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Shia Islam: Succession in the Teachings of Shi’ism and Sunnism / 7

Shafaqna – Shīʿa Islam: History and Doctrines / Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī

Chapter 7: Succession in the Teachings of Shi’ism and Sunnism

After the Prophet passed away, his followers unanimously agreed that there should be a successor to lead and guide Muslims after him. However, they disagreed both about who should succeed him and how a successor was to be chosen. As we will see in the following paragraphs, the early Shīʿa and Sunnīs have fundamentally different views on this issue.

The Shīʿa believe that the Caliphate, like prophethood, is a divinely-chosen position: An Imam must be appointed by God, not the people, in the same manner as the Prophets, because An Imam must fulfil the same functions as a prophet, except for receiving revelation and bringing a new religion. However, aside from these two features, the Imam bears all the other responsibilities of the Prophet and must compensate for the shortcomings that result from his absence. This means that the Imam should interpret the Qur’an, issue religious decrees and behave in a way that his personal conduct may act a criterion for differentiating right from wrong. Such a personality can only be made through divine education. This is not to suggest that An Imam has only a spiritual and religious function and has nothing to do with people’s secular lives, as An Imam is meant to provide political as well as spiritual leadership; he must also implement religious decrees, provide security, act as a judge and the commander-in-chief of Muslims in wars, etc. And it is for this reason that they say ‘the Caliph is the general leader of secular and religious affairs of the people on behalf of the Prophet.’

On the other hand, Sunnīs see the Caliphate as a purely political institution. Mawārdī, for instance, believes that An Imam is supposed to lead the army, protect the borders of the Muslim territory, protect the oppressed against the oppressors, distribute the spoils of war and lead Muslims in Ḥajj (al-Aḥkām al-Ṣultāniyya, 15-16). Since the Caliphate in Sunnī Islam is a political institution dedicated to taking care of people’s secular affairs, it is not necessary for the Caliph to be infallible or have a full awareness of the religion’s doctrines and laws in the same manner as the Prophet. He only needs to lead the nation, and if he makes a mistake he will not be deposed (Ibid., 6).

As you can see, these represent two fundamentally different views about the Caliphate; according to the one, it is a divine affair and the Caliph must be infallible and fully aware of the teachings of the religion. According to the other, however, a Caliph is no more than a secular head of state who must be capable and sufficiently education to lead the country. However, as far as his spiritual abilities are concerned, he only needs to be a Muslim. It is ultimately as a result of the divergence between these two views that two major streams of religious tradition have emerged: Shīʿa and Sunnī. While the first school has it that the Imam is appointed through revelation and that the Prophet appointed his succeeding the Imam in the last few days of his life, the second school holds that people’s choice is sufficient to appoint a leader; there is no need for divine affirmation.

Having said that, we should not forget that Sunnīs do not agree on a single way of choosing the Caliph. Rather than evaluate the previous processes of choosing the Caliph in terms of its agreement with Islamic laws, Sunnīs look to the history of Islam after the Prophet for models of succession. Thus Mawārdī writes that ‘choosing An Imam can be done in two ways: choosing by a council composed of “the People of Loosing and Binding” (ahl al-ḥall wa al-ʿaqd) or by the appointment of the previous the Imam’ (al-Aḥkām al-Ṣultāniyya, 4). Azadī argues, however, that the Imam could be appointed by the Prophet, the previous the Imam or the council of the People of Loosing and Binding (qtd. in Jurjani 3/265). Moreover, Sunnīs widely disagree on the number of the members of the council which is supposed to choose the Imam. Some, for example, hold that the council must consist of at least five people, as was the council which chose Abū Bakr: ʿUmar b. Khaṭṭāb, Abū ʿUbayda b. Jarrāḥ, Asīd b. Haḍīr, Bakr b. Ṣaʿd and Sālim, the mawlā of Abu Ḥudhayfa. Some think that three persons are sufficient: one to give the oath of allegiance and the other two to witness to it. Yet others consider one person to suffice, pointing to the fact that ʿAbbās said to ʿAlī: ‘Hold out your hand that I may grasp it and make the pledge of allegiance to you. For if I do so, the people will say that the Prophet’s cousin has become your ally and not even two people will disagree on your leadership’ (al-Aḥkām al-Ṣultāniyya, 4). Such disagreements over choosing the Caliph suggests that succession to the Prophet had not been left to the people, for if it had, then the Prophet would have described the characteristics of a proper candidate to prevent people from becoming confused about it. This point is conceded by the Egyptian author, al-Khiḍrī, who generally holds a rather negative position towards Shīʿa, in his book Muḥāḍirāt fī Tārīkh al-Umam al-Islāmiyya, wherein he says:

