-3922_q3_EQCOM_00103. Retrieved 18 Aug 2022 – via Brill.
  59. ^ Levi Della Vida (1978, pp. 1074, 1075). Poonawala (1982). Veccia Vaglieri (2021)
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  61. ^ Wellhausen (1901, pp. 17–18). Hazleton (2009, p. 143). Madelung (1997, p. 254)
  62. ^ Hazleton (2009, pp. 143, 144). Madelung (1997, pp. 254, 259)
  63. ^ Hazleton (2009, p. 144). Abbas (2021, p. 152)
  64. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 259, 260)
  65. ^ a b Madelung (1997, p. 259)
  66. ^ Madelung (1997, p. 260). Wellhausen (1901, p. 18)
  67. ^ Morony (2021)
  68. ^ Wellhausen (1901, p. 18)
  69. ^ Madelung (1997, p. 311). Glassé (2003, p. 423)
  70. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 317–320). Momen (1985, p. 27)
  71. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 319, 322)
  72. ^ Momen (1985, p. 27). Madelung (1997, p. 322)
  73. ^ Momen (1985, p. 28)
  74. ^ Madelung (1997, p. 331). Momen (1985, p. 28)
  75. ^ Avi-Yonah (2001)


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Further reading

  • Djaït, Hichem (30 October 2008). La Grande Discorde: Religion et politique dans l'Islam des origines. Editions Gallimard. ISBN 978-2-07-035866-3. Arabic translation by Khalil Ahmad Khalil, Beirut, 2000, Dar al-Tali'a.
  • "Encyclopedia Iranica". Encyclopædia Iranica. Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University. March 1997. ISBN 1-56859-050-4.
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