By Momodou Lamin Yaffa
The articles I have been authoring on Salafism and Wahhabism (radical Islam) have drawn a great deal of positive comments as well as encouragement to reveal more information about the issue for greater clarity. It is important to bear in mind that the antecedents of radical Islam date back to the dawn of this great religion. No sooner had Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) passed away than internecine and bloody conflicts started ripping through the ummah and tearing it apart.
A major conflict erupted after the assassination of Caliph Othman Ibn Affan, the third caliph. Othman’s rule was highly contentious and controversial. He was generally accused of nepotism for systematically appointing his cousins and members of his clan to positions of leadership. A clear example of his bias towards members of his clan was his refusal to dismiss the governor of Basra, a cousin of his.
The governors of the various Muslim lands used to also officiate as imams just like the caliph himself. This governor was unscrupulous enough not to safeguard himself from insobriety during public ritual prayer. He came to lead the dawn congregational prayer under the heavy influence of alcohol. His flock was devastated by the irresponsible and reprehensible attitude of the governor. They lodged a damning complaint to Caliph Othman and demanded the governor’s immediate sacking. Othman however did not heed their call but instead brushed their complaint and demand aside and failed to take action against the governor.
Such an attitude and many others did not endear him to the Muslim community in Medina. For instance, Lady Aisha, the Prophet’s (pbuh) most beloved spouse, once threw her shoe out of disgust at Othman while he was on the pulpit delivering the Friday sermon.
In a nutshell, Othman was unfortunately assassinated by a group of insurgent Muslims who came from Egypt and led by Muhammad Ibn Abu Bakr, a son of Abu Bakr, the first caliph. Muhammad was widely believed to be the insurgent that administered the fatal blow on Othman.
Othman’s assassination sparked a serious internecine conflict known in Islamic history as the Fitna Kubraa ???????????? Othman was succeeded by Ali Ibn Abu Talib but was contested by some companions including Aisha, the prophet’s (pbuh) favourite spouse. Her opposition culminated into a bloody conflict with the supporters of Ali called the Battle of the Camel ??????????. It however ended in Aisha’s defeat and reconciliation with the new caliph, Ali.
Unfortunately, the end of the Battle of the Camel did not usher in peace and tranquility for Ali. No sooner had Ali and Aisha reconciled than another conflict erupted as a result of the refusal by the governor of Syria to succumb to his recall by the Caliph. Mua’wiya rather demanded that Ali brought to book the perpetrators of Othman’s assassination. It is worth noting that Mua’wiya was Othman’s cousin once removed. He insisted that Ali avenge Othman’s murder. Ali was loathe to the idea but Mua’wiya would not relent in his demand.
He went to the extent of accusing Ali of being an accomplice in Othman’s assassination. He incited his flock in Syria into rebellion against Ali, which he succeeded in doing because of his firm grip on the Syrian province. He was a long-time ruler of the province; he was appointed by Caliph Omar and left to continue as governor by his kinsman, Othman, throughout his twelve-year reign. The discord between the two escalated into a woeful and bloody conflict.
A major battle called the Battle of Siffin broke out between the two forces. Fierce clashes went on for several days when Ali’s forces started gaining the upper hand. Mua’wiya came up with a ploy that would stymie Ali’s imminent victory. He suggested that his fighters on the frontline carried on the heads of their swords parchments of the Holy Qur’an and clamoured for a lull in the battle. Ali saw it as a ruse designed to halt the trend of the battle, which was tilting in Ali’s favour. Some men of Ali’s army gave in to the suggestion on the grounds that a good Muslim cannot reject a call for arbitration
through the Qur’an. Ali’s forces were divided between proponents and opponents to the idea and he ultimately accepted it. The battle ended without a victor.
However, Ali’s fate was sealed as a result of the proposed arbitration through the Qur’an. His men who were enthusiastic about the idea might have realised later that they were duped. Their leader, one Abdullah Ibn Wahab verbally attacked Ali while the latter was ascending the pulpit for the Friday sermon. Ibn Wahab berated Ali for accepting the truce and for allowing humans to be judges in the discord instead of Allah. The same person who was upbeat about Mua’wiya’s proposed Qur’anic arbitration was now accusing Ali, who never condoned the idea, of apostasy. He there and then rebelled against Ali and about three thousand men joined him in rebellion. They shouted that the role of Caliph could not be arbitrated and that the succession to the Messenger of Allah was a matter of divine right. They said that right was Ali’s but he had now forfeited it and that he was as guilty as Mua’wiya of transgressing divine law. “Judgement belongs to Allah alone” ?????????became their slogan.
????????????????????Ali countered by saying the words were true but twisted to mean something else
“It was they who insisted that he agreed to the arbitration at Siffin”, Ali said. They had ignored his warnings then; how could they now attack him for doing what they had insisted on earlier? Ibn Wahb’s answer was that they had sinned and became unbelievers but had repented.
