Early Islamic History Demystified | Part 3: The Apostasy Wars and Compilation of the Qur’an

Abu Bakr (ra) may have had the unanimous support of all the sahabah when he became khalifah, but the newly converted Arab tribes were a different story. Remember, within Madinah, the people who surrounded Abu Bakr (ra) were men and women of iman. Of course, hypocrites did exist, but they were a minority and wielded no influence. Outside Madinah, however, the situation was far more dangerous.

Most of the tribes in the Arabian peninsula, especially the more powerful tribes, only came into Islam at the tail end of the life of the Prophet ﷺ. The sahabah had endured persecution and torture for their Islam. They became Muslim when they had no incentive to do so other than the pleasure of Allah (swt). These new tribes, however, had nothing to lose and everything to gain by becoming Muslim.

During the life of the Prophet ﷺ, that is. After his passing, those who had only nominally pledged allegiance to Islam saw an opportunity to enrich themselves. Local strongmen and tribal leaders rose who proclaimed prophethood for themselves. Others claimed that they were still Muslim but they had only agreed to give zakah to the Prophet ﷺ and would not pay zakah to Abu Bakr.

With this setting, the sahabah wondered whether it was prudent to send forth Usama ibn Zayd (ra) with the Muslim army to attack the Romans. The vast majority of the sahabah wanted Abu Bakr (ra) to call off the expedition and keep the Muslim army in Madinah to deal with any attacks on the city. When the homeland was in danger, it made little sense to send an army to attack a foreign empire.

Abu Bakr (ra) adamantly refused and said that the army would move forward as planned.

Many modern historians paint his decision as one of brilliant strategic insight and an example of psychological warfare. In reality though, Abu Bakr (ra)’s decision was far more straightforward. The Prophet ﷺ had given an order and Abu Bakr (ra), being who he was, would never countermand that order. It’s possible, even likely, that had this order not been given by the Prophet ﷺ, Abu Bakr (ra) would indeed have called off the army for practical reasons. From every worldly angle, it did not make sense to send out the army.

Despite the overwhelming opposition from the other sahabah, Abu Bakr (ra) made it clear that he would not tolerate dissent on this issue. Addressing the sahabah, he said, “By the One Who has the soul of Abu Bakr in His Hand, had I thought that wild predatory animals would make off with me, I would still send out Usamah’s army in accordance with what Prophet ﷺ commanded Usamah to do. Even if I were the last person to remain in this city, I would still do the same.”

It’s important to not project 21st century thinking onto the sahabah of the 7th century. While subsequent events make it tempting to use this as an example of Abu Bakr (ra)’s genius as a commander, the fact is that he was not motivated by any tactical advantage. He was a man who lived and died in the footsteps of the Prophet ﷺ and his decision to send out Usamah’s army was based strictly on that fact.

It just so happens, however, that this did turn out to be a brilliant strategic move. It projected strength and power. Both the Romans and the apostate Arab tribes had to take pause and calculate their next move. States do not send out armies to far flung lands when their capital is in a precarious position. While the reality was that the Muslim community was struggling to maintain its political grip on the peninsula, the message its enemies received was that the Muslim community was so confident in holding on to its own territory that they were already setting their eyes on a larger prize.

Apostate Wars

The purpose of this series is not to go into detail about various battles. This segment of history is very accessible to the average Muslim so I won’t spend too much time on it. To give a very brief overview of the Ridda Wars:

Abu Bakr (ra) began by sending out messages to the various Arab tribes. He sent out letters to both the leaders as well as the average tribespeople. Although the majority of most tribes had apostasized, there were still true Muslims among their ranks. Some of these Muslims banded together and were able to assist the Muslims coming from Madinah against their own tribesmen. Since the apostates were not centered in one location, Abu Bakr (ra) had to fight the war on multiple fronts. To best deal with this, he divided the Muslim army into 11 corps and appointed a general over each one. The three most famous generals were Khalid ibn al-Walid, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, and ‘Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl (yes, son of the Abu Jahl). In order to coordinate these 11 corps, Abu Bakr (ra) set up a system of messengers who constantly updated him about the location and progress of each general as well as conveyed his instructions back to them with speed. In this way, the Muslim armies were one unified group with 11 heads rather than many separate little divisions who were unorganized and scattered.

Within a few months, the Apostate Wars had come to an end. Abu Bakr (ra) took a balanced approach in dealing with those who had come back into Islam. He showed mercy and forgave them, allowing them to lead peaceful lives now that they had repented. However, he barred them from assuming high positions of leadership. In doing so, he laid forth an important principle. That while a person’s repentance may wipe away their sins and make them spiritually equivalent to someone who did not sin, there are still worldly consequences to our actions. Abu Bakr (ra) did not question their sincerity in repenting, but he did take precautions to make sure that those who were once guilty of treason would not be in a position to harm the Muslim community again.

Compilation of the Qur’an

Somewhere in the back of our minds, we vaguely know that the Qur’an has been preserved impeccably, to a level unparalleled by any other scripture. However, most of don’t know how exactly it’s been preserved. Even more than his victory during the apostasy wars, Abu Bakr (ra)’s most important accomplishment as khalifah was the preservation of the written text of the Qur’an.

