Islamic History, Part 8: The Caliphate of Abu Bakr (632-634)

Islamic History Series

Muhammad’s death in 632 seems to have caught his followers by surprise, because the sources describe a period of effective chaos right after he died and I think this is one area in which the sources can be mostly trusted. Yes, the sources are late and unreliable, but if they were doctored up or even completely fabricated at some later time, why would their writers have invented an inter-movement war if none had actually taken place? The impulse for someone inventing, or massaging, the story of the early community would be to write more order and control into that tale, not less. You would want to show how Muhammad’s successor was widely accepted and peacefully installed by the community, not how the whole Arabian project almost fell apart. But, according to these sources, “almost fall apart” is what happened.

By the time of Muhammad’s death he had won the allegiance of, or at least peaceful relations with, many tribes and settlements throughout the Arabian peninsula. This had mostly been accomplished through peaceful means after a few military campaigns in the immediate aftermath of the conquest of Mecca. Basically Muhammad required these tribes and settlements to accept Medina’s sovereignty and to pay taxes to him as well as to serve in his armies, in return for which they were promised protection from Muhammad’s forces as well as a share of the booty taken in any military action–in other words, there seems to have been no requirement that tribes or settlements convert to Islam or even to monotheism before they could make treaties with Muhammad. However, it seems most of those who had made agreements with Muhammad saw themselves as having made agreements with Muhammad the individual, not Muhammad the head of a new political entity (let alone a religious movement) that would continue on after his death. Indeed, it wasn’t even clear to Muhammad’s closest followers that the community should remain together!

The succession process moved very quickly in Medina itself; it had to, or the whole movement risked being shattered. Now, the roots of the Sunni-Shiʿite schism in the Islamic community are, at least in theory, to be found right at the moment of Muhammad’s death, because fundamentally the split came out of a disagreement over who should be his successor:

  • Shiʿites (the name comes from the Arabic shiʿat ‘Ali, or “partisans of ʿAli”), the minority party, hold that Muhammad formally designated his cousin and son-in-law ʿAli b. Abi Talib as his successor in a sermon he gave at a place called Ghadir Khumm, shortly before his death (in fact, on the return journey to Medina from his pilgrimage to Mecca). Muhammad is reported to have said “For whomever I have been mawla, ʿAli is his mawla.” Mawla can (really, can, see below) mean “patron” or even “master,” so this could be a designation of succession. ʿAli was a seasoned battlefield commander who (according to the sources) usually challenged and defeated the opposing army’s champion before full battle was joined (traditional Arabian warfare started with champion challenges and single combat before progressing to army-on-army fighting). He was the closest thing to a blood heir that Muhammad had, since his wives had all borne him only daughters (one of whom, Fatimah, had married ʿAli). He had maybe been the first male to accept Muhammad’s message and his prophethood, following only Muhammad’s wife Khadijah, although this was disputed.
  • Sunnis, the majority party, offer several points in defense of the succession of Abu Bakr. One is that Abu Bakr was Muhammad’s acknowledged second-in-command throughout his career as a religious and political leader, and indeed may himself have been the first male to accept Muhammad’s message, or at least the first adult male to do so (though some sources disagree on this as well), as ʿAli was a child when the revelations began and Abu Bakr was probably in his late 30s. They acknowledge Muhammad’s sermon at Ghadir Khumm but contend that he referred to ʿAli as mawla in its other meaning of “close friend” or “spiritual brother,” not “master.” They point to hadith where Muhammad says he leaves two things behind him to guide the community: the Qur’an and his own life example (i.e., not a designated successor, and certainly not ʿAli). Finally, they point to Muhammad’s illness just before his death, when for a time he appointed Abu Bakr, not ʿAli, as imam, to lead the communal prayer in Medina in his place.

It seems to me that ʿAli was disqualified by Muhammad’s other companions out of the fear, which I suppose may have been justified at the time, that if ʿAli succeeded Muhammad their movement would turn into a hereditary monarchy (which it eventually did anyway, but I digress). The Islamic project developed in a tribal society where oligarchy was the typical form of governance, more so than monarchy, so there was an innate fear of establishing a monarchy. While ʿAli did eventually come to rule the community, he was the fourth man to succeed Muhammad and any fear that he would spawn a line of blood succession was no longer credible, or at least no more credible than any fear that any of the three rulers who came before him would have done the same thing (although, low and behold, the guy who succeeded ʿAli did exactly that, but again I digress). Having Abu Bakr succeed Muhammad sent a clear signal that control of the Arabian project would not be passed down a bloodline, at least not yet.

