The Civil Wars

The Civil Wars

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Just as a civilization advances by faith and knowledge, it is arrested and destroyed by ignorance and greed. Even as Muslim armies continued their advance towards the borders of India, China and the Atlantic Ocean, the seeds of greed and nepotism were being sown in the heartland of Islam. The booty from Persia was enormous. Untold amounts of gold, silver and jewels were captured from the Persians and transported to Madina. It is reported that Omar was distraught when the riches of Persia were presented to him. ”When God grants riches to a nation”, he said, “envy and jealousy grow in its people and as a result enmity and injustice is created in its ranks”. With their spiritual insight, the Companions foresaw what these riches would do to the character of their people. They were opposed to the amassing of wealth that would detract them from the spiritual mission of Islam. For instance, one of the items of booty from Persia was an exquisite carpet called “farsh-e-bahar” (the carpet of spring). It was a possession of the Persian monarchs and was so large that it could accommodate a thousand guests at their drinking parties. Some people in Madina wanted to preserve it. Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) insisted that the carpet be torn up. Ali’s (r) suggestion was adopted and the carpet was shredded.
Omar (r) saw to it that the treasury did not become a place for hoarding gold and silver. The gems and jewelry were sold and the proceeds were distributed so that all the people benefited. Capital in circulation grew and trade flourished. Chroniclers record that when Omar ibn al Khattab (r) was assassinated, there was only enough ration in the treasury to feed ten people. The firmness and wisdom that was required to manage the sudden infusion of wealth was gone with the passing of Omar (r). Within ten years of his passing, the Islamic community was at loggerheads and in the midst of a full-scale civil war.
Next to faith, wealth is the most important engine in the building of a civilization. Properly invested and managed, wealth, as the surplus energy of human effort, propels invention and civilizational advance. When it is hoarded, it leads to economic contraction, breeds jealousy, fosters intrigue, greed, infighting and ultimately destroys a civilization.
We find the origin of the civil wars in the gold of Persia. As long as the towering figure of Omar (r) was present, the pressures that inevitably accompany sudden wealth were held in check. Omar (r) managed the state with justice, firmness and equity. The slightest indication of nepotism was punished. Self-aggrandizement was publicly discouraged. Even a popular and successful general like Khalid bin Walid did not escape chastisement when it was discovered that he had paid a poet for a lyric in praise of his own person (although Khalid was later exonerated when it was determined that he had paid the money from his own pocket).
As he lay on his deathbed, Omar (r) appointed a committee of six to select his successor with explicit instructions that they were not to select his own son, Abdullah bin Omar (r), or to nominate themselves. The committee consisted of Ali ibn Abu Talib (r), Uthman bin Affan (r), Zubair ibn al Awwam, Talha ibn Ubaidallah, Sa’ad ibn Waqqas and Abdur Rahman ibn Aus. Abdur Rahman ibn Aus was charged with taking the pulse of the community regarding the issue of succession. He did so and found that there was widespread support for both Ali (r) and Uthman (r). Before a large gathering in the Prophet’s mosque, the question was put to the two finalists: “Will you discharge the responsibilities of this office in accordance with the Commandments of God, His Messenger and the example of the two Sheikhs ( Abu Bakr (r) and Omar (r))?” Ali (r) was given the first choice. He replied that he would conduct the office in accordance with the commandments of God and His Messenger. The reply was taken to mean that Ali (r) was ambiguous about the legacy of Abu Bakr (r) and Omar (r). Uthman (r) was then asked the same question and he replied that indeed he would serve in accordance with the commandments of God, His Messenger and the example of the two Sheikhs. Uthman bin Affan(r) won the nomination and was elected the Caliph.
The question, though seemingly innocuous, was loaded in favor of Uthman (r). Unless one makes a strong case for historical continuity, some scholars argue that it was unnecessary to include the tradition of the two Sheikhs as a prerequisite to the Caliphate at that juncture. The issue, however, is much deeper than this simple argument. What was taking place was a historical unfolding of the differences among the Companions regarding the place of ijma in the application of the Shariah. Such differences were codified in later times in the different Schools of Fiqh. What is important is that the differences were not doctrinal; they were differences in emphasis.
Uthman (r) was more than seventy years old when elected Caliph. He was a man of piety, a scholar, a man of utmost integrity and humility and one of the earliest companions of the Prophet. He was a man of means and used his wealth with utmost generosity in the service of the Islamic community. He was married to Ruqaiyya, the Prophet’s daughter and after her death to Umm Kulthum, another of the Prophet’s daughters. But Uthman (r) was also extremely shy and indecisive. These qualities, which may be innocuous in an individual, were to prove fatal in Uthman (r) as a ruler. More significantly, Uthman (r) belonged to Banu Umayyah. In pre-Islamic times, the Banu Umayyah often competed for power and prestige with Bani Hashim, the tribe to which the Prophet and Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) belonged. These factors became increasingly important as the unity fostered by Islam cracked under the pressures generated during the period of Uthman (r).
The Caliphate of Uthman (r) lasted twelve years and it may be divided into two distinct phases. During the first six years, the momentum created by Omar ibn al Khattab (r) carried Muslim armies further into Azerbaijan, Kirman, Afghanistan, Khorasan and Kazakhstan in the east and Libya to the west. Several rebellions in Kurdistan and Persia were suppressed.
Two of the initiatives undertaken by Uthman (r) during this period had a lasting impact on Islamic history. It was at the initiative of Uthman (r) that the pronunciation of the Qur’an was standardized. The Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet as the Word of God and was memorized by hundreds ofhufaz. After the Battle of Yamama when many hufaz perished, Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r), upon the advice of Omar ibn al Khattab (r), had the Qur’an written down exactly as the Prophet had arranged it. The book is calledMushaf e Siddiqi. The Arabic language, as it is normally written, does not show the vowels and pronunciation is deduced from the context. Accordingly, Mushaf e Siddiqi did not show any vowels. As Islam spread beyond the borders of Arabia into non-Arabic speaking areas, there was the risk of mispronunciation with consequent misinterpretation. Uthman (r) ordered the preparation of a written copy showing both vowels and consonants, consistent with the recitations of the Prophet. Where the styles of recitation used by the Prophet varied, these styles were so noted.
The second initiative was the building of a navy. Omar (r) had resisted the idea as premature for an Arab army used to rapid movements in the desert. Upon the recommendation of Muawiya, Uthman (r) ordered the building of a powerful navy to check Byzantine power in the eastern Mediterranean. A naval force was built and Cyprus was captured. The continued expansion of the navy provided the capability ten years later for a naval assault on the Byzantine capital, Constantinople (modern Istanbul).
It was during the second half of the Caliphate of Uthman (r) that serious divisions arose in the Islamic community. The shy, retiring and indecisive nature of Uthman was an invitation to mischief-makers. Some among the Banu Umayyah tribe took advantage of this indecisiveness to create huge estates for themselves. Uthman (r) had removed some of the administrators appointed by Omar (r) and had replaced them with men from the Banu Umayyah tribe. Some of these appointees were unqualified for their positions. When the incompetence of these officers was brought to his attention, Uthman (r) often hesitated and corrective action was delayed. Since Uthman (r) himself belonged to the Banu Umayyah, he was vulnerable to charges of nepotism. Pre-Islamic tribal animosities between Bani Hashim and Banu Umayyah, which had been subdued since the time of the Prophet, surfaced once again.
The most important element in the ensuing political instability was the enormous wealth acquired from Persia. Mas’udi records (as related by Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddamah, page 478, op. cit.), “On the day Caliph Uthman (r) was assassinated, the treasurer had in his personal collection, a sum of 150,000 dinars and 1,000,000 dirhams. In addition, he owned properties worth 200,000 dinars in the valleys of Qura and Hunain in which he kept a large number of camels and horses. One of the properties owned by Zubair was worth 50,000 dinars in which he kept 1,000 horses. Talha derived an income of 1,000 dinars from his properties in Iraq. Abdur Rahman bin Awf had 1,000 horses in his stable in addition to 1,000 camels and 10,000 heads of sheep. Upon his death, one fourth of his estate was valued at 84,000 dinars. Zaid bin Thabit owned bricks of gold and silver which required a large axe to cut. Zubair had constructed multiple houses in Basrah, Egypt, Kufa and Alexandria. Similarly, Talha owned a home in Kufa in addition to an old home in Madina, which he had renovated with bricks, mortar and oak timber. Sa’ad bin Waqqas had built a tall and expansive mansion made of red stone. Maqdad built a home in Madina which he had plastered inside and out.”
