When the Caliph Uthman was murdered, the leading companions including Zubayr bin Awwam and Talha bin Ubaydullah went to Ali bin Abu Talib to ask him to take over the leadership.
“I can serve better as an adviser,” Ali responded. “Why don’t one of you take the job?” He added.
But they wanted him to lead, saying that after Uthman, he was the most qualified to lead.
This is the authentic report according to leading scholars, such as Ibnu Kathir, At-Tabari and others.
But there is also a report saying that Ali was forced into the position at the edge of the sword. This report says that when the rebels assassinated Uthman, a group of them went to Ali and asked him to take the leadership role. Ali refused. They then put the sword on his neck, and made an offer that Ali could not refuse, “Either you take the caliphate role, or we will cut your neck off.” Ali therefore had no choice but to obey the rebels.
This sensational report sounds pretty much like the celebrated novel of Mario Puzo, the Godfather, which was turned into a hugely successful movie. I doubt Mario Puzo ever read the Seerah of Ali, but like the fictional work of Mario Puzo, this report is likewise fictional. In the lingo of Seerah, it is called a fabricated report.
In any case, the report is very well liked by the Orientalists and the Muslims who like drama, because, building from there, more sensational fictions about Ali’s reign could be concocted. It is easy to see, for instance, why Ali could not meet the demand from Aisha’s and Muawiyah’s camps who had asked Ali to bring Uthman’s assassins to justice, because he was under the influence of these assassins. Since he failed to meet this demand, two bloody wars ensued.
But Ali is above what they made him out to be, although it is true that the rebels constituted part of his supporters. It is also true that his relatively short reign of four and a half years was marred with civil wars, first against Aisha, then against Muawiyah, and finally against his own supporters who turned into dissenters, known as Kharijites.
Our focus here is not on Ali’s reign. Rather, it is on the historical development of Shia and Shiism. In this regards, the first thing to say is that, although those who originated the idea that Ali had the right to the caliphate were in the midst of the Ummah, and that they formed part of his followers, their idea was not widespread. Ali’s main occupation was to put the Islamic Empire in order, and only dealt with them much later.
Ali was very unfortunate that he took over the leadership of the Ummah during the troubled time. The assassination of Uthman was a major trial to the Muslim Ummah. Umar too was assassinated, but he was assassinated by a Persian slave who only pretended to be a Muslim. The assassin was soon caught and executed for his crime.
The assassination of Uthman was different. It was perpetuated by a large body of Muslims who were misguided and had a score to settle with the Caliph. Some of them were prominent members of the society. One of them was even the son of the first Caliph, Muhammad bin Abu Bakar, who was with the Egyptian contingent.
Now, many of the companions were not quite happy with the way Uthman handled things, especially his too lenient approach to the trouble makers. They had asked him to take stern action against these rebel rousers, as we have narrated in Part 2, but due to his forgiving nature and disliked being the first to shed blood, he forgave instead of punished them. In the end, they killed him.
But disagreeing with the Caliph is one thing. Seeing him being brutally murdered is quite another. When their Caliph, the husband to two of the Prophet’s daughters, was murdered, their sense of justice compelled them to demand for the assassins to be brought to justice. This is what Aisha asked, and what Muawiyah likewise demanded.
As soon as Uthman was murdered, the companions started to demand for retaliation. Aisha, the beloved wife of the Prophet, and with her status as the Mother of the Believers, felt that it was her duty to make such demand. She enlisted the support from her brother in law, Zubayr, and her relative, Talha, both were leading companions including among the Ten Promised Paradise.
As we have seen, Zubayr and Talha were the ones asking Ali to assume the role of the caliphate when Uthman was murdered. When they finally teamed up with Aisha, their intent was not to wage war. They simply wanted to put pressure on Ali to take action against those assassins, because in their view, Ali had been lagged in this department.
As the call to demand for retaliation was led by the Mother of the Believers and two of the leading companions, many people soon joined their camp. They at last formed a big group and caused Ali to be concerned.
Ali and his army intercepted them, and reasoned with them. Ali agreed with the demand, but argued that the situation did not allow him to take the action so quickly. He needed to identify the real perpetrators first. He needed to separate between the misguided ones and the real criminals. It was not right for him to take action against all those rebels, because most of them were merely misled by the rebel rousers.
Aisha, Zubayr and Talha saw the dilemma, and decided to let Ali sort out the matter first. The news of the agreement reached the real perpetrators who were in Ali’s camp. Naturally it worried them tremendously. So, in the dark of the night, they launched an attack on Aisha’s army. Taken by surprise, the brief but full blooded war ensued, known as the Battle of Camel.
This was a mistake that shouldn’t have happened.
