The Rashidun Caliphate: The First Islamic State

The death of the Prophet of Islam Muhammad ushered in an era of rapid Muslim expansion under the Rashidun Caliphate.

Jul 31, 2022By Ilyas Benabdeljalil, MA Int'l Relations, BA Political Science
fortress of babylon with rashidun caliphate sassanid mural

 

At the time of Muhammad’s death, the Islamic realm stretched throughout the Arab Peninsula. This young state was about to experience a social and religious crisis followed by one of the most spectacular expansion campaigns in human history, and finally, political chaos, which will bring it down, but not without cementing the Islamic civilization’s position as a dominant cultural, political and military power. Today, this nation is remembered as the Rashidun Caliphate, or the “Rightly-Guided” Caliphate.

 

The Legitimacy Question: The Rise of the Rashidun Caliphate

kaaba holy islamic site mosque mekkah
The Kaaba, a holy Islamic site and center of the Mosque of Mekkah

 

The prophet did not leave a clear law of succession to the leadership of the Muslim community. Nevertheless, the Quran did indicate that rule among Muslims should be organized by the Shura, which translates to “consultation.”

 

In the aftermath of Muhammad’s death, the capital of the Islamic State was Medina, the city that welcomed the first Muslims of Mecca driven out of their homes in 622. The population of the town was divided into the Ansars (which translates to the “helpers,” those who bring victory), inhabitants of the city who declared fealty to the prophet, and the Muhajirun (the “immigrants”), Muslims who followed the prophet in his exodus to his new home.

 

As the most prominent of the Muhajiruns gathered for Muhammad’s funerals, the Ansars met to decide on who should succeed at the head of the community. Umar Ibn Al-Khattab and Abu Bakr A-Siddiq immediately ushered to the meeting, leaving Ali Ibn Abi-Talib, cousin of Muhammad, in charge of the burial.

 

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Not without a boisterous debate, Ansars and Muhajiruns agreed to elect Abu Bakr as their leader due to his close relation to the prophet. But Ali’s absence in the proceedings is considered today by some branches of Islam as an attempt to exclude him from the elections. It would later become a major point of divergence between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Nevertheless, Ali swore allegiance to Abu Bakr as Caliph (successor of the prophet).

 

Abu Bakr and the Wars of Apostasy

prophet s mosque al madinah arab
The Prophet’s Mosque in Al-Madina, May 2022, via Arab News

 

Following Muhammad’s death, apostasy spread through most of the realm. Self-declared prophets, tribes that questioned the legitimacy of Abu Bakr, and various rebel groups took up arms in Central Arabia. In Yemen, the Banu Ans rejected Islam, declaring their leader Aswad Al-Ansi as a prophet before submitting to the armies of the local Muslim governor.

 

But the main revolts took place in Central, Eastern, and Southern Arabia. Abu Bakr quickly instituted a stable regular army divided into several corps to face this strong opposition. The main force was led by Khalid Ibn Al-Walid, who was sent to defeat Malik Ibn Nuwayrah in Northern Arabia, while the Caliph himself led the defenses of the Hejaz. This was the beginning of the Ridda Wars (Wars of Apostasy).

 

Despite being superior in numbers, the rebels lacked organization and coordination and were no match to the experienced Muslim soldiers. The rebellions were crushed one after the other. By the end of 632, the main forces of Khalid Ibn Al-Walid faced the strongest of the apostate armies led by Musaylimah, a self-declared prophet in Central Arabia. After a brutal battle that cemented Khalid’s reputation as a sagacious commander, the rebels were defeated.

 

By the end of his rule in 634, Abu Bakr had solidified the Rashidun Caliphate’s control over all of Arabia and sent Khalid Ibn Al-Walid and other generals to the borders of Persia and Syria. It was the start of a fast military expansion into the Byzantine Empire and Sassanid Persia.

 

The Conquest of the Levant and the Rashidun Caliphate

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Battle formations in Yarmuk, via War History Online

 

As he lay dying from sickness, Abu Bakr designated his right-hand man, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, as his successor.

