Succession to Muhammad
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Succession to Muhammad

The succession to Muhammad is the central issue that split the Muslim community into several divisions in the first century of Islamic history, with the most prominent among these sects being the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam. Shia Islam holds that Ali ibn Abi Talib was the appointed successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad as head of the community. Sunni Islam maintains Abu Bakr to be the first leader after Muhammad on the basis of election.

The contrasting opinions regarding the succession are primarily based on differing interpretations of events in early Islamic history as well as of hadiths (sayings of Muhammad). Sunnis believe that Muhammad had no appointed successor and had instead intended that the Muslim community choose a leader from among themselves. They accept the rule of Abu Bakr, who was elected at Saqifah, and that of his successors, who are together termed the Rashidun Caliphs. Conversely, Shi'ites believe that Ali had previously been nominated by Muhammad as heir, most notably during the Event of Ghadir Khumm. They primarily see the rulers who followed Muhammad as illegitimate, with the only rightful Muslim leaders being Ali and his lineal descendants, the Twelve Imams, who are viewed as divinely appointed.

In addition to these two main views, there are also other opinions regarding the succession to Muhammad.


Different Muslim demographics disagree on the succession of Muhammad

Most of Islamic history was transmitted orally until after the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate.[note 1] Historical works of later Muslim writers include the traditional biographies of Muhammad and quotations attributed to him--the sira and hadith literature--which provide further information on Muhammad's life.[1] The earliest surviving written sira (biography of Muhammad) is Sirat Rasul Allah (Life of God's Messenger) by Ibn Ishaq (d. 761 or 767 CE).[2] Although the original work is lost, portions of it survive in the recensions of Ibn Hisham (d. 833) and Al-Tabari (d. 923).[3] Many scholars accept these biographies although their accuracy is uncertain.[4] Studies by J. Schacht and Ignác Goldziher have led scholars to distinguish between legal and historical traditions. According to William Montgomery Watt, although legal traditions could have been invented, historical material may have been primarily subject to "tendential shaping" rather than being invented.[5] Modern Western scholars approach the classic Islamic histories with circumspection and are less likely than Sunni Islamic scholars to trust the work of the Abbasid historians.

Hadith compilations are records of the traditions or sayings of Muhammad. The development of hadith is a crucial element of the first three centuries of Islamic history.[6] Early Western scholars mistrusted the later narrations and reports, regarding them as fabrications.[7] Leone Caetani considered the attribution of historical reports to `Abd Allah ibn `Abbas and Aisha as mostly fictitious, preferring accounts reported without isnad by early historians such as Ibn Ishaq.[8] Wilferd Madelung has rejected the indiscriminate dismissal of everything not included in "early sources", instead judging later narratives in the context of history and compatibility with events and figures.[9]

The only contemporaneous source is The Book of Sulaym ibn Qays (Kitab al-Saqifah) by Sulaym ibn Qays (died 75-95 AH or 694-714 CE). This collection of hadith and historical reports from the first century of the Islamic calendar narrates in detail events relating to the succession.[10] However, there have been doubts regarding the reliability of the collection, with some believing that it was a later creation given that the earliest mention of the text only appears in the 11th century.[11]

Succession to Muhammad in the Quran

The Quran, the central religious text of Islam, does not explicitly identify a successor to Muhammad.[12] The Quran, however, frequently emphasizes the importance of preserving bonds of blood relationship, which might be pertinent to the discussion of succession.[13] One such instance is Q16:90, which reads, "Indeed, God enjoins justice and kindness and generosity towards relatives, and He forbids indecency, wrong, and aggression..."[12][14]

Also related to the matter of succession is the prominent position of past prophets' families in the Quran. After prophets, their descendants become the spiritual and material heirs to them in the Quran. Indeed, the Quran repeatedly describes how past prophets prayed for (and were granted) divine favors for their kin. For instance, once Abraham successfully fulfilled his divine missions, Q2:124 records the following exchange: "[God] said, 'I am making you the Imam of mankind.' [Abraham] replied, 'And from among my descendants?' [God] said, 'My pledge does not extend to the unjust.'"[15][16] That is, God's pledge does extend to just descendants of Abraham, including Muhammad.[17][18] In fact, from Noah to Jesus, prophets of the Israelites were all descendants of a single family.[19]

