1902 Encyclopedia > Mohammedanism (Islam) > The First Four Caliphs of Mohammedanism

(Part 3)


The First Four Caliphs of Mohammedanism

After the death of Mohammed arose the question who was to be his "represetative" (Khalifa, Caliph). The choice lay with the community of Medina; so much was understood; but whom were they to choose? The natives of Medina believed themselves to be now once more masters in their own house, and wished to promote one of themselves. But the Emigrants asserted their opposing claims, and with success, having brought into the town a considerable number of outside Moslems, so as to terrorize the men of Medina, who besides were still divided into two parties. The Emigrants’ leading spirit was ‘Omar; he did not, however, cause homage to be paid to himself but to Abubker, the friend and father-in-law of the Prophet.

The affair would not have gone on so smoothly, had not the opportune defection of the Arabians put a stop to the inward schism which threatened. Islam suddenly found itself once more limited to the community of Medina; only Mecca and Taif remained true. The Bedouins were willing enough to pray, indeed, but less willing to pay taxes; their defection, as might have been expected, was a political movement. None the less was it a revolt from Islam, for here the political society and the religious are identical. A peculiar compliment to Mohammed was involved in the fact that the leaders of the rebellion in the various districts did not pose as princes and kings, but as prophets; in this the secret of Islam’s success appeared to lie.

Abubekr proved himself quite equal to the perilous situation. In the first place, he allowed the expedition against the Greeks, already arranged by Mohammed, quietly to set out, limiting himself for the time to the defence of Medina. On the return of the army he proceeded to attack the revels. The holy spirit of Islam kept the men of Medina together, and inflamed them to death-defying zeal for the faith; while, on the other side, the Arabs as a whole had no other bond of union and no better source of inspiration than universal egoism. As was to be expected, they were worsted; eleven small flying columns of the Moslems sent out in various directions, sufficed to quell the revolt. Those who submitted were forthwith received back into favor; those who preserved in rebellion were punished with death. The majority accordingly converted, the obstinate were extirpated. In Yamama only was there a severe struggle; the Banu Hanifa under their prophet Mosalima fought bravely, but here also Islam triumphed.

The internal consolidation of Islam in Arabia was, strange to say, brought about by its diffusion abroad. The holy was against the border countries which Mohammed had already inaugurated, was the best means for making the new religion popular among the Arabs; for, in spreading by means of the sword the worship of Allah, opportunity was at the same time afforded for gaining rich booty. This vast movement was organized by Islam, but the masses were induced to joint it by quite other than religious motives. Nor was this by any means the first occasion on which the Arabian caldron had overflowed; once and again in former times emigrant swarms of Bedouins had settled on the borders of the wilderness. This has last happened in consequence of the events which destroyed the prosperity of the old Sabaean kingdom. At that time the small Arabian kingdoms of Ghassan and Hira had arisen in the western and eastern borderlands of cultivation; these now presented to Moslem conquest its nearest and natural goal. But inasmuch as Hira was subject to the Persians, and Eastern Palestine to the Greeks, the annexation of the Arabians involved the extension of the war beyond the limits of Arabia to a struggle with the two great powers.

After the subjugation of Middle and North-Eastern Arabia, Khalid b. al-Walid proceeded by order of the Caliph to the conquest of the districts on the lower Euphrates. Thence he was summoned to Syria, where hostilities had also broken out. Damascus fell late in the summer of 635, and on 20th August 636 the great decisive battle on the Hieromax (Yarmuk) was fought, which caused the Emperor Heraclius finally to abandon Syria. Left to themselves the Christians henceforward defended themselves only in isolated cases in the fortified cities; for the most part they witnesses the disappearance of the Byzantine power without regret. Meanwhile the war was also carried on against the Persians in ‘Irak, unsuccessfully at first, until the tide turned at the battle of Kadisiya (end of 637). In consequence of the defeat which they here sustained, the Persian were forced to abandon the western portion of their empire and limit themselves to Eran proper. The Moslems made themselves masters of Ctesiphon (Madain), the residence of the Sasanides on the Tigris, and conquered in the immediately following years the country of the two rivers. In 639 the armies of Syria and ‘Irak were face to face in Mesopotamia. In a short time they had taken from the Aryans all the principal old Semitic lands, - Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Assyria, and Babylonia. To these was soon added Egypt, which ‘Amr b. al-‘As, aided by the national and confessional antipathies of the Copts towards the Greeks, overran with little trouble in 641. This completed the circle of the lands bordering on the wilderness of Arabia; within these limits annexation was practicable and natural, a repetition indeed of what had often previously occurred. The kingdoms of Ghassan and Hira, advanced posts hitherto, now became the headquarters of the Arabs; the new empire had its centers on the one hand at Damascus, on the other hand at Cufa and Basra, the two newly founded cities in the region of old Babylonia. The capital of Islam continued indeed for a while to be Medina, but soon the Hijaz and the whole of Arabia proper lay quite on the outskirt of affairs.