First, remember that the Qur’an was (and still is) primarily preserved through recitation. Many sahabah knew the Qur’an by heart. Of the sahabah who were known to have memorized the Qur’an were: Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, Talha, ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, Abu Hurairah, Salim, Mu’awiyah, ‘Aisha, Hafsa, Umm Salamah, and Ubayy ibn Ka’ab (among many others).  Now, although it was primarily preserved through memory, the entire Qur’an was written down by various sahabah on bits of parchment, leather, and bone. The Qur’an in its entirety was present in written form during the life of the Prophet ﷺ.

Now, this was all during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ. At his death, these fragments were all lying around, scattered in the possession of various sahabah. No one had compiled them into one manuscript. The reason behind this was that the Qur’an is not a chronological narrative like the Bible. Each verse and chapter was individually placed by order of the Prophet ﷺ, often times not in chronological order. For example, the last verse to be put in the Qur’an is not at the end, it’s found in Surah Baqarah, the second surah. Any manuscript would keep needing to be rearranged up until the Prophet ﷺ’s death. At his death, there was no movement to compile all the fragments into an individual manuscript because no one saw the need to (remember, there were many people who had it memorized, they would teach it to others and so on).

Until the Apostasy Wars.

At the Battle of Yamah, over 70 huffadh (some records say over seven hundred huffadh) were martyred. Ibn Kathir lists 58 huffadh by name who were martyred in this battle. The most important martyr in this regard was Salim mawla Abu Hudhaifah. He was one of the four sahabah that the Prophet ﷺ specifically named as being someone to learn Qur’an from and had served as imam of masjid Quba during the life of the Prophet ﷺ.

‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, who was in Madinah at the time, received the news about the Battle of Yamamah. Among the huffadh who had been martyred at Yamamah was his own elder brother, Zaid ibn al-Khattab. Although he was deeply pained at the loss of his beloved brother, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab’s mind went to an even greater concern. Seeing that so many people who had preserved the Qur’an in their hearts had passed away, he was worried that the text of the Qur’an might be lost with time. He approached Abu Bakr (ra) with the proposition of collecting the written Qur’an in one place so that it would be preserved for future generations.

Abu Bakr (ra) adamantly refused.

Abu Bakr (ra) was a man who lived and died in the footsteps of the Prophet ﷺ. The same clarity of purpose which made him send out Usama (ra)’s army stopped him from ordering the compilation. His response to ‘Umar (ra) was, “How can I do something that the Prophet ﷺ did not do?”  He could not fathom the idea of doing something in the deen that the Prophet ﷺ had not done himself.

‘Umar (ra), however, was convinced that this was a necessary undertaking. He persisted and persisted, continuing to argue his point until eventually, Abu Bakr (ra) also became convinced of the necessity of a compilation. Abu Bakr (ra) and ‘Umar (ra) sent for a young sahabi named Zaid ibn Thabit and tasked him with overseeing the compilation.

Zaid (ra) was in his early twenties at this point. He was one of the earliest scribes of the Prophet ﷺ and was known as much for his intelligence as he was for his upright moral character. When the Prophet ﷺ had asked Zaid (ra) to learn Hebrew so that he would not have to rely on Jewish translators, Zaid (ra) returned in 15 days, fluent in the language. Perhaps most importantly, Zaid (ra) was present during the last Ramadan of the Prophet ﷺ when he had recited the Qur’an in its entirety to the angel Jibril.

Zaid (ra) approached the task with the gravity it merited. He said “By Allah, had they asked me to move a mountain it could not have been weightier than what they requested of me now.” Zaid devised a four part plan to compile the Qur’an.

  • First, Zaid (ra) was himself a hafidh of the Qur’an. His memorization was the framework that he used to make the compilation.
  • Second, with the authority of the khalifah, an announcement was made that anyone who had a written fragment of the Qur’an should bring it to the masjid of the Prophet ﷺ. Not only was each person required to bring their fragments, they also needed to bring two witnesses who could testify that they saw the person write the verse down in the presence of the Prophet ﷺ.
  • Third, he took overlapping fragments and compared them to each other. Realize, many ayat would have been written down by multiple people. Zaid (ra) collated these to look for any discrepancies in wording.
  • Finally, he took his completed manuscript and ran it by ‘Umar (ra) who was himself a hafidh.

In this compilation, Zaid (ra) kept each surah in a separate binding, resulting in 114 separate suhuf rather than one bounded mushaf. This compilation preserved all seven modes of recitation (the ahruf). The final product was given to Abu Bakr (ra) and was known as the “Um”, i.e. the mother copy

Passing

After only two years as khalifah, Abu Bakr (ra) fell sick with what would be his final illness. He repaid all debts that he owed, paying the treasury back for the salary he had received as khalifah. He consulted with the elders of the sahabah and named ‘Umar (ra) as his successor. When pressed about his decision by Talha (ra), he firmly replied, “I swear that when I meet my Lord, I will gladly tell Him that I appointed as ruler over His people, the man who was the best of all mankind.”

Abu Bakr (ra) imitated the Prophet ﷺ in death the way he imitated him in life—he was 63 years old at his passing. It was said that there was no day more sad for the people of Madinah after the Prophet ‎’s death than the day of Abu Bakr’s passing. Ali (ra)’s eulogy for Abu Bakr (ra) was mentioned in last week’s article.

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