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Rightly Guided Caliphs

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The Rightly Guided Caliphs or The Righteous Caliphs (الخلفاء الراشدون al-Khulafā’u r-Rāshidūn) is a term used in Sunni Islam to refer to the first four Caliphs who established the Rashidun Caliphate. The concept of "Rightly Guided Caliphs" originated with the Abbasid Dynasty. It is a reference to the Sunni tradition, "Hold firmly to my example (sunnah) and that of the Rightly Guided Caliphs" (Ibn Majah, Abu Dawood).[1]


The first four Caliphs who ruled after the death of Muhammad are often quoted as the Khulafah Rashidun.

The Rashidun were either elected by a council (see The election of Uthman and Islamic democracy) or chosen based on the wishes of their predecessor. In the order of succession, the rashidun were:

  • Abu Bakr (632-634 A.D.)
  • Umar ibn al-Khattab, (Umar І) (634-644 A.D.)
  • Uthman ibn Affan (644-656 A.D.)
  • Ali ibn Abi Talib (656-661 A.D.)

Hasan ibn Ali was appointed as Caliph in 661 following the death of Ali and is also regarded as a righteous ruler by Sunni Muslims[2], although he was recognized by only half of the Islamic state and his rule was challenged and eventually ended by the Governor of Syria, Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan.

In addition to this there are several views regarding additional rashidun. Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (Umar ІІ), who was one of the Ummayyad caliphs, is sometimes regarded as one of the Rashidun and is quoted by Taftazani. In the Ibadhi tradition, only Abu Bakr and Umar are considered to be the Two Rightly Guided Caliphs. Suleiman the Magnificent and Abdul Hamid I of the Ottoman period are regarded by some to be amongst the rightly guided Caliphs.

Ibn Hajr al-Asqalani includes the Khulafah of the Bani Abbas (i.e., the Abbassids) in his enumeration.

Abu Bakr

Soon after Muhammad's death a gathering of prominent Ansar and some of the Muhajirun, in Medina, acclaimed Abu Bakr as the successor to Muhammad or the Caliph.

Following his succession, various Arab tribes rebelled against Abu Bakr, refusing to pay the zakat, claiming that they would make the salah but wouldn't give charity. Abu Bakr insisted that the zakat and the salah both must be done to be a complete Muslim. This was the start of the Ridda wars (Arabic for the Wars of Apostasy).

After restoring peace in Arabia, Abu Bakr directed his generals towards the Byzantine and Sassanid empires.

Some traditions about the origin of the Qur'an say that Abu Bakr was instrumental in preserving it in written form, as he was the first to order the collection of the sacred revelations.

Abu Bakr died in 634 in Medina, naming Umar ibn al-Khattab as his successor shortly before his death.

Umar ibn al-Khattab

Umar was named caliph through the same deliberation process that had brought Abu Bakr into leadership. During Umar's reign Muslims conquered Mesopotamia, parts of Persia, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa and Armenia.

The general social and moral tone of the Muslim society at that time is well-illustrated by the words of an Egyptian who was sent to spy on the Muslims during their Egyptian campaign. He reported:

"I have seen a people, every one of whom loves death more than he loves life. They cultivate humility rather than pride. None is given to material ambitions. Their mode of living is simple... Their commander is their equal. They make no distinction between superior and inferior, between master and slave. When the time of prayer approaches, none remains behind..."

Umar (in English usually called Omar) was known for his simple, austere lifestyle. Rather than adopt the pomp and display affected by the rulers of the time, he continued to live much as he had when Muslims were poor and persecuted. In 639, his fourth year as caliph and the seventeenth year 17 since the Hijra, he decreed that the years of the Islamic era should be counted from the year of the Hijraand. Umar died in 644, after he was stabbed by Abu-Lu'lu'ah in the Masjid al Nabawi mosque in Medina.

Whilst on his deathbed, he was urged to select a successor, which he refused to do. He did however put a process in place for selection of a successor. This comprised the remaining members of the ten companions promised paradise (Al-Asharatu Mubashsharun) to elect from amongst themselves a Caliph within 3 days. The result of this process following his death was Uthman ibn Affan.

Uthman ibn Affan

Uthman (in English often called Othman) also referred to as Usman or Osman in other dialects. reigned for twelve years, and during his rule, all of Iran, most of North Africa, the Caucasus and Cyprus were conquered and incorporated into the Islamic empire. His rule was characterized by increasingly centralized control of revenues from the provinces, aided by governors drawn largely from his kinsmen in the Umayyad clan. Uthman appointed many of his kinsmen as governors of the new domains. Some of his governors were accused of corruption and misrule.

Uthman is perhaps best known for forming the committee which compiled the basic text of the Qur'an as it exists today. During the end of his reign, Uthman ordered the compilation of the text. He sent copies of the sacred text to each of the Muslim cities and garrison towns, and destroyed alternative versions.

Ali ibn Abi Talib

After the death of Uthman, Medina was in political chaos for a number of days. Many of the companions approached Ali to take the role of Caliph, which he refused to do initially.