Masudi goes on to state that this wealth was acquired legitimately through booty and trade. While wealth, legitimately acquired, did not influence the Companions, many others in the community were less sanguine about how the wealth was acquired or how it was used. The new opulence of the community was in stark contrast to the simplicity with which the earlier Caliphs lived. Omar ibn al Khattab (r), while he was the Caliph, used to cover the holes in his tattered clothes with patches of goatskin. But times had changed. The infusion of Persian gold changed the character of some of the Arabs. Damascus, which was governed by Umayyad governors, became a city of palaces. An inexorable process of decay had begun wherein the decadence of luxury displaced the ruggedness of nomadic life and took men and women away from the transcendence of the spirit to the pleasures of the flesh.
The increasing corruption gave an opportunity for the propagation of rumors, innuendo and mischief. In this turbulent scenario, two characters stand out as particularly sinister. One was Abdullah bin Saba, a recent convert, who tried to pit Uthman (r) against Ali (r) and incited the people of Kufa (Iraq) and Egypt against Uthman (r). The other was Hakam bin Marwan, an Umayyad, whom Uthman (r) had appointed as his Chief Secretary. Hakam was responsible for official correspondence and abused this privileged position to misrepresent Uthman (r) at critical moments. The dissatisfaction and disaffection finally erupted in open rebellion. Bands of rebels from Kufa and Egypt entered Madina, surrounded the residence of the Caliph and demanded his resignation. Uthman (r) could not comply with this demand because that would destroy the Caliphate as an institution. He was attacked and mercilessly executed in 655. The civil wars had begun.
Actions that are driven by passions generate similar passions with unforeseen consequences. The assassination of Uthman (r) unleashed chaos in Madina. There was no leadership, no order and no authority in the city. The body of Uthman (r) lay unclaimed for more than 24 hours when a group of Muslims mustered the courage to perform the final ablution and bury the assassinated Caliph in the darkness of night. Only seventeen men attended the funeral. Amidst this chaos, representations were made to Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) to accept the Caliphate. He hesitated, but relented upon the insistence of some of the prominent companions of the Prophet and became the fourth Caliph of Islam.
Ali (r) understood that the assassination of Uthman (r) was a symptom of a deeper malaise. The gold of Persia had created a powerful whirlwind in which the Islamic body politic was caught up. Some of this wealth had found its way to the provincial capitals where it financed an opulent life style. Those who had become accustomed to this life style were reluctant to change and revert to the simplicity enjoined by the Prophet.
Ali’s (r) first priority was to establish order. He desired to achieve it in such a manner that the disease itself would be cured. Realizing that any reform must start from the top, Ali (r) demanded the resignation of the provincial governors. As we shall see, this proved to be a fateful decision. Some of the governors obliged; others refused as an open declaration of rebellion. Notable among the latter was Muawiya bin Abu Sufyan, the Umayyad governor of Syria.
Faith and wealth are two of the most powerful engines of history. We see for the first time after the assassination of Uthman (r) the opposing pull of these two elements. Wealth is like a wild horse. When it is tamed, it moves with grace and gives power to the rider. Untamed, it destroys itself and the rider alike. Faith is the harness that tames wealth. Without the discipline that comes with faith, wealth leads to greed and destroys all that builds a civilization. What was needed after the conquest of Persia was the firmness and decisiveness of someone like Omar (r). The shy and retiring nature of the third Caliph Uthman (r) was a recipe for disaster. In the latter half of the Caliphate of Uthman (r), we see how the newfound wealth bred corruption and nepotism, threatening to destroy the very faith that had enabled the Muslims to win the wealth.
Ali (r), trained as he was by Prophet Muhammed (p), wanted to re-establish Islamic life after the pristine example of the Prophet. But times had changed. The conquest of the Persian Empire had made some notables enormously wealthy. These notables would rather fight to keep their privileges than surrender. Islam was now a religion as much of this world as it was of the hereafter and had to compete with personal power and prestige for the fealty of people’s hearts. The transcendence of the Prophet’s example had to now come to terms with the worldly reality of gold and greed.
Faith and greed were locked in mortal combat. Against this background, the assassination of Uthman (r) was an event that provided fuel for the combatants. Ali’s (r) priority was to establish order. But many of the Companions desired to settle the issue of Uthman’s (r) assassination as the first priority. They demanded qisas (the apprehension and due punishment for the assassins as prescribed by the Qur’an). To them, justice had to take precedence over order.
So shocked was the Islamic community at the assassination of Uthman (r) that no less a person than Aisha binte Abu Bakr (r), wife of the Prophet, took up the issue of qisas. Notable Companions like Talha ibn Ubaidallah and Zubair ibn al Awwam joined the fray. In the year 656, Aisha (r) set out from Mecca towards Basra (Iraq) with a force of 3,000 men. This was a grave moment indeed. Here was Ummul-Momineen herself, marching forth to capture and punish the assassins of Uthman (r) and in the process undermining the authority of the Caliphate. A sense of sadness and helplessness overtook the Meccan community. Some joined the fray, including the well known Companions of the Prophet Talha ibn Ubaidallah and Zubair ibn al Awwam. A large number sensed the gravity of the situation and stayed neutral.
The position of Aisha (r), motivated though it was by a fervent desire to reform the community and punish the guilty, had the effect of creating an armed force independent of the Caliphate and weakening its authority. There cannot be two independent armed forces within one political state. Justice, as demanded by Aisha (r), was bound to come into conflict with the order that was desired by Ali (r). The two positions collided at the Battle of Jamal (Camel).
Ali (r) was at first preparing to march on Syria to bring Muawiya under control. But the movement of the Meccan force under Aisha (r) towards Iraq was a disturbance that could not be overlooked. Accordingly, Ali (r) marched towards Iraq at the head of a force of 700 men. This was another fateful decision, for Ali (r) was never able to return to Madina. The wheels of destiny were set in motion. As it approached Kufa i(Iraq), Ali’s (r) force was reinforced by a strong contingent of several thousand Iraqis. It was only a matter of time before the combined forces of Madina and Iraq under Ali (r) would confront the Meccan force under Aisha (r).
Dedicated attempts were made to bring the positions of the two sides together to avoid armed conflict. An understanding was indeed reached between the two sides to avoid war and reconcile the community. But there were determined troublemakers among the parties as well. The factions who were responsible for the assassination of Uthman (r) were determined to sabotage the agreement because a peaceful reconciliation would expose them to harsh punishment from both sides. One of these factions, led by a recent convert Abdulla bin Saba, was particularly active in Iraq and Egypt. Determined to scuttle a peace agreement by any means, the Sabaiites attacked both camps in the darkness of night. In the ensuing confusion each side thought that the other had tricked them. When Aisha (r) mounted her camel to bring the situation under control, her group assumed she had done so to personally lead the charge. General warfare erupted. Thousands perished in a matter of hours. Among the casualties of the conflict was the noted companion Talha ibn Ubaidallah. Another well-known Companion Zubair ibn al Awwam withdrew from the fray but was assassinated on his way from the battlefield. Realizing that as long as Aisha (r) was visible on her camel, the battle would continue, Ali (r) ordered her camel to be brought down. When the camel fell, Aisha’s (r) side fell into disarray. Ali (r) decisively won the battle. Aisha (r) was treated with utmost courtesy and was sent back to Mecca under military escort.
The Battle of the Camel was a disaster for the Muslims. It destroyed the cohesiveness of the Islamic community that had been so painstakingly forged by the Prophet. Aisha (r) herself expressed her regret over this battle towards the end of her life. It was the first round in a civil war that rocked Islam and culminated in Karbala. Although Ali (r) decisively won the battle, it weakened his political position and encouraged his opponents to persist in their demands for qisas. The assassins of Uthman (r) could rest assured that they could hide behind one faction or the other and escape punishment. Indeed, Ali (r) was never able to appoint a tribunal to bring the murderers of Uthman (r) to justice.
