Friday, July 27, 2012

After the Prophet, Part 3

Deeply Sympathetic, Gripping Page-Turner. Though At Times Overly Melodramatic Narrative.
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5 stars

Part 3 - Aisha, Muawiya, and The Night of Shrieking (See Part 1, Part 2)

Even though it had been Aisha, the Prophet's youngest widow, The Mother of the Faithful, who had instigated the crowd against Othman, the Caliph, it was Aisha who was also shocked and infuriated by Othman's assassination, and it was Aisha who marched straight to the the "great mosque", the Kaaba, at Mecca, and roused the people to rise against Ali, with words that were to be echoed by different people in different circumstances, ""Seek revenge for the blood of Othman, and you will strengthen Islam!"" Whether Aisha was more concerned about strengthening Islam or whether more concerned about Ali, her bete-noire, becoming the Calipph, is open to conjecture. However, for the people of Mecca, the argument being made against Ali was the same as what Abu Bakr had used, and the words similar - that Ali's blood was now fair-game, "haraam". Aisha was supported by her brothers-in-law, Talha and Zubayr, who had been part of the six that had voted for Othman after Omar's death, and "each wanted the caliphate for himself". Both Talha and Zubayr would perish the civil war that followed, both done to death, many alleged, by Marwan.

It is useful to include a brief description of Marwan, also known as "Ibn Tarid, the Son of the Exile". His father had been so distrusted by the Prophet that he had been "banished along with his family to the mountain city of Taif." Othman would later reverse this banishment, and recall Marwan to Medina to serve as his chief-of-staff. Furthermore, "no sooner was the battle lost than he rode across the desert to Damascus, to become a senior counselor in the court of Muawiya, the governor of Syria." Muawiya, brother-in-law of Muhammad (his sister, Umm Habiba, had been the Prophet's eighth wife) is another character that belies belief, and more on him later. If ever there was a medieval machinator par-excellence, and without compunctions of any sort, it has to be Muawiya.

Aisha marched from Mecca to Basra, and Ali marched with his army from Medina.
"So when Aisha rode out onto that battlefield outside Basra on her red camel, it was the first time a Muslim woman had led men into war. It was also to be the last."
Actually, this particular bit is not quite true, since Razia Sultan, Sultana of Delhi from 1236 to 1240 CE, led her army in battle against Malik Altunia, her childhood friend and governor of Bhatinda.

Despite entreaties from several, including Ali, war was not avoided, and the first of what would be an endless elegy of civil wars amongst the Islamic community was fought in October 656CE, less than twenty-five years after the death of the Prophet.
"Hand-to-hand combat was utterly and horribly visceral."
"Hardened warriors swore the rest of their lives that they had never seen so many severed arms and legs. It lasted from early morning to midafternoon, and by the time it was done, three thousand men, most of them from Aisha’s army, lay dead and dying."
In the end, the battle was fought around Aisha's camel, with Ali's soldiers appealing to her to surrender, and Aisha sent soldier after soldier to his death. "Seventy men were cut down as they held the reins of Aisha’s camel," and Aisha's own armoured howdah was peppered with so many arrows it "bristled like a porcupine."

As I  read the pasages describing the brutal war, I was reminded again and again about the Mahabharata, and the passages describing the mayhem and severing of limbs that took place in that terrible war.

Aisha was finally defeated, and she returned to Medina, escorted for the first few miles on the journey by Ali and his two grandsons, Hasan and Hussein, as a gesture of respect for the defeated and also to the widow of the Prophet.


