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For the book by Wilferd Madelung, see The Succession to Muhammad.

The Succession to Muhammad concerns the various aspects of successorship of Muhammad after his death, comprised of who might be considered as his successor to lead the Muslims, how that person should be elected, the conditions of legitimacy, and the role of successor. Different answers to these questions have led to emerging several divisions in Muslim community since the first century of Muslim history; the most important of them are Sunni, Shias and Kharijites.

From a historic viewpoint, with Muhammad's death in AD 632, disagreement broke out over who should succeed him as leader of the Muslim community. Umar ibn al-Khattab, a prominent companion of Muhammad, nominated Abu Bakr. Others added their support and Abu Bakr was made the first caliph. This choice was disputed by some of Muhammad's companions, who held that Ali ibn Abi Talib, his cousin and son-in-law, had been designated his successor. Later, during the First Fitna and the Second Fitna the community divided into several sects and groups, each of which had its own idea about successorship. Finally, after Rashidun caliphate turned into Monarchy and Sultanates, while in most of the area during Muslim history Sunnis have hold the power and Shias emerged as their opposition.

From a religious viewpoint, Muslims later split into two groups, Sunni and Shi'a. Sunnis assert that even though Muhammad never appointed a successor, Abu Bakr was elected first caliph by the Muslim community. The Sunnis recognize the first four caliphs as Muhammad's rightful successors. Shi'as believe that Muhammad explicitly named his successor Ali at Ghadir Khummmarker and Muslim leadership belonged to him who had been determined by divine order.

The two groups also disagree on Ali's attitude towards Abu Bakr, and the two caliphs who succeeded him: Umar and Uthman Ibn Affan. Sunnis tend to stress Ali's acceptance and support of their rule, while the Shi'a claim that he distanced himself from them, and that he was being kept from fulfilling the religious duty that Muhammad had appointed to him. Sunnis maintain that if Ali was the rightful successor as ordained by God Himself, then it would have been his duty as leader of the Muslim nation to make war with these people (Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman) until Ali established the decree. Shias contend that Ali did not fight Abu Bakr, Umar or Uthman, because firstly he did not have the military strength and if he decided to, it would have caused a civil war amongst the Muslims. Ali also believed that he could fulfil his role of Imam'ate without this fighting .


Most of the Islamic history seems to have been primarily transmitted orally until well after the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate.

The historical works by later Muslims writers include the traditional Muslim biographies of Muhammad and quotes attributed to him (the sira and hadith literature), which provide further information on Muhammad's life. The earliest surviving written sira (biographies of Muhammad and quotes attributed to him) is Sirah Rasul Allah (Life of God's Messenger) by Ibn Ishaq(d. 761 or 767 CE). Although the original work is lost, portions of it survive in the recensions of Ibn Hisham(d. 833 CE) and Al-Tabari(d. 923 CE). Many, but not all, scholars accept the accuracy of these biographies, though their accuracy is unascertainable. Studies by J. Schacht and Goldziher has led scholars to distinguish between the traditions touching legal matters and the purely historical ones. According to William Montgomery Watt, in the legal sphere it would seem that sheer invention could have very well happened. In the historical sphere however, aside from exceptional cases, the material may have been subject to "tendential shaping" rather than being made out of whole cloth.

Modern Western scholars are much less likely than Islamic scholars to trust the work of the Abbasid historians. Western historians approach the classic Islamic histories with varying degrees of circumspection.

Hadith compilations are records of the traditions or sayings of the Muhammad. It might be defined as the biography of Muhammad perpetuated by the long memory of his community for their exemplification and obedience. The development of Hadith is a vital element during the first three centuries of Islamic history.There had been a common tendency among the earlier western scholars against these narrations and reports gathered in later periods; such scholars regarding them as later fabrications. Leone Caetani considered the attribution of historical reports to Ibn Abbas and Aysha as mostly fictitious while proffering accounts reported without isnad by the early compilers of history like Ibn Ishaq. Wilferd Madelung has rejected the stance of indiscriminately dismissing everything not included in "early sources" and in this approach tendentious alone is no evidence for late origin. Madelung and some later historians do not reject the narrations which have been complied in later periods and try to judge them in the context of history and on the basis of their compatibility with the events and figures.

The only contemporary source is The Book of Sulaym ibn Qays or Kitab al-Saqifah which is written by Sulaym ibn Qays(death: 75-95 AH (694-714)). This is a collection of Hadith and historical reports from 1st Century of the Islamic calendar and narrates the events which relate to the succession in detail.

