Adam was the first caliph. We know that because we are told so in the Qur’ān (2.28) where God says, in reference to Adam, ‘I am placing a caliph on earth’. The Qur’ān refers to one other caliph by name (38.25) and that is when God tells the biblical King David, ‘We have made you a caliph on earth.’
The office, or perhaps role would be more accurate, has scriptural authority and any ruler might be pleased to follow in succession to these two. But what does the word actually mean? The Arabic root khalafa, from which the Arabic term khalīfa (the origin of the English word caliph) comes, is well known, but like many Arabic words it has a variety of English equivalents. Basically it means to succeed or deputize for a person or, in this case, for Allah. It is used in ordinary administrative and secular contexts with these meanings. But, like many passages in the Qur’ān, its precise meaning here is difficult to determine. It clearly cannot mean successor, since God is eternal and therefore, by definition, cannot have a successor, so it must mean deputy or representative of God on earth. But how were Adam and King David chosen as caliphs when other much revered figures, Moses, Joseph and Jesus for example, were not? And what was their function supposed to be? The Holy Book is completely silent about this. All we can deduce from the Qur’anic references is that God did appoint caliphs on at least two occasions. It was therefore logical that He might appoint others as and when it seemed appropriate.
The term appears to have been used in the time of the Prophet Muhammad. When he left Medina on a military expedition or for any other reason, he would appoint a deputy (khalīfa) for the duration of his absence. We know the names of at least some of these and, curiously, most of them were obscure men who played no part in the later history of the institution and their powers were very limited. Only Uthmān, the third caliph, was among their number, and neither Abū Bakr nor Umar, the first two caliphs, were appointed. Nevertheless, it was perhaps because of this use of the term that the Muslims naturally adopted it at the moment of the Prophet’s (permanent) absence.1
The beginnings of the office can be traced back to the swift-moving events which followed the Prophet’s death in 632. According to the majority (Sunni) opinion, Muhammad had left no explicitly acknowledged successor, although he had asked his old friend and colleague Abū Bakr to lead the prayers in his final days, when he was too ill to do so in person. Muhammad had declared that he was the last of the Prophets, that great line of reformers and preachers which stretched back to Adam and who had all tried, with varying degrees of success, to bring mankind back to the worship of the one true God. After Muhammad, no one could claim the title of Prophet of God without proposing an existential challenge to Muhammad and his community.
Another possibility for succession was ruled out by family considerations. Although Muhammad had had a number of wives and children, only one survived into adulthood, his daughter Fātima. There was therefore no question of direct hereditary succession in the male line, even if Muhammad and his community had wished that (and there is no evidence that they did).
What happened in the hours and days following Muhammad’s death is not entirely clear, but the basic outlines seem to be generally accepted and the events had a profound and lasting influence on the whole later history of the caliphate. To understand them, and how they were remembered, it is necessary to look at the composition of the Muslim community as it existed in Medina at the time. Muhammad was not himself from Medina but was born and brought up in Mecca, some 200 miles to the south. Although tradition insists that his family was not rich, they were important socially as members of Quraysh, the powerful merchant tribe which dominated the city, and they had a prominent role in providing for the pilgrims who, from before the coming of Islam, came to pay their respects to the Ka‘ba, the cube-shaped building at the centre of the city with the black stone inserted into one of its corners, which had been a place of devotion in pre-Islamic times and still forms the focus of the hajj, or Muslim pilgrimage. To be a member of Quraysh was to be part of a leading class which organized the political affairs of the town and the trading caravans which brought much wealth to the city in its barren and desolate environment. Within the Quraysh, Muhammad was a member of the extended family of the Banū Hāshim. This group included his uncle Abū Tālib, whose son Alī later became Muhammad’s son-in-law when he married his daughter Fātima. It did not, however, include the rich and powerful Umayyad family, also from Quraysh, who dominated much of the trade and political life of the settlement.
When Muhammad’s position in Mecca had become increasingly threatened because of hostile reactions to his preaching, especially from other groups in Quraysh like the Umayyads, he was saved by being invited to the city of Medina, then known as Yathrib, by a group of the inhabitants who wanted an outsider to come and try to judge and reconcile the feuds which had plagued the community. It was in these circumstances that he made his famous journey, his Hijra, to the city which was to be his home, and increasingly his power-base, for the rest of his life. He did not make the journey alone. He was joined by a number of members of Quraysh who were committed enough to follow him into exile. They included Abū Bakr, Umar, Uthmān and Alī. Together with their fellow exiles they were known as the muhājirūn, those who had made the Hijra with the Prophet. They came to form an elite within the nascent Muslim community and the epithet muhājirūn, with its connotations of selfless devotion to the Prophet, is one frequently used by jihadi groups today.
The newcomers settled in Medina alongside the existing inhabitants of the oasis, increasingly known as ansār, or helpers of the Prophet. Again, this is a title which has been accepted with honour by modern militant groups. In general the two groups shared the space and resources of the oasis city with remarkably little open friction, perhaps because of the Prophet’s role as mediator. But the differences still existed, based ultimately on kinship, for the ansār of Medina were certainly not of Qurashi origin. There were perhaps social tensions too. The Quraysh were a widely respected group in Arabia, great merchants who organized caravans of camels to Syria and, less often, to Iraq and Yemen. They were men of the world with wide horizons, accustomed to leadership. The ansār were, by contrast, peasants who made their living from tilling the soil and harvesting dates and whose horizons were limited to their own small community. There can be no doubt that many of the Qurashi muhājirūn believed that power and authority naturally belonged to them.
When news spread through the town that Muhammad had died, both parties took action to secure their positions. The ansār gathered together under the portico of one of their houses, which was known as the Saqīfa (Portico) of the Banū Sā‘ida, which was the name of the family who owned the house. Here some of them argued that, with Muhammad gone, his unique authority should be divided, and they should choose one leader while the muhājirūn should choose one of their own. At a crucial moment, a group of muhājirūn burst in on this meeting and demanded that everyone, muhājirūn and ansār alike, should swear allegiance to one of their number, the veteran Abū Bakr, an old man generally venerated by all for his wisdom and his close association with Muhammad. They all took an oath of loyalty to the new leader, an oath known in Arabic as a bay‘a and symbolized by a stroking or laying on of hands.
There was one small group, however, who did not participate in this agreement. The immediate family of Muhammad was busy, as custom demanded, in washing the body prior to burial. Among them was of course his cousin and son-in-law Alī. He was excluded from the agreement, and though most sources insist that he later accepted it his followers, and perhaps Alī himself, saw this as a coup d’état which had essentially deprived him of his natural rights.
We can never know exactly what happened at the Saqīfa of the Banū Sa’ada, but it had momentous consequences for future leadership in the Muslim community in a way that none of those present can possibly have imagined. What had begun as an ad hoc response to a temporary crisis became a deciding point whose nature and import were hotly debated for the next fourteen centuries.