 

Umar ordered the continuation of military operations undertaken by his predecessor. Under his rule, Khalid Ibn Al-Walid moved his army to Syria and defeated the Byzantines in a succession of battles. In the summer of 635, the Arab forces took Damascus before organizing a tactical retreat towards modern-day Jordan, where Khalid inflicted a major defeat on Constantinople at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636. During these campaigns, it is important to note that Khalid was not the nominal commander of the Muslim army but rather its main tactician and the architect of its victories. It was Abu Ubayda Ibn Al-Jarrah who was given command of the Syrian Army.

 

From that point onwards, Muslims occupied Damascus, Baalbek, Homs, and Hama. By 638, Jerusalem fell to the Arab armies. Umar famously visited the city after its surrender and prayed on the outskirts of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, promising total freedom of belief to all Christian living in Muslim territories.

 

The Caliphate’s Army tried to push further into Anatolia but enjoyed significantly less success and had to contend with the Levant. Governance of the conquered regions was given to Abu Ubayda, who proved to be an able administrator. The Levant became one of the most prosperous regions of the Rashidun Caliphate, notoriously due to the fast integration of locals into the new Empire with no discrimination against their faiths or cultures.

 

Abu Ubayda died from a plague in 639, and governance of Syria passed to Yazid Ibn Abi-Sufyan, a member of the Umayyad Clan of Mecca.

 

The Expansion Into Persia & the Building of the State

rashidun caliphate arch of ctesiphon sassanid
The Arch of Ctesiphon, major symbol of Sassanid glory, as it is today by Ali Al-Saadi, via CNN 

 

At the time of the emergence of Islam, Persia was ruled by the 400-year-old Sassanid Dynasty. An army led by King Yazdegerd III marched to push back the Arab invaders, only to be completely crushed at the epic Battle of Al-Qadissiyyah in 636.

 

It didn’t take long before Ctesiphon, the capital of the Sassanid Empire, fell to the Arabs and the nobility fled east beyond the Zagros Mountains. In 642, the Caliphate won another decisive victory at the Battle of Nahavand, forcing Yazdegerd to flee further east to Khorassan.

 

Back in Medina, Umar progressively built a solid administration and governance system. He established moderate taxation and governing methods, which included and guaranteed the rights of various religious and ethnic minorities. Following the expansion into Persia, Umar invited many converts to Medina in order to learn from them key administration and governance elements of the Sassanid Empire.

 

Umar established governors called amirs and tax collectors known as amils in conquered territoryTheir powers were restricted to military, financial, and religious fields, with precise guidance so as not to threaten or limit local cultures, languages, and faiths. This move allowed a strong rise in popularity of Islam and the new regime, and countless Levantines converted, facilitating their integration into the Rashidun Caliphate.

 

The Conquest of Egypt

 

In 639, Umar ordered Amr Ibn Al-As to subjugate Egypt from Byzantine hands. The Caliphate was strongly interested in the strategic position of the province and its rich reserves of grain.

 

fortress babylon modern cairo
The Fortress of Babylon in Modern Cairo, via Linesmag

 

Rather than marching directly on the capital Alexandria, Ibn Al-As chose to occupy the various Roman garrisons on the Nile. In 640, he won the Battle of Heliopolis and the following year occupied the strategic Fortress of Babylon in modern-day Cairo. The same year, Emperor Heraclius died in Constantinople, which broke the morale of the remaining Byzantine soldiers.

 

In September 642, Alexandria capitulated, and Amr Ibn Al-As became the first Arab governor of Egypt. He would lose the city to a local uprising and a Byzantine amphibious attack two years later. This rebellion would be short-lived, as Constantinople was unable to sustain its military campaign without a land bridge, and Ibn Al-As retook the totality of Egypt in the same year. He famously destroyed the southern defensive walls of the city, and forbade all types of defensive buildings to prevent any potential uprisings.

 

Under Umar, the Rashidun Caliphate was prosperous and stable. The Caliph successfully managed a widespread famine, a great plague, and an exponential increase in population. But even his popularity among both Muslims and non-Muslims alike did not shield him from assassination.

 

In late October 644, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab was deadly wounded by an enslaved Persian named Abu Lu’Lu Firuz. The reasons behind this assassination are unknown. Some historians indicate that Lu’Lu was unhappy with a judgment made by the Caliph in a personal feud he had with the governor of Kufa in Iraq, while others suggest that he acted to avenge his fallen country.

