7. A Seventh Century Assassination Whose Legacy Endures to This Day
The death of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad was followed by a bitter succession dispute. On the one hand were those who believed that leadership of the Islamic community should be confined to Muhammad’s family and bloodline. On the other, were those who thought leadership should be open to whomever the Muslim community chose. The former, a minority, coalesced around Muhammad’s cousin and son in law Ali, and became known as the Shiites, or faction, of Ali. The latter, the majority, became known as the Sunnis.
Muslims elected the first three Caliphs, or successors of the Prophet, from outside Muhammad’s family, bypassing Ali each time. Finally, following the murder of the third Caliph, Ali was elected. However, his predecessor’s relatives accused Ali of being implicated in the murder, and engineered the election of a rival Caliph, Muawiyah I. The competing Caliphs went to war, but before the issue was settled in battle, Ali accepted arbitration.
That led some of Ali’s supporters, known thereafter as the Khawarij, or “Outsiders”, to abandon him because they opposed arbitration. Viewing the Caliphate as the collective property of the Muslim community, they reasoned that Ali lacked the authority to make any decision regarding who gets to be Caliph. Election by the community was the sole legitimate process for bestowing the Caliphate, argued the Khawarij, and the Muslim community had already elected Ali. By accepting arbitration to decide who would be Caliph, Ali was overstepping his boundaries and usurping a power of decision that was never his.
Ali went ahead with the arbitration, but it turned into a fiasco without settling the dispute or producing a result other than weakening him politically. The Khawarij soured on Ali, whom they now viewed as much of a usurper as his rival. So they decided to get rid of both, and hatched a plot to kill the rival Caliphs on the same day during Friday prayers.
Ali’s assassins succeeded in stabbing him to death in the Great Mosque in Kufa, Iraq, but those sent after his rival only wounded him. Muawiyah emerged as sole Caliph, and went on to found the Umayyad Dynasty. The Khawarij rose in rebellion against Muawiyah, who eventually crushed them. Embers remained, however, and the Khawarij became the anarchists of Islam’s first centuries. Rejecting the Caliph’s authority, they engaged in a campaign of terror and assassinations, combined with a low level insurgency that would flare up every generation or two into a major rebellion. They became the model for modern Islamist terrorists, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.