"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Rise and Fall of the Islamic Caliphate

For all that Muhammad contributed to his growing community -- and by the volumes of hadith you'd realize that's a good plenty -- he failed to prepare the ummah for continuing after his death. So when Muhammad died the community was in disbelief and then suddenly the thoughts of who would fill Muhammad's leadership role overwhelmed them.  Although some believed Muhammad's son in law Ali should be the rightful successor, others didn't want the tribe of the prophet having both political power (such as the caliphate was) and religious "power."  By power, I mean since Muhammad was the channel for the divine revelation and that made his tribe well thought of. Something like that anyway.  Nothing much was written down except some parts of the Revelation that were considered especially valuable or needed for community affairs.  If people had a problem, they'd simply go ask Muhammad. But once he died, who would they now seek for answers? Muhammad had divine discernment and insights, but what about a new leader?  Could he do the same?

In chapter 5 of No God but God, Reza Aslan speaks of the successors of Muhammad - the "rightly-guided ones," although three quarters of the way through this chapter I chuckled at how these people didn't seem to have high doses of rightly-guidedness.  Granted Aslan fit many many years of history into about thirty pages so I know this is not the complete story. It's just one man's thoughts based on his reading and understanding of history.  Not to mention this man is Shi'ite so I just get the impression his views of certain people aren't the same as what a Sunni might think.  :-)  You'll probably understand what I mean as you continue reading this post.

After Muhammad's death, Abu Bakr was chosen as his first successor. One thing I found worth noting of him was the fact that he supplemented his income by milking a neighbor's cow!  The Caliph's role was more secular - tribal shaykh, community war leader and chief judge, "upholding the institutions of the Muslim faith, but [not playing] a significant role in defining religious practice" (which would be the job of religious scholars and is the subject of the next chapter.)

I found the discussion of why Aisha disliked Ali interesting and it made more sense to me why Abu Bakr stripped Muhammad's inheritance from Fatima and Ali and gave it to Muhammad's wives once I found out Aisha was the new Caliph's daughter!  Bad blood plus long-held grudges made the whole Battle of the Camel make better sense when it came to Aisha leading the fighters in this Islamic civil war years later.  But I'm ahead of myself.

The shocking (hey, even I was shocked) inheritance stripping aside and the fact that Abu Baker handpicked his successor (which totally disregarded tribal tradition and Muslim precedent), Reza Aslan didn't have much else negative to say about Abu Bakr. And the next Caliph he seemed to admire as a great warrior and even better diplomat, however, before reading about Umar's rise to this leadership position, I had written in my notes:  author does not like Umar.  Although I'd not made note of it in the post where I discussed hijab briefly, I remembered how Aslan made me think Umar was misogynistic.  And then today I felt Umar a great big bully in how he threatened Fatima, Ali and the rest of the Banu Hashim if they didn't accept the decision of the tribal council or shura.  (pg. 117)

But Umar seemed a great caliph from the little shared in this chapter. Unfortunately he met his untimely death at the hands of a "mad Persian slave."

The next Caliph - Uthman - was painted in a very unfavorable light. So much so that I asked myself why people actually used this name for their sons!  Yeah, it was bad.  Uthman dipped from the public treasury and gave much money to his family, he put his family into powerful positions across the Islamic lands and he even authorized a Quran burning!  Well, all the copies that differed from the version canonized under his rule that is.  All these things made him very unpopular, according to Reza Aslan.  He was eventually killed by rebels as he was reading the Quran.

Finally!  Finally Ali, the golden boy who some thought should have been the first Caliph and was passed over each time - was made the ruler. He thought Uthman had permanently tainted the "caliph" title so he went by another name, one Umar made famous, Amir al-Mu'manin, "Commander of the Faithful."  Since he didn't seek to punish Uthman's murderers he alienated a sizable number of tribes bent on retribution. Aisha never liked Ali since the time she was falsely accused of adultery and Ali insisted Muhammad needed to divorce her to get away from the taint of this scandal.  She lead an army against Ali and though her side was defeated, the ummah continued to splinter.  

