The Death of the Prophet and the First Elaboration of the Sunnī-Jamā‘ī Imamate
As we have noted, Muhammad was more than a passive receiver and transmitter of divine revelation. His prophethood coincided with his charismatic political leadership, military prowess, skilled diplomacy, legislative authority, sound judgment and his status as an ideal husband, father, and companion. As long as he was alive, the Muslim community would have a single, authoritative source for interpreting the Qur’ān and understanding Divine Will.
Sunnī tradition maintains that Muhammad did not explicitly name a successor, so when he died in 632 CE, the Muslim community faced its first significant internal crisis. According to one historian of early Islamic civilization, in determining Muhammad’s successor, the ummah was confronted with the following questions: “What status and power should such a leader have? Was he to be the first among equals, like a tribal chief, arbitrating and solving disputes, or was he to have a more real and effective power, even a measure of divine sanction for his decisions? Was he to be chosen by the community or to take power by some process of hereditary succession within the Prophet’s clan?” Because the Medinan ummah was such a significant sociopolitical departure from the pre-Islamic status quo, there was little precedent to guide the community’s course of action.
The decisiveness of three of Muhammad’s closest companions – Abū Bakr, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattāb, and Abū Ubaydah ibn al-Jarrāh – brought some resolution to the leadership crisis but scarcely eliminated the possibility of future problems. Facing a political emergency, these three companions collaborated to determine Muhammad’s first successor. ‘Umar took the initiative and pledged his allegiance to Abū Bakr, and Abū Ubaydah echoed ‘Umar’s decision. When this triumvirate made its preference known publicly, other leading figures within the ummah followed its example and the community acclaimed Abū Bakr the first khalīfah (Anglicized as caliph). Khalīfah literally means deputy or successor, but deputy to whom, God’s Prophet or God Himself? As the institution of the caliphate evolved over the next few centuries, the notion of the khalīfah’s deputyship seemed to gravitate away from the former and toward the latter. Attributed to the khalīfah were two other important titles: amīr al-mu’minīn, which means “commander of the faithful,” an acknowledgement of his role as head of state, and imām, which simply means prayer leader, but in this context refers to headship of the ummah. These three caliphal titles indicate the scope of his authority: successor to Muhammad, head of state, and leader of the Muslim community. Henceforth, we will refer to the person holding the office of khalīfah as the caliph-imām.
A majority of the ummah ratified Abū Bakr’s nomination as Muhammad’s first successor by swearing an oath of allegiance (bay‘ah), and the bay‘ah, in various forms, would become customary in the accession of future caliph-imāms. While the skilled political improvisation of Abū Bakr and ‘Umar preserved the unity of the ummah that Muhammad had established, it also determined that while the leadership of Muhammad’s community would stay within the Prophet’s tribe, the Quraysh, it would not necessarily be passed to a blood-relative. This political compromise on the part of Muhammad’s family meant that members of the Banū Umayyah clan, which for the most part had fiercely resisted Muhammad and tried to destroy the ummah in its infancy, were now eligible to become its leader.
Despite periods of pronounced internal strife during their respective administrations, Sunnī Muslims regard the first four of Muhammad’s successors as the Rāshidūn, or “rightly-guided,” caliph-imāms. In the wake of Muhammad’s death, some groups withdrew from the ummah, and Abū Bakr reacted swiftly in order to reconsolidate the community in Arabia. He died two years into his reign but before his death he named ‘Umar ibn al-Khattāb as his successor. ‘Umar ruled for ten years from 634 to 644 CE and he is credited with directing Muslim expansion outside of the Arabian Peninsula into Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, lands for which the Byzantines and Sassanians had competed for several centuries. ‘Umar was assassinated in 644 by a Persian slave with no apparent political motivation. Following ‘Umar’s death, a shura (consultative assembly) was convened and ‘Uthmān, a member of the Banū Umayyah clan, was elected caliph-imām. A less capable leader, ‘Uthmān could not maintain the political balance that ‘Umar had managed, and a contingent of high-ranking deputies orchestrated ‘Uthmān’s assassination in 656 CE. ‘Ali, the Prophet’s foster brother, cousin, and son-in-law, succeeded ‘Uthmān, inheriting the political divisiveness that had beleaguered his predecessor. A Banū Umayyah clan leader named Mu‘āwīyah, who was the regional governor of Syria, challenged ‘Ali’s authority and in the resulting political dispute, ‘Ali lost many supporters. In 661 CE, ‘Ali too was assassinated by an assailant who was a member of a separatist sect of Muslims which had grown dissatisfied with his leadership. The period of the Rāshidūn caliphate ended when Mu‘āwīyah succeeded ‘Ali as caliph-imām, claiming the title without designation and without the convening of a shura. With his power secure, Mu‘āwīyah moved the capital of the growing Muslim empire from Medina to Damascus, inaugurating the Umayyad dynasty.
Professor of Iranian and Central Asian History, and of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations
Outreach Coordinator, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Chicago
1. What are the two kinds of rulership identified above that are critical to understanding Islamic civilization from the classical period to the fall of the Ottoman empire? Where or from whom do leaders derive their authority in each model?
2. What was the significance of the Muslim victory over the Quraysh?
3. What caused the split between the Sunni and Shi’ite factions?