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The First Caliph Faces an Immediate Crisis

 Adil Salahi


Arab News

When Abu Bakr was elected as the first caliph, with a unanimous pledge by the whole Muslim community in Madinah, and subsequently by all Muslims, he began to attend to the affairs of the state. The first question he had to address was taking a decision on what to do with the military mission the Prophet had assigned to Usamah ibn Zayd. The Byzantine Empire was now in direct contact with the Muslim state which stretched over the entire Arabian Peninsula, with borders between the two extending over hundreds of kilometers. The Byzantines viewed the rise of Islam with great apprehension. When Farwah ibn Umar Al-Juthami, the governor of Maan in what is today southern Jordan, accepted Islam, the Byzantine emperor had him arrested, executed and crucified, so as to make of him a warning to all people against entertaining any idea of accepting Islam. The Prophet considered the execution of Farwah as an act of provocation which could not be allowed to go unchallenged. He, therefore, raised a force of 700 men under the leadership of Usamah, a talented young man who was very dear to the Prophet, as was his father. He gave Usamah very clear instructions, requiring him to take his army into the heartland of Palestine, reaching the area of Al-Balqa’ and Daroom, in a clear demonstration of strength exercise.

As the force was grouping to march, the Prophet fell ill. The army delayed its march, waiting for the Prophet to recover. However, it was the end of his mission and his blessed life. When Abu Bakr became the caliph, the army had not yet moved. It was encamping just outside Madinah. With news coming in about some Arabian tribes reverting to unbelief after the Prophet’s death, it was necessary to consider whether dispatching Usamah’s army on such a long mission was wise. Was it not far more important to attend first to the more immediate threat to the authority of the Muslim state? After all, those tribes were threatening rebellion and showing clear defiance of the central authority. The false report that we have been considering in this series of articles briefly mentions the situation concerning the army the Prophet wanted to dispatch. It says: “As for the army which was about to set out under the leadership of Usamah ibn Zayd, they were shaken at heart.”

This is a sweeping statement alleging that 700 of the Prophet’s companions who stood up to every danger throughout his life and faced all enemies with total commitment, repeatedly laying down their lives for the cause of Islam, were now afraid of a mission that was ordered by the Prophet. But this is absolutely false. Ibn Al-Arabi clarifies the situation in a brief statement saying: “Abu Bakr said to Usamah: ‘You start and fulfill your mission as assigned by God’s Messenger (peace be upon him).’ Umar said to him: ‘How can you send out this army when the Arabs are agitating against you?’ Abu Bakr said: ‘I would never stop an army dispatched by God’s Messenger, even if that would mean that dog’s would be playing in Madinah with women’s anklets.’”

This short report explains that Abu Bakr took a very strong attitude with regard to this question. To him, the Prophet’s order must be obeyed, even though an alternative course of action appears to be more expedient in the circumstances. Later scholars and historians considered that Abu Bakr had it right all the time. Ibn Katheer quotes a comment by Al-Bukhari to the effect that “Abu Bakr was by far the best man in his time.” Needless to say, Al-Bukhari’s comment excludes the Prophet with whom no one is ever compared by Muslim scholars, since he was chosen by God to deliver His message to mankind.

Muhibb Al-Deen Al-Khateeb mentions a report which quotes Abu Hurayrah as saying: “By God who has no partners, had not Abu Bakr been elected as caliph, God would not be worshipped on earth.” He repeated this statement three times. Some people present said: “How can you say this, Abu Hurayrah?” He replied: “The Prophet had dispatched Usamah ibn Zayd to southern Syria with 700 men. When they encamped at Dhu Khashab (a place not far from Madinah), the Prophet passed away. Arab tribes living near Madinah rebelled and renounced Islam. A number of the Prophet’s companions went to Abu Bakr and advised him to stop Usamah’s mission. They said: ‘Abu Bakr! Would you dispatch this force to fight the Byzantines when the Arabs around Madinah are in rebellion?’ He said to them: ‘By God who has no partners, if dogs were to be pulling the Prophet’s wives by the leg, I would not stop an army dispatched by the Prophet, nor would I abort an expedition he had started.’ He followed that with dispatching the army. Whenever Usamah’s army passed by a tribe which had been contemplating turning away from Islam, they thought: ‘Had not these people been very strong, they would not have sent out this army. Let us wait until they have encountered the Byzantines.’ The army then met the Byzantines, defeated them and returned safely. All those people then discarded all thought of turning away from Islam.”

Thus we see that Abu Bakr’s decision was a shrewd tactical move. Perhaps Abu Bakr was not thinking at the time of strategy and tactics. Most probably so. He was basically thinking that it was not for him, or indeed for anyone else, to undo something the Prophet did, even though circumstances might have considerably changed. As a model believer, Abu Bakr realized that implementing the Prophet’s directives was the best way to be followed by any believer, at all times. Hence, the question for him was one of obedience to the Prophet. Abu Bakr would never disobey him, no matter what the consequences might be. This explains his statements to those who counseled him against dispatching that army. He would not entertain such a possibility for any gain, real or imaginary.

Abu Bakr was to take a similarly momentous decision within a very short period. We will discuss this next week, God willing.




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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