The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and Fall/CHAPTER I
ITS RISE, DECLINE, AND FALL
DEATH OF MOHAMMAD, ELECTION OF ABU BEKR
11 A.H. / 632 A.D.
Death of Mohammed, 13 Rabi I. 11 A.H. 8th June 632 A.D.
IT was Midsummer in the year 632 of our era when the Prophet of Arabia passed away1. He had been ten years at Medina, for it was now the eleventh year of the Hijra, that is, of the Flight from Mecca. Mohammad had reached the age of threescore years and three; and up to the time of his last illness, which lasted but thirteen days, had been hale and vigorous. His death thus fell an unexpected shock upon Medina.
Abu Bekr absent.
For some days before, a burning fever had weakened him grievously and confined him to his bed. All through Sunday of the fatal week, he lay prostrate and at times delirious. Monday morning brought temporary relief. It was the hour of early prayer, and the worshippers had assembled in the square or court of the great Mosque, adjoining the chamber of 'Aisha in which she had been tenderly nursing her husband throughout his illness. Feeling stronger that morning, he rose from the couch, drew aside the curtain from the door, and moved softly into the Court, where Abu Bekr (as commissioned by him when laid aside) was conducting the service in his place. When prayers were ended Abu Bekr, seeing his Master to all appearance better, obtained leave to visit his wife who lived in the upper suburb of the city. After he left, the Prophet having spoken a few kindly words to his aunt and others crowding around
1 See Sir William Muir's Life of Mohammad, 4th ed., p. 480 ff. 2
him, was helped back into the chamber. Exhausted by the effort, his strength sank, and shortly after he breathed his last on the bosom of his favourite wife.
Abu Bekr's return; scene in court of Mosque.
It was yet but little after midday. Rumour spreading, the Mosque was soon crowded with a host of bewildered followers. Amongst them was 'Omar who arose, and in a wild and excited strain declaimed that the Prophet was not dead but in a trance, from which he would soon arise and root out the hypocrites from the land. Abu Bekr had by this time hurried back. He crossed the court not heeding his impetuous friend, and entered into 'Aisha's chamber. Stooping down he kissed the Prophet's face. "Dear to me as my father and mother wert thou. Sweet wert thou," he said, "in life, and sweet thou art in death." Then he went forth, and finding 'Omar still haranguing the people, put him aside with the memorable words:—Whoso worshippeth Mohammad, let him know that Mohammad is dead; but whoso worshippeth God, let him know that God liveth and dieth not. So saying, he recited certain verses from the Kor'an1, which no doubt had long dwelt upon his mind, as signifying that Mohammad was mortal and would die as other Prophets had died before him. Recognising the sacred words to bear a meaning that had never struck him before, 'Omar was speechless. "My limbs trembled," he would say when speaking of that memorable hour, "and I knew of a certainty that Mohammad was dead indeed."
Men of Medina meet to elect a chief.
The assembly in the court of the Mosque had now quieted down, when a messenger ran up breathless with a report that the men of Medina had assembled to choose a ruler from amongst themselves. The moment was critical. The unity of the Faith was at stake. A divided power would fall to pieces, and all might be lost. The mantle of the Prophet must fall upon one Successor, and on one alone. The sovereignty of Islam demanded an undivided Caliphate; and Arabia would acknowledge no master but from amongst Koreish. The die must be cast, and cast at once. Such, no doubt, were the thoughts that occurred to the two chief Companions of the Prophet on hearing this report; and so, accompanied
1 Sura, iii. 138 : "And Mohammad is nought but an apostle. Apostles have passed away before him. If then he die, or be killed, will you then turn back upon your heels?" 3
by Abu Obeida, another leading Chief, they hurried to the spot if haply they might nip the conspiracy in the bud. On the way two friendly Citizens coming from the excited conclave warned them of the risk they ran in entering it alone, but notwithstanding they hastened on. The men of Medina meanwhile, gathered in one of their rude Halls, were bent upon an independent course. "We have sheltered this nest of strangers," they cried. "It is by our good swords they have been able to plant the Faith. The Ruler of Medina shall be from amongst ourselves." They had ready fixed their choice on Sa'd ibn 'Obada leader of the Khazraj, who sick of a fever lay covered up at the farther end of the Hall, when the three Companions entered.
Met by Abu Bekr, 'Omar, and Abu 'Obeida.
