Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Early Islamic History (Part 1)

The Prophet Muhammad passed away in 632 CE. In his final years, he was not only a Prophet but had succeeded in conquering virtually all of the Arabian Peninsula and subduing the various Bedouin tribes who decided to convert to Islam. Therefore, when he died, his community and Arabia required leadership. Though the death of the Prophet meant that Islam as a religion was complete, the Qur’an as scripture and the Prophet’s teachings formed the source of Islam. So the function of the one to succeed the Prophet was not to act as a ‘Pope’ who speaks on behalf of God. Since the revelation is complete and Prophecy terminated after Prophet Muhammad, the only function of a leader would be to administer the politics of the Muslim community that was now dominant in Arabia.

The Sunni narrative is that the Prophet never appointed anyone to succeed him, since whoever would succeed him would not occupy a position of religious authority but only political authority. Therefore, the Sunnis say that after the Prophet died, it was up to the Muslim community to consult among themselves and elect someone qualified to succeed Prophet Muhammad only in the political and administrative sense. Historically, the Prophet’s disciples and the elders of his community in Medina ended up electing his close associate Abu Bakr to be the first successor, or Khalifa (anglicized as ‘Caliph’). The Sunnis say that Abu Bakr, because he was the Prophet’s most senior disciple, was best qualified to lead the community after the Prophet. The Sunnis admit that the Prophet never designated Abu Bakr as his successor, but gave some hints that he expected Abu Bakr to succeed him after his death, such as appointing Abu Bakr to lead the congregational prayers in the Mosque since the Prophet was in his final illness and too weak to go to the Mosque.
 
Although the vast majority of the community of Muslims in Medina agreed that Abu Bakr should be in charge as ‘Caliph’ (for them a purely administrative position since religious authority to speak on behalf of God has terminated with Prophet Muhammad); not everyone accepted Abu Bakr, at least initially. There were some who felt that the Prophet should be succeeded by a relative. Now the Prophet has no surviving son. All three or four of his sons had died in infancy. But he was survived by his paternal uncle Abbas, and by his daughter Fatima. Fatima was married to the Prophet’s cousin Ali. Thus Ali was not only the Prophet’s cousin but also his son-in-law. Ali’s father, Abu Talib, had initially raised the Prophet, since the Prophet was an orphan whose parents died when he was still young. Abu Talib, the Prophet’s paternal uncle, though he never converted to Islam, nevertheless protected the Prophet when the latter was in Mecca.Some of the community felt that either Ali or Abbas should succeed the Prophet, not Abu Bakr, because Ali and Abbas were blood relations to the Prophet, especially Ali. Ali himself initially did not pledge his allegiance to Abu Bakr, but when he saw that virtually the entire community was behind Abu Bakr and recognized him as their leader, Ali then pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr himself.Meanwhile, the Bedouin Arabs outside of Medina had become ‘apostate’ for various reasons. Though they had accepted the Prophet in his final years, they now questioned how could a Prophet of God die? Some of them still believed in the Prophet and the practices and doctrines of Islam, but refused to accept Abu Bakr. They felt that Arabia should go back to its old tribal system and there should be no central authority. They therefore refused to pay the Zakat (religious tax) to Abu Bakr and his central government in Medina. Still others, having seen the success of Prophet Muhammad, decided to claim to be Prophets themselves in an attempt to replicate that success. Hence a few false prophets, like Musaylima emerged. Another false prophet, Aswat Ansi, emerged in Yemen. They too naturally rejected the central government’s authority and the caliphate of Abu Bakr. Hence, in Abu Bakr’s short period of caliphate of only 2 years, he sent out his armies to crush these rebellions, apostate movements and false prophets and once again unify Arabia under the caliphate. Within 2 years, with the help of the Prophet’s great general Khalid, known as the ‘Sword of God’, the apostate movements were crushed and Islam was re-established in Arabia. Just before Abu Bakr died, he consulted among the senior Prophet’s disciples and designated Umar to succeed him, thus Umar became the Prophet’s second successor in 634 CE.Now that the internal threats and apostasies were dealt with in Abu Bakr’s short reign of 2 years, Umar, the second caliph, was able to focus his attention on defeating the Byzantine Roman and Sassanid Persian empires. This he did so, again with the great help of the Prophet’s general Khalid ‘Sword of God’. Within a few years Islam conquered Jerusalem, Damascus, Persia, Egypt, etc. Umar was especially known for being a just and righteous ruler. Despite the fact that the Islamic empire had expanded very far and successfully, and the wealth of the Roman and Persians was now at the disposal of the Muslims, Umar continued to live the spartan lifestyle and rule strictly in accordance with the Prophet’s teachings that focus on social justice and a simple pure lifestyle. But having conquered Persia, the Persians have always hated Umar. They could not handle the humiliation of their great empire and civilization having been conquered by the ‘lowly’ Arabs. A disgruntled Persian then assassinated Umar in 644 CE. In his last days, Umar appointed a council of the remaining most senior disciples of the Prophet, including Ali but also Uthman and four others. They decided to elect Uthman as the Prophet’s third successor. Now Uthman was a rich person and he belonged to the clan of Umayyads. During his caliphate, he began to appoint members of his own clan to govern the provinces of the empire. For example, he appointed his relative Mu’awiya to be the governor of Syria in Damascus. Hence, many people accused Uthman of nepotism, especially since the governors he appointed were not particularly known for their piety and justice, and were living lives of luxurious indulgence. Some, like his governor in Kufa, Walid, were very sinful people. Walid once led the prayers in the mosque while intoxicated causing a massive scandal and uproar. Muslims from these provinces having various grievances then converged in the capital Medina and besieged Uthman’s house. They demanded his resignation, but Uthman refused to resign from the caliphate, which by now was regarded as a lifetime appointment. He feared that by doing so a dangerous precedent would be set. When he refused to resign the caliphate, the mob broke into his home and ended up murdering him in 656 CE. Thus began the first internal dissension or civil war in Islam known as the First Fitna.

