Islamic history: Uthman ibn Affan pt. 2 - the siege

To recap what had happened, alot of people have been grumbling about Uthman's nepotism in appointing governors, his lax rule, questioning his uses of the Muslim treasury, and keeping council with his kin rather than with more qualified individuals (namely Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, and Marwan ibn Hakam. Muawiyah again was the son of Abu Sufyan, the oppositional leader of the Quraysh during the lifetime of the Prophet (pbuh), and Marwan's father was the Prophet's uncle who violently opposed him, and sought to have the Muslims killed.) As you may guess because of these individuals' checkered families, the historians hone in on the narratives that express doubt on them because of their parents' dealings with Muhammad.

Moving forward, the people leading the charges against him come from three different parts of the Islamic domain; the Egyptians, the Kufans & the people from Basra. All of them converge on Medina intending to lay siege on Uthman to either have him resign or kill him.

'Uthman led the people in prayer for 30 days after the dissidents had ensconced themselves in the mosque. Then they barred him from the prayer, and their chief al-Ghafiqi led the people in prayer. The Egyptians, Kufans and Basrans submitted to him, while the Medinese dispersed to their walled compounds and stayed in their houses...The siege lasted forty days, and during this period the caliph's murder took place. The dissidents used arms against anyone who resisted them, though heretofore they had refrained from violence for thirty days.

A couple of things to note, the dissenters were outsiders. while obviously there were people in Medina who had quarreled with Uthman, they never resorted to taking arms against him or threatening his rule/life. The dissenters were the ones who fought and conquered territory, and the ones who governed over them were the Caliph's relatives or people he specifically appointed rather than people whom the dissenters preferred. When the siege was in action, and violence was imminent, Uthman kept warning of the precedent this would set; that dissenters can violently replace the unifying authority of the Muslims and replace him with whoever they pleased; the question of true authority would fragment the Muslim community.

In the dialogue that continues, Uthman agrees to the terms of the dissenters, promising to rectify the wrongs he committed against the Muslims:

Then they took Uthman to task for things from which he could find no escape. Recognizing these, he said, 'I seek God's forgiveness and turn to Him in repentance.' Then he said to them, 'What do you want?' They made a compact with him, and he said 'I regard this as valid.' They wrote out conditions to be imposed on him. Then Uthman obligated them to break no rod (loyalty or obedience) nor to withdraw from unity so long as he fulfilled their conditions or acted in accordance with what they required of him.

The Egyptians left satisfied with the terms, optimistic that Uthman would fulfill his word. However Marwan urged Uthman to recant his vows towards the dissenters, for what it seems to be save the pride of being the Caliph. This was the last straw and once the dissenters, other companions and the Medinese heard of this the final siege began.

Marwan said, 'You are as dear to me as my father and my mother! By God, I wish that you had made this statement before the people while you were still strong and invincible, and that I had been the first to be satisfied by it and to aid you in fulfilling it. However, you have said these things when the girth has reached the two teats and the torrent has overflowed the hilltops and when a humiliated man has submitted to humiliation. By God, to persist in an error for which you must seek God's forgiveness is better than to repent because you are afraid. If you so will, you may seek repentance without acknowledging error. The people have piled up at the gate against you like a mountain.' Uthman said, 'Go out and speak to them, for I am ashamed to do so.'

Marwan went to the gate... he said 'Why have you gathered here like looters? Your faces are deformed, and every man is holding the ear of his confederate! Whom are you after? You have come to snatch our power from us. Go! By God, if you mean us any harm, you will encounter something distasteful from us, and you will not praise the result of you opinions. Return to your homes, for by God, we are not men to be robbed of our possessions.'

Marwan now speaking on tacit consent of Uthman, reneges the meeting/agreements made between Uthman and the dissenters, depicting them as outsiders coming into take the rights/political power of the Caliph to whom it properly belongs. This in effect, reinforces the nepotism and lust for power that the dissenters initially accused Uthman being guilty of.

Then Ali came in a rage to Uthman and said, 'Surely you have satisfied Marwan, but he is satisfied with you only if you deviate from your religion and reason, like a camel carrying a litter that is led around at will. By God, Marwan is devoid of sense in regard to his religion and his soul. I swear by God, I think he will bring you in and then not send you out again. After this visit I will not come again to chide you. You have destroyed your own honor and you have been robbed of your authority.'

Ali's condemnation indicates that Uthman's hit the point of no return; even his closest and most trustworthy companions have denounced his decisions. Although Ali rebukes Uthman directly, Ali continues to visit/advise him while this last siege occurs. Uthman again promises to reform; but it appears too late.

Then Uthman said, 'Ashtar, what do the people want from me?' 'You cannot avoid doing one of three things... They ask you to choose between the following. You may turn their affairs over to them and say, 'This is your affair; choose whomever you will for it.' Second, you may have yourself punished. If you reject these two choices, then this band of men will kill you.' Uthman replied, 'As for my turning their affairs over to them, I am not one to remove a robe that Almighty God has placed upon me.'

So now, there are multiple narratives as to how Uthman died, and i will end by providing the shortest one.

Muhammad b. Abi Bakr came with thirteen men and went up to Uthman. He seized his beard and shook it until I heard his teeth chattering. Muhammad b. Abi Bakr said, 'Mu'awiyah was no help to you, nor was Ibn Amir nor your letters.' Uthman said, 'Let go of my beard, son of my brother! Let go of my beard!' Then i saw ibn abi Bakr signaling with his eyes to one of the rebels. He came over to him with a broad iron-headed arrow and stabbed him in the head with it... They gathered round him and killed him.

This is the shortest rendition of what happened. Tabari includes multiple narratives that existed at his time, with some obviously more elaborate than others.

Others recount how Uthman's house was burned down by the rebels, how one of his women were harassed, how the rebels went straight for the treasury-indicating their desire for wealth rather than a desire for justice. And of course, the narrations stating that Uthman was reading the Quran whilst he was killed.

The reason for these varying narratives is explained as any historiography would be, that different conscious or subconscious motives determined what was being said. To put in better words they are results of their environments. So if the general attitude towards Uthman was that he was wronged, then narratives of him being pious, and victimized dominated literature on Islamic history. If the sentiment was that Uthman was nepotistic than they would focus on his weakness and his inability to rule.

This was a very important point that I became aware of this year, starting to see a much more complicated picture of how and why we understand what the "authoritative" in Islam is.

What sets Tabari apart from the rest is that he chose to chronicle all existing narratives, hence why History of Prophets and Kings spans over 40 volumes.

Coming away with some lessons, about Uthman and the earlier history surrounding Umar ibn Khattab and what's to follow with Ali's succession; I've learned that there was a real concern over which people had the right to rule, and it boiled down to clan affiliations/proximity to the Prophet. The difference being that when one of these first four rulers accepted, people for the most part complied.

Uthman represents the real blow, because of his deliberate nepotism, and the growing influence of people like Mu'awiyah who were Muslims but exploited their lineage and cited it as justification for rule.

So i came seeking clarity, and i come away with sharper questions of succession, dealing with divergence of opinions, and competing versions of truth.