Shia Islam: Why did not ʿAlī’s leadership materialize immediately after the Prophet’s death? / 5


Shafaqna – Shīʿa Islam: History and Doctrines / Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī

Chapter 5: Why did not ʿAlī’s leadership materialize immediately after the Prophet’s death?
It is sometimes asked why the Prophet’s Companions ignored his clear designation of ʿAlī as his successor and the leader of the believers. After all, it was his Companions who accompanied him on his preaching and military expeditions, and not long had passed between the Prophet’s speech at Ghadīr and his death. In the present Chapter, we will attempt to answer this question by studying history and seeing that the Companions did not always follow the Prophet’s commands; ignoring the proclamation of Ghadīr was only one instance of their disobedience.
The Prophet appointed ʿAlī as his successor because this was God’s command and to prevent any contest for leadership of the community upon his death. In such a situation, one may wonder why the Companions, who had made so many sacrifices for the sake of Islam, ignored the Prophet’s order concerning Imam ʿAlī’s authority and bestowed leadership of the Muslims upon others.
An exAmīnation of the Prophet’s Companions exposes the fact that, in spite of all the praise given them, many of them did not fully submit to Allāh and sometimes would prefer their own personal decisions over God’s orders. Many instances of their disobedience can be found in both the verses of the Qur’an and in the aḥādīth, all of these have been recorded in Sayyid Sharaf al-Dīn’s book, al-Naṣṣ wa al-Ijtihād. And some of the cases will be considered below.
Resistance to the Prophet’s Decisions and Judgments
A verse of Sūrat al-Māʾida shows that some of the Prophet’s Companions did not always accept his judgments fully: ‘But no, by your Lord! They will not believe until they make you a judge in their disputes, then do not find within their hearts any dissent to your verdict and submit in full submission.’ (Q4:65). The Qur’an stresses that acceptance of the Prophet’s judgments is a sign of a person’s belief in God, while rejecting his judgments would make them into disbelievers. This warning assumes a lack of absolute obedience to the Prophet’s decisions and judgments.
Disobedience at the Battle of Badr
During the Battle of Badr, some Muslims took some disbelievers captive in order to ransom them for money, while this should not have been done until after the war was over. God criticized their action by revealing the following verse: ‘Had it not been for a prior decree of Allāh, surely there would have befallen you a great punishment for what you took’ (Q8:68). This verse applies to the Prophet’s Companions who took part in the Battle of Badr, some of whom were amongst Islam’s finest martyrs. If these Companions disobeyed God in this way, what could we say about the lesser Companions?
Disobedience in the battle of Uhud
In the year 3/624, Abū Sufyān was preparing to attack Medina and encamped his forces at mount Uhud. The Prophet assembled an army to fight them and ordered fifty troops, led by ʿAbd Allāh b. Jubayr, to take up positions at a place called Jabal ʿAynayn to protect the Muslim army rear from attack. The Prophet insisted that they stay there no matter whether the Muslims were defeated or victorious. Notwithstanding the Prophet’s insistence, forty of the archers decided that their presence in that location was unnecessary and, seeing that the Muslims were about to defeat the enemy, abandoned their positions, against their commander’s advice, to collect booty. As a result, Khālid b. Walīd, leading the enemy cavalry, took the opportunity to attack the unprotected location and kill the remaining ten soldiers before attacking the Muslims’ army from behind and turning their victory into a defeat (Ibn Hishām, Sīra 3/83).
Objections to the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyya
In the year 6/627, the Prophet set out for Mecca to perform the rites of Ḥajj along with some of his Companions, but they were not equipped for warfare. When they reached a place called Ḥudaybiyya, which was on the edge of Mecca at that time, the disbelievers did not allow them to pass. For this reason, both sides agreed that no Ḥajj should be carried out that year but that the following year the Muslims would be allowed to perform their rituals. ʿUmar b. Khaṭṭāb was displeased with the agreement and furiously asked, ‘Will not this agreement be a disgrace to us in our religion?’ (Ibn Hishām, Sīra 2: 317). ʿUmar and his like-minded friends were persuaded after talking to the Prophet, and the future events revealed that the agreement produced many benefits to the Muslims and Islam. Only two years after the agreement, Mecca was captured by the Muslims and Kaʿba was cleared of idols.
The Army of Usāma
When the Prophet lay on his deathbed, he decided to send an army to fight a Byzantine force which was threatening Medina. He gathered an army, made Usāma b. Zayd their commander and ordered him to leave as soon as possible. He was so insistent about doing this that, in spite of his severe illness, he repeatedly said, ‘Prepare the army of Usāma! God’s curse be upon those who stay behind!’ This event divided the Muslims into two groups: those who insisted on leaving and those who insisted on staying. The latter group argued that the Prophet’s health was worsening and they could not tolerate being away from him. They wanted to stay until the Prophet’s situation became stable (Shahristānī, Milal wa Nihal 1/29–30). Ṭabarī, describing the events of 11/632, reports that some of the Companions did not think Usāma capable of leading the army and therefore refused to accompany him in the war. When the Prophet heard of this disobedience, he said, ‘He is worthy of commanding the army. You used to say the same things before while he was capable of commanding’ (Ṭabarī, Tārīkh, 2/29).
The Calamity on Thursday
