Syed Ameer Ali.

The spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm online

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usual simplicity, declaring his readiness to resign the office to
any one more worthy.

" Had," says Sedillot, " the principle of hereditary succession
(in favour of Ali) been recognised at the outset, it would have
prevented the rise of those disastrous pretensions which engulfed
Islam in the blood of Moslems. . . . The husband of Fatima
united in his person the right of succession as the lawful heir
of the Prophet, as well as the right by election. It might have
been thought that all would submit themselves before his
glory ; so pure and so grand. But it was not to be." Zubair
and Talha, who had hoped that the choice of the people might
fall on either of them for the Caliphate, baulked in their am-
bitious designs, and smarting under the refusal of the new
Caliph to bestow on them the governorships of Basra and
Kufa, were the first to raise the standard of revolt. They were
assisted by 'Ayesha, the daughter of Abu Bakr, who had taken
a decisive part in the former elections. This lady had always
borne an inveterate dislike towards the son-in-law of Khadija,
and now this feeling had grown into positive hatred. She was
the life and soul of the insurrection, and herself accompanied
the insurgent troops to the field, riding a camel. The Caliph,
with his characteristic aversion to bloodshed, sent his cousin
Abdullah bin Abbas to adjure the insurgents by every obliga-
tion of the Faith to abandon the arbitrament of war. But to
no avail. Zubair and Talha gave battle at a place called


Khoraiba, and were defeated and killed. 1 'Ayesha was taken
prisoner. She was treated with courtesy and consideration,
and escorted with every mark of respect to Medina. Hardly
had this rebellion been suppressed, when Ali learnt of the
insurrection of Mu'awiyah in Syria. The son of Abu Sufian,
like most of his kinsmen whom Osman had appointed to the
governorships of the provinces, had, with the gold lavished
upon him by the late Pontiff and the wealth of Syria, collected
round him a large band of mercenaries. Ali had been advised
by several of his councillors to defer the dismissal of the corrupt
governors appointed by the late Caliph until he himself was
secure against all enemies. " The Bayard of Islam, the hero,
without fear and without reproach," 2 refused to be guilty of
any duplicity or compromise with injustice. The fiat went
forth removing from their offices all the men whom Osman had
placed in power, and who had so grossly betrayed the public
trust. Mu'awiyah at once raised the standard of revolt.
Defeated in several consecutive battles on the plains of Siffin,
on the last day when his troops were flying like chaff before
the irresistible charge of Malek al-Ashtar, he bethought himself
of a ruse to save his men from impending destruction. He
made some of his soldiers tie copies of the Koran to their
spears, and advance towards the Moslems shouting, " Let the
blood of the Faithful cease to flow ; if the Syrian army be
destroyed, who will defend the frontier against the Greeks ?
If the army of Irak be destroyed, who will defend the frontier
against the Turks and Persians ? Let the Book of God decide
between us." The Caliph, who knew well the character of the
arch-rebel and his fellow-conspirator, Amr(u) the son of al-'As,
saw through the artifice, and tried to open the eyes of his
people to the treachery ; but a large body of his troops refused
to fight further, and demanded that the dispute should be
referred to arbitration. In answer to the Caliph's assurances
that the son of Abu Sufian was only using the Koran as a device
for delivering himself from the jaws of death, these refractory

1 The battle is called the " Battle of the Camel," from 'Ayesha's presence in
a litter on a camel. The place where the fight actually took place and where
these men were killed, is called Wddi us-Saba', " Valley of the Lion."

