As we pass through the holy month of Ramadan, while millions of Muslims around the world take this time to self-reflect and strive to emulate the example of our Beloved Prophet Muhammad (sa) and his Noble Companions (ra), regrettably, there are some who hold negative views about the pristine character of these eminent companions, about whom the Holy Prophet (sa) himself stated: ‘My Companions are like the stars, whichever one of them you decide to follow, you will be guided.’
I recently read a tweet by a prominent journalist from the New York Times and scholar of Islam, which surprised me to say the least. He said the following:
‘Personally, I wouldn’t condemn any of the early figures in Islam – but I would not sacralise them either. #Ali and #Aisha went to war over power. The all-glorious Sahaba killed each other for power. Obviously this was a very human history, whose full truth we may never know.’
There are two monumental errors in this understanding:
1) ‘#Ali and #Aisha went to war over power’
2) ‘The all glorious Sahaba killed each other for power’
I will come on to point number 1 later. With regard to point number 2, it should be noted that after the demise of the Holy Prophet (sa), the first issue faced by these glorious Sahaba [Companions] was the matter of successorship. The Companions disagreed about the course of action to take and by the time Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra) and Hazrat Umar (ra) reached the Thaqeefah of the Banu Sai’dah, the Ansar [Muslims native to Medina] had all but chosen a Caliph from among them. Upon the advice of Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra) the Ansar then agreed to electing two leaders – one from among the Ansar and one from among the Muhajireen [Muslims native to Mecca]. Eventually, after an extensive debate, the Companions came to the realisation that if there was to be a successor to Prophet Muhammad (sa), he ought to be from among the Muhajireen and also the Quraish. Thus, the events unfolded in such a way that the Muslims agreed upon the successorship of Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra), the first Caliph of Islam.
If point number 2 were correct, then this was the perfect scenario for the Ansar to attack the Muhajireen and their chosen leader, so that the power could shift to the Ansar, but they did no such thing and instead continued to show obedience to him throughout his Caliphate. When Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra) fell ill and was close to his demise, after much prayer and contemplation, he appointed Hazrat Umar (ra) as his successor. Again, those desirous of Caliphate should have risen up against Hazrat Umar (ra) or at least expressed some sort of discontentment at his appointment. No such incident took place.
When Hazrat Umar (ra) was fatally wounded (by a Christian slave, not a Companion!), prior to his demise he entrusted the responsibility of electing the next Caliph to six people stating that they ought to choose between themselves. If ever a there was a chance for a power struggle, now was the time, but instead, some of these glorious Companions even began withdrawing their names in favour of their fellow candidates. Hardly the trait of those hell-bent on acquiring power. Hazrat Uthman (ra) was peacefully elected and no Companion waged war to overthrow him. Many years later, he was brutally murdered by rebels working under the orders of Abdullah bin Saba, who again, was not a Companion but a Jewish convert. In the midst of this rebellion, the people of Madinah turned to three prominent Companions; Hazrat Ali (ra), Hazrat Zubair (ra) and Hazrat Talha (ra), to take up the responsibility of leading the Muslims. All three of them refused, stating that whoever is appointed as the Caliph will be associated with the blood of Hazrat Uthman (ra). However, the rebels issued an ultimatum that if a Caliph was not elected, they would begin a killing spree starting with the Companions. Under these dire circumstances, it was the valiant Hazrat Ali (ra) who accepted this mantle, surrounded by friend and foe alike.
Now we come to the first instance in the history of Islam when the Companions (ra) of Prophet Muhammad (sa) fought in opposite camps, i.e. the Battle of the Camel. This took place in 36 AH (656 CE), approximately 24 years after the demise of the Holy Prophet (sa) and more than 45 years after the advent of Islam. In all these years, the companions never once fought for power whereas there were ample opportunities to do so, had they so desired. Thus, the onus of proof is on the claimant to provide evidence where in history these noble Companions were at war with each other. On the contrary, volumes and volumes of history are replete with their noble characteristics; and if there was anything they wanted over their fellow companions, it was to excel one another in virtuous deeds.
Why then did Hazrat Ali (ra) and Hazrat Aisha (ra) end up on opposing sides during the Battle of the Camel and what was the context of this clash?
Prior to understanding the context of this war, a logical question arises; why would Hazrat Aisha (ra) fight Hazrat Ali (ra) over power? Would she become the Khalifa had she won? Remember that it was the Holy Prophet (sa) who has said to ‘learn half of the faith from Aisha (ra),’ which meant that having spent a long time in the company of the Holy Prophet (sa), she understood the deep intricacies of faith better than most. No prophet of God had ever been a woman, nor had the first three Caliphs of Islam. Why then would she fight Hazrat Ali (ra) for power and what position was she after?
