IF THERE WAS A SINGLE PERSON WHO SEEMED DESTINED TO BE Muhammad’s successor, it was Ali, his first cousin and the man whose name the Shia were to take as their own. They were, and are, the followers of Ali, or in Arabic, Shiat Ali—Shia, for short.
Ali had been the first man to accept the new faith of Islam. He’d been only thirteen years old at the time, yet he’d remember it with the kind of absolute clarity that marks the most momentous points of one’s life. It had happened just after Muhammad’s first soul-shaking encounter with the angel Gabriel. Still caught up in the utter terror of a human who had come face-to-face with the divine, he had sought refuge in Khadija’s arms, and once she had reassured him—“This truly is an angel and not a devil, and you will be the prophet of this people”—he had called together his closest kinsmen and asked for their support. “Which of you will assist me in this cause?” he asked.
As Ali would tell it, “They all held back from this, while I, although I was the youngest of them, the most diseased in eyesight, the most corpulent in body and thinnest in the legs, said ‘I, oh Prophet of God, will be your helper in this matter.’ ”
Diseased eyes? Corpulent? Thin legs? Was Ali joking at his own expense? His self-description bears no resemblance to the virile yet tender warrior in the brightly colored posters so popular among the Shia faithful, who have little of the Sunni abhorrence of visual representation. On sale in kiosks and from street vendors throughout the Shia heartland, from Lebanon to India, the posters show not an awkward teenager but a handsome man in his forties. The jaw set firm beneath the neatly trimmed beard, the strong eyebrows, the dark eyes raised upward—you might almost mistake his portrait for the conventional image of Christ except that it has more of a sense of physical vitality and strength.
There is the sword for one thing. Sometimes slung over his back, sometimes laid across his lap, this sword was destined to become more famed throughout the Islamic world than King Arthur’s sword Excalibur ever would be in Christendom. Like Excalibur, it came with supernatural qualities, and it too had a name: Dhu’l Fikar, the “Split One,” which is why it is shown with a forked point, like a snake’s tongue. In fact it wasn’t the sword that was split but the flesh it came in contact with, so that the name more vividly translates as the Cleaver or the Splitter.
It had been Muhammad’s own sword, given by him to Ali—bequeathed, you might say. And after he had fought valiantly in battle with this sword, despite multiple wounds, Ali earned the best known of the many titles Muhammad would confer on him: Assad Allah, Lion of God. That is why he is often shown with a magnificently maned lion crouched at his feet, staring out at the viewer with the calm gaze of implacable strength.
The name Lion of God was intended to convey spiritual as well as physical strength, and that is the sense you get from these ubiquitous posters. With his high cheekbones, kohl-rimmed eyes, and green keffiya artfully draped around his head and falling onto his shoulders—the green of Islam from the banner of Muhammad’s clan, the color so evocative of ease and bounty to a mountain desert people—Ali is shown as the perfect Islamic man.
So what if at thirteen he was a shortsighted, spindly-legged adolescent? As Shia Muslims point out, these are not direct portraits but representations. They express the feel of Ali, who he is for them—the man mentored and groomed by Muhammad himself, inducted by the Prophet into the inner, gnostic meaning of Islam so that his understanding of the faith would far surpass that of all others. What does it matter if in life he was not the most handsome man in the world? In spirit is where he lives, stronger in body and in many ways stronger still in influence and respect than when he was alive.
Muhammad seemed to recognize this the moment he heard those first words of unwavering commitment from his young cousin. “He put his arm around my neck,” Ali remembered, “and said ‘This is my brother, my trustee, and my successor among you, so listen to him and obey.’ And then everyone got up and began joking, saying to my father, ‘He has ordered you to listen to your son and obey him.’ ”
It seems clear enough when told this way: not only the designation of Ali as Muhammad’s successor but also the first sign of what Islam would mean—the revolutionary upending of the traditional authority of father over son and by implication of the whole of the old established order. No one tribe would lord it over another any longer. No one clan would claim dominance within a tribe, and no one family within a clan. All would be equal in the eyes of the one God, all honored members of the new community of Islam.
