Battle of Nahrawan

The Battle of Nahrawan (Arabic: معركة النهروان, romanized: Ma'rakat an-Nahrawān) was fought between the army of Caliph Ali and the rebel group called Kharijites in July 658 CE. They were a group of pious allies of Ali during the First Muslim Civil War. They separated from him following the Battle of Siffin when Ali agreed to settle the dispute with Mu'awiya, governor of Syria, through negotiations, a move labeled by the group as against the Qur'an. After failed attempts to regain their loyalty and because of their rebellious and murderous activities, Ali confronted the Kharijites near their headquarters by the Nahrawan Canal, near modern-day Baghdad. Of the 4,000 rebels, some 1,200 were won over with promise of amnesty while majority of the remaining 2,800 were killed in the ensuing battle.

Battle of Nahrawan
Part of the First Fitna
Date17 July 658 CE
Location33°20′N 44°23′E / 33.333°N 44.383°E / 33.333; 44.383Coordinates: 33°20′N 44°23′E / 33.333°N 44.383°E / 33.333; 44.383
Result Rashidun Caliphate victory
Rashidun Caliphate Kharijites
Commanders and leaders
Ali ibn Abi Talib Abdullah ibn Wahb al-Rasibi
14,000 2,800
Casualties and losses
7−13 2,400
Battle of Nahrawan is located in Iraq
Battle of Nahrawan
Location within modern Iraq

The battle resulted in permanent split between the group and the rest of Muslims, whom Kharijites branded as apostates. Although defeated, they continued to threaten and harass cities and towns for years to come. Ali himself was assassinated by one of the Kharijites in January 661.


The controversial policies of the third Caliph Uthman resulted in a rebellion and he was assassinated in 656. Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad, was subsequently elected Caliph by the Medinese people. His election was challenged by some of Muhammad's companions including Talha ibn Ubayd Allah and Zubayr ibn al-Awam, and Muhammad's widow A'isha. Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria and Uthman's relative, also denounced Ali's election and demanded retribution against Uthman's killers. Although Ali defeated the rebellion of Talha and Zubayr in the Battle of the Camel in 656, his war against Mu'awiya resulted in stalemate at Siffin (July 657) when Mu'awiya called for peace.[1] Although Ali was unwilling to halt the battle, his army refused to fight and he was forced to give in. An arbitration committee was setup with representatives from both Ali and Mu'awiya's side with a mandate to settle the dispute in the light of the Qur'an. As Ali marched back to Kufa, his capital, schisms appeared in his army. A group of his soldiers criticized the arbitration and accused Ali of blasphemy for he had left the matter to the discretion of two men and not acted according to the Book of God. Most of them had earlier forced Ali to accept the arbitration. Now they exclaimed that right to judgement belongs to God alone. Twelve thousand of them separated from the army and settled at a place called Harura, becoming known as the Harurites.[2]

Ali, after some time, visited the Harura camp and persuaded the seceders to give up their protest and return to Kufa.[3] According to some accounts, they returned on the condition that war against Mu'awiya be resumed after six months and Ali acknowledge his mistake, which he did in very general and ambiguous terms.[4] Nevertheless Ali refused to denounce the arbitration and proceedings continued. In March 658, he sent his arbitration delegation headed by Abu Musa Ash'ari to carry out the talks.[5] Consequently Kharijites decided to leave him. In order to avoid being detected, they moved out in small groups and went to a place called Nahrawan on the east bank of the Tigris. Some five hundred of their Basran comrades were informed and they too joined them in Nahrawan.[3][6] Following this exodus, they were called as Khawarij, those who leave.[7]


Kharijites denounced Ali as Caliph, declared him, his followers, and the Syrians as infidels and elected Abd Allah ibn Wahb al-Rasibi as their Caliph. They declared war against such infidels licit and started practice of interrogating people about their opinion on Uthman and Ali whereby people not sharing their view were executed.[8] In the meantime, arbitrators declared that Uthman had been killed unjustly by the rebels. Other than that, however, they could not agree on anything substantial and the process collapsed. Ali now denounced the arbitrators and called on his supporters for renewed war against Mu'awiya.[9] He summoned Kharijites to join him in war against Mu'awiya. They refused to do so unless he would acknowledge that he had gone astray and repent. Ali consequently decided to depart for Syria without them.[10] With the Kharijite threat looming on the Kufan horizon, Ali's forces refused to march on Syria unless the Kharijites were either won over or neutralized.[9] Ali nevertheless persuaded them that war against Mu'awiya was more important and ordered his troops to depart for Syria.[10] En route, after receiving word of the Kharijites murdering people for their beliefs, he sent one of his men to investigate, but he too was killed. His soldiers once again implored him to deal with Kharijites first for they feared for their families and property in Kufa. Ali then moved with his army to Nahrawan.[11] The strength of his army is reported to have been 14,000.[12]


