Ali ibn Abi Talib was the fourth and final of the Khulafar Rashideen; the Righteous Caliphs.
When ranking these first four Caliphs, there is no disagreement that Abu Bakr was first and Umar was second. However, there are some questions when it comes to ranking the next two.
Most Islamic scholars tend to rank Uthman above Ali. And if we only consider their political achievements as Caliph, then Uthman definitely deserves that honor.
Uthman ruled longer than Ali, ruled over a united empire, and accomplished things that Muslims still benefit from today.
Ali, on the other hand, only ruled for five years, and much of that was spent fighting other Muslims.
But if we consider their entire lives in service of Islam, then one can make a strong argument for the case of Ali.
Like the three Caliphs before him, Ali was related to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) through marriage. But unlike the others, Ali was also related to the Prophet through blood.
Ali’s father Abu Talib, and Prophet Muhammad’s father, Abdullah, were brothers.
A few years before Muhammad became Prophet Muhammad, Ali’s father Abu Talib was going through financial difficulties. To make things easier for Abu Talib, Ali, then just a little boy, moved in with Muhammad.
Muhammad took a paternal interest in Ali and raised him like his own son. Ali never returned to live with his father.
Ali was nine years old when Prophet Muhammad received the message of Islam. Ali believed in him from the very beginning, and would prove it throughout his life.
Ali As A Companion
As an adult, Ali married the Prophet’s youngest and most beloved daughter, Fatimah. They had four children between them, two boys and two girls. Their two sons Hasan and Hussein would play major roles in the history of Islam.
Unlike the other Caliphs, Ali stood out as an excellent fighter. He racked up an impressive list of kills during his military career. And his military record dwarfs his predecessor’s, Uthman ibn Affan.
Ali took part in most of the major battles during Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. These include Badr, Uhud, Khandaq, Mecca, and Khaybar.
After the Prophet’s death, Ali took on an advisory role to the first three Caliphs. Umar in particular relied on Ali for his wisdom and knowledge of Islamic law.
Sunni and Shiite Views on Ali
To Sunni Muslims he is, at best, on the same level as the first three Caliphs before him, Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman.
But a minority segment of the Muslim world has a much higher view of Ali. They believe Ali is the first Imam and the rightful successor to Prophet Muhammad. They are known collectively as Shi’iatu Ali, or simply Shiite.
There are many Shiite branches, and their view of Ali ranges from moderate to very extreme. Most Shiites have a moderate view of Ali that ranks him below Prophet Muhammad, but above the rest of humanity, including the other companions.
But there are some more obscure Shiite branches that raise Ali to the level of divinity.
The one thing that all Shiites believe is that Ali should have been the first Caliph instead of Abu Bakr. This insult is further magnified, according to Shiites, by the illegitimate Caliphates of Umar and Uthman.
These are just a few of a long list of alleged betrayals, abuse, and violations, the Shiites claim were committed against Ali and his family.
Ali Tries To Unite The Empire
Ali’s problems really began when he became Caliph a week after Uthman was murdered.
Even though most of the people of Medina pledged allegiance to Ali, he really needed the validation of the major companions. He especially needed the support of Talhah ibn Ubaidullah and Zubair ibn Al-Awwam.
Talhah and Zubair were both early converts to Islam and were veterans of the Battle of Badr. Along with Ali, they were candidates for Caliph when Uthman was ultimately selected.
Before accepting it himself, Ali had even offered to pledge allegiance to either one of them if they wanted to be Caliph. However, both had refused.
Initially, they were reluctant to pledge allegiance to Ali since the situation in Medina was very chaotic. Then one of Ali’s followers threatened Talhah and Zubair if they did not give the pledge. They agreed to pledge allegiance to Ali on the condition that he would prosecute Uthman’s killers.
This exhibited one of the major weaknesses in Ali’s Caliphate. Many of his followers were among those who protested against Uthman.
It should be noted that there were many companions who gave Ali their full support. However, much of his base came from the same capricious and extremist group of people who justified rioting against Uthman.
Though Talhah and Zubair gave a hesitant pledge to Ali, there were some companions in Medina who absolutely refused to accept him. Among them was Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, the great general who conquered much of Persia.
Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas locked himself inside his house and would not give Ali the pledge of allegiance. But he did promise that he would not cause any trouble.
Another companion who did not pledge to Ali was Abdullah ibn Umar, the son of Umar ibn Al-Khattab. He would ultimately leave the chaos in Medina and move to Mecca.
Outside Medina, the Banu Umayyah began making their way towards Syria. Banu Umayyah literally means “The Children of Umayyah”, but a better translation is the Umayyah Clan. This was the same clan that Uthman belonged to.
