A DISPIRITED IRAQI ARMY FOLLOWED ALI ON THE LONG JOURNEY back to Kufa. Many of the men had begun to second-guess their eagerness to accept arbitration at Siffin. Perhaps they realized that they had indeed been duped, and their faith used against them, because none were more bitter than those who had most stoutly insisted on laying down their arms when they had seen the Quran on the lances of Muawiya’s cavalry. And since Muawiya was by then back in Damascus, they took out their bitterness on the man who had led them to Siffin in the first place.
Blaming Ali for the very act they had forced him into, they would form an entirely new kind of enemy, not from Mecca or from Syria but from within his own ranks—an enemy all the more dangerous since they were fueled not by the desire for power but by the blind, implacable logic of embittered righteousness.
Their leader was Abdullah ibn Wahb, a name that still reverberates in the Islamic world since it calls to mind Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect that today holds sway in Saudi Arabia and is the ideological backbone of Sunni extremism. To his followers, the seventh-century Wahb was known as Dhu’l Thafinat, the Scarred One. Some said this was because of the dark callus on his forehead, a sign of extreme piety created by repeated bowing down in prayer, others that it was because his left arm was deformed from battle wounds. Either was reason enough to hold him in awe.
When Ali ascended the steps of the pulpit to give his first sermon back in Kufa, Wahb began to berate him. “You and the Syrians have vied with each other in unbelief like two horses in a race,” he declared. “God’s ruling on Muawiya and his followers is that they should repent or be killed, yet you have made an agreement with them to let men decide. You have given men authority over the Book of God, and so your deeds are worthless, and you are lost!”
His followers joined in. The role of Caliph could not be arbitrated, they shouted. The succession to the Messenger of God was a matter of divine right. That right had been Ali’s, but he had now forfeited it. He was as guilty as Muawiya of transgressing divine law. There was no difference between the two; both were equally abhorrent in the eyes of God. And again and again, they shouted out the slogan that was to become their rallying cry. “Judgment belongs to God alone!” they cried. “To God alone!”
“Those words are true,” Ali countered, “but you twist them and use them to mean something false.” It was they who had insisted that he agree to arbitration at Siffin, he said. They had ignored his warnings then; how could they now attack him for doing what they had insisted on?
But there is nobody as righteous or as blind to reason as the reformed sinner. “When we wanted arbitration,” Wahb replied, “we sinned and became unbelievers. But we have repented. If you now do the same, we will be with you. But if you will not, then as the Quran says, ‘We reject you without distinction, for God does not love the treacherous.’ ”
As the rest of the mosque rose in uproar over the idea of Ali as a traitor to Islam, Wahb declared that the whole of Kufa was mired in a state of jahiliya, the pagan darkness that had reigned before the advent of Islam. “Let us go out, my brothers, from this place of wicked people,” he said, and go out they did, some three thousand strong. Fifty miles north of Kufa they established a new settlement on the Tigris at Nahrawan. It was to be a haven of purity, Wahb announced, a beacon of righteousness in a corrupt world.
He and his men were to be the first Islamic fundamentalists. They called themselves the Rejectionists—khariji, meaning “those who go out.” The reference was to the phrase “those who go forth to serve God’s cause” in Sura 9 of the Quran, which is aptly titled “Repentance.” They had seen the light and repented, and with the absolutism of the newly penitent, they devoted themselves to the letter of the Quran and to the exclusion of its spirit. We are holier than thou, they were saying, purer than the pure. And as is the way with such righteousness, they took their zeal for purity over the brink into all-out fanaticism.
Anything that fell short of their standard of faith was nothing less than apostasy and had to be ruthlessly rooted out lest it contaminate the righteous. They began to terrorize the countryside around Nahrawan, submitting everyone they caught to a kind of mini Inquisition. If the answers failed to satisfy their rigid standards, the punishment was death.
Matters came to a head when they chose the farmer son of an early companion of Muhammad’s as their victim. A number of them had ridden into his village for supplies and decided to make an example of him. Since his father had been among those who had warned against taking sides before the Battle of the Camel, they posed a loaded question. “Did your father not tell you that the Prophet told him: ‘There will be a fitna in which the heart of a man will die as does his body, and if you are alive then, be not the slayer, but the slain’? Did he not say that?”
