Islamic History Podcast 2-13: Uthman And Egypt

Islamic History Podcast 2-13: Uthman And Egypt

We’ll begin our story by first taking a look at the main character: Uthman Ibn Affan.

Now, we won’t go deep into the details of his life because we’ve already covered that in an earlier episode. Instead, we’re going to try to understand the character of Uthman and how he was viewed by the people he ruled.

One of the most important things to know about Uthman is that he was an old man when he became Caliph. He was 70 years old. And in a time when it was rare for people to live past their fifties, he was ancient.

Another thing to understand about Uthman was that he came from one of the most powerful and influential families in the Arabian Peninsula. He was a member of the famous Umayyah clan, which was a leading clan among the Quraish.

In fact, the Umayyah was the main clan to resist the message of Islam during the early days of Islam. Abu Sufyan, the most prominent member of the Umayyah clan, led two battles against the Muslims of Medina.

So Uthman was going against his family and positioning himself as an enemy when he accepted Islam. And let’s be clear, Uthman was certainly one of the earliest people to accept Prophet Muhammad’s message.

And like most of the other members of his clan, Uthman was also a successful merchant. He was very wealthy both before and after the Prophet’s migration to Medina.

But despite his wealth, his powerful family, and his many connections, Uthman was renowned for his piety. Ibn Umar, the son of Umar Ibn Al-Khattab was quoted as saying “We used to regard Abu Bakr as the best, then Umar, and then Uthman.”

And there were several occasions where Uthman donated large sums of money in the cause of Islam.

And as a final proof of his piety and love for Islam, Uthman was the only companion to have been married to two of the Prophet’s daughters. After the death of one, he married the other.

Historical View of Uthman

But despite all of these wonderful attributes, history has not been so kind to Uthman. Perhaps it’s because the beginning of the fracturing of the Islamic world started with him. Perhaps it’s because his reign has been much more heavily scrutinized than those before him. Perhaps it’s because the man who came before him, Umar, and the one that came after him, Ali, hold such high positions in our minds.

Whatever the case, it seems that we always find ourselves comparing Uthman to someone else, particularly Umar and Ali.

And unfortunately, we’re going to do much of the same in this podcast as well. Because, however unfair it may be to Uthman, he followed a giant of a man in Umar. And Uthman’s reign followed a period of unimaginable growth and advancement for the Muslim Empire.

One of the attributes that Umar was best known for was his tendency to micromanage. We’ve discussed in earlier episodes how quick he was to recall generals and governors for living extravagant lifestyles. As well as Umar’s tendency to walk the streets of Medina to find whatever problems or issues demanded his attention. And Umar kept a firm eye on how money was spent under his watch.

This attention to detail kept Umar’s subordinates and governors on their toes and always careful to make sure every dinar could be accounted for.

But Uthman was not like that. He was an older man. He did not have the same energy and vigor that Umar did. Besides, that just wasn’t part of Uthman’s character. He was much more lenient and easy going.

Unfortunately, this leniency only encouraged restlessness, discontent, and in some cases, even fraud.

Even today, Uthman’s legacy does not do him justice. While he is universally loved by Sunni Muslims, he is often considered inferior and even dishonest by the Shia. Many of them believe Uthman became the ruler unjustly and at the expense of Ali.

And while Sunni Muslims do love Uthman, he is not as well-known as the two Caliphs that came before him, Abu Bakr and Umar.

The Muslim World at This Stage

Before we get into the story of Uthman’s reign, it’s important that we understand the Muslim world at this time.

First, it is most likely that Muslims were in the minority. They were just coming off the amazing conquests of the Persian and Byzantine Empires. So the Muslims, who were mostly Arab at this time, were ruling over a large swath of land, full of people who neither Arab nor Muslim.

However, even though the Muslims were a minority, Islam was growing rapidly as thousands of conquered people entered Islam. These people were not forced to become Muslim; that was never something the early Muslims wanted.

But it was definitely more convenient to be Muslim at this time. There was very little chance of advancement in the new government unless you were Muslim. Sure, there are many instances of Christian and Jewish and Zoroastrian clerks, secretaries, artisans, and things like that.

But there was no way a Christian would be a governor, or Sultan, over land with a significant number of Muslims. If that did happen, it would only be a matter of time before he was replaced with a Muslim. The only way he’d be able to keep his position would be to accept Islam.

This would play out the same way in the military. There are accounts of the Muslims using Christians soldiers in their military. Often these Christians were more like mercenaries that the Muslim government paid to fight on their behalf.

But there is no way a Christian or Zoroastrian commander would have military authority over Muslim soldiers. Especially not when Muslims believed death would give them paradise and considered fighting a religious duty.

And speaking of warfare, another thing we have to understand is that there were a lot of conquered people in the Caliphate. In fact, it’s safe to say most of the people in the Muslim dominated lands had been conquered.

And let’s face it, most people don’t like to be conquered. And this led to a lot of pent up resentment and discontent in the Empire. This would eventually lead to several rebellions in far off corners of the Empire that would have to be put down during Uthman’s reign.

Another thing to consider is that conquests were beginning to slow down now. The Muslims had almost run out of things to conquer.

