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The Genesis & Succession Crisis of Islam
The early Islamic civil war was an inevitable product of inter-elite competition.
Originally published on September 22, 2021.
It is claimed that the genesis of every great civilisation lies in blood. Some great act of fratricide or a crime that is so unspeakable that it serves as a means of bonding a people so that it can never happen again. The story of Remus and Romulus, and the killing by the latter of the former, is one of the most famous tales of the founding of an empire. The crucifixion (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ in the Christian faith is another example of faith consecrated in blood – of a God, in this case. Even the Christian concept of the original sin, with man’s fall and the beginning of human existence on Earth, considers the irredeemable nature of man.
The story of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and the rise of Islam brings with it its own form of genesis and a whole set of complexities. The consolidation of Islam – both as a world religion and an empire that was the material anchor of that spiritual reality, began with the peaceful Conquest of Makka. This conquest is the act of genesis which would both consecrate the Prophet’s status as a man of God, but also lead to widespread ramifications that lay bare the tragedy of history; that nothing is black and white, and that sometimes the best acts have repercussions that are beyond the control of any people. History, it seems, runs according to a divine logic that evades the ability of men to rationalise and moralise over it.
After he had received the revelation of the Qur'an and began preaching to the people of Makka about the oneness of God, the Prophet ﷺ and his companions faced rejection and persecution in their own hometown. In 622CE, they migrated from Makka to Madina in what became known as the hijra (migration), an event that marks Year One in the Islamic calendar. It was in Madina where the Prophet ﷺ and his message were fully embraced by the people, leading to the establishing of a city-state from which the nascent Islamic faith and polity began years of political rivalry and battles with the rival city-state of Makka and her allies. Over time, Makka was outmanoeuvred until the Prophet ﷺ and his companions eventually marched into Makka. The fear of the Makkans was the fear that gripped any old elite; ready to be enslaved and killed to further the consolidation of a new order. In any such transition, the new elite must consolidate its authority and legitimacy through the annihilation of the old guard.
But no massacre followed. The conquest of Makka was all but bloodless.
It is this single act that defines the Prophet ﷺ and his motives, not as a warlord who sought power – in which case, he would have committed to a policy of annihilation of defeated enemies, as any elite would do – but as a Prophet who sought first and foremost to spread Islam, not through fear or death, but through willing submission so that life could be preserved. He had his former enemies in his hands and instead granted complete amnesty, including to his chief opponent, Abu Sufyan of the Banu Umayya clan.
Even by the standards of Islam, the amnesty was a remarkable event. Islam as a faith did not come as a revolution or overturning of the old order but as a reiteration of the pure monotheist creed that previous Prophets had promoted before the Prophet Muhammad himself. God had sanctioned the Israelites to conquer, enslave, and annihilate the natives of the land of Palestine. It was entirely within the realm of possibility for the Muslims to have acted in the same manner. But they did not. The Prophet ﷺ, and by extension the religion of Islam, was consecrated not in blood but peaceful submission to the creed.
Yet this is where the complexity of history sobers us. The amnesty in Makka ensured that the legacy of the Prophet ﷺ could never be besmirched by claims of violent warlordism or thirst for power. The Makkan elite found their place in the rise of Islam, serving as preachers and warriors on the frontline of Islam’s spiritual and material expansion. However, they never lost their distinctiveness. A Makkan asabiya continued to persist as one of the tribal factions that came together to form the Rashidun Caliphate - but only so long as there was stable leadership.
The Makkan elite’s survival ensured that a succession crisis was going to occur sooner or later. Out of this crisis would emerge as one of the defining and most tragic events in the history of Islam, yet so early in its time. It would be the scions of Makka who would see the replacement of the Rashidun Caliphate with its successor: the Umayyad dynasty, whose consecration, unlike the conquest of Makka and the establishment of the Rashidun Caliphate, was in the bloodshed of the family of the Prophet ﷺ.
The Rightly Guided Successors
After the Prophet's ﷺ death, the Muslims did not have a standardised method of succession for rulership. What came after has come to be known as the Rashidun Caliphate, with the term Rashidun meaningly ‘rightly guided’ owing to their proximity to the Prophet ﷺ and their method of succession being deemed the most appropriate, as opposed to the later models of kingship that came to be the usual model of any Islamic polity.
Abu Bakr was the first of the Rashidun Caliphs, appointed by way of a general shura, i.e. consultation among the elites and notables of the Muslims. His rule saw the first instance of rebellion called the Wars of Apostasy. The apostates were composed of tribes who had either apostasized from Islam or who maintained their faith in Islam but rejected the rule of Abu Bakr. Regardless of their reasons and motivations, Abu Bakr worked to pacify the rebels and firmly establish the Rashidun Caliphate in the Arabian Peninsula. He then pioneered the expansion of the Caliphate outside of Arabia and into both Persia and Roman Syria. On his deathbed, Abu Bakr directly appointed Umar ibn al-Khattab, who massively expanded the Caliphate’s administrative capabilities, developing its tax base, and consolidated the expansion under Abu Bakr with the total conquest of Persia up to Bactria, and the capture of all of Syria and Egypt from Constantinople.
