The Third of the Four: Caliph Uthman b. `Affan (d. 35H)


Quite apart from his pivotal role in the farthest expansion of the Islamic empire, the third Caliph, or successor of the Prophet, having got a master-copy of the Qur’an made, sent some seven copies to different parts of the Islamic world, and, thus, secured their consensus on a single form of recitation, earning the title ‘Jami` al-Qur’an’ (one who brought people together to a single way of recitation). He is also credited with shifting the port from Shu`aybah to present-day Jeddah.


The amazing thing about the four caliphs after the Prophet is that none of them had any experience in running even a province far from an empire. Three had been traders, and one (`Ali) had nothing to his credit worth mentioning. They inherited vast lands that combined the lands of the two huge Empires, Roman and Persian. One of the reasons for the downfall of the two previous Empires is thought to be the fact that each had such vast areas under its control as to loosen hold over areas at the peripheries. But here were the Caliphs, controlling all the areas of the two empires combined, and more. What gave them the ability for it, seeing that they never left their Capital, Madinah Munawwarah? We need a rational answer, but do not find one and must, therefore, seek a religious answer: Islam must have bestowed the abilities upon them and upon those who spread into non-Arab worlds to take charge of large chunks of lands as governors.

Early Life

`Uthman(ra) was a handsome man, a successful trader, and, because of good qualities, popular among the Quraysh. He was said to be five years younger than the Prophet and was one of those Abu Bakr (ra) had convinced early during the Prophetic mission, to have brought them to the Prophet as new entrants. He suffered persecution at the hands of his uncle and it was insufferable for a decent man of his kind. When the Muslims were allowed by the Prophet to seek refuge in any place to escape persecution, `Uthman(ra), accompanied by his wife, Ruqayyah(ra) – daughter of the Prophet – was one of those who left for Abyssinia across the Arab Peninsula. When they were leaving, the Prophet remarked that this was the first pair to migrate in Allah’s cause after Lut (asws). He returned from this first migration, to leave for a second once again accompanied by his wife, to the same place when, upon return, he learnt that the opposition had not subsided. His migration to Madinah from Abyssinia then, was the third migration. He was once again quite rich at Madinah after a while. Sweet water was largely brought into Madinah from a well called Bi’r Roma. On the Prophet’s general appeal, `Uthman responded, purchased the well and dedicated to the general population of Muslims.

He had sixteen children from eight wives, two of whom were the Prophet’s daughters one after another, Ruqayyah and Umm Kulthum, and earned the title ‘DhunNurayn’ (He of the two Lights); although another opinion is that since he recited a great part of the Qur’an at night he became a person of two lights: Qur’an as one light, and Qiyam al-Laylas another light.

At Madinah

He could not take part in the Battle of Badr because Ruqayyah(ra) was sick, eventually dying in that sickness. The Prophet was deeply aggrieved, seeing that Ruqayyah(ra) was not so old. He stood long at her grave upon return from Badr, allotted `Uthman a share in the booty of the battle, and gave him his third daughter, Umm Kulthum(ra) in marriage. At Uhud, when the Muslims faced defeat and the news spread that the Prophet was dead, some of the Companions decided to flee to a safer place near Madinah. `Uthman(ra) was one of them. But (perhaps, in view of a first occurrence, and fleeing to another place a strategy of war), Allah forgave them for this misstep without even ordering them to repent (Qur’an, 3: 155).

At Hudaybiyyah, in the sixth year after Hijrah, `Uthman(ra) was chosen to represent the Prophet and sent into Makkah, but was unlucky enough to be house-arrested. News spread that he had been killed. However, later, it was confirmed that he was still alive, but of course, not out of danger. Everyone was so concerned about him that the Prophet called for a fresh pledge to fight to death, placing his own hand on another and saying, “This is `Uthman’s hand.” This pledge drove fear into the hearts of the Makkans.

`Uthman’s total commitment came to light when, at the time of the difficult journey to Tabuk, the Prophet asked for donations, and every time, for three times, it was `Uthman(ra) who donated: in all, he gave around 940 camels and 60 horses. This explains how the Prophet managed to raise an army of 30,000. They starved during the return journey, despite those camels, and could not have started off in such numbers without his donation. Tabuk was `Uthman’s campaign. The Prophet said something he never said about anyone in his life: “Nothing that `Uthman does hereafter will hurt him (in the sight of Allah).”

