Succession to Muhammad

The succession to Muhammad is the central issue that split the Muslim community into several divisions in the first century of Muslim history. A few months before his death, Muhammad delivered a sermon at Ghadir Khumm where he announced that Ali ibn Abi Talib would be his successor.[1] After the sermon, Muhammad ordered the Muslims to pledge allegiance to Ali. Both Shia and Sunni sources agree that Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, and Uthman ibn Affan were among the many who pledged allegiance to Ali at this event.[2][3][4] However, just after Muhammad died, a group of approximately fourteen Muslims[5] met at Saqifa, where Umar pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr then assumed political power, and his supporters became known as the Sunnis. Despite that, a group of Muslims kept their allegiance to Ali. These people, who became known as Shias, held that while Ali’s right to be the political leader may have been taken, he was still the religious and spiritual leader after Muhammad.[6]

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

Eventually, after the deaths of Abu Bakr and the next two Sunni leaders, Umar and Uthman, the Sunni Muslims went to Ali for political leadership. After Ali died, his son Hasan ibn Ali succeeded him, both politically and, according to Shias, religiously. However, after six months, he made a peace treaty with Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan, which stipulated that, among other conditions, Muawiya would have political power as long as he did not choose who would succeed him. Muawiya broke the treaty and named his son Yazid ibn Muawiya his successor,[7] thus forming the Umayyad dynasty. While this was going on, Hasan and, after his death, his brother Husain ibn Ali, remained the religious leaders, at least according to the Shia. Thus, according to Sunnis, whoever held political power was considered the successor to Muhammad, while according to Shias, the twelve Imams (Ali, Hasan, Husain, and Husain’s descendants) were the successors to Muhammad, even if they did not hold political power.

In addition to these two main branches, many other opinions also formed regarding succession to Muhammad.


Most of Islamic history was transmitted orally until after the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate.[8] Historical works of later Muslim writers include the traditional Muslim biographies of Muhammad and quotes attributed to him (the sira and hadith literature), which provide further information on Muhammad’s life.[9] The earliest surviving written sira (biographies and quotes attributed to Muhammad) is Sirah Rasul Allah (Life of God’s Messenger) by Ibn Ishaq (d. 761 or 767 CE).[10] Although the original work is lost, portions survive in the recensions of Ibn Hisham (d. 833) and Al-Tabari (d. 923).[11] Many (but not all) scholars accept the accuracy of these biographies, although this accuracy is uncertain.[12] Studies by J. Schacht and Ignác Goldziher have led scholars to distinguish between legal and historical traditions. According to William Montgomery Watt, although legal traditions could have been invented, historical material may have been primarily subject to “tendential shaping” rather than invented.[13] Modern Western scholars are much less likely than Sunni Islamic scholars to trust the work of the Abbasid historians, and Western historians approach the classic Islamic histories with varying degrees of circumspection.

Hadith compilations are records of the traditions (or sayings) of Muhammad—his biography, perpetuated by community memory for its guidance. The development of hadith is a crucial element of the first three centuries of Islamic history.[14] Early Western scholars mistrusted the later narrations and reports, regarding them as fabrications. Leone Caetani considered the attribution of historical reports to `Abd Allah ibn `Abbas and Aisha as primarily fictitious, preferring accounts reported without isnad by early historians such as Ibn Ishaq. Wilferd Madelung has rejected the indiscriminate dismissal of everything not included in “early sources,” instead judging later narrative in the context of history and compatibility with events and figures.[15]

The only contemporary 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 events relating to the succession in detail.[16]

Historical viewpoint

The feast of Dhul Asheera

In the fourth year of Islam, Muhammad held a banquet where he invited 40 members of Banu Hashim. At the banquet, he was about to invite them to Islam when Abu Lahab interrupted him, after which everyone left the banquet. The Prophet ordered Ali to invite the 40 people again. The second time, he announced Islam to them and invited them to join.[17] He said to them,

