When Muhammad died in 632, he left a political organization that was entirely
centered around him. He was a political and military leader and he
was the source of revelation. When political or social difficulties
came up, not only would they center on Muhammad, but sometimes
through revelation be mediated by Allah himself.
The central role of Muhammad left the growing
Islamic polity with several difficulties. The first was the status of
revelation itselfthis became settled with the establishment of the
definitive Qur'an . A more serious
problem, though, involved the political and military succession to
Muhammad. The only working model was an individual leader, but that
leader had the authority of God behind him.
No-one seems to have thought very much about the
succession to Muhammad before his death. No-one regarded Muhammad as
divine or immortal, but no-one really considered what would happen
after his death. The solution was cobbled together by the most
powerful followers of Muhammad. There was disagreementin fact,
violent disagreementbetween the Meccan followers of Muhammad who
had emigrated with him in 622 (the Muhajirun, or
"Emigrants") and the Medinans who had become followers (the Ansar, or "Helpers"). In the end, however,
Muhammad's father-in-law, Abu Bakr, was named the khalifa or
"Successor" of Muhammad. A new religion and a new
circumstance had formed a new, untried political formation: the caliphate.
The Patriarchal Caliphs
The earliest caliphs were relatives and followers
of Muhammad himself. Under these four caliphs, the political, social,
and religious institutions of Islam would be solidified, including
the definitive edition of the Qur'an.
The world of Islam would expand far beyond the borders of the Arabian
peninsula during their tenureeast into the Persian empire, north
into Byzantine territory, and west across the face of northern
Because of their foundational status and the fact
that they were direct followers of Muhammad, these first four caliphs
are called the patriarchs or patriarchal caliphs of
Islam. For many Muslims, this was the golden age of Islamic
government when a true Islamic polity was in existence; from some
Muslims, such as Shi'ite Muslims, this was the only period
when there was legitimate Islamic government. In this view, the
founding of the Umayyad dynasty ushered in more than a millennium of
Abu Bakr (632-634)
Abu Bakr, Muhammad's father-in-law and the father
of Muhammad's most beloved wife, 'Aisha, was with Muhammad from the
very beginning. Throughout the military campaigns with Mecca and
later with other Arabian tribes, Abu Bakr had proven himself to be a
military genius. Abu Bakr immediately called for a military
expedition against the Byzantine empire, in part to revenge an
earlier Islamic defeat and in part to focus Islamic and Arabian
However, as soon as the Arabian tribes heard of
the death of Muhammad, the Islamic peace and most of the alliances
broke down. Several tribes revoltedsome of these tribes revolted
under the leadership of rival prophets. This began the period the
Muslims call al-Ridda, or "The Apostasy." All of Abu
Bakr's energy in the first years would be focussed on quelling these
rebellions and tenuously re-establishing the Islamic peace.
Once the rebellions had been put down, Abu Bakr
began a war of conquest. Whether or not he intended a full-out
imperial conquest is hard to say; he did, however, set in motion a
historical trajectory that in just a few short decades would lead to
one of the largest empires in history. Abu Bakr began with Iraq, but
before he could attack the Persian empire itself, he diedhis death
came only two years after he had been named the successor of
Abu Bakr desired 'Umar to be his successor and he
persuaded the most powerful of the followers of Muhammad to go along.
'Umar was gifted both militarily and politicallyit was his
political genius above everything else that had helped to hold the
Islamic world together during the life of Muhammad.
'Umar continued the war of conquests begun by Abu
Bakr. He pressed into the Persian Empire itself, but he also headed
north into Syria and Byzantine territory and west into Egypt. By 640,
Islamic military campaigns had brought all of Mesopotamia and most of
Syria and Palestine under the control of Abu Bakr. Egypt was
conquered by 642 and the Persian Empire by 643. These were some of
the richest regions in the world guarded by powerful militariesand
they fell into Islamic hands in a heartbeat.
