NOW, SURELY, WAS THE GOLDEN MOMENT FOR ALI, THE MOMENT he and his supporters had waited for. After the stunning victory of the Battle of the Camel, his position seemed unassailable. Yet he must have sensed that the prize he had thought rightfully his all along had begun to turn to dust from the moment he first held it in his hand. He had been Caliph for four months and would remain Caliph for only another four and a half years.
As the early Islamic historians told the story of his brief rule, it would achieve the epic dimensions of classical tragedy. The story they told was that of a noble leader brought low by his own nobility. Of a man of integrity undone by his reluctance to compromise his principles. Of a ruler betrayed as much by the inconstancy of his supporters as by the malice of his enemies. And all of it fated to be, for the tragic flaw was there from the beginning.
Ali had gained the caliphate under tainted circumstances. They were circumstances beyond his control, to be sure—he had done all he could to prevent Othman’s assassination—but they were tainted none theless. No matter the twenty-five years he had sacrificed for the sake of unity within Islam, or his spiritual insight, or the justice of his cause. However great his determination to avoid the nightmare of dissension—of fitna—the nightmare had caught up with him, and engulfed him.
History had turned on him with a horrible irony. Beware of what you wish for, they say, and that thought surely haunted him as he roamed the battlefield after his victory, praying over the corpse of each warrior and wishing he had not lived to see this day. He had pardoned Aisha with goodness—would have done so even if she had not asked—but all the goodness in his nature had not saved him from what he most feared. Worse still, it would now work against him, for though Ali did not yet know it, he had only just begun to fight the real war.
All the while, a far more formidable opponent had been merely biding his time. In Damascus, Muawiya had stood calmly by as Ali had been drawn into civil war. The grisly relics of Othman’s assassination still hung on the pulpit of the main mosque as he had ordered, serving as all too vivid testimony to the original sin of Ali’s rule. But Muawiya saw no reason to take action as long as there was a chance Aisha would do his work for him. Now that she had been defeated, however, he decided to play his hand. He made the cool calculation that if Ali had displayed great nobility of purpose in dealing with Aisha, that same nobility could also serve to hasten his undoing.
The slinky sinuousness of the four drawn-out syllables of the name—Mu-a-wi-ya—seems almost tailor-made for the Shia curses that would be heaped on it in centuries to come. Yet though he would become the Shia epitome of evil, Muawiya may well have been the one man with the political skill and power to keep Islam from falling apart after Ali’s death. Certainly he was no one-dimensional villain, though it is true he looked the part. He had a protruding stomach, bulging eyes, and feet swollen by gout, but as though in compensation for his physical shortcomings, he was possessed of an extraordinary subtlety of mind. If he lacked Ali’s virtues, he had instead the inordinate advantage of strategic skill and political adroitness.
He ran Syria smoothly—“there is nothing I like better than a bubbling spring in an easy land,” he was fond of saying—but it took a certain brilliance to make it look so effortless. By his own account, Muawiya was “a man blessed with patience and deliberateness”—an expert dissimulator, that is, with a positively Byzantine sense of politics that allowed him to turn things to his advantage without seeming to do so.
“How far does your cunning reach?” he once asked his top general. The proud reply—“I have never been trapped in any situation from which I did not know how to extricate myself”—set up the perfect trump card for Muawiya, who countered: “I have never been trapped in any situation from which I needed to extricate myself.”
Eight centuries before Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Muawiya was the supreme expert in the attainment and maintenance of power, a clear-eyed pragmatist who delighted in the art and science of manipulation, whether by bribery, flattery, intelligence, or exquisitely calculated deception. His father, Abu Sufyan, had been the wealthiest and most powerful of Mecca’s traders and had owned valuable estates and mansions in the rich trading hub of Damascus long before Muhammad had his first Quranic revelation. And though Abu Sufyan had led the Meccan opposition to Muhammad, his son’s family ties extended even to the Prophet himself. After the fatah, the “opening” of Mecca to Islam, Muhammad had brought Muawiya close in a demonstration of unity. His eighth wife after Khadija’s death had been Umm Habiba, Muawiya’s sister, and he had appointed her brother to the coveted position of one of his scribes, so that Muawiya could tell of being among those present in Aisha’s chamber in the days that Muhammad lay dying. If no others remembered him being there, it was certainly not in their interest to say so.
