A word of caution – in the upcoming preparatory articles we will be treading on volatile issues and entering into topics that have been ardently argued and angrily debated among Sunni-Shi‘i sectarians for fourteen centuries. A word of advice to those who have already made up their minds and are incapable of taking a fresh look at “controversial matters” you are well advised to not lose your time and burn your nerves reading here about our early Islamic history with your preconceived notions and predetermined conclusions.
This article and a few that will follow are informational precursors that are necessary for us to understand what happened during the reign of the third successor to the Prophet (pbuh); i.e. ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan. ‘Uthman’s time in office was one of the most precarious periods between the leadership of Rasul-Allah and the Umayyad ruling class.
Let us begin by saying that Abu Bakr and ‘Umar tried, to the best of their knowledge and ability and without mischievousness or malice, to honor the high standards of Islam and to continue the Seerah of the Prophet (pbuh) in matters of state and the public interest. In other words, Abu Bakr and ‘Umar were concerned with supreme social justice and the consolidation and unity of the Islamic domain knowing that there are very dangerous myriad forces (internally and externally) waiting for an opportunity to undo the Prophet’s consolidation of an ummah.
Internally the munafiqeen and externally the mushrikeen were both unmistakably at times or vaguely at other times waiting for an opportunity to break-up the consolidated power of Islam in al-Madinah. As a reminder for those who have been “high” on ritualistic habits the heavenly revealed message to the Prophet (pbuh) can be shortened into two aspects: 1- tawhid (Allah’s inseparable divinity and authority), 2- qist (social justice and equality). Suffice it here to mention one ayat from the many other ayats in the Qur’an:
“O people! We have created you out of a male and female and rendered you into [ethnic] derivatives [of each other] and corresponding communities [to each other] for the purpose that you [people] might come to mutually appreciate each other. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the one who is most conscious of Allah’s power presence [on earth and in heaven]. Indeed, Allah is all-knowing, ever proficient” - Al-Hujurat 13
These resolute principles of Allah and His Prophet (pbuh) irritated Makkah’s Quraish more than anything else. The Quraishi Makkan establishment was infuriated and enraged that Muhammad (pbuh) was justice-centered and equality-focused more than they were concerned with prayers and fasting as prayers and fasting as outlined in the Qur’an were not made obligatory until the Prophet (pbuh) was in his final days in Makkah or had already left Makkah for al-Madinah.
In Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) dictionary there was no discrimination between an underling and a chief, between a slave and a master, or between a ruler and a subordinate. The Prophet’s Islam did not recognize a privilege belonging to the powerful over the powerless or an advantage of the rich over the poor. The Qur’anic and Prophetic Islam emphasized the utter equality of all individuals and peoples. There are no civic superiors and civic inferiors in an Islamic way of life. Some orientalists and their pupils want people to believe that Islam did not eliminate slavery, serfdom and servitude! But those who know their Islam better are aware of the fact that Islam civically equalized “slaves” and “slave-masters” in theory and in practice.
This momentous deconstruction of “slavery” which began during the Prophetic era continued for more than forty years until it was interrupted or disrupted by the post khilafah/Imamate rulers. All Islamic obligations (salat, zakat, siyam, etc…) became the responsibility of those who had total freedom and those who had partial freedom. Every person’s life is Islamically and legally deemed sacrosanct. Islam was not revealed to an upper class. Islam was more readily accepted by the lower classes of society because of its message of societal equality and social justice.
Had the khilafah/Imamate continued without the terrible consequences of the Umayyad coup all aspects of indentured relations would have been terminated without delay. There are inbuilt regulations and imperatives that make it a duty to emancipate individuals and release those who are in bondage. “Providing freedom to the vassal” - Surat al-Balad, 13
Muslims anchored in the Qur’an of Muhammad (pbuh) and molded and modeled by Muhammad of the Qur’an consider it their duty to liberate bondmen and persons who are dependent on or subordinate to other(s). If a Muslim sins, one way of expiating for that sin is to liberate a person from captivity or servitude.
