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Religion Library: Islam

Early Developments

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Uthman did not appear to receive much support from other influential Muslims in Medina during his hour of need. This included Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, and other members of the Prophet's family. Ali was only a few years younger than Muhammad, and both had been raised by Muhammad's uncle, Abu Talib. Ali was among the first two or three people to convert to Islam, and had married Muhammad's daughter Fatima. This long and close relationship between Ali and the Prophet had led many people to believe that Ali should have been the first to succeed Muhammad. Called the "partisans of Ali," or the Shi'a, they prefer the title of imam, or spiritual leader, to the title of caliph.

The Investiture of Ali, at Ghadir Khumm (MS Arab 161, fol. 162r, AD 1309/8 Ilkhanid manuscript illustration). Source: Public DomainWhen Uthman died, it finally fell to Ali to assume the role of caliph. He seemed reluctant to accept the position, but ultimately agreed to the role. But while many Muslims pledged their allegiance to Ali, many others did not, and Ali soon left Medina, never to return. As a result, the death of Uthman marks the beginning of the first serious breach in the unity that Muhammad had so carefully built. Muslims call this watershed moment the fitna, or the first civil war.

Ali spent the next five years trying to force rebels to recognize his right to hold the office of caliph. In the garrison town of Basra, in Iraq, he quelled a rebellion led by two Meccan aristocrats and Aisha, the popular younger wife of Muhammad. After a few subsequent successes, he faced the forces of Mu'awiyah, the Governor of Syria who had attempted to save Uthman. Ali had not pursued retribution for Uthman's assassination because many in the community felt that the assassination had been justified by Uthman's poor handling of economic grievances, especially his nepotism. But Mu'awiyah demanded that Uthman's murder be avenged.

First Fitna

First Fitna
     Region under the control of Rashidun Empire (Ali ibn Abi Talib)
     Region under the control of Muawiyah I
     Region under the control of Amr ibn al-As
Source: Public Domain

The disagreement between Ali and Mu'awiyah was handled by arbitration in 658, and Mu'awiyah emerged the winner, the self-proclaimed caliph of Islam. Calling him weak, many of Ali's supporters withdrew their troops. Mu'awiyah's troops pursued Ali and his remaining followers into Kufah, in southern Iraq, but Ali survived until 661, when he was killed in an ambush by a poisoned sword. He was buried in Najaf, in Iraq, which is now an important pilgrimage site for the Shi'a.

Study Questions:
1.     How did Muhammad’s death change the course of Islam?
2.     Who was Abu Bakr? Umar ibn al-Khattab?
3.     Was Christianity’s early resentment of Islam purely religious? Why or why not?
4.     When did Islam’s first civil war happen? What was the outcome?


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