Excerpted from “The Life of Caliph Ali” by Abul Hasan Nadwi
The Decisive Hour
The death of the Prophet was a decisive as well as a dangerous juncture for the life and death of Islam. Islam was, at best, like a small island surrounded by the sea of paganism, polytheistic beliefs, unruly traditions of the Arabian nomads and despotic kingdoms. Arabs had only recently accepted Islam but they had no experience of a corporate social order or leading a disciplined life.
All the great religions of the world, which had in their own time prevailed over vast spaces and claimed allegiance of great many peoples and nations, had already so deviated from their original teachings or fallen prey to internal schisms and intrigues or external encroachments that they had become almost lifeless. The only reason why these religions had lost their vital spark was that those who had been charged with the responsibility of guiding their co-religionists, after the death of the founders of those religions, lacked any deep perception of the teachings and objectives of their religions, or were short of sincerity and steadfastness so essential for the immediate successors of prophets and architects of great religions. They were also deficient in zeal and carefulness and anxiety required for preserving the purity of their faiths at a crucial stage. Often they were worldly-minded or had a craving for fame and honour. The result was that these religions were assimilated by philosophies and cults that had been designed to destroy them. It also happened sometimes that a religion became resigned to the current of the time in order to serve the interests of potentates but the result was that it became a tool of exploitation, gained a little advantage but lost heavily. Brahminism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism had to undergo such transformations in their initial stages. Judaism was no exception to this misfortune and the Christianity was caught by a dangerous manipulation soon after Jesus Christ.
Let us first see what happened to Judaism and Christianity, both of which were based on revelation and Islam recognises their followers as ‘people of the Book.’ Contamination of Judaism in its earliest period has been thus described in the Jewish Encyclopaedia; “The thunderings of the Prophets against idolatry show, however, that the cults of the deities were deeply rooted in the heart of the Israeli people, and they do not appear to have been thoroughly suppressed until the return from the Babylonian exile . . . Through mysticism and magic many polytheistic customs again found their way among the people, and the Talmud confirms the fact that idolatrous worship is seductive.
Christianity had fallen a prey, in its very infancy, to the misguided fervour of its overzealous evangelists, polytheism of the Romans and unwarranted interpretations of its tenets by ignorant church fathers. The monotheistic creed preached by Jesus Christ had been overcast by the gloomy clouds of deviations for which St. Paul (c. 10-65) was primarily responsible, for he had usurped the authority of expounding the Christian creed as head of the church. A number of Christian scholars have since reached the conclusion that the present Christian creed of Trinitarianism implying incarnation and anthropomorphism, taken over from Buddhism, was introduced into Christianity not by the apostles of Jesus Christ but by St. Paul. These heterodox beliefs have been preserved as the official creed of the Orthodox Church during the last nineteen hundred years.
Ancient Hinduism or Brahminism had changed its course in the very beginning of its journey : shorn of its simplicity and spiritual link with the Lord and Master of the world, it had developed a passion for idolatry and multiplicity of deities so earnestly that their number is reported to have reached 330 million.
Buddhism fared no better than Hinduism: the mutilated form of later Buddhism had hardly preserved anything of Gautama Buddha’s original teachings. It also became so intensely idolatrous in its creed and practice that there remained almost nothing to distinguish it from Hinduism except the names of idols and deities. Their fervour for idolatry, escalated to the extent that but, the word for idol in Persian and Urdu, came to be derived from Buddha itself.
Zoroastrianism, too, met the same fate as maintained by the authors of the Religions of the World. They say : “Zoroaster had hardly passed from the scene before a reaction in the nature of a counter-reformation restored the old gods with their ancient cults. They were welcomed with enthusiasm by persons who had long found satisfaction in them. The magi[an] priests, who spearheaded the restoration, celebrated their return to the ancient alters. Zoroaster’s faith, which had bravely set forth as monotheism, now found itself submerged in a reinstated polytheism.”
Succession to the Prophet – Demands and Conditions
The death of the holy Prophet was as inevitable as the difficulties that the incident was likely to bring about. This was the way of God which never changes.