Yet from Ali’s own account, it was not taken seriously. In fact it is not even clear that it was intended seriously. Ali was still a mere stripling, barely strong enough to wield any sword, let alone Dhu’l Fikar, while Muhammad was a man without his own means, an orphan who had been raised in his uncle’s household and whose only claim to wealth was through his wife, Khadija. It made little sense for this seemingly ordinary man, whom his kinsmen had known all their lives, to suddenly declare himself the Messenger of God. The declaration itself must have seemed absurd to many of those who heard it, let alone the idea of appointing a successor. There was, after all, nothing to succeed to. At that moment in time, Islam had only three believers, Muhammad, Khadija, and Ali. How could any rational person imagine that it would develop into a great new faith, into a united Arabia and an empire in the making? Muhammad was a man who appeared to have nothing worth bequeathing.
That was to change over the next two decades. As the equalizing message of Islam spread, as Muhammad’s authority grew, as tribe after tribe and town after town officially accepted the faith and paid tribute in the form of taxes, the new ummah, the community of Islam, grew not only powerful but wealthy. By the time Muhammad lay dying, nearly the whole of the Arabian Peninsula had allied itself with Islam and its unitary Arab identity, and over those years, time and again, Muhammad had made it clear how close he held Ali, the one man who had had faith in him when all others scoffed.
“I am from Ali and Ali is from me; he is the guardian of every believer after me,” he said. Ali was to him “as Aaron was to Moses,” he declared. “None but a believer loves Ali, and none but an apostate hates him.” And most famously, especially for the mystical Sufis, for whom Ali would become the patron saint of knowledge and insight: “I am the City of Knowledge and Ali is its gateway.”
Shia scholars still relate these sayings obsessively as proof of Muhammad’s intention that Ali succeed him, yet not one of these later declarations has the absolute clarity of that word “successor.” Not one of them clearly said, “This is the man whom I designate to lead you after I die.” Always implied, it was never quite stated, so that what seemed incontrovertible proof to some, remained highly ambiguous to others.
One thing was not ambiguous, however. Nobody, Sunni or Shia, denies the extraordinary closeness between Muhammad and Ali. In fact the two men were so close that at the most dangerous point in the Prophet’s life, Ali served as Muhammad’s double.
That had been when the Meccans had plotted to kill Muhammad on the eve of his flight to Medina. While the would-be assassins lay in wait outside his house for him to emerge at dawn—even in their murderous intent, they obeyed the traditional Arabian injunction barring any attack on a man within the confines of his own home—Ali had arranged for Muhammad to escape along with Abu Bakr, and stayed behind as a decoy. It was Ali who slept that night in Muhammad’s house, Ali who dressed in Muhammad’s robes that morning, Ali who stepped outside, risking his own life until the assassins realized they had the wrong man. Ali, that is, who for the space of that night stood in for Muhammad and who finally escaped himself to make the long journey to Medina in the humblest possible fashion, alone, on foot.
In a way, it seemed fated that Ali should take on the role of Muhammad’s double. Despite the twenty-nine-year age difference between the two cousins, there was a kind of perfect reciprocity in their relationship, for each had found refuge as a boy in the home of the other. After his father’s death, the orphaned Muhammad had been raised in his uncle Abu Talib’s household, long before Ali was even born, and years later, when Abu Talib fell on hard times financially, Muhammad, by then married to Khadija and running the merchant business she had inherited from her first husband, had taken in his uncle’s youngest son as part of his own household. Ali grew up alongside Muhammad’s four daughters and became the son Muhammad and Khadija never had. The Prophet became a second father to him, and Khadija a second mother.
Over time, the bonds of kinship between the two men would tighten still further. In fact, they would triple. As if Ali were not close enough by virtue of being Muhammad’s paternal first cousin and his adoptive son, Muhammad handpicked him to marry Fatima, his eldest daughter, even though others had already asked for her hand.
Those others were the two men who would lead the challenge to Ali’s succession after Muhammad’s death: Aisha’s father, Abu Bakr, who had been Muhammad’s companion on the flight to Medina, and the famed warrior Omar, the man who was to lead Islam out of the Arabian Peninsula and into the whole of the Middle East. But whereas Abu Bakr and Omar had given Muhammad their daughters in marriage, he had refused each of them when they asked for the hand of Fatima. The meaning was clear: in a society where to give was more honorable than to receive, the man who gave his daughter’s hand bestowed the higher honor. While Abu Bakr and Omar honored Muhammad by marrying their daughters to him, he did not return the honor but chose Ali instead.
