Lecture 11: Muhammed and Caliphs
Course: Introduction to Islam
Lecture: Muhammed and Caliphs
I. Great Qur’anic Passage #8: Surah 48:18 “Sakina Glory”
We now have our eighth Qur’anic passage, which is on the concept of Shekinah Glory in the Qur’an. Did you know the Qur’an has the doctrine of Shekinah Glory? Now you will find out.
In the Qur’an, the 48th Surah, this is in a Surah known as “victory.” But that word “victory,” as I told you in past lectures, is a keyword because it corresponds to a memorable part of the Surah. In this case, if you have a footnote, this is the siege of Mecca in AD 630. It is very important because the military victory in Surah 48 is tied to the concept of tranquility, or the Shekinah Glory. Actually in the Arabic it is the word, “Sakina” and comes directly from the Hebrew, the Shekinah Glory that you probably already are familiar with.
It is an important term because it talks about Allah sending down tranquility, sending down his Shekinah Glory. Tranquility may not be a good
translation of this. Don’t focus much on the word “tranquility,” just on the concept of Shekinah Glory. The passage reads: “It is he” – that is, Allah – “who sends down tranquility into the hearts of the faithful so their faith might grow stronger.” This has raised a lot of questions in commentaries in Muslim circles. What in the world is meant by this Arabic expression, “Shekinah?” In what way does Allah send down his presence? Because you will recall, look at the enthronement passages, why is this a potentially problematic passage? Why is this problematic? Because Allah does not move. He only works through mediators. His word is mediated through the angel Gabriel. The idea of the presence of Allah through either an incarnation, as in Jesus Christ, or in his presence through the Holy Spirit, the kind of language that we use, is simply unacceptable to Islam. Yet we have this passage.
This is a feature that is particularly a theology found primarily in the 48th Surah. If you will look at this passage, I will briefly mention 48 ayah 1, 48 ayah 18 where it mentions it again, then again in 48:26. So three times it is mentioned in this one particular Surah. “He sent down tranquility upon them and rewarded them with victory,” 48:18 and 48:26. He sent down his tranquility, his Shekinah, upon his apostle and the faithful. You find other passages which also contain this theology. It appears twice in the 9th Surah, Surah 9:26 and Surah 9:40. It also occurs remarkably in the second Surah, which is a very important Surah for Muslims, in Surah 2:248. That is what we should look at because that is a little different context than all of the others, which I will mention briefly.
In Surah 2 ayah 248, in this passage it is talking about the Ark of the Covenant, which is something obviously important to us. It says there that their prophet also said that in the advent of the Ark shall be the portent of his reign. “There will be tranquility from your lord and the relic, which the house of Moses and the house of Aaron left behind.” This is an amazing passage. This is a reference to the Ark of the Covenant and reference to certain things contained in the Ark of the Covenant, which here refers to relics, from the family of Moses or the house of Moses, and the house of Aaron, referring of course to those references, mainly in the New Testament, but in some ways the Old Testament, certain things that were found in the Ark of the Covenant.
What was it that we know was in the Ark of the Covenant? What were the things that were found there? The ten commandments. Jar of manna. Aaron’s budding rod. It is hard to describe what the theology the Ark is in this regard, but there is this idea that the Ark of the Covenant in some way contains the presence of Yahweh. That is what it implies here. Therein inside the Ark shall be the tranquility, the Shekinah, the Glory of God, in a sense perhaps we should say, is present in the Ark of the Covenant.
The fact that this word is only used six times in the entire Qur’an, one of which is in reference to the presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant obviously makes a very important point as to what does it mean when he talks about the Shekinah coming down on the troops of Allah when they are fighting. This is something that has raised significant questions.
The one thing about it that is interesting is that if you read all of the other passages except for this one in 2:248, in every other passage it deals specifically with the concept of holy war or the idea of a jihad of some kind, which we discussed last time. That is why this is on the heels of that lecture. The idea was to immediately follow up on that lecture on jihad with this interesting theology that comes down in the context of jihad as the presence of Allah somehow with his people in a unique way or a special way when they are involved in holy wars, or jihad, or this striving after Allah. I do not know much more to say about it than that. I don’t want to try to say more than these passages say. I realize I am probably raising more questions than I am answering; but I want you to be aware of this particular doctrine, and that this has certainly caused some interesting interpretations and discussions among both Islamic scholars and Christian scholars of Islam. That is something to log away in your mind about another interesting passage in the Qur’an.
