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Rightly Guided Caliphs

G. R. Hawting
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Rightly Guided Caliphs

Sunnī Muslims see the first four successors of the Prophet as caliphs who were “rightly guided” or “following the right path,” al-khulafāʿ al-rāshidūn. (Shīʿīs in general reject the legitimacy of the first three successors.) The usage was adopted from the dominant Sunnī tradition by modern writers, and the period between the death of the Prophet and the accession of the Umayyad dynasty in 661 CE is thus often referred to as that of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Those caliphs are Abū Bakr (r. 632–634), ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (634–644), ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān (644–656), and ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (656–661). For Sunnīs this period, at least up to the middle of ʿUthmān's caliphate, was a golden age when the caliphs were consciously guided by the practice of the Prophet.

This period saw the establishment of Arab Muslim rule over the heartlands of the Middle East. By about 650 Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and western Iran were under Arab control, and the way was prepared for the expansion of the next century or so. The conquests outside Arabia followed the unification of Arabia under Islam by the Riddah (Apostasy) wars during the caliphate of Abū Bakr.

For the internal history of the nascent Muslim state during the period of the Rightly Guided Caliphs we are dependent entirely on Muslim tradition as it was compiled in works written at a significantly later date. Because that tradition often reflects the views of the different groups, such as the Sunnīs and Shīʿīs, that were developing as it was being formed, it is often difficult to distinguish actual events from subsequent interpretations.

The origins of the institution of the caliphate itself lay in a series of ad hoc decisions not really distinguished from the recognition of individual rulers. ʿUmar is reported to have been the first to use the title caliph (khalīfah) in a self-conscious way. All the Rightly Guided Caliphs had been prominent companions of the Prophet and belonged to the tribe of Quraysh, but each obtained his office in a different manner—there was no accepted procedure of appointment or election. Shīʿī tradition argues that the Prophet designated his cousin and son-in-law ʿAlī as his successor, but the historical tradition in general reflects the Sunnī view that the Prophet died without leaving instructions for the succession.

ʿUmar is portrayed as the dominant personality among these caliphs. Not only was he instrumental in securing the appointment of his predecessor Abū Bakr, there is also a tendency to attribute to him many of the fundamental institutions of the classical Islamic state. ʿUthmān, who is generally reported to have been responsible for the establishment of the text of the Qurʿān as we know it, is described as personally pious but lacking the character needed to withstand the demands made on him by his unscrupulous relatives.

The murder of ʿUthmān by malcontents from the garrison of al-Fustāt in Egypt in the summer of 656 opened a period known as the Fitnah (civil war). The fourth caliph ʿAlī had to face opposition from several quarters and was himself murdered early in 661. In tradition, the Fitnah brings about the disintegration of the previously united community, the takeover of the caliphate by the Umayyad family, and the end of the time when Islam had its center in Arabia. Although Muslim tradition tends to focus on the personalities of the protagonists, modern scholars have sought the deeper political, economic, and social tensions resulting from the development of the Muslim state under the Rightly Guided Caliphs.



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