Election of Uthman

Overview of the election of Uthman
644 Rashidun Caliphate caliphal election
644 CE / 23 AH

6 members of the shūra council, 1 absent, remaining 5 votes delegated to 1 member Abd al-Rahman ibn Awf
(Unanimous decision) 5 electoral votes needed to win
  Rashidun Caliph Uthman ibn Affan - عثمان بن عفان ثالث الخلفاء الراشدين.svg
Nominee Uthman ibn Affan
Electoral vote 5
Percentage 100%

Caliph before election

Umar ibn al-Khattab (died in office)
Banu Adi

Elected Caliph

Uthman ibn Affan
Banu Umayya

The Generous – (Al Ghani)
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The election of Uthman, from Balami's Tarikhnama

The Election of Uthman refers to the appointment of Uthman ibn Affan as the third caliph by a committee (shura) assembled by the second caliph Umar in 23 AH (643-4 CE). The committee likely consisted of six early Muslims from the Quraysh tribe, including the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law Uthman and Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib. The tie-breaker vote was given to Uthman's brother-in-law Abd al-Rahman ibn Awf, who appointed the former as the next caliph after some deliberation. The choice of the wealthy Uthman is often explained as intended to guard the interests of the Quraysh elite and to follow the practices of the first two caliphs, namely, Abu Bakr and Umar. The committee has been criticized for its exclusion of other Muslims.


Second-best option

The committee was convened in Medina by the second caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab after he was stabbed in 23/643-4 by Abu Lu'lu'a Firuz, a Persian slave.[1][2] On his deathbed, Umar reportedly tasked the committee with choosing the next caliph among themselves.[3] This committee is often referred to as a shura or electorate body by Sunni theologians.[4] Early Sunni sources also unanimously approve of Umar's committee,[5][6] though they often regard it as the second-best solution to settle the succession because Umar reputedly did not know whom to appoint directly.[6] For instance, the Sunni al-Tabari (d. 310/923) quotes Umar as saying that he would have designated his advisor Abu Ubayda ibn al-Jarrah or Salim, the client of Abu Hudhayfa ibn Utba, both of whom predeceased Umar. Elsewhere, Umar would have selected Abu Ubayda, Mu'adh ibn Jabal, or Khalid ibn al-Walld, as reported by al-Imama wa al-siyasa.[6]


Umar nominated six men to this committee in most sources,[7] all from the Muhajirun (early Meccan converts).[4] The committee consisted of Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's son-in-law Uthman ibn Affan, Uthman's brother-in-law and Umar's key advisor Abd al-Rahman ibn Awf, Ibn Awf's cousin Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas, Ali's cousin Zubayr ibn al-Awwam, and Talha ibn Ubaydullah.[5]

A few sources add to this list Sa'id ibn Zayd, a kinsmen of Umar and also a companion of Muhammad. On the other hand, some sources do not include Sa'd in the committee.[7] Most sources also say that Talha arrived in Medina after the committee had reached its final decision and was absent from the proceedings.[7] Sa'd formally acted as his proxy by some accounts.[8][5] The Sunni historian Ibn Sa'd (d. 168/784-5) and some others also list Umar's son Abd Allah in the capacity of an advisor to the committee.[4]

The Generous – (Al Ghani)
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Jafri believes that Umar did not consult the Muslim community before appointing this committee,[4] while Crone says that this matter is unclear in most sources except the Sunni Jahiz, according to whom Umar chose the committee members together with the early Muslims.[7] Early Sunni sources defend the configuration of the committee,[7] quoting Umar as saying that these were the best or the most entitled to the caliphate or those over whom the community would split.[7][9]


The aging Uthman was a wealthy merchant from the powerful Banu Umayyad clan of the Quraysh who lacked leadership or military experience,[10][11][12] unlike the rest of the committee.[13] Not much is known about him during the reigns of Abu Bakr and Umar, and some have thus found it peculiar that Uthman was nominated.[14] An early convert and Muhammad's son-in-law, Madelung and Anthony suggest that Umar nominated Uthman as the only strong counter-candidate to Ali, the much younger[15] figurehead of Muhammad's clan the Banu Hashim.[11][12] In particular, the Umayyads would have inevitably supported their distant relative Ali in the committee if Uthman had not been nominated, observes Madelung.[16] While all nominees belonged to the Quraysh, the rest were from obscure clans, unlike Ali and Uthman.[5]

