THE MOMENT SHE HEARD THE DOGS, AISHA KNEW IT FOR AN omen. The sound itself was familiar enough; howls often rang through the desert night as wolves and hyenas and jackals prowled in the dark. It was where they were howling that unnerved her so: the very place Muhammad had warned her of.
As her army filed into the small oasis midway between Mecca and the distant lowlands of Iraq, it had seemed a welcome stop for the night, but when the howling began, she’d asked: “What is this place?” And when she’d heard the answer—“the waters of Hawab”—a terrible fear possessed her.
“We belong to God and to Him we shall return,” she screamed—the Islamic formula recited in the face of death. People crowded around her in alarm. “Don’t you see?” she pleaded. “I am the one they are howling at. I heard the Prophet say darkly to his wives, ‘I wish I knew which one of you the dogs of Hawab would howl at.’ I am the one! Take me back! Take me back!”
What had she done? What had she set in motion? For the first time in months, doubt crept into her mind, and once there, it settled in, paralyzing her.
She had still been in Mecca when the news arrived of Othman’s assassination—of her own half brother’s role in it and, worse still, Medina’s acclamation of Ali. Never mind that she had taunted Othman as “that dotard,” or that she had brandished Muhammad’s sandal at him and openly accused him of betraying the sunna. Never mind that her own letters had helped fuel the rebellion against him or even that her most earnest wish had been to toss him into the sea with a millstone around his feet. Whatever she had intended, it was not this. Not assassination, and certainly not Ali as the new Caliph.
A mix of shock and fury carried her straight to the center of the great mosque—to the sanctuary itself, the Kaaba—and there she stood by the sacred black stone set into its corner and raised her voice loud and clear for all to hear, a firebrand speaking in the name of justice.
“People of Mecca,” she proclaimed. “The mob of men, the riffraff from the garrison cities, together with boorish Beduin and foreign slaves, have conspired together. They have spilled forbidden blood and violated the sanctity of the sacred city of Medina. This is a heinous crime! A forbidden thing!” And fired up by the Meccans’ roars of approval, she went further still. “By God,” she declared, “a single fingertip of Othman’s is better than a whole world full of such people. Seek revenge for the blood of Othman, and you will strengthen Islam!”
In response, a fervent rallying cry surged up from the crowd: “Revenge for Othman!” If the Mother of the Faithful could call for her own half brother to be put to death for his crime, by God they would support her! If she could place justice above kinship, righteousness above blood ties, by God so could they! In the name of Muhammad, in the name of Islam, they would take revenge for this son of Mecca struck down by the rebels of Medina.
Aisha never paused to question her motives. Carried along on the crest of her own rhetoric, she didn’t ask if it was guilt that impelled her—guilt at having left Medina and abandoned Othman to his fate—or outrage that of all people, it was Ali, the man she most loathed, who had been acclaimed as the fourth Caliph. These questions would rise only by the muddy pool of Hawab, and by then it would be too late to turn back. For the moment, the crowd’s acclaim was a heady thing, an intoxicating rush that made her feel all the more righteous.
In death, Othman had achieved the grandeur and nobility that so many had accused him of lacking in life. His murder lay at Ali’s door, the Meccans said. Ali knew who was responsible—everyone knew—yet word was that he refused to hand over the culprits for punishment. He was sheltering assassins, and that made him as guilty as the assassins themselves. It might as well have been his hand that wielded the knife, said some, and none as pointedly as the ever-wily Marwan, who had fled Medina for a hero’s welcome in Mecca as he showed off his flesh wound from the battle for Othman’s palace. “If you, Ali, did not strike the murdered man openly,” he declared, “you surely struck him in secret.”
The poets, quick as ever to seize the spirit of the moment, took up the call. “Your kinsmen, Ali, killed Othman with no halal claim to his blood,” said one—no right under Islamic law. “That makes you, their leader, Ali, the one to pay,” he continued, “and pay you surely will.”
By the time Ali’s letter demanding Mecca’s allegiance arrived and was read out loud in the mosque, feeling against him ran so high that the demand could barely be heard for the catcalls. The whole crowd burst into frenzied roars of approval as one young Umayyad seized the letter, stuffed it in his mouth, chewed it to a pulp, and spat it out in disgust.
Aisha’s vendetta was now that of all Mecca, but passion would convert into action only when her brothers-in-law Talha and Zubayr fled Medina to join her. Both had been among the six who had sat in closed caucus after Omar’s death, and both had voted against Ali. Both, like Ali, had become vocal critics of Othman’s rule, but that did not mean they wanted Ali to take his place. Talha and Zubayr were ambitious men; each wanted the caliphate for himself, and that was what united them.
