The Rashidun and the Early Muslim Conquests

Niall Christie

The death of the Prophet left the Muslim community in a dilemma; for all its virtues, the Qur’an did not provide clear guidance regarding how one should choose the next leader. After some discussion an eventual approximate consensus was reached, with the choice falling on Abu Bakr (r. 632-34), who was an old friend and by now the father-in-law of the Prophet, an early convert to Islam, and widely respected for his wisdom and knowledge of the tribes of Arabia. Abu Bakr thus became the first of four rulers chosen (approximately) by consensus of the community and known to Islamic history as the rashidun, a title that is used to distinguish the period of their rule from the dynasties of rulers who came after them.

The Rashidun, 632-661
Caliph Reign
Abu Bakr 632-634
‘Umar ibn al-Khattab 634-644
‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan 644-656
‘Ali ibn Abi Talib 656-661

Abu Bakr is said to have been the first to have taken the title khalifat rasul allah,[1] which we anglicise as “caliph.” This was an important choice of title; the Qur’an clearly states that Muhammad was the last prophet, so Abu Bakr could not claim such a position, but the early Muslims also felt that the emphasis on God’s supremacy and communal decision-making in the holy text meant that it would not be appropriate for Abu Bakr to claim the position of a king. Thus the title established Abu Bakr as a leader while also deferring to the authority of God and the Prophet, and also remained ambiguous enough for the role to adapt as time went on. Early caliphs also used the title amir al-mu’minin,[2] which denoted the caliph’s position as a politico-military leader.

Military leadership was going to be needed, as after the Prophet died many tribes in Arabia assumed that they did not have to be Muslim any more, nor pay taxes to Medina. Abu Bakr thus spent his reign at war, forcing these tribes back into compliance. These wars are known as the wars of the ridda.[3] Meanwhile, some Muslims were already launching raids north out the Arabian Peninsula. It is likely that various motivations encouraged this. Undoubtedly some were encouraged by the verses in the Qur’an that call on Muslims to fight against unbelievers. At the same time, the holy text also offers those who fight for the faith both material and spiritual rewards, in that the taking of plunder from defeated enemies is permitted, while those who die in the military jihad become martyrs and are offered a place in Paradise. As the Muslims expanded north they were quickly joined by warriors from the Ghassanid and Lakhmid buffer states, for by this time their alliances with the Byzantines and Persians had broken down, and they were only too happy to plunder the lands of their former paymasters.

The first major gains were made during the reign of the second of the rashidun, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634-44). In 636 Muslim forces destroyed the major Syrian Byzantine force at the Battle of the Yarmuk River. With no major army left to defend the region, the Muslims took control of Syria and the Holy Land. Damascus itself surrendered in 637. The conquest was aided by the acquiescence of most of the local Christians of the area, for most of them followed forms of Christianity that the Byzantines considered heretical and had been persecuted for it, and so were content to see their overlords replaced by others who would largely leave them in peace.

Image of a ruin site from 1864
Figure 2.10 Remains of the Sassanid Palace at Ctesiphon, photographed in 1864.

The same phenomenon assisted the Muslim campaign to the east, where again Christians and Jews who had been persecuted by the Zoroastrian authorities in Persia acquiesced to Muslim rule. In 637 the Muslims destroyed the Persian army at Qadisiyya and took the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, near the modern day site of Baghdad. With no capital left, the Persian Empire began to fragment and fall to the Muslims on a province-by-province basis, though the conquest was going to be a long, hard-fought affair.

Back in the west, the Muslims began their expansion into Egypt in 639. By 642 they had taken the country, including its capital, Alexandria. The majority of the Christian inhabitants of Egypt were Monotheist Copts, who again had been persecuted by the Byzantines, and thus we again see the acquiescence of local populations to Muslim rule and the removal of previously oppressive overlords. The Muslims set up a garrison town at Fustat, which is now a part of the city of Cairo.

‘Umar was the first caliph who sought to deal with the question of Muslims settling in the regions that they had conquered, and he was determined that the expanded state should still run on an Islamic basis. Fustat was one of a number of garrison towns set up with the intention that the Muslims should live apart from the conquered peoples, rather than risk being corrupted by local customs or non-Muslim religions; indeed, such garrison towns always included at least one mosque and were run according to rigorous and firm interpretations of Islamic law. ‘Umar is credited with tightening up and standardising Islamic rituals and laws, as well as with setting up the Islamic calendar and establishing a register of all Muslims, with priority in claims to plunder being given to the earliest converts.

However, ‘Umar was killed by a prisoner-of-war in 644. He was succeeded by ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan (r. 644-656). ‘Uthman’s reign saw a continuation of the Muslim expansion in Persia, and in 655 the Muslims took to the sea, defeating a Byzantine fleet and taking Cyprus. But a year later the Muslim conquests ground to a halt as the Muslim community turned against itself. ‘Uthman earned the enmity of a number of groups in society. He tried to assert greater control of state finances, with the result that old families from Medina who had invested in the new provinces found themselves forced to redirect their investments back to Arabia. The caliph is also credited with having standardised the text of the Qur’an, but not all accepted the version that he settled on. He was also accused of nepotism, appointing family members to the best positions in government, rather than recruiting on the basis of seniority within Islam. Finally, he was accused of not sharing plunder from campaigns with those who had fought for it (the primary means through which troops were paid at the time), instead taking it for himself and the government at Medina. Discontent came to a head in 656, when troops from Egypt and Iraq assassinated the caliph. They raised to power the son-in-law of the Prophet, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (r. 656-61). Not all agreed with their choice, and the result was civil war.


Map showing the Muslim conquest
Figure 2.11 Muslim expansion in the time of Muhammad and the four rashidun caliphs.

Media Attributions

  1. Arabic: “successor to the Messenger of God.”
  2. Arabic: “commander of the believers.”
  3. Arabic: “apostasy.”


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The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Niall Christie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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