The Prophet is dead. In 632 AD, the armies of Islam explode out of Arabia, led by a series of aggressive new Caliphs. The Prophet’s young widow Aisha struggles to understand her new role as “Mother of the Faithful”. Meanwhile, Ali, snubbed for the title of Caliph, grapples with his conflicting feelings of bitterness and commitment to the stability of the Muslim community. All the while, an ambitious new rival, Muawiya, schemes and cajoles his way to absolute control over the new Islamic Empire.
The Prophet is dead. In 632 AD, the armies of Islam explode out of Arabia, led by a series of aggressive new Caliphs. The Prophet’s young widow Aisha struggles to understand her new role as “Mother of the Faithful”. Meanwhile, Ali, snubbed for the title of Caliph, grapples with his conflicting feelings of bitterness and commitment to the stability of the Muslim community. All the while, an ambitious new rival, Muawiya, schemes and cajoles his way to absolute control over the new Islamic Empire.
Aisha – The Prophet’s widow. “Mother of the Faithful”. Brave, jealous, and calculating.
Muawiya – Rising star. “Son of the Liver Eater." A master politician, ruthless and cunning.
Ali – The Prophet’s son-in-law. “Lion of God”. The Fourth Caliph.
Abu Bakr – Aisha’s father; The Prophet’s oldest friend. The First Caliph.
Umar – Hothead, bruiser, warlord; The Second Caliph.
Uthman – “He of the Two Lights”; Corrupt and controversial. The Third Caliph.
Muhammed – The Prophet. A merchant-turned-messenger from God.
Fatima – Wife of Ali. Daughter of Muhammed. Mother to Hussein.
Hussein – Grandson of the Prophet. Murdered at Karbala. Martyr of the Shi’a faith.
Humphreys, Steven. Mu’awiya ibn abi Sufyan: The Savior of the Caliphate. 2006.
Madelung, Wilferd. The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate. 1996.
Kennedy, Hugh. The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. 2007.
Shah-Kazemi, Reza. Imam ‘Ali: From Concise History to Timeless Mystery. 2019.
Hazleton, Lesley. The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammed. 2013.
Hazleton, Lesley. After The Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shi’a-Sunni Split in Islam. 2009.
Louer, Laurence. Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History. 2020.
Hoyland, Robert G. In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire. 2014.
Betts, Robert Brenton. The Sunni-Shi’a Divide. 2013.
Charles Rivers Editors. The History of the Sunni and Shia Split: Understanding the Divisions Within Islam.2014.
Armstrong, Karen Keishin. Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time. 2007.
Cole, Juan. Muhammed: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. 2018.
Safi, Omid. Memories of Muhammed. 2009.
Holland, Tom. The Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire. 2012.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network, and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
You’re listening to part two of a series on the origins of the Sunni-Shi’a divide. If you haven’t listened to part one, it might be a good idea to go back and do that.
But just a quick recap for those who need it. When we last left off the year was 632 AD, and the Prophet Muhammed had just died. Two years earlier he had unified virtually the entire Arabian Peninsula under his interpretation of monotheism – which we now call Islam.
When the Prophet died, he left behind a huge community of believers, multiple wives and family members, and a legion of lethal warriors dedicated to his every command.
Last episode, we examined the story through the eyes of two very important figures in Muhammed’s life. Aisha, the Prophet’s favorite wife. And Ali, his son-in-law.
Unfortunately, Aisha and Ali had briefly clashed during the Prophet’s lifetime, primarily over a false rumor of infidelity leveled at Aisha. At the time it was just family drama, but it would prove to be an important crack in a series of fault lines that would eventually result in a civil war, and the so-called Sunni Shia Divide.
This episode, we’re going to examine the aftermath of the Prophet’s death and the rise of the Islamic Empire, beginning with the critical issue of who would succeed him. Muhammed had never explicitly designated a successor, and the community was divided on who it should be. Many assumed it would be Ali, the Lion of God. But there were others who had different ideas.
And as promised, our cast is expanding a bit. Aisha and Ali will still be primary perspectives, but a new character is making his debut. An ambitious young climber named Muawiya, who had his own role to play and schemes to unravel in this epic human drama.
Again, if all of these names and references have you scratching your head, go back and listen to part one. But for those who are all caught up and ready to ride, welcome to Episode 19: Prophet’s Dilemma: The Sunni Shia Split 2
When Aisha was a teenager, she had a recurring dream.
It was a short dream. With simple imagery. But despite its simplicity, she did not understand what it meant.
In the dream, Aisha is sitting on the floor. Suddenly light fills the room. Three full moons,
glowing and luminous, are hanging in the air. They’re small, only about the size of a lemon or an apple. They hang in the air like that for a second, and then one by one, these three softly glowing moons drop into her lap, like tennis balls. One-two-three.
Then she wakes up.
Dreams were not frivolous things in the medieval world. They were truths or omens or warnings, concealed in a mysterious wrapper of symbolism. The riddle of the three moons bothered Aisha. What did it mean? Was it a promise of good luck, or a warning of something more sinister?
She could’ve asked her husband Muhammed what he thought. They could tell each other anything, and often did. But like many teenage girls seeking wisdom, she turned to her father instead, Abu Bakr. Aisha goes to her dad, Abu Bakr, and tells him about the three moons. How they fell into her lap, not all at once, but one at a time. It was like they suddenly died in orbit and plummeted to earth, dropping softly in her lap like lemons.
Abu Bakr was considered a wise man. A genealogist and merchant by trade, he had sharp mind and an eye for hidden meaning. He listened to his daughter explain her dream, and then he told her what he thought it meant:
“Aisha, three will be buried in your room. They are the best of the people of the earth.”
What her father told her scared her. He meant that three people she loved would die. Three good people; important people. They would die in short succession, one after another. And they would all be buried in the room where she slept. It was a cryptic explanation, and Abu Bakr did not elaborate further.
Aisha tried to push the riddle of the three moons out of her mind. In those days, so much was happening, and it was easy to forget something as trivial as a weird dream. But on Monday morning, June 8th, 632, Abu Bakr’s explanation of her dream came back to her like a lightning bolt.
After ten days of an agonizing bout with bacterial meningitis, the Prophet Muhammed died in Aisha’s arms, according to Sunni tradition. As she cradled his head against her chest, she remembered the first moon, dropping into her lap. Her father looked at her gravely and said:
“Aisha, this is one of your moons.”
That Monday morning, Ali was on the other side of the oasis in Medina, praying. He was praying for his father in-law’s Muhammed’s recovery. He was praying for the wellbeing of his wife Fatima, who was pregnant with their third child. And for their two sons, Hasan and Hussein. He was praying for peace and good fortune and prosperity.
But most of all, he might have been praying for guidance. As the Prophet’s health had deteriorated rapidly over the last week and a half, more than a few people had raised the issue of succession. If Muhammed actually died, someone would need to lead the ummah, or community, of Islam. But the Prophet had not explicitly designated anyone as his heir. Sensing the end was near, one man had urged Ali to press his rights of succession and get clarification from the Prophet himself, in case the worst happened:
“Let us go back and ask. If authority be with us, we shall know it, and if it be with others, we will ask him to direct them to treat us well.”
But part of Ali feared what Muhammed might say in his sweat-soaked delirium. What if the Prophet said the wrong thing? What if he said something he didn’t mean? It was better to assume that everyone knew the Prophet’s true wishes in their hearts anyway. Ali was the rightful heir to Muhammed’s legacy. That was obvious. In response to the people insisting he ask the sick old man for clarification:
“By God I will not. If it is withheld from us, none after him will give it to us.”