So what if they had publicly sworn allegiance to Ali just a few weeks before fleeing to Mecca? They now swore that they had been forced into it by the rebels. They had done it at swordpoint, they claimed. Had pledged allegiance “with a withered hand”—no firm grasp of palm against palm and forearm against forearm, but a halfhearted clasp that belied the words of the oath even as it was proclaimed. It had been clear for all to see. “No good will come of this,” people had muttered, and when it was done, Talha had been heard to say: “All we’ll get from this is a dog poking its nose in the ground, sniffing dung.”
But neither Talha nor Zubayr had the backing to claim the caliphate on his own. Both needed the support of their sister-in-law, especially now that she had the whole of Mecca behind her. With her help, they aimed to force Ali to cede the caliphate. Which of them would then claim it was an open question, best left for later; in the meantime, they would work in concert. With Aisha’s presence and influence as the leading Mother of the Faithful, they would muster an army against Ali and confront him—not in Medina, where Ali was too powerful, but eight hundred miles away, in Iraq, where Zubayr had supporters in the southern garrison city of Basra. With Aisha in the lead, they could not fail. “You will rouse the Basrans to action, just as you have the Meccans,” they told her.
Aisha was not hard to persuade. She could expect nothing—less than nothing—from Ali, but with either of her brothers-in-law as Caliph, she would regain her position at the center of power. Again, she strode to the Kaaba and let loose with fiery rhetoric. “March to your brothers in Basra and denounce Ali,” she cried out. “To Basra!”
And now, halfway there, she was beset by the howling of the dogs, and she was the one who’d roused them. The romance she’d found in the desert until the Affair of the Necklace was a thing of the past. She’d been a teenager then, along for the excitement; now she was in her forties, at the head of an army of thousands, and for the first time, she hesitated.
Was she really to lead these men into battle? Surely it would not come to that. The plan was to take Basra without violence, by force of numbers, then move up the Euphrates together with the Basrans to Kufa. Once all of Iraq was theirs, they would join forces with Muawiya, the governor of Syria, whose army had been primed for revenge by the sight of Othman’s shirt and Naila’s fingers on the pulpit in Damascus. Against that strong a coalition, Ali would have no option but to concede, as he had three times in the past. That was the plan, but why then were the dogs still howling?
For twenty-four hours Aisha sat there by the waters of Hawab, paralyzed by a sense of foreboding. Talha and Zubayr tried to reason with her, to no avail. The dogs were not howling, they said, merely barking, but she scoffed at that. She was being superstitious, they said, and that was forbidden by Islam; but still she refused to move. They tried lying to her. This was not Hawab, they said; that had been a mistake, and this was another place entirely. Yet still the dogs howled, and she knew this was the place. Knew too that these two men had no right to gainsay what the Prophet had said. Even though they were her sisters’ husbands, they were not men to be trusted. Hadn’t both reneged on their sworn oath to Ali? Both proven themselves not men of their word?
Why then did she not heed the dogs of Hawab? Why did she not insist on turning back instead of going on to Basra? Perhaps the dogs did not howl loud enough, or perhaps it was hindsight that would make them far more ominous than they seemed at the time. But then Aisha would always be very good at hindsight, and thanks to Ali, she’d live long enough to have it.
Ali had indeed rejected the call to punish Othman’s assassins. They had, after all, been the first to acclaim him Caliph, and their leader was his own stepson, so while he did not approve of the assassination, neither could he condemn it. “I cannot say if Othman was killed justly or unjustly,” he said, “for he was himself unjust.” Yet his statement implied approval. If Othman had been unjust—if he had betrayed the sunna, as Ali maintained he had, and contravened the law and the spirit of Islam—then the assassins had acted in good faith. Though Ali stopped short of calling Othman an apostate, his reasoning was clear: as with the killing of an apostate, no punishment was called for.
Instead of retribution, Ali called for reconciliation. Revenge was not the way forward, he said. Islam needed to look to the future instead of to the past. That was why he had accepted Talha’s and Zubayr’s pledges of allegiance, withered hands or no. It was why he still sent letters to Mecca and Damascus instead of troops, demanding allegiance rather than forcing it. Anyone who misunderstood this as a desire to avoid conflict at all costs, as a position of weakness instead of strength, would find himself gravely mistaken.
But if Ali hoped to avoid bloodshed, it was already too late. When the news arrived of the Meccans marching on Basra under the command of Aisha and her brothers-in-law, he was left with no option but to set out from Medina with his own army to stop them. Yet even as he was en route to Basra, the violence had already begun.
