Attitude towards the Early History of Islam
By: Dr. Muhammad Masjid-Jame‘i
The most important factor in the formation of Sunni and Shi‘ite political thought is their attitude towards the history of Islam. Indeed, the importance of this discussion is not that, with its help, we can find out about the fundamentals of political thought, rather, it is the religious perception of these two sects in their entirety under the effect of this attitude; although the effect of such an attitude in the formation of their political thought is stronger than its effect in other issues.
The problem, as it was said in the previous chapter, is that the early history of Islam, especially at the time of the Senior Caliphs [khulafa-ye rashidin] and the Companions [sahabah] and the Followers [tabi‘in] is of key importance to the Sunnis while, in the Shi‘ahs view, this part of history is not distinct from the other periods of the history of Islam. This is not merely a theoretical belief, i.e. it is not that the Sunnis show a special religious respect to it while Shi‘ites fail to do so. Its importance is because such a view has strongly affected the religious perception of the followers of these two sects, so much so that the Sunnis look at Islam, in its entirety, through this part of history because they consider it to be the realization and manifestation of the teachings of Islam while Shi‘ites, on the other hand, look at this part of history through Islamic values and, therefore, have a critical stance towards it. As a precise understanding of this is of the utmost importance for understanding the religious perceptions of these two groups and especially their political thought, let’s first deal this subject.
Sunnism gives a special religious stature and even attaches a divine sacredness to the history of the early period, at least to the end of the Senior Caliphs. One has to see why, how and at what time this belief was formed and what effect it had on their religious perception and especially the political thought and their social and historical developments.
The fact is that the history of Islam—i.e. after the death of the Prophet (S) to the end of the reign of the fourth of the Early Caliphs, and Sunnis in general have a consensus that this period is of special religious value and importance—was not of special importance to early Muslims. Not only did they not believe in such a value, but they did not even distinguish it from other periods. Events that occurred later resulted in the formation of such a view.
In other words, the history of this period was realized in a form which was otherwise looked at in the subsequent periods, and these two were very different. The religious perception of the Sunnis and their political thought also followed such an attitude rather than the realization. Now let’s see what the story was, what its ups and downs are, where it ended and why it was so. To clarify the discussion, first let’s study the quality of its realization and then the quality of the formation of this attitude and belief.
The main point here, as we said, was that, according to the Muslims at that time, there was no position or office and no individual, indeed with the exception of the position of prophethood and the person of the Prophet (S) that was sacred.1 We will later say that a small group of Muslims at that time put Imam ‘Ali (‘a) in a high position appropriate to what the Prophet (S) had advised. However, the caliphate and the caliphs did not have any special stature either. A brief study of the events of that time takes us to this conclusion.
Selection of Abu Bakr
After the death of the Prophet (S), Abu Bakr was chosen as caliph. He was chosen to be the caliph and to substitute the Prophet (S) in their worldly affairs—merely as the Prophet’s (S) caliph and nothing more than that, i.e. to run the society and administer its affairs. Indeed, it shall not be noted that the worldly, social and political affairs of Muslims had a different meaning at that time from what it means today.2
Islam at that time had created developments in the society according to its principles, laws and values and had founded numerous socio-religious, socio-political and economic-religious institutions that existed in practice. Abu Bakr was chosen as caliph in order to undertake responsibility for running such a society, a society whose worldly and religious affairs could not be separated. All of these had an inseparable relation to each other. The important fact is that the Islamic society from the very beginning had been formed and had grown and its religious and worldly affairs had been intermingled with each other so that the Muslims of the time did not have certain conditions in mind for someone to take office in such positions. It was merely being Muslim and especially being at the top of a system that mattered.3
For example, the communal prayers and the Friday communal prayers comprised one of the socio-religious institutions of the newly-founded Muslim society. In the Prophet’s (S) time, when he was present, whether in Medina, during a travel or a war, these two prayers were led by him. Whenever he was absent, they were led by someone whom the Prophet had appointed as the general or substitute. For example, during the war, the prayers were led by the army general and in Medina in the Prophet’s (S) absence, by the substitute appointed by the Prophet (S).