Similar to past prophets, the Quran repeatedly emphasizes the exalted status of Muhammad's family.[20][21][22] For instance, the verse of purification promises to thoroughly purify Muhammad's close relatives.[23] Another example is the verse of Wilayah in which "the faithful" refers to Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, according to Shia and a number of Sunni exegeses.[24] The Arabic word wali, however, has multiple meanings. In this verse, the Shia interpret the word wali as leader or guardian, whereas Sunni scholars interpret this word to mean friend.[25]

Quran 5:55
Text Translation
? ? ? ? ? Your wali (leader, guardian, friend?) is only God, His Apostle,

and the faithful who maintain the prayer and give the zakat while bowing down [in worship].

According to W. Madelung, insofar as the Quran reflects the views of Muhammad, he could have not seen his succession differently from earlier prophets, who prayed for (and were granted) the divine favor to be succeeded by their close kin in kingship, in rule, in wisdom, in imamate, etc.[26] Madelung posits that, "it is evident that he [Muhammad] could not have considered Abu Bakr his natural successor or have been pleased by his succession."[27] He argues that this is because, in the Quran, succession of prophets is a matter that is settled by divine selection rather than by shura (consultation). In particular, God selects their successors from their own family, whether or not those successors become prophets themselves.[28][29][30]

Succession to Muhammad in Hadiths

Feast of Dhul Asheera

Multicolored Arabic-script design, where "Muhammad" reads "Ali" when turned upside down
Ambigram in which "Muhammad" (? in Arabic script) reads "Ali" () when rotated 180°

Upon receiving verse 26:214 of the Quran in c. 617 CE, some three years after his first divine revelation, Muhammad was tasked with presenting Islam to his relatives.[31] There are multiple accounts of how Muhammad attempted to do this,[32] with one version stating that he invited his relatives to a meal, later termed the Feast of Dhul Asheera.[33] After the meal, Muhammad made the following announcement:

Allah has commanded me to invite you to His religion by saying: And warn thy nearest kinsfolk. I, therefore, warn you, and call upon you to testify that there is no god but Allah, and that I am His messenger. O ye sons of Abdul Muttalib, no one ever came to you before with anything better than what I have brought to you. By accepting it, your welfare will be assured in this world and in the Hereafter. Who among you will support me in carrying out this momentous duty? Who will share the burden of this work with me? Who will respond to my call? Who will become my vicegerent, my deputy and my wazir?[34]

Among those gathered, only Ali offered his support. Muhammad then declared Ali to be his brother, heir and successor.[33] In another narration, when Muhammad accepted Ali's offer, he "threw up his arms around the generous youth, and pressed him to his bosom" and said, "Behold my brother, my vizir, my vicegerent ... let all listen to his words, and obey him."[35] Some sources, such as the Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, have not recorded Muhammad's response to Ali.[36]

What is notable in these accounts is the early appointment of Ali as Muhammad's heir.[37] One of the accounts of this event is attributed to Ali, in which he describes himself as Muhammad's successor.[33][38] Lastly, the association of this event with the revelation of a Quranic verse appears to offer both authenticity and divine authorization.[33]

Al-Suyuti's account

In his Tarikh al-Khulafa, al-Suyuti collected the narrations that support the view that Muhammad did not name a successor.[39] One such example, alleges that Ali gave the statement, "Oh men, verily the Apostle of God (Muhammad) hath committed nothing unto us in regard to this authority, in order that we might of our own judgment approve and appoint Abu Bakr." According to another one, when asked if he wished to name his successor as caliph, Ali responded "the Apostle of God appointed none, shall I, therefore, do so?"[40]