2 These are the designations given to Ali by Major Osborn.


spirits threatened open defection. 1 Malek al-Ashtar was recalled,
the battle was stopped, and the fruits of a victory already
won were irretrievably lost. 2 An arbitration was arranged.
The bigots, who had compelled Ali to sheathe the sword at the
moment of victory, forced upon him, against his own judgment
and wishes, Abu Musa al-Asha'ri as the representative of the
House of Mohammed. This man, who was also secretly hostile
to Ali, was altogether unfitted by his vanity and religious
conceit and a somewhat simple nature to cope with the astute
and unscrupulous Amr the son of al-'As, who acted as the
representative of Mu'awiyah, and he soon fell into the trap laid
for him by the latter. Amr led Abu Musa to believe that the
removal of both Ali and Mu'awiyah (of the one from the Cali-
phate and of the other from the governorship of Syria), and
the nomination of another person to the Headship of Islam,
was necessary to the well-being of the Moslems. The trick
succeeded ; Abu Musa ascended the pulpit and solemnly an-
nounced the deposition of Ali. After making this announcement
he descended aglow with the sensation of having performed
a virtuous deed. And then Amr smilingly ascended the pulpit
vacated by Abu Musa the representative of Ali, and pronounced
that he accepted the deposition of Ali, and appointed
Mu'awiyah in his place. Poor Abu Musa was thunder-struck ;
but the treachery was too patent, and the Fatimides refused
to accept the decision as valid. 3 This happened at Dumat
ul-Jandal. The treachery of the Ommeyyades exasperated
the Fatimides, and both parties separated vowing undying
hatred towards each other. Ali was shortly after assassinated
whilst engaged in prayer in a mosque at Kufa. 4 His assassina-
tion enabled the son of Abu Sufian to consolidate his power
both in Syria and Hijaz. On the death of Ali, Hasan, his

1 Shahristani, pt. i. p. 85. - Ibid.

3 Those very men who had forced upon the Caliph the arbitration after-
wards repudiated it, and rose in rebellion against him for consenting to their
demand for arbitration. They were the original Khawarij (insurgents), who
became afterwards an enormous source of evil to Islam ; see post.

4 With the chivalrous generosity which distinguished him, the Caliph Ali,
even in his war against his treacherous foe, always ordered his troops to
await the enemy's attack, to spare the fugitive, and respect the captive, and
never to insult the women. With his dying breath he commanded his sons
to see that the murderer was killed with one stroke of the sword, and that no
unnecessary pain might be inflicted on him.


eldest son, was raised to the Caliphate. Fond of ease and
quiet, he hastened to make peace with the enemy of his House,
and retired into private life. But the Ommeyyade's animosity
pursued him even there, and before many months were over
he was poisoned to death. The star of Hind's son was now in
the ascendant, and Abu Sufian's ambition to become the king
of Mecca was fulfilled on a grander scale by Mu'awiyah. Thus
was the son of the two most implacable foes of the Prophet,
by the strangest freak of fortune recorded in history, seated on
the throne of the Caliphs. Lest it be considered our estimate
of Mu'awiyah's character is actuated by prejudice, we give the
words of a historian who cannot be accused of bias in favour
of either side. " Astute, unscrupulous, and pitiless," says
Osborn, " the first Khalif of the Ommayas shrank from no
crime necessary to secure his position. Murder was his accus-
tomed mode of removing a formidable opponent. The grand-
son of the Prophet he caused to be poisoned ; Malek-al-Ashtar,
the heroic lieutenant of Ali, was destroyed in a like way. To
secure the succession of his son Yezid, Mu'awiyah hesitated not
to break the word he had pledged to Husain, the surviving son
of Ali. And yet this cool, calculating, thoroughly atheistic
Arab ruled over the regions of Islam, and the sceptre remained
among his descendants for the space of nearly one hundred and
twenty years. The explanation of this anomaly is to be found
in two circumstances, to which I have more than once adverted.
The one is, that the truly devout and earnest Muhammadan
conceived that he manifested his religion most effectually by
withdrawing himself from the affairs of the world. The other
is the tribal spirit of the Arabs. Conquerors of Asia, of
Northern Africa, of Spain, the Arabs never rose to the level of
their position. Greatness had been thrust upon them, but in
the midst of their grandeur they retained, in all their previous
force and intensity, the passions, the rivalries, the petty
jealousies of the desert. They merely fought again on a wider
field ' the battles of the Arabs before Islam.' "

With the rise of Mu'awiyah the oligarchical rule of the
heathen times displaced the democratic rule of Islam.
Paganism, with all its attendant depravity, revived, and
vice and immorality followed everywhere in the wake of


