Where Omer Aziz Goes Wrong: A Look at the History of Early Islam and the Caliphate
As a devout Muslim who doesn’t believe Islam needs to be reformed, but instead Muslims themselves, some of Omer Aziz’s words in What ISIS Really Is are agreeable – that ISIS is not Islam, that Islam is not a monolith, and that many factors come to play when discussing extremist organizations. However, with his cliffhanger questioning regarding the nature of Islam and his subtle jabs at the “Rightly-Guided Caliphs,” Aziz’s conclusions require serious scrutiny.
Who determines what is Islamic?
Firstly, it should be made clear that the criteria for judging what is Islamic is not nonexistent or arbitrary. Ahmadi Muslims, for instance, have a very clear hierarchy for determining the Islamic Shariah, which was espoused by the founder of the community Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian. In his book A Review of the Debate between Batalvi and Chakrhalavi, he explained that undoubtedly the Holy Qur’an was the first and foremost source of jurisprudence, the Sunnah or example of the Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) the second, and the Ahadith or Traditions of the Prophet was the third. In the case of any contradiction between the Qur’an and the Ahadith, the latter would either need to be reinterpreted or it should be disregarded as fabricated. While there are innumerable differences between various groups in Islam, they don’t stem simply from religious matters, as culture, geography, politics, and personal motives all have roles in the formation of these differences. So when Aziz ruminates about what Islam could be, my response: All of it! Except the parts that aren’t…
Let me explain with an example. When Aziz asks, “Is Islam the mentality of the suicide-bomber strapping on his vest?,” then you can reference the Qur’an and find an answer. When I read, “Create not disorder in the earth (2:12),” or “Whosoever killed a person…it shall be as if he killed all of mankind (5:33),” or “And kill not yourselves (4:30),” then it is quite clear that Islam is nowhere near these acts of terrorism. Forget about any scholar or cleric who says the opposite. How much more clarity do you need?
Secondly, Aziz is greatly mistaken about the nature of the Caliphate and its role after the death of the Prophet. While some of the early Muslims (who may have just outwardly professed their faith but still were not consciously believers) did not honor its sanctity, this does not mean that it was the fault of the early companions for the fiascos that took place during their time. Citing Muslim scholar Ali Abd al-Raziq, Aziz write that the “Koran had not mentioned the Caliphate.” This is false. 24:56 states: “Allah has promised to those among you who believe and do good works that He will surely make them Successors in the earth.” Furthermore, there are many references in the Ahadith that clearly demonstrate the Prophet Muhammad’s approval and recognition of a Caliphate following his death, even mentioning the time range. One of the most tradition famous comes from Musnad Ahmad, which is as follows: “Prophethood shall remain among you as long as Allah shall will. He will bring about its end and follow it with the Caliphate on the precepts of prophethood for as long as He shall will and then bring about its end.” In another tradition from Sunan Abi Dawud, one of the recognized six most authentic books of Ahadith (known as Sihah Sitta), the Prophet says that the “caliphate of prophecy” would last thirty years – approximately the same amount of time that that Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali would be the Caliphs. In a tradition from Sunan Ibn Majah, another one of the Sahih Sitta, the Prophet advises his listeners to stay on the path of righteousness because there would be great conflict following his death. He urges them to “adhere to what you know of my Sunnah and the path of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, and cling stubbornly to it.” This hadith is also mentioned multiple other times in the books of Ahadith. Thus, it is clear that the establishment of a Caliphate was a necessary component of Islam, and attempts to mitigate this reality contradict Islamic doctrine.