However, these claims might contradict the body of evidence that suggests Ali was vocal about his (perceived) right to succeed Muhammad. According to the author H. Jafri, Ali believed that he was unjustly deprived of his right to lead the Muslim community.[41] In a hadith about the Feast of Dhul Ashira, Ali also recounted how Muhammad appointed him as his successor.[33] As another example, in c. 35 AH, Ali referred to the Ghadir Khumm event to support his right to caliphate.[42][43][44] Similarly, in his famous Shaqshaqiya sermon, Ali emphasized that Abu Bakr and Omar had exacted the caliphate for themselves, even though they were aware that Ali was the rightful successor of Muhammad.[45][46] On another occasion, Ali suggested that he would have overturned the tables after Muhammad's death, if he was not concerned about divisiveness.[47]

Jafri also suggests that early Sunni scholars made every effort in their writings to imply as much agreement as possible between Ali, Abu Bakr, and Omar.[48] In reality, after Muhammad's death, it is well-cited that Ali did not acknowledge Abu Bakr's authority for at least six months.[49] Compared to his active role in Muhammad's lifetime, Ali was largely marginalized after Muhammad's death by all accounts.[50][51]

It is also claimed that, when caliph Omar was asked the same question, he replied that if he gave a nomination, he had precedent in Abu Bakr's actions; if he named no one, he had precedent by Muhammad's.[52]

Hadith of position

Before leaving Medina on the long expedition to Tabuk in 9 AH, Muhammad appointed Ali as his deputy in Medina. After rumors rose that they had fallen out, Muhammad publicly endorsed Ali by saying that, "Are you not content, Ali, to stand to me as Aaron stood to Moses, except that there will be no prophet after me?"[53] Another source has recorded that Muhammad also added, "It is not permissible for me to go without you being my caliph (successor)."[54] According to ibn Hisham, the rumors in Medina were spread by munafiqun (hypocrites).[55]

The hadith of position suggests that Ali enjoys the same position in Islam that Aaron has in Judaism, except that Ali was not a prophet. Aside from being a prophet himself, the Quran portrays Aaron as Moses' brother and his divinely-appointed minister and deputy.[56][57][58][59] In particular, Aaron was left in charge of the Israelites in the absence of Moses, when the latter ascended Mount Sinai.[60] Prophets, including Aaron, are generally considered infallible in Islam, albeit different sects interpret infallibility differently.[61]

In view of the hadith of position, Shia Islam extends Aaron's privileges to Ali, except prophethood.[62] That is, from the Shia viewpoint, this hadith suggests that

  1. Muhammad considered Ali to be his divinely-appointed deputy and the second-in-command among Muslims.[63]
  2. Muhammad considered Ali to be his brother.[64] Indeed, when Muslims were being paired together in sworn brotherhood after the migration to Medina, Muhammad chose Ali as his brother and proclaimed, "You are my brother in this world and the hereafter."[65]
  3. Muhammad considered Ali to be infallible,[63] thus corroborating the Shia interpretation of both the verse of purification of the Quran and the hadith of the Kisa.[66][67] (The purification verse is about God's will to cleanse Ahl al-Bayt from any wrongdoing. The well-attested hadith of the Kisa specifies Ahl al-Bayt as Muhammad, Fatimah, Ali, Hasan and Husayn. However, the infallibility of Ahl al-Bayt and its makeup are both disputed by the Sunni.)

Accordingly, Shia Islam considers Ali to be the divinely-appointed successor of Muhammad.[68][69] Of similar importance here is the divine prerogatives bestowed upon Aaron's descendants, including God's proclamation in the Hebrew Bible that, "Behold, I give unto him [Aaron] My covenant of peace. And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood."[70] This might be compared to Shia Islam where Imams, from the lineage of Muhammad, inherited his divine wisdom and authority.[71] This divine elevation of prophets' descendants above others is a recurring theme in the Quran.[72]

A criticism of the Shia interpretation is that Ali might not have been Muhammad's first choice for governing Medina during the Tabuk expedition. Reportedly, Muhammad had first left Jafar in charge of his family. It is not clear who this Jafar might have been, considering that Jafar ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's prominent relative, had been killed a year earlier.[54] This claim also appears to contradict Muhammad's statement that, "It is not permissible for me to go without you [Ali] being my caliph."[73] Historical records indicate that Muhammad used the same analogy between Aaron and Ali on multiple other occasions, e.g., during the battle of Khaybar.[74]