In the same manner, as long as the Prophet was alive, the public treasury was controlled by the Prophet (S) while, in his absence, the army general or a substitute appointed by the Prophet would take charge. The same applied in the case of judgments and arbitration and in the administration of the political and military affairs. However, the tact that a person would be in such positions in those times did not indicate to the Muslims that he was of any special religious stature or position. The Muslims’ experience when they were in Medina induced the concept that the ruler has responsibility for such position only on the ground that he is a ruler, no matter if the scope of his responsibility is wide or limited. Therefore, there was never the thought that having such positions would promote the ruler to a higher religious position.
In a chapter of his famous book that deals in detail with the currents that were formed after the Prophet’s (S) death, ‘Ali ‘Abdu’r-Razzaq says in a part of his analysis on the events that led to the selection of Abu Bakr as such, “… on that day—the day of the Prophet’s (S) death—the Muslims discussed the country, the government and the state they had to form. This was why they used such words as state, statesmen, ministry and ministers and talked about power and the sword, respect and wealth, splendor and mastery. The reason for all this was merging into the ruling system and trying to form the government, thus rising to rivalry with the Immigrants [muhajirin], the Helpers [ansar] and the senior Companions. The outcome was allegiance to Abu Bakr and making him the first king of Islam.
If we take a careful look at the conditions in which allegiance to Abu Bakr occurred and how he was installed as caliph, we will see that it was a political and state allegiance while having all the characteristics of new governments; like other governments have done: based on power and the sword.
This was the new government that the Arabs founded. It was an Arab state and an Arab government. However, Islam, as you know, belongs to the entire humanity. It is neither exclusively for Arabs nor for non-Arabs. However, this was an Arab state that had been founded based on religious invitation. Its motto was supporting the invitation and rising for it. Perhaps it has a great effect in the progress of the invitation. Certainly, it had a role in developing Islam. However, despite all these, it was still an Arab state that would reinforce the power of the Arabs and protect their interests. It made others show deference to them on the earth, like the other powerful conquering nations… The perception of the Muslims at that time was that, by selecting him, they would establish an earthly civil state. This was why they deemed it permissible to disobey and oppose it.
They knew that their difference in this respect is a difference in earthly rather than religious affairs. They quarreled over a political issue that had nothing to do with their religion and would not shake their faith. Neither Abu Bakr nor any other of the elite thought that leading the Muslims is a religious position or opposing it would be opposing the religion. Abu Bakr explicitly said, “Oh people, I am a person like you and I do not know. Perhaps you define for me as duty things that the Prophet (S) could bear. God selected the Prophet (S) from among the people and preserved him from harm and gave him innocence. I am a follower not a leader.”
The New Rendering
Later, however, for numerous reasons, Abu Bakr’s selection was given a new interpretation. It was depicted to the people as if he had a religious position and represented the Prophet (S). Thus, the thought was formed that ruling the Muslims had a religious concept and position as representative of the Prophet (S). One of the most important reasons based on which this thought appeared among Muslims was the title given to Abu Bakr, i.e. the Prophet’s caliph.4
It was based on such an interpretation of the ruler that the Muslims chose Abu Bakr as caliph. To them, he was an individual like others and had been chosen to a position that, in their view, lacked any religious stature.
