Click to View




24-35 A.H.   /   644-656 A.D.

Causes of 'Othman's unpopularity.

THE reign of 'Othman lasted twelve years. It is usual to say that the first six were popular, and the last six the reverse; in other words, that during his later years the tide turned, and, discontent ripening into sedition, the storm burst with gathered fury upon the aged Caliph. This is true to some extent; but in reality the causes of unpopularity were busily at work from the very first. They were twofold, as has been already noticed; first, antagonism between the Arab nation at large and Koreish; and second, jealousy among Koreish themselves,—namely, between the house of Hashim and that of Umeiya, to which latter 'Othman and Mu'awiya belonged.

1. Antagonism between Arab tribes and Koreish.

The Arab soldiery, flushed with the glory and fruits of victory, were spread all over the Empire. In Syria, they were held in check by the powerful hand of Mu'awiya, and strengthened by the large body of influential Citizens from Mecca and Medina settled there. But in other lands, conscious of their power, the Arab tribes were rapidly getting the bit between their teeth. Their arrogant and factious spirit had its focus in Al-Kufa and in Al-Basra; in both these cities, indeed, it had already under 'Omar shown itself; for even he had not been able effectually to curb their insolence. The Arabs were impatient of control, partly because the success of Islam was due to their arms; partly because, in the brotherhood of the Faith, all Believers, specially those of Arab blood, stood on equal ground. The power of the Caliph, indeed, as successor to the Prophet, was absolute, uncontrolled by any constitutional authority whatever. But even he, yielding to popular sentiment, not only


took counsel on critical occasions with the leading men around him, but, as a rule, held himself bound by the same, and enjoined the like on his lieutenants. And so it was that in the concessions which he made to the clamour of the citizens of Al-Basra and Al-Kufa, 'Omar had already set a baneful lesson to his successor, and given to those constituencies a foretaste of power which they were not slow to take advantage of. Thus the turbulent spirit grew from day to day—a spirit of opposition to authority, and impatience of Koreishite rule.

2. Jealousy between houses of Hashim and Umeiya.

The second cause, less threatening to Islam at large, was more insidious and fraught with greater danger to the Caliphate, and to the person of 'Othman himself. Had Koreish rallied loyally around the throne, they might have nipped the Arab faction in the bud. But the weakness of 'Othman, and the partiality with which he favoured his own relations, stirred the jealousy of the house of Hashim, which began now to vaunt the claims of 'Ali and the Prophet's family, and to depreciate the Umeiyad branch to which the Caliph belonged. That branch, unfortunately for the Umeiyads, had been the tardiest to recognise the mission of the Prophet; and those on whom 'Othman now lavished his favour were amongst the earliest and most inveterate opponents of Islam. Every expression uttered by Mohammad during that period of bitter enmity was now raked up and used to blacken their names, and cast discredit on a Government which promoted them to power and honour. Thus Koreish were divided; rivalry paralysed their influence, and 'Othman lost the support which would otherwise have enabled him to crush the machinations of the Arab malcontents. Still worse, 'Ali and his party lent themselves to the disloyal policy of the Bedawi faction, which was fast sapping the foundations of the Caliphate, and which, as 'Ali should have foreseen, would in the end, if he succeeded to the throne recoil against himself.

Factious spirit diverted by military service.

It was not, however, till later on that these influences, though early at work, assumed dangerous prominence. This was in great measure due to the military operations which, busily pursued in all directions throughout the twelve years of 'Othman's caliphate, served to divert attention from domestic trouble. Expeditions, as we have seen, had been


from time to time directed towards the East, and the various provinces brought more or less under tributary subjection.

Campaigns in the East 31 A.H. 652 A.D.