But that Monday morning, something snapped Ali out of his prayer trance. It was screaming –shrieking. Not just one person, but an entire city wailing in grief. It was in that moment Ali knew that his father-in-law, the man who he had looked up to his entire life, was dead.
Scholar Lesley Hazelton describes the rapid spread of these expressions of grief once the people in Aisha’s room realized the Prophet had finally passed away. And side-note, I realize that I’ve been quoting Lesley Hazelton a lot, but it’s for good reason. I haven’t been able to find anyone who writes as beautifully or cinematically in the English language about the early days of Islam as Lesley Hazleton. And if you find yourself craving more information or detail about this story, you should check out her books on the subject. They’re listed in the sources section of the show notes.
Anyway. - She writes the following, in regard to the immediate reaction to Muhammed’s death:
“First Aisha, then all the other wives broke into a terrible, piercing howl that sounded for all the world like a wounded animal hiding in the bush to die. It spoke of ultimate agony, of pain and sorrow beyond all comprehension, and it spread through the oasis at the speed of sound.
Men and women, old and young, everyone took up the wail and surrendered themselves to it. They slapped their faces with both hands, a rapid rat-a-tat on either cheek; beat their chests with clenched fists so that the sound echoed as though the whole torso were a hollow tree; raked their foreheads with their fingernails until blood streaked down over their eyes and their tears were stained red; scooped up handfuls of dust from the ground and poured it over their heads, abasing themselves in despair.”
When Muhammed’s heart stopped, Abu Bakr’s blood ran cold.
Abu Bakr was one of Muhammed’s oldest friends and confidants. And when he saw his dead friend sprawled in the lap of his daughter Aisha, he knew this was the end of an era. And the beginning of a dangerous new period of uncertainty.
While Aisha wailed in despair, Abu Bakr’s mind began to race. A successor would need to be chosen immediately. Islam was still an extremely fragile institution. Muhammed had pulled off a spectacular achievement, uniting the tribes and clans of Arabia under a single belief system. Whether Islam lived beyond the lifespan of its Prophet or collapsed back into chaotic polytheism would depend entirely on what happened in the next handful of hours.
But Abu Bakr wasn’t just thinking in broad terms of religious continuity. He was very, very worried about what would happen to his daughter. Aisha was the Prophet’s favorite, and had been promised a comfortable life in the event of his death. But at the end of the day, those promises were just words. Aisha’s influence, and by extension Abu Bakr’s own, had always flowed from their preferred place in Muhammed’s “court”, so to speak. After the Prophet died, any “adjustments” to that arrangement were on the table.
This power vacuum presented dangerous possibilities. And the number one person Abu Bakr and Aisha were worried about was – you guessed it: Ali.
The honor of their family was still freshly stung by the accusations of infidelity leveled at Aisha just a few years earlier. Just a reminder, Aisha had lost her necklace and fallen behind one day out in the desert. She’d hitched a ride with a handsome young warrior, and when she got back into town, rumors swirled about possible adultery on Aisha’s part. She was eventually exonerated, but Ali had urged Muhammed to divorce her and rid himself of the trouble. Neither Aisha, nor her father Abu Bakr, forgot that slight on her honor. And they had been at odds with Ali ever since.
With Muhammed dead, there was a strong possibility that Ali would be chosen by the community. And if that happened, Abu Bakr worried that his daughter’s position would be drastically downgraded. Would Ali honor Muhammed’s wishes? Would he provide for them? Or would his personal contempt for Aisha override his better instincts. A taste of power can do strange things to men’s brains, even an honorable one like Ali.
Abu Bakr could never know for sure. All he knew was that he had to move quickly. Not only for his daughter’s sake, but for his own. As historian Wilferd Madelung writes in his book, The Succession to Muhammed:
Abu Bakr thenceforth saw in him (meaning Ali) as a rival and an enemy. He could expect nothing good for himself or for Aisha if the succession fell to Ali.
The first moon from Aisha’s dream had fallen. It had turned out to be Muhammed. Who knows when the next one would drop? Or who it would be.
--- ----- - quick interlude ----- ---
The Monday that Muhammed died was a long day.
And for Ali, it was especially long. As Muhammed’s closest male relative, it was his job to wash the Prophet’s body and prepare it for burial.
As he cleaned the dirt and grime off his father-in-law’s body, he might’ve been reminded of a happy memory they’d shared together when the community had first fled Mecca and moved to Medina. Ali and Muhammed had been building a house, moving bricks and toiling under the sun. Ali had become covered in layers of brick dust, head to toe. For some reason, this really cracked Muhammed up; and he jokingly nicknamed his son-in-law Ali “abu-Turab” or “the father of dust.”
It was a good memory of a good man. But now he was gone.
Ali washed Muhammed’s body, rubbed his skin with sweet smelling herbs and wrapped his head in a clean shroud. But while he was grieving, the wheels of political necessity were turning elsewhere. And they were turning at a secret meeting, to which Ali had not been invited.
This meeting, which was called a shura, consisted of about 15 people. All men. All close companions or confidants of the deceased Prophet. The reason for their meeting was simple. They had to decide who would lead the Muslim community now that the Prophet was gone. And no one could leave the room until they were all in unanimous agreement. As Muhammed had often told them “My community will never agree in error.”
Most of these men were illiterate. So there was no writing or even supporting documents to bolster their claims. But each of these guys was an exceptionally gifted orator. Because medieval Arabia was largely an illiterate society, they relied on the power of verbal communication for everything; as a result their command of language and powers of argument were superb. To be a fly on the wall in this room full of brilliant public speakers must’ve been a masterclass in oral arguments and homespun eloquence.
This meeting drags on and on, into Monday night, then Tuesday morning, all through the next day. For the life of them, they cannot decide who should be the leader. Finally, someone breaks through the deadlock.
Abu Bakr was a small man; he was old and elderly, about the same age as the Prophet. He wasn’t a skilled warrior like Ali. Or a poet like Muhammed. Or a charmer like Aisha. But he was in possession of a keen intellect, and he put it to good use as this meeting. Obviously the push and pull and issues of this shura are contested to this very day. But the chronology of what happened next is pretty clear cut.
Abu Bakr, does something very crafty. He nominates a man for the position that he knew the group would never unanimously agree to. This man’s name was Omar. Like Abu Bakr, Omar was one of the Prophet’s original companions, but Omar had a hot temper. He was prone to emotionality, and that was considered a drawback. The shura says, “no way, this is not the guy.” Well, Omar in turn nominates another man, a guy name Uthman. He too is rejected as unworthy.
That left one obvious choice. Omar turns around and nominates Abu Bakr himself for the position. After all, Abu Bakr was the wisest, the oldest. He was the late Muhammed’s closest friend and the father of the Prophet’s favorite wife. He was the most respected of all of them. As Omar narrated years later:
“Altercation waxed hotter and voices were raised until, when a complete breach was to be feared, I said ‘Stretch out your hand, Abu Bakr.’ “He did so and I pledged him allegiance.
One by one, the other men at this meeting agree and pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr. On Tuesday, June 9th632, Abu Bakr became the first Caliph, or Successor to Muhammed’s community.
The only other person who had an equally strong claim to the position was not even at the meeting. At some point on Tuesday, a messenger sprinted to Ali to tell him what had happened. The Lion of God had been holding a vigil over Muhammed’s body, and he had resisted the urge to crash the shura and assert his claim to position of Caliph.
Part of him felt it was in bad taste. The Prophet’s body wasn’t even cold and they were already fighting amongst themselves over who would rule the ummah. It’s hard to know how Ali felt when he realized the chance had slipped through his fingers. Was he disappointed? Relieved? Angry?