He had originally been appointed governor of Syria by the second Caliph, Omar, and was then reconfirmed by Othman, not the least because he was Umayyad kin—a second cousin, in fact. But he was also extraordinarily capable. By the time Ali was acclaimed Caliph, Muawiya had ruled Syria for close to twenty years, and the whole province—nearly all the land now known as Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine—had become his own personal fiefdom, a powerhouse in its own right.
Until now any role he had played in determining the caliphate had been behind the scenes. Certainly there had been rumors about his involvement in Othman’s assassination. Had that secret letter that so incensed the rebels been planted by Marwan on Muawiya’s orders? Had Muawiya deliberately withheld the reinforcements requested by the besieged Caliph? Whether there was any truth to such rumors would always remain unclear, and that was the way Muawiya liked it. If they were to be proved true, they would assign power to him; if proved untrue, they would underline his integrity and loyalty to his cousin. So why acknowledge or deny? Either way, rumor played to his advantage. If people wanted to see him in the role of puppet master, staying behind the scenes and pulling the strings, so be it. It established him as a man it was always unwise to ignore.
For the meantime, he had seemed content to consolidate his position and wait patiently, and he had done so in luxury. His palace in Damascus—known as al-Khadra, the Green One, for its distinctive green-marbled facing—was finer by far than Othman’s in Medina, yet there was none of the resentment against him that Othman had seemed to inspire, perhaps because Muawiya was known for his generosity as much as for his ruthlessness. In fact, he prided himself on being exactly as generous and precisely as ruthless as he needed to be.
“If there be but one hair binding someone to me, I do not let it break,” he once said. “If he pulls, I loosen; if he loosens, I pull.” As for any sign of dissent: “I do not apply my sword where my whip is enough, nor my whip where my tongue is enough.”
His displeasure, when it was roused, was not a dictatorial wrath, but something far more subtle and, because of that, far more chilling. As one of his senior generals put it, “Whenever I saw him lean back, cross his legs, blink, and command someone ‘Speak!’ I had pity on that man.” Yet Muawiya accepted with equanimity the one thing that might have displeased him most, and that was his nickname, Son of the Liver Eater. He certainly recognized the taunt in it, for it was an insult for any man to be known by his mother’s name instead of his father’s, as though he had been born out of wedlock. But he purposely let it ride. “I do not come between people and their tongues,” he said, “so long as they do not come between us and our rule.” After all, why ban the nickname? The famed image of Hind cramming Hamza’s liver into her mouth worked to his advantage. Any son of such a mother could inspire not just fear but respect, and Muawiya commanded both. Except from Ali.
From the moment he had been acclaimed Caliph, Ali was intent on a clear and radical break with Othman’s regime. To that end, he’d ordered Othman’s provincial governors to return to Medina, and they all had, with the sole exception of Muawiya. The only response from Da mascus had been an echoing silence. Muawiya had no intention of being deposed by Ali. In fact quite the reverse.
Ali’s aides warned that Muawiya would not fall into line unless he was reaffirmed as governor. Rather than threaten him, they said, Ali should play politics. Leave Muawiya in place and sweet-talk him with promises, they urged, and they would take matters from there. “If you persuade him to give you allegiance, I will undertake to topple him,” one of his top generals had promised. “I swear I will take him to the desert after a watering, and leave him staring at the backside of things whose front side he has no idea of. Then you will incur neither loss nor guilt.”
Ali would have none of it. “I have no doubt that what you advise is best for this life,” he retorted. “But I will have nothing to do with such underhanded schemes, neither yours nor Muawiya’s. I do not compromise my faith by cheating, nor do I give contemptible men any say in my command. I will never confirm Muawiya as governor of Syria, not even for two days.”
Yet by the time the Battle of the Camel was won, four months had passed; Muawiya was still governor of Syria, and he still had not pledged allegiance. By the time he finally replied to Ali’s demands for obedience, he was openly hostile. “Ali, be firm and steady as a fortress,” he wrote, “or you will find a devouring war from me, setting wood and land ablaze. Othman’s murder was a hideous act, turning the hair white, and none can settle it but I.”
Ali’s response, as Muawiya had intended, was fury. “By God, if Muawiya does not pledge allegiance, I will give him nothing but the sword!” he swore, even as his aides counseled caution.
