Muhammad’s(PBUH) Four Successors (Caliphs of Islam): The Rightly Guided Caliphs

Four Caliphs of Islam – The death of Muhammad caught the young Muslim community unprepared and threw it into confusion. Some even had difficulty accepting that he really had died. Dissension arose between different groups claiming the right of succession. Three main contending parties emerged:

  • The Hashemites (Banu Hashim) were led by Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law who was married to the Prophet of Islam’s only surviving child, Fatima. They were the immediate family of Muhammad and regarded themselves as his rightful successors by virtue of their blood relationship. They were later joined and dominated by non-Arab converts to Islam (mawali), mainly Persians who had suffered various types of discrimination at the hands of their Arab co-religionists.
  • The Emigrants (Muhajirun) were led by Abu Bakr and ‘Umar along with their respective daughters, Aisha and Hafsa, who were wives of They were joined by the Helpers (Ansar), who were early converts to Islam in Medina. They based their claim on their loyalty to Muhammad.
  • The Quraysh, under the leadership of Uthman and Abu Sufyan, were the Meccan They were eleventh-hour converts who wanted to take advantage of Muhammad’s death to re-establish their dominance under the cloak of Islam. They stressed the importance of Mecca and their role as its custodians.

The individuals from these parties who rose to power as Muhammad’s successors are known as caliphs (anglicised) or khulafa (sing. khalifa). This Arabic word means ‘vicegerent’ or ‘viceroy’. The same word is used to denote the uniqueness of human beings as vicegerents of God (the Christian equivalent to this idea is the concept that we are created in the image of God). As a title, it is a short form of Khalifatu Rasulil- lah (Four Caliphs of Islam)(Successor to the Messenger of God, that is, to Muhammad). The first Four Caliphs of Islam, who occupy a special place in Islam, are referred to as Al-Khulafa-ur-Rashidun (the Rightly Guided Caliphs) because they are deemed to have faithfully followed the example of Muhammad in leading the Muslim community of which they were the religious, political, military and judicial heads.

Abu Bakr (632–634)

The first amongst (Four Caliphs of Islam) of the Rightly Guided Khalifs was Abu Bakr, who is said to have been a merchant who used his wealth to support the cause of Islam. He gave his daughter Aisha to Muhammad in marriage, and she became his favourite wife. After the death of Muhammad, ‘Umar lobbied for Abu Bakr to be chosen as the first caliph, arguing that Muhammad himself had nominated Abu Bakr to lead prayers when he was ill.

As caliph, Abu Bakr faced a lot of trouble from groups who wanted to take advantage of Muhammad’s death to declare their independence. They refused to pay zakat and attacked Muslim tax collectors. Prophets of all kinds appeared, claiming the allegiance of various groups. For example,  a  man called  Musaylima had his own  Qur’¯an  and preached in the name of al-Rahman or the Merciful, another name for God in Arabic. Abu Bakr’s first task was to subdue these rebellions. He accomplished this with the help of Khalid ibn al-Walid, a skilful and ruthless commander. As a result, Abu Bakr is known as ‘the saviour of Islam’ and al-Siddique (the Righteous One).

Abu Bakr then set out to expand the Islamic domain outside Arabia. He captured southern Iraq in 633 with the help of the Lakhmids, the Arab allies of Persia, and then successfully attacked the Byzantine Empire, with the help of the Arab Ghassanids. This victory opened Palestine to the Muslims.

Muhammad had not left a  written copy of the  Qur’¯an;  rather,  his words had been committed to memory by some of his followers, who were known as huffaz (rememberers). Many of these huffaz died in the battles of Abu Bakr’s reign, and so he ordered that the Qur’¯an be committed to writing to preserve it.

Before his death on 23 August 634, Abu Bakr nominated ‘Umar as his successor.

Umar ibn al-Khattab (634–644)

‘Umar can be called the Paul of Islam. He initially persecuted Muslim converts, but after his conversion, he used his wealth to support the cause of Islam. He also gave his daughter Hafsa in marriage to Muhammad. Under ‘Umar, Islam expanded rapidly by way of conquests. He captured Damascus with little resistance in 635. There he divided the churches equally between Christians and Muslims, and arranged for one half of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist to be used as a mosque, while the other half remained a church. This arrangement continued for about eighty years until the whole building was converted into the mosque that is now known as the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

Umar defeated the Byzantines at Yarmuk in 636 and took over all of Syria and Palestine. Jerusalem surrendered and the Christians there were treated with kindness. It is said that when ‘Umar visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the church leaders invited him to say his prayers in the church, for it was the time for Islamic prayer. ‘Umar declined, explaining that he feared Muslims might use such an action as a pretext to turn the church into a mosque. He therefore offered his prayers outside, on the spot where the Al-Aqsa Mosque stands today.

