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.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Islam at Muhammad’s Death

Muhammad’s continuing success gradually impinged on the Quraysh in Mecca. Some defected and joined his community. His marriage to a Quraysh woman provided him with a useful go-between. In 628 he and his followers tried to make an Islamized hajj but were forestalled by the Meccans. At Al-Hudaybiyah, outside Mecca, Muhammad granted a 10-year truce on the condition that the Meccans would allow a Muslim pilgrimage the next year. Even at this point, however, Muhammad’s control over his followers had its limits; his more zealous followers agreed to the pact only after much persuasion. As in all instances of charismatic leadership, persisting loyalty was correlated with continuing success. In the next year the Meccans allowed a Muslim hajj; and in the next year, 630, the Muslims occupied Mecca without a struggle. Muhammad began to receive deputations from many parts of Arabia. By his death in 632 he was ruler of virtually all of it.

The Meccan Quraysh were allowed to become Muslims without shame. In fact, they quickly became assimilated to the actual muhajirun, even though they had not emigrated to Medina themselves. Ironically, in defeat they had accomplished much more than they would have had they achieved victory: the centralization of all of Arabia around their polity and their shrine, the Ka‘bah, which had been emptied of its idols to be filled with an infinitely greater invisible power.

Because intergroup conflict was banned to all members of the ummah on the basis of their shared loyalty to the emissary of a single higher authority, the limitations of the Meccan concept of haram, according to which the city quarterly became a safe haven, could be overcome. The broader solidarity that Muhammad had begun to build was stabilized only after his death, and this was achieved, paradoxically, by some of the same people who had initially opposed him. In the next two years one of his most significant legacies became apparent: the willingness and ability of his closest supporters to sustain the ideal and the reality of one Muslim community under one leader, even in the face of significant opposition. When Muhammad died, two vital sources of his authority ended—ongoing revelation and his unique ability to exemplify his messages on a daily basis. A leader capable of keeping revelation alive might have had the best chance of inheriting his movement, but no Muslim claimed messengership, nor had Muhammad unequivocally designated any other type of successor. The ansar, his early supporters in Medina, moved to elect their own leader, leaving the muhajirun to choose theirs, but a small number of muhajirun managed to impose one of their own over the whole. That man was Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad’s earliest followers and the father of his favourite wife, ‘A’ishah. The title Abu Bakr took, khalifah (caliph), meaning deputy or successor, echoed revealed references to those who assist major leaders and even God himself. To khalifah he appended rasul Allah, so that his authority was based on his assistance to Muhammad as messenger of God.

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

Monday, 29 August 2011

The Prophet Muhammad: Muhammad’s Emigration to Yathrib (Medina)

Like Mecca, Yathrib was experiencing demographic problems: several tribal groups coexisted, descendants of its Arab Jewish founders as well as a number of pagan Arab immigrants divided into two tribes, the Aws and the Khazraj. Unable to resolve their conflicts, the Yathribis invited Muhammad to perform the well-established role of neutral outside arbiter (hakam). In September 622, having discreetly sent his followers ahead, he and one companion, Abu Bakr, completed the community’s second and final emigration, barely avoiding Quraysh attempts to prevent his departure by force. By the time of the emigration, a new label had begun to appear in Muhammad’s recitations to describe his followers: in addition to being described in terms of their faithfulness (iman) to God and his messenger, they were also described in terms of their undivided attention—that is, as muslims, individuals who assumed the right relationship to God by surrendering (islam) to his will. Although the designation muslim, derived from islam, eventually became a proper name for a specific historical community, at this point it appears to have expressed commonality with other monotheists. Like the others, muslims faced Jerusalem to pray; Muhammad was believed to have been transported from Jerusalem to the heavens to talk with God; and Abraham, Noah, Moses, David, and Jesus, as well as Muhammad, all were considered to be prophets (nabis) and messengers of the same God. In Yathrib, however, conflicts between other monotheists and the muslims sharpened their distinctiveness.

The Forging of Muhammad’s Community

As an autonomous community, muslims might have become a tribal unit like those with whom they had affiliated, especially because the terms of their immigration gave them no special status. Yet under Muhammad’s leadership they developed a social organization that could absorb or challenge everyone around them. They became Muhammad’s ummah (“community”) because they had recognized and supported God’s emissary (rasul Allah). The ummah’s members differed from one another not by wealth or genealogical superiority but by the degree of their faith and piety, and membership in the community was itself an expression of faith. Anyone could join, regardless of origin, by following Muhammad’s lead, and the nature of members’ support could vary. In the concept of ummah , Muhammad supplied the missing ingredient in the Meccan system: a powerful abstract principle for defi ning, justifying, and stimulating membership in a single community.

