‘Uthman’s Caliphate

While 'Uthman was a successful merchant, before his election in 23/644 he had, at no time displayed any qualities of public leadership. Among the six members of the electoral council, he was the only one who had never been entrusted by the Prophet (S) or the first two caliphs with leading a raid or an army.

Before the election, he had no political ambitions and can hardly even have thought of himself as a potential candidate for supreme reign. Yet he was put forward as the only counter-candidate to 'Ali. As twice the Prophet's son-in-law, he could better rival 'Ali's close kinship ties with the latter than could the rest. Quite unprepared for his office, he ascended the pulpit after his election and apologized, “O people, we have not been orators. If we live, the oration will come to you in proper shape, God willing”.1

During the election, 'Uthman had twice pledged without hesitation that he would follow the Book of God, the Sunna of His Prophet, and the practice of Abu Bakr and 'Umar, while 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib had cautiously stated that he would do so to the limit of his ability.2 The unabashed favoritism towards his close kin that he showed from the beginning of his reign stood in marked contrast to this commitment. He granted his cousin Marwan Ibn al-Hakam3 the war booty (khums) of Ifriqia and gave his close relatives money from the treasury. He also took the sums of money and borrowed money from the treasury saying, Abu Bakr and 'Umar left what belonged to them of this money, but I take it and distribute to my kin.4

Shortly after his accession, he deposed 'Umayr Ibn Sa'd al-Ansari, governor of Hims, Qinnasrin and Upper Mesopotamia, at his request and turned these provinces over to Mu'awiya. This meant a substantial increase in Mu'awiya's power, which enabled him later to challenge and defy 'Ali. 'Uthman also dismissed 'Amr Ibn al-'As as the governor of Egypt and appointed his own foster-brother 'Abd Allah Ibn Sa'd Ibn Abi Sarh.5 'Abd Allah killed seven hundred men for one man, but 'Uthman only dismissed him and did not reproach him.6 In 25/695, he replaced Sa'd Ibn Abi Waqqas, whom he had appointed the previous year, as the governor of Kufa with a transgressor (fasiq) 7 like 'Umayyad al-Walid Ibn 'Uqbas Ibn Abi Mu'ayt his maternal brother.

He committed wine drinking. He performed praying out of time and one morning he performed four postures (rak'as) in his prayer instead of two and said, “I am drunk, if you wish I can perform more”.8 When Walid Ibn 'Uqba had to be disposed because of, misconduct in the year 30/650, 'Uthman replaced him with another Umayyad, Sa'id Ibn al-'As Ibn Abi Uhayha.9'Uthman also granted the estate of Fadak, which the Prophet (S) had bestowed to his daughter Fatima, and Abu Bakr and 'Umar had confiscated it as a sadaqa, as an endowment for the benefit of Muslim community, to Marwan Ibn al-Hakam his cousin and his son-in-law, as land concession.10

From 30/650, dissatisfaction and resistance were manifested throughout most of the empire. 'Uthman's generosity was now restricted to his kin, who seemed to dominate him. The prominent Companions of the shura more and more lost their influence over him. At the same time, his arrogant mistreatment of several of the earliest Companions, Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, 'Abd Allah Ibn Mas'ud and 'Ammar Ibn Yasir provoked outrage among the pious, as well as among their tribes and clans of Quraysh, to whom they were affiliated and who were liable for their protection.

Among Quraysh 'Amr Ibn al-'As was the first to agitate in Medina against the caliph after his removal from the governorship of Egypt. Another prominent Companion who fell out with 'Uthman was 'Abd Allah Ibn al-Arqam al-Zuhri, a former secretary of the Prophet (S). 'Umar had put him in charge of the public treasury (bayt al-mal) and thought highly of him. Under 'Uthman, he continued his office until 'Uthman sent draft and ordered Ibn Arqam to pay 'Abd Allah Ibn Khalid Ibn Asid the caliph's nephew and brother-in-law 300'000 dirhams and each of his companions 100'000. Ibn Arqam found the amount excessive and returned the draft. When the caliph reprimanded him, calling him “treasurer of us”, he answered that he had considered himself treasurer of the Muslims and resigned, suspending the treasury keys on the pulpit.11

