IF YOU WERE A BELIEVER IN FATE, YOU MIGHT THINK THAT ALI was destined never to be Caliph, and that when he finally did accept the caliphate twenty-five years after Muhammad’s death, he was provoking fate and thus the tragedy that would follow. He would be passed over not once or even twice, but three times in those twenty-five years, and all that time, he said, he lived “with dust in my eyes and thorns in my mouth.”
Dust and thorns are a vivid image of life in exile—not physical but existential exile, from one’s sense of purpose and self. But for Ali, the image was also cruelly ironic. The Lion of God was only one of the many titles the Prophet had bestowed on him; the one that would haunt him now was Abu Turab, Father of Dust. A lowly title to Western ears, but not to Arabian ones.
Some say that the name came from the dust thrown up by the hooves of Ali’s horse as he charged into battle. Others that it was from the time Muhammad found his young cousin deep in meditative prayer despite a raging sandstorm, his robe white with blown dust. Yet others that it came from the early years in Medina, when Ali had worked as a manual laborer, hauling stones and water, an image that was to establish him as the champion of working people, a bridge between the early Arabian Muslims and the new Muslim masses to come.
All three are possible, and in all, the dust was a mark of honor. It still is. The Shia faithful still gather dust from the sandy soil of Najaf, the city surrounding Ali’s gold-domed shrine a hundred miles south of Baghdad, then press it into small clay tablets that they place in front of them as they pray so that wherever in the world a Shia prostrates himself in prayer, the soil his forehead touches is sacred soil.
That same soil is where Shia from all over the Middle East still ask to be sent for burial, as they have for hundreds of years. The shrouded bodies once transported like rolled-up carpets by mule and camel now arrive by car and truck. They are carried in procession around the shrine of Ali in Najaf or that of his son Hussein in Karbala, then to one of the vast twin cemeteries known as the Vales of Peace, there to rise together with Ali and Hussein on the Day of Judgment, when their descendant the Mahdi will return to lead a new era of truth and justice.
But truth and justice must have seemed a long way off to Ali in those days after Muhammad’s death. “Woe to the Helpers of the Prophet and to his kin,” wrote one of his Medinan supporters. “The land has become narrow for the Helpers and their faces have turned black as kohl. We have given birth to the Prophet and among us is his tomb. Would that on that day they covered him in his grave and cast soil on him, God had left not a single one of us, and neither man nor woman had survived him. We have been humiliated.”
A Hashimi poet put it more succinctly: “We have been cheated in the most monstrous way.”
They had been disinherited, deprived of what they saw as their rightful place, the leadership of Islam. And this sense of disinheritance would sear deep into Shia hearts and minds, a wound that would fester through to the twentieth century, there to feed off opposition to Western colonialism and erupt first in the Iranian Revolution, then in civil war in Lebanon, and then, as the twenty-first century began, in the war in Iraq. Disinheritance was a rallying cry, which was why the classic anticolonial text of the 1960s, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, became an Iranian best seller with a pointed change in title, one specifically designed to speak to the Shia experience: The Disinherited of the Earth. The time was coming, as it eventually would for Ali himself, when the Shia would reclaim their inheritance, in however embattled a form. But first, the dust and thorns.
The thorns were felt immediately. Even while others lined up to pledge public allegiance to Abu Bakr as Caliph, the man who had been passed over remained with his family inside his house. He was in mourning, he declared, and this was certainly so, but his refusal to come out and pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr was also a clear gesture of defiance, and a major challenge. If Ali held out, the Medinan Helpers might renege on their allegiance and follow him, overturning the outcome of the shura. Ali had to be pulled into line, and quickly, so Abu Bakr delegated Omar to deal with the problem. But by doing so, he only worsened it.
The choice of a stern military man like Omar for what was surely a diplomatic task was at the least unfortunate. Omar’s courage and skill as a commander were beyond question, but so too was his reputation as a man quick with the whip, “too severe” to bother with verbal niceties. He was not a man of finesse, and he demonstrated as much that night. He gathered a group of armed men, led them to Ali’s house, stationed them around it, then planted himself right in front of the door. Ali should come out and pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr, he shouted. If not, he and his men would burn down the house.
