In previous columns, we tried to explain the fact that Abu Bakr and ‘Umar tried their best to be like the Prophet (pbuh) as heads of state with Islamic team spirit and community solidarity, within the boundaries of commitment to Allah and His Prophet (pbuh), the most important priority. Abu Bakr’s main challenge as head of state was the substantial abandonment of Islam by solid sections of the population base in Arabia. He successfully reversed that serious breakaway tendency in Arabia by largely keeping the Muhajireen and Ansar (the safeguard of Ahl al-Bayt) organized and undivided.
‘Umar’s challenge was to maintain the teamwork and group effort of the Muhajireen and Ansar and the Prophet’s kindred spirits (the bedrock of Iman) and their positive influence beyond al-Madinah, at a time of phenomenal Islamic growth and the danger that comes with its material comfort and privileged circumstances. To that end ‘Umar was effectual by maintaining the Prophetic austerity in self and in society. He banned the prominent followers of the Prophet (pbuh) from departing from al-Madinah.
He even told some of them that they are not allowed to join the troops at the warfront maintaining that their military duty alongside the Prophet (pbuh) was sufficient enough. He feared that these prominent followers of the Prophet (pbuh) would be adversely influenced by comfortable circumstances and the affluence of abundance. He also feared that people who were becoming Muslims in faraway lands would “hero-worship” these companions.
His decisions, whether we agree with him or not, were conscientiously made to preserve the stability and steadiness of a growing Islamic social order. We will see the calamities that happened during ‘Uthman’s reign when he passively permitted prominent companions of the Prophet (pbuh) to go anywhere they wanted. ‘Umar kept a watchful eye over the Muhajireen and Ansar (the protective shield of the Prophet’s household) and their immediate companions.
‘Umar used to meet with the governors of Islamic regions and their advisers along with constituencies to ask each of the other. During Hajj time ‘Umar would query the governors about the residents in their jurisdiction. And we didn’t hear from anyone then or from anyone now that ‘Umar was politicizing the Hajj! ‘Umar in his foresight was protecting prominent companions of the Prophet (pbuh) from their own egos, their civic public-images, and their own large-scale selves.
All of the above and more – much more – give us an idea of those who conscientiously and carefully tried their utmost best to live up to and honor the Prophet’s leadership legacy. But we shall see how this Prophetic-to-khilafah standard “took a dive” during ‘Uthman’s time in office. During the first years of ‘Uthman’s 12 years of governance there appeared to be an air of normalcy. The Islamic foreign policies and the armed forces continued to pursue freedom and emancipation for all. But little by little the internal policies of the previous 22 years began to change, and not constructively.
The official and public austerity of the previous 22 years was loosened and slackened off. As a result, people began to indulge themselves. ‘Uthman showed a leniency towards Quraish (the pre-Muhajireen and Ansar Makkan center of opposition to the Prophet (pbuh) and to Islam who were now nominal Muslims). The strongmen of Quraish who had become ostensible Muslims after the military liberation of Makkah took advantage of that.
‘Uthman showed partiality towards his extended family – Bani Umayyah – who were now a well-to-do (rich) class to the exclusion of much of the rest of the Muslim populace in al-Hijaz and elsewhere. What began as ‘Uthman’s uncontrived good-will and token action of fondness towards his extended family opened up the floodgates of unconstrained longing for power by his Bani Umayyah family relatives. ‘Uthman was an elderly and aging old man in his late seventies (or early eighties) or more who could without difficulty be influenced or even maneuvered by his relatives.
These‘asabiyah relatives seized the opportunity to the extent that in the last years of ‘Uthman’s reign he became a virtual figurehead with his Umayyah clan appointing and dismissing whomever they wanted without any promising legal or administrative objections against them. In the last years of ‘Uthman’s time in power, it appears that he was in good conscience “rubber stamping” his relatives’ (Bani Umayyah’s) political and administrative high-handed decisions. It began to look as if ‘Uthman’s objection to his domineering kinsfolks was virtually nil, especially those who belonged to Bani Umayyah.
‘Uthman’s “liberal” policies, coming after ‘Umar’s stringent policies, in regards to prominent Islamic personalities exiting al-Madinah, were unhelpful. Many recent and remote Muslims were enthralled by traveling with renowned sahabah such as Talhah ibn ‘Ubaidillah and al-Zubair ibn al-‘Awwam. The newly appointed governors – appointed during ‘Uthman’s reign – were not justice-centered.
A revolt began to brew in the urbanite administrative districts of the ummah. As the years of ‘Uthman’s reign went by, a silent general revulsion began to turn into an insurgency. “Military personnel” began to trickle into al-Madinah from places like al-Basrah, al-Kufah, and Egypt to express their concerns and complaints about the lack of social justice.
Some sahabah as well as Imam ‘Ali found themselves trying to bridge a widening gap between an oncoming “Islamic” outlying insurrection and a local receding “Islamic” central authority. At times it seemed like a mutiny was avoided. The intercession of Imam ‘Ali and the noticeable sahabah on one side, with ‘Uthman on the other, appeared at times promising but the ‘asabiyah of Bani Umayyah thwarted it.
Whatever ‘Uthman agreed to with the prominent sahabah and Imam ‘Ali, the Umayyad insiders in ‘Uthman’s administration would nullify. The Umayyad “‘asabiyah state within the khilafah state” was now clandestinely “calling the shots” and in direct contact with their retained governors to take any necessary action against any popular movement of discontent.