Among the electors, the most active was Talha. He wrote letters to the provinces inciting revolt and made common cause with the rebellions during the siege of 'Uthman's palace. When he later came to Basra for revenge for the blood of 'Uthman, 'Abd Allah Ibn al-Hakim al-Tamimi showed him his earlier letters to him, and he acknowledged having written them.12 'A’isha also wrote letters to the provinces stirring up rebellion, although, after the murder of 'Uthman, she denied it.13

During the final siege of 'Uthman's palace 'A’isha decided to leave, together with Umm Salama, for pilgrimage. In the hope that her presence in Medina might hold back the rebels, 'Uthman sent Marwan and 'Abd al-Rahman Ibn 'Attab Ibn Asid to persuade her to stay for the sake of his safety. Having completed her preparations for the trip she told angrily that she wished 'Uthman were in one of her travel sacks so she could take it along and cast him to the sea.14

'Ali clashed with 'Uthman in particular on questions of the religious law. As the Prophet's cousin and his son-in-law, he evidently saw himself as responsible for the preservation and execution of the norms of the Holy Qur'an and the Prophet's practice. At the beginning of the 'Uthman's reign, he protested against the pardon of 'Ubayd Allah Ibn 'Umar for the murder of Jufayna and al-Hurmuzan. He threatened to carry out the legal punishment when he could lay his hands on him.15

He insisted that the legal punishment for wine drinking be applied to al-Walid Ibn 'Uqba Ibn Abi Mu'ayt and when others hesitated to flog the caliph's half-brother, he himself carried out the flogging.16 The relationship between 'Ali and 'Uthman was, however, not entirely antagonistic. Among the members of the electoral council, 'Ali was 'Uthman's closest kin. His kinship ties made 'Ali a natural mediator between the opposition and 'Uthman. When the general discontent reached dangerous levels in the year 34/659, a group of Meccan and other Companions asked 'Ali to speak to, and admonish 'Uthman. 'Ali thus addressed him, as representative of the people, but 'Uthman was not yet prepared to heed his warnings.17

A year later, when the Egyptian rebels camped at Dhu Khushub, 'Uthman asked 'Ali to meet them at the head of a delegation of the Emigrants while also sent the Medinan Companion Muhammad Ibn Maslama at the head of a group of the Helpers. 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib and Muhammad Ibn Maslama persuaded the rebels to turn back by promising them, in the name of the caliph, redress of their grievances and agreeing the act as guarantors.18

He was to see 'Uthman once more as the Egyptian rebels returned to Medina, outraged by 'Uthman's letter ordering the punishment of the rebel leaders. The Egyptians intercepted the letter.19 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib and Muhammad Ibn Maslama as guarantors of 'Uthman's promises felt obliged to intervene and came jointly to see 'Uthman. When 'Ali informed the caliph of the rebels' new grievance, 'Uthman swore that he had no knowledge of the letter. While Muhammad Ibn Maslama accepted his word, adding that this was the work of Marwan, 'Ali insisted that 'Uthman receive the Egyptians himself and put his excuse to them.

Reminding him of his kinship ties, the caliph pleaded with him to go out to speak to them. The Egyptians were admitted and they stated their grievances. 'Uthman again denied any knowledge of the letter and both 'Ali Ibn Abi Talib and Muhammad Ibn Maslama attested that he was speaking the truth. The Egyptians now demanded that he resign if an official letter with his seal could be sent without his knowledge, but the caliph affirmed that he would not take off a garment with which God had clad him. As the turmoil broke out, 'Ali stood up and left, followed by Muhammad Ibn Maslama. The Egyptians also left and continued their siege.20

Talha was the one toughest against 'Uthman during the siege.21 When Talha prevented the delivery of drinking water to the besieged caliph, 'Ali became angry. He talked to Talha and saw it that water was delivered.22 Looking down from his balcony 'Uthman greeted a group of the rebels among whom he saw Talha. As they failed to return the greeting, he addressed Talha and told him that he did not think he would live to see the day when he should greet Talha and he did not return the greeting.23

On Thursday, Dhu al-Hijja 17, the peace was broken. The act of aggression, opening the civil war, came from the palace. Among the rebels on that day was Niyar Ibn 'Iyadh Aslami, an aged Companion of the Prophet, who called for 'Uthman and, when the caliph looked down from his balcony, lectured him demanding his abdication.24 Abu Hafsa al-Yamani, an Arab freedman of Marwan dropped a rock on him, killing him instantly. The rebels sent to 'Uthman demanding the surrender of the murderer. The caliph once more protected Marwan, asserting that he did not know the killer.