Shortly after the death of 'Omar, a general rising took place in Persia, and so, in order to restore Muslim supremacy, a series of enterprises were, by command of 'Othman, set on foot. Ibn 'Amir, governor of Al-Basra, having first reduced the adjoining province of Fars, inaugurated a great campaign in the north and east. The land was overrun, and the strongholds, after they had been either stormed or had surrendered at discretion, were ordinarily left it in the hands of native Princes on condition of a heavy tribute. Nisapur, taken by the treachery of one of the Marzubans who were over the quarters of the town, was assessed at a million, and Merv at a million and a quarter pieces; and so on with the other States. Sarakhs surrendered on quarter being given for a hundred lives; but in furnishing the list of names, the Marzuban forgot his own, and so was beheaded with the rest of the fighting men. A great battle was fought at Khwarizm on the Oxus, and the country as far as Balkh and Tukharistan forced to acknowledge the Caliph's suzerainty. Having achieved these splendid victories, in which were taken 40,000 captives, Ibn 'Amir set out for Mecca, on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving. The Lieutenants whom he left to prosecute the campaign restored authority at the point of the sword in the revolted parts of Kirman and Sijistan, and brought under obedience the chiefs as far as Herat, Kabul, and Ghazna.1 The control must, however, as yet have been but slight and desultory; for long years after, we find these outlying provinces continually rising against Muslim rule, and again for the time asserting independence. Kirman, however, and the nearer parts were held under a more substantial sway; forts were erected, water-courses dug, and the land divided among the conquerors; and so settled rule gradually extended eastward. It was not till the eighth year of 'Othman's reign that Yezdejird died. There are

1 Idolatry long prevailed throughout these parts. In Sijistan, the general seized the shrine of an Idol made of gold with eyes of rubies. The arms he cut off, and took out the rubies. "Here," said he, as he gave them hack to the Prince, "these are thine; this I did only to let thee know that this thing can neither hurt thee nor can it do thee good." It may have been a Buddhist idol; but of Buddhism as a religion we hear little or nothing in this direction.


various accounts of his wanderings in the East after the battle of Nihavend, destitute and helpless; but they all agree in the fact that about this time, taking shelter in a miller's hut he was there assassinated, and that he was buried with reverence by the Metropolitan of Merv.1 The knowledge that the line of Anusharwan was now at an end, tended no doubt to the pacification of the East.

Turks and Khazar, 32 A.H. 653 A.D.

Although upon the whole the progress of the Muslims was steadily forward, there were still reverses, and these not seldom of a serious kind. An arduous campaign was carried on during this reign against the hordes of Turks and Khazar, to the west of the Caspian Sea. In the year 32 A.H. these gained so signal an advantage in the mountainous passes of Azerbijan, that in the discomfiture which followed the Arab leaders and a great body of the veterans were slain. To retrieve the disaster, 'Othman ordered levies from Syria to reinforce the Kufan army. Bad blood bred between the two; the Syrians refused to serve under a General commanding troops from Al-Kufa; and altercation ensued which nearly led to bloodshed. This, adds the historian, was the first symptom of the breach between the Kufans and the men of Syria, which subsequently broke out into prolonged hostility. About the same time a whole army was lost in deep snow upon the heights of Kirman, only two men escaping to tell the tale. There were also some alarming losses in Turkestan. But Arabia continued to cast forth its swarms of fighting tribes in such vast numbers, and the wild fanaticism of the Faith still rolled on so rapidly, that such disasters soon disappeared in the swelling tide of conquest.

Syria entirely under Mu'awiya.

Syria had by this time come entirely under Mu'awiya. On the death of his brother Yezid, 'Omar gave him the government of Damascus; and as the other governors passed away, their districts fell successively into his hands; till at last, early in the reign of 'Othman, to whom as of the Umeiyad line Mu'awiya was closely related, the entire Province came

1 We have this in two different traditions. The Bishop summoned the Christians (who would seem to have been at this time a substantial body), and recounting the benefits they had received from the Persian dynasty, made then build a church or shrine over the remains which were buried there.


to be administered by him.

Fighting with Greeks, 26 A.H. 647 A.D.

