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Succession to Muhammad(P.B.U.H)

In 632 CE, the Islamic prophet Muhammad died in the Arabian city of Medina, after a brief illness.

After an initial period of confusion, command of the Muslim community was taken by Abu Bakr, Muhammad's father-in-law and one of the leaders of the Ummah. Muslims in later centuries disagreed sharply as to how this transition was made and whether or not it was legitimate.

On the one side are the Muslims known as Shi'a, or Shi'at Ali, the party of Ali. They believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, was the actual successor, and had been designated as such by Muhammad in accordance with Allah's command.

Other Muslim groups disagreed. The group today known as Sunni, which follows a "traditionalist" scholastic movement that did not exist at the time, is a good representative of the opposing view. Sunnis hold that Abu Bakr was chosen by the community, and that this method of choosing or electing leaders had been endorsed by Muhammad.

This article attempts to summarize the sources and arguments for particular versions of the succession to Muhammad. It does not intend to arbitrate and discuss who should have succeeded Muhammad. It only attempts to report the various viewpoints and beliefs of groups involved.


Problems with the historical record

The events of 632 were transmitted orally for more than a century; the first written records date from a period long after the disputed succession. Indeed, they date from the beginning of the Abbasid line of caliphs, who had overthrown the previous Ummayad line, claiming historical justification in the events of the succession and the careers of the first four caliphs. The histories were thus composed in a sectarian milieu, for intensely political purposes. They have since been interpreted and elaborated by several Islamic groups, including the Sunni and the various Shi'a sects.


An overview of events

Muhammad was a secular ruler for only the last ten years of his life. Up until the Hijra, or emigration to Medina from Mecca, in 622, he and his followers had been a small, persecuted community. The question of a successor might therefore be considered to have been of no great moment, as Muhammad had none of what might today be called civil authority, and no property to speak of to bequeath. He had proclaimed himself a prophet, but it was not at all clear that a prophet must always have a successor. After the Hijra and the Qur'anic authorization of fighting in self-defense, Muhammad emerged as the political leader of an expanding community.

It was only at this point that the question of succession became a pressing one. Did Muhammad make arrangements for a successor? What arrangements did he make? These matters were -- and are -- greatly in dispute.

Similarly contentious are the various reports of events immediately surrounding his death. Muhammad did not have a long illness; he fell ill and died in just a few days. Following his death, there appears to have been a time of suspense or, depending on the account, confusion. Umar, one of his lieutenants, is said to have appeared mad with grief, denying that Muhammad could have died, and refusing to allow the body be buried. The accuracy of this account is open to question, as is the possibility that it represented a play for time.

Virtually all authorities agree that dormant fissures in the Muslim community, between the Meccan immigrants, the Muhajairun, and the Medinan converts, the Ansar, threatened to split the Ummah. The Ansar met in a house or shed, a saqifah, to discuss whom they would support as their new leader. Abu Bakr, Muhammad's father-in-law, was told of this meeting. Abu Bakr, Umar, and a few others rushed to prevent the Ansar from making a premature decision. Accounts of this meeting vary greatly. All agree that during this meeting, Umar declared that Abu Bakr should be the new leader, and declared his allegiance to Abu Bakr.

After the meeting at Saqifah, Abu Bakr had to convince those Muslims who had not attended it to accept the results of the meeting. Most accounts agree that this process took several months, and that there were many who refused to swear allegiance to Abu Bakr. They were called Rafidi, or Refusers. Many of them believed that Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin, son-in-law, and foster son was the obvious choice for a leader. Whether or not there was violence and intimidation during this process, whether or not Ali submitted willingly to Abu Bakr -- these matters are enduring controversies.

It is perhaps worth noting in passing that the terms "cousin" and "son-in-law" cannot begin to convey the closeness of the relationship between Muhammad and Ali. Ali's father was the late Abu Talib, Muhammad's uncle, foster father, and powerful protector. As a member of Abu Talib's family, Muhammad had in fact played the role of an elder brother to Ali -- and Ali had, as a youth, been among the first to accept Islam. He was now a charismatic defender of the faith in his own right, and it was perhaps inevitable that some in the Muslim community assumed that Ali would claim a leadership position following Muhammad's death. In the end, however, it was Abu Bakr who assumed control of the Muslim community, and it was Ali who submitted to his authority. All Muslim sources agree that this was the outcome, but there remains sharp disagreement concerning its significance.


The Shi'a view of the succession

The Shi'a believe that God has stated that the world is never left without a vicegerent. They therefore believe that Muhammad, being one of Gods vicegerents, appointed a successor. They believe that God chose Ali to be the successor. They believe that before he died, Muhammad, in accordance with Gods will, indicated at various times, and in various ways, his trust and reliance upon Ali. Ali was not only his cousin, but the husband of his daughter Fatima, and the father of his beloved grandchildren Hasan and Husayn. Ali was a leader in battle, entrusted with command, and left in charge of the community at Medina when Muhammad led a raid on Tabuk.

