ELECTION OF 'OTHMAN
Dhu'l-Hijja, 23 A.H.Moharram, 24 A.H. / November, 644 A.D.
WHAT arrangements 'Omar might have made for a successor, had his end come less suddenly upon him, it is perhaps unnecessary to inquire. But some more definite choice he would, in all probability, have formed. We know that the perils of disunion hung heavily on his mind. The unbridled arrogance of the Arabian tribes at Al-Kufa and Al-Basra, flushed with the glory and spoils of war, was already felt to be a growing danger; while family rivalries among Koreish themselves had begun to weaken their hold upon the people. So much is plain, that ('Abd ar-Rahman excepted) 'Omar saw no one amongst them endowed with sufficient power and influence to hold the reins of government; none, at least, so prominent as to take the acknowledged lead. Again, the mode of nomination or election proper to Islam was yet uncertain. Abu Bekr on his deathbed appointed 'Omar his successor; but the higher precedent of Mohammad himself, who when laid aside simply named Abu Bekr to lead the prayers, was of doubtful meaning. Had Abu 'Obeida survived, 'Omar was known to say that he would have chosen him; but he was gone, and 'Abd ar-Rahman would none of the post. Weak and faint from the assassin's dagger, the emergency came upon the dying Caliph unprepared. So, relieving himself of the responsibility, he fell upon the expedient of nominating the chiefest of the Companions, on one or other of whom he knew the choice must fall, to be Electors.
'Omar hoped, no doubt, that the successor thus chosen would have the unequivocal support of those who elected
him. But he had not calculated on the frailty of human nature; and selfish ends proved more powerful than loyalty. 'Abd ar-Rahman was the only real patriot amongst them. Neither Talha, nor Az-Zubeir, nor Sa'd had any special reason to aspire to the Caliphate. Az-Zubeir, indeed, was closely related to the Prophet. Sa'd, also, was the nephew of Mohammad's mother; but his recall from Al-Kufa had tarnished his fame as conqueror of Al-Medain. 'Ali, a few years younger, had the strongest claim of kinship, whatever that might be for he was at once the son of the Prophet's uncle, the widowed husband of the Prophet's daughter Fatima, and the father of his only surviving grandsons. He had hitherto, from inactive temperament, remained passive at the Caliph's court; but, of quick and high intelligence, he had ever held a distinguished place in the counsels of 'Omar. In the absence of any leading competitor, his claim could now no longer be left out of sight, nor, without want of spirit, fail to be asserted by himself. 'Othman was his only real rival. Years carried weight with 'Othman, for he was now close on seventy. Attractive in person and carriage, he early gained the hand of Rokeiya, the Prophet's daughter. Shortly after her death, he married her sister Um Kulthum; and when she, too, passed away, Mohammad used to say he loved 'Othman so dearly that, if another daughter had yet remained, he would have given her to him. But his character withal had vital defects. Of a close and selfish disposition, his will was soft and yielding. And of all the competitors, 'Othman probably had the least capacity for dominating the unruly elements now fermenting throughout the Muslim empire.
The Electors, when appointed by 'Omar, forthwith retired, and fell into loud and hot discussion. 'Omar, overhearing it, desired that they should wait till his decease. So after the burial, Al-Mikdad, a veteran citizen appointed by the deceased Caliph to the duty, assembled the Electors in the treasury chamber adjoining 'Aisha's house, while Abu Talha with a guard kept watch at the door. 'Omar had ordered that the choice should not be delayed beyond the third day, so that his successor might be declared by the fourth at latest; and signified the utmost urgency by saying that if the minority then resisted, they should be beheaded
on the spot. The Electors, when thus again assembled, pressed hotly each the claim of his own party, and two days passed in unprofitable wrangling. 'Abd ar-Rahman spent the night in visiting the leading Citizens, and the chief officers from the Provinces (who, having come for the yearly Pilgrimage, had not yet departed), and in sounding their views. On the third day, Abu Talha warned the Electors that he would allow no further delay, and that decision must be come to by the morning. To bring the matter to an issue, 'Abd ar-Rahman offered to forego his own claim if only the rest would abide by his choice. They all agreed but 'Ali, who at first was silent, but at last said "First give me thy word that thou wilt regard neither kith nor kin, but right alone and the people's weal." "And I," rejoined 'Abd ar-Rahman, "ask thee first to give me thy troth that thou wilt abide by my choice, and against all dissentients support it." 'Ali assented, and thus the matter rested in the hands of 'Abd ar-Rahman.
