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Decoding Iran’s Politics: Early Islamic Battles as Political Symbols

September 4, 2018
10 min read
Officials often refer to the Battle of Khaybar as part of their rhetoric about defeating Israel
Officials often refer to the Battle of Khaybar as part of their rhetoric about defeating Israel

In the political terminology of the Islamic Republic of Iran, there are many references to the history of Islam, and Shia Islam in particular. These references are made, often by hardliners, to compare ongoing or previous political events with specific historic episodes.

The battles that took place during the early decades of Islam are among the most-invoked examples of such historic episodes, especially the battles that occurred during the time of the Muslim prophet Muhammad or the first Shia Imam, Ali.

This article will briefly explain the most important battles of this kind, as well as their political implications, and provide a few examples of the manner in which they have been used as metaphors or similes in Iran’s political discourse.  


Battle of Badr

Badr was the first major battle that took place between the Arab pagans (the so-called infidels or kuffars) and the followers of the Prophet Muhammad. The battle took place in 624 AD near Mecca, and, despite there being fewer on the Muslim side, it was a major victory for Muhammad and his followers over their enemies.

In Iran, especially among government officials, the Battle of Badr is a metaphor for a big victory, and often for the victory of the Islamic Republic over its enemies.

For instance, in a speech on July 24, 2012 following the intensification of nuclear sanctions, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic compared the situation of the country with that of "Badr and Khaybar" (Khaybar was another major victory for Muhammad over his enemies). He said: “The state of Badr and Khaybar means that there is a threat, but it is no dead-end. In Badr, Muslims were short of equipment, but they conquered. On the other side of the battle, the kuffars’ equipment was several times more than that of the Muslims. Perhaps in some areas, it was impossible to compare the kuffars’ equipment with that of the Islamic Front.”


Battle of Uhud

The Battle of Uhud, which occurred in 624 AD, was the second major battle between the Prophet Muhammad and the Arab pagans of Mecca. Contrary to the victory of Badr, the Battle of Uhud led to a surprise defeat for the Muslims. During the battle, the Muslims were on the verge of victory, but a group of them ignored Muhammad's orders and abandoned their positions to engage in looting. This neglect led to an unexpected attack from the Meccan troops and a heavy defeat for the Muslims.  

Iranian officials have repeatedly used the Battle of Uhud as a parable for the dangers of neglecting the enemy’s activities in the middle of a confrontation. Hardliners especially invoke this battle to warn about the consequences of disregarding the Leader’s orders.

In a reference to the Battle of Uhud, Ayatollah Khamenei said on May 7, 1997: "Our entire life is like the Battle of Uhud. If we move well, the enemy will be defeated. But as soon as... we leave our stronghold for the sake of booty, everything will change. You saw how everything changed in the Battle of Uhud. In the history of Islam, the Battle of Uhud has been repeated [time and again].”


Battle of the Trench (Confederates)

The Battle of the Trench (or Khandagh), also called the Battle of the Confederates (or Ahzab), took place in 627 AD, and led to another major victory for the Muslims. During this battle, the Muslims dug a vast trench around the city of Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad and his followers were based, to protect themselves against a widespread confederation of the pagan Arabs warriors. In the course of this battle, some of the inhabitants of Medina –  the so-called “hypocrites” (monafeghin) who pretended to have converted to Islam – allied with a group of the Medina Jews against the Muslims. After the battle, the Muslims killed the Jewish people and seized their property.

In the political discourse of Iran, the Battle of the Trench or Confederates is used as a metaphor for the victory of the Islamic Republic over a coalition of its enemies. Some officials also invoke this battle to liken the attitude of domestic enemies of the Iranian regime to that of the so-called “hypocrite” converts or the Medina Jews (those who “stab the Islamic Republic in the back” in the middle of its confrontation with foreign enemies).  

It was in the same context that, on October 10, 2012, Ayatollah Khamenei said: "In the Battle of the Confederates, a group of the hypocrites and weak-believers told the true-believers: why don’t you agree to step down and change your policy?"

In a message to Ismail Haniyeh, the senior political leader of Hamas, Ayatollah Khamenei accused some Arab governments of not supporting the Palestinian people, saying: "The Arab betrayers must know that their fate will not be better than that of the [Medina] Jews after the Battle of the Parties.”

On July 7, 2011, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, said that, in the beginning of its war with the Israeli army in the summer of 2006, Ayatollah Khamenei had sent a message to Hezbollah forces: "This war is like the Battle of the Trench, the war of the Confederates, in which the Quraysh [referring to the Mecca pagans], the Jews of Medina, and the [pagan] tribes came together in full force.”


Battle of Khaybar

Khaybar was one of the major Muslim battles led by the Prophet Muhammad, and took place in 628 AD. In this battle, the Muslims conquered a Jewish Arab community that lived in a region called Khaybar outside Medina and occupied the region, which had been protected by several fortresses.

Among Iranian hardliners, the Khaybar metaphor is commonly referred to as a big victory – often the victory of the Islamic Republic over its enemies.

For instance, on July 24, 2012, Ayatollah Khamenei compared Iran’s post-sanctions situation to that of “Badr and Khaybar," stating: "There was a hardship in Khaybar; [Muslims] stayed there for a long time; the enemy’s resistance was intense; but the Muslims conquered. There is a challenge [now]; but there is also vigour, power, capacity and potential as well.”

Given that the Battle of Khaybar was fought against a powerful Jewish community, hardliners invoke it when referring to the their desire to defeat Israel.

