One of the blind spots in the outdated discussions among both yet-to-think Sunnis and yet-to-understand Shi‘is is their communal inattention to the fact that the foundational Prophetic peer group (Muhajireen and Ansar) was alarmingly hemorrhaging either due to military duty or because of old age during the 30 years after the Prophet (pbuh) joined heavenly company. When ‘Uthman was on his way out (by assassination) and Imam ‘Ali was on his way in (by virtual consensus) this unabridged development occurred with an ironic twist that the impulsive sectarians (both Shi‘is and Sunnis) fail to notice and scrutinize. And that is the fact that ‘Uthman initially ruled with whatever was left of the good will and good faith and good relations of most of the Muhajireen and the Ansar – tainted by the power mongers of his double-dealing inner circle, while Imam ‘Ali was “elected” by the decreasing numbers of most of the Muhajireen and the Ansar buttressed by a virtual unanimity of all the rest of the Muslim newcomers.
It might be simplistic to say but it is worth expressing: ‘Uthman ruled for about 12 years; his first six years were steady and in line with the Prophetic model—more or less—but his last six years were slowly but surely tainted and corrupted, and eventually the last half of his reign caught up with him and he met his fate in a disorderly manner.
The fading away of the Muhajireen and Ansar societal glue—the cream of the crop of the Prophet’s generation—gave way to the “clash of the Titans”. On one side was the camp of Imam ‘Ali supported by those who had a keen sense of maintaining social justice (Arabs and non-Arabs). The other was the camp of Mu‘awiyah and his internal and external supporters (the Byzantines and Bani Isra’il) who threw equity and social justice to the winds and were busy reviving and consolidating that lost glory of tribal (read nationalistic) advantage and domination.
Thus, what was to follow in the years to come was a series of painful “civil wars”: al-Jamal, Siffin, and al-Nahrawan. These debilitating confrontations could have been avoided if there was an instrument of governance. Such an instrument would have made clear who outstandingly qualifies to be the leader of the Muslims. There would be a procedural shura that nominates or appoints the leader of the Muslims with the eventual backing and ratification of the whole Muslim ummah.
This instrument of governance would also have to spell out how a Muslim ruler would be watched, scrutinized, and even censored if it became necessary. Had this instrument of governance been in place before the assassination of ‘Uthman, the Muslim public would have been spared (in this writer’s view) much of the tension, miscalculations, and fallings-out that began in earnest immediately after the unlawful death of ‘Uthman.
Had this detailed instrument of governance been outlined we would not have had one group of committed Muslims who were obsessive and zealots who believed that legitimate Islamic rule ended with the passing away of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab. In their simplistic “black and white” view, the Muslims had only three legitimate rulers: the Prophet (pbuh), Abu Bakr, and ‘Umar. These were initially known as al-Muhakkimah (in reference to the tahkim (arbitration process) between Imam ‘Ali and Mu‘awiyah)—better known to the average Muslim by the name al-Khawarij. Another strengthened and consolidated trend following the murder of ‘Uthman were those who redoubled their conviction that the leadership (Imamate) of the Muslims had to be in the family descendants of the Prophet (pbuh): whether the Muslim public agrees or disagrees with how that is to be accomplished does not concern them at all. Most of them are generally referred to as Shi‘is.
Another substantial bloc of Muslims ignored or compliantly noticed that the Khilafah was transitioning into a monarchy or kingdom after the leadership of Imam ‘Ali. This “silent majority” was “hijacked” by official Umayyad decree and ceremoniously referred to as ‘Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama‘ah’ or Sunnis.
Can we blame the first generation of committed Muslims of the Muhajireen and Ansar for not being able to draw up a charter for governance knowing that they were overwhelmed with existential issues (internal Arabian conflicts, external superpower wars, homegrown tribal tensions, etc)? To answer that, it might help to ask ourselves: when did the world and its societies begin to set up their charters for governance and constitutions?
Governmental constitutions with all the articles, annotations, and amendments are relatively recent developments in the history of mankind. Sure, we are told that ancient Greece and ancient Rome had their written statutes for governing but the king/ruler in those domains and other domains could annul such “constitutions” and do whatever he decided to do regardless of his population’s longing or determination.
Perhaps that might be the reason why no one knows or remembers anything about those antiquated Greco-Roman “constitutions”. Their only utility appears to be for academics and researchers to dig up “legislative failures of humans governing over humans”.