More than anything else the Makkan Quraishi establishment was outraged that Muhammad (pbuh) was adamant about social evenhandedness and public equality. A calm reading of the Prophet’s Seerah which was the cornerstone of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar’s time in office (as well as Imam ‘Ali after ‘Uthman) will show that Quraish would have easily responded in a favorable way to the Prophet (pbuh) and his enduring legacy had he not addressed socio-economic issues. Quraishi decision makers would have acclaimed the Prophet (pbuh) had he not evened out the poor with the rich and lined up the powerful with the powerless.
The Quraishi presiding chieftains would have benefited from Islam if it had nothing to say about moneylending, overcharging, and usury. The financial class of Makkah could not tolerate an Islam that seeks to have money circulate in society causing the poor to improve their standard of living. If the Qur’an and Islam were just a matter of formalities, ceremonials, and religious rites, Quraish would have been non-belligerent towards such an Islamic theology.
Quraish’s icon religion was a smokescreen for its financial interests, social injustice, and self-serving status quo. The true opposition of Quraish to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his social transformational movement is primarily attributable to divine social justice and not to matters of ritualistic litanies and religious studies.
Even the Prophet (pbuh) himself was amended when in his reasonable effort to win over influential Quraishi figures he slighted and failed to acknowledge a blind man. The object lesson of equality, referred to here, seared through the public mind of Quraish even though today’s Muslims scantly take note of it. These are the ayats:
“He [Muhammad] frowned and turned away as he [Muhammad] was approached by a blind man. Yet, for all you know, he [the blind man] may be seeking to improve his moral self, or he may be seeking a higher consciousness – a consciousness that may benefit him. Now, as for he who is affluent [from among the group leaders of Quraish in your company], you [O Muhammad] would [rather] engage him; for it harms you not if he does not improve [himself, by listening to you]. But as for he [the blind man] who has made an effort to come to you, with a demeanor of devoutness, him you distract yourself away from? No, [no] – this is a moral lesson: whoever wishes to, may take note of it. [This moral lesson is] in a venerable script, elevated and pristine…” - ‘Abasa, 1-14
Tawhid and ‘adl were synonymous with Allah (swt) and His Prophet (pbuh) and not bedroom and bathroom politesse. Fairness in Makkah and social justice in al-Madinah were one and the same when it comes to Islamic leadership. Muslims and non-Muslims connected Islam with and by justice. Any deviation away from justice is a deviation away from Islam.
This deep-rooted message of equality and justice was so profound that at one time a Muslim individual not aware of the Prophet’s intent and purpose took issue with the Prophet (pbuh) at the moment he (pbuh) was distributing the spoils of war after the battle of Hunayn. It appeared to this one-dimensional observer that the Prophet (pbuh) was not giving an equal share to the combatants.
So, he said to the Prophet (pbuh): “Be fair. Do justice. O Muhammad! You are not evenhanded in distributing the proceeds of war.” At first, the Prophet (pbuh) looked the other way. So, the objector repeated himself. At that moment, the Prophet (pbuh) became worried and said: “Pity! Who is it who will be fair and do justice if I am not fair and doing justice?!”
Some Muslims were on the verge of assaulting this rude individual but the Prophet (pbuh) stood in their way because each individual is guaranteed freedom of conscience and freedom of expression and guaranteed their right to complain or take exception. And besides, the Prophet (pbuh) was following divine instructions of المؤلفة قلوبهم [those whose hearts are amenable to Islam]. There are ayats in surat Bara’ah that shed more light on this issue.
Suffice it to say that the Prophet (pbuh) set an example of a selfless decision-maker and a noble leader. This unselfish character in the highest office of the ummah was illustrated by both Abu Bakr and ‘Umar before ‘Uthman with the proviso that they themselves admitted; i.e. they are imperfect and vulnerable as are all human beings.
And those who track [the exemplary behavior of the Muhajireen and Ansar] in times to come do pray [saying], “O our Sustainer! Forgive us our sins, as well as those of our brethren who went ahead of us with their divine commitment, and do not allow our hearts to well up with spiteful thoughts and feelings toward [other] committed Muslims. O our Sustainer! You are compassionate, enormously merciful.” - Al-Hashr, 10