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RIGHTLY GUIDED CALIPHS. Sunni Muslims see the first four successors of the Prophet as caliphs who were “rightly guided” or “following the right path,” and refer to them by the appellation al-khulafd’ al-rashidun. (Shi’is in general reject the legitimacy of the first three successors.) The usage was adopted from the dominant Sunni tradition by modern writers, and consequently the period between the death of the Prophet and the accession of the Umayyad dynasty in 661 CE is often referred to as that of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Those caliphs are Abu Bakr (r. 632-634), `Umar ibn al-Khattab. (634-644), `Uthman ibn `Affan (644-656), and `Ali ibn Abi Talib (656-661). For Sunnis this period, at least up to the middle of `Uthman’s caliphate, was a golden age when the caliphs were consciously guided by the practice of the Prophet.

Externally the period saw the establishment of Arab Muslim rule over the heartlands of the Middle East. By about 650 Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and western Iran were under Arab control, and the way was prepared for the expansion of the next century or so. The conquests outside Arabia followed the unification of Arabia under Islam by the Riddah (Apostasy) wars during the caliphate of Abu Bakr.

For the internal history of the nascent Muslim state during the period of the Rightly Guided Caliphs we are dependent entirely on Muslim tradition as it was compiled in works written at a significantly later date. Because that tradition often reflects the views of the different groups, such as the Sunnis and Shi`is, that were developing as it was being formed, it is often difficult to distinguish between actual events and subsequent interpretations.

The origins of the institution of the caliphate itself are shown to have resulted from a series of ad hoc decisions not really distinguished from the recognition of individual rulers. `Umar is reported to have been the first to use the title caliph (khalifah) in a self-conscious way. All the Rightly Guided Caliphs had been prominent companions of the Prophet and belonged to the tribe of Quraysh, but each obtained office in a different manner-there was no accepted procedure of appointment or election. Shi’i tradition argues that the Prophet designated his cousin and son-in-law `Al! as his successor, but the historical tradition in general reflects the Sunni view that the Prophet died without leaving instructions for the succession.

`Umar is portrayed as the dominant personality among these caliphs. Not only is he shown to have been instrumental in securing the appointment of his predecessor Abu Bakr, there is also a tendency to attribute to him many of the fundamental institutions of the classical Islamic state. `Uthman, who is generally reported to have been responsible for the formation of the text of the Qur’an as we know it, is described as personally pious but lacking the character needed to withstand the demands made on him by his unscrupulous relatives.

The murder of `Uthman by malcontents from the garrison of Fustat in Egypt in the summer of 656 opened a period known as the Fitnah (civil war). The fourth caliph `Ali had to face opposition from several different quarters and was himself murdered early in 661. In tradition the Fitnah brings about the disintegration of the previously united community, the takeover of the caliphate by the Umayyad family, and the end of the time when Islam had its center in Arabia. Although Muslim tradition tends to focus on the personalities of the protagonists, modern scholars have sought the deeper political, economic, and social tensions resulting from the development of the Muslim state under the Rightly Guided Caliphs.


Kennedy, Hugh. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century. London and New York, 1986. See pages So-81.

Levi della Vida, Giorgio. “`Omar ibn al-Khattab” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 6, pp. 982-984. Leiden, 1913

Levi della Vida, Giorgio. `”Othman b. `Affan.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 6, pp. Io08-IOII. Leiden, 1913-.

Madelung, Wilferd. “Imama.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 3, pp. 1163-1169. Leiden, 196o-. Summary of discussions about the legitimacy and status of the caliphs.

Vaglieri, Laura Veccia. “`All b. AN Talib.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 1, pp. 381-386. Leiden, 196o-.

Von Grunebaum, G. E. Classical Islam: A History, Goo-1258. London, 1970. See pages 49-63.

Watt, W. Montgomery. “Abu Bakr.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 1, pp. 109-111. Leiden, 196o-.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/rightly-guided-caliphs/

  • writerPosted On: July 19, 2017
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