Two fundamental issues were at stake here. The first was that the principle was established that the leader of the community, let us call him caliph though the title itself may not have been decided at this early stage, was to be a member of Quraysh. Not everyone agreed, as we shall see when discussing the Kharijites, but most Muslims did and it remains a key doctrine shared by Sunnis and Shi’is alike. The other outcome was much more contentious: Alī and the Family of the Prophet more generally had been excluded from the process, denied any opportunity of claiming their rights to succession or expressing their opinions. Furthermore, the ansār, despite all their loyalty to the Prophet, a loyalty which had enabled him to establish his community in Medina and defended him against the onslaughts of the Quraysh of Mecca, were relegated to a second-class status. In the long history of the caliphate, no claimant has ever emerged to demand the title on the grounds of his descent from the ansār. It is impossible to understand the divisions within the Muslim community about the nature of caliphate without understanding what happened, or much more importantly, what was believed to have happened in the Saqīfa of the Banū Sa‘ada.
According to the later historical narrative, Abū Bakr was accepted by the Muslim community with the title of caliph and this has been the view generally held ever since. In fact, as we have seen, this is not certain and there is some suggestion that Umar was the first man to take the title.2 Whatever the true position, the title was well recognized as that borne by the leader of the Muslim community within a decade of the Prophet’s death.
But what did the early Muslims understand by it? None of the sources spell this out. No one at this early stage explained exactly what they had in mind in writing. Instead we have to deduce and infer from the evidence presented in the reports we find in later chronicles, records of public discussions, always polemical, letters and poetry. Of these, the poetry is in some ways the most valuable. This is because it probably adheres most closely to the usages of the time. While it is possible to edit both narratives and letters to reflect later language, it is hard to do so within the strict and formal metres of classical Arabic poetry without doing obvious violence to the text. Even so, most of the poetry on which we rely dates from the later Umayyad period rather than the very early years.
There was an important uncertainty in the use of the term caliph. Khalīfa, as has already been pointed out, can mean either deputy or successor: but which was it? And whom was the caliph deputy or successor of? Two views emerge in early Muslim debates on this issue. One is that it means the deputy of God – we often find the phrase ‘deputy of God on his earth’ (khalīfat Allah fi ardihi). There is no ambiguity here because, as we have seen, God cannot have a successor. Some people, however, disagreed, arguing that the full title was always, and should be, ‘successor of the Messenger of God’ (khalīfat rasūl Allah), which must mean successor of Muhammad. This difference mattered, and still does. If the caliph was deputy of God he had a quasi-divine status and authority which all Muslims should support and respect. If, on the other hand, he was simply the successor to Muhammad, that carried much less weight. He could not be a prophet, since Muhammad had been the last of those, so he must be an ordinary man who fulfilled some of the secular and administrative functions that the Messenger of God had performed in his lifetime.
Among both Muslims and western scholars the general assumption was that the real title was, and always had been, successor of the Prophet of God. In 1986, however, two scholars of the Islamic Middle East at Cambridge, Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds, published a short but very important book in which they convincingly demonstrated, from a whole variety of textual and numismatic evidence, that the title meant deputy of God from the beginning. The idea that it meant successor, they argue, was introduced by ninth-century ulama (religious scholars) as an attempt to downgrade the office in the great struggle between caliphs and scholars of that time to control the making of law and the establishment of Islamic norms.3
Caliph was not the only title used for the first leaders. From very early on we have references to the caliph as Amīr al-Mu’minīn, usually translated as Commander of the Faithful. Amīr (often emir in English) means commander or prince. It was a title often given to military leaders and local rulers in the years which followed the break-up of the Abbasid caliphate at the beginning of the tenth century and is still used as a royal title today in the Gulf States. The Mu’minīn element is more problematic: would it not have been much more logical and appropriate to use the word Muslims and describe the leader as Amīr al-Muslimīn? Mu’minīn, however, could be used to describe not just Muslims but also non-Muslims who had entered into a binding peace agreement with them. Unlike the word caliph, the title of Commander of the Faithful does not appear in the Qur’ān so we can find no guidance there, but the use of the term in later texts suggests that it was used very early on and dates from a time when the Muslims fought alongside non-Muslim allies. Whatever its origins and original implications, the title became inextricably linked to that of caliph: not just Umayyads and Abbasids but Fatimids and Almohads and many other rulers who claimed the caliphal title also described themselves as Commanders of the Faithful.
We also find the use of the title imam. Imam means essentially anyone who stands in front or leads. It often describes the prayer leader in a mosque. It is also used, especially among the Shi‘a, to describe the ruler of the whole Muslim community and, as such, is often a synonym for caliph.
The Reigns of Abū Bakr and Umar, the First Caliphs
The first four caliphs, Abū Bakr (632–4), Umar b. al-Khattāb (634–44), Uthmān b. Affān (644–56) and Alī b. Abī Tālib (656–61), are described in the Arabic sources as Rāshidūn, usually translated into English as ‘Orthodox’. This is a usage dating from the time when most Sunni Muslims could agree that these four were righteous and God-guided rulers, even if things had started to go wrong under their Umayyad and later successors. The term serves as a convenient and widely accepted way of designating the four unrelated and very different rulers.
The historical sources provide a huge variety of information about the four men because the events of these early years had significant and lasting consequences for the development of the Islamic community: crucially, they laid the basis of the division between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, which was to grow in the next four centuries. In the Sunni tradition, they emerge as very distinctive personalities: Abū Bakr the dignified and affable old man, Umar the organizer and stern moralist, Uthmān a good man fatally flawed by his predilection for his own family, and Alī a true ruler but vacillating and overwhelmed by events. These characteristics probably do reflect their real personalities, but they also serve to make points about the nature of caliphal government and later ages looked back to the first caliphs’ reigns as examples of both good government and how things could go wrong. The Orthodox caliphs figure prominently in modern discussions about the caliphate.
All four had important issues to tackle. The first was to secure the continued existence of the Islamic community after the death of its founder and establish the position of its ruler. In the time of Umar, the most obvious priority was managing the great Arab conquests of the Middle East initiated under Abū Bakr and continued through Umar’s reign. By the time of his death in 644, Muslims armies had conquered Syria, Iraq and Egypt, and in the first half of Uthmān’s reign most of Iran and large swathes of North Africa had been added to the list. It was the caliphs, from their capital in the Prophet’s city of Medina, who organized and dispatched the armies which brought down the great East Roman and Persian empires, though none of the caliphs led the Muslim armies in person.
Conquest did not mean that all the peoples of these areas became Muslim: it simply meant that they were forced to accept the political authority of the new Arab-Muslim ruling class. The conversion of the majority of populations to Islam was a much slower and more peaceful process, which probably took four or five centuries. It was a great achievement, which completely reshaped the ancient world and whose consequences are still very much with us today. Organizing the armies was, in a sense, the easy bit. More problematic was the administration of these rich and varied areas once they had come under Arab-Muslim control. And the most complex task was managing the Muslim elite and trying to keep the fierce rivalries which developed from splitting the Muslim world apart.
As soon as he became leader in 632, Abū Bakr was confronted with a major challenge. In the last two years of his life, the Prophet had attracted followers from all over the Arabian Peninsula. They came in delegations to pledge allegiance to him as the Messenger of God and as leader of an increasingly powerful tribal federation with whom it was important to keep on good terms. They often agreed to pay an alms tax (sadaqa or zakat). With the Prophet’s death many of them repudiated the agreements made, arguing that they had pledged allegiance to Muhammad in person, not to his successors or the community in Medina. Others said that they wanted to continue to be Muslims but not to pay the tax. Yet others chose prophets of their own, like Musaylima in eastern Arabia, arguing that if Quraysh had a prophet, then it was only fair that they should have one too. In the Muslim tradition this movement was known as the ridda, or rejection.
