The Council of Six
After Abu Bakr (ra)’s passing, ‘Umar (ra) became khalifah without any controversy. His rule lasted 10 years and was a time of great expansion for Islam. There’s little that people get confused about in regards to his rule so we’ll skip to the actual controversies. Throughout the two rules of Abu Bakr (ra) and ‘Umar (ra), Ali (ra) was front and center as part of both administrations, acting as a judge and key advisor to his two friends and companions. The books of history are full of examples of Ali (ra) taking an important leadership role throughout these years.
When ‘Umar (ra) was passing away, he did something unique. Instead of making a recommendation for who was to succeed him, he appointed a council of 6 men from the 10 promised paradise and said that they should choose the next caliph from among themselves. One man wasn’t present, three withdrew themselves as candidates, two remained. These two were Uthman (ra) and Ali (ra). Both agreed to be considered for succession. In other words, both exhibited interest in become leader of the Muslims. By this time, Ali (ra) was at an age where he was suitable for khilafah and his high level experience advising Abu Bakr (ra) and ‘Umar (ra) meant he had the experience to rule effectively as well. Without a doubt, both men were qualified for the position. The council, headed by ‘Abdul Rahman ibn Awf, painstakingly sought the input of all the people of Madinah. It’s said that he went door to door, interrupting people in their households to get their opinion. In the end, he chose Uthman to be the successor since it seemed more people in Madinah favored him. ‘Uthman (ra) took the oath and was given allegiance as the third caliph.
A Rule of Prosperity
Uthman (ra)’s reign went on for a very long time, equivalent to the duration of Abu Bakr (ra) and ‘Umar (ra)’s khilafa combined. The first ten years were peaceful with not much internal strife. Not surprising given his background as a successful businessman, ‘Uthman (ra) put into place policies which proved to be a tremendous boost for the economy. Knowing the importance of sea routes for economic growth, he took a small fishing hamlet and turned it into the port city of Jeddah–a city which to this day remains one of the most important commercials hubs in the Middle-East. During his rule, the ummah saw unprecedented growth in domestic revenue. I want to stress this point: a decade of rule without people having problems with Uthman (ra). This is important because in the last two years of his rule, unrest occurred and rebellions began to foment. Many people attribute it to nepotism and poor rule but that begs the question, why only the last two years? If he was indeed giving important posts to family members and being a poor administrator, why did the mutterings beginning after a decade of rule and not earlier?
A Man of Virtues
It’s important to understand who exactly ‘Uthman (ra) was. This was a man who holds the distinction of having been given two daughters of a prophet in marriage. This was a man who was promised paradise over and over again. There was a time in Madinah when a drought occurred and only one well was still providing water. The man who owned it had a monopoly on the water supply and consequently charged exorbitant prices to the inhabitants of the city. ‘Uthman (ra) purchased it from him for a staggering sum of money and then made an announcement that everyone could take water from it for free. This was a man who was providing the entire Muslim ummah their water for a period of time. Every person who made wudu to pray salah or to read Qur’an, every person who took a sip of water to break their fast, their reward went to ‘Uthman (ra). Imagine how much reward that is. Not just the salah and the fasts of hundreds of people but the salah and the fasts of hundreds of sahabah. He was given glad tidings of paradise by the Prophet ﷺ at that time. On another occasion, the Prophet ﷺ asked the sahabah to donate for an expedition known as the expedition of al-Usra. The Prophet ﷺ asked who could donate, and ‘Uthman (ra) stood up and said, “I can.” Then the Prophet ﷺ asked again who could donate, and again ‘Uthman stood up. And again. And again. And again. And again. Until finally when ‘Uthman brought a thousand gold dinars to the Prophet ﷺ and the Prophet ﷺ said, “Nothing ‘Uthman does after this can harm him.” Meaning, he had racked up such a staggering quantity of good deeds that it was simply impossible for him to accumulate enough sins to outweigh them. This was the man who purchased and donated the land around the Masjid of the Prophet so it could be expanded. This was the man who paid for the first expansion of the Prophet ﷺ’s Masjid. This was the man who purchased and donated the cemetery in which so many sahabah are buried (the Baqi). This was the man who was chosen as the Prophet ﷺ’s ambassador to the Quraish. This was the man who minted the first Islamic coinage. This was the man who constructed well over 5000 masajid during his rule. And, perhaps most relevantly, this was the man whom the Prophet ﷺ once told, “One day, Allah may vest you with a garment. If the hypocrites ask you to remove it, then do not do so.” Later scholars interpret the “garment” to be a metaphor for the position of khalifah.
At the tail end of Uthman (ra)’s rule, a group of rebels came to Madinah in the guise of pilgrims doing hajj, bringing with them a list of complaints about Uthman (ra). They claimed that Ali (ra) had told them that he would support their claim about all the issues they had with Uthman (ra). When Ali (ra) heard of this, he denied any knowledge and disavowed the rebels, firmly siding with Uthman in this conflict. This is very important from a historical perspective because it shows that there were movements going on in the Islamic world trying to co-opt the name of Ali (ra) without his approval or even knowledge even as early as the khilafah of ‘Uthman (ra). Some of these people believed that Ali (ra) would be their defender against Uthman (ra). Ali clearly had no knowledge of this. We’re seeing the beginnings of the Ali vs other cailphs narrative that’s going to grow with time.
Uthman (ra) placated the rebels (of course, he didn’t know these were rebels yet, just pilgrims coming with complaints against him) and sent them on their way, thinking this was over. A few days later however, the rebels came back and took control of Madinah, claiming they had intercepted a letter from ‘Uthman (ra) ordering that they be killed. They laid siege of Uthman (ra)’s house, trapping him inside. At this time, he was an elderly man, 82 years old. They told him that the only way out was for him to step down as caliph and let the people choose a new one. Uthman (ra) refused to step down but ordered his people in Madinah (which included Ali) to not fight the rebels and be the cause of a Muslim civil war. Ali (ra) sent his sons, Hasan (ra) and Husain (ra), to guard Uthman (ra)’s house but Uthman (ra) sent them away, saying that they could make no difference at this stage.
The books of history record that as the siege was going on, ‘Uthman (ra) continued his routine of ‘ibadah. He continued to read Qur’an and fast as he was besieged. He was fasting one Thursday as is sunnah and fell asleep while reciting the Qur’an. He saw a dream and in that dream, saw the Prophet ﷺ standing and smiling with Abu Bakr (ra) and ‘Umar (ra) behind him. The Prophet ﷺ asked him, “Ya Uthman, have they stopped you from drinking water?” He responded, “Yes, ya Rasulullah ﷺ.” The Prophet ﷺ then asked, “Ya Uthman, have they stopped you from getting food?” Again, he responded in the affirmative. The Prophet ﷺ then asked “Ya Uthman, have they stopped you from praying in my masjid?” ‘Uthman (ra) again said yes. Then the Prophet ﷺ said, “Ya Uthman, be happy. Tonight, you break your fast with us.”
That night, the rebels shamelessly killed this 82 year old sahabi, one of the best men to ever walk the face of this earth.