After the assassination of Uthman, the Muslim community was in a state of disarray because the assassins were not apostates or non-Muslims, but Muslims themselves. This was the first time Muslims had drawn the sword against other Muslims. It was a shock for the nascent community to have their leader assassinated by other Muslims. Most of the people of Medina, including many of the mob that had assassinated Uthman, came to Ali and forced him to accept their pledge of allegiance to become the caliph and fourth successor of the Prophet. However, this time a large number of Muslims refused to accept Ali’s election so it wasn’t unanimous. The Prophet’s wife, Aisha, and some other his senior disciples, demanded that before a successor could be elected, the murderers of Uthman must be brought to justice. Likewise, Mu’awiya, who was in Damascus having been appointed as governor there by Uthman, was calling for revenge. He had gotten hold of the bloodied garment of Uthman and began taking out processions in Damascus displaying the garment and stoking up emotions. Mu’awiya, as mentioned earlier, was from the same clan as Uthman, the Umayyads. The Umayyad clan were initially the most bitter opponents of the Prophet during his early ministry. The Prophet belonged to the Hashemite clan, as did Ali who was now elected as caliph by a great faction of Muslims in Medina. The Hashemites and Umayyads always had a strong rivalry even before Islam. Therefore, Mu’awiya refused to accept the caliphate of Ali and pledge allegiance to him. Ali began replacing Uthman’s governors and even sent a replacement for Mu’awiya, but by this time Syria was completely under control of Mu’awiya, so Ali couldn’t establish his authority there. Ali also found it difficult to establish control over Medina because not everyone was uniting behind him. Aisha was leading the campaign to punish the murderers of Uthman, and many of those rebels had blended in with the followers of Ali. Ali then made the strategic decision to shift to Kufa in Iraq and establish that garrison town as the new capital of the caliphate. Ali’s forces went to battle with Aisha’s forces near the town of Basra in the Battle of the Camel, so named because Aisha herself came seated on a camel. Aisha’s forces suffered a decisive defeat. But Ali wanted to reconcile with them, and so had Aisha returned with dignity to Medina. Aisha repented from her actions and never again became involved in public affairs. However, Mu’awiya, who was in a much stronger position, still needed to be subdued. So the next war between Ali and Mu’awiya began known as Siffin.


The Battle of Siffin in 657 CE was another watershed moment in early Islamic history. On one side was the Prophet’s legitimate fourth successor Ali, and on the other side Mu’awiya in Damascus. Mu’awiya faught against Ali in the name of avenging the murder of Uthman, while Ali sought to stabilize the community and restore the situation to what it was before. According to Ali’s thinking, first the situation should be stabilized and law and order restored which could not happen without the caliphate being accepted. Only then when the situation was calm would he deal with the matter of Uthman’s murder. In the Battle of Siffin, Ali’s forces were on the verge of a decisive victory, until Mu’awiya was advised by one of his advisers to seek arbitration. This plea was dramatized by Mu’awiya’s forces placing pages of the Qur’an on their spears “let the Qur’an judge between us”. Ali was reluctant to call a ceasefire and agree to arbitration, especially at this late stage. He knew that Mu’awiya’s side was trying to delay and and save its jeopardized position. Nevertheless, Ali was pressured into accepting this arbitration. However, he initially wanted his cousin Abd Allah son of Abbas (the Prophet’s uncle Abbas I mentioned earlier) to represent him at the arbitration, but Ali’s camp was fragile and there were many insincere people there who would not allow Ali to choose a relative as his representative. They pressured him to select Abu Musa al-Ashari as his representative instead. In the arbitration, Abu Musa al-Ashari was outwitted in to accepting that both Ali and Mu’awiya should be set aside and the community given the opportunity to select a new caliph. Feeling betrayed, yet another dissension occurred in Ali’s camp. A new faction emerged called the Kharijites, from the word ‘Khawarij’ meaning those who exit. The Kharijites were historically the first sect to depart from the Muslim mainstream with separatist tendencies and peculiar doctrines and practices that distinguished them from the early community of Muslims including the Prophet’s own disciples.