Such a moment could have seen the break-up of the umma and a return to the fragmentation and anarchy which had characterized Arabia before the coming of Islam. However, Abū Bakr, ably supported by Umar, decided that this was not to be and initiated a series of military campaigns, often led by Khālid b. al-Walīd, a member of the old aristocracy of Quraysh and later venerated in history and legend as the ‘Sword of Islam’. The campaigns were pursued without mercy and were swiftly successful. By the end of Abū Bakr’s short reign in 634, the tribes of Arabia were effectively brought back under the control of Medina. In doing so, Abū Bakr and Umar had established a new principle: there was no going back on acceptance of Islam. The rejectionist, or apostate (Arabic murtadd), could and should be killed by any righteous Muslim. The ridda also led to the emergence of a new class of Muslims. If the muhājirūn and Quraysh more generally were the elite of the community, with the ansār in a subordinate but still important position, the rejectionists who had been brought back to the community in the wars were third-class citizens. This became significant later with the division of assets and spoils which followed the great Arab conquests.
Abū Bakr died peacefully in his old age. In his two-year reign he had accomplished a great deal. There is no explicit evidence that he ever held the title of caliph, but early Muslims certainly believed he had and his achievements and reputation meant that the office became established among them. He also acquired among writers and poets of the Umayyad period and later the informal title of Siddīq, the Truthful or Trustworthy, reflecting the respect in which his memory was held by most Muslims.
The great Arab conquests were essentially a continuation of the wars against the rejectionists. This is not the place to rehearse the details of the various campaigns and battles, but a few aspects should be noted. Initially, from around 634, there were two main fronts, Syria and Iraq. Syria had been the object of the first tentative expeditions at the end of the Prophet’s life. This was pursued after his death and the conquest of Syria was achieved by comparatively small numbers of members of the Muslim elite and tribes from the Hijaz in western Arabia, sometimes in alliance with other tribes already established in Syria, some of whom were, and continued to be, Christians. It was they who defeated the Byzantine armies at the Battle of Yarmuk in 636 and brought to an end 1,000 years of rule by Greek-speaking elites in Syria and Palestine. In contrast, Iraq was conquered in the main by larger numbers of tribesmen from northern and eastern Arabia and as far south as Oman. The leadership of the campaigns was mostly entrusted to members of Quraysh such as Sa‘d b. Abī Waqqās, who commanded the army which defeated the Persians at the decisive Battle of Qādisiyya, also in 636, and drove them out of Iraq. But most of the rank and file of the army came from non-elite groups and, in some cases, from those who had originally joined the rejectionists. This was to lead to continuous and sustained conflict between Iraqi and Syrian Arab Muslims, a conflict which ultimately led to the end of the Orthodox caliphate.
Another significant aspect of these conquests is that they were organized military expeditions. They were not a mass migration of barbarian tribesmen into a rich and civilized Middle East but armies recruited from volunteers who came to Medina and were assigned to various commanders and sent off in different directions. The overall management of this enterprise fell to the caliphs, above all Umar, who in the ten years of his rule masterminded the most important military operations.
The expeditions of conquest succeeded on a scale which must have been beyond the expectations of even the most optimistic of the early Muslims. In a few short years they had come to control large areas of territory and a numerous population in towns and villages, hamlets and farms, a desirable but unfamiliar resource base. How then were these lands to be administered and how were Muslims to be justly rewarded for their part in the victorious campaigns? At first, especially in Iraq, there was something of a free-for-all as individual commanders tried to seize estates and lands themselves. Umar, however soon put a stop to this and it is a measure of the authority and prestige already enjoyed by the caliph that he was able to do so.
Instead, he instituted a system in Iraq in which the conquered lands and the revenues which could be collected from them were kept as an undivided resource (fay is the Arabic word), the proceeds of which should be used to support the Arab tribesmen. These were not to be allowed to spread out throughout the conquered territory but were settled in specially founded new towns (Ar. misr, pl. amsār). The first of them were Kufa in central Iraq, south of modern Baghdad, and Basra at the head of the Gulf. They were followed by Fustat (Old Cairo) and Qayrawan in Tunisia, Mosul in northern Iraq and Shiraz in south-western Iran. Their names and the payments to which they were entitled were written in lists called dīwāns. None of these have survived in their original form, but their existence shows that firm government control had been established over the movements and settlements of the Arabs.
The new arrangements instituted by Umar had a profound and lasting effect on Muslim society. Much of this was positive. The presence of large numbers of soldiers, dependent on salaries paid by the government, was a major factor in the emergence of that vibrant market economy characteristic of the early Islamic world. It also meant that the government had to use coins and maintain a bureaucracy which was both literate and numerate. This in turn led to the development of a class educated in Arabic with the opportunity and knowledge to invest in writing and other intellectual activities.
At the same time, however, the arrangements gave rise to continuous conflicts over the distribution of resources. These arose at different levels. Within communities, they developed between early converts to Islam, who enjoyed precedence (sābiqa) and hence higher salaries, and later joiners and former rejectionists, who were on very low levels of reward. Then there were conflicts between those who believed that all the money raised in a province, say Kufa for example, should be spent in that province and those who argued that the surplus after paying salaries should be forwarded to the government of the caliph in Medina or, under the Umayyads, Damascus. The fact that the system had been inaugurated by the caliph Umar, as was later confirmed by Alī, gave it a quasi-religious authority. Those who believed that they had a right to all the tax revenues of the province, which should be distributed in the ways laid down by Umar, saw this not just as their earthly rights (dunya) but as part and parcel of their religious faith (dīn), and when the Umayyads tried to change the arrangements in the interests of more efficient government they were seen not only as mean and grasping but as impious and anti-Islamic.
Another lasting legacy for which the caliph is remembered is the so-called ‘pact of Umar’. This is not so much a written document drawn up and signed by the caliph as a series of rules and guidelines which emerged concerning the status of his non-Muslim subjects, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and others. The basic outline of these agreements was that non-Muslims would be able to retain their faith, their worship and their places of worship, along with their personal property and their family possessions. There were, however, restrictions whose exact nature varied from one version of the pact to another. These mostly involved the prohibition of the building of new churches (and sometimes the repair of the old), of public religious processions, of expressing criticism of Islam and of bearing weapons. At times non-Muslims were also obliged to wear distinctive dress and forbidden to ride horses. Most importantly, the pact imposed the payment of a poll tax (jizya). Non-Muslims were referred to as protected peoples (dhimmi) and their security and freedom of worship were assured. At the same time they were definitely second-class citizens. Members of the minority communities were particularly keen to ascribe the arrangements to Umar because they were in a sense guaranteed by the authority and pious reputation of the great caliph.
