Battle of the Camel

From New World Encyclopedia

The Battle of Bassorah, Battle of the Camel, or Battle of Jamal was a battle that took place at Basra, Iraq in 655 C.E. between forces allied to Ali and the superior forces of rebel Arabs allied to Aisha who opposed Ali's status as Caliph on the grounds that he had not tried to find out who was responsible for his predecessor's murder. This was the first major civil war in Islam. In theory, Muslims should never fight Muslim. This represents fitna (civil disorder). Led by Muhammad's widow, Aisha, the rebellion failed. Although Aisha lost the battle, she remains a revered and honored figure.

Some Muslim feminists laud this event as an example of political intervention by a woman, countering the more widespread view that the ill-fated battle demonstrates why women should not be allowed to lead. Traditions of the prophet appear to have surfaced after this event that are cited to deter or prevent women from exercising a leadership role.



In 656 C.E. Uthman was besieged in his own house, surrounded by rebels who were unhappy with Uthman's Caliphate. They refused to provide him with food and water and kept him imprisoned, hoping to force his abdication. Uthman was murdered despite Ali ibn Abi Talib's having sent his two sons, Hasan and Husayn, to defend Uthman.

Though it had previously been a contested matter, Ali ibn Abi Talib was offered the caliphate by the majority of Muslims after Uthman's death. He is reported to have refused the caliphate, saying, "You are not a people fit for my rulership nor am I a master fit for you people." However, he later accepted the caliphate.

These events displeased Aisha, the widow of Muhammad. She evidently believed that Ali was wrong to occupy himself in other tasks before finding Uthman's murderer. She challenged Ali's caliphate under the claim that Ali had been unsuccessful in finding Uthman's murderer, calling for revenge, Qisas for Uthman. After Ali had been chosen as the fourth Caliph, Aisha instigated a rebellion against his rule, despite her earlier opposition to Uthman. She is said to have delivered a fiery speech calling for vengeance against Ali ibn Abi Talib in the mosque of Mecca.

Ali pointed out that Aisha was unrelated to Uthman and therefore could not demand Qisas for the slain caliph. Her position ran in contradiction to that of Uthman's relatives, who did not participate in the rebellion, and the fact that Ali ibn Abi Talib had sent his two sons, to defend Uthman.

Massing support

Aisha had been returning to Medina from Mecca after Hajj, but turned back when she heard the news of Uthman's assassination and the accession of Ali to the Caliphate. Aisha's two brothers-in-law, Talha and Zubayr ibn al-Awwam, also arrived in Mecca. They had been, with Uthman and Ali ibn Abi Talib, members of the committee of six appointed by Umar ibn al-Khattab to appoint his successor. At the time, Uthman's governor in Mecca was Abd-Allah ibn Aamir Hadhrami. Marwan ibn al-Hakam and other members of the Banu Umayya (Uthman's clan) were staying as his guests. All of them held a meeting.

Aisha gathered Talha and Zubayr's support, despite them having already given their oath of alliance to Ali ibn Abi Talib. Aisha also managed to enlist the support of the powerful clan of Banu Umayyah, to whom Uthman had belonged. The ex-governors of Uthman who had been replaced by Ali also joined her. Yala, the ex-governor of Yemen, had carried off a large sum of treasure to Mecca when he was deposed. He gave it over to Aisha, comprising some sixty thousand dinars along with six hundred camels, one of which was valued at 200 gold pieces. It was named Al-Askar and was specially presented for Aisha's personal use.

Loyalties in Mecca were divided. Having completed her preparations for war, Aisha unsuccessfully tried to convince Umm Salama to side with her. Umme Salama instead tried, and nearly succeeded, in convincing Aisha to abandon her plan. Aisha's adopted son Abdallah bin Zubayr convinced her to proceed nonetheless. Aisha also tried to have Hafsa follow her, but Ibn Umar, Hafsa's brother, managed to prevent her. Aisha was mounted on a litter on the camel al-Askar, and marched from Mecca at the head of 1,000 men. On her right was Talha and on her left, Zubayr.

