As we have said in the previous entry, it was during Uthman’s caliphate that the idea of Ali’s right to the caliphate was first entertained. But even during this period, and the period of his successor, Ali, there was no such thing as Shia or Shiism.
That was to come many years later, beginning with the brutal killing of Ali’s son, Husayn, at Karbala. Even by then, the term Shia was only referred to those who supported Ali’s descendants for the Office of Caliphate. A shia in those days was different from a shia which came later. Many scholars, such as Imam Shafie himself, were considered as having a Shia tendency.
In that respect, Shiism after the brutal killing of Husayn was merely a political movement, not an ideological one. It was nothing more than a reactionary movement against what was thought as injustice perpetuated by the Umayyah Dynasty. A group of them remained that way till these days, but others have gone off the limit and developed what may be termed as the ideological Shiism foreign to the true spirit of Islam.
But since the movement started during the time of Uthman, although it never took off as an accepted ideology, our series on the background of Shia and Shiism would not be complete without looking briefly at what had happened during Uthman’s reign.
When Umar died, he had left a huge empire to his successor. In the ten years of his reign, he had crushed the Persian Empire completely, and had driven the Romans out of the Middle East. The Islamic Empire had stretched as far as Libya in the West, and the border of Afghanistan in the East. The Arabs, previously called the brute sons of the deserts, had become the superpower, ruling the then known civilized worlds.
The extent of the Islamic Empire had become a cause of concern even for the man of Umar’s stature. He used to say: “How I wish there will be the wall of fire between us and them, so that they don’t have to worry about us, and we don’t have to worry about them.”
When Uthman took over from Umar, the Islamic empire expanded even further. It had encroached to what is now Tunisia in the West and what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan in the East. It had extended to Armenia in Europe, in addition to Azerbaijan in the Central Asia. It had also ventured into the seas with the conquest of Cyprus, something that even Umar did not dare to venture, as can be seen from his outright rejection of Muawiyah’s request, when the latter asked his permission to conquer the islands in the Mediterranean.
The addition of the vast frontiers to the Muslims had brought with it unprecedented wealth and foreign cultures. Along with wealth and foreign cultures, these conquests had brought new adherents to the Religion of Islam. The companions were by then tiny minority.
Uthman was therefore left with challenges not quite faced by his predecessors. To make matters worse, some of his policies, and to a large extent his personality and his lenient approach, did not help either.
For instance, Umar was concerned that these wealth and foreign cultures would have an effect to the companions. For that reason, he made a policy that the leading companions should not leave Madinah, except for jihad or official duties. Uthman, however, saw that it was not right for him to stop the companions from leaving Madinah if they so desired, since it is essentially a personal decision.
Furthermore, unlike his predecessor, Uthman allowed people to seek wealth so long as it is within lawful means. He warned them of the danger of wealth seeking and extolled them on the virtue of moderation, but unlike Umar, he did not make it his policy to discourage this behavior.
Umar’s strict policy, stringent approach and preemptive measures had left no ground for subversive elements to rouse dissatisfaction among the masses towards him. The only dissatisfaction, if any, came from his appointed officials, because they were treated rather too strictly by their caliph. But even his officials had no ground to complain to the Caliph, because Umar was even stricter to himself than he was to others. As for the general populace, they revered his reign.
In addition to these, Umar never entertained the thought of putting his close relatives to the important positions, not only because he did not want to be accused of favoring his kinsmen, but because he did not want his relatives to be burdened with the heavy responsibilities that come with these jobs.
When he was dying, he did not nominate any of his relatives to be among the nominees to replace him, although at least two of them were qualified, namely his son, Abdullah, and his cousin and brother in law, Sa’eed bin Zayd. He was quoted as saying: “One man from Adiy Clan is enough for this difficult job.”
Uthman, however, had no problem with putting his close relatives to important positions so long as he believed that they have what it takes. Consequently, he was accused of practicing favoritism.
Lastly, in terms of personality, Umar was strict, often harsh, and at times unforgiving. Uthman, in contrast, was extremely modest, unusually shy in his ways, lenient, and extremely forgiving. Their differences are best captured in the popular saying: “When Umar traverses the path, the devils would run away due to his strictness, but when Uthman approaches, even the Angels would feel shy due to his modesty.”
