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Lessons from the Battle of Siffin

An artist's impression of the Battle of SiffinPerhaps the biggest reason why the believers lost at Siffin was ignorance. When Malik al-Ashtar was barely 10 yards away from attacking the tent of Mu’awiya itself, Ibn al-Aas ordered the Syrians to lift manuscripts of the Qur’an on spears. The ignorant men in the Imam’s army immediately said that they did not want to fight the Word of God. Not only did they withdraw from the battlefield, but they even forced the Imam to recall Malik and his few loyal followers from the battlefield as well. Then when they agreed on arbitration later on, the Imam’s followers forced him to appoint Abu Musa al-Ash’ari as his representative instead of the respected companion and scholar Abdullah ibn Abbas, whom the Imam originally wanted. Out of ignorance, al-Ash’ari ended up effectively concluding the arbitration in favor of Mu’awiya.



An artist's impression of the Battle of Siffin

As the month of Safar began, so did the Battle of Siffin almost 1400 years ago. Bent upon fighting Imam Ali (peace be upon him) despite the Imam’s efforts at reaching peace, Mu’awiya gathered an army at Siffin. The Imam and his followers made their way there too, and a battle ensued, resulting in an eventual stalemate. Although centuries have passed since then, the battle still provides us with lessons to reflect upon even today, as outlined below.

Second only to Saqifa, the Battle of Siffin was perhaps the most devastating event in Islamic history. Had it been won, the political injustices of Saqifa could have finally been undone, the Khilafat al-Ilahiya (Vicegerency of God) could have finally been truly established, and the source of Fitna and division in Islam (namely, the Umayyids) could have finally been eliminated once and for all. For the first time since the Battle of Uhad, the believers had once again lost a war after almost winning it. Yet in addition to its historic significance, Siffin embodied some of the most vital lessons for a believer.

Understanding the Deception of the Enemy

When Mu’awiya and the Syrians arrived at Siffin, they attacked and captured the banks of the Euphrates to prevent water from reaching the army of Imam Ali. Fortunately, Malik al-Ashtar, the commander of the Imam’s army, fought back and recaptured the riverbank, which was now open to both the Imam’s army and the Syrians. However, during one of the nights of Siffin, Amr ibn al-Aas sent spies into the Imam’s camps to spread rumors that the Syrians were planning on digging small canals to divert the water away and flood the Imam’s camps. At the same time, Ibn al-Aas had a few dozen men banging on drums. The Imam’s army heard the noise and thought the Syrians were actually digging the ground. They panicked and ran, much to the chagrin of the Imam and his few loyal commanders. This is exactly what the enemy had been waiting for. Ibn al-Aas ordered the Syrians to attack the Imam’s fleeing soldiers and, once again, they lost control over the water.

Although the Imam’s army later on (re-)recaptured the water, the incident teaches us a very important lesson: namely, to be careful of the enemy’s attack – the enemy does not follow the rules and will use deception and treachery to distract us while it launches its assault. While in Siffin, the enemy was recognizable – in our situation, the enemy is Shaytan and our own Nafsul Ammara (the soul that enjoins evil). Too many times we find ourselves distracted by the Haraam around us, leading us to neglect our duties and obligations. Too many times we are so busy watching a football match that we delay our prayers. Too many times we become so obsessed with academic or financial success that we neglect our obligations to our families. Too many times we become so worried about not having enough money to retire that we refuse to pay Khums. Too many times we are so concerned about the latest Facebook application that we forget about our dying brethren in Iraq and Lebanon.

Just like the soldiers in the Imam’s army, we get so easily distracted by Shaitan (both external and internal forms) that we easily neglect our obligations and the Hereafter, and we get caught up in the attractions of this world.

Overcoming Ignorance

Perhaps the biggest reason why the believers lost at Siffin was ignorance. When Malik al-Ashtar was barely 10 yards away from attacking the tent of Mu’awiya itself, Ibn al-Aas ordered the Syrians to lift manuscripts of the Qur’an on spears. The ignorant men in the Imam’s army immediately said that they did not want to fight the Word of God. Not only did they withdraw from the battlefield, but they even forced the Imam to recall Malik and his few loyal followers from the battlefield as well. Then when they agreed on arbitration later on, the Imam’s followers forced him to appoint Abu Musa al-Ash’ari as his representative instead of the respected companion and scholar Abdullah ibn Abbas, whom the Imam originally wanted. Out of ignorance, al-Ash’ari ended up effectively concluding the arbitration in favor of Mu’awiya.

As believers, this is perhaps one of the greatest lessons for us. As Malik later fumed, “Siffin could have been concluded by another ten strikes of my sword.” Yet out of their ignorance, the believers lost a war that they had nearly won. Although they regretted their mistake later on, the Imam had already given his word to the enemy for peace, and it was too late to do anything at that point. Mu’awiya is the root of everything that has gone wrong with Islam since then, yet out of their ignorance these men doomed generations of Muslims to come to the tyranny of the Umayyids and Abbasids and deprived them of the true Khilafat al-Ilahiya that could have created the perfect Islamic utopia on Earth.

