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I believe that if Uthman ibn Affan had been a cruel and heartless man, millions of lives might have been saved, and history would have been kinder to today's followers of Islam. This is ironic because for most of his life Uthman had been a successful merchant, with a real talent for the cold heartless logic of an account book. It was only after he accepted the migrating embrace of Islam, and became the third Caliph, or “Commander of the faithful”, in 644 C.E.., that Uthman’s compassion for his fellow Muslims, inspired directly by the teachings of his friend and leader, the Prophet Muhammad, that Uthman's humanity lead to the greatest threat facing Islam today.

Muhammad died peacefully in 632, leaving his followers to make what they could of his life’s work. Abu Bakr, the first man to issue the public call to prayer in Mecca, was elected the first Successor of the Messenger of God, or Caliph,  Rasul Allah. During his two year reign he managed to put down rebellions, invade and begin the conversions of Iran, Syria and what is today Palestine. Abu Bakr died on Monday, August 23rd , 634, naming Umar as his successor. Umar, also known as Farooq the Great, ruled as the second Caliph for ten years, conquering the Persian Empire. He was attacked by an assassin at morning prayers in 644, and lived just long enough to name a committee to pick his successor. And as we all know, no good could can come from a selection committee.
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The choice of the next Caliph fell to an election, or shura, amongst five men. Two stated publicly that they were willing to take on the burden of being Caliph; Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib and Uthman, known as the “man of two lights” because he had married two of the Prophet’s daughters. In the shura among the remaining three, two split, one supporting Ali and the other supporting Uthman. This left the choice to Abd al-Rahman. He announced his decision at a public meeting at a mosque - Uthman. The general acclimation left Ali with little choice but to support his competitor. But he felt cheated.
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Uthman was from the Umayyad clan, one of the 15 families within the Quraysh tribe of Arabs. The Umayyard were patricians, merchants and power brokers in the city of Mecca (above), a holy city long before the rise of monotheism. Nestled amongst mountains, 50 miles inland from the Red Sea, this oasis had been founded by Abraham himself. But the center of government for the new empire was in Medina, 200 miles north of Mecca. Here the power lay in the hands of the Hashemite clan – the family of Ali ibn Abi Talib.
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Once in Medina, Uthman found himself in charge of a growing military and religious empire. But Uthman saw himself as primarily a religious leader. His behavior was so pious that even the Prophet himself had said of Uthman that “angels feel bashful before him.” Uthman was a handsome man and vain enough that he dyed his beard. Every time he smiled he flashed gold, a hint of his wealth. He was a patrician, and most of his close friends even within the faith, were also wealthy. And that was to prove his blind spot.
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From the first day of his 10 year reign, Uthman was the target of complaints of graft and favoritism. Some of those complaints were probably true - in an expanding empire such growing pains were to be expected. And grumblings are always heard even under good government. But there was an undercurrent of discontent nurtured by the man who might have been Caliph, the Shiat Ali Talib. And in the eleventh year of Uthman’s reign, the whispers sparked into action, just across the Red Sea, in Egypt.
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In 656 Uthman called for a special Hajii, the holy journey to Mecca each Muslim is expected to make at least once in their lives. This special Hajii was to be for those unhappy with Uthman’s reign. The Caliph publicly promised to listen to any complaints, and promised to solve the legitimate ones. For the shiat Ali this was bad news. Uthman possessed the personality to sway any dissident in his immediate presence. Something would have to be done about Uthman before the holy winter months filled Mecca with hundreds of thousands of his supporters.
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In the summer of 656, 1,000 Egyptians arrived in Medina, and publicly begged Ali to accept the Caliphate; publicly he refused. It was a fine show of humility, and the Egyptians next moved on to Uthmans’s house and surrounded it. They announced that no harm would come to any Uthman supporter who did not resist them. And Uthman countered by instructing his supporters to offer no resistance to the Egyptians. He even freed his slaves, saying he did not wish any blood shed in his defense.
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Thus began the most amazing 20 days in all of Islam. It reminds me a bit of Thomas Becket, calmly conducting vespers while the four knights closed in to slaughter him. At first Urthman was allowed to travel to the mosque and lead prayers, the Egyptians even praying with him. Then, angry words were exchanged between Uthman’s supporters and the Egyptians. Stones were thrown, one of them striking Uthman in the head. He was carried back to his house, bloody and unconscious.
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Even now, when his supporters begged to be allowed to defend him, Uthman refused, insisting he did not wish to spill the blood of Muslims. But with the Hajii beginning, there remained the possibility that the thousands gathering at Mecca would be induced to march to Medina and rescue their Caliph. At least that was what worried the Shiat Ali. The decision was made to take action.
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The siege of Uthman’s home became complete, shutting off even food and water. Finally, one night, as the Caliph was saying prayers with his wives, three Egyptians burst into the bedroom and began to strike the old man in the head with clubs and swords. His wife Naila attempted to block the blows, and lost her fingers. She was tossed aside, and Uthman was beaten to death.
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It had been a political assassination, and the trauma it caused burdens Islam to this day. The supporters of Ali ibn Abi Talib, now called Shi'ite (from Shiat Ali) believe that Ali had been chosen by Mohammad, and that the Caliphs who preceded him, especially Uthman, were false leaders. The supporters of the murdered Uthman believe that the Prophet himself wished the leadership to be chosen by elections, by shura. And they take their name from that concept of a democratic religion: Sunni.
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Ali finally achieved the rank and office of Caliph in 656, but it brought him little comfort. First he had to put down a rebellion by one of Muhammad’s wives, Aisha. Then, he quickly faced a more serious rebellion led by Mu'awiya Ummayad, the governor of Damascus and Uthman’s cousin. This time the battle was a draw, and in order to hold onto his hard won office, Ali was forced to compromise with the Sunni’s. But this offended the more radical shi'ites, who, in God’s name, had already murdered one Caliph. It was a small step for them, in 661, to murder a second, the very man they had committed the first murder for.
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The Ummayad clan would later be almost wiped out by the Shi’ites of the Hashemite in the year 750 at the Battle of Zab. And while the Sunni are today the majority in Iraqi, the Hassemite Shi’ites are the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, and guardians of Mecca and Medina, ensuring that the majority of Muslims across the rest of the world today, are Shi’ites.
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The reasons and justifications for and even the truth about the death of Caliph Uthmen would seem difficult to see clearly,l  fourteen hundred years later. But what is important is that his murder stands as yet another example of humans thinking they hear the voice of God, when in fact they are only hearing the echo of their own ego. And Muslims do not have the patent on that.
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