After his appointment as caliph, Ali dismissed several provincial governors, some of whom were relatives of Uthman, and replaced them with trusted aides such as Malik ibn Ashter . Ali then transferred his capital from Medina to Kufa, the Muslim garrison city in what is now Iraq. The capital of the province of Syria, Damascus, was held by Mu'awiyah, the governor of Syria and a kinsman of Uthman, Ali's slain predecessor.[3]

His caliphate coincided with the First Fitna. The First Fitna, 656–661 CE, followed the assassination of the third caliph ,Uthman Ibn Affan, continued during the caliphate of Ali, and was ended, on the whole, by Muawiyah's assumption of the caliphate. This civil war is often called the Fitna, and regretted as the end of the early unity of the Islamic ummah (nation). This civil war created permanent divisions within the Muslim community and Muslims were divided over who had the legitimate right to occupy the caliphate.[4]

According to tradition, three Muslim zealots (purists later termed Kharijites) attempted to assassinate Ali, Mu'awiyah and `Amr, as the authors of disastrous feuds among the faithful. However, only the assassination of Ali succeeded. He died on the 21st of Ramadan in the city of Kufa (Iraq) in 661 CE.

Military expansion

During the period of the rashidun, Islam became the most powerfulTemplate:Peacock term state in the Middle East. At the time of the second Rashidun caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattāb, both Sassanid Persian and Roman Empires, were defeated.

Social policies

During his reign, Abu Bakr established the Bayt al-Mal or the state treasury. Umar expanded the treasury and established government building to administer the state finances.[5]

Upon conquest, in almost all cases, the caliphs were burdened with the maintenance and construction of roads and bridges in return for the conquered nation's political loyalty.[6]

Civil activities

Civil welfare in Islam started in the form of the construction and purchase of wells. During the Caliphate, the Muslims repaired many of the aging wells in the lands they conquered.[7]

In addition to wells, the Muslims built many tanks and canals. Many canals were purchased, and new ones constructed. While some canals were excluded for the use of monks (such as a spring purchased by Talha), and the needy, most canals were open to general public use. Some canals were constructed between settlements, such as the Saad canal that provided water to Anbar, and the Abi Musa Canal to providing water to Basra.[8]

During a famine, Umar ibn al-Khattab ordered the construction of a canal in Egypt connecting the Nile with the sea. The purpose of the canal was to facilitate the transport of grain to Arabia through a sea-route, hitherto transported only by land. The canal was constructed within a year by Amr bin al Aas, and Abdus Salam Nadiv writes, Arabia was rid of famine for all the times to come."[9]

After four floods hit Mecca after Muhammad's death, Umar ordered the construction of two dams to protect the Kaaba. He also constructed a dam near Medina to protect its fountains from flooding.[6]


The area of Basra was very sparsely populated when it was conquered by the Muslims. During the reign of Umar, the Muslim army found it a suitable place to construct a base. Later the area was settled and a mosque was erected.

Upon the conquest of Madyan, it was settled by Muslims. However, soon the environment was considered harsh and Umar ordered the resettlement of the 40,000 settlers to Kufa. The new buildings were constructed from mud bricks, instead of reeds, a material that was popular in the region, but caught fire easily.

During the conquest of Egypt the area of Fustat was used by the Muslim army as a base. Upon the conquest of Alexandria, the Muslims returned and settled in the same area. Initially the land was primarily used for pasture, but later buildings were constructed.[10]

Other already populated areas were greatly expanded. At Mosul, Harthama Arfaja, at the command of Umar, constructed a fort, few churches, a mosque and a locality for the Jewish population.[11]

Muslim views

The first four caliphs are particularly significant to modern intra-Islamic debates: for Sunni Muslims, they are models of righteous rule; for Shia Muslims, the first three of the four were usurpers.

Sunni perspectives

They are called so because they have been seen as model Muslim leaders by Sunni Muslims. This terminology came into a general use around the world, since Sunni Islam has been the dominant Islamic tradition, and for a long time it has been considered the most authoritative source of information about Islam in the Western world.

They were all close companions of Muhammad, and his relatives: the daughters of Abu Bakr and Umar were married to Muhammad, and three of Muhammad's daughters were married to Uthman and Ali. Likewise, their succession was not hereditary, something that would become the custom after them, beginning with the subsequent Umayyad Caliphate. Council decision or caliph's choice determines the successor originally.

Shi'a tradition

According to Shi'a Islam, the first caliph should have been Ali followed by the Shi'a Imams. Shi'a Muslims support this claim with the Hadith of the pond of Khumm. Another reason for this support for Ali as the first caliph is because he had the same relationship to Muhammad as Aaron had to Moses. Starting with Muhammad, to Ali, to the grandsons of Muhammad Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali (Muhammad had no surviving sons of his own) and so on.


Please note that the years of Caliphs succession do not necessarily fall on the first day of the new year.

Ali ibn Abi TalibUthman ibn AffanUmar ibn al-KhattabAbu Bakr


  1. Taraweeh: 8 or 20?
  2. [1]
  3. Shi'a: 'Ali
  4. See:
    • Lapidus (2002), p.47
    • Holt (1977a), pp. 70-72
    • Tabatabaei (1979), pp.50-57
  5. Nadvi (2000), pg. 411
  6. 6.0 6.1 Nadvi (2000), pg. 408
  7. Nadvi (2000), pg. 403-4
  8. Nadvi (2000), pg. 405-6
  9. Nadvi (2000), pg. 407-8
  10. Nadvi (2000), pg. 416-7
  11. Nadvi (2000), pg. 418

See also

  • The Four Companions
  • The Ten Promised Paradise