ELECTION OF 'ALI
35-36 A.H. / 656 A.D.
ON the Caliph's death, his kinsfolk, and such as had helped in his defence, retired from the scene. The City was horror-struck. They had hardly anticipated the tragic end. Many who had favoured or even joined the rebels, started back now the deed was done. The relatives of the murdered Caliph fled to Mecca with vows of vengeance. A citizen of Medina, wrapping carefully the severed fingers of Na'ila in the blood-stained shirt of 'Othman, meet symbols of revenge, carried them off to Damascus, and laid them at Mu'awiya's feet.
For several days anarchy reigned in Medina. The regicides had mastery of the city. The Egyptians were foremost amongst these in the first days of terror and prayer was conducted in the Mosque by their leader. Of the inhabitants few ventured out. At last on the fifth day the rebels insisted that, before they quitted Medina, the citizens should elect a Caliph, and restore the empire to its normal state. Shrinking, no doubt, from the task which 'Othman's successor would have to face, 'Ali held back, and offered to swear allegiance to either Talha or Az-Zubeir. But in the end, pressed by the threats of the regicides and entreaties of his friends, he yielded; and so, six days after the fatal tragedy, 'Ali took the oath to rule "according to the Book of the Lord," and was saluted Caliph. Az-Zubeir and Talha were themselves the first to acknowledge him. They asserted afterwards that they swore unwillingly, through fear of the conspirators. The mass of the people followed. There were exceptions; but 'Ali was lenient, and
would not press the adherents of the late Caliph to swear allegiance. The insurgents, having themselves done homage, departed to tell the tale at Al-Kufa, Al-Basra, and Fustat.
No bed of roses was strewn for 'Ali. Whether at home or abroad, work rough and anxious was before him. To the standing contention between the Bedawin and Koreish was now added the cry of vengeance on the regicides. Red-handed treason had loosened the bonds of society, and constituted authority was set at nought. Bands of Bedawin, scenting plunder from afar, hung about the City. Encouraged by the servile population now broken loose, they refused to depart.1 'Ali was pressed to vindicate the majesty of law, and punish the men who had stained their hands with the blood of 'Othman. Even Talha and Az-Zubeir, awakening too late to the portentous nature of the crime enacted, with little check from them, and before their very eyes, urged this. "My brothers," replied 'Ali, "I am not indifferent to what ye say, but helpless. The wild Bedawin and rampant slaves will have their way. What is this but an outburst of paganism long suppressed;a return, for the moment, to the days of Ignorance, a work of Satan? Just now they are beyond our power. Wait; and the Lord will guide us." This waiting, hesitating mood was the bane of 'Ali's life. He was over fifty years of age, and, though vigorous in his earlier years, had become corpulent and inactive now. He loved ease; and while sometimes obstinate and self-willed, his ordinary maxim was that things left to themselves would surely mend.
Koreish were anxious and alarmed. The revolt, ostensibly against 'Othman's ungodly rule, was taking now far
1 A servile population, captives of war, had been pouring
for years into Medina as into other centres. They were employed as domestics, warders, bodyguards,
or followed trades, paying profits to their masters. On the outbreak they broke away into defiant attitude.
This would occur the more readily at Medina, as they formed the guards of the Treasury and mansion
of the great men and, being the only trained force there, they felt their power. We find them similarly
taking part in the outbreaks at Al-Basra and elsewhere. Like the Janissaries or Memluks of later days,
they were a petulant brood. Immediately on homage being done to 'Ali, they lampooned him in minatory
verses, to which 'Ali (not to be outdone in the poetry even of slaves) replied in extempore couplets.
Proclamation was made that slaves not returning to their masters would be treated as outlaws; but it
had no effect.
