Murder of Uthman and the First Civil War of the Islamic Empire - Civil War Essay Example

Murder of Uthman and the First Civil War of the Islamic Empire



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The origin of the tradition of dissent began very early in the history of Islam. It began with the murder of the second leader of Islam (the first after Muhammad), Umar. The companions, after much debate, decided upon the election of Uthman. He was the son in law of Muhammad and was also connected to the leading family of Mecca, which had initially opposed Muhammad. In electing Uthman, the companions neglected the claim of All, who was also the son in law and cousin of Muhammad. Ali’s followers revolted against the rule of Uthman in the eleventh year of his reign. Uthman was murdered during this revolt, and Ali was offered, and accepted in the leadership. Such scenario brought about a moral conflict within Islam that has nor been resolved to this day.

The conflict centers on the belief that it is wrong to accept the murder of Uthman, but it is also wrong to accept the actions that led to the revolt against Uthman. Even taking a neutral position, in this case, is wrong (Converse 2003 115). The conflict on Uthman’s murder has initiated different perspectives among historians and political analysts as to significance, actual rationale for the murder, and the motive or intent of the event. As of now, there has been a wide variation of debate that tackles the different views uprising from the historical validations. The focus of this study is to analyze the historical interpretations of the murder of the third Caliph-Uthman.


Analysis of Significant Events in Uthman’s Caliphate and Ali’s Political Race

In the year 656 C.F., the caliph Uthman was killed. Various historians have depicted different claims that initiated the death and societal negation of Uthman’s leadership. Each of these notions is candidate to the theoretical note of implying the events that occurred during Uttman’s reign. Third leader of the Muslims after the Prophet’s death, Uthman came to power In 644 following the death of Umar, the great organizer of the early Islamic conquests (Crone 2005 49). “Uthman thus assumed the mantle of ruler of an empire with the attendant powers and problems. Uthman proceeded to lead the Muslims in the manner of a man who prefers to delegate responsibility rather than to take it upon himself (Kelsay 1993 83)”.

In some ways, this was unavoidable. The conquests of the Muslims in the first generation after Muhammad were striking, by any measure: first Syria and Palestine, then Egypt, then most of Iraq fell before the armies of the Muslims, It would have been impossible to administer such an empire without the assignment of responsibilities to territorial governors (Crone 2005 50; Kelsay 1993 83). Indeed, one must assume that a number of the difficulties that led to the civil war (fitna) resulted from the pressure for change exerted by imperial responsibilities upon the thinking and behavior of the Arabs, a people traditionally organized in terms of the more “local” associations of family and clan. Uthman’s pattern in delegating responsibility followed the traditional models (Maqsood 1995 145). He assigned power to members of his clan, the Marwanids, and trusted them to administer their realms according to the practices of Arab tribal chieftains (Kelsay 1993 83).

Interpretations made by historian and their points of view were influenced by the two opposing political sides. Evidently, the sides of Ali and Uthman that continuously wage war in order to battle rights of the position. At this point, historian’s are vastly influenced by the territorialism and the concept of political groups, as termed as clan and family (Maqsood 1995 146). the Such governance did not fully accord with the new realities imposed by the empire, however. Even more, the assignment of responsibilities on the basis of family and clan did not recognize the new realities imposed on Arab practice by the turn to Islam (Maqsood 1995 145). Muhammad respected the virtues of traditional Arab life. Indeed, he is supposed to have said, “The best among you (Arabs) in the times before Islam will also be the best among you IMuslimsj.”11 The force of such a saying is to play down the difference between Arab traditions and Muslim piety. Uthman’s pattern of administration assumed this point of view (Kelsay 1993 83; Daftary 2005 56).