His supporters certainly were angry.
Abu Bakr?, they asked. Are you kidding me? That old man was halfway in the grave himself! Islam needed a young Caliph, a strong Caliph. Ali was the perfect and obvious choice, they said. Had ne not been the very first man to accept Islam all those years ago as an awkward 13-year-old boy? Had he not spilled gallons of blood on the battlefields of Arabia for the faith? Was he not was married to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima and related to him by blood? If anyone carried the divine spark and charisma that had guided Muhammed, surely it was Ali.
As one poet wrote at the time: “We have been cheated in the most monstrous way.”
In his book The Great Arab Conquests, historian Hugh Kennedy even goes so far as to call it a “coup de’tat.”
As younger men, Abu Bakr and Ali had worked together to save Muhammed’s life from assassins. One playing the smuggler, the other the body double. But now they found themselves at odds - on opposite sides of a looming schism.
This disagreement, between the supporters of Abu Bakr and the supporters of Ali is the embryonic form of the Sunni-Shia divide. Between devotees to the “way of the Prophet” or the Sunna, and the “Party of Ali”, or Shi’at Ali”.
Sunni vs Shia.
Abu Bakr’s people argued that the Caliph should be someone chosen democratically, by consensus, based on experience and merit. They would become the Sunnis. Ali’s people, on the other hand, argued that the Prophet’s bloodline was sacred and his descendants were naturally the most well-equipped to lead the Islamic community. They would become the Shias.
And that folks, this succession crisis, is the crux of this entire Sunni-Shia issue. It’s not really about differences in theology, or dogma, or rituals. It all boils down to a very large family, fighting over who would be the top dog. Without the tension between Ali, Aisha, and Abu Bakr, there arguably is no Sunni-Shia Divide. Muhammed had not even been dead for 48 hours, and it already looked like his life’s work was about to implode. And no one realized that more clearly than Ali.
He knew that if he pressed his claim, if he refused to acknowledge Abu Bakr as Caliph, the ummah would most likely be destroyed by infighting in a matter of months. All their struggles, all their years of toil and hardship would be for nothing. Medina would unravel. Then Mecca would revolt. Then the whole Arabian Peninsula. People would forget the recitations. They’d forget the teachings. The Prophet’s message would be just one more failed movement atop the scrap heap of history.
As much as he believed he had the right to rule, Ali believed in the Prophet’s mission more. And if he had to put his pride aside to preserve Muhammed’s life’s work, then as much as it stung, he would do it.
So, a short time later, Ali and his supporters grudgingly swore allegiance to Abu Bakr. And that was that.
The entire ummah collectively breathed a sigh of relief. Civil war had been averted – for now. With this internal crisis assuaged, the eyes of the new Caliphate turned outward. Towards expansion, conquest, and the weakened empires of Byzantium and Persia.
---- ---- ----- MUSIC BREAK----- ----- ------- -----
Muawiya – Early Career and Expansion
Muawiya was 30 years old when his hometown fell to invaders.
He watched as outsiders flooded into the city and raised banners of victory over the town he had known his entire life. But these invaders did not come for blood or butchery, they came with flags of peace of poetry. It was a spiritual invasion. An invasion of the soul.
Two years before Muhammed’s death, the city of Mecca surrendered to the armies of Islam. After years of bitter desert warfare, the city fell without a single life lost – at least according to Muslim historical tradition.
We’ve talked a lot about the winners of that war. Muhammed and his followers. But the losers of the Mecca-Medina feud would have a very special role to play into the future of the Caliphate. And that’s why we need to expand our cast a little bit, and meet a brand-new figure: His name is, like I said, is Muawiya. That’s M-U-A-W-I-Y-A.
Sometimes it’s easier for me to remember a name if I can visualize the spelling, so maybe it’ll help you too.
Anyway, this 30-year-old man, Muawiya, had grown up during Muhammed’s wars of unification. He was the exact same age as Ali, in fact. Which means he was just a teenager when the Prophet first started preaching in Mecca. And a young adult when the Muslims fled to the oasis of Medina. But while Ali had enthusiastically accepted Muhammed’s message, Muawiya’s family had not.
They were a very wealthy clan. And the Prophet’s message of egalitarianism and monotheism threatened to upend the very system that had given them their prosperity. So when Muhammed began raiding trade caravans from his headquarters at Medina, Muawiya’s family went to war to preserve both their traditions and their bank account.
That war cost Muawiya dearly. Before it was over, he’d lost a brother, an uncle, a grandfather, and a great uncle to Muhammed’s forces. The twentysomething Muawiya managed to survive those battles, and he may very well have been a wrong step or two away from crossing swords with the infamous Lion of God, Ali. But fate cut him a break, and he did not die out in the desert.
Now - before we go any further, I have to tell you what Muawiya’s nickname is, and how he got it. Because it’s pretty, I think, objectively awesome. Muawiya was known, in his time, as “The Son of the Liver Eater”.
The reason he is called the Son of the Liver Eater, is because in the aftermath of one of these battles against the Prophet’s army, Muawiya’s mother, a woman named Hind, found the corpse of a Muslim warrior she didn’t like on the battlefield. This warrior had killed a member of their family, and in a gesture of revenge, she desecrates the man’s body. She takes a knife, cuts out his liver and takes bites out of it raw in front of everyone as a symbolic demonstration of retribution. Now when your Mom has a reputation for spontaneous cannibalism, that tends to follow you around. Which is why Muawiya was often called “Son of the Liver Eater”. He hated this nickname, absolutely hated it, so people usually used it as an insult or called him that behind his back, but to his annoyance it stuck.
That’s the cliff notes version of the anecdote. It’s not all that relevant to the story, but it’s a colorful detail I couldn’t deprive you of. Anyway, moving on.
So when Mecca eventually surrendered to Muhammed in 630 AD, Muawiya and the surviving members of his family were faced with a hard choice. They could cling to their polytheistic traditions and the old way of doing things– or they could play ball and convert to Islam - the religion of the man whom they had hated so much for so long.
Muawiya was technically free to continue practicing his polytheistic beliefs, but what kind of future was that? To be ostracized, shunned, slurred as an unbeliever?
According to most monotheistic traditions, then and now, unbelievers were sent to hell when they died, to suffer forever in “a casket of flames”, as the Quran put it. Well, Muawiya definitely did not want to go to hell. But there was a kind of earthly purgatory he feared even more. Irrelevance. Poverty. Isolation. That was a fate worse than death for a privileged young aristocrat like Muawiya.
So, in the end, he decides to accept Islam and dedicate his life to Muhammed’s new order. It was as much about survival as it was spirituality. As historian Stephen Humphreys puts it, “a conversion of convenience”. He goes on to say that Muawiya was even “indifferent” to Islam. This was about survival and prospects, nothing more.
But what kind of role could Muawiya hope to have in the ummah? He and his family had been trying to kill these people for years? Surely they’d keep him at an arm’s length, always suspecting him of treacherous motives no matter how many times he swore allegiance.
Well, Muawiya had an advantage many of his fellow Meccans did not. We’ve talked about how most Arabs at the time were not literate. Well, Muawiya was. He could read and write. The exact number is up for debate, but he was one of only like 17 people in the entire city who could read and write at this time. As a result, he became one the Prophet’s personal secretaries, and he wrote down many of the recitations Muhammed received in the last two years of his life. Muawiya was partly responsible for bringing the Quran itself into existence.
