Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

The Early Caliphate

Steve Muhlberger
In previous discussions, it made sense to treat the early Arabs as more or less united group.

In actuality, there were important divisions among them, because they disagreed on basic questions.

These questions included:

There was agreement perhaps on a single point, that the umma or community should be led by the kalifa (caliph) or successor of the Prophet.   But there was no agreement, much of the time, as to who this person was.

In the midst of their conquest, the Arabs were engaged in debate and even warfare among themselves in an attempt to settle these very basic questions.   They did not have an unambiguous blueprint to guide them.

Indeed, some of these debates divide Muslims to this very day.

The focus of this lecture will be on the nature of the kalifa and the legitimate succession to that position.

The caliph was key to the early Muslim and Arab community, because he was a tangible unifying factor.   The Quran was known and recited, but not written down yet!   There was no codified Islamic law.   There was no clearly defined body of interpreters or enforcers of that law.   Islamic tradition of all sort was still being established.

Further, not all Arabs were believers.   To some people the religious enterprise was first and foremost; but to others more worldly goals had a lot of weight.

In this situation the existence of a living commander and authority was something everyone could hold onto.

But what was the extent of the caliph's powers?   What goals should he be pursuing?

If he was primarily the leader of the Arabs and pursuing Arab domination, then he might be expected to rely on major tribal leaders, especially the Quraysh of Mecca and Medina, who had resources and connections valuable in a wartime situation.

The leader of the Muslims, however, might be expected to rely on men of tested faith, the early followers of the Prophet in Mecca and Medina.   (These included some very practical military and political leaders, but perhaps their family standing was not so exalted as that of others.)

Conflict between these two groups (or perhaps, tendencies!) quickly divided the inner circle of the umma, which had not come to a clear consensus about exactly what kind of umma it was to be.   An intimate, family affair:   Soon enough Aisha, the youngest and favorite wife of the Prophet was clearly identified with one tendency, while Ali, the nephew and son-in-law of the Prophet, was identified with another.

When Uthman became the third caliph, the conflict came out in the open.   He was an early convert from an important family, the Banu Umayya, and for those connections he had been particularly welcomed by the Prophet.   However, he was not respected by the more religiously inclined.   He was seen by some as an unsatisfactory compromise candidate.

Uthman had a hard time satisfying conflicting expectations among his followers.   The army felt he was illegitimately promoting and rewarding his own relatives.   Others criticized him for having the Quran written down in a standard form -- thus bringing the word of God under his control.

In 650 revolt broke out in the Arab armies.  In 655, Uthman was killed in Medina.   It is interesting to note that his killers met no resistance because Uthman, a caliph but not yet a monarch, had no palace or palace guard.

Uthman's killing was a shock, and whether he deserved his fate became a subject of furious debate.  Before the issue was settled, Ali was chosen caliph with the agreement of most of Muhammed's remaining disciples.    But important leaders held out.
Other Ummayads (members of the Banu Ummaya) wanted Uthman's killers punished.   Ali refused to do this and soon found himself opposed by Aisha and her friends.

Ali won one battle (against an army led by Aisha) but then was  faced by a second group of rebels led by Muawiya, the governor of Syria and the nephew of Uthman.   Muwiya's forces soon found themselves outnumbered and in the midst of the battle of Siffin called for arbitration.   Ali agreed to have the question of Uthman's murder settled in this fashion.

Ali's agreement to arbitration, however, severely disappointed his followers.   His most zealous followers, who were called Kharijis, deserted him.   Their justification was that the caliphate was a religious position and not the possession of any family.   The caliph had to be a good Muslim or else he had no legitimacy.   The community of true, zealous Muslims (in Khariji belief, themselves) were the only judges of his legitimacy.   The founding moment for this movement was when they decided that Ali, by compromising, had shown himself to be no better than Uthman.

The Kharijis were an early extremist movement within Islam, with a radical conviction that all Muslims were equal in the eyes of God, and at the same time that only the uncompromising were Muslims at all.   They quickly were neutralized as a major political force by Ali, but continued to exist in certain tribal environments for centuries.  (Why?)

Ali had less luck dealing with Muawiya.    The arbitration agreed with the Ummayad position that the murderers of Uthman should be punished.   Ali rejected the decision.   As a result he began to lose both zealous and pragmatic followers.   When he was murdered by a Khariji in 661, he was soon followed as caliph by Muawiya.

Muawiya, who had been in the past a capable commander in the war against Byzantium, ruled successfully for years.   Under him, the caliphate became more like an ordinary monarchy.    Damascus, near the frontier, became capital.    It was agreed in advance, too, that M's son would become the next caliph.

After his death in 680, however, there was another challenge from Ali's party.   Husayn, Ali's son, who had been living in Medina, was convinced to take up the standard of his family and claim the caliphate.

To raise a force against the Ummayads, though, Husayn had to go to Kufa, on the border of Iraq, where Ali had been based and where loyal soldiers and the resources of Iraq and Iran would be available.   But Husayn never made it.  He was ambushed and killed at Karbala near Kufa, and that was the end of the Alid revolt.

After this, the Ummayads were unchallenged for a long time.    They demilitarized the Iraqi Arabs who had fought against them and depended primarily on the military resources of their faithful followers in Syria.

However, the big questions I raised at the beginning of the lecture were still unanswered.   The Ummayad caliphs' legitimacy (as distinct from practical power) was questionable.

They were not the champions of all the Arabs -- they based their power on the Arabs of Syria and excluded others from the center of power

They didn't look like great champions of all the Muslims, either.   By the 700s there were more and more mawali, non-Arab Muslims, and they were not treated as the equals of Arabs.

What was in fact their claim to power?   They might claim the consensus of the community, but they were at the same time turning themselves into a line of hereditary monarchs, who ruled because they had the best armies.

And there existed within the umma a recurrent sentiment that if there was a family with a hereditary claim to leadership, it was not the Banu Ummaya but the family of Ali, which was the family of the Prophet.    If this righteous leadership had not been betrayed, thought some, justice and true religion would have reigned on earth.

This is the basis of Shi'ism:   The idea of betrayal, which explains every imperfection in the implementation of Islam, and the misbehavior of those who claim to rule in its name.  Instead of a righteous umma governed in accordance with religion, Muslims have been stuck with tyrants ruling more like Pharaoh than the Prophet.  A messianic faith, because the Shi'ites look to the restoration of the true imam (which means prayer leader but implies much more) from the true line.   It has also usually been a faith in exile, because many Shi'ites have felt throughout history that even within the umma there is no real home for a Muslim.

Most Muslims over the course of time have not accepted this analysis of legitimacy within Islam.    The majority view is the Sunni view, who accepted the line of Muawiya and his successors.

The great Arab conquests were in many ways an astounding success, and spread Islam far and wide.   However, they did not make possible a united umma.   Even the wielding of great powers by the successors of the Prophet did not settle some of the most basic issues that the preaching of Islam raised.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.