Ommeyyade governors and the Syrian soldiery. Hijaz and
Irak groaned under the usurper's rule ; but his hold on the
throat of Islam was too strong to be shaken off with impunity.
The wealth which he pitilessly extracted from his subjects,
he lavished on his mercenaries, who in return helped him to
repress all murmurings. Before his death, he convened the
chief officers of his army and made them take the oath of
fealty to his son Yezid, whom he had designated as his successor
to the throne. This was Yezid's title to the Caliphate ! On
Mu'awiyah's death, the Domitian of the house of Ommeyya
ascended the throne founded by his father on fraud and
treachery. As cruel and treacherous as Muawiyah, he did not,
like his father, possess the capacity to clothe his cruelties in
the guise of policy. His depraved nature knew no pity or
justice. He killed and tortured for the pleasure he derived
from human suffering. Addicted to the grossest of vices, his
boon companions were the most abandoned of both sexes.
Such was the Caliph — the Commander of the Faithful ! Hus-
ain, the second son of Ali, had inherited his father's chivalric
nature and virtues. He had served with honour against the
Christians in the siege of Constantinople. He united in his
person the right of descent from Ali, with the holy character
of grandson of the Apostle. In the terms of peace signed
between Mu'awiyah and Hasan, his right to the Caliphate had
been expressly reserved. Husain had never deigned to
acknowledge the title of the tyrant of Damascus, whose vices
he despised, and whose character he regarded with abhorrence ;
and when the Moslems of Kufa besought his help to release
them from the curse of the Ommeyyade's rule, he felt it his
duty to respond to the Irakians' appeal for deliverance. The
assurances he received, that all Irak was ready to spring to its
feet to hurl the despot from his throne the moment he appeared
on the scene, decided him to start for Kufa with his family.
He traversed the desert of Arabia unmolested, accompanied
by his brother Abbas, a few devoted followers, and a timorous
retinue of women and children ; but as he approached the
confines of Irak he was alarmed by the solitary and hostile
face of the country, and suspecting treachery, the Ommey-
yade's weapon, he encamped his small band at a place called


Kerbela near the western bank of the Euphrates. No event
in history surpasses in pathos the scenes enacted on this spot.
Husain's apprehensions of betrayal proved to be only too true.
He was overtaken by an Ommeyyade army under the brutal
and ferocious Obaidullah ibn-Ziyad. For days their tents were
surrounded ; and as the cowardly hounds dared not come
within the reach of the sword of Ali's son they cut the victims
off from the waters of the Tigris. The sufferings of the poor
band of martyrs were terrible. In a conference with the chief
of the enemy, Husain proposed the option of three honourable
conditions : that he should be allowed to return to Medina,
or be stationed in a frontier garrison against the Turks, or
safely conducted to the presence of Yezid. 1 But the com-
mands of the Ommeyyade tyrant were stern and inexorable —
that no mercy should be shown to Husain or his party, and
that they must be brought as criminals before the " Caliph "
to be dealt with according to the Ommeyyade sense of justice.
As a last resource, Husain besought these monsters not to war
upon the helpless women and children, but to kill him and be
done with it. But they knew no pity. He pressed his friends
to consult their safety by a timely flight ; they unanimously
refused to desert or survive their beloved master. One of the
enemy's chiefs, struck with horror at the sacrilege of warring
against the grandson of the Prophet, deserted with thirty
followers " to claim the partnership of inevitable death." In
every single combat and close fight the valour of the Fatimides
was invincible. But the enemy's archers picked them off from
a safe distance. One by one the defenders fell, until at last
there remained but the grandson of the Prophet. Wounded
and dying he dragged himself to the river-side for a last drink ;
they turned him off with arrows from there. And as he re-
entered his tent he took his infant child in his arms ; him they
transfixed with a dart. The stricken father bowed his head
to heaven. Able no more to stand up against his pitiless foes,

1 The author of the Rouzat-tts-Safd, after stating the above, adds that an
attendant of Husain, who by chance escaped the butchery of Kerbela, denied
that his master, so far as he was aware, ever made any such proposal to the
Ommeyyade leader. It is possible, however, that such denial was made in
order to show that Husain did not lower himself by proposing terms to the
enemy. To my mind, however, it detracts in no way from the grandeur of
Husain's character that he proposed terms to the Ommeyyades.


alone and weary, he seated himself at the door of his tent.
One of the women handed him a cup of water to assuage his
burning thirst ; as he raised it to his lips he was pierced in the
mouth with a dart ; and his son and nephew were killed in his
arms. He lifted his hands to heaven, — they were full of blood,
— and he uttered a funeral prayer for the living and the dead.
Raising himself for one desperate charge, he threw himself
among the Ommeyyades, who fell back on every side. But
faint with loss of blood he soon sank to the ground, and then
the murderous crew rushed upon the dying hero. They cut
off his head, trampled on his body, and subjected it to every
ignominy in the old spirit of Hind. They carried the martyr's
head to the castle of Kufa, and the inhuman Obaidullah struck
it on the mouth with a cane : " Alas ! " exclaimed an aged
Musulman, " on these lips have I seen the lips of the Apostle
of God." " In a distant age and climate," says Gibbon, " the
tragic scene of the death of Husain will awaken the sympathy
of the coldest reader." It will now be easy to understand, if
not to sympathise with, the frenzy of sorrow and indignation
to which the adherents of Ali and his children give vent on the
recurrence of the anniversary of Husain's martyrdom.