This allows us to draw a few inferences about who Muawiya was as a person. He was very, very smart – for one. He was also patient, curious, and resourceful. All of these early Islamic figures has a defining trait, if you look closely. Muhammed was charismatic. Ali was honorable. Aisha was brave. Abu Bakr was shrewd. Well, Muawiya was incredibly intelligent - and cunning. And he would put that intelligence to good use in the years to come.
Fast forward to 632, just two years after Muawiya’s conversion to Islam. The Prophet has just died, and Abu Bakr has been proclaimed the new Caliph.
If the Islamic community thought they were finished with war, they were sadly mistaken. One of Abu Bakr’s very first challenges as Caliph was dealing with Arabian tribes who used Muhammed’s death as an opportunity to stop paying taxes to Medina.
Their logic was, “Look we signed a deal with Muhammed. And now he’s dead. So by extension, our arrangement is over; we don’t have to pay you anything.”
Abu Bakr was by all accounts a pretty mild-mannered guy, but he took a very, very hard stance on anyone who reneged on the client agreements Muhammed had spent years hammering out. The future of Islam rested on the survival of this pan-Arabic confederation the Prophet had built, and Abu Bakr would be damned if he was going to let it fall apart on his watch.
As he said at the time: “If they withhold only a hobbling cord of what they gave the Prophet, I will fight them for it,”
And he did fight them for it. For two years, these wars raged across Arabia. They were called the “Ridda Wars” or the Wars of Apostasy, they’re sometimes called. It was one of the most fragile times in the Islamic empire’s history. I could write an entire episode on them but we’ve gotta keep moving. The big thing to know about the Wars of Apostasy is they fully consolidated all of Arabia, once and for all, under the power of Islam. And that newfound stability at home, allowed the Caliphate to start expanding outwards.
Now we need to take a second and zoom out for a bit, to understand the wider geopolitical context in which the new Islamic Empire was developing.
At this time, the broader Middle East was dominated by two warring superpowers. The Persians, in the east. who ruled over modern-day Iran and Iraq. And the Byzantines, the latter-day incarnation of the old Roman Empire. They ruled in the West over Anatolia (That’s Turkey), Syria, Egypt and Palestine.
These two empires had been locked in a bitter struggle for the better part of a couple centuries. To use an old Dan Carlin analogy, they were like two prize fighters who’d punched each other into a state of complete exhaustion. Their resources and manpower had been so drastically depleted by the wars with each other, that they both extremely vulnerable to attack from an outside invader. To make matters worse, both those empires had been ravaged by a nasty strain of bubonic plague the previous century. All someone had to do was step into the ring and deliver the knockout blow.
Abu Bakr, newly crowned as Caliph, realized that to keep the Islamic community from devolving into competing factions, they needed an external goal. And what higher purpose could he call the young men of Islam to than the mission of spreading the Prophet’s message into these old decadent, decrepit empires? As Hugh Kennedy writes:
The leadership had no choice but to direct the frenetic military energies of the Bedouin against the Roman and Sasanian empires. The only way of avoiding an implosion was to direct the Muslims against the non-Muslim world.”
It’s not dissimilar from the situation in one of our older episodes about the Imjin War, in which the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi had to direct the energies of the freshly united Samurai outwards towards Korea, to keep them from tearing themselves apart at home.
To oversee this endeavor, Abu Bakr recruited some of the smartest most capable guys in Arabia. And wouldn’t you know it, our new friend Muawiya was right at the top of that list.
So, in the mid 630s, Muawiya found himself crossing the desert with thousands upon thousands of Arabian warriors into the lands of the Byzantines. Muawiya was no stranger to war and soldiers on the move, but a united Arab army, driven forward by a single grandiose purpose, was beyond anything he’d ever imagined.
The armies of 7th century Islam were simple, but efficient. As Kennedy writes:
The early Muslims had no secret weapons, no mastery of new military technology with which to overpower their enemies. Their advantages were simply those of mobility, good leadership and, perhaps most important of all, motivation and high morale.
The Muslims explode out of Arabia and push in three directions almost simultaneously. North towards Palestine and Syria, West towards Egypt and East towards Iraq and Iran.
Muslim emissaries gave terse and, in their minds, fair ultimatums to the rulers of these new lands. And we actually have a record of one of those proposals, although it’s most likely apocryphal and heavily edited. The towns, and cities and principalities in the Arabs’ path were encouraged to accept Islam. But they had other choices too:
“If you refuse, you must pay the tribute (jiz). This is a bad thing but not as bad as the alternative; if you refuse to pay, it will be war. If you respond positively and embrace our religion, we shall leave you with the Book of God and teach you its contents. Provided that you govern according to the rules included in it, we shall leave your country and let you deal with its affairs as you please. If you protect yourself against us by paying the tribute, we will accept it from you and guarantee your safety. Otherwise we shall fight you.
To the disappointment of countless armchair generals all over the world, we don’t really know a lot about the Muslim armies’ tactics or precise order of battle. We know a few things. We know the Muslims were tactically audacious, inventive, and aggressive, whereas the Byzantines and Persians were much more conservative and risk-averse. We know that the Arabs were fast, they lived off the land, and were unburdened by slow baggage trains or supply lines.
You can actually make more than a few casual comparisons between the Islamic armies of the 7th century and the Mongol armies of the 13th century. Both were poor, tribal societies from a regional backwater, bolstered by a fierce martial tradition, that go on to conquer these old complacent civilizations. Ironically, the sons of Genghis Khan would end up completely upending the civilization that Muhammed and subsequent Caliphs established.
But whatever the Muslims did on those early days, it worked. These Persian and Byzantine armies, weakened and withered by fighting each other, just get annihilated by the Bedouin warriors who formed the backbone of the Arab armies.
Again, we don’t have a ton of detail of how these battles were fought, but one cool thing that does exist in the historical record is poems written by some of these Islamic warriors, commemorating their victories and their accomplishments in battle. As previously mentioned, the early Muslims were not a highly literate society, but they were brilliant poets and orators. For example, here’s one of those poems, composed by a Bedouin warrior. Or possibly written from his perspective; again, it’s all a bit fuzzy when you go this far back:
We came upon them at dawn with our tall steeds, lean and sinewy
and spears whose steel was as burning flame
And swords that reap the necks, keen and sharp of edge, kept carefully
in the sheaths until time of need
And war-mares, springing lightly, of eager heart, strongly knit
together, not to be overtaken
We came upon their host in the morning, and they were like a flock
of sheep on whom falls the ravening wolf.
It’s beautiful, evocative stuff. And you can imagine these Bedouin fighters sitting around a campfire, swapping poems and spitting rhymes about this or that victory they had achieved in the badlands of Syria or the lush river valleys of the Fertile Crescent.
Muawiya, might’ve been there around a campfire like that, listening, absorbing, calculating. He wasn’t a great warrior like Ali or these Bedouin killers that were piercing deep into the heart of Byzantium. But he instantly realized that with men like these on his side, there was little he could not achieve. And the winding wheels of ambition started to spin in Muawiya’s big brain.
He would never be fully accepted back in Medina. He knew that. They would always distrust him for his family’s role in the early wars against the Prophet. But maybe he could forge a new path for himself among the ashes of these crumbling empires? Even in those early days, Muawiya might’ve imagined himself someday holding the title of Caliph. It would take a combination of intelligence, ruthlessness, and patience. And Muawiya possessed all three.
Back in Medina, the oasis capitol of the blossoming Islamic Empire, other, more personal, struggles were being waged.
AISHA – The Second Moon
Many of you, I’m sure, have spouses or significant others. And many of you, I’m sure, have had occasional moments of anxiety about what life would be like without them. If by some accident, disease, or act of violence, they died.