Another criticism of the Shia interpretation is that Aaron died before Moses and could not succeed him.[75] It might, however, be futile to attempt to identify all aspects of Ali and Aaron's lives: Paraphrasing the Shia scholar al-Mufid, the hadith of position endowed Ali with every (Quranic) position that Aaron had held except prophethood, namely, the deputy, the minister, and a brother.[76] In particular, had he survived Moses, Aaron would have succeeded Moses.[77] The "after me" in the hadith might also signify Ali's position after Muhammad's death, according to the Shia scholar Rezwani.[78] Similarly, Ali was Muhammad's cousin and his son-in-law, rather than his blood brother.[79] Nevertheless, Muhammad had twice sworn a pact of brotherhood with Ali.[65][80]

Event of Ghadir Khumm

The Investiture of Ali at Ghadir Khumm, an illustration from Al-Biruni's Chronology of Ancient Nations

This event was Muhammad's last public address before his death three months later.[81] This event was also Muhammad's most public announcement about Ali of which there exists no definitive (Sunni) record though parts of it have been preserved in a number of sayings.[82] On 18 Dhu al-Hijjah 10 AH (March 632 CE), after his farewell pilgrimage to Mecca, Muhammad stopped at the oasis Ghadir Khumm on his return trip to Medina in order to make an announcement. He ordered those who were ahead to return and waited for the remaining pilgrims to join them.[83] After the noon prayer, to avoid the extreme heat, a dais was constructed for Muhammad in the shade.[84]

Muhammad then delivered a sermon.[85] In this sermon or earlier in Mecca, he alerted Muslims about his imminent death.[86][87] In this sermon, Muhammad also told Muslims that he would leave among them two important things: Quran and his Ahl al-Bayt, meaning his close relatives.[88][89] He then warned Muslims, "Be careful how you treat the two after me. These two will never separate until they are presented to me on the day of resurrection."[90]

Finally, calling up Ali and taking him by the hand, Muhammad asked his followers whether he was not superior in authority and in person (awla) to the believers themselves. The crowd shouted their agreement.[91] Muhammad then uttered what has become known as the Ghadir Khumm hadith:

"Anyone who has me as his mawla, has this Ali as his mawla."

He repeated this sentence three more times.[92] Some accounts add that Muhammad continued, "O God, befriend the friend of Ali and be the enemy of his enemy."[92] After Muhammad's sermon, Omar congratulated Ali and told him, "You have now become mawla of every faithful man and woman."[93][94]

While the authenticity of the Ghadir Khumm event is not contested, the interpretation of mawla is a source of controversy between Sunni and Shia.[95][96] Mawla has multiple meanings in Arabic and the opinion about the meaning of this word in the Ghadir Khumm hadith is split along sectarian lines between the Sunni and Shia. Among Sunnis, the word mawla in this hadith is interpreted as "friend" or "one who is loyal/close", i.e., Muhammad was advocating that Ali was deserving of friendship and respect. Conversely, Shias interpret the word mawla as "leader" or "ruler," i.e., the Ghadir Khumm hadith was a clear designation of Ali as Muhammad's successor.[85] According to the author Abbas, it would have been unreasonable for Muhammad to gather thousands of pilgrims at that remote location and in the scorching heat to "show his love and appreciation for Ali."[97]

Some sources, such as al-Dur al-Manthur, have recorded that verse 5:67 of the Quran was revealed to Muhammad shortly before the Ghadir Khumm event: "O Apostle! Communicate that which has been sent down to you from your Lord, and if you do not, you will not have communicated His message, and Allah shall protect you from the people. Indeed Allah does not guide the faithless lot."[98][99]

The Ghadir Khumm event has also been preserved in the Arabic literature.[100][101] The earliest and the most controversial instance is a poem attributed to Hassan bin Thabit, who accompanied Muhammad at his only pilgrimage.[100] According to the author Jafri, it is highly improbable that the Ghadir Khumm event would have passed unrecorded by Hassan, who was the "official poet-reporter of Muhammad."[100][85] This poem, which has been preserved by Shia sources and some Sunni authorities, includes the verse "Stand up, O Ali, for I find only you to be an Imam and a guide after I depart."[100][102]