That night 'Abd ar-Rahman, closeted with each of the Electors in turn, did not close his eyes. The contest was narrowed between the houses of Hashim and Umeiya, in the persons of 'Ali and 'Othman; and their influence with the electoral body was fairly equal. Az-Zubeir was in favour of 'Ali; how Sa'd voted is not certain. Talha had not yet returned. With 'Ali and 'Othman, separately, 'Abd ar-Rahman was long in secret conference. Each pressed his own claim; but each admitted the claim of the other to be the next in weight. The morning broke upon them thus engaged; and now the nomination must be made.
The courts of the Mosque overflowed with expectant worshippers assembled for the morning service. 'Abd ar-Rahman addressed them thus:"The people think that the governors, chiefs, and captains from abroad should, without further waiting, return to their respective posts. Wherefore advise me now in this matter." 'Ammar, late governor of Al-Kufa, said: "If it be thy desire that there be no division in the land, then salute 'Ali Caliph!" and Al-Mikdad affirmed the same. "Nay," cried Ibn abi Sarh, "if it be thy desire that there be no division, then salute 'Othman!" and Abu Rabi'a affirmed the same. 'Ammar turned in contempt on Ibn abi Sarh, who, repaying scorn
with scorn, said "And pray, 'Ammar, how long hast thou been counsellor to the Muslims? Let the Beni Hashim and the Beni Umeiya speak for themselves."
But 'Ammar would not be silent; whereupon one cried angrily, "Thou passes beyond thy bounds, O son of Sumeiya; who art thou, thus to counsel Koreish?"1 Sa'd, seeing the strife wax warm, said to 'Abd ar-Rahman: "Finish thy work forthwith, or flames of discord will burst forth." "Silence, ye people!" cried 'Abd ar-Rahman. "Be quiet, or ye will bring evil on yourselves. The determination of this matter rests with me. So saying, he called 'Ali to the front;"Dost thou bind thyself by the covenant of the Lord to do all according to the Book of the Lord, the example of the Prophet, and the precedent of his Successors?" "I hope," responded 'Ali, "that I should do so; I will act according to the best of my knowledge and ability." Then he put the same question to 'Othman, who answered unconditionally,"Yea, I will." Whereupon, either dissatisfied with 'Ali's hesitating answer, or having already decided in his mind against him, 'Abd ar-Rahman raised his face toward heaven, and taking 'Othman by the hand, prayed thus aloud:"O Lord, do Thou hearken now and bear me witness,
Verily the burden that is around my neck, the same do I place round the neck of 'Othman." So saying, he saluted him as Caliph, and the people followed his example.
It was the first day of the New year, the 24th of the Hijra. After two or three days spent in receiving the homage of the people, 'Othman ascended the pulpit, and made a brief and modest speech. "The first attempt," he said, "was always difficult, for he was unused to speak in public. It would be his duty in the future to address them, and the Lord would teach him how."
Though 'Ali, like the rest, took the oath of allegiance, yet his partisans were much displeased, and he himself upbraided 'Abd ar-Rahman bitterly with the desire to keep the supreme power out of the Prophet's house and brotherhood, "Beware," said 'Abd ar-Rahman, with prophetic
1 To understand the taunts here bandied, it must be remembered
that Ibn abi Sarh was the foster-brother of 'Othman, and bore a bad repute, as we shall see further on;
and that 'Ammar was son of a bond maid called Sumeiya.