“You are a courageous man,” said one, “but you are not a warmonger.”
“Do you want me to be like a hyena cornered in his lair, terrified at the sound of every loose pebble?” Ali retorted. “How then can I rule? This is no situation for me to be in. By God, I tell you, nothing but the sword!”
Yet his aide had read him well. Ali was the best kind of warrior, one who hated war. Especially civil war. He had fought the Battle of the Camel, proving his determination no matter how high the cost, but he had not chosen that battle and had done all he could to avoid it. And now, despite his anger, he would do all he could to avoid further bloodshed, trusting that Muawiya shared his horror of civil war.
In time some would say that this was naive on Ali’s part, even foolish. Others would say that he was misled by his own sense of honor, and that his hesitation in taking military action against Muawiya was that of an upright man confronted with a man who was anything but. But then hindsight is always wise. All that can be said for certain is that in the standoff between Ali and Muawiya, right may have been on one side, but political adroitness was on the other. Only faith could imagine that the former would prevail.
Hoping to pressure Muawiya into obedience, Ali led his battle-tested army north out of Basra to Kufa, a hundred and fifty miles closer to Damascus, and prepared for a long stay. The message was clear: if Muawiya wanted a confrontation, the whole of Iraq would be against him.
The former garrison town of Kufa was now a thriving city on the banks of the Euphrates, with villas built by Othman’s administrators lining the river. But Ali refused to take up residence in the former governor’s mansion. Qasr el-Khabal, he called it, the Castle of Corruption. Instead, he made his headquarters in a modest mud-brick house alongside the mosque. There would be no more green-marbled palaces, no more favoritism of cronies and kin, no more profiteering at public expense, he declared. He would restore the rule of righteousness, and the Kufans loved him for it.
With the Caliph in residence, Kufa became the effective capital of the Muslim empire. Its inhabitants were no longer “provincial rabble” and “boorish Beduin.” They were at the heart of Islam, and Ali was their champion. The burgeoning city had drawn in freed slaves, peasants, traders, and artisans, attracted to Kufa as people still are today to rapidly expanding cities: by the prospect of opportunity, real or illusory. Persians and Afghans as well as Iraqis and Kurds, most of them were converts to Islam, but until now they had been considered second-class Muslims. Under Ali, they were welcomed as equals. The Arabism of Omar and the Umayyadism of Othman were things of the past. Ali, the closest of all men to the Prophet, would lead a return to the ideal of a more perfect union of all believers.
Ali never intended the move to Kufa to be a permanent one. His plan was to return to Medina as soon as he had settled the issue with Muawiya and Syria, but he never would return. From the moment he made the decision in favor of Kufa, Muslim power began to leave Arabia behind, and this was entirely Muawiya’s doing. By refusing to recognize Ali as Caliph, he had forced the issue. It was his defiance that had brought Ali to Kufa and that would lead to Iraq’s becoming the cradle of Shia Islam.
Yet it was perhaps inevitable that sooner or later the center of Islamic power would move out of Arabia, and nowhere more naturally than to Iraq. The fertile lowlands between the Tigris and the Euphrates, together with the rich grazing of the Jazeera steppes to the north, had traditionally been the true heartland of the Middle East. The great cities of ancient renown—the Sumerian city of Ur, a hundred miles downriver from Kufa; the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, near Mosul in the north; Babylon, some forty miles north of Kufa; the Persian jewel of Ctesiphon, close to modern Baghdad—all had been in Iraq. Now this land was again the geographical and agricultural center of a vast region, its control pivotal, as both Ali and Muawiya were highly aware, to control of the whole empire.
To the Umayyad aristocrats of Mecca, however, there could be no worse fate. The power they had wielded under Othman would be utterly lost, while these Iraqi newcomers to Islam would be empowered. For the center of Islam to move from where it belonged, in Arabia? It was an insult, a clear reward to the “provincial riffraff” that so ardently supported Ali. Were Mecca and Medina to be sidelined? To become mere places of pilgrimage, hundreds of miles from the center of power? Were they to be relegated to the status of onlookers in the faith to which they had given birth?