The Battle of the Camel gave Muawiya added time to prepare for the coming struggle against Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib (r). The blood stained shirt of Uthman (r) was hung at the door of the Great Mosque in Damascus. People from far and wide would visit the mosque and seeing the blood of Uthman (r), would weep and take an oath to avenge the blood of the third Caliph. Complicity of Ali (r) in the murder of Uthman (r) was alleged, first covertly and then openly. Muawiya enlisted the support of a well-known orator, Shurahbeel bin Samat Kindi, to spread this accusation far and wide in Syria. By such means, Muawiya succeeded in uniting the Syrians against Ali (r) and built up a solid military force of 70,000 men to face him.
The struggle between Ali (r) and Muawiya was a classic example of a battle between principle and politics. Some Muslims have looked upon it as a struggle between Tareeqah and Shariah. Others have shied away from examining the conflict at all citing the honor and respect that is due to all Companions of the Prophet. Yet others have maintained that the ijtihad(legal reasoning) of both Ali (r) and Muawiya was correct but that of Ali (r) was of a higher order than that of Muawiya. We have taken no position regarding the issue except to cite the historical facts as they unfolded. Ali (r), whom the Prophet had called “gateway to my knowledge”, was a fountainhead of spirituality, a man of principle, a great scholar, a noble soldier, but was caught up in the political storms generated by the Caliphate of Uthman (r) and his assassination. Muawiya was an accomplished administrator, a superb politician and a determined foe. The two proved to be true to their positions till the end of their lives. Ali (r), as the legitimate Caliph, desired to establish order first and then attend to other matters of state including the assassination of Uthman (r). Ali (r) did not succeed in this endeavor and the struggle consumed his Caliphate and his person. Muawiya demanded qisas first, before he would accept the Caliphate of Ali (r).
On his part, Ali (r) moved the capital of the Islamic state from Madina to Kufa (656) and consolidated his position. He raised an army of 80,000 for the march on Syria. This army was mostly composed of Iraqis, with contingents of Madinites and Persians. Seeing the storms gathering on the horizon, some notable Companions tried to make peace. Abu Muslim Khorasani convinced Muawiya to write to Ali (r). In his letter, Muawiya offered to take his oath of fealty to Ali (r) if he surrendered the assassins of Uthman (r). But by now positions had hardened on both sides. Muawiya knew that Ali (r) was politically too weak at the time to fulfill this demand. When the issue was raised before a large gathering at the mosque in Kufa, over 10,000 Iraqis raised their hands and declared that each of them was an assassin of Uthman (r). The messenger from Syria returned empty handed.
Muawiya, with his Syrian army, was the first to move towards Iraq and occupy the waters of the Euphrates near the plains of Siffin. When the army of Ali (r) arrived at the scene, they were denied water. Ali (r) promptly ordered the Syrians to be expelled and to control the water resources. The Battle of Siffin had begun. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the age. For three months, the Syrians and the Iraqis went at each other with full fury, convinced that their respective positions were correct. Over 40,000 people lost their lives. So great was the bloodbath that many on both sides wondered aloud if the Muslims would survive if this carnage were to continue.
For a long time, the battle was a stalemate with neither side gaining a decisive advantage. But on the night of Laitul-Hareer (the Night of the Battle), the supporters of Ali (r) attacked with such determined force that the Syrians realized they were on the verge of defeat. It was here that Muawiya played one more ruse. Upon the advice of Amr bin al As, to whom Muawiya had promised the governorship of Egypt, the Syrians hoisted copies of the Qur’an on their lances and declared that they would accept the hakam (arbitration) of the Qur’an between the contesting parties. Ali (r) saw through this ruse but was helpless in the face of the determined demand from both sides.
This was one more of the fateful decisions for Caliph Ali (r). The acceptance of arbitration established Muawiya as a legitimate contender for power with Ali (r). The two sides established a tribunal of two persons, one from each party, to decide between Muawiya and Ali (r). Abu Musa Aashari, a pious elderly Companion of the Prophet, was selected to represent Ali (r). Amr bin al As, an avowed partisan, was the representative for Muawiya.
It was at this juncture that a group from Ali’s (r) army walked away. They were called the Al Khwarij (those who walked away, also called Kharijites). The Kharijites were furious because in their view, Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) had committed shirk by accepting the arbitration of men as opposed to the hakam (arbitration) of the Qur’an. And unless he repented, they vowed to oppose Ali (r).
This was a classic illustration of how the transcendence of divine revelation is compromised when people of limited understanding apply it in mundane affairs. The Kharijites juxtaposed two ayats from the Qur’an and extracted a justification for their ruthless activities. Initially, they forced Ali (r) to accept arbitration on the basis of the Ayat: “If any do fail to judge by what God has revealed, they are wrongdoers” (Qur’an, 5:47). Then they walked away when a tribunal was appointed, basing their position on anotherAyat: “ Yet those who reject faith hold (others) as equal with their Lord.” (Qur’an, 6:1). It was their position that the Qur’an alone was the arbitrator; the arbitration of men was not acceptable.
The arbitrators decided that both Ali (r) and Muawiya were to resign and that a replacement was to be elected by the community. When it was time to make this announcement public, another trick was played. Abu Musa Aashari was asked to speak first and he faithfully announced the joint decision. But when Amr bin al As followed, he changed the story. ”O people, you have heard the decision of Abu Musa. He has deposed his own man and now I too depose him. But I do not depose my own man Muawiya. He is the inheritor of Emir ul Momineen Uthman (r) and wants lawful revenge for his blood. Therefore, he is more entitled to take the seat of the late Caliph”. There was pandemonium in the gathering. Accusations flew. But it was too late. When news of this episode reached Ali (r), he was sad. Amr bin al As returned to Damascus where Muawiya was declared the Caliph (658). Thus it was that during the years 658-661, there were two centers of Caliphate, one in Kufa and the other in Damascus.
This chicanery was unacceptable to followers of Ali (r) and the war resumed. For three years various provinces were contested between Muawiya and Ali (r), including Madina, Mecca, Jazira, Anbar, Madain, Badya, Waqusa, Talbia, Qataqtana, Doumatul Jandal and Tadammur. At long last both sides seemed to have tired and a truce was declared in 660. Under the terms, Ali (r) retained control of Mecca, Madina, Iraq, Persia and the provinces to the east. Muawiya retained control over Syria and Egypt.
The de-facto partition re-established the historic geopolitical boundary between Byzantium and Persiaat the borders of the Euphrates. As we shall see again and again in our exposition of Islamic history, this boundary was re-affirmed by many of the Caliphs and sultans, so much so that the historical experience of the Persians, Central Asians, Indians and Pakistanis of today is significantly different from the historical experience of Syrians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Egyptians and North Africans. Syria and Egypt did not accept the Caliphate of Ali (r) until the Abbasid period (750), whereas Ali (r) was for all times the Caliph, the “Lion of God”, the teacher and mentor for Persians and Persianized Muslims in the east.
The Kharijites were not content to walk away from Ali (r). They sought to alter the status quo through assassination, murder and mayhem and resolved to simultaneously assassinate Ali (r), Muawiya and Amr bin al As, blaming these three for the civil wars. As fate would have it, the assassination of Ali (r) was successful. Muawiya escaped with a minor wound. Amr bin al As did not show up for prayer on the day he was to be assassinated and his designee was killed in his place. Ali ibn Abu Talib (r), the Fourth Caliph of Islam and the last in the line of those illustrious men who strove to rule in accordance with the Sunnah of the Prophet, died on the 20th of Ramadan, in the year 661.
The storms created by the assassination of Uthman bin Affan (r) swept aside the unity in the Islamic community. Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) tried to steer the ship of state in the stormy waters; in the effort, he himself became a casualty. It is said that he is buried in Kufa. But a close scrutiny of the chronicles reveals that his gravesite is not known. It may be in Kufa, or in the desert, or his body might have been shipped to Madina for burial lest the Kharijites destroy it. The enduring tribute that is paid by history to this great man is that all Muslims, whether they call themselves Shi’a or Sunni, Zaidi or Fatimid, accept him as the Caliph of Islam. He is the Qutub, the spiritual pole for the Sufis. He was a consummate orator, a tower of steadfastness, a pillar of courage, fountain of spirituality. He was the originator of classical Arabic grammar. The Prophet called him, “my brother . . . door to my knowledge”. His eloquent sayings, collected under the titleNahjul Balaga, have a universal appeal and a global following. No other person in Islamic history is accorded this honor.

