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Uthman ibn Affan (Arabic: عثمان بن عفان) (c. 574 – 656 C.E.) was the third Caliph of the Ummah (community or nation of Islam), and is regarded by the majority Sunni Muslims as one of the "Four Righteously Guided Caliphs." He governed from 644 until 656. Sunnis hold Uthman in high regard. Although he is not exempt from criticism for favoring his relatives, Sunnis nonetheless believe that, on balance, he was loyal to the principle that God, not any human authority, was sovereign and ruled according to the Qur'an and prophetic tradition (Sunna), rather than in his own interest.

Uthman is especially important for overseeing the process by which the official recession of the Qur'an was completed. He was a son-in-law of Muhammad. Shi'a (who dispute the paternity of Uthman's wives), however, regard him as a usurper. For those who regard the Islamic civilization as providential, unifying much of humanity around the two poles of belief in the oneness of God and the necessity of obedience to God's law—which distinguishes right from wrong—Uthman's legacy will be valued as one that helped to further consolidate and protect the infant Islamic movement, then still vulnerable to internal and external threats. From this fragile beginning, Islam developed to enable countless millions to honor God in all they do and to brook no separation between this world and the next, between din (faith) and dunya (worldly affairs).


Uthman was born into the wealthy Umayyad clan of the Quraish tribe in Mecca, a few years after Muhammad. He was an early convert to Islam, and was well known for using his wealth to benefit charities. This put him into opposition to his powerful clan, which was Muhammad's greatest enemy. During the life of Muhammad, he was also part of the first Muslim emigration to the city of Axum in Ethiopia, where Muhammad sent some of his followers to seek refuge and the later emigration from Mecca to Medina. He frequently served as Muhammad's secretary.

Election to the Caliphate

Uthman became caliph after the assassination of Umar ibn al-Khattab n 644 C.E. Prior to his death, Umar appointed a group of six men to choose his successor from among themselves. Included in this group were Uthman and Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad whom Shi'a believe was from the start the rightful leader of the community. Some accounts say that he was chosen because he promised to continue the policies of Abu Bakr and Umar, whereas Ali would make no such promise. Some surmise that Uthman had been selected because the other five thought he would be easy to manipulate. Others argue that he was the 'most competent statesman,' since Sunnis believe that the Caliph should be the 'best from among them' (Watt 1968: 36).

Uthman reigned for twelve years, and during his rule, all of Iran, most of North Africa, the Caucasus and Cyprus were added to the Islamic empire. In order to strengthen his control over the empire, Uthman appointed many of his kinsmen as governors (Zakaria 1988: 54).

One explanation for this reliance on his kin is that the Muslim empire had expanded so far, so fast, that it was becoming extremely difficult to govern, and that Uthman felt that he could trust his own kin not to revolt against him. Regional governors were becoming powerful in their own right; indeed his own relative, Muawiyah, governor of Syria, would establish the first dynastic caliphate. Eventually, the governors would become hereditary Sultans, paying homage to the caliph but otherwise governing independently. However, many Muslims did not see these appointments as prudent; they saw it as nepotism, and an attempt to rule like a king rather than as the first among equals. Most Muslims saw tribalism as belonging to the pre-Islamic past, to the age of ignorance (jahilia) when an aristocrat had claimed special privileges, and justice had been sold. All Muslims, from highborn or lowborn families, were equal and none should be privileged because of lineage.

Many of Uthman's governors were accused of corruption and misrule. Some of his kinsmen were also involved in the murder of a son of Abu Bakr, the first caliph, which further alienated many influential Muslims. Abu Bakr's daughter Aisha, Muhammad's widow, was particularly vehement in her denunciations of Uthman.