Before dying, `Umar had named six men from among whom his successor was to be chosen: `Uthman b. `Affan, `Ali ibn abiTalib, Sa`d b. Waqqas, `Abdul Rahman b. `Awf, Zubayr b. al-`Awwam and Talha b. `Ubaydullah. These were six of those ten the Prophet had named as those of Paradise. Abu Bakr (ra) and Abu `Ubaydah ibn al-Jarrah (ra) were dead and Sa`eed b. Zayd(ra) was, perhaps, left out because he belonged to `Umar’s clan. `Umar was the tenth.


`Umar gave them three days to choose, and instructed that if the majority of these six agreed over a man, and someone of them disagreed, he was to be executed. If they were divided 3:3, Ibn `Umar was to cast the deciding vote; and, if there was any trouble, a force led by Abu Talha Ansari was to enforce order.

`Abdul Rahman ibn `Awf(ra) promptly got the nominated ones together, and showed his intelligence by asking each of them to renounce candidacy in favor of another. Talha withdrew in favor of `Uthman (ra). Zubayr(ra) withdrew in favor of `Ali (ra), and Sa`d b. Waqqas(ra) in favor of `Abdul Rahman ibn `Awf (ra). Then Ibn `Awf asked for another to withdraw and take charge of choosing between the two left. `Uthman(ra) and `Ali (ra) kept silent, so he himself withdrew and took charge of choosing. He spent three hectic days, working day and night, during which he consulted quite a large number of people, and ultimately announced that the scale seemed to be weighing in favor of `Uthman and, thus, `Uthman took charge of the Caliphate without any dissent. `Ali (ra) had no grudge and was the first to pledge his hand. `Uthman’s caliphate had been predicted by the Prophet anyway, and `Ali (ra) must have been through the exercise only to see who would be first, he or `Uthman; his own martyrdom also assured by another Prophetic prediction.

`Uthman’s first lecture after accepting the office contained the following warning: “Rulers are supposed to be shepherds and not money-collectors. But soon you will have rulers who would be money-collectors and not shepherds.” The script was written already.

`Uthman, more or less, continued with the policies of `Umar in military and administrative affairs. When Christians leaders from Najraniyyah came down to complain that the local officials were not honoring the terms that `Umar had agreed to, he made no inquiries, but rather, straightaway reduced their Jizya amount, and wrote to the Governor to treat them well. He differed with `Umar in that the former had not allowed Muslims to build a fleet. But `Uthman allowed that a fleet be built, which helped in the conquest of Cyprus, Crete, Corsica, Sardinia and other islands of the Mediterranean Sea. In no time, Muslim fleets began to patrol what was earlier known as the Roman Sea, which now came to be called the Muslim Sea. The fleet also helped loosen the Roman hold on North African countries.

The Islamic conquests continued during `Uthman’s tenurebrought under control Tabaristan, Nasa’, Sarkhas, Marw, Kirman (or Karman), Asbahan, Nishapur, ending at Herat (now in Afghanistan). The Persian Emperor lost territory after territory, until he was killed after he fled the Muslim army heading to Marw in 31H to fulfill the Prophet’s prediction that there will be no Kisra after the Kisra. The Prophet had offered his father Islam and had informed him that he could keep his empire with him. He refused, and his son, who again and again received the same offer, lost battle after battle and preferred to die like a dog in a miller’s house in a village, having walked several miles on foot. The miller gave him refuge, but the next night killed him while he lay asleep. A man who had a million-strong army under him, thousands of servants and slaves moving with the master wherever he went, and tons of gold in his palace, had no one by his side as he lay under the raised axe of the miller, because he decided to show his back arrogantly to his God.