Thus fell one of the noblest spirits of the age, and with him
perished all the male members of his family, — old and young, —
with the solitary exception of a sickly child, whom Husain's
sister, Zainab (Zenobia), saved from the general massacre. He,
too, bore the name of Ali, and in after-life received the noble
designation of Zain ul-'Abidin, " the Ornament of the Pious."
He was the son of Husain by the daughter of Yezdjard, the
last Sasanide king of Persia, and in him was perpetuated the
house of Mohammed. He represented also, in his mother's
right, the claims of the Sasanians to the throne of Iran.

The tragical fate of Husain and his children sent a thrill of
horror through Islam ; and the revulsion of feeling which it
caused proved eventually the salvation of the Faith. It
arrested the current of depravity which flowed from the
Ommeyyade court of Damascus. It made the bulk of Moslems
think of what the Master had done, and of the injuries which
the children of his enemies were inflicting on Islam. For a
hundred years, however, the Ommeyyades ruled with the free


help of the sword and poison. They sacked Medina, and drove
the children of the Helpers into exile in far-away lands. The
city which had sheltered the Prophet from the persecution of
the idolaters, and which he loved so dearly, the hallowed
ground he had trod in life, and every inch of which was sanc-
tified by his holy work and ministry, was foully desecrated ;
and the people who had stood by him in the hour of his need,
and helped him to build up the arch of the Faith, were sub-
jected to the most terrible and revolting atrocities, which find
a parallel only in those committed by the soldiers of the Con-
stable of France and the equally ferocious Lutherans of George
Frundsberg at the sack of Rome. The men were massacred,
the women outraged, the children reduced into slavery. The
public mosque was turned into a stable, the shrines demolished
for the sake of their ornaments. During the whole period of
Ommeyyade domination the holy city remained a haunt of
wild beasts. 1 The paganism of Mecca was once more trium-
phant. And " its reaction," says Dozy, " against Islam was
cruel, terrible, and revolting." The Meccans and the Ommey-
yades thus repaid the clemency and forbearance shown to them
in the hour of Islam's triumph ! The Ommeyyades produced
many notable men eminent for piety and virtue, chief amongst
them Omar bin- 'Abdul Aziz, the Marcus Aurelius of the Arabs,
a virtuous sovereign, a good ruler, and a God-fearing Moslem,
who modelled his life after his great namesake the second
Caliph. For the rest they were unabashed pagans and revelled
in the disregard of the rules and discipline of the religion they

But for the Ommeyyades, the difference between the followers
of the Ahl-ul-Bait, 2 the upholders of Ali's right to the apostolical
succession, and those who maintained the right of the people
to elect their own spiritual as well as temporal chiefs, would
never have grown into a schism ; it would have ended in a
compromise or coalition after the accession of Ali to the Cali-
phate. The violence and treachery of the children of Ommeyya
rendered this impossible. They had waded to the throne

1 Abdul Malik ibn-Merwan went so far as to issue an edict forbidding pilgrims
to visit the sepulchre of the Prophet at Medina.

