First Four Caliphs

First four caliphs at greatest extent
First four caliphs at greatest extent

After the prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, the elder statesman Abu Bakr (r. 632–34) was selected as the new caliph or representative of the Muslim community. The first four caliphs were known as the Rashidun or rightly guided ones. Abu Bakr irritated Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, and her husband, Ali, by declaring that the Prophet’s estate belonged to the Muslim community and not to the family. Although Ali’s supporters reluctantly accepted Abu Bakr as the caliph they would ultimately split from the majority Muslim community.

In what were known as the Ridda wars (wars against apostasy), Abu Bakr’s first major challenge was to put down a number of rebellions by tribal nomads who opposed the central control of the Islamic state. Within two years, the Muslim forces had secured the entire Arabian Peninsula and ruled from the capital of Medina. With Abu Bakr’s death Omar was selected as the second caliph in 634. For his achievements as a ruler and administrator, Omar has been called the second founder of Islam.

Under Omar (r. 634–44), the Arab forces, embarked on a series of dynamic and swift wars against the neighboring Byzantine and Sassanid Empires. The plunder from these conquests was divided with one-fifth going to the state and the rest apportioned among the warriors. Ownership of conquered lands reverted back to previous owners with payment of a tax or went to the state. As a result the new Islamic/Arab empire became increasingly wealthy.

At the Battle of Yarmuk the Arab Muslim forces decisively defeated the Byzantine emperor Heraclius and Damascus was taken in 636. The city’s grand Byzantine church was turned into a mosque and subsequently expanded. The Muslim forces swiftly moved on to Palestine, taking Jerusalem in 637.

Omar visited the city and proclaimed that Christians, the majority population at the time, and Jews, as people of the book, had protected status as Dhimmis under Qur’anic injunctions; they therefore were to be treated with tolerance and no forced conversions were to be undertaken.

Although over time many willingly converted to Islam, the population of the area remained predominantly Christian until the Crusades. Although the Byzantine Empire survived with its capital at Constantinople, the new Muslim/Arab empire now controlled the eastern Mediterranean coast and plains.

After initial reluctance Omar agreed that the commander Amr ibn al-‘As could move on to the conquest of Egypt. Amr took Alexandria with relative ease in 642 and established Fustat, outside modern Cairo, as the new Muslim administrative center. His forces also pushed into Libya, taking the port of Tripoli.

Muslim forces were equally successful in their battles against the weakened Sassanid Empire in the east. They won a decisive battle at Qadisiyyah in 637 and moved on to the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon, where the warriors collected enormous quantities of plunder in gold, silver, and jewels.

Ali and Aisha in Battle of Camel
Ali and A'isha in Battle of Camel

In keeping with tradition regarding the apportioning of booty, the fabulous jeweled carpet from the palace was cut into pieces and given to the conquering soldiers. By 638 the Arabs controlled all of the Tigris and Euphrates and by 644 had effectively taken Persia (present-day Iran). Within a decade Persia had become a predominantly Muslim nation. The Muslim state absorbed many of the administrative and economic practices of both the older Byzantine and Sassanid Empires.

Following Omar’s murder by a slave, the Muslim community again gathered to choose a successor. After some acrimonious debate, Uthman (r. 644–656), a member of the powerful Umayyad family, was selected as the new caliph. In his 70s Uthman was not as capable or popular a leader as his predecessors.

After he appointed Muaw’iya, a member of his own family, as governor of Syria, Uthman was accused of nepotism. Opposition to Uthman grew and in 656 rebellious troops returning from Egypt assassinated him and declared Ali (r. 656–661) the new caliph.

Muaw’iya and the Umayyad family criticized Ali for his reluctance to prosecute the assassins; A’isha, the Prophet’s widow, also opposed Ali and mounted troops to fight against him. However Ali and his supporters defeated A’isha at the Battle of the Camel in 656, but in face of the open hostility in Medina, Ali moved his capital to Kufa.

As opposition from Syria continued to mount, Ali prepared to fight Muaw’iya’s opposing claims to the caliphate. The two sides met at the Battle of Siffin in 657. The fighting continued for several months and at one point Muaw’iya’s forces raised parts of the Qur’an to demand negotiations in accordance with Muslim tradition.

Mediators, including Amr ibn al-‘As, declared that Ali would continue to rule from Kufa and Muaw’iya would rule from Damascus; this essentially meant that the Muslim community now had two caliphs. Some seceders (Kharijites) blamed Ali for his willingness to negotiate and in 661 a Kharijite assassinated Ali in Kufa. However the division between the Muslim believers over who was the legitimate ruler proved to be a lasting one.