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Guest Post: The Duel of Ali ibn Abu Talib with Amru ibn Abd Wudd

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.

Mathnawi I: 3721 adapted

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

13 Responses to “Guest Post: The Duel of Ali ibn Abu Talib with Amru ibn Abd Wudd”

  1. Starbuck Says:

    Is there a Star Wars tag?  Seriously, awesome (I haven’t had coffee yet, so I have little analysis this morning)

  2. Fred Leland Says:

    Great post, love the story and message. Chivilary, virtues, loylaty, honor, devotion, beliefs, etc…  attributes can at times can be carried to the extremes.

  3. david ronfeldt Says:

    quite a story.  i’ve heard and read about zen buddhism.  this story seems tantamount to zen islamism . . .

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks for that, David. It’s a provocative insight from a comparative perspective, though obviously not an orthodox Islamic one. One of the stories in Paul reps’ celebrated collection, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, runs like this:

    Zen students are with their masters at least ten years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: "I suppose you left your wodden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs." Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.

    The idea is to be alert, present, at every instant — and that in turn means that one has to have the habit of recognizing such things (from a contemplative point of view:  distractions) as anger in the very moment in which they arise.And this in fact is ineed a  quality that Ali ibn Abu Talib demonstrates in this story. There’s a similar point made in the Arthurian Tale of the Cart.  Lancelot, who has set out in quest of the abducted Queen Guinevere, hesitates for a moment before climbing into "a cart of the sort used to transport criminals and driven by a dwarf" to speed his way to her — and when on arrival he mentions this hesitation to her, she considers his momentary concern for his reputation rather than her person reason enough to view him as lacking in chivalry, and to turn a cold shoulder towards him. And in a "mirror image" version of the same kind of story. while I was in India I heard the tale of the Ramayana told many times, and I recall that Rama, the great warrior avatar of Vishnu, could not let fly his arrow to kill the demon Ravana who had abducted his beloved wife Sita — until Ravana’s love for Sita wavered for a moment.  Only in that moment when she was no longer enthroned in Ravana’s heart could Rama kill the demon and rescue his bride. From a comparative point of view, therefore, this story of Ali’s duel can be read as expressing the degree of devotion to Allah — the complete surrender at every moment — which the "inner" jihad is a striving towards, in the momentary absence of which, Ali no longer feels himself able before God to continue the "outer" jihad.

  5. zen Says:

    "After greeting him Nan-in remarked: "I suppose you left your wodden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs." Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen."

    Zen does not teach, it points.
  6. qoia Says:

    That was a great stance by Imam Ali. Go ahead and read some of his quotes.

  7. Larry Dunbar Says:

    "Zen does not teach, it points."


    I tried to explain that to FM once in comparing the differences between the two of you, and could have really used those words at the time, as my words were too convoluted as usual. Perhaps the fact that you point (target) generationally makes you a true 2GW warrior.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Mark Stout at the On War and Words blog had a fine insight regarding Abu Dujana al-Khorasani:

    It is ironic, by the way, that the Abu Dujana who lived in the time of the Prophet is famous not only for his courage and martial prowess at the Battle of Uhud (which the Muslims lost) but also for having spared an infidel woman who was on the battlefield. The press has widely reported that a female CIA officer, a mother of three, was killed in the suicide bombing.

    It is noteworthy that the woman Abun Dujana spared was not merely on the battlefield, but was the wife of the leader of the Quraish, actively inciting the enemy in their fight against the Muslims. Abu Dujana was fighting with the sword of the Prophet on that occasion, and withholding death from the woman was an act of restraint, as we can recognize from the report of an eyewitness:

    I saw Abu Dujana raising a sword over the parting of Hind bint ‘Utba’s hair but then he moved it away.

    It was also an act of chivalry: Abu Dujana himself is reported to have said:

    I respect the Prophet’s (s.a.w) sword too much to use it on a woman.

    What we have here, then, is another chivalry-and-restraint tale from among the companions, and despite the claim implied in the CIA bomber’s use of the name of his illustrious original, it appears that the chivalry of the companion Abu Dujan does not extend to a similar chivalry on his own part.. The suicide belt is insensitive to chivalric distinctions, to be sure: but isn’t there an argument here precisely against the use of indiscriminating weapons, as a point of honor?

