Prophet Muhammad is rightfully regarded as the central figure in the history of Islam. He is the person who introduced this religion to the Arabs in the 7th century and starting working to create a united Arab empire. Since founding Islam, Muhammad took on the role of principal leader and his claim to power was unquestioned for he led by the authority of God. Following the death of the Prophet in 632AD, the need arose to come up with a government system based on Islam. The system of governance created by his followers is what came to be known as the Caliphate. This paper will discuss the founding of the Caliphate with an emphasis on why this system was necessary and the actions of the early Caliphs.
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The Birth of an Islamic Empire
Prophet Muhammad first preached the religion of Islam to the Arabs of Mecca in the early years of the 7th century. However, the leaders of Mecca rejected his teachings since acceptance would have threatened their power and prosperity. To prevent the spread of Muhammad’s message, the leaders engaged in violent reprisals of believers of this new faith. Lapidus documents that by 615AD, the situation in Mecca had deteriorated greatly and Muslims were facing widespread persecution (35).
This persecution forced them to flee Mecca in 622 and eventually settle in Medina where Muhammad acquired a significant number of followers. The prophet ordered his followers to fight against the unbelieving city of Mecca. Gearon documents that Islam was able to gather a number of impressive victories on the battlefield under the leadership of Prophet Muhammad (47).
Due to the strength of the Muslim forces, Mecca surrendered in 630, which enabled Muhammad and his followers to make the journey back to Mecca. Following the surrender of Mecca, Islam gained great significance in the Arabian Peninsula and was on a path to becoming the dominant religion. However, the Prophet suffered a brief illness in 632AD and died shortly afterwards. This created a major situation since Muhammad had not named a successor or set up a system of government that could be used by his followers.
The Foundation of the Caliphate
The Caliphate was founded as a direct reaction to the death of Prophet Muhammad. Esposito explains that when Muhammad died, the Muslim community needed leadership (77). Since the Prophet had not made any succession plans, it was up to his followers to come up with a feasible system to ensure the growth and prosperity of the religion.
The Caliphate was the political-religious government system established after the death of Muhammad to rule over the Islamic empire. Within 24hours following the death of Muhammad, a number of Medinan leaders and three of the Prophets close friends met to discuss the succession issue. They agreed that Abu Bakr, who was Muhammad’s father-in-law, should succeed him.
Abu Bakr was a favorite candidate since he not only had kinship ties to Muhammad, but he was also one of the first followers of the Prophet. Esposito acknowledges that the father-in-law’s close personal relationship with Muhammad combined with his religious devotion made him the favorite choice for successor (78). Abu Bakr took on the title of Khalifa, or “successor” and the English version of this term is caliph.
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While the first Caliph was given the title successor, his role could not be similar to that of Muhammad. The followers understood that only Muhammad could receive revelations from God. The position of the Caliphs could therefore not be similar to that of the Prophet. Lapidus reveals that when Abu Bakr assumed the office of the Caliphate, he swore to obey the precedent of the Prophet and that the people were only to obey him as long as he obeyed it (65).
After taking office, Abu Bakr reinforced the religious practices that had been established by Muhammad. He stressed on the importance of the Five Pillars of Islam to all Muslims. In addition to this, he reestablished the authority of Islam over communities in the Arabian Peninsula just as Muhammad had. This action was deemed necessary since some Arab communities had begun to abandon their allegiance to Islam after the death of the Prophet.
The First caliph engaged in some steps that defined the direction of the newly established Islamic regime. He established a system of taxation on all tribes formerly allied to the Prophet. The caliph made this payment a mandatory tax that was collected by the Empire. Some of the tribes refused to fulfill this financial obligation. Abu Bakr waged war on the resisting tribes and installed new governors in the conquered territories.
The Caliphate also sought to unify the religion by establishing an authoritative holy book. Abu Bakr began the project that would eventually lead to the creation of the Quran. He instructed his men to collect all the material available on the Prophet’s revelations for compilation. This led to the eventual acquisition of the Quran in the year 650. The first caliph died in 634 and he was succeeded by his colleague Umar Ibn al-Khattab.
The second Caliph was able to reign from 634 to 644. Under the rule of Umar, Muslims engaged in impressive battles for conquest. Gearon documents that under the rule of this caliph, the Arab forces set out to conquer Egypt in the name of Islam (47). The Arabs were successful and in 641, the Egyptian city of Alexandria fell to the Islamic forces.
Umar set out a number of important laws that continued to define the Caliphate for centuries. According to Lapidus, this caliph formalized laws abolishing temporary marriages and increased punishment for adultery (65). In addition to this, he promoted religious identity throughout the Islamic empire by building many mosques in the conquered territories. He also appointed numerous religious officials to increase the influence of religion in the society.
Umar was succeeded by Uthman who was an aristocrat from Mecca. During his reign, Uthman increased central control over the revenues of the Caliphate. It was in this caliphate that the standard edition of the Quran was publicized. The caliph’s actions alienated him from other companions of the Prophet who did not like his claim to religious authority. Uthman tried to enlarge his authority in order to effect socioeconomic and religious changes within the caliphate. This provoked bitter opposition to his rule and led to his assassination in 656.
Uthman was succeeded by Ali, who was Muhammad’s first cousin and son in law. From the onset, Ali’s caliphate was troubled for he had come to power with the support of his predecessor’s assassins. The governor of Syria, who was related to the slain Uthman, challenged Ali’s right to be Caliph. This led to protracted battles between the followers of Ali and the Umayyad clan. The conflicts had a negative impact on Islam as they led to divisions among the followers. The warring parties agreed to negotiate and have an inquiry into the assassination of Uthman. Ali’s reign came to an end in 661 when he was assassinated by his own supporters for agreeing to the arbitration.
These first four caliphs are considered the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” for they perpetuated the teachings of Muhammad. These leaders represented the political and religious leadership of the Prophet. The succeeding caliphs did not follow the political and religious goals of the first four. Future caliphs were mostly interested in the political power and economic benefits of the position. For example, the Umayyad caliphate that succeeded Ali and ruled from 661 to 750 was politically motivated.
To begin with, it ruled over the Arab people instead of being a religious empire. Gillani and Tahir assert that the Umayyads were little more than heads of a turbulent Arabian aristocracy (565). The Empire’s army was made almost entirely of Muslim Arabs and non-Muslim administrators were allowed to continue working in conquered territories. This diminished the authority of the Caliphate and precipitated the decline of the institute of the caliph as the head of the Islamic Community (Gillani and Tahir 565).
This paper set out to discuss the foundation of the Caliphate following the death of Prophet Muhammad. It began by giving a background of the development of the Islamic Empire and explained why a caliphate was necessary. The paper documented some of the actions of the first four caliphs to underscore the fact that this government system held both political and religious authority. The caliphate underwent major changes following the death of the forth caliph and this marked a fateful change in the history of Islam.
Esposito, John. The Islamic World: Past and Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.
Gearon, Eamonn. “The Arab Invasions.” History Today 61.6 (2011): 47-52. Print.
Gillani, Aftab and Mohammad Tahir. “The Administration of Abbasids Caliphate: A Fateful Change in the Muslim History.” Pakistan Journal of Commerce & Social Sciences 8.2 (2014): 565-571. Print.
Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.
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