The Shia refer to these verses from the Qu'ran to make their argument on Quranic grounds: (5:55),(5:3),(5:67). They say that the verses refer to Ali, and the last two verses were revealed at Ghadir Khumm. (See Tabatabaei & Nasr 1979:177-178)


Ghadir Khumm

In 632 CE, Muhammad made his last pilgrimage to the Kaaba. Some early accounts say that after finishing his pilgrimage, on his return to Medina, he and his followers stopped at a spring and waypoint called Ghadir Khom. Here Muhammad delivered a speech to his assembled followers, in the course of which he said,

"For whoever I am his master, Ali is his master."

This is known as Hadith-i ghadir, and it is a clear indication of Muhammad's intentions, say the Shi'a. They believe that there were 120,000 witnesses to this declaration.


Muhammad's last illness

Soon after returning from this pilgrimage, Muhammad fell ill. He was nursed in the apartments of his wife Aisha, the daughter of Abu Bakr and an enemy of Ali and Fatima. Aisha did her best to keep Ali away from Muhammad.

The Shi'a also claim that most of the prominent men among the Muslims, expecting Muhammad's death and an ensuing struggle for power, disobeyed his orders to join a military expedition bound for Syria. They stayed in Medina, waiting for Muhammad's death and their chance to seize power.

According to Ali's relative and partisan, Ibn al-Abbas, the dying Muhammad said that he wished to write a letter -- or wished to have a letter written -- detailing his wishes for his community. Umar insisted that the Quran was guidance enough. According to the Shi'a, Umar also claimed that Muhammad was ill and delirious and that his wishes could therefore be ignored. Those in the sickroom began quarrelling and the prophet, irritated by the noise, ordered them all to leave him. Ibn al-Abbas was sure that if Muhammad had been allowed to write a will, he would have named Ali as his successor.

When Muhammad died, Umar seemed to go mad with grief. He claimed that Muhammad was not dead, that he would return. Abu Bakr, who had just returned to Medina, then spoke sharply to him and Umar repented. The Shi'a say that all this was a ploy on Umar's part to delay the funeral and give Abu Bakr (who was outside the city) time to return to Medina.


The events at Saqifah

When Muhammad died, his closest relatives, Ali and Fatima, took charge of the body. While they were engaged in washing the body and preparing it for burial, say the Shi'a, Abu Bakr and Umar invaded a meeting at Saqifah, proposed Abu Bakr as the new leader, and forced those assembled to submit. They were even willing to manhandle one of the Medinan elders who dared to oppose them. Ali was not told of the meeting, and his name was not mentioned as one of those eligible for the leadership, despite Muhammad's clear words at Ghadir Khom.


Persecution of the Rafidi

Many of the Muslims of Medina refused to give their allegiance, their bay'ah, to Abu Bakr -- as did Ali. They were known as the Rafidi, or Refusers. The Shi'a say that it took six months of threat and pressure to force the Rafidi to submit to Abu Bakr. Umar roamed the streets of Medina with his warriors, they say, threatening the holdouts. He even threatened to burn down Fatima's house unless Ali came out and submitted to Abu Bakr. Ali refused; Umar pushed his way into the house; Fatima, who was heavily pregnant, was crushed behind the door. She miscarried of a stillborn son, whom the Shi'a mourn as Al Muhsin. She had been mortally injured by Umar and soon died. Ali buried her at night, secretly, as he did not wish Abu Bakr or Umar, whom he blamed for her death, to attend her funeral. The Shi'a thus blame Abu Bakr and Umar for the death of Muhammad's daughter and grandson.


Ali submits for the sake of his followers

In the end, the Shi'ites say, Ali took pity upon the sufferings of his devoted followers and gave his submission, his bay'ah, to Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr, however, did not treat Ali and his family kindly. In a controversial ruling, Abu Bakr declared that Muhammad had told him, privately, that prophets did not leave estates to their kin. All of Muhammad's holdings in land and moveable property were ruled to be the property of the state. Muhammad's kin were given pensions -- thus making them wards of the state rather than independently wealthy legatees.


The role of hadith

The hadith are recorded oral traditions, preserved from the years when the Muslims did not write history, but recounted it (as was the custom in Arabia at that time). The Shi'a point to a number of hadith that, they believe, show that Muhammad had left specific instructions as to his successor. These hadiths have been given names: Ghadir Khumm, Safinah, Thaqalayn, Haqq, Manzilah, Hadith-i da'wat-i 'ashirah, and others.

Many of these oral traditions are also accepted by Sunni Muslims. However, the Sunni do not accept the Shi'a interpretation of these hadith.


The Sunni view of the succession

Sunni Muslims relate various hadith, or oral traditions, in which Muhammad is said to have recommended shura, or consultation, as the best method for making community decisions. In this view of the succession, he did not nominate a successor because he expected that the community would choose the new leader -- as was the custom in Arabia at the time. When a tribal leader died, the chief men of the tribe gathered and chose a leader from amongst themselves. The new leader might belong to the same powerful clan as the deceased leader, but was not necessarily his nearest relation. Leaders were chosen for their abilities, not their descent.