Meanwhile, Muawiya, governor of Syria, and "a clear-eyed pragmatist who delighted in the art and science of manipulation, whether by bribery, flattery, intelligence, or exquisitely calculated deception" had watched the outcome of this battle between Aisha and Ali from Damascus. power,  He had let Othman's bloodstained clothes be displayed for a year, to derive maximum mileage from that sight.
"Caliph, Muawiya had ruled Syria for close to twenty years, and the whole province - nearly all the land now known as Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine - had become his own personal fiefdom, a powerhouse in its own right."
While Muawiya lived in a luxurious palace, he had however escaped any resentment from the people, thanks to his exquisite cunning. He "prided himself on being exactly as generous and precisely as ruthless as he needed to be."
"“If there be but one hair binding someone to me, I do not let it break,” he once said. “If he pulls, I loosen; if he loosens, I pull.” As for any sign of dissent: “I do not apply my sword where my whip is enough, nor my whip where my tongue is enough.”
As one of his senior generals put it, “Whenever I saw him lean back, cross his legs, blink, and command someone ‘Speak!’ I had pity on that man.”
“I do not come between people and their tongues,” he said, “so long as they do not come between us and our rule.""
When Ali recalled all governors appointed by Othman, all but Muawiya complied. Ali rejected sage advice from his advisers, who asked Ali to play the same devious political games as Muawiya. Ali would have "nothing to do with such underhand schemes". His advisers assured Ali that he would not have had to do any of the dirty work required to secure allegiance from Muawiya. His aides would do that for him.
" of his top generals had promised. “I swear I will take him to the desert after a watering, and leave him staring at the backside of things whose front side he has no idea of."
Four months later Muawiya replied to Ali's missive with an "openly hostile" letter. Ali's inevitable response was to lead "his battle-tested army north out of Basra to Kufa, a hundred and fifty miles closer to Damascus," This would also lead to Iraq becoming the cradle of Shia Islam. Muawiya, in the meantime, set about manipulating popular opinion in his favor, and this included "a carefully staged campaign to present himself as loath to take action. He would have to be forced into it by the outraged conscience of the people."

And thus it came to war, "Early that summer of 657 the two armies, Syrian and Iraqi, met at the Plain of Siffin just west of the Euphrates, in what is today northern Syria." Ali even went to the extent of challenging Muawiya to a one-to-one duel, and to avoid the inevitable "mass bloodshed". Muawiya refused, even though it was not "fitting for him to refuse such a challenge", with the practical reply that ""Ali has killed everyone he has ever challenged to single combat.""

And so the war began. The Battle of Siffin, as it was called, continued into the second night, which came to be known as the "Night of Shrieking", so called for the "unearthly howls of men in mortal agony, a sound more fortunate people now know only as that of an animal hit by a car, dragging itself to the side of the road to die." Hasan and Hussein, Ali's sons, and the Prophet's grandsons, urged Ali to move faster on the battlefield to avoid being so exposed a target. Ali's famed response was:
""My sons," he said, "the fateful day will inevitably come for your father. Going fast will not make it come later, and going slow will not make it come sooner. It makes no difference to your father whether he comes upon death, or death comes upon him.""
As the battle progressed, it was clear that Ali's armies were gaining the upper hand, and it was a matter of perhaps only hours before the war was won. But Muawiya was not defeated. He had a masterstroke up his sleeve. Parchment copies of the Quran were distributed to the army's top cavalry, "with orders for each horseman to spear a single parchment sheet on the tip of his lance and then ride into the enemy lines."
Unbelievable. But happen it did.

What was worse, for Ali, was that his army refused to fight at the sight of the Quran, and lay down their weapons. Muawiya then proposed arbitration between the two armies, with the holy Quran as the guiding light. This again was a masterstroke. He had "couched his proposal in the most pious terms" to make it acceptable to Ali's army. Ali, on the other hand, saw the Quran being turned into a political tool, and warned his men, ""Do not forget that I forbade you this," ... "This will only demolish strength, destroy right, and bequeath lowliness. Shame on you!""

Thus outmaneuvered, as Ali's army began the march back to Kufa, the murmurs of disappointment began to arise. Rather than confront their own gullibility, some turned an accusatory finger at Ali. The leader of the disgruntled was Abdullah ibn Wahb, and they were to be the "first Islmaic fundamentalists". The name Abdullah ibn Wahb "still reverberates in the Islamic world since it calls to mind Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect."

(... to be concluded)
The Accidental Theologist
After the Prophet by Lesley Hazleton « Knopf Doubleday - Doubleday

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© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.