II. Historical Recap to 6:32 – Key Historical Events
Before we go into another historical part of this class, I want to recap the five major dates that you should know cold up to this point. You should know
570 - Birth of Muhammed
610 - Night of Power and Excellence when the Qur’an was revealed
622 - Hejira when they had the flight out of Mecca
630 - Triumphant return to Mecca
632 - The death of Muhammed.
Up to this point those are the only five dates that we are actually clear you must know.
We now want to move into another somewhat brief section of the course. We will review some of the historical elements that happened immediately
following the death of Muhammed. These are important. We obviously could teach a course just on the history of Islam. This class does not do that. This is an introduction to the thought, the theology of Islam primarily. But it brings in some important parts of the history. We want to do that at this point and discuss Muhammed’s successor because this is actually critical to appreciating the division today between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. It all comes down to this next lecture, the foundation of it and therefore it is very important.
To get your mind back into the thinking of where we are, in 7th century Arabia that part of the world is dominated by two main great empires, the Byzantine Empire as the Christian or Eastern Roman Empire, and the Zoroastrian or Persian Empire. Arabia is just between and to the south of these two great empires. Within 100 years both of these empires would fall at the feet of the Muslim armies. So a lot happens in the 100 years after Muhammed’s death. In fact from 632 to 732, that 100-year period, is celebrated all over the Muslim world and called “The 100 glorious years.” So when you look at the death of Muhammed, you are actually going into a major period of expansion by the Muslim armies.
However this did not happen immediately upon Muhammed’s death. Actually at Muhammed’s death the famous treaties that were so important, which we discussed in previous lectures, basically began to fall apart because the Arab treaties that were made, with the Jews in Mecca especially, were thought to be only good as long as Muhammed lived. So there was some period of consolidation after the death of Muhammed. I think it is fair to say that fairly soon the Bedouin tribes began to be brought back into the fold and began to realize the potential that they had as a civilization to take advantage of a relatively weak period in the Byzantine and Persian history; and this of course is exactly what happens when within a decade after Muhammed’s death, Arab forces conquered Byzantium, Persia, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt. Later, major military victories by some very famous generals, Khalid and Amr, brought the Muslim message all of the way to Morocco and Spain in the West and across Central Asia into what in those days was called “India,” today is Pakistan.
It is a powerful time. The Muslims were very adept at knowing when to defeat people militarily outright and when to use the concept of the jizya and the dhimmi. Remember, the two more or less aces in the hole Muslims had, they had the choice of giving people that were not going to be conquered the opportunity to pay a certain tax known as the jizya. This tax was a tax which would alleviate them from being defeated, and they were given a certain status, which we have also addressed, the dhimmi status. This is a protected status. We have already discussed that the taxation rate for the jizya is higher than the Muslim tax because they were exempt from military service because they did not want unbelievers in their army.
This was something that gradually shifted and changed over the years to create a burdensome tax for non-Muslims. This was a motivation to move into the house of Islam. The status was originally intended to be only for the people of the Book, Jews and Christians, but gradually expanded as we mentioned before, to other groups including Hindus and Buddhists as it got into India. They found particular Hindu groups, Hindu areas that were very, very powerful and strong. They would enter into essentially a form of a new kind of treaty. That is what this is. This is a treaty. “We will protect if you do this, we will give you protected status.” This is the kind of thing that happened.
This really begs the question, going back to the very beginning, the whole concept of Muhammed’s successor and who would lead the Muslim community, how the Muslim community was transformed from a relatively divided group that was still concentrated in Arabia, to these armies that march all over much of the world as far as the west, obviously in western Europe and Spain and Morocco and all the way to eventually Indonesia. It is quite a remarkable thing.