They were just in time; for had the Citizens elected Sa'd and pledged their troth to him, Medina might have been irretrievably compromised. 'Omar with his native vehemence was about to speak when Abu Bekr, calm and firm, anticipated him thus:—"Every word," said he, "which ye, men of Medina have uttered in your own praise is true, and more than true; but in noble birth and influence Koreish is paramount, and to none but them will Arabia yield obedience." "Then," cried they, "let there be one Chief amongst you and one from amongst us." "Away with you!" exclaimed 'Omar, "two cannot stand together"; and even Sa'd from beneath his covering muttered that to divide the power would only weaken it. High words ensued. Hobab, at the side of Sa'd cried out, "Hear him not! Attend to me, for I am the well-rubbed Palm-stem1. If they refuse, expel them from the city." "The Lord destroy thee!" cried 'Omar; and Hobab returned the words. The altercation gaining heat and bitterness, Abu Bekr saw it must be stopped at any risk, and stepping forward said, "Ye see these two," pointing to 'Omar and Abu 'Obeida. "Choose ye now which of them ye will, and salute him as your Chief." "Nay," answered they both at once," "Thou hast already at the
1 Meaning a palm-trunk left for the beasts to come and rub themselves upon; metaphor for a person much resorted to for counsel. The whole phrase was, "I am their favorite and much rubbed stem, their special fruit-laden palm propped up (because of the weight of fruit), or well fenced with thorns (to protect the fruit)." He means he was their most valued possession. See Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon, p. 397, col. a, and p. 1034, col. c. 4
Prophet's bidding, led the Prayers; thou art our Chief. Stretch forth thine hand." He did so, and they struck their hand on his (as is the Arab custom) in token of allegiance. Others were about to follow their example, when Hobab cried to one of the Khazraj about to take the pledge, "Wilt thou cut thine own kinsman's throat?" "Not so," the person thus addressed replied; "I only yield the right to whom the right is due." Whilst they yet hesitated, the Aus, jealous of the rival tribe and of Sa'd its chief, spake among themselves:—"If this man be chosen, the rule will be for ever with the Khazraj.
Abu Bekr elected Caliph.
Let us at once salute Abu Bekr as our Chief." The example set, group after group advanced to strike their hand on that of Abu Bekr, till none was left but Sa'd who still lay covered in the corner. Acknowledged thus by the men of Medina, there could be no doubt of Abu Bekr's acceptance by the Meccan "Refugees." He was not only one of themselves, but the Prophet when laid aside, by appointing Abu Bekr to take his place at the daily prayers, had in a manner already indicated him as his Vicegerent. And so homage was done on all sides to Abu Bekr. He was saluted as the CALIPH1, or Successor of the Prophet.
Burial of the Prophet.
The night passed in preparing the dead for sepulture. The body was washed and laid out, and the grave dug in 'Aisha's apartment where Mohammad had breathed his last. On the morrow the Citizens, men, women, and children, thronged the chamber to look once more upon their Prophet's face. And then the remains were reverently committed to the dust.
Abu Bekr's inaugural address.
The funeral over, and the court of the great Mosque still crowded with the mourners, Abu Bekr ascended the pulpit, and, sitting down, was acknowledged CALIPH by acclamation. Then he arose and said:—"Oh people! Now I am Ruler over you, albeit not the best amongst you. If I do well, support me; if ill, then set me right. Follow the True, wherein is faithfulness; eschew the False, wherein is treachery. The weaker amongst you shall be as the stronger with me, until that I shall have redressed his wrong; and the stronger shall be as the weaker until if the Lord will, I shall have taken from him that which he
1 In Arabic, Khalifah. 5
hath wrested. Leave not off to fight in the ways of the Lord; whosoever leaveth off, him verily shall the Lord abase. Obey me as I obey the Lord and his Prophet; wherein I disobey, obey me not. Now rise to your prayer and God have mercy upon you!" The assembly stood up for prayer, and Abu Bekr, for the first time as Caliph, filled the place of Mohammad1.
Ali delays doing homage
The supreme power thus passed, without let or hindrance, into the hands of Abu Bekr. Sa'd ibn 'Obada, chagrined at being superseded, held aloof. 'Ali is also said to have refrained from doing homage till after the death of Fatima his wife. The 'Alid party pretend that he looked to the Caliphate himself. But there is nothing in his previous life, or in the attitude of the Prophet towards him, that warrants any such surmise. He had indeed a grievance, but of quite a different kind. The day after her father's death, Fatima preferred a claim to his share in the crown lands of Kheibar. Abu Bekr disallowed the claim; holding that the revenues were destined, as Mohammad had himself desired, for purposes of State. Fatima took the denial so much to heart that she held altogether aloof from the Caliph during the short remainder of her life. And hence it was only after her death that 'Ali recognised with any cordiality the title of Abu Bekr to the Caliphate2.
Fatima mother of Al-Hasan and Al-Hosein.
