BEFORE DAWN ON THE seventeenth day of the holy month of Ramadan in the year 40 of the Hegira (January 24th, AD 661), the Caliph All entered the great mosque of Kufa to prepare for the day's prayers. A conspirator lurking in the shadows sprang at him and plunged a poisoned sword into his head. The Caliph died later the same day. He was the third of the Prophet's four successors to be assassinated, but the first to fall victim to religion. The murderer, who was soon caught, was part of a conspiracy to kill all the leaders of the Islamic community: Ali himself, Muawiya, governor of Syria, and Amr ibn al-As, governor of Egypt. It only succeeded in the case of Caliph Ali.
The plotters belonged to a new sect, the Kharijites, who had only come into existence four years previously. When the Caliph Othman had been assassinated in 656, Ali, who was the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, was recognized in Medina as the new head of the Islamic community--but not by everyone. He soon faced the opposition of Muawiya, who demanded revenge for the murder of his cousin Othman (both were members of the powerful Umayyad family that was to found the first dynasty of Islam after Ali's death). War soon followed. The course of its only armed conflict, the battle of Siffin in 657, was indecisive but apparently going against the Syrians, when they raised the Koran on their lances and brought the fighting to a standstill, demanding instead arbitration by the authority of the sacred text. Ali agreed, but the result of his agreement turned out to be fatal.
One party of Ali's followers, numbering some 12,000, refused to accept the idea of arbitration by humans, on the grounds that only God could decide. They proclaimed la hukma illa li-llah, 'judgment belongs to God alone', and withdrew from the field. Although Ali managed to persuade them to return peacefully to his base of Kufa in Iraq, resentment took a more serious turn when the results of the arbitration, which was unfavourable to Ali, were announced in 658. A hard core of intransigents, joined by supporters from Basra, then left Kufa, elected their own caliph or spiritual leader, and took a stand in central Iraq. They became known as the 'withdrawers' (Arabic khariji, pl. khawarij from kharaja 'withdraw'). On their way, they murdered Muslims who did not support their uncompromising position, considering them worse than infidels. Ali's army attacked the rebels in July, killed their leader and destroyed the majority of their forces. However, this marked not the end but the beginning of a movement that was to cause turmoil in the Islamic world for centuries.
Ever since the death of the Prophet in AD 632, the Islamic community had faced a serious, and as it turned out insoluble, problem: who was to be their head? Muhammad himself had revealed a religion that provided a new basis for forming a community and a nascent state. When he emigrated from Mecca to Medina in 622, he became head of both state and religion, creating a position that had to be filled. No one of course could be another prophet, but Islam needed a Commander of the Faithful who would lead it in prayer, war and government. There was no idea of separating religion from statecraft. The Prophet's first two successors had been his close associates, and the third, Othman, had been chosen by a council, but he represented the old ruling classes of Mecca who had opposed the Prophet in the beginning and only converted to Islam at the last moment.
The civil war that broke out between the Umayyad Muawiya and Ali reflected two irreconcilable points of view: should a powerful family lead Islam, or should it be in the hands of the Prophet's relatives and descendants? Muawiya's followers came to be called the Sunnis (those who follow the example, sunna, of the Prophet), while the champions of Ali were the Shi'ites (from shi'at Ali, the party of Ali). Long after the Umayyads were gone from the scene, the difference remained to inspire a sectarianism that became perpetual and often hostile. …