We come yet to another passage in the Qur’an which was a matter of some controversy. Actually I don’t think this is particularly unclear to me; it is quite clear and it shows that controversy existed. In Surah 21 ayah 34 and 35 it at least proves – my view is that this is all it proves – but it at least proves that there were people who did not believe that Muhammed would die a natural death. If you read the passage in Surah 21 ayah 34, “No man before you” – that is Muhammed – “has remained immortal.” If you take that out of context, if I came to Mike and I said, “Nobody before you has been immortal,” you could say, “thank you.” It implies that therefore I must be immortal. Unfortunately some people took that line out of its context. It goes on to say, “If you, yourself, are doomed to die, will they live forever? Every soul shall face death.” It says to us, all will be recalled. It is clear in the context of the passage that Muhammed is basically justifying the fact that he said, “I will die. I am not immortal.” This is one of the interesting subplots in early Muslim history. How will the Muslims assess the life of Muhammed? We will see how important this is in the later Hadith. But Muhammed at this point is very clearly pointing out that he is just a prophet, he is a spokesman, he is a channel. He is not to be worshiped. He is not to be given a special kind of divine status.
But it is certainly true that there were people who were beginning to wonder if Muhammed had some special status. The Muslim community has never really put that to rest, quite frankly. There are all kind of fringe groups that have all kinds of bizarre beliefs about Muhammed. But it does raise the issue of the caliph or the caliphate, calipha – there are different words for it.
A caliph refers to the successor of Muhammed. Calipha or the institution of the caliphate, these are all related words based on this basic root, caliph, or
successor. This is a very key theological term in Islam. In what way is Muhammed succeeded? Can he be succeeded? If so, in what way? Who will stand in his place and lead the faithful? Islam after the death of Muhammed is essentially a theocracy with Muhammed as its temporal head. So his death is somewhat similar to the death of Moses. What do you do when Moses passes away? He is the head of the community, the visible head of Yahweh’s leadership in the community. Where is the Joshua? That is really the question of the caliphate. Is there a Joshua to assume the reins that are passed over?
This is to be contrasted a little bit with the passage in Surah 33:40 which says, “he” referring to Muhammed “is the apostle of Allah and the seal of the prophets.” That is a very important verse to many Muslims because on one hand, if you read this passage, Muhammed can be saying, “Hey, I’m immortal like everybody else, I’m going to die. The community will have to get along with their living, extend Islam.” There are several Hadiths we will look at later that will basically show Muhammed saying, “Hey, I do envision that I will be succeeded by this or that type person” or whatever. If you read 33:40 it kind of plays the other side of the coin, that Muhammed is the seal of the prophets. In other words, he cannot be succeeded. He is the last in a long line of prophets and there is no other word besides the word of Muhammed.
There came to be two distinctions in Muhammed’s idea of a caliphate, or a successor to Muhammed. This is another issue which we will see that is not
at all resolved to this day among Muslim thinkers, again Sunni and Shi’a Islam.
The caliphate is saying that there is a successor. I think everyone is agreed to some extent what this successor will be. I am going to argue in this class that essentially Muhammed viewed that his successor would be the Qur’an. I think there is a certain sense in which the Qur’an is meant to serve as the successor of Muhammed and after the Qur’an is given, that will guide the community. You could conceivably add to that things like the Hadith and other writings that might serve in kind of a guidance capacity apart from the human leadership. This is like our saying, “Well, the apostles are gone, but the apostolic faith is preserved in the scriptures.” It would be that kind of argumentation. I think that everybody to some degree believes that basic point, that it is certainly part of the succession.
Other parts of this come to a distinction between the office of Muhammed and the prophethood of Muhammed. These are actually three very different things. This is different because it is a non-human and basically static bit of data. The Hadith goes through some growth over a long period of time and it is still debated, what is and what is not the proper Hadith. Essentially this is a closed canon of sorts. In that sense, that it is a form of guidance. This refers to a human successor that will give leadership to the community.
If you restrict the successor of Muhammed to the office, what you would say essentially is, “When it comes to prophetic matters or revelation matters, all of that occurs here. In other words, the revelation has already been given.” But the office of Muhammed continues on to the human successors who would give guidance to the Muslim armies, who would help settle disputes, who would supposedly be a voice of wisdom in terms of understanding the Qur’an. But that is an office, a physical headship. It would be somewhat like saying that we have the office of the President but the President cannot, at least in theory, violate the constitution. You have the written data and that can be changed. The President can’t say, “I have a new idea or a new revelation and we are not actually going to do things according to the constitution.” I will let you spin out all the possible implications of such a thought. In a sense the word “president” actually carries it better than the word “office;” the word “president” implies presiding over something. You are not a king, you are a president. You are presiding over. You are presiding over and you are guarding something, in this case the constitution or the Qur’an or whatever.