Although this position and its duties and principally the new form of the newly founded Islamic society and its institutions were determined and defined by religion, this current meant to the Muslims of the time only that God wished the Muslims to live in such a society and conditions and it never meant that those appointed to such positions had to have certain religious qualifications. Here indeed the talk is about the image and perception that the Muslims had in this respect and not what, for example, the Prophet (S) had asserted. To comprehend the developments of those days, one mainly has to study this understanding and perception and the way it was formed and the influence it had.5
The best witness to what was said is the way Abu Bakr was selected and settled as caliph. Although his selection was generally accepted later and especially after pledging allegiance to ‘Ali, on the first days it was subject to much controversy. His opponents, on one hand, were the Helpers, who did not want to accept the rule of the Immigrants6 and, on the other hand, the Qurayshis, on top of them Abu Sufyan, who considered Abu Bakr’s clan to be too low to rule the superior clans of Quraysh and, therefore, sought to select ‘Ali or ‘Abbas, the Prophet’s paternal uncle.7
Another group was the Bani Hashim and the faithful devoted advocates of ‘Ali, who opposed the selection [of Abu Bakr] merely on religious grounds.8 This was the only current that existed in Medina. Many Muslim clans outside Medina opposed the selection and were later known as the Rejecting Party [ahlu raddih]. Although some of the tribes really turned to apostasy and turned away from Islam, a group of them only objected to the way Abu Bakr was chosen as caliph, although the expediency of the time and, later, of the history required that they should be accused of apostasy as well.9
What is of the utmost importance, however, is the controversial discussions between those who agreed and those who disagreed on the Abu Bakr issue. Other than a small minority that advocated ‘Ali (‘a) and emphasized the Prophet’s (‘a) advices and ‘Ali’s (‘a) religious merits for the position and basically the importance of this position, what others said focused on a different argument. The argument was not what the Prophet’s (‘a) succession meant and what characteristics and qualifications it required and who could and should succeed him. Every group supported their own candidate. In other words, the issue had been reduced to a mere political and tribal competition with no religious element.10
As we said, only the opposition of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and his advocates had a religious element in itself. Their point, which was in the later periods explained by Imam ‘Ali himself in greater detail—especially during his caliphate, an example of which is the Shiqshiqiyyah Sermon [khutbah Shiqshiqiyyah]—was, first of all, why the repeated advices of the Prophet (S) were ignored and, secondly, the person to be appointed to such a position required qualifications that could only be found in Imam ‘Ali (‘a). Therefore, any person other than him lacked such qualifications.11
Addressing those who had surrounded Abu Bakr to pledge allegiance to him, Imam ‘Ali (‘a) said, “I swear by God, o’ the Immigrants! Do not take power and reign out of the Prophet’s house to put in your own houses. Do not prohibit the right persons from caliphate or what they deserve. O’ Immigrants! I swear by God, we are the most rightful of the people thereto. We are the Prophet’s Household and deserve it more than you. Is it not true that he who recites the Book, he who is a jurisprudent in God’s religion and aware of the Prophet’s tradition and aware of the people’s affairs and turns away the bad and divides equally is among us? I swear by God that he is among us. Do not be capricious or else you will lose the God’s way and deviate from the truth.”12
This was a word with a different tone. Others, while defending themselves, pointed to things other than the necessary qualifications and merits for such a position. Inter-tribal competition had been revived and everybody talked of and emphasized it. On the one hand, there was rivalry between the Immigrants and the Helpers and, on the other hand, there was competition within the Immigrants, each of whom had sought a certain person’s support. The Umayyad had surrounded ‘Uthman while Bani Zuhrah had gathered around ‘Abdu’r-Rahman ibn ‘Awf and Bani Hashim around ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib.13
Abu Sufyan, who was not satisfied with Abu Bakr’s caliphate, well depicts the conditions at that time in a brief sentence, “I swear by God, I see a cloud of dust—which means the cloud of dust that is created during the war and attack under hooves of animals—which will be settled only by blood. O’ the children of ‘Abd Manaf! Why should Abu Bakr be in charge of your destiny? Where are the two who were held weak and humiliated? Where are ‘Ali and Abbas?”14