The Orientalists, the Shias and the misguided Muslims revel in the conflict between Ali and Aisha, concocting many fictions to dramatize the event. All we need to see is that on both sides were great companions, whose status was like stars by which we are guided. Can we really be guided if these people cannot even guide themselves?
With Muawiyah, the situation is slightly different. As the most senior leader of the Umayyah’s Clan, Muawiyah was pressured by his clans to revenge for Uthman’s blood. While Aisha, Zubayr and Talha quickly agreed with Ali’s explanation and was empathic with his situation, Muawaiyah appeared to be more demanding. He refused to give his bay’ah to Ali so long as Ali did not fulfill his demand.
Bloodier war than the Battle of Camel soon followed thereafter. This war, known as the Battle of Siffin, did not start the way the Battle of Camel started. The war started because both sides could not come to the agreement.
Thus, although our attitude is not to criticize the great companions like Muawiyah and his main adviser Amru bin Al-Aas, Muawiyah’s persistence demand did contribute to the needless conflict. If he were more accommodating like Aisha, Zubayr and Talha, the war could have been averted.
For the current purpose, all we need to say is that, as a result of the conflict between Ali and Muawiyah, Ali had to fight against a section of his people, known as dissenters or Kharijites, who disagreed with Ali’s decision to let the matter between the two be arbitrated.
These were the things that occupied Ali’s reign. His reign was filled with one conflict after another. The expansion of the Islamic Empire halted during his time.
As for the group giving impetus to Shiism, this was just a mere pest. He confronted and asked them to repent as they started to attribute divinity to him, much like what the early Christians attributed to Jesus. When they refused, he burned them alive. The reports that Ali used to burn people alive were alluded to this group.
Ibnu Abbas, Ali’s cousin and his right hand man, criticized the Caliph for taking that measure. Ali was right to have them killed, but to Ibnu Abbas, only Allah has the right to punish with fire (alluding to Hell Fire). But both exercised ijtihad (personal reasoning) on the matter.
As can be seen above, while the issue of Shia and Shiism existed during the time of Ali, for it started during the reign of Uthman, there was no such thing as Shia or Shiism during his time. It was no more than a heretic concept which Ali dealt with harshly.
Ali was later assassinated by Ibnu Muljam, one of the Kharijites. With Ali’s assassination, his supporters took Hassan, his son, to replace him. Since Hassan did not want to perpetuate the conflict with Muawiyah, he decided to have a peace treaty and handed the caliphate to Muawiyah, whom by then was called the Caliph. It is to be noted that during Ali’s reign, Muawiyah was never called the Caliph. It was not the issue of Caliphate that he contested. It was the issue of Uthman’s blood revenge.
Muawiyah reigned for 20 prosperous years and Islamic Empire was further expanded during his time. With gracious gesture from Hassan, peace and prosperity came back to the Islamic Empire.
But Muawiyah made another grave mistake towards the end of his life. Pressured by his clan, he went against the terms of agreement with Hassan, namely that the caliphate should be given back for the Ummah to decide. He appointed his son, Yazid, as his successor.
Because of that decision, people complained and asked Husayn to lead the revolt. But by then, the Umayyah Clan had already become very powerful, because during his reign, Muawiyah had put many of his clans to be the governors of leading regions.
Husayn, who was at Makkah when Yazid was appointed the Caliph to replace his father, prepared for Iraq at the request of the people of Kufah, who wanted him to lead the revolt from the center of his father’s seat of caliphate. Hassan, the older brother of Husayn, had died a few years earlier, so we wouldn’t know how he would react were he still alive.
In any case, against the advice of Ibnu Abbas and Ibnu Zubayr, and a few others, Husayn went to Iraq with all his family members, consisted of 70 fighting men. At Karbala, he was intercepted by 3,000 strong army of Yazid’s Governor in Kufah, Ubaydillah bin Ziyad. They demanded him to give his bay’ah to Yazid. He refused.
War ensued and they killed all 70 fighting men including his baby he carried in his arm, except for one of his sons, named Ali (this is Husayn’s son, not his father), who was sick. They beheaded Husayn and carried his head, along with non fighting women and the elderly whom they put to chain, to Yazid in Damascus.
Yazid was reported to be crying when he saw Husayn’s head and the condition of the prisoners. He released them all. Even Yazid did not order such brutality, but as is always the case, the subordinates tend to overdo when carrying out their master’s order in order to please him.
For that brutal treatment meted out to Prophet’s grandson, in addition to Muawiyah’s mistake of making the office of caliphate hereditary, a movement to make the members of Prophet’s Household, Ahlul Bayt, as imams or leaders of the Ummah, took off. Those who supported this movement were known as Shias Ali, or supporters of Ali. Shia was thus born, but it was not yet an ideological Shia. It was more like political Shia.
The ideological Shia was to come much later. We shall cover it in the next installment, the last part of this series.