 

Before his death, Umar left six candidates for the title of Caliph. Thus, Talha Ibn Ubayd-Allah, Abd-Rahman Ibn Awf, Saad Ibn Abi-Waqqas, Zubayr Ibn Al-Awwam, Uthman Ibn Affan, and Ali Ibn Abi-Talib were about to choose among themselves the next ruler.

 

The Third Caliph

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Sassanid Mural, via BBC 

 

Talha Ibn Ubayd Allah was absent during the election and thus represented by a proxy, who announced that he’d support whoever Abd-Rahman Ibn-Awf chose. The latter consulted with the elite of Quraysh, the tribe from which the prophet and all of the nominees originated.

 

The Qurayshites supported the rich and old Uthman Ibn Affan, a powerful and influential figure among the Muhajirun and one of the first converts to Islam. Thus, the votes of Ibn Awf and Ibn Ubayd Allah went to him, despite the supposedly strong support of Medina to Ali.

 

The committee agreed on Uthman as the next Caliph, who followed the same conquest policies as his predecessors while attempting some major social and religious reforms.

 

On the military level, Muslim armies marched into North Africa in modern-day Tunisia, where they defeated the Exarchate of Africa, taking Tripoli in modern-day Libya. The Caliphate also constructed a fleet that was crucial in conquering Cyprus and Rhodes, and raided as far as Sicily and Iberia.

 

On the Persian front, the Arabs conquered Merv in 651, the last place of residence of King Yazdegerd III, thus causing the collapse of the Sassanid Empire. The Muslim Armies pushed as far as the lower Indus Valley River.

 

With the fall of the Sassanids and the expulsion of Byzantines from the Middle East, the Rashidun Caliphate became the only powerhouse in the region.

 

Finally, on the religious level, Uthman ordered the transcription of the Quran into a single book rather than orally transmitted traditions.

 

The Beginning of Troubles

folio hijazi quran parchment
Folio from a Hijazi Qur’an (recto), stored in the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Despite his early popularity due to the continuous conquest and the bold move of assembling the Quran into a single reference, Uthman’s financial policies and preference for his relatives made him widely unpopular.

 

In 645, he relieved Amr Ibn Al-As from the governorship of Egypt and appointed Abdallah Ibn Saad. This move angered Egyptians and Arab settlers alike, who sent an assembly to Medina to express their disappointment. Uthman gave extensive powers, donations, and privileges to his relatives. Among them was the governor of the Levant, Mu’awiya from the Umayyad Clan.

 

This nepotism led to major unrest in Egypt, Kufa ad Basra. In 656, a delegation composed primarily of representatives from these regions went to Medina to voice its dissatisfaction with Uthman’s rule. Ali Ibn Abi-Talib was sent to negotiate with this party and reached an agreement promising major reforms upon their return home.

 

As they prepared to leave the town, the opposition party intercepted a letter addressed to the governor of Egypt, carrying Uthman’s order to kill the rebels. Angered, the Egyptian faction of the dissatisfied went straight to the Caliph’s residence, demanding his resignation.

 

As he refused, the rebels penetrated his house and killed him. It was discovered shortly after that the letter was a fake, but with the deed done, the Rashidun Caliphate was about to enter its precipitated decline.

 

Ali Ibn Abi-Talib & the Assassins of Uthman 

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Ali (unseen) holding his double-edged sword Zulfiqar, still from the movie “The Message,” 1977, via parhlo.com

 

The assassination of Uthman left Medina in turmoil. Those dissatisfied with the previous reign were the de-facto leading faction of the city, but division reigned among their ranks. The Kufans and the Basrians vehemently supported Ali in the succession and condemned the actions of their Egyptian peers. The local population also stood behind the prophet’s cousin.

 

As Egypt was handled back to Amr, who strongly condemned the assassination of the Caliph, radical rebels fled to Iraq and managed to take refuge in Basra. The Umayyads, who controlled the Levant, refused to acknowledge Ali’s election until justice was served. Finally, the Prophet Muhammad’s widow Aisha as well as prominent companions Talha Ibn Ubayd Allah and Zoubayr Ibn-Awwam gathered an independent army and marched toward Iraq.