The Meccans’ concerns were well founded. Their descendants were to be the Islamic rulers of the future, but they would never live in Arabia. As the centuries passed, Muslim power would center in Iraq, in Syria, in Persia, in Egypt, in India, in Spain, in Turkey, anywhere but Arabia, which became increasingly cut off, saved from reverting back to its pre-Islamic isolation only by the pull of the annual hajj pilgrimage. Arabia would not exert political power again for more than a thousand years, until the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect emerged from the central highlands in the eighteenth century to carry out violent raids against Shia shrines in Iraq and even against the holy places of Mecca and Medina. In alliance with the Saud family, the Wahhabi influence would spread worldwide in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Financed by oil wealth, Arabia—now Saudi Arabia—would regain the preeminence it had once held in Islam, aided and abetted by the Western thirst for oil even as it nurtured the Sunni extremists who would turn so violently against the West.
Only one thing remained for Muawiya to put into place, and that was a popular outcry for war against Ali. His position would be far stronger if he could manipulate not just assent to war, but a demand for it. He had kept the pot simmering with the display of Othman’s shirt and Naila’s severed fingers on the pulpit in Damascus, but now he needed to bring it to a boil. In a move worthy of the most skillful modern spin-meisters, he would steal Ali’s sense of honor and adapt it to fit himself instead.
He set about a carefully staged campaign to present himself as loath to take action. He would have to be forced into it by the outraged conscience of the people. If he declared war on Ali, he would then merely be obeying their will, the humble servant of his people and their demand for justice.
The first line of attack in this campaign was poetry. This is certainly a strange idea in the modern West, where poets are so easily ignored, but in the seventh-century Middle East, poets were stars. Especially satirical poets, whose work was endlessly quoted and chanted. It was written not to be read but to be memorized and repeated, to make the rounds not of literary salons but of the streets and the alleys, the marketplace and the mosque. The more cutting the verses and the sharper the barbs, the more popular and irresistibly repeatable they were, and the more renowned their creators.
They were taken with sometimes deadly seriousness. When one popular poet opposed Muhammad’s ascent to the leadership of Medina—“Men of Medina, will you be cuckolds allowing this stranger to take over your nest?” she’d taunted—she had received a sword through her heart in the dead of night for her pains. Word spread as quickly as her poems had, and other Medinan wordsmiths who had been critical of Muhammad quickly began turning out verses in his praise.
In the twenty-first century, Westerners shocked at the scope of Muslim reaction to Danish cartoons of Muhammad seemed to conclude that there is no tradition of satire in Islam. On the contrary, there is a strongly defined tradition, and one clearly linked to warfare. In the seventh century, satire was a potent weapon, and it is still seen that way. Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses created such a stir in the Islamic world because it was an extraordinarily well-informed satire. By playing on Quranic verses and on hadith reports of Muhammad’s life, Rushdie cut close to the bone. While satire may be thought relatively harmless in the West—at its best, cutting-edge humor, but the cut only a figurative one—in Islam the cut is far more literal. When they are the first weapon in war, words draw blood.
Satire was usually aimed at the enemy, however. It took a mind as subtle as Muawiya’s to see the potential in poems that seemingly insulted him, calling his virility into question and accusing him of weakness if he held back from open war with Ali.
Some of these were written, or at least signed, by his cousin Walid, who was also Othman’s half brother—the same man who had fueled resentment of the third Caliph with his drunken antics in the pulpit as governor of Kufa. “Muawiya, you have wasted time like a stallion camel in lust, confined and bellowing in Damascus but unable to move,” Walid wrote. “By God, if another day passes without revenge for Othman, I would that your mother had been barren. Do not let the snakes come at you. Do not be faint with withered forearms. Present Ali with a war to turn his hair gray!”
Others urged Muawiya to “rise high in the stirrup” and “grasp the forelocks of opportunity.” But the most popular of all the verses making the rounds in Damascus was the one that clearly laid out the opposing sides. “I see Syria loathing the reign of Iraq,” it went, “and the people of Iraq loathing Syria. Each one hates his partner. They say Ali is our leader, but we say we are pleased with the son of Hind.”
Such poems could not possibly have circulated without Muawiya’s knowledge and approval. They were an essential part of his campaign to rouse the will of the people to war—a will that was eminently amenable to skillful manipulation. In fact, the will of the public can still be manipulated in much the same way in even the most proudly democratic of countries, as was clear when the Bush administration falsely presented the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a response to the Al Qaida attack of September 11, 2001.
