Early Islamic History Demystified | Part 2: Immediate Succession

Part 2: Immediate Succession 

After the death of the Prophet ﷺ, a discussion arose over who should be his successor. Key word here is discussion. Retrospectively, people pushing an agenda make out this discussion to be a very tense, almost violent altercation. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was a disagreement that arose and was handled with the same adab that the sahabah used to conduct all of their affairs. The point of contention was not between Abu Bakr (ra) and ‘Ali (ra), tas is portrayed by many people. Actually, the disagreement wasn’t even between two individual people. It was between two tribes. The Prophet ﷺ was of the Quraish tribe. They were the most prestigious tribe amongst the Arabs because they claimed direct descent from Ibrahim (as). However, they were not from Madinah. They were from Makkah, and were thus technically outsiders in Madinah. Madinah’s powerful tribe was the Khazraj. However, they had little recognition outside of Madinah. Remember, at this point in history, Madinah was still an agricultural town with little influence in the broader peninsula. The question then, was where should the next leader come from? The Quraish? Tribe of the the Prophet ﷺ , respected through the peninsula? Or the Khazraj, Madinah’s tribe, the tribe of the city that the Prophet ﷺ made his adopted home?

This is the discussion that took place after the death of the Prophet ﷺ. At a place called the Saqifah of Bani Saidah, sahabah were discussing where political leadership should go. First, it was suggested that of course, the leader should be an Ansari (Khazraj + Aws, the two tribes of Madinah). Madinah was, after all, their city. Then, it was suggested that one leader be chosen from the Ansar and one from the Muhajiroon. Amidst this dispute, Abu Bakr (ra) gave a speech. He commended the Ansar for their service to Islam and the sacrifice they had endured for the Prophet ﷺ. He then reminded them that the Arabs would never recognize a leader outside the Quraish. He went on to mention a statement of the Prophet ﷺ  where he had said that the leader of the Muslims should be from the Quraish. He nominated two men, ‘Umar (ra) and Abu Ubaidha (ra) as possible candidates for the khilafah. At this point, the Khazraj withdrew their claim. Why so easily you may wonder? Because the Prophet ﷺ’s word is revelation. Everything else is immaterial when you have an order from the Prophet ﷺ. So, the dispute was over before it could progress any further. They decided to choose a leader from the Quraish and everyone unanimously chose Abu Bakr.

Taking the historian’s eye to this narration, we learn something important. What swayed everyone and led to unanimity is not a political argument, but a religious one. The statement of the Prophet ﷺ that the leader should be from the Quraish ended the dispute. When a statement of the Prophet ﷺ came, everything else flew away. This is extremely important because it gives us info about the psychology of the sahabah. It shows their attitude to the commands of the Prophet ﷺ, even in death, was “We hear and we obey”. If the sahabah were so willing to accept this statement of the Prophet ﷺ, is it consistent to believe that they disobeyed him in his naming of Ali (ra) as his successor? If a statement to this regard had existed, there would have been no dispute and the sahabah would have united around Ali (ra) without a moment’s hesitation.

Why Abu Bakr (ra)?

A question that might arise for those who are not familiar with Islamic history is why Abu Bakr (ra) and not another Qurashi? Well, it is very clear that the Prophet ﷺ wanted Abu Bakr (ra) to succeed him. The virtues of Abu Bakr (ra) are so numerous that I could fill up this entire article with just that. Let me suffice it with one narration. The Prophet ﷺ, towards the end of his life, arranged for the settlements of all his debts. Anyone he owed money or a favor to, he repaid. He wanted no debt to remain before he passed away. He then called the people to the masjid and asked multiple times if he still owed anyone a debt. He then said, “I have never been done a favor by any person except that I have repaid them for that favor–except for Abu Bakr. As for the debt I owe Abu Bakr, Allah ﷻ will repay him on the Day of Judgement.” There are literally books written just on the virtues of Abu Bakr. He was, at the end of the day, the best friend of the Prophet ﷺ. As described in the Qur’an itself, he is the “second of two”, always next to the Prophet ﷺ. He was chosen by the Prophet ﷺ to accompany him on the hijrah. As the Prophet ﷺ said, “You were my companion in the cave and you will be my companion in the hawd (on the Day of Judgement).” Imam Malik ibn Anas, when asked about Abu Bakr (ra) and ‘Umar (ra), pointed to their graves next to the Prophet ﷺ and said “They were with him in life the way they are with him in death.” Always next to their beloved friend and master. After the conquest of Makkah, when Abu Bakr brought his father to take shahadah, he began crying and said “Ya Rasulullah, I wish that instead of my father, it had been your uncle, Abu Talib, here taking the shahadah today.” I could go on and on and on about Abu Bakr but suffice it to say, there is no absolutely no question that he was the greatest Sahabi.