He asked Kharjites to surrender the murderers and accept peace. If they did so, he would leave them and depart to fight the Syrians. Kharijites responded that all of them were responsible for the murders as they all considered it licit to kill his followers.[11] After further exchange of arguments, Kharijite leaders told their followers not to engage in further discussion and instead prepare for martyrdom and to face God in paradise. Both sides then arranged in battle order and Ali announced that anyone of the Kharijites who would come to him or go back to Kufa would be safe and only murderers will be punished.[12] As a result, some 1,200 Kharijites left; some joined Ali, some went back to Kufa, while others left the battlefield and went into the mountains; Ibn Wahb was consequently left with 2,800 fighters.[13]

Most of the Kharijites were on foot, while Ali's army consisted of archers, cavalry as well as foot-soldiers. He sent his cavalry in front of the infantry, which was divided in two rows, and stationed archers in between the first row and cavalry. He ordered his army to let the other side start the battle. Kharijites then attacked Ali's forces with vigor and broke through his cavalry. Archers showered them with arrows, cavalry attacked from behind and foot-soldiers attacked with swords and spears. Heavily outnumbered and surrounded, most of the Kharijites, including the Caliph Ibn Wahb, were quickly slaughtered.[14] Some 2,400 Kharijites having been killed,[15] 400 wounded were found lying on ground after the batlle and were sent back to their families in Kufa.[13] On Ali's side, 7−13 men are said to have died.[12]


After the battle, Ali ordered his army to march with him on Syria. They refused with the excuse that they were tired and needed some rest in Kufa, after which they will go with him on the new campaign. Ali agreed and moved to Nukhayla, mustering ground outside Kufa, and permitted his soldiers to rest and occasionally visit their homes. His soldiers were unwilling to go on the campaign and in the next few days the camp was almost completely deserted. Consequently, he had to abandon the campaign.[16] The slaughter of Ali's erstwhile allies and pious Qur'an readers undermined Ali's position as Caliph.[17] He was eventually assassinated by the Kharijite Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljam in January 661.[13]

Although Kharijites were crushed, their insurgency continued for years to come and the battle of Nahrawan cemented their break from the community.[13] The majority abandoned city life and resorted to brigandage, robbery, pillaging settled areas and other anti-state activities throughout the reign of Ali and later of Mu'awiya, who became Caliph a few months after Ali's assassination. During the second civil war they controlled large parts of Arabia and Persia,[18][19] but were later subdued by the Umayyad governor of Iraq Hajjaj ibn Yusuf.[20] They were, however, not completely eliminated until the 10th century CE.[18]


  1. ^ Kennedy 2001, pp. 7–8.
  2. ^ Wellhausen 1901, pp. 3–4.
  3. ^ a b Wellhausen 1901, p. 17.
  4. ^ Madelung 1997, pp. 248–249.
  5. ^ Levi Della Vida 1978, p. 1074.
  6. ^ Madelung 1997, pp. 251–252.
  7. ^ Levi Della Vida 1978, pp. 1074–1075.
  8. ^ Wellhausen 1901, pp. 17–18.
  9. ^ a b Donner 2010, p. 163.
  10. ^ a b Madelung 1997, p. 258.
  11. ^ a b Madelung 1997, p. 259.
  12. ^ a b c Madelung 1997, p. 260.
  13. ^ a b c d Wellhausen 1901, p. 18.
  14. ^ Kennedy 2001, p. 10.
  15. ^ Morony 1993, p. 912.
  16. ^ Madelung 1997, p. 262.
  17. ^ Donner 2010, p. 164.
  18. ^ a b Kennedy 2004, p. 79.
  19. ^ Kennedy 2004, p. 97.
  20. ^ Lewis 2002, p. 76.