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Islam and Successions to 723 CE

Muhammad the Prophet created no political framework for Islamic society other than his vision of Islam as a brotherhood. Following his death in the year 632, Islam had its first succession challenge. Members of Muhammad's tribe in Mecca, the Quraysh, argued that Arabs would recognize the authority of Muhammad's successor only if were a Quraysh. Muhammad's only surviving daughter, Fatimah, believed that her husband, Ali, a Quraysh, should be chosen. A quarrel followed and Ali was rejected. Muhammad’s former companions selected one of their own, also a Quraysh: Muhammad's father-in-law and companion, Abu Bakr.

A rival favored by a group from Yathrib, was Sa'd ibn-Ubada. Wikipedia (not an exceptionally reliable source) describes Sa'd ibn-Ubada as having been "a prominent companion of the Islamic prophet Muhammad" and as having "made an abortive attempt to install himself as Caliph of Islam after Muhammad's death." Sa'd ibn-Ubada has also been described as having been assassinated and his death to have been announced as willed by Allah. It is a story that varies. But of certainty is that Abu Bakr was declared the new "Commander of the Faithful," the khalifa, anglicized to caliph.

As caliph, Abu Bakr, claimed no religious authority. He lived in a modest household with his wife, receiving no stipend. He conducted government business in the courtyard of what had been Muhammad's mosque, in Yathrib, which meanwhile, had become known as Al Madinah, "the city of the Prophet," to be shortened to Medina.

Arabia had been economically depressed from years of war, and during Bakr's two years as caliph, eager Islamic troops hungry for booty moved into Mesopotamia and conquered Palestine and Jerusalem without much difficulty. Resistance by Constantinople's imperial troops was weak. They were poorly led, and they broke and ran.

Bakr was succeeded by a member of the same clan as he: the Umayyad clan (within the Quraysh tribe). The new caliph was Umar, the father of another of Muhammad's wives: Hafsa. It was under Umar that Islam conquered Persia and liberated Egypt from the hated rule of Constantinople's emperors.

In 644, after ten years as caliph, Umar was assassinated by a captive Christian. Another succession crisis followed. Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, now about forty-four, stood to succeed Umar, but he refused to promise to follow the policies of Bakr and Umar. The clique that did the choosing selected someone they thought would: Uthman, another member of the Umayyad clan. He was a former merchant and an early convert to Islam who had married two of Muhammad's daughters. Unlike Bakr and Umar, Uthman lived in luxury, but similar to Umar he appointed his relatives as governors to the provinces and to other administrative positions.

In June 656, an army of five hundred religiously inspired Arab warriors from the garrison town of Kufa in Mesopotamia arrived in Medina. They claimed that Uthman had usurped power, that Ali was the Prophet's only legitimate successor and that they were acting on the authority of God. It was the old politics of violence that had troubled Rome. Uthman was without a force to protect him. The rebels assassinated him and cut off the fingers of his wife. Frightened relatives of Uthman fled Medina. The rebels proclaimed Ali as caliph, and Ali boldly accepted the offer, making himself appear to some as a party to Uthman’s assassination.

Members of the Umayyad clan gathered at Damascus, led by Uthman's cousin, Mu'awiyah, the governor of Syria, who made no claim to be caliph but asserted his right to avenge Uthman's murder. The governor was in charge of Syria's army, an Arab tribal army he had built. And he had the support of Syrian Christians. Mu'awiyah's influential financial counselor was a Christian, and his favorite wife was both a Christian and an Arab. Mu'awiyah was governor of an integrated Syria, where Christians and Muslims sometimes worshiped together.

Muʿāwiyah regarded Ali as an accomplice to caliph Uthman's murder. Alī marched to the Euphrates border of Syria and engaged Muʿāwiyah’s troops at the famous Battle of Ṣiffīn (657). Britannica writes that "Muʿāwiyah’s guile turned near defeat into a truce." There was a call for arbitration accompanied by the question why God had allowed Muhammad's followers to make war on each other. Ali looked foolish to some for accepting arbitration while claiming wisdom and authority in all matters Islamic. An old-fashioned sect called the Khārijites were opposed to arbitration. They thought that judgment belonged to God alone. In January 691, a Khārijite assassinated Ali. Egypt's governor had already decided in favor of Mu'awiyah and his Syrians and so had the city of Jerusalem. In April 661 Mu'awiyah was recognized at caliph — "crowned" it has been said, in Jerusalem.

(The Khārijites would be around for centuries thereafter, offending Muslims with their bloody extremism, opposed to all caliphs as usurpers, and getting nowhere politically.)

Mu'awiyah began as caliph concerned about unity. He met with members of the nobility regularly at his palace. He received delegations from the provinces in order to accept complaints and smooth over differences between tribes. He used persuasion and compromise, managing the empire through capable governors and maintaining personal relations with local leaders. He gave Arabs participation in rule by creating a council of sheiks as a consultative body with local executive powers, and he created another consultative body representing tribes. He wanted to replace kinship ties with identity to the broader Islamic community. He also surrounded himself with splendor and ceremony in an effort to increase the prestige of his office, taking as his model Constantinople's emperors. He reorganized his army, abandoning tribal units and modeled his army on Constantinople's armies. At his army's core were Christians, Muslims, Syrian Arabs, and Yemenites. And he began building a new navy.

In 680 the caliphate passed to Mu'awiyah's son — much as rule had been passed on by dynasties before Islam. Mu'awiyah's son ruled to 683 and his grandson to 684. Rule remained within the Umayyad clan with three more caliphs, to the year 723. A degree of unity among the Muslims had allowed Islam major expansions.

CONTINUE READING: Islam, Expansion and Division to 1260

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.