Heraclius, who was made the same offer as Kisra – embrace Islam and keep your Empire with you – suffered no better end. He lost the whole of his Syrian territories, Asia Minor, and retreated to Constantinople. He was succeeded by his son, Constantine. He thought he will fight the Prophetic mission too. First, he lost Alexandria, then the rest of the shoreline of the Egyptian north, and then, as the Muslims penetrated up to Tripoli (Libya) and defeated his allies in North Africa, he decided to teach the Muslims a lesson. He started off from Constantinople with 600 ships. Muslims set sail their 200 ships. It was a clash of two fleets. Initially, both suffered losses without gaining an upper hand. Finally, the Muslims decided to fight them like they fight on land, and so, one night, they took their ships close to those of the Byzantine ships and tied a great many together. Once deck-to-deck, Constantine’s army of mercenaries met the Muslim armies of volunteers, in a fierce battle in which both lost their men heavily, but the scale began to tilt towards the Muslims. Constantine was injured, and that broke his will. As he lost more and more soldiers, he lost more and more of his heart and ultimately fled. He arrived at Cyprus, where he was greeted with disbelief, disappointment and anger. Reading the lines correctly, his subjects felt sure that they would be the next to be attacked by Muslims, with no defenders, they promptly killed him. With that there was no fear of any Roman (Byzantine) intervention; the Muslims advanced westward – thanks to supplies from `Uthman, (who repeated his good act of the Prophet’s time by donating his own 1000 camels on this occasion also), subdued to Islamic rule almost the whole of North Africa by the year 32H.

On the civil front, `Uthman(ra) kept up with the demands of the times. New Muslims in various parts of the Islamic world were reading the Qur’an in their own accents, and following different recitations by the Qur’an scholars sent from Madinah. Although the differences were minor, `Uthman(ra) decided to issue an authorized version, following a single approved recitation (Qiraa’ah, there being seven). Having got a master-copy made, he sent some seven copies to different parts of the Islamic world, and, thus, secured their consensus on a single Qiraa’ah, earning the title ‘Jami` al-Qur’an’ (one who brought people together to a single way of recitation). He is also credited with shifting the port from Shu`aybah to present-day Jeddah.

It was natural that, sooner or later, the ancient and well-grounded older cultures, languages and loyalties of swathes of populations spread over thousands and thousands of miles, into which the Muslims, so to say, found themselves as a powerful new element, should have given rise to a massive struggle to make new adjustments, and survive in one form or another. This gave birth to a historical process of adaptations from both sides, and development of new ethics and ethos; obviously, not without some violence. The Prophet had seen this arising at the completion of military actions, things calming down, and Muslims digging into vast stretches of land. The first reaction exactly coincided with the ultimate outreach of the Muslims into the furthest North-East areas on one side and furthest North African areas on the other. This happened roughly twenty years after the Prophet’s death, the time when the first rebellious forces arrived at Madinah from Iraq and Egypt, which ultimately led to the murder of `Uthman (ra). The Prophet had said: “O `Uthman, Allah will make you wear a shirt. But if the hypocrites want you to remove it, do not remove it until you have met me.” He had also said, “You will experience lot of turmoil after me.” They asked him what they were to do in that situation. He answered, pointing to `Uthman (ra), “Be with him and those with him.”

The Empire having stretched from one corner of the western globe to the same distance in the eastern direction, was, so to say, ready for differences, dissent, rivalry, and conflict. First, the people were unhappy with their Governors. People of each province spoke (out of imagination and mischief) of how people of other provinces were suffering. Complaints were sent to Madinah. `Uthman(ra) sensed that something was up. But he kept listening and obliging. Governors were replaced, but with little effect. A new governor at Kufah evaluated that it was the scum that was rising and the cream was being sidelined. Following recommendations from `Uthman (ra), he began to address the issue, but, as was expected, it displeased the Kufans all the more, and they demanded his removal also. He had to be replaced.

Then the occasion was snatched by Saba’ians and other dissent-for-the-sake-of-dissent groups. Ibn Saba’ and his agents were stirring trouble in Iraq and Egypt by planting seeds of doubt: one was that Prophet Muhammad (saws) was more worthy of coming back than `Isa b. Maryam. Another idea that he floated was that `Ali (ra) was the rightful caliph, right from the start of the affair. The second idea succeeded where the first failed; and Ibn Saba’ used it well.