Omar Ibn al Khattab (r)

Omar Ibn al Khattab (r)

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Summary: History bends to the will of man when it is exercised with faith and steadfastness. Omar (r) was one such man. He bent history to his will, leaving a legacy that successor generations have looked upon as a model to copy. He was one of the greatest of conquerors, a wise administrator, a just ruler, a monumental builder and a man of piety who loved God with the same intensity that other conquerors of his caliber have loved gold and wealth. The Prophet planted the seed of Tawhid. At its most elemental level, Tawhid means belief in one God. In its historical sense, it connotes a God-focused civilization, where all human effort is directed towards seeking Divine pleasure. Abu Bakr (r), with his wise intercession at an historic moment, ensured that the seed did not perish with the death of the Prophet. It was during the Caliphate of Omar (r) that the seed grew into a full-blown tree and bore fruit. Omar (r) shaped the historical edifice of Islam and whatever Islam became or did not become in subsequent centuries is due primarily to the work of this historical figure. Indeed, Omar (r) was the architect of Islamic civilization.
The achievements of Omar ibn al Khattab (r) are all the more remarkable considering that he lacked the advantage of birth, nobility or wealth that some of the other Companions enjoyed. He was born into the tribe of Bani ‘Adi, a poorer cousin amongst the Quraish. In his own words, before he accepted Islam, he was at various times a petty merchant and a shepherd who would often lose his sheep. From such humble beginnings, he rose to weld together an empire greater in extent than either that of Rome or Persia and governed it with the wisdom of a Solomon and administered it with the sagacity of a Joseph.
Upon his election to the Caliphate, Omar (r) was faced with the immediate geopolitical situation in West Asia. The Arabian Peninsula is a vast desert, except for its southwestern tip near Najran and Yemen, where the monsoons bring in rain from the Indian Ocean and make the area fertile. To the north, the extent of the desert is marked by the Jordan River, which separates it from the hills of Palestine and Lebanon. To the east, its boundaries are marked by the Euphrates. The area between the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris is called the Jazira (island). This area, known in ancient times as Mesopotamia, was called Iraq e Arab in the early Islamic period. The waters of the two rivers irrigate this area and have made it the cradle of civilizations. East of the River Tigris, the land gradually rises into the Persian Plateau leading into the heartland of ancient Fars. The Arabs called this area Iraq e Ajam and it included the Farsi (Persian) speaking areas of Khuzistan, Hamadan, Fars, Persepolis, Isfahan, Azerbaijan, Khorasan, Makran and Baluchistan.
The Persian and Byzantine empires held the balance of power in the region with the Euphrates River as the historical divide between their respective areas of influence. Persia also controlled Yemen and the territories along the Red Sea north to Mecca and Madina. The emergence of Islam and the unification of the Arabs altered this balance of power. It was a situation that neither the Byzantines nor the Persians could ignore. Khosroe, the emperor of Persia, was on record as having ordered an assault on Madina. The Byzantines had attacked on the northern frontier and had killed the Muslim general Zaid bin Haris (632). Border clashes had begun during the Caliphate of Abu Bakr (r) between the newborn Islamic state and the two superpowers. The triumph of Omar (r) over the mighty empires of Persia and Byzantium within a brief span of ten years is one of the most remarkable stories in military history.
The Muslim eruption was impelled by a sense of mission inculcated by Islam. It was a matter of faith. This faith dictated that humankind is born into freedom and is beholden only to the transcendence of God. Islamic civilization is God-centered and its mission is to establish Divine patterns upon this earth. From this perspective, any social or political system that imposed subservience to a despotic ruler or an oppressive empire detracted from this transcendence and deserved to be challenged.
When Omar (r) became the Caliph, the campaigns in Syria were ongoing. The Battle of Yarmuk (636) had broken Byzantine resistance but Palestine was not yet subdued. Omar (r) commanded Amr bin al As to proceed from Yarmuk to Jerusalem. Since resistance was hopeless, the Patriarch of Jerusalem offered the keys to the city provided the Caliph himself came up to accept them. When the Caliph heard of this, he appointed Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) as the acting Caliph and set out north from Madina. Omar ibn al Khattab (r) was now the Caliph of all of Arabia and of surrounding territories. He could have traveled as a conqueror in pomp and luxury. But he, like the other Companions, had received his training from the Prophet Muhammed (p). Theirs was the kingdom of heaven and not of this earth. They held the key to the treasures of the earth but only as a Divine Trust as servants of the Lord. Omar (r) traveled north on one camel with a single attendant, taking turns with him for the ride. As he approached Jerusalem, it so happened, the attendant was on the camel and the Caliph was walking alongside. The potentates of Jerusalem thought that the rider was the Caliph and the man on foot, in his patched clothes, was the servant. They offered abeyance to the rider. When the Muslim commanders greeted the real Caliph, the potentates of Jerusalem were astonished and bowed down in awe.
Omar (r) treated the conquered people with unsurpassed magnanimity. The capitulation document signed with the Christians upon the fall of Jerusalem provides an example:
“This is the safety given by a servant of God, the leader of the faithful, Omar ibn al Khattab (r) to the people of Ilia. This safety is for their life, property, church and cross, for the healthy and the sick and for all their co-religionists. Their churches shall neither be used as residence nor shall they be demolished. No harm shall be done to their churches or their boundaries. There shall be no decrease in their crosses or riches. There shall neither be any compulsion in religion nor shall they be harmed.”
The document speaks for itself. The Muslim armies were fighting for the freedom of worship, not for religious conversion. They considered it their mission on earth to free humankind from the yoke of exploitation and abuse. The conquered people were regarded as dhimmis (from the worddhimana, meaning trust or responsibility). They were considered a trust not to be violated as has happened time and again in history. Omar (r) stayed for a few days in Jerusalemand after inspecting the army positions in Syria, returned to Madina.
The Byzantines tried to regroup in Egypt and use it as a base to recover Syria. In 641, Omar (r) sent an expedition under Amr bin al As to Alexandria. The Copts were neutral in this test of strength between the Byzantines and the Muslims. Alexandria fell and the Muslim armies continued their advance as far as Tripoli in Libya.
Meanwhile, the eastern front with Persia was active. The Persians did not take lightly their losses in the border areas west of the Euphrates River. They reorganized, put their western defenses under the famous Khorasani General Rustam and reinforced him with the services of two able officers, Narsi and Jaban. The withdrawal of Khalid bin Walid from the Iraqi front to Syria had weakened Muslim defenses. So, Al Muthannah went to Madina and sought additional troops. Caliph Omar (r) permitted him to raise a new army, allowing for the first time the recruitment of men from the Arab tribes that had at one time become apostates. Abu Obaid Saqafi was selected to lead this new army. Skirmishes started immediately between the opposing forces. Abu Obaid met the Persian officer Jaban at the Battle of Namaraq and defeated him. He followed it up with a victory over Narsi at the Battle of Maqatia. Undaunted, the Persian commander Rustam sent a new army under Mardan Shah and reinforced it with a hundred war elephants. The Arabs had no experience fighting elephant-mounted troops. In the ensuing battle, Abu Obaid was trampled under one of the elephants and the Arab forces were sent reeling back across the Euphrates.
It was now obvious that what had started as a border war had become a test of strength between the Muslims and the Persian Empire. Omar (r) called a meeting of all the Arab nobles for consultation and offered to personally lead a campaign to Persia. However, upon the advice of Ali ibn Abu Talib (r), the Caliph chose Sa’ad ibn Waqqas to lead an army of 20,000 towards Persia. Sa’ad ibn Waqqas was a Companion of the Prophet and a veteran of the Battle of Badr. Among those embarking on the mission were seventy Companions of the Prophet who had fought at the Battle of Badr. The inclusion of Badri Companions increased the fervor of Muslims to a feverish pitch. Even some of the Christian tribes in the border areas offered to support the Muslim army. On the opposing side, the Persian General Rustam was at the head of 50,000 seasoned soldiers.
As directed by the Caliph, Sa’ad ibn Waqqas sent a peace mission to Rustam headed by Muthannah ibn Harith. Rustam, cognizant of the motivation of the Arab soldiers, directed the Arab delegation to Emperor Yazdgard. The Persian Emperor received the Muslims with great pomp and offered to pay them a rich bounty provided they returned to their homeland. In reply, Muthannah ibn Harith offered the Emperor three choices. One, accept submission to God, become a Muslim and a brother in faith. Two, accept protection of the Muslim state and pay jizya. Three, if the first two were unacceptable, face war. The Emperor was upset at these suggestions, told them he would have them killed were they not on a peace mission and sent them back with a handful of dust from the Persian soil, admonishing that the Arabs would get no more than that pitiful amount of dust from Persia.