That was indeed what the Prophet had told his father, the farmer replied, even as he trembled in fear, for it was clear that a refusal to take their side was the utmost betrayal in the eyes of these men and that he himself was about to be not the slayer but the slain. Yet as they closed in around him, he took a brave last stand. “Ali knows far more of God than you do,” he said.
With that, he sealed his fate. Ali was an apostate in Rejectionist eyes, and anyone who submitted to the rule of an apostate was himself guilty of apostasy, and his life forfeit. They leaped on the farmer, tied him up, and dragged him together with his pregnant wife beneath the heavily laden date palms of an orchard next to the river.
The details of what happened next are tellingly precise. At one point, a date fell to the ground, and one of the Rejectionists picked it up and put it in his mouth. “You do that without the owner’s permission and without paying for it?” said the leader of the band. “Spit it out!” Then another began to swing his sword in threatening circles and by chance hit a cow that had wandered behind him, killing it. At this, the others insisted he go find the owner and pay him the animal’s full value. They waited while he did so, and then, having acted with the utmost righteousness in the matter of both the date and the cow, they meted out due punishment. They made the farmer kneel and watch as they disemboweled his wife, cut out the unborn infant, and ran it through with a sword. Then they cut off the farmer’s head. “His blood flowed like the lace of a sandal,” swore one witness. Justice thus upheld—the date spit out, the cow paid for, the farmer and his wife butchered—they purchased their supplies and went on their way back to Nahrawan.
They did so with the clearest of consciences. Even the murder of the wife and unborn child, they maintained, was called for by God, since women and children of the enemy shared in the sin of their male kin. There were no innocents. And in this, the seventh-century khariji Rejectionists set the pattern for their descendants.
Like his forerunner the Scarred One in the seventh century, Abd al-Wahhab would “go forth” with his followers into the desert highlands of central Arabia eleven centuries later. There, near what is today the city of Riyadh, he set up a spartan, purist community uncontaminated by the pagan darkness and corruption he claimed was rife in Mecca and Medina. As had the Rejectionists, the Wahhabis soon raided far and wide out of their desert stronghold. Early in the nineteenth century, they destroyed the domes over the shrines of Fatima and others in Medina, and even damaged the Prophet’s own tomb. Such ornate shrines were idolatry, they said, and rode on north into Iraq, where they ransacked the shrines of Ali and his son Hussein in Najaf and Karbala.
The Wahhabis’ impassioned call for a return to what they saw as the purity of early Islam gathered strength in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not only in Saudi Arabia but also in such movements as the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Salafis in Egypt, and Al Qaida. The perceived enemy within Islam would become as dangerous as the enemy without, if not more so. Like the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981, any leader who dared negotiate with an enemy, let alone make peace, was declared the archenemy, and headed the list of those to be eliminated.
Among Iraqi Shia today, the word “Wahhabi” still serves as shorthand for all forms of Sunni extremism, no matter their countries of origin. The power politics of the Iraq civil war have been played out against a millennium and a half of Shia memories of intolerance and barbarity, all leading back to that scene by the Tigris of the butchering of a farmer and his pregnant wife, and to the spectacle of a rightful Caliph in Kufa accused of betraying the Quran by the men who had insisted that he lay down his arms in its name.
For Ali, the slaughter under the date palms was beyond contempt. He sent a message to Wahb demanding that he surrender the killers. “As the Quran says, ‘Indeed, this is clear depravity’ ” he wrote. “By God, if you had killed even a chicken in this manner, its killing would be a weighty matter with God. How will it be, then, with a human soul whose killing God has forbidden?”
Wahb’s reply: “All of us are their killers. And all of us say: Your blood, Ali, is now halal—permitted—for us.”
It was an outright declaration of war, in words that still chill the blood of anyone who hears them in the Muslim world. They are the words of implacable righteousness, of those who kill without compulsion, in the name of God. For the third time, Ali was left no choice but to do the one thing he most abhorred: lead a Muslim army against other Muslims.
