Writer's note: This essay was initially submitted to a university professor who taught a course on Islam. Students taking his course were assigned to write an essay on any topic of their interest, so I chose to address the issue of the succession to Rasulillah (SAW). In writing this essay, I used information that I remembered from bayaans and from trips I made to Medina al-Munawwarah; another reference was W. Madelung's SUCCESSION TO MUHAMMAD. Keep in mind while reading the essay that some of the accounts that I have put forth may not be what one hears in bayaan verbatim. In adhering to a page limit, I attempted to relate the accounts concisely, and hopefully, in doing so I did not stray too far from what is written in the kitaabs. However, should there be any flaws in my relating anything whatsoever, then pray that Allah and Aqa Maula (T.U.S.) grant me forgiveness. One other point I wish to share is that, in retrospect, taking a college course on Islam was truly an enriching experience. Although in certain instances it was a regurgitation of what I already knew, there were several other facets that I came to learn about which enabled me to appreciate even more so the greatness of the religion of Islam.
"No event in history has divided Islam more profoundly and durably than the succession to Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The right to occupy the Prophet's place at the head of the Muslim community [ummah] after his demise became a question of great religious weight which has separated Shi'as and Sunnis until the present. The issue of right and wrong in the matter has long since been settled in their minds. For Sunnis the first caliph, Abu Bakr,... was ultimately Allah's choice...", but for Shi'as His choice was "Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali [SA] who, on account of his early merits in Islam as well as his close kinship, had been appointed by the Prophet as his successor." In this paper, it is my contention that Ali had been appointed by the Prophet to be his successor, but that his rightful position was usurped by Abu Bakr with the alliance of various members of the Muhajirun (Madelung, p1).
The Quran has accorded the Messengers of Allah as preferred "above the worlds", and whose offsprings He bestowed His blessings upon as well as guided to be the "spiritual and material heirs" of the Prophets. Among the progeny of Prophet Abraham (SA), for example, Allah made Isma'il (SA) an imam to direct the people by His command. And when Moses (SA) implored his Lord to grant him help when he was faced with opposition from the people of his day, the Almighty appointed his brother Aaron (SA) in a revelation as the chosen assistant. The eminent position of the families and the descendants of the past Prophets must then "raise the expectation of a distinguished place reserved for the family of Muhammad [SAW]", who is last in the line of Prophets. As in the case of the other Prophets, members of Muhammad's family-- the term ahl al-bayt coined to distinguish them from other people-- were spiritually guided to assist him in conveying the Word of Allah to the people of its day and to defend their belief against adversaries (Madelung, p9, 11-12, 16).
Likewise in the case of former Prophets, Muhammad (SAW) too had an assistant chosen by Allah from among his family. This legattee was Ali (SA)-- son of Abu Talib (SA) and cousin of Muhammad. Allah's favor of Ali above all others was preordained and was justified first and foremost by the miraculous nature of the circumstances under which Ali was born. Fatema (SA), the wife of Abu Talib, pregnant with Ali, completed her pregnancy term of 270 days but had not yet been induced into labor to give birth to the post-term baby. Abu Talib suggested to his wife that she perform circumambulations around the Ka'ba and pray for divine assistance. In the midst of performing her rounds, she went into labor; at one corner of the Ka'ba, designated as the Ruk ne Yamani, the Ka'ba split open and she was given a push from behind towards the direction of the opening. Inside the Ka'ba Fatema gave birth to Ali, and it was until Muhammad had looked upon the infant that the infant's eyelids opened. At the time of Ali's birth a special relationship was hence imparted between Muhammad and Ali, and would be manifested from the time of the Prophet's Call in the year 610 A.D. until the Prophet's demise in the year 632.
The bond between Muhammad (SAW) and Ali (SA) grew so strong that at the time of the Prophet's Call, Ali was the first male to embrace Islam. Moreover, when Ali came of age, his virtue and sincere love for Muhammad prompted the Prophet to give him the hand of Fatima (SA)-- daughter of Muhammad by his first wife Khadija (SA)-- in marriage.
Throughout Muhammad's (SAW) prophethood Ali (SA) displayed himself as a man whose acts could not be rivalled, when fighting alongside the Messenger of Allah and protecting him with his own life. In the events preceeding the Prophet's Hijra to Medina in the year 622, for example, Mecca became so dangerous for the Prophet that members of his own tribe Quraysh plotted to kill him one night while he slept. But in Muhammad's bed Ali had slept to serve as a decoy to trick their enemies. Miraculously, despite his being Muhammad's consort, the adversaries within the Qurayshi tribe did not touch Ali.