It was a singular distinction, and to show how special he considered this marriage to be, the Prophet not only performed the wedding ceremony himself but laid down one condition: the new couple would follow the example of his own marriage to Khadija and be monogamous. Ali and Fatima, he seemed to be saying, would be the new Muhammad and Khadija, and would have the sons Muhammad and Khadija never had.
Sure enough, the man who remained without sons of his own soon had two adored grandsons, Hasan and Hussein. Only a year apart, they instantly became the apples of their grandfather’s eye. It is said that there is no love purer than that of a grandparent for a grandchild, and Muhammad was clearly as doting and proud a grandfather as ever lived. He would bounce the young boys on his lap for hours at a time, kissing and hugging them. Would even happily abandon all the decorum and dignity of his position as the Messenger of God to get down on all fours and let them ride him like a horse, kicking his sides with their heels and shrieking in delight. These two boys were his future—the future of Islam, as the Shia would see it—and by fathering them, Ali, the one man after Muhammad most loyal to Khadija, had made that future possible.
When Khadija died, two years before that fateful night of Muhammad’s flight to Medina, Ali had grieved as deeply as Muhammad himself. This was the woman who had raised him as the son she never had, and then became his mother-in-law. Devoted as he was to Muhammad, he had been equally devoted to her. It was clear to him that no matter how many wives the Prophet might take after Khadija’s death, none could possibly compare, and least of all the one who seemed the most determined to prove herself superior.
Long before the Affair of the Necklace, then, before those beads went rolling in the desert to set off scandal, Ali remained impervious to Aisha’s sassiness and charm. In his eyes, Muhammad’s youngest wife must have seemed an unworthy successor to Khadija. And the antipathy was mutual. To her, Ali’s devotion to Khadija’s memory was a constant reminder of the one rival she could never conquer, while his two sons were daily reproof of her own inability to produce an heir. She, Aisha, was supposed to be the apple of Muhammad’s eye, not these two adored grandsons in whom the Prophet seemed to take even more delight than he did in her, and certainly not the drab, modest Fatima, their mother, or the superior Ali, their father, who accorded her none of the deference and respect she was convinced she should command.
That rebuke of Muhammad’s for her criticism of Khadija had hit Aisha hard, and since she was not the forgiving type, let alone the forgetting one, the impact of the blow did not lessen with time. If anything, it increased. Banned from any further criticism of Khadija, and unable to compete on the most basic yet most important level—the continuation of the bloodline—she displaced her resentment onto the one person who seemed safe, Khadija’s eldest daughter.
Fatima had none of the robust health and vitality of Aisha. Fifteen years older, she was frail by comparison, almost sickly. She could not make her father laugh with paternal affection as Aisha did, could not tease him, could barely even gain his ear unless it was to do with her sons. Her place had been taken by Aisha, who effectively set about shutting her out. More daughter than wife, Aisha saw herself as competing with Fatima for Muhammad’s affection, and in such a competition, Fatima stood no chance.
It became known throughout Medina that if you wanted a favor from Muhammad, the best time to approach him was after he had been with Aisha because then he was guaranteed to be in a good mood. The young wife had influence, and in one way or another, she used it in a barrage of small slights and insults that Fatima was helpless to counter. Things came to a head when Muhammad’s other wives begged Fatima to go to her father and protest against his favoritism of Aisha. She felt she had no choice but to comply yet must have known that in doing so, she would be setting herself up for humiliation. And indeed, the moment she broached the subject, Muhammad stopped her short.
“Dear little daughter,” he said, “do you not love who I love?”
To which Fatima could only meekly reply, “Yes, surely.”
His question was rhetorical, of course, and though it was phrased in loving terms, you can almost hear the impatience in his voice, the desire to put a stop to this constant bickering among those close to him and have them leave him alone to get on with important matters of state. But he also seemed to be saying that his love for Aisha trumped his love for everyone else.
That is certainly what Ali heard when his wife came home in tears of shame; the insult was not only to Fatima but also to him, and, worst of all, to Khadija. He immediately sought out Muhammad and confronted him, calling him to account for neglecting his blood family. “Was it not enough for you that Aisha should have insulted us,” he said, “but then you tell Fatima that Aisha is your best beloved?” And while the Prophet may have been able to ignore Fatima, he could not ignore Ali. He would now make amends.