Historians have implicated the events of political warfare in accord to the religious strata governing at this point. The belief of the community lies as a strong influence in the politics and leadership. At the same time, the Qur’an clearly declared: “The foremost among you will be the foremost in piety (49:13)”. The overall thrust of the Qur’an, as of Muhammad’s leadership, Implied that distinctions in status could not be tied to family and clan relationships or considerations of wealth. The Islamic community was a new type of social organization, in which “the best” from Arab tradition should be preserved, but only Insofar as It accorded with considerations of piety (Daftary 2005 57). For a man like Ali, who remembered that some of the most severe resistance to Muhammad’s preaching had come from the great Arab families, this was a critical point, as it was for many others whose status was founded less on Arab tradition, more on commitment to the new community founded by the Prophet (Kelsay 1993 84).

The six-man committee appointed by Umar to choose the next caliphate included Ali and Uthman. The latter was a rich merchant from the powerful Ummayyad family of the Quraish; the only member of the Ummayyads to become a Muslim during the time of the Prophets persecution. He had been married to two of the Prophet’s daughters, first Ruqaiyyah, and after her death, to her sister Umm Kulthum (Maqsood 1995 145). The Caliphate was offered to Ali first, on the condition that he accepted not only the Qur’an and Sunnah, but also all the recorded judgments of the previous Caliphs. Ali rejected the second part and had publicly criticized some of their judgments, and being a man of integrity, he refused to compromise his principles at this stage (Kelsay 1993 83). The caliphate was then offered on the same conditions to Uthman, and he accepted them – and thus became the leader. Uthman was able to managed his administration appropriately; however, with Umar, the administration regained the notion of dynasty approach through the placement of relatives and preferences in the position autocratically. Hence, the Muslim community obtained the false anticipation that such political plan is an effort to dominate the political leadership (Maqsood 1995 145).

On the other hand, with such tensions, conflict was perhaps inevitable. A group of Muslims living on the Egyptian “frontier” of the empire made their way to Medina to complain to Uthman of unjust acts by his appointed governor. At this point, the story becomes extremely murky—Uthman evidently assured the group of his sympathy for them and sent them off with promises to do justice (Daftary 200511). On their return, however, the group intercepted a messenger, ostensibly sent by the caliph to warn his relatives concerning the danger posed by the malefactors (Shenk 34). Their worst fears confirmed, the group now felt that the corruption extended beyond the administration on the frontier and into the heart of Medina itself. Returning to the city, they killed the caliph arid made their escape (Kelsay 1993 84).

The influence of religion plays a significant pivotal point for the inclinations of historical perspectives. Moreover, the basic divine law of human rights, involving the morality of life, encourages the placement of Ali at the center of the conflict. This incident set off a series of conflicts in which Ali was at the center. The old Arab families, particularly Uthman’s clan, waited for justice. So did those who, sympathetic with the complaint of the “frontiersmen,” hoped for a regime based more on the Qur’an than on Arab tradition. “Ali moved slowly, biding his time between the two groups. His hope seems to have been to find a way to preserve the unity of the Muslims without resort to arms (Shenk 1998 34)”. However, Mu’awiya, governor of Syria and a dansman of Uthman, declared Ali unfit to rule and positioned himself to lead the empire. Forced to a military response, Ali led his army to the brink of battle with Muawiya’s forces.

The historical perspective interprets such actions as far more inclination of their civilization on the divine placement and rule of leadership as implicated in human form. Any threats to the divine leadership are negated by the society under moral influences. As far as history is concerned, one of the most essential points of Arab civilization at this point is familial attachments or clannish rule. Suddenly the latter proposed a way of mediating the conflict. In a dramatic moment, Muslim historians tell of Muawiya’s soldiers advancing to the field with copies of the Qur’an impaled on their lances. Shouting “Let the Quran decide!” they appealed to Ali’s piety, and he took the opportunity for peaceful resolution. Unfortunately negotiations ended in a stalemate (Kelsay 1993 86). Both sides withdrew, and certain of Ali’s followers, dissatisfied with this state of affairs, went so far as to declare themselves no longer interested in either leader’s claims (Shenk 1998 36). All the factions for the fitna were now present, Ali’s position had gone from bad to worse, as he dealt with not one but two groups of rebels—Mu’awiya, representing Arab traditions with all the power of the governor of Syria, and the Kharijites, representing the interests of those desiring full implementation of the new order envisioned by the Qur’an. “In this situation, Ali acted in ways that established precedents for al-Shaybani and scholars like him (Kelsay 1993 87)”.

