Islamic History Podcast 2-17: Murder And Chaos

Islamic History Podcast 2-17: Murder And Chaos


We are now entering the final year of Uthman’s life.

For the past several years there has been a small, but vocal and growing movement against his reign. Their numbers were not large and they did not have any political power.

Nonetheless, they managed to attract some influential supporters such as Ammar ibn Yasir. Without question, their movement could no longer be ignored.

And they had a lot to be angry about.

Why Were They Angry With Uthman?

Some of them had been abused by Uthman’s governors. Others felt the government’s stipend policy was unfair. And they accused Uthman of nepotism because many of those governors were related to him.

But their main disagreement with Uthman was that they felt he was unfit to be Caliph.

At 82 years, he was a very old man. He did not have an impressive military or political legacy. And his soft, passive character seemed out of touch with the demands of a vast empire.

A Meeting In Medina

To his credit, when Uthman became aware there was serious unrest in the empire, he did call a meeting of his governors to discuss the situation.

However, they could not up with a cause nor a solution to the problem. Instead, Uthman decided to hold another meeting the following year, this time inviting the community at large to attend.

The meeting would be held during the Hajj season of 35AH, or 656 CE. Uthman promised to give everyone a chance to air their grievances.

When the pilgrimage season rolled around, a group of Egyptian protestors decided to attend the meeting.

As they made their way to the holy sanctuary, word spread quickly and more people joined them. Large groups in particular joined from Kufah and Basra.

As they passed through various cities on their way to Medina, their numbers continued to swell. By the time they reached Medina, they numbered over 500 people.

Since this was the Hajj season, there were already thousands of people visiting the area. However, many of the residents of Medina had left for Mecca which is over 200 miles away.

Hajj and Umrah

Many Muslims also perform Umrah during this period. Like Hajj, Umrah is also a pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca.

However, Umrah does not include as many rituals as Hajj and is usually much shorter and easier to complete. Furthermore, Umrah may be performed at any time of the year, whereas Hajj has specific dates and times.

In order to obtain the spiritual rewards of both, many Muslims perform Umrah a few weeks before making Hajj. This combined pilgrimage is called Hajj Tamattu’.

When Uthman called this assembly, many of the attendees were performing Hajj Tamattu’, and were between Umrah and Hajj. He held this assembly in a small village, just outside of Medina.

Airing of Grievances

It should be understood that not everyone at this assembly was against Uthman. In addition to the malcontents, all of the governors were there as well.

Besides, this was an open invitation and most likely there were many people there out of curiosity or for other purposes.

Uthman addressed the crowd, then opened the floor for the people to air their grievances. He promised that any complaints of injustice would be dealt with.

He must have been surprised when no one had anything to say about the governors. Instead, they directed their complaints toward Uthman.

Accusations Against Uthman

One by one, the allegations began to fly. At first, their complaints were mostly political.

They accused him of:

  • Giving away wealth and land to his family.
  • Appointing his family members to high positions.
  • Appointing unworthy people to high positions.
  • Giving his cousin, Ibn Abi Sarh, a large portion of the spoils of Libya.
  • Not shortening his prayers during the Hajj six years earlier
  • Exiling Abu Dharr to the wilderness.
  • Bringing Marwan ibn Al-Hakam’s father out of exile.
  • Preventing them from using public lands to graze their animals.
  • Beating Ammar ibn Yasir.
  • And finally, burning their Qurans.

And then things took a more personal turn. They began to point out what they felt were shortcomings in Uthman’s character.

  • He did not participate in the Battle of Badr.
  • He fled during the Battle of Uhud.
  • And the most preposterous of all: that he did not pledge allegiance to the Prophet under the tree.

To understand that last personal attack, we have to go back to the time of Prophet Muhammad.

The Pledge of the Tree

Thirty-five years earlier, Prophet Muhammad and his followers fled the persecution of Mecca and resettled in Medina. This migration was called the Hijrah and is one of the most important events in Muslim history.

In the first five years, there were three major battles between the Muslims of Medina, and the pagan Quraish of Mecca. The record was 2-1 in favor of the Muslims.

