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The First Caliphs
At the time of the death of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) the scattered clans of the Arabian Peninsula had been brought under the rule of a central government, one that fell to the control of those of his Companions who came to be known as the Caliphs of the Prophet of God. The three decades witnessing the caliphate of four of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) most influential Companions was closer in spirit to his sunnah (practice), as compared to the later stages of Islamic history. The most characteristic aspect of this first period of caliphate was its non-hereditary nature. With the end of the rule of these four caliphs, who came to be known as al-khulafa’ al-rashidun (the rightly guided caliphs), the conditions of the Islamic society were changed so much that before the close of the first century AH a number of Jahili practices had come back into currency.
As the first successor to the Holy Prophet (PBUH), Abu Bakr found himself facing a whole raft of problems. Upon becoming caliph, he appointed Usamah b. Zayd to command an army that was put together at the last days of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) life and that was to march towards the borders of Rome. Another problem had to do with the rebellious tribes who refused to pay taxes (zakat) to any authority other than Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). A number of these rebellions, which came to be known as the Riddah, were led throughout the Arabian Peninsula by men who had claims to prophecy. The uprisings had in fact begun during the last days of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). However, they were stepped up during the caliphate of Abu Bakr, who put up a decisive battle against them and emerged victorious in his efforts to consolidate the central power in Medina.
Following the Riddah wars, the Muslims began their incursions into the areas bordering the territories of the Sasanian government, which by then had entered upon a period of rapid decline. Abu Bakr sent expeditions to areas such as Hirah, with many subsequent victories. The detailed accounts of these campaigns are contained in historical works, which should, none the less, be approached with due caution since they bear an uncanny resemblance to the heroic tales of the pre-Islamic period or to the so-called Ayyam al-Arab. The intention behind the collection of these accounts of conquest of the caliphs is unclear. What is certain is that, at times, two separate versions of the same event are so divergent as to defy any possible reconciliation. Though this mingling of heroic fiction and actual history is characteristic of a predominant number of the reports hailing from this period, it is more in evidence when it comes to cases of conquest, owing to their similarity to ancient accounts of cat-and-mouse raids.
While Muslim armies, with Khalid b. Walid as their frequent commander, were busy conducting military operations in Iraq, Abu Bakr sent Abu `Ubaydah Jarrah at the head of an army to Syria. Abu `Ubaydah continued to receive reinforcements. On the 13th of Jamadi al-Awwal, 13 AH, when the Muslim army at Yarmuk was about to clench victory news came of the death of Abu Bakr who had passed away at the age of 63. Shortly before his death, he had appointed `Umar as his successor.
Immediately after ascending to caliphate, `Umar expanded the wars of conquest in the east as well as in the west, i.e. Iran and Syria. In the early years of the 3rd decade after the hijrah Islam’s dominion had extended to vast areas of Iran and Syria. Even Egypt fell to the relentless march of the Muslim forces. The conquests resulted in a continuous flow of spoils pouring into the dar al-khilafah of Medina. `Umar gave large portions of the newfound wealth to the Companions, especially those who had been part of the Islamic movement from its early days. The riches of war revived the spirit of materialism which ran deep in the Quraysh tribe with their long-standing commercial tradition. Though, `Umar exercised a great deal of control over this nouveau riche, the reining in of the emerging social conditions was well nigh impossible. It is difficult to determine the extent to which these wars of conquest were intended as a means of spreading the new religion and, if so, to gauge their degree of success. However, it is no accident that the names of the pious and knowledgeable among the Companions do not appear in the list of the commanders conducting these expansionist military efforts. On the other hand, the indigenous inhabitants of the conquered lands were so oppressed by their local rulers that they, on the whole, came to accept Islam with open arms, since they viewed the new religion as a means of establishment of justice and equality. This played a tangible role in the swift victories gained by the muslin conquerors.
