The Death of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh)

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Summary: Islam burst upon the global scene in the ‘7th century and transformed a nomadic people into prime movers of a world civilization. Prophet Muhammed (p) was the architect of that transformation. His death in 632 presented the Islamic community with its first major challenge. The Muslims met this challenge by establishing the institution of the Caliphate and affirming the continuity of historical Islam. The nascent Islamic state, with its capital at Madina, successfully defended itself from the predatory reach of the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires. But that very success sowed the seeds of dissension in the community. The captured wealth of Persia brought greed and nepotism and resulted in the assassination of the third Caliph Uthman bin Affan (r). The fourth Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) tried to stem the tide of corruption and return to the pristine purity of faith but he was swept away by the whirlwinds created by the assassination of Uthman (r). With the death of Ali (r), the curtain fell on the age of faith in Islamic history.

Civilizations are tested with crises just as individuals are tried with adversity. It is these critical moments that bring out the character of a civilization, just as individual tests bring out the character of an individual. Great civilizations measure up to their challenges and grow more resilient with each crisis, turning adversity into opportunity. It is much the same way with individuals. Critical moments in history test the mettle of humans. Great men and women bend history to their will, whereas weaker ones are swallowed up in the convulsions of time.

It is a basic premise of this article that the primary dialectic of the world of Islam is internal. Its triumphs and tribulations are tied inextricably with how this universal community of believers has held onto the transcendental values taught by the Prophet. It is the cohesiveness or internal divisiveness of this global community that has determined its tryst with destiny. When the followers of Islam held onto the Divine injunctions of the Qur’an and the legacy of the Prophet, they triumphed. When they lost sight of that legacy, they fell into disarray and were marginalized by history.

The death of Prophet Muhammed (p) was the first historical crisis faced by the Islamic community. The process by which the community met this crisis has determined its strengths and its weaknesses in the subsequent centuries. The shape of the historical edifice of Islam was cast in that hour. The death of the Prophet brought forth the towering personalities of Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r), Omar ibn al Khattab (r), Uthman bin Affan (r) and Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) into the historical process. What these Companions did and did not do has influenced the course of Islamic history in the subsequent 1,400 years.

The Prophet was the fountainhead of Muslim life. No other person in history occupied a position in relation to his people, as did Prophet Muhammed (p) with respect to his. He was the focus for all social, spiritual, political, economic, military and judicial activities. He was the founder and architect of the nascent community. He was the Prophet and the Messenger of God. When he passed away, he left a vacuum that was impossible to fill. His legacy was tested immediately upon his death. At stake was the continuity of the historical process. The Prophet had welded together a community of believers transcending their allegiance to tribe, race or nationality. The glue that had cemented this process was the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. Now the Prophet was gone and it seemed that the divisive forces that Islam had overcome would resurface and tear apart the newborn community.

The first reaction to the death of the Prophet was shock, disbelief and denial. So great was the love of the Companions for the Prophet that they could not part with their love. So central was he to the life of the community that they could not imagine a life without his presence. When Omar ibn al Khattab (r) heard that the Prophet had passed away, he was so distraught that he drew his sword and declared: “Some hypocrites are pretending that the Prophet of God-may God’s peace and blessing be upon him—has died. By God I swear that he did not die; that he has gone to join his Lord, just as other Prophets went before. Moses was absent from his people for forty nights and returned to them after they had declared him dead. By God, the Prophet of God will return just as Moses returned. Any man who dares to perpetrate a false rumor such as Muhammed’s death shall have his arms and legs cut off by this hand.” People listened to Omar (r), too stupefied to believe that the man who had transformed Arabia from the backwaters of history to the forefront of the historical process was dead. The situation was grave indeed.