“I offer thanks to Allah for His mercies. I praise Allah, and I seek His guidance. I believe in Him and I put my trust in Him. I bear witness that there is no god except Allah; He has no partners; and I am His messenger. Allah has commanded me to invite you to His religion by saying: And warn thy nearest kinsfolk. I, therefore, warn you, and call upon you to testify that there is no god but Allah, and that I am His messenger. O ye sons of Abdul Muttalib, no one ever came to you before with anything better than what I have brought to you. By accepting it, your welfare will be assured in this world and in the Hereafter. Who among you will support me in carrying out this momentous duty? Who will share the burden of this work with me? Who will respond to my call? Who will become my vicegerent, my deputy and my wazir?”[18]

Ali was the only one to answer Muhammad’s call. Muhammad told him to sit down, saying, “Wait! Perhaps someone older than you might respond to my call.” Muhammad then asked the members of Banu Hashim a second time. Once again, Ali was the only one to respond, and again, Muhammad told him to wait. Muhammad then asked the members of Banu Hashim a third time. Ali was still the only volunteer. This time, Ali’s offer was accepted by Muhammad. Muhammad “drew [Ali] close, pressed him to his heart, and said to the assembly: ‘This is my wazir, my successor and my vicegerent. Listen to him and obey his commands.'”[19] In another narration, when Muhammad accepted Ali’s eager offer, Muhammad “threw up his arms around the generous youth, and pressed him to his bosom” and said, “Behold my brother, my vizir, my vicegerent…Let all listen to his words, and obey him.”[20] Sir Richard Burton writes about the banquet in his 1898 book, saying, “It won for [Muhammad] a proselyte worth a thousand sabers in the person of Ali, son of Abu Talib.”[21]

The event of Ghadir Khumm

Shortly before his death, Muhammad called all the Muslims who had accompanied him on the Farewell Pilgrimage to gather around at a place known as Ghadir Khumm. Muhammad gave a long sermon, part of which states:

O people! Reflect on the Quran and comprehend its verses. Look into its clear verses and do not follow its ambiguous parts, for by Allah, none shall be able to explain to you its warnings and its mysteries, nor shall anyone clarify its interpretation, other than the one that I have grasped his hand, brought up beside myself,(and lifted his arm), the one about whom I inform you that whomever I am his Mawla, this Ali is his Mawla; and he is Ali Ibn Abi Talib, my brother, the executor of my will (Wasiyyi), whose appointment as your guardian and leader has been sent down to me from Allah, the mighty and the majestic.[22]

This event has been narrated by both Shia and Sunni sources. Further, after the sermon, Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman are all said to have given their allegiance to Ali, a fact that is also reported by both Shia and Sunni sources.[2][3][4]

The army of Usama bin Zayd

In Medina, after the Farewell Pilgrimage and the event of Ghadir Khumm, Muhammad ordered an army under the command of Usama bin Zayd. He commanded all the companions, except for his family, to go with Usama to Syria to avenge the Muslims’ defeat at the Battle of Mu’tah.[23] Muhammad gave Usama the banner of Islam on the 18th day of the Islamic month of Safar in the year 11 A.H. Abu Bakr and Umar were among those that Muhammad commanded to join Usama’s army.[24][25]

However, Abu Bakr and Umar resisted going under the command of Usama because they thought that he, who was 18 or 20 at the time, was too young to lead an army,[26] despite Muhammad’s teachings that age and standing in society did not necessarily correspond to being a good general.[27][28]

In response to these worries, the Prophet said: “O Arabs! You are miserable because I have appointed Usama as your general, and you are raising questions if he is qualified to lead you in war. I know you are the same people who had raised the same question about his father. By God, Usama is qualified to be your general just as his father was qualified to be a general. Now obey his orders and go.”[29] Whenever Muhammad felt any relief from his fatal sickness, he would inquire as to whether Usama’s army had left for Syria yet, and would continue urging his companions to leave for Syria.[29] Muhammad even reportedly said, “Usama’s army must leave at once. May Allah curse those men who do not go with him.”[30][31][32] However, while a few companions were ready to join Usama’s army, many other companions, including Abu Bakr and Umar, disobeyed Muhammad’s orders. It is also noted that this was the only battle expedition where Muhammad urged his companions to go the battle no matter what; for other battles, if someone was unable to go to the fight, Muhammad would let them stay at home. It has been pointed out in history that the fact that Muhammad ordered his companions, but not his family, to leave Medina right before he knew he was about to die[33] is proof that he did not intend for his companions to decide on his succession.[34]

