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Camel, Battle of the

By:
Asma Sayeed
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Camel, Battle of the

The Battle of the Camel took place at Baṣra (in southern Iraq) in AH36/656 CE It is widely regarded as the first Muslim civil war. This armed conflict was the culmination of several months of dispute within the fledgling Muslim community concerning how best to deal with the assassination of the third caliph, ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān (d. AH 35/656 CE). His successor ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib delayed pursuing the perpetrators of the murder. In opposition to this policy, a faction led by three prominent companions of Muḥammad, namely Ṭalḥah b. ʿUbayd Allāh (d. AH 36/656 CE), Zubayr b. al-ʿAwwām (d. AH 36/656 CE), and ʿĀʿishah bint Abī Bakr (d. AH 58/678 CE), Muḥammadʾs widow, believed that such delay in avenging ʿUthmān 's death would compromise the integrity of the Muslim community. While the conflict was ostensibly rooted in ʿUthmān 's murder, historical sources suggest a broader crisis of confidence in ʿAlī 's abilities to lead the Muslim community.

In the months before the battle, Ṭalḥah, Zubayr, and ʿĀʿishah acted against the wishes of ʿAlī by rallying troops on their way from Mecca to Baṣra. Upon hearing of their advance, ʿAlī rallied his forces from Kufa. The parties engaged in the decisive battle at Baṣra. Historians of early Islam have named this event the Battle of the Camel because of the central place occupied by ʿĀʿishah during the battle as she rallied her troops from her howdah (enclosure atop the camel). The battle was fought most fiercely around ʿĀʿishah 's camel and ended when the camel had fallen. ʿĀʿishah, drawing partly on her status as a favorite wife of Muḥammad, proved to be remarkably successful in leading the call for avenging the death of ʿUthmān. Al-Ṭabarī 's chronicle, which provides one of the earliest narratives of this event, depicts her as inciting and leading those who wanted revenge for ʿUthmān 's assassination. The death of Ṭalḥah and Zubayr at the battle and the defeat of Āʿishah 's troops confirmed ʿAlī 's leadership.

The significance of the Battle of the Camel as the first civil war in Islamic history is heightened due to the leadership role of ʿĀʿishah, which she is said to have regretted to the end of her life. Sectarian interests have further shaped interpretations and historical memories of the battle. Shīʿī polemics against ʿĀʿishah have depicted her as fomenting dissent against ʿAlī, and even more gravely, as contradicting Qurʿān verse 33:33, which some exegetes have interpreted as mandating the seclusion of Muḥammad 's wives. In light of sectarian attacks, some Sunnī scholars have composed defenses of ʿĀʿishahʾs political actions. Their own ambivalence regarding ʿĀʿishah as a political exemplar for women is evident in their elaborate vindications. In this vein, accounts of the battle recur in both Sunnī and Shīʿī admonitions against women 's political participation and leadership.

See also ʿĀʿISHAH and ʿALī IBN ABī ṬāLIB.

Bibliography

  • Goodwin, Jan. Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World. Plume, 2002.
  • Spellberg, Denise. Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. This work contains one of the most detailed contemporary academic analyses of the legacy of ʿĀʿishah bint Abi Bakr, and includes an extensive discussion of historical interpretations of her participation in the Battle of the Camel.
  • Al-Ṭabari, Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr, Taʿrikh al-Rusul waʿl-Muluk Vol. 16 (Translated by Adrian Brockett as A Community Divided ) Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. An annotated translation of one of the earliest detailed accounts of the Battle of the Camel.
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