Muawiya’s declaration of war came by letter. “Ali, to each Caliph you had to be led to the oath of allegiance as the camel is led by the stick through its nose,” he wrote, as though Ali were not himself the Caliph but at best a mere pretender. He accused Ali of inciting the rebellion against Othman “both in secret and openly.” Othman’s murderers were “your backbone, your helpers, your hands, your entourage. And the people of Syria accept nothing less than to fight you until you surrender these killers. If you do so, the Caliph will be chosen by a shura among all Muslims. The people of Arabia used to hold that right in their hands, but they have abandoned it, and the right now lies in the hands of the people of Syria.”
In Muawiya’s hands, that is. The governor of Syria was ready to claim the caliphate for himself.
Early that summer of 657 the two armies, Syrian and Iraqi, met at the Plain of Siffin just west of the Euphrates, in what is today northern Syria. Ali’s army had followed the river five hundred miles north from Kufa in high spirits. The farther they’d ridden, the clearer the air had become, free of the humidity that hung over the lower Euphrates. The rich alluvial valley gradually narrowed. Desert bluffs gave way to the high grazing lands of the Jazeera with snow-covered mountains to the north, and the silt-laden river that had eddied wide and brown at Kufa ran strong with the end of the snowmelt.
If they prevailed, all Syria lay before them, and its crown, Damascus, with its enormous wealth. They had heard tell of the lushness of Damascus—the canals, the trees, the exotic fruit, the Green Palace with its marble forecourts and gem-encrusted thrones and bubbling fountains. The very idea of fountains! Clear, fresh water in such lavish abundance that it could be used for mere amusement? This was worth fighting for.
Thousands of armed men do not march hundreds of miles to make peace, yet once they reached Siffin, it was a matter of honor to each side that it be seen as the injured party, not the aggressor. For weeks, then, they held back, engaging only in duels and skirmishes. Even these almost ritualized encounters were strictly limited, for when the time for prayer arrived, as it then did three times a day, the warriors separated and moved half a mile apart to pray. “As night fell,” one of them remembered, “we would ride into each other’s camps and sit down and talk.”
Their commanders talked too. An ornate canvas pavilion was erected between the two armies, with the banners of both sides fluttering from each corner. Here Ali’s and Muawiya’s envoys tested each other’s determination. But Muawiya had a clear advantage in such talks: he was fully aware of Ali’s horror of civil war, and now sought ways to make this work to his advantage. After all, there were other, less costly means than outright war to achieve his aims.
Even as he publicly demanded that Ali resign as Caliph, Muawiya instructed his envoys to quietly propose an alternative solution. He and Ali should avoid war by agreeing to divide the empire between them, he said. He would take Syria, Palestine, and Egypt and all the revenue from them, and Ali would retain control of Iraq, Persia, and Arabia. A de facto partition of the empire, that is, along the very lines that had divided the Byzantine and Persian empires before the Arab conquest, and in effect, two Caliphs instead of one.
It came as no surprise when Ali indignantly turned down the idea, but even if the proposal was bound to fail, it served as yet another means of taunting him. Ideally, it might even prompt him into attack so that Muawiya would then seem the injured party, and Ali the aggressor. Instead, Ali made one last effort to avoid all-out battle. He rode up to the pavilion at the center of the plain and called out Muawiya, his voice carrying to the front lines of either side as he challenged the Syrian governor to a one-on-one duel that would decide the whole matter and save mass bloodshed.
Muawiya’s chief of staff, Amr, the famed general who had conquered Egypt for Islam, urged him to accept the duel. “It is not fitting that you refuse such a challenge,” he said with the military man’s code of honor. “Ali has made you a fair offer.”
But Muawiya was more than content to leave honor and valor to Ali. His concern was far more practical. “It is not a fair offer,” he retorted. “Ali has killed everyone he has ever challenged to single combat.” And with this refusal, the only option left was battle.
Ali turned back and addressed his troops. “The Syrians are fighting only for this world, that they may be tyrants and kings in it,” he said. “If they are victorious, they will pervert your lives and your faith. Fight them now, or God will take the rule of Islam away from you and never bring it back!” As his men cheered him on, he called on them to display all the ferocity of those who had been grievously wronged. “Fight the enemy,” he said, “until their foreheads are split by shafts of iron and their eyebrows are dispersed over their chins and their chests.”