Fatima was the last surviving child of Mohammad. His other three daughters, two of whom had in succession married 'Othman, were already some time dead. Khadija had borne him two sons, but both died in infancy at Mecca. A third, the only other son the Prophet ever had, was born at Medina by the slave girl Mary, and died sixteen months old. No
1 Presidency at public prayer was ever in Islam the sign of chief command, whether in civil or in military life.
2 Tradition regarding 'Ali is coloured and distorted by the canvass of a political faction which in the end assumed the divine right of succession as vested in 'Ali and his descendants. There is not a shadow of proof that 'Ali himself ever made any claim of the kind, or that any such claim was made by others for him during the Caliphates of Abu Bekr and 'Omar. It was not till the election of a successor on the death of 'Omar that he became a candidate and even then his claim was grounded on being one of the chief Companions rather than on any supposed right in virtue of his relationship to Mohammad by marriage with his daughter. 6
issue of the Prophet thus survived in the male line. But two grandsons, Al-Hasan and Al-Hosein, were left by his daughter Fatima. They were now but six or seven years of age.
How far Abu Bekr's election formed a precedent.
With Mohammad ceased the theocratic power; but his kingly functions, as ruler over all Islam descended. According to Arabian notions, the leader of a nation, like the Chieftain of a tribe, is the head and representative of his people, and the nomination remains invalid till confirmed by their homage. 'Omar, in after days, held that the irregular election of Abu Bekr (referring apparently to the scene enacted in the Hall) should not be a precedent. It was, he said, an event the happiest in its consequences for Islam, but justified only by the urgency of the moment. What might have been the issue if any son of Mohammad had survived it is useless now to speculate. But certainly the hereditary descent of kingly power was foreign to the sentiment of Arabia. As matters stood, Mohammad seems to have shrunk from anticipating the contingency of his own death, and had made no preparation for what might follow. But in so far as we may suppose him to have felt his illness mortal and death impending, the nomination of Abu Bekr to conduct the public Prayers (acknowledged mark of chief or delegated authority) may be held the natural indication of a wish that he should succeed1. Apart from the pretensions of the men of Medina, which immediately died away, there was in the election neither doubt nor hesitancy. The notion of divine right, or even of preferential claim, resting in the Prophet's family, was the growth of an altogether later age.
Parties at Medina.
It may be necessary here to recall to the reader not fresh from the study of the Prophet's life, the state of parties at the present juncture. The Men of Medina were the old inhabitants of the City who had received Mohammad on his escape from Mecca, and supported his cause2; they now embraced practically the whole native population of Medina, since the party that opposed him on his first arrival had gradually succumbed before his growing power. They were divided into two tribes, the Aus and the
1 See Life of Mohammad, p. 500.
2 Hence called Ansar, or Helpers. 7
Khazraj, jealous of each other as we have seen. Beside these were the Refugees, those namely who had followed Mohammad in exile from Mecca or elsewhere, and were now settled at Medina. Again, Companion was a title of honour given to all those who had enjoyed the special friendship of the Prophet. A few words may also be added here to revive the reader's recollection of the three Companions who turned the scale at the election of the Caliph.
Abu Bekr, threescore years of age, was somewhat short in stature, of spare frame, rounded back, and stooping gait. His face thin, smooth, and fair, nose aquiline and sharp, forehead high, eyes deep seated and far apart. His hair scanty; the beard, for many years white, now dyed red. His countenance still in old age handsome; the expression mild, but wise and resolute. To him faith in the Prophet had become a second nature and, now that his Master was gone, the disciple lived but to fulfil his will. It was this that nerved a disposition naturally soft and yielding, and made Abu Bekr, of all the followers of Mohammad, the truest, firmest and most resolute.
'Omar, fifteen years younger, differed from Abu Bekr both in frame and temperament. Broad shouldered and tall, he towered above the crowd. Somewhat dark in complexion, the face was fresh and ruddy. His head was now bald; the beard dyed like his friend's; his stride long and his presence commanding. Naturally hasty and passionate, he would twist his moustache when angry and draw it downwards to his mouth. But time had mellowed temper; and, beneath an imperious manner, he was bland and courteous. Attachment to Mohammad had, on these two friends, an effect exactly opposite. That which braced the soft nature of Abu Bekr, served but to abate the vehemence of 'Omar. Both stood in a like relation to the Prophet. Hafsa, 'Omar's daughter, was one of Mohammad's favourite wives; but 'Aisha, the child of Abu Bekr, was Queen in his affections to the end.
On these two men at this moment hung the future of Islam. The third, Abu 'Obeida, was between them in age. Thin, tall, and sinewy, he was bald and with little beard. Mild, unassuming and unwarlike, Abu 'Obeida was yet destined to take a leading part in the conquest of Syria.
The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents] Answering Islam Home Page