It is an erroneous view to think that Hazrat Aisha (ra) and Hazrat Ali (ra) went to war over power. The issue was never over the legitimacy of Hazrat Ali’s (ra) Caliphate. The difference of opinion was over what to do with the killers of Hazrat Uthman (ra). Hazrat Ali (ra) was of the view that owing to the unrest and disorder, it was vital to allow matters to settle before punishing those responsible for this heinous act. Hazrat Aisha (ra), Hazrat Zubair (ra) and Hazrat Talha bin Ubaidullah (ra) were of the opinion that according to the dictates of the Sharia, the killers of Hazrat Uthman (ra) should be brought to justice immediately. Both opinions were correct in their own right.
When the two armies met at Basra, Hazrat Ali (ra) sent an envoy to enquire why Hazrat Aisha (ra), had come with an army, to which she replied that she only sought reconciliation. In fact, once the talks had begun, it was decided that there was no need for war, as both parties desired the same outcome.
Realising that if the Muslims became united, their days would be numbered, the evil rebels, headed by Abdullah bin Saba, the very same group who had murdered Hazrat Uthman (ra), launched a night assault on both camps and ensured that each one was informed of the ‘treachery’ of the other party. Yet even when fighting had begun, Hazrat Ali (ra) erred on the side of caution, forbidding his men to fight. It was only when the battle ensued that he reluctantly took part.
Furthermore, Hazrat Talha bin Ubaidullah (ra) and Hazrat Zubair (ra), both eminent companions of the Prophet Muhammad (sa) who were with the army of Hazrat Aisha (ra), both died having pledged allegiance to Hazrat Ali (ra). When Hazrat Zubair (ra) was reminded of a prophecy of the Holy Prophet (sa) in which he would be in the army opposing Hazrat Ali (ra) and the one to transgress, he left the battlefield and was martyred by a wretched individual while he was offering his prayers. Similarly, Hazrat Talha bin Ubaidullah (ra) did not breathe his last until he had affirmed his pledge of allegiance to Hazrat Ali (ra). Hazrat Aisha (ra) also deeply regretted the incident and returned to Medina. Many years later when the incident of the Battle of the Camel was mentioned before her, she said: ‘Alas, if only I had remained sitting like the people who remained behind that day. This would have pleased me more than if I had given birth to 10 children from the Holy Prophet (sa), each of whom were like Hazrat Abdur Rahman bin Harith bin Hisham.’
Hence, the motive of this war was not power; instead it was a disagreement about what to do with the killers of Hazrat Uthman (ra). Both Hazrat Uthman’s (ra) killing and the Battle of the Camel were instigated by Abdullah bin Saba and his band of followers. (For more details about the Battle of the Camel, please see https://www.reviewofreligions.org/17631/jang-e-jamal-the-battle-of-the-camel/)
Perhaps then, the journalist is referring to the Battle of Siffin, which took place between Hazrat Ali (ra) and Hazrat Ameer Muawiya (ra) – who likewise was a companion. This too was a war, the context of which was governed by revenge against the killers of Hazrat Uthman (ra). Being from the same tribe as Hazrat Uthman (ra), his motive for revenge is understandable. But even whilst they were in a state of war, when one of the Byzantine rulers wished to seize the opportunity to launch an attack, Hazrat Ameer Muawiya (ra) learnt of this and wrote to him stating that should he decide to launch an attack on Islam, he, (Mu`awiya) would be the first general to fight against him in the army of Hazrat Ali (ra).
I will not go as far as to say that this is the only version of history we find. Indeed, a plethora of books has been written on the history of Islam, and indeed some portray certain figures of Islam in a different light to what has been presented here. So the question really is do we take those dark accounts to be closer to the truth, or do we take the overwhelming majority of accounts that sing praises of their noble deeds? After all, it was the Holy Prophet (sa) who said: ‘Follow my practice, and the practice of the Khulafa al-Rashideen who were rightly guided.’
I for one would never condemn the early figures in Islam, and I WOULD sacralise them, as their noble character and example have shown us that they are worthy of this honour.
About the Author: Zafir Malik serves as the Associate Editor of The Review of Religions, having graduated from Jamia Ahmadiyya UK – Institute of Modern Languages and Theology. He is also an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and regularly appears as a panellist on MTA International and Voice of Islam radio station answering questions on Islam.
Musnad Ahmad bin Hanbal
Al Kamil fi At-Tarikh by Imam Ibn Athir
Al-Mu‘jam Al-Kabir by Imam Al-Tabarani,
The History of Islam by Akbar Shah Najeebabadi
Al-Khasais Al-Kubra by Jalaluddin Suyuti
Farhang Sirat by Sayed Fazlur Rahman