(ISLAM, POWER and EMPIRE – continued)

home | 6th-15th centuries

ISLAM, POWER and EMPIRE, to 677 CE (2 of 6)

previous | next

Succession Politics, 622-23

Tribes across the region began sending deputations to Muhammad and agreeing to deliver taxes to his government. From those who did not convert – Christian and Jewish communities – Muhammad demanded taxes, and in exchange he offered them protection, as rulers had for millennia.

Neither an ascetic nor a celibate, Muhammad is said to have lived his last two years without harsh words about life. He continued the custom of polygamy – a practice that had helped compensate for the high death rate among Arabs and for a diminished ability to conceive because of Arabia's hot climate. But perhaps as a move against the rich, he limited the number of wives a man could have at any one time to four, except for himself, allowing himself thirteen.

Muhammad clung to the acceptance of slavery, to his belief in the coming of Armageddon and to polygamy, and there were other influences. The Arab tradition was not that of dynasties by conquering monarchs. Nor was there a tradition of institutionalized democracy. In Arabia there were none of the institutions that made a state as opposed to kinship societies. Arab politics had been tribal. Tribes were brotherhoods, and that is how Muhammad saw Islam, as a brotherhood, and brotherhoods were not supposed to need formal political mechanisms for maintaining authority.

the sun

During the Middle Ages, representative democracy was not a consideration. It was to his Islamic brotherhood that Muhammad the Prophet looked to maintain political stability.

Muhammad is not known to have left any directives about succession other than there be no successor to him as a prophet of God. Muslim scholars describe a political constitution created by Muhammad, known as the Constitution of Medina. There is no surviving original document. Historians have numerous descriptions from early Muslim sources which offer various interpretative versions of the constitution, but none contain a description of specific mechanisms for leadership to be influenced by popular opinion. As the scholar Bernard Lewis claims, the Constitution was not a treaty in the modern sense, or a contract between the ruler and the ruled. It was a unilateral proclamation. note6

Modern constitutions were to offer what would become the political stability of mature democracies, but this is not what happened among Muhammad's followers. A group of Muhammad's old companions at Yathrib felt that they should be the ones to select Muhammad's successor. Those from Mecca, who were members of the same tribe as Muhammad, the Quraysh, argued that Arabs would recognize the authority of Muhammad's successor only if he were a Quraysh. And Muhammad's only surviving daughter, Fatimah, believed that her husband, Ali (Muhammad's stepbrother as well as son-in-law) should be the successor, an argument for dynasticism.

Muhammad's old companions met, quarreled bitterly and rejected Ali. The Quraysh group selected one of their own, Muhammad's father-in-law and companion, the fifty-nine year-old Abu Bakr. This group attacked and murdered the favorite of the Yathrib group, Sa'd ibn-Ubada. Sa'd ibn-Ubada was said to have been killed by Allah, and Bakr was declared the successor, the "Commander of the Faithful," the khalifa – anglicized to caliph.

The city of Yathrib, meanwhile, had become known as Al Madinah, "the city of the Prophet," which has been shortened to Medina. Bakr ruled from Medina, his powers not well defined. He claimed no religious authority and continued to live frugally and simply in a modest household with his wife, receiving no stipend. He conducted government business in the courtyard of what had been the Prophet's mosque.

Across Arabia, people believed that with the death of Muhammad they were no longer bound to authority from Medina. Those who had only superficially or reluctantly converted to Islam failed to recognize Bakr's authority. So too did some others, on the grounds that they had not participated in choosing Bakr as Muhammad's successor. And some persons claimed that they had received messages from God and they were the new prophets and successors to Muhammad.

Any one of the new prophets would need sufficient military strength to win the recognition that Muhammad had received, and a few tried to organize a military following. But Bakr and his supporters gathered together a military force – Islamic warrior – who fought across Arabia for several months. In 633 they defeated the Hanifa tribe in central Arabia, which had supported a new prophet called Musailima, who lost his life in the fighting and in defeat was described as a false prophet. Oman was pacified in the winter of 632-33. And Yemen was pacified in the spring of 633.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.