The Prophet ﷺ made numerous clear indications that Abu Bakr (ra) was to succeed him. He ordered Abu Bakr (ra) to lead the prayer in his absence, and indeed, Abu Bakr (ra) was never in a group except he was made the imam. When Abu Bakr (ra) was not present one day and Bilal (ra) asked ‘Umar (ra) to lead the prayer, the Prophet ﷺ became angry and ordered them to break the prayer and find Abu Bakr (ra). He commanded the Banu Mustaliq to pray the zakah to Abu Bakr (ra) if they found that the Prophet ﷺ had passed away before a year had elapsed from their conversation. Towards the very end of his life, in the final days, in the famous incident of the scrolls, he asked for a pen and paper to be brought so that he could formally name Abu Bakr (ra) as his successor. Out of concern for the Prophet ﷺ and his health, ‘Umar (ra) protested this and in the end, the document was not written. However, the hadith is preserved with an impeccable isnad in the Sahih of Imam Muslim:

“A’isha reported that Allah’s Messenger () in his (last) illness asked me to call Abu Bakr, her father, and her brother too, so that he might write a document, for he feared that someone else might be desirous (of succeeding him) and that some claimant may say: ‘I have better claim to it’, whereas Allah and the Faithful do not substantiate the claim of anyone but that of Abu Bakr

In the end, it made no difference, because at the Saqifah, the Muslim community unhesitatingly and unanimously chose Abu Bakr (ra) as their khalifah. How else could they have chosen?

Abu Bakr (ra) and Ali (ra)

You might ask, where was Ali (ra) during all of this? In charge of the burial of the Prophet ﷺ. Something that often happens when studying history is that we forget logistics. There are actual practical necessities of life that need to be attended to. The Prophet ﷺ had passed away. His family needed to take care of funeral arrangements. Ali (ra) was the next of kin and it was his responsibility to take care of it. So while Ali (ra) and the rest of Banu Hashim were taking care of this, the Muslim Ummah had chosen a new leader. And it is clear, this very much bothered Ali (ra). He said as much when Abu Bakr (ra) requested a meeting with him:

O Abu Bakr, we acknowledge your virtue and what Allah has given you. We do not envy you for any favor that Allah has bestowed upon you, but you did it without consulting us and we thought that we had the right (to be consulted) because of our kinship with the Messenger of Allah. (Bukhari and Muslim)

Look at it from Ali (ra)’s angle. He was one of the trusted advisors of the Prophet ﷺ. He was his cousin and his son-in-law. While he had no ambition to become khalifah in the presence of Abu Bakr (ra) and ‘Umar (ra), he absolutely had a right to be consulted in who the khalifah would be And yet the decision had been made and he had been left completely out of the loop. Such a monumental decision in the Saqifa and he didn’t have a word of input to give. There’s no doubt that he would have shown his support for Abu Bakr, but he was not part of the decision. We can understand the actions of the Ansar and Abu Bakr and ‘Umar (ra), who knew that it was important to choose a leader without delay. At the same time, we can understand how Ali (ra) must have felt that such an important decision was made without his input. Abu Bakr (ra) met with Ali (ra) after this and Ali (ra) publicly announced to the people that he had no issue with Abu Bakr’s khilafah, but that he felt he had a right to be consulted by virtue of being a trusted advisor and cousin of the Prophet ﷺ.

In that vein, let me point to something which removes any doubt that Ali (ra) and Abu Bakr (ra) had no animosity towards each other. Ali (ra) named his son Abu Bakr. And what’s more, he named his son Abu Bakr after the Abu Bakr (ra). It was not a coincidence that his son’s name just happened to be the same as the name of the first khalifah. The reason why this is absolutely certain is because Abu Bakr was not a given name. In fact, the Abu Bakr’s real name wasn’t Abu Bakr–it was Abdullah. Abdullah ibn Abi Quhafah. Abu Bakr is a title given to him that he became known by to everyone. So Abu Bakr isn’t a name that was common or that people named their children because it wasn’t a given name. Until Abu Bakr (ra) became who he did. Then, and only then, did people name their children “Abu Bakr” after him. What I’m getting at is that Abu Bakr isn’t a common name like Ali, Uthman, Hasan, or Husain. If it was, a person could argue (however weakly) that it was simply coincidence that Ali named his son Abu Bakr, or that he really liked that name. But no, he had to have named his son after the Abu Bakr. And basic knowledge of human nature would show you that a man does not name his son after an enemy who usurped his right to rule. There was never animosity between Ahl-Bait and Abu Bakr, astaghfirullah.