'Umar, however, was one of the great political
geniuses of history. While the empire was expanding at a mind-numbing
rate beneath his leaderhsip, he also began to build the political
structure that would hold together the vast empire that was being
built. 'Umar did not require that non-Muslim populations convert to
Islam nor did he try to centralize government, as the Persians had
done. Instead, he allowed subject populations to retain their
religion, language, customs, and government relatively untouched. The
only intrusion would be a governor (amir) and, sometimes, a
financial officer called an 'amil, or agent.
His most far-reaching innovations were in the area
of building a financial structure to the empire. He understood that
the most important aspect of the empire was a stable financial
structure for the government. To this end, he built an efficient
system of taxation and brought the military directly under the
financial control of the state. He also founded the diwan, a
unique Islamic institution. The diwan consisted of individuals
that were important to the Islamic faith and the Islamic world, such
as the followers of Muhammad. Their contribution to the faith was so
great that they were given pensions to live off ofthis freed them
up to pursue religious and ethical studies and so provide religious
or ethical leadership to the rest of the Islamic world.
It was 'Umar that fixed many Islamic traditions
and practices and he began the process of producing the
His most lasting tradition, however, was establishing
the Muslim calendar. The Muslim calendar, like the Arabian calendar,
remained a lunar calendarhowever, he fixed the beginning of the
calendar at the year in which Muhammad emigrated to Medina. This, as
far as 'Umar was concerned, was the turning point in Islamic history.
Nearing his death, 'Umar appointed a committee of
six men to decide on the next caliphthey were charged to choose
one of their own number. All of the men, like 'Umar, were from the
tribe of Qurayshthe Ansar, or Medinans, had been gradually shut
out of power.
This committee would prove to be pivotal, for on
its choice would eventually grow Islam's first schism. The committee
narrowed down the choices to two: 'Uthman and 'Ali. 'Ali was the
son-in-law of Muhammad and had been a companion to the prophet from
the inception of his mission. He may also have been named by Muhammad
as a successor. "Uthman was an Umayyad, one of the wealthy clans
that had bitterly opposed Muhammad. In fact, 'Uthman had started out
opposed to Muhammad.
'Uthman, however, was a supremely practical and
intelligent military and political leader while 'Ali was fervently
devout religious disciple. 'Ali was largely convinced that Islam had
gone astray and that it was not following either the religious,
ethical, or social principles laid down in Muhammad's revelation.
This profound difference between the two candidates led them to
choose 'Uthman, for the growing Islamic empire seemed to need a
practical, unreligious approach.
The decision was not a popular one. While 'Uthman
reigned for twelve years as caliph, he met increasing opposition
among both the original followers of Muhammad and among Islamic
people in general. This opposition constellated around the figure of
'Ali who would, albeit briefly, succeed 'Uthman as caliph.
Despite internal troubles, 'Uthman continued the
wars of conquest so brilliantly carried out by 'Umar. The Islamic
empire conquered Libya in North Africa and fully conquered the
eastern portions of the Persian Empire.
But unrest grew steadily and precipitously. His
government seriously mishandled finances all throughout the empire.
In 656, a riot broke out in Medinaso bitter were the rioters that
they even threw stones at 'Uthman. The caliph called for military
help. When the news of military reinforcements began to circulate
among the rioters, they broke into 'Uthman's house and killed him
while he was reading the Qur'an.
'Uthman's death was ironic for many reasons,
including the fact that he was the first Islamic caliph or leader to
be killed by fellow Muslims. But 'Uthman's greatest and most lasting
achievement was the formal rescension of the Qur'an.
Until 'Uthman, the Qur'an was largely an oral text that was
recited by followers who had memorized it. The wars of conquest,
however, had thinned their ranks, and the introduction of foreign
peoples into Islam threatened the integrity of the text as an Arabic text. So 'Uthman ordered that all versions, written and oral, be
collected together and a definitive version written down. It is this
definitive version which became the central text of Islam and the
bedrock on which all Islamic history would be built. And it was this
version, this brilliant achievement, that 'Uthman was reciting from
when he was killed.
from Washington State University, ©Richard Hooker, reprinted by