IF OTHMAN HAD NOT BEEN BLESSED WITH GOOD GENES, MUCH blood might have gone unshed, including his own, so whether his longevity was indeed a blessing is a matter of some dispute. The fact remains that he defied all the odds and lived another twelve years, and when he died, at the age of eighty-two, it was not of old age. Like Omar before him, the third Caliph died under an assassin’s knife. This time, however, the assassin was Muslim, and many would argue that he had excellent cause.
Othman was a man used to entitlement. He had been renowned for his good looks, as those who carry themselves with aristocratic ease and assurance often are. Despite his smallpox-scarred cheeks, people still talked admiringly of his “golden complexion” and his flashing smile—flashing not with whiteness but with the fine gold wire bound around his teeth as decoration. That emphasis on gold might perhaps have been a warning of what was to come.
His predecessor, Omar, had certainly foreseen it. When the spoils from the Persian court were sent to Medina, Omar had not smiled with satisfaction as all had hoped. Instead, he looked gravely at the piles of gold regalia, at the jewel-encrusted swords and the lavishly embroidered silks, and tears began to roll down his cheeks. “I weep,” he’d said, “because riches beget enmity and mutual bitterness.”
As the Arab empire expanded farther still under Othman—across Egypt to the west, all of Persia to the east, the Caspian Sea to the north—so too did its wealth, and with that wealth came exactly what Omar had feared. Muhammad had wrested control of Mecca from Othman’s Umayyad clan, but with one of their own now in the leadership of Islam, the Umayyads seized the chance to reassert themselves as the aristocracy, men of title and entitlement, and Othman seemed unable—or unwilling—to resist them.
Nobody doubted his piety and devotion to Islam, but neither could anyone doubt his devotion to family. Top military positions, governorships, senior offices—all now went to Umayyads. Capable men were passed over for family cronies, and as might be expected when they had achieved their posts through nepotism, the new appointees were flagrantly corrupt. One senior general seethed in anger as his hard work went unrewarded and his authority was undermined by the greed of others. “Am I to hold the cow’s horns while another man draws off the milk?” he protested.
Under Abu Bakr and Omar, Muhammad’s ethic of simplicity and egalitarianism had prevailed, but now conspicuous consumption became the order of the day, exemplified in the extravagant new palace Othman had built in Medina, with enclosed gardens, marble columns, even imported food and chefs. Where both Abu Bakr and Omar had taken the relatively modest title of Deputy of Muhammad, Othman took a far more grandiose one. He insisted on being called the Deputy of God—the representative of God on earth—thus paving the way for the many future leaders all too eager to claim divine sanction for worldly power.
The old Meccan aristocracy rapidly became the new Muslim aristocracy. Othman began to deed vast private estates to his relatives, some with thousands of horses and as many slaves. In Iraq, so much of the rich agricultural land between the two rivers was given to Umayyad nobles that the whole of the Mesopotamian valley gained a new, ironic nickname, the Garden of the Umayyads. The other legacies of Othman’s rule—the authoritative written compilation of the Quran and the further expansion of the empire north into the Aegean, west along the North African coast, and east to the frontiers of India—were increasingly overshadowed by what was seen as the Umayyad stranglehold on power.
The ruling class of Mecca was back in control, and with a ven geance. There was no doubt as to who was drawing the milk, and the ones left holding the horns became increasingly outspoken as nepotism and corruption devolved into their inevitable correlates: wrongful expropriation, deportation, imprisonment, even execution. The most respected early companions of Muhammad began to speak out in protest, as did all five of the other men who had sat in caucus and elected Othman, and none more clearly than Ali.
The property of Islam was being embezzled, he warned. The Umayyads were like a pack of hungry animals devouring everything in sight. “Othman shrugs his shoulders arrogantly, and his brothers stand with him, eating up the property of God as the camels eat up the springtime grasses.” Once that brief treasured lushness was gone, only barren desert would be left.
But the voice that gained the most attention was that of Aisha, who found herself for once on the same side as Ali. “That dotard,” she called Othman—a doddering old man in thrall to his relatives—and the word stuck, demeaning and mocking.
Some said she was roused to action only when Othman reduced her annual pension to that of the other Mothers of the Faithful, challenging her prominence. Others said she acted in the hope that her brother-in-law Talha would take over as Caliph. But there is also no doubt that Aisha was truly outraged by the extent of the corruption, which came to a head over the scandalous behavior of Walid, one of Othman’s half brothers.