An additional factor feeding the opposition to ʿAli was most likely ʿAli’s popularity among the non-Meccan elements of the movement, like the Medinan ansar, other Arabian tribes, and even the small but growing number of non-Arabs who were being drawn into Muhammad’s followers. Following the conquest of Mecca, the leading positions within the movement had largely come to be occupied by Meccan Quraysh, who may well have feared losing their status had ʿAli, who was himself Quraysh but whose base of support was largely not, come to power.

What sequence of events transpired to bring Abu Bakr to power? Well, as I say Muhammad’s death seems to have shocked the community, at least according to the Islamic historical record. Muhammad wasn’t a young man, particularly for the Arabian environment, and he had been ill, but still it seems his followers either believed that he was somehow divinely protected or that the End of Days would come while he was still alive. At any rate, the despairing community, aware that Muhammad’s condition was grave but unprepared for him to die, seems to have been gathered in the communal mosque in Medina, hearing a sermon by another of Muhammad’s leading followers, Umar b. al-Khattab, when Abu Bakr returned to the city (Muhammad had sent him on a military expedition into Syria but he returned when word reached him of Muhammad’s grave condition). Abu Bakr went first to Muhammad’s house, where he saw Muhammad and pronounced him dead. Umar was angrily berating anyone who said that Muhammad was dead, threatening that God would cut off the hands and legs of anyone saying so (he was clearly in the camp who believed that Muhammad could not die), until Abu Bakr arrived in the mosque and said “those here who worship Muhammad, Muhammad has died, but those who worship God, God is alive and will never die!” This shut Umar up, and calmed a crowd that seems genuinely to have been unable to process Muhammad’s death.

But now, as I said, Abu Bakr and Umar had to work quickly to keep things from coming apart. They, along with a few other leading muhajirun (Muhammad’s followers from Mecca), found a group of leading ansar (Muhammad’s followers from Medina) who were deciding who would lead their community (as in just the ansar) with Muhammad dead. Muhammad’s entire movement could have been splintered then and there had Abu Bakr and Umar not persuaded the ansar leaders not to choose their own leader and go their own way. After all, there was no particular reason to assume that the community would go on as a united entity after Muhammad’s death; some thought he would be succeeded by another prophet, or perhaps a group of prophets, each continuing the movement within his own tribe. Abu Bakr and Umar talked the ansar out of appointing their own leader and thus kept the community together. With the unification question (temporarily) settled, at least in Medina itself, then the group turned to the choice of a successor. Abu Bakr proposed Umar or another muhajir named Abu Ubaydah, both of whom were younger than Abu Bakr and, he argued, fitter for the job, whereupon Umar immediately pledged an oath of loyalty (bay’ah)to Abu Bakr and the rest of the group, swept up in the moment maybe, did the same. The group then began to filter out into the Medinan community to obtain similar oaths from the rest of Muhammad’s followers.

The only remaining problem in Medina was securing the loyalty of ʿAli, and what you believe happened next depends on whether you are a Sunni or a Shiʿite. Shiʿites believe that Umar and Abu Bakr, with what amounts to an armed posse, went to ʿAli and Fatimah’s house, where supporters of ʿAli (many of them ansar) had gathered, to obtain oaths from everyone there. After a confrontation and some verbal sparring between Umar on the one hand and ʿAli and Fatimah on the other, ʿAli’s supporters went into his house and shut the door on Abu Bakr and Umar. Umar had a torch brought and set the wooden door of the house on fire, until it had weakened enough to be smashed open. In the ensuing violence, Umar shoved the pregnant Fatimah so violently as to cause her to miscarry and break ribs, and she died of her injuries within a few days. Sunni tradition simply denies that this event ever took place, saying instead that Fatimah demanded that Abu Bakr promise her Muhammad’s share of war booty, which Abu Bakr refused, and/or that ʿAli complained about not having been consulted as to the succession, but otherwise acquiesced. The interesting complication with respect to the Sunni story is that Fatimah does seem to have died very shortly after her father’s death, coincidentally enough (although if she had really been pregnant at the time then complications in the pregnancy could explain her sudden death), and there are quite a number of sources that attest to some kind of violent clash at ʿAli’s house. What all the sources say is that, after some time out of public view to mourn the deaths of his father-in-law and wife, ʿAli again became a leading figure in the community, participating along with Abu Bakr, Umar, and other leaders in all important decision-making.