In the same year, 636, ‘Umar captured Mesopotamia from the Persians. Between 640 and 642, his general ‘Amr ibn al-‘As conquered Egypt and the rest of North Africa. Thus, ‘Umar is referred to as ‘the second founder of Islam’.

Stories abound of ‘Umar’s humility and his zeal in carrying out prescribed punishments without fear or favour. He also set in place the various administrative and judicial structures of the empire. He divided the empire into provinces, appointed governors, and set up departments to control the treasury, army and public revenues.

He arranged for regular salaries to be paid to soldiers. He is also credited with the expulsion of Christians and Jews from the Arabian Peninsula. A pact known as the Covenant of Umar, which he is said to have authored, spelt out discriminatory and humiliating conditions under which Christians and Jews could live under Islamic rule.

‘Umar is secound among Four Caliphs of Islam. He died in 644 after being attacked by a Christian slave (although some sources say that the slave was Zoroastrian).

Uthman (644–656)

Before his death, ‘Umar appointed five or six men who were to select the next caliph from among them. One of these men, Abdul Rahman, withdrew his name from consideration. The others than authorized him to appoint the next caliph. The choice appeared to be between Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and Uthman, the leader of the Quraysh faction. Abdul Rahman chose Uthman to become the third caliph.

Uthman was a wealthy man who used his immense wealth to support the cause of Islam. He had been married to two of Muhammad’s daughters, Ruqayya and Kulthum, and as a result was known as the Possessor of the Two Lights. Upon becoming caliph, he appointed some of his close relatives as governors of provinces, the most notable being his cousin Muawiya, whom he made governor of Syria. A weak ruler, Uthman lacked the courage to apply the letter of the law when it affected relatives or prominent personalities.

Uthman’s most notable contribution to Islam was his ordering Zaid ibn Thabit, Muhammad’s personal secretary, to undertake the second compilation of the Quran. When this was done, all the other versions were destroyed. Thus the authorised version of Uthman, which most Muslims today believe to be the authentic and original Quran as given to Muhammad (PBUH), was the only one left.

In 656, Uthman was allegedly murdered by disgruntled Egyptian Muslims, apparently for what they saw as his nepotism. He was a 3rd amongst our four Caliphs of Islam.

Ali ibn Abu Talib (656–661)

Ali was Muhammad’s cousin and adopted son. He married the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, who gave birth to two boys, Hassan and Husayn.

Ali had been one of the first to convert to Islam and had taken part in almost all the battles fought by Muhammad(PBUH). He was convinced that he was Muhammad’s rightful successor. Thus for six months, he had refused to recognize the appointment of Abu Bakr as the first caliph. But now, after having been denied the caliphate three times, he was finally invited to become caliph after the murder of Uthman in June 656.

Ali promptly removed the governors appointed by Uthman. However, the governor of Egypt and Muawiya, the governor of Syria, refused to leave office or pay homage to him. Muawiya, who was the son of Abu Sufyan (the other leader of the Quraysh faction) and a cousin of Uthman, accused Ali of being reluctant to punish Uthman’s murderers.

A rebellion led by Ayisha, the widow of Muhammad(PBUH), and others of his companions resulted in the first serious Muslim civil war. At the Battle of the Camel, Ali’s forces defeated those of Ayisha, who went into battle on a camel. Meanwhile, Muawiya persisted in his demands for the punishment of the murderers of Uthman. At the battle of Siffin, Ali’s forces clashed with those of Muawiya.

Both parties agreed to resort to arbitration to resolve their differences. However, some of Ali’s supporters (later referred to as Kharijites or separatists) rejected arbitration and accused Ali of seeking a human solution rather than abiding by the divine injunctions spelt out in the Quran.

The arbitration went in favour of Muawiya. Ali was outraged and returned to his supporters, who demanded he repent for accepting arbitration in the first place. This he refused to do. Instead, he attacked his own supporters and massacred thousands of them, further damaging his credibility.

The battle with Muawiya was suspended and another council was convened. This time the council decided to depose both Ali and Muawiya. But both parties refused to accept this decision. Ali and Muawiya stuck to their positions until a Kharijite murdered Ali in 661 in revenge for the massacre of his compatriots. This left Muawiya as the de facto caliph. Ali’s second son, Husayn, later took on the fight for the caliphate, but was unsuccessful and was executed in Karbala in present-day Iraq. These events brought about a permanent split between the supporters of Ali, known as the Shi’ites or the party of Ali, and the main Muslim body, the Sunnis. Last amongs our Four Caliphs of Islam.