The prophethood opens a whole potential range of ideas. If you say that the mantle of Muhammed’s prophethood passes along, it means obviously that Allah can continue to speak through a prophet figure and could supply new revelations that in some way could be added to the Hadith, as we shall see later, to provide further revelation from God to the community. Nobody is going to try to go in and mess around with the Qur’an, that is impossible. The Qur’an is a closed document. But the possibility of adding to it or allowing the Qur’an itself to be interpreted in a new light because of new revelation, that also has occurred. So essentially you are opening the door to an ongoing revelatory kind of possibility if you interpret the caliph in this way.
Much of Muslim history has really been fighting over this very point. We will revisit this issue quite a lot with Sunni and Shi’a splits in Islam, the major divisions; but also the Sufism in Islam, mystical Islam and how Shariah law actually works in many Muslim countries. So in that sense this is a very important doctrine to be aware of.
In another context, in some Muslim views, the whole thing has become irrelevant because this whole thing about an office, like the office of the President or a prophet like the prophet figure, implies some kind of legal civilization and empire with somebody presiding over like the United States or some Muslim empire that has armies and competitions or Shariah Law. Whereas today, many Muslims are merely Muslims as individuals who live in America, they are happy Muslims, they live wherever, or they live in a section or countries that are Muslim and therefore they may not be related directly to anybody in an office or prophet role, though there are those who are, and certainly they report directly to the Qur’an for their guidance. So in some ways, some people argue that the whole caliphate issue has largely been bypassed by the modern world. This I think gives you a general feel for the issues. Now we are going to develop this and see how it spins its way out.
The caliphate as an institution, historians argue, essentially lasts from 632 to the year 1258. That is why I mentioned a minute ago this whole idea of the caliphate in many ways is an historical question, though the implications of it are very much with us today. This is the period of time when the Muslims extend their great Islamic empire and traditionally it is divided into three major periods, only one of which you will be happy to know, we will spend a lot of time discussing in this class.
III. The Four “Rightly Guided Caliphs” (part 1)
A. Muhammed’s Successor
The first is known as the “rightly guided caliphs.” This is a very important period from 632 to 661. Muslims will debate this, but you can get a feel for how long they are.
B. Survey of Four “Rightly Guided” Caliphs and the Caliphate
These are the four immediate successors of Muhammed and this is again, to keep bringing these analogies as they are helpful, this is a bit like the David/Saul/Solomon kind of discussion in Christian/Jewish circles before the divided kingdom.
There are four caliphs that preside over a united Islam. After the fourth caliph, Ali, Islam is split into two major factions. From then on, this is a whole other part of Muslim history. These four are often called, “the four rightly guided caliphs.”
The second major period is known as the Umayyad empire, to which we will make some allusions; but it is not as critical for our purposes to study this. That is from 661 to 750.
The third period is the Abbasid Empire, which goes from 750 to 1258. The only other major date after this point that one should be definitely aware of is the date 1453. I’m sure some of you probably already know what that date is. What is that date in Christian history? The fall of Constantinople. That date is a red letter date in any church history course. I’m sure you are probably already aware of that. Muslims established their empire base and re-named it Istanbul, as it is to this day.
These are the main periods of the empire. During that time the major capitals were in different parts of the world, including Medina, Kufa, Damascus, Baghdad, North Africa. A lot of major centers of Islamic leadership and guidance were there. Also, you can also recognize this date as the ending date. This is a critical time for the seven crusades that also begin in the 12th century in the Christian world to again, defeat the Muslim empire.