(That had been) the dispensation of Allah with those who have passed away, and thou shall not find any change in the dispensation of Allah. [Qur'an 33:62]
The only way to survive in such a difficult situation was to elect such a successor of the Prophet who had been gifted by God with the qualities and capacity to reject all aberrations and deviations and was able to keep Islam strictly on the path chalked out by the Prophet. Such a man had to have the following qualities:
(1) He must have enjoyed full confidence of the Prophet ever since his acceptance of Islam; the Prophet must have evoked his sincerity and entrusted to him the responsibility of acting on his behalf, particularly in matters relating to religion, and taken him in confidence in delicate affairs and on perilous occasions.
(2) He had to be a man of such indomitable courage and conviction that at a time when the entire fabric of faith was in danger, when other lifelong companions of the Prophet had become dejected, he should have stuck to his guns. His determination to face the most adverse circumstances should have been reminiscent of the fortitude of the prophets of old, who never compromised on any matter pertaining to faith and creed.
(3) He should have had a deep comprehension of the religious truth and imbibed its spirit to the extent that he was never unmindful of the example set by the Prophet in times of war and peace, fear and calm, unity and breach and poverty and affluence.
(4) Pristine purity and integrity of his faith should have been a thing more cherished and precious to him than the honour of his own person or family and he should have always been prepared to make the greatest sacrifice for it, unshaken by any fear or favour.
(5) He should have made it the aim and purpose of his life to accomplish and make perfect the teachings of the Prophet without deflecting a hair’s-breadth from them.
(6) He should have been unmindful of riches and fame and personal conveniences like the Prophet. His character should have been so spotless that he should have never conceived of taking any personal advantage of his position as a ruler nor allowed his family marking a complete break from the traditions of royalty in the neighbouring countries.
Abu Bakr – An Ideal Successor
Abu Bakr had all the above mentioned qualities. His life during the time of the Prophet and during the period of his caliphate demonstrates his steadfastness. There is absolutely nothing – not even one incident – to cast any doubt about his character and demeanour.
The following incidents [will] demonstrate that Abu Bakr had all the qualities mentioned above.
(1) To what extent the Prophet placed reliance on Abu Bakr is revealed by the fact that he had selected Abu Bakr to accompany him in the most dangerous journey of migration from Makkah to Medina. It was the time when the Prophet’s enemies were waiting in ambush for him. No man endowed with reason could trust and share his secret with anyone in whom he did not have an implicit faith on such an occasion. The Prophet knew that any false step would mean a disaster and that those pursuing him would not leave any stone unturned to capture or kill him. A close confidant willing to lay down his life for his master would have alone been trusted to accompany anyone in such a hazardous journey.
Abu Bakr’s companionship on the journey undertaken by the Prophet for migration has been immortalized in the Qur’an as ‘second of the two.’
When those who disbelieved banished him, the second of the two; when the two were in a cave, and when he said to his companion, “do not grieve, verily Allah is withus.“ [Qur'an 9:40]
This is an honour solitary and unrivalled, that Abu Bakr enjoys among the Prophet’s companions. So far as the question of appointing anyone as a deputy to superintend the religious service is concerned, fasting and payment of the poor-due need no representative since these can be performed by every man individually; a deputy is required to lead the prayers and to act as a director during the Hajj. Abu Bakr was the only companion who acted as the Prophet’s viceregent for these two religious services during the lifetime of the Prophet.