Absolute Submission to the Wali al-Amr (Master of Authority)

Too many times, the believers refused to listen to the Imam, leading to crucial difficulties and eventual defeat. Islam has vested authority in certain individuals, and obedience to them should be without questions or objections. Instead, the soldiers of the Imam frequently questioned and criticized his policies and eventually forced him to halt the war and appoint al-Ash’ari as his representative. “Is it not strange that Mu’awiya calls out to some rude low people and they follow him without any support or grant,” he lamented, “but when I call you, although you are the successors of Islam and the (worthy) survivors of the people, with support and distributed grants you scatter away from me and oppose me?” (Nahjul Balagha, sermon 179) The Imam once sarcastically remarked that he would be willing trade 10 of his soldiers for one of Mu’awiya’s, because they were more loyal to their leaders than his own men were.

Yet Siffin also demonstrated to us the examples of those who submitted utterly and unquestioningly to the Imam. Foremost of those was Malik al-Ashtar. When the Imam sent a messenger telling him to halt the fighting, Malik stopped immediately and returned to the Imam’s camp, even though he could have finished off the enemy right then and there. Malik’s actions show us the importance of complete submission. Too many times, we try to reason and and rationalize our way around the laws of the Shari’ah. Too many times we refuse to follow the rules that don’t make sense to us. Malik showed us that the true believer follows his Imam without question. Standing ten yards away from killing Mu’awiya, Malik might have disregarded Imam Ali’s command as illogical and then gone ahead with what seemed more rational to him (i.e. continuing the fight). But by halting then and there without a thought, he demonstrated to us that it is only through utter submission that one reaches the great stage where the Imam announces that Malik is to him what he was to the Messenger of God (peace be upon him and his progeny).

Obedience to the Imam’s Representatives

As the Imam stated in a letter to his soldiers, Malik al-Ashtar had his full confidence and full authority over his army. When the Imam’s army heard what they thought was the canal being dug, Malik, Ammar al-Yasir, and Qais bin Sa’ad attempted to prevent panic. They knew that the enemy was deceptive and treacherous and that in such situations, it is best for the flock to follow the shepherd. Instead, the flock broke ranks and ran, while the Syrians attacked them from behind. They didn’t realize that a man appointed by the Imam is not an ordinary human being; in fact, he possesses the special skills and foresight necessary to guide the believers in times of trial.

Secondly, although Malik desperately exhorted them to continue fighting when the Syrians raised the Qur’an on spears, once again they abandoned their leader. By disobeying the Imam’s representative, not only did they earn God’s displeasure, but they also suffered what was perhaps one of the greatest disasters in Islamic history. Had they obeyed Malik and continued to fight, the root of evil in Islamic history could have been exterminated once and for all. Yet they refused to obey him, resulting in devastation for themselves and for generations of believers to come.

Unfortunately, we see the same problem today. The attacks on Marja’iyyat (Religious Authority) are coming from all sides, yet primarily from believers. Everyone seems to have some sort of personal disagreement or issue with the Naib al-Imam – the representative of the Imam – and we see this manifested in chain e-mails, online forums, and even in our religious gatherings. Instead of obeying the Imam’s representatives (i.e. our Religious Authorities) during the period of Occultation, we instead criticize them and see them as an unnecessary and antiquated concept. We believe we are far more knowledgeable and experienced than “those 80-year-old men in Najaf and Qom who have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the world”.

The Battle of Siffin was one of the most decisive defeats in Islamic history, but it also taught us many lessons. Upon the conclusion of the battle, the Imam rebuked his followers in harsh words: “O people of Iraq! You are like the pregnant woman who, on completion of the period of pregnancy, delivers a dead child and her husband is also dead and her period of widowhood is long while only remote relation inherits her. Woe to you. I am giving out these measures of nice expression free of any cost. I wish there were vessels good enough to contain them.” (Nahjul Balagha, sermon 70)

It is up to us to prove to our Awaited Imam (may Allah hasten his reappearance) that our minds and hearts are vessels good enough to contain his Wilayat.

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2 comments

  1. This Story Brings sadness to my heart,I would love to be in their company 🙁

  2. Imam Ali ibn al-Husayn (a.s) has said, “Sitting in the company of virtuous people leads one to virtue
    and association with the scholars is a means of strengthening one’s intelligence. Obedience to the
    authorities that practice justice is an honor. The investment of wealth for profit is a dignifying practice.
    Guiding one who asks for guidance is an expression of gratitude. To restrain ones harmful manners and
    deeds is because of the perfection of one’s intelligence in which there is comfort for the body in the
    short and long terms.”

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