Umar died in 644 at the hands of an assassin, a Persian slave, who killed him for personal reasons. In many ways he can be seen as the founding father of the caliphate. Although, as with Abū Bakr, there is no direct contemporary evidence that he bore the title, Arabic sources are virtually unanimous in saying that he did. He was certainly a well-known figure. When an Arab wanted to date a graffito bearing his name carved on a rock in western Arabia, he said simply that it was the year when Umar died, as if he were a personality who could be referred to without formality or explanation.4 Umar’s reputation survives in the Sunni Islamic tradition as the great law-giver, incorruptible and stern, quick to condemn extravagance or pretension among his governors and generals. His memory survives in anecdotes of his own rejection of the pomp and circumstance of rulership, describing how he slept in the corner of a mosque wrapped in his cloak, approachable to all. We also hear how Persians came as envoys or prisoners and, accustomed as they were to the formality and ostentatious display of the Persian court, were amazed, even incredulous, at the simplicity of his dress and style of living. These stories must reflect a historical reality, the personality of the real Umar, but they were also preserved and no doubt elaborated as a paradigm of Islamic monarchy and a clear rebuke to the extravagance and grandeur of later rulers.
Umar is admired not just in the Muslim tradition but in completely different cultures. Edward Gibbon, in eighteenth-century Britain, writes of him:
The abstinence and humility of Omar were not inferior to the virtues of Abubeker [Abū Bakr]: his food consisted of barley-bread or dates; his drink was water; he preached in a gown that was torn or tattered in twelve places; and a Persian satrap, who paid his homage as to the conqueror, found him asleep among the beggars on the steps of the mosch of Medina. Oeconomy is the source of liberality, and the increase of the revenue enabled Omar to establish a just and perpetual reward for the past and present services of the faithful. Careless of his own emolument, he assigned to Abbas, the uncle of the prophet, the first and most ample allowance of twenty-five thousand drachms or pieces of silver. Five thousand were allotted to each of the aged warriors, the relics of the field of Beder [Battle of Badr, 624, the first of Muhammad’s military victories], and the last and the meanest of the companions of Mahomet was distinguished by the annual reward of three thousand pieces … Under his reign, and that of his predecessor, the conquerors of the East were the trusty servants of God and the people; the mass of public treasure was consecrated to the expenses of peace and war; a prudent mixture of justice and bounty maintained the discipline of the Saracens, and they united, by a rare felicity, the dispatch and execution of despotism, with the equal and frugal maxims of a republican government.5
Gibbon’s perspective, steeped as he was in the writings of classical historians, may ring strangely in our ears and the reference to republican government is improbable, but it is striking how the views of an Enlightenment savant mirror, in his own language, the views of Muslims through the ages.
There was yet another side to this image, a more religious, even messianic aspect, which is difficult to understand after all these centuries. Like Abū Bakr before him and Uthmān after, Umar decided to spend his reign in the Hijaz, almost always in the Prophet’s city of Medina. He did, however, make one exception. The city of Jerusalem played an important part in early Islamic lore. It is said that the first Muslims prayed in this holy city before Muhammad changed the direction of Muslim prayer, the qibla, to Mecca. It was from Jerusalem, not Mecca, that the Prophet is said to have begun his miraculous journey through the heavens in order to be shown the full glory of God’s creation, from the site on the Temple Mount later covered by the Dome of the Rock. When in 638 it was apparent that the Muslim forces, having conquered Damascus and most of the rest of Syria and Palestine (only the coastal city of Caesarea still held out against them), were on the verge of taking Jerusalem, then a city under Byzantine rule, Umar set out for the north. When he reached Jerusalem he accepted the surrender of the city from the venerable Christian Patriarch Sophronius.
A version of the treaty he made at this time still survives in the Arabic texts, allowing the Rūm (Romans, that is, Byzantines) to leave peacefully with their possessions and guaranteeing the population who remained their dhimmi status. He prayed on the Temple Mount, the site of the old Jewish temple. This seems to have been covered with ruins at the time and Umar ordered it to be cleared and cleaned. According to an ancient Jewish tradition, he also allowed Jews, who had been rigorously excluded from the city by the Byzantines, to return. He refused, however, to accept the invitation of the Patriarch to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, arguing that if he did, the Muslims would take possession of it and make it into a mosque. Instead he prayed outside at a site which is now marked by the much later mosque still called the Mosque of Umar. Much of this, perhaps legendary, detail survives in Arabic Christian narratives, which stress that the greatest caliph of them all had accepted the holiness of the church and the rights of the Christians.
It was probably as a result of this expedition that Umar acquired the title of Fārūq, by which he was sometimes known. This is an Aramaic, not an Arabic term, which means the Redeemer. Exactly what the early Muslims understood by Redeemer is not clear, but it has been suggested that it was part of an eschatological discourse which saw the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem as marking the end of days and the beginning of the Last Judgement. The exact significance of the word is lost beyond recovery, and the Muslim tradition does not discuss it in any detail, but it is evidence that the caliph had made a deep impression on Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
Uthmān and the First Crisis of the Caliphate
As Umar lay dying, he turned his attention to the arrangements for the choosing of his successor. The choices of Abū Bakr and Umar himself had been, to say the least, informal. Essentially Abū Bakr had been chosen by Umar and others of the muhājirūn while Umar in turn seems to have been nominated by Abū Bakr. There were no precedents here to which the community could turn. Umar, however, determined that there should be a shūra, an advisory council, which should select the next leader. He nominated six men: all of them were from Quraysh. The ansār of Medina and the rest of the Muslims were excluded, but Alī, who had not been able to participate in the choice of Abū Bakr, was among their number. After some deliberation the shūra settled on the old and distinguished merchant Uthmān, a Qurashi, of course, and one of Muhammad’s first followers. He was duly offered allegiance by the leaders of the Muslim community.
The establishment of the shūra as a way of choosing the caliphs has had profound resonances in Muslim political thought ever since. Here was a system which seemed to offer legitimacy to what had previously been an ad hoc process. At the same time, the concept was very flexible and could be subject to a wide range of interpretations. The root Arabic shawara, from which the word shūra derives, is not about election in the sense of democratic choice but about advice and consultation. The shūra which chose Uthmān was the only open and properly constituted body in the history of the caliphate. The idea, however, remained alive and a source of inspiration to many through the ages who felt that some element of community engagement would give legitimacy to a process which often seemed obscure and arbitrary. The term was also used as a legitimizing discourse for processes of choice which were very far from open. After all, there was no law to lay down how many people should make up a shūra, that they should be in any sense representative of the wider Muslim community or that they should meet in open deliberation. It could be argued that a shūra of one, meeting in haste and secret, was, following the model laid down by Umar, a valid and acceptable way of choosing a new leader. The whole idea of shūra was, in turn, complete anathema to the Shi‘a, for whom choosing the leader of the Muslims was usurping a function properly belonging to God alone.
Uthmān has a very varied reputation among Muslim historians and commentators. The events of his reign are not generally disputed. The traditional narrative says that he enjoyed six successful years, but at the end of these he dropped the Prophet’s signet ring down a well and this meant the end of both his good fortune and his good governance. This period also saw the expansion of Muslim armies into Iran and the death of the last Sasanian shah, Yazdgard III, in 651. After that, military expansion largely came to a halt (though it was to resume again in the early eighth century) and the revenue from booty must have dried up. It was at this time too that resentment against Uthmān’s rule began to grow among groups who felt that the elite in the community were becoming too rich and arrogant. This culminated in 656 when there were active revolts in both Iraq and Egypt. Armed groups set out from both these areas for Medina to make their demands forcefully. Arriving at the capital, they found the old man effectively defenceless, having been abandoned by all the leading members of the Muslim elite, including, crucially, Alī. He was murdered as he sat alone in his house reading the Qur’ān and his blood dripped on the open pages of the Holy Book.
