Sunday, July 22, 2012

After the Prophet, Part 2

Deeply Sympathetic, Gripping Page-Turner. Though At Times Overly Melodramatic Narrative.
(KindleAmazonFlipkartmy review on Amazon)
5 stars

The Ascent of Ali
(See part 1 of review)

Abu Bakr was the new caliph, but Ali had not acknowledged or publicly pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr. The task of making Ali fall in line fell unfortunately on Omar, unfortunate because while Omar was a courageous military commander, he was ill-suited to the task of diplomacy. The task failed, and failed miserably, as Omar crashed his entire body against the locked door of Ali’s house, slamming into the pregnant Fatima, who gave birth to a stillborn boy a few weeks later. This was followed by a social boycott of Ali and his family, to force them to fall in line. Ali soon thereafter pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr, more for the "sake of unity in the face of rebellion" by "Many of the tribes in the north and center of the vast peninsula".

At this point, pause to ponder how the justification of Muslims killing Muslims begins. Islam proscribes the killing of a fellow Muslim. "That was haram, taboo, in Islam."  However, by declaring anyone who refused to pay the taxes due to Islam an apostate, as argued by Omar, "to shed his blood was no longer taboo. It was now halal - permitted under Islamic law." Notice how political compunctions were already triumphing over the Prophet’s words.

The Wars of Apostasy (the "ridda" wars) wars - "were as ruthless as Abu Bakr had promised." However, Abu Bakr died soon thereafter, of natural causes ("He would be the only Islamic leader to die of natural causes for close on fifty years"), but not before he had "appointed Omar the second Caliph." Yet again, Ali, cheated as some would say of his rightful place as successor, pledged allegiance to Omar, and, as "Omar’s rule began, Ali married Abu Bakr’s youngest widow, Asma."
"every time Omar left Medina on one of his many military campaigns, Ali stood in as his deputy. It was a clear sign, understood by all to mean that when the time came, Ali would succeed Omar as Caliph."
Omar as the caliph actually "discouraged conversion. He wanted to keep Islam pure - that is, Arab". This would be seen as an affront by the Persians, and who "would convert in large numbers after his death." This reluctance on Omar’s part to discourage conversions also had an economic angle.
"Omar had set up the diwan, a system by which every Muslim received an annual stipend, much as citizens of the oil-rich Gulf state of Dubai do today." 
More the number of Muslims, lower would be the share of the stipend in each Muslim’s hands. Ergo the policy towards conversions.

Omar was assassinated by a "Christian slave from Persia" who would "stab the Caliph six times as he bent down for morning prayer in the mosque, then drive the dagger deep into his own chest".
However, on his deathbed, Omar threw a googly on the topic of succession. He "named Ali"and "five others"! These six would be the candidates as well as selectors. One of the six would be elected the new, the third, Caliph.

As fate would have it, two of the people shortlisted from among the six were Ali and Othman.
"On the one hand was Ali, now in his mid-forties, the famed philosopher-warrior who had been the first man to accept Islam and who had served as deputy to both Muhammad and Omar. On the other was Othman, the pious and wealthy Umayyad who had converted early to Islam but had never actually fought in any battle and, at seventy, had already survived far beyond the average life span of the time." 
The other men in the room announced, rather pre-empted Ali by announcing, Othman as the third Caliph, and Ali "pledged allegiance to yet another man as Caliph."

Omar had been assassinated by a Christian slave. Othman too would be assassinated, but by a Muslim, and who, "many would argue that he had excellent cause." The reason? Money. Money corrupts. And Money corrupted.
"Muhammad had wrested control of Mecca from Othman’s Umayyad clan, but with one of their own now in the leadership of Islam, the Umayyads seized the chance to reassert themselves as the aristocracy, men of title and entitlement, and Othman seemed unable - or unwilling - to resist them."
The loudest voice to protest Othman came from Aisha, who called the Caliph a "dotard". She was to do more, but before that, Walid, one of Othman’s half-brothers harboured a not unfamiliar aristocratic disdain for the "residents under his control", and dismissed them as "worth "no more than a goat’s fart in the desert plains of Edom."

When Othman dismissed a delegation of Kufans who had come demanding the recall and public flogging, they went to Aisha for justice. Othman’s "sneer", "Can the rebels and scoundrels of Iraq find no other refuge than the home of Aisha?" was like throwing a gauntlet to the Mother of the Faithful, who, took that up. And take it up she did in style. She stood "brandishing a sandal that had belonged to Muhammad" and shouted at "Othman in that high, piercing voice of hers. .. ‘See how this, the Prophet’s own sandal, has not yet even fallen apart?’ ‘This is how quickly you have forgotten the sunna, his practice!’"
"As the whole mosque erupted in condemnation of the Caliph, people took off their own sandals and brandished them in Aisha’s support." 
History had been created. George Bush, US President, would be at the receiving end of this fourteen hundred years later.

Despite a military standoff between the town of Medina and thee armed columns that had come in response to letters asking for strong action, Othman refused to either resign or sanction strong action against Walid. Othman was stoned unconscious at the mosque at the Friday prayers, an ominous prelude to what lay in store. A secret letter, planted perhaps without the knowledge of the Caliph, ignited the attack on Medina. Othman was killed, by devout Muslims.
"Abu Bakr was the first to strike, the son of the first Caliph leading the assassins of the third. His dagger slashed across the old man’s forehead, and that first blood was the sign that released the others. As Othman fell back, they piled in on him, knives striking again and again. Blood splashed onto the walls, onto the carpet, even onto the open pages of the Quran—an indelible image of defilement that still haunts the Muslim faithful, both Sunni and Shia."
Thus, on June 16th, 656 CE, Ali was crowned "Commander of the Faithful", since he refused to take the title of Caliph.
"Ali was destined to be the only man aside from Muhammad himself whom both Sunnis and Shia would acknowledge as a rightful leader of Islam."
However, the bloodsoaked shirt of Othman and the severed fingers of his wife Naila were "on their way to Damascus", while Aisha remained in Mecca.
The Accidental Theologist
After the Prophet by Lesley Hazleton « Knopf Doubleday - Doubleday

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.