The other widows of Muhammad residing in Mecca accompanied her for part of the way, then returned. As they parted the company gave vent to their feelings and wept bitterly at the dour outlook; "there was no such weeping, before or after, as then; so that day was called The Day of Tears." [2] On their way many more joined them, and their numbers swelled to 3,000.

A month after the death of Uthman, questions began to arise whether Talha or Zubayr would, in the event of a victory, become Caliph. It is reported that Aisha desired that Ibn Zubayr should lead the prayers, a sign of some semblance of authority, but it was decided that the choice of the future caliph would be left, as it had been previously, to the men of Medina.

Sa'id, the ex-governor of Kufa, distrusting the motives of the rebel leaders, turned aside at the last moment and with his company went back to Mecca. As the remaining cavalcade swept by Sa'id, shouting that they were on their way to destroy the murderers of Uthman, Sa'id cried out, "Whither away? The agents of your vengeance (meaning Talha and Zubayr) are on their camels' humps before your eyes. Slay them both and return then to your homes!"

Ali receives news

When rumors of the defection first reached Medina, Ali refused to move against the malcontents so long as no overt act of rebellion threatened the unity of Islam. But shortly after, news arrived of their designs on Basra. At first, Ali thought that the insurgents had not made Kufa, with its greater Bedawi population, their object. Ibn Abbas, however, pointed out that Basra was really the more dangerous, because fewer of the leading chiefs were there, able to curb the people and repress rebellion.

Ali admitted this and, alarmed, gave orders that the column destined for Syria should march instead to Nejd, hoping thereby to intercept the insurgents on their way to Basra. A column of 900 men got together, at the head of which Ali marched hastily in pursuit of the insurgents. On striking the Mecca road he found that they had already passed. Not being equipped for further advance, he halted there. Messengers were sent to Kufa, Egypt and elsewhere, demanding reinforcements, for which the Caliph waited before he went forward.


The rebel army reached Basra and encamped close by. Messages were exchanged, and Uthman Ibn Hanif, the governor of Basra, aware that the cry of vengeance on the regicides really covered designs against Ali, called an assembly to gauge the temperament of the people. Finding from the uproar that the strangers had a strong party in the city, he put on his armor, and, followed by the larger portion of the citizens, went forth to meet the enemy. A parley ensued. Talha, Zubayr, and Aisha all declaimed against the murderers of Uthman and demanded justice for his murder.

The other side were equally loud in their protestations against Aisha and her attack upon their city. They said it was a shame and a slight on the memory of Muhammad for her to forego the proprieties of her position as a "Mother of the Faithful." They argued that Ali had been elected and saluted Caliph; and now Talha and Zubayr were disloyally violating the allegiance which they had been the first to swear.

Both of those men protested that the oath had been forced upon them. On this point the controversy turned, and from words they fell to blows. Night interposed, but the fighting was resumed the following day, and with so serious a loss to Basra that a truce was called. An agreement was made on the understanding that the facts regarding the contested oaths of allegiance should be ascertained from Medina. If force had really been applied to Zubayr and Talha to take the oath of allegiance to Ali, then Uthman Ibn Hanif, the governor, would retire and leave the City in their hands.

Prophecy of the dogs of Haw'ab

According to traditional sources, Aisha had doubts about her own mission. On the way to Basra, the rebel army received news that Ali had left Medina in their pursuit. They decided to leave the main road and proceed to Basra by an alternative route. When they passed through the valley of Haw'ab, the dogs of the village surrounded Aisha's camel, barking loudly. She was immediately worried and asked for the name of the place. When she was told it was Haw'ab, she was shocked and she cried, "Alas! Alas! I am the wretched woman of Haw'ab. The prophet of Allah had already warned me against this." [1]

She was reminded of what Umm Salama had told her:

"I also remind you that you and I were with the prophet of Allah and he said to us: 'Which one of you will be the rider of the trained camel, at whom the dogs of Haw'ab will bark, and she will have deviated from the right path?' We said: 'We seek refuge from Allah and his prophet from that'. He touched your back and said: 'Don't be that one, O Humayra (his nickname for Aisha, because of her ruddy complexion).'" Aisha said: "I remember that."