Excepting raids of little import, Syria had for some time enjoyed rest, when suddenly in the second year of 'Othman's caliphate, Mu'awiya was startled with by the approach of an army from Asia Minor, which he had not the means to oppose. Help was ordered from the eastern provinces, and 8000 volunteers soon joined the Syrian army. Thus reinforced, the Arabs repulsed the Byzantine attack. Following up the success, they overran Asia Minor, and passing through Armenia, reached Tabaristan, thus forming a junction with their comrades, on the eastern shore of the Caspian. Then turning north, they marched as far as Tiflis, and reached even to the Black Sea. Thereafter hostilities with the Greeks were renewed every summer, and eventually, aided by naval expeditions from the ports of Africa, the Syrian generals pushed forward their conquests in the Levant and Asia Minor, strengthened their border, and enlarged their coasts. A few years before the death of 'Othman, Mu'awiya, accompanied by his Bedawi wife, Meisun, headed one of these expeditions along the coast to the very precincts of Constantinople; and returning by 'Ammuriya (Amorion), destroyed many fortresses on the way.

Africa, 23 A.H. 646 A.D.

In Africa, I have already noticed the desperate attack made early in this reign on Alexandria from seaward; the Byzantine forces on that occasion actually regained possession of the City, but were shortly after driven out by 'Amr; and against the Muslim power in Egypt no further attack was for the present made. Farther to the west, however, the Byzantine arms remained long in force; and along the shores washed by the Mediterranean strong Arab columns were still actively engaged against them. Among the chiefs who had joined the Egyptian army was 'Abdallab ibn Sa'd ibn abi Sarh, already noticed as the foster-brother of 'Othman. He bore no enviable reputation in Islam. Employed by Mohammad to record his revelations, he had proved unfaithful to the trust; and on the capture of Mecca was by the Prophet proscribed from the general amnesty, and only at the intercession of 'Othmam escaped death. An able administrator, he was appointed by 'Omar to the government of Upper Egypt, when he advanced on Nubia. But some years after he fell out with 'Amr, in whom was


vested the supreme control.

'Amr superseded by Ibn abi Sarh 26 A.H. 647 A.D.

Each appealed to 'Othman, who declared 'Amr to be in fault, and deposed him from the revenue and civil control. 'Amr objected. "To be over the army," he said, "and not over the revenue, was like holding the cow's horns while another milked her." He repaired angrily to 'Othman, who, after some words of bitter altercation, transferred the whole administration into the hands of Ibn abi Sarh. The act was unfortunate for the Caliph. It threw 'Amr into the ranks of the disaffected; while the bad repute of Ibn abi Sarh, "the renegade," as they called him, gave point to the charges of partiality and nepotism now rife against 'Othman.1

Conquests in Africa 26 A.H. 647 A.D.

Ibn abi Sarh, left thus in sole command, carried his arms vigorously along the coast beyond Tripoli and Barka, and even threatened Carthage. Gregory, as its governor, reinforced by the Emperor, advanced against him with an army, we are told, of 120,000 men. 'Othman, warned of the danger, sent a large contingent to Ibn abi Sarh's help, with which marched a numerous company of "Companions." The field was long and hotly contested; and Ibn abi Sarh, to stimulate his troops, promised the hand of Gregory's daughter with a large dower, to the warrior who should slay her father. The enemy was at last discomfited with great slaughter, and a citizen of Medina gained the lady for his prize. He carried her off on his camel to Medina; and the martial verses which he sang by the way are still preserved.2 In this campaign, 'Othman incurred much odium by granting Ibn abi Sarh, a fifth part of the royal fifth of booty as personal prize. The rest was sent as usual to Medina; and here again 'Othman is blamed for allowing Merwan his cousin to become the purchaser of it at an altogether inadequate price.

It is, however, as the first commander of a Muslim fleet that Ibn abi Sarh is chiefly famous, in which capacity he

1 Ibn abi Sarb narrowly escaped execution at the capture of Mecca (Life of Mohammad, p. 410 f.). Party spirit now freely magnified his offence, and he was abused as the person alluded to in Sura vi. 93: "Who is more wicked than he who saith, I will produce a revelation like unto that which the Lord hath sent down." See Sale in loco.

2 The campaign furnishes plentiful material for the romances of the pseudo-Wakidi and later writers. According to some, the maiden leaped from the camel, and being killed escaped thus her unhappy fate.


added largely to the conquests of Islam; while, on the other hand, his undue elevation aroused keen jealousy contributing anew to the obloquy cast on his Master's name.