It’s a very human feeling, that fear of losing someone you’ve built your entire life around. And many of you, I’m sure have lost people you love. That grief is something you can never really understand unless you’ve felt it. This is the headspace I try and put myself in when thinking about Aisha during this time period.
In 634 AD, Aisha was in her early twenties. She couldn’t have been more than 23 or 24 years old. Being a widow at that age must’ve been hard enough, but it was compounded by her new status as a “Mother of the Faithful”. If you’ll recall from the end of last episode, this meant that she could never remarry after Muhammed died. She could never go on dates, have sex, or enjoy physical or emotional intimacy with another man ever again. It was a vow of celibacy, and in many ways, isolation. It was a choice she’d been given by Muhammed, and one she’d willingly accepted.
As empty as her life must’ve seemed in the weeks, months, and years after Muhammed’s death, Aisha filled it with a newfound sense of purpose. She had spent the majority of her adolescent life in the constant companionship of her husband. But with Muhammed gone, she needed a new direction. This is something you’ll hear a lot from grief counselors; Find a goal, a sense of meaning, something to dedicate your daily energies towards.
Aisha found meaning as a kind of historian and chronicler. She knew Muhammed better than anyone. Better than his other wives, better than Ali, better than his own daughter Fatima. And so in the years after his death, she became a vital resource of stories and anecdotes about his life. These accounts formed a large portion of what is called the hadith, or the accounts of Muhammed’s life that form a bulk of the historical record about his life. As my favorite source on this subject, Lesley Hazelton write, Aisha’s hadith included:
“… things large and small, from great matters of principle to the most minute details of when he washed and how, even what kind of toothpick he used to clean his teeth. The Sunnis would eventually name themselves for the sunna; they would own it, as it were, despite the fact that the Shia honor it too.”
As his favorite wife, Aisha saw the Prophet in ways that most people never did. Muhammed himself had acknowledged the level of emotional intimacy they shared, saying: “You understand immediately whether I am pleased or angry with you and I understand immediately whether you are pleased or angry with me.”
It always hurt her that she had never been able to have children of her own with the Prophet, but she could at least see that he lived on in this other way.
That said, Aisha was still very much her own person. The title of “Mother of the Faithful” came with influence, clout, and power. She was consulted constantly for advice on matters of state and administrative questions. As a widow of the Prophet and daughter of Abu Bakr, the Caliph, Aisha was probably the most powerful woman in Arabia at this time.
But that didn’t mean she lived in a lap of luxury. In fact, quite the opposite. Aisha, by most accounts was extremely frugal and lived in almost-ascetic simplicity. She was given lands and estates by her father Abu Bakr, but she mostly lived an unpretentious, intensely religious life. During her marriage to Muhammed, she had lived in a tiny, cramped, dwelling in Medina that was barely big enough to stand up in. She talks about how they had no oil to burn at night for a light source. And despite her prominence, she clung to that bare-bones existence. She did her own housework, cooked her own food, and wore patchy clothing. She also fasted constantly, saying:
“I never ate enough to become full, even after the Messenger of God.”
As Muhammed had often advised his followers: “Be in this world as if you were a stranger, or a wayfarer”. In other words, leave with what you came into this world with, nothing.
In time, a sense of calm and purpose came back into Aisha’s life.
But then, two years after the Prophet’s death, in 634 AD, she got more bad news. Her father, the Caliph, was dying. So, she goes to see him, and in another likely apocryphal story, they have this conversation on his deathbed. It’s very Shakespearean, it feels tailor-made for the stage. She asks what he wants to wear when he’s buried, thinking he’d want some ornate robe or special garment. Surprisingly, he insists on being interred with the simple, stained clothing he’d been wearing.
Aisha objects, “but that one is old.” He was the Caliph, the first successor to Muhammed. Surely, he should be buried in fresh clothes? Something befitting his position? But Abu Bakr, as the life leeched out of him, insisted: “That is okay. Living people have more need for new clothes than dead ones. Either way, the shroud of death will decay.”
He passed away shortly after, and in that moment, Aisha remembered her dream from when she was a teenager. The three moons hanging in the air, and dropping into her lap like white apples, one by one. Muhammed had been the first moon to fall. And now, the second moon had turned out to represent her father.
The only question left was: When would the third moon fall? And who would it be?
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While Aisha embraced her new role as “Mother of the Faithful” and Muawiya pushed deeper with the Muslim armies into Byzantium, Ali was living a much simpler, and in some ways, sadder existence.
The years had not been kind to the Lion of God, or to his family. And the problems could all be traced back to the night that Abu Bakr first became Caliph, just 48 hours after the Prophet’s death.
We’ve already discussed how Ali grudgingly acknowledged Abu Bakr’s claim to the Caliphate, but we haven’t talked about the circumstances surrounding that critical decision. And the consequences that it had for Ali’s loved ones.
So, let’s set the scene.
Ali and his family were mourning the death of Muhammed in their house back in June of 632. He was there with his wife, Fatima, and their two sons, Hasan and Hussein, who were about 8 and 6 years old at the time, respectively. Death can be a hard thing for kids that age to grapple with, and Ali and Fatima likely struggled to explain to these little boys that their grandfather was gone.
Sometime in the night, Ali hears a knock at the door and a voice outside. On the other side of the paper-thin wooden door, were dozens of Abu Bakr’s supporters. Ali had not given his oath of allegiance to the new Caliph yet, and they were there to make sure he did. Ali was the only other serious contender for the title, and if the ummah was to remain intact, he needed to “bend the knee” as they say in Westeros.
When I first read about this incident, I instantly got the vibe of a spaghetti Western. It’s the tension, right? You’ve got the large posse of enforcers, armed with torches, surrounding an isolated farmhouse. And leading this posse, was a man named Omar. Sometimes he’s called Umar.
Omar was a huge man. Tall, intimidating, and hot-tempered. ”Severe” is the word some sources use to describe him as. Like Ali and Abu Bakr, he was one of Muhammed’s most trusted companions. He was the one who had nominated Abu Bakr for the position of Caliph in the first place, and he was determined to clinch that victory with a full pledge of allegiance from Ali. One way or another.
Ali hears Umar’s voice on the other side of the door. We don’t know exactly what was said, but the gist was this: Ali, you have two choices. Either come out right now and pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr, or we will burn your house to the ground with everyone inside.
This ultimatum must’ve shocked Ali. Violence between Muslims as absolutely forbidden in the recitations of the Quran. The Prophet hadn’t been dead a week and already threats were being casually thrown around. It’s hard to imagine how angry this must have made Ali and Fatima. How dare he, they would’ve thought? They were Muhammed’s family, his blood, and now these usurpers were threatening to burn them alive? Are you kidding me?
The two factions had a contentious history.
Ali saw Aisha’s hand in everything, that manipulative honeypot who’d managed to wrap Muhammed around her little finger. Abu Bakr, her father, had stolen leadership of the ummah from him, finally exacting their revenge for Ali’s role in the affair of the necklace all those years ago. And now Umar, loyal attack dog that he was, was here to enforce the coup that had just been orchestrated before the Prophet’s body was even cold.
At least that is the Shia view. The Sunnis maintain that Abu Bakr was simply the best man for the job. And the group, fairly, democratically selected him.
After hearing Omar’s threat, Ali shouts through the door that ‘no, he would not come out. This group surrounding the house, led by Omar, must have been a pretty sizeable crowd. Because Ali said later in life that “If I had had only forty men, I would have resisted with force”. So if forty men were considered an underdog amount, Omar must’ve brought a lot of guys with him to ensure Ali took the oath. But nevertheless, Ali refused to budge.