Aisha and her brothers-in-law had miscalculated. They had confronted the Basrans with a terrible conundrum of split loyalties, and the townspeople resented its being forced on them. They respected Aisha as the leading Mother of the Faithful and acknowledged the merit of her call for revenge for Othman, but they respected Ali even more. He had replaced Othman’s corrupt governor of the former garrison town, and the new governor—a man of integrity, committed to the rule of law—was popular. So the men of the Meccan army were not welcomed with open arms, as they had expected; in fact, they were not welcomed into the town at all. The new governor insisted that they set up camp beyond the town limits. “Let us wait for Ali to arrive,” he said—the last thing Aisha and her brothers-in-law wanted.
That night—“a cold, dark night with wind and rain,” according to the records—Talha and Zubayr led a raid on the town. They forced their way into the mosque and fought pitched battles with the townspeople, killing dozens of them. By dawn they had taken over the treasury and the granary, where Ali’s governor confronted them. “By God if I had enough men, I would not be satisfied until I killed you for those you have killed,” he said. “Because you have killed our Basran brothers, your blood is now halal—sanctioned—for us. How can you consider the shedding of Muslim blood lawful? Were those you killed last night the ones who killed Othman? Don’t you fear God’s loathing?” But against an army of such size, the governor was powerless. He was seized and whipped, his hair and beard were torn out by the roots, and he was thrown in jail. All Basra hunkered down, waiting to see what would happen when Ali arrived.
Riders reached him quickly with the news: the town taken, the governor humiliated, townspeople killed. Ali was dismayed; if Talha and Zubayr did not fear God’s loathing, he did. “God, undo what they have done and show them their evil,” he cried out. “Spare me the killing of Muslims as they have done, and deliver us from people such as they.” But he was a realist as well as an idealist; even as he prayed for peace, he prepared for war.
He sent his sons Hasan and Hussein north to Kufa, there to raise an army of reinforcements. Within the week they met him at Basra with a force several thousand strong. There were now some ten thousand troops on each side, and for the next three days the two armies, the one headed by Ali, the other by Aisha and her brothers-in-law, set up camp across from each other on a wide, shallow plain just outside the town.
Would the show of force be enough in itself to deter the Meccans? Ali evidently hoped so, yet as he addressed his newly massed army, his words would prove horribly prophetic. “To set things right is what I intend,” he told them, “so that the community may return to being brothers. If the Meccans give us allegiance, then we will have peace. But if they insist on fighting, this will be a split that cannot be repaired. So men, restrain yourselves. Remember that these people are your brothers. Be patient. Beware of rushing into anything without guidance, for if you win the argument today, you may lose it tomorrow.”
The nightmare loomed ahead—the one thing they most dreaded, and the one thing that now seemed all but inevitable: fitna.
Arabic is a subtle and sinuous language. Like all Semitic languages, it plays on words, taking a three-consonant root and building on it to create what sometimes seems an infinite number of meanings. Even the exact same word can have different connotations, depending on the context. Perhaps the best-known example is jihad, struggle, which can be either the inner striving to live the Islamic life and attain a higher level of spiritual consciousness, or the external armed confrontation with those seen as enemies of Islam.
The sensitive Islamic term fitna is still more complex. The root is the word for being led astray. It can mean trial or temptation, intrigue or sedition, discord or dissension. It always implies upheaval, even chaos. But the most common meaning is civil war—the most uncivil warfare of all. Tribes, clans, even families split against themselves; cousins and in-laws take opposite sides; brothers may even fight brothers, and fathers, their own sons. Fitna is the terrible wrenching apart of the fabric of society, the unraveling of the tightly woven matrix of kinship, and it was seen in the seventh century, as it still is today, as the ultimate threat to Islam, greater by far than that of the most benighted unbelievers.
So as the two armies faced each other across that divide of sandy, rock-strewn soil, even as they sharpened their knives and swords and steeled their nerves, they debated among themselves as to whether they were really ready to commit the ultimate sin: to shed the blood of other Muslims. Every word they uttered was haunted by the fear of division and its consequence, fitna.
“Talha and Zubayr swore allegiance and obedience to Ali,” said one veteran Basran warrior, “and now they come in rebellion, seeking revenge for the blood of Othman. They have created a split between us.”
War was inevitable, retorted another fatalistically. As well ask the Euphrates to flow upstream as to deny this. “Do the people think they can say ‘We believe’ and then not be tested?”
But such a test? The Meccan troops too were having second thoughts. “We are in a flat, unhealthy land,” said one, and there was no denying the aptness of the metaphor, for this was exactly how southern Iraq, this seemingly endless riverine plain with its canals and swamps, mosquitoes and midges, seemed to the warriors from the Hijaz mountains. The air was dense and moist instead of bracingly dry, the blue of the sky pale with humidity. They had followed Aisha only to find themselves out of place, disoriented.
