The First Caliphs and the Rise of the Islamic Empire

The Umayyad Caliphate at its greatest extent in 750 AD

When Muhammad died unexpectedly in 632 CE no one was in place to take over leadership of the expanding Islamic world. The resulting power struggles led to the first schism in the Islamic religion which still significantly affects modern Islamic politics and culture.
The Legacy of Muhammad

Muhammad had fulfilled the roles of political activist, religious prophet, military commander and social reformer and no other member of the ruling religious or state elite could claim to replace him. This led to the creation of the position of Caliph as a temporary solution to the leadership problem.

The First Caliphs

In 632 CE Abu Bakr became the first Caliph, mostly because of his close relationship with Muhammad as the father of his wife ‘Aisha. Abu Bakr faced an immediate crisis after Muhammad’s death as multiple tribes decided to rebel and leave the religion. This crisis became known as the Ridda wars in which Abu Bakr launched several successful military campaigns which reunified the Arabian Peninsula.

The problem of succession still wasn’t fully resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, as many people believed that the obvious successor to Muhammad was his cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali. However Abu Bakr decided to again pass over him and began a policy of nominating successors’ from within a select group of people. The next man to become Caliph was another of Muhammad’s companions known as Umar. These first few Caliphs and their contemporaries have traditionally been regarded by Muslims as the best examples of Islam.

The Rapid Expansion of the Islamic Empire

During Umar’s reign the Islamic empire rapidly expanded by absorbing large tracts of land from neighbouring Empires. The Muslim army was conquering a major city on an almost annual basis and the Persian Empire falls quickly whilst at the same time the Byzantine Empire is forced to rapidly contract.

The Muslim armies engaged in fast and quick campaigns in which they rarely lost a single battle. There are several theories to explain why the Muslim armies were so successful. One possibility is that a plague which had spread through the Byzantine and Mediterranean areas meant that these lands were unable to mount much resistance against the invading armies. Another possible theory is that there was social unrest in the lands surrounding the Arabian Peninsula which meant that the people were open to the different rule offered by the expanding Islamic Empire. This social unrest was likely caused by heavy taxation due to long periods of war between the Persians and the Byzantines as well as attempts by the Byzantine rulers to impose a religious orthodoxy.

How the Islamic Empire was Controlled

The large amount of land subsumed into the Islamic Empire did not meant that there was as many new converts into Islam as would be expected. It was predominantly just a regime change with little impact on the day-to-day lives of the people now under Islamic rule. The local elites were often left in place as they knew how to run their own areas which allowed for the Muslim leaders to keep a very large Empire working smoothly.

To ensure that conquered areas were kept as stable as possible the Muslim authorities began a policy of keeping the Muslim armies out of the cities. This led to large army camps springing up next to major cities, such as the city of Fustat near Cairo. This policy meant that the Arab armies weren’t particularly conspicuous and they didn’t displace the locals.

Due to the extent of the Islamic Empire it was possible for people to trade between places which would have been previously unreachable. This trading helped to unify the empire and it meant that large and wealthy trading centres sprang up across the empire.

The Schism in Islam

Wealth disparities fostered discontent in the Islamic army under Umar which led to his assassination in 644CE. ‘Uthman was elected as his successor and became the third Caliph. The discontent didn’t end though as ‘Uthman was criticised as being too old and condemned for having favourites.

After ‘Uthman died ‘Ali made a bid to become the next Caliph. ‘Ali had a lot of support in the army but he failed to impose his authority over all of the Islamic community. ‘Ali’s main opponent Mu‘awiya, who had support from the garrison in Syria, assassinated ‘Ali in 661CE and became the next Caliph, establishing the Umayyad dynasty.

The assassination of ‘Ali led to the first major split in Islam as Shi’ism was born. The Umayyad dynasty would go on to over-see the further expansion of the Islamic Empire into Spain and Asia.


  1. Islam: A Very Short Introduction by Malise Ruthven (Oxford University Press, 1997)
  2. A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Warner Books, 1992)
  3. A History of Islamic Societies by Ira Lapidus (Cambridge University Press, 2002)