Coming back to the Kharijites, they immediately split away from Ali’s camp after initially being on his side. They declared that Ali had committed apostasy by agreeing to arbitration. Their slogan was based on a verse of the Qur’an “the decision is for none but God”. According to the Kharijites, by failing to judge in accordance with the Qur’an and by agreeing to arbitration with Mu’awiya, Ali had become an infidel (God forbid). The Kharijites were outwardly extremely pious. They were excessively devoted to reading the Qur’an. They departed Ali’s camp and set up another camp in a place called Nahrawan. When Ali sent his cousin Abd Allah son of Abbas (whom I mentioned earlier) to debate with these Kharijites, when the former entered their camp he heard a loud buzzing similar to a hive of bees which was in fact the Kharijite congregation intensely mass reading the Qur’an. So outwardly they were very pious. They kept their heads shaven and their were marks on their foreheads from the excessive prostration and worship. Nevertheless, they were gone astray because of their little knowledge. Despite being in the thousands, there wasn’t a single disciple or companion of the Prophet among their ranks. The Kharijites soon became violent and murdered an innocent Muslim couple after interrogating them about their beliefs in minute detail. Ali was initially disposed to ignoring this faction, despite their abuse of him and rejection of his leadership as long as they remained nonviolent. But after they had murdered a Muslim couple that happened to be travelling (the woman was pregnant and her unborn child was also murdered), Ali was forced to take action to crush this new rebellion. Hence Ali’s camp decisively defeated the Kharijites in the Battle of Nahrawan in 659 CE. Only a handful of Kharijites escaped. Among them was a man named Abdal Rahman bin Muljim. Ibn Muljim made a plot with a few other Kharijites who survived Nahrawan. They formed the first ‘terrorist cell’ in Mecca where they had regrouped. In revenge for Nahrawan, they plotted to assassinate Ali, Mu’awiya, and Mu’awiya’s governor in Egypt, Amr (who was Mu’awiya’s representative at the arbitration). While Mu’awiya was only slightly injured in the attack on him in Damascus, Ibn Muljim snuck into Kufa, had a sword laced with poison, and struck at Ali’s head while the latter was in prostration during the pre-dawn prayer. Ali was thus martyred in 661 CE. Thus out of the first four successors of the Prophet, three of them were murdered, two of them by other Muslims.

Now Imam Ali, who married the Prophet’s beloved daughter Fatima, had two sons, Hasan and Hussain (maternal grandsons of the Prophet). The Prophet cherished both of these grandsons and was very attached to them. When Ali was assassinated he was succeeded by his eldest son Hasan. Hasan remained as the fifth successor for about six months, but then agreed to cease the war with Mu’awiya by resigning from his position and pledging allegiance to Mu’awiya. Thus ended the ‘Rightly-Guided’ Caliphate which lasted for exactly thirty years after the Prophet died.Mu’awiya, based in Damascus, as mentioned earlier, was part of the Umayyad clan. Now his rule became established over the entire Islamic empire and the Umayyad dynasty began. Breaking with the Sunni tradition of electing a leader most qualified to lead the Muslims through consultation, Mu’awiya designated his own son Yazid to succeed him. Yazid was well known to be an immoral man and a drunkard. When Mu’awiya died in 680 CE, Yazid wanted to ensure that there would be no challenge to his succession given his bad reputation among the Muslim community. Yazid sent his cousin Marwan son of Hakam (who will be discussed later) to ensure that his governor in Medina acquired the pledge of allegiance from Hussain (Hasan’s younger brother by this time Hasan had already died), from Abdullah the son of Umar (the second caliph) and from Abdullah the son of Zubair (a senior disciple of the Prophet was died in the Battle of the Camel). These three were the senior most leaders in piety and position in the Muslim community so Yazid knew it was essential to coerce them into pledging allegiance to him in order to secure his rule. While Umar’s son Abd Allah pledged allegiance to Yazid, the other two including Husain left Medina for Mecca and refused to give allegiance to an immoral person like Yazid.Meanwhile, the people of Kufa were eager to invite Husain to return to Kufa and lead them. They wrote countless letters to him to this effect inviting him to Kufa to become their leader. Husain was at first suspicious because he knew the people of Kufa had given his own father a hard time and weren’t a people who kept their word. Therefore, he sent his cousin Muslim son of Aqil (Aqil was Ali’s older brother) to Kufa to examine the situation and report back to him. Muslim went to Kufa and initially was well received by the elders of the town. They pledged allegiance to Husain through his agency. Muslim then wrote to Hussain to make haste to Kufa as the people there were ready to accept him.

