At the death of the Holy Prophet, the Muslims lost not only their prophet but also their spiritual, religious and political leader. The Holy Prophet had not designated any successor during his own lifetime and the young Muslim community could not possibly survive without one. Someone had to lead the community and provide spiritual, social, legal and political direction. A leader, therefore, had to be selected who would not only be acceptable to the people but also worthy of the Prophet’s ideals and objectives. The choice of the Muslims fell on Abu Bakr who was then elected as the first Khalifah or Successor of the Holy Prophet. This election or nomination of leaders in the Muslim community grew into an institution called the Khilafat or Caliphate.
Like many other Islamic institutions, the system of Khilafat changed and evolved over a period of time. Not all Khalifahs were elected in exactly the same manner, nor were the political conditions identical at the demise of each Khalifah that would merit the adoption of one fixed system of election. Similarly, not all Khalifahs were alike in their piety, statesmanship, courage, foresight and charisma.
As long as the Holy Prophet was alive, he kept in check the tribal rivalries that existed among the Arabs. After his death, these rivalries came out in the open and played a significant role in manipulating the power vested in the office of the Khilafat.
The system of Khilafat, in one form or another, lasted some 626 years after the death of the Holy Prophet. During this period five distinct Caliphates existed among the Muslims, all belonging to the House of Quraysh. These were:
In the following pages we will briefly describe the main outlines of the various caliphates, their ascension to office and their ultimate decline.
Around 945 AD, during the period of Al Mustakfi, the Abbasid Caliphate became very weak and various other groups controlled the real power. The names of some of these dynasties are given below:
Buwaihids 945 – 1055 AD
Saljuqs 1037 – 1157 AD
Crusades fought against the Christians 1096 – 1244 AD
The fourteenth and last of the Fatimid Caliphs was dethroned in 1171 A.D. by Salahuddin the Great, the famous warrior of the Crusades. With the fall of Al Azid ended the Fatimid dynasty which was founded by Al Mahdi some 262 years ago.
After the death of the Holy Prophet, the period of the four successors, Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman and All, is known as the Pious Caliphate. This was the most critical period for the State of Islam. The transition from the absolute authority of the Messenger of God to the authority of an elected successor was not easy for the Muslims.
The Pious Caliphate, which lasted 29 years, was notable for the remarkable expansion of the Islamic State and the democratic election of the Khalifahs. However, this Caliphate was also riddled with internal dissension, apostasy and factional strife.
The most significant feature of the Pious Caliphate was its system of election. All the four Khalifahs were elected in one way or another. In the case of other dynastic Caliphates that followed, this system of election was replaced in favour of direct nomination of family members.
The Khalifahs in the Pious Caliphate were the heads of State with no constitutional or political check on their authority. But this did not mean that they could do whatever they wanted. The Khalifahs had to exercise their authority according to the commands and principles of the Quran and the Hadith. In the later Caliphates, as we will see, this restraint on the Khalifahs was removed and they literally did whatever they pleased.
Another notable feature of the Pious Caliphate was the Shura or the Consultative Body which advised the Khalifah on all important matters. During the later Caliphates, this Shura was dissolved and the decision making rested solely with the Khalifah himself.
During the period of the Pious Caliphate, a Public Treasury was set up to receive Zakat and other taxes and to meet the expenditures of general administration, warfare and social programs. In the later Caliphates, this Public Treasury became the personal property of the Khalifahs.
The other notable aspect of the Pious Caliphate was the extreme simplicity with which the Khalifahs led their lives. They lived in ordinary homes, did their own household work, and had no bodyguards and their doors were always open to any complainant. On the other hand, the Khalifahs in the later Caliphates lived like kings in their lofty castles, enjoying the worldly pleasures and were inaccessible to the common public.
It was indeed a great blessing for Islam that the immediate Successors of the Holy Prophet were men of great wisdom, courage and saintly character. Although they were heads of the Islamic State, supreme commanders of the Muslim armies and chief justices of the judicial system, yet they led a life completely free from any pomp and show. Many a times visitors from distant areas would come to the Khalifah’s court and ask the question, “Where is the Khalifah?” while all the time the Khalifah sat in front of them dressed in ordinary clothes, indistinguishable from the common people.