Abu Bakr thus enjoys the unique distinction of being appointed by the Prophet to lead the prayers. ‘Ubaydullah b. ‘Abdullah relates; “I called upon ‘Aisha and said: ‘Is it possible that you tell me about the illness and death, of the Prophet of God (peace be upon him) in some detail.’ She replied, ‘Of course. When the Prophet’s illness became severe, he enquired whether the people had performed the prayer. We said, “No, they are waiting for you.” The Prophet asked [for water to be brought to him] in a basin. It was brought and he sat down and took a bath. He fell unconscious as he tried to get up. On regaining consciousness after a short while he again asked if the people had performed the prayer. We said, “No, they have not and are waiting for you.” The Prophet again asked to bring water in a basin. It was brought as desired by him. He tried to lift the basin, and fell unconscious. He regained consciousness before long and again asked if the people had performed prayers. He was again told that they had not, and were awaiting his arrival. Thereafter he lost consciousness and on regaining it after a short while he again repeated his question. We gave the same reply while people were sitting in the mosque expecting the Prophet to lead the isha prayer. The Prophet sent for Abu Bakr to lead the congregation. When the message reached Abu Bakr, he asked Umar to superintend the prayer since he was very tender-hearted. But Umar refused saying that he [Abu Bakr] was more suitable for the task. Thus Abu Bakr acted as the imam during that period. When the Prophet felt somewhat better and the effects of illness decreased, he went out supported by two men, one of whom was ‘Abbas. It was the time for zuhr prayer. Abu Bakr was about to lead the prayer but he hesitated when he saw the Prophet coming to the .mosque. The Prophet signalled him to get ahead and lead the prayer. He asked those supporting him to let him be seated by the side of Abu Bakr. The Prophet thus led the prayer in a sitting posture while Abu Bakr stood leading others. Ubaydullah further says that after he listened this account from ‘Aisha he went to ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas and asked him whether he should relate what he knew about the death of Prophet. ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas gave his consent and he rehearsed the report. ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas endorsed it and asked, “Did ‘Aisha tell you the name of the person who supported the Prophet along with ‘Abbas in going to the mosque?” ‘Ubaydullah said,’ No,’ and then ‘Abdullah informed him : ‘He was ‘Ali’.” [Sahih Bukhari, Muslim]
There is another report also related by Abu Musa who says, “When the Prophet became seriously ill he ordered the people to tell Abu Bakr to lead the prayers. ‘Aisha said entreatingly, ‘O Prophet of Allah, Abu Bakr is very tender-hearted. He will not be able to lead the prayer in place of you.’ The Prophet repeated his order saying,
‘Tell Abu Bakr to lead the prayer. Women speak in the same way as they did to Joseph.“
The Prophet deputed Abu Bakr to direct the Hajj ceremonies in his place. It involved a great responsibility and meant a compliment to him. Hajj was made incumbent in 9 A. H. and the Prophet sent Abu Bakr in command of the Hajj in that very year to enable the Muslims to perform the pilgrimage while the polytheists were at their pilgrim stations. The number of Muslims performing Hajj with Abu Bakr was three hundred.
(2) The inflexible determination and tenacity of Abu Bakr was revealed in the hour of greatest trial of the Muslims. The death of the Prophet had stunned the Muslims. Some of .them even refused to accept that the Prophet could ever die. A man like ‘Umar, known for his sagacity and stout heart, declared that the Prophet had not died. He asserted in the mosque before the people who had gathered there, ‘The Prophet will not depart until all the disaffected have perished.’ At this critical hour Muslims needed a man of iron-will. As soon as Abu Baker came to know what had happened, he came from his house and dismounted from his horse at the door of the mosque as ‘Umar was speaking to the people. He paid no attention to anyone and went in straight to ‘Aisha’s home where the Prophet was lying covered by a mantle. He uncovered the face of the Prophet and kissed him, saying, ‘May my father and mother be a ransom for you. You have tasted the death which God had decreed: a second death will never overtake you. Then he replaced the mantle on the Prophet’s face and went out. ‘Umar was still speaking and he said, ‘Gently, ‘Umar, be quiet.’ But ‘Umar refused and went on talking, and when Abu Bakr saw that ‘Umar would not be silent he went forward to the people who, when they heard him speaking, came to him leaving ‘Umar. Giving thanks and praises to God he said, ‘O men, if anyone worships Muhammad, let him know that Muhammad is dead; if anyone worships God, then God is alive, immortal.’ Then he recited the Quranic verse:
Muhammad is naught save an Apostle. Apostles have passed away before him. Can it be that were he to die or be killed, you would turn back on your heels ? He who turns back does no harm to God and God will richly recompense the grateful. [Qur'an 3:144]
Those who were present on the occasion testified: ‘By God, it was as though the people did not know that this verse had come down until Abu Bakr recited it that day.’ ‘Umar said, ‘When I heard Abu Bakr reciting this verse, I was astounded and knew that the Prophet was indeed dead.’
