Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Abu Bakr’s Succession

Abu Bakr soon confronted two new threats: the secession of man of the tribes that had joined the ummah after 630 and the appearance among them of other prophet figures who claimed continuing guidance from God. In withdrawing, the tribes appear to have been able to distinguish loyalty to Muhammad from full acceptance of the uniqueness and permanence of his message. The appearance of other prophets illustrates a general phenomenon in the history of religion: the volatility of revelation as a source of authority. When successfully claimed, it has almost no competitor; once opened, it is difficult to close; and, if it cannot be contained and focused at the appropriate moment, its power disperses. Jews and Christians had responded to this dilemma in their own ways; now it was the turn of the Muslims, whose future was dramatically affected by Abu Bakr’s response. He put an end to revelation with a combination of military force and coherent rhetoric. He defined withdrawal from Muhammad’s coalition as ingratitude to or denial of God (the concept of kufr. Thus he gave secession (riddah) cosmic significance as an act of apostasy punishable, according to God’s revealed messages to Muhammad, by death. He declared that the secessionists had become Muslims, and thus servants of God, by joining Muhammad. They were not free not to be Muslims, nor could they be Muslims, and thus loyal to God, under any leader whose legitimacy did not derive from Muhammad. Finally, he declared Muhammad to be the last prophet God would send, relying on a reference to Muhammad in one of the revealed messages as khatm alanbiya’ (“seal of the prophets”). In his ability to interpret the events of his reign from the perspective of Islam, Abu Bakr demonstrated the power of the new conceptual vocabulary Muhammad had introduced.

Had Abu Bakr not asserted the independence and uniqueness of Islam, the movement he had inherited could have been splintered or absorbed by other monotheistic communities or by new Islam-like movements led by other tribal figures. Moreover, had he not quickly made the ban on secession and intergroup conflict yield material success, his chances for survival would have been very slim, because Arabia’s resources could not support his state. To provide an adequate fiscal base, Abu Bakr enlarged impulses present in pre-Islamic Mecca and in the ummah. At his death he was beginning to turn his followers to raiding non- Muslims in the only direction where that was possible, the north. Migration into Syria and Iraq already had a long history; Arabs, both migratory and settled, were already  present there. Indeed, some of them were already launching raids when ‘Umar I, Abu Bakr’s acknowledged successor, assumed the caliphate in 634. The ability of the Medinan state to absorb random action into a relatively centralized movement of expansion testifies to the strength of the new ideological and administrative patterns inherent in the concept of ummah.

The fusion of two once separable phenomena, membership in Muhammad’s community and faith in Islam—the mundane and the spiritual—would become one of Islam’s most distinctive features. Becoming and being Muslim always involved doing more than it involved believing. On balance, Muslims have always favoured orthopraxy (correctness of practice) over orthodoxy (correctness of doctrine). Being Muslim has always meant making a commitment to a set of behavioral patterns because they reflect the right orientation to God. Where choices were later posed, they were posed not in terms of religion and politics, or church and state, but between living in the world the right way or the wrong way. Just as classical Islamicate languages developed no equivalents for the words religion and politics, modern European languages have developed no adequate terms to capture the choices as Muslims have posed them.


The riddah wars, or wars of apostasy, were a series of politicoreligious uprisings in various parts of Arabia in about 632 CE during the caliphate of Abu Bakr. In spite of the traditional resistance of the Bedouins to any restraining central authority, by 631 Muhammad was able to exact from the majority of their tribes at least nominal adherence to Islam, payment of the zakat, a tax levied on Muslims to support the poor, and acceptance of Medinan envoys. In March 632, in what Muslim historians later called the first apostasy, or riddah, a Yemeni tribe expelled two of Muhammad’s agents and secured control of Yemen. Muhammad died three months later, and dissident tribes, eager to reassert their independence and stop payment of the zakat, rose in revolt. They refused to recognize the authority of Abu Bakr, interpreting Muhammad’s death as a termination of their contract, and rallied instead around at least four rival prophets.

Most of Abu Bakr’s reign was consequently occupied with riddah wars, which under the generalship of Khalid ibn al- Walid not only brought the secessionists back to Islam but also won over many who had not yet been converted. The major campaign was directed against Abu Bakr’s strongest opponent, the prophet Musaylimah and his followers in Al-Yamamah. It culminated in a notoriously bloody battle at ‘Aqraba’ in eastern Najd (May 633), afterward known as the Garden of Death. The encounter cost the Muslims the lives of many ansar (“helpers”; Medinan Companions of the Prophet) who were invaluable for their knowledge of the Qur’an, which had been revealed to the Prophet, recited to his disciples, and memorized by them but not yet written down. Musaylimah was killed, the heart of the riddah opposition was destroyed, and the strength of the Medinan government was established. Sometime between 633 and 634 Arabia was finally reunited under the caliph, and the energy of its tribes was diverted to the conquest of Iraq, Syria, and Egypt.

Islamic history / edited by Laura S. Etheredge. Britannica Educational Publishing
(a trademark of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.): New York.



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