1 To understand the taunts here bandied, it must be remembered that Ibn abi Sarh was the foster-brother of 'Othman, and bore a bad repute, as we shall see further on; and that 'Ammar was son of a bond maid called Sumeiya.
voice,"take heed that, speaking thus, thou makest not a way against thyself, whereof thou shalt repent hereafter." And so 'Ali passed out with the words of Jacob on his lips; "Surely patience becometh me." The Lord is my helper against that which ye devise."1 Shortly after, Talha returned to Medina. 'Othman acquainted him with what had happened, and as his vote would have ruled the majority, declared that if he dissented, he was prepared even then to resign the Caliphate. But on learning that all the people had agreed, Talha also swore allegiance.
The choice thus made by 'Abd ar-Rahman sowed the seeds of sad disaster. It led to dissensions which for years bathed the Muslim world in blood, threatened the existence of the Faith, and to this day divide believers in hopeless and embittered schism. But 'Abd ar-Rahman could hardly have anticipated the wanton, weak, and wavering policy of 'Othman, which slowly but surely brought about these results. There is no reason to think that, in discharging his functions as Umpire, he acted otherwise than loyally and, as he thought, for the best.2
An embarrassing incident followed the accession of 'Othman. Some one told 'Obeidallah, son of the deceased Caliph, that Abu Lu'lu'a had been seen shortly before in private converse with Al-Hormuzan, the Persian prince, and with a Christian slave belonging to Sa'd; and that, when surprised, the three separated, dropping a poniard such as that with which the assassin had wounded 'Omar. Rashly assuming a conspiracy, the infuriated 'Obeidallah rushed with drawn sword to avenge his father's death, and slew both the
1 Sura xii. 18.
2 He discharged the invidious task as a loyal and unselfish patriot.
Night and day engaged in canvassing the sentiments of the leading chiefs, he did his best to compose
the antagonistic claims of the Electors. The immediate cause of his nominating 'Othman is not easy to
find. 'Abbasid traditions assume it to have been the conscientious scruples of 'Ali in hesitating to
swear that he would follow strictly the precedents of Abu Bekr and of 'Omar. The Kor'an and the
precedent of Mohammad he would implicitly obey, but the precedent of the first Caliphs only so far
as he agreed with them. In the tenor of the traditions relating how 'Abd ar-Rahman first questioned
'Ali and then 'Othman, and in their replies, I hardly find sufficient ground for this assumption; and it
looks very much of a piece with the 'Abbasid fabrications of later days.
1 Sura xii. 18.
2 He discharged the invidious task as a loyal and unselfish patriot. Night and day engaged in canvassing the sentiments of the leading chiefs, he did his best to compose the antagonistic claims of the Electors. The immediate cause of his nominating 'Othman is not easy to find. 'Abbasid traditions assume it to have been the conscientious scruples of 'Ali in hesitating to swear that he would follow strictly the precedents of Abu Bekr and of 'Omar. The Kor'an and the precedent of Mohammad he would implicitly obey, but the precedent of the first Caliphs only so far as he agreed with them. In the tenor of the traditions relating how 'Abd ar-Rahman first questioned 'Ali and then 'Othman, and in their replies, I hardly find sufficient ground for this assumption; and it looks very much of a piece with the 'Abbasid fabrications of later days.
prince and the slave. Sa'd, incensed at the loss of his slave seized 'Obeidallah, still reeking with his victims' blood, and carried him, as the murderer of a believer (for Al-Hormuzan had professed the Muslim faith), before the Caliph. A council was called. There was not a tittle of evidence, or presumption even, of the supposed conspiracy. 'Ali conceived that, according to the law, 'Obeidallah must be put to death as having slain a believer without due cause. Others were shocked at the proposal:"But yesterday," they said, "the Commander of the Faithful lost his life, and to-day thou wilt put his son to death!" Moved by the appeal, 'Othman assumed the responsibility of naming a money compensation in lieu of blood, and this he paid himself. Some feeling was excited, and people said that the Caliph was already departing from the strict letter of the law. The poet, Ibn Lebid, satirised both the murderer, and the Caliph who had let him off, in stinging verse; but he was silenced. So the matter dropped, and there is no reason to think that the judgment was generally disapproved.
One of 'Othman's first acts was to increase the stipends of the chief men all round, by the addition to each of one hundred dirhems. The act, no doubt, was popular, but it gave promise of extravagance in the new administration.
The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents]
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