 

Once there, this clandestine army crushed rebel resistance and took control of Basra, while Ali hurried behind in order to stop the Empire from descending into civil war. Once the elected Caliph closed on the town, he sent out parties to negotiate with Aisha, and for a time, it seemed that peace could be maintained. However, a small fight broke out between common soldiers of both parties. This small spark lighted the Battle of the Camel. In the aftermath, Ali emerged victorious, while Talha and Zoubayr died during the battle. Aisha was sent back to Medina. It is said that the battle started due to the machination of the remainder of Uthman’s assassins, who attempted to escape judgment.

 

As the chaos settled in Basra, Mu’awwiyya Ibn Abi-Sufyane, Governor of the Levant and head of the Umayyad clan, gathered support for his cause in Damascus and renewed his rejection of Ali’s election. The first Muslim Civil War, known as the “First Fitna,” had begun.

 

The First Fitna 

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Tomb of Amr Ibn Al-As in Cairo, via Islamic Landmarks

 

Mu’awwiyya gathered his forces and marched on Iraq with the support of Amr Ibn Al-As. In the summer of 657, they confronted Ali’s army at the Battle of Siffin on the banks of the Euphrates River. The battle went in the Caliph’s favor, and in order to avoid total disaster, the Governor of Syria raised copies of the Quran on the spears of his men as a sign of peace.

 

In order to avoid further bloodshed, Mu’awwiyya and Ali agreed on an arbitration of a representative of each side to settle their disagreements. Amr Ibn Al-As was chosen as the Ummayad’s representative, while the moderate Abu Musa Al-Ashari defended the Caliph’s interests.

 

In the spring of 658, the arbitrators met and discussed for weeks agreeing that the murder of Uthman must be punished and convening on another round of negotiation. In the meantime, a new group of Ali’s opponents formed in Kufa: the Khardjites. They deemed the Caliph as unfit to rule due to his lenience against Mu’awiyya, who, according to them, betrayed the unity of the Muslim Community.

 

The Kharidjites militarily challenged Ali’s rule but were defeated at the Battle of Nahrawan in the summer of 658. Later that year, Amr Ibn Al-As and Abu Musa Al-Ashari met another time and agreed on the deposition of Ali. However, Amr rejected that the same fate should happen to Mu’awiyya since he was still only a governor and not Caliph. Negotiations broke down, and the two belligerent leaders remained in their respective positions, preparing for another confrontation.

 

The End of the Rashidun Caliphate

shrine caliph ali in mazar i sharif afghanistan
Shrine dedicated to the Caliph Ali in Mazar-i-Sharif Afghanistan, via architectuul.com

 

From 658 to 661, Ali and Mu’awiya gathered their troops and prepared for a decisive battle. However, the Kharidjites recovered from their defeat in Nahrawan and prepared for a bloody comeback.

 

In late 660, the Kharidjites elaborated a plan to assassinate Mu’awiya and Amr for their rebellion against united Islamic rule and Ali as revenge for Nahrawan and his hesitation to finish off the Governor of Syria at the Battle of Siffin. In January 661, the would-be murderers made their move.

 

Amr Ibn Al-As managed to apprehend the would-be assassin. Mu’awiya, however, was severely wounded and barely escaped with his life. But Ali’s killer was successful.

 

In the aftermath of the Caliph’s death, Hassan, Ali’s son and the Prophet’s grandson, was elected ruler, but  signed a peace treaty with Mu’awiya a few months after his election. Hassan recognized the governor of Syria as Caliph on the condition that he would not name a successor. When Hassan died in 670, Mu’awiya secretly prepared his own son, Yazid, to succeed him and thus inaugurate the rule of the Umayyad Dynasty. This action reignited the Islamic schism and led to today’s major Muslim divisions: the Sunni and the Shia, strongly based on Ali and his descendants.

 

The rise and fall of the Rashidun Caliphate profoundly marked Muslim history. The consequences of its collapse were felt for ages to come.



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By Ilyas BenabdeljalilMA Int'l Relations, BA Political ScienceIlyas holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in International Relations. He studied economy, sociology, public policy, and history and worked as a researcher for think tanks and consulting firms. It is his strong passion for political and military history that brought him to TheCollector. Nowadays, he is preparing for a PhD program in International Cooperation and Public Policy.