There are no verses in the Qur’an clearly telling us as to how the Prophet’s successor should be determined, although there are verses which generally talk about consultation. Neither does the Prophet’s tradition tell us anything about the way to choose the Caliph, although it advises the people against serious disagreements. If there had been any traditions about caliphate, it would have clearly appeared in the theological works and ḥadīth collections and Muslims would have become familiar with its rules and regulation just as they did with regard to prayers and fasting. (2/161)

Considering the fact that the leadership of Muslims after the Prophet is vital to Sunnī Muslims, and presuming that al-Khiḍrī really believes what he says, there are some questions that must be answered: would it be possible for the Prophet to have said nothing about the Caliphate and the desired characteristics of a Caliph? How could we admit that the Prophet ignored the issue of succession to leadership of the nation which he himself had founded? How could we imagine that the Prophet had uttered so many words about such minor affairs as the proper use of the lavatory, eating and drinking, sleeping and taking baths, and yet said absolutely nothing about Caliphate, leading to much conflict and bloodshed as a result? It is inconceivable that the Prophet, who was the wisest person ever to have lived and guided by divine revelation, would have neglected such an important matter!

If the Caliph was supposed to be chosen by a council of notables, there should have been many aḥādīth and statements about the number of members required to constitute such a council, their qualifications (such as knowledge and piety), how and where they should be chosen, so that their decision would be completely acceptable to all. However, there is no evidence in the Qur’an or the Sunna to explain any of this. At the very least, we would expect the sources to make a few things clear: who can be a member of this council? Should it be made up of religious elites, political leaders, army commanders or a mixture of all of them? Who should choose the members of such a council? And if the members of the council disagreed over a matter or person, who will have the deciding vote? While some theologians have said that the Imam is to be chosen by the council of ahl al-ḥall wa al-ʿaqd, it is not clear as to what this means. Does the council of ‘ahl al-ḥall wa al-ʿaqd’ denote ‘those who open and tie up’? No one knows since there is no prophetic ḥadīth to explain this. Such confusions as well as others imply that the idea of the Imam being chosen by that type of council is basically wrong and the matter of the succession to the Prophet could never be settled by the people. As Ṭaha Ḥusayn rightly suggests: ‘if Muslims had a written system of councils, they would have resorted to it at the time of ʿUthmān and would have known what to do and what not to do.’

The appointment of the caliphs as depicted in the history of Islam

As already mentioned, the election of Caliph through a council of ‘ahl al-ḥall wa al-ʿaqd’ or by the votes of the Helpers (anṣār) and the Emigrants (muhājirūn), was just for the sake of appearance and, in truth, such a process only took place in the case of one person. We will now investigate the mode of election of each of the early Caliphs as depicted in the annals of history.

The story of Saqīfa

Those present at Saqīfa, formed a triangle whose sides each had their own agenda. Saʿd b. ʿUbāda had, with great labor, managed to unite the tribes of Khazraj and Aws under the title of ‘the Helpers’ (anṣār) so as to resist the Emigrants (muhājirūn) who were likely to turn out as winners. However, the unity between the two tribes was largely superficial and they remained distinct in their mentality.

Saʿd b. ʿUbāda, who belonged to the tribe of Khazraj, roused the Helpers with an impassioned speech, when he said: ‘You, the Helpers, always took the weighty burden of responsibility, and due to your efforts and power the headstrong and unyielding Arabs converted to Islam; the Prophet passed away being happy with all of you. Therefore, rise and take the control of power, since no one else deserves this’ (Ṭabarī 3/218).

In response to Sa’d’s stirring speech, Abū Bakr stated: ‘The nobility and high status of you, the Helpers, is as bright as daylight. However, while caliphate may be given to the tribe of Khazraj, but we should note that Aws are as qualified as Khazraj. Similarly, caliphate could be granted to Aws, but we see that that Khazraj are as qualified as Aws. Besides, there has been bloodshed between these two tribes, resulting in unhealable wound’ (al-Bayān wa al-Tābi‘īn 2/86).

