The Rightly Guided Caliphs

  With the death of Muhammad , the Muslim community was faced with the problem of succession. Who would be its leader? There were four persons obviously marked for leadership: Abu Bakr al-Siddiq , who had not only accompanied Muhammad to Medina ten years before, but had been appointed to take the place of the Prophet as leader of public prayer during Muhammad’s last illness; ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab , an able and trusted Companion of the Prophet; ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan , a respected early convert; and ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib  , Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. To avoid contention among various groups, ‘Umar suddenly grasped Abu Bakr’s hand, the traditional sign of recognition of a new leader. Soon everyone concurred and before dusk Abu Bakr   had been recognized as the khalifah of Muhammad. Khalifah- anglicized as caliph – is a word meaning “successor” but also suggesting what his historical role would be: to govern according to the Quran and the practice of the Prophet. Abu Bakr’s   caliphate was short but important. An exemplary leader, he lived simply, assiduously fulfilled his religious obligations, and was accessible and sympathetic to his people. But he also stood firm when, in the wake of the Prophet’s death, some tribes renounced Islam; in what was a major accomplishment, Abu Bakr swiftly disciplined them. Later, he consolidated the support of the tribes within the Arabian Peninsula and subsequently funnelled their energies against the powerful empires of the East: the Sassanians in Persia and the Byzantines in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. In short, he demonstrated the viability of the Muslim state. The second caliph, ‘Umar- appointed by Abu Bakr in a written testament – continued to demonstrate that viability. Adopting the title Amir al-Muminin, “Commander of the Believers,” ‘Umar extended Islam’s temporal rule over Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Persia in what from a purely military standpoint were astonishing victories. Within four years after the death of the Prophet the Muslim state had extended its sway over all of Syria and had, at a famous battle fought during a sandstorm near the River Yarmuk, blunted the power of the Byzantines – whose ruler Heraclius had shortly before disdainfully rejected the letter from the unknown Prophet of Arabia. Even more astonishingly, the Muslim state administered the conquered territories with a tolerance almost unheard of in that age. At Damascus, for example, the Muslim leader Khalid ibn al-Walid signed a treaty which read as follows: This is what Khalid ibn al-Walid would grant to the inhabitants of Damascus if he enters therein: he promises to give them security for their lives, property and churches. Their city wall shall not be demolished, neither shall any Muslim be quartered in their houses....