Rise of Islam

The Caliphate

Expansion, Civil Wars and Sect Formation

The Caliphate: After Muhammad’s death in 632, there was nobody who could legitimately claim to be the next prophet of Islam. So, his political authority was transferred to the umma with no established principle of succession. This gave rise to the institution of caliphate. As per this system, the leader of the community became the deputy (khalifa) of the Prophet.

The first four caliphs (632-61)

After Muhammad’s death, many tribes broke away from the Islamic state. Some even raised their own prophets to establish communities modeled on the umma. Abu Bakr, the first caliph, suppressed the revolts by a series of campaigns. Umar, the second caliph, shaped the umma’s policy of expansion of power. It was not possible to maintain the umma out of the modest income from trade and taxes. So, the caliph and his military commanders mustered their tribal strength to conquer the lands belonging to the Byzantine Empire in the west and the Sasanian Empire in the east.

On the eve of the Arab invasions, these two empires had declined in strength due to religious conflicts and revolts by the aristocracy. In three successful campaigns (637-42), the Arabs brought Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt under the control of Medina. The success of the Arabs was contributed by military strategy, religious fervor and the weakness of the opposition. The third caliph, Uthman, launched further campaigns and extended the control to Central Asia. Within a decade of the death of Muhammad, the Arab-Islamic state controlled the vast territory between the Nile and the Oxus.


In the conquered provinces, a new administrative structure was imposed. The administration was headed by governors and tribal chieftains. The central treasury got its revenue from taxes paid by Muslims as well as its share of the booty from raids. The soldiers (mostly Bedouins), lived in camp cities at the edge of the desert. This helped the soldiers to remain within reach of their natural habitat as well as the caliph’s command. The ruling class and soldiers received shares of booty and monthly payments. The non-Muslim population retained their rights to property and religious practices on payment of taxes (kharaj and jiziya). Jews and Christians were declared protected subjects of the state and given a large measure of autonomy in their communal affairs.

The ruling class of the early Islamic state comprised almost entirely the Quraysh of Mecca. The third caliph, Uthman (644-56); who too was a Quraysh, packed his administration with his own men. This intensified the conflict with other tribesmen. Opposition in Iraq and Egypt, along with opposition in Medina, led to the assassination of Uthman.

After that, Ali became the fourth caliph. Ali (656-61) fought two wars against people who represented the Meccan aristocracy. These wars resulted in widening of the rift. Ali’s supporters and enemies later came to form the two main sects of Islam, Shias and Sunnis.

Ali established himself at Kufa and defeated an army led by Muhammad’s wife, Aisha, in the Battle of the Camel (657). But Ali was unable to suppress the faction led by Muawiya (a kinsman of Uthman and the governor of Syria).

Ali’s second battle, at Siffin (northern Mesopotamia), ended in a truce. It split his followers into two groups. Some remained loyal to him, while others left the camp and came to be known as Kharjis. Soon after, Ali was assassinated by a Kharji in a mosque at Kufa.

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