Nevertheless, in those days, the situation was such that ‘Ali’s (‘a) opposition was outshone by that of Fatimah (‘a), because, if ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib had insisted on his opposition, he would have been attacked—as he was frankly told, “If you express opposition, you will be killed.”—while the special position of Fatimah Zahra’ (‘a), who was a woman as well as the Prophet’s (S) only child, had some sort of security. Therefore, Imam ‘Ali swore allegiance after his wife [Fatimah] testified. Naturally, the other members of Bani Hashim and his special companions followed him in doing this.15
Such were the conditions in which Abu Bakr was installed as caliph. The quality of this selection and the nature of the speeches for approving or rejecting it indicate the mentality of the Muslims at that time about the issue of caliphate. Although Abu Bakr was a well-known person, what led to his appointment as caliph was not his religious characteristics or stature, which was later much elaborated on and on which much was forged for different motivations. Rather, it was the simple perception of the Muslims about the Prophet’s succession. To them, the Muslims did not attach any special religious status to this position.16
In the meanwhile, there were indeed other factors that were involved, the most important ones of which were probably the threats from outside the society in Medina, including the revolts by the Rejecting Party and the subsequent tensions among the southern and central Arabian tribes, which had for a while seriously threatened Medina. The Rejecting Party here means those who actually rejected Islam and intended to attack Medina not those who were thus named because of rejecting Abu Bakr’s caliphate. The second danger was Rome and Iran [formerly Persia], the former being very serious, thus attracting attention to the outside and causing the internal differences to be forgotten, at least temporarily, and making the Muslims devote their attempts to protecting their existence.
To clarify the disorderly suspenseful conditions of those days, it will suffice to say that, only in the suppression of the apostates, more than 1,200 Muslims, some of whom could recite and had memorized the Qur’an,17 were killed.18 Considering the limited population of Medina and the entire Muslims at that time, this figure can well indicate how disorderly and worrying the situation was at the time.19
During Abu Bakr’s caliphate, the Rejecting Party’s revolt was suppressed and the internal conditions in Arabia became peaceful. Yet, the foreign threats were still in place and worried the Muslims, especially because the vassals of the two great powers of that time were in the neighborhood of the Muslims and might attack them at any time.20
Apart from this, on the last days of his life, the Prophet (S) equipped an army led by Usamah bin Zayd for fighting the Romans. Although the main intention of the Prophet (S) had probably been to keep away from Medina those who were likely to prepare the ground from deviating from his will on the issue of caliphate and Imamate, there was, however, danger from Rome’s side that threatened the Muslims even during the Prophet’s (S) lifetime. After releasing himself of the Rejecting Party, Abu Bakr sent an army led by Usamah to fight the Romans. This event, as he himself declared, was mainly an act to follow the Prophet (S) rather than to fight a real threat, although such a threat existed and had been a disturbing one.21
1. The fact is that even the Prophet (S) himself was not that respectable and sacred for the Quraysh tribe. As it can be found out from their treatments of the Prophet, they did not believe in the Prophet (S) like the other Muslims did. They considered the Prophet’s stature and position to be much lower than the possible minimum with the Muslims in general. The following story is a good example of this.
‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar narrates, “I wrote down whatever I heard from the Prophet (S) so that I could memorize them. The Qurayshis prohibited me from doing this, saying, ‘Why do you write down everything that you hear from the Prophet (S) while he is a human being who speaks occasionally under a feeling of anger and occasionally under a feeling of satisfaction?’ Then, I stopped writing and said this to the Prophet. ‘Keep writing because I swear by God that nothing but the truth comes out of this’ said the Prophet while pointing to his mouth.” Masnad Ahmad, vol. 3, p. 162. Another example is the same person—Dhu’l-Khuwaysarah—who objected to the Prophet (S) for not acting justly. Milal wa Nihal, vol. 1, p. 116.