Word of this internal Umayyad elite got out and now the faraway general Muslim public in particular was in a rage against what they perceived as a “careless central Islamic authority” in al-Madinah. The original solid critical mass of the Muhajireen and Ansar that thus far kept the ‘asabiyah factor out of power centers was in short supply now as many of them had either become martyrs, relocated to distant areas, passed away or became old and infirm. A frustrated general Muslim public opinion discovered that the authoritarian orders emanating from al-Madinah that were given to repressive governors in such places as ‘Iraq and Egypt had the official stamp of ‘Uthman on them although ‘Uthman himself was not aware of such “authentication”.
This meant that a clannish in-group of Bani Umayyah was using ‘Uthman to get away with consolidating their exclusionary power base and reinforcing their ‘asabiyah. This also meant that in the khilafah government there now began what is referred to nowadays as “a deep state.” At this point the popular anger and rage turned into a march-of-convergence from north and from south on al-Madinah’s decision makers. Al-Madinah eventually was occupied by a combination of some disgruntled and some justice seeking Muslims.
Eventually ‘Uthman himself was pinned down in his own residence. It should be mentioned here that the khulafa’ including ‘Uthman did not have any body guards, security contingents, or “secret service” protecting them. That tells us that they considered themselves with the people, by the people, and for the people in the true and practical sense of the word.
Be that as it was, ‘Uthman remained surrounded in his residence until the rebels climbed over the fence and killed the khalifah in broad daylight – while he was reading the Qur’an by one account.
With the assassination of ‘Uthman – may Allah have mercy on him and may Allah deal divine justice to his peculiar Umayyad schemers – the gates of a raging fitnah and future bloody wars were flung open. There should be no doubt that the objections to ‘Uthman’s administration were not limited to distant and metropolitan areas of the ummah. Even in al-Madinah, there was resentment and righteous anger against the (Umayyad) deviation-cum-oligarchy cloaked in the initial legitimacy of ‘Uthman’s headship.
The citizens of al-Madinah and beyond could no longer tolerate what had become a titular head of state. When ‘Uthman was killed, in cold blood, al-Madinah was militarily controlled by the rebels for a few days until ‘Uthman’s corpse was cautiously and secretly buried during the night.
This sequence of events compels us to go back and visit the shura committee that ‘Umar designated on his death bed to decide who the leader of the Muslims shall be after he passes away. That shura committee was painstakingly chosen by ‘Umar. They represented Muhajireen-Ansar-Ahl al-Bayt public opinion. We should mention here that there were some individuals who wanted ‘Umar to appoint/select a successor as was done by Abu Bakr. ‘Umar knew that doing so would set a potentially irreversible precedent for rulers to appoint/select their successors and so he refused to do that.
Notable here is the position of Mu‘awiyah who was among that small minority that sought to have ‘Umar set a precedent and choose his heir to the khilafah. He appointed the following front line and “veteran” committed Muslims to decide and choose from among themselves who the ruler shall be after him.
They were: Imam ‘Ali, ‘Uthman, ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Awf, Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas, al-Zubair and Talhah. Al-‘Abbas, the Prophet’s uncle, was not among them because in ‘Umar’s reasoning he was not a “veteran” or “prototype” committed Muslim, even though he was the Prophet’s uncle. He was not one of the pioneers of Islamic self-determination. He was not among the Muhajireen, and was not one who fought at the battle of Badr.
Fighting at the battle of Badr was a badge of honor as it was the first military encounter between committed Muslims and violent offensive kafers. Skipping the details of the “back and forth” among the members of this shura committee, the bottom line was a choice between Imam ‘Ali and ‘Uthman and the specter of al-Saqifah and its tug between Muhajireen, Ansar and Ahl al-Bayt wrecked their conscience.
The decisive and tipping point between Imam ‘Ali and ‘Uthman was the question: how would each rule the Muslims? Would he rule obeying Allah, His Prophet (pbuh) and following the practices of the two khalifahs – Abu Bakr and ‘Umar? Imam ‘Ali answered that he will do his due diligence to the best of his knowledge and will apply his better judgment and his own ijtihad to obey Allah and the Prophet (pbuh).
‘Uthman answered by saying: yes, he would obey Allah, His Prophet (pbuh) and follow the precedent set by Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. The difference and inference here is that Imam ‘Ali was not bound by particular decisions made by Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. He was not disclaiming Abu Bakr and ‘Umar; Imam ‘Ali was expressing the fact that he will have his independent resolutions that may not be in line with the ijtihad of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar but will never be in disobedience of Allah and His Prophet (pbuh).
‘Uthman’s answer was that he will obey Allah and His Prophet (pbuh) and will follow the practice and pattern of the two khalifahs Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. Al-Haqq caught up with ‘Uthman as he (for those who give him the benefit of the doubt) unsuspectingly or naively brought his family into positions of power and governance – something Abu Bakr and ‘Umar were wary of and wise never to do.
And for those who do not give him the benefit of the doubt, he with intent and by design assigned his family members executive positions in the Islamic government thereby contradicting his oath to follow in the footsteps of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar.
O you who have committed yourselves [to Allah’s power and authority]! Why do you say what you do not do? - Al-Saff, 2
…and deliberate their [civic] affair through consultation among themselves… Al-Shura, 38