Before the caliphate of the 'Uthman b. 'Affan, the Muslim community had grown from strength to strength in spite of a series of major crises--the Hirah, the death of the Prophet, the Riddah wars, the assassination of 'Umar by a Persian slave. But 'Uthman's reign ended in catastrophe. His inability to manage the social and political conflicts that were now emerging among various factions within the community led to his death at the hands of Muslim rebels. The consequences of this tragic event were bitter: not only a century of civil war, but also political and religious schisms of such depth that they have not been entirely healed even now. Most medieval Muslim historians told this story in an overtly partisan manner, but al-Tabari demands more of his readers. First of all, they must decide for themselves, on the basis of highly ambigous evidence, whether 'Uthman's death was tyrannicide or murder. But, more than that, they must ask how such a thing could have happened at all; what had the Muslims done to bring about the near-destruction of their community?
Al-Tabari presents this challenge within a broad framework. For, even while the internal crisis that issued in 'Uthman's death was coming to a head, the wars against Byzantium and Persia continued. The first expeditions into North Africa, the conquest of Cyprus, the momentary destruction of the Byzantine fleet at the Battle of the Masts, the bloody campaigns in Armenia, the Caucasus, and Khurasan are all here, in narratives that shift constantly between hard reporting and pious legend. Muslim forces retain the offensive, but there are no more easy victories; henceforth, suffering and endurance will be the hallmarks of the hero. Most evocative in the light of 'Uthman's fate is the moving account of the murder of the last Sasanian king, Yazdagird III--a man betrayed by his nobles and subjects, but most of all by his own character.