The murder of Uthmān was a major trauma for the early Islamic community and continues to reverberate down to the twenty-first century. We can see the events which led to his assassination in strictly historical terms. Uthmān was trying to manage a huge and recently created empire. The conquests had stalled and resources were under pressure and many of the Muslims felt excluded and impoverished while they observed others living in the lap of luxury. Most conspicuous of these were the group of Qurashis who surrounded the caliph, many of them young men with no experience of the hard struggles of the early days of Islam. It was said, bitterly, that the rich lands of Iraq had become the ‘Garden of Quraysh’. Uthmān, of course, would have seen it differently. Faced with the task of administering a vast and increasingly chaotic caliphate, he turned to the people he could most rely on, his family and kinsmen from Quraysh and the Umayyad clan.
The murder gave rise to an anguished debate. It was deeply shocking. The caliph chosen by the community, a man who had known and supported the Prophet of God from the beginnings of his ministry and who put his ample resources in the service of Islam, a man whose piety and conduct could hardly be impugned, had been killed by his fellow Muslims. What had gone wrong?
The answer depended on your point of view. For the supporters of Uthmān, who belonged to what comes in later centuries to be the Sunni tradition, the rights and wrongs were crystal clear: the caliph of God had been murdered by people who claimed to be Muslims. It was a crime against God and man alike. Even if Uthmān had not been the most perfect ruler, perhaps not up to the standards of Abū Bakr and Umar before him, Muslims had no right to rebel against him, still less to take his life. His blood should be avenged and his murderers punished.
Other people were not so sure. Supposing Uthmān had not behaved like God’s caliph but rather as a tyrannical pharaoh seizing the wealth that rightly belonged to pious and humble Muslims and giving it to his friends and family, how should pious Muslims respond? There were two approaches here. One could simply accept that things were problematic but agree too that Muslims should not rebel against a properly constituted authority. It was not always easy to determine God’s will and perhaps Uthmān was, for all his sins, serving God’s purpose and it was up to God to remove him or punish him if He saw proper. Yet others were clear that Uthmān was not fit to rule the community. He was so bad and had strayed so far from the ways of piety and justice that he could longer be considered an appropriate imam for Muslims: it was the duty of pious and God-fearing men to remove and punish him and, hopefully, replace him with someone who could lead the community in the correct fashion.
The discussion of tyrannicide is as lively a theme in Islam as it is in western political thought. There is a widespread belief that the killing of a leader, however bad or inadequate he is seen to be, is always wrong, for it will lead to something worse, to fitna, that violence, division and destruction which imperils the lives of Muslims and makes the proper performance of true religion impossible.
Then there was the issue of the Qur’ān. The Muslim tradition describes how the Qur’ān was revealed by the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad, who in turn passed it on by word of mouth, for he himself was illiterate, to the Muslims. As it was revealed, it was written down on any materials which lay to hand: papyrus, leather, palm-leaves and even the flat shoulder bones of sheep. It was Uthmān who decided to edit and arrange this material into a book, the book we now know as the Qur’ān. It seems that versions were already in circulation, but the caliph ordered that they should all be destroyed in favour of his authorized version. Not everyone was happy with this. Some objected to the destruction of other versions that might have preserved elements of divine revelation which were now lost. Others objected that the caliph was exceeding his power and had no authority to do this. Yet others argued that only the members of the Family of the Prophet, with their unique understanding of the divine will and purpose, were able to undertake this successfully. History has been kind to Uthmān’s edition of the Holy Book. It is generally accepted by Sunnis and, with some reservations, by Shi’is as the authentic record of the revelation, but at the time it seems to have provoked an opposition which fed into the general dissatisfaction with Uthmān’s rule.
It was symbolic, then, that he was killed reading the Holy Book. The Qur’ān of Uthmān became a sacred object, sealed with the martyred caliph’s blood, the nearest thing the Islamic tradition would allow as a legitimizing relic. The Abbasid caliphs would later display the ‘Qur’ān of Uthmān’ on ceremonial occasions. We hear of ‘Qur’āns of Uthmān’ that were used by the Umayyads of Córdoba and later by their Almohad successors, there are such Qur’āns in libraries in Cairo and in the collections of the Ottoman sultans (and caliphs) in the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. A magnificent and undoubtedly very ancient one can still be seen, copiously spattered with what are alleged to be drops of caliphal blood, displayed with all due pomp in Tashkent, where it serves the present rulers of Uzbekistan as evidence of their real or feigned piety and commitment to Islam.
Alī and the End of the Orthodox Caliphate
The murder of Uthmān unleashed a complex series of events which revealed the many and varied views of what the caliphate should be and how the new caliph should be chosen. At first, authority passed to Alī. He and many others may have thought that his time had come, but there seems to have been no formal arrangement for the succession, and certainly no shūra. This lack of a clear mandate was one of the factors which undermined his rule from the beginning.
The first challenge came from within the elite of Quraysh. Alī was, of course, himself a member of the tribe, but he had been slow to accept Abū Bakr. He also had a considerable following among the ansār and perhaps his political loyalties were to them. He had converted to Islam early and had been close to the Prophet, but he was not the only one. Although it was a quarter of a century since Muhammad’s death, there were other men who felt that their status within the tribe and early commitment to Islam entitled them to a leading role in the community. Among them was Zubayr b. al-Awwām. A prominent Qurashi, he had been one of a small group of Muslims who had emigrated to Ethiopia to escape the persecution that Muhammad and his followers had endured in Mecca before the Hijra to Medina in 622. He had returned and joined the Muslim community in Medina and had been one of the six prominent Muslims who had been chosen by Umar to make up the shūra which chose Uthmān. He and a companion of his from a very similar background, Talha b. Ubayd Allah, objected to the appointment of Alī and decided to challenge it. They were joined by a third person, the Prophet’s wife Aisha, who some said was his favourite wife. Aisha was probably motivated by a long-standing personal antipathy to Alī, but she was also the daughter of Abū Bakr; she knew Zubayr and Talha well and would naturally be attracted to the Qurashi cause.
Alī faced a much bigger challenge to his credibility as caliph: his role, or rather his lack of role, in Uthmān’s murder. There is no evidence that he had participated in the old man’s death, or even that he had encouraged the attackers, but, on the other hand, he does not seem to have offered him any protection or support at a time of need despite being in Medina and having a substantial following among the inhabitants. Uthmān was dead, but his large and powerful family, the Umayyads, demanded, as was their right, that the murderers of their kinsman should be punished. Many of the Umayyads left Medina and took refuge with one of their number, Mu‘āwiya b. Abī Sufyān. Mu‘āwiya, like many of his family, seems to have been a fairly late convert to Islam but he had served as one of the Prophet’s secretaries so had known him well. He had taken part in the conquest of Syria and when the country was conquered he had been appointed as governor. He had made Syria his powerbase, marrying into one of the most important local tribes, the Banū Kalb of the Palmyrene desert. He had come to represent the Syrian interest and command the loyalties of Syrians, both Muslims and others, like the chiefs of Kalb, who remained Christians. No other figure in the community could attract this degree of military and financial support. If Alī failed to avenge his murdered kinsman he would prove himself incapable of being a true caliph and until he fulfilled his duty Mu‘āwiya would refuse to take the oath of allegiance.