Yazid, fearing a rebellion was brewing in Kufa, decided to replace the governor of the town with a harsh man named Ubaid Allah son of Ziyad. Upon arrival in Kufa, this new governor immediately began bribing the elders of Kufa and threatening those with severe consequences if they didn’t stop their activities in favor of Husain. Hence Muslim found himself betrayed by the frightened people of Kufa who feared retaliation from the Umayyads and their vicious governor. Muslim was abandoned by himself and took refuge in an old woman’s home. She tried to hide him knowing her son wasn’t trustworthy. The old woman’s son discerned that Muslim was hiding in his house. He didn’t say anything to his mother but went straight to the governor to acquire the bounty for reporting Muslim’s whereabouts who at this point was a fugitive. Immediately Muslim was discovered and surrounded by the governor’s troops. Though he faught a valiant battle he was vastly outnumbered being only one person and was martyred. Not being aware of this new turn of events, Hussain had already set off in a journey with 72 close friends and relatives, including women and little children for Kufa to assume the leadership.


The Prophet’s beloved grandson had set off for Kufa with a caravan of 72 relatives and close allies, including little children. They were martyred at a place called Karbala when they were intercepted by Yazid’s army. Hussain himself was martyred on the 10th of Muharram, known as Ashura, a holy day in Islam which corresponds to Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition (10th of Tishrei). The tale of the battle itself is very emotional but highlights the distinction between good and evil, as Hussain and his companions were denied water, Hussain’s own infant son murdered before his eyes. Hussain’s son Ali known as Zain-ul-Abidin ‘the Jewel of Worshipers’ happened to be bedridden during the battle proper and hence was taken prisoner to Damascus along with the womenfolk, placed in heavy chains and dragged about the city as the shameless Damascenes celebrated their ‘victory’. Hussain’s severed head was presented to Yazid. According to Shi’ite tradition Yazid tapped the teeth of Hussain with his staff and arrogantly proclaimed that revenge was finally achieved for the Battle of Badr, the first battle of Islam when the Prophet had defeated his pagan forefathers and clansmen in 624 CE.The martyrdom of the Prophet’s own grandson at the hands of people claiming to be Muslim, under the orders of Yazid who was enthroned in Damascus living an immoral life of luxury and indulgence shocked the conscience of the Muslim world. Immediately the Muslims in Mecca, under the leadership of Abd Allah son of Zubair began an uprising. Abd Allah son of Zubair was proclaimed caliph.

Alarmed about Abd Allah son of Zubair uprising in the Hijaz (western Arabia) in the sacred towns of Mecca and Medina, Yazid sent an army from Syria of ten thousand soldiers to crush the revolt. The Battle of Harra in 683 CE near Medina resulted in a victory for the Umayyads. The Syrian army of Yazid looted the sacred town of Medina for three days, a major desecration given its religious sanctity. Immediately thereafter the Syrian forces proceeded to Mecca and sieges the sacred city. Their siege attacks resulted in the Ka’ba, the most sacred shrine in Islam, being engulfed in flames. The the siege ended abruptly when it was learned that Yazid had suddenly died. Yazid’s unexpected and premature death breathed new life into Ibn Zubair’s revolt and resulted in disarray for the Umayyad forces. Ibn Zubair was proclaimed caliph throughout the Muslim world, and was able to send various governs to govern the provinces including Kufa in Iraq, Egypt, and a great part of Syria. For a while it seemed as though the scourge of the Umayyads would finally end.

Meanwhile, the people of Kufa were still reeling from the shock of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom. One of the Prophet’s disciples, Suleman son of Surad, who was among the elders of Kufa that had originally enthusiastically invited Imam Hussain to come to Kufa, felt remorse for having not come to Hussain’s aid. He led a movement in Kufa known as the Tawwabin ‘Penitents’ to atone for their sin of having abandoned Hussain at his hour of need. They invoked the example of the Israelites who had to use the sword to expiate their collective sin of having worshiped the golden calf. Thus Suleman and his followers made up their minds to fight with the Umayyads hoping to achieve martyrdom and thus atone for their sin. This they did achieve at the Battle of Ain Warda in 685 CE. Though only 5,000 in strength, the Penitents were met by a massive Umayyad force of 20,000, led by their fierce general Husain son of Numair (who had also been in charge of the siege of Mecca two years earlier). They were totally decimated by the Umayyads and thus achieved their purpose of atoning for their sin of having abandoned Imam Hussain and not coming to his aid.

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