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The Caliphates - 2. The Rashidun Patriarchs

The Muslim caliphates are best understood as dynasties or eras as they're not only represented by the land and people they've occupied, but also by the periods of time they've encompassed.

The Four Rightly Guided Caliphs
The first caliphate - the Rashidun Caliphate - lasted just twenty-nine years from Muhammad's death in 632 AD until 661 AD. The caliphate, also known as the "Rightly Guided Caliphate," was governed by a succession of four Rightly Guided Caliphs, the patriarchs of Islam.

The Islam of Muhammad's time had been at war during the final dozen years of his life and it was thrust into internal strife immediately after his death. This internal conflict formed the basis of the division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that endures today as they disagreed fundamentally over whether the Muslim faithful should be governed by a blood relative of Muhammad or by a member of Muhammad's inner circle, elected by others from the inner circle who knew the mind of the Prophet.

The story goes that while Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abu Talib, was attending the Prophet's funeral, Muhammad's closest advisors and friends elected a successor, Abu Bakr. There were ten of these advisors and friends to whom the Prophet had promised Paradise. Abu Bakr, who was also Muhammad's father-in-law, was one of the ten.

Ali rejected Abu Bakr's selection as caliph as did his wife, Fatima, and his followers. Ali held out on affirming his allegiance to the new caliph until finally, Umar, a member of the inner circle, went to Ali's home to encourage him to change his mind. Ali confronted him with his sword drawn and Umar disarmed him, but all of the ruckus apparently caused Fatima to have a miscarriage and die.

The Rashidun Caliphate (632-661 A.D.)
So, Abu Bakr was the first Rightly Guided Caliph whether Ali and his followers believed it or liked it, or not. The internal politics of the early days of Abu Bakr's rule quickly took a second spot to the consolidation and expansion of the caliphate, though. In the mere two years of Abu Bakr's rule as caliph, the caliphate fought Arabs who had turned away from Islam and also the Romans. By the time he died, Abu Bakr had conquered most of Arabia and placed it under control of the caliphate.

Umar followed Bakr as caliph, and he picked up where Caliph Bakr left off, expanding the caliphate to include Egypt, Jerusalem, and Persia. He ruled for 10 years until he was killed by a Persian captive. As he was on his deathbed, he assembled the six remaining of the original ten associates of Muhammad who had been promised Paradise - Ali was one of them - and instructed them to elect his successor from among themselves.

Ali was by-passed again as Uthman was selected as the third Rightly Guided Caliph. After Umar, Uthman had been the first to endorse Abu Bakr as caliph a dozen years earlier, and he was the first to support Umar's selection as caliph after Abu Bakr died. After some additional expansion of the caliphate under Uthman, it began to experience some retraction.

Uthman's Koran Compilation
Uthman saw that the challenge in growing an Islamic caliphate was in unifying the various lands it controlled under one interpretation of the Koran. In a caliphate of different cultures, different dialects, and problems deciphering written characters, a number of different variations of the Koran had emerged, and this threatened the unity of the caliphate.

Uthman decided it was necessary for the sake of Islam to consolidate or compile the various versions of the Koran into one authoritative version. As one might expect, this created its own controversy as key tenets of the faith of some were set aside in favor of other points of faith under the compilation. It didn't help that the caliphate was eroding at the same time. Unrest eventually made its way to Uthman's doorstep, and he was assassinated by rebels.

Uthman's assassins pressed for a new caliph, but all of the leading candidates, including Ali, refused. Ali was concerned that his strongest support came from the rebels and he was worried that affiliation would dog him as caliph. Finally, though, we consented and assumed the position as fourth Rightly Guided Caliph. 

While he had worked within the administrations of the previous three caliphs, his supporters who believed him the rightful immediate heir to the Prophet Muhammad, considered him to be the first caliph - the First Imam - since they regarded the other three as having been illegitimately selected in what amounted to a succession of coups by his three predecessors. That belief still prevails among Shiites today.

Ali took hold of the caliphate and immediately had to contend with rebellion of his own as a civil war was brewing. He had removed a number of provincial governors and relatives of Caliph Uthman and moved the seat of the caliphate from Medina to Kufa in modern day Iraq. Among those he removed from office was the governor of Syria, Mu'awiyah, cousin of Uthman and scribe to Muhammad, Abu Bakr, and Umar.

Mu'awiyah had refused to defer and swear allegiance to Ali because he believed Ali didn't do enough to bring Uthman's assassins to justice. So, Uthman and Ali fought in the Battle of Siffin, a largely inconclusive event that nonetheless hardened the division between Shiites and Sunnis. Throughout Ali's time as caliph, Mu'awiyah continued to chip away at the caliphate as the civil war endured, with his army seizing much of the caliphate from forces loyal to Ali.

Finally, Ali was praying during Ramadan when an assassin struck him with a poison-coated sword. He died two days later, leaving the caliphate to his son, Hasan. In the five years of Ali's caliphate, Mu'awiyah had the largest Muslim army under arms and had waged a successful civil war against Ali. Finally, he marched into Iraq where he declared himself caliph and confronted Hasan. The armies of the two met in battle until Hasan relented and relinquished the caliphate to Mu'awiyah. Hasan had ruled a mere seven months. 

That was the end of the Rashidun Caliphate and the beginning of the Umayyad Caliphate under Mu'awiyah. But while it was over for the patriarchical caliphate, it wasn't the end of the claim to the leadership of the Islamic empire by the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

Tomorrow: The Imams.

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