A ROAR WENT UP FROM AISHA’S FORCES AS HER CAMEL WAS LED onto the field of battle. It was a red riding camel—the best kind, fast and sturdy—and the canopy set on top of it was draped not with muslin but with chain mail and, over that, red silk.
The howdah towered over the vast array of horsemen and infantry. More visible than any banner, it was an instant rallying point for Aisha’s men. The most prominent, the most outspoken, and the most beloved of the Prophet’s widows, the one who had cradled his head as he lay dying, was not merely on the sidelines; she was right here, among them, right at the heart of battle. Under the command of the Mother of the Faithful, there was nothing they would not do.
Through the chinks in the chain mail, Aisha had a clear view of the whole field. She could see where her lines were doing well and where they were being pressed, call for one sector to be reinforced or another to advance. Her commands were relayed by runners to Talha, who was in charge of the horsemen, and to Zubayr, at the head of the foot soldiers.
As the red silk fluttered over her armored canopy, her high voice pierced through the early-morning air, all the more chilling for being disembodied, its source hidden from sight. “You are heroes, by God. You are like mountains!” she urged her warriors. “Show your valor, sons of mine! Show these murderers what you can do! May they rue the day they were born! May their mothers be bereaved of them!”
And again and again, the urgent refrain: “Death to the killers of Othman! Death to all who support them! Revenge for Othman!”
This was the traditional role of women in battle, though never before from the center. Usually they stayed at the rear, where they urged on their side, mocking the virility of their enemies and daring their own fighters to feats of valor. Their shrill ululations were designed to strike fear in the hearts of the other side, much as the eerie sound of bagpipes in a very different part of the world. They cut through the funk of fear and overrode the sounds of bodies colliding, of steel clashing, of men panting in each other’s grip, gasping as steel entered flesh, moaning as they lay injured and dying.
It was women who called for blood, and if any doubted what they were capable of, people still talked with awe of the aristocratic Hind, whose husband had led the Meccan opposition to Muhammad and his followers. Her father had died in the first major battle between the Meccans and the Medinans, and she knew who had killed him: Muhammad’s uncle Hamza. So when the Meccans marched on Medina to do battle again, it had been Hind who led the chanting, taunting Muhammad’s men and daring them to advance; Hind who had been fired up with the thirst for revenge and who put a price on Hamza’s head; Hind who roamed the battlefield after the two sides had fought to a standoff, who strode from corpse to corpse, searching for the one she wanted.
She found it, and when she did, she uttered a cry of victory that years later still froze the blood of those who had heard her. She stood astride Hamza, gripped her knife with both hands, and plunged it deep into his body, gouging him open to rip out not his heart but something far larger and far more visceral—his liver. Ululating in triumph, she held that liver up high above her head and then, in full view of all, she crammed it into her mouth, tore it apart with her teeth, spat out the pieces, stamped on them, and ground them into the dirt.
Who could ever forget the sight of that blood running from her mouth and streaming down her chin and her arms, of those eyes gleaming with revenge? It was so compelling that people still referred to her son, half in taunt, half in admiration, as the Son of the Liver Eater. Never to his face, though, for he was none other than Muawiya, the man who had become the powerful governor of Syria. Like his mother, he was not one to be trifled with.
Yet even Hind had stayed in the rear during the fighting itself. Even she had been too much the urban aristocrat to ride into the thick of battle. That was the kind of thing nomadic women were known for: women like the fabled Umm Siml, who had led her tribe in fierce resistance against Abu Bakr’s forces during the Wars of Apostasy. Poets still celebrated her in long odes to the romance of the desert. They praised the sacred white camel she had ridden on and the absolute fearlessness and devotion she had inspired in her men until both she and the camel were finally slain. But Umm Siml had not been a Muslim—not by Abu Bakr’s reckoning, in any case. She had been an apostate. So when Aisha rode out onto that battlefield outside Basra on her red camel, it was the first time a Muslim woman had led men into war. It was also to be the last.
Nobody doubted her right to be there, not at the time. Her critics raised their voices only later. “We fought for a woman who thought herself the Commander of the Faithful,” said one survivor bitterly. Said another: “Instead of trailing her skirts at home, she crossed the desert at a gallop, making herself a target her sons had to defend against spears and arrows and swords.” It is not hard to imagine how the same phrases could be turned around in odes of praise to her courage and leadership, all the more if she had been victorious, or if she had been killed in battle like Umm Siml, but that was not to be.
