Early Developments

The period immediately following Muhammad's death until the death of his cousin and son-in-law Ali in 661 is remembered as a kind of golden age by some Muslims. It was the Age of the Rashidun, or "rightly-guided ones," when Muhammad's close companions led the community of Muslims.

"Golden Age" or "Age of Rashidun"
Death of Muhammad 632 CE
Caliphate of Abu Bakr 632-634
Caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab 634-644
Caliphate of Uthman ibn Affan 644-656
Caliphate of Ali Ibn Abi Talib
(cousin & son-in-law of Muhammad)
Fitna: first Islamic civil war 656-661
Arbitration between Ali and Mu'awiyah 658
Death of Ali ibn Abi Talib 661

Muhammad died unexpectedly of illness in 632, depriving the Muslim community of its founder and leader. With little preparation for this loss, the community was divided over the question of succession. Some believed that Muhammad had named his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib and his descendants to succeed him. Others thought that Muhammad had died without naming a successor, and that the community elders were therefore responsible for naming a successor. This dispute over time divided the community into two major groups, the partisans (singular, Shi'a) of Ali, and the Sunni.

The majority of Muhammad's followers chose to follow Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet's who was chosen by the elders of the community. Abu Bakr thus became the first religious and political leader, called caliph (Arabic, khalifah or successor). Islamic tradition remembers Abu Bakr as a humble and moral man who ruled with great fidelity to the teachings of the Quran. During the two years that he ruled as caliph before his death in 634, Abu Bakr consolidated Muslim rule in Arabia and sent armies into Syria and Iraq on short and successful raids.

Caliph Umar's empire at its peak, 644. Source: Public Domain

Tradition holds that Abu Bakr designated one of his military advisors, Umar ibn al-Khattab as his successor. A brilliant general, Umar continued the campaign of military conquest with astonishing success. In the ten years of Umar's reign as Islam's second caliph, Arab armies conquered Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.

Umar was also responsible for establishing a variety of important social and legal institutions. Throughout the newly-conquered provinces, Umar appointed provincial judges (Arabic, qadi), to settle disputes. He established regulations to govern public observance of important Quranic teaching, such as the pilgrimage to Mecca, the observance of the holy month of Ramadan, and the punishment of adultery and drunkenness. During Umar's reign, Jews and Christians in the newly-conquered territory were assigned the status of dhimmi, or "People of the Book." The dhimmi were not forced to convert. They were exempted from the zakat, or alms tax obligatory on all Muslims, although they were required to pay the jizyah, or poll tax, which was higher. Whether due to the higher tax burden on the dhimmi, or due to Islam's message of egalitarianism, Islam ultimately won many converts in the newly-conquered territories.

Legacy of Umar ibn-al-Khattab (634-644)
Appoints provincial judges (Arabic, qadi)
Establishes regulations to govern observance of Quranic teaching, such as:
  1. pilgrimage to Mecca
  2. observance of Ramadan
  3. punishment of adultery and drunkenness
Jews and Christians assigned status of "People of the Book" (Arabic, dhimmi)
Establishes a council (Arabic, shura to select his successor)
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