War became inevitable and the trumpet was blown. At this juncture, Rustam made a tactical blunder. The Persian soldiers wore heavy armor, unsuitable for warfare in the desert. The Arabs, on the other hand, had no armor and were used to mobile desert warfare. Against his own better judgment, Rustam chose for the upcoming confrontation the plain of Qadasia in the desert, about forty miles from the Euphrates. The desert heat sapped the strength of the Persian soldiers in their heavy armor. In the initial combat, the elephants in the Persian army created enormous difficulty for the Muslim warriors. For two days, the battle went on and was indecisive. On the third day the wheels of fortune turned as the Arab soldiers, seeking to neutralize the elephants, shot sharp arrows at their eyes. The injured elephants turned around and dispersed, trampling their own troops. Rustam fought bravely, but was slain in battle.
The Battle of Qadasia (637) was one of the turning points in world history. It marked the end of the Persian Empire and the beginning of the Islamic Empire. Persia became a part of the Islamic world and for fourteen hundred years has been a pivotal region in Muslim affairs.
From Qadasia, Sa’ad ibn Waqqas advanced to the old Biblical city of Babylon, which offered only feeble resistance. The cities of Kosi and Babrasheer followed suit. Madayen, the capital of the Persian Empire, was now within striking distance. The bulk of the Persian army had been lost in the Battle of Qadasia. Yazdgard tried to slow down the advance of Arab troops by destroying the bridge that linked the western shores of the Tigris River to Madayen. These tactics, however, proved futile. The Arabs put their horses into the river, waded across to the other shore and Madayen fell in 637. The treasures of the Persian capital were now in Muslim hands. Untold amounts of gold, silver, jewels, carpets and artifacts were captured and transported to Madina. Included in the war booty was an elephant that aroused a great deal of curiosity among the ladies in Madina.
Yazdgard fled Madayen towards Merv, in northeastern Persia. Realizing that the war with the Muslims was not just a skirmish but a full-scale invasion, he called on all Persians and their allies to defend Persia. A huge army of 150,000 was assembled and put under the command of Mardan Shah who had already seen action against the Arabs at the Battle of the Euphrates. To inspire the Persians, Mardan Shah was vested with the durafsh, the national emblem of Persia. The governor of Kufa, Ammar ibn Yassir sent this information to the Caliph and asked for additional troops. Omar (r) sent a corps of 30,000 under the command of Numan ibn Muquran. Peace talks proved futile and the two armies met at the Battle of Nahawand. In the initial engagements, Numan ibn Muquran was seriously wounded but the Muslim commanders kept this fact secret from friend and foe alike. Towards the end of the first day, the enemy lines broke and the Muslims were victorious. Numan did not survive his wounds and died that evening.
Persian resistance continued from its eastern provinces. Yazdgard set himself up in Merv and took personal command of his forces. Realizing that an injured enemy is a dangerous enemy, Caliph Omar (r) resolved to put an end to all Persian resistance. From Nahawand, the Arab armies split up, and mounted a multi-pronged drive against Persian strongholds. Abi al Aas captured Persepolis. Aasim ibn Amr took Sistan. Hakam ibn Umair conquered Makran and Baluchistan. Azerbaijan fell to Othba ibn Farqad. Buqair ibn Abdulla subdued Armenia. A contingent under Ahnaf ibn Qais marched on Khorasan. By the year 650, the Persian Empire was completely under the control of Arab armies. Yazdgard fled Persia and died in exile.
Within a decade after the election of Omar ibn al Khattab (r) as the Caliph, the map of West Asia and North Africa had changed. Madina was now the capital of the largest empire in the world, extending from Tripoli in North Africa to Samarqand in Central Asia. This empire was ruled not by a king or a general but by a revolutionary creed: “There is no deity but God and Muhammed is His Messenger”. The Caliph was no more than a servant of God, and the keeper of Divine Laws.
When Caliph Omar (r) was informed of the victories over Persia, he went to the mosque in Madina and addressed the people:
“ O believers! The Persians have lost their kingdom. They cannot harm us any more. God has made you inherit their country, their properties and their riches, so that He may test you. Therefore, you should not change your ways. Otherwise, God will bring forth another nation in place of you. I feel anxiety for our community from our own people”.
These were prophetic words. As we shall see in other articles, the riches of Persia did change the ways of some in Madina and led to the civil wars that tore the Islamic community apart.
Omar (r) was a superb administrator. He established a Shura (consultative) council and sought advice on matters of state. He divided the far-flung empire into the provinces of Mecca, Madina, Syria, Jazira (the fertile region between the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq), Basra, Khorasan, Azerbaijan, Persia and Egypt. A governor, answerable to the Caliph, was appointed for each province. The responsibilities and the limits of each governor’s authority were clearly defined. Governors who used their office to get rich were severely punished. The executive and the judiciary were separated and kadis were appointed to administer justice.
Caliph Omar (r) had the open mindedness to accept and adopt what was good in other civilizations. Where applicable, he learned from and adopted the technologies and administrative practices of the conquered people. Windmills were in extensive use in Persia at the time and Omar (r) ordered the construction of windmills in several of the Arab cities, including Madina. When Abu Huraira returned with a large booty from Bahrain, there were differences among the Madinites as to how to divide it up. Khalid bin Walid, observing the divisions, suggested to the Caliph that a department of documentation be set up in Madina similar to the ones he had seen in Persia. Caliph Omar (r) inquired about the Persian practices and after satisfying himself that they were indeed applicable to the Caliphate, ordered that a department of documentation be set up. As most Arabs were illiterate, he hired Persian scribes to man this new department. The scribes documented each item of booty and the claims on each, so that the Caliph could equitably divide it up among the claimants. Later, the department was expanded to document all transactions of the treasury and of the army. Following the example of Omar ibn al Khattab (r), the preparation and maintenance of documentation became an honored profession among Muslims, and Caliphs and sultans alike, down to the Ottomans in modern times, kept this tradition alive.
It was during the Caliphate of Omar (r) that Islamic jurisprudence and its methodologies based on the Qur’an, Sunnah, ijma and qiyas were fully established. The edicts of Omar (r), reflecting the consensus of the Companions, provided the foundation for the Maliki School of Fiqh that emerged a hundred years later.
The military was organized professionally. Soldiers were paid and defensive cantonments were established at Madina, Kufa, Basra, Mosul, Fustat (Cairo), Damascus, Edesa and Jordan. Finance, accounting, taxation and treasury departments were organized with full accountability. Police, prisons and postal units were established.
The land was surveyed and agriculture was encouraged. Old canals were excavated and new ones built. Large areas of land were brought under cultivation. Roads were laid out and were regularly patrolled. A traveler could move with safety all the way from Egypt to Khorasan in Central Asia.
The vast territories of West Asia and North Africa were welded into a free trade zone. Trade fostered prosperity. Education was encouraged and teachers paid. The study of Qur’an, Hadith, language, literature, writing and calligraphy received patronage. Omar (r) was himself a poet of repute and a noted orator. Over 4,000 mosques were built during the Caliphate of Omar (r).
Technology such as the construction of windmills was encouraged. Old bridges and roads were repaired and new ones built. A population census was taken after the example of the Chinese in the Tang dynasty. And it was Omar (r) who started the Islamic calendar based on the Hijra of the Prophet.
It is reported that Omar (r) wept when the following verse in the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet: “We offered the trust to the mountains, heavens and the earth, but they declined, being afraid thereof, but humankind accepted it, indeed humankind was unjust and foolish”(Qur’an, 33:72-73). Omar (r) understood that the trust referred to here is human free will. Humankind, drunk with the love of God, accepted this trust, while all other creation declined it. When the will of man is exercised in a manner that befits human nobility, it elevates him to a position higher than that of the angels. Humankind has a tryst with destiny, to realize its own sublime nature, in the matrix of human affairs. When free will is abused, it reduces humans to the most wretched of creatures. No man understood this better than Omar (r) and few since the Prophet carried this trust with as much wisdom, humility, determination, sensitivity, persistence and courage. Measured by any yardstick, Omar (r) was one of the greatest figures in human history.