Aisha is said to have remembered Muhammad's warning, and to have said: "Take me back! Take me back!" But Talha and Zubayr brought 50 men and bribed them to testify in front of her that the place was not the Plain of al-Haw'ab, in order to quell her fears.

Many Sunni historians believe that those fifty men gave the first falsified testimony in the history of Islam. [2][3]

Envoy to Medina

An envoy accredited by both sides was dispatched to Medina. He arrived there and proclaimed his mission before the assembled citizens. The people were silent at first. Eventually, one of them declared that both Talha and Zubayr had paid homage to Ali under compulsion, whereupon a great tumult arose. The envoy, having seen and heard enough to prove a diversity of viewpoints, departed immediately.

When news of these events reached Ali, who was with his army in Nejd, he addressed a letter to Uthman Ibn Hanif, his governor. "There was no compulsion," he wrote, "on either Talha or Zubayr; neither of my adversaries was constrained other than by the will of the majority. By the Lord! If their object is to make me abdicate, they are without excuse; if it be any other thing, I am ready to consider it."

When the envoy returned from Medina and made his report, the insurgents called on Uthman Ibn Hanif to evacuate the city according. He produced the Caliph's letter and refused to do so, but the insurgents had already obtained a firm footing in the city. Arming themselves, they repaired to the congregational Mosque for evening prayers, and, under cover of night, were not discovered until they had overpowered the governor's guards. They entered the adjoining palace and made a prisoner of the governor, Uthman Ibn Hanif.

Conquer of Basra

On the following day, a severe conflict raged throughout the city, which ended in the discomfiture of Ali's party. Thus the government passed into the hands of Talha and Zubayr.

They took 70 of the governor's officers who were in charge of the public treasury as prisoners, and brought them to Aisha who ordered that they be put to death. The life of Uthman Ibn Hanif, the governor, was spared. Set free, his head and beard were shaven, and his eyelashes and moustaches clipped; in this shamed state the ousted governor made the best of his way back to Ali.

Talha and Zubayr then made the proclamation that every citizen who had engaged in the attack on Uthman, the Caliph, should be brought forth and executed. The order was carried out, and great numbers of men were put to death. It is reported there were 400 men killed in this way.

The insurgents communicated tidings of their success to allies in Syria, where the Umayyad governor Muawiyah I ruled. Aisha also sent letters to Kufa, Medina, and Yemen, in an attempt to dissuade people from their allegiance to Ali, and stirring them up in the name of avenging the death of Uthman.

Meanwhile the citizens of Basra swore allegiance to Talha and Zubayr conjointly. To avoid the appearance of rivalry, prayers were conducted alternately by a son of each of those two men.

Talha proclaimed an expedition against Ali, but when no one responded to his call, his spirits fell. Thus some weeks passed, till the city was aroused by the announcement that Ali was in full march upon it with an army.

Hasan and Kufa

Finding that the insurgent troops, with Aisha, Zubayr, and Talha had already passed through, Ali halted for a while on the road to Basra, waiting to strengthen his army. Though he had been joined on his march by certain loyal tribes, he still felt too outnumbered for immediate action.

To Kufa Ali addressed a special summons, inhabited as it was by many veterans on whose loyalty he might reasonably depend; and he added force to the call by promising that Kufa would be his new seat of government.

"You See," he wrote, "have I not chosen your city before all other cities for my own? Unto you do I look for succour, if happly peace and unity should again prevail as it should, among brethren in the faith." [4]

This summons was unheeded at first. The city was made up of many factions; and from some of these the message of Aisha, demanding revenge for Uthman's blood, had already found a ready response.