It is striking to notice how easily the native populations of the conquered districts, exclusively or prevailingly Christian, adapted themselves to the new rule. Their nationality had been broken long ago, but intrinsically it was more closely allied to the Arabian than to the Greek or Persian. Their religious sympathy with the West was seriously impaired by dogmatic controversies; from Islam they might at any rate hope for toleration, even though their views were not in accordance with the theology of the Emperor of the day. The lapse of the masses from Christendom to Islam, however, which took place during the first century after the conquest, is only to be accounted for by the fact that in reality they had no inward relation to the gospel at all. they changed their creed in order to acquire the rights and privileges of Moslem citizens. In no case were they compelled to do so; on the contrary, the Omayyad Caliphs saw with displeasure the diminishing proceeds of the poll-tax derived from their Christian subjects.

It would have been a great advantage for the solidity of the Arabian empire if it had confined itself within the limits of those old Semitic lands, with perhaps the addition of Egypt. But the Persians were not so ready as the Greeks to give up the contest; they did not rest until the Moslems had subjugated the whole of the Sasanid empire. The most important event in the protracted war which led to the conquest of Eran, was the battle of Nehawend in 641; the most obstinate resistance was offered by Persis proper, and especially by the capital, Istakhr (Persepolis). In the end, all the numerous and somewhat autonomous provinces of the Sasanid empire fell, one after the other, intothe hands of the Moslems, and the young Shahanshah, Yezdegerd, was compelled to retire to the farthest corner of his realm, where he came to a miserable end. But in more than one case the work of conquest had to be done over again: it was long before the Eranians learned to accept the situation. Unlike the Christians of Western Asia, they had a vigorous feeling of national pride, based upon glorious memories and especially upon a church having a connection of the closest kind with the state. Internal disturbance of a religious and political character and external disasters had long ago shattered the empire of the Sasanids indeed, but the Eranians had not yet lost their patriotism. They were fighting, in fact, against the despised and hated Arabs, in defence of their holiest possessions, their nationality, and their faith. They were subjugated, but their subjection was only outward. The commonwealth of Islam never succeeded in assimilating them as the Syrian Christians were assimilated. Even when in process of time they did accepts the religion of the Prophet, they leavened it thoroughly with their own peculiar leaven, and, especially deprived it of the practical political and national character which it had assumed after the Flight to Medina. To the Arabian state they were always a thorn in the flesh, it was they who helped most largely to break up its internal order, and it was from them also that it at last received its outward deathblow. The fall of the Omayyads was their work, and with the Omayyads fell the Arabian empire. The course of Islam’s political history during its first centuries is denoted by the removal of the capital from Damacus to Cufa, and from Cufa to Baghdad, the latter occupying, approximately, the site of the ancient Ctesiphon.

But we must return to the period of Abubekr. He died after a short reign, on 22d August 634, and as matter of course was succeeded by ‘Omar. To ‘Omar’s ten years’ Caliphate belong for the most part the great conquests. He himself did not take the field, but remained in Medina; he never, however, suffered the reins to slip from his grasp, so powerful was the influence of his personality and the Moslem community of feeling. His political insight is shown by the circumstance that he endeavored to limit the indefinite extension of Moslem conquest, and to maintain and strengthen the national Arabian character of the commonwealth of Islam; also by his making it his foremost task to promote law and order in its internal affairs. The saying with which he began his reign will never grow antiquated: "By God, he that is weakest among you shall be in my sight the strongest, until I have vindicated for him his rights; but him that is strongest will I treat as the weakest, until he complies with the laws." It would be impossible to give a better general definition of the function of the State. After the administration of justice he directed his organizing activity, as the circumstances demanded, chiefly towards financial questions – the incidence of taxation in the conquered territories, and the application of the vast resources which poured into the treasury at Medina. It must not be brought against him as a personal reproach, that in dealing with these he acted on the principle that the Moslems were the chartered plunderers of all the rest of the world. But he had to atone by his death for the fault of his system; a workman at Cufa, driven to desperation by absurd fiscal oppressions, stabbed him in the mosque at Medina. He died in the beginning of November 644.