Abū Bakr’s speech shattered the sense of unity among the Helpers and caused the two tribes, which were on the same side and fighting for the same goal only moments before, to become rivals. As a result, whenever either of them wanted to deliver a speech, he would dedicate his time to bragging about his own abilities and privileges.

An awkward silence overwhelmed the assembly and the most critical moment in the history of this dispute arrived. Suddenly, Bashīr b. Saʿd, a member of the Khazraj and Saʿd b. ʿUbādas cousin, who disliked the status his cousin enjoyed amongst the two tribes, stood up, broke the silence and said: ‘The Prophet belongs to the Quraysh, hence his relatives are worthier than us to become successors.’ At that very moment, Abū Bakr, seeing the Helpers had lost their unity due to Bashīr b. Saʿd’s statement, rose and said: ‘O people, in my opinion, ʿUmar and Abū ʿUbayda are qualified and fit to be successors, so go and give an oath of loyalty to either of them.’ Surely, Abū Bakr’s approval of these two acted as a preliminary condition for ʿUmar and Abū ʿUbayda returning the favour by recommending Abū Bakr. And this is exactly what happened, as both ʿUmar and Abū ʿUbayda approached Abū Bakr to give an oath of loyalty to him. For his part, Abū Bakr offered his hand without delay (Ibn Hishām, 2/599-60).

Asīd b. Haḍīr, the chief of Aws, driven by excessive emotion, said to his people: ‘if Khazraj become caliphs, they will never give you a share of the power. Go and give a pledge of allegiance to Abū Bakr, as soon as possible.’ Those present in the meeting, following the instructions of their chieftain, pledged their loyalty to Abū Bakr. In this situation, a quarrel began, during which Saʿd b. ʿUbāda, who was sitting in the corner of the tent, was treated disrespectfully and even, by some accounts, trampled on. Meanwhile, Abū Bakr, quickly left Saqīfa to announce that he was the people’s chosen successor. Thus, he became Caliph having received the votes of only five persons, namely: Himself, Bashīr b. Saʿd (of Khazraj), Asīd b. Haḍīr (of Aws), and ʿUmar and Abū ʿUbayda (of the Emigrants). Meanwhile, the Khazraj present at the gathering, finding themselves defeated, began to cry out: ‘We will take an oath of loyalty to no one, but ʿAlī’ (Ṭabarī, 3/202).

Such a hasty election, marked by tribal privileges, cannot be an ideal example of the succession council its proponents support. For this reason, ʿUmar Ibn Khaṭṭāb later considered this pledge of allegiance (bayʿa) ‘an error’ and said: ‘By God, the oath to Abū Bakr and his selection as Caliph was an error and an unsound deed, that was undertaken without consultation. But God saved the Muslims from its evil, and anyone who takes an oath of loyalty to someone without consulting with Muslims, his oath will not be valid.’ (Ibn Hishām, 2/658; Ṭabarī, 3/205)

How the Second Caliph was appointed

While the First Caliph was chosen with the votes of just a few people and gained the loyalty of others by offering them special privileges, the Second Caliph was appointed directly by the First. History tells us that when Abū Bakr was on his deathbed, he felt compelled to choose his successor. For this purpose, he called ʿUthmān to write and document whatever he was going to say and then he ordered him to write: ‘This is Abū Bakr’s will to the Muslims…’ Before finishing the sentence, however, Abū Bakr fell unconscious. At this moment, ʿUthmān took advantage of the opportunity and immediately wrote: ‘I hereby appoint ʿUmar as my successor for you.’ When Abū Bakr regained consciousness, ʿUthmān, quite daringly, recited for him the sentence he had just interpolated. Having realized what had happened, Abū Bakr became happy and justified ʿUthmān’s action in the following manner: ‘Fearing that I would die and never regain my consciousness and that Muslims would be divided over determining the next Caliph, ʿUthmān with quite good-intentions decided to write the name of ʿUmar in my will as the next Caliph.’

In spite of the fact that the Caliph’s action was criticized by a number of the Prophet’s Companions, and even though Ṭalḥa reproached Abū Bakr for having appointed a unkind man as the ruler, Abū Bakr’s response to the castigations was: ‘If God himself questioned me for what I have done, I would answer that I have given power to the best of the people’ (Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd, 2/165).

