Charles Cameron has been guest blogging here in a series on radical Islamism and terrorism. A former researcher with the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, his most recent essay, an analysis of the powerpoint presentation of Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, appeared in the Small Wars Journal.
The Duel of Ali ibn Abu Talib with Amru ibn Abd Wudd:an old story of Muslim chivalry, told in refutation of today’s jihadists.
By Charles Cameron
Joseph Campbell was a comparative mythographer whose most celebrated book, *The Hero with a Thousand Faces*, famously provided George Lucas with the narrative stages found in the hero stories of the world’s cultures, and thus with the series of events that would forge a hero and Jedi warrior out of the raw material of young Luke Skywalker. In other books, he more than once tells the story of the samurai — a warrior with a precursor to the Jedi code — who was spat upon in battle:
His overlord had been killed, and his vow was, of course, absolute loyalty to this lord. And it was his duty now to kill the killer. Well, after considerable difficulties, he finally backs this fellow into a corner, and he is about to slay him with his *katana*, his sword, which is the symbol of his honor. And the chap in the corner is angry and terrified, and he spits on the samurai, who sheathes his sword and walks away. Now why did he do that? He did that because this action made him angry, and it would have been a personal act to have killed that man in anger, and that would have destroyed the whole event
It’s a powerful little nugget of a story, and in Campbell’s explanation of what was going on, we may even find a hint of where Lucas may have picked up the idea of the Force. Campbell writes:
This is a mythological attitude. You are acting not in terms of your individual, personal life but with the sense of yourself as the priest,so to say, of a cosmic power which is operating through you, which we all are in circumstances, and the problem is to balance yourself against that and have a personality at the same time
The thing is, Campbell may have been misremembering the source of his story. It’s true that such tales sometimes crop up in more than once culture, sometimes traveling the caravan routes from one place to another, or emerging perhaps, as Carl Jung suggests, from some dream logic deep in the heart of our humanity — but I have only seen thisstory told, and told repeatedly, within Islamic culture. It is in fact the story of the Duel of Ali ibn Abu Talib with Amru ibn Abd Wudd.
In the month of Shawwal 7 AH / 627 CE, the Muslims fought in the Battle of the Trench against a confederation of tribes at war with them. During the battle, Ali ibn Abu Talib encountered one of the chiefs of Quraysh, Amru ibn Abd Wudd, renowned for his bravery and strength, as well as his reputation as a formidable wrester within Arabia; he was said to be the equivalent of a thousand horseman. When he managed to traverse the Trench with a party of men, he challenged the Muslims to a duel of swords. Ali asked Prophet Muhammad to permit him to accept the challenge, but Prophet Muhammad refused his offer, simply stating that he was the formidable Amru. With no one accepting Amru’s taunts to duel, Ali’s insisted for permission to duel for the third time. This time, the Prophet accepted, and gave him the famed sword, Dhul-Fiqar, and supplicated for his success. Ali asked Amru to accept Islam, but he refused and preferred to fight Ali.
Towering over his opponent, the more experienced and stronger Amru hammered blows on Ali’s shield and clashed with his sword. Ali then dropped his sword and shield to the ground; he leapt to grab Amru’s throat, and kicked him off balance. Amru crashed to the ground, with Ali now towering over him: “Know, O Amru, that victory and defeat depend upon the will of Allah. Accept Islam! Thus not only will your life be spared, but you will also enjoy the blessings of Allah in this life and the next.” At this suggestion, Amru spat into Ali’s face, fully expecting death. Ali rose calmly from Amru’s chest, wiped his face, and stood a few paces away, gazing solemnly at his adversary. “Know, O Amru, I only kill in the way of Allah and not for any private motive. Since you spat in my face, my killing you now may be from a desire for personal vengeance. So I spare your life. Rise and return to your people!”
For Amru, to live now would be to live as the vanquished after having tasted victory on the battlefield all his life. He lunged at Ali as he walked away. With enough time to lift his sword and shield, Ali prepared for the fresh assault. Amru’s devastating blow shattered Ali’s shield, inflicting a shallow cut to Ali’s temple. As the second blow rose, Ali swept Dhul-fiqar and decapitated Amru. The Muslims praised Allah. After killing of Amru ibn Abd Wudd, Imam Ali had the gap in the trench which Amru had breached blocked, and took his post at that point with the intention of confronting anyone who might try to cross the trench. They too, would encounter Amru’s fate should they have tried.