These two and many other examples indicate this fact. However, later the Muslims raised the level of their belief, especially that of the Qurayshis, in the Prophet (S) to the level they themselves believed in, saying, “These people, as the close companions of the Prophet (S), must have had such a belief in the Prophet (S). To them, the problem was not what beliefs really existed. It is interesting to know that the Qurayshis themselves were put in the highest position by the Muslims in the later periods because the latter thought the former were the closest and the most loyal comrades of the Prophet. See Iqtida’ as-Sirat al-Mustaqim, pp. 150-5, and Kanz al-‘Ummal, vol. 13, pp. 24-36.
2. Almost all the books on the history of Islam that cover the events during the Prophet’s (S) life and after his death provide an very similar account of the story of Abu Bakr’s selection and the discussions during the selections. This proves that the story is true. For example, see Al-Imamah wa’s-Siyasah, vol. 1, pp. 2-17.
3. Islam founded a new society with religious as well as wordly values mixed with each other. Ahmad Amin a good explanation of how religion was realized, developed and continued according to the pre-Islamic heritage in Fajr al-Islam, pp. 69-97. Also see Al-‘Aqidah wa’sh-Shari‘ah fi’l-Islam, pp. 9-42, and Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, pp. 350-510.
4. Al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm, pp. 175-6. For further explanation, see pp. 171-82.
5. A small group considered Abu Bakr’s caliphate to originate in the Prophet’s (S) will. Hasan Basri, Muhib ad-Din at-Tabari and a group of the Traditionists are among them. Ma‘alim al-Khilafah fi’l-Fikr as-Siyasi al-Islami, p. 133. Ibn Hazm provides an elaborate and complicated discussion to prove that Abu Bakr’s selection was a decree. Al-Fasl, vol. 4, pp. 107-11. The critique of this theory can be found in Al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm, pp. 172-3, and a more scientific critique of it in An-Nazm al-Islamiyyah, pp. 84-5. It is interesting to know that ibn Juzzi, who is a well-known Granadan scholar of the 8th century, attributes both Abu Bakr’s and ‘Umar’s appointments to caliphate to the Prophet’s (S) will. See his book Al-Qawanin al-Fiqhiyyah, p. 17.
6. Concerning the opposition of the Helpers to Abu Bakr’s selection, see Al-Imamah wa’s-Siyasah, pp. 5-10, and Abu Bakr’s and ‘Umar’s Responses to the Helpers, pp. 6-7.
7. Upon Abu Bakr’s nomination, Abu Sufyan said, “O’, the children of ‘Abd Manaf, will you consent if one from the Tamim tribe rules you? I swear by God that I will fill Medina with warriors and horses.” Mawaqif, p. 401.
8. Concerning the opposition of Bani Hashim, see Al-Imamah wa’s-Siyasah, pp. 4, 10, 13-16. What ‘Ali later said about the cause of his resistance shows that he had more supporters and Abu Bakr had more opponents. For example, see his sermon in Al-Gharat, vol. 1, p. 302, and also his words in Kashf al-Muhajjah by Sayyid ibn Tawus.
9. Many of those who were accused of apostasy and known as the Rejecting Party [ahl raddih] were not in fact apostates. They politically rejected Abu Bakr rather than rejecting Islam. In this respect, especially see Al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukm, pp. 177-80, and also An-Nass wa’l-Ijtihad, pp. 136-50, and Fajr al-Islam, pp. 80-1. To find out about the views and the analysis of those who consider all the Rejecting People as apostates and defend Abu Bakr’s actions, see Al-Bid‘ah: Tahdiduha wa Mawqif al-Islam minha, pp. 32-3. The writer, ‘Izzat ‘Ali ‘Atiyyah elaborately mentions the documents of this story.
10. For example, see the arguments of the supporters and opponents of the selection of Abu Bakr in Al-Imamah wa’s-Siyasah, pp. 4-16.