Abu Musa, its governor, was unequal to the emergency. Loyal to the memory of the murdered Caliph, he yet sought to allay the discontent by a neutral course, and urged the citizens to join neither party. A second deputation met with no better success, and Ali considered sending his own elder son Hasan, in company with Ammar ibn Yasir, the former governor of Kufa, to urge his cause. As one report describes: Al-Hasan bin 'Ali was at the top of the pulpit and Ammar was standing below Al-Hasan. We all gathered before him. I heard Ammar saying,

"Aisha has moved to Al-Busra. By Allah! She is the wife of your prophet in this world and in the Hereafter. But Allah has put you to test whether you obey him (Allah) or her (Aisha)."[5]

The appeal of Hasan, grandson of Muhammad, had the desired effect. A tumult arose, and Abu Musa, unable to maintain his weak neutrality, was deposed. The Arab tribes rallied around the loyalists.

Soon 10,000 men, some by land, some by river, set out to join the Caliph, who, advancing slowly, awaited their arrival. Thus reinforced, Ali was able at last to take the field effectively, and march on the rebellious city.


Basra itself was not wholly hostile, and scores of the citizens came out to join the camp of Ali. The insurgent army, which still nearly equalled that of the Caliph, now marched forth with Talha and Zubayr ibn al-Awwam at their head, and Aisha herself seated in a well-fenced litter of her camel al-Askar.

Still, Ali hoped for peace if possible. The cry of Talha and Zubayr was for vengeance against the murderers of Uthman; and against these, Ali as yet did not deny that justice should be dealt. But he was obliged to temporise. He had in his army great numbers of the very men who had risen against Uthman, and he felt that to inflict punishment on them, as his adversaries required, would be impossible at that time. Holding these views, he halted, still some little way from Basra, and sent forward Al-Ka'ka' (who with other leaders of renown had joined him from Kufa) to negotiate with Talha and Zubayr.

"Ye have slain 600 men of Al-Basra," said Al-Ka'ka' to them, "for the blood of Uthman; and lo! to avenge their blood, 6000 more have started up. Where is this internecine war to stop? It is peace and repose that Islam needs now. Give that, and again the majesty of law shall be set up, and the guilty brought to justice." [6]

As he spoke, Zubayr, Talha and Aisha returned word that if these really were the sentiments of Ali, they were ready to submit. After several days spent in such negotiations, Ali, glad at the prospect of a bloodless compromise, advanced.

The recruited besiegers of Uthman in Ali's army

Ali's army was recruited from the Bedawi settlements and comprised a great number of notorious besiegers of Uthman. Afraid of bringing these into contact with the heated army of his opponents, Ali commanded that; none who had shared in the attack on Uthman should for the present accompany him in his advance. [7] These men in their turn, with Al-Ashtar at their head, became alarmed.

Talha's troops, who were sworn to their destruction, were double their number. If peace were patched up, no hope for them escaping unscathed remained. Reasoning thus, they held a secret meeting, and came to the conclusion that their only safety lay in precipitating hostilities, and thus forcing Ali's hand to crush their enemies. Accordingly they remained behind, but with the resolve that at the right moment they would advance and throw themselves upon the enemy.

Further negotiations

The army of Basra, numbering some 20,000 men, remained encamped on the outskirts of the city. Ali's force, advancing unopposed, halted within sight of the city. Negotiations for peace resumed, evidently substantial and sincere. Ali himself approached on horseback and Talha with Zubayr rode out to confer with him.

"Why have you risen against me" asked Ali; "did you not swear homage to me?" "Yes" replied Talha "but with the sword over our necks; and now our demand is that justice be executed against the murderers of Uthman." Ali replied that he no less than they held the murderers of Uthman to be guilty; he even cursed them in no measured terms, but added that for their punishment they must bide their time [8].

Zubayr's resolved was softened by certain words of the Prophet Muhammad, which Ali reminded him of, and he vowed that he would not fight. Subsequently, they all retired. Both armies, understanding that negotiations were in progress, went to rest that night in security such as they had not felt for many weeks.