In 23 AH an Iranian prisoner of war named Firuz, also known as Abu Lu’lu’, who, according to a number of traditions, was annoyed at `Umar for having ignored his grievance, inflicted him with a fatal wound. Though, according to the same sources, Abu Lu’lu’ acted on his own initiative one is tempted to take into account the dissatisfaction of the leaders of Quraysh with `Umar’s stringent policies as the real motive behind the move. Prior to his death, `Umar appointed a council and tasked it with the selection of his successor. It was made up of `Ali (PBUH) and other eminent Companions including `Abd al-Rahman b. `Awf, `Uthman b. `Affan, Sa`d b. Abi Waqqas, Talhat b. `Ubayd Allah and Zubar b. `Awwam. `Abd al-Rahman offered his allegiance to both, his relative, `Uthman and `Ali (PBUH), but he made it contingent upon the promise to adhere to the Quran and the sunnah of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) as well as to the sunnah of the Shaykhayn (the two shaykhs, i.e. Abu Bakr and `Umar). `Ali’s (PBUH) response with regard to the adherence to the sunnah of the two previous caliphs did not sit well with Abd al-Rahman, who, in turn, made his allegiance to `Uthman.
Thus, `Uthman b. `Affan came to caliphate, with a lenient style which became the subject of widespread criticism from the very outset. Over time, he sidestepped the system of Abu Bakr and `Uthman regarding the selection of governors and the stringent supervision of the aristocracy. Even if he himself was eager to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors, the members of his family pressed him into implementing their decisions. In the 12 years of his caliphate (23 – 35 AH), the members of aristocracy, and his own family in particular, succeeded in securing key positions, a fact which stoked the anger of the public. The pious Companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), such as Abu Dhar, were deprived by `Uthman of the opportunity to voice their opposition to the aristocracy’s voracious search for wealth and power and some of whom were forced into exile. Over time, voices of dissent gathered momentum, especially those in Iraq and Egypt, and turned into a rebellion. The insurgents marched into Medina and laid siege to the house of the caliph, who was eventually killed after a few days.
`Ali b. Abi Talib (PBUH) was chosen as the caliph of last resort. However, his uncompromising style and meticulous implementation of the sirah of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), especially in a society wont to affluence and aristocratic practices, gave rise to a great deal of opposition. The resistance was spearheaded by such companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) as Talhah and Zubayr, who were now claiming their share of power and special status over the rest Muslim community. They managed to enlist the support of `A’ishah, the wife of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), in a rebellion against `Ali (PBUH). The move led to the first internal conflict in Islam, i.e. the Battle of Jamal.
The next challenge came from Mu`awiyah b. Abi Sufyan who had ruled over Syria for many years and who now felt his position to be under threat. He refused to recognize the rule of `Ali (PBUH) and engaged him in a bloody conflict which came to be known as the Battle of Siffin. Though the battle did not bring any tangible benefits to Mu`awiyah it served to create a rift in the ranks of the Muslims and led to the formation of a third party, i.e. the Kharijites, with grave consequences for the Islamic world. The inconclusive battle resulted in Mu`wiyah claiming caliphate and the Kharijites breaking away from the army of `Ali (PBUH) and gathering at Harura to announce `Abd Allah b. Rasibi as their leader. So long as the Kharijites confined themselves to the level of rhetorical opposition `Ali’s (PBUH) policy towards them was one of exhortation to peace and obedience. However, once they engaged in the harassment and killing of the populace, `Ali (PBUH) resorted to force and crushed them in the battle of Nahrawan.
With the Kharijite threat extinguished, `Ali (PBUH) turned his attention to mustering an army with which to seal the fate of Mu`wiyah. However, in the Ramadhan of 40 AH, he fell victim to an assassination plot and was struck by `Abd al-Rahman b. Muljam Muradi. He died three days later. The followers of Imam `Ali (PBUH) chose his son Imam Hasan (PBUH) as caliph. However, his caliphate of several months was mired in constant conflict and concluded in a peace treaty with Mu`wiyah who eventually managed to take over the reins of power. By turning caliphate into a hereditary privilege Mu`wiyah managed to change the face of Islamic government forever.
* source: Gorji , Abolghasem "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 ,pp.400 - 402
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