Incident of the pen and paper

It is reported that Muhammad asked for writing materials to write a statement that would prevent the Muslim nation from going astray forever. Umar replied, insulting Muhammad by saying, “Stop! He is speaking in delirium. The book of Allah is sufficient for us.”[35][36] The event is referenced in both Shia and Sunni traditions,[37] and the event has been called “one of the most hideous scenes in the history of Islam.”[38]

Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas:

When Allah’s Apostle was on his death-bed and in the house there were some people among whom was ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab, the Prophet said, “Come, let me write for you a statement after which you will not go astray.” ‘Umar said, “The Prophet is seriously ill and you have the Qur’an; so the Book of Allah is enough for us.” The people present in the house differed and quarrelled. Some said “Go near so that the Prophet may write for you a statement after which you will not go astray,” while the others said as Umar said. When they caused a hue and cry before the Prophet, Allah’s Apostle said, “Go away!” Narrated ‘Ubaidullah: Ibn ‘Abbas used to say, “It was very unfortunate that Allah’s Apostle was prevented from writing that statement for them because of their disagreement and noise.”

— Muhammad al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari[36]

Sa’id b. Jubair reported from Ibn Abbas that he said: Thursday, and what about Thursday? Then tears began to flow until I saw them on his cheeks as it they were the strings of pearls. He (the narrator) said that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: Bring me a shoulder blade and ink-pot (or tablet and inkpot), so that I write for you a document (by following which) you would never go astray. They said: Allah’s Messenger (may peace upon him) is in the state of unconsciousness [yahjur, literal translation: “talking nonsense”; obviously, the Prophet was not unconscious since he was speaking].[39]

— Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, Sahih Muslim[40]

Several years later, Ibn Abbas had a conversation with Umar, where Umar told Ibn Abbas, “I am telling you: the noble Messenger wanted to appoint Ali during his illness but I stopped it.”[41]


During Muhammad’s lifetime, the Muslims in Medina were divided into two groups: the Ansar, who were originally from Medina, and the Muhajirun, who had converted to Islam in Mecca and migrated to Medina with Muhammad. During Muhammad’s rule in Medina, they were satisfied, and they were glad when Muhammad announced that Ali would be his successor at the event of Ghadir Khumm,[42] as they knew that Ali would continue Muhammad’s fair policies towards them.

However, when some of the Muhajirun refused to obey Muhammad’s orders to follow Usama bin Zayd to Syria or to give him pen and paper to make a will, the Ansar knew that some of the Muhajirun were trying to take power upon Muhammad’s death.[43] They were worried that the rule of a Muhajirun (a foreigner, in their eyes), other than Muhammad or Ali, ruling over them would lead to their eventual oppression. Thus, when they saw some of the Muhajirun planning on taking power upon Muhammad’s death, they thought they would be just as good candidates for power as the Muhajirun. Thus, when Muhammad died, some of the Ansar went to a place known as Saqifa, where they nominated Sa’d ibn Ubadah to be the leader.

Some spies among the Ansar informed Umar, who had been in Medina at the time, about what was happening in Saqifa. Umar looked for Abu Bakr, but he was not in Medina at the time; he was in Suk with his new wife. Umar, desperate to prevent the Ansar declaring Saad ibn Ubada to be the caliph, offered to pledge allegiance to Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah (despite the previous pledges of allegiance of the Muslims, including Umar, to Ali). Abu Ubaidah refused, however, as he believed that Abu Bakr was more worthy than he was for leadership. Desperate to buy time, Umar proclaimed that Muhammad was not actually dead; he threatened to kill anyone who said otherwise. Abu Bakr then arrived in Medina and calmed Umar down, giving a convincing argument that Muhammad was dead.[44] Abu Bakr, Umar, and Abu Ubaidah, leaving the still-unburied body of Muhammad, then went to Saqifa.[45][46] The meeting in Saqifa, which is said to have been attended by fourteen people,[47] took place while Ali was performing Muhammad’s funeral rites.