There is also another instance of the Companions’ disobedience which concerns the last days of the Prophet’s life. According to Ibn ʿAbbās, when the Prophet’s health was deteriorating in the last few days of his life, he bid those assembled: ‘Bring me ink and paper, so I can write something to prevent you from going astray!’ ʿUmar commented that the Prophet was extremely ill and that the Book of God was enough for them. Thus, a commotion erupted between those who insisted on bringing ink and paper and others who refused. The Prophet who was angry with the commotion and quarrel, ordered, ‘Stand up and go away! How could you quarrel before me? Ibn ʿAbbās adds, ‘All troubles started on this day when they did not let the Prophet write his letter’ (Bukhārī, Kitāb al-ʿIlm, tradition no. 114).
The above cases were a number of the Prophet’s Companions’ clear disobedience of his decisions, orders and judgments, all of which reveal that ignoring the Prophet’s orders was not an uncommon occurrence among his Companions and they could easily disagree with the Prophet’s designation of ʿAlī as his successor. With the length of time separating us from the Prophet’s days, we might wrongly believe that his Companions always submitted to God and the Prophet’s orders while, in fact, they were originally disbelievers who had converted to Islam. Some of them simply submitted to the divine orders and some of them were usually thinking of their own personal gain and interests. At least, we may say that not all those Companions were innocent or infallible.
Distorting Islamic teachings
Another set of instances which demonstrate the lack of complete submission to divine commands on the part of the Companions and show that they would sometimes follow their own interests, or that they accepted divine orders only as long as they were in line with their own benefits is the fact that, after the Prophet’s death, they distorted some of Islamic teachings claiming that the changes were intended to reform those teachings.
Changes to the Call to Prayer for Fajr
One of the innovations they introduced to the religion involved adding something to the call to prayer (adhān). According to Mālik in his Muwaṭṭaʾ, once, when the muezzin came to wake ʿUmar up for fajr prayers, he said to ʿUmar: ‘Prayer is better than sleep,’ and ʿUmar thought that it would be a good idea to add this phrase to the call to prayer (tradition no. 6). Zarqānī, in his annotations on the Muwaṭṭaʾ, reports that ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar heard his father say to the muezzin, ‘Whenever you get to the phrase ‘Hasten to success…’ (ḥayy ʿalā al-falāḥ) add ‘Prayer is better than sleep’ (al-salāt khayr min al-nawm) twice!’ (Zarqānī, 1/150).
Depriving the Prophet’s daughter of her inheritance
Another shameful event is when the Companions deprived the Prophet’s daughter, Fāṭima, of her inheritance. The Qur’an stipulates that a dead person’s children inherit their remaining belongings. It also refers to some Prophets’ children inheriting from their fathers. In other verses still, the Qur’an speaks about Solomon inheriting from David: ‘Solomon inherited from David, and he said, “O people! We have been taught the speech of the birds, and we have been given out of everything. Indeed this is a manifest advantage.”’ (Q27:16). In another verse, God reminds us of the fact that Zechariah asked God for a child to inherit from him: ‘Indeed I fear my kinsmen, after me, and my wife is barren. So grant me from Yourself an heir, who may inherit from me and inherit from the House of Jacob, and make him, my Lord, pleasing (to You)!’’ (Q19:5–6). These verses shed light on the fact that the Prophets’ children inherit from their fathers. Of course, these verses refer to the inheritance of material possessions, not knowledge or prophethood, because these are not inheritable. Otherwise, Zakariya’s prayer to God to make his child ‘and make him, my Lord, pleasing (to You)!’ would not make sense because God’s prophets are definitely pure people with whom God is pleased.
Against all of these verses, the First Caliph, Abū Bakr, claimed to have heard the Prophet say, ‘We prophets do not leave inheritance.’ Based on this alleged ḥadīth, Abū Bakr deprived Fāṭima of her inheritance. If this were a true teaching of Islam, the Prophet would certainly have told his children as inheritors about this. It is strange to see that the Prophet’s wives inherited the houses in which they used to live, whereas his daughter was not allowed to receive any inheritance. Even if we admitted the authenticity of the ḥadīth, the Prophet may have meant that the Prophets are not rich worldly people to leave a great fortune behind when they die, while the simple things such as rugs, dishes and clothes, certainly belong to their inheritors after the Prophets die.
Cutting ‘the share of the Prophet’s Family’
According to the Qur’an, when Muslims win booty in wars against the disbelievers, they should give away one fifth of it:
‘Know that whatever thing you may come by, a fifth of it is for Allāh and the Messenger, for the relatives and the orphans, for the needy and the traveller, if you have faith in Allāh and what We sent down to Our servant on the Day of Separation, the day when the two hosts met; and Allāh has power over all things.’ (Q8:41)
After the Prophet’s death, when the booty came to Medina, the Caliph cut this share (Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal 1: 348 and Qurtubi 8:10).
Cutting the ‘share of those whose hearts are to be reconciled’
Another change to the Islamic practices was the cutting of the payment to those who were supposed to be kept from hostility towards Islam. As far as Qur’anic instructions are concerned, zakāt is supposed to be divided between a number of groups: 1) the poor 2) the needy 3) the zakāt collectors 4) those whose hearts are to be reconciled, 5) freeing slaves 6) debtors 7) charities and 8) wayfarers who were without means (Q9:60). After the Prophet’s death, they refused to pay the share of the fourth group, arguing that Muslims no longer needed to reconcile the hearts of those people and that paying them was only acceptable at the time when Islam did not have enough power, but that now the Muslims were powerful this could be dispensed with.
The above cases are only a handful of the Companions’ contraventions of clear divine orders, which prove that ignoring the Prophet’s order concerning Imam ʿAlī’s leadership was not a strange or farfetched affair.


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