Succession To Muhammad

The succession to Muhammad is the central issue that split the Muslim community into several divisions in the first century of Islamic history, with the most prominent among these sects being the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam. Sunni Islam maintains that Abu Bakr was the legitimate successor to Muhammad on the basis of election. Shia Islam holds that Ali ibn Abi Talib was the designated successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

The contrasting opinions regarding the succession are primarily based on different interpretations of the events in early Islamic history as well as of hadiths (sayings of Muhammad). The Sunni Muslims believe that Muhammad had not appointed a successor and had instead intended for the Muslim community to choose a leader from among themselves. They accept the rule of Abu Bakr, who was elected at Saqifah, and that of his successors, who are together referred to as the Rashidun Caliphs. On the other hand, the Shia Muslims believe that Ali had previously been nominated by Muhammad as his heir, most notably during the Event of Ghadir Khumm, following the revelation of verse 5:67 of the central religious text of Islam, the Quran. The Twelver Shia view the first three rulers who followed Muhammad as illegitimate, though Zaydi Shia view them as legitimate. Instead, the rightful successors of Muhammad are believed to be Ali and the Imams of his lineage. In Twelver Shia belief, the last of these Imams, Mahdi, went into occultation in 260 AH (874 CE), compelled by the hostility of the his enemies. The advent of Mahdi is awaited by most Muslims, though different sects hold different views about him.


See also: Historiography of early Islam

Most of the Islamic history was transmitted orally until after the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate. Historical works of later Muslim writers include the traditional biographies of Muhammad and quotations attributed to him—the sira and hadith literature—which provide further information on Muhammad’s life. The earliest surviving written sira (biography of Muhammad) is Sirat Rasul Allah (Life of God’s Messenger) by Ibn Ishaq (d. 761 or 767 CE). Although the original work is lost, portions of it survive in the recensions of Ibn Hisham (d. 833) and al-Tabari (d. 923). Many scholars accept these biographies although their accuracy is uncertain. Studies by Schacht and Goldziher have led scholars to distinguish between legal and historical traditions. According to Watt, although legal traditions could have been invented, historical material may have been primarily subject to “tendential shaping” rather than being invented. Modern Western scholars approach the classic Islamic histories with circumspection and are less likely than Sunni Islamic scholars to trust the work of the Abbasid historians.

Hadith compilations are records of the traditions or sayings of Muhammad. The development of the hadith is a crucial element of the first three centuries of Islamic history. Early Western scholars mistrusted the later narrations and reports, regarding them as fabrications. Caetani considered the attribution of historical reports to Abd Allah ibn Abbas and Aisha as mostly fictitious, preferring accounts reported without isnad by early historians such as Ibn Ishaq. Madelung has rejected the indiscriminate dismissal of everything not included in “early sources”, instead of judging later narratives in the context of history and compatibility with events and figures.

The only contemporaneous source is The Book of Sulaym ibn Qays (Kitab al-Saqifah) by Sulaym ibn Qays (died 75-95 AH or 694-714 CE). This collection of hadith and historical reports from the first century of the Islamic calendar narrates in detail events relating to the succession. However, there have been doubts regarding the reliability of the collection, with some believing that it was a later creation given that the earliest mention of the text-only appears in the eleventh century.

The tomb of Muhammad is located in the quarters of his third wife, Aisha. (Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, Medina)

The tomb of Muhammad is located in the quarters of his third wife, Aisha. (Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, Medina)

Historical overview


Main article: Saqifah

In the immediate aftermath of Muhammad’s death in 11 AH (632 CE), a gathering of the Ansar (natives of Medina) took place at Saqifah. The purpose of the meeting might have been for the Ansar to regain control over their city after Muhammad’s death, with the intentional exclusion of the Muhajirun (migrants from Mecca).

Nevertheless, Abu Bakr and Umar, two prominent companions of Muhammad, upon learning about the meeting, rushed to the gathering and reportedly forced their way into Saqifah. Abu Bakr and Umar, accompanied by Abu Ubaidah and a few relatives, are said to have been the only members of Muhajirun who attended the Saqifah gathering.

When they arrived, Abu Bakr warned the Ansar that Arabs will not recognize the rule of anyone outside of Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh. Muhajirun, Abu Bakr argued, had the most noble lineage, had accepted Islam earlier, and were nearer to Muhammad in relation. He then took Umar and Abu Ubaidah by the hand and offered them to the Ansar as potential choices. Abu Bakr was countered with the offer that the Quraysh and the Ansar should each choose separate rulers from among themselves. The stalemate reportedly continued through the night and into the next day. As evident from the early accounts, eloquent speeches gave way to a shouting match, with different groups competing for power. Sa’d ibn Ubadah, the chief of the Khazraj tribe of the Ansar, is said to have accused the attending Muhajirin of colluding together. In a decisive move, Umar took Abu Bakr’s hand and swore his allegiance to him, an example eventually followed by the Ansar after Ibn Ubadah was beaten into compliance.