When they reached Nahrawan, it was quick and bloody. The Rejectionists hurled themselves against Ali’s vastly superior forces, seemingly regardless of any concern for their own survival. “The truth has shone forth for us!” they cried to one another. “Prepare to meet God!”
And an ominous precursor to the cry of modern suicide bombers: “Hasten to Paradise! To Paradise!”
Only four hundred Rejectionists survived, though it might have been better for Ali if there had been no survivors at all. More than two thousand martyrs were created that day, and as is the way with martyrs, their memory would inspire yet more.
The man who had sacrificed so much to avoid fitna had now fought three civil war battles. In all three, he had been victorious—or would have been if his men had kept fighting at Siffin—but he could not escape a growing feeling of self-loathing. He had waited twenty-five years for this? Not to lead Islam into a new era of unity but to kill other Muslims?
“Since I became Caliph,” he told his cousin, “things have gone continually against me and diminished me.” If it were not for the need to stand up against corruption and oppression, “I would throw off the bridle of leadership, and this world would be as distasteful to me as the dripping from the nose of a goat.”
With Muawiya working against him, however, the diminishment would only continue. As was his style, the Syrian governor continued to undermine Ali at every turn. “After Siffin,” he later said with great satisfaction, “I made war on Ali without armies and without exertion.”
The arbitration agreed on at Siffin took almost a year to set up. There were all the usual diplomatic preliminaries: the need to agree on an agenda; to determine the size and makeup of the delegations from each side; to agree on the timing of the conference, the format, and the location, a small town halfway between Kufa and Damascus. Yet when all the details were in place and the two sides finally met, it would end only in further bitterness.
Muawiya was represented by his chief of staff, Amr, who had conquered Egypt for Islam and was soon to become its governor in reward for his work. Ali would have chosen his own chief of staff, the general who had so vividly volunteered to take Muawiya to the desert “and leave him staring at the backside of things whose front side he has no idea of,” but his men insisted instead on the aging Abu Musa. This was the man who had argued so strongly that they should remove their spearheads and unstring their bows before the Battle of the Camel. “Fitna rips the community apart like an ulcer,” he had said then, and now that the ulcer was eating at them, they remembered his words. Never mind that Ali’s chief aides called Abu Musa “blunt of blade and shallow,” a man too easily manipulable by sharper minds. The rank and file countered that “he warned us of what we have fallen into.” They would accept nobody else.
The conclave lasted two weeks, and at the end, Abu Musa and Amr stepped forward to make a joint declaration. As Abu Musa understood it, they had agreed to the perfect compromise: A shura would be held to reaffirm both Ali as Caliph and Muawiya as governor of Syria. That is what he announced to the hundreds of those gathered for the concluding ceremony. Then came the double cross.
When Amr stepped up to the podium, his spin on Abu Musa’s words was not at all what the old man had in mind. He and his good friend Abu Musa had indeed agreed to a shura, he said, but its purpose was to confirm not Ali but his opponent as Caliph. “I hereby confirm Muawiya as the true Caliph,” Amr concluded, “the heir of Othman and the avenger of his blood.”
Curses hurtled through the air, fistfights broke out, and the conclave broke up in more turmoil than when it had begun. Abu Musa fled for Mecca, where he lived out his days in privacy and prayer, utterly disillusioned with public life, while Amr returned to Damascus to lead the acclamation of Muawiya as Caliph.
The year was 658, and there were now two Caliphs. A Caliph and an anti-Caliph, that is, and no agreement on which was which. The odds against Ali were stacked higher than ever, and due to his principled insistence on equalizing the revenues from Islam, they were to become higher still.
Influential estate owners and tribal leaders were accustomed to what they considered the perks of their position. Without these perks, they were open to what Muawiya called “the use of honey”—sweetening the pot. So when Ali refused to make sweetheart deals with the nobility, he paid dearly. Even one of his own half brothers, infuriated by the lack of a special pension, was bribed over to Muawiya’s side.