A criticism of the Shia interpretation of the Ghadir Khumm event, vocalized by the author M. A. Shaban, is that the community of Medina did not react as if they had heard of Ali's appointment.[103] In his book, Shaban arrives at this conclusion without citing any historical records to support his view.[103] In contrast, according to Jafri, the hundreds of recorded narrations of the Ghadir Khumm event leave little room to doubt its authenticity and perceived importance.[104] Indeed, the Shia scholar Amini compiled eleven volumes worth of sources in support of the Shia interpretation of this event.[105]

Congregational prayer

The most notable incident that supports Abu Bakr's right to succession reportedly occurred towards the end of Muhammad's life. Too ill to lead prayers himself, Muhammad supposedly instructed that Abu Bakr to take his place, ignoring concerns that he was too emotionally delicate for the role. Abu Bakr subsequently took up the position, and when Muhammad entered the prayer hall one morning during Fajr prayers, Abu Bakr attempted to step back to let him to take up his normal place and lead. Muhammad however, allowed him to continue.[106] There are various versions of this report, many of which are attributed to Abu Bakr's daughter, Aisha, whose enmity with Ali is well-documented.[107][108][109] After mentioning this report, the author Madelung defers to the historian Caetani, who considered this report to be an invention of Muslim traditionalists.[110] The multiple versions of this report are often contradictory, according to Jafri.[111]

Other incidents similarly used by Sunnis were Abu Bakr serving as Muhammad's vizier during his time in Medina, as well as him being appointed the first of his companions to lead the Hajj pilgrimage. However, several other companions had held similar positions of authority and trust, including the leading of prayers. Such honours may therefore not hold much importance in matters of succession.[106][103]

Incident of the pen and paper

A day or two before his death, Muhammad asked for writing materials: "I need to write something so that you will not go astray when I am gone."[112][113] Omar reportedly intervened, telling those present that Muhammad was raving, and adding that, "You have the Quran, the book of God is sufficient for us."[112][114][115] A quarrel broke out at Muhammad's bedside, some suggesting that the prophet's orders should be followed and some siding with Omar to disregard Muhammad's request.[112][115] The noise apparently pained Muhammad, who scolded those present by his bedside: "Go away and leave me."[115][116] Concerns about overstraining the ill Muhammad is often viewed by Sunni scholars as the motive in this incident.[117] The author L. Hazleton, however, suggests that Muhammad might had wanted to dictate his will, and "if Ali turned out to be the designated heir, no body in that room wanted it put into writing." This incident has been called the great disaster of Islam, without which, the course of history might have been different.[117]

There is, in fact, no dearth of speculation among scholars about what Muhammad intended to write. Shia scholars, like al-Shaykh al-Mufid, suggest that it would have been a formal appointment of Ali as the new leader, while the Sunni authorities, such as al-Baladhuri, state that it was to designate Abu Bakr. The story has also been linked to the rise of the community politics which followed Muhammad's death, with a possible suggestion that the hadith shows that Muhammad had implicitly given his acceptance and permission to how the Muslim ummah chooses to act in his absence. It may therefore be linked with the emergence of sayings attributed to Muhammad such as "My ummah will never agree on an error," an idea perpetuated by theologians like ibn Hazm and ibn Sayyid al-N?s.[116]

Historical overview


A Persian miniature illustrating the vowing to Abu Bakr at Saqifah

In the immediate aftermath of Muhammad's death in 11 AH (632 CE), a gathering of the Ansar (natives of Medina) took place at Saqifah in Medina.[118] The purpose of the meeting might have been for the Ansar to regain the control over their city after Muhammad's death, with the intentional exclusion of the Muhajirun (migrants from Mecca).[119][120]

