Islamic History, Part 10: the Caliphate of Uthman b. Affan (644-656), and the Seeds of Civil War

Islamic History Series

When Muhammad became the ruler of his own polity after relocating to Medina and eventually conquering Mecca, he naturally wanted to conduct diplomacy with other rulers around him. Any ruler worth his salt back then had to stamp his diplomatic correspondence with his own personal seal in order to verify his identity, so Muhammad had a silver ring made that was engraved Muhammad Rasul Allah (in Arabic, obviously), or “Muhammad is the Messenger [or Apostle] of God.” The Sahih Bukhari, arguably the most important collection of Hadith (reports about the sayings and deeds of Muhammad and his Companions) in the Islamic corpus, reports that the ring was passed from Muhammad to his successors, Abu Bakr, then Umar, then Uthman. The story goes that Uthman held the ring for the first six years of his reign, a mostly productive and prosperous period, until one day he was stamping some documents at the Well of Aris, in Medina, and as he took it off, either to hand it back to the servant who was charged with its safekeeping or just because he felt like removing it, the ring fell into the well. For three days men searched for the ring, going so far as to drain the well, but it was never recovered.

Coincidentally or not, and the reader is expected to infer “not,” the last six years of Uthman’s reign were considerably more troublesome than the first six. It can certainly be argued that Uthman’s reign saw the end of Muslim unity and led to the splintering of the community into Sunni and Shi’i sects, though it would take centuries for those categories to harden into what we see today. Undeniably, Uthman’s caliphate set the stage for a political redefinition of the caliphate itself, from an office to which qualified candidates would be appointed by communal consent to what was more or less a hereditary monarchy. That redefinition would come only after a destructive civil war, and would only be confirmed after another destructive civil war, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Uthman was born in the year 577 (bear in mind that birth years for most of these early folks are approximate) in the Umayyah clan of the Quraysh tribe. While we did take note of Muhammad’s clan (Hashim), we never mentioned Abu Bakr’s (Taym) or Umar’s (Adi), so why mention Uthman’s? Well, for one thing the Banu Umayyah were particularly successful merchants and were maybe the wealthiest clan in the Quraysh tribe, and Uthman was no exception. His apparently massive (relatively) wealth helped sustain Muhammad’s Meccan followers when they fled to Medina and, as essentially refugees, had no standing to speak of in their new home. For another, the Umayyah, aside from Uthman, were maybe the most hostile of the Meccan clans to Muhammad’s message and were at the forefront of the Meccan-Medinan war that followed Muhammad’s relocation. As a result, they suffered disproportionately when Muhammad won that war, even though official policy was that all the defeated Meccans should be treated well, and long-simmering rivalries between the Umayyah and the Hashimites only grew stronger. When Uthman was succeeded by Ali, a Hashimite, that rivalry contributed mightily to the civil war that followed and that would put the Umayyads on the throne for almost a century to come. But again, getting ahead of ourselves.

Uthman was among the first converts to Muhammad’s teachings, after being encouraged by his close friend Abu Bakr to join the movement in 611. The story goes that he was the fourth male to accept Muhammad, after Ali, Muhammad’s adopted son Zayd b. Harithah, and Abu Bakr (in disputed order, if you’ll recall). His wives divorced him, but he married one of Muhammad’s daughters (and would later marry another when this one died). Uthman was one of a group of Muhammad’s followers who fled the hostile environment in Mecca for Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia), in 614, but he was lured back to Mecca a couple of years later after receiving false reports that all of Mecca had accepted Muhammad’s teachings. He joined the flight to Medina in 622 and, with his Abyssinian contacts and a dearth of merchants in the city, established himself as the leading trader in town, at least apart from the Jewish community (who would soon be driven out or attacked by Muhammad and his followers, losing their livelihoods in the process). Uthman does not seem to have been much of a fighter, but he was chosen to be the envoy to Mecca in negotiating the Treaty of Hudaybiyah (628). When Mecca was finally taken in 630, and the nearby city of Ta’if later that same year, nobody was happier than Uthman, who owned considerable interests in both cities but had been barred from developing them because of the hostilities that were now ending.

Uthman served as perhaps Abu Bakr’s closest adviser, even taking down Abu Bakr’s last will and testament in which he named Umar as his successor. If that decision stung, Uthman never showed it, going on to serve Umar in the same capacity. Uthman made two key recommendations that were both accepted by Umar: that some percentage of the money coming into the treasury from the conquests be held back rather than distributed as booty, and that newly conquered lands be retained by their previous owners and taxed whenever possible, instead of being confiscated and, again, distributed to soldiers as booty.

The Caliphate under Uthman, minus his temporary gains in the west. Note the modest advancement of the frontiers as compared with the caliphate under Umar, plus the addition of Cyprus. (via)
The Caliphate under Uthman, minus his temporary gains in the west. Note the modest advancement of the frontiers as compared with the caliphate under Umar, plus the addition of Cyprus. (via)

You’ll recall from last time that Uthman was selected in council after Umar’s death, after the decision had come down to either him or Ali. After he was elected, Uthman spent much of the empire’s energy consolidating gains and reforming its administration rather than in conquest. The conquests of Umar’s reign had been rapid and vast, and when he died the powers that formerly controlled those lands saw an opening to take them back. The Byzantines landed a force at Alexandria, intent on retaking Egypt, and began to prod at the boundary between Anatolia, which they still controlled, and the Levant, which now belonged to the Arabs. The Byzantine force was forced out of Egypt in 646; they were similarly driven out of the Levant in 647, after which Uthman ordered regular incursions into Anatolia until the Byzantines were forced to seek a treaty in 651. More troublesome were the former Persian territories, many of which (the Caucasus and the Caspian coast in the north, Fars in the west, Sistan, Khurasan, and Makran in the east) went into open rebellion until the death, finally, of the last Sasanian Emperor Yazdgerd III in 651. Some permanent territorial gains were made–Cyprus in 649, part of Sicily in 654, Central Asia and Baluchistan in 651-652–and some temporary gains as well–North Africa in 647 and into the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) around 651, both of which had to be temporarily abandoned when Uthman died. A siege of Constantinople was planned in 655, but those plans were abandoned, again because of Uthman’s assassination.