Omar ibn al Khattab (r) laid the foundation of Islamic civilization. He was the historical figure who institutionalized Islam and determined the manner in which Muslims would relate to each other and to non-Muslims and would strive to fulfill the mission of Tawhid on earth.
Ironically, this man of justice was assassinated for a verdict he had given in a civil case brought before him. One of the Companions, Mugheera bin Sho’ba, rented a house to a Persian carpenter named Abu Lulu Feroze. The rent was two dirhams a day, a sum Abu Lulu felt was too high. He complained to the Caliph Omar (r) who gathered all the facts, listened to both sides and gave the judgment that the rent was fair. This seemingly minor incident caused one of the biggest upheavals in Islamic history. Abu Lulu was so distraught at the verdict that he resolved to take the life of the Caliph. The next morning, as Omar (r) appeared at the mosque to lead the prayer, Abu Lulu hid in a corner, his double-edged sword concealed under his long robes. As the Caliph stood at the head of the congregation reciting the Qur’an, Abu Lulu jumped at him and thrust his double-edged sword into the Caliph’s stomach. The internal bleeding could not be stopped and Omar (r), the citadel of the community of believers, passed away the following day. The year was 645.

The Death of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh)

The Death of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh)

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Summary: islam burst upon the global scene in the ‘7th century and transformed a nomadic people into prime movers of a world civilization. Prophet Muhammed (p) was the architect of that transformation. His death in 632 presented the islamic community with its first major challenge. The Muslims met this challenge by establishing the institution of the Caliphate and affirming the continuity of historical islam. The nascent islamic state, with its capital at Madina, successfully defended itself from the predatory reach of the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires. But that very success sowed the seeds of dissension in the community. The captured wealth of Persia brought greed and nepotism and resulted in the assassination of the third Caliph Uthman bin Affan (r). The fourth Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) tried to stem the tide of corruption and return to the pristine purity of faith but he was swept away by the whirlwinds created by the assassination of Uthman (r). With the death of Ali (r), the curtain fell on the age of faith in islamic history.
Civilizations are tested with crises just as individuals are tried with adversity. It is these critical moments that bring out the character of a civilization, just as individual tests bring out the character of an individual. Great civilizations measure up to their challenges and grow more resilient with each crisis, turning adversity into opportunity. It is much the same way with individuals. Critical moments in history test the mettle of humans. Great men and women bend history to their will, whereas weaker ones are swallowed up in the convulsions of time.
It is a basic premise of this article that the primary dialectic of the world of islam is internal. Its triumphs and tribulations are tied inextricably with how this universal community of believers has held onto the transcendental values taught by the Prophet. It is the cohesiveness or internal divisiveness of this global community that has determined its tryst with destiny. When the followers of islam held onto the Divine injunctions of the Qur’an and the legacy of the Prophet, they triumphed. When they lost sight of that legacy, they fell into disarray and were marginalized by history.
The death of Prophet Muhammed (p) was the first historical crisis faced by the islamic community. The process by which the community met this crisis has determined its strengths and its weaknesses in the subsequent centuries. The shape of the historical edifice of islam was cast in that hour. The death of the Prophet brought forth the towering personalities of Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r), Omar ibn al Khattab (r), Uthman bin Affan (r) and Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) into the historical process. What these Companions did and did not do has influenced the course of islamic history in the subsequent 1,400 years.
The Prophet was the fountainhead of Muslim life. No other person in history occupied a position in relation to his people, as did Prophet Muhammed (p) with respect to his. He was the focus for all social, spiritual, political, economic, military and judicial activities. He was the founder and architect of the nascent community. He was the Prophet and the Messenger of God. When he passed away, he left a vacuum that was impossible to fill. His legacy was tested immediately upon his death. At stake was the continuity of the historical process. The Prophet had welded together a community of believers transcending their allegiance to tribe, race or nationality. The glue that had cemented this process was the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. Now the Prophet was gone and it seemed that the divisive forces that islam had overcome would resurface and tear apart the newborn community.
The first reaction to the death of the Prophet was shock, disbelief and denial. So great was the love of the Companions for the Prophet that they could not part with their love. So central was he to the life of the community that they could not imagine a life without his presence. When Omar ibn al Khattab (r) heard that the Prophet had passed away, he was so distraught that he drew his sword and declared: “Some hypocrites are pretending that the Prophet of God-may God’s peace and blessing be upon him—has died. By God I swear that he did not die; that he has gone to join his Lord, just as other Prophets went before. Moses was absent from his people for forty nights and returned to them after they had declared him dead. By God, the Prophet of God will return just as Moses returned. Any man who dares to perpetrate a false rumor such as Muhammed’s death shall have his arms and legs cut off by this hand.” People listened to Omar (r), too stupefied to believe that the man who had transformed Arabia from the backwaters of history to the forefront of the historical process was dead. The situation was grave indeed.
The resilience of islam showed itself in the person of Abu Bakr (r). After confirming that the Prophet had indeed passed away, he entered the mosque where Omar (r) was speaking to the people and recited the following passage from the Qur’an: “Muhammed is but a Prophet before whom many Prophets have come and gone. Should he die or be killed, will you give up your faith? Know that whoever gives up his faith will cause no harm to God, but God will surely reward those who are grateful to Him” (Qur’an, 3:144). It was as if the people had heard this passage for the first time; it struck them like a bolt of lighting. Omar (r) related later that when he heard it, his legs shook as he realized that the Messenger of God had indeed departed from this world. The mortality of the Prophet was established, while the transcendence of God was reaffirmed. The civilization of islam was to be God-centered, not man-centered. islam was to have its anchor in God and His Word. The Prophet, as the man who had brought the Divine Word and fulfilled his historical mission, had departed, but the light that had shone through him was to show the way to succeeding generations. islam retained its transcendent character. It was to survive the physical absence of the Prophet and was to hurl itself as a dynamic force into the historical process.
The situation was fluid, uncertain and fraught with grave risks. The body of the Messenger who had led one of the greatest spiritual revolutions known to humankind was in the corner of a small room. Here was the man who had transformed a tribal society into a community of believers and made them masters of their own destiny. Wave after wave of men moved past the body, sobbing, shaking their heads, unsure of the future. They were now without the anchor that had supported them, without the leader who had sustained them, without the teacher who had taught them, without the statesman who had led them, without the Prophet who had brought the message of Divine transcendence.
The process of succession and its legacy for future generations were at stake. islam had set for itself a mission to create a global community enjoining was is right, forbidding what is evil and believing in God. How was this mission to be fulfilled in the matrix of history without the physical presence of the Prophet? How was the edifice of a God-conscious community to be erected without the architect who had conceived it? Did the Prophet leave behind specific instructions on the issue of succession? If he did not, what was the wisdom behind that decision?
Immediately upon the death of the Prophet, competing positions emerged regarding the issue of succession. The first position was that of the Ansar, the residents of Madina who had provided protection and relief to the Muhajirs from Mecca. They felt that as the hosts who had stood by the Prophet at the hour of need, they deserved the leadership of the community. At the minimum, they argued that leadership should be shared. They proposed a committee of two, composed of one person from the Muhajirs and one from the Ansar, to lead the community. The second position was that of the supporters of Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r). They based their position on the fact that the Prophet, when he had become too ill before his death to lead the congregational prayers, had nominated Abu Bakr (r) as the Imam. Abu Bakr (r) was the first man to accept islam and was also one of the closest of his Companions. The authentic ahadith confirm the highest affection and esteem that the Prophet had for Abu Bakr (r). The third position was that of the supporters of Ali ibn Abu Talib (r). Ali (r) was a cousin of the Prophet and was married to Fatimat uz Zahra (r), beloved daughter of the Prophet. He was the first youth to embrace islam and the Prophet had referred to him as his heir and his brother. The islamic community reconciled the first two positions in the first hours following the death of the Prophet but differences of opinion remained on the third issue. These differences led, in later years, to the Shi’a-Sunni schism, which runs like a great earthquake fault through islamic history. Its recurrent divisive and destructive power shows itself at critical moments such as the massacre at Karbala (680), the Battle of Chaldiran (1517) and the Iran-Iraq war (1979-1987).