Nevertheless, Abu Bakr and Omar, both companions of Muhammad, upon learning about the meeting, rushed to the gathering and reportedly forced their way into Saqifah.[120][121] Abu Bakr and Omar, accompanied by Abu Ubaidah and a few relatives, were the only members of Muhajirun who attended the Saqifah gathering.[122]

When they arrived, Abu Bakr warned the Ansar that Arabs will not recognize the rule of anyone outside of Muhammad's tribe, the Quraysh. Muhajirun, Abu Bakr argued, had the most noble lineage, had accepted Islam earlier, and were nearer to Muhammad in relation.[123][124][125] He then took Omar and Abu Ubaidah by the hand and offered them to the Ansar as potential choices. Abu Bakr was countered with the offer that the Quraysh and the Ansar should each choose separate rulers from among themselves. The stalemate reportedly continued through the night and into the next day.[126] As evident from the early accounts, eloquent speeches gave way to a shouting match, with different groups competing for power.[127][128] Sa'd ibn Ubadah, the chief of the Khazraj tribe of the Ansar, reportedly accused the attending Muhajirin of colluding together.[129] In a decisive move, Omar took Abu Bakr's hand and swore his own allegiance to the latter, an example eventually followed by the Ansar after ibn Ubadah was beaten into compliance.[129][130]

The outburst of violence, according to Madelung, indicates that a substantial number of the Ansar must have initially refused to follow Omar's lead. Otherwise, Madelung argues, there would have been no need to beat up their chief, ibn Ubadah.[131] Even after Omar's pledge to Abu Bakr, some of the Ansar reportedly insisted that, "We will not pay allegiance to anyone except Ali."[132][133] [134] It has been suggested that two factors allowed the handful of Muhajirun at Saqifah to impose their will upon the Ansar:[135] The first factor was that Usaid ibn Hudair, a leader of the rival tribe of Aws, broke rank with the Ansar and backed Abu Bakr.[135][136] The second factor was the timely arrival of the Aslam tribe in great numbers, who filled the streets of Medina. The Aslam tribe, residing outside of Medina, were the enemies of the Ansar and readily supported Abu Bakr. Omar would often point out that, "It was only when I saw the Aslam that I became certain of [our] victory."[135]

The Saqifah event has been criticized as a "backroom deal" which was heavily influenced by pre-Islamic tribal politics.[137][138][139][140] Muhammad's family and the majority of Muhajirun were excluded from the Saqifah gathering.[141][142] In particular, Ali was holding vigil over Muhammad's body, alongside other close relatives, and likely learned about the outcome of Saqifah after the fact.[143] Madelung points out that Abu Bakr did everything in his speech to avoid raising the case of Ali for the caliphate.[144] The author suggests that what Omar called a hasty decision or falta at Saqifah materialized, in part, out of the fear that the Ansar might put forward the case of Ali among themselves.[144] According to Madelung, Abu Bakr was well aware that a broad shura, in which Ali was to be on option, would have almost inevitably led to the election of Ali:[145] The Ansar would have likely supported Ali because of his family ties with them, and the same arguments that favored Abu Bakr over the Ansar (kinship, service to Islam, etc.) would have arguably favored Ali over Abu Bakr.[145][146] Madelung argues that the straightforward logic of dynastic succession would have almost certainly prevailed in a general shura.[147]

Before the participants of the Saqifah gathering scattered, Muhammad had been buried.[148][149] With the help of the Aslam and Aws tribes, Omar then dominated the streets to secure pledge of allegiance of Medinans.[150] Several companions, most notably, Ali and his supporters, initially refused to acknowledge Abu Bakr's authority.[118][151][152] To cement his new authority, Abu Bakr ordered his aides, among them Omar, to confront Ali, resulting in an altercation which may have involved violence.[153] In an act of passive resistance, however, Ali continued to hold out against Abu Bakr's pressure until his wife, Fatimah, died a few months later.[154] According to the Shia, Fatimah died from the injuries that she suffered in a raid on her house, ordered by Abu Bakr. This claim is rejected by the Sunni.[155]

These initial conflicts after Muhammad's death are regarded as the first signs of the coming division among Muslims.[156] Those who had accepted Abu Bakr's caliphate later became the Sunni, while the supporters of Ali's right to caliphate eventually became the Shia.[157]