To the Pious Khalifahs their office was a sacred trust and a responsibility to be discharged with great honesty, diligence and perseverance. They paid no heed to the honour and prestige vested in their office and devoted their lives whole heartedly to the betterment of their subjects and to spreading the message of Islam.
Now we will read brief accounts of the first four Khalifahs who succeeded the Holy Prophet and made up the Pious Caliphate.
Abu Bakr was nearly the same age as the Holy Prophet, being only two and a half years younger than him. His real name was Abdullah but he was commonly known by his kunniyat, Abu Bakr. He belonged to the tribe of Quraysh and his genealogy unites his forefathers with that of the Prophet’s.
The sudden death of the Holy Prophet in 632 A.D., threw the Muslim world in complete confusion. The Muslims in Medinah became divided into two camps: the Ansar and the Mohajereen. Each group was trying to promote its own people for the position of the successor.
Abu Bakr addressed the Ansar and told them that as far as service to Islam was concerned, no one could rival the Ansar. But the people of Arabia, he said, would not acknowledge a leader from other than the Quraysh.
At this the Ansar suggested that there be a chief from the Quraysh and a chief from among themselves. Omar, however, strongly disagreed with this proposal saying that two chiefs could not stand together. Abu Bakr suggested that the people select their leader from either Omar or Abu Obaidah, both of whom were present there. But both of them declined, saying that they could not possibly give preference to themselves over Abu Bakr.
When the situation started to get tense, Omar took hold of Abu Bakr’s hand and swore allegiance to him. This seemed to settle the matter. After this Abu Obaidah and all others present, came forward and swore allegiance to Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr then rose and addressed the Muslims:
“I am not the best among you; I need all your advice and all your help… In my sight the powerful and the weak are alike and I wish to render justice to both. Obey me if I obey God and His Prophet; if I neglect the laws of God and the Prophet, I have no more right to your obedience. If I do well, support me; if I make a mistake, counsel me.”
On becoming Khalifah, Abu Bakr faced a number of problems, three of which are noteworthy:
(i) The appearance of false prophets
(ii) The apostasy movement among the various tribes
(iii) Refusal by many Muslims to pay the Zakat
The success of the Holy Prophet’s mission gave ideas to many ambitious persons in different parts of Arabia to lay similar claims to prophethood. Asad Ansi was the first to rise in Yemen. He was followed by Musaylmah in central Arabia and Tulayha in northern Arabia. Even a woman, by the name of Sajah, claimed to be a prophetess. She married Musaylmah and joined forces with him. Abu Bakr dispatched forces to fight these pretenders and seekers of political power. Of the four, Aswad Ansi and Musaylmah were defeated and killed while Tulayha and Sajah ultimately embraced Islam.
Musaylmah, who was known among the Muslims as Musaylmah the Liar, died at the hands of Wahshi, the Abyssinian slave. Wahshi was also responsible for Hamzah’s death in the battle of Uhud but had embraced Islam since the Conquest of Mecca. In his later life Wahshi used to tell the people how he had killed both, the best of men and the worst of men.
The apostasy movement, in which various Arab tribes were renouncing Islam, was very serious. The motives of this movement were purely political in which the tribal chiefs were in fact renouncing their allegiance to the Successor of the Holy Prophet. Abu Baler also sent troops to deal with the apostates and suppress this rebellion.
The third problem facing the new Khalifah was the refusal by many people to pay the Zakat or the obligatory alms. When the Zakat was first introduced during the life of the Holy Prophet, many people paid it only in deference to the Prophet’s wishes. Soon after he died, these people refused to pay it any more. Zakat had become an essential Islamic institution and fulfilled the needs of the State and the poor. Abu Bakr, therefore, came down hard on those who did not pay it. He vowed to collect Zakat from every one who was paying it during the Holy Prophet’s time.
