The word ‘Caliph’ is the English form of the Arabic word ‘Khalifa,’ which is short for Khalifatu Rasulil-lah. The latter expression means Successor to the Messenger of God, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The title ‘Khalifatu Rasulil-lah’. was first used for Abu Bakr, who was elected head of the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet.
Those Caliphs who truly followed in the Prophet’s footsteps are called ‘The Rightly-Guided Caliphs’ (Al-Khulafa-ur Rashidun in Arabic). The first four caliphs were among the earliest and closest Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). They lived simple and righteous lives and strove hard for the religion of Allah (SWT). Their justice was impartial, their treatment of others was kind and merciful, and they were one with the people – the first among equals.
The mission of Prophet Muhammad, like that of the earlier messengers of God, was to call people to the worship of and submission to the One True God. In practice, submission to God means to obey His injunctions as given in the Holy Qur’an and as exemplified by Sunnah (the practice of the Prophet). As a successor to the Prophet, the Caliph was the head of the Muslim community and his primary responsibility was to continue in the path of the Prophet.
Since religion was perfected and the door of Divine revelation was closed at the death of the Prophet, the Caliph was to make all laws in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunnah. He was a ruler over Muslims but not their sovereign since sovereignty belongs to God alone. He was to be obeyed as long as he obeyed God. He was responsible for creating and maintaining conditions under which it would be easy for Muslims to live according to Islamic principles, and to see that justice was done to all.
About four rightly guided caliphs of Islam we will discuss one by one in detail.
The First Caliph:
Hazrat Abu Bakr (R.A)-As-Siddiq: (June 8, 632-August 23, 634 A.D)
“If I were to take a friend other than my Lord, I would take Abu Bakr as a friend.” (Hadith)
Born in 573 A.D, is almost 2 years younger than the Apostle ﷺ of God, Hazrat Abu Bakr (R.A) belonged to a noble family of Bunu Tamim of Qureshi tribe in Makkah. His original name was Abdullah ibn Abu Quhafa. He started doing trade as a profession and accompanied Rasulullah ﷺ on some business missions. He (R.A) was the closest companion of Hazrat Muhammad ﷺ and shared great personality characteristics of truthfulness, honesty, and integrity with Him.
“Oh Abu Bakr! You will be my companion on the pond of Heaven as you were also my companion in the cave.” (Tirmidhi)
Hazrat Abu Bakr (R.A) was the first one to have accepted Islam and gained the title of “As-Siddiq” (the most truthful and firm believer of faith) by the Holy Prophet ﷺ after he (R.A) believed in His (PBUH) Visit to Sacred Mosque in Jerusalem and Ascension to Heavens in One Night. He (R.A) spent his entire life in the true service of Islam with his wealth by spending it on releasing the enslaved New Muslim Converts from their oppressive owners including one of the most beloved companions of Rasulullah ﷺ and Muezzin (Caller of Prayer to Mosque) Hazrat Bilal (R.A).
“Abu-Bakr has favoured me much with his property and company. If I were to take a Khalil (an intimate friend) from mankind I would certainly have taken Abu Bakr.” (Bukhari)
The Prophet’s closest Companion, Abu Bakr, was not present when the Holy Prophet (PBUH) breathed his last in the apartment of his beloved wife of later years, Aisha, Abu Bakr’s daughter. When he came to know of the Prophet’s passing, Abu Bakr hurried to the house of sorrow.
“How blessed was your life and how beatific is your death,”
He whispered as he kissed the cheek of his beloved friend and master who now was no more.
“O people, verily whoever worshipped Muhammad, behold! Muhammad is indeed dead. But whoever worships God, behold! God is alive and will never die.”
Abu Bakr was Muhammad’s father-in-law and served as one of his senior advisors. He was called Al-Siddiq (the truthful) by the Prophet as well as by later generations of Muslims. And then he concluded with a verse from the Qur’an:
“And Muhammad is but a Messenger. Many Messengers have gone before him; if then he dies or is killed, will you turn back upon your heels?” (Quran 3:144)
After some discussion among the Companions of the Prophet who had assembled in order to select a leader, it became apparent that no one was better suited for this responsibility than Abu Bakr. A portion of the speech the First Caliph gave after his election has already been quoted in the introduction.
