Has chosen Muhammad Ali as his successor

A great empire emerges: the first caliphs of Arabia

After the death of the Prophet Mohammed, his followers raised the question of succession that same day. The beginnings of the caliphate were marked by far-reaching expansion and feuds between the tribal leaders.

On the day of his death, according to tradition, the Prophet Mohammed visits the rooms of his favorite wife Aisha to rest his head on her lap and rest. Before doing this, he brushes his teeth thoroughly - Mohammed has always taken dental hygiene very seriously. When Aisha later turns her gaze to her husband, she is horrified to find that his body and, above all, his eyes are motionless. The Prophet's death caught up with his family unexpectedly, even though he fell ill shortly before his death. Mohammed dies on June 8, 632. The news spreads like wildfire in Medina, only shortly afterwards his supporters gather in mourning in front of Aisha's house and wonder who could follow the prophet as the leader of the Muslims.

Mohammed has no son, and he did not determine his successor during his lifetime. When his fathers-in-law meet in Aisha's house, a verbal exchange of blows ensues between the men, with Abu Bakr, Aisha's father, dominating the discussion. At his behest, Mohammed is buried under Aisha's house, after all Abu Bakr is supposed to address the prophet's followers: “If someone worships Mohammed: Mohammed is dead! If someone worships Allah: Allah lives and will never die! "

Mohammed left an extensive empire behind on the Arabian Peninsula. What began as an armed conflict with Jewish and “pagan” clans in and around Medina from 622 onwards will develop into a campaign of conquest in the following decade. Mohammed succeeds in conquering an extensive network of clans and tribes, largely by force of arms, which are not only religiously - Islam was not fully developed at this point - but also socially and politically united. How much the structure was dependent on Muhammad's charisma becomes clear after his death: many of his loyal followers refuse to follow his successor, and the Arabian peninsula is in an extremely fragile state.

Quraish tribe. That there will be a successor to Muhammad - a caliph - seems out of the question for the early Muslims. Only: How should the new caliph be determined? And according to what criteria? Relationship to Mohammed? Allegiance? Money? Presumably these questions are still being asked in Aisha's house until an agreement is finally reached. The successor is to be elected at the meeting place of Medina, from the Quraish tribe to which both Mohammed and Abu Bakr belong.

When the clan chiefs try to advance their interests, the members of the Quraish are already standing in front of Aisha's house and calling Abu Bakr's name. However, it is probably due to his negotiating skills and his rhetorical skills that shortly after the death of the Prophet Abu Bakr, Muhammad's father-in-law, two years his junior, was elected as his successor. He will only hold office for two years before his death, but under his rule the caliphate will be gradually expanded - not only through armed conflicts, but also through tactical marriage policies.

It is not easy to understand exactly how the office of the early caliphs or the caliphate was designed. In the Koran itself, the word caliph appears in the story of Adam - and that of David. The latter is titled in the 38th sura as “governor of God” or “caliph” on earth - and this description can also be ascribed to the early caliphs: as institutionalized authority on a political level, as a representative of God.

Expansion. Abu Bakr is a practitioner, a strategist. He is described as loyal and purposeful, as well as kind and fatherly. A rather short man with a henna-dyed beard who always stoops down. When Mohammed left his place of birth Mecca in 622 with several followers - there the prophet was increasingly hostile because of his religious sermons - Abu Bakr was at his side. He is one of his first followers, advisors, and devoted friend. Mohammed and his group move to the oasis city in the north of Mecca, later called Medina, from where they will drive the Islamic expansion.

As a caliph, Abu Bakr can initially keep the tribal feuds on the Arabian Peninsula in check, and he also has most of the mounted soldiers under control. But while his warriors advance into newer desert regions towards Palestine, Euphrates and Tigris, many old tribal chiefs refuse him the (poor) tax that they paid the prophet. Abu Bakr replies sharply - he threatens war if they renounce their belief in Allah. Umar, another of Mohammed's father-in-law, is said to have told Abu Bakr that he can only hold the empire together with severity.