Subsequent succession

Battle of Karbala, an oil painting by Abbas Al-Musavi

Abu Bakr adopted the title of Khalifat Rasul Allah, generally translated as "Successor to the Messenger of God".[158] This was shortened to Khalifa, from which the word "Caliph" arose. The use of this title continued with Abu Bakr's own successors, the caliphs Umar, Uthman and Ali, all of whom were non-hereditary.[159][160] This was a group referred to by Sunnis as the Rashidun (rightly-guided) Caliphs, though only Ali is recognised by the Shia.[161] Abu Bakr's argument that the caliphate should reside with the Quraysh was accepted by nearly all Muslims in later generations. However, after Ali's assassination in 661, this definition also allowed the rise of the Umayyads to the throne, who despite being members of the Quraysh, were generally late converts to Islam during Muhammad's lifetime.[162]

Their ascendancy had been preceded by a civil war among the Sunnis and Shi'ites known as the First Fitna. Hostilities only ceased when Ali's eldest son Hasan (who had been elected upon his father's death)[163] made an agreement to abdicate in favour of the first Umayyad caliph, Muawiyah I, resulting in a period of relative calm and a hiatus in sectarian disagreements. This ended upon Muawiyah's death after twenty years of rule, when rather than following the previous tradition of electing/selecting a successor from among the pious community, he nominated his own son Yazid. This hereditary process of succession angered Hasan's younger brother Husayn, who publicly denounced the new caliph's legitimacy. Husayn and his family were eventually killed by Yazid's forces in 680 during the Battle of Karbala. This conflict marked the Second Fitna, as a result of which the Sunni-Shia schism became finalised.[160]

The succession subsequently transformed under the Umayyads from an elective/appointed position to being effectively hereditary within the family,[164] leading to the complaint that the caliphate had become no more than a "worldly kingship."[162] The Shi'ite's idea of the succession to Muhammad similarly evolved over time. Initially, some of the early Shia sects did not limit it to descendants of Ali and Muhammad, but to the extended family of Muhammad in general. One such group, alongside Sunnis,[165] supported the rebellion against the Umayyads led by the Abbasids, who were descendants of Muhammad's paternal uncle Abbas. However, when the Abbasids came to power in 750, they began championing Sunni Islam, alienating the Shi'ites. Afterwards, the sect limited the succession to descendants of Ali and Fatimah in the form of Imams.[161]

Twelver Shia view

With the exception of Zaydis,[166] Shi'ites believe in the Imamate, a principle by which rulers are Imams who are divinely chosen, infallible and sinless and must come from the Ahl al-Bayt regardless of majority opinion, shura or election.[167] They claim that before his death, Muhammad had given many indications, in the Event of Ghadir Khumm in particular, that he considered Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, as his successor.[168] For the Twelvers, Ali and his eleven descendants, the twelve Imams, are believed to have been considered, even before their birth, as the only valid Islamic rulers appointed and decreed by God.[169][170] Shia Muslims believe that with the exception of Ali and Hasan, all the caliphs following Muhammad's death were illegitimate and that Muslims had no obligation to follow them.[171] They hold that the only guidance that was left behind, as stated in the hadith of the two weighty things, was the Quran and Muhammad's family and offspring.[172] The latter, due to their infallibility, are considered to be able to lead the Muslim community with justice and equity.[173]

Zaydi Shia view

Zaydis, a Shia sub-group, believe that the leaders of the Muslim community must be Fatimids: descendants of Fatimah and Ali, through either of their sons, Hasan or Husayn. Unlike the Twelver and Isma'ili Shia, Zaydis do not believe in the infallibility of Imams nor that the Imamate must pass from father to son.[174] They named themselves Zaydis after Zayd ibn Ali, a grandson of Husayn, who they view as the rightful successor to the Imamate. This is due to him having led a rebellion against the Umayyad Caliphate, who he saw as tyrannical and corrupt. The then Twelver Imam, his brother Muhammad al-Baqir, did not engage in political action and the followers of Zayd believed that a true Imam must fight against corrupt rulers.[175]

