Under The Tarboush 11.02.05

(Originally written 11/12/2003 for History 106A)

Just as Islam had begun to cease its territorial expansion across the Middle East as an unprecedented unifying religious force, no sooner had its armies settled in that the community began to experience its first instances of social and religious unrest. Within the span of two centuries, Islam had spread itself to the zenith of it’s geographical reach, and was arriving at a point in its history where the very core elements of the faith would be tested. The events surrounding the first and second ‘fitas,’ (or ‘temptation’ in Arabic)the Civil War broke out amongst Muslim populations, were the result of an intricate mix of factors that took many dimensions, ranging from religious disagreements to various social inequalities, such as multiple forms of social stratifications which were now becoming commonplace within pockets of the Islamic Empire. Of the reasons which drove Muslims to take up arms against themselves, there exist three reasons in particular: the pursuit of agreement on a single successor to become Commander of the Faithful after Umar; social stratification that was embedding itself into life in the Empire due to policies dictated by various Caliphs; and the varying definition of the faith itself among the varying peoples of the Empire- that is, questions concerning ‘the measure of a Muslim.’ As these reasons will be defined further into the text, justification for each of these reasons will be given as well.

First and foremost was the leadership crisis that, upon hindsight of what was to come, was never fully resolved. The line of succession since Muhammad’s passing had been tense, however it had functioned in giving the community a single successor that the majority could respect whose was Abu-Bakhr. Prior to his slaying, Abu-Bakhr had chosen Umar as his successor, which had certain political implications from the onset. Umar’s legacy was one of instituting an “Islamic” policy, and appointing members of the Medinian Ansar to important posts in his ‘cabinet;’ an action that didn’t wholly appease the firmly-rooted Quraysh aristocracy, which was based on kinship ties that were ‘devalued’ under Umar’s rule. Approximately one month prior to Umar’s assassination, he had appointed a Shura, or council, which was to choose the next Leader of the Faithful. The two most prominent choices the council were Ali and Uthman, who both asserted a legitimate claim to the leadership; Ali via familial ties to Muhammad, and Uthman who had been an early supporter of Muhammad. After Ali decided to not follow precedent, which stunned many Muslims, Uthamn was elected the new leader. Uthman’s policies for the empire rested in creating a strong central ‘state’ apparatus, whose center was located in Medina. This centralization effort included an unpopular standardization of the Qu’ran, and using government funds to subsidize the landed elite in the garrison cities; a policy that alienated a small segment of the population, who accused Uthman of ‘turning his back’ on Islam. This alienated segment found refuge under Ali. In 656, Uthman was murdered, and Ali then took the seat of the Caliphate, claiming legitimacy due to his relationship with Muhammad. At this moment, clashes erupted between Uthman’s forces, whose bases of support lie in the Arabian Province and Syria, and Ali, whose support was centered in Iraq. It was in these battles that Muslims had fought against one another on a large scale, with each side of the conflict justifying their stance on religious lines. Uthman, Ali’s supporters said, had turned his back on the Islamic way of life in favor of creating a stable and uniform state. Ali was the incorrect choice to lead the community, said Uthman’s supporters, because of his disregard of precedent. The split that this created has resonated far down the temporal dimension in Islam, with today’s Shi’a community naming Ali as the correct successor, and with the Sunnis identifying with the course that history had taken with Mu’awiya.

Social stratification had begun to take root in the Islamic Empire as early as during Uthman’s rule, when the Empire’s borders were expanded to encompass Syria, Egypt, and the Iranian Plateau. When expansion stopped, the Empire had to tend to scattered military encampments that in time turned into full-fledged garrison cities. In order to collect revenue, central administrations under caliphs from Umar to Mu’awiya instituted ways to collect revenue and redistribute it to those who they saw fit. During his reign, Umar had decided to create a payment hierarchy, called the ‘diwin,’ in which your salary was determined by your precedence in converting to Islam. As would be expected, this created a disparity of wealth between the new migrants to newly conquered lands and veterans who had been stationed there longer, along with new class tensions that had not existed before. It was now possible to have two members from the same clan, yet one would be paid substantially higher due to his earlier service in the army. Uthman, in his reign, had created a class of landed elites by awarding contracts and land grants to members of his family that he had placed in powerful positions, as well as using public funds to support them. This particular policy had such a profound effect on Kufa that most of Ali’s support during his clashes with Mu’awiya came from people that had received little to nothing under Uthman. It was policies like this that, out of a secular and pragmatic justification as opposed to a religious one, which created a social stratification that Muslims took to arms against, represented in waging conflict against each other.

The third and final reason was, and is tied into the reasons mentioned above, was that of the question of ‘the measure of a Muslim’- that is, the degree in which someone was faithful in contrast to a given target. As caliph after caliph came to power, and enacted various policies that objectified faith in relation to something secular, there were Muslims across the Empire who took offense to this. A principle reason for Uthman’s unpopularity in some provinces was because of his claim to assert religious authority; despite evidence that ran counter to his ‘efforts.’ For instance, within this scope of religious authority he commissioned the drafting of a standardized Qu’ran, which destroyed four distinct narrations (whose differences were debatable), as was also an effort of his centralization records. However, a huge blow to his credibility came when he had failed to punish the governor in Kufa, himself an Uthman appointee named Walid, who led the congregation in a drunken stupor, only to vomit upon his exit. Furthermore, Uthman did not punish what many considered a sin. While he did escape an attempt on his life, the implications and challenge to the Uthman’s legitimacy were present and done. Uthman had earlier made the proclamation that his agents did their work through God, and were thus not responsible for their own conduct. So when this is applied to Walid’s indiscretion, the very legitimacy of the caliph himself is challenged. Other Muslims had to ask themselves ‘How can he be the leader of the faithful follow the precedent, but not punish sinners?’ Those who came to the conclusion that he was not fit to lead were those who supported Ali in his bid for the position of Leader of the Faithful, and thus were quick to take up arms against Uthman, on the justification that he himself was not ‘Muslim’ enough to lead the community.

In the end, it was elements surrounding the maturing administration of the Islamic Empire that had driven its Muslims to civil war. Of the reasons which drove Muslims to take up arms against themselves, there exist three reasons in particular: the pursuit agree on a single successor to become Commander of the Faithful after Umar; social stratification that was embedding itself into life in the Empire due to policies dictated by various Caliphs; and the varying definition of the faith itself among the varying peoples of the Empire- that is, questions concerning ‘the measure of a Muslim.’ As the scars of some of these policies have healed, others have not.


Before the Umayyad and Abbassid dynasties came into existence, the events in the proto-political entity that existed under the Righly Guided Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and finally Ali) would come to shape the progression of Islamic History for years to come. The schism between the Sunni and Shi’a communities can, in part, be traced to this time period when Muslims of the day asked themselves who was fit to lead. The schism itself is worth another entry, which will be detailed in the future. To discuss it in this entry would not do it justice.

Until then, that’s what’s Under the Tarboush.

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