Uthman’s cousin, Muawiyyah ibn Abi Sufyan, was the governor of Syria. He had ruled there for over fifteen years and had proven himself to be a competent administrator and commander.
The diverse population of Syria included Muslims, Christians, and Jews. They adored Muawiyyah and there was no question of their loyalty.
This was in sharp contrast to Ali who was having a difficult time just getting the city of Medina behind him.
Finding Uthman’s KIllers
One of the biggest obstacles Ali faced was finding those responsible for Uthman’s death. He did question Nailah, Uthman’s wife, to see what she knew.
However, the only person she recognized in the crowd that attacked Uthman, was Ali’s stepson, Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr. And she confirmed that he left the house before Uthman was killed.
There were many things working against Ali in trying to find Uthman’s killers.
For one, the entire incident happened in a fit of rage. The rioters had a mob mentality, and as soon as the deed was done, everyone fled. And there was no chance of anyone coming forward.
Another problem was finding the actual killer from among the crowd.
There were many people protesting Uthman during that forty-day siege. But only a small portion of them broke into his house.
And of those who did break into his house, only a few of them actually attacked him.
And of those who did attack Uthman, only one person dealt the killing blow.
Another hindrance for Ali was the nature of Medina society. Medina was a holy city that was the home of Prophet Muhammad, and the seat of the Islamic Empire. Murder and violence was virtually unheard of here.
Even today, these things are extremely rare in Medina.
The society at that time was not equipped to deal with a murder investigation.
Could Ali Have Done More?
In hindsight, perhaps we can speculate about what Ali could have done better.
What we know for certain is that Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr was in the house a few minutes before Uthman was killed.
Perhaps Ali could have questioned him to get the names of other people who were in the house.
And with those details, perhaps Ali could have conducted a manhunt to find the others and get more information. And perhaps that would have led to the person, or persons, responsible for killing Uthman.
Unfortunately, we do not know why Ali did not go this route. All we know is that whatever attempts Ali did make at finding the killers, it did not yield any fruit.
This would be a constant theme in the conflict between Ali and his opponents. They were upset about his perceived indifference in finding the killers. Ali countered that it was impossible for him to find the killers without the full support of the empire.
Ali And The Governors
To address this lack of support, Ali decided to depose the existing governors in the empire, and replace them with his own.
Two of Ali’s early advisors were the companions Mughirah ibn Shubah, and Abdullah ibn Abbas. They both disagreed with Ali’s decision to depose Uthman’s governors.
Mughirah ibn Shubah encouraged Ali to keep the current governors, and work on earning their loyalty.
Ibn Abbas had a more tactical suggestion. He advised Ali to leave Medina completely and let it be consumed by the chaos. Eventually, things would get so bad the people would beg him to return, and then he would have their full support.
Ali rejected both ideas and continued with his plan to replace all the governors. Upset with this decision, Mughirah ibn Shubah left Medina and moved to Mecca.
There were five major provinces in the Empire at that time: Yemen, Kufah, Basra, Egypt, and Syria.
Yemen accepted Ali’s new governor peacefully.
Kufah was governed by the companion Abu Musa Al-Ashari. He did not accept Ali’s replacement but sent word back to Medina that he was loyal. Abu Musa assured Ali that he and the people of Kufah had given the pledge of allegiance.
The provinces of Basra and Egypt were divided about accepting Ali’s replacements. Even though the new governors did take power, they did not enjoy the full support of the people.
Muawiyyah Defies Ali
The new governor for Syria never even made it to Damascus. Before Ali’s envoy could enter the city, Muawiyyah sent soldiers to intercept them. The soldiers said Syria was not in need of a new governor, and that it would be best if they returned to Medina.
Ali decided to write Muawiyyah a letter in order to ascertain his loyalty. Perhaps Muawiyyah was like Abu Musa in Kufah who was loyal to Ali, but wanted to remain governor.
Muawiyyah waited three months before responding to Ali’s letter. When Ali opened Muawiyyah’s letter, it was a blank sheet of paper simply addressed: “From Muawiyyah to Ali”
This passive-aggressive response made it clear where Muawiyyah stood. There was no way the people of Syria would ever give Ali the pledge. In fact, some within the Umayyah clan blamed Ali for Uthman’s death.
With Muawiyyah openly defying the Caliphate, Ali began making preparations to invade Syria. He also sent word to his loyal governors to do the same.
Many companions disagreed with Ali on this, and suggested he exercise patience with Muawiyyah. Talhah and Zubair were especially critical of this decision.
They reminded Ali that a condition of their allegiance was that he pursue and punish Uthman’s killers. Several months had passed since his murder, and not much headway had been made in that effort.