Even Talha had doubts. He sat alone and “flicked his beard against his chest,” the gesture of a troubled man. “We were all united against others,” he said, “but now we’ve become like two mountains of iron, each seeking to finish the other.”
Others resisted the pressure to take sides. An elderly companion of Muhammad’s complained that “there’s never before been a situation where I didn’t know my next step, but now I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.” One tribal leader simply left, riding off into the mountains of Persia, saying that if the two armies wanted to kill each other, they could do so without him and his men. His parting words left no doubt what he thought: “I would rather be a castrated slave herding nanny goats with lopsided udders, than shoot a single arrow at either of these two sides.”
Many of the Basrans vacillated, unsure which side to support. “No person who has embraced this fitna will be able to extricate himself from it,” warned one.
“This will lead to worse than what you most hate,” said another. “It is a tear that won’t get mended, a fracture that will never be repaired.”
And a third simply mourned. “The millstone of Islam is out of balance,” he said, “and look how it turns unevenly.”
But the strongest warning—the one that would echo in men’s minds and make them wish they had listened harder—came from Abu Musa, an elderly companion of the Prophet’s and a former governor of Kufa under Omar. “Fitna rips the community apart like an ulcer,” he said. “The winds fan it, from the north and the south, the east and the west. And it will be endless. It is blind and deaf, trampling its halter. It has come at you from a place where you were safe, and leaves the wise man as bewildered as the most inexperienced. He who sleeps through it is better off than he who is awake in it; he who is awake in it is better off than he who stands in it; he who stands in it is better off than he who rides into it. So be wise and sheathe your swords! Remove your spearheads and unstring your bows!”
There was one last hope, and that depended on the three men in command. As twenty thousand men watched with bated breath, Ali rode out between the two armies on his dark bay battle horse, and Talha and Zubayr rode out to meet him. They came to a halt, as one warrior put it, “so close that the necks of their horses crossed over each other.” Still on horseback, they talked, and then there was a mass murmur of approval from each side as Ali gave the sign to bring up a tent so that they could continue their negotiations in the shade. They negotiated for three whole days, and as they talked, so too did their men. “Some stood opposite others and some went across to others,” one Meccan remembered, “and all we talked about and intended was peace.”
There was one person strikingly absent from that tent, however. Aisha took no part in the negotiations, though her agreement was surely necessary. This was the woman who had inspired the Meccan army to march eight hundred miles to this flat, humid plain, the woman who had called on them to take revenge for Othman and in whose name they had gathered. Did she too hope for a peaceful resolution? Did Muhammad’s voice still sound in her ears, warning against dissension, or had she forgotten about the waters of Hawab?
If there was to be a battle, she would not be on the sidelines, not this time. She would be at the very center of the fighting, the rallying point for her men. Was she so entranced by the anticipation of it that she hoped, even against her better judgment, that the negotiations would fail? Was she relieved or disappointed when Ali, Talha, and Zubayr emerged from that tent at the end of the third day and gave the signal to stand down? She would never say.
If it was not peace the three men had agreed on, at least it was not war. They had, in effect, agreed to disagree. Each one had sworn that however this was to be resolved, it would not be by force. None of them would give the order to strike the first blow. So in the words of one warrior, “when they retired to bed that night, there was peace. They slept as they never had before, because they were free from what they had been on the point of doing, and had withdrawn their plans for battle.”
But while they slept, he continued, others did not. “At the same time, those who had stirred up the question of Othman spent the worst night of their lives, for now they were about to be brought to account. All night they were busy in discussion until they decided on a surprise attack. They kept it secret, slipped out of the camp before dawn, and attacked at first light.”
It was never clear exactly who they were. Were they Marwan’s men, setting off the fight, as they had the day Othman was assassinated? Were they acting under orders from Aisha, dismayed at Talha’s and Zubayr’s retreat from confrontation? Or were they simply young hotheads, as most prefer to believe, primed for battle and with that supreme disdain of youth for death? The accounts are confused, as battle accounts always are. A small group, certainly, but the smallest group can set huge armies into motion. Three or four men can do it easily. The clanging of steel rises from a single sector, curses and battle cries carry through the still air of early morning, and suddenly thousands are involved. In the terror and desperation of battle, there is no time for questions. Who struck the first blow is the last thing on anyone’s mind as every man fights for his life.
Perhaps it is enough to say that with two such huge armies face-to-face, with every man fully armed and geared up to fight, outright battle was the only possible outcome. All we know for sure is that nobody would take “credit” this time, not for this battle, not for the thousands who were to die on this October day in the year 656.
And so it began, the first battle in the war that it seemed nobody wanted yet nobody could avoid—the civil war still being fought in the twenty-first century and in the same place it all began, Iraq.