When Imam Ali returned from the battlefield, the Messenger of Allah received him and said: “The fighting of Ali ibn Abu Talib with Amru ibn Abd Wudd is greater in measure than the actions of my people until the Day of Resurrection.” Ali ensured that the precious chain of armour, adorned with hung-gold rings, which Amru had worn during their duel, was returned to Amru’s sister of the Bani Amir, so that it would not be thought that Ali had killed him in greed of this precious chain coat.
I have drawn this telling of the tale from the Islamic think tank Ihsanic Intelligence’s remarkable work, “The Hijacked Caravan: Refuting Suicide Bombings as Martyrdom Operations in Contemporary Jihad Strategy“, which describes it as illustrating the importance of a chivalric code within Islam — the section in question begins, “The concept of chivalry [futuwwa] is at the forefront of Jihad” — with “the model of Imam Ali as constituting the prime example of chivalry”.
As the authors of “The Hijacked Caravan” note, this tale can be found in the *Mathnawi*, the great epic of the thirteenth century Sufi poet Rumi— himself born in the environs of Balkh, Afghanistan (it would have been Khorasan back then) — currently (somewhat paradoxically) America’s best-selling poet:
In a battle against the unbelievers Ali got the upper hand against a certain champion. He quickly raised his sword and was hurrying to kill him. But the man spat in Ali’s face, who was the pride of every prophet and every saint; He spat upon a face before which the beautiful face of the full moon bows low at the place of prostration. At that moment, Ali threw aside his sword and slowed down in his fight against him. That brave warrior … said, “You raised your sharp sword against me: for what reason did you throw it aside and quit fighting me? Ali said, Since a motive other than God entered my heart in the holy war, I deemed it right to sheathe the sword.
Ali comments on the struggle (jihad) in which he is engaged at the crucial moment, “The sword of my restraint has struck the neck of my anger” — identifying it as the “greater jihad” against one’s own evil
tendencies, which here (as in the well-known hadith) clearly supersedes the “lesser jihad” of the physical fight against the enemies of Islam.
I have, however, also found this story in one other place where a Muslim is presenting a public case against the contemporary jihadist world-view.
The novelist and screenwriter Kamran Pasha was particularly delighted to join the writing team on the Showtime series, *Sleeper Cell*, because it would give him an opportunity to represent how mainstream Muslims scholars think about those verses in the Qur’an that are commonly used to support the actions of Al-Qaida — and about their version of Islam in general.
Kamran wrote the episode, “The Scholar”, and based the Islamic moderate scholar Sheikh Zayd Abdal Malik on the real-life figure of the Yemeni judge, al-Hitar, who challenges captured jihadists to a theological duel with the words “If you can convince us that your ideas are justified bythe Koran, then we will join you in your struggle — but if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence.”
At the beginning of the episode, Abdal Malik is spat upon by an imprisoned extremist. He calmly removes his glasses, wipes his face, replaces his glasses, picks up his copy of the Qur’an, kisses it reverently and begins his task of persuasion… Towards the end of the same episode, now on a lecture tour of America, he quotes the hadith about the greater and the lesser jihad:
The holy Prophet — sallallahu ‘alaihi wa sallam — said that war against the unbelievers is the lesser jihad. The greatest jihad is to battle your own soul, to fight the evil within yourself.
He is then asked, “So, who is a true holy warrior, then?” and replies,”The Prophet’s cousin Ali” – at which point he tells the story of the duel.
Kamran Pasha’s own wish in re-telling this story can be deduced from another comment placed in the mouth of his chivalric and heroic Islamic scholar, shortly before he is assassinated: “I will issue a fatwa against the murdering devils who have hijacked our beloved Islam.”
This episode is in some sense Pasha’s own unofficial fatwa, and the story of the duel of Ali ibn Abu Talib with Amru ibn Abd Wudd holds a central place in his argument, as it does in The Hijacked Caravan.
Kamran Pasha blogs. His post on Major Hasan and the Fort Hood shooting includes the comments of a friend of his, a recent Muslim convert also stationed at Fort Hood, who had prayed alongside Hasan at the mosque that morning. It is a post that repays reading. Kamran has received death threats for his stance against jihadist ideology, which he pillories in his novel Mother of the Believers while describing the Khawarij, extremists in the early days of Islam — one of whom assassinated Ali ibn Abu Talib.
Ali ibn Abu Talib, who forgave his killer. Ali ibn Abu Talib – whose blood flows in his direct descendant Kamran Pasha’s veins