I have been given the authority over you, and I am not the best of you. If I do well, help me; and if I do wrong, set me right. Sincere regard for truth is loyalty and disregard for truth is treachery. The weak amongst you shall be strong with me until I have secured his rights if God wills, and the strong amongst you shall be weak with me until I have wrested from him the rights of others if God wills. Obey me so long as I obey God and His Messenger. But if I disobey God and His Messenger, ye owe me no obedience. Arise for your prayer, God has mercy upon you.
Siddiq e Akbar (R.A) also had the honour of marrying his daughter Hazrat A`isha (R.A) to the Holy Prophet ﷺ who became His (PBUH) most favourite Wife after Hazrat Khadija (R.A). As the first Khalifah of Islam, his major contributions were to assemble the scattering Muslims to common Islamic faith and compilation the Holy Quran in hard copy for the first time. The time of his Caliphate was very short, i.e. 27 months only. Hazrat Abu Bakr (R.A) died on Monday, 23rd August, 634 A.D and is buried next to Rasulullah ﷺ.
The Second Caliph:
Hazrat Umar (R.A)-Al-Farooq: (August 23, 634-November 7, 644 A.D)
Born in 580 A.D, being almost 10 years younger than the Holy Prophet ﷺ, Hazrat Umar ibn Khattab (R.A) belonged to the Adi family of Qureshi tribe of Makkah. He (R.A) used to graze cattle at an early age and was also among a few educated people of Makkah at that time. In his youth, HE (R.A) was physically strong and was considered to be a proven wrestler.
He (R.A) accepted Islam when he was actually going to kill (God forbid) Hazrat Muhammad ﷺ but after listening to the recitation of Quranic Verses in the house of his sister, he acknowledged the Ayats as true and embraced Islam at the hands of Rasulullah ﷺ. Afterwards, he (R.A) rendered great services to the Religion of Peace. Due to his extraordinary ability of fairness, the Apostle ﷺ of God gave him the title of Al-Farooq (the one who distinguishes between right and wrong).
“Indeed, Allah has placed truth upon Umar`s tongue and heart.” (Tirmidhi)
He (R.A) led a very simple life. During his Khilafat, the Islamic faith reached the far off corners of the world including Roman and Persian regions. Being the Second Caliph of Islam, the major contributions of Farooq e Azam (R.A) include implementation of peace and justice in Muslim society, the formation of Baitul Maal for maintenance and provision of finances, division of larger regions into smaller provinces, making of present Hijri (Islamic) Calendar, etc. Because of great personal characteristics, the Messenger ﷺ of God regarded him very high:
“If there were to be a prophet after me, indeed he would be Umar, son of Khattab.” (Tirmidhi)
Umar ibn al-Khattab was a gifted orator and his addresses generally moved the people. He stressed the well being of the poor and underprivileged. Since the poor and underprivileged made up the bulk of the population, his popularity increased.
“O people, remain conscious of God, forgive me my faults and help me in my task. Assist me in enforcing what is good and forbidding what is evil. Advise me regarding the obligations that have been imposed upon me by God…“
The most notable feature of ‘Umar’s caliphate was the vast expansion of Islam. Apart from Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, and Iran also came under the protection of the Islamic government. But the greatness of ‘Umar himself lies in the quality of his rule. He gave a practical meaning to the Quranic injunction:
“O you who believe, stand out firmly for justice as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it concerns rich or poor, for God can best protect both.” (Quran 4:135)
Once a woman brought a claim against the Caliph ‘Umar. When ‘Umar appeared on trial before the judge, the judge stood up as a sign of respect toward him. ‘Umar reprimanded him, saying, “This is the first act of injustice you did to this woman!”
He insisted that his appointed governours live simple lives, keep no guard at their doors and be accessible to the people at all times, and he himself set the example for them. Many times foreign envoys and messengers sent to him by his generals found him resting under a palm tree or praying in the mosque among the people, and it was difficult for them to distinguish which man was the Caliph.
