From the history of Islam PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
In the 7th century AD, soon after the death of Muhammad, Islam underwent a schism over the question as to who should be its ruler. The Caliph  Omar was assassinated by a Persian. Then the six most distinguished Companions of the Prophet met to choose one from among themselves as successor. There were two candidates: Ali, husband of Muhammad's daughter Fatima and father of his grandchildren, and Uthman of the wealthy and powerful Umayya clan in Mecca. (This clan had once opposed Muhammad, but impressed by his political success, it had accepted Islam shortly before his death.) The other four decided on Uthman. The new Caliph may have been pious himself, but he appointed his family members to high positions and turned a blind eye to their corruption. (One of the appointees was his cousin Mu'awiya, governor of Syria and Jerusalem.) In his eleventh year of power, the army rose against Uthman, demanding his abdication. When he refused, they killed him. They then persuaded Ali to accept the Caliphate.

Two of the Companions refused to follow Ali, as did Aisha, Muhammad's widow. Accusing him of complicity in the murder, they raised an army. Ali established a base in Iraq and defeated the Companions, but now arose Mu'awiya, claiming the right of revenge for the murder of his cousin Uthman. He managed to maneuver Ali into a situation where the latter accepted arbitration. To many of Ali's followers, however, it seemed that by accepting arbitration he was violating a commandment of the Koran: "If one party rebels against the other, fight against that which rebels." (Sura 49:9.) They seceded from his party -- and were called "the seceders" (Khariji). In 661, one of them assassinated Ali.

"Ali," writes John Alden Williams, my principal source, "had been a deeply religious man, who had appealed profoundly to the loyalties of his followers, and he had lent his moral authority to social and economic reforms many Muslims desired to see. Very soon he and his descendants were given an almost prophetic prestige; they have even been seen by some of their followers as emanations of the Godhead." ( Williams, p. 199. My italics.)

Mu'awiya persuaded Ali's son to forgo the caliphate. He took it for himself, naming his own son, Jazid, to succeed him. Thus he founded the first Islamic dynasty, the Umayyads, with their seat in Damascus.

The "Faction" or "Party" (Shia) of Ali led several unsuccessful revolts. They are known as Shi'ites. They form the dominant group in Iran today.

Most Muslims, however, did not follow in the path of Ali. They are known as Sunni (from Sunna, meaning "message," "revelation").

The Umayyad dynasty expanded the rule of Islam to its greatest extent, including Spain, North Africa, Turkey and India. But the dynasty proved short-lived. Despite the vast military successes, it aroused discontent among many Arab Muslims who felt  sidelined, including the Meccans. Seizing on this, another family, the Abbasids, mustered sufficient support to defeat the Umayyads in 750 AD. They shifted the capital from Damascus to Baghdad. Far from the Holy Land, the rulers in Baghdad gave it little attention or funding, and a period of economic decline set in. At this time many Jews left the country (contrary to common opinion, they had not been exiled by the Romans), seeking better prospects elsewhere.