The resilience of Islam showed itself in the person of Abu Bakr (r). After confirming that the Prophet had indeed passed away, he entered the mosque where Omar (r) was speaking to the people and recited the following passage from the Qur’an: “Muhammed is but a Prophet before whom many prophets have come and gone. Should he die or be killed, will you give up your faith? Know that whoever gives up his faith will cause no harm to God, but God will surely reward those who are grateful to Him” (Qur’an, 3:144). It was as if the people had heard this passage for the first time; it struck them like a bolt of lighting. Omar (r) related later that when he heard it, his legs shook as he realized that the Messenger of God had indeed departed from this world. The mortality of the Prophet was established, while the transcendence of God was reaffirmed. The civilization of Islam was to be God-centered, not man-centered. Islam was to have its anchor in God and His Word. The Prophet, as the man who had brought the Divine Word and fulfilled his historical mission, had departed, but the light that had shone through him was to show the way to succeeding generations. Islam retained its transcendent character. It was to survive the physical absence of the Prophet and was to hurl itself as a dynamic force into the historical process.

The situation was fluid, uncertain and fraught with grave risks. The body of the Messenger who had led one of the greatest spiritual revolutions known to humankind was in the corner of a small room. Here was the man who had transformed a tribal society into a community of believers and made them masters of their own destiny. Wave after wave of men moved past the body, sobbing, shaking their heads, unsure of the future. They were now without the anchor that had supported them, without the leader who had sustained them, without the teacher who had taught them, without the statesman who had led them, without the Prophet who had brought the message of Divine transcendence.

The process of succession and its legacy for future generations were at stake. Islam had set for itself a mission to create a global community enjoining was is right, forbidding what is evil and believing in God. How was this mission to be fulfilled in the matrix of history without the physical presence of the Prophet? How was the edifice of a God-conscious community to be erected without the architect who had conceived it? Did the Prophet leave behind specific instructions on the issue of succession? If he did not, what was the wisdom behind that decision?

Immediately upon the death of the Prophet, competing positions emerged regarding the issue of succession. The first position was that of the Ansar, the residents of Madina who had provided protection and relief to the Muhajirs from Mecca. They felt that as the hosts who had stood by the Prophet at the hour of need, they deserved the leadership of the community. At the minimum, they argued that leadership should be shared. They proposed a committee of two, composed of one person from the Muhajirs and one from the Ansar, to lead the community. The second position was that of the supporters of Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r). They based their position on the fact that the Prophet, when he had become too ill before his death to lead the congregational prayers, had nominated Abu Bakr (r) as the Imam. Abu Bakr (r) was the first man to accept Islam and was also one of the closest of his Companions. The authentic ahadith confirm the highest affection and esteem that the Prophet had for Abu Bakr (r). The third position was that of the supporters of Ali ibn Abu Talib (r). Ali (r) was a cousin of the Prophet and was married to Fatimat uz Zahra (r), beloved daughter of the Prophet. He was the first youth to embrace Islam and the Prophet had referred to him as his heir and his brother. The Islamic community reconciled the first two positions in the first hours following the death of the Prophet but differences of opinion remained on the third issue. These differences led, in later years, to the Shi’a-Sunni schism, which runs like a great earthquake fault through Islamic history. Its recurrent divisive and destructive power shows itself at critical moments such as the massacre at Karbala (680), the Battle of Chaldiran (1517) and the Iran-Iraq war (1979-1987).

There was wisdom in the decision of the Prophet to leave the issue of succession to the collective judgment of the community. A universal religion must have validity for all peoples and at all times. It must have relevance to the people of the 21st century as it did to those who lived at the time of the Prophet. It must have meaning to the most sophisticated person as well as to the bushman in the jungle. The wisdom of the Prophet lies in the fact that whereas the principles of Islam are spelled out in their complete form in the Qur’an and are exemplified in the Sunnah of the Prophet, their implementation at specific times and in specific locations is left to the historical process. In other words, Islam is an existential religion. Its realization and fulfillment is a process that is eternal and incumbent upon each generation of believers. The position that the Prophet left specific instructions on the issue of political succession does not correlate with the existential aspects of Islam. However, not all Muslims share this view. Partisan positions on the issue of succession are taken based only on those ahadith, which support that position. But history is a merciless judge. With the passage of time, the differences on the issue of succession were solidified, leading to recurrent dissension, rebellion, repression and civil war.

