Establishing of the Caliphate and the Ridda Wars

The Ridda Wars, 632–633

However, soon after the conquest of Mecca, Muhammad came to realise that bringing Islam to his neighbours was not going to be so bloodless. Perhaps only a fortnight after capturing Mecca, the Muslim army was on the move again to face an alliance of the tribes of Hawazin and Thaqif. These Bedouin were reported to have planned an attack on Medina before Muhammad had moved against Mecca but when the forces met at the Battle of Hunayn in early February, despite being ambushed in a valley, the Muslims scored a decisive victory. A follow-up victory at Autas left the remains of the alliance to retreat to the city of Ta’if. Despite the failure of the subsequent Muslim siege, the threat of a second siege led the inhabitants to surrender and accept Islam. A further expedition north towards Tabouk with a force of perhaps 30,000 men, supposedly in response to rumours of an impending Roman invasion, seems to have brought many of the restless tribes in the north into line. Indeed, the increasing military strength of Muhammad and his followers seems to have been enough to coerce large parts of Arabia to accept the political and military predominance of Medina.

However, despite this continued success, it was clear that age was catching up with the Prophet and his next pilgrimage to Mecca in early 632 was to be his last. The address he gave during this visit is perhaps one of the most poignant as he urged Muslims not tonight amongst themselves or seek revenge for past arguments. He also professed that he would fight until all men should confess that `there is no god but God’, which would be incorporated as one of the two major tents of the Islamic creed – the shahadah. To be recognised as a Muslim, an individual must accept the unique, indivisible nature of God and that Muhammad was God’s Prophet through an honest profession of the shahadah.

There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.

In the early days of June 632 Muhammad fell ill with a fever and died in the house of his wife Aisha at Medina on 8 June. As his strength failed, it is reported that the Prophet wished to dictate a letter, expressing his wishes for the future of the Muslim community. However, Umar b. al-Khattab is said to have told Muhammad that his writings in the Qur’an were enough for Islam. While there is some controversy regarding Umar’s motives for dissuading Muhammad from dictating what may have essentially been a last will and testament, there is no less truth in his pronouncement. The Qur’an and the message it transmits encapsulates the real legacy of Muhammad’s mission. He may have borrowed doctrines, practices and beliefs from Judaism, Christianity, Manichaeanism and the indigenous traditions of Arabia but this was and is no cause for concern amongst Muslims, for Muhammad never claimed to be revealing a new truth; merely that he was the last in a long line of divinely inspired prophets that included Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, David, Elijah, John the Baptist and Jesus, who all preached the same monotheistic religion. Part of Islam’s mass appeal was that it incorporated `words and images already known and under- stood’; however, such familiarity did not lessen the impact of Muhammad’s teachings. In the cultural hotpot of seventh-century Arabia, Islam was some- thing new; something that was able to cut through the many different and at times conflicting belief systems and establish itself as the predominant force. This was Muhammad’s greatest achievement.

However, Muhammad’s legacy did not involve the inception of a new religion alone. In spreading his revelations, he had become an increasingly powerful temporal leader as well. Therefore, due to his combined civilian, military and religious authority, the death of the Prophet brought not only great sadness but also great confusion. Who was to succeed him as leader of the burgeoning Muslim state? There were three distinct groupings amongst the followers of Muhammad – those recently converted from amongst the leading families of Mecca; those of Medina who had embraced Muhammad and his `Umma; and those who had made the Hijra with him. A conclave of these leading members of the community chose Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad’s earliest followers, to be the first caliph. While there was no thought that Muhammad could be succeeded as the revealer of divine wisdom, the early caliphs maintained an aura of religious authority as well as a growing political power that saw them as something of a mixture between Pope and emperor.

However, the choice of Abu Bakr was not universally accepted as some thought that Muhammad had designated his cousin and son-in-law, Ali b. Abi Talib, as his successor. This dispute between the supporters of Ali and the majority who accepted Abu Bakr would bubble under the surface and emerge again at the deaths of each of the first four successors of Muhammad – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali himself. This dispute gradually evolved into something more divisive than who would lead the Muslim community as a dogmatic schism emerged between those who believed that the caliph should be chosen or elected by the `Umma and those who believed that the descendants of Ali were the rightful heirs to the Prophet; a schism that still remains today between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

However, for the time being, Ali seems to have given tacit acceptance of Abu Bakr’s election for the good of the Muslim community. It is possible that such Alid pragmatism was encouraged by the growing unrest across Arabia. It seems that many Arab tribes felt that the alliances they had struck with Muhammad ended with his demise. This forced Abu Bakr into immediate military action. A second expedition to the outer reaches of the Roman Empire deployed by Muhammad under the command of Usama b. Zayd seems to have forced several apostate tribes to re-embrace Islam rather than face a Roman force. However, in the absence of this army, many other apostate tribes took the opportunity to advance on Medina but Abu Bakr managed to raise a scratch force that thwarted these rebels long enough for Usama to return.

Abu Bakr and his generals now embarked upon a calculated series of campaigns to force religious and political unity across Arabia, which were to become known as the Ridda Wars or the Wars of Apostasy. These campaigns were to be the first real attempt of the Muslim `Umma to extend its direct influence beyond the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula and they were to prove spectacularly successful. Khalid b. al-Walid led the main Muslim army into the heart of central Arabia, where two self-proclaimed prophets, Musaylima and Tulayha, were gathering support. By the end of September 632, after two successive victories at Buzakha and Ghamrah, Tulayha had been subdued and a further month of campaigning saw the remainder of central Arabia brought under control. Khalid then marched further east to confront Musaylima, who had already defeated the two Muslim corps already sent against him. The remains of these defeated corps, along with further reinforcements from Medina, joined Khalid in early December, who then moved to Yamamah. The resultant battle was a bloody exchange but ended in another decisive victory for Khalid and the death of Musaylima.

Khalid was not the only Muslim general to wage a successful campaign against the apostate. The Battle of Dibba in late November saw the rebelling Azd tribe defeated in Oman by Ikrimah. The same forces then intervened in Mahrah, encouraging one apostate group to re-embrace Islam before using the added manpower to defeat a larger group. A night attack on the apostate forces gathered at Hajr and a secondary victory on the coast of the Persian Gulf brought Bahrain to heel by the end of January 633. Forces loyal to the caliph in Yemen under Fairoz the Persian, a companion of Muhammad who had already dealt with one rebellion during the Prophet’s final months, were able to defeat a second round of apostate rebels late in 632. The last region to revolt was Hadhramaut, not doing so until January 633, and the military power of the rebel Kindah tribe was enough to force a stalemate with local Muslim loyalists. However, the timing of the revolt proved its undoing for the Kindah were quickly surrounded by the arrival of the corps of Muhair and Ikrimah operating in the Yemen and Mahrah respectively. Their swift capture of the rebel strongholds of Zafar and Nujair brought an end to the Ridda Wars barely six months after they began.

This unification of Arabia under the leadership of the Caliphate at Medina was a great political and military success for Abu Bakr. However, perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated to those who still doubted the power of Islam that the followers of the Prophet were not only extremely devout but had also stumbled across a series of gifted political and military leaders. It might be expected that after such a military undertaking Abu Bakr would have stood down his forces and spent time consolidating Muslim control of Arabia. However, the thought never seems to have entered his mind for, before the blood spilt at Yamamah had time to run cold, Khalid and his army had been earmarked for a much grander expedition. To the north, there were still Arabs who had yet to submit to the Will of Allah and, beyond them, the princes, kings and emperors who had so readily dismissed Muhammad’s offer of salvation through Islam were about to receive an up-close display of the power of that message.

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