(3) How deep was his understanding of Islam, and how zealous he was to adhere to the path shown by the Prophet, is disclosed by his remark when he came to know that several Arab tribes had refused to pay the poor-due and questioned its validity. His meaningful utterance reveals his emotions and state of mind, and helps to determine his place among the most earnest followers of Islam. Abu Bakr had asserted: ‘Revelation has been discontinued, the Shari’ah has been completed: will the religion be curtailed while I am alive. Those who had refused to pay the poor-due claimed that they were Muslims and acknowledged other injunctions of Islam. This had made several eminent companions uncertain about the lawfulness of waging war against them. But Abu Bakr was resolute and absolutely clear in his mind; he never vacillated in his stand. It is related that he said, “I will fight these tribes even if they refuse to give a halter. Poor-due is a levy on wealth and, by God, I will fight him who differentiates between the prayer and poor-due.”
There can be no denying the fact that refusal to pay the poor-due at that stage would have opened the way to deviation from the teachings of the Prophet and encouraged rebellion and anarchy. Had Abu Bakr been complaisant or lukewarm in suppressing the unruly tribes, aberrations would have started cropping up and nobody would have been able to curb them subsequently. Objections would have been raised about the congregational and Friday prayers being held in the mosques, the month of Ramadan being earmarked for fasting and the rituals performed during the Hajj or similar other matters. The Prophet’s successors or the caliphs and the institution of jurisconsults keeping a watch over the Shari’ah, Islamic injunctions and its limits would have been rendered ineffectual. Islam would have scattered like the pearls of a broken necklace immediately after the Prophet’s death. The stern attitude adopted by Abu Bakr, avoiding the least acquiescence and indecision, therefore, seems to have been inspired by God. It incidently, evinces the truth of Islam and that it is still present in its original shape to this day.
(4) It is thus a historical fact that the role of Caliph Abu Bakr in the suppression of apostasy and the conspiracy to break up Islam in its very beginning, was indicative of the character of the prophets of God – none of whom had ever compromised with ungodliness in his own time. This was the characteristic required of a successor to the Prophet which was displayed in full measure by Abu Bakr during the period of his caliphate. Indeed, he deserves thanks and invocation of all Muslims from the first day to the last.
(5) Yet another decision taken by Caliph Abu Bakr reveals his acumen in the matters relating to the likes and dislikes of the Prophet, the underlying reasons therefor and his sincerity to implement them meticulously in accordance with the wishes of the Prophet. Shortly before his death the Prophet had decided to despatch an expedition to Syria under Usama. The army had actually left Medina and bivouacked at Juraf, at a little distance from Medina when the Prophet breathed his last. Abu Bakr insisted on its departure to give effect to his master’s last wishes although [since] Medina [was] hemmed in on all sides in those days, anyone would have hardly dared taking this action. There was the danger of apostates attacking Medina or other unruly tribes taking advantage of the chaotic conditions prevailing around the capital of infant Islamic State.
Abu Huraira has correctly estimated the far-reaching effect of the decision taken by Abu Bakr. Abul ‘Araj relates from Abu Huraira : “I swear to God save whom no deity is there that God would not have been worshipped, if Abu Bakr had not ascended the caliphate.’ Abu Huraira repeated it thrice over and then related the incident of sending the expedition under Usama. He said, ‘Abu Bakr despatched the army under Usama, saying, 1 will riot allow the army to return already sent by the Prophet : I will not fold the flag unfurled by the Prophet !’ The result was that when Usama passed the tribes which were disposed to rebellion and apostasy, they said to one another; ‘Had these prople not been strong enough, they would not have ventured on this expedition. Let them go and face the Romans.’ Thus the army went forth, fought the Romans and returned after defeating the enemy. Thus the tribes prone to defection were reassured and continued to remain votaries of Islam.”