Battles of the Ridda Wars (Wikimedia | Mohammad Adil)

So Abu Bakr got the job, taking the title khalifat al-rasul, “successor”–or perhaps “vicegerent”–“of the Messenger,” what we call “caliph” (the full title actually seems to have changed in an important way when the office became hereditary, but we’re not there yet). The manner of his succession established the shura (“consultation”), or decision made in some kind of council of affected parties, as one legitimate form of political succession in the Islamic world. Reza Aslan has likened this to a form of democracy, but I’m not sure I would agree; the decision to make Abu Bakr the leader was clearly made in a council of elite followers, effectively oligarchs, who sought the ratification of the whole community but may well have coerced that ratification to some extent. At the moment he took over, though, Abu Bakr, unlike Muhammad, controlled only Medina and Mecca, where the Quraysh had no more will to fight, but little else. The vast majority of the tribes and cities throughout the rest of Arabia seem to have treated their oaths to Muhammad as personal loyalty oaths to Muhammad himself, rather than pledges of allegiance to a long-lasting community. Most immediately severed ties with Medina, and some even began to follow their own “holy men,” similar in appearance to Muhammad; most notable among these was a man named Musaylima at al-Yamamah in central Arabia, who amassed a considerable following.


Khalid b. al-Walid’s campaign across central Arabia (Wikimedia | Mohammad Adil)

Abu Bakr acted swiftly and decisively to regain control in Arabia. First, the army that he had gone with on the expedition to Roman Syria instead moved instantly to crush nascent uprisings in northern Arabia. Meanwhile, Abu Bakr scraped together an army from among the fighting men left at Medina, and defeated a group of rebels who had threatened Medina itself. Then, having established a little order and breathing space, he formed 11 separate armies to take the fight to other parts of Arabia. Collectively the military campaigns that followed are known in Islamic history as the Wars of Apostasy, the Hurub al-Riddah, or the Ridda Wars. The most powerful corps, under the command of Khalid b. al-Walid (who had been Mecca’s military commander in their campaigns against Muhammad but was now a loyal member of the movement), was sent into central Arabia with the ultimate goal of finding and defeating the upstart Musaylima. Khalid moved swiftly across central Arabia, negotiating where he could to peel support away from rebel leaders, while another corps was ordered to advance on Musaylima at al-Yamamah but not to engage him, just to keep him pinned down (the commander of this corps disobeyed his orders, engaged Musaylima, and was defeated). When Khalid and his corps arrived at al-Yamamah, they joined with a third corps that had been sent there as reinforcement and engaged Musaylima’s forces, ultimately slaughtering them. Resistance in central Arabia was ended and the rest of the peninsula (Oman, Bahrayn, the Yemen, the rest of northern Arabia) followed suit, with the last resistance at Hadhramaut (eastern Yemen today) collapsing in early 633.

Abu Bakr is also known for having begun the process of recording Muhammad’s revelations on paper, perhaps out of fear that all those who had carefully memorized the revelations could be killed in battle and then the revelations would be lost. He appointed a committee under Umar and Muhammad’s scribe, a man named Zayd b. Thabit, to collect any scraps upon which people had transcribed Muhammad’s revelations, and to call together those who had memorized them so that they might recite the revelation and have it transcribed. Abu Bakr was supposedly presented with the committee’s final product: a compiled, written Qur’an, which he passed on to Umar and which became the basis for the standardized Qur’an we know today. While this makes for a nice story and may in fact be true, it’s important to note that there’s no way to verify that Abu Bakr had a written Qur’an, or something that would become the written Qurʾan, in his possession; indeed, there’s no verifiable written Qur’an anywhere until the end of the seventh century, but that’s a topic for a later entry. Incidentally, Abu Bakr also stabilized and professionalized the field of “Qurʾan recitation,” appointing trained reciters to minister to tribes all over the peninsula in an effort to ensure that those tribes were all hearing a standardized, “official” version of the revelations.


