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Muhammad and the Caliphate >
The Early Caliphate and the Question of Legitimacy

The Early Caliphate and the Question of Legitimacy

Interior of the Great Mosque at Qayrawan in Tunisia. Founded in the late seventh century, the mosque owes much of its present aspect to extensive rebuilding by the Aghlabid governors in the ninth century.

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It was widely accepted in the early community of Believers that Muhammad could have no successor in his role as Prophet. But the early Believers decided that someone should succeed Muhammad as temporal head of the community. The first documentary references call the leader of the community of Believers not caliph but amir al-mu minin (“commander of the Believers”), and this may be the original term for the heads of the community, replaced only some time later by the term caliph, which was seen as synonymous but had the advantage of being found in the Quran. Whatever it was called, community leadership was at first informal and personal, much like tribal leadership. Only gradually did the caliphate acquire greater prestige and formality, as the original Islamic state grew into a far-flung empire during the early conquest era.

Although the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar, appear to have enjoyed widespread support among the Believers, dissension arose under the third caliph, Uthman. The reasons for this discontent probably included practical concerns, such as a tapering off in the ready supply of conquest booty for individual soldiers, or feelings that newly conquered lands outside the garrison towns were not being made available for settlement by the soldiers and were instead being dominated by wealthy families. But they also seem to have involved perceptions that Uthman was not ruling with the fairness and disdain for private gain that most pious Believers expected of their commander. Uthman was accused (whether rightly, it may never be known) of favoring his relatives when making important and sometimes lucrative appointments, of diverting monies from the treasury, and of other transgressions, some fiscal, some moral. This dissension grew into a violent uprising, which culminated in the murder of the caliph in 656. These developments began the complicated series of events known as the First Civil War (656–61), which was a struggle for leadership of the community of Believers waged by the prominent heads of several families within the Prophet's tribe, the Quraysh. This is a chapter of the utmost importance in Islamic history, because this is when the main subgroups or sects that have constituted the Muslim community up to the present day first emerged.

After Uthman's murder the people of Medina, including some of the conspirators, recognized as the next caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib—cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, therefore a member of his clan, the Hashim. Ali's acclamation as caliph was opposed by significant segments of the community of Believers, however—in particular by Uthman's kinsmen of the Umayyad clan, led by Muawiyah, and by leading members of some other Quraysh families, including the Prophet's favorite wife, Aishah, and two of Muhammad's early supporters, Talha ibn Ubaydallah and al-Zubayr ibn al-Awwam.

The bid for power by Talha, al-Zubayr, and Aishah was thwarted when their forces were decisively defeated at the “battle of the camel” near Basra in southern Iraq by the supporters of Ali (shiat Ali, Arabic for “party of Ali,” often referred to simply as the Shia or Shiites). Ali and his backers established their base in the garrison town of Kufa. They eventually felt strong enough to march northward along the Euphrates River, intending to take the war to Muawiyah's base in Syria. Armies of the two sides met at Siffin along the middle Euphrates, near the frontier of Syria and Iraq, but many on both sides were uneasy about launching an attack against men who also considered themselves Believers, and who until recently had been their own comrades-at-arms. Skirmishing gave way, after many days, to a battle that was broken off when Ali and Muawiyah agreed that the matter should be settled by arbitration rather than fighting and withdrew to Kufa and Syria, respectively, to await the arbiters' decision. Eventually neither side was satisfied with the arbitration results, and a period of desultory raiding between Syria and Iraq ensued. During the period of arbitration and thereafter, Ali's situation was weakened by the withdrawal from his camp of some militant pietists, who came to be known as Kharijites (from the Arabic khawarij, possibly meaning “seceders”). Some of them may have broken with Ali because they feared that if he reached an accommodation with Muawiyah, they would be called to account for their participation in the mutiny against Uthman. Others may have felt that Ali's agreement to arbitrate revealed an impious lack of trust in God's ability to render a just verdict between the two rivals on the battlefield. As they said in their battle cry, “Only God has the right to decide.” Ali was forced to massacre many Kharijites in a battle at Nahrawan in eastern Iraq, an event that shocked many and did little to advance his cause, because many Kharijites were renowned for their piety.

The First Civil War finally came to an end in 661, when a Kharijite assassin killed Ali (another was thwarted before he could assassinate Muawiyah). Shortly thereafter, the majority of Believers agreed to recognize Muawiyah as caliph, perhaps less because they thought him the ideal ruler than because, after five years of turmoil, they yearned for stability and unity among the Believers. Muawiyah's recognition as caliph marks the beginning of the Umayyad caliphate (661–750). During his two decades as caliph, Muawiyah relied on careful diplomacy and strong governors, especially in Iraq and the east, to maintain an uneasy peace in the community. He kept discontented Shiite supporters of Ali's family under control, and either subdued small uprisings of rebellious Kharijites or forced them to take refuge in frontier zones, beyond the effective reach of the caliph's agents. The relative stability of his reign enabled the Muslim armies once again to embark on raids and campaigns of conquest against neighboring areas.

