The Election of the first Caliph after the death of the Prophet Muhammad Essay


The word ‘Caliph’ is the English form of the Arabic word ‘Khalifa,’ which is short for Khalifatu Rasulil-lah. The latter expression means Successor to the Messenger of God, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him). The title ‘Khalifatu Rasulil-lah’. was first used for Hazart Abu Bakr, who was elected head of the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet.

The Significance of the Caliphate

The mission of Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him), like that of the earlier messengers of God, was to call people to the worship of and submission to the One True God. In practice, submission to God means to obey His injunctions as given in the Holy Qur’an and as exemplified by Sunnah (the practice of the Prophet). As successor to the Prophet, the Caliph was the head of the Muslim community and his primary responsibility was to continue in the path of the Prophet. Since religion was perfected and the door of Divine revelation was closed at the death of the Prophet, the Caliph was to make all laws in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunnah. He was a ruler over Muslims but not their sovereign since sovereignty belongs to God alone.

He was to be obeyed as long as he obeyed God. He was responsible for creating and maintaining conditions under which it would be easy for Muslims to live according to Islamic principles, and to see that justice was done to all. Abu Bakr, at the time he accepted the caliphate, stated his position thus:

“The weak among you shall be strong with me until their rights have been vindicated; and the strong among you shall he weak with me until, if the Lord wills, I have taken what is due from them… Obey me as long as I obey God and His Messenger. When I disobey Him and His Prophet, then obey me not.”


   The Muslims believe that the Prophet of Islam did not designate anyone as his successor, and he (probably) assumed that after his death, the Muslims would find a leader for themselves. They further say that the Prophet did not even tell his followers how they ought to select their future leaders or what qualifications those leaders should have. Thus, lacking both precedent and guidance in the matter of finding their leaders, the companions had no choice but to take recourse to improvisation.

But improvisation is not policy, and inevitably, it turned out to be a rather erratic manner of finding leaders of the Muslim umma (community). In one case the companions found a leader through what was supposed to be an election. In another case, the first incumbent (who was elected), nominated and appointed his own successor. In the third instance, the second incumbent (who was nominated), appointed a committee of six men and charged them with the duty of selecting one out of themselves as the future leader of the Muslim community.

The third leader, so selected, was killed in the midst of anarchy and chaos, and the umma was left without a head. The companions then turned to the family of their Prophet, and appealed to one of its members to take charge of the government of the Muslims, and thereby to save it from breakdown and dissolution.

The fourth incumbent was still ruling the Muslims when a new candidate for leadership arose in Syria. He brushed aside the hoax of election, challenged the lawful sovereign of the Muslims by invoking the principle of brute force, and succeeded in capturing the government. His action brought the number of the “principles” for finding leaders of the Muslim umma to four, viz.

1. Election:

Abu Bakr was elected khalifa (successor of the Prophet) by a majority vote in Saqifa.(Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth incumbent, was also elected khalifa by a majority of the Muhajireen and Ansar who were present in Medina at the death of the third khalifa).

2. Nomination:

Umar was appointed by Abu Bakr as his successor.

3. Selection by plutocrats:

Uthman was selected khalifa by a committee of six men appointed by Umar.

4. Seizure of the government by naked force:

Muawiya bin Abu Sufyan seized the government of the Muslims by military action.

The Muslims consider all these four “principles” as lawful and valid. In this manner, four different “constitutional” modes of finding a leader for the Muslim umma came into being.

Here it should be pointed out that though the Muslims have given to each of these four different modes of finding leaders for the umma, the “status” of a “principle,” none of them was derived from the Book of God (Qur’an) or from the Book of the Prophet (Hadith). All of them were derived from the events which took place after the death of the Prophet of Islam.

In the history of any country, constitution-making is the first step toward nation-building. The constitution is the organic law of the land. It is the basic framework of public authority. It determines and defines the responsibilities, duties and powers of the government. All major decisions affecting the interests of the nation, are taken in the light of its principles. Whatever is in agreement with it, is held legal and valid; whatever is not, is discarded as unconstitutional.

The Rightly-Guided Caliphs (Al-Khulafa-ur-Rashidun)Those Caliphs who truly followed in the Prophet’s foot steps are called ‘The Rightly-Guided Caliphs’ (Al-Khulafa-ur Rashidun in Arabic). They are the first four Caliphs: Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, Uthman and Ali. All four were among thc earliest and closest Companions of the Prophet (peace be on him). They lived simple and righteous lives and strove hard for the religion of God. Their justice was impartial, their treatment of others was kind and merciful, and they were one with the people – the first among equals. After these four, the later Caliphs assumed the manners of kings and emperors and the true spirit of equality of ruler and ruled diminished to a considerable extent in the political life of Muslims.

It should be clearly understood that the mission of Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him), and hence that of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, was not political, social or economic reform, although such reforms were a logical consequence of the success of this mission, nor the unity of a nation and the establishment of an empire, although the nation did unite and vast areas came under one administration, nor the spread of a civilization or culture, although many civilizations and cultures developed, but only to deliver the message of God to all the peoples of the world and to invite them to submit to Him, while being the foremost among those who submitted.

What About the Present?

The primary responsibility of an Islamic government is still the same as it was in the days of the early Caliphs: to make all laws in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunnah, to make positive efforts to create and maintain conditions under which it will be possible and easy for Muslims to live an Islamic life, to secure impartial and speedy justice for all, and to strive hard in the path of God. Any government which is committed to such a policy is truly following the message delivered by the Prophet (peace be on him).

Abu-Bakr’s Caliphate

Such, then, was the man upon whom the burden of leadership fell at the most sensitive period in the history of the Muslims.

