|Devine Caliphate at its greatest extend|
In June 632 the prophet Muhammad, the founder and last prophet of Islam, died of natural causes. He left behind a nascent Islamic state within the Arabian Peninsula. Although some Muslim sources state that there had been a premonition of his death, the confusion and divisions within the Muslim community or Ummah suggest that Muhammad’s death was unexpected.
In the wake of the Prophet’s death the general consensus was that, since Muhammad did not leave explicit instructions on how to choose a successor, such a leader should be elected. Despite this consensus not all factions agreed.
One group, which later came to be known as the Partisans of Ali or Shiat Ali, claimed that Ali ibn Abu Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was designated as the prophet’s successor at a place called Ghadir Khumm during his last hajj pilgrimage.
The four successors to Muhammad as leaders of the Ummah—Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn alAffan, and Ali ibn Abu Talib—formed what is now known as the al-Rashidun or “Rightly Divinely Guided” Caliphate.
Originally many believed that the caliph was the political, but not the religious, successor to Muhammad. However other scholars have argued that the caliph, at least initially during the al-Rashidun period and Umayyad dynasty, held both political and religious authority, though they did not claim prophetic powers, since Muhammad was considered the “seal” of the prophetic line that began with Adam, the first man in the Islamic tradition.
Abu Bakr al-Siddiq
|Abu Bakr al-Siddiq|
In 622 when Muhammad was compelled to leave his native city of Mecca for the oasis city of Yathrib (later renamed Medina) to the north, because of the death of his uncle and protector Abu Talib ibn Abd al-Muttalib and threats from the city’s polytheistic leaders, Abu Bakr was his trusted lieutenant and traveling companion.
As word of Muhammad’s death spread throughout Arabia, several Arab tribes that had pledged allegiance to Muhammad refused to obey the new caliph, Abu Bakr, who ruled from Medina. Although some of these tribes openly rejected Islam, despite having converted during Muhammad’s lifetime, other rebellious tribes objected to the continuation of political subjugation to the caliphate in Medina.
Abu Bakr moved swiftly against the rebels, stopping the rebellion with military force in what came to be known as the Ridda Wars, or the Wars of Apostasy. The struggle against the Hanifa clan, led by their leader Musaylimah, who claimed to be Muhammad’s prophetic successor, was the bloodiest, finally ending in 633 with the defeat of the Hanifa and the death of Musaylimah at the Battle of Aqraba.
|Abu Bakr infographic|
The larger result of the triumph of the al-Rashidun Caliphate over its challengers was the first major expansion of the Islamic state since the death of Muhammad, as the Muslims were in firm control over the vast majority of the Arabian Peninsula. After his victory in the Ridda Wars, Abu Bakr turned his attention to the north and east, directing Muslim armies to begin moving against the Byzantine Empire and its Arab allies in Palestine and Syria and the Persian Sassanid Empire’s landholdings in Mesopotamia.
The first Muslim military expeditions into Byzantine and Sassanid lands occurred during Abu Bakr’s reign. Before he was able to continue the caliphate’s expansion, Abu Bakr died of old age in August 634, after nominating Umar as his successor.
Umar ibn al-Khattab
|Umar ibn al-Khattab|
In fairly short succession, the Byzantine Empire was driven out of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and parts of southern Asia Minor while the Sassanid Empire was pushed out of Mesopotamia by Muslim armies. After entering Iran and forcing the Sassanid government to flee farther east, the Muslims established new settlements at Kufah and Basra in present-day Iraq, which would act as garrisons to safeguard the caliphate’s new conquests.
Under Umar, the administration of the caliphate began to develop, with its soldiers paid varying rates according to the length and nature of their service, and local subjugated non-Muslim populations required to pay taxes, while Muslims were required to pay religious taxes. In 644 Umar was mortally wounded by Abu Lululah, a Persian slave, while leading communal prayers in Medina, for personal and not political reasons.
Utsman bin al-Affan
|Utsman bin al-Affan|
During his reign the authority of the central government in Medina was enhanced and a conference of scholars was called to codify an official version of the Qur’an, placing the chapters in the order in which they appear today. During Utsman’s reign the caliphate continued to expand, with Muslim armies moving farther east into Sassanid Iran.
Through treaties and military conquest, the Muslims established their control over the region’s urban centers, though in the mountains and rural areas, traditional societies continued to exist and non-Muslim peoples, such as the Turks of Central Asia, were prone to occasional revolt. The Sassanid empire, which had been in power since 224, was unable to maintain centralized control and by 651 it had collapsed.
Three regions in particular opposed Utsman’s reign: Medina, where non-Umayyad members of the Quraysh were dismayed at the caliph’s favoritism; and Kufah and Egypt, where the caliph had attempted to revoke longstanding privileges and increased taxation. In 656 opposition to the caliph came to a head when several hundred Muslim soldiers stationed in Egypt returned to Medina to protest Utsman’s policies.
He talked them into returning to Egypt but sent an order to that region’s governor instructing him to punish the soldiers. The caliph’s message was intercepted and the soldiers returned, enraged, and assassinated Utsman as he sat reading the Qur’an. Uthman’s nepotism led to his downfall and further divisions in the Muslim Ummah.
Ali Ibn Abi Talib
|Ali Ibn Abi Talib|
Fearing that the influence of the Quraysh would be eclipsed, A’isha, al-Zubayr, and Talha led a rebellion against Ali. In December 656 at the Battle of the Camel outside Basra in Iraq, Ali’s forces defeated the rebellion, killing al-Zubayr and Talha. A’isha was sent back to Medina, where she was placed under house arrest.
The main bases of Ali’s support were in Iraq; however in Syria, Ali was faced with open opposition from that province’s governor, Muawiya, an Umayyad relative of Uthman, who criticized the caliph for refusing to punish Uthman’s assassins. Muawiya was in command of a powerful military force and in 657 the armies of Muawiya and Ali met at Siffin.
A full-scale fight eventually ensued, but was soon ended when Muawiya’s soldiers held up pages from the Qu’ran and called out for a peaceful settlement. Ali, to the dismay of some of his more zealous followers, agreed to have his dispute with Muawiya arbitrated.
In the end Muawiya remained governor of Syria and Ali was left unchallenged as the caliph, though his position had been severely weakened. A group of zealots, the Kharijites, previously staunch supporters of Ali, claimed that by agreeing to arbitration, Ali had circumvented the will of God. Although he later defeated the bulk of the Kharijites’s military forces, Ali failed to stamp out their rebellion.
Kharijite assassination attempts against Muawiya and other senior Umayyad leaders failed, but in 661 Ali was mortally wounded by the Kharijite Abdur-Rahman ibn Muljam while leading the predawn prayers at the central mosque in Kufah. With his assassination, the al-Rashidun Caliphate came to an end and Muawiya and the Umayyad dynasty of Syria rose in its place. The Umayyads would continue expanding the Islamic state until the Abbasid dynasty overthrew them in a violent revolution in 750.