One of Uthman's actions, controversial at the time, is now the act for which he is remembered. He headed a committee that established the basic text of the Qur'an. Various Muslim centers, like Kufa and Damascus, had begun to develop their own traditions for reciting and writing down the Qur'an. Uthman feared that the nascent Islamic empire would fall apart in religious controversy if it did not have a sacred text recognized by everyone. Sometime during the end of his reign, the committee produced a text (some Muslims dislike the term 'text' used of the Qur'an, implying that it has the same status as other books whose authors are human). According to tradition, the process of collecting the surahs (chapters) of the Qur'an had started under Umar, who instructed Zaid ibn Thabit, who had served as one of Muhammad's scribes, to begin gathering the various written pieces together. Some have it that a manuscript (Mushaf) existed during Abu Bakr's caliphate and that the Prophet himself had determined the order of the surahs.

Uthman had the manuscript copied and sent to each of the Muslim cities and garrison towns, commanding that variant versions of the Qur'an be destroyed, and only his version used. Many devout believers believed that his actions were high-handed and accused Uthman of tampering with the sacred book. Some Western historians, such as John Wansborough (1977) believe that the Qur'an was completed later than Uthman's time (44). They are, however, in the minority.


Anger at Uthman grew so general that soldiers from Egypt and Iraq traveled to Medina to address their grievances to Uthman directly. According to some accounts, Uthman is said to have promised to mend his ways, then, when the delegations had left, reneged on his promises. The soldiers returned and laid siege to his house for more than twenty days in 656. Despite the crowds outside his home, Uthman refused to shed Muslim blood, strictly observing Muhammad's commandments in this regard. The siege ended when some of the rebels broke into Uthman's house and killed the caliph as he sat reading the Qur'an. Uthman was eventually buried in Medina.

Uthman was succeeded by Ali, his old rival, and then, after Ali had been assassinated in his turn by Muawiyah, his own kinsman and the governor of Syria. Some scholars therefore count Uthman as the first of the Umayyad dynasty, though the scholarly consensus is that Muawiyah is the first.

Sunni view of Uthman

According to the Sunni account of Uthman, he was married to two of Muhammad's daughters at separate times, earning him the nickname “Dhun Nurayn” or the “Posessor of Two Lights.” In this he was supposed to outrank Ali ibn Abi Talib, who had married only one of Muhammad's daughters. However, some Western scholars have questioned this tradition, saying that the daughters were invented for polemic purposes.

The Sunni also say Uthman was one of the ten people for whom it was witnessed that they were destined for Paradise; one of the six with whom Muhammad was pleased when he died. Several hadith name the first four, or rightly guided caliphs, as being meritorious in the order of their caliphates, placing Uthman third from Muhammad. Therefore, despite some criticism of his rule, Uthman is highly regarded as one of those who ruled justly and in accordance with the tradition of the Prophet. The term' rightly guided' almost implies that God's hand rested upon them. In some sense, this is what the term means. It is recognized that none of the caliphs, even the first four, shared Muhammad's special status as the inspired prophet, therefore Sunnis willingly concede that none of the four were perfect. However, they believe that on balance, their rule was more authentically Islamic and God-centered than that of the dynastic caliphs who succeeded them.

Shi'a view of Uthman

As the Shi'a believe that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, should have been the first caliph, they regard Uthman as a usurper and an enemy of Ali. They believe that he is guilty of all of which history accuses him: nepotism, corruption, double-dealing, and turning the empire over to Muhammad's old enemies, the Umayyads. Shi'a believe that Uthman, like many of the other early Muslims, was seduced by the pleasures of power and wealth, and strayed from the strict path of Islam as followed by Ali. They also question the tradition that Uthman married two of Muhammad's daughters, insisting that Ruqayyah and Umm Kulthum bin Muhammad were Muhammad's stepdaughters.

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Zakaria, Rafiq The Struggle within Islam: The Conflict Between Religion and Politics, Harmonsworth, Penguin, 1988 ISBN 0140107940
  • Watt, William Montgomery Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1968 ISBN 0852240325
  • Wansborough, John Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977 ISBN 0197135889


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