1 A servile population, captives of war, had been pouring for years into Medina as into other centres. They were employed as domestics, warders, bodyguards, or followed trades, paying profits to their masters. On the outbreak they broke away into defiant attitude. This would occur the more readily at Medina, as they formed the guards of the Treasury and mansion of the great men and, being the only trained force there, they felt their power. We find them similarly taking part in the outbreaks at Al-Basra and elsewhere. Like the Janissaries or Memluks of later days, they were a petulant brood. Immediately on homage being done to 'Ali, they lampooned him in minatory verses, to which 'Ali (not to be outdone in the poetry even of slaves) replied in extempore couplets. Proclamation was made that slaves not returning to their masters would be treated as outlaws; but it had no effect.
wider range. The Bedawin were impatient of Koreishite control; and that which had happened to the Umeiyad family, now forced to flee Medina, might any moment happen to themselves. Yet 'Ali, though he denounced the work of the regicides as high treason, took no steps to punish it, but temporised. Prompt and vigorous pursuit would no doubt have been joined in, heart and soul, by all the leaders and better classes of Islam. He chose rather to let the vessel drift, as it shortly did, into the vortex of rebellion.
The confirmation, or supersession, of the governors was another pressing matter; and here 'Ali turning a deaf ear to his friends, proved wilful and precipitate. When Ibn al-Abbas returned from the pilgrimage at Mecca, he found Al-Moghira wisely urging 'Ali to retain the governors generally in their posts, at least till the Empire at large had recognised his succession to the throne. But 'Ali refused. Ibn al-'Abbas now pressed the same view: "At any rate," he said, "retain Mu'awiya; it was 'Omar, not 'Othman, who placed him there; and all Syria followeth after him." The advice, coming from so near a kinsman, deserved consideration. But 'Ali, with family hatred against the Umeiyad line, answered sharply, "Nay; I will not confirm him even for a single day." "If thou depose him," reasoned his friend, "the Syrians will question thine election: and, still worse, accusing thee of the blood of 'Othman, rise up as one man against thee. Confirm him in the government of Syria, and they care not who is Caliph. When thou art firmly seated, depose him if thou wilt It will be easy then." "Never," answered 'Ali; "he shall have nought but the sword from me." "Thou art brave," Ibn al-'Abbas replied, "but innocent of the craft of war; and hath not the Prophet himself said, What is war but a game of deception?" "That is true," responded 'Ali, "but I will have none of Mu'awiya." "Then," said Ibn al-'Abbas, "thou hadst better depart to thy property at Yenbo', and close the gates of thy stronghold there behind thee; for everywhere the Bedawin are hounding along; and if thou makest others thine enemies, these will surely find thee out, and lay the blood of 'Othman at thy door." " Come," said 'Ali, trying another line, "thou shalt go forth thyself to Syria. See, now, I have appointed thee." "That," replied Ibn al-'Abbas, "can
never be. Mu'awiya would surely behead me or cast me into prison because of 'Othman's death, and my being kin to thee. Hearken, and make terms with him ere it be too late." But 'Ali turned a deaf ear.
Acting on this wayward impulse, 'Ali sent men of his own to replace existing governors throughout the Empire. In most places these met with but a sorry reception. At Al-Basra, indeed, Ibn 'Amir, unwilling to provoke hostilities, retired to Mecca, and his successor, 'Othman ibn Honeif entered unopposed; but the faction which clung to the memory of the late Caliph was as strong there as that which favoured 'Ali, while a third party waited the out-turn of events at Medina. In Egypt it was much the same. Keis, appointed to the command, was a wise and able ruler; but he only succeeded in crossing the frontier by feigning attachment to the cause of 'Othman; while a strong and aggressive faction throughout the country, swore that they would not submit until the regicides were brought to justice. In the Yemen, the new Governor obtained possession, but only after his predecessor had carried off to Mecca all the treasure. The two officers nominated to Al-Kufa and Syria met with so rough a reception, that they were glad to escape with their lives back to Medina.
Dispirited by these events, 'Ali took counsel with Talha and Az-Zubeir. The sedition he had apprehended was already kindled, and would spread like wild-fire, catching whatever might come in its way. "Then," replied they, "let us depart, that we may do thee service in the field." "Wait," answered 'Ali ; "the cautery must be the last resort." So he resolved in the first instance to address letters to Mu'awiya, and also to Abu Musa at Al-Kufa, demanding their allegiance. Abu Musa replied in loyal terms, but withal, bade the Caliph beware of the disaffection which in Al-Kufa was rife around him. With Syria, communication was utterly cut off; weeks elapsed, and there was no reply. In truth, a strange scene meanwhile was being enacted there.