Where Uthman really excelled was in administration. He relaxed prohibitions on buying and selling property in newly conquered territories and opened the public treasury up for lending; the effect was an increase in trade and revenue for the treasury. He opened a mint so that the new empire could begin to strike coins, but for decades to come they would continue to strike Persian coinage, complete with the image of Yazdgerd III and only a single inscribed phrase, bismillah (بسم الله), “In the name of God,” to mark the coinage as theirs. With the increased economic activity came an increase in public investment and building projects, both in the imperial core (Medina and Mecca) and in the newly built army cities in the conquered territories. He improved administration, dividing the empire into 12 provinces, each in turn divided into districts, with a governor, chief judge, and tax collector appointed to each district.

Uthman’s most famous reform, however, was the standardization of the Qur’an into something much like what we have today. It is said that Abu Bakr had his own written copy of the Qur’an compiled from the numerous fragmentary records of Muhammad’s revelations, and that he passed this to Umar who in turn passed it to Uthman, but no attempt was made to make this Qur’an the Qur’an. As a result, local populations throughout the empire began to evolve their own collections of scripture from the same pool of record fragments, with some discrepancies between versions also due to differences in Arabic dialect. Leading figures in the movement approached Uthman and urged him to standardize the text before these minor regional differences became hard schisms in the community, so the caliph appointed a committee under Muhammad’s scribe, Zayd b. Thabit, to produce multiple copies of one standard text, presumably based on the Abu Bakr text (assuming this actually existed and was not the product of legend). When this new text was sent to communities throughout the empire, those communities were expected to destroy any competing Qur’anic texts or text fragments that they had accumulated, and the risk of schism was averted. Well, the risk of this particular schism was averted.

The administrative functioning of the empire clearly improved due to these reforms. Unfortunately for Uthman, however, accusations of corruption began to surround him. Umar had strictly refused gifts from his subjects and prohibited his public officials from accepting gifts for themselves. Uthman relaxed this policy, and even if this didn’t lead to bribery it certainly led to the belief that bribery was taking place. Making appearances worse, Uthman tended to rely on his kinsmen to fill important administrative positions in the provinces (particularly noteworthy was his appointment of a cousin, Mu’awiyah, who factors into the story in a big way very soon, to the governorship of Syria), particularly provincial governorships, which may also have been innocent (at a time when the empire was still growing into its recent conquests he needed loyal governors to ensure unity, and who’s more loyal than kin?) but didn’t look entirely proper. Uthman’s more laid-back (at least compared to the highly authoritarian Umar) governing style allowed just enough political freedom to cause a return of factional tribal politics and rivalry to what had briefly been a post-tribal unified entity, and some of this factionalism worked against Uthman as the most prominent member of the Umayyah clan. Regional leaders who were not related to Uthman began to complain about his preferential treatment of his relatives, and those who were swayed by these complaints found common cause with supporters of Ali, continually dissatisfied that their leader was being blocked from the caliphate they felt should have been his all along.

Sometime in 655, with tensions increasing and murmurs of dissatisfaction rampant, Uthman brought those with grievances to Mecca during the Hajj and explained his actions to them, apparently to their general satisfaction. However, over the next year the situation deteriorated again, particularly in Egypt. Uthman summoned the governor of Egypt to Medina in 656, and in the governor’s absence a man named Muhammad ibn Abi Hudayfah seized power in the province; similar events in Kufa and Basra took all three provinces out of Medina’s control. The new leaders in those three provinces now each sent armed contingents to Medina with instructions to assassinate Uthman, and found most of the citizens of Medina, apart from those of his own Umayyah clan, unwilling to come to Uthman’s defense. The rebels eventually besieged Uthman’s house and confined him there, but when armed clashes began to take place between pro- and anti-Uthman partisans, the caliph’s supporters were victorious and drove the rebels from the city. Uthman called a halt to the violence, and in the confusion a small group of rebels crept back into the city, into Uthman’s house, and assassinated him.

Next time we can finally talk about the Qur’an, since Uthman’s compilation of the text provides a sort of compromise point between those who believe the text was revealed to Muhammad from 610 on and those who contend that it didn’t appear until a century later.

Further Reading:

Still overlapping with the earlier entries.

Fred Donner’s Early Islamic Conquests.

Hugh Kennedy’s The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 600–1050, his The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live in, and his The Armies of the Caliphs: military and society in the early Islamic State.

Patricia Crone’s God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam.

As always, The Cambridge History of Islam and The New Cambridge History of Islam (also volume 4 of The Cambridge History of Iran) are worthwhile if you’re really looking to immerse yourself, but they’re not for the casual reader.

It also occurs to me that if, somehow, you have access to the Encyclopaedia of Islam, in any of its editions (the third one is still being rolled out bit by bit, I think), the individual entries on any of these folks (Muhammad, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali) would be a great place to start for further reading.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.