Omar’s bluff had been called. The threat to burn down the house had not worked. He’d only intended to rattle Ali into compliance, but his intimidation tactic proved too extreme. No one would dream of hurting the Prophet’s closest blood relatives.
To a hammer, every problem is a nail. And Omar was a hammer-and-nail kind of guy. So he does the one thing that makes sense. He kicks down the door and forces his way inside. 200 pounds of Omar burst through the flimsy wooden frame, right into 110 pounds of Fatima, Ali’s wife. Maybe she was walking in front of it in that exact moment, maybe she was listening, it’s hard to know for sure, but she gets knocked down to the ground hard.
Everyone freaks out, because Fatima is pregnant. Extremely, visibly pregnant. Third trimester, pretty much about to pop.
Omar was a hard man, but he wasn’t hard-hearted. All he could was look at Fatima grimacing on the floor, Ali reaching for his sword, and their two small children cowering in the corner. He backs away and tells his men outside to retreat. They had never intended for it to go that far. Fatima was Muhammed’s daughter. Like a niece to Omar. And he, presumably, instantly regretted his act of aggression.
But the damage had been done. A few weeks later, Fatima gave birth to a stillborn child. It was impossible to prove that the miscarriage had been a result of Omar’s violence, but in the Shia side of the story, it definitely was related.
Abu Bakr and Omar knew they had overplayed their hand. They couldn’t compel Ali to pledge allegiance by brute force, but there were other ways of pressuring him to come around. Abu Bakr proceeds to use a loophole in Muhammed’s own scripture to disinherit Ali and Fatima of their lands, money, orchards, and herds of animals.
Muhmmed had once said “We do not have heirs. Whatever we leave is alms” – meaning charity. In other words, all of Muhammed’s lands and money did not go to his daughter, but to the Muslim community. It was technically true, but it was a cynical act of textualism if I’ve ever heard one.
All of this stress, pain, and misfortune weighed heavily on Fatima. And just a month after Muhammed died, Fatima passed away from complications from her miscarriage. She wasn’t a day over 27 years old.
In a handful of weeks, Ali had gone from the Lion of God to a cautionary tale. His father-in-law, the Prophet was dead. His young wife was dead. His two young sons – after losing their mother at that age, they would’ve been beside themselves. All Ali could do was give in and pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr. As much as it hurt him to do so. He must have hated these people, blamed them for everything, but if he did, he kept it bottled up tight inside.
Ali once said that the world was like a snake, “whose touch is smooth, whose venom is lethal.” And life had bitten him in in the cruelest way.
While Abu Bakr’s armies suppressed dissent in the Wars of Apostasy, Ali stayed home. He would recognize Abu Bakr as Caliph, but he would never lift his sword arm for him.
But then, in 634 AD, Aisha’s second moon fell to earth. Abu Bakr was dead.
For a second, Ali might’ve thought maybe Abu Bakr, on his deathbed, would understand the mistake he had made. Maybe he would make things right, heal the divisions between the ummah, and appoint Ali as his successor.
But he does not do that. Instead, he appoints none other than Omar as the next Caliph. The same man who had threatened to burn Ali’s house and knocked his pregnant wife to the ground two years earlier. That was the man, Ali thought, who Abu Bakr deemed worthy of carrying on the Prophet’s legacy.
Omar would reign much longer than Abu Bakr. And this is when the timeline starts to dilate considerably. Weeks turned into months turned into years. People get older, wiser, and in some cases angrier. Under Omar, the second Caliph, Islam became the expansionist force of nature that brought old empires to their knees. And no one had a better front row seat to that, than our ambitious climber, Muawiya.
Muawiya, Governor / Death of Omar
The Byzantines had a fearful reputation. They were the heirs to the old Roman empire. Masters of the Mediterranean. But they fell like leaves to the armies of Islam. During Omar’s reign, the Muslims inflicted horrific defeats on Byzantine armies, taking province after province and capturing city after city. For the soldiers of Islam, the conquests bought massive wealth and land and converts. They were spreading their religion and getting paid well to do it. As historian Robert G Hoyland writes:
Since God was sanctioning the fighting and the acquisition of booty, there is no need to debate whether Muhammad’s west Arabian soldiers fought more for gain or for God—the two were inseparable. They were also mutually reinforcing: the gains won by fighting for God made His warriors more desirous to serve Him in war and worship.
The Byzantines were terrified of this onslaught naturally. Religious propaganda and horror stories abound. For example, here’s a hysterical warning from one church leader:
“the Saracens who, on account of our sins, have now risen up against us unexpectedly and ravage all with cruel and feral design, with impious and godless audacity.”
But there was nothing the Byzantines could do. As far away as Gaul and Italy, people we hearing about the vicious rape of the Christian world by Bedouin beasts. But in reality, the armies of Islam were not any worse or better than any other army who’d marched across the Middle East. They wanted taxes, maybe some religious converts. As long as you picked one of those two choices, you were good.
There’s not a religion on earth that hasn’t been used to justify the acquisition of land, money, power and slaves. Abu Bakr and Omar were just following a long historical tradition of ‘might makes right”.
By 640 AD, Islam had a glittering new regional capital in the conquered city of Damascus, Syria. In fact, some of that architecture still stands today. (Although I wouldn’t recommend going there on vacation unless you have a bullet proof vest and maybe your own, uh, tank or security detail). Well, Omar decided he needed a governor for Damascus, a person to oversee the interests of the Caliphate in that region. The man he chose, unfortunately, died of plague. So, Omar went for the next guy in line. And that man just happened to be Muawiya.
Muawiya is often portrayed in Islamic history as a bit of an aberration. An outsider. He was, fundamentally, a political animal. He knew how to flatter and lie, cajole and manipulate. But he was also rational. If he could, he would avoid solving problems with a sword when the pen would do. As he often said:
“If there be but one hair binding someone to me, I do not let it break. If he pulls, I loosen; if he loosens, I pull. I do not apply my sword where my whip is enough, nor my whip where my tongue is enough.”
Just ten years after he’d converted to Islam a broken and shamed man in Mecca, Muawiya was governor of Syria, one of the most powerful people in the Middle East, beholden to no one but the Caliph Omar himself.
This was the greatest game on earth, Muawiya must have thought. More thrilling than any high-class Damascus whore or fighting Byzantines in the desert. To twist men into the shapes you wanted. To pluck the invisible strings of the world around you like a well-tuned instrument, that was what Muawiya loved most.
He was disciplined, decadent, and dangerous.
Sunnis and Shias alike confer a type of supervillain status on Muawiya, but there is always a current of respect running through the disdain. He was freakishly smart and completely unburdened by the piety that constrained Ali, Fatima, Aisha, even Abu Bakr and Omar. Remember, his conversion was one of convenience. And being a Muslim had turned out to be very convenient for Muawiya, the new big boss of Damascus.
He would run that town for the next twenty years from a green-tiled palace called Al-Khadra, or “the Green One”. And much to the chagrin of some of our other characters, his designs would extend far beyond the walls of that glittering city.
Muawiya’s rise to power was a thing to be proud of. An accomplishment.
The second Caliph, Omar, had a lot to be proud of as well, when he sat down to pray at a mosque on October 31st, 644 AD. In his ten-year reign, he had presided over an explosive expansion of the Caliphate. The lands of Islam stretched from the pyramids of Egypt to the flood plains of Iraq and Iran. The Byzantines had been thrashed, Persia had been annihilated, even Jerusalem had been conquered. It was a true empire, something his friend Muhammed could never have envisioned. He no doubt hoped that his old companion might be proud of him, if he could see what Omar had achieved for the faith.