Ghadir Khom

There is one hadith in the collection known as the Musnad which affirms that Muhammad made a speech at Ghadir Khumm, in which he said, "Whoever is my mawla, Ali is his mawla". However, the Sunni insist that the word mawla has many meanings in Arabic, of which "master" is only one. In this case, say the Sunni exegetes, Muhammad was merely saying that anyone who was his friend should also befriend Ali. This was a response to some soldiers who had complained of Ali. A similar incident is described in Ibn Ishaq's sira; there the prophet is reputed to have said, "Do not blame Ali, for he is too scrupulous in the things of God, or the way of God, to be blamed." (Guillaume p. 650)

The Sunni argue that it is a mistake to interpret an expression of friendship and support as the appointment of a successor. If Muhammad had wished to appoint Ali, surely he would have done so in Medina, in front of all the Muslim notables. The fact that there was a dispute over the leadership after the prophet's death is proof that no one had interpreted Muhammad's words as a binding appointment.


Muhammad's last illness

Muhammad asked to be taken to Aisha's apartment to be nursed and died with his head in her lap. Aisha kept his relatives away from him, because they were tormenting him with useless remedies. He was not prevented from making a will -- that, according to Sunni belief, is just an invention of the Shi'a, based only on the word of one of Ali's partisans. More credible and significant, in Sunni thinking, is the report that Muhammad had such trust in Abu Bakr that he asked him to lead the prayers in the mosque as imam -- a highly visible role virtually always undertaken, when possible, by Muhammad himself.


The events at Saqifah

Most Sunni accounts of Saqifah do not go into details, and merely say that the Muslim elders chose Abu Bakr as their leader. However, even the accounts that agree that Saqifah was a falta, in Umar's words, a rushed and hasty decision, still stress that the decision at Saqifah would not have been binding upon Muslims unless they themselves had chosen to pledge fealty, to give their bay'ah, to Abu Bakr. The fact that they did so shows that the decision was the right one.


Persecution of the Rafidi

Some Sunni narrations say that Ali submitted quickly, others only that he delayed for some time. There was, according to the Sunni, certainly no violent persecution of the Rafidi; they submitted to Abu Bakr because they were convinced to do so by their friends and relatives. The whole story of Fatima's injury and death is, from the Sunni point of view, a complete invention.. If it were true, they ask, would Ali have allowed his daughter Um Khulthum to marry Umar? Would he have given the names Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman to three of his sons by wives other than Fatima?


Muhammad's estates

The Sunni trust Abu Bakr's declaration that Muhammad did not wish his family to inherit his large estates. They were given to Muhammad in his capacity as leader, not as an individual, and they were to be administered for the good of the community. In the Sunni view, there was no need for Muhammad's family to regret losing wealth, as they were well-off due to state pensions.


Western academic views

Western academics have, until recently, taken their cues from the Sunni versions of Islamic history. Until the 1950s and 1960s, many scholars tended to translate and expound on Sunni texts as if these were the only Islamic texts worth studying, and generally tended to treat them as reliable. Then followed the age of doubt, when historians like Wansbrough and his student Crone took an independent, agnostic line, throwing doubt on the Sunni consensus and proposing daring theories about the Qur'an. Of late, the pendulum has swung somewhat the other way. Many contemporary scholars who have sifted through the early Muslim historical writings are proposing narratives that are closer to the received versions.

In most cases, this has meant a swing back towards the Sunni version of events. However, one recent publication, The Succession to Muhammad by Wilferd Madelung, Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford, examines the course of events from 632, and the death of Muhammad, through the rise of the Umayyads -- and rehabilitates some of the Shi'a narratives.




Academic books

  • Guillaume, A. - The Life of Muhammad, Oxford University Press, 1955

  • Wilferd Madelung, - The Succession to Muhammad, Cambridge University Press, 1997

  • Nasr, S. H. - Muhammad: Man of God, 1995.

  • Nasr, S. H. - Expectation of the Millennium: Shi'Ism in History, State University of New York Press, 1989.


Shi'a books

  • Shi'ite Islam, by Allameh Tabatabaei and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, State University of New York Press, 1979

  • Al-MurÄja'Ät: A Shia-Sunni Dialogue by Sayyid 'Abdul-Husayn Sharafud-Dan al-Masawi, 2001, Ansariyan Publications: Qum, Iran.

  • Peshawar Nights by Sultanu'l Wa'izin Shirazi, 2001, Ansariyan Publications: Qum, Iran.

  • Ask those who know by Muhammad al-Tijani al-Samawi, 2001, Ansariyan Publications: Qum, Iran.

  • To be with the Truthful by Muhammad al-Tijani al-Samawi, 2000, Ansariyan Publications: Qum, Iran.

  • The Shi'a: The Real Followers of the Sunnah by Muhammad al-Tijani al-Samawi, 2000, Ansariyan Publications: Qum, Iran.

  • Lessons on Islamic Doctrine: Imamate and Leadership by Sayyid Mujtaba Musavi Lari, 1996, Foundation of Islamic Cultural Propagation in the World.


Sunni books

  • Sahih Satta Hadith books

  • Ask those who know by Muhammad al-Tijani al-Samawi

  • To be with the Truthful by Muhammad al-Tijani al-Samawi

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