The outburst of violence, according to Madelung, indicates that a substantial number of the Ansar might have initially refused to follow Umar’s lead. Otherwise, Madelung argues, there would have been no need to beat up their chief, Ibn Ubadah. After Umar’s pledge to Abu Bakr, some of the Ansar reportedly insisted that, “We will not pay allegiance to anyone except Ali,” who was not present at Saqifah. Madelung suggests that two factors allowed the handful of Muhajirun at Saqifah to impose their will upon the Ansar: The first factor was that two key figures broke rank with the rest of the Ansar and backed Abu Bakr: Usaid ibn Hudair, a leader of the rival tribe of Aws, and Bashir bin Sa’ad, an internal rival of Sa’d ibn Ubadah among the Khazraj tribe. The second factor was the timely arrival of the Aslam tribe in great numbers, who filled the streets of Medina. The Aslam tribe, which resided outside of Medina, were the enemies of the Ansar and readily supported Abu Bakr. Umar would often point out that, “It was only when I saw the Aslam that I became certain of [our] victory.”

The Saqifah event has been criticized as a “backroom deal” or a “coup” which was heavily influenced by pre-Islamic tribal politics. Muhammad’s family and the majority of the Muhajirun were excluded from the Saqifah gathering. In particular, Ali was holding vigil over Muhammad’s body, alongside other close relatives, and likely learned about the outcome of Saqifah only after the fact.

Madelung suggests that the decision at Saqifah, which Umar later called a hasty one (falta), materialized in part out of the fear that the Ansar might put forward the case of Ali among themselves. According to Madelung, Abu Bakr was well aware that a broad shura, in which Ali was to be an option, would have led to the election of Ali: The Ansar would have likely supported Ali because of his family ties with them, and the same arguments that favored Abu Bakr over the Ansar (kinship, service to Islam, etc.) would have arguably favored Ali over Abu Bakr. Madelung adds that the straightforward logic of dynastic succession would have prevailed in a general shura. He believes that the evil of the falta which, Umar thought, had been averted by God would erupt later with a vengeance in the form of a brutal civil war after Uthman’s assassination.

Muhammad was likely buried before the participants of the Saqifah gathering scattered. According to Madelung, with the help of the Aslam and Aws tribes, Umar then dominated the streets to secure the pledge of allegiance of Medinans. Some companions of Muhammad, most notably, Ali and his supporters, initially refused to acknowledge Abu Bakr’s authority. Abu Bakr ordered his aides, among them Umar, to confront Ali, resulting in an altercation which may have involved violence. It is believed that Ali continued to passively resist the authority of Abu Bakr until his wife, Fatimah, died a few months later. During this time period Madelung says that, Ali could see nothing but hypocrisy in Abu Bakr’s tears and claims to love Muhammad’s family. According to the Shia, Fatimah died from the injuries that she suffered in a raid on her house, ordered by Abu Bakr. This claim is rejected by the Sunni. Fatimah’s dying wish was that Abu Bakr and Umar should not attend her funeral.

These initial conflicts after Muhammad’s death are regarded as the first signs of the coming division among Muslims. Those who had accepted Abu Bakr’s caliphate later became the Sunni, while the supporters of Ali’s right to the caliphate eventually became the Shia.

According to Laura Veccia Vaglieri, whether Ali hoped he could take the position of Caliphate after Muhammad, is doubtful, since he made no effort to take control of the community, in spite of being advised by al-Abbas and Abu Sufyan to do so. Madelung, on the other hand, believes that Ali himself was firmly convinced of his legitimacy for the caliphate based on his close kinship with Muhammad, his knowledge of Islam, and his merits in serving its cause. Ali told Abu Bakr, Madelung writes, that his delay in pledging allegiance (bay’ah) to him was based on his belief in his own claim to the caliphate. Ali did not change his mind, Madelung says, when he finally pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr and then to Umar and to Uthman, but had done so, for the sake of the unity of Islam, at a time when it was clear that the Muslims had turned away from him. If the Muslim community, Madelung continues, or a small segment of it, favored him, he would no longer consider the caliphate just as his “right”, but also as his “duty”. According to Chirri, Ali believed that he could fulfill the role of Imam without fighting.

Regarding the succession of Ali, historians and scholars of Islamic history have generally either accepted the view of the Sunnis or considered the truth of the matter undetectable. One of the historians who has distanced himself from this common belief is Wilferd Madelung. In the Encyclopedia of Islam, Madelung considers the main Shia claims, to be Ali’s own view, because Ali considered himself the most worthy person for the caliphate, compared to other companions, and blamed the Muslim community for turning away from him, but, at the same time, he praised the caliphate of Abu Bakr and Umar, and condemned the destruction of their character. Madelung believes that, since in the Arab customs of the time, especially the Quraysh, hereditary succession was common, and since the Qur’an emphasized the importance of blood ties between the early prophets, especially the Ahl al-Bayt, and since the Ansar supported Ali’s caliphate, Abu Bakr knew that forming a council would lead to the election of Ali, so he led the situation in a manner that insured his own election. Vaglieri, On the other hand, believes that Arabs traditionally chose their leaders from among the elders, and Ali was a little over thirty years old at the time, and did not have the necessary credibility to succeed Muhammad, according to Arab traditions. Vaglieri believes that the Shias, by inventing or interpreting the words attributed to Muhammad in the light of their beliefs, insist that the Prophet intended to choose Ali as his successor, while there is no doubt that at the time of his last illness, Muhammad did not mention this desire. Some sources name the Hadith of the pen and paper, as the last words of Muhammad, which is interpreted differently by Shias and Sunnis.

Rashidun Caliphs

Abu Bakr adopted the title of khalifat rasul Allah, commonly translated as the successor to the messenger of God. This was shortened to khalifa, from which the word caliph arose. Abu Bakr’s tenure as the caliph lasted just over two years. Though he was appointed caliph by those at Saqifah, Abu Bakr designated Umar as his successor, reportedly against the advice of the Quraysh elders. Umar was instrumental in the ascension of Abu Bakr to the caliphate. In 644, on his deathbed, Umar tasked a committee of six with choosing the next caliph among themselves. The committee included Ali, Uthman ibn Affan, and his brother-in-law, Abd al-Rahman ibn Awf. The tie-breaker vote belonged to Abd al-Rahman, Othman’s brother-in-law, and it has been suggested that the makeup and configuration of this committee left a small possibility for the nomination of Ali.

In the final showdown, Abd al-Rahman offered the caliphate to Ali on two conditions: first, he should follow the way of the Quran and the Sunnah of Muhammad, and second, he should follow the example of Abu Bakr and Umar. Ali is said to have accepted the first condition but declined the second one, adding that he would rely only on his own judgment in the absence of any precedent from the Quran or the Sunnah. Abd al-Rahman then presented the same conditions to Uthman who readily accepted them. It has been suggested that Abd al-Rahman was well aware of Ali’s disagreements with the past two caliphs and that Ali, known for his sincerity, would have inevitably rejected the second condition.

Uthman’s reign was marked with widespread accusations of nepotism. Under Uthman’s rule, his tribe, the Banu Umayyad, is said to have regained its pre-Islamic influence and power. Uthman installed his relatives, including his cousin, Muawiya, to rule the Islamic territories. According to Glassé, Uthman was assassinated by rebels in 656, in a climate of growing dissension against the despotism of the Banu Umayyad.

Shortly after the assassination of Uthman, the caliphate was offered to Ali, who declined the position at first. Aslan attributes Ali’s initial refusal to the polarizing impact of Uthman’s murder on the community, while Durant writes that, “[Ali] shrank from drama in which religion had been displaced by politics, and devotion by intrigue.” In the absence of any serious opposition and urged particularly by the Ansar and the Iraqi delegations, Ali eventually accepted the first pledges of allegiance in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. It appears that Ali personally did not force anyone for a pledge though the strong pro-Ali atmosphere of Medina might have exerted some pressure on his opponents. In particular, Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqqas, Abdullah ibn Umar and Usama ibn Zayd refused to acknowledge the authority of Ali. Talha and Zubayr, both companions of Muhammad with ambitions for the high office, likely gave their pledges though they later broke their oaths, claiming that they had pledged their allegiance to Ali under public pressure. There is, however, less evidence for violence here than in Abu Bakr’s election, according to Madelung.

Ali inherited the internal problems of Uthman’s reign. Immediately after his election, Ali quelled an armed insurrection led by Aisha, a widow of Muhammad, and Talhah and Zubayr. Afterwards, Uthman’s governor of Syria, Muawiya, declared war on Ali and a long and indecisive civil war ensued. The first four caliphs are referred to by the Sunni as the Rashidun (rightly-guided) Caliphs, though only Ali is recognized by the Twelver Shia.

Later successions

Abu Bakr’s view that the caliphate should remain within the Quraysh tribe persisted in later generations. According to Cooperson, however, this definition of the caliphate had its costs. First, it facilitated the rise of the Umayyads who, despite being of the Quraysh, were among the most powerful enemies of Muhammad before their late conversion to Islam. Their rise to power marginalized both the Muhajirun and the Ansar, and reduced the caliphate, as an institution, to no more than a worldly kingship. Second, according to Cooperson, was the exclusion of Ali, who, insofar as the kinship of the Quraysh with Muhammad was concerned, had an arguably better claim to the caliphate. Ali eventually became caliph, but not in time to stop the rise of the Umayyads.

After the assassination of Ali in 661, his eldest son, Hasan, was elected caliph in Kufa. Muawiya then marched on Kufa with his army, whereas Hasan’s military response to Muawiya suffered defections in large numbers, largely facilitated by military commanders and tribal chiefs who had been swayed to Muawiya’s side by promises and offers of money. Under attack from Muawiya and after a failed assassination attempt on his life, a wounded Hasan ceded the caliphate to Muawiya in 661. Notably, under their agreement, it is said that Muawiya appointed Hasan as his successor. However, Hasan died in 669 at the age of forty-six, before Muawiya. It is believed that he was poisoned at the instigation of Muawiya.

Before his death in 680, Muawiya arranged for the succession of his son, Yazid, who is often remembered as a debaucher who openly violated the Islamic norms. In particular, Muawiya summoned a council (shura) of the Muslim elite in 676 and won their support through flattery, bribes, and threats. Notably, Muawiya was unsuccessful in securing the oath of allegiance from Hasan’s younger brother, Husayn, who, after Muawiya’s death, publicly denounced Yazid’s legitimacy. In 680, after surrounding them in Karbala and cutting off their access to water for multiple days, Yazid’s forces slaughtered Husayn, alongside his family and his small group of supporters. The women and children were taken prisoner and marched to Kufa and then Damascus, some of whom are said to have perished from mistreatment. The tragic death of Husayn and his supporters marked the Second Fitna, which finalized the schism between the Sunni and the Shia. The latter consider Husayn as their third Imam.

The succession subsequently transformed under the Umayyads from an elective/appointed position to being effectively hereditary within the family.

In the Quran

The Quran, as the central religious text of Islam, does not explicitly identify a successor to Muhammad. The Quran, however, emphasizes the importance of preserving bonds of blood relationships, which might be pertinent to the discussion of succession, according to Madelung. One such instance is verse Q16:90, which reads, “Indeed, God enjoins justice and kindness and generosity towards relatives, and He forbids indecency, wrong, and aggression…”

Also related to the matter of succession might be the prominent position of the past prophets’ families in the Quran. In particular, after the past prophets, their descendants become the spiritual and material heirs to them in the Quran. The scripture describes how the past prophets prayed for (and were granted) divine favors for their kin. For instance, verse Q2:124 records the following exchange after stating that Abraham had successfully fulfilled his divine missions: “[God] said [to Abraham], ‘I am making you the Imam of mankind.’ [Abraham] replied, ‘And from among my descendants?’ [God] said [in response that], ‘My pledge does not extend to the unjust.’” This exchange suggests that God’s pledge does extend to those descendants of Abraham who are just, including Muhammad. According to Madelung, from Noah to Jesus, the prophets of the Israelites were all descendants of one family.

Similar to the past prophets, Muhammad’s family has an eminent position in the Quran. In one instance, the Verse of Purification in the Quran includes the passage, “Indeed, God desires to repel all impurity from only you, O people of the [Prophet’s] household, and purify you with a thorough purification.” Another instance is the Verse of Wilayah, which reads as, “Your wali is only God, His Apostle, and the faithful who maintain(s) the prayer and give(s) the zakat while bowing down [in worship].” In this verse, “the faithful” might refer to Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The word wali, however, has multiple meanings in Arabic. In this verse, the Shia interpret the word wali as leader or guardian, whereas Sunni scholars interpret this word to mean friend.

According to Madelung, insofar as the Quran reflects the views of Muhammad, he could have not seen his succession differently from earlier prophets, who prayed for (and were granted) the divine favor to be succeeded by their close kin in kingship, in rule, in wisdom, in imamate, etc. Madelung posits that “It is evident that he [Muhammad] could not have considered Abu Bakr his natural successor or have been pleased by his succession.” This is because, he argues, the succession of prophets is a matter that is settled by divine selection rather than by shura (consultation) in the Quran. In particular, God seems to select their successors from their own family, whether or not those successors become prophets themselves.

In the hadith literature

Feast of Dhul Asheera

Main article: Hadith of Warning

Verse 26:214 of the Quran tasked Muhammad with presenting Islam to his relatives, some three years after his first divine revelation (c. 617 CE). There are multiple accounts of how Muhammad attempted to do this, with one version stating that he invited his relatives to a meal, later named the Feast of Dhul Asheera. After the meal, Muhammad introduced his relatives to Islam and asked them for their support: “Who will help me in this venture, as my brother, my executor, and my successor?” According to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad’s cousin, Ali, the youngest among them, was the only relative who offered his assistance to Muhammad. Muhammad then placed his hand on Ali’s shoulder and declared, “This [Ali] is my brother, my executor, and my successor. Listen to him and obey him.”

This announcement was met with ridicule from Abu Lahab, Muhammad’s uncle, and his staunch foe, and the guests dispersed afterwards. Some sources, such as the Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, have not recorded Muhammad’s response to Ali. According to Rubin, what is notable in these accounts is the early appointment of Ali as Muhammad’s heir. One of the accounts for this event is attributed to Ali, in which he describes himself as Muhammad’s successor. Lastly, the association of this event with the revelation of a Quranic verse appears to offer both authenticity and divine authorization.

Al-Suyuti’s account

In his Tarikh al-Khulafa, al-Suyuti collected the narrations which quote Ali to have said that Muhammad did not name a successor. On the other hand, it has been noted that, after Muhammad’s death, Ali viewed himself as the most qualified person to lead the Muslim community by virtue of his merits and his kinship with Muhammad. According to Mavani, Ali also considered himself as the designated successor of Muhammad through a divine decree at the Event of the Ghadir Khumm, as evidenced by the incident in his caliphate where Ali appealed to Kufans to testify about his designation at Ghadir Khumm.

Al-Suyuti also writes that, in response to a question about his successor, Caliph Umar replied that, if he gave a nomination, he had a precedent in Abu Bakr whereas, if he named no one, he had a precedent in Muhammad.

Hadith of Position

Main article: Hadith of Position

Before leaving Medina on the Expedition to Tabuk in 9 AH, Muhammad appointed Ali as his deputy in Medina. When rumors spread that the two had fallen out, Muhammad publicly endorsed Ali by saying, “Are you not content, Ali, to stand to me as Aaron stood to Moses, except that there will be no prophet after me?” Another source has recorded that Muhammad continued, “It is not permissible for me to go without you being my caliph (successor).” Ibn Hisham claims that the rumors in Medina were spread by munafiqun (hypocrites).

Aside from being a prophet, the Quran portrays Aaron as Moses’ brother and his divinely-appointed minister and deputy. In particular, Aaron was left in charge of the Israelites in the absence of Moses, when the latter ascended Mount Sinai. Prophets, including Aaron, are generally considered infallible in Islam, albeit different sects interpret infallibility differently.

According to Miskinzoda, in view of the Hadith of Position, Shia Islam argues that Ali received from Muhammad all the ranks which Aaron had received from Moses. In particular, Muhammad considered Ali to be his divinely-appointed deputy. Miskinzoda adds that of similar importance here are the divine prerogatives bestowed upon Aaron’s descendants, including God’s proclamation in the Hebrew Bible, “Behold, I give unto him [Aaron] My covenant of peace. And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood.” This privilege might be compared to the Shia belief that Imams, from the lineage of Ali, inherited Ali’s divine wisdom and authority. This divine elevation of prophets’ descendants above the rest of the faithful is a recurring theme in the Quran.

A criticism of the Shia interpretation is that Ali might not have been Muhammad’s first choice for governing Medina during the Tabuk expedition. Reportedly, Muhammad had first left Jafar in charge of his family. It is not clear who this Jafar might have been, considering that Jafar ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s prominent relative, had been killed a year earlier. Historical records indicate that Muhammad used the same analogy between Aaron and Ali on multiple other occasions, e.g., during the Battle of Khaybar.

Another criticism of the Shia interpretation is that Aaron died before Moses, i.e., Aaron could not succeed Moses. However, it has been suggested that, had he survived Moses, Aaron would have succeeded Moses. Paraphrasing the Shia scholar al-Mufid, the Hadith of Position endowed Ali with every (Quranic) position that Aaron had held except prophethood, namely, the deputy, the minister, and a brother.

A final criticism is that Ali was Muhammad’s cousin and his son-in-law, rather than his blood brother. It has been noted, however, that Muhammad had twice sworn fraternity pacts with Ali. According to Nasr, when Muslims were being paired together in sworn brotherhood after the migration to Medina, Muhammad chose Ali as his brother and proclaimed, “You are my brother in this world and the hereafter.”

Event of Ghadir Khumm

Main article: Event of Ghadir Khumm

The Investiture of Ali at Ghadir Khumm (MS Arab 161, fol. 162r, AD 1309/8 Ilkhanid manuscript illustration)

The Investiture of Ali at Ghadir Khumm (MS Arab 161, fol. 162r, AD 1309/8 Ilkhanid manuscript illustration)

This event was Muhammad’s most public announcement about Ali and also his last public address before his death three months later. According to Rogerson, however, no definitive (Sunni) record of Muhammad’s sermon remains today, though some parts of this sermon have been preserved in a number of sayings. On 18 Dhu al-Hijjah 10 AH (March 632), after his Farewell Pilgrimage to Mecca and on his return trip to Medina, Muhammad stopped at the oasis Ghadir Khumm in order to make an announcement. Muhammad is also said to have ordered those who were ahead to return and waited for the remaining pilgrims to join them. After the noon prayer, to avoid the extreme heat, a dais was constructed for Muhammad in the shade.

Muhammad then delivered a sermon, in which he alerted Muslims about his imminent death. In his sermon, Muhammad is also reported to have told Muslims that he would leave among them two important things, namely, the Quran and his Ahl al-Bayt, meaning his close relatives. He then charged Muslims to always remain attached to the two. Finally, calling up Ali and taking him by the hand, Muhammad asked his followers whether he did not have more authority (awla) over the believers than themselves. The crowd shouted their agreement. Muhammad then uttered what has become known as the Hadith of Ghadir Khumm:

“Anyone who has me as his mawla, has this Ali as his mawla.”

It is said that Muhammad repeated this sentence three or four more times. Multiple sources add that Muhammad then continued, “O God, befriend the friend of Ali and be the enemy of his enemy.” Musnad Ibn Hanbal includes that, after Muhammad’s sermon, Umar congratulated Ali and told him, “You have now become mawla of every faithful man and woman.”

According to Veccia Vaglieri, while the veracity of this event is certain, its interpretation is a source of controversy between Sunni and Shia. Mawla has multiple meanings in Arabic and the opinion about the meaning of this word in the Hadith of Ghadir Khumm is split along sectarian lines between Sunni and Shia. Among the Sunni, the word mawla in this hadith is interpreted as “friend” or “one who is loyal/close” and Muhammad was merely advocating that Ali was deserving of friendship and respect. Conversely, the Shia interpret the word mawla as “leader” or “ruler” and view this event as a clear designation of Ali as Muhammad’s successor.

Sources such as al-Dur al-Manthur have also recorded that verse 5:67 of the Quran was revealed to Muhammad shortly before the event: “O Apostle! Communicate that which has been sent down to you from your Lord, and if you do not, you will not have communicated His message, and God shall protect you from the people. Indeed, God does not guide the faithless lot.” According to Mavani, verse 5:3 of the Quran is also linked to this event by Shia and some Sunni sources. This verse includes the passage, “Today I have perfected your religion for you, completed My blessing upon you, and chosen as your religion Islam.” Amir-Moezzi adds that this verse was revealed to Muhammad on the day of the event.

The Event of Ghadir Khumm has been preserved in Arabic literature. The earliest instance appears to be a poem attributed to Hassan bin Thabit, who accompanied Muhammad during his only pilgrimage to Mecca. This poem, which has been preserved by Shia sources and some Sunni authorities, includes the verse, “Stand up, O Ali, for I find only you to be an Imam and a guide after I [Muhammad] depart,” as quoted by Abbas from Hassan’s diwan. In regards to its authenticity, Jafri suggests that it is highly improbable that these events would have passed unrecorded by Hassan, who was the “official poet-reporter of Muhammad.”

A criticism of the Shia interpretation, as vocalized by Shaban, is that the community of Medina did not react as if they had heard of Ali’s appointment at Ghadir Khumm. On the other hand, according to Veccia Vaglieri, the narrations about this event are so numerous that leave little room to doubt its authenticity and perceived importance. Amir-Moezzi writes that the Shia scholar Amini has compiled eleven volumes of Sunni and Shia documents that support the Shia interpretation of this event.

Congregational prayer

The most notable event that supports Abu Bakr’s right to succession reportedly occurred towards the end of Muhammad’s life. According to Walker, too ill to lead the prayers himself, Muhammad instructed Abu Bakr to take his place, ignoring concerns that he was too emotionally delicate for the role. Abu Bakr subsequently took up the position and, when Muhammad entered the prayer hall one morning during the fajr prayer, Abu Bakr attempted to step back to let Muhammad lead the prayer. Muhammad, however, allowed Abu Bakr to continue. Jafri writes that there are various versions of this report, many of which are attributed to Abu Bakr’s daughter, Aisha, whose rivalry with Ali is well-documented. After mentioning this report, Madelung defers to Caetani, who considers it to be an invention of Muslim traditionalists. The multiple versions of this report are often contradictory, according to Jafri.

Similar incidents used by the Sunni are Abu Bakr’s service as Muhammad’s vizier during his time in Medina, as well as Abu Bakr’s appointment to lead the Hajj pilgrimage. However, it has been noted that several other companions had held similar positions of authority and trust, including the leading prayers and governing of Medina. Such honors may therefore not hold much importance in matters of succession.

Incident of Pen and Paper

Main article: Hadith of Pen and Paper

A day or two before his death, Muhammad asked for writing materials: “I need to write something so that you will not go astray when I am gone.” Umar then intervened, telling those present that Muhammad was raving, and adding that, “You have the Quran, the book of God is sufficient for us,” as quoted in Sahih al-Bukhari. It is said that a quarrel then broke out at Muhammad’s bedside, with some suggesting that Muhammad’s orders should be followed and some siding with Umar to disregard Muhammad’s request. The noise apparently pained Muhammad, who scolded those present by his bedside and asked them to leave. Other sources say that Muhammad instead gave oral recommendations, which have been recorded differently by different authors.

The disobedience to Muhammad in this incident has been downplayed or attributed to concerns about overstraining the ill Muhammad by some Sunni scholars. In contrast, the incident is viewed as a calamity and a missed opportunity in Shia sources. According to Madelung, Umar later explained to Ibn Abbas that Muhammad intended to name Ali as his successor and that he, Umar, prevented this out of the conviction that Arabs would revolt against Ali. This view has been echoed by Hazleton. There is, in fact, no dearth of speculation among scholars about what Muhammad intended to write. Shia scholars suggest that it would have been a formal appointment of Ali as the new leader, while Sunni authorities have advanced various alternatives. In Sunni Islam, this hadith has also been linked to the rise of the community politics which followed Muhammad’s death. The argument is that Muhammad had implicitly agreed to how the Muslim community (ummah) would act after his death. From the Sunni viewpoint, this hadith is therefore linked to the emergence of sayings, attributed to Muhammad, such as, “My ummah will never agree on an error,” an idea perpetuated by theologians like Ibn Hazm and Ibn Sayyid al-Nas.



The general Sunni belief is that Muhammad had not chosen anyone to succeed him, instead of reasoning that he had intended for the community to decide on a leader amongst themselves. However, some specific hadiths are used to justify that Muhammad intended Abu Bakr to succeed, but that he had shown this decision through his actions rather than doing so verbally.

In Sunni Islam, the election of a caliph is ideally a democratic choice made by the Muslim community. As this is difficult to enforce, Sunni Islam recognizes as caliph anyone who seizes power, as long as he is from the Quraysh, the tribe of Muhammad. Even the latter is not a strict requirement, given that Ottoman Caliphs had no familial relation to the Quraysh tribe. In Sunni Islam, caliphs are not viewed as infallible and can be removed from the office if their actions are deemed sinful. At the same time, obedience to a caliph is often regarded as a religious obligation even if the caliph is unjust. Conversely, a judge would be considered competent solely on the basis of his appointment by the government.

Historically, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali are regarded by the Sunni as the most righteous of their generation, with their merit being reflected in their caliphate. The subsequent caliphates of the Umayyads and the Abbasids, while not ideal, are seen as legitimate because they complied with the requirements of the law, and kept the borders safe and the community united. While the Umayyads and the Abbasids are viewed as kingships, the Sunni was more willing than others to accommodate these rulers, regardless of their legitimacy and mode of government, and in so doing the Sunni made most of Islamic history their own.



Twelver Shia is the largest branch of Shia Islam, with about 85% of the Shia population.

In the Twelver Shia view, after a prophet’s death, it is deemed essential that a divinely-appointed successor would guide the faithful towards the righteous path. Without a divinely-appointed successor, according to the Twelver Shia, the prophetic mission and God’s favor to the faithful would both remain incomplete. At the same time, in Shia theology, this designated successor would not rule by force if the faithful withhold their support.

The Twelver Shia view is that, similar to the past prophets in the Quran, the succession to Muhammad was settled by divine appointment, rather than by consensus. Moreover, as with the past prophets in the Quran, God chose Muhammad’s successor from his family. A number of verses in the Quran and some hadiths might be linked to the prominent position of Muhammad’s family in Islam, including the Verse of Purification, Verse of Mubahala, and Verse of Mawadda in the Quran, and the well-attested Hadith of the Thaqalayn and the Hadith of the Ark.

The view advanced by the Shia is that Muhammad announced his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his rightful successor shortly before his death at the Event of Ghadir Khumm and also earlier in his prophetic mission at the Event of Dhul Asheera. After the announcement at Ghadir Khumm, there is evidence that the Verse of Ikmal was revealed to Muhammad, declaring the completion of God’s favor to the faithful. Though it is believed that Ali considered himself as the rightful successor of Muhammad, he is said to have turned down proposals to forcefully pursue his claims to the caliphate after the appointment of Abu Bakr, for the sake of preserving the unity of Islam in a critical time.

Ali’s distinctions are amply attested to in Islamic sources. In Mecca, a young Ali is said to have been the first male to embrace Islam and the only person who offered his support when Muhammad first introduced Islam to his relatives. Later, he facilitated Muhammad’s safe escape to Medina by risking his life as the decoy. In Medina, Ali swore a pact of brotherhood with Muhammad and later took the hand of Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah, in marriage. Ali commonly acted as Muhammad’s secretary in Medina and served as his deputy during the Expedition of Tabuk. Saluted as Asadullah (literally, “the lion of God”), Ali has been viewed as the ablest warrior in Muhammad’s army and the two were the only Muslim men who represented Islam against a Christian delegation from Najran. Ali’s role in the collection of the Quran, the central text of Islam, is deemed as one of his key contributions. When, following the revelation of the surah at-Tawbah, Abu Bakr was sent to Mecca to give an ultimatum to disbelievers, there is strong evidence that Muhammad might have sent out Ali to take over this responsibility.

In Shia theology, while direct revelation ended with Muhammad’s death, Ali remained the righteous guide towards God, similar to the successors of the past prophets in the Quran. After Muhammad’s death, Ali inherited his divine knowledge and his authority to correctly interpret the Quran, especially its allegorical and metaphorical verses (mutashabihat). Often cited here is a well-attested hadith, attributed to Muhammad, which reads as, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate.”

In Shia Islam, as the righteous guide after Muhammad, Ali is believed to be infallible. Ali is one of the Ahl al-Kisa, who are addressed by the sahih Hadith of Kisa and the related Verse of Purification in the Quran, which includes the passage, “Indeed God desires to repel all impurity from you, O Ahl al-Bayt, and purify you with a thorough purification.”


Main article: Imamate

According to the Shia, Ali succeeded Muhammad as the first Imam after Muhammad, that is, the righteous guide towards God and His vicar on the earth. This divine authority, known as imamate, is central to the Shia belief and appears in multiple verses of the Quran. In particular, verse 21:73 reads as

We made them Imams, guiding by Our command, and We revealed to them the performance of good deeds, the maintenance of prayers, and the giving of zakat, and they used to worship Us.

In the Twelver Shia belief, since the time of the first prophet, Adam, the earth has never remained without an Imam, in the form of prophets and their divinely-appointed successors. After Ali, imamate was passed down to his son, Hasan, through divinely-inspired designation (nass). In Shia theology, at any time, there is only one Imam and his successor, if alive, is called the silent Imam. After Hasan’s death, his brother, Husayn, and nine of his descendants are regarded as Imams, the last of whom, Mahdi, went into occultation in 260 AH (874 CE), compelled by the hostility of his enemies. His advent is awaited by all Muslims, though different sects hold different views about Mahdi. In his absence, the vacuum in the Shia leadership is partly filled by marjaiyya and, more recently, wilayat al-faqqih, i.e., guardianship of the Islamic jurist.


Main article: Zaidiyyah

According to Jafri, it is widely reported that the fourth Shia Imam, Zayn al-Abidin, designated his son, Muhammad al-Baqir, as the next Imam before his death. Zayd, a half-brother of Muhammad al-Baqir, also asserted a claim to imamate on the basis that the title can belong to any descendant of Hasan or Husayn who is learned, pious, and revolts against the tyrants of his time. On this basis, his followers, known as Zaydis, consider Zayd as the rightful successor of the fourth Shia Imam, though the fourth Imam himself did not revolt against the Umayyads and instead adopted a policy of quiescence.

Initially, Zayd’s activist approach gained him a large following. However, as he increasingly compromised with the traditionalists, some of Zayd’s supporters are said to have returned to Muhammad al-Baqir. According to Jafri, a related incident is when two Kufan Shias asked Zayd if the first Shia Imam, Ali, was an Imam before he resorted to the sword. When Zayd refused to answer this question, the two broke their allegiance with him and went back to Muhammad al-Baqir. Eventually, Zayd took up arms against the Umayyads in 122 AH and was killed in Kufa by the forces of Caliph Hisham. Unlike the Twelvers, Zaydis do not believe in the infallibility of Ali and his following Imams.

One faction of the Zaidiyyah, called the Batriyya, attempted a compromise between Sunni and Shia by accepting the legitimacy of the Sunni caliphs while maintaining that they were inferior to Ali. Imamat al-Mafdul (literally, “imamate of the inferior”) is the belief that, while Ali was better suited to succeed Muhammad, the reigns of Abu Bakr and Umar must be acknowledged since Ali did not revolt against them.


Main article: Ibadi

The Ibadi, an Islamic school distinct from Sunni and Shia, believe that leadership of the Muslim community is not something which should be decided by lineage, tribal affiliations or divine selection, but rather through election by leading Muslims. They do not view their leaders as infallible. In particular, if a leader fails to maintain a legitimate government in accordance with the Islamic law, it is the duty of the population to remove him from power. The Rashidun Caliphs are seen as rulers who were elected in a legitimate fashion and, in particular, Abu Bakr and Umar are viewed as righteous leaders. However, Uthman is viewed as having committed grave sins during the latter half of his rule and was deserving of death. Ali is also similarly understood to have lost his mandate.

The Ibadi have been labeled by some scholars as the “moderate Kharijites.” Their first Imam was Abd Allah ibn Wahb al-Rasibi, who led the Kharijites after their withdrawal from Ali’s camp. Other Imams include Abu Ubaidah Muslim, Abdallah ibn Yahya al-Kindi, and Umar ibn Abdul Aziz.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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