How these Khulafa were elected also demands a brief cursory explanation, since Aziz seems to think that the early Muslims were simply selfish competitors for power following the demise of the Prophet. Once the Prophet did breathe his last, some debate arose as to who should be the successor. When they decided that he should be chosen from among the Muhajirin (Meccan migrants to Medina) as they had been around the Prophet for the longest, Abu Bakr nominated Umar and Abu Ubaida, letting the companions take the pledge of allegiance to whoever they wished. However, both Umar and Abu Ubaida declined, recognizing that Abu Bakr was the clear successor. This is not only because Abu Bakr was regarded as the best among the companions, but also because the Prophet made him the leader of Prayer at the mosque when he fell seriously ill. If Umar was so power hungry as Aziz suggests, then it would have been logical for him not to decline Abu Bakr’s deference. Of course, this is not what history records. In fact, Umar was the very first to take the pledge of allegiance at Abu Bakr’s hand. This is because these righteous men were ardent devotees of their Islam, and knew that only God could dictate the proper successor through the piety of His people. Near Abu Bakr’s demise, he consulted his companions and agreed that Umar should be the Caliph. All of the companions agreed and took the pledge of allegiance. When Umar’s death was imminent, he nominated six from among the companions and told them to choose among themselves. After some deliberation that included seeking the opinion of every house in Medina, it was ultimately decided that Uthman would be the Caliph. When Hazrat Uthman was assassinated – due to the mischief of rebels who falsely claimed that the governors Uthman appointed were corrupt – the companions pleaded Ali to accept the pledge of allegiance. As shown, the first Caliphs were chosen through the proper Islamic system of consultation and election – hence why they the “Righteously-Guided.” Following the assassination of Ali, the position of Caliph was seized by force.
Anything but flawless?
Furthermore, In describing the first four Caliphs following the Prophet Muhammad as “anything but flawless,” Aziz makes a few startling accusations. Aziz writes that Umar “discouraged conversion to Islam because he did not want the Persians polluting the religion of the Arabs.” While Hazrat Umar did fight battles with the Persians because of their continuous provocations, there is no instance of him preventing the conversion of Persians to Islam, let alone narrations that point to him making insults against the Persian race. Instead, Hazrat Umar built mosques and schools all around the territories acquired by the Muslims from their defensive wars, while also fully promoting the Islamic junction of freedom of religion. His supposed anti-Persian sentiments also lose value when considering that he put fellow companion of the prophet Salman the Persian, who was a convert to Islam, as the Wazir (governor) of Persia when it fell to the Muslims. Aziz then cites the Shia belief that Umar assaulted the daughter of the Prophet (and the wife of Ali) and caused her miscarriage due to his brutish tendencies. Of course, no reference is provided. If this was true, then perhaps Ali would have been slightly more prudent in granting his own daughter to marriage with Umar. Aziz also calls Uthman, the third Caliph, a “corrupt aristocrat.” Perhaps we should offer an alternative, and call him Uthman Ghani (the Generous One). He was given this title because of his generosity to the poor, and he also spent a great deal of his wealth for the cause of Islam. For example, he is known to have offered 10,000 dinars, 1,000 camels, and 70 horses loaded with necessary goods to help meet the expenses for one battle.
I also deem it necessary to give a few other examples of the greatness of Hazrat Umar’s character to combat those negative labels. Umar’s rule was the definition of justice, and the degree to which he cared for the welfare of his people was absolutely tremendous. Following the example of the Prophet, he ate and drank simply and his clothes were simple. His humility was unmatched, and he was once found asleep among the beggars of the mosque of Medina. He was so concerned about the welfare of his people that he would go disguised in the streets at night to appease their problems, doing charitable acts such as distributing food and other provisions to the needy. Not to mention, Umar and Uthman were also two of the “ten blessed ones,” a group of companions to whom the prophet had given the glad tidings that they had been rewarded paradise.
