The Patriarchical and the Absolute Caliphates - Comparison of Uthman and al-Mutawakkil

  By es_bih, 18 November 2007; Revised
Contents »
The Caliphate, or successor-ship to the temporal role of the Prophet (pbuh) evolved over time, and its ideologies did not have a concrete basis in the time of the “rightely guided” Caliphs. Through analysis of source material we see a very different world between the middle Abbasid period, and the rule of the righteous Caliphs. The power basis, and their role in the community were not so clear on a closer look. In the Caliphate of Uthman we have a fatherly figure ideology in leadership, the Caliph is to be followed, but on what grounds is not as cut dry as with the Caliphate of al-Mutawakkil. The early Caliphs seem on a much more egalitarian level in accordance with the local Medinan, and Meccan[1] populace. Hodgson calls it the “primitive”[2] Caliphate where the authority lay on a “person to person basis,” [3] and Uthman’s power was based on his faith, and good standing in the Ummah[4]. However, by al-Mutawakkil’s time the Caliphal state developed a clear ideology of the “superior,” and divinely guided Caliph who had been secluded from commoner, and followed earlier Sassanian absolutist ideals,[5] but by al-Mutawakkil’s time that ideology begun to be threatened by ever increasing power of the earlier much needed Turkic soldiers.[6] The two Caliphs lived and ruled in very different times when considering the ideologies they vested their power in, and the way they behaved toward the rest of their community.
In Uthman’s reign we see a more basic, and egalitarian Caliphate where he the successor of the Prophet (pbuh) holds the titles that his later more absolutist Abbasid successor inherit, but does not pertain the power in his titles that they enjoyed[7]. He is Uthman, the leader of the faithful, and he is Uthman, the son in law of the Prophet (pbuh)[8], however he is not absolute in any terms, his personal power comes from his personal piety, and his ability to deal with key individuals. Essentially Uthman’s reign is based on his role as imam, and his piety. In the source material Uthman is depicted as very pious, he recites the verses of the Qur’an and takes them to heart, he feels that his position is religiously inspired, and that he should retain it, whether he dies or not, for God will determine the right course of action[9]. Therefore, when he is murdered he does not cease to hold on to his title, he chooses death to abdication. However, he never does project any absolutist tone, nor does he display any motivation to undertake any absolutist ideology.
Uthman’s policies are similar to the policies that his predecessor, the Caliph Umar had followed[10]. The fact remained that the Umayyad tribe retained many of the more capable financiers, and more knowledgeable individuals when it came to matters of the outside, and now newly conquered world. They knew their tasks much better than most other Arab commanders who were not accustomed to the Sassanian, and East Roman (Byzantine) cultures. The Umayyad traders had had contact with both societies, and knew their new environments better than the rest. Umar relied on them to rule his new provinces, and Uthman, their blood relative continued on this practice, although with more intensity. Nevertheless, Uthman’s opposition took aside these facts of continuation, and branded him impious, and unfit to rule the faithful[11].
Uthman enforced his political authority based on his own personal aura, and integrity, as that integrity waned so did his power, and he was reduced to confining to his home until his eventual murder at the hands of the opposition[12]. Unlike future Caliphs, Uthman did not posses a body guard, or any lavish style of living. His house was simple, and was undistinguished from other Medinan residences[13]. In his daily live as Caliph he was opposed, and assaulted by opponents, and he did not retaliate with the swift merciless power of the later Abbasid rulers. Uthman had at his disposal the Caliphal office entrusted in him, and it defined him to the end[14], however, he could not exercise power over subjects, but rather exercised power over equals who did not wish for his policies to continue. We see examples in the source material of Uthman being called incapable[15], and him being asked to repent[16], and furthermore, him acting with piety, and with humility. Uthman could not behave at al in similar fashion to the later Abbasid Caliphs whom are credited with drunkardness, lewd behavior, and a very lavish and opulent style of living lacking any form of humility[17].
In contrast to Uthman we have the example of al-Mutawakkil whom the sources credit with much opulence[18], and an incredible sort of lavish court life surrounded with wealth, and worldly goods. Such an existence became in accordance with the Commander of the Faithful, who surely would not have had such acceptance of his position in life in Medinan times. Such opulence even if it had been known could not have had a place in the early Caliphal ideology where the Caliph was a mere successor to the Prophet (pbuh), and did not have monarchical standing, but was rather to follow the humble example of Muhammad (pbuh) who rejected his own worldly goods for the good of the community, and died in a humble, and by Medinan standards poor existence. The wealth that Khadijah, and him had gathered had been charitably given away, and Uthman as his successor was accorded the same expectations.