“If I had had only forty men, I would have resisted with force,” Ali said later. But that night only the members of his immediate family were with him: the Ahl al-Bayt, the People of the House. Ali chose passive resistance instead, and refused to budge.
Short of actually following through on his threat and killing all of Muhammad’s closest family, Omar was left, as he saw it, with only one option. If Ali would not come out, then he, Omar, would have to force his way in. He took a running leap and threw his whole weight against the door, and when the latches and hinges gave and it burst open, all six feet of him came hurtling through, unable to stop as he slammed full force into the person who happened to be on the other side of the door at that moment. That person was Fatima, several months pregnant with the Prophet’s third grandson.
Some say she was only badly bruised. Others that she broke her arm as she fell. But all agree that even Omar was stunned by the sight of the Prophet’s heavily pregnant daughter doubled over in pain at his feet. As Ali bent over his injured wife, Omar retreated without another word. He had made his point.
A few weeks later, the fragile Fatima gave birth to a stillborn infant boy. Nobody was sure if the miscarriage was a result of her being knocked down by Omar or whether she was so frail that it would have happened regardless. Either way, some overture might have been warranted from Abu Bakr, or at least from Omar, but there was none. Indeed, there was less than none.
To add insult to the injury that had already been done her, Fatima would now lose the property she considered hers. Soon after her miscarriage, she sent a message to Abu Bakr asking for her share of her father’s estate—date palm orchards in the huge oases of Khaybar and Fadak to the north of Medina. His response left her dumbfounded. The Prophet’s estate belonged to the community, not to any individual, Abu Bakr replied. It was part of the Muslim charitable trust, to be administered by him as Caliph. He was not at liberty to give it away to individuals. “We do not have heirs,” he said Muhammad had told him. “Whatever we leave is alms.”
Fatima had no alternative but to accept his word for it. Abu Bakr’s reputation for probity was beyond question, whatever her suspicions. Sunnis would later hail his stand as affirming the supremacy of the community over individual hereditary rights. “You are not the People of the House,” Abu Bakr seemed to be saying. “We are all the People of the House.” But the Shia would be convinced that Muhammad’s closest family had now been doubly disinherited, or cheated, as the poet would have it: Ali out of his inheritance of leadership, and Fatima out of her inheritance of property.
There was no denying the populist appeal of the message Abu Bakr sent by denying Fatima’s claim: the House of Muhammad was the House of Islam, and all were equal within it. But as ever, some were more equal than others. Even as he turned down Fatima, Abu Bakr made a point of providing generously for Muhammad’s widows—and particularly for his own daughter Aisha, who received valuable property in Medina as well as on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, in Bahrain.
It was the final straw for Fatima. That her father’s uppity youngest wife should be rewarded and she, his firstborn by his first and most beloved wife, should be rebuffed? She never did recover from her miscarriage or from the bitter argument with Abu Bakr. But perhaps most painful of all in those months after the loss of her third son was the ostracism she suffered, ordered by Abu Bakr to force Ali into line.
In a close-knit society, boycott is a powerful weapon. The pressure to conform mounts as day by day, week by week, you become increasingly invisible. People turn their backs; friends keep their distance; acquaintances pass by in silence, staring through you as though you were not there. Even in the mosque, Ali prayed alone.
Ironically, the same weapon had earlier been used in Mecca against Muhammad and his clan. Despite its power, it had failed then, which was why the Meccan elite had resorted to attempted murder, and it would fail now. Fatima refused to bow to the pressure. When she knew death was close, she asked Ali for a clandestine burial like that of her father less than three months before. Abu Bakr was not to be informed of her death, she said; he was to be given no chance to officiate at her funeral. She was to be buried quietly, with only her close family, the true Ahl al-Bayt, in attendance.
If Aisha felt any sense of triumph on hearing of her rival’s death, she was unusually quiet about it. But she had no need to exult. She was now doubly honored: the widow of the Prophet and the daughter of his successor. Triply honored, indeed, for her chamber by the courtyard wall of the mosque was also Muhammad’s grave.