• … …
What Aisha saw from the height of her camel was a battle as horrific as all had feared. Hardened warriors swore the rest of their lives that they had never seen so many severed arms and legs. It lasted from early morning to midafternoon, and by the time it was done, three thousand men, most of them from Aisha’s army, lay dead and dying.
The survivors told their stories, as survivors must. Some chose the path of inspiration, heroic tales of sangfroid in the face of death, like that of the warrior who used his own severed leg as a weapon. The leg had been cut off by a huge sweep of his opponent’s sword, and his own sword was gone. He knew that he was done for, but he seized the severed leg, swung it with lethal force at the very man who had cut it off, then collapsed from loss of blood, his head on his enemy’s chest. That is how a fellow warrior found him just before he died. “Who did this to you?” he asked.
The answer came with a smile: “My cushion.”
Such tales of indomitable spirit in the face of death are legion. Men fight on bravely despite the loss of arms and legs. They fight with their hearts, defying inevitable odds. They fight to the last drop of their own blood, holding their swords in their teeth if need be, as would Hussein’s half brother Abbas twenty-five years later at Karbala, when he became one of the great heroes of Shiism. But nobody denies that such tales are a matter of bravado, and everyone knows bravado for what it is: an attempt to ward off terror. That is why most of the stories of the Battle of the Camel forgo heroics for a palpable sense of folly, of the senselessness and tragedy of it all. Each account, each teller, acted as another voice in a vast Greek chorus of tragedy, testifying to the awful bitterness and waste of civil war.
This was hand-to-hand fighting—eye-to-eye fighting, that is, and the eyes they looked into were often those of people they knew. The division between Ali’s forces and Aisha’s cut deep into the social order. Tribes were divided against themselves that day, and within the tribes, clans and families were split between the two sides, so that cousins, blood brothers, even fathers and sons fought each other.
There was none of the cool distance of modern warfare, where technology reigns and nobody sees the eyes of the enemy or hears the screams. Hand-to-hand combat was utterly and horribly visceral. When they grappled too close to use swords or daggers, they used whatever they could instead. Two fingers jabbed in the eye here. A knee to the genitals there. A rock to the head. An elbow in the kidneys. Warrior after warrior told of the bite of steel into flesh, the acrid smell of blood spouting from severed arteries, the terrifying, unholy, god-awful messiness of combat, with men soiling themselves in fear, with the stink of guts ripped out, with the wild-eyed panic of horses, the blind frenzy of humans, and the sheer bloody-minded desperation of each and every one to find some way, any way, to end the day alive.
Talha and Zubayr were both dead by noon. Talha had taken command of the cavalry and fought valiantly. He might even have prevailed if he had not been shot in the back by an arrow—shot, that is, by someone on his own side. Word was that this someone was none other than Marwan, and indeed, he later admitted as much. Justifying himself with the most pious argument, he pointed out that since Talha had been one of Othman’s leading critics, encouraging the rebellion that led to assassination, his claim to be fighting in the name of revenge for Othman was hypocrisy. Thus Marwan, by his own account, had been merely the instrument of justice.
As always when it came to Marwan, there were those who suspected otherwise. Some said he had seized the opportunity to pick off a rival for the caliphate, since if Aisha’s side had won the day, Talha would have been declared Caliph, frustrating Marwan’s own ambitions. Others said that he had deliberately hung back until he could see which way the battle was going and had then targeted Talha in a misguided attempt to ingratiate himself with Ali. Yet others were convinced that he had acted under orders from a far more powerful rival for the caliphate, for no sooner was the battle lost than he rode across the desert to Damascus, to become a senior counselor in the court of Muawiya, the governor of Syria. One would need a mind as devious as Marwan’s to know where the truth lay.
Zubayr’s death was another act of treachery, though it would remain unclear exactly whose treachery it was. Word had it that no sooner had the battle begun than Zubayr left the field and started on the road back to Mecca. A clear matter of cowardice, some said, though given Zubayr’s record as a warrior, that was hard to believe. A matter of honor, said others, since Zubayr had been in dismay when the truce he had worked so hard to achieve had been so abruptly broken. He had given his word to Ali that his side would not start the fighting, yet now his word had been broken, and he had taken this all the harder since he had already gone back on his word to Ali after swearing allegiance to him, and regretted it. If he had not been a man of honor before, he would be one now, and die for it.
The Meccans would claim that Beduins, always unreliable in Meccan eyes, had chased after Zubayr and killed him as a deserter. But at whose orders? There were rumors of the hand of Marwan at work once again, making sure that both Talha and Zubayr were safely out of the way of his own ambitions, but there was never any proof. It would take Zubayr’s son many years to redeem his name.
