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35 A.H.   /   656 A.D.

Plot to surprise Medina. End of 34 A.H. Summer 655 A.D.

THE plot now rapidly came to a head. A plan of action had been already formed. While the lieutenants of the Caliph were absent from their posts on the occasion just described, the conspirators were to issue from Al-Kufa, Al-Basra, and Fustat, and converge upon Medina in combined and menacing force. There, in answer to the Caliph's challenge, they would present an endless roll of complaints, and cry loudly for redress, reform, and change of Governors. Denied by 'Othman, they would demand his abdication, and, in last resort, enforce it by the sword. But as to a successor they were not agreed. Al-Kufa was for Az-Zubeir; Al-Basra for Talha; Egypt's favourite was 'Ali.

Conspirators set out for Medina, ix. 35 A.H. March, 656 A.D.

The scheme miscarried. But some months later, in the middle of the following year, it was revived and secret preparations made for giving it effect. Under pretext of visiting Mecca for the lesser Pilgrimage,1 the concerted movement at last took place, two or three months before the annual Pilgrimage. Ibn abi Sarh, Governor of Egypt, at once despatched a message to apprise 'Othman. In reply he was ordered to pursue the rebels; he did so, but too late; they had already marched beyond his reach. On turning back he found Egypt in the hands of a traitor, and fleeing for his life, took refuge across the border in Palestine. Among the insurgent leaders of Egypt was Mohammad son of Abu Bekr

1 Life of Mohammad, p. ci. It may be performed any time of the year.


Insurgents encamp near Medina; first retire;

Startled by intelligence that the insurgents were in full march on Medina, 'Othman ascended the pulpit and admitted the real object of attack. "It is against myself," he said "by and by they will look back with a longing eye on my reign, and wish that each day had been a year, because of the bloodshed, anarchy, and ungodliness that will flood the land." The rebels soon appeared, and pitched three separate camps, from Al-Kufa, from Al-Basra, and from Egypt, in the neighbourhood of the City. The people put on their armour, a thing unheard of since the days of the Apostasy, and prepared for resistance. The insurgents, foiled thus far, sent deputies to the widows of Mohammad and chief men of the City. "We come," they said, "to visit the Prophet's home and resting-place, and to ask that certain of the Governors be deposed. Give us leave to enter." But leave was not granted. Then they despatched each a deputation to their respective candidates. 'Ali stormed at the messengers, and called them rebels accursed of the Prophet; and the others met with no better reception at the hands of Talha and Az-Zubeir. Unable to gain the citizens, without whose consent their object was out of reach, the rebel leaders declared themselves satisfied with the Caliph's promise of reform, and so retired. They made as if each company were taking the road home, but with the concerted plan of returning shortly, when they might find the City less prepared. The citizens, relieved of the immediate danger, cast aside their armour, and for some days things went on as before, 'Othman leading the prayers.

but return with document bearing Caliph's seal.

Suddenly, the three bands reappeared. A party headed by 'Ali went forth to ask the reason. The strangers pointed to a document attested by the Caliph's seal; this, they said, had been found by the Egyptian company upon 'Othman's servant, whom they caught hastening on the road to Fustat; and it contained orders for the insurgents to be imprisoned, tortured, or put to death. 'Ali, suspecting collusion asked how the discovery had become so promptly known to the other companies marching in different directions as to bring them all back at once together? "Speak of it as ye will," they said, "here is the writing, and here the Caliph's seal." Ali repaired to 'Othman, who denied knowledge of the document but with the view of clearing up the matter consented to


Angry altercation with Caliph.

receive the rebel leaders. Introduced by 'Ali they made no obeisance, but with defiant attitude recounted their pretended grievances. They had retired with the promise of redress, they said; but instead of redress, here was the Caliph's own servant whom they had caught hastening to Egypt with the treacherous document now produced. 'Othman swore solemnly that he knew nothing of it. "Then say who it was that wrote and sealed this order." "I know not," said the aged Caliph. "But it was passed off as thine; thy servant carried it; see, here is thy seal, and yet forsooth thou wast not privy to it!" Again 'Othman affirmed that it was even so.1 "Whether thou speakest truth," they cried in accents loud and rude, "or art a liar, either way, thou art unworthy of the Caliphate. We dare not leave the sceptre in the hands of one who, either knave or fool, is too weak to govern those about him. Resign, for the Lord hath deposed thee!" 'Othman made answer:—"The garment wherewith the Lord hath girded me I will in no wise put off; but any evil ye complain of, that I am ready to put away from me." It was all too late, they cried; he had often made, and as often broken, the promise to amend; they could no longer trust him; now they would fight until he abdicated, or else was slain. "Death," said 'Othman, gathering himself up with the firmness and dignity that marked his last days,—"death I prefer; as for fighting, I have said it already, my people shall not fight; had that been my desire, I had summoned legions to my side." The altercation becoming loud and violent, 'Ali arose and departed to his home. The conspirators also retired to their fellows; but they had now