Those who turned apostate, repudiating Islam completely and those who gave up Islamic way of worship like prayers etc., and reverted to paganism have been placed by Khattabi in the first category of turncoats. Those who made a distinction between the prayers and the poor-due and denied the obligatory nature of the latter, were listed by Khattabi in the second category. Caliph Abu Bakr decided to fight both these groups on the ground that they were all guilty of apostasy. The latter group had rejected a duty made obligatory by Islam which amounted to its repudiation. This was the reason why Abu Bakr had declared that he would fight those who drew a distinction between the prayers and the poor-due which was a levy on wealth. There was also a third group which had refused to pay the poor-due to the Caliph. They desired either to utilize it themselves or spend it within their own tribe under their own supervision, This group also included certain persons who were agreeable to pay the poor-due, but their chieftains had forbidden them to do so. Abu Bakr’s reason for waging war against them was that they were rebels who had to be given battle according to the Quranic injunction and consensus of the Muslims. Allah had ordained,
“And if one party of them does wrong to the other, then fight the party which does wrong till it reverts to the commandment of Allah.” [Qur'an 49:9]
Caliph Abu Bakr reduced all the insurgent tribes to order. Thereafter, he turned to the suppression of imposters, who had laid a claim to prophethood. Great battles were fought with them and they were finally defeated. The great imposter Musailama was killed. Had this menace been allowed to survive, Islam would have been wiped out. Abu Bakr eradicated the bane of apostasy, crushed those who had denied to pay the poor-due and sent out eleven armies under different commanders who beat down the rebels of Sajah, Bani Tamim and al-Fujat with the result that the people of Bahrain) Mahra and Yemen were received back in Islam, The number of rebels and apostates who were sent to their doom in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula is estimated to be fifty thousand. Ibn Kathir has correctly stated that: “Abu Bakr brought the fugitives of Islam back to its fold and truth was re-establised in its original shape. Complete uniformity was brought in the Arabian Peninsula and no difference remained between those living far or near.”
Muhammad b. Is’haq, who has been cited by lbn Kathir, says: “When Allah’s Apostle died, apostasy broke out, Christianity and Judaism held up their heads, hypocrisy cropped up and Muslims became like shrunken goats and sheep in a rainy and cold night, for the Messenger of Allah had bid farewell to this world. And this state of affairs continued until Allah unified them under the leadership of Abu Bakr.
“Abu Bakr despatched Khalid b. Walid to Iraq who conquered a greater part of it. He also won the battles of al-Anbar and Dumat al-Jandal. In several other battles Islam emerged victorious.”
Thus the work of pacification of the Peninsula was completed by Abu Bakr. It gave Islam a foothold in the country of its origin which had to remain, for all times to come, its source and criterion. Islam’s tide of conquest engulfed Iraq and Syria and the Muslims directed their efforts to bring in as much part of the globe as possible under Islam. They captured one country after another around Arabia and the process continued under Caliph ‘Umar and Caliph ‘Uthman. When Caliph Abu Bakr breathed his last, Damascus had already fallen to the arms of Islam and the campaign culminating in the decisive battle of Yarmuk was almost in its last stages. Of a fact, all the subsequent conquests whether they were made during the caliphate of ‘Umar and ‘Uthman or in the Umayyad period owe their origin to the efforts made by Caliph Abu Bakr during his lifetime. It was because of him that Islam reached the distant corners of the world.
(6) The two incidents related here are enough to demonstrate the frugal life of Abu Bakr, his disdain for the worldly comfort and extreme cautiousness in taking any advantage as the ruler of a mighty empire.
Once the wife of Abu Bakr expressed the desire to have some sweet dish, but Abu Bakr dismissed her saying that he did not possess the money to satisfy her desire. His wife suggested that she could save something from the daily expenses to purchase the material for preparing a sweet dish. Abu Bakr agreed and she made the savings over a period. When she gave that amount to Abu Bakr for purchasing the required material he deposited it in the public treasury, saying, “Experience shows that we can do with a smaller amount than what I have been taking as a stipend.” He also directed to reduce his stipend by the amount daily saved by his wife. He also made good the loss public treasury had suffered earlier by the excess amount of stipend from his private property.
When Caliph Abu Bakr was about to die, he said to his daughter : “O A’isha, the camel of which we used to drink milk and the cup in which we kept sauce and the mantle we wore are the things we used when we were the guardians of Muslims. After I am dead, send them to Umar.” His wish was complied with and the articles in question were sent to Umar who thereupon exclaimed, “Abu Bakr, may Allah bless you. You have placed your successors in a difficult position.”