He spent many a watchful night going about the streets of Medina to see whether anyone needed help or assistance. 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 gave his government an administrative structure. Departments of the treasury, army and public revenues were established. Regular salaries were set up for soldiers. A population census was held. Elaborate land surveys were conducted to assess equitable taxes. New cities were founded. The areas which came under his rule were divided into provinces and governors were appointed. New roads were laid, canals were lug and wayside hotels were built. Provision was made for the support of the poor and the needy from public funds. He defined, by precept and by example, the rights and privileges of non-Muslims, an example of which is the following contract with the Christians of Jerusalem:
“This is the protection which the servant of God, ‘Umar, the Ruler of the Believers has granted to the people of Eiliya [Jerusalem]. The protection is for their lives and properties, their churches and crosses, their sick and healthy and for all their coreligionists. Their churches shall not be used for habitation, nor shall they be demolished, nor shall any injury be done to them or to their compounds, or to their crosses, nor shall their properties be injured in any way.
There shall be no compulsion for these people in the matter of religion, nor shall any of them suffer any injury on account of religion… Whatever is written herein is under the covenant of God and the responsibility of His Messenger, of the Caliphs and of the believers, and shall hold good as long as they pay Jizya [the tax for their defence] imposed on them.”
Those non-Muslims who took part in defence together with the Muslims were exempted from paying Jizya, and when the Muslims had to retreat from a city whose non-Muslim citizens had paid this tax for their defence, the tax was returned to the non-Muslims. The old, the poor and the disabled of Muslims and non-Muslims alike were provided for from the public treasury and from the Zakat funds.
Hazrat Umar (RA) led a simple life with truthfulness and honesty. During his caliphate, He (RA) conquer many nations, opened Jerusalem, and paved roads for Muslims in Medina. He remained caliph for 10 years died in 644 A.D. Hazrat Umar (RA) was also buried alongside Holy Prophet (PBUH) as it was his wish.
The Third Caliph:
Hazrat Usman (R.A)-Al-Ghani: (November 11, 644-July 17, 656 A.D)
“Every Prophet has an assistant, and my assistant will be Uthman.” (Hadith)
Born in 573 A.D, is almost 2 years younger than the Messenger ﷺ of Allah SWT, Hazrat Usman ibn Affan (R.A) belonged to the Umayyah family of Qureshi tribe of Makkah. He was among a few knowledgeable people in the entire Makkah at that time. He readily accepted Islam when his close friend Hazrat Abu Bakr (R.A) told him about it. He (R.A) had the great honour of marrying the two righteous Daughters of the Holy Prophet ﷺ, which earned him the title of Dhun Nurain (Bearer of two Lights).
He (R.A) was a wealthy man and he spent most of it in the true service of Islam like buying a well from a Jew in Madina and making it free for use for all Muslims and acquiring a portion of land in order to enlarge the capacity of Masjid e Nabawi. Due to his generosity, he (R.A) was commonly known as Al-Ghani. At the time of last Ghazwa, i.e. the battle of Tabooq, Hazrat Usman (R.A) strengthened one-third of the Muslim Army (around 10,000 men) through horses, camels and gold coins. Due to his tremendous amount of services to Islam, Hazrat Muhammad ﷺ said:
“From this day on, nothing will harm ‘Uthman regardless of what he does.” (Tirmidhi)
The Apostle ﷺ of God also regarded Ibn Affan (R.A) among Ashra Mubashara (10 Heavenly companions of Rasulullah ﷺ). He also had the reputation of being Kaatib e Wahi (Copier of Quranic Revelations). He (R.A) became the third Khalifa of Islam, and during his time, he (R.A) contributed by capturing the far off regions of the world like North Africa, the formation of the first Muslim Naval Force and beating the Roman realm and the Byzantine Empire of 500 ships. HE (R.A) also gathered Muslims on single Tajweed of Quran by making its common recital process. Due to his great personality, the Messenger ﷺ of Allah regarded him very high.
