The First Caliphs of Islam: Power, Corruption, War, and Treachery in the Rashidun Caliphate
The first caliphs of the Islamic World were the Rashidun, or “rightly guided,” caliphs and they controlled a vast empire. According to the Sunni Muslims, the Rashidun caliphs were chosen by Muhammad’s followers and all four were legitimate caliphs.
To Shi’ite Muslims, on the other hand, the first three were usurpers since they were not direct descendants of Muhammad. Whatever the theological importance of the Rashidun caliphs for Islam, it is undeniable that the rule of the first four caliphs are very important for the history of Islam.
The thirty years during when they ruled were filled with political intrigue, corruption, assassination, and civil war but also impressive military conquests and the formation of the major divisions that define Islam today.
Origin of the Rashidun Caliphate
When Muhammad died in 632 AD, he did not leave clear instructions for who should succeed him. This has caused disagreement within the Islamic world to this day. The Muslim community debated among themselves who to appoint as political successor to Muhammad. Some believed that it should be Muhammad’s cousin, Ali, but the one chosen ended up being Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s close friend and father-in-law.
The First Caliph
Abu Bakr, the first caliph, ruled for two years. He was able to keep the Islamic world together but not all was well. As soon as he was appointed caliph, some Arab tribes who had only been part of the community because of Muhammad pulled out of the political coalition. This forced Abu Bakr to go to war against them to bring them into submission. He insisted that they had not just submitted to Muhammad but to the Muslim community. By 633 AD, Abu Bakr had unified almost the entire Arabian Peninsula under his caliphate.
Abu Bakr, the first caliph. (Cropbot / Public Domain )
The Second Caliph
In 634 AD, Abu Bakr died and was succeeded by Umar. Umar led the Muslims to some extraordinary victories and expanded the political reach of Islam across the Middle East and North Africa.
At the time, the two major political powers in the Middle East were the Sassanid Persian or Sasanian Empire in the east and the Byzantine Empire in the west. These two empires had been locked in a power struggle for several centuries at this point. This had taken a toll on the people of Persia and the eastern Mediterranean.
By the year 634 AD, during the reign of Caliph Umar, Muslim armies began to advance out of Arabia into the rest of the Middle East. This was partly inspired by the strong martial tradition among the Arabian tribes and the need to channel the warlike tendencies of the Arabian tribes at the time into something that wouldn’t tear the Muslim world apart.
The Muslims won a decisive victory against the Byzantines at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 AD. They also won a major victory against the Sasanians in 637 AD at the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah. By the end of the reign of Umar, the Islamic caliphate had conquered an empire stretching across Persia, Mesopotamia, North Africa, Palestine, and Syria. The Sasanian Empire was no more after 642 AD and the Byzantine Empire was in retreat.
A drawing of Khālid ibn al-Walīd heading the Muslim Army during the battle of Yarmouk. ( Public Domain )
During this time, the expansion of the Muslim Empire was primarily political. Christians and other non-Muslim religious groups such as Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists were not forced to convert and, as long as they paid tribute and didn’t revolt, they were allowed to live in peace for the most part.
Despite Umar’s early victories, his reign came to an end anticlimactically when he was assassinated by a Persian in 644 AD.
The Third Caliph
After Umar’s death, he was succeeded by Uthman. Uthman appointed his relatives to major positions of power throughout the caliphate. He also gave them access to considerable wealth. Uthman grew so corrupt that some of his opponents started a jihad against him because they perceived him as immoral. Uthman was eventually killed by an angry mob of Muslim rebels in 656 AD.
The Fourth Caliph
Uthman was succeeded by Ali the cousin of Muhammad. Ali worked to reverse the corruption left by Uthman and ended up removing most of the governors and major officials from the government that had been appointed by Uthman.
Ali was not supported by everyone, however. Muawiyah, a powerful relative of Uthman, as well as governor of Syria, demanded revenge for those who killed Uthman. Ali at first ignored him but later he tried to make a compromise. This did not sit well with some of Ali’s followers who believed that he, as caliph, should not even have negotiated with the dissenter.
Those of this camp formed a faction called the Kharijites. Additionally, Ali was also opposed by Aisha, the wife of Muhammad. The opposition led to a civil war against the caliph. The war ended in 661 AD when Ali was assassinated.
This painting is entitled "Martyrdom of Imam Ali". It depicts Ali being assassinated by Ibn Muljam. (Mhhossein / Public Domain )
Ali’s death marked the end of the Rashidun Caliphate. After his death, his rival Muawiyah went on to establish the Umayyad Caliphate. His death also created the first great schism within Islam. Ali’s supporters eventually became Shi’ite Muslims. Those who supported all four Rashidun caliphs and the Umayyad Caliphate became the Sunni Muslims. Thus, in addition to ending the first long-term period of unification in Islamic history, it also ended a period of theological unity since it created a divide that lasts to this day.
Top image: "Muhammad the Apostle of God” . Source: AishaAbdel / CC BY-SA 4.0 .
By Caleb Strom
Atlas of the World’s Religions. Spread of Islam, The . Oxford Islamic Studies Online. [Online] Available at: http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t253/e17
Boundless. Muhammad’s Successors . Boundless World History / ER Services. [Online] Available at: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldcivilization/chapter/muhammads-successors/
Cavendish, Richard. 2006. Caliph Uthman Murdered . History Today. [Online] Available at: https://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/caliph-uthman-murdered
Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. 2004. Rashidun. Encyclopedia.com. [Online] Available at: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rashidun
For the Glory of Allah . 2007. The Economist. [Online] Available at: https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2007/07/05/for-the-glory-of-allah
Fowlkes-Childs, Blair. 2016. The Sasanian Empire (224–651 AD). The Met. [Online] Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sass/hd_sass.htm
Furlow, R. Bennett and Fleischer, Kristin. 2014. De-Romanticizing the Islamic State’s Vision of the Caliphate . Centre for Strategic Communication. ? [Online] Available at: https://research.phoenix.edu/richard-bennett-furlow/publication/de-romanticizing-islamic-state’s-vision-caliphate
Melina, Remi. 2011. What's the Difference Between Shiite and Sunni Muslims? Live Science. [Online] Available at: https://www.livescience.com/33071-whats-the-difference-between-shiite-and-sunni-muslims.html
Snell, Melisa. 2017. Abu Bakr . ThoughtCo. [Online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/abu-bakr-profile-1788544