Assuming that the foundation of caliphate was the council of notables (‘the people of loosing and binding’), why did the Caliph disregard this fact and appointed his successor? A number of thinkers who have found Abū Bakr’s actions at odds with their own theological principles maintain that Abū Bakr recommended ʿUmar as a candidate for the Muslims to choose him (ʿAbd al-Karīm Khaṭīb, 288). But their account of the Second Caliph’s appointment makes no sense, especially considering the reaction of some Companions who said upon learning of the news, ‘You have fired such a poisonous and lethal arrow at us!’

The accession of the Third Caliph

ʿUthmān acceded to the caliphate through a council of six members who were appointed by the Second Caliph. The structure of the council was arranged in such a way as to make sure that ʿAlī would not be chosen as his successor. The members of the council were ʿAlī, ʿUthmān, Zubayr, Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ, Ṭalḥa, and ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAwf.

In the first stage, Ṭalḥa and Zubayr (ʿAlī’s cousin) stepped aside in favour of ʿUthmān and ʿAlī, respectively. Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ voted for ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (they were both from Banū Zuhra tribe). Only three people remained with equal votes. However, ʿUmar said that the next Caliph could only be elected on ʿAbd al-Raḥmān’s approval. At his time, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, knowing ʿAlī very well and being certain that he would never violate (religious) principles for the sake of power, turned to ʿAlī and said: ‘I will take an oath of loyalty to you, if you rule according to the word of God (The Qur’an), the Prophet’s tradition, and the practice of the previous caliphs.’ Imam ʿAlī replied: ‘I will act according to the word of God, the Prophet’s tradition and my own knowledge.’ Having heard ʿAlī’s response, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān turned to ʿUthmān and repeated his condition of approval, to which ʿUthmān agreed. Then ʿAbd al-Raḥmān took an oath of loyalty to him and hailed ʿUthmān as Caliph. The Muslims’ and Islam’s future was endangered by choosing caliphs through a ridiculous council and in this way, their leadership developed into religious belief.

In the following Chapters, We will speak about ʿAlī’s election through the Helpers and Emigrants taking the oath of loyalty. Moreover, we will show the legitimacy of this election and the fact that it was based entirely on the free choice of the voters, while the Umayyads and Abbasids each passed power to their own descendants like a ball.

After the martyrdom of ʿAlī, Ḥasan b. ʿAlī, received oaths of allegiance from his father’s army and became Caliph for a short time. Nevertheless, Muʿāwiya’s machinations and plotting forced Imam Ḥasan to abdicate the caliphate for the greater good of Islamic society. Then, Muʿāwiya, by means of conspiracy, violence and due to the ignorance of the people of Syria (Sham) became Caliph and died in 60/679.

Following the death of Muʿāwiya, Yazīd b. Muʿāwiya, the most vicious and corrupt member of Abū Sufyān’s family, became Caliph and Commander of the Faithful (Amīr al-Muʾminīn). Even though he only reigned for a short period of time, his actions as ruler were so vicious that one would be ashamed to recount them. In the first year of his reign, Yazīd murdered Ḥusayn Ibn ʿAlī. In the second, the Battle of Ḥarra took place in Medina, resulting in the death of some 700 of the eminent Helpers and Emigrants. In the third year, he sent an army to Mecca to fight ʿAbd Allāh b. Zubayr in Mecca. Yazīd’s Army, which was positioned on the mountains above Mecca and dominated the town, launched stones and fire at the Holy Sanctuary and the Ka’ba until it was burnt and its walls collapsed. This event happened on Saturday 3rd of Rabi al-Awwal 64/30th October 683. Eleven days later, Yazīd died.

After Yazīd’s death and the two-month reign of his son, Muʿāwiya II, the Marwanids came to power and, like the tribes of old, passed authority to their own descendants:

  1. Marwān b. al-Ḥakam 2. ʿAbd al-Malik b. Marwān 3. Walīd b. ʿAbd al-Malik 4. Sulaymān b. ʿAbd al-Malik 5. ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz 6. Yazīd b. ʿAbd al-Malik 7. Hishām b. ʿAbd al-Malik and 8. Marwān b. Muḥammad b. Marwān b. al-Ḥakam.

At the reign of the Marwanids ended in 132/750. Their wrongdoing was so widespread and infamous that the Islamic nation, through a series of uprisings, destroyed all the Marwanids, leaving no trace of them save their infamy and disgrace. We shall refrain from discussing the reign of the Abbasids here, but suffice it to say that their caliphate was also hereditary and lasted until 656/1258. It is worth asking now: did the Prophet plan for kings to succeed him, carry out heinous oppression and still be considered by all people to be his true successors?

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