These rivalries were exacerbated as the government tried to increase its control over the tribesmen by supporting the authority of leading tribal notables, who had usually arrived after the first conquests, against the leaders of lesser stature who had established their positions in the garrison towns earlier (Hawting 2000 156). Hinds, in particular, has produced a body of evidence which is impressive for its cohesiveness, but here we can leave aside detailed consideration of these arguments and concentrate on the importance of the Fitna for the Umayyads (Daftary 200512).

We have seen that Muslim tradition portrays the Umayyads generally as late and rather reluctant in their acceptance of Islam. This generalisation, though, is subject to at least one notable exception. iithman b. Affan was both a descendant of Umayya and an early Muslim, and after the death of the Prophet he was one of the inner circle which directed the affairs of the emergent Muslim state. In 644 he was chosen as the third caliph following the death of Umar. Although an Umayyad, Uthman is not counted as one of the Umayyad dynasty since he was chosen by the inner circle of early Muslims, owed his election to his status as an early Muslim, and made no attempt to appoint an Umayyad as his successor (Kelsay 1993 87).

It was under Uthman that the Golden Age of early Islam began to become tarnished and the crisis which was to issue in civil war and the irrevocable division of the community developed (Kelsay 1993 88-89). Opposition to him arose in several quarters, particularly in the garrison towns, and finally in the summer of 656 a band of tribesmen from the Egyptian garrison town of Fustat came to Medina where, after the failure of negotiations, they attacked and killed Uthman in his house.

There are a number of possible explanations for the rise of opposition to Uthman, and Muslim tradition preserves whole lists of accusations made against him by his opponents. Prominent among these accusations is the charge that he practised nepotism by appointing his Umayyad relatives to important offices in the state (Madelung 1997 72). Indeed we are told that, in addition to confirming Muawiya as governor of Syria. “Uthman appointed Umayyads to governorates in Egypt, Kufa and Basra, and that he gave the important office of keeper of the caliphal seal to another relative, the father of the future Umayyad caliph Marwan (Baali 2004 60-61)”. This has been interpreted as being no more than a way in which ‘Uthman sought to increase his personal control in the provinces at a time when important administration (Madelung 1997 73), had before Islam. Uthman’s murder was followed by the choice of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, as the next caliph. His appointment, however, was by no means universally welcomed: personal and political rivalries existed, and his opponents were able to use the circumstances in which he had come to power — following a killing, which his opponents declared unjustified, and with the support of those who had carried out the killing — to impugn his legitimacy, even though he was not charged with having personally taken part in the murder of Uthman. Uthman’s Umayyad relations were prominent in the opposition to Ali but the first active resistance came, not from them, but from other Qurashis resentful of Ali’s rise to power. The leaders of this first opposition to ‘All were ‘A’isha, the widow of Muhammad, and Taiha and Al-Zubayr, former companions of Muhammad and members of the inner circle at the centre of the state (Hawting 2000 157).

Ali and Uthman: The Historians’ Perspectives in Utilizing Religion

Religion, indeed, contributed to the explanations of how the civil war broke out in relation to the death of Uthman. The historical perspective considers the fact that its was during the lifetime of Uthman wherein his decision to change Qur’an had led to the conflict among the Muslim community. “During the rule of the third Caliph, Uthman, it was reported that the Qu’an was being pronounced with different accents, especially by the non-Arab converts to Islam (Madelung 1997 71)”. Uthman’s had recalled all copies of the Qur’an in circulation, and appointed a committee of four former scribes, including Zaid Ibn Thabit, to study the Qur’an further. The committee authorized one standard copy, which followed the dialect of the Quraish, which the Prophet himself had used. The’an used today is the very same one as received by the Prophet, and authorized by Caliph Uthman and the companions (sahaba) of the Prophet in A.D. 651. No word, order, or punctuation mark has been changed, omitted, or added (Shenk 30). When he was 80 years old, many Muslims — particularly the supporters ol All – felt that he should abdicate, but he refused to do so. He had angered the Egyptians because he had replaced a perfectly capable governor there with his own cousin, who set higher taxes (Madelung 1997 73). A party of 500 Egyptians went to petition him and demanded his resignation but Uthman rejected all advice and preached a public sermon against them (Maqsood 1995 145).