11. The argument that the caliphate and the Imamate requires people of a certain stature and only an individual like ‘Ali deserves them was not only said by ‘Ali but was also expressed later by the next Imams in other ways. For example, see Imam Hasan’s letter to Mu‘awiyah in Nazariyyah al-Imamah ‘inda ash-Shi‘ah al-Imamiyyah, pp. 318-9. On the qualifications of an Imam, see Sharh Nahj al-Balaghah by Ibn Abi al-Hadid, vol. 8, p. 263.
12. The full text of the speech of the Imam can be found in Al-Imamah wa’s-Siyasah, vol. 1, p. 12. It is interesting to know that, after his speech ended, Bashir ibn Sa‘d, the great rival of Sa‘d ibn ‘Ibadah, said, “If the Helpers had heard this from you before they swore allegiance to Abu Bakr, they would have never stopped or disputed allegiance to you.” Bashir was the chief of the Aws tribe and, because of his cooperation in the allegiance, ‘Umar during his caliphate gave a greater share to the Aws members than to the Khazrajis. See Thawrat al-Husayn by Muhammad Mahdi Shams ad-Din, p. 16.
13. “The Bani Hashim had surrounded ‘Ali (‘a) and they were accompanied by Zubayr… Bani Umayyah had surrounded ‘Uthman and Bani Zuhrah had surrounded Sa‘d and ‘Abdu’r-Rahman ‘Awf…” Al-Imamah wa’s-Siyasah, pp. 10-11.
14. Tabari, vol. 3, p. 197.
15. Ibn Qutaybah thus tells the story of how they made ‘Ali (‘a) swear allegiance, “After they twice sent a person to ‘Ali to ask him for allegiance, ‘Umar and a group of people went to his house and took him to Abu Bakr, telling him, ‘Pledge allegiance.’ He said, ‘What will happen if I don’t?’ He said, ‘We swear by God that we will cut off your head.’ He said, ‘Then you will have killed a servant of God and the brother of God’s Prophet.’ ‘Yes, God’s servant but not the Prophet’s brother.’ said ‘Umar. Abu Bakr was still silent.
‘Umar asked him to make ‘Ali pledge allegiance. He said in response, ‘As long as Fatimah is by his side, I will not force him to do anything.’ Al-Imamah wa’s-Siyasah, vol. 1, p. 13. Ibn Qutaybah gives an elaborate account of the story, then says, “‘Ali did not pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr until Fatimah died.” Ibid., p. 14. Also see, Riyahin ash-Shari‘ah, vol. 2, pp. 3-41.
16. The most important or rather the only argument in those days was that the Arabs would not bow to non-Qurayshis. Al-Imamah wa’s-Siyasah, pp. 6, 8.
Later, in the first sermon that he delivered in Medina after his last trip from Mecca, ‘Umar gave an elaborate account of how Abu Bakr was selected as caliph and of the events of those days. See Masnad by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, vol. 1, pp. 55-6.
17. 1,200 Muslims were martyred in Yamamah, 23 of whom were from Quraysh and 70 from the Helpers. At-Tanbih wa’l-Ishraf, p. 248.
18. After the Yamamah war, ‘Umar, whose brother Zayd had also been killed in the war, thus said to Abu Bakr, “A large number of the Qur’an Readers [qurra’] were killed in the Yamamah war. I fear that all the Readers may be killed in the other wars and most of the Qur’an be lost. I think of collecting the Qur’an…” Al-‘Awasim min al-Qawasim, p. 67.
For various documents and quotes on this, see the footnotes.
19. Regarding the apostates who rejected Islam and seriously threatened Medina, see the well-written elaborate argument in Muir, The Caliphate, pp. 11-410; also, At-Tanbih wa’l-Ishraf, p. 247-50.
20. What kept the Muslims busy was the continuous wars because, in those days, they were busy fighting Rome and Iran. Al-Milal wa’n-Nihal, vol. 1, p. 18.
21. Kanz al-‘Ummal, vol. 5, p. 658; also, Al-‘Awasim min al-Qawasim, p. 45. More documents can be found in these footnotes about the event and the various accounts.