Urged by the community leaders to prevent an open rift, Abu Bakr (r), along with Omar ibn al Khattab (r), proceeded to the courtyard of Banu Saida where the Ansar were holding a congregation to elect their leader. One of the Ansar put his position thus: “We are the Ansar—the helpers of God and the army of Islam. You, the Muhajirun are only a brigade in the Army. Nonetheless some amongst you have gone to the extreme of seeking to deprive us of our natural leadership and to deny us our rights.” Abu Bakr (r) spoke to the Ansar: “O men of Ansar! We, the Muhajirun were the first to accept Islam. We enjoy the noblest lineage and descent. We are the most reputable and the best esteemed as well as the most numerous in Arabia. Furthermore, we are the closest blood relatives of the Prophet. The Qur’an itself has given us preference. For it is God—may He be exalted in praise—Who said, “First and foremost were al Muhajirun, then al Ansar and then those who have followed these two groups in virtue and righteousness.” Then taking the hands of Omar (r) and Abu Ubaida, who were seated on either side of him, Abu Bakr (r) said, “Either one of these two men is acceptable to us as leader of the Muslim community. Choose whomever you please”. At this time Omar (r) raised the hand of Abu Bakr (r) and said, “ O Abu Bakr! Did not the Prophet command you to lead the Muslims in prayer? You, therefore, are his successor. In electing you, we are electing the best of all whom the Prophet of God loved and trusted”. The Ansar and the Muhajirun then stepped forward and took the oath of allegiance (baiyah) to Abu Bakr (r).

Thus it was that the nascent Islamic community resolved the issue of succession and embarked on constructing the edifice of their history. The process did not quite satisfy Ali ibn Abu Talib (r), Talha ibn Ubaidallah and Zubair ibn al Awwam. Ali (r), representing the family of the Prophet, was busy with the funeral preparations. Talha and Zubair were not in the preliminary consultations. Initially, Ali (r) withheld his oath of allegiance. But when Abu Sufyan approached him to declare himself the Caliph, Ali (r) saw the dangers of division in the community and accepted the Caliphate of Abu Bakr (r). According to Ibn Khaldun, Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) took his baiyah forty days after the death of the Prophet. According to Ibn Kathir, this happened only after the death of Fatima (r), six months after the Prophet’s death. Talha ibn Ubaidallah and Zubair ibn al Awwam gave their baiyah soon thereafter.

The Shi’a chroniclers do not accept the majority version, maintaining instead that the Caliphate was rightfully Ali’s (r) by deputation from the Prophet. However, there is consensus among all chroniclers that any differences regarding the issue of succession were quiescent during the time of Abu Bakr (r) and Omar (r) and did not surface in the open until the Caliphate of Uthman (r). It was much later, as positions hardened during the Umayyad (665-750) and Abbasid (750-1258) dynasties, that both sides advanced doctrinal arguments to support partisan opinions on the Caliphate and Wilayat / Imamate. Thus it was that Shi’a-Sunni differences were based not on religion or faith but had their origin in the politics of succession and history.

Some Sufis attach yet another dimension to the issue of succession. The Sufis represent the spiritual and esoteric dimension of Islam. Their enormous impact profoundly influenced the course of Islamic history. In their vision, the spirituality of humankind revolves around a Qutub in every age. The word Qutub means pivot, pole, chief and leader. When there is a Prophet on earth, he is the Qutub. He cleanses the consciousness of humanity so that it becomes worthy of receiving Divine Illumination. Moses was the Qutub for the spirituality of humankind when he was alive, as were David, Solomon, Joseph and Jesus in their times. As long as Muhammed was alive, he was the spiritual pole for humankind. Upon his death, the mantle of spirituality passed on to Fatima (r), daughter of the Prophet. After Fatima (r), the mantle passed on to Ali ibn Abu Talib (r). Most Sufi orders claim their spirituality from Ali (r) and by virtue of continuity, through Fatima (r) and ultimately from Prophet Muhammed (p). As long as Fatima (r) was alive, the Sufis maintain, Ali (r) could not have given his baiyah to Abu Bakr (r). It was only after Fatima (r) passed away, six months after the Prophet’s death, that Ali (r) finally gave his allegiance to Abu Bakr (r). According to this view, the mantle of spirituality continued to reside in Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) to whom important juridical issues were referred by the Caliphs Abu Bakr (r), Omar (r) and Uthman (r) and even by the faction headed by Muawiya.

