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Choosing the First Caliph

 Adil Salahi


Arab News

June 9, 2003

We mentioned last week a false report accusing the Prophet’s companions of behavior which does not fit with their status as the first generation of Muslims who provided a model community. We discussed some points in that false report and explained the facts as they actually happened. One point in the report that requires to be dwelt upon is that of the choice of the Prophet’s successor as the head of the first Muslim state. The report says: “The Ansar were thrown in confusion, seeking to be the rulers either by themselves or in partnership with the Muhajirin.”

Muhammad ibn Al-Arabi clarifies that shortly after the Prophet’s death, “the Ansar gathered in a meeting place belonging to the Sa’idah clan for consultation, with no clear plan as to what they should do. The Muhajirin, i.e. the Prophet’s companions who had migrated with him to Madinah, heard of the meeting.

Some of them suggested that they should send to the Ansar to come over for consultation. Abu Bakr said: ‘No. It is better that we should go to them.’ A number of the Muhajirin including Abu Bakr, Umar and Abu Ubaydah went and joined the Ansar where they all participated in the discussion. Some of the Ansar suggested that there could be a leadership of two people, one from the Ansar and one from the Muhajirin. Abu Bakr, however, replied with a long speech which was all true and to the point. He said, for example, ‘We provide the overall leaders and you provide the ministers.’ He also quoted the Prophet as saying: ‘The leaders come from the Quraysh.’ The Prophet also said: ‘I commend the Ansar to you: accept whatever their good people do, and pardon those of them who might do badly.’ God has described us (meaning the Muhajirin) as truthful, and described you as successful. He has commanded you to be with us, saying: ‘Believers, have fear of God and be among those who are truthful.’ (9: 119) He added much that is right and true, supporting it with strong evidence. The Ansar remembered all that he quoted and accepted his argument. They pledged their loyalty to Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq as the leader.”

This is how Ibn Al-Arabi replies to the false report, showing in his very concise style how Abu Bakr was chosen as the first Caliph, or leader of the Muslim state, after the Prophet. Needless to say, Ibn Al-Arabi, who lived in Andalusia over 800 years ago, was writing to a readership that was strongly committed to Islam, and highly respectful of the Prophet’s companions. He did not need to provide too many details. In his annotation of Ibn Al-Arabi’s book, Muhibb Al-Din Al-Khateeb mentions that when the Ansar gathered in their meeting place, Saad ibn Ubadah, the leading figure from the Khazraj was present. They felt that they should provide the government. After all, Madinah was their city, and they were the ones who supported Islam through thick and thin, providing the majority of the Muslim fighting force. It was only a relatively small group from the Quraysh that migrated to Madinah, constituting the Muhajirin. Hence, it should not consider itself as an elite group.

Apparently there was more than one speaker from the Ansar as some of the Muhajirin joined them in their meeting place. One of those speakers, Al-Hubab ibn Al-Mundhir, described himself as a man of much experience and strong following. It was he who suggested that there should be two leaders, one from each group. There is no doubt that Al-Hubab was highly experienced, and a man of sound judgment. He is quoted to have given the Prophet very sound advice shortly before the Battle of Badr and the Battle of Khaybar, and the Prophet acted on his advice on both occasions.

Abu Bakr’s speech dwells on the virtues of both the Muhajirin and the Ansar, quoting the Prophet and referring to the Qur’an in both cases. If we look at the Hadiths to which he referred, we find the following one related by Al-Bukhari: “This matter of government belongs to the Quraysh. Anyone who takes a hostile attitude to them will be thrown on his face, as long as they are true to the faith.” Another Hadith is reported by Abdullah ibn Umar, who quotes the Prophet as saying: “Government continues to belong to the Quraysh, even though they are (no more than) two.” Another report by Anas ibn Malik mentions: “We were at the home of a man from the Ansar when the Prophet came over and stood near the door placing his hand against the pillar. He said: ‘The leaders are from the Quraysh. They have a right against you, and you have a similar right against them...’” (Related by Ahmad)

The Prophet is also quoted to have said: “The leaders belong to the Quraysh: they respond to an appeal for mercy, honor their commitments and rule justly. Any of them who does not do that shall incur the curse of God, the angels and all mankind.”

It should be explained here that these Hadiths do not mean that every Muslim community must have a head of government who belongs to the Quraysh tribe. This is not possible in practice. The Hadiths are informative, rather than providing a binding directive.

There is strong evidence from the Quraysh and the Sunnah to confirm that a Muslim community chooses its leader on the basis of his personal qualities, not his descent or tribal affiliation. Moreover, the last of the Hadiths quoted here outlines some common features of the Quraysh people which make them especially qualified for leadership.

As for the Prophet’s praise of the Ansar, this comes in many Hadiths. We may cite the highly authentic one related by Al-Bukhari as reported by Anas ibn Malik: “Abu Bakr and Al-Abbas passed by a group of the Ansar who were in tears. (This was apparently when the Prophet was in his last illness).

“Abu Bakr asked the reason for their crying. They said: ‘We remembered how we used to attend the Prophet and he would speak to us.’ Abu Bakr went into the Prophet’s home and told him. The Prophet then went out to the mosque, having tied a band over his head.

He stood on the pulpit - and that was the last time he did so - and praised God and thanked Him. He then said: ‘I commend to you the Ansar: they are my group and close companions on whom I rely. They have fulfilled their commitment, and they still await what belongs to them. Hence accept whatever their good people do, and pardon those of them who might do badly.’”

This Hadith is reported in several ways, all in largely similar wording, which adds to its authenticity.

It commends the Ansar and shows how the Prophet loved them and appreciated what they did in supporting him and serving the cause of Islam. The Prophet also refers here to the pledge the Ansar gave him, which constituted the basis of his migration, together with his companions, from Makkah to join them in their city. They committed themselves to supporting him against all opposition, and he acknowledges here, shortly before his death, that they had fulfilled their pledges.

At the time of the pledge at Aqabah, they asked him about their reward for honoring their commitments, and he replied: “Paradise.” This is what he meant by saying: “They have fulfilled their commitment, and they still await what belongs to them.” This is a clear statement that they deserved the reward of admission into heaven.

In his speech, Abu Bakr also mentions the Qur’anic description of both groups. Both descriptions are mentioned in the following verses that speak about the division of any property the Muslims gain from the enemy without fighting: “To the poor who have migrated and have been driven from their homelands and their possessions, seeking favor with God and His goodly acceptance, and who aid (the cause of) God and His Messenger: it is they who are the truthful. And to those who, before them, had their abode in this realm and in faith, who love all the ones who come to them for refuge, and who harbor in their hearts no grudge for whatever the others may have been given, but rather give them preference over themselves, even though poverty be their own lot: such people who are saved from their own covetousness are indeed the ones who shall be successful.” (59: 8-9)

When Abu Bakr referred to these verses and quoted the Prophet’s Hadiths, he was certain to achieve unity among both groups of the Muhajirin and the Ansar, because both were genuinely committed to the cause of Islam. None sought personal gain or position. Hence, they all agreed to assign the position of leadership to Abu Bakr, the closest to the Prophet of all his companions. Theirs was the best choice indeed.




Earth, a planet hungry for peace


The Israeli apartheid (security) wall around Palestinian population centers (Ran Cohen, pmc, 5/24/03).


The Israeli apartheid (security) wall around Palestinian population centers in the West Bank (Ran Cohen, pmc, 5/24/03).

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