With both Talha and Zubayr dead, Aisha’s battle was lost. All that was left for her to do was give the order to retreat. Yet still she urged her men on, still she uttered her war cries—the high-pitched curses, the chanted taunts—rallying her men around her red camel. It was as though she could not acknowledge even the idea of defeat, or was so carried away by her own rhetoric that she was blinded to the bloodshed all around her. Or perhaps she thought she would show them all that she was not afraid, that she was as courageous as they, that she had what it took. She would never surrender. She would fight to the bitter end.
The battle was reduced to an intense huddle of a few hundred of her men around the camel. One by one, warrior after warrior stepped up to take hold of the camel’s nose rein, holding the animal steady to prevent it from bolting from the tumult. One by one, they stood defenseless, with the rein in one hand and her banner in the other, and one by one, they were cut down.
Each time one was killed, another came to take his place. Each time another came, Aisha asked who he was, and he announced himself: his given name, his family, his clan, his tribe. Each time she acknowledged his lineage, called him noble, praised his courage, and watched through the chinks in her chain mail canopy as he too was killed.
Ali’s soldiers shouted to her men to surrender, pleaded with them even. There was no battle left to fight, they yelled, no point in this stubborn self-imposed slaughter. But their pleas went unheeded, perhaps even unheard by men deaf to reason, and the deaths around her camel would be laid at Aisha’s door. She called herself the Mother of the Faithful, people would say, but what kind of mother would call on her sons to sacrifice themselves this way?
“Oh Mother of ours, the most uncaring mother we know,” one poet later wrote. “Did you not see how many a brave man was struck down, his hand and wrist made lonely?”
“Our Mother brought us to drink at the pool of death,” wrote another. “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.”
Seventy men were cut down as they held the reins of Aisha’s camel, their bodies strewn at her feet. But if she looked on in horror at the slaughter, she gave no indication of it, and if she was terrified for her own life, she never let anyone know. She certainly heard the arrows thudding into her armored howdah; there were so many of them stuck in the chain mail, one warrior remembered, that it “bristled like a porcupine.” Did that armored canopy insulate her somehow from the bloodshed? Did it dull the sounds of death? Was she deaf and blind to suffering, or bravely willing to die for her beliefs? Then, as ever, which Aisha you saw depended not on the facts but on politics.
There is no knowing how many more men might have been killed holding the camel’s rein if Ali had not ridden up to put a stop to it. He could see that any demand for surrender was pointless; Aisha’s men were too caught up in the heroics of self-sacrifice to hear reason. Yet it was just as clear that if this went on, Aisha herself would be killed, and her death was the last thing he could permit. Whatever he thought of her, she was still the leading Mother of the Faithful.
“Hamstring the camel!” he shouted. “If it’s hamstrung, it will fall, and they will disperse!” And the sudden leap of reason spurred one of his men to slip through the cordon of Aisha’s defenders and slash at the tendons of the camel’s rear legs.
An agonized bellowing filled the air. It took everyone by surprise, as though after all the terrified trumpeting of horses, the cries and howls of men on the attack or falling to their deaths, the clash of steel on steel, the unending stream of curses and taunts from the howdah, the last thing they expected was to be rooted to the spot by the maiming of a single animal. “I have never heard a louder sound than the bellowing of that camel,” one warrior declared, haunted by the memory of it, perhaps because once the bellowing stopped, there was silence.
Ali’s men stood staring as the camel teetered for a long moment, then slowly collapsed. When it finally hit the ground, they seemed to regain their senses, rushing to cut the straps holding the howdah in place, then lifting it off with Aisha still inside. There was not a sound from her now that she had been brought down to earth, and the silence from the howdah was almost as unnerving as the noise from it had been before.
They had captured the Mother of the Faithful, but now they hung back, unsure how to proceed. None of them dared approach until Ali gave the order to Muhammad Abu Bakr, his stepson and Aisha’s half brother, who shouldered his way through the crowd, strode up to the howdah, and drew apart the armored curtains to ask, “Is all well with you?”
“I have an arrow in me,” she whispered, and there it was, embedded in the flesh of her upper arm, the only barb out of the hundreds shot at the howdah that had penetrated the armor. Her half brother reached in and pulled it out, and if the pain of it was terrible, as it surely was, Aisha allowed not so much as a whimper to escape her lips. Even in defeat, her pride would not permit weakness.
Her voice issued calm and clear from inside the howdah as she finally conceded the battle, if not the war. “Ali son of Abu Talib,” she said, “you have gained victory. You have put your forces to the test well today, so now pardon with goodness.”