It may be worth mentioning here that one of the ruler-to-ruled successes in the early history of Islam is ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab as he had a policy of meeting with his governors during the Hajj. ‘Umar listened to what they had to say about their particular circumstances and constituents. This was a long-standing policy by ‘Umar as he would see to it that governors paid close attention to their specific regions and constituents. Had Islamic/Khilafah/Imamate governance continued without the subversion of Bani Umayyah, this general yearly Hajj “policy/business meeting” of the Khalifah with his governors could have developed into an Islamic legislative assembly, an Islamic decision-making congress, or an Islamic house of representatives, centuries before the world developed its parliaments, senates and upper and lower houses of legislation.
The Hajj brings “officials” to Makkah; it also brings “citizens” and “constituents” to Makkah at the same time. What an opportune point in time to have the rulers and the ruled come together to agree upon certain guiding plans, as well as social, political, economic, and even military courses of action.
‘Umar was not content with these singular yearly meetings. He himself would venture into Madinah’s public areas, the market, the “street”, the public square and see for himself, up close and personal, the condition and circumstances of the average everyday Muslim and non-Muslim.
‘Umar would even send out confidants to distant areas to check on both the governors’ and the people’s state of affairs. He would listen to what both had to say: the governors and the constituents. It is reported that towards his last days, ‘Umar contemplated going out to the different regions of the ummah to examine firsthand the affairs of communities and citizens.
This unique mixing of ruler with the ruled came to an end with ‘Umar’s death, never to be observed, apart from the time Imam ‘Ali was in office. The relationship of the Imams with the Muslim public continued in the post-Khilafah period except that the Imams were forcefully denied the duty of executive capacity by the kings who coercively ruled after the khulafa’.
Another tribute to ‘Umar was his confinement of the Prophet’s companions to al-Madinah. He did not permit them to travel freely into the “four corners of the earth”. His rationale may have been that he wanted to protect this select group of committed Muslims from the materialistic temptations of the Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine, and Persian “modernities” around the Arabian Peninsula.
He may have also thought that amateur Muslims in the “periphery” might “hero-worship” these history-making Muslims. In other words, ‘Umar may have felt that the bloc of committed Muslims in al-Madinah, if scattered throughout distant lands, each individual—as meritorious as he is in the Islamic ambiance of al-Madinah—may lose his balance and thus “pull rank” or “use his reputation” to get things executed in a more or less self-centered way.
In hindsight we can appreciate what ‘Umar did. When ‘Uthman became the khalifah he flung the doors wide open for anyone and everyone who wanted to leave al-Madinah to do so and that became a contributing factor to the fitnah that followed. This should not be interpreted to mean that the residents of al-Madinah after leaving it were somehow vile or wicked; absolutely not. But it points to a vulnerability in human nature that succumbs to the accumulation of wealth and a “power base”.
When some committed Muslims left al-Madinah, after ‘Uthman permitted them to do so, they established their own strongholds. ‘Umar was very strict about allocating state-treasury money to anyone. He would see to it that work opportunities and livelihood means were there for the people. If that did not suffice, people would then qualify for what nowadays is called “public assistance”.
But when ‘Uthman was in charge, not only did he rescind ‘Umar’s strict policy, he also began to open-handedly disperse large sums of money from the state treasury. By one account it is said that in one day he gave al-Zubair 600,000 and gave Talhah 200,000 (dinars or dirhams). This “generosity” caused some individuals to become atypically wealthy. And so, they were in positions to acquire palatial residences, buy estates, homesteads, possess assets and fortunes, etc… in Hijaz and beyond.
As a result, something unprecedented ensued: many Muslims were turning into an “underclass”. This social polarity became the fuel for a fitnah. Some of the Prophet’s confidants did not fall into this division; notably among them were Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas and ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Awf who it is said expressed his regret later on for having tipped the balance in favor of ‘Uthman over Imam ‘Ali to lead the Muslim ummah and who as a consequence resumed dispersing much of his wealth to those who were in need throughout the territories of Islam as he did during the time of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. It goes without saying that Imam ‘Ali did not fall into the polarized sides of this first-time civic split among the Muslims.
Every living being shall experience death – and We test you by what is pleasant and what is detestable: for, all of you are returning to Us. (Al-Anbiya’, 35)