  9. Larry Dunbar Says:

    "It is noteworthy that the woman Abun Dujana spared was not merely on the battlefield, but was the wife of the leader of the Quraish, actively inciting the enemy in their fight against the Muslims. "

    If I understand correctly, the difference between the woman Abun Dujana spared and the CIA woman that was kill by a suicide bomber: the CIA woman was an actual warrior and not just a very brave individual. There is small wonder that they had to take the CIA woman out with a suicide bomb, there are few warriors on the other side who would be worthy to take her head, much less who would be able.

    Perhaps the CIA should stop killing so many of the good men on the other side and let enough of the worthy live, so the enemy would not have to fight without chivalry and light their panties on fire to kill people.

  10. Charles Cameron Says:

    Heh — unlikely, I imagine.  My point is that when the Islamic scholars behind Ihsanic Intelligence and Muslims like Kamran Pasha wish to undermine the credibility of the jihadist position, they do so both by theological reasoning and via an appeal to chivalry — I am suggesting that we in the west have given some consideration to the theological side of things, but very little to the understanding of Islamic notions of honor and nobility.Perhaps these matters would merit our further attention.

  11. david ronfeldt Says:

    interesting follow-up, charles.  your concluding observation in your main post, and now your comment about honor (which is to tribes what power and profit are to states and markets respectively), prompt me to reiterate this:  
    suicide bombing, particularly if it kills noncombatant innocents, is more an act of tribalism than religiosity.  one ultimate purpose of religion — meaning all major religions, and especially the abrahamic monotheisms of the world’s most terribly tribal area, the middle east — is to enable people to transcend the dark side of tribalism.  to the extent that religionists of any creed enact this dark side and claim it is righteous and honorable to do so, they regress into a craven, divisive, vengeful, demonizing, bloodlusting tribalism.  along the way, they take god’s name in vain; they distort their religiosity; and they depart from that ultimate religious purpose noted above.  
    in my view, then, the interplay between tribalism and religiosity lies at the core of the “war of ideas” in this area.  that so-called war has not gone well for u.s. strategists and their allies, in part because we have not known how best to grapple with jihadi narratives about the importance of being anti-imperialist and pro-islamist on their terms.  we have tried to show we are not so imperial and really do favor democratic development.  and we have urged the displacement of extremist by moderate interpretations of relevant religious texts.  but so far, all to little avail.  
    it’s time to rethink (again!) how to find our way through the “war of ideas” against al qaeda and its ilk:  narrative engagement along the political and religious lines noted above should continue, however slow and marginal their effectiveness.  but i’d suggest fielding a new line about the relationship between tribalism and religion.  we should attack the suborning of religion (any and all religions) to an extreme tribalism of the darkest kind.  i’m not sure exactly how to accomplish this, but i’m sure it’s worth experimenting with.  figuring out how to ask the right questions, in depth and detail, relentlessly, about whether particular thoughts and actions are truly religious or just plain tribal may provide new keys to the battle over whose story wins.
    caveat:  in proposing this, i’m not opposing tribalism in general, just the extremely dark kind.  the tribal form of organization is fundamental to social evolution in all societies, past, present, and future.  getting the tribal form right matters; so does respecting its nature.  i’m often just as worried about the dark sides of hierarchical institutions, markets, and networks.  but in the case at hand, it’s the tribal form that’s in play, along with its implications for religion.

  12. Charles Cameron Says:

    I find it very hard to separate the categories into any hard and fast ontology, David, but I’m in general sympathy with the points you’re making.  How can I put this?  I’d like to see thinking that’s aware of models and metaphors from cultural anthropology, depth psychology and comparative religion all applied to the issues of the other, the self, conflict and conflict resolution. So from my POV, honor/shame issues, warrior codes, liminality and communitas, archetypal imagery, rituals and blood oaths, martyrdom, even the "odor of sanctity" (which turns up in Zawahiri as it does in Catholic devotional writing) — all these and as I think we discussed earlier, poetics, seem to me to be avenues into the central cauldron of imagination, dream and aspiration.  

  13. Charles Cameron Says:

    My apologies: it was Abdullah Azzam who wrote about the fragrance of the shuhada in his book Signs of Ar-Rahman in the Jihad of Afghanistan — not al-Zawahiri.

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