Mu'awiya had no sooner received the emblems of 'Othman's murder,the gory shirt and Na'ila's mangled fingers,than he hung them on the pulpit of the Damascus mosque. There suspended, they remained a spectacle
maddening the Syrians to bloody revenge. Still, he took no immediate action. Biding his time, he waited to see what the new Caliph might do. Had 'Ali been wise, he would have used the angry Syrians to take vengeance on the regicides, and in so doing crush as well the rising rebellion of the Arab tribes. In this work they would have been his strongest help; for Syria never suffered from the Bedawi turbulence which kept Al-'Irak and Egypt in continual turmoil. It had been the early and favourite field of Koreish, who, settling there more largely than elsewhere, found their influence, in consequence, all the better recognised. Moreover, they inhabited the Syrian cities in common with the Christian population, which had surrendered for the most part on favourable terms. Society was thus throughout all classes orderly and loyal; whereas Al-Basra and Al-Kufa were filled with restless headstrong Arab tribes which held the conquered lands to be their own especial patrimony. Law prevailed in Syria; in Al-'Irak and Egypt petulance and pride of arms. Syria was, moreover, attached to the Umeiyad stock, and so remained faithful to the end.
The Syrians had not long to wait the outcome of 'Ali's plans. His abortive attempt to supersede Mu'awiya, and refusal to arraign the regicides gave colour to the charge of collusion with them; and having the bloody shirt ever before their eyes, the Syrians soon raised the cry against the Caliph. The majesty of outraged law must now be vindicated; and if the assassins were not pursued to justice, who but 'Ali was to blame? Damascus was in this excited temper when 'Ali's letter reached Mu'awiya. At the first no answer was vouchsafed. The envoy kept in waiting witnessed day by day the gathering storm. At last Mu'awiya sent a despatch,stranger than ever had been seen before. The cover was superscribed with this address; From Mu'awiya to 'Ali, and bore the seal of State. There was no other word, all was blank within. The despatch was carried by Kabisa, a Bedawi chief, and with him the Caliph's envoy was given permission to depart. Arriving at Medina three months after 'Othman's death, Kabisa presented the letter to 'Ali, who broke the seal impatiently. "What meaneth this?" he cried, starting at the blank despatch;"let the enigma be explained.”
Kabisa first inquired whether his life was safe. "Safe," answered 'Ali; "the person of an Ambassador is sacred. Speak on." "Know, then," proceeded Mu'awiya's envoy, "that but now I left behind me, weeping under the blood-stained shirt of 'Othman, sixty thousand warriors, bent on revenging the Caliph's death,and revenging it on thee!" "What!" exclaimed 'Ali, aghast, "On me! Seest thou not that I am powerless to pursue the murderers? O Lord! I take Thee to witness that I am guiltless of 'Othman's blood. Begone! See, thy life is safe." As the envoy withdrew, the petulant slaves and rabble shouted after him, "Slay the dog; slay the envoy of Syrian dogs!" He turned, and, apostrophising Koreish, cried at the pitch of his voice, "Children of Modar! Children of Keis! The horse and the bow! Four thousand picked warriors close at hand. See to your camels and your steeds!"
Medina was roused and startled by the envoy's cry. The time was come when 'Ali could no longer put his decision off. Al-Hasan, his elder son, ever poor in spirit, counselled waiting; but 'Ali saw too plainly the hour for action to be now or never. He gave vent to his troubled soul in martial lines, which, soon in everyone's mouth, told the people his resolve to make the sword the arbiter betwixt Mu'awiya and himself. An expedition against Syria was proclaimed; captains were appointed to command the various companies of the expected levies, and banners were presented to them by 'Ali; but he was careful to name no one who had taken part in the attack on 'Othman. Orders were also sent to Al-Kufa, Al-Basra, and Egypt, to raise troops for the war. This done, 'Ali mounted the pulpit and harangued the citizens. If they failed to fight now, he told them, the power would pass away from them, never more to be regained. "Fight, then, against the cursed schismatics, who would destroy the unity of Islam and rend in twain the body of the Faithful. Haply the Lord will set that right which the Nations are setting wrong." But the people did not respond to the appeal, and the ranks were slow of filling.
Talha and Az-Zubeir, when they saw affairs thus drifting, again asked leave to quit Medina; and so they now set out for Mecca, on pretext of performing the lesser Pilgrimage.
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