They said Ali should do the same for them to be with him. The rest of the mosque rejected the idea in uproar. Ibn Wahb there and then declared that the whole of Kufa was wallowing in Jahiliyya, the state of unbelief that prevailed in Arabia before the advent of Islam. He called on his flock to follow him and abandon that place of evil according to him. They left and settled at a place along the Tigris called Nahrawan. Ibn Wahb announced that it was to be a place of purity and a beacon of righteousness in a corrupt world. He and his men were to become the first Muslim fundamentalists or extremists. They labelled themselves the (Khawarij), which means dissenters or rejectionists; literally someone who defects.
The reference was to the Qur’anic phrase “those who go forth to serve Allah’s cause” in Surat Tawba (Repentance). They claimed to have seen guidance and light and repented. As penitents, they devoted themselves to the letter of the Qur’an and excluded its spirit. “We are holier than thou and purer than the pure”, they used to say. As is the case with such sense of righteousness, they took their zeal over the brink into all-out-fanaticism.had to be ruthlessly uprooted lest it contaminated the righteous. They started terrorising the countryside around Nahrawan, submitting everyone they caught to a kind of mini-inquisition. Matters came to a head when a farmer, son of an early companion of the Prophet (pbuh), fell prey to them. They raided his village and asked him to take side with them, which he refused. He said Ali was more God-fearing than them. They pounced on the farmer, tied him up and dragged him together with his pregnant wife under an orchard of date palms. They made the farmer kneel down and watch as they disembowelled his wife, cut out the unborn infant and ran it through with a sword. Then they cut off the farmer’s head.
They did so with their conscience clearer than whatever one can imagine. They maintained that the murder of the wife and the unborn child was ordained by Allah since women and children of the enemy shared the sin of their male kin. For them there were no innocents. The Khawarij had thus trailed the blaze and set the pattern for their heirs and descendants, the present-day Islamist extremists and terrorists.
For Ali, the slaughtering of the farmer, his wife and unborn child was beyond contempt. He sent a message to Ibn Wahb demanding that he surrendered the killers. Ibn Wahb’s response was that all of them were the killers. He said that all of them were saying to Ali that his blood was halal i.e. killing Ali by them was permitted. It was an outright declaration of war. They were the words of implacable
righteousness and of those who kill without compulsion in the name of God. Ali had no choice but to wage war reluctantly on his fellow Muslims for the third time.
When Ali’s forces reached Nahrawan, the battle was quick and bloody. The Khawarij hurled themselves against Ali’s superior forces regardless of any concern about their own survival. They chanted an ominous precursor to the cry of modern suicide bombers: hasten to Paradise; to Paradise. Only four hundred Khawarij survived that day. Though it might have been better for Ali had there been no survivors at all. More than two thousand Khawarij were killed that day and as is the way with fanatics, their memory lived on to inspire yet more people.
The man who sacrificed so much to avoid fitna, had now fought three internecine wars. Had he waited twenty-five years for this? Not to lead Islam into a new era of unity but to kill other Muslims?
“Since I became caliph, things have gone continually against me and diminished me”, he told a cousin of his. If it were not for the need to stand up against corruption and oppression, I would have thrown the bridle of leadership and this world would have been distasteful to me as the dripping from the nose of a goat”.
As for Mua’wiya, he continued to work against Ali thereby causing the latter’s diminishment to continue. As was his style, the Syrian governor continued to undermine Ali at every turn.
The arbitration agreed on at Siffin took almost a year to take effect. The usual diplomatic preliminaries had to be sorted out such as the need to agree on an agenda, to determine the size and composition of the delegations of each side, to agree on the date and venue of the conference, the format, etc. The venue was a small town situated half way between Damascus and Kufa. Although all the details were ironed out and the two sides finally met, the outcome was further bitterness.
Mua’wiya was represented by his chief of staff, Amr Ibn Aas, who had conquered Egypt for Islam during the caliphate of Omar Ibn Khattab. He was thereafter appointed as governor in reward for his achievement but removed in subsequent years by Omar because of malpractices and a lavish lifestyle, which was abhorrent to a caliph known for his austere approach to life.
Ali wanted to choose as negotiator his own chief of staff but his men insisted instead on an aging companion of the Prophet (pbuh), Abu Musa Asha’ari.
The conclave lasted two weeks and finally Abu Musa and Amr stepped forward to solemnly make a joint statement. As Abu Musa understood the agreement, they had arrived at a perfect compromise: a Shura (consultative council) would be held to reaffirm Ali as caliph and Mua’wiya as governor of Syria. That was what he announced to the hundreds of those gathered for the ceremony.
When Amr stepped up to the podium, his spin on Abu Musa’s statement was not at all what the old man had in mind. He said he and his great and good friend indeed agreed to a Shura but the purpose was to confirm not Ali but Mua’wiya as caliph. “I hereby confirm Mua’wiya as the true Caliph, the heir of Othman and the avenger of his blood” he concluded.
Curses hurtled through the air, fistfights broke out and the conclave broke up into turmoil and pandemonium. Abu Musa went to settle in Mecca, where he lived out his final days in privacy and prayer, utterly disillusioned with public life, while Amr returned to Damascus to lead the acclamation of Mua’wiya as Caliph.