Al-Mutawakkil in contrast lived in a palace[19], in a city near the ancient site of Babylon, a city built for his family, a city built for the Abbasid Caliphal throne. He employed personal guards, and enjoyed all the luxuries that could be attained at the time. His personal interaction with the community was limited to the courtiers, whom he looked down upon, as is with the case of his own prodigy whom he claimed to disavow of his successorship to the Caliphal “throne.[20]” He had however grown up in such a court, and his entire life was based upon acceptance of his superiority, and the absolutist ideology that stretched back to Sassanid times, and was not in accordance with traditional Arabic, nor Islamic norms. The Caliph of his day was absolute in theory, and he alongside guards had his own executioners that were not reliant upon common consent of the community[21], nor of the contemporarily emerging Ulema who abhorred such lavish living, and un-Islamic injustice.
Yet both these men had been murdered while serving their communities as successors of the Prophet (pbuh). Nevertheless, while they did face a similar end their deaths had been for different reasons. Uthman had been envied by the opposition party, which included the original Egyptian Arabic soldiers, and some companions for intensifying the trend toward hiring favorable, and related governors. This practice had been started due to practicality by Umar, however, now that Uthman shared blood, and family ties to many of these governors he could not satisfy the intensely pious Medinan community especially considering these appointees were recent, and not so pious converts who indulged in the outside culture’s lavish lifestyle instead of abstaining, and keeping to the purity of the Arabic garrison towns. On the other hand Al-Mutawakkil had been born to an already lavish life, and had this absolutist mentality instilled upon him by the evolving Abbasid ideology of Caliphal absolutism. He smacked of superiority[22], and the manner he conducted himself with showed his ideology, he regarded others as subjects, his own son he mistreated, nor do we see the same recitation of the Qur’an, or the insistence on prayer as displayed by the pious Uthman[23]. Al-Mutawakkil was not pious in the sense of the rightely guided Caliphs, he was a temporal ruler, he did not try to live up to the standards of the pious, and the drunkardness he displayed was common among the Abbasid Caliph. Nevertheless, that same reliance upon liquor, nor the distance from the faith he displayed would have been tolerated in the early days. Uthman had been murdered for his insistence upon supporting the more capable, but impious governors, while Al-Mutawakkil had been murdered for his dependence on Turkish troops who were displeased with him, and wanted more submissive leadership in the form of his son, and successor.
The two Caliphs displayed differing actions, while they died at the hands of displeased subjects, the nature of their deaths had been in contrast as well, Uthman’s that of a displeased crowd who objected to his reliance on what seemed to him capable, but impious family members. Al-Mutawakkil died at the hands of the Turkish military aristocracy that had gained immense power in court, and in the state. The environment in which the two lived differed, Uthman became the successor, and leader of the faithful for his service, and piety, while Al-Mutawakkil had been essentially born to the established royal family that treated the esteemed office as a hereditary right, and a right to rule, but the community driven implications of the name that rang true in Uthman’s time were by now long deceased amid two dynastic families with strong hereditary traditions. The royal nature of the title was an innovation of hereditary rule of the Umayyad and Abbasid family, not of Uthman or his predecessors who saw themselves as first among equals, and who were treated accordingly, and afforded no royal standing.
Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam, Volume I: The Classical Age of Islam. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1974.
Selected Readings, Hits 277 (Fall 07 edition)

References and Notes:
  1. ^ The companions of the Prophet(pbuh), and the rest of the Meccan exiles during the Hijra. Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam, Volume 1 (172-174). Hence Venture.
  2. ^ Venture 197
  3. ^ Venture 207
  4. ^ Venture 214
  5. ^ Venture 283, 348
  6. ^ Selected Readings, Ch. 5 The Umayyad Kingdom and the Abbasid Empire. p. 75. Hence SR
  7. ^ Venture 207, 214
  8. ^ Venture 213-215
  9. ^ SR 50-51
  10. ^ Venture 214
  11. ^ SR 49
  12. ^ SR 54
  13. ^ SR 48
  14. ^ SR 49-54
  15. ^ SR 49
  16. ^ SR 49
  17. ^ SR 74
  18. ^ SR 73
  19. ^ SR 73
  20. ^ SR 74
  21. ^ Venture 283
  22. ^ SR 74
  23. ^ SR 50-54