As prosperity increased, people started to be busy with wealth. As the ability to seek wealth is never equally endowed, the gap between the rich and the poor started to increase. To make the matter worse, many of those who were rich came from the clan of Umayyah, whose head was Uthman at that time. The austere and simple life, as was the case during the time of the Prophet and his two predecessors, was beginning to erode.
This had become a cause of grave concerned among some companions. It also gave the opportunity for the subversive elements in the society to create dissatisfaction with the reign of Uthman.
Among the leading companions, the loudest critic was Abu Dzar al Ghifari. Concerned over the change in the Ummah, he preached for austerity and suggested that people had no right to keep wealth for themselves. Anything above one’s needs belonged to the state treasury and should be distributed to the poor.
His voices were louder in Sham (greater Syria), where Muawiyah was the Governor. Sensing that his teaching could be detrimental to the social order, since his ideas had gained some influence there, Muawiyah ordered Abu Dzar to leave Syria and sent him to Madinah.
In Madinah, the Caliph Uthman asked him: “What have you done to make the Levantines [people of Sham, or Greater Syria] complain a lot about you? Have you been sharp tongue?”
Abu Dzar replied: “Only what I said is that people should not be given free rein to amass wealth to the detriment of others.”
Uthman responded: “My main task in this post is to observe the obligation enjoined on me by Allah and to see that that people also perform their duties, but not to impose an ascetic style of life on people. The only thing I can do is to advice them to be moderate in spending.”
He also asked the pious and ascetic Abu Dzar to stop preaching his controversial idea. Not being a troublemaker, Abu Dzar obeyed the order from the caliph to stop preaching, but he could not bear seeing what he felt to be a corruption within the society. He asked permission from the caliph to isolate himself from the society and brought his family to live alone by themselves in a place called Ar-Rabadhah, not too far from Madinah.
But the teachings of Abu Dzar had left some marks especially on the poor. More importantly, he was not the only one teaching this controversial idea. Another man, known as Abdullah bin Saba’, taught even stranger ideas. Worse, unlike Abu Dzar whose motive was pure, Ibnu Saba’, as Abdullah bin Saba’s was more popularly known, had an evil motive. He capitalized on the situation and exploited Uthman’s forgiving nature in order to create trouble within the Ummah (Islamic Nation).
Ibnu Saba’ was a Jew who pretended to convert during the time of Uthman. Projecting the image of a pious and ascetic Muslim to the public, he taught people that Uthman had deviated from the true teaching of Islam by allowing people to acquire wealth, and that he had favored his kinsmen above others.
He went searching for disaffected people, especially those weak in faith and shallow in understanding, and quietly trained them as his henchmen to stir dissatisfaction among the poor. His group spread false rumors about the governors of Uthman and demanded that they be sacked.
Ibnu Saba’s went further by saying that due to the relationship with the Prophet, Ali was the designated heir to the Caliphate Throne. He pointed out that among the leading companions, only Ali and a few others chose to live ascetic life.
He chose Iraq and Egypt as his base, for in these regions, people were more critical of Uthman than in other areas.
As more people started to be influenced, they started to make demands that these governors be sacked and replaced by others of their choice. When Uthman met their demands, which he strove to meet, they would soon find faults with the new governors and started to register their complaints and demanded that they be sacked and replaced yet with others.
Uthman and his advisers, including Ali, soon knew that there were troublemakers in the society, but against their advice to come hard on them, he decided to be lenient and forgiving, preferring to reform these troublemakers rather than rooting the problem at its core.
To illustrate one example in this regards, he once said to the people of Kufah (who demanded him to remove the Governor there): “Now I have chosen for you as a ruler a person of your choice after dismissing Sa’eed (bin al ‘Aas). By Allah I will do whatever I can to reform you, to the last drop of my patience.”
In this connection, Ibnu Kathir observes that this exaggerated lenient approach had led people to have no more respect for their leaders, until they eventually demanded him to step down.
That was exactly what happened. After many years of spreading rumors and creating troubles without being punished, they finally managed to rouse some respected personalities from Egypt, Kufah and Basrah to revolt. Uthman managed to find out about their intention, and his advisers asked him to kill them in order to rid the Ummah of their danger and nip the sedition in the bud, on the ground that the Prophet had said: “Whoever calls for himself or for someone else while people are under the leadership of one Imam, he is cursed by Allah, so kill him.”