1 The facts regarding this document are obscure. It certainly was sealed with the Caliph's signet; but who affixed it, and how obtained, cannot be told. Nobody alleges 'Othman's Complicity. Most traditions attribute the act to Merwan, the Caliph's unpopular cousin, who, throughout the narrative, receives constant abuse as the author of 'Othman's troubles but these are all tinged with 'Abbasid hatred. 'Ali's accusation against the insurgents is unanswerable. There must have been a preconcerted scheme between the three camps; and there is strong presumption of something unfair as regards the document itself. It is, of course, possible that Merwan may have taken upon himself the issue and despatch of the rescript; and, indeed, there were not wanting grounds for his venturing on such a course. The insurgents may also have got scent of the document, before they started ostensibly with the purpose of returning home. But these are mere surmises.


secured what they desired, a footing in the City. They joined in the ranks of worshippers at the daily prayers in the Mosque, cast dust in the face of 'Othman as he stood up to speak, and thrust aside his loyal helpers. The fatal crisis was hurrying on.

Tumult at time of prayer 'Othman struck down.

Upon the Friday following, when the prayers were over, 'Othman ascended the pulpit. He first appealed to the better sense of the citizens, who, although overawed by rebels, condemned their lawless attitude. Then turning to the conspirators, he continued,—"Ye are aware that the men of Medina hold you accursed at the mouth of the Prophet, for that ye have risen up against his Caliph and Vicegerent. Wherefore wipe out now your evil deeds by repentance, and by good deeds make atonement for the past." One and another of the Citizens arose earnestly confirming the Caliph's words and pleading his cause; but they were silenced and violently set down. A tumult arose. The men of Medina were driven from the Mosque by showers of stones. One of these struck 'Othman, who fell from the pulpit, and was carried to his house adjoining, in a swoon. He soon recovered, and for some days was still able to preside at the daily prayers. At last the insolence and violence of the insurgents forced him to keep to his house, and a virtual blockade ensued. But a bodyguard of armed retainers, supported by loyal citizens, succeeded for a time in keeping the entrance safe.

Attitude of 'Ali, Zubeir, and Talha.

From the first day of the tumult, 'Ali, Az-Zubeir, and Talha (the three named by the rebels as candidates for the Caliphate) each sent a son to join the loyal and gallant band planted at the palace door. But they did little more; and, in fact, throughout the painful episode, kept themselves altogether in the background. After the uproar and 'Othman's swoon, they came along with others to inquire how he fared. No sooner did they enter, than Merwan and other kinsmen attending the Caliph cried out against 'Ali as the prime author of the disaster, which would recoil, they said (and said truly), upon his own head. Thereupon 'Ali arose in wrath, and, with the rest, retired home. It was, in truth, a cruel and dastardly desertion, and in the end bore bitter fruit for one and all. Alarm at the defiance of constituted authority and loyalty to the Throne


equally demanded a bold and uncompromising front. The truth was outspoken by one of the Companions at the time. "Ye Koreish," he said, "there hath been till now a strong and fenced door betwixt you and the Arab tribes; wherefore is it that ye now break down the door?"

'Othman besieged. Parley with 'Ali, Zubeir, and Talha.