2 For the meaning of this word see note 2, page 313.


through manifold crimes and oceans of blood ; it was necessary
for them to impart a semblance of validity to their tenure of
the office of Caliph. They claimed to have the title of Ameer -
nl-Mominin by right of election — election by their own mer-
cenaries and pagan partisans. After the sack of Medina and
the destruction and dispersion of the family of Mohammed and
the Muhajirin and Ansar, it was easy to draw precedents from
the early Caliphate, and when that failed, to manufacture
traditions. Nor was it difficult to appropriate a title which
might have been assumed, but was not, by those who supported
the right of the universality of the people to elect their chiefs.
The giants who had built up the Republic were dead or de-
stroyed ; their children were fugitives or slaves ; who was to
question the validity of the title so adroitly usurped ? The
Ommeyyade policy was pursued by the dynasty which took
its place. The same fierce jealousy with which the Bani-
Ommeyya had pursued or persecuted the Bani-Fatima, char-
acterised the conduct of the Bani-Abbas towards the descen-
dants of Mohammed. They had no claim to the Caliphate
themselves ; they made the affection of the people for the
children of Fatima the means for their own elevation, and when
they had attained the desired end they rewarded the Fatimides
with bitter persecution. Their title also was founded on quasi-
election, and naturally they hunted, like the Ommeyyades, all
who questioned the legality of their claim, or who upheld in
explicit terms the doctrine of the devolution of the Imamate
by succession in the line of Mohammed. Every difference of
opinion was strictly repressed ; even the jurists of the time
were punished if they ventured to express opinions which did
not find favour with the sovereigns. 1 If we did not keep in
view the circumstances which led to the sudden and unexpected
rise of the Abbasides, we would be apt to regard it as pheno-
menal. The terrible cruelties inflicted by the Ommeyyades on
the children of Fatima, and the sublime patience with which
they had borne their sufferings and their wrongs, had given
rise to a universal feeling of horror against the tyrants, and
had invested the objects of persecution, in the eyes of their

1 Imam Malik ibn Anas, the third pillar of the Sunni Church, was publicly
punished for an offence of this nature.


followers and disciples, with a superhuman halo. Persecution,
however fierce, has always failed to achieve its end ; instead
of stamping out the faith or devotion of a sect or community,
it has diverted it into new channels and imparted to it greater
vitality. In Islam, as in Christianity, the dangers of the battle-
field and the pains of persecution have " clothed with more
than earthly splendour the objects for whom they were endured."
And the children of Fatima, saints who had submitted to the
injustice of man and devoted themselves to intellectual pursuits
and the practice of religion, — without arms, without treasure,
and without subjects, — ruled more firmly over the hearts of
their followers, and enjoyed the veneration of the people to a
greater degree, than the caliph in his palace, the master of
legions. The cup of Ommeyyade iniquity was full to over-
flowing, and men were crying aloud in the anguish of their
hearts, O Lord, how long ! On every side there was an eager
and passionate longing engendered by the vices and misrule of
the pseudo-caliphs that the House of Mohammed might be
restored to its rights. They looked wistfully to the Imams to
give the sign, but these saints had retired from the world ;
their domain was no more of this earth. Successive avengers x
of their wrongs had risen in arms, and gone down before the
serried ranks of their Syrian enemies. The people waited for
authority from the divinely-appointed leaders of the Faithful,
but they condemned the use of force. What was to be done ?
Several scions of the House who had risen against the Bani-
Ommeyya, contrary to the counsel and without the sanction
of the heads of the family, had sacrificed themselves to their
ambition or their religious zeal. It was at this juncture, at
this moment of unrest, when the Moslems were longing for a
sign from the House of Mohammed, that the Bani-Abbas
appeared on the scene. The Bani-Abbas were the descendants
of Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet. Abbas had always taken
a deep interest in the progress of Islam ; he was Mohammed's
companion when the famous " Pledge of the Women " was
taken from the Medinites. But from some weakness of char-
acter or from policy, he did not embrace Islam definitely until
about the time Mecca fell. He was, however, always treated

1 Sulaiman ibn Surrad, al-Mukhtar, and Yezid ibn Muhallib.
s.i. u


with the greatest affection and consideration by Mohammed.
The Prophet's example was imitated by Abu Bakr, Omar, and
Osman. They dismounted if they met him walking ; and not
unfrequently would accompany him to his residence. 1 He died
in a.h. 32, — according to some, two years later, — leaving four
sons, Abdullah (Abu I Abbas Abdullah ibn Abbas), Fazl, Obaid-
ullah, and Kaithan. Abdullah, better known in history and
tradition as Ibn Abbas, was born at Mecca in A.c. 619, three
years before the Hegira. He was instructed in the Koran and
jurisprudence by Ali himself. His reputation as a scholar and
expounder of the Koran and of the decisions of the Caliphs
stood so high that crowds nocked from all parts to hear his
lectures. He gave public lessons one day in the week on the
interpretation of the Koran ; another day, on law ; the third,
on grammar ; the fourth, on the history of the Arabs, and the
fifth on poetry. He gave an impulse to the study and pre-
servation of pre-Islamic Arab literature and history by fre-

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 34 of 55)