Mecca still dwarfed Medina in terms of power, population, and prestige. However, it was clear to all that the status of Medina was rising, and the Quraish seemed unable to stop them.

In the sixth year, Prophet Muhammad decided to make Umrah, the minor pilgrimage, to Mecca. Even though Medina and Mecca were in a state of war, tradition demanded all feuds be put aside when visiting the Kaaba.

The Quraish, as the primary tribe of Mecca, were duty bound to allow everyone access to the Kaaba, regardless of their affiliation.

However, when they learned Prophet Muhammad and 1400 of his followers were coming to make Umrah, they threw aside those traditions.

As was customary, the Muslims carried few weapons and were dressed in simple pilgrimage garb. Still, they were prevented from entering Mecca by a group of armed Quraishi soldiers on horseback.

The Muslims demanded entry to Mecca. They argued that no one was ever prevented from worshiping at the Kaaba.

But the Quraish would not budge and the two sides were at a standstill.

Uthman volunteered to meet with the leaders of Mecca and try to negotiate an agreement. Since he was a member of the powerful Umayyah clan, he hoped they could come to a peaceful resolution.

The soldiers escorted Uthman inside Mecca, while Prophet Muhammad and the other Muslims camped outside.

The hours turned to days and still they heard no word from Uthman. Many began to fear the Quraish had betrayed him and were holding him prisoner or even worse.

Finally, the Prophet also began to worry about Uthman. He sat under a tree and gathered his companions around him.

He declared that if Uthman had been killed, the Muslims would take vengeance. And this may possibly entail fighting to the death.

He took an oath from his companions that they would sacrifice their lives for Uthman. This pledge signified their dedication to Prophet Muhammad, and their commitment to each other.

It was known as Bai’atu Shajarah, or the Pledge of the Tree. Its significance is even commemorated in the Quran in chapter 48, verse 18.

Certainly, Allah was pleased with the Muslims when they pledged allegiance to you under the tree. Allah knew what was in their hearts, and He sent tranquility down on them and rewarded them with a definite victory.

And now, thirty-five years later, people were blaming Uthman for not being present for the Pledge of the Tree. Considering Uthman’s absence was the reason for the pledge, one can see how silly this accusation was.

Uthman Responds

Uthman answered each allegation, both personal and political. His answers to the political questions were very logical and straightforward.

He argued, that if he gave gifts to anyone, he did so from his own wealth.

He may have appointed some governors who were related to him, but there were also many who were not.

Ammar ibn Yasir’s beating was a misunderstanding and wasn’t authorized by him.

However, the personal accusations seemed to strike a nerve with Uthman.

He acknowledged that he did not take part in the Battle of Badr. But his wife, who was also the Prophet’s daughter, was terminally ill at the time.

Prophet Muhammad excused Uthman from the battle in order to care for his wife.

He also admitted to running away during the Battle of Uhud. However, many Muslims ran when they were ambushed by the enemy cavalry during that fight.

On top of that, Allah forgave all of them in verses revealed in the Quran. Chapter 3, verse 155 states:

Certainly, those among you who turned back on the day the two parties met, certainly it was Satan who caused you to slip because of something they had earned. And Allah has already forgiven them. Certainly, Allah is Forgiving and Forbearing.

If Allah has already forgiven me, he argued, how can you still hold it against me?

An Agreement is Reached

With these logical and passionate arguments, the protestors seemed to calm down. And with the atmosphere more relaxed, Uthman was ready to appease them.

He asked them to come up with a list of things they desired, and he would do his best to accommodate them.

After the meeting was over, he sent Ali to meet them and bring back their list. In total, they only had three requests, and Uthman agreed to all of them.

  1. They wanted a raise in their stipends.
  2. They wanted their imprisoned friends released, and their exiled friends returned.
  3. They wanted Amr ibn Al-As to be reinstated as governor of Egypt.

With their demands met, the protesters appeared to be satisfied and prepared to return home or continue with the Hajj.

The Letter

But then something happened that would change the course of history forever.

Later that evening, one of the protesters intercepted a messenger attempting to leave Medina.

