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HISTORY OF THE CALIPHS
 
 


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Muhammad and the caliphate: from632-656

There is no clear successor to Muhammad among his followers. The likely candidates include Abu Bakr (the father of Muhammad's wife A'isha) and Ali (a cousin of Muhammad and the husband of Muhammad's daughter Fatima). Abu Bakr is elected, and takes the title 'khalifat rasul-Allah'.

The Arabic phrase means 'successor of the Messenger of God'. It will introduce a new word, caliph, to the other languages of the world.
 









Abu Bakr, the first caliph, lives no more than two years after the death of Muhammad. Even so, within this brief time Muslim armies have begun their astonishing expansion, subduing the whole of Arabia and striking as far north as Palestine.

Abu Bakr is succeeded in 634 by Omar (another father-in-law of Muhammad), who in 638 captures Jerusalem. Six years later Omar is stabbed and killed in the mosque at Medina - for personal reasons, it seems, by a Persian craftsman living in Kufa.
 







Othman, chosen as the third caliph, is a son-in-law of Muhammad. By the end of his reign, in 656, Arabs have conquered as far afield as north Africa, Turkey and Afghanistan.

Othman, like his predecessor, is assassinated - but this time by rebellious Muslims. They choose ali, another son-in-law of Muhammad, as the fourth caliph. For the first time within the Muslim community the selected caliph is the choice of just one faction. Ali's caliphate eventually provokes the only major sectarian split in the history of Islam, between Sunni and Shi'a (see The Shi'as).
 






Ali: 656-661

Raised to the position of caliph by rebels, Ali spends most of his reign in conflict with other Muslims. He wins the first battle, near Basra in 656, against an army fighting in support of Muhammad's widow, A'isha. She is herself in the fray, riding a camel, with the result that the event is remembered as the 'battle of the camel'.

But it is Ali's last success. The governor of Syria, Mu'awiya, wages a prolonged campaign against him to avenge the murder of the caliph Othman, his kinsman. Other opponents succeed in assassinating Ali, in 661, outside the mosque in Kufa - a Muslim garrison town to which he has moved the capital from Medina.
 








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