He chose the occasion well. The long arm of the Byzantine Empire had reached deep into Arabia, and the town of Najran, midway on the main trade route between Mecca and the Yemen to the south, was the largest center of Christianity in the peninsula. The Quranic message spoke powerfully to Arabian Christians, as it did to several of the Jewish tribes that had fled south from Palestine after failed rebellions against Roman rule centuries before, and that were by now all but indistinguishable in language and culture from their Arab neighbors. Islam was based, after all, on the religion of Abraham. It was widely believed that the Kaaba had originally been built by Adam and then rebuilt by Abraham, and that the Arabs were the descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael. Islam was seen less as a rejection of existing faiths than as an elevation of them into a new, specifically Arabian identity.
Yet Najran was divided. Those in favor of accepting Islam argued that Muhammad was clearly the Paraclete or Comforter whose arrival Jesus had foretold in the Gospels. Those against maintained that since the Paraclete was said to have sons, and Muhammad had no son, it could not possibly be he. Finally they decided to send a delegation to Medina to resolve the matter directly with Muhammad in the time-honored manner of public debate. But Muhammad preempted the need for debate. In a piece of consummate theatricality, he came out to meet the delegation without his usual bevy of counselors. Instead, only his blood family were with him: Ali and Fatima, and their sons, Hasan and Hussein.
He didn’t say a word. Instead, slowly and deliberately, in full view of all, he took hold of the hem of his cloak and spread it high and wide so that it covered the heads of his small family. They were the ones he sheltered under his cloak, he was saying. They were the ones he wrapped around himself. They were his nearest and dearest, the Ahl al-Bayt, the People of the House of Muhammad—or as the Shia would later call them, the People of the Cloak.
It was a brilliantly calculated gesture. Arabian Christian tradition had it that Adam had received a vision of a brilliant light surrounded by four other lights and had been told by God that these were his prophetic descendants. Muhammad had certainly heard of this tradition and knew that the moment the Najran Christians saw him spread his cloak over the four members of his family, they would be convinced that he was another Adam, the one whose coming Jesus had prophesied. Indeed, they accepted Islam on the spot.
But Muhammad’s gesture with the cloak also spoke to Ali and Fatima. There were ties of love and ties of blood, he was saying, and between the two, blood must always come first. There was no room for the childless Aisha under that cloak.
It was only to be expected that Muhammad would turn to Ali for advice on how to proceed in the Affair of the Necklace, but from Aisha’s point of view, he could not have consulted a worse person. Indeed—at least by her account, which is the only one we have—Ali’s advice could hardly have been more blunt. Surprisingly blunt, in fact, since Ali was known for his eloquence. The collection of his speeches and sermons known as Nahj al-Balagha, or the Path of Eloquence, would be taught for centuries as the exemplar of perfection in language and spirit. Famed for his depth and his insight, he would represent the ideal combination of warrior and scholar, courage and chivalry. But at least according to Aisha, there was no hint of chivalry, let alone eloquence, in the advice he now gave.
Perhaps he made a far more sophisticated argument, and Aisha gave only the gist of it. Perhaps he had lost patience with the melodramatic aspect of the whole business, or perhaps he could simply take no more of Aisha. All we know for certain is that while the advice he gave Muhammad might be seen by some as refreshingly forthright, it also seems peculiarly curt.
“There are many women like her,” he said. “God has freed you from constraints. She is easily replaced.” There are plenty more fish in the sea, that is. Divorce her and be rid of the whole affair.
It was the first open expression of the crack in the newly formed bedrock of Islam—the jagged break, barely perceptible at first, that would develop into a major fault line. The casual dismissiveness of Ali’s words, the barely concealed contempt, didn’t just sting but cut to the bone. Yet the casualness is precisely what makes it so humanly persuasive. That throwaway phrasing, that evident disdain, that apparent willingness to believe in Aisha’s infidelity—all this she would hold against him as long as she lived.