Umar's views

Umar is shown in these sources as concerned that the disagreements in the committee would split the community,[5] and he reportedly warned Ali and Uthman,[5] and possibly also Ibn Awf about favoring their kins if elected. Umar might have considered these three as the serious contenders for the caliphate in the committee.[8] Among these, Madelung suggests that Ibn Awf and Ali were Umar's most and least preferred candidates, respectively.[8] Jafri considers it likely that Umar saw Ali and Uthman as the only two realistic options for the caliphate.[9] Umar also reportedly remarked about the "foolishness" (du'aba) of Ali[17][18] but considered him worthy of the caliphate and predicted the nepotism of Uthman. Madelung is confident that this Sunni account is fabricated.[17]


The committee was reportedly threatened by death to reach an agreement in three days,[19] possibly reflecting the anxiety to avoid civil unrest and discord,[19][5] something that later became the anathema to Sunni orthodoxy.[5] Umar also stipulated some rules for the committee,[4] who were to meet in closed caucus to prevent outside influence, according to some reports by al-Tabari.[20] Other reports indicate that the Meccan and Medinan leaders and the garrison commanders lobbied Ibn Awf.[8][21] The Ansari Abu Talha and his men were reportedly ordered by Umar to stand guard and enforce these rules:[5]

  • The new caliph must belong to the committee, elected by a majority of its members.[4]
  • In case of a tie, Ibn Awf would elect the next caliph.[4][22] This might be plausible because he was Umar's closest advisor after the death of Abu Ubayda in 639[21][8] and belonged to a small clan of the Quraysh.[21] Jafri,[4] Momen,[23] and Abbas[22] favor this account.[4] In other reports, Ibn Awf took himself out of the competition in return for being recognized as the arbitrator.[8] Madelung,[8] Crone,[24] and Keshk[14] prefer this account, while Keaney is undecided,[21] commenting that Umar probably avoided stacking the committee so obviously against Ali.[17][21] Jafri disagrees, referring to Ali's own account of the proceedings and adding that Umar could have not simply excluded the popular Ali from the proceedings.[25] Ali is said to have objected to Ibn Awf's deciding vote but to no avail.[26][21] Some sources give the arbitration role to Umar's son Abd Allah.[19]
  • Those members who would not endorse the final decision (or those who would oppose Ibn Awf's pick in case of a tie) were to be slain.[4][27][19]



The Ansar (early Medinan converts) were absent from this committee, either because of their pro-Ali sympathies at the Saqifa after Muhammad's death, as suggested by Jafri and Abbas,[4][27] or to keep the caliphate within the Quraysh, as implied by others.[28] Whatever the reason, the absence of the Ansar is believed to have helped Uthman defeat Ali.[29] Some contemporary authors have criticized Umar's exclusion of the Ansar and others from decision making.[30][4]

Voting bloc

Sa'd was naturally inclined to support his cousin Ibn Awf, who was in turn likely to align himself with his friend and brother-in-law Uthman.[23][27] This voting bloc of three would have formed the majority within the committee if Talha was absent and Sa'd thus cast two votes. Ibn Awf was given the tie-breaker and this voting bloc would have therefore dictated the outcome of the committee even if Talha was present during the deliberations.[21]

Ali's grievances

Possibly with the same calculations, Ali is shown as reluctant in the version in which Ibn Awf proposed to cast the deciding vote in return for giving up his claims to the caliphate.[21] Ali also later referred to this voting bloc,[31] complaining that the committee was stacked against him, as reported by the Sunni al-Baladhuri (d. 892) and al-Tabari, among others,[31] and also in the Shia Nahj al-Balagha.[32]