On the contrary, Allah ﷻ‎ has intertwined the family of the Prophet and the family of Ali with the family of Abu Bakr for all of eternity. With Muhammad al-Baqir onwards, the descendants of the Prophet ﷺ are the descendants of Abu Bakr. Not only did Abu Bakr’s daughter marry the Prophet ﷺ, the descendants of the Prophet ﷺ, Muhammad al Baqir and Ja’far as-Sadiq also married female descendants of Abu Bakr. All the progeny of the Prophet from Muhammad al-Baqir onwards are also the descendants of Abu Bakr. Imam adh-Dhahabi narrates:

From Salim ibn Abu Hafs: “I asked Abu Jafar (i.e. Muhammad al-Baqir) and Jafar about Abu Bakr and Umar. And they said: “O Salim, befriend them and dissolve from their enemies, indeed they were imams of guidance” And Jafar said to me: “O Salim, Abu Bakr is my grandfather. Would a man abuse his own grandfather? And may the intercession of Muhammad not reach me on the Day of Judgement, if I did not befriend them and did not dissolve from their enemies.” (Siyar ‘Alam an Nubala of adh-Dhhabi)

Ali (ra)’s eulogy:

If Ali (ra) had animosity towards Abu Bakr, would he have delivered this heart-wrenching eulogy at his death?

O Abu Bakr, may Allah have mercy upon you. You were the closest companion and friend of the Messenger of Allah; you were a comfort to him; you were the one he trusted most. If he had a secret, he would tell it to you; and if he needed to consult someone regarding a matter, he would consult you. You were the first of your people to embrace Islam, and you were the most sincere of them in your faith. Your faith was stronger than any other person’s, as was the degree to which you feared Allah. And you were wealthier than anyone else in terms of what you acquired from the religion of Allah. You cared most for both the Messenger of Allah and Islam. Of all people, you were the best Companion to the Messenger of Allah; you possessed the best qualities; you had the best past; you ranked highest; and you were closest to him. And of all people, you resembled the Messenger of Allah the most in terms of his guidance and demeanor. Your ranking was higher than anyone else’s, and the Prophet honored you and held you in higher esteem than anyone else. On behalf of the Messenger of Allah and Islam, may Allah reward you with the best of rewards.

When the people disbelieved in the Messenger of Allah, you believed in him. Throughout his life, you were both his eyes with which he saw, and his ears with which he heard. Allah has named you truthful in his book when He said: And the one who has brought the truth and [they who] believed in it – those are the righteous. When people were stingy in their support for the Messenger of Allah, you comforted him. And when people sat still, you stood side by side with the Messenger of Allah, facing the same hardships that he faced. In times of hardship, you were truly a good and noble Companion of his. You were the “second of two,” his Companion in the Cave, and the one upon whom tranquility descended. You were his Companion during the hijra, and you were his successor regarding the religion of Allah and His nation. And a truly good successor you proved to be when the people apostatized. You did what no other successor of a Prophet did before you. You stood up firmly and bravely when his other Companions lost their resolve and became soft. And when they became weak, you adhered to the methodology of the Messenger of Allah.

You truly were as the Messenger of Allah described: weak in your body, but strong regarding the commands of Allah; humble in your self, but lofty in your ranking with Allah; well-esteemed in the eyes of people, honored and great in their hearts. Not a single one of them had any reason to dislike you, to be suspicious of you, or to hold you in contempt. The weak and humble you have always treated as strong and honorable, making sure you gave them what was rightfully theirs. And in this regard, you have treated relatives and strangers equally. Of all people, you respect those who are most obedient to Allah and who fear Him the most. In your overall character, you embody truth and compassion. Your speech has always been characterized by the qualities of wisdom and decisiveness. And you have always struck a noble balance between gentleness and firmness. You have always based your decisions on knowledge, and once you have made your decisions, you have always kept a firm resolve to execute them.

Verily to Allah we belong and to Him is our return. We are pleased with and we submit to Allah’s decree. And by Allah, other than the death of the Messenger of Allah, Muslims have never been afflicted with a greater calamity than the calamity of your death. You have always been a protector, a sanctuary, and a source of honor for this religion.
May Allah make you join the company of His Prophet, Muhammad, and may He not deprive us of your reward. And may He not lead us astray after you.


 Insha’Allah in next week’s post, we’ll learn a little bit about the difficulties faced by Abu Bakr (ra) when he became khalifah and how he responded to them.

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