Khalid b. al-Walid’s campaign in Iraq, 633 (Wikimedia | Mohammad Adil)

With all the rebellions in Arabia put down, Abu Bakr turned his attention to the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires on his northwestern and northeastern borders, respectively. He launched campaigns directed at both, or, more accurately, directed at the Arab client/buffer entities that both empires had long patronized along their Arabian borders. It’s likely he hoped to draw these Arab tribes into Medina’s orbit and then push back against the powerful empires and buy Arabia some breathing room, but I doubt he envisioned the kind of all-encompassing Arab military success that would ultimately take place (albeit most of it after he died). He first sent an army, again under the command of Khalid b. al-Walid, into Iraq against the Persians; Khalid conquered the important cities of Hirah and Anbar in central Iraq in 633, then utterly defeated a major Persian counterattack before being recalled by Abu Bakr to lead the campaign against the Romans in Syria. He led his army on a daring march through the Syrian desert to catch the Romans off-guard. First he defeated the Romans’ Arab clients, the Ghassanids, then he routed a Roman army sent against him before besieging and capturing the crucial city of Damascus in 634.


Khalid b. al-Walid’s campaign in Syria, 634 (Wikimedia | Mohammad Adil)

A brief digression: we’re still well into the part of Islamic history for which there are only very thin and very late sources, and so the reasons for the initial Arab movement into Syria and Iraq cannot really be assumed from the available evidence. There are a number of theories. For example there’s the traditional one, that this was a plain old war of conquest, but that’s very unsatisfying because it’s so easy to imagine 8th-9th century Arab historians looking at the vast empire around them and assuming that it must have been created in a planned war of conquest. They may have started out as raids against the two empires, led perhaps by some of the same tribes that had once served as proxies for those empires but that were now left out in the cold because neither empire could afford to keep paying them. Conversely they may have started out as raids by inner Arabian tribes against those tribes that had once been Roman and Persian clients. Or they may have been something else altogether, like a large-scale but mostly uncoordinated Bedouin migration out of an Arabia that had never been able to really support much in the way of human life. In this series I’m mostly sticking to the traditional story, because that’s the one that has salience today and because most of you would very quickly lose interest in a narrative that constantly digressed into discussions of historiography. But readers should assume, at least until we get to the point when contemporary Arab historical writing starts being done, that nothing about this story is necessarily what the Muslim tradition says it is.

Abu Bakr died in 634, putting a temporary pause on the conquests, but before he died he short-circuited another succession crisis by directly naming Umar b. al-Khattab as his chosen successor. This established direct nomination by a predecessor as a second legitimate form of political succession in Islamic politics.

Next time: The caliphate of Umar I

Further Reading:

The problem with doing separate reading lists for each of these early caliphs is that most or all modern scholarship deals with them as a group, not individually. So there will be a lot of overlap between this list and the lists for the next few caliphs.

Fred Donner’s Early Islamic Conquests talks about the Ridda Wars, the crucial episode of Abu Bakr’s reign.

If Donner is not, then Hugh Kennedy arguably is the preeminent historian of early Islam in academia today. His The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates, 600–1050 is basically unavoidable if you want to know the history of the early caliphate. The Armies of the Caliphs: military and society in the early Islamic State is similarly important for wrestling with the Islamic conquests and the kind of society they established, beginning with the Ridda Wars.

Patricia Crone’s God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam deals with issues of the titles bestowed on the caliphs and what they may have meant; the nature and expression of authority in this formative period has huge ramifications for later Islamic rulers.

The apex of research into the succession question is probably Wilferd Madelung’s The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate. It’s really a scholarly tour de force, but it’s marred by the fact that Madelung came down squarely on the Shiʿite side of the line in terms of who should have succeeded Muhammad, so parts of it start to read more as “the case for ʿAli’s legitimacy” than as an even-handed academic look at the issue.



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