Jafri suggests that Umar deliberately blocked the chances of Ali by granting the chairmanship of the committee to Ibn Awf, possibly hoping to avoid discord and civil unrest.[33] Based on an exchange with the Hashemite Ibn Abbas, it was also the conviction of Umar that the Quraysh would not tolerate the combination of the prophethood and the caliphate in Muhammad's clan the Banu Hashim.[34] In this vein, Daftary believes that Ali was deliberately excluded from any position of importance during the caliphates of Umar and his predecessor,[35] while Anthony regards Ali's disenfranchisement as self-imposed and a sign of his disapproval of the first two caliphs.[18] He nevertheless offered his (at times critical) advice to the caliphs.[36]

In Jafri's view, the inclusion of Ali in the committee simultaneously recognized his claims,[33] blocked his chances,[31] and removed his freedom to independently seek the caliphate.[33] The last one is a reference to an exchange to this effect between Ali and Muhammad's uncle Abbas,[31][37] reported by al-Baladhuri and al-Tabari.[31]


Perhaps aware of his minority position within the committee, a reluctant Ali might have been compelled to participate in the committee, threatened by fear of arms, according to some reports by al-Baladhuri and al-Tabari.[31] When asked why he accepted to be al-Ma'mun's (r. 813–833) heir apparent, the Shia Imam Ali al-Rida (d. 818) is reported to have responded, "The same thing which forced my grandfather the Commander of the Faithful [Ali] to join the arbitration council [assembled by Umar]." This "same thing" was force on the basis of another statement by al-Rida, "I was also forced to accept (the succession to the throne) even though I did not like to. I unwillingly accepted it when I was about to be killed," as reported in the Shia source Uyun akhbar al-Rida.[38]


The candidates could not reach an agreement and the decision was soon in the hands of Ibn Awf, who had the deciding vote,[24] and ultimately played a key role in the accession of his brother-in-law Uthman.[8] He reportedly asked each candidate privately whom they would vote for if they were out of the race.[26][21] In that case, Uthman said he would support Ali, while Ali, Sa'd, and Zubayr supported Uthman.[21] Keaney finds it odd that Ali supported Uthman in this report, noting that the former thought the committee was stacked against him.[21] Some reports by al-Tabari suggest that Sa'd and Zubayr did not press their own or Talha's claims and thus the choice soon narrowed down to Uthman and Ali.[8] Alternatively, Ibn Ishaq (d. 150/767) and some others include reports in which Talha was present and withdrew in favor of Uthman, Zubayr for Ali, and Sa'd for Ibn Awf. This account evidently contradicts Ibn Awf's decisive vote.[26]


By some accounts, Ali successfully appealed to Sa'd and Zubayr and the two reportedly changed sides to Ali,[21] but this would have given Ali the majority if Talha was still away and Sa'd thus had two votes.[21] Madelung mentions this account about Sa'd but calls it "soft support at best," adding that "Ali had virtually no support" in the committee.[17] Madelung and Jafri also believe that Zubayr supported Uthman, even though the former had earlier advocated for Ali against Abu Bakr after Muhammad's death.[17] Despite his family ties with Ali, Jafri suggests, Zubayr this time withheld his support from the pious Ali with an eye on the financial opportunities that had opened up after the conquests of the Byzantine and Persian empires. He observes that Zubayr, Talha, Sa'd, and Ibn Awf all accumulated tremendous wealth under Uthman.[39]

External influence

Ibn Awf also consulted the notable figures from Mecca, Medina, and the garrison towns who were present in Medina.[26] In particular, the Quraysh elite strongly supported Uthman, writes Madelung.[8] For instance, the Makhzumite leader Abd Allah ibn Abi Rabi'a reportedly warned Ibn Awf, "If you pledge allegiance to Ali, we shall hear and disobey, but if you pledge allegiance to Uthman, we shall hear and obey. So fear God, Ibn Awf."[8][21] Ali was vocal about the divine and exclusive right of Muhammad's kin to succeed him,[37] which would have jeopardized the future ambitions of the Quraysh for leadership.[17][22]


The most common tradition here is that Ibn Awf publicly offered the caliphate to Ali on two conditions: First, he should follow the Quran and the Sunna (Muhammad's precedent), and second, he should follow the example of the first two caliphs, namely, Abu Bakr and Umar. Ali accepted the first condition but declined the second one, adding that he would rely only on his judgment in the absence of any precedent from the Quran and the Sunna. Ibn Awf then presented the same conditions to Uthman who readily accepted them.[40][23][41] This is also the version preferred by Mavani,[42] Kennedy,[43] Afsaruddin,[44] Shaban,[45] and Aslan.[10] Alternatively, Crone[20] and Keaney[46] present another (Sunni) version in which Ali replies that he would follow Abu Bakr and Umar to the best of his ability, whereas Uthman simply answered yes.

