(ISLAM, POWER and EMPIRE – continued)

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ISLAM, POWER and EMPIRE, to 677 CE (5 of 6)

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Succession Conflict Creates the Sunni-Shia Divide

From conquests came booty – much of it from Persia. Eighty percent of this wealth went to the warriors – the traditional incentive for fighting – and the remaining twenty percent went to the state and to others with influence or connections.

Although Muhammad had proclaimed Islam to be one brotherhood, tribal identity and clan rivalry remained. Islam was too big to have the kind of togetherness that small hunter-gatherer societies had enjoyed. The caliphs belonged to the Umayyad clan, a branch of the Quraysh tribe, and this clan had been growing in wealth more rapidly than other clans. Some among the Umayyads scorned the puritanism and asceticism of those devoted to Islamic principals. Opportunistic members of the Umayyad clan had flocked to Medina to benefit from their relationship with the caliph. And, seeking people he could trust, the caliph, Umar, had chosen members of his clan as governors and administrators. Benefiting from the new wealth, some of the Umayyad clan built impressive homes. Umar viewed the increased appetite for luxury with sadness, while many who were not of the Umayyad clan resented Umayyad wealth and opportunism.

In 644, while the conquest of Egypt and Persia were in progress, a captive Persian Christian, who had been made a slave and taken to Medina, managed to assassinate Umar while he was leading prayers at Medina's mosque. It was the duty of six men whom Umar had selected as a council called the Eminent Companions to choose his successor. Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, now about forty-four, again sought the position, but the Eminent Companions rejected his offer after he refused to promise that he would follow the policies of the previous caliphs, Bakr and Umar. The Council turned instead to someone they thought would: Affan ibn Uthman. Uthman was an Umayyad, a former merchant and an early convert to Islam who had married two of Muhammad's daughters.

Unlike Umar, Uthman lived in luxury, but similar to Umar he appointed his relatives as governors to the provinces and to other administrative positions. In the first half of his eleven-year reign he was popular enough, but paying for continuing wars against resistance in Persia and Armenia while receiving no compensation in the form of booty or increased taxation drained his government's treasury. Building a navy with which to protect Islam's rule in Syria and Egypt was also costly, as were naval operations against Cyprus and delivering defeats to Constantinople's navy.

While annoying some with his nepotism, Uthman annoyed more of his countrymen by his move to collect Muhammad's messages into a standard work – the Koran. Uthman appointed a committee, which collected what they could of Muhammad’s teachings. Uthman ordered the destruction of rival collections that differed in any way from his committee’s work, and this brought upon him the wrath of various people and communities across Arabia who had become wedded to rival interpretations. Many argued that Uthman did not have the authority to establish an official version of Muhammad's teachings, and one of Muhammad's oldest companions charged that the version produced by Uthman’s committee was false and incomplete.

Dissatisfaction with Uthman grew as he pushed for an increase in central government authority – in areas of decision making that traditionally belonged to a tribe or clan. And adding to the dissatisfaction was a rise in prices, resulting from more money in circulation chasing no increase in goods and services.

In 656, an army of five hundred Arab warriors from the garrison town of Kufa in Mesopotamia arrived in Medina. They claimed to be following God's instructions to war against an enemy within. That enemy was Uthman. They claimed that Ali was Muhammad's only legitimate successor, that Uthman had usurped power. And they claimed that Muhammad would return to life.

The rebels surrounded Uthman's residence and demanded that he resign. Uthman had no army or guard to protect him at his residence. From Damascus, Uthman's cousin, Mu'awiyah, the governor of Syria, headed toward Medina with an army to rescue Uthman, but they failed to arrive in time. The rebels assassinated Uthman and cut off the fingers of his wife, and frightened relatives of Uthman fled the city.

The leaders of the sect that assassinated Uthman proclaimed Ali as caliph. Ali accepted, and across much of the empire people gave Ali their support, satisfying those who had argued that rule should come from within Muhammad's family, the Hashimites, rather than from the Umayyads. Ali, now short, fat and in his late fifties, won recognition as the new caliph, but not in Syria. He appointed new governors everywhere but in Syria, where Uthman's cousin Mu'awiyah refused to resign and where it was claimed that assassination was not a legitimate means of attaining power. Mu'awiyah, who was now the head of the Umayyad clan, was obliged by Arab custom to avenge the murder of his kinsman, Uthman. To arouse anger against Ali's regime, Mu'awiyah displayed in Damascus the bloodied shirt of Uthman and the severed fingers of his wife, which had been smuggled out of Medina.