There was wisdom in the decision of the Prophet to leave the issue of succession to the collective judgment of the community. A universal religion must have validity for all peoples and at all times. It must have relevance to the people of the 21st century as it did to those who lived at the time of the Prophet. It must have meaning to the most sophisticated person as well as to the bushman in the jungle. The wisdom of the Prophet lies in the fact that whereas the principles of islam are spelled out in their complete form in the Qur’an and are exemplified in the Sunnah of the Prophet, their implementation at specific times and in specific locations is left to the historical process. In other words, islam is an existential religion. Its realization and fulfillment is a process that is eternal and incumbent upon each generation of believers. The position that the Prophet left specific instructions on the issue of political succession does not correlate with the existential aspects of islam. However, not all Muslims share this view. Partisan positions on the issue of succession are taken based only on those ahadith, which support that position. But history is a merciless judge. With the passage of time, the differences on the issue of succession were solidified, leading to recurrent dissension, rebellion, repression and civil war.
Urged by the community leaders to prevent an open rift, Abu Bakr (r), along with Omar ibn al Khattab (r), proceeded to the courtyard of Banu Saida where the Ansar were holding a congregation to elect their leader. One of the Ansar put his position thus: “We are the Ansar—the helpers of God and the army of islam. You, the Muhajirun are only a brigade in the Army. Nonetheless some amongst you have gone to the extreme of seeking to deprive us of our natural leadership and to deny us our rights.” Abu Bakr (r) spoke to the Ansar: “O men of Ansar! We, the Muhajirun were the first to accept islam. We enjoy the noblest lineage and descent. We are the most reputable and the best esteemed as well as the most numerous in Arabia. Furthermore, we are the closest blood relatives of the Prophet. The Qur’an itself has given us preference. For it is God—may He be exalted in praise—Who said, “First and foremost were al Muhajirun, then al Ansar and then those who have followed these two groups in virtue and righteousness.” Then taking the hands of Omar (r) and Abu Ubaida, who were seated on either side of him, Abu Bakr (r) said, “Either one of these two men is acceptable to us as leader of the Muslim community. Choose whomever you please”. At this time Omar (r) raised the hand of Abu Bakr (r) and said, “ O Abu Bakr! Did not the Prophet command you to lead the Muslims in prayer? You, therefore, are his successor. In electing you, we are electing the best of all whom the Prophet of God loved and trusted”. The Ansar and the Muhajirun then stepped forward and took the oath of allegiance (baiyah) to Abu Bakr (r).
Thus it was that the nascent islamic community resolved the issue of succession and embarked on constructing the edifice of their history. The process did not quite satisfy Ali ibn Abu Talib (r), Talha ibn Ubaidallah and Zubair ibn al Awwam. Ali (r), representing the family of the Prophet, was busy with the funeral preparations. Talha and Zubair were not in the preliminary consultations. Initially, Ali (r) withheld his oath of allegiance. But when Abu Sufyan approached him to declare himself the Caliph, Ali (r) saw the dangers of division in the community and accepted the Caliphate of Abu Bakr (r). According to Ibn Khaldun, Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) took his baiyah forty days after the death of the Prophet. According to Ibn Kathir, this happened only after the death of Fatima (r), six months after the Prophet’s death. Talha ibn Ubaidallah and Zubair ibn al Awwam gave their baiyah soon thereafter.
The Shi’a chroniclers do not accept the majority version, maintaining instead that the Caliphate was rightfully Ali’s (r) by deputation from the Prophet. However, there is consensus among all chroniclers that any differences regarding the issue of succession were quiescent during the time of Abu Bakr (r) and Omar (r) and did not surface in the open until the Caliphate of Uthman (r). It was much later, as positions hardened during the Umayyad (665-750) and Abbasid (750-1258) dynasties, that both sides advanced doctrinal arguments to support partisan opinions on the Caliphate and Wilayat / Imamate. Thus it was that Shi’a-Sunni differences were based not on religion or faith but had their origin in the politics of succession and history.
Some Sufis attach yet another dimension to the issue of succession. The Sufis represent the spiritual and esoteric dimension of islam. Their enormous impact profoundly influenced the course of islamic history. In their vision, the spirituality of humankind revolves around a Qutub in every age. The word Qutub means pivot, pole, chief and leader. When there is a Prophet on earth, he is the Qutub. He cleanses the consciousness of humanity so that it becomes worthy of receiving Divine Illumination. Moses was the Qutub for the spirituality of humankind when he was alive, as were David, Solomon, Joseph and Jesus in their times. As long as Muhammed was alive, he was the spiritual pole for humankind. Upon his death, the mantle of spirituality passed on to Fatima (r), daughter of the Prophet. After Fatima (r), the mantle passed on to Ali ibn Abu Talib (r). Most Sufi orders claim their spirituality from Ali (r) and by virtue of continuity, through Fatima (r) and ultimately from Prophet Muhammed (p). As long as Fatima (r) was alive, the Sufis maintain, Ali (r) could not have given his baiyah to Abu Bakr (r). It was only after Fatima (r) passed away, six months after the Prophet’s death, that Ali (r) finally gave his allegiance to Abu Bakr (r). According to this view, the mantle of spirituality continued to reside in Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) to whom important juridical issues were referred by the Caliphs Abu Bakr (r), Omar (r) and Uthman (r) and even by the faction headed by Muawiya.
In selecting Abu Bakr (r), the Companions established several precedents. They demonstrated that the Muslims were a living community capable of articulating their own destiny through a collective consultative process in the absence of the Prophet. They established that the Caliph, as the temporal ruler of the islamic community, had to be a man of piety, trust, knowledge, strength, justice, integrity and righteousness. The community was like a newborn child taking its first breath after being cut off from the umbilical cord connecting it to its spiritual parent.
Upon accession to the Caliphate, Abu Bakr (r) was faced with several crises. The immediate issue was the dispatch of the army to the north to face the Byzantines. The Muslims had faced a stalemate with the Byzantines at the Battle of Tabuk and had lost their leader Zaid bin Haris. A follow up defensive expedition had been initiated by the Prophet to safeguard the northern approaches to Madina. Abu Bakr (r) reaffirmed the decision of the Prophet and dispatched an expedition under Usama bin Zaid. The expedition was successful and it demonstrated the strength and cohesiveness of the Muslims even in the absence of the Prophet.
The second challenge was the refusal of certain Arab tribes to pay the Zakat. Pre-islamic Arabia was tribal. Many of these tribes had reluctantly accepted islam towards the last days of the Prophet. When he passed away, they saw an opportunity to stop paying the mandatory Zakat, which they misunderstood as another form of taxation.
Zakat is not only a moral obligation in islam; it is also a legal obligation. It is an act of purity. It is regarded as one of the five pillars of islam and is an article of faith. In islam, the economic well being of the community is as important as that of the individual. No man’s belief is complete unless he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself. islam discourages hoarding and encourages sharing and investment. Zakat works to circulate money and operates against hoarding. Wherever the Qur’an emphasizes the establishment of prayer, it also emphasizes the payment of Zakat. Foregoing Zakat would have destroyed the moral foundation of the islamic state and would have reduced islam to a litany of personal beliefs and observances. Abu Bakr (r) conducted a vigorous police action against the non-payers of Zakat. He personally went on several expeditions and brought the rebellious tribes under the authority of the state.
The third crisis faced by Abu Bakr (r) was that of false Prophets. Seeing the success and prosperity of the Muslims, many false Prophets (and Prophetesses) sprang up all over Arabia. Religion was and remains to this day, good business. Many a pretender saw in the success of islam an opportunity to establish his own religion and get rich in the process. Abu Bakr (r) declared war on the false Prophets. He sent eleven expeditions against as many pretenders. Of these the best known was the expedition of Khalid bin Walid against Musailimah al Kazzab, which culminated in the Battle of Yamama. Similar expeditions were sent towards Yemen, Amman and Hazeefa. All of these expeditions were successful.
It was in the campaign against Musailimah al Kazzab that a large number of the Companions of the Prophet perished. Many of them were hufaz (those who had memorized the Qur’an). The Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet as the spoken Word, which was then memorized by hundreds of companions. The martyrdom of so many hufaz at the Battle of Yamama was a matter of great concern to the Companions. Upon the advice of Omar, Abu Bakr (r) ordered the writing down of the Qur’an to preserve it, as it was revealed to the Prophet, for all generations to come. The first written copy of the Qur’an is known by the title Mashaf e Siddiqi.
