40 A.H.   /   661 A.D.

Conspiracy to assassinate 'Ali, Mu'awiya, and 'Amr, 40 A.H.661 A.D.

THE Khawarij were sorely troubled at the prospects of Islam. It was not that raids and robbery, dissension and strife, had been the order of the day, for to them bloodshed was more tolerable than apostasy. To the Khariji, the cessation of war brought no peace of mind. A settled government was the ruin of his hopes. 'Ali, having come to terms with Mu'awiya, there was no longer room to expect that the ungodly kingdoms of the earth would be overthrown, and the reign of righteousness restored. Thus the theocratic party brooded over the blood that had been shed in vain at Nahrawan and on other battlefields, and for the present abandoned hope. Many took refuge from the godless tyranny in the sacred precincts of the Hijaz, where they might lament freely over the miserable fate of Islam. As three of these thus mourned together, a gleam of hope shot across their path. "Let us each kill one of the tyrants; Islam will yet be free, and the reign of the Lord appear." And so, as in the case of 'Othman, but under another guise and urged by bolder hopes, the three conspired against the State. The fatal resolve once taken, details were speedily arranged. 'Ali and Mu'awiya, both must fall; and 'Amr also, not only as the impious arbitrator, but also as the likeliest successor to the throne left vacant by the other two. Each was to dispose of his fellow as he presided at the morning service, on the same Friday when, being the Fast, the Grand Mosques of Al-Kufa, Damascus, and Fustat would be thronged with worshippers. They dipped their swords in powerful poison, and separated, swearing


that they would either fulfil the task or perish in the attempt.

'Amr escapes. Mu'awiya wounded; recovers.

'Amr escaped. He was sick that day, and the captain of guard, presiding at prayers, died in his stead. Mu'awiya was not so fortunate. The blow fell upon him, and was near to being fatal. His physician declared his life could be saved only by the cautery, or by a potent draught that would deprive him of the hope of further progeny. He shrank from the cautery, and chose the draught. The remedy was effectual, and he survived.

'Ali wounded in the Mosque at Kufa.

At Al-Kufa things turned out differently. The conspirator Ibn Muljam was able on the spot to gain two desperate accomplices from the Beni Taym. That tribe, deeply imbued with the fanaticism of the day, had suffered severely in the massacre of Nahrawan, and nursed resentment ever since against the Caliph. Ibn Muljam loved a maid of the Beni Taym, who having on that fatal day lost father, brother, and other relatives was roused thereby to a savage ardour. "Bring me," said the damsel to her lover, "the head of 'Ali as my dower; if thou escapest alive, thou shalt have me as thy guerdon here; if thou perish, thou shalt enjoy better than me above." So she introduced him to two accomplices, who, burning with the same spirit of revenge as Ibn Muljam, were to lie in wait on either side of the door leading into the crowded Mosque. At the time appointed, the Caliph entered the assembly calling aloud as usual, To prayers, ye people! To prayers! Immediately he was assailed on either hand. The sword of one conspirator fell upon the lintel; but Ibn Muljam wounded the Caliph severely on the head and side. He was seized. Of his accomplices one was cut to pieces, the other in the tumult fled. 'Ali was carried into the palace with strength enough to question the assassin who was brought before him. Ibn Muljam declared boldly that the deed had been forty days in contemplation, during all which time it had been his prayer that "the wickedest of mankind might meet his fate." "Then," replied 'Ali, "that must have been thyself." So saying, he turned to his son, Al-Hasan, and bade him keep the assassin in close custody: "If I die, his life is forfeit; but see thou mutilate him not, for that is forbidden by the Prophet." During the day Um Kulthum went into the assassin's cell and cursed him, adding, what no doubt she would have fain


believed, "My father shall yet live." "Then, Lady," replied the fanatic, "whence these tears? Listen. That sword I bought for a thousand pieces, and a thousand more it cost to poison it. None may escape its wound."

Death of 'Ali, 17 ix. 40 A.H. Jan. 25, 661 A.D.

It soon became evident that the wound indeed was mortal. They asked the Caliph whether, if he died, it was his will that his son should succeed to the throne. Still true to the elective principle, 'Ali answered: "I do not command it, neither do I forbid. See ye to it." Then he called Al-Hasan and Al-Hosein to his bedside, and counselled them to be steadfast in piety and resignation, and kind to their younger brother, the son of his Hanefite wife. After that he wrote his testament, and continuing to repeat the name of the Lord, so breathed his last. When they had performed the funeral obsequies, Al-Hasan arraigned the assassin before him.

Ibn Muljam put to death.