At any rate, Ibn Awf then pledged allegiance to Uthman as the next caliph and everyone else reportedly followed suit.[20] Alternatively, Demichelis suggests that the appointment of Uthman was not received well by some quarters of the Muslim community and contributed toward the first civil war (fitna).[47] Uthman's reign as the third caliph was marked with nepotism[48][49][50] and love of wealth and luxury.[23] In 656, as the public dissatisfaction with despotism and corruption came to a boiling point, Uthman was assassinated by rebels.[51][52]

Reaction of Ali

Ali was opposed to the decision[15] and objected to what he viewed as Ibn Awf's partiality,[46] but reportedly did not challenge the outcome.[15] There are contradictory Sunni accounts of Ali's reaction to the appointment of Uthman though they all end with Ali's pledge to the new caliph. The ninth-century sources of Keaney are thus willing to include the disagreements between the companions but present them and the community united behind the new caliph in the end.[46] As the reverence for companions gradually became a Sunni dogma,[37] such reports were later dismissed as pro-Ali and largely censored by Sunni authors,[53] even though these accounts reject Shia views in favor of the Abbasid caliphs of their time.[37]

The Shia Nahj al-Balagha reports that Ali agreed to go along with the committee's decision "so long as the affairs of [the] Muslims remain intact and there is no oppression in it save on myself."[42] Ali's refusal to follow the precedent of the first two caliphs became the hallmark of Shia jurisprudence and led to the later development of their independent schools of law, in Jafri's view.[54]

Status quo

Veccia Vaglieri suggests that the caliphate of Ali would have endangered certain well-established interests because he did not view Abu Bakr and Umar as entirely aligned with the Quran and the Sunna.[55] Aslan has a similar opinion,[10] while McHugo adds that Ali would have opened the leadership to the Ansar and others, thus ending the privileged status of the Quraysh.[56] Along these lines, Anthony views Ali's refusal as evidence of his censure of the first two caliphs.[18] Shaban notes that Ali's refusal made him a rallying point for the opposition movement, adding that the wealthy Uthman was possibly selected to guard the Meccan interests.[57] Likewise, Kennedy suggests that Ali refused to follow the precedent of Abu Bakr and Umar because he might have realized that the Quraysh's domination was dividing the community and wished to open the leadership for other groups, especially the Ansar, with whom he had links. Uthman, in contrast, was a wealthy Meccan merchant with good ties with the Quraysh elite.[43] For Afsaruddin, the (Sunni) accounts of Uthman's appointment convey that the third caliph was expected at the time to follow Abu Bakr and Umar.[44]

Some contemporary authors go further, suggesting that Ibn Awf's question was designed to weed out Ali, as he was well aware of Ali's disagreements with the past two caliphs and that he would have inevitably rejected the second condition.[23][27][10][41]

Motivations of Ibn Awf

Uthman is often portrayed as a weak-minded man,[23][58] and Jafri suggests that Ibn Awf and the committee (except Ali) hoped that he would serve their interests, as representatives of the Quraysh aristocracy.[58] Keaney includes a report by al-Tabari that quotes Ali as saying, "You [Ibn Awf] have appointed Uthman so that the rule will come back to you."[46] The view of Wellhausen is similar but Madelung disagrees with it, saying that Uthman was actually put forward as the only strong counter-candidate to Ali.[12] This is echoed by McHugo.[56]


The earliest sources are akhbari accounts written more than a century after Uthman, all of which are polemical[59][53] and written with the benefit of hindsight, namely, the authors knew about Uthman's nepotism, Ali's caliphate, the civil war, and the Umayyad and the Abbasid dynasties.[59] Cateani (d. 1935) thus rejects Umar's committee altogether as a later fabrication to justify the prevailing practice of the Abbasids,[60] whereas Jafri,[9] Madelung,[61] and Keaney[53] defend the credibility of the accounts in this regard.

