This podcast started as a log of my journey through multiple classical Arab histories. Listeners are now invited to join me as I construct a narrative out of the long and often contradictory accounts left to us by the earliest Arab historians. We’ll use their material - and more recent scholarship - to try and understand the political evolution of the Arabs from warring nomadic tribes at the edges of civilization, to the proud rulers of the greatest empire of their time, and then back again. Our vantage point into this world will be their leaders, the “successors to God’s prophet Mohammad”: the caliphs.
The first fitna
Following the caliph’s victory over the Meccan faction at Basra, Ali bin Abi Talib turned his attention towards Syria. The Umayyad Mu’awiya bin Abu Sufyan had governed its lands for nearly two decades and insisted that he would not submit until his kin’s murderers and their unnamed instigators had been punished. This irresolvable dispute culminated to the battle of Siffin, the umma’s bloodiest civil war.
The battle of the camel
As divisions widened within the umma, the battle of the camel marked the first time two muslim armies faced one another in combat. Chiefs of the various clans of Quraysh felt they had the most to lose from the leadership of the community falling into Hashemite hands, and they were the first to make a move against the new caliph.
Ali bin Abi Talib
Legitimating succession within the caliphate was already hard enough, and the rebellion that led to Othman’s death only divided the fractured Umma further. It is in these unenviable conditions that the Hashemite Ali bin Abi Talib will prevail as the Umma’s fourth caliph, fulfilling the hopes of those who believed that he had been chosen by the prophet as his successor in his farewell speech almost 25 years earlier.
For the sake of clarity, I've broken down the glossary into three sections.
This first one lists some of the most prominent men of Quraysh.
* Al Zubayr ibn il Awwam: as one of the four remaining members of the council which had selected Othman as the Umma’s third caliph, al Zubayr stood a chance at leading the Umma himself.* Talha bin Ubaidallah: he was another of the four remaining members of the council. While everything about these events is heavily disputed, Talha is often associated closely with the rebels when they first besieged the city, and it makes him seem like he truly thought they might install him if they overthrew Othman. These accounts fade within weeks of the siege, and Talha is never associated with the rebels who were actually involved in storming the caliph’s house.* Sa’ad ibn abi Waqqas: yet another of the four surviving members of the council. Sa’ad had been keeping to himself for a while now, and unlike most other Qurayshis he is never implicated in agitating against Othman in any way.* Abdallah bin Omar: not one of the electoral council, just a respected member of the Quraysh. Omar’s pious son was widely admired for his piety and demeanor. Coupled with his father’s glowing reputation as the Umma’s second caliph and you’d think he would have made a compelling choice for caliph, but like Sa’ad he kept to himself during this divisive time.
This second one is for the men the Arabs would eventually refer to as their four duhat.
* Dahiya/Duhat: the term dahiya (singular, duhat for plural) most closely translates as “shrewd manipulator” but its connotations in Arabic veer towards subterfuge, slyness, and the ability to confound others. Being deceitful or hurting someone cleverly is not enough to make a dahiya; and to that end dahiyas don’t need to be malicious - they just tended to be. I’ll list the four dahiyas next, keep in mind that when it comes to narrations about these men we need to be more skeptical. Since they earned a reputation for wisdom, later generations basically made up cute stories and attributed the wisest ones to these men. I’ll point some of this out as it happens later. Oh and their speech is ever so clever; it gleans like it has been polished by successive minds over time. * Mu’awiya bin abi Sufyan: dahiya number one. In my opinion the governor of Syria’s status as a dahiya is a little trumped up, and I’ll flesh out what I mean a little more as we go along.* ‘Amr ibn il ‘As: dahiya number two makes a much more persuasive case for being a called a dahiya in my opinion. His agitation against Othman is often quoted as being some of the most effective, and may have had much to do with why the armies of Egypt were so much more receptive to armed rebellion than others. He provides Dr. Wardi with plenty of material to make the case that it was Qurayshi invective against Othman which hinted to the masses that they ought to act on their grievances against him. He, Talha, and Aisha are especially cited, but so are other prominent muslims who weren’t of Quraysh, like the Ansar, who were more open about their criticism of the wayward caliph.* Mughira bin Shu’ba: the first two dahiyas were both Qurayshis, but the other two were from the tribe of Thaqif from Mecca’s old rival city of Ta’if.
Dismissing the grievances brought to him earlier in his reign made sure the discontent the caliph faced would only grow. The sources diverge widely when it comes to these contentious and deeply consequential events, but ultimately Othman had to face the wrath of men who held the caliph solely responsible for all the worrying and confusing changes they were experiencing. The Umma had experienced great change since it was first united by the prophet, but the end of Othman’s reign will leave it with a permanent scar.
Othman in the public eye
The quasi-political system devised by the Arabs to manage the community’s affairs was hastily put together and it mixed tribal norms and islamic ethics haphazardly. The pitfalls of the caliphate were numerous, and Omar’s many changes during his reign were aimed at addressing some of them. Othman’s reign was not marked with any such prophylactic foresight; his rule instead strained the authority of the caliph, one of the many undefined pitfalls of the caliphate as a political system. The tension between the tribal and islamic cultural forces acting on the Arabs begins to flare, and once invisible cracks within the Umma slide into view.
Othman bin Affan
With the confusion of Omar’s assassination and succession behind them, the Arabs were now ready to welcome the reign of yet another of their prophet’s close companions. In this episode we’ll talk more about the new caliph, and take a tour of his many and growing domains.