Uthman, however, as was his habit, treated them with leniency and did not listen to the advice of the companions. Instead, he said: “No, we will forgive them and inform them of our efforts. We will never punish them unless they commit a punishable crime or declare disbelief.”
His leniency proved to be his undoing. He entertained the accusations from the protesters in Makkah during the last Hajj season of his life. It turned out that their accusations had no basis, and people who followed the event were dispersed, feeling satisfied with explanations given by their Caliph who was put on trial.
But Muawiyah, who sensed a sinister motive on the part of the protesters, offered the Caliph to migrate with him to Syria, where he would be well protected. The Caliph refused, saying that he would not leave Madinah, the City of the Prophet. Muawiyah offered the Syrian troops to be based in Madinah for his protection. The Caliph again refused, saying that he would not want to shed any blood among Muslims.
Muawiyah’s fear turned into a nightmare. The protesters, who had dispersed after putting the Caliph into trial, came to Madinah after the contingent from Egypt intercepted a letter carried by a man riding in similar direction.
This rider had been behaving somewhat strangely. He would approach the Egyptian contingent, then move away, then approach again, until he aroused suspicion on the part of the contingent. They caught him and found a letter bearing the Caliph’s seal, saying: “When these rebels reach Egypt, crucify or kill them.”
Enraged, the Egyptian contingent turned back to Madinah. They demanded the answer from the Caliph, who swore that he had no knowledge whatsoever about the letter, and pointed out that in all likelihood, it was a forgery. They asked the Caliph to bring out his secretary, Marwan bin Hakkam, who was Uthman’s cousin, for questioning. Uthman refused, fearing that they would assassinate him.
Strangely, even the contingents from Kufah and Basrah, who were not supposed to know about the letter, soon joined the Egyptian rebels. We can guess who were behind this plot.
They barricaded his house and cut off the food supplies, and demanded that he step down as a caliph. Uthman refused to step down, recalling the words of the Prophet years earlier, that perhaps one day he will be given a shirt (meaning caliphate), and that if people ask him to take it off, he should not take it off for them.
Ali asked his permission to assemble the troop to fight against these protesters who had turned into violent rebels. Again, Uthman refused by saying that if there was to be any bloodshed, let it be his own blood. Not wanting to shed the first blood, because he remembered the saying of the Prophet, that “once the sword is unsheathed among my followers, it will not be unsheathed until the Last Day,” Uthman’s blood was instead spilled.
Some said the siege took a long time. Others said it took no more than a week or so. The most likely scenario is that it did not take that long, although probably more than a week. The news of the siege had reached other regions, and Muawiyah was already approaching from Syria with his army to save his cousin the Caliph.
The rebels broke into the house and some fighting took place between the rebels and the sons of the companions, including Hassan and Husayn, both the son of Ali, and Abdullah the son of Zubayr bin Awwam, who were guarding the house of Uthman. Their number being small, the guards were soon overpowered by the rebels and they killed Uthman before the army from Syria and elsewhere arrived at Madinah.
The news of Uthman’s murder had shocked the Ummah. The man whom the Prophet gave two of his daughters in marriage had been assassinated in the hands of Muslims. Umar too was assassinated, but he was killed by a Persian slave.
At this point, perhaps it is proper to ask: Had Uthman handled the situation differently, by nipping the problem in the bud from the beginning, or at least towards the end, would the situation turn out differently?
Only Allah would know. We can only guess, and your guess would be as good as mine. In any case, it is pointless to speculate what could have been for what had already happened. And we should not make it a habit to criticize the reign of Uthman, as some Muslims do. After all, he is not only one of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, but also included among those promisedParadise before he died. Perhaps, in His Grand Design, God has something to teach us, whatever it may be.
One thing is for sure, though. Even if Uthman had solved the problem by going to its root rather than being too forgiving, the issue of Shiism would remain. His successor, Ali, had nailed the problem in the bud. He burned alive those who claimed that he is divine, after they refused to repent. Yet, Shiism thrived and prospered years after his death.
Uthman is not the cause for the development of Shia and Shiism. The cause was Ibnu Saba’ and his ilks. Shiism did not take firm root during his time, but we mention his story to show how this strange idea originated, and the background surrounding it.
The strange idea of Shiism was propagated ever further during the time of Ali, and Ali had dealt with them harshly, after his persuasion for them to repent had failed.
This we shall cover in the next installment.