After attending to the above three problems, Abu Bakr turned his attention to areas outside Arabia. Under the command of Khalid bin Walid, the Muslim army first quashed the rebellion in Bahrain which had started after the death of Mundhir, the ruler of that area. Then, the Muslim forces fought a battle against the Persians who had been helping the rebels of Bahrain. After this, Khalid bin Walid advanced to the Syrian frontier. There, after defeating the Roman armies in the battles of Ajnadam and Yarmook, the Muslim forces took the whole of Syria under their control.
Little over two years after becoming the Khalifah, Abu Bakr fell ill and after a fortnight’s illness, passed away on August 23, 634 A.D. Abu Bakr took the office of Khilafat at the most crucial time in Islamic history when the rising of false prophets, rebellion, disunity among the Muslims, and political developments outside Arabia, all threatened the new born state of Islam. He crushed the influence of the false prophets, brought unity among the Muslims and put an end to rebellions at home and abroad.
Abu Bakr was an extremely gentle and pious person. He was one of the first few people to embrace Islam and was a constant companion of the Holy Prophet. It was Abu Bakr who accompanied the Prophet during his escape from Mecca and gave his daughter, A’isha, in marriage to him after the death of his first wife, Khadijah. Abu Bakr, therefore, was always held in high esteem by the Holy Prophet who appointed him to lead the Prayers during his last illness. Abu Bakr was a wealthy man and always gave generously in the cause of Islam.
Just before Abu Bakr passed away, he consulted some prominent Muslims regarding a suitable successor. Everyone suggested Omar’s name, who was then nominated to be the next Khalifah.
As soon as Omar took the office of Khilafat, he continued with the expansion of the Islamic state initiated by his predecessor. During the period 633 642 A.D., the Muslims fought a number of battles against the Persians. Some of these battles were:
Battle of the Chains fought during Abu Bakr’s time
Battle of Namaraq
Battle of Jasr
Battle of Buwaib fought during Omar’s time
Battle of Qadisiya
Battle of Jalula
Battle of Nihawand
In the last battle of Nihawand, the Persians were finally defeated and large parts of Iran came under the Muslim rule.
On the Syrian front, Muslims had already defeated the Romans in the battle of Yarmook, fought during the time of Abu Bakr. After the fall of Yarmook, the Muslims laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. A treaty was eventually negotiated between the Muslims and the people of Jerusalem according to which:
In the year 639 A.D., Amr bin A’s was sent towards Egypt. After a siege of seven months of the fort of Fustat and a heavily fought battle at Alexandria, the whole of Egypt came under the Muslim rule.
Omar not only conquered a vast area during his ten year Khilafat, but also implemented a great system of administration. Omar governed the state of Islam on the principle of democracy. Some of his administrative achievements are given below:
In the year 644 A.D., Omar was fatally stabbed by a Persian slave while he was saying his Prayer in the mosque. Omar bin Khattab was truly a great man. His, brilliant conquests, personal bravery and able administrative qualities, helped greatly in putting the young Islamic state on the right footings. He was very simple, honest, impartial and fore sighted. He was extremely strict in the following of Islamic principles, yet very kind and sympathetic at heart. He lived a very simple and unostentatious life.
Omar was always concerned about the proper discharging of his duties as the religious and political leader of the Muslims. He used to walk the streets of Medinah at night to make sure that the people were sleeping well and not in need of anything.
At Tabari, the great Muslim historian, narrates a conversation Omar had with Salman which shows the genuine fear of God the great Khalifah had in his heart. Omar once asked Salman: “Am I a King or a Khalifah?” To this Salman replied: “If you have collected a tax of even one dirham from the people and applied it unlawfully, you are a King, not a Khalifah.”
On hearing this Omar is reported to have wept.
When Omar was on his death bed, he appointed a council to elect the next successor. The council consisted of:
Abdur Rahman bin Auf
Abdur Rahman was not willing to shoulder the great responsibility and opted out of the election in favour of the other five. He was, therefore, appointed to seek a common consensus for the next Khalifah. Abdur Rahman took the opinions of the council members and other prominent Muslims and the majority votes were in favour of Uthman. He was, therefore, declared as the elected Khalifah and everyone took the oath of allegiance at his hand.