To the east, they had conquered the Persian Empire right up to the mountainous regions of modern day Afghanistan. Even though Islam would eventually penetrate these areas, these mountains and their unruly, warlike inhabitants were slowing things down.

To the west, the Muslims had conquered much of modern day Egypt. The lands of northern Africa were open and available for the Muslims to venture into if they wanted. However, they were kept busy consolidating their rule over Egypt and fighting off attempts by the Byzantines to take it back.

To the south of Egypt, the Muslims met stiff resistance in the areas of Nubia and modern day northern Sudan. These fighters were also tough combatants and the Muslims administration would eventually abandon their attempts to conquer these areas.

To the north of Syria was Anatolia, modern day Turkey. This was the stronghold of the Eastern Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire today. Umar Ibn Al-Khattab had discouraged further invasions into this area and Uthman continued that policy.

Furthermore, as the heart of the Byzantine Empire, it would be very costly and dangerous for the Muslims to attack Anatolia.

So that really only left the strip of land connecting Europe to the Arabian Peninsula. This region was flanked on one side by the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea on the other. The land was covered by the Caucasus Mountains and contains the modern nations of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.

And this is where most of the significant military gains took place during Uthman’s reign.

This slowdown in conquests led to some problems as up to this time, the primary source for income in the Muslim Empire was wealth from conquered nations.

But with so few conquests going one, there was much less wealth coming in.

The Muslims still had a huge empire to administer and that took money.

Furthermore, Umar had established stipends for various members of the community and Uthman took inherited those responsibilities. Now the Empire was having a harder time finding the money to fund these entitlements.

Another problem the Caliphate faced was that some Muslims were too wealthy. Many of the soldiers who took part in the early battles against the Romans and Persians had gained enormous amounts of wealth. They had more wealth than they knew what to do with.

So obviously this would create some resentment in those citizens who did not have that much money.

So that’s a summary of some of the obstacles Uthman faced when he became the Caliph.

Uthman’s Cousin, Ibn Abi Sarh

We’re now going to look at some of the events that took place during Uthman’s Caliphate. It’s important that we understand how these events impacted Uthman’s rule and turned so many people against.

One of the best cases of Uthman, perhaps not using his best judgement was in the case of Amr Ibn Al-As. As you may remember, Amr Ibn Al-‘As was responsible for the conquest of most of Egypt. He led the first Muslim incursions into Egypt.

He was also responsible for conquering Alexandria, the Roman capital of Egypt and establishing the military outpost of Fustat, which was the future site of the modern city of Cairo.

Overall, Amr Ibn Al-As was feared by his enemies and beloved by his subjects.

The Coptic Christians of Egypt loved him because he allowed them to practice their faith, unlike the Romans who had oppressed them for so many years.

The Muslims of Egypt loved him because he was first of all, a companion of the Prophet, a friend of Khalid Ibn Waleed, and close to the former Caliph, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab.

But most of all, he had proven himself to be a successful commander and leader.

As the primary architect of the conquest of Egypt, and the head of the military in Egypt, Amr Ibn Al-As had served as the de facto governor for almost five years.

However, he had never been given the title of governor by either Umar or Uthman.

So when Uthman became Caliph, he changed things up a bit by sending his cousin Ibn Abi Sarh to be the finance minister of Egypt.

Now let’s get a little background on this man, Ibn Abi Sarh.

Ibn Abi Sarh was also a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, but he was nowhere near the level as Amr Ibn Al-As, and his story is very controversial.

Ibn Abi Sarh accepted Islam at the hands of Prophet Muhammad, in Mecca, BEFORE the Hijrah. BEFORE the migration to Medina. But after migrating to Medina, he denounced Islam, and returned to the Quraysh in Mecca.

He wound up staying there until the Muslims conquered Mecca.

And as you may know, when the Prophet conquered Mecca, he gave amnesty to almost everyone in the city and forgave them for oppressing and fighting the Muslims for so many years.

But there were a few people that he did not give amnesty. Ibn Abi Sarh was one of them.

In fact, the Prophet actually ordered him to be killed.

However, Ibn Abi Sarh hid in his cousin Uthman’s house and begged him for protection. They were not only cousins; they were also foster brothers. Meaning they had both been nursed by the same woman.

So Uthman interceded on Ibn Abi Sarh’s behalf and asked the Prophet to forgive him. And at first, the Prophet denied his first few requests. But finally, he gave in, and granted Ibn Abi Sarh amnesty, and accepted his Shahada.

Amr Ibn Al-As Loses His Job

As you can see, Ibn Abi Sarh, the one who betrayed and lied on the Prophet, did not command the same respect as someone like Amr Ibn Al-As.

Now to be fair, we have to accept that Ibn Abi Sarh made a sincere repentance and truly regretted his previous sins. But you can’t help but question Uthman’s decision to make him finance minister, especially considering what happened next.

It should not come as a surprise that Amr Ibn Al-As, the Muslim hero, and Ibn Abi Sarh, the guy who betrayed the Prophet, did not get along. It wasn’t long before they were clashing over how Egypt should be managed.