Jafri further argues that the accounts of Umar's committee are essentially authentic, adding that the accounts of the early historians al-Baladhuri, al-Ya'qubi (d. 284/897-8), al-Tabari, and al-Mas'udi (d. 345/956) are similar to each other and to that of the much earlier Ibn Ishaq (d. 150/767).[9] Nevertheless, he admits that it is difficult to ascertain the committee's deliberations.[40] Alternatively, Madelung believes that the related historical accounts are partly contradictory and fictional, though he also contends that some conclusions can be made from them with reasonable certainty.[61]

See also


  1. ^ Pellat 2011.
  2. ^ Madelung 1997, p. 68-75.
  3. ^ Jafri 1979, p. 50.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Jafri 1979, p. 51.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Keaney 2021, §3.2.
  6. ^ a b c Crone 2001, p. 4.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Crone 2001, p. 5.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Madelung 1997, p. 71.
  9. ^ a b c d Jafri 1979, p. 52.
  10. ^ a b c d Aslan 2011, p. 126.
  11. ^ a b Anthony 2013b.
  12. ^ a b c Madelung 1997, p. 80.
  13. ^ Anthony 2013a.
  14. ^ a b Keshk 2014, p. 668.
  15. ^ a b c Halm 1997, p. 4.
  16. ^ Madelung 1997, pp. 71, 80.
  17. ^ a b c d e f Madelung 1997, p. 72.
  18. ^ a b c Anthony 2013a, p. 31.
  19. ^ a b c d Crone 2001, p. 6.
  20. ^ a b c Crone 2001, p. 8.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Keaney 2021, §3.3.
  22. ^ a b c Abbas 2021, p. 115.
  23. ^ a b c d e f Momen 1985, p. 21.
  24. ^ a b Crone 2001, pp. 6–7.
  25. ^ Jafri 1979, pp. 52–3, 55.
  26. ^ a b c d Crone 2001, p. 7.
  27. ^ a b c d Abbas 2021, p. 116.
  28. ^ Madelung 1997, p. 68.
  29. ^ Faizer 2004.
  30. ^ Shaban 1971, pp. 62–3.
  31. ^ a b c d e f Jafri 1979, p. 53.
  32. ^ Mavani 2013, pp. 113–4.
  33. ^ a b c Jafri 1979, pp. 52–3.
  34. ^ Momen 1985, p. 19.
  35. ^ Daftary 2014, p. 29.
  36. ^ Gleave 2022.
  37. ^ a b c d Keaney 2021, §3.5.
  38. ^ Mavani 2013, p. 112.
  39. ^ Jafri 1979, pp. 55–6.
  40. ^ a b Jafri 1979, p. 54.
  41. ^ a b Bodley 1946, p. 348.
  42. ^ a b Mavani 2013, p. 113.
  43. ^ a b Kennedy 2015, p. 60.
  44. ^ a b Afsaruddin 2013, p. 44.
  45. ^ Shaban 1971, p. 61.
  46. ^ a b c d Keaney 2021, §3.4.
  47. ^ Demichelis 2014, p. 567.
  48. ^ Madelung 1997, p. 81.
  49. ^ Hinds 1972.
  50. ^ Donner 2012, p. 152.
  51. ^ Glassé 2003, p. 423.
  52. ^ Abbas 2021, p. 119.
  53. ^ a b c Keaney 2021, §3.1.
  54. ^ Jafri 1979, p. 56.
  55. ^ Veccia Vaglieri 1970, p. 67.
  56. ^ a b McHugo 2018, §2.I.
  57. ^ Shaban 1971, p. 62.
  58. ^ a b Jafri 1979, p. 55.
  59. ^ a b Crone 2001, p. 3.
  60. ^ Arnold 2018, p. 17.
  61. ^ a b Madelung 1997, pp. 70–1.


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External links

  • A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims