The Rashidun, or al-khulafa˒ al-rashidun, the "rightly guided" caliphs, is the designation in Sunni Islam for the first four successors of the prophet Muhammad (d. 632). In their order of succession to Muhammad, these caliphs are: Abu Bakr (r. 632–634), ˓Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634–644), ˓Uthman ibn ˓Affan (r. 644–656), and ˓Ali ibn Abi Talib (r. 656–661).
According to the Sunni view of Islam's earliest history, the prophet Muhammad did not designate anyone to succeed him. Muhammad having been the last of God's prophets, the question, in any case, was of succession to the polity he had founded in Medina, not to his prophetical office. It was therefore left to the community to decide on his succession, and after some discussion and uncertainty a number of the Prophet's Companions elected Abu Bakr, a leading member of the community and Muhammad's father-in-law, as the first caliph. Before his death two years later (634 c.e.), Abu Bakr nominated ˓Umar as his successor, a choice which, like Abu Bakr's own, was accepted by the Muslim community. For his part, ˓Umar, when mortally wounded by an assassin after a reign of twelve years, left the choice of caliph to a committee of six leading figures. This committee chose ˓Uthman after he pledged to follow the example of his two immediate predecessors—a guarantee that the other major contender, ˓Ali, was not willing to give. The latter half of ˓Uthman's reign saw strong disaffection in his capital, Medina, in the garrison towns of Kufa and Basra, and in Egypt against the policies of the caliph, who was eventually murdered in Medina by the rebels. These rebels then supported the accession of ˓Ali, but he was never recognized as a legitimate caliph by the entire community of Muslims. In particular, Mu˓awiya b. Abi Sufyan, the governor of Syria and a kinsman of ˓Uthman, demanded that ˓Ali first punish the killers of his predecessor, and a number of the Prophet's Companions, including his wife ˓A˒isha, made similar demands. There was dissension in ˓Ali's own camp also, with some of his followers, who came to be known as the Khawarij, seceding from him on grounds that it was improper to negotiate with rebels like Mu˓awiya. ˓Ali was eventually murdered by one of the Khawarij, and his death, and the rise of the Umayyads to power under Mu˓awiya (r. 661–680), marked the end of the Rashidun caliphate.
The events of the latter half of ˓Uthman's reign and the entirety of ˓Ali's disputed caliphate—known to modern scholars as the First Civil War—are remembered in Islamic religious and political history as "the Fitna"—a time of chaos, dissension, and tribulation. No other period in the history of Islam has been the subject of greater debate than the events of the Fitna. For the Sunnis, the Companions are second only to the Prophet as sources of religious guidance, and yet during the civil war they were ranged on opposite sides and bitterly fought each other. Which of the parties to the conflict was in the right, whether ˓Uthman and ˓Ali were legitimate caliphs, and whether someone who was a grave sinner continued to be a member of the Muslim community were questions that were to divide the Muslim community for centuries. Indeed, it is to the events of the First Civil War that the origins of the major religio-political schisms in Islam are datable.
A distinctive doctrine of those who, in the ninth century, emerged as the Sunnis was that all four of the Prophet's immediate successors were equally righteous, and that the historical sequence of their succession was also the order of their religious ranking. Agreement on this position did not come about easily. While the Khawarij did not recognize either ˓Uthman or ˓Ali as legitimate, and most of the Shi˓a considered none but ˓Ali as a true caliph and imam, many of the ahl al-sunna of the late eighth century, who together with the ashab al-hadith later emerged as the first Sunnis, themselves had reservations about the legitimacy of ˓Ali's caliphate. By the time of the hadith scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), many of those recognizable as early Sunnis had come to acknowledge all four of the Prophet's successors as equally righteous. It was also in the late eighth and early ninth centuries that a tradition of the Prophet, according to which the "caliphate" would last only thirty years after his death—that is, only for the duration of the reigns of his first four successors—became widely current. Though the Umayyads and the Abbasids claimed, of course, to be caliphs and were recognized as such by the Sunni religious scholars, a position such as that enshrined in the "thirty years" hadith signaled that the age of the Rashidun was to be set apart from all subsequent eras. For the Sunnis, that age has continued to be seen as a time, indeed the only time, when Islamic ideals were truly implemented. As such, invocations of the Rashidun have continued to be part of the religio-political discourse in the Sunni Islamic world to the present.
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Muhammad Qasim Zaman