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Cracks in the Wall of Islam A.D. 656-750

THE FIRST three caliphs — Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman — had all known — Mohammed well. In 656, Othman, an old man in his eighties, was stabbed to death by a band of rebels. They believed that the right to be caliph belonged to Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali. Sometime later, Ali defeated his rivals for power in battle and proclaimed himself caliph. Instead of Medina, he chose as his capital the new Arab city of al-Kufah, in Iraq.

All but one of the leaders of Islam swore loyalty to Ali. The exception was Muawiyah, the governor of Syria, who set out to avenge Othman. Holding the dead caliph’s blood-stained shirt above his head in the mosque of Damascus, he accused Ali of Othman‘s murder. He challenged Ali to produce the actual murderers or resign.


Muawiyah was certainly ambitious‚ but his real quarrel with Ali was political, not personal. The question was whether al-Kufah or Damascus, Iraq or Syria, was to be the center of the Arab world. Soon the quarrel became a war, and two great armies stood face to face on the banks of the Euphrates. Instead of clashing, however, the Iraqi and Syrian soldiers merely raided each other’s camps, for neither side was eager to spill Moslem blood. Nevertheless, after a few weeks it began to look as if Ali’s forces would win. Then Muawiyah’s general Amr, the conqueror of Egypt, had a clever idea. He ordered his men to tie copies of the Koran to their lances and hoist them aloft. Fighting stopped immediately. The signal meant that the two sides should settle their differences by peaceful discussion, letting the holy word of Allah be their guide. To spare Moslem lives, Ali agreed.

His decision had serious results. By accepting Amr’s suggestion, the caliph had raised his enemy, Muawiyah, to the level of an equal. Outraged by this, thousands of Ali’s followers withdrew to form a group opposed to both sides. They called themselves Kharijites, “seceders.” The split between the followers of Ali and Muawiyah was political, not religious, but the Kharijites were a distinct religious sect. They had broken away from the united ranks of the faithful, the first group to do so. Since they had been on Ali’s side, their breaking away hurt Ali particularly. At the discussions following the truce, Amr’s arguments in favor of Muawiyah damaged Ali’s cause even more. Ali remained the caliph. He was still caliph on January 24, 661, when, as he was on his way to the al-Kufah mosque, a Kharijite rushed out from a crowd and struck him dead.

Ali was the last caliph to take office by consent of the leaders of Islam, for Muawiyah, who seized the caliphate on Ali’s death, ordered that his son Yazid should succeed him. With this act he founded the first dynasty, or family of rulers, in Moslem history, who passed power down from father to son. Muawiyah’s father was Mohammed’s early enemy Abu Sufyan, head of the Omayyah clan of the Quraysh. He and his descendants were known‚ after their clan name, as Omayyads. With Damascus as their capital, Omayyad caliphs reigned over Islam until 750.

Not everybody, however, agreed that they had the right to rule. After his assassination, Ali became a popular hero. Many stories sprang up about his bravery, kindness and wisdom. People began to think of him as having been the perfect Moslem and some even believed he was divine. The idea spread that Allah had wanted Ali, rather than Abu Bakr, to follow Mohammed as the head of Islam and that after Ali, only his sons and theirs could lawfully rule over the faithful.

This belief was especially strong among the Iraqis and Persians, who resented being governed by Syrians. The pro-Ali party came to be called the Shiah. In 669, Ali’s son, Hassan — nicknamed “the great divorcer” because he was said to have married and divorced no less than one hundred women — died under mysterious circumstances. The Shiah immediately charged that agents of Muawiyah had poisoned him. In 680, when Muawiyah died, Hasan’s brother Hussein insisted that Yazid had no right to succeed his father as caliph. Yazid sent four thousand men after him. On the tenth day of Muharram, 61 A.D.‚ (October 10. 680) the pursuers cornered him near al-Kufah with two hundred followers and butchered them all. The head of Hussein, Mohammed’s own grandson‚ was sent to Yazid in Damascus.

Hussein‘s death infuriated the Shiah even more than his brother’s had. They broke away to form a great new sect, the Shiites, which was practically a separate church within Islam. To the Shiites, Ali, Hasan and Hussein were saints, ranking just below Mohammed. They believed that the office of imam, or spiritual leader, could be rightfully held only by a descendant of Ali. Since the caliph was also the imam, they felt that the Omayyads had no right whatever to the caliphate. Besides, with a few exceptions, the Omayyads paid little attention to religion. They were more interested in their own pleasure and in building the power of the state. The deeply religious Shiites despised them for this.

Orthodox Moslems — that is, those who accepted things as they were — were called Sunnites. The Sunnites considered all opposition to their rulers as treason, and heartily approved of persecuting the Shiites. In time the Omayyad government became so dishonest that even loyal Sunnites began to grumble. Meanwhile, the descendants of al-Abbas, an uncle of Mohammed, started to declare openly that the caliph’s throne was rightfully theirs. The Abbasids, as this Quraysh family was called, included several descendants of Ali. Very shrewdly, the Abbasid leaders let it be known that if they came to power they would make one of Ali’s kinsmen caliph. With this understanding, the Shiite leaders agreed to back their claim.


In June, 747, the Abbasid forces unfurled their black flag in defiance of the Omayyads‚ whose flag was green. Civil war raged in Arabia, Syria and Iraq, with the Kharijites joining the rebels. In October, 749, Abu-al-Abbas had himself proclaimed caliph at al-Kufah. He was no descendant of Ali, but it was too late for the Shiites to do anything about it. By now, his victory was certain.

In April, 750, the armies of Abu-al-Abbas captured Damascus. Two months later, to celebrate the peace, his uncle and field commander, Abdullah, gave a lavish banquet to which he invited eighty prominent Omayyads. While his guests were eating, Abdullah signaled to his men to murder them at their tables. When the corpses had been covered, he ordered the terrified musicians and dancers to go on with the entertainment. In August, the last Omayyad caliph was caught and killed in Egypt, where he had fled.

Clearly, Abu-al Abbas had told the plain truth when in his first speech as caliph he had proudly called himself al Saffah, “The Bloodshedder”.

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