Succession to Muhammad from historical viewpoint

Election of Abu Bakr

After uniting the Arabian tribes into a single Muslim religious polity in the last years of his life, Muhammad's death in 632 signalled disagreement over who would succeed him as leader of the Muslim community.At a gathering attended by a small group of Muslims at Saqifah a companion of Muhammad named Abu Bakr was nominated for the leadership of the community. Others added their support and Abu Bakr was made the first caliph. The choice of Abu Bakr disputed by some of Muhammad's companions, who held that Ali had been designated his successor by Muhammad himself , even though Ali accepted Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman's leadershiping .

Following his election to the caliphate, Abu Bakr and Umar with a few other companions headed to Fatimah's house to obtain homage from Ali and his supporters who had gathered there. Then Umar threatened to set the house on fire unless they came out and swore allegiance with Abu Bakr. There isn't consensus among the sources about what happened next. Some sources say upon seeing them, Ali came out with his sword drawn but was disarmed by Umar and their companions. Fatimah, in support of her husband, started a commotion and threatened to "uncover her hair", at which Abu Bakr relented and withdrew. Ali, according to Shia, is reported to have repeatedly said that had there been forty men with him he would have resisted. When Abu Bakr's selection to the caliphate was presented as a fait accompli, Ali withheld his oaths of allegiance until after the death of Fatimah. Ali did not actively assert his own right because he did not want to throw the nascent Muslim community into strife.

Ali himself was firmly convinced of his legitimacy for caliphate based on his close kinship with Muhammad, his intimate association and his knowledge of Islam and his merits in serving its cause. He told Abu Bakr that his delay in pledging allegiance (bay'ah) as caliph was based on his belief of his own prior title. Ali did not change his mind when he finally pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr and then to Umar and to Uthman but had done so for the sake of the unity of Islam, at a time when it was clear that the Muslims had turned away from him.

According to historical reports, Ali maintained his right to the caliphate and said:
"By Allah the son of Abu Quhafah (Abu Bakr) dressed himself with it (the caliphate) and he certainly knew that my position in relation to it was the same as the position of the axis in relation to the hand-mill...I put a curtain against the caliphate and kept myself detached from it...
I watched the plundering of my inheritance till the first one went his way but handed over the Caliphate to Ibn al-Khattab after himself.

The Sunni view of the succession

Sunni Muslims relate various hadith, or oral traditions, in which Muhammad is said to have recommended shura, elections 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 themselves would choose the new leader — as was the custom in Arabia at the time. Some Sunnis argue that Muhammad had indicated his reliance upon Abu Bakr as second in command in many ways; he had called upon Abu Bakr to lead prayers and to make rulings in his (Muhammad's) absence. There are some hadiths asserting that Muhammad said that some would be desirous of power but he knew that God (and the Muslims) would make Abu Bakr the next leader (see Hadiths of Abu Bakr's succession). Sunnis point to the fact that the majority of the people accepted Abu-Bakr as their leader as proof that his selection was wise and just.

a Narration by Mousa Ibn 'Aoqbah in the book Siyar a`lam al-nubala ( ) by Al-Dhahabi :

Ghadir Khumm

There is one hadith in the collection known as the Musnad which affirms that Muhammad made a speech at Ghadir Khummmarker, in which he said, "Of whomsoever I am the mawla, Ali is his mawla". The word mawla has many meanings in Arabic. In this case, say the Sunni scholars, Muhammad was merely saying that anyone who was his friend should also befriend Ali. This was a response to some soldiers who had complained about Ali . A similar incident is described in Ibn Ishaq's Sirah; there Muhammad 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 Sunnis 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 even was a dispute over the leadership after Muhammad's death is sufficient proof that no one had interpreted his words as a binding appointment.

Muhammad's last illness

Muhammad asked permission from his wives to spend his last days with Aisha (his most beloved wife)and died with his head in her lap. Reportedly, before he died, Muhammad made a gesture of enormous trust in Ali by asking him to lead the prayers in the mosque as imam — a highly visible role virtually always undertaken, when possible, by Muhammad himself. Historically, the imam of a mosque has always been a leader in his local Muslim community; Muhammad asked to give him a pen and paper but Umar refused and claimed that Muhammad had something wrong with his head.

The events at Saqifah

The originally Medinan Muslims, the Ansar, held a meeting to discuss choosing a new leader among themselves, to rule their part of the community. When the news of the meeting spread, Abu Bakr, Umar, and Abu Ubayda rushed to the scene. Abu Bakr argued that if the Ansar chose a leader, to lead the Ansar only, the Muslim community would split. The new leader must come from the Quraysh, Muhammad's clan; any other choice would destroy the community. Sa'd agreed to this. Abu Bakr suggested to the gathering that the people should choose either Umar or Abu Ubayda, as both were capable men of the Quraysh. Umar immediately grabbed Abu Bakr's hand and gave him bay'ah (declared his allegiance; an Arabian custom) causing the rest of the men at the gathering to also give their bay'ah. Umar later described this process as a falta, a rushed and hasty decision. However, this decision would not have been binding upon the rest of the Muslims unless they themselves chose to give their bay'ah, which all save the supporters of Ali did. According to the Sunni, this is the proof that the decision was the right one.

