Rashidun Caliphs

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The Rashidun Caliphs (الخلفاء الراشدون; lit. "The Rightly Guided Caliphs") are the four caliphs who followed in the leadership of the ummah following the death of the prophet Muhammad, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. Sunni jurists consider them "rightly guided by Allah" and see their reign and religious ordinances as a basis for the practice of Islam. Shi'ites, however, consider the first three to be usurpers, with only Ali and his family having the right to sit on the throne. Sunni jurists, although seeing their laws and ordinances as a source of divine guidance for the ummah, never the less consider the sunnah of the prophet to be pre-eminent over the caliphs in terms of religious authority. It seems that contemporary believers and the caliphs themselves, though, did not share this view.

Origins of the idea

The anguish and bloodshed occasioned by the first civil war and the growing concentration of power in the hands of a small elite certainly tarnished Mu‘awiya’s image. Yet ‘Uthman had already inaugurated a nepotistic style of government and ‘Ali had been complicit in the first civil war, so why were these two labeled divinely guided, along with Abu Bakr and ‘Umar, whereas Mu‘awiya and his successors were depicted as tyrants? The answer is that it was the result of a later compromise made by religious scholars. The latter struggled in the course of the eighth and ninth centuries to demonstrate that they, and not caliphs, were the true heirs of the prophet and so had the sole right to serve as guardians of Muhammad’s laws and to make new laws. However, Abu Bakr and ‘Umar had been very close to Muhammad and had transmitted many of his rulings, and the scholars did not want to alienate moderate pro-Umayyads and pro-’Alids by damning the names of ‘Uthman and ‘Ali. Thus a caesura was introduced into Islamic history: the four caliphs before Mu‘awiya were deemed divinely guided and their time in office regarded as a golden age when Islam was practiced properly, while Mu‘awiya and those who succeeded him were reviled as oppressors who diminished the dictates of Islam.

This idea of a golden age of just rule followed by tyranny gained traction only very slowly, but by the mid-ninth century it had become widespread and it entered the mainstream when the highly respected Baghdadi scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855) was won round to it. Those who accepted this historical vision called themselves Sunnis (those who held to the sunna/prescribed path), and those who rejected it formed distinct sects outside of this “orthodox” mainstream. Moderate pro-‘Alids were won over by this compromise (i.e., they accepted that the other three Medinan caliphs were legitimate as well as ‘Ali), but those who were more hard-line continued to insist that ‘Ali and his descendants were the only ones qualified to rule the Muslim world. The adherents of this latter view now split off irrevocably from the mainstream Sunnis and formed a group apart, namely, “the party of ‘Ali” (shi‘at ‘Ali) or Shi‘is, and it is from this time (the mid-ninth century) that the classic Sunni/Shi‘i rivalry begins. In Mu‘awiya’s day, however, there were no distinct sects with clearly defined doctrines (as opposed to loose coalitions reflecting specific grievances), and many of his contemporaries would have regarded him as a legitimate, divinely approved ruler on a par with his predecessors.

Institution of the Caliphate

Abu Bakr




Shi'ites and the Claims of Ahl-al-Bayt

Religious Authority in the Rashidun Caliphate