The Ansar and the three Muhajirun at Saqifa (Abu Bakr, Umar, and Abu Ubaidah) entered into a length debate about who was more qualified to have leadership. The Ansar suggested having two leaders, one from the Muhajirun and one from the Ansar, while Abu Bakr stated that the Muhajirun should be the leaders and the Ansar their ministers (which did not come to fruition). Debate continued until it reached a turn when Bashir ibn Sa’ad, an Ansar who was jealous of Saad ibn Ubada, gave a speech supporting Abu Bakr, Umar, and Abu Ubaidah. Abu Bakr then told the Ansar to pledge allegiance to either Umar or Abu Ubaidah. Umar refused and instead pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr; Abu Ubaidah and Bashir followed Umar in doing so.

Hubab ibn al-Mandhir then gave a short speech in which he called Bashir “a traitor to [his] own people.”[48] After that, a group of Bedouin tribesmen arrived. They were opponents of the Ansar, and when they saw the three pledges of allegiance to Abu Bakr, they pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr as well.[49] The debates between the Ansar and the three Muhajirun at Saqifa was not peaceful, but rather contained violence and even bloodshed; Al-Tabari reported that it was “truly a scene from the period of Jahiliya (the pre-Islamic era).”[50][51][52]

Attack on Muhammad’s family

After the gathering at Saqifa, Umar and his supporters went to the house of Fatimah (Muhammad’s daughter and Ali’s husband); Ali, his family (including Fatimah), and some of his supporters (such as Ammar ibn Yasir, Abu Dhar al-Ghifari, Miqdad ibn Aswad, Salman al-Farsi, Ibn Abbas, al-Abbas, Utbah ibn Abi Lahab, Bara Ibn Azib, Ubay ibn Ka’b, Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, Talha, and Zubayr ibn al-Awam) were in the house.[53][54][55][56][57][58] Umar went to the door of Fatimah’s house and said, “By Allah, I shall burn down (the house) over you unless you come out and give the oath of allegiance (to Abu Bakr).”[59][60][61][62][63] Zubayr ibn al-Awam, who had been in Ali’s house, came out of the house with his sword drawn but reportedly tripped on something, after which Umar’s supporters attacked him.[64][65]

Umar, who was then in front of the door to Fatimah’s house, said to Fatimah, “I know that the Prophet of God did not love any one more than you, but this will not stop me from carrying out my decision. If these people stay in your house, I will burn the door in front of you.”[66] According to another narration, Umar asked for wood, and then told those inside the house, “I swear by Allah who has my soul in his hand, that if you do not come out, I will burn the house.” Umar was then informed that Fatimah was inside the house, to which he responded, “So what! It doesn’t matter to me who is in the house.”[67][68]

It is reported that when Fatimah heard the voices of Umar and his supporters threatening to attack the house, she cried out, “O father, O Messenger of Allah, how are Umar ibn al-Khattab and Abu Bakr ibn Abi Quhafah treating us after you and how do they meet us.”[69]

The house was then attacked. Umar and his supporters burned the door of the house; they crushed Fatimah between the door and the wall of the house, they killed Moshin, the baby in her stomach, and they forced Ali out of the house against his will.[70][71] According to some narrations, a rope was tied around Ali’s neck.[72][73][74][75][76][77]

The historian Abul Hasan Ali Ibn al-Husayn al-Mas’udi wrote the following in his book Isbaat al-Wasiyyah:

They surrounded ‘Ali (as) and burned the door of his house and pulled him out against his will and pressed the leader of all women (Hadhrat Fatimah (sa)) between the door and the wall killing Mohsin (the male-child she was carrying in her womb for six months).