But Omar had his regrets too. The altercation at Ali’s house the night after the Prophet had died was a sore spot. Especially among the political supporters of Ali, who even after all these years, insisted the Lion of God had been robbed and cheated. Many called Omar a humorless thug and an austere enforcer of Islam.
But he had always been that way. And he would not apologize for it. One time, back when Muhammed was alive, someone had insulted the Prophet on the streets of Mecca. Omar calmly asked the Muhammed for permission to cut off the man’s head. But the Prophet calmed Omar down and reasoned with the offending man, who then converted to Islam, according to the story.
It's hard to know what Omar was praying for that day in 644. But whatever he was thinking about, it ended abruptly when someone stepped up beside him and stabbed him six times in the chest.
The assassin killed himself immediately after. He was a Persian slave, and no one knew for sure why he did it. Some said he was insane. Others said it was revenge for the Islamic conquest of Persia. There may have even been a petty political dispute. But regardless of the motive, the second Caliph was dead a few days later.
Omar was a tank of a man, and he clung to life as long as he could. He knew that dying without naming a successor would plunge the Caliphate into civil war, so he designates a council of six men, all former companions of the Prophet, to decide who would rule. You have to wonder what kind of presence of mind a person can have with six stab wounds, but he managed to make his wishes known apparently; and with that task complete, he died.
News traveled fast, and within days, Aisha heard of Omar’s death. Almost instantly she knew what it meant. Omar was the third moon. Another radiant leader of Islam, pulled down into the dirt. First it was her husband Muhammed. Then her father Abu Bakr. Then the prolific conqueror Omar. But with no more moons in the sky, who would lead Islam? The answer came swiftly as the council of six men convened to appoint Omar’s successor.
Death, disease, and good old-fashioned time had thinned the ranks of the Prophet’s original companions, so they had no choice but to invite Ali to be a part of this council of six men. Who was now in his early 40s. Once again, Ali was a heartbeat away from becoming Caliph. And once again he was passed over in favor of another. For the third time.
The new Caliph would be a man named Uthman. He was not nearly as magnetic a figure as Abu Bakr or Omar, but he was one of the Prophet’s companions; a respected guy with good connections and a solid resume. In some sources he is known as “he of the two lights”, because he had the unique honor of having two daughters who had been married to the Prophet. Two poor girls that Aisha probably ate for lunch back in her heyday.
Ali, obviously, was disappointed in his colleagues’ decision. But again, he felt compelled to back down for the sake of unity. Sunnis and Shias alike agree that Ali was a good man, and neither pride nor vanity would drive him to start a war over a bruised ego. But he wasn’t a doormat. This was the Lion of God, after all. And he couldn’t leave the meeting or assent to the accession of Uthman without issuing a warning. He gave a speech to the council before agreeing to their choice:
“You are all well aware that I am the most entitled to this Caliphate. But by God, I shall resign myself to this situation for as long as the affairs of Muslims are being soundly governed, and as long as there is no injustice except in relation to me alone.”
In other words, you’re screwing me over. I’ll take the L for the good of the community. But the second Uthman here starts deviating from the righteous path, I’m gonna have something to say. Ali couldn’t deny that Abu Bakr and Omar had done right by their people, no matter how much he resented him for the pain they’d caused him personally. They had managed to spread the faith of the Prophet far beyond anything Muhammed had dreamed possible. But Uthman was a wildcard. And it was only a matter of time before this winning streak of Caliphs ran out.
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In the year 655 AD, more than 20 years after the Prophet had died, a huge crowd gathered at the mosque in the oasis city of Medina. They were there for their morning prayers, but all of sudden a lone figure stands up and starts making a speech.
It was a woman. Her face was covered, but everyone immediately recognized the voice. It was none other than the “Mother of the Faithful”. Muhammed’s formidable widow, Aisha.
Aisha looked out over the crowd with growing anger and unease. She rarely called attention to herself in public. Always covering her face, traveling behind a curtain, or sticking to the outskirts of public gatherings. But today was a special occasion. She could not stay silent about what was happening to the Caliphate any longer.
It had been 11 years since Uthman had been declared Caliph by the council of six. When Aisha heard who they had chosen, she was initially relieved. Uthman was a doddering old man, an uncharismatic wallflower in the Prophet’s former entourage, but at least he wasn’t her old enemy Ali.
When Omar had been assassinated, Aisha knew that he symbolized the third moon from her dream. She quickly realized that in the absence of a moon, the night is very dark indeed.
Uthman starts doing stuff as Caliph that raise a lot of eyebrows. He starts appointing family members to important positions, even though they weren’t qualified. He starts engaging in nepotism, favoritism, and outright corruption. He starts flaunting his wealth in ostentatious displays that ran counter to Islam’s humble, generosity-focused ethos.
Many thought Uthman was spitting in the face of everything the Prophet, Abu Bakr, and Omar had stood for. One critic said at the time: “Othman shrugs his shoulders arrogantly, and his brothers stand with him, eating up the property of God as the camels eat up the springtime grasses.”
But that kind of critique could get you killed under Uthman’s Caliphate. Any dissent was crushed by draconian punishments up to and including the death penalty. Uthman had even started calling himself “the deputy of God”, a way of expressing his belief that he was literally doing God’s will on earth, and those who questioned it were flirting with heresy.
This enraged a lot of people. But it particularly enraged Aisha. Not only had Uthman been engaging in such flagrant corruption, he was doing it openly, unapologetically. He had even had the nerve to reduce her annual pension, which was an open challenge to her position as Mother of the Faithful.
Aisha, by this time, was in her early 40s. But she was still that brash, fiery teenager to the core. This was the same woman who’d tricked one of Muhammed’s fiancés into annulling a marriage. The same woman who’d ran the Prophet’s household with an iron fist. Who’d screamed war chants from the rearguard of Islam’s most desperate early battles. How dare he? How dare he belittle her. The greatest of the Prophet’s wives? The Mother of all Muslims, him included?
So Aisha stands up at the mosque and unleashes a blistering takedown of Uthman. She calls him corrupt, decadent, a “dotard”, deviant from the tenets of Islam. To drive the point home, she even engages in a display of prop comedy. She holds up a sandal, and tells the crowd that it was sandal worn by the Prophet himself when he was alive. She says:
“See how this, the Prophet’s own sandal, has not yet even fallen apart? This is how quickly Uthman has forgotten the sunna, Muhammed’s practice!”
Muhammed hadn’t been dead 20 years, and already his successors were forgetting his message. People unhappy with the Caliphate start rallying around Aisha. She may have been a woman, but she was the foremost authority on the Prophet. One of the closest tethers the community had to the founder of their religion. When Uthman heard of the frenzy Aisha was whipping up, he replied dismissively:
“Can the rebels and scoundrels find no other refuge than the home of Aisha?”
He’d never say it publicly, but wasn’t the same woman who had been haunted by scandal her entire life? Whose innocence and fidelity the Prophet himself had doubted at one point before a conveniently-timed revelation? Why should he, Caliph of an Empire that ran from Egypt to the Caucasus, bow to pressure from the woman who supporters of Ali secretly called Aisha Al-Fahisha, or “Aisha the Whore”.
Well, Uthman realized quickly how wrong he was to underestimate her.
Before long, the Caliph has a full-on revolt on his hands. People are calling for his head, day and night. The spark lit by Uthman’s own bad management had been flamed into a raging fire by Aisha, and now the embattled Caliph turned to one man for help. The only person that everyone in the community had at least some respect for.
The Lion of God’s claws had dulled in the 23 years since he’d been outmaneuvered by Abu Bakr and Omar and denied the position of Caliph. But in his early 50s, he was still considered an incredibly wise and pious person. After all, he was the very first male convert to Islam. Surely his word counted for something.