Muhammad made the concept of ummah work by expanding his role as arbiter so as to become the sole spokesman for all residents of Yathrib, hereafter called Medina. Even though the agreement under which Muhammad had emigrated did not obligate non-Muslims to follow him except in his arbitration, they necessarily became involved in the fortunes of his community. By protecting him from his Meccan enemies, the residents of Medina identified with his fate. Those who supported him as Muslims received special designations: the Medinans were called ansar (“helpers”), and his fellow emigrants were distinguished as muhajirun (“emigrants”). He was often able to use revelation to arbitrate.

Because the terms of his emigration did not provide adequate financial support, he began to provide for his community through caravan raiding, a tactic familiar to tribal Arabs. By thus inviting hostility, he required all the Medinans to take sides. Initial failure was followed by success, first at Nakhlah, where the Muslims defied Meccan custom by violating one of the truce months so essential to Meccan prosperity and prestige. Their most memorable victory occurred in 624 at Badr, against a large Meccan force; they continued to succeed, with only one serious setback, at Uhud in 625. From that time on, “conversion” to Islam involved joining an established polity, the successes of which were tied to its proper spiritual orientation, regardless of whether the convert shared that orientation completely. During the early years in Medina a major motif of Islamic history emerged: the connection between material success and divine favour, which had also been prominent in the history of the Israelites.

The Ummah’s Allies and Enemies

During these years, Muhammad used his outstanding knowledge of tribal relations to act as a great tribal leader, or sheikh, further expanding his authority beyond the role that the Medinans had given him. He developed a network of alliances between his ummah and neighbouring tribes, and so competed with the Meccans at their own game. He managed and distributed the booty from raiding, keeping one-fifth for the ummah’s overall needs and distributing the rest among its members. In return, members gave a portion of their wealth as zakat, a tax paid to help the needy and to demonstrate their awareness of their dependence on God for all of their material benefits. Like other sheikhs, Muhammad contracted numerous, often strategically motivated, marriage alliances. He was also more able to harass and discipline Medinans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who did not support his activities fully. He agitated in particular against the Jews, one of whose clans, the Banu Qaynuqa‘, he expelled.

Increasingly estranged from nonresponsive Jews and Christians, he reoriented his followers’ direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca. He formally instituted the hajj to Mecca and fasting during the month of Ramadan as distinctive cultic acts, in recognition of the fact that islam, a generic act of surrender to God, had become Islam, a proper-name identity distinguished not only from paganism but from other forms of monotheism as well. As more and more of Medina was absorbed into the Muslim community and as the Meccans weakened, Muhammad’s authority expanded. He continued to lead a three-pronged campaign—against nonsupporters in Medina, against the Quraysh in Mecca, and against surrounding tribes—and he even ordered raids into southern Syria. Eventually Muhammad became powerful enough to punish nonsupporters severely, especially those who leaned toward Mecca. For example, he had the men of the Qurayzah clan of Jews in Medina executed after they failed to help him against the Meccan forces at the Battle of the Ditch in 627. But he also used force and diplomacy to bring in other Jewish and Christian groups. Because they were seen, unlike pagans, to have formed ummahs of their own around a revelation from God, Jews and Christians were entitled to pay for protection (dhimmah). Muhammad thus set a precedent for another major characteristic of Islamicate civilization, that of qualified religious pluralism under Muslim authority.

Muhammad’s Later Recitations

During these years of warfare and consolidation, Muhammad continued to transmit revealed recitations, though their nature began to change. Some commented on Muhammad’s situation, consoled and encouraged his community, explained the continuing resistance of the Meccans, and urged appropriate responses. Some told stories about figures familiar to Jews and Christians but cast in an Islamic framework. Though still delivered in the form of God’s direct speech, the messages became longer and less ecstatic, less urgent in their warnings if more earnest in their guidance. Eventually they focused on interpersonal regulations in areas of particular importance for a new community, such as sexuality, marriage, divorce, and inheritance. By this time certain Muslims had begun to write down what Muhammad uttered or to recite passages for worship (salat) and private devotion. The recited word, so important among the Arab tribes, had found a greatly enlarged significance. A competitor for Muhammad’s status as God’s messenger even declared himself among a nonmember tribe; he was Musaylimah of Yamamah, who claimed to convey revelations from God. He managed to attract numerous Bedouin Arabs but failed to speak as successfully as Muhammad to the various available constituencies.

Activism in the name of God, both nonmilitary as well as military, would become a permanent strand in Muslim piety. Given the environment in which Muhammad operated, his ummah was unlikely to survive without it; to compete as leader of a community, he needed to exhibit military prowess. (Like most successful leaders, however, Muhammad was a moderate and a compromiser; some of his followers were more militant and aggressive than he, and some were less so.) In addition, circumstantial necessity had ideological ramifications. Because Muhammad as messenger was also, by divine providence, leader of an established community, he could easily define the whole realm of social action as an expression of faith. Thus, Muslims were able to identify messengership with worldly leadership to an extent almost unparalleled in the history of religion. There had been activist prophets before Muhammad and there were activist prophets after him, but in no other religious tradition does the image of the activist prophet, and by extension the activist follower, have such a comprehensive and coherent justification in the formative period.

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