The Situation In Mecca
Ali had determined that it was impossible to find the killers and that it was time for everyone to move on and let it go. This, of course, did not sit well with Talhah and Zubair.
Combined with his decision to invade Syria, Talhah and Zubair decided it was time to leave Medina. They received permission from Ali to go to Mecca for Umrah, and never returned.
When Talhah and Zubair arrived in Mecca, they found a city bristling with anger over the murder of Uthman. And the primary instigator of this outrage was none other than the Prophet’s widow, Aisha Bint Abi Bakr.
Aisha and the other wives of Prophet Muhammad were collectively known as Ummahatul Mu’mineen or, the Mothers of the Believers. They had all left Medina months earlier to make Hajj, when Uthman was still alive.
The siege and murder of Uthman took place while they were on their way back to Medina. Due to the ensuing chaos in Medina, the Ummahatul Mu’mineen turned back to Mecca, and stayed there as Ali became Caliph.
Aisha in Mecca
Like many others, Aisha called on Ali to quickly find and punish Uthman’s killers. And like many others, she was disappointed when Ali had not done so after several months.
Throughout most of her life, Aisha steered clear of politics. Even after her husband’s death, she was not politically active.
But Uthman’s murder changed things. She was shocked and outraged that his killers were freely walking about Medina.
Though Aisha was a woman in a patriarchal society, the respect and honor she commanded as the Prophet’s widow was incalculable.
In the wake of Uthman’s death, she acted as the de facto ruler of Mecca. Even the actual governor of Mecca, deferred to Aisha. From behind a curtain, where only her closest family members could see her, she began to organize and drum up support to find and punish Uthman’s killers.
Sunni and Shiite Views on Aisha
If Ali is the second most divisive figure in Islam, without a doubt, Aisha is the first.
Aisha is universally loved and respected by Sunni Muslims. Her contributions to Islamic scholarship are enormous.
She is considered the most reliable narrator of Hadiths, and many of her teachings form the core of Islamic law. Scholars from all over the Muslim world used to journey to her home to learn about the Prophet. Most of what we know today about Prophet Muhammad’s personal and private life, comes from Aisha.
“Aisha” is also the most popular name among Muslim girls. The name has also become somewhat popular name in the African-American community.
But the Shiite view of Aisha is the complete opposite.
Their allegations against Aisha are numerous. They claim:
- She told lies about Prophet Muhammad.
- She was jealous of the Prophet’s first wife Khadijah.
- She had a general dislike of the Prophet’s clan, the Banu Hashim.
- She uttered several statements of blasphemy.
- She conspired to have her father, Abu Bakr, chosen as the first Caliph.
- And most egregiously, she harbored hatred for Ali, and openly defied his Caliphate.
The History Between Ali and Aisha
We will ignore most of these claims. Sunni and Shiite Muslims have been arguing about them for over a thousand years. Depending on which branch of Islam you follow, you will either accept them or reject them.
But for the purposes of this story, it is important that we investigate the final claim regarding her supposed hatred and defiance of Ali.
Taking an objective look at their histories, there does appear to have been some friction between Aisha and Ali.
Once during the Prophet’s lifetime, some of his wives approached his daughter, Fatimah who was also Ali’s wife.
It seemed the Prophet was spending a lot of time with Aisha, and they wanted him to be more equitable.
When Fatima discussed the matter with her father, he simply replied that she should love Aisha because he loved Aisha. When Fatima returned to the women, she said she would never speak to her father about Aisha again.
Another moment of friction occurred during the Ifk.
The Ifk was a scandal that arose in Medina when Aisha was rumored to have been unfaithful to her husband. Like most rumors, these accusations were based on insignificant events that were blown out of proportion.
During the fifth year of the migration, the Prophet led an expedition to battle the tribe of Banu Mustaliq. It was his habit to bring one of his wives along during these long journeys. It just so happened to be Aisha’s turn on this occasion.
The Muslims were victorious, but Aisha got separated from the main group on the return to Medina.
Aisha rode in a howdah, which was a tent-like box atop her camel. She had misplaced her necklace and no one noticed when she went looking for it.
A man named Safwan ibn Mu’attal had the responsibility of bringing up the rear of the Prophet’s caravan. His job was to travel a good distance behind the main party and pick up any items that may have been lost or left behind.
Safwan found Aisha sitting alone in the desert, waiting for someone to realize she was missing. He helped her ascend her camel, and escorted her back to Medina.
As soon as Safwan and Aisha returned to Medina, the rumors began to fly. For several weeks, Aisha lived under a cloud of suspicion.
Even Prophet Muhammad seemed unsure as he encouraged Aisha to tell the truth about whatever happened. Her husband’s doubts were too much for Aisha, and she went to live with her parents during this period.