One of the interesting points is made by Bernard Lewis, one of the professors at Princeton when I studied Islam. He has this wonderful book out called “Islam in the West.” He is a well-known Islamist at Princeton. He argues that if you really read closely the Christian literature about Islam, through the Reformation - all of you know Martin Luther – that basically the writings about Islam never really talk about it in a purely religious context, the way it is done today. It is generally spoken of as an ethnic move, ethnic people groups who are invading the world. There is a lot of discussion of Islamic armies, stopping the advance like Luther did, the advance of the Turks. When Luther referred to the Turks he referred to the antichrist. This is a great Luther quote from “Table Talk.” Luther says that there is the antichrist and that off course the Pope is the spirit and soul of the antichrist. He says, “But the Turks are the body of the antichrist.” This is not the most embracing view of the Christian call to love the Muslim world in the gospel because it was viewed very much in political terms.
One of the things Bernard Lewis argues is that it takes a long time for Christians to really calibrate their thinking in terms of witnessing to Muslims, as a genuine rival to the Christian faith. There is a religious factor there. If you look at the literature of this whole period through the crusades, it is hard to understand the crusades apart from that. Because today if we were to say, “Let’s go get a bunch of Christians together and go defeat the Hindus in India because we want to get rid of Hinduism,” the whole thing would be ridiculous. But if we are involved in a Gulf War, fighting people for protection of the rights of Kuwaitees, it does not sound too implausible. Many of us may have supported that. That is exactly how the crusades were viewed. I am not at all trying to defend the crusades; but I am just simply saying that is the context the crusades were viewed in, as a military operation. The Christians were trying to get to the Holy Land on pilgrimage, they were not able to get there. They were being stopped by the Muslims, and we have to put a stop to this. There were people like Raymond Lull and others who appeared who basically challenged this idea and went to the Muslims in love, but that is an exception.
Let’s summarize this period here with the names of the four rightly guided caliphs that we need to be particularly aware of because we want to make sure we trace the line from Muhammed to Ali and understand the division of Islam into Sunni and Shi’a camps.
After the death of Muhammed, one thing we can say that is clear, is that the Qur’an never explicitly talks about a successor. The Hadith is another matter. I don’t know how you interpret the Hadith. But certainly the Qur’an shows that Muhammed did not have this as a high priority. Again, I am arguing in this class that Muhammed believed that the Qur’an would provide a new basis for unity in the Arab world, that the tribal chiefs would be replaced by the Qur’an. The Qur’an’s existence, perhaps overly optimistically by Muhammed, he believed would be able to forge together a united people the way the Jews have the Torah and the Christians with the gospels. He had this idea about the way this book would serve. The Qur’an, however, did not preserve this kind of unity and therefore there are problems early on in terms of how to spread the message of the Qur’an, particularly as the Muslims begin to go out into non-Arab parts of the world. They had all kinds of questions. What do we do? Their practices are different than ours. Their culture is different. It created all kinds of questions and they needed somebody to answer those questions. We will see the Hadith has a huge role in that issue.
The first person who was essentially chosen to be the successor to Muhammed is Abu Bakr, the first caliph. You will notice that he is the father of Muhammed’s last wife, Aisha. That becomes very, very important in Muslim circles because there is a marriage connection between Abu Bakr and Muhammed’s family, so essentially he is Muhammed’s father-in-law. Because of that, he is deemed to be a good successor to Muhammed. That is very important because on one hand, Abu Bakr is a perfect choice because he has been very loyal to Muhammed from the very beginning, he has followed the progress of the whole movement. He has been Muhammed’s right-hand man, as it were. But he is not blood-related to Muhammed. The only connection is that Muhammed married Aisha, his daughter. That was Muhammed’s favorite wife, and that becomes the source of a ton of Hadith. But this is the only connection to Muhammed. That becomes a very important contentious point, as we shall see later on.
Abu Bakr was also important because Muhammed supposedly, according to tradition, died in their home, so he died in the presence of Abu Bakr. That
in the East is also important. He died in their presence. So he became chosen as the successor and there were several rebellions of Bedouins and so forth. But he was a very, very good military leader and within two years he had consolidated Islamic rule among the Arab Bedouin tribes. As I have told you, after Muhammed’s death there was a couple-year period of consolidation. He did a very good job of doing that. Then he began to spread Islam into what today is Southern Iraq and Palestine and that is where we have the first caliph.