As the scenario implies, the historical perspective of clan powers and brotherhood lingers to the point of political issue. One point is clear, however. Of the rebels against Uthman, only the Khãrijites retained a clear conviction that it had been right to kill him. The accounts of the first civil war abound in discussions of the question whether Ali had been implicated in the killing (directly or by sheltering the killers) premised on the Uthman’s assumption that this would be deeply embarrassing if it were true. Of course, Ali had been on the right side: Ali’s killing of Uthman was one of his greatest acts of obedience to god, as some Shi’its continued to say in agreement with the Khãrijites. Where he had gone wrong was in accepting arbitration with people whom he should have fought until they either reverted to God’s command or were killed. This was how the Khärijires saw it, and to them, Ali’s change of mind was paradigmatic of non-Khãrijitc behavior (Kelsay 1993 86). Talha and al-Zuhayr had been among the fiercest critics of Uthman while he was alive, yet they had demanded vengeance for him the moment he was killed; adherents of the Zubayrids declared themselves to be enemies of the caliph Abd al-Maalick (685—705) in this world and the next as long as they thought him a loser, but they changed their tune the moment they heard that he was winning: people were forever sacrificing their principles to the demands of power; only the Kharijites refused (Madelung 1997 73).

Theory of Conspiracy: Historical Implications of Uthman’s Murder

Another theoretical perspective was brought by the historians on the basis of clan conspiracies and familial denominations. The murder of Jufayna and al-Hurmuzan was provoked solely by a claim by either Abd al-Ralmin, Abd al-Rahman or Abi Bakr of having seen them together with the murder weapon in their possession. When Ubayd Allah was apprehended, he threatened to kill all foreign captives in Medina and some unnamed Emigrants and Helpers (Daftary 200510). That he had in mind All in particular is not unlikely, given Umar’s recent warning against his and his clan’s ambitions. In spite of the report about Abü Lu’lu’a’s knife, however, Ubayd Allah’s action was generally recognized as murder and was not defended as an act of legitimate revenge (Baali 2004 59). He was granted clemency by the caliph Uthman on the basis that it would be undue harshness to spill his blood just after his father had been murdered. All, among others, strongly protested against this act of clemency and threatened that he would carry out the legal punishment of Ubayd Allah for murder if he were ever in a position to do so (Madelung 1997 69).

There is no evidence for any ties between Abü Lu’lu’a and the Companions suspected by Cactani of having conspired to murder Umar. If there had been serious suspicions of any complicity on the part of Ali, later Umayyad propaganda would certainly have made use of them, just as it accused him of the murder of Uthman. In addition to Ali, Talba and al-Zubayr, Caetani named Muhammad, the son of Abü Bakr, among the plotters and suggested that perhaps al-’Abbas and his son ‘Abd Allah were also involved. They were probably the same clique that was later behind the murder of Uthman (Baali 2004 59). The theory of a conspiracy of early Companions to murder both Umar and Uthman is in accord with Caetani’s basic view that Umar, as the effective ruler ever since the death of Muhammad, had given free rein to the old Mekkan aristocracy and, as caliph, favoured the rise to power of the Umayyads whose political acumen he admired in contrast to the petty jealousy and sinister ambitions of most of the early Companions (Madelung 1997 69).

The accounts of the meetings and proceedings of the electoral council that elected Uthman are partly contradictory and legendary. Some aspects, however, can be established with reasonable certainty. The council consisted in fact of five members, Abd al-Ralimãn, Awf, Sa’d, Abi Waqqa, Uthman, Ali and al-Zubayr. The sixth, Talba, returned to Medina only after the election of Uthman wherein Sa’d formally acted as his proxy (Shenk 1998 56). An important part in the decision in favor of Uthman fell to the latter’s brother-in-law Abd al-Rahman. Considering that Abd al-Ralmän had been the Companion closest to ‘Umar after the death of Aba ‘Ubayda, and the caliph often relied on his views. If a report of Umar’s grandson Sälim, Abd Allah is reliable, ‘Umar considered ‘Abd al-Rahmin, Uthman and Ali as serious candidates for the caliphate and warned each one of them in turn not to give free rein to his kin if elected (Daftary 200510; Shenk 1998 56).