The Sunni historian Salahuddin Khalil al-Safadi wrote in his book Waafi al- Wafiyyaat that “Umar hit Fatimah (sa) on the stomach such that child in her womb died.”[78]

Umar and his companions dragged Ali away. Fatimah urged them to stop, saying, “I will not permit Ali (a.s.) to be dragged with such cruelty and injustice. Woe be upon you, O people! How soon did you usurp our rights in relation to Allah and His Prophet (s.a.w.).” Umar then ordered Qunfuz to whip Fatimah. According to some narrations, Qunfuz whipped her back and her arms;[79] according to another, he struck her face;[80] according to another, he pushed her so hard that he smashed her ribs.[72] According to another report, Khalid bin Walid struck Fatimah with his sword; another report states that Moghayrah Ibne’ Sho’bah struck her with his sword.[72]

Shia view

Shias believe that since a prophet is appointed by God, only God can appoint his successor. Some cite Quranic verses such as 38:26[81] and 2:124[82] in which Allah assigned his successor on earth. Shia believe that Mosesdid not ask his people to conduct a shura and assign his successor; Allah selected Aron to succeed Moses for his 40-night absence. Shia scholars refer to hadiths such as the Hadith of the pond of Khumm, Hadith of Positionand Hadith of the Twelve Successors to prove that God, through Muhammad, chose Ali as successor. When the chief of Banu Amir asked Muhammad for a share of leadership in return for defeating Muhammad’s enemy, Muhammad replied: “That is for God to decide; He will entrust leadership to whomever He will”; community leadership was not decided by the people.[83]

Position of Ali before Prophet’s death

Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and a leader in battle, was often entrusted with command and was left in charge of the community in Medina when Muhammad led the Battle of Tabouk. Ali was also the husband of Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah, and the father of his grandchildren Hasan and Husayn. Ali’s father was Abu Talib ibn Abd al-Muttalib, Muhammad’s uncle, foster father and protector. As a member of Abu Talib’s family, Muhammad was like an older brother and guardian to Ali (who, as a youth, was among the first to accept Islam). A charismatic defender of the faith, Ali was assumed by some to claim a leadership position after Muhammad’s death. In the end, however, Abu Bakr assumed control of the Muslim community.

The Qur’an

Shia refer to three verses from sura Al-Ma’ida: 5:55,[84] 5:3[85] and 5:67.[86] They believe that the verses refer to Ali, and the last two were revealed at Ghadir Khumm.[87]


Shia Muslims believe that there are a number of hadith, or sayings, of Muhammad wherein he left specific instructions about his successor. Some hadith that Shias use to justify Ali’s position as the successor of Muhammad are as follows:

  • The Hadith of the pond of Khumm, another name for Muhammad’s speech at Ghadir Khumm, is perhaps the most well-known appointment of Ali as Muhammad’s successor. In the lengthy speech, Muhammad made the famous statement that is roughly translated as “Of whomsoever I had been Mawla, this Ali is his Mawla.” The sermon also included Muhammad describing Ali with the leadership titles “Imam,” “Ameer,” and “Khalifah.”[88]After the speech, the final verse of the Quran was recited and the Muslims pledged allegiance to Ali.
  • In the Hadith of the two weighty things, Muhammad said: “Verily, I am leaving with you two precious things, the Book of God and my progeny, my ahl al-bayt; for as long as you cling to these two, you will never go astray; and truly they will not be parted from each other until they join me at al-Kawthar”.[89]
  • In the Hadith of position, Muhammad compared Ali’s relationship to him with Aaron’s relationship to Moses. According to the Quran, Aaron was a prophet, heir and minister; Ali was an heir and minister.[90]
  • In the Hadith of the ark, Muhammad compared his ahl al-Bayt (his family) to Noah’s Ark: “Is not the likeness of my ahl al-bayt among you like the ark of Noah among his folk? Whoever takes refuge therein is saved and whoever opposes it is drowned.” As Noah’s Ark was the sole salvation of his people, ahl al-Bayt was the only salvation for the people of that time.[89]
  • In the Hadith of warning, which occurred at feast of Dhul Asheera, after Muhammad invited his family to Islam, he called Ali his vicegerent and told the others in attendance to listen to and obey Ali.

All of the aforementioned hadiths are accepted by Shia and Sunni Muslims, although their interpretation differs between the two sects.