“Oh Mother, may God forgive you,” he said.
“And you,” was her ambiguous reply, but Ali let it pass.
Goodness there would be. Ali ordered his stepson to escort Aisha back to Basra; her wound was to be treated, and she was to be accorded full respect. Only then, as she was mounted on a horse and led away from the field, did she seem to register the full extent of what had happened. “Oh God,” she kept saying, “had I but died two decades before this day!” Yet it would never be clear if she said this in shame at her defeat, or in regret for her actions, or in sorrow for the thousands of warriors slain at her command.
Ali stayed behind. As the light faded, he walked the corpse-strewn battlefield, and as he went, he repeated the same phrase Aisha had used: “Oh God, had I but died two decades before this day!” Deep in dismay and sorrow, he patrolled the field far into the night. His men watched as he stopped at every dead body and prayed over it, both those of his own side and those of Aisha’s. Many of them he recognized. He paid tribute to their bravery and grieved for their lives, but above all, he spoke of his horror at the sight of so many Muslims killed by Muslims. “I have healed my wounds this day,” he mourned, “but I have killed my own people.”
He stayed there three days, making amends in the way only he could. He forbade his men to kill the enemy wounded or captives. These were not apostates but good Muslims, he declared; they should be accorded the utmost respect. Those who had fled were not to be pursued. All prisoners were to be set free after pledging allegiance to him, and the usual spoils of war swords and daggers, purses and jewelry—were to be returned. To compensate his own men for the loss of spoils, he would pay them directly from the treasury of Basra.
The enemy dead were buried as honorably as those who had fought for Ali. The hundreds of severed limbs were gathered together and placed with ceremony in one large grave. Only when all that had been done—when each and every one of the thousands of dead had been laid to rest in accordance with Islamic law—did Ali ride into Basra and accept the whole city’s renewed pledge of allegiance.
If he had done all he could to ease the inevitable bitterness of defeat for those who had fought against him, he now did even more for the woman who had led them. To demean Aisha in defeat, he insisted, would only be to demean both himself and Islam. Once again, he chose the path of unity over that of revenge. When Aisha had recovered from the wound in her arm, Ali assigned Muhammad Abu Bakr to head a military escort to take her back to Medina, together with a full entourage of Basran women to see to her every need, and as her caravan prepared to leave, Aisha seemed to acknowledge his graciousness—at least in part.
“My sons,” she told the Basrans, “it is true that some of us criticized others, but do not hold what you have heard against them. By God, there was never anything between myself and Ali other than what usually happens between a woman and her in-laws. Whatever I have said in the past, he has shown himself one of the best of men.”
It was as close as she would ever come to a concession speech. Never mind that despite the apparent meekness, it glossed over the truth. She had reduced a bid for control of a vast empire to the level of a mere family squabble, and, in so doing, had surely belittled the thousands who had given their lives for it. Moreover, if she seemed to imply that she accepted Ali as Caliph, she had avoided actually saying so. But Ali could see that this was as far as she would go; there was nothing to be gained by pushing for more. “By God, men,” he said, “she has spoken the truth and nothing but the truth. She is the wife of your Prophet now and forever.” And together with his sons Hasan and Hussein, he did her the honor of riding alongside her for the first few miles of the route back to Medina.
Aisha accepted all this as her due, but on that long journey back to the Hijaz mountains and the shelter of home, she surely knew that she had suffered far more than a single defeat in battle. If Ali had accorded her honor in defeat, his aides had been less inclined to goodness. She would have many years yet to mull the words of one of his cousins, who had marched uninvited into the house where she was recuperating in Basra and let loose with a torrent of vituperation.
It was she who had incited the people against Othman, he reminded her. Brandishing the Prophet’s sandal the way she had? That was an insult to everything Muhammad had stood for. “If you had but a single hair of the Prophet’s,” he said, “you would boast of it and claim to benefit through it.” Worse, by inciting Muslims to battle against other Muslims, she had committed a crime against the Quran, the word of God. But above all, how dare she challenge the Ahl al-Bayt, the family of Muhammad?
“We are of the Prophet’s flesh and blood,” he said, “while you are merely one of nine stuffed beds he left behind. And not the one with the firmest root, or the lushest leaves, or the widest shade.”
How horrible for the defeated Aisha to hear herself described as just another of the Prophet’s wives, and in such crude terms. For the woman who had always insisted on her unique closeness to Muhammad, this was the ultimate humiliation. And how awful to have her childlessness—no root, no branches, no leaves—thrown in her face yet again, and under such circumstances. This she would never forgive, or forget.