This time there would be no breaks for prayer and no riding into each other’s camp to talk things over. The Battle of Siffin lasted three days, and the fighting was so intense that it continued right through the second night. The Night of Shrieking, they were to call it, for the unearthly howls of men in mortal agony, a sound more fortunate people now know only as that of an animal hit by a car, dragging itself to the side of the road to die.
Ali himself was nearly killed. Arrows fell so thick and fast around him that as one witness said, “his two cubs, Hasan and Hussein, were hard put to fend off the shafts with their shields.” They urged Ali to move faster so as to avoid being so exposed. His famed reply, the epitome of heroic sangfroid in the face of battle, was an augury of what was to come.
“My sons,” he said, “the fateful day will inevitably come for your father. Going fast will not make it come later, and going slow will not make it come sooner. It makes no difference to your father whether he comes upon death, or death comes upon him.”
But death would not come upon Ali at Siffin. As the sun rose on the Friday morning, the field was all but won. The Syrian line was not holding, and the Iraqis were slowly but inexorably advancing, despite their losses. It was only a matter of time—another few hours at most—until Ali’s forces could claim a definitive victory, or so it seemed.
Amr persuaded Muawiya that what could not be won by might could nonetheless be won by guile. Unburdened as Muawiya was by any aspiration to spiritual leadership, he should feel free to make whatever he saw as the best use of faith. So the command was given: not to retreat, and certainly not to surrender, but to bring several parchment copies of the Quran. These were distributed among Muawiya’s top cavalry, with orders for each horseman to spear a single parchment sheet on the tip of his lance and then ride into the enemy lines. Instead of waving the white flag of surrender, Muawiya would wave the Quran.
No white flag could have been more effective than the sight of those parchment leaves fluttering atop the enemy lances. Stop fighting, in the name of God, was the message. Do not shed blood on the leaves of the Holy Book. As Muslim men, put up your arms. And in case any missed the message, the Syrian cavalrymen cried out the words Muawiya had ordered them to use: “Let the Book of God be the judge between us!”
Ali was stunned by such gall. Even to think of placing the Quran on lances was blasphemy. Surely his own soldiers could see this for what it was, a ruse, pure and simple. “They have raised up the Holy Book only to deceive you,” he yelled at his troops. “All they want is to outwit you and trick you.”
But if half the men could see that, the other half could not. “When we are called to the Book of God,” they said, “we must answer the call. We cannot fight against the Quran itself.” And despite orders to the contrary from their commanders, they laid down their weapons. On the verge of victory, Ali could only watch as it was snatched away.
“By God,” he fumed at his men, “I tell you that you have been cheated!” But reason was no weapon against faith. The image of Othman’s blood-stained Quran was still fresh in the men’s memory; they were not about to commit sacrilege again.
Muawiya quickly sent up a herald to stand between the two armies and read aloud his proposal for how they should proceed. The issue of who should be Caliph, he said, should be resolved not by men but by God, not by battle but by the Quran itself. Each side should pick its most trusted representative to sit in arbitration and resolve the issue, using the Quran as his sole guide. The final judgment would thus be that of God alone.
The proposal drew cheers from Ali’s men, for Muawiya had deliberately couched his proposal in the most pious terms. Besides, it seemed clear to them that any arbitration guided by the Quran could only favor Ali. But Ali himself was not deceived. The very idea of arbitration to decide who was to be Caliph not only placed his own right to the caliphate in question from the start, it also made the Quran itself a matter of negotiation. For the first time, the Quran was being made into a political tool.
Ali had been thoroughly outmaneuvered. No matter that he could plainly see how Muawiya had manipulated the situation, or that one of the most worldly of men had used faith as a weapon against one of the most spiritual. With his troops standing fast by their refusal to fight any further, Ali was left no option but to consent to arbitration. “Do not forget that I forbade you this,” he told his men. “This will only demolish strength, destroy right, and bequeath lowliness. Shame on you! You are like cowardly she-camels rooting in the muck for scraps. You will never again see glory!”
It was less than a year since he had been acclaimed Caliph in Medina, yet here, on the Plain of Siffin, he surely sensed that his reign would not be a long one. He had been on the brink of winning the battle, and now had begun to lose the war.