He was searched and they found a letter addressed to Ibn Abi Sarh, the governor of Egypt.

The letter instructed the governor to punish this group of protestors in any way he saw fit. That meant he could imprison them, beat them, or kill them.

And now the ring that belonged to the Prophet, that Uthman had lost years earlier, came back to haunt him.

The letter was stamped with the Seal of the Caliph.

Who Wrote It?

It is impossible the soft and gentle Uthman would have written this letter. And the theory that it was written by his secretary Marwan ibn Al-Hakam is also weak.

Instead, it is likely that someone from among the protestors fabricated this letter. And perhaps someone found Uthman’s lost ring, and used it to place his seal on the letter.

Whoever was behind the letter, it threw the mob into a rage. They marched back to Medina, intent on forcing Uthman to give up the Caliphate.

Hundreds of angry protestors surrounded Uthman’s house. They were leaderless and did not really know what to do.

All they knew was that Uthman had to go.

Uthman is Besieged

This began a 40-day siege on Uthman’s house. And as the days stretched into weeks, more and more protestors joined the mob.

Uthman, like the Caliphs and the Prophet before him, had an open-door policy. He never felt the need for a security detail or entourage.

  • There was no police force in Medina.
  • Most of inhabitants of the city were in Mecca for the Hajj.
  • And the military was thousands of miles away, guarding the borders of the empire.

The most powerful man in the world, was virtually alone.

Tensions escalated with each passing day.

At first, the mob allowed Uthman to come and go as he pleased.

But eventually, they wouldn’t allow him to leave at all. And towards the end of the siege, they even cut off his food and water.

Uthman is Given His Options

They gave Uthman three simple, yet impossible options.

  1. He could step down as Caliph.
  2. He could turn himself over to them so they could take retribution.
  3. Or, they would storm his house and deal with him as they pleased.

Uthman was shocked at the sudden turn of events. He was even more shocked that they wanted to kill him. He could not see any reason for such extreme demands.

From his window, he pleaded with the protestors to use reason.

He denied having any knowledge of the letter.

He tried reminding them of his status and closeness to Prophet Muhammad.

He reminded them how he used to finance the Prophet’s battles. How he paid for the expansion of the Prophet’s Masjid. How the Prophet used to praise him and compliment his character and modesty.

But none of it seemed to work. They responded by shouting verses of Quran at Uthman justifying their cause.

And Uthman responded by saying that he was present when those verses were revealed and they were being completely taken out of context.

Uthman is Given Advice

Even though most of the residents of Medina were away on Hajj, there were still several companions there. When Uthman was under siege, many of them came over to offer their assistance.

Like Uthman, in the early days of the siege, the mob allowed these companions to come and go at will. Uthman used these opportunities to get their advice.

Some of them advised him not to use violence and to continue appealing to the mob’s logic and emotions.

Others advised him to sneak out of the house at night and relocate to a safer area.

Uthman rejected this suggestion immediately. He argued that he was the Caliph, he had done nothing wrong, and it would be dishonorable for him to sneak around like a common criminal.

Other companions suggested it was time for Uthman to get tough with these protestors. It would be a simple matter to send word to Muawiyyah in Syria about the situation. He could have a well-armed battalion in Medina within two weeks.

But Uthman did not like that idea either. He did not want to unleash the army against his own people.

Since the military was not an option, some companions offered to fight off the mob themselves. Several of the older Ansar, who had supported Prophet Muhammad as young men, showed up at Uthman’s house in full armor and bearing weapons.

Uthman thanked them for their support, and politely sent them home.

Some suggested using the citizens of Medina to dispel the mob. Even though the protestors numbered in the hundreds, they were still outnumbered by the residents of Medina.

But once again, Uthman vetoed any form of violence. He would not kill another Muslim in order to save himself. And he did not want to be the first Caliph to shed Muslim blood.

Uthman’s Defenders

As the siege dragged on, the mob began preventing anyone from entering the house. Ali ibn Abi Talib tried to make it through, but the protestors stopped him. All he could do was remove his turban, and toss it towards Uthman’s door; a symbolic gesture of support.