Ali's attitude towards Abu Bakr and Umar

Sunni accounts say that after a period during which he withdrew from public affairs, Ali eventually decided to cooperate with Abu Bakr and give his public submission. One version of the story is found in an oral tradition collected by Bukhari.

Sunni accounts say that after giving his oath, Ali supported and advised Abu Bakr, as he did for the two caliphs who succeeded Abu Bakr (Umar and Uthman). They reject Shi'a views stating that Ali never gave his submission, or gave it only unwillingly and thereafter retired from public affairs rather than help those he regarded as usurpers.

Sunni attitude towards Ali

Sunni Muslims consider Ali as one of the prominent companions of Muhammad, among the ten, including Abu Bakr, Umar and Usman, who were informed with the gift of paradise. They also consider Ali among the righteous caliphs and accept the hadiths narrated by him. They rejects the Shi'a view that Ali considered Abu Bakr's succession undeserved .

The Shi'a view of the succession

The Shī‘ah believe that just as a prophet is appointed by God alone, only God has the prerogative to appoint the successor to his prophet. They believe that God chose ‘Alī to be the successor, infallible and divinely chosen. Thus they say that Muhammad, before his death, appointed Ali as his successor.

Life of Ali

‘Alī was a leader in battle, and often entrusted with command. He was left in charge of the community at Madīnahmarker when Muhammad led a raid on Tabuk. ‘Alī was also his cousin, and the husband of his daughter Fātimah, and the father of his beloved grandchildren Hasan and Husayn. Ali's father was the late Abū Tālib, Muhammad's uncle, foster father, and powerful protector. As a member of Abū Tālib's family, Muhammad had in fact played the role of an elder brother and guardian to ‘Alī — and ‘Alī had, as a youth, been among the first to accept Islām. 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 ‘Alī would claim a leadership position following Muhammad's death. In the end, however, it was Abu Bakr who assumed control of the Muslim community.

The Qur'an

The Shī‘ah refer to these verses from the Qu'rān to make their argument on Qur'ānic grounds: (5:55), (5:3), (5:67). They say that the verses refer to ‘Alī, and the last two verses were revealed at Ghadir Khumm.


The Shī‘ah point to a number of hadith that, they believe, show that Muhammad had left specific instructions as to his successor. These hadith have been given names: Ghadir Khumm, Safinah, Thaqalayn, Haqq, Manzilah, Da‘wat dhul-‘Ashīrah, and others.

Many of these oral traditions are also accepted by Sunni Muslims. However, the Sunni do not accept the Shī‘ah interpretation of these hadith.

The following two hadith are most often referred to by the Shī‘ah, when arguing for the explicit appointment of ‘Alī by Muhammad:

Da‘wat dhul-‘Ashīrah - Summoning the Family

Islām began when Muhammad became thirty seven years old. Initially, the mission was kept a secret. Then three years after the advent of Islām, he was ordered to commence the open declaration of his message. This was the occasion when God revealed the verse “And warn thy nearest relations.” (26:214).

When this verse was revealed, Muhammad organized a feast that is known in history as “Summoning the Family — Da‘wat dhul-‘Ashīra”. He invited around forty men from the Banū Hāshim and asked ‘Alī to make arrangements for the dinner. After having served his guests with food and drinks, when he wanted to speak to them about Islam, Abu Lahab forestalled him and said, “Your host has long since bewitched you.” All the guests dispersed before Muhammad could present his message to them.

Muhammad then invited them the next day. After the feast, he spoke to them, saying:

This was the first time that Muhammad openly and publicly called the relations to accept him as the Messenger and Prophet of God, as well as being the first time that he called for a person who would aid him in his mission. At the time, no one but the youngest of them — ‘Alī, stood up and said, “I will be your helper, O Prophet of God.”

Muhammad then put his hand on the back of ‘Alī's neck and said:

Ghadir Khumm

In 632 CE, Muhammad made his last pilgrimage to the Kaabamarker. Some early accounts say that after finishing his pilgrimage, on his return to Madīnahmarker, he and his followers stopped at a spring and waypoint called Ghadir Khumm. Muhammad delivered a speech to his assembled followers, in which the traditions state that Muhammad said:

According to the Shī‘ah, this hadith, Hadith-i ghadir, indicated the intent of Muhammad. They note that the translation of the word mawla as "friend" is highly unlikely and therefore misleading because: a) the word sadeeq is an appropriate, unambiguous and completely accurate translation of the word "friend". b) the connotations of the word mawla nearly always have an implication of a superior-inferior relationship. Hence, mawla can be taken to mean a variety of words in this context, such as master, commander or even slave, but friend is inaccurate. The Shī‘ah say that there were 120,000 witnesses to this declaration, including Umar ibn al-Khattāb and Abu Bakr.