The year was 658 AD and there were now two caliphs. The odds against Ali were stacked higher than ever and because of his insistence on equalizing revenue from Islam, challenges became more daunting. Influential estate owners and tribal leaders were accustomed to what they considered the perks of their positions. Ali refused to make sweetheart deals with the nobility and had to pay dearly for it. Even one of his own half-brothers, infuriated by the lack of a special pension, was bribed over to Mua’wiya’s side.
During this period of no war no peace, Mua’wiya and his chief of staff, Amr were scheming to take over Egypt, where Muhammad Ibn Abu Bakr, a stepson of Ali was the governor. Muhammad was one of the lead assassins of Othman. So, Mua’wiya was looking for a way of eliminating him and wresting Egypt from Ali’s dominion. Muhammad was seen even by his stepfather, Ali, as a weak governor, a fact that was not lost on Mua’wiya. Egypt finally fell to the Syrian forces and Muhammad was captured and killed amid a state of general despair and helplessness in Ali’s camp.
With the loss of Egypt, the Khawarij had reorganized and recruited thousands of new recruits in both Iraq and Persia, where entire cities ousted Ali’s governors and refused to pay taxes to Kufa, Ali’s capital city.
Ali’s days were numbered and the fateful day was on Friday, 26 January 661 AD in Ramadan. Ali had walked his way to the mosque in Kufa for the first prayer of the day. An armed man lurking in the shadow of the main entrance, a Khariji, screamed out the following Khariji slogan “Judgement belongs to Allah alone. Ali, to Allah alone”. The blow knocked him to the ground and gashed his head open. Ali shouted to the congregants not to allow the man escape. The worshippers rushed out of the mosque and seized the assailant. Ali remained lucid even as blood ran down his face and people started to panic at the sight. He appealed that there be no revenge and that if he lived he would see what to do with the man. However if he should die, let the assailant be killed but only him. Ali advised against the spilling of the blood of other Muslims because of the murder of the Commander of the Faithful. Ali’s wound was not fatal but the poison smeared on the sword had done its work. The assassin was executed the following day.
Ali’s two sons, Hassan and Hussein, washed their father’s body and shrouded it in robes as required in Islam. As Ali had instructed, they laid his body on his favourite riding camel and gave it free rein. Wherever it knelt, that was where Allah intended Ali’s body to rest. It knelt six miles east of Kufa atop a barren sandy hillock, najaf in Arabic. There his sons buried the man who would ever after be revered by all Muslims but by two different titles: the first Imam of Shia Islam and the last of the four Khulafaa Rashidun (the Rightly Guided Caliphs of Sunni Islam).
The Khawarij’s assassination scheme was twofold; they dispatched two terrorists to carry out their evil design; one on Imam Ali, which was successful, and the other on Mua’wiya but the latter was thwarted. Consequently, Mua’wiya lived on to become the undisputed ruler and caliph of the Muslim world. After his death, he was succeeded by his son, Yazid. He thus became the first monarch in Islam. Their dynasty is known in Islamic history as the Umayyad Dynasty. It lasted for seventy plus years and was overthrown and replaced by the Abbasid Dynasty, which transferred the capital of the caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad.
The Khawarij precipitated their own demise with the assassination of Ali and their aborted attempt to kill Mua’wiya. They were easily eliminated and silenced by the Umayyads during their seventy-year reign. They re-emerged only in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the form of Salafism/Wahhabism, which we shall dwell on in our next article.
Exactly like Abdullah Ibn Wahb, Muhammad Ibn Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, went into the desert wastelands and highlands of central Arabia eleven centuries later. There, near what is today the city of Riyadh, capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, he set up a Spartan purist community untainted by the pagan darkness and corruption he claimed was rampant in Mecca and Medina. As had the Khawarij, the Wahhabis started raiding far and wide from their desert stronghold. Early in the 19th century, they destroyed the domes and shrines of Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, and others in Medina and even damaged the Prophet’s (pbuh) own tomb. They would have erased it to the ground had the Saudi government not scuppered such an evil design. They claimed such ornate shrines were the pinnacle of idolatry. They rode on north into Iraq, where they ransacked the shrines of Ali and his son, Hussein, in Najaf and Karbala.
The Wahhabis impassioned call for a return to what they saw as the purity of early Islam gained momentum in the 20th and 21st centuries not only in Saudi Arabia but also in countries like Afghanistan, where the Taliban movement emerged and in Egypt, where the Salafists gained firm root as well as the Al Qa’ida movement, which originated also in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The perceived enemy within Islam would become as dangerous as the enemy without, if not more so. Like the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981, any leader who dared negotiate with the enemy, let alone make peace, would be declared the archenemy and would head the list of persons to be eliminated.
The foregoing is a synopsis of a phenomenon in Islam that predated the violent extremism as well as radical and narrow outlook to Islamic precepts the contemporary world is witnessing today. In my next article, I will outline the affinities that exist between present-day Salafism/Wahhabism and the Khawarij and why prominent Muslim scholars draw parallels between the two.