You can see how some might treasure the image of the young widow sleeping with her husband buried under her bed. It has a touch of magical realism, like a scene from a novel by Gabriel García Márquez, but this is no novel, and the reality is that Aisha never slept in her chamber again. All the widows were moved out into private quarters away from the mosque, each with a generous pension—and Aisha’s more generous than the others. She would not eat and sleep for the rest of her life in the company of her dead husband, though she would certainly live as if she did.
Where she had striven so hard to own Muhammad in life, it now seemed she would succeed in owning him in death. She would become a major source of hadith—the reports on the Prophet’s practice, or sunna, in 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.
Yet no matter how many hadith would be attributed to Aisha—and there were thousands—the future would not be kind to her. As long as she lived, she was honored as the leading Mother of the Faithful, but in memory she was destined to remain an embattled symbol of slandered virtue. In later centuries, conservative clerics would point to her as an example of the division they claimed ensues when women enter public life, as Aisha would so disastrously when Ali finally became Caliph. Everything that makes her so interesting to the secular mind—her ambition, her outspokenness, her assertiveness—would work against her in the Islamic mind, even among Sunnis.
And no matter how pale an image Fatima left in comparison with Aisha, no matter that she died young and never got a chance to dictate her own version of history, time would favor her. The Shia would call her Al-Zahra, the Radiant One. If she seemed anything but radiant in life—a pale, almost self-effacing presence—that was of no importance. This was radiance of spirit, the pure light of holiness, for the Prophet’s bloodline ran through Fatima and into her two sons.
In Shia lore, Fatima lives on in another dimension to witness her sons’ suffering and to weep for them. She is the Holy Mother, whose younger son would sacrifice himself to redeem humanity just as had the son of that other great mother, Mary. Like her, Fatima is often called the Virgin as a sign of her spiritual purity. Like her, she will mourn her offspring until the Day of Judgment, when legend has it that she will reappear, carrying the poisoned heart of Hasan in one hand and the severed head of Hussein in the other.
Ali honored Fatima’s wishes. He buried her in the dead of night, as he had so recently buried her father, and then, after he had consigned her to the earth, he did what he had refused to do since he had been passed over as Caliph: He conceded, and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr. Many said he acted in grief or even in despair, but in fact there were pressing reasons for him to do as he did.
As the news of Muhammad’s death had spread throughout Arabia, rebellion had spread with it. Many of the tribes in the north and center of the vast peninsula threatened to break away from Islam, or at least from its taxes. This was not a matter of faith, they said, but of tribal autonomy. To pay tribute to the Prophet was one thing; to enrich the coffers of the Quraysh tribe was quite another.
As Muhammad had wished, Ali had been loyal to Fatima to the end, but there was now, he said, a higher call on his loyalty. This was no time to hold grudges. He would pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr for the sake of unity in the face of rebellion, for the good of the community, and to present a solid front against the forces of divisiveness. If this was a declaration of idealism over experience, so be it. Indeed, his followers later praised it as an act of utmost nobility, but then Ali would rarely be anything but noble. His highest virtue, it would also prove to be his greatest liability.
With Ali at last in support, Abu Bakr took a hard line with the rebel tribes. “If they withhold only a hobbling cord of what they gave the Prophet, I will fight them for it,” he declared, and his choice of language was a deliberate insult. These were mere camel herders, he was saying, “boorish Beduin” in the eyes of the urbanized Quraysh aristocracy. The thousands of Arabic odes extolling the purity of desert life were no more than nostalgic idylls, much as pastoral images of shepherds and shepherdesses would later be in Europe, or the John Wayne cowboy in the United States. Actual shepherds and camel herders were something else. Indeed, the few Beduin who have not been absorbed into urban life are still scorned within the Arab world.
Abu Bakr declared that since the taxes belonged to Islam, to refuse them was an act of apostasy. And where grace could be extended to a nonbeliever, none could be offered an apostate, someone who had first accepted and then turned against the faith. Such a person was no longer protected by the Quranic ban on Muslims shedding the blood of Muslims. That was haram, taboo, in Islam. But since an apostate was to be considered an active enemy of Islam, to shed his blood was no longer taboo. It was now halal—permitted under Islamic law.