The first military challenge to Alī’s rule began almost immediately. Zubayr, along with Aisha and Talha, left Medina, whose inhabitants mostly supported Alī, and went to the Muslim new town of Basra in southern Iraq where they hoped to attract the support of members of the tribe of Thaqīf, old allies of Quraysh from pre-Islamic times, who had settled there. Alī, in turn, realized that he would have to find allies outside the capital and travelled to Iraq to appeal to the Muslims of Kufa. The connection between Alī and the Kufans may have begun because of his support of Kufan grievances against the rule of Uthmān. He certainly had many followers at this juncture and the connection between the Family of the Prophet, Alī and his descendants with the inhabitants of this large and turbulent Iraqi city was to be a continuing feature of the political landscape of the Muslim community for the next two centuries and of fundamental importance in the early development of Shi’ism.
The armies of Zubayr and Alī met in December 656 near Basra in a confrontation known to history as the Battle of the Camel. Zubayr and his allies do not seem to have attracted as much support as they had hoped and his army was defeated by the more numerous troops of Alī. Zubayr and Talha were both killed and Aisha, who had played a conspicuous part in directing the battle from the howdah on her camel, was forced to retire to the Hijaz where she passed her final days in political obscurity.
The Battle of the Camel had settled the immediate challenge to Alī’s caliphate. It also meant that the idea of a Quraysh-dominated caliphate based in the Hijaz had been defeated for a generation, though it was to be revived with renewed vigour by Zubayr’s son after the death of Mu‘āwiya in 680. The Battle of the Camel was also the first open civil war within the Muslim community. The issue of the caliphate had been decided not by discussion in a shūra or designation by a previous ruler, but by hard military power and by the ability of one party to attract more military support than another. It set a pattern for much of the future development of the office.
It also marked an important change in another way. Medina had been the residence of the Prophet and under Abū Bakr and Umar was, in a real sense, the capital of the caliphate. Umar made his visit to Palestine to accept the surrender of Jerusalem but he directed operations in the great wars of conquest from Medina and Uthmān continued to use it as the seat of government and it was here that he died. But Medina was isolated in western Arabia and, as the population grew, it became increasingly dependent on food supplies imported from Egypt and elsewhere. There were now many more Muslims living in Iraq and Syria than in Medina and no one could hope to establish himself as caliph without their support. When Alī had defeated Zubayr, he did not return to Medina but stayed to base himself in Kufa as the centre of his government. The dream of establishing a caliphate based in the city of the Prophet lingered on, but when Muhammad the Pure Soul, himself a direct descendant of Muhammad, tried to make it a reality in the early Abbasid period in 762, it was clear that the dream was just that, and not the basis for a revived and renewed caliphate.
Zubayr was dead, his party defeated, but Mu‘āwiya posed a much bigger challenge to Alī’s authority. Whatever his long-term ambitions, he made no effort at this stage to claim the caliphate. He simply demanded that Alī, if he wanted to be caliph, should punish his kinsman’s murderers. He must have known that he was making an impossible demand, for those who attacked Uthmān, and their relatives and friends in Kufa, were the very people on whom Alī had now come to depend for establishing his power. Kufa was not an easy town to govern and had a wild, lawless atmosphere. The new town boasted a mosque at its centre and the main sūqs surrounded it, but it was mainly a network of dusty streets and mud-brick or wooden houses, often makeshift affairs erected by newcomers from the Arabian desert and non-Arabs from the conquered areas of Iraq and Iran who wanted to throw in their lots with the Muslims and benefit from some of the privileges and opportunities which they enjoyed. It was a city riven with social tensions.
At the top of the social pyramid were the leaders of the most powerful tribes in the city, men like Ash‘ath b. Qays al-Kindī, who enjoyed both wealth and social respect because of their family background. But many of these, like Ash‘ath himself, had joined the Muslim cause late. This group were known as sharīf (pl. ashrāf), or nobles. They had hardly known the Prophet, if indeed they had met him at all, and some of them had joined the ridda against the rule of Abū Bakr. Pitted against them, and also claiming leadership and power, were those who had joined the Islamic cause early and who had borne the brunt of the heat and dust of the early battles against the Persians. These were men like Mālik al-Ashtar, who had been one of the leaders of the anti-Uthmān movement in Iraq and who now became one of Alī’s closest advisers. They were often from modest social backgrounds in the pre-Islamic tribal scheme of things, but they had sābiqa, precedence in Islam. Under the system set up by Umar, they had been awarded the highest ranks of payment and pensions, assets they were determined to preserve. There was plenty of reason for antagonism between these two elite groups.
Below them in the social scale were a host of ordinary tribesmen with no particular claim to elite status on either ground. These included men who, although they were now Muslims, had joined the cause late or who had failed to play a significant role in the armies of the conquests. Despite their membership of the community, their rewards were small and they had every reason to feel excluded from the benefits others enjoyed. This resentment was real among the first generation but must have become even more strongly felt in the generations which followed, when the elite enjoyed their high status not because of what they themselves had done but because of what their fathers and grandfathers before them had achieved.
At the bottom of the heap were the non-Arab converts to Islam. Many of these were Iranians of some social standing whose lives had been turned upside down by war and conquest and, in many cases, capture and slavery as well. In order to become Muslims, they attached themselves to an Arab-Muslim tribe or prominent individual and became their mawālī (sing. mawlā). This is a word which has no exact English translation. It can mean that they became clients of the tribe, accepting its leadership and supporting its political activities. It can also refer to freedmen, people who had been slaves but had been freed by their masters and converted to Islam. (To add to the confusion the term mawlā is used in later Arabic to mean lord or master but it is the earlier sense with which we are concerned here.) These mawālī felt that they too were Muslims equal to any others and entitled to their tax advantages, especially not paying the jizya or poll tax, a privilege which was the right of all Muslims.
It was a heady brew of rivalries and conflicts, fuelled by strong feelings of injustice. Islam promised so much in terms of equality in religion and membership of the community. It was easy to feel resentful and angry at the failure of the new order to deliver. The fundamental problem was one of resources. Iraq was the richest area of the Middle East and the revenues the Islamic government could extract were huge, but they were never enough to satisfy the demands of all these various constituencies. Inevitably there would be winners and losers; the question was whom they would be.
