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ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān

By:
Asma Afsaruddin
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān

ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān was the third of the caliphs identified as “rightly-guided” by Sunnīs (r. 644–656 CE). He was a prominent member of the Umayyad clan within the tribe of Quraysh. From all accounts ʿUthmān was a pious, self-effacing man despite his wealthy, privileged backgrou nd; he embraced Islam early and emigrated first to Abyssinia and then to Medina—all of this established his precedence in Islam. After becoming Muslim, he was first married to Ruqayyah, and then upon her death to Umm Kulthūm, two daughters of Muḥammad. For this distinction, he earned the honorific Dhū al-Nurayn (“He of the Two Lights”).

The sources tend to divide ʿUthmān's tenure as caliph into six good years in the beginning and six bad years in the end. Under ʿUthmān, new frontiers were opened in North Africa through carefully planned expeditions and the remaining Sassanian empire fell to Muslim control. The third caliph was concerned with asserting his control over the provinces that had seen fresh new waves of tribesmen immigrating from the Arabian peninsula. Part of his policy was to appoint relatives from his own clan as governors. Such appointments made ʿUthmān vulnerable to charges of nepotism and disregard of the Qurʿānic principles of precedence and moral excellence in making political appointments. These grievances eventually came to a head in 656 CE

The achievement for which ʿUthmān is forever remembered, which proved to be a decisive milestone in the consolidation of the Muslim polity as a religious, scripture-based community, was the final recension of the Qurʿān, completed around 651 CE, as the sources overwhelmingly report. ʿUthmān appointed an editorial committee headed by Zayd ibn Thābit to collate the various textual versions already in existence and cull disparate verses and sections committed to memory by various Companions in order to produce a final canonical edition. The ʿUthmānic codex (Ar. al-muṣḥaf al-ʿUthmānī) was meant to supersede all other extant manuscripts, since it was feared that variant versions would lead to sectarian divisiveness, as had happened in earlier religious communities. Once the text was finalized, ʿUthmān ordered that variant copies be destroyed and a copy of the canonical text be sent to all the major garrison cities.

Because of his bid to exercise greater control over the provinces, particularly Iraq and Egypt, ʿUthmān earned the ire of the settlers there who increasingly resisted his policies. In the last year of his reign, a few hundred embittered tribesmen from Iraq and Egypt arrived in Medina to present their grievances before ʿUthmān. Negotiations and debates were held for almost fifty days with the caliph practically under siege in his own house. Sometime in June 656 CE, while ʿUthmān sat reciting the Qurʿān in the mosque at Medina, a cabal of angry Egyptians burst in and assassinated him. His blood is said to have spilled onto the pages of the sacred text and his wife, Naʿilah bint al-Fur āfiṣah, was wounded while trying to protect him. The third caliphate ended with ʿUthmān's secret burial in the middle of the same night.

See also COMPANIONS OF THE PROPHET AND RIGHTLY GUIDED CALIPHS.

Bibliography

  • Ibn Abī Dawūd. Kitāb al-maṣāḥif. Edited by Arthur Jeffrey. Leiden, 1937. Find it in your Library
  • Ṭabarī, Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-. Tārīkh al-rusul wa al-mulūk. Translated by Stephen Humphreys as The Crisis of the Early Caliphate. Albany, 1990. Find it in your Library
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