As the governor of the garrison city of Kufa in central Iraq, Walid did not even bother to disguise his aristocratic disdain for the residents under his control. With a kind of Arabian snobbery that would surface again and again, he contemptuously dismissed the native Iraqis as “provincial riffraff.” Unjust imprisonment? Expropriation of lands? Embezzlement from the public treasury? Such complaints against him, Walid declared, were worth “no more than a goat’s fart in the desert plains of Edom.”
One particular goat’s fart, however, would reach all the way to Medina when Walid appeared in the Kufa mosque flagrantly drunk and, in front of the assembled worshipers, vomited over the side of the pulpit. The Kufans sent a delegation to Medina to demand that he be recalled and publicly flogged, but Othman refused them point-blank. Worse, he threatened to punish them for daring to make such a demand, and when they then appealed to the leading Mother of the Faithful for support, he was heard to sneer in disdain: “Can the rebels and scoundrels of Iraq find no other refuge than the home of Aisha?”
The gauntlet was thrown: a challenge not just to “the rebels and scoundrels of Iraq” but to Aisha herself. As word spread of Othman’s sneer, many thought it a foolish thing to have done. Perhaps Aisha had been right in calling Othman a dotard. Perhaps he really was losing his grip, or at least his judgment. Certainly it seemed that way when a respected Medinan elder stood up in the mosque in public support of the Iraqis’ demands, and Othman’s response was to order him thrown out—so violently that four of his ribs were broken.
If Aisha had been outraged before, she was now incensed. That the guilty should go free and the innocent be beaten? No curtains or veils could stop her. Covering her face in public did not mean muffling her voice, not even—particularly not—in the mosque. The following Friday she stood up at the morning prayers, brandishing a sandal that had belonged to Muhammad. “See how this, the Prophet’s own sandal, has not yet even fallen apart?” she shouted at Othman in that high, piercing voice of hers. “This is how quickly you have forgotten the sunna, his practice!”
How could Othman have underestimated her? But then whoever would have thought that a mere sandal could be used so effectively? As the whole mosque erupted in condemnation of the Caliph, people took off their own sandals and brandished them in Aisha’s support. A new propaganda tool had made its first powerful impression, one not lost on all the caliphs and shahs and sultans of centuries to come, who would produce inordinate numbers of ornately displayed relics of the Prophet—sandals, shirts, teeth, nail clippings, hair—to bolster their authority.
Othman was left with no option but to agree to Walid’s recall. He delayed giving the order, however, and balked at the demand for a flogging. Nobody could be found who was willing to administer the required eighty lashes, he claimed, though this was clearly untrue. Worse, the contrast with his predecessor, Omar, could not have been stronger. Nobody had forgotten that Omar had ordered precisely the same punishment for one of his own sons, who had then died under the lash. Under Omar, loyalty to the principles of Islam had trumped any loyalty to family—a principle now utterly undermined by Othman.
Merely recalling his half brother was no longer enough. Letters calling for stronger action traveled the desert routes between Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq, and among them, fiery broadsides from Aisha. Writing in the name of all the Mothers of the Faithful, she called on true Muslims to defend Islam against injustice and corruption. The response took even her by surprise. Within weeks, three columns of heavily armed warriors had arrived in Medina: one each from the garrisons of Kufa and Basra in Iraq, and one from the garrison of Fustat in Egypt, just south of what would eventually be the city of Cairo.
These were no “provincial riffraff.” They were several hundred of the best of the Muslim military, led by men of impeccable lineage who left no doubt as to what they wanted: Either Othman took decisive action to address their complaints, or he should resign. Most prominent among their leaders was the son of the first Caliph—Aisha’s own half brother Muhammad Abu Bakr. The boy whose widowed mother had married Ali was now grown to manhood, but with neither the judgment nor the patience of his father or his stepfather. Under his orders, the three armed columns did not disperse on arrival to stay with family in Medina but demonstratively set up camp in the dry riverbeds just outside the oasis, on full military alert.