Alī set about trying to mobilize the military energies of these people to enforce his caliphal authority over the recalcitrant Mu‘āwiya in Syria. It was not easy to persuade men of such different backgrounds and outlooks as the tribal aristocrat Ash‘ath b. Qays and the pious early Muslim Mālik al-Ashtar to march in the same army and accept his leadership. He did, however, have two planks to his platform which won over many. The first was the hostility of Iraqi Muslims towards the Syrians and their fear that Syrian domination would lead to their exclusion from positions of power. Modern discussions of the conflict which developed between the supporters of Alī and Mu‘āwiya have tended to concentrate on the religio-political issues which divided them from each other, proto-Sunnis supporting Mu‘āwiya and proto-Shi’is supporting Alī. The early Arabic sources which describe these events lay just as much stress on the regional nature of the conflict: it was the ahl (people) of Iraq against the people of Syria. Of course, this did not mean all the people of Iraq and all the people of Syria, but the Arab Muslims of Iraq and the Arab Muslims of Syria with, perhaps, some of their mawālī. The rest, the Christian, Jews and Zoroastrians who formed the majority of the population, were neither consulted nor asked to participate in what was an inter-Muslim conflict.
Most of the people of Iraq could relate to this appeal, but Alī and his advisers tried to attract more support, and perhaps more committed support, in ways which were ultimately more divisive of Iraqi opinion. Alī’s policy was a bold attempt to cut across the social divisions which so disturbed the Muslims of Iraq in general and Kufa in particular. He stressed the role of the caliph as imam, that is, religious leader of the community. As caliph, he was not to be a tyrannical tax-gatherer or a guardian of existing vested interests but a charismatic figure who would inspire and guide the believers in the formation of a truly Islamic community and bring justice to all Muslims. It was a powerful vision which staked new ground for the function and importance of the caliphate.
Alī’s policies at this moment were, no doubt, a combination of idealism and practical considerations – he needed to recruit for his army – but they had enormous long-term implications. The first was that Alī, the Family of the Prophet, and after them the Shi’ite leaderships of later years, were firmly identified with Iraqi interests and particularly the interests of the Muslim inhabitants of the southern Iraqi towns of Kufa and Basra, areas in fact which are still Shi’ite today, 1,200 years later. The second, and even more important, implication was that the Family of the Prophet and later Shi’ite leaders became firmly identified with the interests of the deprived and excluded in Muslim society, those who felt that their rights had been ignored and trampled on by dominant elites. Of course, this has not always been the case. There were times, for example in Fatimid Egypt in the eleventh century, when the Shi’ite leadership was firmly in support of the Shi’ite caliph. But this theme of concern for the poor and marginalized in Muslim society is a thread which has runs through much Shi’ite preaching from the proto-Shi’is of late seventh-century Iraq to Ayatollah Khomeini in late twentieth-century Iran and Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq even as I write these words.
In the spring and summer of 657 Alī led his Iraqi forces up the Euphrates valley to invade Syria. At the same time Mu‘āwiya mobilized his Syrian supporters and came to meet them. The two armies faced each other at a place called Siffin, just up the river from Raqqa. They did not immediately engage in an all-out battle. Despite all the issues which divided them, there was a profound reluctance among many to fight their fellow Muslims if it could be avoided. There were a number of bloody skirmishes, notably over access to water in the burning heat of the Syrian summer, and there were contests of poetry as the propagandists on both sides tried to inspire their fellows and denigrate their enemies, but there were also negotiations. In July or August a real battle seemed to be developing, but the Syrian troops attached copies of the Qur’ān to their lances, demanding that there be an arbitration according to the book of God, and Alī felt that he had no option but to accept. An arbitration date was set for the next year and it was agreed that the two arbitrators, one from each side, should meet in the small town of Udhruh, now a ruined archaeological site in southern Jordan. So far so clear.
What was much less clear was the question of what exactly was going to be arbitrated. Was it a debate about whether Alī or Mu‘āwiya was going to be caliph, a sort of two-man shūra, or was the issue simply that of the punishment of Uthmān’s killers and the circumstances under which Mu‘āwiya might accept Alī as caliph? By the time the two arbitrators did meet, events had moved on so quickly that any discussions they may have had were rendered irrelevant.
The Kharijite Alternative
Many of Alī’s supporters were dismayed by what had happened, seeing their leader as a victim of a Syrian trick or, even worse, as having agreed to put his God-given authority to the judgement of two men. When he returned to Iraq, his uneasy coalition began to break up. Some of the tribal nobles began to enter into negotiations with the Syrian leader. Much more threatening than that, at the other end of the political spectrum, many of his more radical supporters abandoned him and went out to camp in a separate place, announcing that arbitration belonged only to God and implying that the issue should have been decided on the battlefield.
These dissenters became known as Kharijites (Ar. khawārij). They have survived as a sect down to the present day, notably in Oman and parts of southern Algeria. How the name originates is quite unclear. The word khārijī means literally one who goes out, but the often quoted explanation that they went out from Alī’s camp seems feeble. More attractive is the historian Andrew Marsham’s suggestion that it related to the verses in the Qur’ān which urge Muslims to ‘go out’ (on the jihād) rather than stay at home.6 Kharijites were associating with the militant activists among the earliest Muslims. They have never constituted more than a small percentage of the Muslim population. but they are important in the history of the caliphate because they developed theories of the office, how the caliph or imam (they used both terms to describe their leaders) should be chosen and what they should do, which were radically different from the concepts of both Sunni and Shi’i.
The Kharijites split from the emerging consensus over two main issues. The first was that they believed the caliph should be chosen from all the Muslims as the most pious and meritorious of them. Quraysh descent was absolutely not required and any Muslim, no matter how humble his social origins, could be considered for office. Some said that even a slave could be chosen, and it is alleged that a few even argued that women were eligible, though this point of view never seems to have been widely accepted. They generally agreed that Abū Bakr and Umar were lawful caliphs, but only because they were the best men of their time, not because of any Qurashi descent, and they completely rejected Uthmān and all subsequent claimants. When others had their doubts, the Kharijites were proudly unrepentant of the role some of them played in the murder of Uthmān, seeing it as entirely justified, even necessary, because of his deviation from proper Islamic behaviour. Quite how the choosing of the new leader was going to take place was not really specified: certainly there was no discussion of the practicalities of either election or shūra. It was sort of taken for granted that the most meritorious would emerge and be accepted by the community. If the caliph they chose went astray or proved to be corrupt and tyrannical then he should be corrected, first by being warned that his conduct was unacceptable and, if this failed, by being deposed or killed. Patricia Crone shows how this could be pushed to its logical conclusion and beyond:
When Najda b. Āmir, founder of the Najdiya group of Kharijites, did various things of which his followers disapproved they demanded that he repent, which he did. But then a group of them regretted having asked him to repent and told him: ‘We were wrong to ask you to repent for you are an imam. We have repented of it so now you should repent of your repentance and demand that those who asked you to repent should repent of having done so. If you don’t, we will separate from you.’ So he went out and announced to the people that he repented of his repentance. His followers then began to quarrel among themselves.7
So there you have it: the caliph/imam being held to account in a lively exchange of views but nonetheless respected for his position. In one sense it was a conditional and contractual vision of monarchy, rare in Islamic political thought, though the rules and mechanisms by which conditionality might be put into practice are left unclear and the issue was not whether the caliph/imam did what was beneficial for the community but whether he was acting in agreement with God’s law.
According to the Kharijites, the caliph/imam had the authority to decide matters of law and religious practice, but he should do so in consultation with the scholars in the community and it was the community which could judge whether he had acted in accordance with God’s law. The caliph, in fact, was to lead by consent to command and he had no God-given authority.