Before his death ‘Omar had nominated six of the leading Emigrants who should choose the Calips from among themselves-‘Othman, ‘Ali Zobair, Talha, Sa’d b. Abi Wakkas, and ‘Abd-a;-Rahman b.’Auf. The last named declined to be candidate, and decided the election in favor of ‘Othman b. ‘Affan. Under this weak sovereign the government of Islam fell entirely into the hands of the Koraish nobility. We have already seen that Mohammed himself prepared the way for this transference; Abuker and ‘Omar likewise helped it; the Emigrants were unanimous among themselves in thinking that the precedence and leadership belonged to them as of right. Thanks to the energy of Omar, they were successful in appropriating to themselves the succession to the Prophet. They indeed rested the claims they put forward in the underniable priority of their services to the faith, but they also appealed to their blood relationship with the Prophet, as a legitimation of their right to the inheritance; and the ties of blood connected them with the Koriash in general. In point of fact they felt a greater solidarity with these than, for example, with the natives of Medina; nature had not been expelled by faith. The supremacy of the Emigrants naturally furnished the means of transition to the supremacy of the Meccan aristocracy. ‘Othman did all in his power to press forward this development of affairs. He belonged to the foremost family of Mecca, the Omayyads, and that he should favor his relations and the Koraish as a whole, in every possible way, seemed to him a matter of course. Every position of influence and emolument was assigned to them; they themselves boastingly called the important province of ‘Irak the garden of Koraish. In truth, the entire empire had become that garden. Nor was it unreasonable that from the secularization of Islam the chief advantage should be reaped by those who best knew the world. Such were beyond all doubt the patricians of Mecca, and after them those of Taif, people like Khalid b. al-Walid, ‘Amr b. al-‘As, ‘Abdallah b. Abi Sarh, Moghira b. Sho’ba, and, above all, old Abu Sofyan with his son Mo’awiya, the governor of Syria.

Against the rising tide of worldiness an opposition, however, nowbegan to appear. It was led by what may be called the spiritual noblesse of Islam, which, as distinguished from the hereditary nobility of Mecca, might also be designated as the nobility of merit, consisting of the "Defenders," and especially of the Emigrants who had lent themselves to the elevation of the Koriash, but by no means with the intention of allowing themselves to be thereby effaced. The opposition was headed by ‘Ali, Zobair, Talha, both as leading men among the Emigrants and as disappointed candidates for the Caliphate, who therefore were jealous of ‘Othman. Their motives were purely selfish; not God’s cause by their own, not religion but power and preferment, were what they sought. Their party was a mixed one. To it belonged the men of real peity, who saw with displeasure the promotion to the first places in the commonwealth of the great lords who had actually done nothing for Islam, and had joined themselves to it only at the twelfth hour, while those who had borne the burden and heat of the day were passed by. But the majority were merely a band of men without views, whose aim was not a change of system but of persons, that they themselves might fatten in the vacant places. Everywhere in the provinces there was agitation against the Caliph and his governors, except in Syria, where ‘Othman’s cousin, Mo’awiya b. Abi Sofyan, carried on a wise and strong administration. The movement was most energetic in ‘Irak and in Egypt. Its ultimate aim was the deposition of ‘Othman in favor of ‘Ali, whose own services as well as his close relationship to the Prophet seemed to give him the best claim to the Caliphate. Even then there were enthusiasts who held him to be a sort of Messiah.

The malcontents sought to gain their end by force. In bands they came from the provinces to Medina to concuss ‘Othman into concession of their demands. From the Indus and Oxus to the Atlantic the world was trembling before the armies of the Caliph, but in medina he had no troops at hand. He propitiated the mutineers by concessions, but as soon as they had gone, he let matters resume their old course. Thus things went on from worse to worse. In the following year (656) the leaders of the rebels came once more from Egypt and ‘Irak to Medina with a more numerous following; and the Caliph again tried his former plan of making promises which he did not intend to keep. But the rebels caught him in a flagrant breach of his word, and now demanded his abdication, besieging him in his own house, where he was defended by a few faithful subjects. As he would not yield, they at last took the building by storm and put him to death, an old man of eighty. His death in the act of maintaining his rights was of the greatest service to his house and of corresponding disadvantage to the enemy.

Controversy now arose among the leaders of the opposition as to the inheritance. The mass of the mutineers summonzed ‘Alf to the Caliphate, and compelled even Talha and Zobair to do him homage. But soon these two, along with ‘Aisha, the mother of the faithful, who had an old grudge against ‘Ali, succeeded in making their escape to ‘Irak, where at Basra they raised the standard of rebellion. ‘Ali in point of fact had no real right to the succession, and moreover was actuated not by piety but by ambition and the desire of power, so that men of penetration, even although they condemned ‘Othman’s method of government, yet refused to recognize his successor. The new Caliph, however, found means of disposing of their opposition, and at the battle of the Camel, fought at Basra in November 656, Talha and Zobiac were slain, and ‘Aisha was taken prisoner.