Other instances of Ali's (SA) readiness to risk his own life in order to protect the Prophet and his cause are illustrated during battles fought in Medina. In the Battle of Uhud, for example, Muhammad (SAW) was apprehensive of a Meccan ambush, and had commanded his army to remain hidden in their places and not to go after the booty left behind by the Meccans. With the exception of Ali who stayed behind with the Prophet, the majority of the soldiers within Muhammad's army, including most of the leaders of the Muhajirun, succumbed to greed and ran towards the booty that was within their reach. Muhammad's premonitions were not futile, for his army was indeed ambushed and the Meccans subsequently won a decisive victory. In the Battle of Kandak, the Medinan victory over their enemies would only be decisive if they killed Amr bn. Abde Wad-- a renowned soldier in the Arabian Peninsula noted for his gargantuan size and immeasurable strength. No one in Muhammad's army had the courage to take two steps in the direction of this behemoth for fear of being mutilated. Ali, however, who had not yet reached the age of twenty, came forward and ventured to fight him. Amr scoffed at his opponent and then delivered a powerful blow upon Ali's head. Had this blow been dealt to any other man, he would have been cut into two halves. But with divine intervention only Ali's helmet split into two pieces, and he remained intact. Ali then hurled a blow with the same force on his opponent which sliced the latter into two halves.
Aside from fighting alongside Muhammad (SAW), Ali (SA) also assisted the Prophet in carrying out efforts to uphold the Islamic creed, that there is no god but Allah (and Muhammad is His Messenger). For instance, when Muhammad had entered Mecca to perform the first pilgrimmage after the Hijra, he enlisted Ali to remove the pagan idols contained within the precincts of the Ka'ba. Muhammad had assisted Ali to climb atop the Ka'ba by giving him a boost. But upon demolishing the idols, Ali did not ask for Muhammad's assistance in bringing him back down to the ground, because he deemed it disrespectful to have his feet touch the Prophet; without informing the Prophet, Ali jumped down from the top of the Ka'ba. When he had reached the ground the Prophet asked him if he received any injuries in his landing, and Ali replied in the negative. This was because, as Muhammad told him, that before he jumped, he had prayed to Allah to ensure his safe landing; Allah granted the Prophet's wish and the Angel Jibra'il thus carried him down on his wing.
In March of the year 632 A.D. the Prophet led the last pilgrimmage before his demise. On his journey returning to Medina he stopped at a city called Ghadir e Khum; here the Prophet placed Ali (SA) on his shoulders and publically declared him as his Wassee (official assistant and subsequent successor of the Prophet). This proclamation was witnessed by 70,000 people and to this day is commemorated as an Eid among Shi'a Muslims. In June of the same year, Muhammad (SAW) passed away; he died in the arms of Ali and it was Ali who had the task of washing the Prophet's body and of burying him.
In a society where people vied for social distinction and authority over all people, the immediate kin of the Prophet, in particular Ali (SA), were envied for having been distinguished by the favor of Allah, and hence, for having an elevated rank in the ummah. Muhammad (SAW) had a keen sense of human nature and was cognizant of weaknesses such as jealousy and pride, inherent in it. He thus sought to appease headstrong men from other clans within his tribe by marrying their daughters. By imparting social distinction upon them via their daughters, Muhammad was able to win the support of prominent members of various clans from within his tribe.
Some of Muhammad's (SAW) fathers-in-law, however, needed further pampering in order for him to consolidate their support in spreading the teachings of Islam. Abu Bakr and Umar, for example, whose daughters Aisha and Hafsa, respectively, were given in marriage to the Prophet, were chosen to be among the leaders of the small yet growing ummah in Mecca; and after Muhammad's Hijra to Medina in the year 622 A.D., these leaders of the Muhajirun-- Meccan converts to Islam, including other bedouin tribesmen, who emigrated to Medina to escape persecution-- were allowed to bask in the glory of being on intimate terms with the Prophet. But Ali (SA), who was the most trusted of Muhammad's Companions, remained as a threat to their enjoyment of absolute intimacy with the Prophet; thus Abu Bakr and Umar, together with another Muhajirun leader, hastened to form a triumvirate with the especial exclusion of Ali as well as other members of the Bani Hashim, for they had already been accorded a rank above the rest of the Muslims by the Quran.
In time as the ummah progressively expanded, Abu Bakr, one of the more calculating members of the triumvirate, often contemplated what would happen to the community of the faithful when the Prophet died. As the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad (SAW) would probably appoint a successor to have authority over all the Muslims. This successor would invariably be Ali (SA), or someone else in the Bani Hashim, in the least. Consumed with jealousy that the Prophet's clan was already privileged by having been divinely chosen for prophethood, Abu Bakr was not able to accept the likelihood of a hereditary reign within the Prophet's clan. Abu Bakr therefore made it his ambition to be that successor of the Prophet, for he relished the idea of commanding the obedience of all the Arabs in the name of Islam. In his personal desire to extend his authority over all the Arabs as Muhammad had done, he established the concept of the caliphate with the intention of being the first caliph. To secure this position, he sought to win the support of his tribe Quraysh under the pretense of rallying for their collective entitlement to rule and against a hereditary reign within the Bani Hashim. Moreover, through his daughter Aisha as a liason, who kept her father informed of every move and secret thought of her husband Muhammad, Abu Bakr hoped to be seen by the public as exerting great influence on the Prophet's actions.