The second caliph is the caliph Umar. It is a very important point that we have a man who is not connected to Muhammed in the way that everybody else at least in some way is connected. His dates are 634-644. According to tradition, when Muhammed was in the last year of his life, he had sent letters to rulers in the Byzantine Empire, Iran, Egypt, other places, inviting them to embrace Islam. This becomes a recapitulation of a past lecture, but remember the whole discussion about the jihad and the da’wah. What did we say was at least one of the major interpretations of when would you be permitted to announce a jihad? What had to happen before that? There had to be an invitation, the da’wah, “with all kindness.” So here the Muslim army is prepared to explode all over both the Persian and Byzantine empires. They have not yet issued any kind of da’wah; but they have this nice historical fiction, or maybe you could say historical fact – I think it is a matter of interpretation – that Muhammed sent letters to all of these empires, all of these kings, saying “Come into the house of Islam.” So they could say, “They have already had the da’wah. They did not accept Muhammed’s letter, so we’ll go and attack.” So this becomes the pretense, in a sense, to go ahead and move to stage
II. If you accept, that is not even necessary.
Umar, without a doubt, is quite a remarkable military leader. He brought Islam into Damascus via a jihad in the year 635, and takes all of Syria. Between 639 and 644 he takes Egypt. In that same time period, 640 to 644 he takes most of Persia.
Here you have massive numbers of Nestorian and Monophysite Christians that we have alluded to, who now are coming into Islam in massive numbers. This is a fake point of challenge in the Christian world because Christians did not believe at the time period that a Christian would ever convert to Islam. So once you begin to see historians and Monophysites join Islam, it provided added incentive in a sense to demonize the historian movement, which had many good parts to it in my view, when they were not all theologically aberrant; but they further demonized the cause, the whole idea of Muhammed, Muslim armies, having clear victory over orthodox Christians, except the Chalcedons, is unthinkable. Of course, that eventually happens anyway because there is no way to stop this because the Muslim religions takes the Holy Land, takes all of North Africa, all of the way across the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain and eventually into France. There are a lot of mainstream Christians that fall to the armies of Islam. But at this early period, that idea was not quite in people’s minds.
So Umar is part of this major military period of transition which brings Islam out of a strict Arab context and begins to challenge and knock on the doors
of non-Arab people. I want to remind you that the Iranians are not Arab people, these are Persians. So therefore this really is a huge step culturally. Today people fail to appreciate the cultural difference between Iranians and other parts of the Middle East. Umar introduced a method of choosing a successor. Here you begin to find more and more discussions about the nature of the caliphate. He established kind of an election committee that would account for electors or elders that would meet together and nominate the next caliph. It is not actually quite as dramatic as that sounds. It is more of like the old Arab style of meeting where you get together in the Arab meetings and you have all kinds of input and then you reach a consensus kind of thing. That is more of an idea of what it would be.
In 644 Umar was assassinated. That is another event that has never fully been gotten over by the Muslim world. The third caliph, Uthman, comes to
power. Uthman, as we will see, was also assassinated. These two assassinations become very, very critical in Muslim history because Uthman served from 644 to 656; but unlike Umar and Abu Bakr, Uthman is a very weak leader. He allowed a lot of division and internal strife and his 12-year leadership is very, very problematic. He did continue sending Islamic armies eastward and westward, but Uthman belonged to a particular family called the Umayya. I mentioned the Umayya dynasty, the Umayyas had been the very family that had been so critical and opposed to Muhammed all the way.
This raises a question. Remember the irony of the whole blood situation when you talk about blood connections to Muhammed. You have to remember that on one hand, the blood connection is very important if you can prove that you are in direct succession to Muhammed by blood. That is very important. But you also remember that in the bloodline were also those who opposed Muhammed the most. It was his own clan that opposed him and literally marched from Mecca all of the way to Medina to attack him. So this, I think, goes back to the very beginning, a question mark in the Muslim mind about how important is this, that we support the blood family of Muhammed, since many of them actually formed the opposition to Muhammed. Uthman belonged to the Umayya family, this tribal group that had fought those critical battles outside of Medina. There were several Medina families which highly resented Uthman’s rise to power because of this internal friction within the rise of Islam. In the year 656, while Uthman was reading the Qur’an, according to their tradition, he was assassinated, murdered by some Egyptians actually who were allies with this old aristrocatic family and bitter opponents of Muhammed.
