The Second Civil War in Islam
After many incidents involving Uthman's lies and injustices as a ruler, he had the Egyptians, Iraqis and many companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him and his family) in Medina standing against him. Among the most vocal of Uthman's adversaries were Talha and Zubayr, two prominent companions of the Prophet.
The Muslims had already fought one civil war during the khilafat of Abu Bakr, the first khalifa. Within the same generation, they now faced the grim specter of fighting another. The first civil war was waged by the government against some of its dissident subjects; the second civil war was waged by some of the dissident subjects against their government."
– Sayed Ali Asgher Razwy, A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims
The direct causes for the second civil war in Islam, namely the Battle of Basra (or the Battle of the Camel), can be traced back to the situation surrounding Uthman's assassination.
Uthman was the third caliph, known for his unpopularity among many of the Muslims, especially in his latter days. He was known for favoring the members of his clan, the Banu Umayya, with positions of authority and elaborate gifts, compliments of the Muslim treasury.
In A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims, Sayed Razwy states:
"Uthman was safe as long as he banished or beat up such friends of the Apostle of God as Abu Dharr el-Ghiffari, Ammar ibn Yasir and Abdullah ibn Masood. They did not belong to powerful tribes and Uthman had nothing to fear from them. But then he dismissed Amr bin Aas, the governor of Egypt. By doing so, he wrote his own prescription for disaster. Amr bin Aas raked up a hornets' nest for him. Uthman appeared to be anxious to find new enemies. A new ‘recruit’ into the ranks of his enemies was Ayesha, the widow of the Prophet. In the times of her father (Abu Bakr) and Umar, she had been treated like a queen. But Uthman didn't show the same solicitude for her that they did. He even reduced her pension, and thus roused her anger. She called him Na'athal (a Jew of Medina), and openly incited the people against him by saying: 'This Na'athal has relapsed into paganism. Kill him. May God kill him.'"
After many incidents involving Uthman's lies and injustices as a ruler, he had the Egyptians, Iraqis and many companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him and his family) in Medina standing against him. Among the most vocal of Uthman's adversaries were Talha and Zubayr, two prominent companions of the Prophet. Eventually, the opposition laid siege to his palace, where Uthman remained prisoner for 49 days.
Throughout most of the conflicts that led to the siege, Imam Ali (peace be upon him) tried to reconcile between Uthman and the people, even when no one else was willing to do so. But Uthman consistently went back on his promises and did not follow through with Imam Ali's advice. Eventually, some of the besiegers were able to get into Uthman's house. In the heat of a skirmish with the mercenaries, someone killed Uthman.
After the assassination of Uthman, the Muslims of Medina turned to Imam Ali, and insisted that he become the new caliph. At the same time, however, the people of Medina were divided – one group demanded revenge over the killers of Uthman while another group thought that Uthman got what he deserved, so there was no need to seek vengeance.
With the complicated situation at hand, Imam Ali was immediately concerned with restoring order to the nation which had been in a state of dissidence and near anarchy for months. But some people, who had their own personal agenda, saw the situation as a golden opportunity.
Sayed Razwy explains:
"The leaders of the first group decided to challenge Ali. It was the opinion of Ayesha, who was one of them, and who was already in Makkah, that they should attack Medina because the murderer or murderers of Uthman were all there. But Talha and Zubayr, the other two leaders, who had told Ali that they were going to Makkah to perform Umra (the lesser pilgrimage), disagreed with her, and said: 'O mother of the believers! Forget Medina. Our army cannot fight against the rebels who are there. We have, therefore, to go to Basra.' (Tabari, History, Vol. III)."
So, Ayesha, Talha, and Zubayr planned to create a stronghold in Basra and Kufah, where they already had supporters, and then march on Imam Ali from there. They opposed the Imam under the pretext of seeking vengeance for Uthman’s blood, claiming that Imam Ali was protecting the true killers of Uthman. They raised an initial army in Makkah of 3000 warriors, occupied Basra (800 miles to the east, in Iraq), seized the treasury, killed 600 Muslims who they suspected to be opposed to them, and spread terror in the city.
When Imam Ali heard of their actions, he decided to meet them in Basra to restore order. At first, the Imam, who had no army yet, was able to assemble a small force of about 700 volunteers. Later, Imam Hasan (peace be upon him) and other prominent companions, travelled to Kufah, where they were able to inspire about 12,000 warriors to join them.
Before the Battle of Basra, also called the Battle of the Camel (because Ayesha, on her camel, was the mascot of the rebel army), Imam Ali made multiple attempts to avoid spilling Muslim blood.
Imam Ali sent a letter to Ayesha purported as follows:
"In the name of God Who is Most Beneficent and Most Merciful.
"You have left your home in direct contravention of the commandments of God and His Messenger, and now you are sowing seeds of civil war among the Muslims. Just pause for a moment and think about this: What do you have to do with armies and wars? Is it your job to fight? And fight against whom? Against the Muslims? Your place is in your home. God has commanded you to stay in your home. Therefore, fear Him, and do not disobey Him, and return immediately to Medina."
But the words did not seem to have any effect on Ayesha. The Imam also tried to reason with Talha and Zubayr, but they too would not listen to the sound of reason. The Imam even invited them to a Mubahala (imprecation), but they rejected the invitation.
Sayed Razwy describes the next attempt of Imam Ali:
"He sent a young man, one Muslim ibn Abdullah, who was noted for his piety, with a copy of the Qur’an, to appeal to the enemy to submit the dispute to the Judgment of God and to uphold peace in the name of the sanctity of Muslim blood.
"Standing in front of the enemy host at close range, Muslim ibn Abdullah opened the Qur'an, and said: 'I will read a passage from the Book of God so that you will know what are His commandments and Prohibitions.' His speech, however, was interrupted by the archers of the enemy who shot arrows at the copy of the Qur'an he was reading. While he was trying to protect the copy of the Qur'an, one of the slaves of Ayesha crept up toward him, attacked him and killed him."
After this, the Imam prayed to Allah: "O Lord! Be Thou a Witness that I have left nothing undone to preserve peace among Muslims. Now there is no choice left for me but to allow my army to defend itself from unprovoked attacks. We are Thy humble slaves. Bestow Thy Grace and Thy Mercy upon us. Grant us victory over the enemy but if it is Thy pleasure to grant it to him, then grant us the crown of martyrdom."
The battle was fiercest around Ayesha's camel. As Ayesha's soldiers heard her voice of encouragement, they would make a greater effort to defend the "Mother of the Faithful" and avenge the death of Uthman. Men were fighting and falling all around this infamous camel.
When Imam Ali's men were finally able to take out the camel Ayesha's army fell apart. Finally, the adventure of Ayesha and the followers of the camel came to an end. But at what cost? At the cost of thousands of Muslim lives – about 20,000 casualties is the estimate of most historians.
Imam Ali dealt with his foes with the Islamic morals exemplified by the Holy Prophet Muhammad. When Ayesha begged him to pardon Abdullah, the son of Zubayr, the Imam replied, "Pardon Abdullah bin Zubayr alone? There is pardon for everyone."
To reflect, Sayed Razwy makes a statement which is well-worthy of contemplation with regards to the Battle of the Camel, "An error does not become less reprehensible because some important person committed it. An error remains an error regardless of who committed it."