But the issues that were at the heart of the First Civil War—how leaders of the community of Believers were to be selected, and above all what were the criteria for leadership—remained unresolved. It is hardly surprising that a new wave of internal turmoil, the Second Civil War (680–92), broke out upon Muawiyah's death. The Second Civil War was a continuation of the first, because the same groups were involved, at the remove of one generation. The Umayyads, whose hold on the caliphate from their capital in Damascus was being challenged, were represented first by Muawiyah's son Yazid (r. 680–83), and then, after Yazid's early death and a period of confusion within the Umayyad family, by another relative, the caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (r. 685–705). The Umayyads faced widespread opposition. From Ali's old stronghold in Kufa, the Shiites, who claimed that the caliphate should belong to someone of Ali's family, rallied first around Ali's younger son, al-Husayn. After al-Husayn and his family were massacred in 680 by Umayyad troops at Karbala in Iraq, the Shiites continued to resist Umayyad rule in Kufa under the leadership of a charismatic leader named al-Mukhtar, who claimed to be acting in the name of one of Ali's sons.

Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr (624–92), son of that al-Zubayr whose bid for the caliphate had been so quickly ended in the First Civil War, established himself in Mecca and was recognized by many in the empire as caliph. His determination and broad support made his resistance to the Umayyads as formidable as his father's had been ephemeral. Meanwhile, several groups of Kharijites took advantage of the political disarray prevailing in the community of Believers to establish themselves in various parts of Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. In the end, after a dozen years of bitter strife, Abd al-Malik and his ruthless lieutenant, al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, were able to pacify first Iraq, then Arabia, and to bring the whole empire under Umayyad control.

The Early Caliphate and the Question of Legitimacy

The golden dome of the shrine at Karbala in Iraq marks the burial site of the Prophet's grandson Husayn and his family, who were murdered by the Umayyads in 680. This act of martyrdom marks the beginning of the separation of Shiites as a political party and distinct subgroup within the Islamic community.

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The road the Umayyads had followed to victory, however, was littered with mangled dreams, memories of which would haunt the dynasty's future and contribute to its downfall. Yazid's generals, in the first unsuccessful efforts to subdue Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr in Mecca, had ruthlessly crushed an uprising in Medina while enroute, and had even laid siege to the sacred precincts in Mecca, in the process starting a fire that destroyed part of the Kaaba. The Shiites had seen their hopes dashed, but the pitiless slaughter of Ali's son al-Husayn and his family at Karbala provided them with an act of martyrdom of mythical proportions. Nurturing the memory of this martydom deepened their hatred of the Umayyads and started a process whereby the Shiites began to feel themselves to be not merely a political party but a distinct subgroup within the Islamic community. In the course of working out the differences within their own house, the Umayyads had even managed to set some Syrian tribes against others in a way that would later undermine their efforts to build a cohesive army on these tribal groups.

The importance of the two civil wars goes far beyond their immediate political impact, however. These civil wars represented the arena in which Believers first openly debated the ways in which authority to lead the Islamic community could be legitimately claimed. Kharijites held that true piety and impeccably righteous behavior were the only qualities that provided true legitimation in an Islamic context. Others, notably the Alids and their Shiite supporters, who contended that only a member of Ali's family or of the Prophet's clan of Hashim should hold power, argued that legitimacy was essentially genealogical. Still others—such as the Umayyads—claimed that the consensus of the community of Believers (jamaa, or coming together) was the most important element in establishing a legitimate claim to head the Islamic community. Later, some (including the Umayyads) would argue that their very ascent to power was an expression of God's will and therefore legitimate in its own right. These claims and counterclaims would be raised repeatedly in the centuries ahead.

It is therefore during the civil wars that the main sectarian subdivisions of the Islamic community first emerged: the Shiites, the Kharijites, and (retrospectively, through an ephemeral group known as the Murjia) the Sunni or orthodox majority sect of Islam, which came to be defined as much as anything by their rejection of the central beliefs of the Shiites and Kharijites. All members of these subgroups within the Islamic community justify their particular identity on the basis of their differing readings of the events of the civil wars, particularly the first war. The civil wars are thus the lens through which radiates the spectrum of groups making up the Muslim community. The ideal of a politically unified community of Believers (ummah) headed by a caliph eventually became unrealizable in practice, as the empire came to span thousands of kilometers and the community to embrace millions of people. Nonetheless, the institution of the caliphate (and indeed, the caliph himself) played an important role because it stood as a symbolic embodiment of Muslim religious unity. For this reason the institution was retained long after it had ceased to have real political meaning.

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