Ali’s response to the accusations was very straightforward. He saw no reason for the Prophet to take the rumors personally. In fact, he was rather dismissive of the whole affair.
“Allah has not put any restrictions on you,” he advised Prophet Muhammad. “There are plenty of other women besides her.”
But Ali also offered a solution. “Ask her slave-girl,” he told the Prophet, “she will tell you the truth.”
Prophet Muhammad took his advice and asked the slave Barira about her mistress.
Barira replied with the following: “The only thing I can blame Aisha for is that she is an immature girl who sometimes falls asleep, leaving the bread dough unattended so it can be eaten by the goats.”
This exoneration from Barira was soon followed by revelation in the Quran proving Aisha’s innocence.
The verses exonerating Aisha begin with harsh penalties for those involved in the scandal.
And those who accuse chaste women and then do not produce four witnesses – beat them with eighty lashes and never accept their testimony after that. And those are the defiantly disobedient.
They are then condemned and guaranteed a harsh punishment in the next life as well.
Indeed, those who came with falsehood are a group among you. Do not think it bad for you; rather it is good for you. For every person among them is what he has earned from the sin, and he who took upon himself the greater portion thereof – for him is a great punishment.
The Muslims were also rebuked for not rejecting the rumors outright.
Why, when you heard it, did not the believing men and believing women think good of one another and say, ‘This is an obvious falsehood’?
And why, when you heard it, did you not say, ‘It is not for us to speak of this. Exalted are You, [O Allah]; this is a great slander’?
The Prophet’s Prediction
There are also reports that Prophet Muhammad predicted problems between Aisha and Ali. Ali was reportedly shocked by this prediction and stated that if it were true, then he was the worse off of the two.
Fatimah and Abu Bakr
Even after the Prophet’s death, there was friction between the families of Aisha and Ali.
A dispute arose between Fatimah and Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s successor and Aisha’s father. Fatimah demanded some property that she felt her father had left as her inheritance.
However, Abu Bakr refused to give it to her. He claimed Prophet Muhammad forbade inheritance to be given to his descendants.
This created a rift between the two families, and Ali and Fatimah stopped speaking to Abu Bakr. Ali and Abu Bakr did not reconcile until after Fatimah died several months later.
Did Aisha Hate Ali?
These awkward moments notwithstanding, it is questionable if Aisha actually hated Ali as many claim. These moments of tension seem more like isolated events that occur within every family.
The reality is there were very few occasions where Aisha and Ali would have had any direct contact. Furthermore, it would have been inappropriate for Ali to have even spoke to Aisha except from behind a curtain.
Finally, the fact that Ali raised Aisha’s half-brother Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr indicates there was no animosity between the two families. Any suggestion otherwise is a fabrication created by people who lived long after the two parties in question.
There are also those who claim that Aisha was raising an army in Mecca in order to overthrow Ali. This would only make sense if we believe that Aisha hated Ali and was willing to sacrifice Muslim lives to end his Caliphate.
This view is unacceptable to Sunni Muslims.
Aisha Leaves Mecca
Nonetheless, that does not excuse Aisha’s actions in Mecca. She had decided to take things into her own hands, and was building a force to hunt down Uthman’s killers.
And she had support from many prominent individuals. These included:
- Talhah and Zubair
- Several members of the Umayyah clan still living in Mecca
- Ali’s former advisor, Mughirah ibn Shuba
- The former governors of Basra and Yemen whom Ali had deposed
Eventually, Aisha was able to organize a force of 1500 people. They headed for Medina with the intention of finding Uthman’s killers. The overall sentiment was that if Ali would not dispense justice, then they would have to do it themselves.
The Switch to Basra
Aisha’s primary advisors were Talhah and Zubair. They began to express doubt about heading straight for Medina. The situation was still chaotic and even Ali did not have full control of the city.
There were rumors that over 6000 people had taken part in the protests against Uthman. If those numbers were true, Aisha’s force wouldn’t stand a chance against them.
That’s when Abdullah ibn Amir, the former governor of Basra and Uthman’s cousin, put forth an idea. Even though he lost his position when Ali became Caliph, Abdullah ibn Amir still had many connections there.
He suggested they head for Basra instead, and try to rally support there like they did in Mecca. This idea was agreed upon and the group slightly adjusted course towards Basra.
Medina is 200 hundred miles north of Mecca. Basra is 750 miles to the northeast. As they passed through various towns and cities along the way, more and more people joined Aisha’s quest.
By the time they reached Basra almost a month later, Aisha’s group numbered almost 3000. This was certainly an amazing feat for a middle-aged woman in seventh century Arabia.
Unfortunately, her actions also sparked a civil war that would forever split the Muslim community.
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