Naval operations forbidden by 'Omar,

Mu'awiya had long keenly missed the support of a fleet, and in fact had sought permission from 'Omar to embark his soldiery in ships. "The isles of the Levant," he wrote, "are close to the Syrian shore; you might almost hear the barking of the dogs and cackling of the hens; give me leave to attack them." But 'Omar dreaded the sea, and wrote to consult 'Amr, who answered thus:—"The sea is a boundless expanse, whereon great ships look tiny specks; nought but the heavens above and waters beneath; when calm, the sailor's heart is broken; when tempestuous, his senses reel. Trust it little, fear it much. Man at sea is an insect on a splinter, now engulfed, now scared to death." On receipt of this alarming account, 'Omar forbade Mu'awiya to have anything to do with ships;—"The Syrian sea, they tell me, is longer and broader than the dry land, and is instant with the Lord, night and day, seeking to swallow it up. How should I trust my people on its accursed bosom? Remember Al-'Ala1. Nay, my friend, the safety of my people is dearer to me than all the treasures of Greece.

but undertaken by 'Othman.

"Nothing, therefore, was attempted by sea in the reign of 'Omar. But on his death, Mu'awiya reiterated the petition, and 'Othman at last relaxed the ban on condition that maritime service should be voluntary. The first fleet equipped against Cyprus, in the 28th year of the Hijra, was commanded by Abu Keis as admiral; it was joined by Ibn abi Sarh with a complement of ships manned by Egyptians, and Arab warriors from Alexandria.

Cyprus occupied, 28 A.H. 649 A.D.

Cyprus was taken easily, and a great multitude of captives carried off. The Cypriots agreed to pay the same revenue as they had done to the Emperor; and the Caliph, unable as yet to guarantee their protection, remitted the poll-tax.2 Of Abu Keis we are told that he headed fifty expeditions by land

1 Supra, p. 168.

2 [There is still in Cyprus a shrine called Khal'at Sultan Tekya, dedicated to Um Haram, wife of an officer in this expedition. Accompanying her husband on the island, she fell from her mule and died, and so this shrine was dedicated to her.—Asiatic Society's Journal January 1896, art. vi. p. 81. 3rd Ed.]


and by sea, but was killed at last while engaged in exploring a Grecian seaport. The island of Rhodes was occupied a few years later.

Naval victory off Alexandria, 31 A.H. 652 A.D.

Three years after the fall of Cyprus, driven now from the harbours of Africa, and seriously threatened in the Levant, the Byzantines gathered a fleet of some 500 vessels, and defied the Arabs. Ibn abi Sarh was appointed to answer the challenge. He manned every available ship in the ports of Egypt and Africa; and his squadron, though inferior in weight and equipment to the enemy's, was crowded with valiant warriors from the army. The Byzantine fleet came in sight near Alexandria. The wind lulled, and both sides lay for a while at anchor. The night was passed by the Muslims in recitation of the Kor'an and prayer, while the Greeks kept up the clangour of their bells. In the morning, a fierce engagement took place. The Arab ships grappled with their adversaries, and a hand-to-hand encounter with sword and dagger ensued. The slaughter was great on both sides; but the Greeks, unable to withstand the wild onset of the Saracens, broke and dispersed. The Byzantine commander sailed away to Syracuse, where the people, infuriated at the defeat, despatched him in his bath.1

Obloquy cast on 'Othman.

This splendid victory notwithstanding, discontent against 'Othman now for the first time found free and dangerous expression among the leading Companions in the fleet. They murmured thus against the Caliph:—"'Othman hath changed the ordinances of his predecessors, he hath made Admiral a man whom the Prophet would have put to death; and such like men also hath he put in chief command at Al-Kufa, Al-Basra, and elsewhere." The clamour reaching the ears of Ibn abi Sarh, he declared that none of the malcontents should fight in his line of battle. Excluded thus, they were the more incensed. Spite of the threats of Ibn abi Sarh, the inflammatory language spread, and men began to speak openly and unadvisedly against 'Othman.

Outlook darkens.

The clouds were louring, and the horizon of the Cali1ph darkened all around.

1 According to Theophanes, it was Constans II. who so perished, but at a later date. See Gibbon, chap. xlviii.

The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents]

Click to View