Surprise attack

Towards morning, a sudden shock changed the scene. The besiegers of Uthman, during the night, carried their secret design into execution. Led by them, squadrons of Badawi lances bore down upon the Basra tents. This created no small measure of confusion. Each camp believed that it had been attacked by the other; and the dawn found both armies drawn up, as the conspirators desired, in mortal combat against each other. In vain Ali endeavored to hold back his men. A sense of treachery embittered the conflict. It was a strange engagement,—the first in which Muslims had crossed swords with other Muslims. Accordingly, this period is known as the first "fitna," which means strife or civil war.

Clans were broken up, and in some measure it became a contest between the two rival cities; "The Beni Ar-Rabi'a of Al-Kufa fought against the Beni Ar-Rabi'a of Al-Basra, the Beni Mudar of the one against the Beni Mudar of the other," and so on, with the various tribes, and even with families, one part arrayed against the other. The Kufan ranks were urged on by the besiegers of Uthman, who felt that unless Ali conquered, they were all doomed. One of the combatants, describing the clash, reportedly said that "when the opposing sides came together breast to breast, with a furious shock, the noise was like that of washermen at the riverside."

The attitude of the leaders was in marked contrast with the bitter struggle of the ranks. Zubayr, half-hearted since his interview with Ali, left the battlefield according to his promise, and was later killed in an adjoining valley.

End of the battle

Marwan ibn al-Hakam shot his own general [9]. Talha became disabled by an arrow shot to the leg, and was carried into Basra, where he later died. Bereft of their leaders, the insurgent troops gave way. They were falling back upon the city when they passed by the camel of Aisha.

Attacked fiercely from all around, she, seated in her litter, held the Qur'an and cried out,—"Slay the murderers of Uthman." The words rang through to the retiring ranks, that "the Mother of the Faithful was in peril," and they halted their flight to rescue her. The conflict continued to rage around the camel. One after another warriors rushed to seize her standard; one after another they were cut down.

Of Quraish, 70 perished by the bridle. At last, Ali, perceiving that her camel was the rallying-point of the enemy, sent one of his captains to hamstring, and thus disable it. With a loud cry the animal fell to the ground. The struggle ceased and the insurgents retired into the city.

The litter was taken down, and, by orders of Ali, placed in a removed area, where Aisha's brother Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr pitched a tent for her.

As he drew aside the curtain, she screamed at the unknown intrusion; —he said "Are your own people, then, strangers to you?" Aisha exclaimed, "It is my brother!" and agreed to be led into the tent. She had escaped the battle with no wounds. [10]

Losses in the battle

The carnage in the ill-fated Battle of Camel (for so it came to be called) was reported to have been devastating. The field was covered with 10,000 bodies in equal proportion on either side. Following it, Ali gave orders that no fugitive should be pursued, nor any wounded soldier slain, nor plunder seized, nor the privacy of any house invaded.

Subsequently, a large trench was dug as a mass grave for the fallen, friends and foes alike. Ali, encamped for three days outside the city, performed the funeral service for all of them himself. It was a new experience to bury the dead slain in battle not against non-Muslim enemies, but with believer fighting against believer, brother against brother. Instead of cursing the memory of his enemies, Ali spoke hopefully of the future state of those who had entered the field, on whatever side. When they brought him the sword of Zubayr he cursed the man who took that man's life, and called to mind the feats displayed by Zubayr when he wielded it in the early battles of Islam. Ali exclaimed:—"Many a time has this sword driven care and sorrow from the Prophet's brow."

A man named Amr ibn Jarmouz had followed Zubayr after he left the battlefield and murdered him while he was performing his prayers. The Muslims might well mourn the memory both of Talha and Zubayr, remembering how on the field of Uhud, Talha had saved the life of Muhammad at the peril of his own, and how often the Zubayr had argued against the idolaters of Mecca. Their fall, and that of many of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, was a loss to the Muslim community itself, because it left the Quraish seriously weak in the struggle yet to be fought out between them and those Arab tribes responsible for all the misunderstanding and Uthman's murder.

