Uthman & Ali

Uthman ibn Affan (644-656), the third Caliph was appointed when he was 70 years old. He was regarded as pious and modest and had been one of the earliest Companions of the Prophet and was his son-in-law. He was however, not the man for the position of Caliph for although he, in his later years, was good natured and zealous in prayer and fasting he was shy. On his inaugural sermon in the mosque at Medina he had not the courage to begin and after saying “To begin is very difficult”, he sighed and left the pulpit.

The Meccans skilfully exploited the feebleness of the new Caliph and manoeuvred his leadership to be in the interests of the Quarraish, the former enemies of the Prophet.

The Caliph was by now the head of a vast empire. To be the governor of a province like Persia, Syria or Egypt was an honour and a responsibility of great magnitude and was the source of vast income. Understandably, many men wanted these and lesser positions but Uthman began to fill all these important posts with members of his own clan, the Ummayya. No doubt one reason for doing this was the desire to favour his own family but there was another reason. The governors of the large provinces were becoming so strong in their exercise of authority and so independent of the central government in Medina that the Caliph realized that soon he would have no authority over them at all.  In order, therefore, to keep the Caliphate strong and authoritative, he appointed men to positions of responsibility on whom he could rely. This caused many to hate him and Uthman began to have powerful enemies. The Caliphate of Uthman was the Caliphate of comrades; it was the exploitation of Islam by the Quarraish party.

Marwan, a cousin of the Caliph became his secretary and vizier; he was the son of Hakam whom the Prophet had cursed and banished for treachery after the taking of Mecca.

Mauwiyya maintained his position of Governor of Syria; he was the son of Abu Sufyan, leader of the forces that beat Muhammad at the battle of Uhud. His mother Hind was a domineering woman who had cut open the belly of Hamza, the uncle of the Messenger of God. She had also made herself a necklace and bracelets out of the body parts of slain Muslims killed at Uhud (Dozy p.47)

Abd-Allah, foster brother of the Caliph was appointed Governor of Egypt. Formerly, when he had been secretary to the Prophet he had been cursed by him for having intentionally altered the meaning of certain revelations.

Walid, his half-brother, was Governor of Kufa; he was the son of Uqba who had spit in Muhammad’s face; Once he led the morning prayers in a condition of intoxication and prayed four instead of two units. Sahih al-Bukhari volume 5, book 57, number 45 and volume 5, book 58, number 212 refer to the occasion of his flogging which seems to be on account of his drinking wine.

The former generals who had been appointed by Abu Bakr in his conquest of Iraq, Syria and Egypt were dismissed and their places were filled with members of Uthman’s family or by his favourites. Morals were relaxed and the commandments of the religion of Islam were treated with disdain.

There was an outburst of indignation at Medina; the citizens were exasperated by seeing power escape them; there was also intrigue developing for the Caliphate itself as hopes for the speedy demise of Uthman raised the ambitions of Ali, Zubair and Talha.

Uthman continued to offend, and when consciously or unconsciously, he was delivering his daily sermon at the mosque he took the same seat as Muhammad had sat, rather than sitting two steps lower as his predecessors had done. This action was exploited by Uthman’s opponents who accused him of making light of the memory of the Prophet. The following day he was called upon to resign, Uthman refused and was killed. He was said to have been reading the Quran when insurgents forced their way into his apartment and it is said that his blood flowed over the pages of the Quran. So the third caliph came to a violent end, like ‘Umar his predecessor, the victim of an assassin. In this instance, however, the assassin was a Muslim leader and represented a fundamental division in the Islamic community.

During Uthman’s Caliphate the land area controlled by Islam was extended. Armenia, a former province of Byzantia became subject to Islam. The new governor of Egypt Abdullah Ben Sa’ad, foster brother of Uthman, through his navy extended Islam along the North African coast; the Berbers exasperated by poverty and taxation saw in the coming of Islam a new opportunity for freedom.   Gregory, the Byzantine Prefect of their possessions in West Africa, raised a ‘scratch’ army which was decimated on the first encounter.  Sufetula (Sbeitla), in Tunisia was sacked and considerable booty obtained, every horseman received three thousand pieces of gold, and each foot soldier one thousand. Owing to the attitude of the Berbers, Abdullah Ben Sa’ad at the cost of an indemnity of a half million dinars, consented to return Egypt . The major concern of the attackers appears to be financial gain rather than religious propaganda. Although when Uthman died Islam was more extensively spread than ever before it had never been so weak internally because of the policies that had been followed by Uthman and the desire for power that arose in various sections of the Islamic leadership.

Ali  656-661

After the assassination of Uthman, Ali, son of Abu Talib, and therefore a cousin of Muhammad was chosen as Caliph, despite the active opposition of Ayesha. Ali was chosen Caliph by a combination of leaders in Medina, and of rebels who had killed Uthman. Ibn Abu Bakr, the man who had murdered Uthman, was made governor of Egypt. It is easy to see how friends of Uthman would regard Ali as partly responsible for the murder of Uthman.
Of a generous nature Ali would willingly have avoided reprisals but in order to satisfy those about him he had to put orthodox Muslims in all government posts in place of Uthman’s favourites. But this still did not prevent factions developing.
Ali was confronted by Talha and Zubair, early companions of Muhammad in Mecca who disappointed in their ambitions, left Medina and joined in hostility against Ali with Muhammad’s favourite wife Ayesha. Acting hypocritically as the avengers of Uthman they took refuge in Mesopotamia where they collected other malcontents.  Ali followed them with his army and completely defeated them; Talha and Zubair were killed. Ali had given orders that Ayesha should be captured; since he felt that if he could capture the wife of the Prophet her supporters would surrender. Because the camel on which she was riding became the centre of the fighting, this skirmish is known the Battle of the Camel (656).  This success assured to the Caliph the submission of Arabia for the time being as well as of Iraq and Egypt.
Mu’awiya of the clan of Umayya, and the Governor of Syria, and a relative of Uthman announced that he could not serve under a man who had left the murder of Uthman unpunished. Yet, he too aspired to the position of Caliph. He was popular in Syria and was seen as a liberal Muslim, he had amassed a considerable wealth and had set up his own army.  Recognising that Ali had few friends, being accused, although innocent of involvement in the murder of Uthman, he thought it propitious to avenge the position of the avenger of his old relative.  Mu’awiya also had the support of the popular Amr ibn al ‘As, the conqueror of Egypt. At the head of an army of eighty thousand men Amr ibn al ‘As marched against Ali. A half year after the Battle of the Camel the rivals met in the plain of Siffin, on the western bank of the Euphrates. Ali’s army was successful and was on the point of gaining the victory when Amr ibn al ‘As thought of a trick to stop the fighting. He had the Syrian soldiers pin pages of the Quran on their spears and called on Ali to stop the fighting. Ali had no choice but to yield to the demands of his own men, who refused to fight brethren carrying the Quran. Mu’awiya thereupon suggested that the dispute between them should be settled by two umpires according to the Quran. Ali had to accept this arrangement and the result of the arbitration was that Mu’awiya was proclaimed as Caliph.
This major dispute in Islam marked the end of the period of the four orthodox caliphs and the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty which was to reign over Islam and all the countries it controlled until 750. The word Ummayad comes from Umayya which was the name of the leading family in Mecca. Uthman had belonged to this family, but he had not established a dynasty. Ali who succeeded him was not of the Umayya clan. From Mu’awiya on, however, the Umayya family provided a caliph for the following ninety years.

Abridged from Islam and the Psychology of the Muslim by Andre’ Servier

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