So soon as the conspirators had shown their true colours, 'Othman despatched urgent calls to Syria and Al-Basra for help. Mu'awiya, who had long foreseen the dire necessity, was ready with a strong force, which, as well as a similar column from Al-Basra, hurried to their Master's rescue. But the march was long, and the difficulty was for 'Othman to hold out till they should appear. The insurgents had possession of the Mosque and of the approaches to the Palace; and, in the height of insolence, their leader now took the Caliph's place at prayer. There were no troops at Medina, and 'Othman was dependent on the little force which barely sufficed to guard the palace entrance. It was composed besides train-band slaves, of some eighteen near kinsmen, and other citizens, with the sons of 'Ali, Az-Zubeir, and Talha. Apprehending, from the growing ferocity of the attack, that the end might not be far off, 'Othman sent to tell 'Ali, Az-Zubeir, and Talha that he wished once more to see them. They came and stood without the palace, but within reach of hearing. The Caliph, from the flat roof of his house, bade them all sit down; and so for the moment friends and foes sat down together. "Fellow citizens!" cried 'Othman with loud voice, "I have prayed to the Lord for you, that when I am taken, he may set the Caliphate aright." Then he spoke of his previous life, and how the Lord had made choice of him to be Successor of His Prophet and Commander of the Faithful. "And now," said he, "ye have risen up to slay the Lord's elect. Have a care, ye men!" (and here he addressed the besiegers);—"the taking of life is lawful but for three things, apostasy, murder, and adultery. Taking my life without such cause, ye but suspend the sword over your own necks. Sedition and bloodshed shall not depart for ever from your midst." Thus far they gave him audience, and then cried out that there was yet a fourth just cause of death, the quenching of truth by wrong doing, and of right by violence; and for his ungodliness and tyranny he must abdicate or be slain. For a moment


'Othman was silent. Then calmly rising, he bade the citizens go back; and himself, with but faint hope of relief, turned to re-enter his dreary home.

Blockade pressed. Suffering from thrist.

The blockade had lasted several weeks, when a mounted messenger arrived with tidings that succour was on its way. This, coming to the insurgents' knowledge, caused them to redouble their efforts. Closing every approach, they allowed neither outlet nor ingress to a single soul. Water hardly obtainable even by stealth at night, the little garrison suffered the extremities of thirst. On the appeal of 'Othman, 'Ali expostulated with the besiegers;—"they were treating the Caliph," he told them, "more cruelly than they would prisoners on the field of battle. Even infidels did not deny water to a thirsty enemy." They were deaf to his entreaty. Um Habiba, touched with pity, sought with 'Ali's aid to carry water on her mule through the rebel ranks; but neither sex nor rank, nor having been the Prophet's wife, availed to prevent her being roughly handled. They cut her bridle with their swords, so that she was near falling to the ground, and drove her rudely back. The better part of the inhabitants were shocked at the violence and inhumanity of the rebels; but none had the courage to oppose them. Sick at heart, most kept to their houses; while others, alarmed, and seeking to avoid the cruel spectacle, quitted Medina. It is hard to believe that, even in the defenceless state of the city, 'Ali, Az-Zubeir, and Talha, the great heroes of Islam, could not, if they wished, have raised effective opposition to the lawless work of the heartless regicides. We must hold them culpable, if not of collusion with the insurgents, at least of cold-blooded indifference to their Caliph's fate.1

1 The talk among the courtiers of Al-Ma'mun, as reflected in the Apology of Al Kindy, was that 'Ali, even at a much earlier period, contemplated the putting of 'Othman to death (Apology, p. 73). There seems no proof or even the slightest presumption of this; but anyhow, one cannot but feel indignant at the attitude of 'Ali, who would do so much, and no more; who sent his son to join the Caliph's guard at the palace gate, and was scandalised at water being denied him to drink; and yet would not so much as raise a finger to save his life.

We have also traditions in which 'Othman is represented as reproaching Talha for encouraging the rebels in a more strict enforcement of the blockade; but, whatever his demerits in deserting the Caliph, this seems incredible. The ordinary account is that Talha and Az-Zubeir


Annual pilgrimage, xii 35 A.H. June, 656 A.D.

The solemnities of yearly Pilgrimage were now at hand, and 'Othman, still mindful of his obligation as head of Islam to provide for their due observance, once more ascended the palace roof. From thence he called for the son of Al-'Abbas, one of the faithful party guarding the entrance, and bade him assume the leadership of the band of pilgrims who should now proceed to Mecca;—a duty which, much against his will, as taking him from the defence, he undertook. 'Aisha joined the party. She is accused of having formerly stirred up the people against 'Othman. Now, at any rate, the impulsive lady shook herself free from the insurgents, and also, in order to detach her brother Mohammad from their company, besought him to accompany her to Mecca. But he refused.