But there were also other uses for honey. Muawiya had his sights set on Egypt, where Ali’s stepson, Muhammad Abu Bakr—Aisha’s half brother—had proved a weak governor. Ali himself ruefully acknowledged that he was “an inexperienced young man.” So when news came that Muawiya was planning to dispatch Amr to take over Egypt, Ali sent one of his most experienced generals to shore up the province’s northern defenses. The general traveled by ship from Arabia instead of taking the land route through Palestine so that he could avoid Muawiya’s agents, but that was wishful thinking. When his boat docked, he was welcomed with a great show of hospitality by the chief customs officer, a man already well “sweetened” by Muawiya, and offered the customary honeyed drink in welcome.
The poison in it killed him within hours. As Amr would later say, “Muawiya had armies in honey.”
Poison has none of the heroics of battle. It works quietly and selectively, one might almost say discreetly. For Muawiya, it was the perfect weapon.
His personal physician, Ibn Uthal, a Christian and a noted alchemist, was an expert on poisons, as was his successor, Abu al-Hakam, also a Christian. Their records no longer exist, but Ibn Washiya’s Book on Poisons, written in ninth-century Baghdad as a guide for his son, has survived.
Equal parts biology, alchemy, and superstition, Ibn Washiya’s work constituted the state of the art for centuries to come. One section deals with poisons that work by sound. It was thought that certain sounds under certain circumstances could kill, and it may have been this belief that heightened Aisha’s terror when she heard the howling dogs at Hawab. Another section details the use of various parts of snakes, scorpions, and tarantulas, but even seemingly innocuous creatures could be effectively used. If nothing else, the Twenty-third Compound Poison, for instance, was sure to produce death by botulism. It called for “the blood of a decrepit camel” to be mixed with its gall, sprinkled with squill and sal ammoniac, and then buried in donkey manure for a month “until it is musty and covered with something that resembles a spider’s web.” Two grams of this in food or drink, and death was guaranteed within three days.
If more rapid fatality was desired, it could be induced by cyanide extracted from apricot pits, with the faint almond odor masked in a drink of date juice or goat’s milk thickened with honey. Or there were herbal poisons like henbane and deadly nightshade. A particular favorite was monkshood, specifically recommended for use on the blade of a sword or a dagger so that the slightest nick would provide effective entry into the bloodstream of the victim. And by the end of the seventh century, the alchemists of Damascus had developed “inheritance powder”—transparent arsenic, odorless and tasteless, which could be slipped into a drink by anyone seeking to speed up the process of inheritance.
With such an arsenal at his disposal, one can see how Muawiya could boast that he made war on Ali without armies. Honey worked for him and would continue to do so, whether in bribes or in a cooling, fatal drink.
The Syrian army took Egypt with ease. Muhammad Abu Bakr had sent a small force to the border, but they were completely outnumbered, and routed. Dismayed by such ineffective leadership, the rest of his army either fled or switched sides to join forces with the Syrians, and when Abu Bakr himself was hunted down, alone and half dead of thirst in the desert, the Syrian soldiers carried out their revenge for Othman on the man who had led his assassins. Ignoring orders to take Abu Bakr alive, they sewed him into the rotting carcass of a donkey, then set it on fire. Some accounts have it that he was already dead by then; others, that he was still alive and burned to death.
Ali was distraught at the news, and Aisha even more so. As though she had never been alienated from her young half brother, she mourned him at dramatic length—so much so that she provoked one of her fellow Mothers of the Faithful, Muawiya’s sister Umm Habiba, into sending her a “condolence gift” of a freshly roasted leg of lamb, dripping with bloody juices. The accompanying message read: “So was your brother cooked.” Aisha was violently sick at the sight of it, and, at least by her own report, refused to touch meat again for the rest of her life.
Ali had lost Egypt, and still the attacks kept coming from every quarter. The khariji Rejectionists had reorganized and attracted thousands of new recruits not only in Iraq but throughout Persia, where whole cities now ousted Ali’s governors and refused to send taxes to Kufa. Syrian units began a long series of harassment raids into Iraqi territory, terrorizing the population and reinforcing the feeling that Ali could not provide even the most basic security. Arabia itself came under attack, yet even after Muawiya had sent a punitive force to Mecca and Medina and on into the Yemen, where thousands of Ali loyalists were summarily executed, Ali could not rouse his once-invincible army to action. Demoralized by the seemingly endless civil war, his men refused to move. “Our arrows are exhausted,” they said. “Our swords are blunt, and our spearheads all used up.”