The other main idea in Kharijite ideology was that those who sinned grievously should no longer be considered as Muslims, no matter what they said, but were rather heathens, kuffār (sing. kāfir). All true believers should hunt these kuffār down and kill them, and sell their women and children into slavery. Among the sins which could mean that you were treated as a kāfir was, of course, refusal to accept the authority of the Kharijite community and its views of the caliphate. This ideology of takfīr, considering those you disagreed with to be non-Muslim, even if they claimed to be good Muslims, seems to have originated with the Kharijites at this time, but has been adopted by other groups right down to the present and is the basis of the attitude of Islamic State towards Muslims who disagree with them.
Kharijite views were no mere debating point: these people meant action. Their defection from Alī’s camp led to a collapse of his military effort against Mu‘āwiya and it was a Kharijite who assassinated Alī in 661 (they had intended to assassinate Mu‘āwiya too, for they hated both of them equally, but the attempt failed).
The Kharijite movement also had a strong social basis to it, although this was never spelt out in their ideology. It gained its recruits among those who rejected not just the caliphates of Uthmān and Alī but the whole norms and behaviour of settled life which most Muslims had adopted after the great conquests and the migrations which followed. Many of their followers left the newly established garrison cities and led a wandering life, half nomads, half brigands, in the deserts of Arabia and southern Iran. To some they were romantic figures, harking back to the days of freedom when there were no taxes and no law-enforcement agencies, and their poetry, of which a great deal survives, was full of the spirit of the Jābiliyya, or pre-Islamic times, glorifying the Bedouin warrior and the life of travel and camp, raid and battle, albeit within a Muslim framework.
The movement divided into a number of groups. Two of these, known after their first leaders as the Azāriqa and Najdiya, abandoned the urban life entirely and went out to terrorize their opponents and to raid settled communities. Unsurprisingly they came into conflict with the Umayyad authorities and both of them were violently suppressed, the Najdiya in Arabia in 693 and the Azāriqa in Iran in 699. The Ibādiya, by contrast, developed a position that enabled them to live together with their non-Kharijite neighbours and accept a secular authority while waiting and hoping for the arrival of a truly Kharijite imam. This quietist attitude enabled them to survive in parts of Algeria and Oman right down to the present day.
The assassination of Alī in 661, followed as it was by the assumption of power of Mu‘āwiya, the first Umayyad caliph, marked the end of an era marked by violence and division; but the thirty years since the death of the Prophet Muhammad had also been a period of astonishing achievements. Arab Muslims had conquered almost all of what we might describe as the central Middle East, from the eastern borders of Iran to southern Tunisia. The governments of the caliphs had also set up systems which ensured that Arab-Muslim government lasted after the initial conquests were over. The caliphs and the idea of caliphate played a key role in this achievement. The nature of the office was still undefined and the method of choosing the leader hardly explored. But this uncertainty encouraged flexibility.
Many different groups had their own ideas about who the caliph should be and what he could do, but no one, apart possibly from some small groups of Kharijites, argued that the caliphate was unnecessary and could be abolished. The concept offered the opportunity for diverse groups to develop it as they saw fit, but fundamentally presented an ideal of rulership which combined political and military leadership with spiritual guidance. It could also offer a leadership which was responsive to the needs of Muslims but was also, and crucially, respectful of what were seen to be God’s decrees. The history of the caliphate of the Orthodox period raised almost all the main issues about powers and personalities which have dominated the discussions of the nature and potential of the office ever since.
1. . M. Cook, ‘Muhammad’s Deputies in Medina’, Usūr al-wusta 23 (2015), 1–67↩
2. . P. Crone and GM. Hinds, God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Century of Islam, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1986), 111–12↩
3. . Ibid., 12–23↩
4. . R. Hoyland, ‘The Inscription of Zuhayr, the Oldest Islamic Inscription (24 AH/AD 644–645)’, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 19 (2008), 210–37↩
5. . E. Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. W. Smith, London: John Murray (1855), VI, 288↩
6. . A. Marsham, Rituals of Islamic Monarchy, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (2009), 100–101↩
7. . P. Crone, Medieval Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (2004), 60–61↩
amīr — see emir
amīr al-mu’minīn — Commander of the Faithful, title usually held by caliphs
ansār — literally ‘helpers’: the inhabitants of Medina who supported Muhammad
ashrāf — see sharīf
bay‘a — oath of allegiance to caliph or other ruler
dā‘ī — missionary, usually of clandestine religio-political movements
da‘wa — missionary movement (cf. dā‘ī)
dawla — dynasty or state, e.g. the Abbasid dawla or the Fatimid dawla
dīnār — standard gold coin
dirham — standard silver coin
dīwān — originally list of those entitled to state salaries. Also office or department of government.
emir — army commander, provincial governor or ruler of small independent state
fitna — civil war or dispute within the Muslim community
ghāzī — Muslim volunteer who fights in the jihād
hadīth — Tradition recording the words of Muhammad
hajj — annual pilgrimage to Mecca
hijra — the emigration of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622, which marks the beginning of the Muslim era
imam — spiritual leader of the Muslim community, often synonymous with caliph
Jāhiliyya — period of ignorance or savagery in Arabia before the coming of Islam
jāriya — female slave. Often singer or poet
jihād — holy war
jizya — poll tax levied on non-Muslims
jund — army; one of the administrative districts of Syria Palestine
kāfir, pl. kuffār — unbeliever, non-Muslim
kharāj — land tax
khutba — address in mosque at Friday prayer which included mention of the ruler’s name, a sign of sovereignty
kufr — unbelief
mamlūk — slave soldier. This term, occasionally used in early Islamic history, came to replace the term ghulām from the fifth/eleventh century onwards.
mawlā, pl. mawālī — originally ‘client’, often non-Arab client of an Arab tribe, hence the use of mawālī to describe non-Arab Muslims in the first century of Islam. Later more commonly ‘freedmen’ in the Abbasid period, the term passes out of general use in the fourth/tenth century.
minbar — pulpit in a mosque
muhājir, pl. muhājirūn — one who participated in the Hijra, that is a Meccan who accompanied Muhammad to settle in Medina
murtadd — apostate: used of those who rejected the authority of the Muslims after the death of Muhammad
nass — designation of ruler by his predecessor
qādī — Muslim judge
qalansuwa — tall, conical headgear worn as part of Abbasid court dress
ridda — apostasy from Islam; hence the wars in Arabia which followed Muhammad’s death are known as the ridda wars
sābiqa — precedence, especially precedence in conversion to Islam, i.e. the earlier a person was converted, the greater his sābiqa
sahāba — Companions of the Prophet
sadaqa — the payment of alms enjoined by Muslim law
sharī‘a — Muslim religious law
sharīf, pl. ashrāf — in Umayyad times, tribal leader, chief. By the fourth/tenth century the title is usually confined to descendants of Alī.
shawkat — political and military power
shirk — polytheism
shūra — council formed to choose a caliph
sikka — the right to mint coins, usually the prerogative of the ruler
sunna — the sayings and actions of Muhammad used as legal precedents
sūq — market
ulama — learned men, especially experts in the Traditions of the Prophet and Islamic law
umma — the Muslim community