But even so ‘Ali had not secured peace. With the murder of ‘Othman the dynastic principle gained the twofold advantage of a legitimate cry – that of vengeance for the blood of the gray-haired Caliph, and of a distinguished champion, the Syrian governor Mo’awiya. Mo’awiya was not inclined to recognize ‘Ali, and the latter did not venture to depose him. To have done so would have been useless, for Mo’awiya’s position in Syria was impregnable. The kernel of his subjects consisted if genuine Arabs, not only recent immigrants along with Islam, but also old settlers who, through contact with the Roman empire and the Christian church, had taken on a measure of civilization. Through the Ghassanids these latter had become habituated to monarchical government and loyal abedience, and for a long time much better order had prevailed amongst them than elsewhere in Arabia. Syria was the proper soil for the rise of an Arabian kingdom, and Mo’awiya was just the man to make use of the situation. He exhibited ‘Othman’s blood-stained garment in the mosque at Damascus, and incited his Syrians to vengeance.

Alf’s position in Cufa was much less advantageous. The population of ‘Irak was already mixed up with Persian elements; it fluctuated greatly, and was largely composed of fresh immigrants. Islam had its headquarters here; Cufa and Basra were the home of the pious and of the adventurer, the centers of religious and political movement. This movement it was that had raised ‘Ali to the Caliphate, but yet it did not really take any personal interest in him. Religion proved for him a much less trustworthy and more dangerous support than did the conservative and secular feeling of Syria for the Omayyads. Mo’awiya could either act or refrain from acting as he chose, secure in either case of the obedience of his subjects. ‘Ali, on the other hand, was unable to convert enthusiasm for the principle inscribed on his banner into enthusiasm for his person. It was necessary that he should accommodate himself to the wishes of his supporters, and at the same time it was impossible, for these wishes were inconsistent. They compelled him suddenly to break off the battle of Siffin, which he was on the point of gaining over Mo’awiya, because the Syrians fastened copies of the Koran to their lances to denote that not the sword but the word of God should decide the contest (end of July 657). But in yielding to the will of the majority he excited the displeasure of the minority, the genuine zealots, who in Mo’awiya were opposing the enemy of Islam, and who regarded ‘Ali’s entering into negotiations with him as a denial of the faith. When the negotiations failed and war was resumed, the Kharijites refused to follow ‘Alf’s army, and he had to turn his arms in the first instance against them. He succeeded in disposing of them without difficulty, but in his success he lost the soul of his following. For they were the true champions of the theocratic principle; through their elimination it became clear that the struggle had in no sense anything to do with the cause of God. "Alf’s defeat was a foregone conclusion, once religious enthusiasm had failed him; the secular resources at the disposal of his adversaries were far superior. Fortunately for him he was murdered (end of January 661), thereby posthumously attaining an importance in the eyes of a large part of the Mohammedan world (Shi’a)which he had never possessed during his life. His son Hasan made peace with Mo’awiya.

The Kharijites are the most interesting feature of the then phase of Islam. In the name of religion they raised their protest against allowing the whole great spiritual movement to issue in a secular and political result, in the establishment within the conquered territories of an Arabian kingdom, a kingdom which diametrically contradicted the theocratic ideal. Islam was then on the point of making its peace with the world, not without a certain apostasy from its original principles, for which Mohammed himself had paved the way. Life was no more dominated by religion, but came to terms with it and parted company. This development was favored by the government, which desired before all things to have peace. Orthodoxy arose, and thereby religion was tamed and divested of every dangerous element; strictly speaking, it became a compromise, according to which the letter of the precept was correctly followed, in order that, in everything besides, a man might obey his own inclination. The conditions under which any one might make sure of heaven were- on the one hand, the performance of "good works," i.e. of such opera operanda as had a special churchly merit assigned to them; on the other hand, faith in the absolute sovereignty of God even over the wills of men. About moral God showed little concern-the usual view of orthodox shamanism. This was by no means the original standpoint of Islam, although the transition to it was made at an early stage, and by the Prophet himself. Originally Islam – i.e. religious resignation-was only the complement of pious effort; a man set himself about even the hardest and apparently purposeless tasks, because he believed the issue to lie entirely in the hand of God. But now all this was reversed; a man acted according to his humor, because his destiny had nothing to do with his inherent qualities, but was dependent entirely on Allah’s caprise. The Kharijites protested not merely against the dynastic principle and the rule of the Omayyads, but also against orthodoxy; they disputed the doctrine of predestination and the proposition that a great sinner could yet be a good Moslem, because they did not understand how to divorce religion from practice. To some degree they call to mind the Montanists, but their opposition was much more energetic in its expression.

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