The man who had been so famed for eloquence was reduced to haranguing his own fighters, berating them as cowards. “You Kufans are only lions in time of peace, and sly foxes when you are called to be brave,” he complained from the pulpit. “May your mothers be bereaved of you! I call you to the aid of your brothers in Mecca and Medina and you gurgle like slack-jawed camels slurping their water. If you hear even a rumor of Syrian horsemen coming against you, each of you hides in his house and locks his door, like a lizard in his hole. Whoever places his trust in you is duped. Whoever draws you, draws a useless lot. You have filled my heart with pus and lined my breast with anger. By God, knowing you has brought in its wake nothing but grief and sorrow. If I did not desire to die in God’s cause, I would not remain with you one more day.”
And indeed, he had few days yet to come.
It happened at dawn on Friday, January 26, in the year 661, midway through the monthlong fast of Ramadan. Ali had walked to the mosque in Kufa for the first prayer of the day. He never saw the armed man lurking in the shadow of the main entrance, not until the raised sword glistened above him in the early light and he heard the Rejectionist cry coming from his attacker’s lips: “Judgment belongs to God alone, Ali! To God alone!”
The sword blow knocked him to the ground and gashed his head open. “Do not let that man escape,” he shouted as he fell, and worshipers rushed out of the mosque and caught hold of his assailant.
Ali remained lucid even as the blood ran down his face and people began to panic at the sight. There was to be no call for revenge, he said. “If I live, I shall consider what to do with this man who attacked me. If I die, then inflict on him blow for blow. But none shall be killed but him. Do not plunge into the blood of Muslims saying ‘The Commander of the Faithful has been killed!’ And do not inflict mutilation on this man, for I heard the Messenger of God say, ‘Avoid mutilation, even on a vicious dog.’ ”
The assassin was executed the next day. Ali’s wound had not been fatal, but the poison smeared on the sword had done its work.
Hasan and Hussein washed their father’s body, rubbed it with herbs and myrrh, and shrouded it in three robes. Then, as Ali had instructed them, they set his body on his favorite riding camel and gave it free rein. Forty years before, Muhammad had given his camel free rein to determine where the mosque would be built in Medina. Where it stopped, there the mosque was built. Now another sainted animal would determine where Ali would be buried. Wherever it knelt, that was where God intended Ali’s body to rest.
The camel went a half day’s journey, walking slowly as though it knew its burden and was weighed down by grief. It knelt some six miles east of Kufa, atop a barren, sandy rise—najaf in Arabic—and there his sons buried the man who would ever after be revered by all Muslims, but by two very different titles: the first Imam of Shia Islam, and the last of the four rashidun, the Rightly Guided Caliphs of Sunni Islam.
“Today, they have killed a man on the holiest day, the day the Quran was first revealed,” Ali’s elder son, Hasan, said at the graveside. “If the Prophet sent him on a raid, the angel Gabriel rode at his right hand, and the angel Michael at his left. By God, none who came before him are ahead of him, and none who come after him will overtake him.”
In time, a shrine would be built over Ali’s grave on that sandy rise, and the city of Najaf would grow up around it. Each time the shrine was rebuilt, it grew more magnificent, until the gold-leafed dome and min a rets soared above the city, shining out to pilgrims still twenty miles away. By the late twentieth century, Najaf was so large that nearby Kufa had become little more than a suburb hard by the river. All the more canny, then, of Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of today’s Mahdi Army, when he adopted not the Najaf shrine but the main mosque of Kufa as his home pulpit. In doing so, he took on the spirit not of Ali assassinated, but of the living Imam. Preaching where Ali had preached, Muqtada assumed the role of the new champion of the oppressed.
But Najaf was to be only the first of Iraq’s twin holy cities. As the Caliph Muawiya assumed uncontested power, the second city was still just a nameless stretch of stony sand fifty miles to the north. It would be twenty years yet until Ali’s son Hussein would meet his fate here, and this stretch of desert be given the name Karbala, “the place of trial and tribulation.”