Having reigned over Syria about sixteen years as a governor, Mu'awiyah Ibn Abi Sufian paved the way for his Caliphate without exposing his plan to anyone. He took advantage of the least chance for what he had in mind. The question of Uthman's murder was the best pretext for him to rebel against the central government and expose his purpose to become the Caliph.
In fact, during the lifetime of Uthman, he did not give any favourable reply to his appeal and supplication and closed his eyes towards his imploration; he awaited Uthman's murder so that he could use it as a pretext for his plot.
Uthman was killed; and Mu'awiyah looked immediately for exploiting the situation for his purpose. On the other side, after the murder of Uthman, the people surrounded Imam 'Ali ('a) who refused to shoulder the burden of Caliphate; they paid allegiance to him ('a). Realizing that the Caliphate responsibility was officially directed to him, 'Ali ('a) accepted it; and his official nomination was announced in Madinah - the capital and the Caliph's palace, in those days.
All the provinces of the Islamic vast territory of that time submitted to his obedience with the exception of Syria which was under the control of Mu'awiyah. He refused to obey the central government's order and accused it of giving refuge to Uthman's assassins. Thus he made himself ready to declare Syria's independence and mobilized a large number of army from the Syrians.
After putting an end to the rebellion of Jamal "the companions of camel", 'Ali ('a) turned towards Mu'awiyah. He ('a) exchanged a number of letters in correspondence with him, but Imam 'Ali's ('a) letters did not make any effect on Mu'awiyah's blunted conscience. Both adversarial parties commenced to advance towards each other with a large number of army.
Abul A'war Salma led the way of Mu'awiyah's army with a group of advanced guard and Malik al-Ashtar an-Nakhai was on the move with a group of Imam 'Ali's ('a) soldiers as the detachment and advanced guard. The two groups of detachment met by the side of Euphrates.
Malik al-Ashtar had not received Imam 'Ali’s (‘a) permission to commence the war: Abul A'war launched a violent attack in order to frighten the adversary. His assault was repulsed by Malik and his companions, and the Syrians were strongly driven back.
In order to complicate the adverse position from the other means, Abul A'war managed to reach the "Sharia" a steep slope by the side of Euphrates where the two adversaries were benefited by the water supply. He ordered his lancers and marksmen to protect that area and prevent Malik and his companions from having the access to the water.
It did not last long that Mu'awiyah personally arrived with his army, a great number of soldiers, and was pleased with Abul A'war's initiative.
To be quite assured of the position, Mu'awiyah increased a number of soldiers to Abul A'war's men. Imam 'Ali's ('a) companions remained in difficult straits of water shortage. The Syrians were delighted to meet this chance, and Mu'awiyah expressed happily: "This is the first victory." It was only 'Amr Ibn As, the special assistant and counsellor of Mu'awiyah who objected to this measure.
On the other side, Imam 'Ali ('a) arrived and became aware of the incident. He ('a) sent Sa'saat, one of his great companions, with a letter, mentioning: "We came here, but we wish that the war might be avoided, and that the fratricide would not occur among the Muslims. We hope to solve the problems by negotiations, but I came to see that, before anything else, you and your partisans have used the arms; in addition to that, you have prevented my companions from reaching the water. Therefore, issue an order so that they may renounce their actions till the negotiation will be initiated. It is quite obvious that I will fear nothing if you are pleased with nothing else but the war."
Mu'awiyah received the letter, he deliberated with his counsellors about the matter. The general opinion was to take advantage of this chance and not to pay attention to the letter.
It was only 'Amr Ibn As, who had a different point of view; he said: "You are all making a mistake. Having no intention to launch the initiatives to start war and shed blood, 'Ali ('a) and his companions have kept quiet at the moment, and by this letter, they wanted to dissuade you from your initiatives as well. Do not imagine them retreating if you do not take an appropriate action concerning the letter and if you let them suffer water shortages; in that case they will take the sword, not desisting from taking a severe action till they make you move away from the Euphrates in humiliation."
But the majority of counsellors were of the opinion that being hard pressed for lack of water, would make the enemy succumb and put to flight. Mu'awiyah's personal opinion was the same. This counsel came to an end. Sa'saah came to Mu'awiyah to receive the answer of the letter. Mu'awiyah who wanted to find a way to evade the reply said: “Later on I will reply to your letter.” But, in the meanwhile, he issued an order to the soldiers who were guarding the water to be entirely watchful and prevent all Imam 'Ali's ('a) soldiers from running away.
Imam 'Ali ('a) became very annoyed with the course of event which suppressed absolutely all the hopes of good intention in the adverse camp and did not let any means subsist to resolve the problems through the bilateral negotiations. He ('a) saw no solution but to resort to force and take the arms.
Standing in front of his army, he ('a) addressed them in a short sermon but exciting and sensational; here is what he ('a) expressed: "'They are asking you morsels of battle and waged the oppression. They are like the hungry who are searching for food, demanding war, shedding blood and restricting you from using water. So you should select one of the two choices; there is not a third one in front of you; either you remain in ignominy and the lowest position or drench your sword with their dirty blood and quench your thirst with the pure water. Real life is in the victory though you lose your life, while the real death is in the life of subjugation though you gain your life. Mu'awiyah is leading a misfortunate group of insurgents and has kept them in ignorance and unawareness, so that they have made their bosoms the targets of death."
This exciting sermon provoked a strange motion in the minds of Imam's soldiers and made their blood boil. They were ready to combat. They managed a heavy attack, made the enemy move back to a far distance, and took hold of the "river".
'Amr Ibn As, whose anticipation was correct, arrived and said to Mu'awiyah "what are you going to do if 'Ali and his army make reprisals at present and take actions against you just as you did against them? Can you recapture the Euphrates?"
Mu'awiyah said: “In your opinion, how is 'Ali going to behave with us now!?”
He replied: "In my opinion, he will not retaliate and not pinch us for water shortage. 'Ali has not come to do such things."
From the other side, having driven Mu'awiyah's partisans away from the river, the Imam's army demanded 'Ali ('a) to authorize them to prevent Mu'awiyah's soldiers from drawing the water.
The Imam ('a) said: "Do not prevent them from the water. I do not resort to such an initiative which arises from the ignorant ones. I would like to make use of this chance for initiating the negotiations based on the Book of Allah. If accepted my propositions and good intentions, it will be much better, and if not, I will fight against them and defend them bravely, but not by preventing them from the water. I will never initiate such a measurement and never press anyone to suffer the water shortage."
No sooner did the night fall than both 'Ali's ('a) and Mu'awiyah's armies drew the water that day, and nobody bothered Mu'awiyah's soldiers.1
- 1. Commentary on Nahj al-Balaghah by Ibn Abil Hadid. Sermon 51. v. 1. p. 410-418.