By mentioning Abd al-Rabman as the one addressed first by Umar, the report may be meant to indicate that the caliph would have preferred him as his successor. It is indeed not unlikely that Umar trusted Abd al-RakimIn the most among the three, and Ali the least. Abd aI-Rahmãn, however, did not aspire to supreme power and took himself out of the competition in return for being recognized as the arbitrator between the candidates. Since al-Zubayr and Sa’d equally did not press their own or TaIba’s claim, only Uthman and Ali were left. Ali pleaded his own case as the closest kin of the Prophet with consistent vigour, while Uthman maintained his candidacy passively (Converse 2003 12). Besides interviewing each of the electors separately, Abd al-Rahman consulted with the leaders of Quraysh at night and received strong support for Uthman (Baali 2004 59). With the latter a candidate, the Banü ‘Abd Shams could no longer feel any obligation to back their more remote relative, Ali. Makhzüm also backed Uthmãn against the Prophet’s cousin. The Makhzumite leader, Abd Allah, and the governor of al-Janad, warned Abd al-Rahman that if he pledge allegiance to Ali, they shall hear and disobey, but if you pledge allegiance to Uthman, they shall hear and obey (Madelung 1997 70).

In the electoral council, Ali had virtually no support, while Uthman and Ali are each said to have indicated a preference for the other if not elected. According to some reports Ali succeeded in persuading Sa’d to switch his backing from ‘Uthman to himself. More indicative of the strength of sentiment for Uthmãn was that al-Zubayr, maternal cousin of Ali, who had backed him after the death of Muhammad, now opted for Uthman (Converse 2003 12). Abd al-Ralman thus had a convincing mandate for deciding in favour of the latter. He announced his decision, however, only during the public meeting in the mosque in the presence of the two candidates, thus putting heavy pressure on the loser, Ali, to pledge allegiance immediately yet reluctantly (Madelung 1997 70). Although Umar must have been worried about the possibility of Ali becoming caliph, there is no evidence that he tried directly to influence the electoral process against him. “His recent warning, in the presence of Abd al-Rahmãn, against the ambitions of the Banü Hãshim to assert their sole right to the caliphate certainly contributed to Ali’s overwhelming defeat (Shenk 1998 56)”.

Although apparently not repeated in his public address, the warning no doubt became common knowledge and, together with the assassination of the caliph shortly afterwards, ruled out any compromise between the supporters of the caliphate of Quraysh and Ali, which might otherwise have been possible. Abd al-Rahman was fully aware of Umar’s feelings and political inclinations (Baali 2004 59; Hawting 2000 156). He may have withdrawn his own name in order to gain the decisive vote and thus be in a position to block Ali’s ambitions. However, this seems to have been his own spontaneous initiative, not a prearranged manoeuvre suggested by the caliph (Madelung 1997 70).

Eruption of Civil War: An Analysis of the Historian’s Interpretations

Ali’s accession led to factional fighting; First, he was opposed by a faction led by the Meccan aristocrats Tatha and Zubayr, and the Prophets favorite wife, A’Isha, whom he defeated at the battle of the Camel in 656. He was then challenged by Mu’awiya, Uthman’s cousin and the governor of Syria. who refused Ali’s demands for allegiance and called for revenge for Uthman and the punishment of his killers. The opponents and their armies met at the battle of Siffin (657 B.C), where after months of desultory confrontation and negotiations, the moderates forced an agreement to arbitrate the question of whether. Uthman’s murder was justified and some of ‘All’s supporters, called the Kharijis (secessionists), saw his willingness to submit to arbitrate as a defeat for their own hopes of his Caliphate and a violation of religious principles (Converse 2003 12). They turned against him, and were defeated in battle, but this new round of bloodshed further alienated Muslim support (Lapidus 2002 46).