Abu Bakr and Umar were natural incumbents owing to their proximity to the Prophet ﷺ, their stature in society, and their political acumen. They saw a level of internal peace (after the Wars of Apostasy that followed Abu Bakr’s ascension to Caliph) that would start to break under the weight of the contradictions that had been embedded into the Caliphate from its very beginning. The amnesty of Makka ensured a low running factionalism that would become the source of war and sedition. This is what made the fitna inevitable, if not necessary, and this is the true tragedy of history; that even the genesis of Islam which lay in an act of amnesty could not 'fix' human nature; it only delayed bloodshed, not eliminated the possibility in its entirety.
Crisis & Rebellion: The Collapse of the Rightly Guided Succession
It was with the succession of Umar that the Prophet’s ﷺ amnesty played out to its inevitable conclusion. The third Caliph who succeeded Umar was Uthman ibn Affan who hailed from one of the elite families of Makka. The Rashidun Caliphate had expanded rapidly and now spanned Egypt to Sindh, Yemen to Armenia. Unlike Umar, Uthman’s style of rule was ill-suited to control this vast territory and new population. He delegated authority more freely to his governors, and did not build the intelligence and security apparatus that could identify and subdue political threats. Uthman’s reign culminated in empire-wide discontent and his assassination by one of the first rebellious sects in Islamic history: the Kharijites.
Uthman’s assassination resulted in a crisis of succession, and the people of the capital of the Caliphate, Madina, and many of the rebels, including those who were responsible for the murder of Uthman, pressed a reluctant Ali ibn abi Talib to accept the position of Caliph. However, once in power, he could not cement his authority to eliminate dissent or to avenge the death of Uthman, especially as the rebels responsible for the chaos and even murder of Uthman himself had become powerful. The low level factionalism that had continued to run through the Rashidun Caliphate broke to the fore, and so began the rift between Ali, of the family of the Prophet, and the tribe of Uthman: Bani Umayya. Bani Umayya were one of the elite tribes of Makka and were led by Uthman’s cousin, Muawiya.
Muawiya did not come from humble origins. He was a scion of the house of Abu Sufyan (formerly the chief rival of the Prophet) and one of the chief commanders of the Islamic armies that had demolished the world’s greatest empires and cemented Islam as the primary power of the Old World outside of China, India, and Europe beyond the Alpines. Muawiya typified the Aristocratic Arab chief, adept at poetry and horsemanship as he was at war and statecraft, and enjoying the same prestige and support among his tribe as his father received before Islam.
Muawiya’s motivations were many. He desired vengeance for his cousin Uthman’s assassination which the Caliph Ali was not in a position to give, saw that the Rashidun Caliphate had expanded far too rapidly and that the number of rebellious factions were growing within the empire and at its fringes, and that Ali could not provide the statesmanship needed to pacify rebels and create a new political settlement. Muawiya sought to take control and restore the balance. He consolidated his power base in Syria and won the support of Egypt through its governor, Amr ibn al-As, and engaged in a series of battles with Ali called the First Fitna. Ali, like Uthman, would end up being assassinated by a Kharijite after one of these battles.
Initially, Ali was succeeded as Caliph by his son, Hasan. However, Muawiya declared himself to be Caliph, too, and marched into Iraq (then Ali's power base), eventually overcoming Hasan’s forces and forcing him to sign a pact that transferred the position of Caliph over to Muawiya, thus beginning the Umayyad Caliphate.
The rest, as they say, is history. The succession crisis experienced by the Rashidun Caliphs Uthman and Ali would be resolved through the Umayyads’ instituting hereditary kingship.
The genesis of Islam was not in blood but in peaceful settlement. From a purely religious standpoint, it is unremarkable. All men of religion come in peace. But what political order’s genesis can be found in peaceful conquest? The Prophet is today much maligned as a warlord as he was in his time, too. This claim is driven by a combination of ignorance of his story and of historical dynamics around elite succession and crisis. And, perhaps, both envy and annoyance that Islam is not a pacifistic and individualistic faith whose adherents can be assimilated into any alien order, but retains a core of political sovereignty that is non-negotiable and has resulted in continued resistance to projects of pacification. Islam is a world order in the truest sense, combining statecraft, law, and faith into one world spanning order whose imperial reach was unrivalled until modern times when Europe broke out into the world.
But history is complex. Black or white narratives fail to take into account the true complexity of history which cannot be divided into good and evil narratives. The succession crisis that gripped the final decades of the Rashidun Caliphate were set into motion with the peaceful conquest of Makka. The paradox of this genesis led to further contradictions that played out in the fitna between Ali and Muawiya. The factionalism that grew out of the fitna turned into a 1400-year rivalry between the Sunnis who have accepted history as it is and the minority Shia faction that have been unable to come to terms with these events.