For example, Mehdi Taeb, a prominent hardline cleric, said in an interview published on the Leader’s website on January 27, 2012: "As Khaybar was conquered in the Prophet Muhammad’s era, we are conquering the great Khaybar [Israel] now. We are at the time of the fall of world Zionism, and the clear resonance of this victory, and that of the enemy’s defeat, is heard all over the world."

Battle of Jamal

The Battle of Jamal (the Camel), was the first Muslim civil war to take place near Basra (in present-day-Iraq). The war, which broke out in 656 AD, was fought between the army of the first Shia Imam, Ali, and a rival army led by Ayesha, the wife of the late Muslim Prophet Muhammad, as well as Talha and Zubair, two close associates of Muhammad. Ayesha’s army accused Ali of having a hand in the assassination of the third Muslim caliph, Uthman, who was murdered by angry mobs who were dissatisfied with the manner in which he ruled. Imam Ali, who became the fourth Muslim caliph after Uthman, denied this claim and said his enemies were misusing the former caliph’s death as a pretext to gain power. The Battle of Jamal resulted in a big victory for the army of the first Shia Imam.

In the political discourse of the Islamic Republic, the Battle of Jamal is used as a metaphor to refer to the “seditionists” who, out of their thirst for power, do not abide by the rule of the Leader. In particular, hardliners compared protesters against the controversial 2009 presidential election to those who fought Ali in the Battle of Jamal.

For instance, Heydar Moslehi, Iran’s former minister of intelligence, said on December 23, 2017: “If we refer to history, we can clearly see that the sedition that took place in 2009 was an exact reversion of the Battle of Jamal.”

Battle of Siffin

The Battle of Siffin was the second Muslim civil war. It took place in 657 AD between Ali, the first Shia Imam and the fourth Muslim caliph after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, and Muawiyah, the governor of the Levant (Syria). Muawiyah refused to accept the caliphate of Ali, and later founded the Umayyad Caliphate (as a dynasty).

According to the Shias, at the end of the battle, Malik al-Ashtar, the commander of Imam Ali’s army, was on the verge of victory and about to conquer Muawiyah’s headquarters (Muawiyah’s Tent). But the Levant troops tied copies of the Koran to the ends of spears, demanding that the two parties stop the battle and resolve their disputes through “arbitration” (hakammyiat) according to Koran teachings. As a result, the majority of Ali 's troops refused to continue the war. Contrary to his desire, Imam Ali was then forced to stop fighting and accept arbitration, which finally ended the war and stabilized the rule of Muawiyah in Levant.

The Battle of Siffin and its outcome has been repeatedly invoked in Iran’s political discourse, especially by supporters of Ali Khamenei, who liken him to Imam Ali. The hardliners often refer to the Battle of Siffin to warn against betraying or disobeying the Leader in the middle of his confrontation with the enemies. This battle is also invoked as a metaphor for the danger of transforming success into failure out of simple-heartedness and through trusting the enemy.

In this context, the Leader of the Islamic Republic said in a speech on January 9, 2010: "The history of the Battle of Siffin shakes the heart. The great army of Imam Ali, which was facing Muawiyah’s army in the sensitive region of Levant, was subject to irresolution time and again.” In another reference, Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, the ex-speaker of Iran’s parliament, who is very close to the Leader, said on January 19, 2012: “Iranian people's insight prevents a repetition of the Battle of Siffin."

Battle of Nahrawan

The Battle of Nahrawan was the third Shia civil war and was fought between the army of Imam Ali and the Khawarij or Kharijites (seceders) near Baghdad. The Khawarij were mainly former members of Ali’s army who fought in the Battle of Siffin, but then excommunicated the Shia Imam because he accepted arbitration (hakamyiat). They insisted that the only arbitrator is God, and Ali had acted against Islam when he accepted arbitration by two human beings. In the Battle of Nahrawan in 658 AD, Ali’s army heavily defeated the Khawarij. However, a member of this extremist sect assassinated Imam Ali in 661.

In the contemporary political discourse of Iran, the battle of Nahrawan is often discussed with specific emphasis on the attitude of the Khawarij, who are viewed as symbols of extremism and a reactionary reading of the religion. But when it comes to Ayatollah Khamenei’s supporters, invoking the battle of Nahrawan and the Khawarij is often for the purpose of criticizing those who disobey the Leader or question his insight.

For instance, Ahmad Alamolhoda, an influential associate of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Leader’s representative in the province of Khorasan Razavi, suggested on May 18, 2018: “Imam Ali accepted arbitration by force, but then the Khawarij asked him to repent for this. The attitude of the Kharijites in Nahrawan is being repeated today with respect to the Leader: a group of impure political elements say that if anybody must be questioned regarding the JCPOA [the nuclear agreement], it is the Leader!”

Battle of Ashura (Karbala)

In 680 AD, the third Shia Imam, Hossein, and a small group of his relatives and followers faced a large army dispatched by Yazid, the second Umayyad caliph. This battle took place on the 10th day (the Day of Ashura) of the first month of the Arabic lunar year in Karbala in central Iraq. During the battle, Imam Hossein and 72 other Shias were killed because they chose to fight to the death rather than pledge allegiance to Yazid, whom they viewed as being an illegitimate ruler.

In the history of Shia, the Ashura “martyrs” are the symbols of self-sacrifice and steadfastness. The officials of the Islamic Republic invoke the Ashura/Karbala episode when they insist on the rejection of any compromise with powerful enemies — for instance, the United States.

On April 22, 2000, in a famous reference to the Karbala incident, Ayatollah Khamenei said that “neither America nor any power bigger than America” will be able to make the Islamic Republic compromise, adding: “If the enemy pressures us too much, the Karbala incident will take place.” In other words, he meant if the West put excessive pressure on the Iranian regime, he would prefer to fight until the end rather than back down from his policies.


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