In fact, this victory of Ali's was virtually the victory of the besiegers of Uthman, supported by the factious citizens of Kufa. Thenceforward Ali was wholly dependent upon them. Some scholars argue that if, instead, Ali had been able to effect a compromise with Talha and Zubayr, his position would have been incomparably stronger.

Dividing the spoils of war

The bearing of Ali was generous towards his fallen foe. Having entered the city, he divided the contents of the treasury amongst the troops which had fought on his side, promising them a still larger reward "when the Lord should have delivered Syria (Ali's other opponents) and (Muawiyah I) into his hands."

Otherwise he treated friends and foes alike, and mainly set aside animosities of the past. Marwan I and the adherents of the house of Banu Umayyad fled to their homes, or else found refuge in Syria under the authority of the governor Muawiyah I. All who remained in the city swore their loyalty to Ali. The only group that remained dissatisfied was that of the slaves and rabble, who murmured at having no share in the division of spoils, nor any chance of plunder. These, gathering into marauding bands, occasioned much disquietude for the Caliph, and hastened his departure from the city, with the view of checking the mischief on which they were bent.

Aisha retires to Medina

Aisha was treated by Ali with the reverence due to one who bore the title of "the Prophet's Spouse in this life and also in the life to come." She was now 45 years of age, but had lost little of the fire and vivacity of youth. After the battle, the Caliph visited her tent, and expressed his satisfaction at finding her unhurt; adding mildly, but half reproachfully:—"May the Lord pardon you for what has passed, and have mercy upon you." "And upon you also!" was the pert and ready answer by Aisha.[11]

The best house in Basra was given over to her and there she was attended by her own adherents. Not long after, she left with a retinue of 40 maids, accompanied by her brother. Ali himself also accompanied her for a short distance on foot.

Proceeding to Mecca, she performed the Umrah (lesser Pilgrimage); and then retired to Medina. She never again attemped to interfere with the affairs of the state. Her nephew Abd-Allah ibn al-Zubayr retired with her. He became famous in the subsequent history of the caliphate when he led the second revolt from 683 until 692, establishing a rival caliphate to the Umayyads. She spent the remainder of her days at Medina. There, crowds of pilgrims visiting Muhammad's grave gazed wonderingly at the once beautiful and favorite wife of Muhammad; while she, garrulous in old age, became the fertile source of tradition and the narrator of incidents in Muhammad's life beginning with her earliest childhood. She died in the year 678.


Fought with Ali

  • Ali [12]
  • Harith ibn Rab'i

Fought with Aisha

  • Aisha
  • Talha ibn Ubayd-Allah
  • Zubayr ibn al-Awwam
  • Marwan ibn al-Hakam

Fought with Hafsa bint Umar bin al-Khattab

  • Abd-Allah ibn Umar
  • Hafsa bint Umar
  • Umm Salama Hind bint Abi Umayya
  • Other wifes of Muhammad


  • Abdullah bin Aamir Hadhrami of Makkah
  • Ya'la bin Umayya
  • Abdullah bin Aamir bin Kurayz of Basra
  • Saeed bin Aas
  • Mughira bin Shaaba


  1. See Muir, 1924: 242
  2. Ibn al-Athir al-Tabari, and al-Mada'ini who wrote on the events of the year 36 AH.
  3. See also Taha Husain. "The Great Sedition"—"al-Fitna al-Kubra," [1]
  4. Muir, 1924: 126
  5. Sahih Bukhari 088.220USC-MSA Muslim Texts online.Retrieved February 29, 2008.
  6. Muir, 1924: 247
  7. Muir, 1924: 247-248
  8. Muir, 1924: 248
  10. Muir, 1924: 249
  11. Muir, 1924: 251
  12. Restatement of History of Islam The Battle of Basra on,

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