Ali did not disassociate himself from Uthman's assassins, and rather than pursue a policy of accommodation he created enemies by dismissing all those who had been officials under Uthman. A couple of Ali's highly respected and influential supporters, Talha and Zubair, quarreled with him and returned to Mecca. There they joined forces with Muhammad's widow, Aisha, now forty-five and a bitter foe of Ali's from years before when he had questioned her chastity. In December, 656, Ali fought a battle against forces led by Talha, Zubair and Aisha. Ten thousand are said to have died. Ali won the battle. Many mourned the death of Talha and Zubair, and they were inclined to blame Ali for the bloodshed.

Many in Islam's cities had begun to fear Ali's alliance with rural Bedouin tribesmen. Support for Ali was waning, while in Damascus Mu'awiyah waited, making no claim to be caliph, merely asserting his right to avenge the death of his kinsman. Syria, where Mu'awiyah governed, was a stable province, and Christians there enjoyed full freedom of worship and equal treatment. Mu'awiyah freed his Syrian military forces for his struggle within Islam. He established a truce regarding Islam's longstanding war with Constantinople, and he moved his army into Mesopotamia.

Ali responded by leading his followers in a battle against Mu'awiyah's army. In the fighting, Mu'awiyah's forces fared worse. But according to reports, Amr, the conqueror of Egypt, who had allied himself with Mu'awiyah, had his troops fix pages of the Koran to the tips of their lances and cry "the law of God, the law of God! Let that decide between us!" In both armies were a number of reciters of the Koran who wished to adhere to the principle of Muslim not killing Muslim. And, rather than continue fighting, both sides agreed to arbitration. There followed much searching through the Koran, searching for the answer to why God had allowed Muhammad's followers to make war against each other. Some argued against arbiters, claiming that the decision belonged to God alone, a judgment they thought could be expressed by referendum by the entire Muslim nation. And to some, Ali looked foolish for having accepted arbitration while claiming wisdom and authority in all matters affecting Islam.

The official arbiters became a group of as many as four hundred, and months passed as they felt no sense of urgency to come to a decision. During these months Ali's coalition began to collapse. Leaders of his coalition took their troops and returned to their home areas, determined to pursue their own interests. Ali and warriors that remained with him went after these deserters and convinced some of them to return, while against others he engaged in combat and the spilling of blood.

Some of those who turned against Ali were those who had come to believe that the caliph should be elected by the people. Some others rejected all government, believing that they should follow God's laws only, and some of them denounced the worldliness and the luxury of the well-to-do. One group that believed in a theocratic republic became known as the Seceders. They fought Ali, and many of them died.

Ali returned to his base, the city of Kufa, to reorganize his support and await the decision of the arbiters, who were not to meet for another year. Amr returned to Egypt, was received as a hero, and he led Egypt in support of Mu'awiyah. Then in 660 Jerusalem also proclaimed Mu'awiyah as caliph.

Finally, the arbiters decided that Ali was the usurper of power. But arbitration no longer mattered. Ali had lost too much support. The defeated sect called the Seceders had turned to terrorism and had decided to rid Islam of Ali, Mu'awiyah and Amr. They killed Amr's deputy instead of Amr, only slightly wounded Mu'awiyah as he prayed in the mosque at Damascus, but they gravely wounded Ali as he was entering the mosque at Kufa, and in January, 661, Ali died of his injuries.

A few poets had ridiculed Ali for having been fat and unwieldy in figure, but many Muslims remembered him for his eloquence as an orator, his bravery and his morality, including his opposition to the growing luxury and corruption of his time. Ali left behind many admirers and followers. Believing in dynastic rule by the Hashimite family, Ali's supporters recognized Ali's son as his successor, and they became that branch of Islam known as Shia.


Copyright © 2007-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.