There is no record of whatever else Ali may have advised, though he almost certainly said more. Not only is the curtness of his response strangely uncharacteristic, but so too is the fact that it failed to take into account Muhammad’s dilemma. Divorcing Aisha would solve nothing, for the rumors of infidelity would still stand unchallenged, eroding Muhammad’s authority. Resolution could come only by grace of a higher authority, which was exactly what now happened.
After three weeks of indecision, Muhammad went to Abu Bakr’s house to question Aisha himself. There, even as she swore her innocence yet again, he went into a prophetic trance. As she would tell it, “The Prophet was wrapped in his garment and a leather cushion was put under his head.… Then he recovered and sat up and drops of water fell from him like rain on a winter day, and he began to wipe the sweat from his brow, saying, ‘Good news, Aisha! God has sent down word of your innocence.’ ”
It was a divine revelation, perfectly timed. That same day Muhammad proclaimed it in public, in the words that are now part of Sura 24 of the Quran: “The slanderers were a small group among you, and shall be punished. But why, when you heard it, did faithful men and women not think the best and say, ‘This is a manifest lie’? If the slanderers had even produced four witnesses! But they produced no witnesses, so they are liars in the eyes of God…. Why did you think nothing of repeating what others with no knowledge had said, thinking it a light matter when in the eyes of God it was a serious one? Why did you not say, ‘This is a monstrous slander’? God commands the faithful never to do such a thing again.”
It was a glorious exoneration of Aisha, and all the more powerful in that it demanded not one but all of four people to contradict her word. Unless there were four witnesses to an illegal sexual act, it said, the accused was blameless, and the false accusers were the ones to be punished.
For a wronged woman, there could have been no better outcome, yet the form of it would be cruelly turned around and used by conservative clerics in centuries to come to do the opposite of what Muhammad had originally intended: not to exonerate a woman but to blame her. The wording of his revelation would apply not only when adultery was suspected but also when there had been an accusation of rape. Unless a woman could produce four witnesses to her rape—a virtual impossibility—she would be considered guilty of slander and adultery, and punished accordingly. Aisha’s exoneration was destined to become the basis for the silencing, humiliation, and even execution of countless women after her.
She had no idea that this would be the case, of course. What she knew was that the accusations against her had been declared false, and by no less than divine authority. Her accusers were publicly flogged in punishment, and the poets who had composed the most scurrilous verses against her were now suddenly moved to compose new ones in lavish praise of her. She returned to her chamber in the courtyard of the mosque and resumed her role as the favorite wife, though now with the added status of being not only the sole person in whose presence Muhammad had received a revelation but also the only one to have had a revelation specifically about her.
Nevertheless, she paid a price. The days of her freedom to join Muhammad’s campaigns were over. With the exception of the pilgrimage to Mecca, she would not travel those desert routes again for as long as Muhammad lived. She must certainly have missed the adventure of those expeditions, perhaps also the guilty thrill of being so close to warfare. Fearless, even reckless, she would have made a fine warrior, but it would be all of twenty-five years until she would see battle again.
There was another price too, though again, Aisha had no way of knowing the full extent of it. The sight of her riding into Medina on Safwan’s camel had branded itself into the collective memory of the oasis, and that was the last thing Muhammad needed. In due course, another Quranic revelation dictated that from now on, his wives were to be protected by a thin muslin curtain from the prying eyes of any men not their kin. And since curtains could work only indoors, they would soon shrink into a kind of minicurtain for outdoors: the veil.
The Revelation of the Curtain clearly applied only to the Proph et’s wives, but this in itself gave the veil high status. Over the next few decades it would be adopted by women of the new Islamic aristocracy—and would eventually be enforced by Islamic fundamentalists convinced that it should apply to all women. There can be little doubt that this would have outraged Aisha. One can imagine her shocking Muslim conservatives by tearing off her veil in indignation. She had accepted it as a mark of distinction—but as an attempt to force her into the background? The girl so used to high visibility had no intention of being rendered invisible.
Meanwhile, if Muhammad had ever doubted her, it was easy to forgive him, but not Ali. Even as Muhammad lay dying seven years later, the events that would eventually place Aisha at the head of an army against Ali had already been set in motion. That advice he had given the Prophet would rankle throughout her life. Indeed, it rankles still today. Al-Mubra’a, the Exonerated, Sunnis still call her, but some Shia would use a different title for her, one that by no coincidence rhymes with her name: Al-Fahisha, the Whore.