As the news of the Prophet’s death spread, a number of tribes rebelled and refused to pay Zakat (poor-due), saying that this was due only to the Prophet (peace be on him). At the same time a number of impostors claimed that the prophethood had passed to them after Muhammad and they raised the standard of revolt. To add to all this, two powerful empires, the Eastern Roman and the Persian, also threatened the new-born Islamic state at Medina.

Under these circumstances, many Companions of the Prophet, including Umar, advised Abu Bakr to make concessions to the Zakat evaders, at least for a time. The new Caliph disagreed. He insisted that the Divine Law cannot be divided, that there is no distinction between the obligations of Zakat and Salat (prayer), and that any compromise with the injunctions of God would eventually erode the foundations of Islam. Umar and others were quick to realize their error of judgment. The revolting tribes attacked Medina but the Muslims were prepared. Abu Bakr himself led the charge, forcing them to retreat. He then made a relentless war on the false claimants to prophethood, most of whom submitted and again professed lslam.

The threat from the Roman Empire had actually arisen earlier, during the Prophet’s lifetime. The Prophet had organized an army under the command of Usama, the son of a freed slave. The army had not gone far when the Prophet had fallen ill so they stopped. After the death of the Prophet the question was raised whether the army should be sent again or should remain for the defence of Medina. Again Abu Bakr showed a firm determination. He said, “I shall send Usama’s army on its way as ordered by the Prophet, even if I am left alone.”

The final instructions he gave to Usama prescribed a code of conduct in war which remains unsurpassed to this day. Part of his instructions to the Muslim army were:

“Do not be deserters, nor be guilty of disobedience. Do not kill an old man, a woman or a child. Do not injure date palms and do not cut down fruit trees. Do not slaughter any sheep or cows or camels except for food. You will encounter persons who spend their lives in monasteries. Leave them alone and do not molest them.”

Khalid bin Waleed had been chosen by the Prophet (peace be on him) on several occasions to lead Muslim armies. A man of supreme courage and a born leader, his military genius came to full flower during the Caliphate of Abu Bakr. Throughout Abu Bakr’s reign Khalid led his troops from one victory to another against the attacking Romans.

Another contribution of Abu Bakr to the cause of Islam was the collection and compilation of the verses of the Qur’an.

Abu Bakr died on 21 Jamadi-al Akhir, 13 A.H. (23 August 634 A.C.), at the age of sixty-three, and was buried by the side of the Holy Prophet (peace be on him). His caliphate had been of a mere twenty-seven months duration. In this brief span, however, Abu Bakr had managed, by the Grace of God, to strengthen and consolidate his community and the state, and to secure the Muslims against the perils which had threatened their existence.

Ali’s Caliphate

Ali accepted the caliphate very reluctantly. Uthman’s murder and the events surrounding it were a symptom, and also became a cause, of civil strife on a large scale. Ali felt that the tragic situation was mainly due to inept governors. He therefore dismissed all the governors who had been appointed by Uthman and appointed new ones. All the governors excepting Muawiya, the governor of Syria, submitted to his orders. Muawiya declined to obey until Uthman’s blood was avenged. The Prophet’s widow Aisha also took the position that Ali should first bring the murderers to trial. Due to the chaotic conditions during the last days of Uthman it was very difficult to establish the identity of the murderers, and Ali refused to punish anyone whose guilt was not lawfully proved. Thus a battle between the army of Ali and the supporters of Aisha took place. Aisha later realized her error of judgment and never forgave herself for it.

The situation in Hijaz (thc part of Arabia in which Mecca and Medina are located) became so troubled that Ali moved his capital to Iraq. Muawiya now openly rebelled against Ali and a fierce battle was fought between their armies. This battle was inconclusive, and Ali had to accept the de facto government of Muawiya in Syria.

However, even though the era of Ali’s caliphate was marred by civil strife, he nevertheless introduced a number of reforms, particularly in the levying and collecting of revenues.

It was the fortieth year of Hijra. A fanatical group called Kharijites, consisting of people who had broken away from Ali due to his compromise with Muawiya, claimed that neither Ali, the Caliph, nor Muawiya, the ruler of Syria, nor Amr bin al-Aas, the ruler of Egypt, were worthy of rule. In fact, they went so far as to say that the true caliphate came to an end with ‘Umar and that Muslims should live without any ruler over them except God. They vowed to kill all three rulers, and assassins were dispatched in three directions.

The assassins who were deputed to kill Muawiya and Amr did not succeed and were captured and executed, but Ibn-e-Muljim, the assassin who was commissioned to kill Ali, accomplished his task. One morning when Ali was absorbed in prayer in a mosque, Ibn-e-Muljim stabbed him with a poisoned sword. On the 20th of Ramadan, 40 A.H., died the last of the Rightly Guided Caliphs of Islam. May God Most High be pleased with them and grant to them His eternal reward.


With the death of Ali, the first and most notable phase in the history of Muslim peoples came to an end. All through this period it had been the Book of God and the practices of His Messenger – that is, thc Qur’an and the Sunnah – which had guided the leaders and the led, set the standards of their moral conduct and inspired their actions. It was the time when the ruler and the ruled, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, were uniformly subject to the Divine Law. It was an epoch of freedom and equality, of God-consciousness and humility, of social justice which recognized no privileges, and of an impartial law which accepted no pressure groups or vested interests.

After Ali, Muawiya assumed the caliphate and thereafter the caliphate became hereditary, passing from one king to another.


Book of God (Qur’an)

Book of the Prophet (Hadith)