During the Khilafat of Uthman, the borders of the state of Islam were extended further to the east, north and west. In the east, the Persian King Yazdigard, tried to instigate rebellion in the country against the authority of Islam. The rebellion was crushed and the whole of Iran came under Muslim rule.
In the north, the Muslim forces under Muawiah fought against the Roman armies once again with the result that Asia Minor also came under Muslim control.
In the west, the Muslims defeated the Roman forces sent to invade Egypt by sea and annexed this large territory to the Muslim state.
During the first half of his Khilafat, Uthman ruled the state with good reputation and was well liked by the people. Then, a number of charges began to be laid against the Khalifah by the same people who once spoke very highly of him. Some of these charges were:
It is true that Uthman did appoint some relatives to high positions but, in each case, the person was deserving of the appointment. In some cases, he dismissed his appointed kinsmen when the public complained about it.
Similarly, Uthman’s generosity towards his relatives was completely misunderstood by the public at large. Whatever Uthman gave, he gave from his personal property and not from the State Treasury. Before becoming the Khalifah, Uthman was one of the biggest owners of camels and goats and was known among his people as Uthman Ghani, meaning Uthman the Self Sufficient. But he gave away all these to his relatives, and towards the end of his Khilafat he had only two camels left and these, too, were meant for the pilgrimage.
The charge of burning the Holy Quran also was not founded on facts. When Uthman standardized the Holy Quran, he had all the other un authentic versions collected and burned for the sake of preserving only the authentic copies. This action of his was misunderstood by the people, who raised a great commotion that the sacred Book was burnt.
Although Uthman gave numerous explanations for his misunderstood conduct, the wave of dissent and revolt against him started to spread throughout the state. At the same time, the age old jealousy and rivalry between the Hashemite and the Umayyad started to resurface. An important reason for the rapidly deteriorating political situation was also the extreme simplicity and kindness of Uthman’s character. Uthman often dealt too kindly with the criminals and the rebels.
At last, the various parties who wanted to depose Uthman, joined forces and entered Medinah. Uthman refused to fight and shed the blood of fellow Muslims. The rebels surrounded his house and while he was reading the Quran, assassinated him on June 17, 656 A.D.
Uthman was a very pious, kind, gentle, honest, and dutiful person. He was famous for his generosity and lived a very simple life. He was thought of very highly by the Holy Prophet who had given two of his daughters in marriage to him. He had great love for his fellow Muslims and eventually sacrificed his own life rather than shed their blood.
With the death of Uthman, a state of complete disorder and anarchy ruled in the city of Medinah. After five days of political wrangling. Ibne Saba, leader of the Egyptian rebel group supported the cause of Ali on the grounds that he was the rightful Khalifah in whose favour the Holy Prophet had made a will. On June 23, 656 A.D., six days after the death of Uthman, Ali was chosen as the fourth successor of the Holy Prophet and the public swore allegiance at his hand one by one.
Soon after his election, Ali moved the capital of the Muslim State from Medinah to Koofah in Iraq, which was a more central place. After leaving Medinah in 656 A.D., Ali never had the opportunity to visit that place again in his life.
Immediately after the election of Ali, a cry of revenge arose throughout Arabia for the blood of the murdered Khalifah. Talha and Zubayr were among those who requested Ali to punish the murderers of Uthman. But the assassination of Uthman was not the work of a few lonely individuals. A number of important tribal chiefs were involved in the conspiracy. Realizing the political sensitivity of the Islamic state, Ali did not consider it proper to take any immediate action. He told the public that justice would be carried out in due course.
To further pacify the rebels, Ali took steps to change all the provincial governors and asked them to step down. All except Muawiah complied. Muawiah, from the House of Umayyah, had been appointed governor of Syria by Omar himself. He was a very ambitious man and had accumulated great power in a short time. The refusal by Muawiah to obey the Khalifah’s orders set the stage for an eventual armed conflict between the two.