In selecting Abu Bakr (r), the Companions established several precedents. They demonstrated that the Muslims were a living community capable of articulating their own destiny through a collective consultative process in the absence of the Prophet. They established that the Caliph, as the temporal ruler of the Islamic community, had to be a man of piety, trust, knowledge, strength, justice, integrity and righteousness. The community was like a newborn child taking its first breath after being cut off from the umbilical cord connecting it to its spiritual parent.

Upon accession to the Caliphate, Abu Bakr (r) was faced with several crises. The immediate issue was the dispatch of the army to the north to face the Byzantines. The Muslims had faced a stalemate with the Byzantines at the Battle of Tabuk and had lost their leader Zaid bin Haris. A follow up defensive expedition had been initiated by the Prophet to safeguard the northern approaches to Madina. Abu Bakr (r) reaffirmed the decision of the Prophet and dispatched an expedition under Usama bin Zaid. The expedition was successful and it demonstrated the strength and cohesiveness of the Muslims even in the absence of the Prophet.

The second challenge was the refusal of certain Arab tribes to pay the Zakat. Pre-Islamic Arabia was tribal. Many of these tribes had reluctantly accepted Islam towards the last days of the Prophet. When he passed away, they saw an opportunity to stop paying the mandatory Zakat, which they misunderstood as another form of taxation.

Zakat is not only a moral obligation in Islam; it is also a legal obligation. It is an act of purity. It is regarded as one of the five pillars of Islam and is an article of faith. In Islam, the economic well being of the community is as important as that of the individual. No man’s belief is complete unless he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself. Islam discourages hoarding and encourages sharing and investment. Zakat works to circulate money and operates against hoarding. Wherever the Qur’an emphasizes the establishment of prayer, it also emphasizes the payment of Zakat. Foregoing Zakat would have destroyed the moral foundation of the Islamic state and would have reduced Islam to a litany of personal beliefs and observances. Abu Bakr (r) conducted a vigorous police action against the non-payers of Zakat. He personally went on several expeditions and brought the rebellious tribes under the authority of the state.

The third crisis faced by Abu Bakr (r) was that of false prophets. Seeing the success and prosperity of the Muslims, many false prophets (and prophetesses) sprang up all over Arabia. Religion was and remains to this day, good business. Many a pretender saw in the success of Islam an opportunity to establish his own religion and get rich in the process. Abu Bakr (r) declared war on the false prophets. He sent eleven expeditions against as many pretenders. Of these the best known was the expedition of Khalid bin Walid against Musailimah al Kazzab, which culminated in the Battle of Yamama. Similar expeditions were sent towards Yemen, Amman and Hazeefa. All of these expeditions were successful.

It was in the campaign against Musailimah al Kazzab that a large number of the Companions of the Prophet perished. Many of them were hufaz (those who had memorized the Qur’an). The Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet as the spoken Word, which was then memorized by hundreds of companions. The martyrdom of so many hufaz at the Battle of Yamama was a matter of great concern to the Companions. Upon the advice of Omar, Abu Bakr (r) ordered the writing down of the Qur’an to preserve it, as it was revealed to the Prophet, for all generations to come. The first written copy of the Qur’an is known by the title Mashaf e Siddiqi.