The palace stormed, 18 Dhu'l-Hijja, June 17

The approach of succour at last quickening the rebels to extremities, they resolved on a final and murderous attack. Violent onset was made from all quarters, and the forlorn band of defenders, unable longer to hold their ground, retired June 17, within the palace gate, which they closed and barred, covering their retreat with a discharge of archery, by which one of the rebels was killed. Infuriated at their comrade's death, the insurgents rushed at the gate, battered it with stones, but finding it all too strong, sat down to burn it. Meanwhile others, swarming in crowds from the roof of an adjoining building, gained easier access, and, rushing along the corridor, attacked the guard still congregated within the palace gate. One of these was slain, Merwan was left half dead, and the rest were overpowered. 'Othman had retired alone into an inner chamber of the women's apartments; and there awaiting his fate, read from the Kor'an spread open on his knees. Three ruffians sent to fulfil the bloody work, rushed in upon him thus engaged. Awed by his calm demeanour and plaintive appeal, each returned as he went. "It would be murder," they said, "to lay hands upon him thus."

on hearing of the rebel excesses, kept to their houses; others, again, say that they both quitted Medina.

Um Habiba, as daughter of Abu Sufyan, naturally sympathised with 'Othman. A citizen of Al-Kufa, who had accompanied the insurgents, was so indignant at their treatment of one of the "Mothers of the Faithful", that he went off to his home, and there gave vent to his feelings in verses expressive of his horror at the scenes enacting at Medina.


Mohammad son of Abu Bekr in his hate and rage had no such scruples. Running in, he seized him by the beard, and cried, "The Lord abase thee, thou old dotard!" "Let my beard go," said 'Othman, calmly; "I am no dotard, but the Caliph, whom they call 'Othman." Then, in answer to a further torrent of abuse, the aged man went on,—"Son of my brother! Thy father would not have served me so. The Lord help me! To him I flee for refuge from thee." The appeal touched even the unworthy son of Abu Bekr, and he too retired. The insurgent leaders, now impatient, crowded in, smote the Caliph with their swords, and trampled on the Kor'an which he had been reading. He yet had strength enough to gather up the leaves and press them to his bosom, while the blood flowed forth upon the sacred text.1 Thus attacked, the faithful Na'ila cast herself upon her wounded lord, and as she shielded him with her arm, a sword-cut severed several of her fingers, which fell upon the ground. The band of slaves attempted his defence. One of them slew the leader, but was immediately himself cut down.

and 'Othman slain.

Further effort was in vain. The insurgents plunged their weapons into the Caliph's body, and he fell lifeless to the ground. The infuriated mob now had their way. A scene of riot followed. They stabbed the corpse, leaped savagely on it, and were proceeding to cut off the head, when the women screamed, beating their breasts and faces, and the savage crew desisted. The palace was gutted; and even Na'ila, all wounded and bloody, was stripped of her veil. Just then the cry was raised, "To the Treasury!" and suddenly all departed.

1 The blood, we are told, flowed down to the words: "If they turn their backs, they are only schismatics; thy Lord will deal with then for you" (Sura ii. v. 131). The appropriateness of the text, however, may of itself have suggested the story.

When the insurgents first rushed in, he was reading the passage in Sura iii. 167, which refers to Medina being attacked at the battle of Ohod. The disaffected citizens are there represented as taunting Mohammad and his followers in these words:—"Verily, the men (of Mecca) have gathered forces against you; wherefore, be afraid of the same. But it only increased their faith, and they said:—The Lord sufficeth for us; He is the best Protector." This was a favourite text of 'Othman's, and he may perhaps have turned to it for comfort now that vain was the help of man.


His burial.

As soon as they had left, the palace gate was barred, and thus for three days and nights the three dead bodies lay in silence solemnly within. Then some chief men of Koreish obtained leave of 'Ali to bury the Caliph's body. In the dusk of evening, the funeral procession wended its way to the burying-ground outside the city. Death had not softened the rebels' hearts, and they pelted the bier with stones. Not in the graveyard, but in a field adjoining, the body, with hurried service, was committed to the dust. In after years the field was added by Merwan to the main burying-ground,—a spot consecrated by the remains of the early heroes of the Prophet's wars. And there the Umeiyads long buried their dead around the grave of their murdered kinsman.


Thus, at the age of eighty-two, died 'Othman, after a reign of twelve years. The misfortunes amidst which he sank bring out so sharply the failings of his character that further delineation is hardly needed. Narrow, irresolute, and weak, he had yet a kindly nature which might have made him, in less troublous times, a favourite of the people. Such, indeed, for a season he was at the beginning of his Caliphate. But afterwards he fell on evil days. The struggle between Koreish and the rest of the Arabs was hurrying on the nation to an internecine war. The only possible safety was for the class still dominant to have opposed a strong and united front. By his vacillation, selfishness, and nepotism, 'Othman broke up into embittered factions the aristocracy of Islam, and threw the last chance away.

Columns return to the north.

The columns hastening from the north for 'Othman's relief hearing on their way the tragic end, returned to their respective homes.

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

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