However, some people were able to force their way into Uthman’s house. Once they were in, they elected to stay with Uthman throughout the crisis.

These included:

  • Ali’s son Hassan
  • Uthman’s secretary Marwan ibn Hakam
  • The great narrator of hadiths, Abu Hurairah
  • Umar’s son, Abdullah

Despite Uthman’s pleas, there were some clashes between these men and the protestors. One of these scuffles left Hassan ibn Ali with injuries.

A Tragic End

On the 12th day of Dhul Hijjah, after nearly 40 days, the siege came to a tragic end.

According to his wife Nailah, Uthman had a dream that changed his perspective on everything.

Preparing for Death

In this dream, he saw Prophet Muhammad, Abu Bakr, and Umar waiting for him. They beckoned him to come break fast with them.

When Uthman awoke, he knew what the dream meant. His death was imminent, and he would soon be reunited with his beloved friends.

Uthman then went to eat suhur, which is a small pre-dawn meal Muslims eat before fasting. He made his intentions to fast, then woke the other people in his house for the dawn prayer.

After the prayer, he asked everyone except for his wife to leave the house. The other men protested, but he was the Caliph and ultimately, they had to obey.

When the others had left, Uthman sat down with his wife Nailah, and began reading the Quran as the sun rose over Medina.

The Attack on Uthman

Eventually, the mob outside the house woke up and realized that Uthman and his wife were alone. They filtered into the house and eventually came upon Uthman and Nailah.

They surrounded Uthman and began yelling and cursing at him. Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr grabbed Uthman by the beard and berated him.

Uthman recognized his friend’s son.

Your father,” he told the young man, “would not approve of this.”

Horrified, Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr released Uthman and quickly slipped out of the house.

But that did not stop the others. They continued hurling insults at Uthman until one of them poked him with a stick.

That seemed to spark something primal in the others, and they began to punch, kick, and beat Uthman from all sides.

Someone drew a sword and swung it at Uthman. He raised his arm to defend himself, and the sword chopped off his hand.

Nailah screamed and reached forward to defend Uthman. But another sword was swung and chopped off the tips of her fingers.

And then the deathblow came.

A sword came down on Uthman’s head, smashing through his skull.

Uthman ibn Affan, the third Righteous Caliph, was dead.

When the crowd realized that Uthman had been killed, they quickly scattered and ran from his house.

The Aftermath

Nailah also came out of her house, her injured hand bleeding, and screaming for help. But by the time help arrived, the rest of the mob had completely dispersed.

Some of his closest friends performed the Janazah, or funeral prayer, at his house. They did not bother to wash and shroud his body. They considered him a martyr and it was customary to bury martyrs in the same condition they died.

But they did not bury him immediately. They secretly buried him two nights later to prevent anyone from defacing his grave.

The news of Uthman’s murder threw shockwaves through Medina and the entire empire. Medina especially was thrown into a state of chaos.

For three days, wild gangs roamed the city as if they were in charge. Ordinary citizens did not feel safe and shut themselves up in their homes.

The Choice of Ali

The social order was breaking down, and someone had to take charge. A few of the influential men of the city approached Ali ibn Abi Talib about accepting the Caliphate.

Coincidentally, some of the protestors responsible for Uthman’s death also approached him for the same reason. They had long floated the idea that Ali deserved the Caliphate over Uthman.

But Ali hesitated. He was reluctant to accept the Caliphate while Medina was in chaos and so soon after Uthman’s death.

Ali was not the only candidate. Two other companions, Talhah ibn Ubaidullah and Zubayr ibn Al-Awwam were also approached. However, both men flat out refused.

Finally, Ali agreed to accept the position, but he wanted it to be publicized. He went to the Prophet’s Mosque and the announcement was made. Most of the residents came to give him the bay’ah, the pledge of allegiance.

But Ali had to move fast. He did not yet have the full support of the empire behind him. In fact, most of his support came from the same people who had killed Uthman.

In order to be successful, Ali would have to convince the other companions to back him, as well as track down those responsible for killing Uthman.

Unfortunately for Ali, these two goals would be nearly impossible.

Show Notes

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