Nothing daunted, Ibn Muljam said: "I made a covenant with the Lord before the Holy House at Mecca, that I would slay both 'Ali and Mu'awiya. Now, if thou wilt I shall go forth and kill the other, or perish in the attempt. If I succeed, I will return and swear allegiance unto thee." "Nay," said Al-Hasan, "not before thou hast tasted of the fire." He was put to death, and the body, tied up in a sack, was committed to the flames.

'Ali's wives and children.

'Ali died sixty years of age. His troubled and contested reign had lasted but four years and nine months. In his youth he was one of the most distinguished heroes in the early wars of Islam. But after the Prophet's death he took no part in any of the military expeditions. In his later years he became heavy and obese, and his bald and portly figure was a subject of ridicule to his enemies. For a time he was content with a single wife, the Prophet's daughter Fatima, by whom he had three sons1 and two daughters, the progenitors of the Seiyid race—the nobility of Islam. After she died, he took many women into his harim, both free and servile, by whom he had, in all, eleven sons and fifteen daughters. 'Ali was a tender-hearted father. In his later years a little girl was born to him, with whose prattle he would beguile his troubles; he had her always on his knee, and doted on her with a special

1 One of these died in infancy; the other two were Al-Hasan and Al-Hosein.


love.1 He was the last of the four "rightly guided" Caliphs, and the first of the twelve Shi'ite Imams.

'Ali's forbearance and magnanimity.

In the character of 'Ali there are many things to commend. Mild and beneficent, he treated Al-Basra, when prostrate at his feet, with a generous forbearance. Towards theocratic fanatics, who wearied his patience by incessant intrigue and insensate rebellion, he showed no vindictiveness. Excepting Mu'awiya, the man of all others whom he ought not to have estranged, he carried the policy of conciliating his enemies to a dangerous extreme. In compromise, indeed, and in procrastination, lay the failure of his Caliphate. With greater vigour, spirit, and determination, he might have averted the schism which for a time threatened the existence of Islam, and which has since never ceased to weaken it.

Wise but inactive.

'Ali was wise in counsel, and many an adage and sapient proverb has been attributed to him. But, like Solomon, his wisdom was for other than himself. His career must be characterised a failure. On the election of Abu Bekr, influenced by Fatima, who claimed and was denied a share in her father's property, he retired for a time into private life. Thereafter we find him taking part in the counsels of 'Abu Bekr and his successors, and even performing the functions of Chief Judge. But he never asserted the leading position, which, as cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, might have been expected of him; nor is there aught to show that this was due to other cause than an easy and inactive temperament.

Desertion of 'Othman - a blot upon his name

One indelible blot rests on the escutcheon of 'Ali, his flagrant breach of duty towards his sovereign ruler. He had sworn allegiance to 'Othman, and by him he was bound to have stood in the last extremity. Instead, he held ignobly aloof, while the Caliph fell a victim to red-handed treason. Nor can the plea avail that he was himself under pressure. Had there been a loyal will to help, there would have been a ready way. In point of fact, his attitude gave colour to the

1 The mother of this little girl belonged to the Beni Kilab. The child lisped, and pronouncing l like sh, was unable to say Kilab; when asked to what tribe she belonged, she would imitate the bark of a dog (kilab being the plural of kelb, meaning "a dog"), to the great delight of 'Ali and his courtiers.


charge even of collusion.1 And herein 'Ali must be held accountable not only for a grave dereliction of duty, but for a fatal error which shook the stability of the Caliphate itself, as he was himself not long in finding to his cost.

Burial place unknown.

Tradition, strange to say, is silent, and opinion uncertain, as to where the body of 'Ali lies. Some believe that he was buried in the Great Mosque at Al-Kufa, others in the palace. Certainly, his tomb was never, in early times, the object of any care or veneration. The same indifference attached to his memory throughout the realm of Islam, as had attached to his person during life, and it was not till a generation had passed away that any sentiment of special reverence or regard for the husband of the Prophet's daughter, and father of his only surviving progeny, began to show itself.

Divine Imamate, a fiction of later growth

There is no trace whatever at this period of the extravagant claims of later days. On the contrary, even at Al-Kufa, the capital that should have been proud of its Caliph, there prevailed at this time towards him and his family an utter want of enthusiasm and loyalty, amounting at times to disaffection. The fiction of the divine Imamship was a reaction in favour of 'Ali's descendants, arising out of the coming tragedy at Kerbala and cruel fate of the Prophet's progeny, which, fostered by 'Alid and 'Abbasid faction, soon became a powerful lever, skilfully and unscrupulously used, to overthrow the Umeiyad dynasty.

1 See above, p. 230, and note.

The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents]
Answering Islam Home Page