Dispute of the Folio
To disparage Umar once more, Aziz claims that, due to his political ambitions, he prevented the Prophet from naming his successor and writing down the final guidelines for his followers. Providing no reference, Aziz partakes in the perpetuation of a grossly misconstrued event known as the Dispute of Qirtas (folio). When the Prophet asked for a pen, an inkpot, and a folio, Umar did not let him. Instead, he told the people that the Prophet was in great suffering and that the Qur’an was sufficient for guidance for them, hence there was no need for such an action. Shia Muslims hold that had Umar agreed to the Prophet’s request, then he would have dictated in his will Ali as his successor. Therefore, they allege that Umar had deceptive intentions in mind when making those statements. The great 21-st century Islamic scholar (and second Caliph of the Ahmadiyya community) Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad writes in Khalifat-e-Rashida that there are many answers to this objection, but two will suffice. For one, why would the Prophet simply forego his request due to Umar’s suggestion? In fact, the details show that the Prophet and Umar were close in thinking; once Umar reasoned that the Qur’an was all that was needed, the Prophet kept quiet and did not ask for the materials a second time. The second answer can be found in Umar’s hysterical reaction to the Prophet’s death. When it was announced he had died, Umar was shocked to his core and would not accept the situation. Since he truly believed that the Prophet would recover from that specific ailment, why would he need to object to a will in fear that it would place someone else as the leader?
So why is the Muslim Community so divided?
Aziz places his own biased opinions regarding the history of early Islam and its relationship to Muslim sectarianism throughout history at the very end, crafting a thought-provoking piece only to mislead the readers into thinking that his arguments lead to the conclusion that the “…battle between Sunni and Shia, and the war between ordinary Muslims and the Islamic State, could have been avoided if the earliest Muslims we deify were not so selfish and power-hungry.” He provides no basis for his attacks on the system of the Caliphate and the lives of the Caliphs, and uses his misinterpretations as evidence for the schisms between the early Muslims that continue today. The reality of the situation is that the actions of rebellious Muslims caused for the disunion of the Muslim Community. Indeed, Uthman’s words to his mutineers in the final stages of his life were, “If you succeed in killing me, you shall never be able to remain united, nor able to offer your prayers or face the enemy in unity.” Similarly, these battles, physical and ideological, between Muslims continue throughout history to today not because of the Caliphate, but because they are not united by a true Caliph who is appointed by God. While Aziz may corroborate what many skeptics say about ISIS – that it “just as Islamic as the next sect” (because they apparently use scriptural and historical references in their justifications for legitimacy) – its leader al-Baghdadi doesn’t meet the criteria for a true Caliph. The two conditions laid out in the above-mentioned verse 24:56 for the bestowing of a Caliphate upon the Ummah are that the Muslims be true believers and do good works. If we’re arguing from the teachings of Islam, then there should be little debate as if the followers of ISIS meet these criteria. Moreover, the hadith cited above regarding the establishment of the Caliphate following Prophethood end with similar words after describing the intervening phase of monarchs and tyrants: “There will then emerge the Caliphate on the precepts of Prophethood.” The question is where is the Caliphate that can guide the Muslims out of their disastrous conditions, and who is that prophet upon which it would be reestablished?
The answer lies with Ahmadiyyat, a 19th-century revivalist movement founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian. Ahmadis claim him to be a prophet of God, and the fulfillment of the Prophet Muhammad’s prophecies regarding the Imam Mahdi and the Promised Messiah. Following his demise in 1908, Hazrat Hakeem Noorudin was elected just like in 632 A.D. as the first Caliph of Ahmadiyyat, which is considered by Ahmadis to be a continuation of the Khilafat-e-Rashida (Rightly-Guided Successorship). As the world’s largest sect united under one Caliph, the tens of millions of Ahmadis spread throughout the world continue to be the standard-bearers of the true teachings of Islam – of service, brotherhood, peace, and justice. Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the current and fifth Caliph, proclaims his message throughout the world. His days are spent addressing to world leaders and parliaments about current Muslim crises, spiritually advising Ahmadi Muslims with meetings and a weekly Friday sermon, and administering his devoted community. It is this writer’s hope that the Muslim Ummah can unite under the banner of the true Caliphate, or, at the very least, stick to the true teachings of Islam. As for Aziz, I must mention that distorting the history of Islam does not offer insight into the problems at hand. It actually just adds fuel to the fire that is blazing in the hearts of divisive Muslims today.