In the geopolitics of West Asia, neither the Byzantines nor the Persians could tolerate an independent, united and strong Arabia. Both powers had coveted the Arabian Peninsula for centuries. The Romans had occupied Syria and Jordan while the Persians had subjugated Iraq, Yemen and Hejaz. To the geopolitical element was now added the religious element. Prophet Muhammed (p), in fulfillment of his mission as the Messenger of God, had sent greetings to the rulers of the two powers inviting them to accept Islam. Heraclius, the Byzantine chief, had sent a polite reply but had ordered his troops into action on the northern borders of Arabia. Khosroe, the Persian emperor, had torn up the Prophet’s letter and had ordered his forces in Yemen to march on Madina and arrest the Prophet. It was to forestall the ambitions of the Byzantines and the Persians that the Prophet had initiated defensive actions to the north and the east. The campaigns undertaken by Abu Bakr (r) against the Byzantines and the Persians were thus a continuation of those that had been started by the Prophet himself.

Political developments in West Asia soon worked in favor of the emerging Islamic state. Persia was in turmoil. There was murder and mayhem in the imperial court. Sheroya, the eldest son of Khosroe Pervez murdered his father and all of his own brothers and usurped the throne. Eight months later, Sheroya died in mysterious circumstances and his infant son was made the monarch. The infant son was also killed and a number of courtiers claimed the throne, only to be murdered one after the other. Finally, the only surviving youngster in the Persian dynasty, Yazdgar, was made the emperor and a woman of the royal household was appointed his regent.

The weakness of Persia created military opportunities for its neighbors. Heraclius, the new Byzantine emperor, waged a series of campaigns (625-635) and won back some of the territories his predecessor had lost to the Persians. The explosive growth of the Islamic state since the Hijra (622) brought its borders to the River Euphrates, which marked the southwestern boundary of the Persian Empire. The Arab tribes near the Persian border, centered on the town of al Hirah, were restive. They had for a long period enjoyed an autonomous status under the protection of the Persian court. But Khosroe, the Persian monarch, had revoked that autonomy and had turned the areas into imperial colonies. Resentment had built up over increased taxes. Some of these tribes had accepted Islam during the life of the Prophet but had become apostates when he passed away. Abu Bakr (r) was aware of these developments. So, when Al Muthannah ibn Harithah, chief of the Banu Shaiban clan in eastern Arabia, approached him with a proposal to rally the Arab tribes against Persia, the Caliph agreed. Remembering their shifting loyalties, Abu Bakr (r) advised Al Muthannah to recruit only those tribes that had previously not become apostates.

Meanwhile, Khalid bin Walid had completed his operations against the apostate Arabs in eastern Arabia. Abu Bakr (r) ordered him to join up with Al Muthannah. The two together advanced on southern Iraq. An invitation was sent to Humuz, Persian governor of the province, inviting him to accept Islam and join in its global mission. If he refused, he was given the alternatives of accepting the protection of the Muslim state or war. Governor Humuz rejected all of these alternatives and hostilities began. The Arab armies first subdued Khadima (633) near modern Kuwait. From there, they moved on the port city of Ubullah (modern Basrah) near the mouth of the Shatt al Arab. Turning northwards along the western shores of the River Euphrates, Khalid’s forces rapidly overcame Persian resistance at Al Hirah and Al Anbar. The Arab tribes of the area welcomed their fellow Arabs as liberators from Persian imperial rule. Khalid’s rapid advance had left his northern flank open. This area, called Domatul Jandal by the Arabs, was located near the confluence of Syria and Iraq and was inhabited by Christian Arabs who openly sided with the Byzantines. After subduing Domatul Jandal, Khalid and his troops returned to Mecca and performed the Hajj. When Khalild returned to the battlefield, Abu Bakr (r) ordered him to the Syrian front where a decisive showdown was looming with the Byzantine Empire.

The emergence of a unified Arab state under Islam was no more acceptable to the Byzantines than it was to the Persians. The Byzantines had probed Muslim defenses at the time of the Prophet in preparation for a possible invasion of Arabia. It was to contain this threat that the Prophet had conducted the campaign of Tabuk. Continued Byzantine pressure had prompted the Prophet to send an expedition under Zaid bin Haris. As we have already pointed out, the engagement had proved indecisive and Zaid bin Haris was killed in the campaign. The Prophet had organized a second campaign under Usama bin Zaid, but he had passed away before the campaign got under way.