In Medina itself, the caliph recruited new soldiers. Of course, the army does not yet have the force and size that it will later attain; rather, it is a motley group of men. If one of the warriors kills another follower of the Prophet, he is threatened with being burned alive. Abu Bakr rejects unlawful or excessive punishments. He reprimands those who punish as they see fit. Abu Bakr wants to enforce discipline, and in his actions he often refers to alleged revelations of Muhammad. He still lives in a simple hut in Medina and exercises - like the subsequent caliphs - humility.

Cold. In contrast to Mohammed, Abu Bakr determined his successor while he was still alive, in consultation with the other clan chiefs. The choice falls on the other father-in-law of Muhammad, Umar ibn al-Khattab. According to his daughter Aisha, Abu Bakr dies of a cold in 634. At the same time, a rumor is circulating in Medina that he was poisoned by Jews. The second caliph took this as an opportunity to deport a number of Jews to Iraq. The rule of Abu Bakr heralds the era that is called the time of the “rightly guided caliphs” in the Sunni discourse and includes the rule of the first four caliphs.

They were all related by blood or married to Mohammed. The memory of the four caliphs is largely positive in the Muslim world, especially since they are portrayed as orthodox (rightly guided) and godly - and differ from the subsequent caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty through their wisdom and modesty. Umar regulates his succession with a committee of six important men who are to elect the next caliph: In 644, Uthman ibn Affan, who comes from an aristocratic background, is elected third caliph. While the second caliph and the third caliph continue to pursue expansion efforts, at the same time the first intra-Muslim civil war breaks out under the rule of Uthman. He is said to be pious and good-natured, but also lacking the skill to get tribal feuds under control. The sensitive questions are, for example: How should the spoils of war be distributed? How should prestigious positions be filled?

The death of Uthman (656) causes a sensation within the Muslim world: angry Muslims from Egypt visit the caliph in his house in Medina and kill him while he is reciting from the holy writings of Muhammad. The Koran is smeared with blood - a shame. Incidentally, Aisha is said to be involved in the murder case, but the only thing that is certain is that she intervenes heavily on the question of Uthman's successor.

Antipathy. From the beginning, already after the death of the Prophet, his cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib made a claim to the successor - in contrast to the other relatives, Ali also had male descendants. He is certainly the most colorful, but also the most tragic figure in the circle of Muhammad. Ali marries Fatima, the Prophet's daughter, and is considered to be the one who attaches special importance to his verses and revelations. In the first elections of the caliphs, Ali is passed over, but he has a loyal following that grows with the conquests. His opponents are also active, above all Aisha, whom Ali tries to push aside mainly out of antipathy.

For Ali's followers, his caliphate - he is the fourth (656–661) - is the first legitimate successor. At this point in time there were religious tensions between the tribes of the empire, which had grown considerably in the meantime, but the religion was still young and the content changeable. After Uthman's death, Ali was honored by some tribes and recognized as a caliph - but not by all. He is accused of involvement in Uthman's death, especially the refusal of Syrian governor Muawiya to recognize him, will prove fatal. Muawiya and Aisha spin intrigues, while on the religious level, quite unexpectedly, a lasting split is heralded: The fight for the caliphate of Alis will turn its followers into the Shiites and produce the Sunnis.


The Prophet Mohammed, born around 570, dies on June 8th 632 in medina. The question of succession immediately arises. That same month, Abu Bakr, Muhammad's father-in-law, was elected caliph. This has the office of 632 to 634 inside. Abu Bakr appointed his successor while he was still alive; he is another father-in-law of Muhammad, Umar ibn al-Chattab. He rules until his death a year 644. The third caliph becomes Uthman ibn Affan, who comes from a respected, aristocratic family. After his death a year 656 becomes Ali ibn Abi Talib (656 to 661) fourth caliph. With him the Islamic world begins to divide.

("Die Presse", print edition, August 17, 2014)