Every Prophet will have a special companion of Him in the Heaven, and my companion there will be Usman. (Ibn-e-Majah)
After a long siege, the rebels broke into Uthman’s house and murdered him. When the first assassin’s sword struck Uthman, he was reciting the verse,
“Verily, God sufficeth thee; He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.” (Quran 2:137)
Unfortunately, during his Caliphate, the rebellions became very strong because of his merciful nature, and it eventually leads to his (R.A) martyrdom at their hands on 17th of July, 656 A.D. He (R.A) died at the old age of 84 and is buried in Jannatul Baqi (graveyard in Madina).
The Fourth Caliph:
Hazrat Ali (R.A)-Asadullah: (656 – 661 A.D)
“You [Ali] are my brother in this world and the next.” (Hadith)
Born in 600 A.D, being the First Cousin of the Holy Prophet ﷺ and almost 30 years younger than Him (PBUH), Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib (R.A) belonged to a highly respected family of Bani Hashim of Qureshi tribe in Makkah. He was the first one among young ones and one the earliest of all the acceptors of Islam. He (R.A) also risked his life for the Messenger ﷺ of Allah SWT by lying on His bed at night when nonbelievers had already planned to kill (God forbid) Rasulullah ﷺ, successfully returned the entrusted possessions to their original owners the very next day and migrated to Madina.
Hazrat Ali (R.A) had the great honour of having married the youngest and the most beloved Daughter of Hazrat Muhammad ﷺ, i.e. Hazrat Fatima (R.A) and being the Father of Hazrat Imam Hussain (R.A), who made the greatest sacrifice later for purpose of upholding Islam. He (R.A) fought every battle with huge courage right from the very first clash with infidels, i.e. Ghazwa Badr.
At the occasion of Ghazwa e Khaibar, considered to be the toughest of all battles that the Holy Prophet ﷺ fought, Hazrat Ali (R.A) attained the title of Asadullah (Lion of Allah) from Rasulullah ﷺ due to his great valour. He lived a very simple life with gratefulness to the Gracious God. He (R.A) had a tremendous amount of respect and admiration near the Messenger ﷺ of Allah.
“No doubt, Ali is from Me and I am from Ali, and Ali will be the Saint of every Momin after Me and will keep love from him (Momin), no one will be hatred from Him.” (Tirmidhi)
He (R.A) had a great command of the Arabic language, especially in the teachings of the Quran. Being the fourth Khalifah of Islam, Hazrat Ali ul Murtaza (R.A) tried his best to unite Muslims and make peace, but the resistance from hypocrites had become very strong. He fought them and destroyed most of the Kharijites (rebellion movement), defeating Umayyads in the battle of Nahrawan and introducing reforms in taxes. When he was 63 years of age, Hazrat Ali (R.A) was martyred with a poisoned sword by one of the rebels while he was going to perform Fajar Salah in the mosque on the 20th of Ramadan, 40 A.H (661 A.D).
With the death of Ali, the first and most notable phase in the history of Muslim peoples came to an end. All through this period, it had been the Book of God and the practices of His Messenger – that is, the Qur’an and the Sunnah – which had guided the leaders and the led, set the standards of their moral conduct and inspired their actions. It was the time when the ruler and the ruled, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, were uniformly subject to the Divine Law. It was an epoch of freedom and equality, of God-consciousness and humility, of social justice which recognized no privileges, and of an impartial law which accepted no pressure groups or vested interests.
After Ali, Muslims agreed to give the caliphate to Muawiya. Muawiya tried to continue on the same way as The Rightly-Guided Caliphs, but he was ruling a different generation of people.
The first four Khalifas (Caliphs) in Islamic history, i.e. the honourable Abu Bakr Siddiq (R.A), Umar Farooq (R.A), Usman Ghani (R.A) and Ali Asadullah (R.A) were the righteous and closest companions of the Holy Prophet ﷺ. There should be no discrimination among them as they all had the strongest faiths in Allah and His Messenger ﷺ and rendered the greatest services to elevate the name of the Religion of Peace. May Allah SWT give us all the wish and desire to follow in the footsteps of these great personalities! Aameen!