One of Uthman's relatives in Damascus set out to control some of the tribes and eventually Ali's army and Mu'awiyah's (the guy in Damascus) army clashed.  The fight ended when Mu'awiyah thought his forces would lose so he told them to put copies of the Quran on the end of their swords.  Ali took this as a sign for "surrender for arbitration" so a hakam was brought in to mediate between the two sides. This proved to be a disaster for Ali as part of his allies the Kharijites (who were the al Qaeda types of those times) abandoned him. Ali was forced to deal with his former allies "in what was less a battle than a massacre" and then with Mu'awiyah who had reassembled his troops, captured Egypt and later pronounced himself Caliph in Jerusalem while Ali's attention was on the Kharijites.  Before heading into battle against Mu'awiyah, Ali went into a mosque to pray when a Kharijite pushed his way through the crowd and struck Ali on the head with a poisoned sword.  The poison killed Ali two days later.

Shi'ite Muslims remember Ali as the first imam: "the Proof of God on Earth."  (pg. 136)

So then the ummah was no more a Caliphate, but kingdoms (Aslan notes that Arabs hated absolute monarchies) and the author spoke briefly of the Umayyads in Damascus  (and I think it's neat now to remember that I was in the huge Umayyad mosque last year -- it's the one with the shrine to John the Baptist), the Abbasids in Baghdad, the Fatimids in Cairo and then the rise of the Turks which eventually ushered in the long-reining Ottoman Empire.


After Muhammad's death, some tribes stopped paying the tithe tax because they thought Muhammad's death annulled their oath of allegiance.  Abu Bakr dealt "ruthlessly with the rebels" because he knew their defection would cause political instability and their money was needed for the small Muslim community in Medina.  These campaigns came to be known as the Riddah Wars and I took note of them because this is where Aslan says apostasy equals treason came into play. Although "apostasy and treason were nearly identical terms in seventh-century Arabia," he says this relationship has endured in Islam until today and is why the death penalty is imposed in some Muslim countries if you convert out of your Muslim faith. (see pg. 119)  I find this extremely unfortunate since I'm all about freedom of choice as I believe one's relationship with God is something a person needs to decide for herself. It's not mom's, dad's, grandfather's or the community's decision to make for me as I alone answer to God on Judgment Day.

In the last two chapters Aslan has mentioned in passing that at this time in history one had to become a "client of an Arab" in order to convert to Islam. Does anyone know what this means?

This chapter ends with quotes from reformer Ali Abd ar-Raziq who argued basically for the separation of mosque and state. While the religious arguments were settled by God through Muhammad in the revelation, he claimed the Caliphate was a secular, civil institution that "all Muslims felt free to question, oppose and even rise up against."  On the other hand, you have Sayyid Qutb who argued one could not separate the religious from the secular, "therefore, the only legitimate Islamic state is that which addresses both the material and the moral needs of its citizens." (pg. 138)

Note: I talked to Samer about this chapter and got the Sunni version of many of these stories.  It's amazing how history is very different depending on what side is telling, huh? 

I welcome your thoughts.

9 comments:

Wafa' said...

(I talked to Samer about this chapter and got the Sunni version of many of these stories. It's amazing how history is very different depending on what side is telling, huh? ), they say that history if written by the winner.So since mostly Sunni were the winners , they have written their version and later on the Shi'ite wrote their version. I wonder when will we be able to know the truth from a neutral historian !! is it even possible? but since that truth means nothing to me -as a normal person- then i don't care.
I guess i wouldn't buy the book after all, it's just remind me of the so much hate and blame we have been taught and many more are still learning and educating. Things had happened thousands of years ago and Sunni and Shi'ia are still fighting over whom to blame ? Abu Baker, Ali, Umar,Uthman or Aisha , then how about the Umayyads or those after that !!! Why can not we stop the blame and move on to be a better people !!

You know what i think- but i am not a historian- i think that Muslims back them forgot the main rule " you know better of your daily life", the prophet had said that, so instead of fighting , why didn't follow that and the rules of the Quran and choose one themselves !!! they don't want Abu Baker, fine. Let's see who else want to be a Caliph and then consult and vote !!

right now i care less of whose right or not, shi'a or sunni. At the end of the day it wouldn't stop me from sleeping well and on the judgment day Allah wont ask me about it, i guess.

But i love the post Susanne, and you are becoming an expert on the Islamic history now. I kept reading and wondering how did she remember all these names ? i remember when i read the Bible, i had to list the names to know whose who, lol.

Lat said...

When I read that part of history,I was confused as to why the prophet didn't choose a successor.

I do remember reading that when he was on his death bed with Aisha,he told her to call someone(can't remember the name though,got to check notes) and Aisha insisted on calling her father to lead the prayers.But whether this would indicate naming a successor is questionable.Maybe it wasn't his job.To me the rightly guided caliphs did not do a very good job at peacemaking.Because of them
the onflict was allowed to brew thru' all these centuries to what we see today.