Ali speaks to Uthman and gives some very simple advice. He says, look man, you’ve gotta tone down the nepotism and corruption and all these shenanigans. These people are going to rip you to shreds, and my influence can only go so far. I’m not the Caliph, you are. Only you have the power to lower the temperature of this situation
Things were getting dangerous.
Even Aisha was worried about what she might have unleashed. As she left Medina to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, a critic accused her: “You’re running away after setting the country ablaze!”. In classic Aisha style, she responded that she wished she could tie a stone around the hecklers’ feet, and then throw him into the ocean.
Despite Ali’s advice, Uthman continues provoking his critics, and on June 17th, 656AD, his chickens came home to roost. Rebels stormed the Caliph’s palace in Medina, and broke into his private prayer room. Then, according to Hazelton, this happened:
As Othman fell back, they piled in on him, knives striking again and again. Blood splashed onto the walls, onto the carpet, even onto the open pages of the Quran—an indelible image of defilement that still haunts the Muslim faithful, both Sunni and Shia. Yet still they attacked, even after there was no breath left in Othman’s body. Naila (his wife) flung herself over her dead husband. She begged the assassins not to desecrate his corpse, only to have her blood mixed with his as yet another knife slashed down and cut off part of her right hand. Her dreadful wail of pain and outrage bounced off the blood-spattered walls to pierce the consciences of the attackers; only then did they stop.
Uthman was the second Caliph in a row to be assassinated. But while Omar had been murdered by an insane slave, Uthman had been a victim of a discontented faction within his own empire.
Far away in Damascus, Muawiya received news of the Caliph’s death.
By this point, he had been governor of Syria for just over fifteen years, and that decadent lifestyle had caught up with his health. Muawiya suffered from gout, which if you don’t know is an extremely painful form of arthritis that usually affects the feet or the hands. Henry the 8th is the most famous gout sufferer. It’s a sucky affliction to have in any place or era, but before modern medicine, it was excruciating, and during attacks of this disease, Muawiya would’ve been up sleepless nights, trying to ignore the incessant throbbing in his feet.
But despite the frailty of his body, Muawiya’s mind was still sharper than ever. And he saw a political opportunity in the assassination of Uthman. Somehow, someone had taken a memento from the murder site. They’d grabbed the Caliph’s bloody shirt and his wife’s severed fingers, and transported the mementos back to Syria. Somehow, Muawiya got ahold of these trophies.
He either paid handsomely for the real deal, or just splashed a regular shirt with some blood and cut off a slave’s fingertips, but to the Muslim world, Muawiya had the real thing. And he displayed them in Damascus as a kind of symbol of the rebel factions’ barbarity. And the need for revenge against them.
Clearly, Muawiya was positioning himself as Uthman’s avenger and successor. But he had one little problem. 700 miles to the south in Medina, Ali found himself at the center of a raging political storm. The rebels wanted him to be Caliph. The very next day after Uthman had been murdered, thousands of people crowded into the mosque in Medina to pledge allegiance to Ali. After all this time, Muhammed’s son-in-law accepted the position of rulership over the Islamic world.
This had to be a bittersweet moment for Ali. This is something he had wanted for more than 20 years. He had been cheated, denied, and outwitted out of what he believed to be his inheritance for as long as he could remember. And now, all of a sudden, he had it. Unfortunately, it required the murder of Uthman to make it happen. This is not how Ali wanted to become Caliph.
But things had taken their course, and he had no choice but to accept the support. Who else would it be? That gout-ridden puppet master Muawiya in Damascus? Or one of the other endless parades of old men who could claim to have been in the same room as the Prophet at one point or another? No, Ali thought. This was his time. And his responsibility.
He had to, somehow, stitch the Caliphate back together. But there was one person, who was not about let Ali run the roost. From her power base in Mecca, Aisha seethed at the ascension of a man she had hated since she was a teenage girl.
20 years, three Caliphs, and two assassinations later, the inevitable had finally come to fruition. Muhammed’s favorite son-in-law was taking over the destiny of Islam. She should’ve known this would happen. And it scared her.
Who knows what Ali would do, now that he had power? His anger at her father Abu Bakr, her family, his resentment of the intransigent political forces that had kept him on the sidelines for years, were sharp. Ali in truth, was not a vengeful man, but there was not a person on planet earth who could convince Aisha otherwise. In her mind, Ali as Caliph was an existential threat to her.
Aisha was a middle-aged woman. If she had ever been able to have children of her own, they would be grown up now. With wives and husbands and children of their own. That type of motherhood was impossible for her, but she was “Mother of the Faithful”, and it came with its own set of responsibilities. No one could take that away from her. And as she saw it, a mother protects her children. Especially from unworthy pretenders like Ali.
As of yet, Ali had not taken action against the murderers of his predecessor. Some even said he protected them. This gave Aisha the rhetorical opening she needed.
In the Fall of 656 AD, Aisha gave a speech in Mecca in front of the Kaaba, the sacred cube:
“People of Mecca. The mob of men, the riffraff from the garrison cities, together with boorish Beduin and foreign slaves, have conspired together. They have spilled forbidden blood and violated the sanctity of the sacred city of Medina. This is a heinous crime! A forbidden thing! By God, a single fingertip of Othman’s is better than a whole world full of such people. Seek revenge for the blood of Othman, and you will strengthen Islam!”
“Revenge for Othman!”, the crowd responded.
The irony was apparently lost on everyone in the crowd that less than a year earlier, she had been calling for Uthman’s ouster. But for Aisha, the dead Caliph was useful as a political cudgel against her sworn enemy Ali.
She whipped people in Mecca up into a frenzy. When the letter finally arrived from Ali demanding pledges of loyalty from them, one man grabbed it from the messenger, and starts eating the paper. He chews it up and spits the soggy remnants on the ground. The crowd eats this up, literally. The sentiment in Mecca was clear as a bell. Hashtag not our Caliph.
Mecca becomes a rallying point for critics of Ali. Poets and dissidents start accusing Ali of having orchestrated the murder of Uthman in the first place: “If you, Ali, did not strike the murdered man openly, you surely struck him in secret.” Which was obviously untrue, but once the fake news started spreading, it was hard to pull people back to reality. This was coming to a head.
In the fall of that year, 656 AD, Ali received an urgent message at his home Medina. An army was on the march from Mecca with the intent of forcing him to punish Uthman’s killers. Or more likely, forcing him to abdicate.
And at the head of this army was none other than Aisha.
After all these years, the Prophet’s favorite wife and the Prophet’s son-in-law were heading for a bloody collision course. Muhammed had forbidden Muslims to kill other Muslims, but that sacred taboo was about to be broken thousands upon thousands of times over by the people who he had loved most in the world.
The Islamic civil war had begun.
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Well, I hate to leave you on a cliffhanger, but that is all we have time for in today’s episode. Next time, on the third and final chapter of Prophet’s Dilemma, we will see what happens when these leaders and factions finally clash in open warfare.
I don’t normally do three-parters. I prefer to keep these episodes as standalone experiences, so there’s not anything you have to keep up with, but this story is just too big for a single episode. It needs room to breathe and naturally unspool across the decades. So I appreciate you sticking with me through all the twists and turns.
Look for that third episode to drop in the next few weeks or so. Once we wrap up the story of the Sunni-Shia split, I’ll transition back to my normal standalone format, the typical one and done episode style. Unless…you guys really like this longer, multi-part series thing. Whether you love it or hate it, drop me a line on social media. I love hearing from you guys, so please don’t hesitate to reach out and tell me how I’m doing.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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