Final illness

Soon after returning from the Farewell Pilgrimage, Muhammad became ill. He was nursed in the home of his wife Aisha, the daughter of Abu Bakr. The Shia believe that most prominent Muslims, expecting Muhammad’s death and a power struggle, disobeyed his orders to join a military expedition bound for Syria. They stayed in Medina, waiting for Muhammad’s death and a chance to seize power.

According to Abd Allah ibn Abbas (Muhammad’s cousin) in Book 13, Hadith 4016, the dying Muhammad said that he wished to write (or dictate) a letter detailing his wishes for the community. According to ibn Abbas’ Sahih Muslim,

Ibn Abbas reported: When Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) was about to leave this world, there were persons (around him) in his house, ‘Umar b. al-Khattab being one of them. Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) said: Come, I may write for you a document; you would not go astray after that. Thereupon Umar said: Verily Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) is deeply afflicted with pain. You have the Qur’an with you. The Book of Allah is sufficient for us. Those who were present in the house differed. Some of them said: Bring him (the writing material) so that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) may write a document for you and you would never go astray after him And some among them said what ‘Umar had (already) said. When they indulged in nonsense and began to dispute in the presence of Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him), he said: Get up (and go away) ‘Ubaidullah said: Ibn Abbas used to say: There was a heavy loss, indeed a heavy loss, that, due to their dispute and noise. Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) could not write (or dictate) the document for them.

— Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, Sahih Muslim[91]

When Muhammad died, Umar said that he would return and threatened to behead anyone who accepted his death. When Abu Bakr returned to Medina, he spoke to Umar (who then admitted that Muhammad had died); the Shia believe that this was a ploy on Umar’s part to delay the funeral and give Abu Bakr time to return to Medina.

Events at Saqifah

When Muhammad died, his closest relatives (Ali and Fatimah) took charge of his body. While they were washing his body and preparing it for burial (carried out by the family of the deceased in Islam), a meeting—about which Ali and the muhajirun were not informed—was held (by only a group of Muslim) in the Saqifah and Abu Bakr was chosen as the new leader, but note that this choice was after a severe conflict between two groups of Muslims (Ansar and Muhajirun) about that.[92]

After Saqifa

According to Wilferd Madelung, as Ali had refused to pledge allegiance (bay’ah) to Abu Bakr many Medina Muslims of Medina had also refused; they were known as Shī‘at ‘Alī (the party of Ali). Madelung wrote that it took six months to coerce them to submit to Abu Bakr.[93] When he refused to pledge allegiance, Ali’s house was surrounded by an armed force led by Abu Bakr and Umar:[94]

In Madinah, Umar took charge of securing the pledge of allegiance of all residents. He dominated the streets with the help first of the Aslam and then the Abd Al-Ashhal of Aws, who in contrast to the majority of Khazraj, quickly became vigorous champions of the new regime. The sources mention the actual use of force only with respect to Companion Al-Zubayr who had been together with some others of the Muhajirun in the house of Fatimah. Supposedly, Umar threatened to set the house on fire unless they came out and swore allegiance to Abu Bakr.[95]

Twelvers believe that Umar pushed his way into Ali’s house and Fatimah, who was pregnant, was crushed behind the door. She miscarried her unborn son, whom the Shia mourn as Muhsin ibn Ali, and soon died of her injuries. Ali buried her secretly at night, since he did not want Abu Bakr or Umar (whom he blamed for her death) to attend her funeral, and the Shia blame Abu Bakr and Umar for the deaths of Muhammad’s daughter and grandson.[96]

Sunni view

Sunni Muslims relate a number of hadith (oral traditions) in which Muhammad recommended shura (consultation) as the best method for reaching community decisions. According to this view, he did not nominate a successor because he expected that the community would choose a new leader (the custom in Arabia at the time). Some Sunnis believe that Muhammad had indicated his reliance upon Abu Bakr as second-in-command, calling on him to lead prayers and make rulings in Muhammad’s absence. A narrative by Mousa Ibn ‘Aoqbah in Al-Dhahabi’s book, Siyar a`lam al-nubala (Arabic: سير أعلام النبلاء‎), reads: ” … Then Ali and Al-Zobair said, ‘We see that Abu Bakr is worthier to be the rightful successor of the prophet than anyone else … ‘”[97]

