After the Prophet
- Lesley Hazleton
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If Aisha had been outraged before, she was now incensed.
They were, and are, the followers of Ali, or in Arabic, Shiat Ali—Shia, for short.
For a wronged woman, there could have been no better outcome, yet the form of it would be cruelly turned around and used by conservative clerics in centuries to come to do the opposite of what Muhammad had originally intended: not to exonerate a woman but to blame her. The wording of his revelation would apply not only when adultery was suspected but also when there had been an accusation of rape. Unless a woman could produce four witnesses to her rape—a virtual impossibility—she would be considered guilty of slander and adultery, and punished accordingly. Aisha’s exoneration was destined to become the basis for the silencing, humiliation, and even execution of countless women after her. She
There was another price too, though again, Aisha had no way of knowing the full extent of it. The sight of her riding into Medina on Safwan’s camel had branded itself into the collective memory of the oasis, and that was the last thing Muhammad needed. In due course, another Quranic revelation dictated that from now on, his wives were to be protected by a thin muslin curtain from the prying eyes of any men not their kin. And since curtains could work only indoors, they would soon shrink into a kind of minicurtain for outdoors: the veil.
The Quran would be supplemented by the practice of Muhammad, his example in everything from the greatest events to the smallest details of everyday life, as related by those closest to him. The sunna, it would be called—the traditional Arabian word for the custom or tradition of one’s forefathers—and this was the word from which the Sunnis would eventually take their name, though the Shia would follow nearly all the same traditions.
“For those who worshiped Muhammad, Muhammad is dead,” he announced. “For those who worship God, God is alive, immortal.” The Messenger is dead, long live Islam.
Whether in the seventh century or the twenty-first, the East or the West, the habit of power is ingrained in certain families and clans. It is an attitude, a built-in assumption of one’s right to rule, to carry on what in democracies is called “a tradition of public service,” and it is passed on from one generation to the next even without the institution of hereditary kingship.
IF YOU WERE A BELIEVER IN FATE, YOU MIGHT THINK THAT ALI was destined never to be Caliph, and that when he finally did accept the caliphate twenty-five years after Muhammad’s death, he was provoking fate and thus the tragedy that would follow. He would be passed over not once or even twice, but three times in those twenty-five years, and all that time, he said, he lived “with dust in my eyes and thorns in my mouth.”
Seventy men were cut down as they held the reins of Aisha’s camel, their bodies strewn at her feet.
“My sons,” she told the Basrans, “it is true that some of us criticized others, but do not hold what you have heard against them. By God, there was never anything between myself and Ali other than what usually happens between a woman and her in-laws. Whatever I have said in the past, he has shown himself one of the best of men.”
She had reduced a bid for control of a vast empire to the level of a mere family squabble, and, in so doing, had surely belittled the thousands who had given their lives for it. Moreover, if she seemed to imply that she accepted Ali as Caliph, she had avoided actually saying so.
“We are of the Prophet’s flesh and blood,” he said, “while you are merely one of nine stuffed beds he left behind. And not the one with the firmest root, or the lushest leaves, or the widest shade.”
“How far does your cunning reach?” he once asked his top general. The proud reply—“I have never been trapped in any situation from which I did not know how to extricate myself”—set up the perfect trump card for Muawiya, who countered: “I have never been trapped in any situation from which I needed to extricate myself.”
If Ali was the foundation figure of Shia Islam, Hussein was to become its sacrificial icon. The story of what happened to him once he reached Iraq would become the Passion story of Shiism—its emotional and spiritual core.
Assassination creates an instant hero of its target. Any past sins are not just forgiven but utterly forgotten. Every word is reinterpreted in the light of sudden loss, and every policy once thought mistaken now seems the only right course of action.
With his secret police, his network of informants, his brutal reprisals, Ziyad ran Iraq much as another dictator was to run it fourteen hundred years later. Like Saddam Hussein, he was a Sunni ruling a majority Shia population.
He was the image of a spoiled scion given to drink and dissipation, the antithesis of the Islamic ideal. “A silk-wearing drunkard,” Hasan once called him. Even Ziyad, angling perhaps for his own selection as Muawiya’s successor, warned that Yazid was “easy-going and neglectful, devoted only to hunting.” Muawiya’s son seemed to be a kind of seventh-century version of a good old boy from Texas, succeeding his father to the highest office in the land.
Aisha told the stories again and again, refining them each time, and if anyone pointed out that her recollections sometimes contradicted one another, she would take a tack familiar to modern politicians. She had misspoken then, she would say, but was speaking correctly now. Or in a still more familiar tactic, she would simply deny ever having said whatever it was she had said before.
Nobody disputes what happened. What is in dispute is why it happened. And that question hinges on the unknowable—on what Hussein was thinking. Why did he continue when he knew that his cause was already lost? Was he so convinced of the rightness of his claim that he could no longer judge reality? So full of nasb—that inborn quality of nobility and honor—that he could not imagine anything but triumph for the righteousness of his cause? So high-minded that he was, in the end, merely naive? Did he act in desperation or out of the purest of motives? In sheer folly or in supreme wisdom?
A whole new religious establishment had come into being under the Umayyads and their Abbasid successors—the clerics and theologians known as the ulama—and as the empire’s central political authority waned, they became the gatekeepers of Islam, much as the rabbis were the gatekeepers of Judaism through the centuries.
And it is this dual role of martyr and witness that would inspire the leading intellectual architect of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to utterly redefine Hussein’s death as an act of liberation.
In such a confrontation, the Sunnis would seem to have a clear advantage since the Shia are only some fifteen percent of all Muslims worldwide. But raw numbers can be misleading. In the Middle East heartland of Islam, the Shia are closer to fifty percent, and wherever oil reserves are richest—Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf coast, including eastern Saudi Arabia—they are in the majority.