In the beginning, Talha and Zubayr demanded from Ali that assassins of Uthman be brought to justice. But when Ali did not comply with their demand, they advanced towards Basrah to raise an army. On the way they met A’isha, the wife of the Holy Prophet, who was returning from the pilgrimage. She was shocked to learn of the murder of the pious Khalifah and decided to join Talha and Zubayr in an effort to punish the assassins. The three marched towards Basrah at the head of a small army. There, in December 656 A.D., a battle was fought with the forces of Ali which is known as the Battle of Jamal. In this battle, Talha and Zubayr were both killed and the army, then under the command of A’isha, was defeated. Ali treated A’isha with due honour and sent her back to Medinah in the escort of her brother, Muhammad bin Abu Bakr.
Next year, in 657 A.D., Ali once again wrote to Muawiah to submit to him in the interest of Islam. Muawiah again refused to submit until the blood of Uthman, who was also from the House of Umayyah, was avenged. At this open disobedience, Ali could find no other recourse but to declare war against Muawiah.
With an army of fifty thousand men, Ali marched towards Syria. Muawiah also raised a large army in Syria and advanced to meet Ali. In July 657 A.D., the two armies met at a place called Siffin. The battle was fought only for a day or so but both sides suffered heavy casualties. Finally, it was decided that each side will appoint a representative and these two persons will be given full powers to make a judgment in the dispute.
The Two persons thus selected for arbitration were Abu Moosa Asharee representing Ali’s group and Amr bin A’s, representing Muawiah’s party. These two persons met at a place called Dumatul Jandal, located between Tabuk and Kufa. Their decision was that both Ali and Muawiah should give up their claims to Khilafat and that a third person should be elected as Khalifah.
There were people in Ali’s group who were basically against arbitration and were not prepared to accept such a decision. Some 12,000 of these men separated from Ali’s group and caused great disorder and havoc in the empire. They were known by the title of “Kharijites” meaning Outsiders. Their movement grew with time, causing great hardship to not only Ali but also to the later Khalifahs of the House of Umayyah.
After the fateful decision by Abu Moosa Asharee and Amr bin A’s, rebellions broke out all over the land and the political stability of the Islamic state started to deteriorate very rapidly. Finding the situation very serious, Ali agreed to negotiate a treaty with Muawiah, in the interest of Islam. Under this agreement, Muawiah retained control of Syria and Egypt while the rest of the empire remained under Ali’s rule.
The Kharijites were not happy with this peaceful development and decided to kill Ali in Kufa, Muawiah in Damascus and Amr bin A’s in Fustat, all in the course of one night, the 27th of January 661 A.D. That night, Amr bin A’s escaped death and someone else who was leading the Prayer, fell victim to the assassin’s sword. In Damascus, Muawiah escaped with relatively minor injuries from which he soon recovered. In Kufa, Ali was attacked while he was going to the mosque to say his morning Prayer, and was mortally wounded. Two days later, he passed away.
Ali was not only the Holy Prophet’s cousin and son in law, but was also the second person to believe in him at the young age of thirteen. Ali was brave, courageous and a model of simplicity. He never had any servant or maid in the house and he and his wife, Fatimah, did all the house work themselves. He led a pure and unselfish life. When the responsibility of Khilafat fell on his shoulders, he fulfilled it in the best interest of Islam.
On the death of Ali, his eldest son Hasan was elected as the Khalifah. As soon as Muawiah learned of this, he invaded Iraq and a battle ensued between Muawiah’s and Hasan’s armies. Hasan realized the seriousness of the situation and sent a letter of submission to Muawiah. Hasan agreed to abdicate his right to Khilafat in favour of Muawiah on the condition that after Muawiah’s death, Hasan’s younger brother Hussain will be made the Khalifah. After this agreement, Hasan retired with his family to Medinah, where he was poisoned to death at the instigation of Yazid, the son of Muawiah.