This was to become a familiar argument, one made over time by Sunnis against Shia, by Shia against Sunnis, by extremists against moderates, by legalist clerics against Sufi mystics, and most notoriously perhaps, at least in the West, by the Ayatollah Khomeini against novelist Salman Rushdie. Declare your opponent an apostate, and as the Arabic phrasing goes, “his blood is halal.”
The Wars of Apostasy—the ridda wars—were as ruthless as Abu Bakr had promised. Within the year, all resistance had been crushed, and within another, Muslim forces had begun to strike north out of Arabia. It seemed that under Abu Bakr, the first of the four Caliphs the Sunnis would call rashidun, “the rightly guided ones,” Islam was poised to achieve its full potential. Yet a year later, even as his forces prepared to lay siege to the Byzantine-controlled city of Damascus far to the north, Abu Bakr lay deathly ill, struck by fever. He would be the only Islamic leader to die of natural causes for close on fifty years. This time, however, there would be no doubt about who was to be the successor.
Some Sunnis would later say that Abu Bakr acted as he did to spare the community the divisiveness it had gone through before his own election; others, that as the Arab conquest began, he wanted a strong military figure in command. The Shia would see it very differently, arguing that he was driven by his antagonism toward Ali and his desire to keep the younger man out of power. Whichever it may have been, Abu Bakr’s deathbed declaration was clear: there would be no shura, no conclave of tribal chiefs and elders. Though he had been elected by consensus himself, Abu Bakr had good reason to distrust the process.
How then to proceed? In the days before Islam, it would have been simple enough; one of Abu Bakr’s sons would have inherited his rule. Hereditary monarchy lasted so long through history because it established a clear line of succession, avoiding the messy business of negotiation, the political maneuvering, the difficult, wearing process of the fragile thing we now know as democracy. But Islam was essentially egalitarian. As Abu Bakr himself had argued when he prevailed over the proponents of Ali, leadership, like prophecy, was not to be inherited. He was thus faced with the questions that still dog even the best intentions in the Middle East: How does one impose democracy? How can it work when there is no prior acceptance of the process, when there is no framework already in place?
You might say that Abu Bakr settled on a middle course. He would appoint his successor, but appoint him on the basis of merit, not kinship. He would choose the man he saw as best suited to the task, and if that was the same man he had proposed at the shurajust two years before, then this merely demonstrated how right he had been. In a move destined to be seen by the Shia as further evidence of collusion, the dying Abu Bakr appointed Omar the second Caliph.
Again, Ali had been outmaneuvered. Again, he had been passed over, and this time in favor of the man who had injured his wife and threatened to burn down his house. Yet even as Abu Bakr was buried alongside the Prophet—the second body to lie under what had once been Aisha’s bed—Ali insisted that his supporters keep their peace. Instead of challenging Omar, he took the high road a second time. He had sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr and been a man of his word, and now that same word applied to Abu Bakr’s appointed successor, no matter the history between them. And if anyone doubted his absolute commitment to Islamic unity, he laid such doubts to rest with a remarkable move. As Omar’s rule began, Ali married Abu Bakr’s youngest widow, Asma.
To the modern mind, marrying a former rival’s widow might seem an act of revenge. In seventh-century Arabia, it was quite the opposite: a major gesture of reconciliation. Ali’s marriage to Asma was a way of reaching out, of healing old divisions and transforming them into alliance, and with Ali, the healing impulse went deep: He formally adopted Asma’s three-year-old son by Abu Bakr and, by so doing, extended a hand in another direction—to the boy’s influential half sister Aisha.
Once again, though, Aisha remained unusually silent. If she felt that Ali had stolen part of her family, there is no record of it, though over the years, as her half brother grew to manhood in Ali’s house, her resentment of his loyalty to Ali would become all too clear, and the young man who should have bound the two antagonists together would only split them farther apart. For the meantime, however, that division would merely simmer, upstaged by a second even more remarkable union. In the strongest possible sign of unity, Ali honored the Caliph Omar by giving him the hand of his daughter Umm Kulthum—Muhammad’s eldest granddaughter—in marriage.
The vast vine of marital alliance now reached across generations as well as political differences. Omar was the same generation as Muhammad yet had married his granddaughter. Ali, thirteen years younger than Omar, was now his father-in-law. And if Fatima turned in her modest grave at the idea of any daughter of hers being married to the man who had burst into her house and slammed her to the floor, that was the price of unity—that, and Omar’s settlement of a large part of Muhammad’s estates on Ali, exactly as Fatima had wanted.
Omar had now doubled his kinship to the Prophet: both father-in-law and grandson-in-law. His position as Caliph was secure. Ali could still have been a powerful rival, but Omar followed the ancient political dictum of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. As son-in-law and father-in-law, the two men would work well together, so much so that every time Omar left Medina on one of his many military campaigns, Ali stood in as his deputy. It was a clear sign, understood by all to mean that when the time came, Ali would succeed Omar as Caliph.
The Arab conquest now began in earnest. Omar had taken Abu Bakr’s title of Deputy to Muhammad but added another one: Com mander of the Faithful. And a superb commander he was. He lived rough and ready with his troops on campaign, sleeping wrapped in his cloak on the desert floor and leading his men into battle instead of ordering them from the rear, thus earning their absolute loyalty and respect. If he had a reputation for strictness and discipline, it was balanced by his insistence on justice. As part of his commitment to Islam, he would tolerate no favoritism, least of all for his own family. When one of his own sons appeared drunk in public, Omar ordered that the young man be given eighty lashes of the whip, and refused to mourn when he died as a result of the punishment.
In the ten years of Omar’s rule, the Muslims took control of the whole of Syria and Iraq, an expansion so rapid that it is still often explained by “a tribal imperative to conquest.” The phrase is unknown to anthropologists, but it calls up an image of bloodthirsty peoples impelled by primitive urges, threatening the sane rationalism of the more civilized—the image incessantly echoed in current coverage of conflict in the Middle East.
In fact there was less blood involved than money. The Muslim forces did indeed win stunning military victories over the Persians and the Byzantines, despite being vastly outnumbered, but for the most part, the Arab conquest took place more by messenger than by the sword. Given the choice to accept Arab rule—albeit with the sword held in reserve—most of Islam’s new subjects raised little objection. The Arabs, after all, were no strangers.
Long before Muhammad’s ascent to power, Meccan aristocrats had owned estates in Egypt, mansions in Damascus, farms in Palestine, date orchards in Iraq. They had put down roots in the lands and cities they traded with, for to be a trader in the seventh century was to be a traveler, and to be a traveler was to be a sojourner. The twice-yearly Meccan caravans to Damascus—up to four thousand camels at a time—did not merely stop and go at that great oasis city. They stayed for months at a time while contacts were made, negotiations carried out, hospitality extended and provided. Arabian traders had long been part and parcel of the social, cultural, and economic life of the lands they were to conquer.
And the timing was perfect. Just as Islam had come into being, a vast vacuum of power had been created. The two great empires that had controlled the Middle East—the Byzantines to the west and the Persians to the east—were fading fast, having worn each other out with constant warfare. The Persians could no longer even afford the upkeep on the vast irrigation systems fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. The Byzantines’ hold on Damascus and Jerusalem was tenuous at best. Both empires were collapsing from within, their power waning just as the Muslim nation was born, opening its eyes to what was practically an open invitation to enter and take over.
There was no imposition of Islam. On the contrary, Omar discouraged conversion. He wanted to keep Islam pure—that is, Arab—an attitude that would earn him no love among the Persians, who felt especially demeaned by it and would convert in large numbers after his death. He even ordered two new garrison cities built in Iraq—Basra in the south and Kufa in the center—to protect his administrators and troops from what he saw as Persian decadence.
But there was another strong incentive to keep conversion to a minimum. Omar had set up the diwan, a system by which every Muslim received an annual stipend, much as citizens of the oil-rich Gulf state of Dubai do today. It followed that the fewer Muslims there were, the larger the stipends, and since the taxes that provided these stipends were no greater than those previously paid to the Byzantines and the Persians, there was at first little resistance to them. As in any change of regime today, when photographs of the old ruler suddenly come down off the walls and ones of the new ruler go up, most people made their accommodations with Arab rule. But not everyone.
Nobody could have foreseen the assassination, the Medinans would say. It seemed to come out of the blue. How was anyone to know that a Christian slave from Persia would lose his mind and do such a dastardly thing? To stab the Caliph six times as he bent down for morning prayer in the mosque, then drive the dagger deep into his own chest? It was incomprehensible.
There would be hints of a conspiracy—veiled derision of the very idea of a lone gunman, as it were, instead of a sophisticated plot by dark forces intent on undermining the new Islamic empire. Yet in the seventh century, as in the twenty-first, people could be driven to irrational despair. Or in this case, perhaps, to rational desperation.
The story has it that the slave’s owner had promised to free him but reneged on that promise. The slave had then appealed to Omar for justice, only to be rebuffed, and so bore an intense personal grudge against the Caliph. The story made sense, and people were glad to accept it. Even as Omar lay mortally wounded, even as they faced the death of their third leader in twelve years, there was nonetheless a palpable undercurrent of relief that the assassin was not one of theirs. He was Persian, not Arab; a Christian, not a Muslim. The assassination, terrible as it was, was the act of a madman, an outsider. Muslims did not kill Muslims. That was still haram, taboo—still the ultimate horror.
Again, the problem of succession faced a dying Caliph, and again, in the absence of an established process, the solution would be controversial, open to challenge for centuries to come. In the hours left before he died of his wounds, Omar decided on a middle course between the open consensus of a shura and the power to appoint his successor. As expected, he named Ali, but what nobody expected was that he also named five others—not one man, but six. These six, he decreed, were to be both the candidates and the electors. One of them would be his successor, but which one was up to them. They were to meet in closed caucus after his death and make their decision within three days.
Did he take it for granted that the electors would choose Ali? Surely that was so, yet two of the men he named were brothers-in-law of Aisha: her cousin Zubayr, as well as Talha, the man who had rashly declared his intention to marry her. And a third was Othman, the Umayyad aristocrat whom Abu Bakr had proposed as the leader of the shura after Muhammad’s death. These were not people likely to agree to Ali as Caliph.
The moment Omar was buried—the third and final grave to be dug under Aisha’s old sleeping platform—the six electors gathered in a room off the main part of the mosque. Omar had placed them in a terrible bind. If so much had not been at stake, it could almost be described as a fiendishly intricate game of strategy: six men trapped in a locked room, as it were, unable to leave until they cooperated even as cooperation was the last thing they were ready for. Each of the six wanted the leadership for himself, yet all six had to agree on which of them would get it. None wanted to be seen as wanting it too much, yet none was ready to concede.
By the third morning they had narrowed the choice to the two sons-in-law of the Prophet, Ali and Othman. To many outside that room, it seemed obvious which of the two should be Caliph. On the one hand was Ali, now in his mid-forties, the famed philosopher-warrior who had been the first man to accept Islam and who had served as deputy to both Muhammad and Omar. On the other was Othman, the pious and wealthy Umayyad who had converted early to Islam but had never actually fought in any battle and, at seventy, had already survived far beyond the average life span of the time. Nobody could have expected him to live much longer, and this would prove to be precisely his advantage.
If they settled on Othman over Ali, each of the others could buy time to position himself for the leadership the next time around. They saw Othman as a stopgap, a substitute until one or the other of them could muster enough support to take over when he died, surely a matter of no more than a year or two. Even as Ali could see the consensus building among the other men in the room, he was powerless to prevent it. As dusk fell on the third day, they preempted his assent by announcing their decision publicly in the mosque, and he knew then that his years of dust and thorns were not yet at an end. Left with no option, he pledged allegiance to yet another man as Caliph.
How bitter must it have been to see the leadership withheld from him yet again? How patient could he be? How noble in the name of unity? In the blinding light of hindsight, Ali should surely have been more assertive and insisted on his right to rule. But then he would not have been the man he was, the man famed for his nobility, his grace and integrity—a man too honorable, it seemed, for the rough-and-tumble of politics.
Or perhaps he too thought Othman would live only a short time.