Ghadir Khumm

According to a musnad (supported) hadith, Muhammad made a speech at Ghadir Khumm in which he said, “Of whomsoever I am the mawla, Ali is his mawla”.[98] Mawla has a number of meanings in Arabic. Although Shi’ites translate it as “master” or “ruler” and believe that Muhammad did not make 120,000 people wait in the desert for three days only to tell them to support Ali, some Sunni scholars say that Muhammad was saying that his friends should befriend Ali; it was a response to Yemeni soldiers who had complained about Ali.[99] A similar incident is described in Ibn Ishaq’s Sirah, in which Muhammad reportedly said: “Do not blame Ali, for he is too scrupulous in the things of God, or the way of God, to be blamed.”(Guillaume p. 650) Sunnis believe that interpreting an expression of friendship and support as the appointment of a successor is incorrect, and the leadership dispute after Muhammad’s death proved that his statement was not an appointment.

Others believe that Muhammad meant “master” in his use of mawla to describe Ali at Ghadir Khumm but it was a description of Ali’s spiritual superiority among the Muslims, not a decision about succession. These Sunnis also reject the translation of mawla as “friend”. The word is discussed in Patronate and Patronage in Early and Classical Islam, edited by Monique Bernards and John Nawas:

Mawla may refer to a client, a patron, an agnate (brother, son, father’s brother, father’ brothers son), an affined kinsman, (brother-in-law, son-in-law), a friend, a supporter, a follower, a drinking companion, a partner, a newly-converted Muslim attached to a Muslim and last but not least an ally. Most of these categories have legal implications … Mawla is commonly translated as “a client”.[100]

Despite this, it has been recorded in both Shia and Sunni history that Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman were all among the many who pledged allegiance to Ali at the event of Ghadir Khumm.[101][3][4][102][103] In addition, it is also important to note that “mawla” was not the only word used to describe Ali in the speech; Muhammad also described Ali with the leadership titles “Imam,” “Ameer,” and “Khalifah” in the lengthy sermon.[104]

Attitude towards Ali

Ali’s birth in the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, has been mentioned in Sunni sources.[105][106] Sunni sources also acknowledge Ali’s heroism in the battles of Islam, such as the Battle of Badr (where Sunnis state that roughly half the opponents of Islam killed in the battle were killed by Ali)[107] and the Battle of the Trench (where, according to Sunni sources, Ali was the only one among the Muslim army to rise up to the challenge of Amr ibn Abd al-Wud, the champion of the army attacking the Muslims).[108] Sunnis consider him a righteous caliph and accept his hadiths (sayings).

Western academic views

Many western scholars based their studies on the Sunni books of history, as the Sunnis were in power at the time, and thus, many books by western scholars include a Sunni bias.[109] Wilferd Madelung was a notable exception to this trend; he suggested that the succession of Abu Bakr was problematic and Ali may indeed have expected to assume leadership at Muhammad’s death.[110] According to Madelung,

In the Qur’an, the descendants and close kin of the prophets are their heirs also in respect to kingship (mulk), rule (hukm), wisdom (hikma), the book and the imamate. The Sunnite concept of the true caliphate itself defines it as a succession of the prophet in every respect except his prophethood. Why should Muhammad not be succeeded in it by any of his family like the earlier prophets? If God really wanted to indicate that he should not be succeeded by any of them why did He not let his grandsons and other kin die like his sons? There is thus a good reason to doubt that Muhammad failed to appoint a successor because he realized that the divine design excluded hereditary succession of his family and that he wanted the Muslims to choose their head by Shura. The Qur’an advises the faithful to settle some matters by consultation, but not the succession to prophets. That, according to the Qur’an, is settled by divine election, God usually chooses their successors, whether they become prophets or not from their own kin.[111]

Madelung bases this on the hadith of the pond of Khumm. Ali later insisted that his religious authority was superior to that of Abu Bakr and Umar.[112]


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