Unit 2 Chapter 3 Lesson 3 Islam After Muhammad's Death

Belief Systems The leaders following Muhammad continued to spread the Prophet’s message.

Culture The caliphs who expanded the Muslim Empire showed tolerance to those they conquered.

Government The issue of how to choose leaders divided the Muslim community

Islam after Muhammad's Death

New Muslim Leaders Emerge

ESSENTIAL QUESTION 1 Who were the leaders who spread Islam after Muhammad’s death?

For more than 20 years, Muhammad had spread the word of Allah across the Arabian peninsula. He had begun to establish a Muslim Empire. In particular, Arab nomads had responded to his message. Islam brought order, justice, and hope of heaven into their lives. Then, in June 632, Muhammad died. Muslims were suddenly without a leader.

After Muhammad’s Death

According to the traditions of the most numerous group of Muslims today, Muhammad had not named a successor or instructed his followers how to choose one upon his death. Panic swept through the Muslim community. Muhammad’s father-inlaw and trusted friend, Abu Bakr, spoke to reassure Muslims. He said, “If there are any among you who worshiped Muhammad, he is dead. But if it is God you worship, he lives forever.”

Abu Bakr was a man respected for his devotion to Muhammad and to Islam. The leaders of the dominant group within the Muslim community selected him as Muhammad’s successor.

Abu Bakr Succeeds Muhammad

In 632, Abu Bakr became the first caliph, a title that means “successor.” He promised Muslims that he would closely follow Muhammad’s example. Shortly after the Prophet’s death, some clans on the Arabian peninsula abandoned Islam. Others refused to pay taxes, and a few individuals even declared themselves prophets. During his two-year reign, Abu Bakr used military force to reunite the Muslim community. He brought central Arabia under Muslim control and started the conquests of lands to the north that are now Iraq and Syria.

ESSENTIAL QUESTION 1 Who were the leaders who spread Islam after Muhammad’s death?  was the first caliph and the other selected caliphs were chosen after him.

First Four Caliphs

ESSENTIAL QUESTION 2 How did the caliphs who expanded the Muslim Empire treat those they conquered? 

Abu Bakr and the next three caliphs selected from and by the top ranks of Muslim believers—Umar, Uthman, and Ali—had known Muhammad and supported his mission to spread Islam. According to the traditions of the most numerous group of Muslims today, the first four caliphs used the Qur’an and Muhammad’s actions to guide them. Hence, this group of Muslims call them the “rightly guided caliphs.” Their rule was called a caliphate.

Caliphs Expand the Muslim Empire

Muslims controlled most of Arabia when Abu Bakr died in 634. The second elected caliph, Umar, ruled until 644. His swift and highly disciplined armies conquered Syria and lower Egypt, which were part of the Byzantine Empire. Muslim armies also took territory from the Persian Empire.

The next two caliphs continued to expand Muslim territory and completed the conquest of Persia. By 661, Muhammad’s successors had increased the size of the Muslim Empire nearly four times, either through conquest or by treaty. The empire then included all of Southwest Asia and stretched into North Africa.

Reasons for Success

Muslims saw the military victories as signs of Allah’s support. They were energized by their faith and were willing to fight to spread Islam. In battle, Muslim armies proved to be disciplined, and their leaders were highly skilled.

The Muslims’ success also resulted from weaknesses in the two empires north of Arabia. The Byzantine and Persian empires had been fighting each other for a long time. Their armies were exhausted.

Another reason for the success was the Byzantine and Persian policy of persecuting people who did not support their conquerors’ religions. For this reason, persecuted people often welcomed Muslim invaders as liberators. Muslims let conquered peoples keep their own religions if they wished to do so. The Qur’an did not allow Muslims to force conversions.

Muslims Rule

There was much blending of cultures under Muslim rule. Over time, many peoples in Muslim-ruled territories converted to Islam. They were attracted by Islam’s message of equality and hope for salvation. There was also an economic benefit—Muslims did not have to pay certain taxes. Jews and Christians, as “people of the book,” received special treatment. They paid a poll tax each year in exchange for not having to perform military duties.

Jews and Christians also held important roles in the Muslim state as officials and scholars. However, they were not allowed to convert others.

ESSENTIAL QUESTION 2 How did the caliphs who expanded the Muslim Empire treat those they conquered? Muslim rulers allowed conquered people to their religion and forced them to pay a in exchange for not performing military duty.

A Split in Islam

ESSENTIAL QUESTION 3 How did the issue of choosing leaders divide the Muslims? 

Muslims found it difficult to keep a unified rule even though they were successful on the battlefield.

Umayyads Seize Power

In 656, a group of rebels opposed the leadership of Uthman  and murdered him. His murder started a civil war. Various groups struggled for power. Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, was a logical choice as the next caliph. But his leadership, too, was challenged. In 661, Ali was assassinated. The system of selecting a caliph died with him.

A family known as the Umayyads took power and set up a hereditary dynasty. This meant that rulers would come from one family and inherit the right to rule. The Umayyads also moved the Muslim capital from Medina to Damascus, a distant city in newly conquered Syria. Arab Muslims felt Damascus was too far away. Some Muslims after the time of the Umayyads looked back and disapproved of the Umayyads’ claims of religious authority. These later critics said the Umayyads abandoned the Bedoin ways of earlier caliphs and surrounded themselves with luxury. These actions divided Muslims and raised questions about how to choose leaders.

Muslim Community Splits

Because they wanted peace, most Muslims accepted the Umayyads’ rule. But a minority resisted. They believed that the caliph should always be a relative of the Prophet.

This group was called Shi’a, meaning the “party” of Ali. Its members were known as Shiites. Those who did not resist the Umayyads and accepted the rule of the elected caliphs were called Sunnis. The word meant followers of the Sunnah, or followers of Muhammad’s example. This split in Islam would become permanent, and opposition to the Umayyads would cause their caliphate to collapse.

ESSENTIAL QUESTION 3 How did the issue of choosing leaders divide the Muslims?  Muslims wanted only the descendants of Muhammad to be chosen as caliph; accepted elected caliphs.


How did leadership issues divide the Muslim community? Muslims split into two branches— Sunni and Shi’a—over the issue of how to choose a .