Uthman is important. The idea of Uthman and the Qur’an in his hand; again, this is a very strong tradition. I will not necessarily deny it, but it does illustrate the connection of Uthman with the Qur’an which Muslims want to project. Uthman is believed to be the person that finally standardized the Qur’an in its present form. Of course, they believe that Muhammed gave it and that is the way it is and there have been no changes.
There is an acknowledgement that by the time of Uthman there were a number of variants in the Qur’an because of interpretation and because of various potential interjection of problems and alternative theology. Uthman does the ultimate solution if you have a textual problem. You burn all the variants. That is a very effective method of textual criticism. You have 65 variants. You choose one that you like and you burn the other 64. That ends the discussion. This was a very, very helpful thing. The variants were destroyed. This is why I mentioned in passing before, the Germans later uncovered some of these early manuscripts that came out of these pits where they tossed these Qur’ans. We are only now getting a little insight into how much variation was there. Uthman is responsible for that.
The fourth caliph, Ali. Uthman is part of the Umayya Clan, which is part of Muhammed’s family, so that is important. When you come to Ali, the last
one, Ali is related to Muhammed as both his first cousin and his son-in-law because Muhammed is the son of Abdul-Muttalib who was Muhammed’s
uncle, so that makes him Muhammed’s cousin. Ali also marries Muhammed’s daughter, Fatima, who is very important because she is the only surviving child of the relationship between Muhammed and Khadija. Muhammed married Khadija as his first wife. They had Fatima. Ali marries Fatima. The children of Ali and Fatima are extremely important in particularly the Shi’a tradition. Hussein martyred them in the great passion play of the Muslim world. That is something the Shi’a put on.
There is that double connection. This is through blood and marriage both connection to Muhammed through Ali. The main thing to recognize is the
difference between those who are blood related and those who are not that unfolds under the reign of Ali. Ali was responsible and had serious conflicts with Uthman’s supporters. The result is two major civil wars break out in Islam. The first is a coalition under Aisha. Again, you can see, Muhammed is married to Aisha as his last wife. She has this connection with Abu Bakr and that forms a faction that is related to Abu Bakr and this becomes a certain coalition faction that would basically interpret the successor to Muhammed to not be necessarily blood linked; because even though Muhammed married Aisha, who was the daughter of Abu Bakr, Abu Bakr had no direct blood connection to Muhammed, whereas Ali does.
There is a faction that develops around Aisha, who is his most popular wife, but no blood relation is necessary, as that which comes to Khadija, his first wife. So this is a first wife/last wife thing – we’ll forget the seven in the middle – and the connection with the first wife through Fatima. So there are two major civil wars that emerge. This is the first time that we have major conflicts between Muslims fighting Muslims. Obviously we had people in the Arabian Peninsula fighting each other outside of the context of Islam when they were trying to regain Mecca and Medina and all of that. This is actual Muslims fighting Muslims under Aisha and then finally this coalition under Muawiyah the governor of Syria, a relative of Uthman.
So there are two battles. The first is the Battle of the Camel. It is called the Battle of the Camel because supposedly Aisha sat on a camel during this battle and the whole thing raged around her. This is the faction, the Aisha faction that Ali quickly crushed. So you have a defeat by the Aisha faction by Ali in the Battle of the Camel. The second battle is more important. This is known as the Battle of Siffin, the place in modern-day Syria. This really is the battle which all of this discussion has led up to because this is the battle which essentially is the source of the division between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.
Ali has had one victory, The Battle of the Camel. He is now involved in his second major fight and he is pressing the claims of his armies against the
Muawiyah faction which is aligned with Uthman’s group. This occurs in the year 657. Muawiyah is about to be defeated and according to Muslims, Ali was on the verge of having a total military victor over this faction and that would solve the whole problem and you would have a clear bloodline for Muhammed’s successors. But when they realized they were about to be defeated, they did something that was quite clever. They took copies of the Qur’an, or probably pages of the Qur’an, pages of the revelation, that they had and they put them on the tips of their spears and they waved these leaves from the Qur’an like a flag. They shouted out, according to tradition, “Let Allah decide.” In other words, let Allah decide who will be the successor of Muhammed. They are basically beating Muhammed at his own game because Muhammed has set the Qur’an up as this great successor of himself. You have, granted, a blood descent of Muhammed who is pressing the claims of himself on the community. They finally cannot be defeated militarily, so they pull out the Qur’an. Once you pull the Qur’an out, that is a non-contradictory point. It is like someone pulling the Bible out, let’s let the Bible decide. Once someone does that, you are kind of silent, what can you say then because you can’t say you are against the Bible. They would slaughter people and if blood were to be splattered over the pages of the Qur’an, this would not go down very well.
