The thorny issue of the Caliph

This version of history will be argued and debated until the end of time. And whether this was what happened is anyone’s guess. Millions will swear it did happen. Millions more will swear it did not.


Raja Petra Kamarudin

To understand Islamic history, in particular the serious chasm between the various sects, one has to go back to the last days of the life of Prophet Muhammad here on earth.

Of course, history is always written by the victor, never by the vanquished. So, again, it would all depend on whose version of history you are referring to. The Indian Mutiny would be the British version of history. And, since Malaysians read history books written by British historians, it would always remain The Indian Mutiny. Had the Indians written the history books, it would probably be referred to as The Indian War of Independence. And The Black Hole of Calcutta would probably be renamed The White Hole, the small dungeon in Fort William, India, where 123 white British soldiers were supposed to have lost their lives.

Again, did the Black Hole incident really happen? The British historians say it did. And 123 of the 146 whites imprisoned there were supposed to have suffocated to death in that dungeon. But then, many say this was mere spin doctoring on the part of Holwell, aimed at tarnishing the name of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, and that there was no such thing as The Black Hole of Calcutta.

So, what is the truth? Who knows? The truth died with everyone who has long since died more than 300 years ago. No one from 20 June 1756 remains alive today. They are all long dead and buried. So the truth is also long dead and buried along with those who know what really happened.

We are told the last days of the Prophet were spent at his favourite wife Aishah’s house. In the last moments of his life on earth, the Prophet summoned Ali to be by his side. As he lay on Aishah’s lap, and before he breathed his last breath, the Prophet was said to have whispered into Ali’s ear. And what the Prophet whispered into Ali’s ear is that after he has died he wants Ali to take over as the successor — Caliph, if in the Arabic language.

For three days the companions of the Prophet argued and debated. The Prophet has died. Who shall succeed him and hold the title of successor or Caliph? The successor must undertake the task of burying the Prophet. So, unless they resolve the thorny issue of the successor, the Prophet can’t be buried. And it is already three days since the Prophet died.

Ali informed the companions that the Prophet had personally whispered into his ear that he should be that successor. But Aishah, the only other person who would have witnessed this exchange, could not confirm that this was so.  Some say she could not have heard it since it was whispered into Ali’s ear. Others say Aishah purposely withheld what she clearly knew because of personal differences with Ali.

The truth has since died with all those who had lived and died more than 1,400 years ago. But what can’t be disputed is that Ali never became that successor after the Prophet died. Abu Bakar did, followed by Omar and Osman. Ali did not get his turn until the three companions before him had left this world.

This version of history will be argued and debated until the end of time. And whether this was what happened is anyone’s guess. Millions will swear it did happen. Millions more will swear it did not. And, in the meantime, millions will die in Muslim versus Muslim conflicts because there are two interpretations of history.

And, they say, history always repeats itself. Closer to home we have the Malaysian version on the Sunni-Shiah disagreement with regards to the right interpretation of history. And this Malaysian version of the thorny succession issue started when Tun Abdul Razak lay on his deathbed in a Harley Street clinic in London in January 1976.

Tun Razak knew he was dying. But only a handful of people also knew this. Malaysians-at-large were totally ignorant of the fact that the Second Prime Minister of Malaysia would soon be leaving them. And, just like in the last days of the Prophet 1,400 years before that, Tun Razak summoned his ‘companions’ and told them that he wanted Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah to succeed him as Prime Minister.

But Tengku Razaleigh was young and had unfinished business. Tun Razak had launched the New Economic Policy just five years before that. Much needs to be done to ensure that the aspirations of the New Economic Policy are met. Tengku Razaleigh felt it would be better he focused on ensuring that the New Economic Policy succeeds. Furthermore, he was still quite young so it was too early for him to take over as Prime Minister.

It was agreed that Tun Hussein Onn would instead take over. And Hussein Onn would choose one of the three Umno Vice Presidents as his Deputy. And these three were Tengku Razaleigh, Ghafar Baba and Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in that order of priority. At first, Hussein Onn wanted to bypass all three. He preferred Ghazali Shafie. But Ghazali Shafie was not one of the three Umno Vice Presidents so the three would not allow that to happen. Hussein Onn’s hands were tied. He had no choice but to choose from amongst one of the three.

Tengku Razaleigh was the Vice President with the highest number of votes. So he should be it. But Tengku Razaleigh had unfinished business and he did not want to become the Deputy Prime Minister just yet. He suggested that Dr Mahathir should instead be Hussein Onn’s number two. He can wait. He will become the number two when Dr Mahathir takes over the job of Prime Minister.

Five years later, Dr Mahathir did become Prime Minister when Hussein Onn stepped aside in 1981. But he would not appoint Tengku Razaleigh as his Deputy as had been agreed earlier. He said he would rather leave that post vacant and allow the Umno members to decide whom they want as their number two.

This was a great departure from tradition. Before this the number one always appointed his number two. But Dr Mahathir is one who is not afraid of breaking away from tradition. He proved that a couple of years later when he declared war on the Rulers, something Malays have never done (unless they want to lose their life) for hundreds of years.

Dr Mahathir ruled as number one. But he refused to appoint a number two. Let Umno decide, he declared. And he left it to the Umno General Assembly to decide who should be his Deputy, and, in that same context, the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia.

By now many of you will be at the edge of your seats, wondering what happened thereafter. Well, enough said for today. Let us continue tomorrow the story of how Umno went through the same chasm that Islam went through 1,400 years before that, which, until today, has triggered serious and bloody conflicts for those who preach Islam as the religion of peace.