All of Medina waited tensely to see what would happen. Was a coup d’état in the works? Would there be an attack on the palace, even on the Caliph himself? Surely that was unthinkable; Muslim did not kill Muslim, after all. And indeed, despite their militant posturing, the rebels—for that is what they surely were—held back from immediate action. Instead, they reached out to Ali, the one man who had proven his commitment to unity above all else.
For two weeks, Ali acted as mediator. No matter that one side was headed by his own stepson, whose demands he fully endorsed; he was horrified by the younger man’s rashness in resorting to armed threat. No matter either that the other side was headed by a Caliph whose style of leadership was the antithesis of everything Ali believed in; he had sworn allegiance to Othman, and allegiance he would give. His would be the role of the honest broker, his ultimate loyalty to neither side, but to the good of Islam, and he might well have succeeded were it not that every step he took was undercut by Othman’s cousin and chief of staff, Marwan.
Marwan was known as Ibn Tarid, the Son of the Exile, at least when his back was turned. The exile in question was his father, who had been a leading Umayyad opponent of Muhammad’s. When Muhammad had conquered Mecca, he had given all the Quraysh a last chance to be accepted into the Islamic fold as full members of the community. The sole exception he made was Marwan’s father, whom he so distrusted despite his last-minute avowal of faith that he ordered him banished along with his family to the mountain city of Taif. Both Abu Bakr and Omar had kept the order of exile in place, but when Othman became Caliph, he had revoked it and called his young cousin to Medina to serve as his chief of staff. It was a position of enormous power, and one that Marwan lost no time taking advantage of.
There was the huge bite he took for himself out of the war booty from the conquest of Egypt, for example, or the matter of how he leveraged the market on animal feed to his own advantage. A canny operator with an eye always on the main chance, he would finally claim the caliphate for himself forty years later, but only for a year. After he had married the widow of the man he had deposed, she and her servants would trap him in his own bed, piling all their weight on top of him until he suffocated—an ignominious death that would give great pleasure to many in the telling.
Under Othman, however, Marwan was in the ascendant. Every approach to the aging Caliph, every financial decision, every piece of information, had to come through him. Nobody said so much as a word to Othman without his say-so. People had the impression of an increasingly frail leader so overwhelmed by the demands of empire that he preferred to retreat into the solitary work of scholarship. Othman spent most of his time compiling the authorized version of the Quran, they’d say, and so was unaware of the degree to which his ambitious kinsman was subverting his authority. Whether this was really so, or whether it was politically wiser to blame Marwan instead of Othman himself, is another question.
Meanwhile, with the rebels camped outside the city, it was Marwan who argued most forcefully against any concession to their demands. That would only encourage further mutiny in the provinces, he insisted. With almost deliciously hypocritical righteousness, he urged Othman to stay the course and not be intimidated, however wrong he might be. “To persist in wrongdoing for which you can ask God’s forgiveness,” he said piously, “is better than penitence compelled by fear.” And in demonstration of his point, he went out to the rebel encampment and let loose with a tirade that seemed designed only to provoke.
“What is the matter with you that you assemble as though for plunder?” he yelled. “May your faces be disfigured! You have come wanting to wrest our property from our hands. Be off from us! By God, if that is what you want, you will not praise the outcome. Go back where you belong, for we shall not be deprived of what is ours.”
It was a measure of Ali’s success in urging restraint that Marwan was driven off by curses instead of arrows, but such restraint could not last, and Ali knew it. He managed to warn Othman. Marwan was making it impossible for him to act effectively as a mediator, he said, and he could take no responsibility for what might happen if Othman did not put his foot down and rein in his cousin. But the Caliph would hear nothing of it, not even when his favorite wife, Naila, seconded Ali, trying to make her husband see the danger of Marwan’s advice. Was it loyalty to family, or was he really in his dotage? Nobody knew, and by now it hardly mattered.
Three days later, when Othman next appeared in the pulpit of the mosque for Friday prayers, he was greeted by jeers and catcalls. One respected elder had even brought along props for emphasis. “Look,” he shouted at Othman, “we’ve brought you a decrepit she-camel, along with a striped wool cloak and an iron collar. Get down from the pulpit so that we can wrap you in the cloak, put the collar on you, and put you on the camel. Then we ’ll carry you off to the Mount of Smoke”—the main garbage dump of Medina, smoldering with decomposing trash—“and leave you there.”
And with that, to drive the message home, the crowd began to fling pebbles at the pulpit, a hail of them aiming hard and true, striking the aging Caliph and knocking him unconscious.
For the Caliph to be stoned unconscious, and in the mosque itself? This was surely full-scale rebellion, an invitation to the harshest of reprisals, as Marwan had urged. Yet even as he was recovering from the stoning, Othman steadfastly refused to order the use of force. Whatever his sins, he said, he was a devout Muslim, and as such, he was determined that no Muslim blood be shed at his order. Yet with equal determination, he refused to resign. Perhaps he really did not grasp the extent of what was happening, or perhaps he truly did believe that he was the deputy not of Muhammad but of God. He hadn’t the right to resign, he maintained. “I cannot take off the robes in which God has dressed me.” And with this, he signed his death warrant.
The question was who would write that warrant, for it did indeed exist. It took the form of what came to be known as the Secret Letter, lying in wait to be discovered just when it looked as though the crisis had been defused and open conflict averted.
After that stoning in the mosque, Othman had appeared truly shaken and chastened, professing profound regret at having let things develop to such a pass. Now at last he acknowledged the justice of the rebels’ demands and pledged not only to dismiss the two most controversial of his governors—his half brother Walid in Kufa and a brother-in-law in the Egyptian garrison of Fustat—but to appoint Ali’s stepson Muhammad Abu Bakr the new governor of Egypt. Moreover, lest anyone doubt the sincerity of this pledge, Ali would stand as its personal guarantor.
If one could hear a city sigh with relief, it would have been Medina at that moment. The crisis had been averted, and justice achieved. With Ali’s word as their pledge, the rebels struck camp and set off on the long ride back to their garrisons. All might have been well if just three days into their journey back to Egypt, the young Abu Bakr and his men had not seen a messenger riding full tilt behind them, evidently intent on overtaking them.
They stopped and questioned the messenger, and when they realized he was in the service of the Caliph, they searched his saddlebags. There they found a heavy brass inkpot of the kind used by professional scribes, with ink powders and mixing bottles set into a solid base, and compartments for parchment and quills, knives, and seals. One of these compartments was a secret one, however, and inside it they found a letter stamped with Othman’s personal seal and addressed to his brother-in-law, the governor of Egypt he had just pledged to replace.
All the leaders of the returning rebels were to be arrested instantly, the letter instructed. First their hair and beards were to be torn out—a calculatedly emasculating form of punishment when so much male pride was vested in long hair and ample beards—and then they were to be given one hundred lashes each. If any still survived, they were to be thrown in prison.
What more was needed? With the written evidence of double-dealing in their hands, the rebels turned around. Three days later they were back in Medina, and this time they didn’t merely camp on the outskirts. In no mood to negotiate, they surrounded the palace and placed it under siege.
The seal on the letter was clearly Othman’s. Indeed, he acknowledged as much when faced with it. But the letter itself? He swore he’d had absolutely no knowledge of it. Nobody knew for certain if this was the truth or merely plausible deniability. Some were convinced he was lying, while some saw the hand of Marwan at work, even claiming that the letter was in his handwriting. Others argued that it made no difference whose handwriting it was; the Caliph’s seal was on the letter, they said, and if his seal could be used without his knowledge, he had no right to his position. Eventually, it was even rumored that it was Ali who had arranged for the letter to be planted and discovered in order to bring about Othman’s downfall—and said too that this rumor had itself been planted by Marwan. There was room enough in the story to support any number of conspiracy theories. Only one thing was certain: the secret letter was the end of Othman.
The rebels were not intent on murder—not at first, at least, since they chose to besiege the palace, not to storm it. Though a few did call for outright jihad against the Caliph, even they could never have had any intention of beginning the long succession of assassinations that would blight the coming centuries of Islamic history and continue to blight it today. There was still horror at the idea of Muslim killing Muslim, let alone the Caliph.
What they wanted was the very thing Othman refused to give them: his abdication, immediately. There was no longer any room for negotiation. Ali had tried his best, but as the guarantor of the agreement betrayed by the secret letter, he had been double-crossed as badly as the rebels themselves. He could see the potential for violence—he even posted his sons Hasan and Hussein, now grown men in their twenties, to stand guard at the palace—but he surely knew that with Othman so stubbornly entrenched, there was no more he could do to avert disaster. He spent the coming days in prayer in the mosque.
Aisha must have wished she could do the same, and in her way, she did. She could not have played a more public role in stirring up feeling against “that dotard,” but she had never imagined things would go this far. She had used Muhammad’s sandal to bring Othman back to his senses, but now he seemed to have lost them completely. How could she have foreseen that secret letter? How had things come to the point where she was on the same side as Ali, of all people? Where her own half brother was now besieging the palace? Where she could in good conscience defend neither him nor the Caliph? The whirlpool of overlapping conflicts and loyalties overwhelmed even her, and as the situation worsened, she reached for a way out. She would leave for Mecca on pilgrimage, she announced—not the hajj but the umra, the individual “lesser pilgrimage” that could be made at any time of the year.
The moment he heard of her plans, Marwan recognized the danger. Aisha’s leaving under such circumstances would be taken as a clear signal to the rebels that she would not stand in their way—a silent but powerful blessing of their position. He slipped out of the palace under cover of darkness and made his way to her house. She could not leave, he argued. She had helped create this situation with those fiery letters and speeches of hers, and now she was duty bound to stay and help resolve it. If Othman had scorned her for sheltering “the rebels and scoundrels of Iraq,” he had been wrong; he needed her influence with them now, lest things get completely out of hand.
But it was too little, too late. Just a few weeks earlier, Aisha might have taken a certain pleasure in the Caliph’s right-hand man pleading with her. She might have taunted him with his newfound respect for the Mother of the Faithful, and would certainly have found a way to turn the situation to her advantage. By now, however, there was no longer any advantage to be had.
“You’re running away after setting the country ablaze,” Marwan finally accused her, but Aisha would have none of it.
“Would to God that you and your cousin who entrusts his affairs to you each had a millstone around his feet,” she retorted, “because then I would cast both of you into the depths of the sea.” And with that, she left for Mecca.
The end began with a rumor. Word spread among the rebels that military reinforcements for the besieged Caliph were on the way from his governor in Syria. The reinforcements never arrived, and nobody knew whether the Syrian governor had ever received such a request, or if he had received it and, for reasons of his own, ignored it. Either way, it made no difference; the very idea of Syrian reinforcements brought things to a head. Rumor did its work, as it always does.
The first fatality was one of the most venerable of Muhammad’s early companions. He had limped up to the front of the siege line and there, balancing on crutches, called on Othman to come out onto his balcony and announce his abdication. One of Marwan’s aides came out instead. He hurled a large stone at the white-haired elder, hit him in the head, and killed him on the spot. “I, by God, ignited the fighting between the people,” he boasted later. Nobody would ever know if he acted on his own initiative or at Marwan’s orders.
They were to call it the Day of the Palace, though the melee lasted barely more than an hour. The defenders were vastly outnumbered, and once both Marwan and Ali’s son Hasan had been injured, the others fled. A small group of rebels led by Muhammad Abu Bakr made their way upstairs and into the Caliph’s private chambers. There they found just two people: Othman and the Syrian-born Naila, his favorite wife.
The elderly Caliph, undefended, was seated on the floor, reading a parchment manuscript of the Quran—the authorized version he had devoted years to compiling. Even as the group closed in on him, he kept calmly reading, as though the Holy Book could protect him from mere mortals. Perhaps this was what so infuriated the young Abu Bakr: Othman’s assumption of invulnerability even as he was plainly so vulnerable. Or perhaps violence had been building so long that by now it was simply inevitable.
Abu Bakr was the first to strike, the son of the first Caliph leading the assassins of the third. His dagger slashed across the old man’s forehead, and that first blood was the sign that released the others. As Othman fell back, they piled in on him, knives striking again and again. Blood splashed onto the walls, onto the carpet, even onto the open pages of the Quran—an indelible image of defilement that still haunts the Muslim faithful, both Sunni and Shia. Yet still they attacked, even after there was no breath left in Othman’s body.
Naila flung herself over her dead husband. She begged the assassins not to desecrate his corpse, only to have her blood mixed with his as yet another knife slashed down and cut off part of her right hand. Her dreadful wail of pain and outrage bounced off the blood-spattered walls to pierce the consciences of the attackers; only then did they stop.
Muhammad Abu Bakr had struck the first blow but not the fatal one. There would never be any definitive answer as to exactly whose hand did that. But the question that was to haunt Islam was not who held the knife but who guided it. Who was behind it? Or rather, who was not? One Umayyad later said that Othman was killed by “a sword drawn by Aisha, sharpened by Talha, and poisoned by Ali.” Others would say that it was Marwan who both drew the sword and poisoned it. Yet others that it had all been engineered from afar by Muawiya, the powerful governor of Syria, whose rumored reinforcements never arrived.
All that can be said for certain is that the third Caliph was assassinated by persons both known and unknown, with both the best intentions and the worst.
The torn and blood-stained shirt Othman had been wearing when he was killed was to have a long life. After the assassination, someone—nobody is sure exactly who—had the foresight to take it, together with Naila’s severed fingers, and wrap the remains carefully for a journey. The next morning, as all of Medina buzzed with the news that the rebels had acclaimed Ali as the new Caliph, a small, somber caravan set out on the seven-hundred-mile ride to Damascus, and in one of the saddlebags, they carried with them that shirt and those fingers.
Was it the Syrian-born Naila who had sent them? Or Marwan? Or Umm Habiba, the only Umayyad among Muhammad’s widows and the sister of the Syrian governor, Muawiya? Whichever it was, the purpose was clear: the grisly relics would serve as a powerful call for revenge. When they arrived, Muawiya ordered them displayed in the main mosque in Damascus, and there they would remain for a full year.
“The shirt was placed each day on the pulpit,” said a Syrian historian. “Sometimes it was draped over it, sometimes it covered it, and Naila’s fingers were attached to its cuffs—two fingers with the knuckles and part of the palm, two cut off at the base, and half a thumb. The people kept coming and crying at the sight, and the Syrian soldiers swore an oath that they would not have relations with women or sleep on beds until they had killed the killers of Othman and anyone who might try to stop them.”
In Medina, Othman was buried quickly and quietly—not by Muhammad’s side in Aisha’s former chamber, as his predecessors had been, but in the main cemetery. If there was any mourning, it was done privately. In public, the whole of Medina was jubilant. Led by the rebels, they turned to Ali as their new leader. They would have nobody else. The man who so many insisted should always have been the heir to Muhammad had finally come into his inheritance, his ascendance surely all the sweeter for the length of the wait.
On June 16 in that year 656, they crowded into the mosque and spilled out into the courtyard to pledge allegiance to him. The years of dust and thorns seemed finally over—not just for him but for them all.
How were they to know that dust and thorns are not shaken off so easily? They had no idea that Ali would rule for only five years. They rejoiced, applauding the new Commander of the Faithful when he refused to take the title of Caliph. That title had been honored by Abu Bakr and Omar, Ali said, but it had since been corrupted beyond repair by the Umayyads. Instead, he would be known as the Imam—literally, he who stands in front. On the one hand, it was a modest title, given to whoever leads the daily prayers. On the other, this was Imam with a definite capital I, the spiritual and political leader of all Muslims. And between Caliph and Imam, a world of politics and theology would intervene.
Ali was destined to be the only man aside from Muhammad himself whom both Sunnis and Shia would acknowledge as a rightful leader of Islam. But while Sunnis would eventually recognize and respect him as the fourth Caliph—the fourth and last of the rashidun, the “rightly guided ones”—the Shia would never recognize the caliphate at all, not even the first three Caliphs. To them, Ali was and always has been the first rightful successor to Muhammad, designated by him as the true spiritual leader who would pass on his knowledge and insight to his sons, so that they in turn could pass it on to their own sons. Ali, that is, was the first of the twelve Imams who would join Muhammad and his daughter Fatima as the true Ahl al-Bayt.
But on that June day, as all Medina lined up to pledge allegiance to Ali, nobody yet thought in terms of Sunni versus Shia. As they pressed their forearms against his and swore to God that his friend was their friend, his enemy their enemy, they thought that divisiveness was at an end. Ali was the one who would reunite Islam. There would be no more greed, no more self-aggrandizement, no more corruption. The stranglehold of the Umayyads had been broken, and a new era dawned. Under Ali, they would return to the true path of the Prophet.
Yet even as they celebrated, as the drums were beaten and the children danced and the women’s ululations lifted joy into the air, that bloody shirt and those severed fingers were on their way to the pulpit in Damascus. And Aisha was in Mecca, planning her own course of action.