Abu Bakr (r) reaffirmed the decision of the Prophet to send an army to the northern borders. The instructions given by Abu Bakr (r) to Usama bin Zaid, commander of the Muslim forces, are noteworthy for their ethical content:

  • Do not kill children, women and old men.
  • Do not harm the disabled and do not disfigure the bodies of those killed in battle.
  • Do not destroy standing crops and do not cut down trees bearing fruit.
  • Do not be dishonest and misappropriate war booty.
  • Do not kill animals except as is necessary for food.

These injunctions have served, for kings and soldiers alike, as a canonical basis for a Muslim code of ethics during the last 1,400 years.

The campaigns under Usama bin Zaid were also inconclusive. The threat of an invasion from the north grew each day as the Byzantines made preparations for war. Abu Bakr (r) decided to preempt the enemy and ordered an invasion of Syria. An army of 27,000 was assembled and organized into three corps under the overall command of Abu Ubaidah bin Jarrah. Abu Ubaidah was personally responsible for the central army corps directed at Syria. Supporting him was a corps headed by Amr bin al As directed at Palestine and one headed by Shurahbil ibn Hasanah directed at Jordan. Initial skirmishes took place at Wadi Arabah and Ghazzah. The three armies then proceeded towards Damascus. The main Byzantine forces under Theodorus, brother of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, blocked the further advance of the Muslim armies in the narrow gorge between Mount Hermon and Mount Hawran.

It was here that Khalid bin Walid won one of his most memorable victories. Marching rapidly westward from Iraq, Khalid overcame minor resistance along the way. Arriving at the battlefield, he moved in an enveloping arc bypassing the Byzantine army as well as the Muslim divisions and attacked the enemy positions from the rear while the main divisions under Abu Ubaidah made a frontal attack. Taken by surprise, the Byzantine columns dispersed. The Muslim armies pursued the Byzantines and inflicted heavy casualties on the retreating foe. Damascus fell in 635. In a few months, the cities of Balbak and Hama were also in Muslim hands.

Heraclius was not willing to concede the strategic province of Syria so easily. He was one of the most respected generals of his age and had defeated the Persians in numerous battles. He raised a new army of 200,000 and marched south along the coast, hoping to reach Beersheba and cut off the supply routes for the Muslim armies. When he heard of this move from his intelligence arm, Khalid made another wide arc and joining forces with Amr bin al As, reached Beersheba and having collected additional troops from the garrison there, marched northwards to meet Heraclius. The two armies met at Ajnadain where the Byzantines suffered another defeat.

Heraclius was now in a perilous military position. His escape routes both to the north and the south were cut off. He ordered his troops to regroup at the banks of the Yarmuk River near the town of Dir’a. Demonstrating his mastery of rapid enveloping movements, Khalid bin Walid bypassed the enemy lines and attacked from the north while the Byzantines faced off the divisions of Abu Ubaidah to the south. As if providence had a say in the matter, a violent sandstorm blinded the Byzantine troops, while the Arabs, used to the desert, took it in stride. Byzantine resistance collapsed.

The Battle of Yarmuk, fought in 636, was one of the decisive battles in history. It marked the end of Byzantine rule in West Asia and paved the way for further Muslim conquests in Egypt and North Africa. Abu Bakr (r) died a few days after the Battle of Yarmuk. He was 63 years old and his Caliphate lasted two years and three months.

Abu Bakr (r) provided the bridge between Prophet Muhammed (p) and historical Islam. Without his leadership, Zakat would have disappeared as an institution and the nature of religion itself would have been altered. The legal basis of the state would have been seriously undermined and the community would have fallen apart. Abu Bakr (r) continued the traditions of the Prophet, avoided innovations, overcame internal dissentions, established the rule of law, suppressed false prophets and successfully defended the nascent state against the Byzantine and Persian Empires. He demonstrated that the Muslims were a living, dynamic community. Under his leadership, Islam embarked on the process of history bereft of its Prophet but animated by the message of the Qur’an and his Sunnah.

Submitted,  along with a large collection of previous papers by Dr. Ahmed  on March 1, 1993.

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