In the geopolitics of West Asia, neither the Byzantines nor the Persians could tolerate an independent, united and strong Arabia. Both powers had coveted the Arabian Peninsula for centuries. The Romans had occupied Syria and Jordan while the Persians had subjugated Iraq, Yemen and Hejaz. To the geopolitical element was now added the religious element. Prophet Muhammed (p), in fulfillment of his mission as the Messenger of God, had sent greetings to the rulers of the two powers inviting them to accept islam. Heraclius, the Byzantine chief, had sent a polite reply but had ordered his troops into action on the northern borders of Arabia. Khosroe, the Persian emperor, had torn up the Prophet’s letter and had ordered his forces in Yemen to march on Madina and arrest the Prophet. It was to forestall the ambitions of the Byzantines and the Persians that the Prophet had initiated defensive actions to the north and the east. The campaigns undertaken by Abu Bakr (r) against the Byzantines and the Persians were thus a continuation of those that had been started by the Prophet himself.
Political developments in West Asia soon worked in favor of the emerging islamic state. Persia was in turmoil. There was murder and mayhem in the imperial court. Sheroya, the eldest son of Khosroe Pervez murdered his father and all of his own brothers and usurped the throne. Eight months later, Sheroya died in mysterious circumstances and his infant son was made the monarch. The infant son was also killed and a number of courtiers claimed the throne, only to be murdered one after the other. Finally, the only surviving youngster in the Persian dynasty, Yazdgar, was made the emperor and a woman of the royal household was appointed his regent.
The weakness of Persia created military opportunities for its neighbors. Heraclius, the new Byzantine emperor, waged a series of campaigns (625-635) and won back some of the territories his predecessor had lost to the Persians. The explosive growth of the islamic state since the Hijra (622) brought its borders to the River Euphrates, which marked the southwestern boundary of the Persian Empire. The Arab tribes near the Persian border, centered on the town of al Hirah, were restive. They had for a long period enjoyed an autonomous status under the protection of the Persian court. But Khosroe, the Persian monarch, had revoked that autonomy and had turned the areas into imperial colonies. Resentment had built up over increased taxes. Some of these tribes had accepted islam during the life of the Prophet but had become apostates when he passed away. Abu Bakr (r) was aware of these developments. So, when Al Muthannah ibn Harithah, chief of the Banu Shaiban clan in eastern Arabia, approached him with a proposal to rally the Arab tribes against Persia, the Caliph agreed. Remembering their shifting loyalties, Abu Bakr (r) advised Al Muthannah to recruit only those tribes that had previously not become apostates.
Meanwhile, Khalid bin Walid had completed his operations against the apostate Arabs in eastern Arabia. Abu Bakr (r) ordered him to join up with Al Muthannah. The two together advanced on southern Iraq. An invitation was sent to Humuz, Persian governor of the province, inviting him to accept islam and join in its global mission. If he refused, he was given the alternatives of accepting the protection of the Muslim state or war. Governor Humuz rejected all of these alternatives and hostilities began. The Arab armies first subdued Khadima (633) near modern Kuwait. From there, they moved on the port city of Ubullah (modern Basrah) near the mouth of the Shatt al Arab. Turning northwards along the western shores of the River Euphrates, Khalid’s forces rapidly overcame Persian resistance at Al Hirah and Al Anbar. The Arab tribes of the area welcomed their fellow Arabs as liberators from Persian imperial rule. Khalid’s rapid advance had left his northern flank open. This area, called Domatul Jandal by the Arabs, was located near the confluence of Syria and Iraq and was inhabited by Christian Arabs who openly sided with the Byzantines. After subduing Domatul Jandal, Khalid and his troops returned to Mecca and performed the Hajj. When Khalild returned to the battlefield, Abu Bakr (r) ordered him to the Syrian front where a decisive showdown was looming with the Byzantine Empire.
The emergence of a unified Arab state under islam was no more acceptable to the Byzantines than it was to the Persians. The Byzantines had probed Muslim defenses at the time of the Prophet in preparation for a possible invasion of Arabia. It was to contain this threat that the Prophet had conducted the campaign of Tabuk. Continued Byzantine pressure had prompted the Prophet to send an expedition under Zaid bin Haris. As we have already pointed out, the engagement had proved indecisive and Zaid bin Haris was killed in the campaign. The Prophet had organized a second campaign under Usama bin Zaid, but he had passed away before the campaign got under way.
Abu Bakr (r) reaffirmed the decision of the Prophet to send an army to the northern borders. The instructions given by Abu Bakr (r) to Usama bin Zaid, commander of the Muslim forces, are noteworthy for their ethical content:
  • Do not kill children, women and old men.
  • Do not harm the disabled and do not disfigure the bodies of those killed in battle.
  • Do not destroy standing crops and do not cut down trees bearing fruit.
  • Do not be dishonest and misappropriate war booty.
  • Do not kill animals except as is necessary for food.
These injunctions have served, for kings and soldiers alike, as a canonical basis for a Muslim code of ethics during the last 1,400 years.
The campaigns under Usama bin Zaid were also inconclusive. The threat of an invasion from the north grew each day as the Byzantines made preparations for war. Abu Bakr (r) decided to preempt the enemy and ordered an invasion of Syria. An army of 27,000 was assembled and organized into three corps under the overall command of Abu Ubaidah bin Jarrah. Abu Ubaidah was personally responsible for the central army corps directed at Syria. Supporting him was a corps headed by Amr bin al As directed at Palestine and one headed by Shurahbil ibn Hasanah directed at Jordan. Initial skirmishes took place at Wadi Arabah and Ghazzah. The three armies then proceeded towards Damascus. The main Byzantine forces under Theodorus, brother of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, blocked the further advance of the Muslim armies in the narrow gorge between Mount Hermon and Mount Hawran.
It was here that Khalid bin Walid won one of his most memorable victories. Marching rapidly westward from Iraq, Khalid overcame minor resistance along the way. Arriving at the battlefield, he moved in an enveloping arc bypassing the Byzantine army as well as the Muslim divisions and attacked the enemy positions from the rear while the main divisions under Abu Ubaidah made a frontal attack. Taken by surprise, the Byzantine columns dispersed. The Muslim armies pursued the Byzantines and inflicted heavy casualties on the retreating foe. Damascus fell in 635. In a few months, the cities of Balbak and Hama were also in Muslim hands.
Heraclius was not willing to concede the strategic province of Syria so easily. He was one of the most respected generals of his age and had defeated the Persians in numerous battles. He raised a new army of 200,000 and marched south along the coast, hoping to reach Beersheba and cut off the supply routes for the Muslim armies. When he heard of this move from his intelligence arm, Khalid made another wide arc and joining forces with Amr bin al As, reached Beersheba and having collected additional troops from the garrison there, marched northwards to meet Heraclius. The two armies met at Ajnadain where the Byzantines suffered another defeat.
Heraclius was now in a perilous military position. His escape routes both to the north and the south were cut off. He ordered his troops to regroup at the banks of the Yarmuk River near the town of Dir’a. Demonstrating his mastery of rapid enveloping movements, Khalid bin Walid bypassed the enemy lines and attacked from the north while the Byzantines faced off the divisions of Abu Ubaidah to the south. As if providence had a say in the matter, a violent sandstorm blinded the Byzantine troops, while the Arabs, used to the desert, took it in stride. Byzantine resistance collapsed.
The Battle of Yarmuk, fought in 636, was one of the decisive battles in history. It marked the end of Byzantine rule in West Asia and paved the way for further Muslim conquests in Egypt and North Africa. Abu Bakr (r) died a few days after the Battle of Yarmuk. He was 63 years old and his Caliphate lasted two years and three months.
Abu Bakr (r) provided the bridge between Prophet Muhammed (p) and historical islam. Without his leadership, Zakat would have disappeared as an institution and the nature of religion itself would have been altered. The legal basis of the state would have been seriously undermined and the community would have fallen apart. Abu Bakr (r) continued the traditions of the Prophet, avoided innovations, overcame internal dissentions, established the rule of law, suppressed false Prophets and successfully defended the nascent state against the Byzantine and Persian Empires. He demonstrated that the Muslims were a living, dynamic community. Under his leadership, islam embarked on the process of history bereft of its Prophet but animated by the message of the Qur’an and his Sunnah.
Submitted,  along with a large collection of previous papers by Dr. Ahmed  on March 1, 1993.