The civil war created permanent divisions within the Muslim community. Henceforth, Muslims were divided over who had the legitimate right to occupy the Caliphate. Muslims who accepted the succession of Mu’awiya and the historical sequence of Caliphs after him are called the Sunnis (Baali 2004 59). Those who held that Ali was the only rightful Caliph and that only his descendants should succeed him are called the Shi’a (Hawting 2000 156). The Shita tended to stress the religious functions of the Caliphate, and to deplore its political compromises, while the Sunnis were inclined to circumscribe its religious role and to he more tolerant of its political involvements (Converse 2003 13). The Khai-ijis held that the Caliphate should not he determined by descent, hut that the Caliph should be elected by the community of Muslims at large and hold his position only so long as he was sinless in the conduct of his office (Lapidus 2002 47). The historical perspective involves the clan feud that at the end arrives at the conclusion of political inclinations. At the end of 656 they marched from Mecca, where they had first proclaimed their hostility to ‘Ali to Basra in Iraq, where they raised an army to fight against him. Learning of this, ‘All too left the Hijaz (never again the centre of the caliphate) and came to the other Iraqi garrison town, Kufa, where he raised an army to fight the dissidents (Lapidus 2002 46). The two forces met, in December 656, outside Basra in a battle known in tradition as the battle of the Camel, so called because the fighting wheeled around the camel upon which ‘A’isha sat in her litter (Madelung 1997 73). The result was a complete victory for Ali; Talha and alZubayr were killed, and ‘A’isha taken off back to Medina to be held in limited confinement there. The chronology and exact course of events are somewhat vague. but generally tradition puts Mu’awiya’s decision to come out openly against ‘All only after the battle of the Camel. At first, we are told, he limited himself to impugning ‘All’s legitimacy, demanding that those who had killed Uthman be handed over for punishment in accordance with the law of blood vengeance, and arousing among his Syrian Arab supporters fury at Uthman’s murder (Lapidus 2002 48).


As with the study, it is evident from how the historian preview the case of Uttman in relation to the uprising of Arab civil war. The death of Uthman has been linked into three different perspectives, such as religion, clans and families, and the stand of the public. Uthman, who succeeded Umar, was a Meccan aristocrat of the Umayya clan. He reversed Umar’s policies and favored Umayyad and other Meccan interests — and the large migrant clans — at the expense of the companions of the Prophet and the Medinans. To accomplish this redistribution of power, Uthman increased central control over provincial revenues. Uthman also took initiatives in religious matters, including the promulgation of a standard edition of the Qur’an, which was resented by those Muslims who felt themselves to be the custodians of the holy book. In implementing these policies, Uthman provoked hitter opposition, conspiracies, and, eventually, civil war. In 656 he was murdered by a party of about five hundred Arabs from Fustat. In the wake of this murder, Ali was elected Caliph.

He opposed the centralization of Caliphal control over provincial revenues, and favored an equal distribution of taxes and booty among the Arabs. As the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad as well as one of the earliest converts to Islam, Ali had claimed the Caliphate on the basis of his devotion to Muhammad and Islam. hut now he compromised himself by coming to power with the support of ‘Uthman’s assassins.
Works Cited

Baali, Faud. Arab Unity And Disunity: Past And Present. University Press of America, 2004.

Converse, Raymond W. Atheism As a Positive Social Force. Algora Publishing, 2003.

Crone, Patricia. Medieval Islamic Political Thought. Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Daftary, Farhard. Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Societies. I.B.Tauris, 2005.

Hawting, Gerard R. The First Dynasty of Islam: The Umayyad Caliphate Ad 661-750. Routledge, 2000.

Kelsay, John. Islam and War: A Study in Comparative Ethics. Westminster John Knox Press, 1993.

Lapidus, Marvin. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Madelung, Wilfred. The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Maqsood, Heinemann. Islam. Heinemann, 1995.

Shenk, B D. Islam and Christianity. Uzima Publishing House, 1998.


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