Eventually their bickering got back to Uthman and he had to intervene. He recalled them both to Medina to listen to their cases. After hearing their arguments, Uthman decided in favor of his cousin and ordered Amr Ibn Al-As to remain in Medina.

Ibn Abi Sarh returned to Egypt as the official governor.

However, Ibn Abi Sarh was not Amr Ibn Al-As. He did not have the legend or the resume of Amr Ibn Al-As. And neither the Christians nor the Muslims loved him the same.

As for the Romans, they were still upset about losing Egypt. But they had been afraid of Amr Ibn Al-As. But this new guy, Ibn Abi Sarh, they knew nothing about, and saw no reason to fear him.

And with Amr gone, the Romans saw a perfect opportunity to retake Egypt.

In 645, the Romans launched a massive fleet, and invaded Alexandria from the sea. Ibn Abi Sarh, the new governor of Egypt, did not command the respect of his military, was not used to fighting the Romans, and was taken completely by surprise when they invaded.

Within a matter of days, the Romans had recaptured the city of Alexandria.

Amr’s Saves Alexandria

Uthman immediately sent Amr Ibn Al-As back to Egypt, leading an army of 15000 soldiers.

Now Amr Ibn Al-As, he was used to fighting the Romans, and he knew exactly how to deal with them.

In the early days of the Muslim expansion, their bows and arrows were always inferior to those of the Romans they fought. But things were different now.

The Muslim archers always had better skill and accuracy than their Roman and Persian enemies. But now, they also had good materials, and Amr used them to great effect.

The Romans always preferred to fight outside their cities and away from their forts. Prophet Muhammad used a similar strategy during the Battle of Uhud, the second battle between the Muslims and the Quraysh.

Amr participated in the Battle of Uhud, only at that time he was fighting against the Prophet and the Muslims. So he was ready for the Romans when they lined up for battle in the open fields outside of Alexandria.

Amr ordered his archers to launch volley after volley into the Roman ranks. All the hapless Romans could do was try to protect themselves beneath their shields. But the onslaught of arrows wiped out nearly a quarter of their ranks.

When the Romans had been sufficiently weakened, Amr ordered the firing to stop. Then he commanded his soldiers to draw their swords and lower their lances, and led them in a massive charge against the Romans.

The fighting was fierce but very brief. Within a few hours, the Roman army was crushed, and Amr Ibn Al-As had conquered Alexandria for the second time.

It would not be his last.

Upon conquering Alexandria, Amr Ibn Al-As learned that many local Christians had assisted the Romans in their invasion. After all, even though they were loyal and loved Amr Ibn Al-As, they had no connection with Ibn Abi Sarh.

Nonetheless, Amr levied higher taxes on the entire Christian community of Alexandria.

Amr felt sure this victory would prove to Uthman how vital his presence in Egypt. He was certain that Uthman would reinstate him as governor of Egypt.

Instead, as soon as word reached Uthman of Amr’s victory, he recalled him back to Medina, and confirmed Ibn Abi Sarh as governor of Egypt. This final insult turned Amr Ibn Al-As against Uthman for good.

He would spend the next several years trying to undermine Ibn Abi Sarh’s rule in Egypt.

Ibn Abi Sarh Tries to Prove Himself

These questionable moves by Uthman made Ibn Abi Sarh anxious as well. For one, he saw how easy it was for his cousin to replace one governor with another.  Job security was something he could not be assured of.

Second, Ibn Abi Sarh realized how beloved Amr was by the people of Egypt. He would have to find a way to prove himself to both Uthman, and his Egyptian subjects.

And so, Ibn Abi Sarh thought an invasion of North Africa to the west of Egypt would be a good idea. Ibn Abi Sarh requested and was granted permission to invade these lands which were still controlled by the Romans.

Ibn Abi Sarh led a successful campaign across the northern coast of Africa. He ultimately conquered Tripolitania which is modern day Tripoli, the capital of Libya. He forced the locals to pay a large tribute.

He returned to Egypt in 648, victorious and loaded with wealth from his exploits.

Unfortunately, Ibn Abi Sarh did not leave a garrison in Libya. And as soon as he left, the Romans simply moved back in and reoccupied the area.

Still, Uthman was pleased with his cousin’s victories and allowed him to keep a portion of the booty. Then he ordered his uncle and future Caliph, Marwan Ibn Al-Hakam, to distribute the rest.

However, Marwan mismanaged the money and squandered it with some unwise spending. This brought criticism and grumbling from the older Muslims who still preferred Amr over the current governor.

Despite these shortcomings, Ibn Abi Sarh would eventually grow into his role and develop into a more competent commander, as we shall see later.

Though this was a rocky start to Uthman’s administration, most of his decisions turned out very well.

One of his best decisions was making his cousin Muawiyyah ibn Abi Sufyan, governor of the Levant.

In the next episode, we will discuss Muawiyyah Ibn Abu Sufyan in the Levant, and his attempt to build the first Muslim navy.

Show Notes

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I Don’t Need A Reminder by Subhanah Wahhaj

Book Recommendation: Chronology of Islamic History, 570 – 1000 by H.U. Rahman

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