Having said that,after reading a little on them,I would pick Abu Baker over the rest as the best pick.And Umar al-Kattab as the last! As Azlan pointed out,he was a misogynist and that could explain some hadiths regarding women.

At the same time,insisting that the prophet's family should be the only ones to take leadership role is not right.You mentioned the bit of Ali's death,did Azlan say where Ali died? I wonder how his tomb got to Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan.Maybe only a small part of him is buried there.I don't know.
Aisha disliking Ali is evident and Fatimah too was jealous of her as her father showed extra attention to Aisha.To me Fatimah was definitely much more loved by her father.

Thanks for this post,Susanne!

sanil said...

Wow, great history lesson. Interesting stuff!

Suroor said...

Shias don't like Omar, Abu Bakr and Aisha. Many don't like Uthman either. I have never met a Shia named Omar or Aisha :) My Shia friend married a Sunni named Omar and you couldn't tell from her family's reaction what they disliked more that he is Sunni or is called Omar :D

Many authors believe that Muhammad had no idea he was dying. A couple of days before his death he was joking with Aisha who had a headache that she would die and leave him to care for her funeral.

When he died and people wondered where to bury him Abu Bakr suddenly remembered that the Prophet had said that every prophet is buried where he died! So he was buried in Aisha's room. When talk of inheritance began he remembered that no prophet leaves inheritance and then it all went to his wives and the state.

It is so sad that Muhammad died on Monday morning and was buried after midnight on Wednesday, practically three days later because Muslims were too worried about succession and inheritance.

Susanne said...

Wafa', this was the first chapter where I could strongly detect a Shi'a slant and the author didn't say anything in a horrible way, but I wrote the impressions that I got from what he wrote. :) I agree that it's time to put all the disagreements behind and move forward. I really enjoyed your comment. Thanks much for your feedback! :)

Susanne said...

Lat, I appreciate what you added as you gave some interesting tidbits. I didn't realize Ali was buried in Afghanistan. The author mentions Ali being struck by the poisoned sword in the mosque, but not much else. He summed up a lot of history in about 30 to 40 pages so I guess he had to leave some things out. :)

Thanks for adding your 'take' based on things you've read. I enjoyed that greatly!


Sanil, thanks for reading. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

Susanne said...

Suroor, where does the name Murtadha come into play because I have a blogging friend/Facebook friend from Saudi (who studied in the US) and someone asked if he were Shi'ite based on his name? So I take it that name is also associated with one sect of Islam and not both. The book doesn't say what Muhammad died from, but it seems I recall someone telling me one time that he was poisoned by a Jewish woman. Is that right?

Also, did you think this post was mostly accurate is summarizing how Aslan portrayed each of the caliphs or did I sensationalize too much? These were my honest impressions. If I were a total newbie to Islam, knew hardly anything about it and someone gave me this ONE book to read to gain all my knowledge, I would have never thought Uthman was worth naming a son for, Umar was a bully and not worth a namesake and I'd think Abu Bakr was mildly OK and Ali was the "golden boy" of Islam! :)


Thanks for your comment!

Suroor said...

Murtadha (or Murtaza in Urdu) means the chosen one. Recently it is believed to be a Shia name but it is definitely Sunni as well. It was originally a popular African name given to Ali by those who loved him dearly.

I think you have been very honest with your impressions. I will be honest that after Muhammad's death, I got too bored with Aslan and him glorifying Ali. The four caliphs were called the rightly guided but they weren't always right in their decisions and I seriously doubt that they were even popular - only Abu Bakr died of natural causes but the rest were all killed.

Yes, a Jewish woman tried to poison him but he found out after a few bites because one of his very hungry companions who was eating eagerly collapsed and died in front of him. However, the damage was done and although he lived for another year or so, it caused him much pain so much that he used to cover his face with a black shawl which was eventually buried with him. Historians believe that he finally died because of that, but many others deny it although he is reported to have said on occasions (especially while lying in Aisha's lap when he died) that the poison was too deadly and caused him unbearable pain.

Susanne said...

Suroor, thank you for your wonderful, thorough answers! You are very helpful! I found all that interesting about the name Murtadha and the bit about the Jew trying to poison Muhammad and how it affected him. Also thanks for sharing your impressions of the book and why parts of it bored you! :)