Muhammad's last illness

Soon after returning from this pilgrimage, Muhammad fell ill. He was nursed in the apartment of his wife Aisha, the daughter of Abu Bakr.

The Shī‘ah 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 Madīnahmarker, waiting for Muhammad's death and their chance to seize power.

According to Ibn ‘Abbās (cousin of Muhammad), the dying Muhammad said that he wished to write a letter — or wished to have a letter written — detailing his wishes for his community. According to Sahih Muslim Ibn ‘Abbās narrated that:

When Allah's Messenger was about to leave this world, there were persons (around him) in his house, 'Umar b. al-Kbattab being one of them. Allah's Apostle said: Come, I may write for you a document; you would not go astray after that. Thereupon Umar said: Verily Allah's Messenger is deeply afflicted with pain. You have the Qur'an with you. The Book of Allah is sufficient for us. Those who were present in the house differed. Some of them said: Bring him (the writing material) so that Allah's Messenger may write a document for you and you would never go astray after him And some among them said what 'Umar had (already) said. When they indulged in nonsense and began to dispute in the presence of Allah's Messenger, he said: Get up (and go away) 'Ubaidullah said: Ibn ‘Abbās used to say: There was a heavy loss, indeed a heavy loss, that, due to their dispute and noise. Allah's Messenger could not write (or dictate) the document for them.

When Muhammad died, Umar denied his death stating rather that he would return back, and threatening to behead anyone who accede to his death. Abu Bakr, upon his returned to Madīnahmarker, spoke to Umar and only then Umar did admit that Muhammad had died, this all was perceived by the Shiite as a ploy on Umar's part to delay the funeral and thus give Abu Bakr (who was outside the city) time to return to Madīnahmarker.

The events at Saqīfah

When Muhammad died, his closest relatives, ‘Alī and Fātimah, took charge of the body. While they were engaged in washing the body and preparing it for burial, a secret meeting, of which Ali and the Muhajirun weren't told, was taking place at Saqifah, which ended with Abu Bakr being chosen as the new leader.

Shī‘at of ‘Alī

Just as ‘Alī had refused to give his allegiance (bay'ah) to Abu Bakr, many of the Muslims of Madīnahmarker had also refused, thus they were known as: "Shī‘at ‘Alī" (the "Party of ‘Alī"). It took six months of threat and pressure to force the refusers to submit to Abu Bakr. However, upon his refusal to give allegiance, ‘Alī had his house surrounded by an armed force led by Abu Bakr and Umar.

Umar pushed his way into the house; Fātimah, who was pregnant, was crushed behind the door. She miscarried her unborn son, whom the Shī‘ah mourn as Al Muhsin. She had been injured by Umar and soon died. ‘Alī 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 Shī‘ah thus blame Abu Bakr and Umar for the death of Muhammad's daughter and grandson. Shi'ite Encyclopedia, Chapter 4

‘Alī submits for the sake of his followers

Some Shī‘ah believe that ‘Alī took pity upon the sufferings of his devoted followers and gave his submission, his bay'ah, to Abu Bakr,only after Fātimah, ‘Alī's wife and daughter of Muhammad who was angry with Abu Bakr when he refused to give her right to inheritance of garden of Fadak. It may be because of the sake of unity that he might have helped them in matters of jurisprudence and administration but could never admit his obedience to them.

Other Shī‘ah say that ‘Alī did not give his allegiance, but only refrained from pressing his claims. Whatever happened, superficial unity was restored.

Western academic views

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. On the right of Muhammad's household to succeed him, for instance, Madelung observes that:

(The Succession to Muhammad, Wilferd Madelung, p 17)Madelung writes on the basis of hadith of the pond of Khumm Ali later insisted on his religious authority superior to that of Abu Bakr and Umar.

See also



Academic books

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

Sunni books

  • The Sealed Nectar by Saifur Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, 2002, Darussalam Publications.
  • Sahih Al-Bukhari Translated by Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, 1997, Darussalam Publications
  • Fara'id al-Simtayn by Imam al-Haramayn Dhia' ul-Din Abd al-Malik ibn Yusuf al-Juwayni al-Shafi'i (Al-Jawayni).

External links

Shi'a perspective

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