A Critical Analysis of Early Caliphate in Islam – Selection of the First Six Caliphs

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SHAFAQNA – Somewhere along the line of Muslim history, a misconception arose that the caliphate was first instituted by shura (free and popular election). Although, this misconception concurs very well with contemporary democratic theories and promotes Islam as being a conventional and democratic religion, the truth of the matter is that the office of “caliphate” was not brought into being by a popular vote, nor was it supposed to be. The office of the caliph, like the governance of prophethood, is not one to be determined by consultation, but rather by Divine ordination.

In Islam, governance encompasses all facets of life – social, religious, political, economical, judicial, etc. and thus, it is based on Allah’s laws and instructions. Hence, the notion that a democratic process (an assembly of men “chosen” by the people) occurred in the appointment of Abu Bakr’s leadership is not accurate.

As mentioned earlier, the first caliph was decided by two people: Umar b. al-Khattab and Abu Ubayd b. al-Jarrah who both declined their bid for election and instead nominated Abu Bakr and coaxed the others to follow suit at Saqifah.

After Saqifah, Ali b. Abi Talib said to Umar b. al-Khattab, “Today you are consolidating and supporting Abu Bakr so that tomorrow he will support you and bring you as his successor.”[3] His words rang true since two and a half years later, Umar reaped the benefits of his stance when Abu Bakr appointed him as his successor before his death. Their pact did not escape going unnoticed by others because even Mu’awiyah b. Abu Sufyan concluded, “They agreed upon that and there was harmony between them.”[4]

The selection of the third caliph, Uthman b. al-Affan also tends to be a subject of some misconception. As the death of the second caliph Umar neared, he called on a council of six people to determine the next leader. On the surface, this may seem like a semi-electoral body; however, Umar instructed his son Abdullah, “If they appoint Uthman as their leader, they will get the most out of it.”[5]

Earlier, when Hudayfah, a scribe of the Qur’an asked Umar b. al-Khattab who would succeed him, Umar said, “Uthman b. al-Affan.”[6] As in the previous accord of Abu Bakr and Umar, Uthman b. al-Affan allied with his cousin, Abdul Rahman b. Auf to mutually support each other for the position of the caliphate during the six council “election” meeting.

As Ali b. Abi Talib narrates, “There was a council of six, and the Muslims were supposed to choose one out of those six, but Abdul Rahman b. Auf favored Uthman, so that tomorrow Uthman would favor him and make him his successor.”[7]

After the appointment of Uthman, and later into his office, Abdul Rahman incited the people to revolt against Uthman, and thus Uthman excluded him from ever being appointed as caliph, which severed their relationship to the point where they never spoke to one another throughout the remainder of their lives.[8]

Due to the subtleties of this arrangement, the appointment of Uthman to the caliphate continues until today to be seen as a form of election by some. History is clear that when Mu’awiyah b. Abu Sufyan came into power, he reserved the caliphate exclusively for his own son and began the first dynasty in the history of Islam.

What history reports less of is that he also maintained the same political ties as the Quraysh group who had diverted the flow of political power to their advantage. To that end, he made pacts with Amr b. al-Aas, Talha b. Ubaydillah,[9] Zubayr b. al-Awam,[10] and Abu Musa al-Ashari, all of whom disfavored Ali, by offering them governorships in exchange for service.

When he asked Amr b. al-Aas to fight against Ali b. Abi Talib for him, Amr b. al-Aas replied, “I will not sell my faith to you unless you give me something in this world here.” Hence, Mu’awiyah appointed him as the governor of Egypt.[11] Similarly, Mu’awiyah enlisted Talha and Zubayr in the fight against Imam Ali in return for rule over some of the other states.[12] Mu’awiyah also promised Abu Musa al-Ashari, “If you pay allegiance to me and support my position, I will utilize your two sons; one of them will be the governor of Kufa, and the other will be the governor of Basra.”[13] In this way, Mu’awiyah continued the work that his predecessors had begun in channeling the political authority and wealth of the Muslims into a pre-determined and selected group of hands.

Although the caliphate was the main prize, the Quraysh group did not limit their efforts to it. After installing Abu Bakr as the first caliph, they slowly began acquiring governorships of the outlying provinces. As is the case in the modus operandi of the Quraysh, they appointed their political allies to the governorships. The main objective of their appointments was to enlist individuals that did not oppose them and any inclination of strife towards their leadership would be met with expulsion, even at the expense of their own relatives.

As noted earlier, Umar b. al-Khattab’s two sons, Zayd b. al-Khattab and Ubaydallah b. al-Khattab were both ostracized, as was Abdul Rahman b. Abu Bakr, the son of Abu Bakr. Instead, Umar appointed Sa’d b. Abi al-Waqqas to govern Kufa, Abu Musa al-Ashari to govern Basra, and Mu’awiyah b. Abu Sufyan to govern Syria. Their true intention was to maintain control of the rapidly expanding Muslim empire among themselves. The issue was not one of election or selection; it was one of maintaining political hegemony within a select group of people.

Harmony or otherwise, the important fact to note is that Umar was appointed by Abu Bakr, not elected to the caliphate, unlike the case with Abu Bakr.

Despite the sheer number of hadith in both Sunni and Shia sources, which declared Ali b. Abi Talib to be the rightful political successor to the Prophet, still many opponents of the Ahlul Bayt in modern times object to the concept of an appointed successor on the basis that it is nepotistic and undemocratic. If so, then how do they explain and accept the fact that none of the first three caliphs arrived at the caliphate through a “democratic” election?

Muslim history has noted that the Saqifah meeting in itself turned into an ad-hoc assembly, and that the explicit appointment of the three caliphs was a premeditated maneuver by a group to bypass the leadership of Ali. Yet still, they argued against the Prophet appointing Ali. Furthermore, if nepotism is cited (because Ali was a relative of the Prophet) then the same argument can be posed when Uthman’s relatives, such as Mu’awiyah, Yazid, and others were chosen as caliphs. Hence, it would be unfounded to claim that the caliphate was first instituted by shura (consultation).


[3] Ibn Qutaybah, Al-Imamah wal-Siyasah, 1:11
[4] Al-Mas’udi, Muruj al-Dhahabi, 3:12
[5] Ibn Shabah, Tarikh al-Madinah al-Munawarah, 2:148
[6] Al-Muttaqi al-Hindi, Kanz al-Umal, 5:727, hadith 14259
[7] Ibn al-Atheer, Al-Kamil fil-Tarikh, 3:71
[8] Tarikh al-Tabari, 3:294
[9] Talha b. Ubaydillah was one of the companions who was known for his strong opposition against Uthman. He was killed by his friend Marwan b. Hakim in the Battle of Camel, 36 AH and is buried outside Basra.
[10] Zubayr b. Awam was born twenty-eight years before the Hijrah. He embraced Islam at the age of fifteen. He was the son of Saffiah b. Abdul Muttalib, the aunt of the Prophet. He married Asmah b. Abu Bakr. He was killed in 36 AH in the Battle of Camel, which was spearheaded by Aishah against Imam Ali. He is buried near Basra, Iraq.
[11] Waqat Siffeen, p. 34-39; Tarikh b. Khaldun, 2:625
[12] Ibid
[13] Al-Dhahabi, Sirr Alam al-Nubala, 2:396

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