In trying to make sense of the events of the first and second fitna wars, some historians emphasize the role played by social and economic factors in setting in motion and sustaining movements against the rule of the Umayyad clan of the Quraysh. They argue, for example, that opposition to ‘Uthman’s policies and methods of rule was motivated primarily by economic inequities that had developed in the early Muslim state at the time of the conquests. If we accept this point of view, then we should admit that the opponents of ‘Uthman were motivated by resentment toward his policy of distributing the best agricultural lands among his relatives or cronies, while prohibiting the rest of the Muslims from purchasing any land at all. 1 The underlying reasons for this opposition can be described as economic or materialistic. However, it was couched in a religious idiom, because ‘Uthman’s critics presented his behavior as a deliberate departure from the precedents established by the Prophet and the first and second caliphs. Seen from this vantage point, ‘Uthman’s actions constituted a grave sin, which effectively deprived him of the right to lead the Muslim community to salvation. How could the leader of the Muslims be a man guilty of a grave sin? In a similar way, ‘Uthman’s propensity to award the most important and lucrative posts (e.g., governorships) to the men of his own clan 2 was also seen by his critics as a transgression against the Qur’anic injunction that the most worthy members of the community were its most pious. 3 These and other grievances, couched in religious rhetoric, were frequently invoked by later Muslim historians to explain the third caliph’s tragic downfall. 4
In addition to invoking the socioeconomic aspects of the popular discontent with ‘Uthman’s rule, Western historians of Islam have also mentioned the dramatic and rapid changes in the life of the Arab tribes following the conquest of the new lands and settlement in the garrison towns of Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. The formerly independent nomads suddenly found themselves the subjects of a powerful, wealthy, and increasingly intrusive state. Ruled by a small, clan-based elite, this state demanded of them a new form of loyalty and, even more importantly, strict obedience to the rulers’ edicts. The freedom-loving men and women of the desert were now governed by a mighty centralized bureaucracy that rested on the military might of the caliphal state and that brooked no dissent. Many Arabs and their clients, the mawáli , 5 felt that they were caught up in the workings of a vast and relentless administrative machine from which there was no escape. Poetry from that era evinces a strong feeling of nostalgia for the good old days of tribal freedom and democracy, when things were simple, and decisions were made by the entire tribe or at least by its free male members. Under ‘Uthman and, later on, the Umayyads, the innocence of that free life in the desert and oases was lost forever. Several clans of the Quraysh now lorded it over the rest of the Arabs, including the Prophet’s “helpers” from Medina. This situation was fraught with conflict. It was not long in erupting into a full-fledged civil war that resulted in the fragmentation of the Muslim community into three warring factions: the supporters of the Umayyads, the
pro-‘Alid party, and the Kharijites. This, in a nutshell, is the most common explanation of these dramatic events in Western academic literature. In the words of a Western scholar: “Almost all Muslims of the Umayyad period regretted the loss of the old ways, and almost all were looking for a solution to the problem of how tyranny could be avoided.” 6
Another source of opposition to Umayyad rule was the growing tensions between the Arabdominated state and the new non-Arab converts to Islam. The latter constituted a class of their own called mawáli (sing. máwla ), which can be rendered into English as “clients” or “dependents.” This name reflected the pre-Islamic custom of the “adoption” of an unrelated individual by an Arab tribe. This practice persisted after the religious revolution in Arabia, only now the “clients” were predominantly non-Arab converts to Islam. Without this symbolic adoption, nonArab Muslims had practically no rights. The mawáli could be speakers of Persian, Turkic, Berber, Coptic, or Aramaic. Although they took an active part in the Muslim conquests, suffering substantial losses and deprivations in the process, learned Arabic and the Qur’an, and maintained high standards of Islamic piety, they were still considered by the Arab ruling elite to be secondclass citizens of the Muslim community. As such, they were subject to additional taxation and humiliation to the extent that some Arabs considered them to be “the most miserable persons ever to walk on earth.” On the practical level, they were regarded by the Arab Muslims as unsuitable for positions of authority such as those of provincial governors, judges, or prayer leaders. Naturally, the discontented mawáli , who now resided alongside Arab tribes-in-arms in the garrison cities of Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, turned out to be a fertile recruitment material for various antigovernment movements, whose leaders promised them equality with the Arabs. The resentment of Arab domination among the mawáli masses became a major cause of the ‘Abbásid revolution, as we shall find out in the next chapter.