One faction, the Batriyya, attempted to create a compromise between the Sunni and Shia by admitting the legitimacy of the Sunni caliphs while maintaining that they were inferior to Ali. Their argument was that while Ali was the best suited to succeed Muhammad, the reigns of Abu Bakr and Umar must be acknowledged because Ali had recognised them.[174] This belief, termed Imamat al-Mafdul (Imamate of the inferior), is one which has also been attributed to Zayd himself.[176][note 2]

Sunni view

The general Sunni belief states that Muhammad had not chosen anyone to succeed him, instead reasoning that he had intended for the community to decide on a leader amongst themselves. However, some specific hadiths are used to justify that Muhammad intended Abu Bakr to succeed, but that he had shown this decision through his actions rather than doing so verbally.[52]

The election of a caliph is ideally a democratic choice made by the Muslim community.[177] They are supposed to be members of the Quraysh, the tribe of Muhammad. However, this is not a strict requirement, given that the Ottoman Caliphs had no familial relation to the tribe.[178] They are not viewed as infallible and can be removed from office if their actions are regarded as sinful.[177] Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali are regarded as the most righteous of their generation, with their merit being reflected in their Caliphate. The subsequent caliphates of the Umayyads and the Abbasids, while not ideal, are seen as legitimate because they complied with the requirements of the law, kept the borders safe and the community generally united.[179]

Ibadi view

The Ibadi, an Islamic school distinct from the Sunni and Shia,[180] believe that leadership of the Muslim community is not something which should be decided by lineage, tribal affiliations or divine selection, but rather through election by leading Muslims. They see the leaders as not being infallible and that if they fail to maintain a legitimate government in accordance to Islamic law, it is the duty of the population to remove them from power. The Rashidun Caliphs are seen as rulers who were elected in a legitimate fashion and that Abu Bakr and Umar in particular were righteous leaders. However, Uthman is viewed as having committed grave sins during the latter half of his rule and was deserving of death. Ali is also similarly understood to have lost his mandate.[181]

Their first Imam was Abd Allah ibn Wahb al-Rasibi, who was selected after the group's alienation from Ali.[182] Other individuals seen as Imams include Abu Ubaidah Muslim, Abdallah ibn Yahya al-Kindi and Umar ibn Abdul Aziz.[183]

See also


  1. ^ A consideration of oral transmissions in general with some specific early Islamic reference is given in Jan Vansina's Oral Tradition as History.
  2. ^ Al-Tabari records that when asked about Abu Bakr and Umar, Zayd stated "I have not heard anyone in my family renouncing them both nor saying anything but good about them...when they were entrusted with government they behaved justly with the people and acted according to the Quran and the sunnah."[176]


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  3. ^ Donner, Fred McGraw (1998). Narratives of Islamic origins: the beginnings of Islamic historical writing. Darwin Press. p. 132. ISBN 978-0-87850-127-4. Retrieved 2013.
  4. ^ Nigosian, Solomon Alexander (1 January 2004), Islam: Its History, Teaching, and Practices, Indiana University Press, p. 6, ISBN 978-0-253-21627-4, retrieved 2013
  5. ^ Watt, William Montgomery (1953). Muhammad at Mecca. Clarendon Press. p. xv. Retrieved 2013.
  6. ^ Cragg, Albert Kenneth. "Hadith". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Archived from the original on 2008-04-16. Retrieved .
  7. ^ Madelung 1997, p. xi.
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  9. ^ Madelung 1997, p. 20
  10. ^ See:
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  12. ^ a b Madelung (1997, p. 6)
  13. ^ Madelung (1997, p. 6-8)
  14. ^ "Quran 16:90".
  15. ^ "Quran 2:124".
  16. ^ Abbas (2021, p. 86)
  17. ^ Madelung (1997, p. 10)
  18. ^ Jafri (1979, p. 15)
  19. ^ Madelung (1997, p. 9)
  20. ^ Madelung (1997, pp. 12-16)
  21. ^ Jafri (1979, p. 16)
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Further reading

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