Ali was put in a very bad position which to this day, Muslims have not forgiven him for because many Muslims say he should have taken them down and finished the job. He had them basically in a corner. Instead Ali, who here he is fighting for the blood descent, concedes and says, “Okay, let a council decide.” He accepts the proposal. This becomes a huge division about how the caliph is to be decided. The party that supported Ali and opposed Muawiyah were so upset with Ali for accepting arbitration on the caliphate that they broke off and formed a group known as the Kharijites. This is a faction which is still alive to this day. They say, “We are going to follow Islam the way we think that it should be done.” They won’t accept the idea of arbitration. So this really becomes the point of division in Islam that largely spins out into the modern-day period because the whole debate is about how the successor to Muhammed is to be chosen; and secondly, how to interpret that succession along the lines of our earlier discussion, as office or prophethood.
Even though the original root of the division is essentially political and military, it quickly becomes theological. You have to have in your mind the full discussion because eventually the theological thread manifests itself. You are going to say, “Is there a possibility that this figure could introduce new or novel doctrines or new ideas to guide the Muslim community?” Because of that, it becomes much more complicated. However, the full split has not happened yet. This is the beginning of it. Islam essentially gets divided between a political power in Syria and a spiritual religious center in Medina and Mecca. So that part is partly divided. But Ali’s youngest son, Hussein, who is also on the list, tries to regain the caliphate for his family because he is the grandson of the prophet. His elder brother, Hussan, had been poisoned ten years earlier. So now he tries to seize power. Yet, his family is completely wiped out and that is a major festival mourning day in the Shi’ite community to celebrate the tenth day of Muharram), a day when they celebrate passion plays, the passion of Hussein and they live out this whole thing. Many Christians have used this Hussein martyrdom as an opportunity to share the gospel. It has become a long discussion about their whole role of suffering, the whole role of martyrdom in the Muslim faith and this goes largely back to this particular battle.
What eventually develops is that Ali, because he is related by blood, and the others who are not, the mainstream group, argue that Islam should be
succeeded through a council or some kind of arbitration, the caliph should be appointed by a council. Because they argued that “Even if we accept only a blood successor to Muhammed, we are going to be captured into a situation where we can’t really expand globally.” They were not in global terms, but at least regionally they are viewing the thing. We want to make sure we are not received as being strictly from the Arabian Peninsula. The others felt the connection with Muhammed was very, very important.
This is why the word “Sunni” comes from the word “Sunna” which means the normal practice or customary practice. So, the Sunni Muslim comes from the word “Sunna” and this would be normative Islam. You can also read that if you are a Sunni Muslim, normative meaning orthodox, non-sectarian, is the normal way Islam is to be practiced. That is what the Sunni represents or means. Literally roughly a billion Muslims fall under this camp in some way, broadly speaking called Sunni Muslims. There are many, many different groups of the Sunnis we will look at later, but that is the general idea.
Ali’s party is the sectarian or the people who broke away. This is the people who are fighting for a direct bloodline. They were known as the “Shi’a Ali.” Shi’a means the party of Ali or the sect of Ali, how you want to spin it out.
Party does not sound quite as divisive as the word, “sect,” but is kind of the gist of the world. Today you do not hear as much of the expression Shi’a Ali, you just hear the expression Shi’a the sect, Sunni, the normal practice. The normative Muslims, the sectarian Muslims, are those who have divided over this point. That of course is a much smaller group.
By current estimates, this is somewhat unclear, but roughly 89% of Muslims fall in the Sunni camp and about 11% of Muslims fall in the Shi’a camp. Again, that is very, very broadly spoken because there are many, many Muslim sectarian groups that are actually part of other movements which don’t rely on these as much as their main designation. But I think it is fair enough as a general rule. So essentially 90% of Muslims are Sunni Muslims.