Ultimately it snow-balled into dissent with `Uthman(ra) himself: with Kufa, Basrah and Egypt as the centers. The men of dissent, now rebellious in mood, arrived in the guise of pilgrims, but at Madinah, they let go the true pilgrims and themselves remained at the outskirts demanding immediate corrective steps. `Uthman(ra) sent `Ali (ra) to speak to them. `Ali (ra) was able to convince them that there was nothing much wrong with the system, nor with `Uthman(ra) himself, and so they could go back. But on their return journey, they intercepted someone carrying a letter by `Uthman(ra) to the Governor of Egypt to execute the rebels of Egypt. `Uthman(ra) never wrote that letter. It was forged in his name. The Egyptians turned back and so did the Basrans and Kufans. Letters were also forged in the name of `A’isha (ra) and others; although `A’isha (ra) never entered into the fray, until after `Uthman’s murder.

Coming back, the rebels surrounded `Uthman’s house and demanded his resignation. None of the Companions would agree to it. Instead, they sent their sons to protect him. But `Uthman(ra) did not want a conflict, so he turned them back. The charges the rebels had against `Uthman (ra), were silly, but enough to convince the ignorant that their leaders were honest religious people who stood for Islam and causes of the people. The charges were: `Uthman(ra) offered complete prayers during his journeys, instead of the shortening them; he had committed a grievous error by destroying variant manuscripts of the Qur’an; he preferred young governors over experienced ones; he was promoting men of his own clan everywhere; etc. – and so, he must go. In his place, the Egyptians wanted `Ali (ra) as the Caliph, Basrans wanted Talha b. `Ubaydullah(ra) as the Caliph and Kufans were in love with Zubayr b. al-`Awwam (ra); although the three hated the promoters of their candidacy.

`Uthman(ra) spoke to them from over the wall of his besieged house several times, but to no effect. They wanted him to abdicate or die. Following the Prophet’s instruction, `Uthman(ra) was not ready for the former, but quite prepared for the latter.

Umm Habibah(ra) – the Prophet’s wife– tried to intervene but the rebels nearly killed her when she persisted in advancing her mule. Safiyya (ra) – another wife of the Prophet – was sternly dealt with as she advanced upon the rebels. She had to retreat. `A’isha (ra) feared the same fate and so left for Makkah for the approaching Hajj of the year 35 H., as was her yearly wont; though in disgust, but also in hope that the Madinans will somehow settle the issue. But that was not to happen, and the biggest hurdle was `Uthman(ra) himself. He was quite sure of his martyrdom and quite prepared for it. But to appreciate the situation, one must admit that had he summoned his Governors of nearby provinces and the rebels come to know about it, they would not have merely killed him, but would have also plundered Madinah where the most important treasure were the Ummahatu al-Mu`mineen (wives of the Prophet). He must have known how the rebels had treated two of his wives, Umm Habibah and Safiyyah.

On the final day of the assault, Abu Hurayrah (ra), Hasan b. `Ali (ra), `Abdullah ibn Zubayr (ra), Muhammad b. Talha (ra), Marwan b. al-Hakam (ra), Muhammad b. al-Hatib (ra), Sa`eed b. al-`Aas (ra), Mughira ibn Akhnas (ra), ibn `Abdullah Aslami (ra), Ziyad al-Fihri (ra) and others came out to fight the rebels; so did some of `Uthman’s slaves. But `Uthman(ra) sternly prevented them and they had to retreat leaving behind two dead: ibn `Abdullah al-Aslami and Ziyad al-Fihri. Then one of the rebels managed to climb the wall of his house. He found `Uthman(ra) reciting the Qur’an and turned back in awe. Then another came and struck `Uthman(ra) cutting his hand. Another attacked him and his wife Na’ila, cutting off her fingers. One of `Uthman’s slaves killed one of the attackers; and one of the attackers killed that slave. Another slave of `Uthman(ra) killed this murderer. But they were too many. Then they ransacked the house and looted everything, removing jewelry from Na’ila. Those that history has named of the attackers were all unknown Bedouins amongst whom the Saba’ians had worked hard to win for their cause in the name of reform.

`Uthman(ra) was 70 when he was murdered. The previous night the Prophet had appeared in his dream. He asked, “`Uthman, are you hungry, are you thirsty?” And then consoled him, “Tomorrow, break your fast with us.”