Abu Bakr's clear determination to seek the succession and to prevent the election of Ali (SA) stemmed from ulterior motives, aside from his jealousy of the eminent position of the Prophet's family and his ambition to be in control. "Abu Bakr was at the time an old man who could not expect to enjoy his reign for long. He had no sons or close relatives suited to succeed him. Would it not have been more reasonable for him to back the succession of Muhammad's [SAW] cousin and father of the Prophet's grandsons, in the expectation that Ali... would seek his counsel as Muhammad had done? It was evidently the poor relationship and hostility between the two men that stood in the way of such a course." In addition, Ali's stand in matters concerning Aisha, for instance "the affair of Aisha's lost necklace and her unnoticed absence from the Muslim capmpsite, his advice to Muhammad to divorce her" because of the disgrace of finding her in the arms of another man, "and his attempt to press a confession of her guilt out of Aisha's maid, had brought upon him Aisha's life-long hatred, of which she never made an effort to conceal. Abu Bakr must have shared much of her ill feeling, although he was too [shrewd] a politician ever to vent it in public. [This] disgrace of Aisha would not only have stained the honor of his family, but would also most likely have affected his own position of [what he thought was] trusted friend of the Prophet." In general, "he could expect nothing good for himself or for Aisha if the succession fell to Ali," and therefore, "Abu Bakr had sound reason for seeking to prevent Ali's succession..." (Madelung, p42-3).
Abu Bakr's concept of the caliphate and its entitlement to the community was backed by Umar from the onset and it was the "common purpose and close cooperation" of these men that enabled them to fulfill their joint ambition, which was ultimately to establish the successive caliphates of Abu Bakr and Umar. Just hours after the Prophet expired, an assembly had convened to decide how the ummah would continue now that Muhammad (SAW) was gone. The absence of Ali (SA) and other members of the Bani Hashim at this meeting-- Ali was engaged in washing the Prophet's body, and the others were busy making preparations for the burial-- gave Abu Bakr and Umar their opportunity to launch their coup and establish the caliphate. At the meeting the majority of the Muhajirun were also not present to express potential objections; their absence, coupled with the support of the Qurayshi tribe and of those tribes subjugated under its power, set the stage for Abu Bakr and Umar to realize their goal.
Thenceforward, it was during Abu Bakr's rule that his and his family's animosity towards the ahl al-bayt was convincingly evidenced. Primarily, Abu Bakr acted contrary to Aisha's reports in which she contrived that her father's "...greatest concern was to treat the family of his deceased friend kindly and fairly, a duty to which he placed even higher than his obligation towards his own kin". He also did not maintain "the privileged status of Muhammad's [SAW] ahl al-bayt", and failed to uphold "the Quranic rules of inheritance to them and of continuing to pay their Quranic shares of the war booty and the fay". For instance, when Fatima (SA) came with her uncle to claim the money and land left behind by her father, Abu Bakr falsely claimed that Muhammad disinherited his family and "affirmed that after his death his family should, if in need, accept alms", even though the Prophet had strictly forbidden them to do so during his life because of their status of purity. But "while the Prophet's daughter and kin were thus disinherited and demoted from their rank of religious purity" according to the policy implemented by Abu Bakr, the latter recognized his obligation to provide generously for the widows of the Prophet. To Aisha, for example, "belonged the first place" as she was the daughter of the "chosen" successor (Madelung p20, 50).
Aside from Abu Bakr's attempts, Aisha likewise sought to reduce the station of the ahl al-bayt from being "above the worlds", while championing her father as being the rightful successor of Muhammad (SAW). "[Her] reports were highly laudatory and apologetic for Abu Bakr, whom she presented as a kindly father full of the gentleness and prudence, valued so highly among the Arabs as a leadership quality". She did not, however, spare any effort to portray her husband's kin, in particular Ali (SA), "in the most negative light", as being quarrelsome and incompetant, for example. Her intense hatred for Ali and her jealousy of Muhammad's first wife Khadija (SA) were her primary reasons for distorting and fabricating narrations pertaining to members of Muhammad's family. Nevertheless, her listeners were led to believe that her accounts must be factual because as the Prophet's wife she must have had first-hand knowledge of the events. Furthermore, being Abu Bakr's daughter, her prestige was so great that any reports that countered hers were rejected as being apocryphal. So much the worse for her believers (Madelung, p20-1).
In conclusion, as it had occurred in the stories of past Prophets, Muhammad's (SAW) followers had submitted to "passion in place of justice" (Madelung, p7). It was Allah's will that Ali (SA) be the Wassee of the Prophet, but His will was overrided by the people's will. Because of envy of the favor of Allah upon the Prophet's family and of their elevated rank, a select number of leaders of the Muslim ummah deliberately manipulated power into their own hands so as not to impart any more glory upon the family of the Prophet. Blinded by their emotions, however, they could not forsee that whosoever the Almighty bestows His blessings upon, remain forever guided and in His favor.
Madelung, Wilferd. The Succession To Muhammad, by Cambridge University Press, 1997.