The next day, Friday Dhu al-Hijja 18, 35/ June 17, 656, was 'the battle-day of the palace' (yawm al-dar), and 'Uthman was slain.

Deserted by all but his wife, Na'ila, he faced the inevitable end at peace with himself. Yet he must have felt he himself had to bear a large share of the blame for the disaster. The cancer in the body of the caliphate, which he had nurtured and proved unable to excise because of his doting love for a corrupt and rapacious kin, destroyed him. It was to continue to grow and to sweep away the Islamic meritocracy. 'Uthman's successor, Mu'awiya, turned it, as predicated by a well-known prophecy ascribed to the Prophet (S), into traditional despotic kingdom.

  • 1. Ibn Shabba, 3: 957-8; Baladhuri, Ansab, 6/130.
  • 2. Ibid, 128; Tabari, Ta'rikh, 5/2793.
  • 3. Marwan Ibn al-Hakam Ibn Abi al-'As was 'Uthman's cousin. Hakam Ibn Abi al-'As accepted Islam on the day of the conquest of Mecca. He used to walk after the Prophet (S) and make faces at him. The Prophet had exiled him from Medina to Ta'if and Marwan was born there. 'Umar and Abu Bakr did not let them to come to Medina and stay there, but 'Uthman returned them to Medina. (See Baladhuri, Ansab, 6: 255f; Ibn 'Abd al-Barr al-Qurtubi (d. 463/1071) al-Isti'ab fi ma'rifat al-ashab, ed. al-Shaykh Muhammad 'Ali Muhammad Mufawwadh, Beirut, 2002, 1/ 414f).
  • 4. Ibn Sa'd, 3: 47.
  • 5. 'Abd Allah Ibn Sa'd Ibn Abi Sarh first accepted Islam and he was a secretary to Muhammad (S) The Prophet dictated ”al-kafirin” to him, but he changed it to ”al-zalimin”, he dictated ”'azizun hakim”, he wrote ”'alimun hakim” and so on. Then he apostatized and fled to Quraysh. He claimed that he could say what Muhammad could. The verse:

    Who is a greater wrongdoer than he is who fabricates a lie against Allah, or says, it has been revealed to me while nothing was revealed to him. (Holy Qur’an, 6:93)

    came down about him. At the conquest of Mecca, the Prophet (S) had ordered him to be killed even if he was found beneath the curtains of Ka'ba, but 'Uthman, his foster brother, asked the Prophet to grant him immunity, and he was saved. (See above 28, note 1; Baladhuri, Ansab, 1/454).

  • 6. al-Maqdisi, Mutahhar Ibn Tahir (writing in 355/966), Kitab al-bad' wa al-ta'rikh, ed. Clement Huart, Paris, 1916, 5/201.
  • 7. In the verse:

    Is someone who is faithful (mu'min) like someone who is transgressor (fasiq) ? They are not equal. (Holy Qur’an, 32:18),

    the faithful refers to 'Ali and the transgressor refers to Walid Ibn 'Uqba. See Haskani, 1/572.

  • 8. Ibn Athir, 3: 107.
  • 9. Ibid, 105-7.
  • 10. Ibn Qutayba Dinawari (d. 276/889), al-Ma'arif, ed. Tharwat 'Ukasha, Cairo, 1960, 195.
  • 11. Baladhuri, Ansab, 6:/173.
  • 12. Ibid, 3/28.
  • 13. Ibid, 6/224.
  • 14. Ibid, 192 f.
  • 15. Tabari, Ta'rikh, 5/2796 f.
  • 16. Baladhuri, Ansab, 6/145.
  • 17. Tabari, Ta'rikh, 6/2937.
  • 18. Ibid, 6/2969-71.
  • 19. Ibid, 6/ 2992.
  • 20. Ibid, 6/ 2992-5.
  • 21. Baladhuri, Ansab, 6/125.
  • 22. Tabari, Ta'rikh, 6: 2979; Baladhuri, Ansab, 6/188.
  • 23. Ibid, 6/195.
  • 24. Tabari, Ta'rikh, 6/3004.