The Rashidun Caliphate: international spread of Islam

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Map showing the expansion of the Rashidun Caliphate 632-661 (in orange) (source)

In 632, the Prophet Muhammad passed away leaving behind a Muslim community in Mecca and Madina in the Hijaz (the modern-day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) but did not leave instructions as to who should succeed him as the leader of the newly established community. The Companions of the Prophet contemplated this issue and agreed to disregard passing the leadership to the Prophet’s children since they were four daughters. They then considered either passing the leadership to a male relative of the Prophet or choosing an eligible leader through elections. They decided to go with the latter choice and with that, Abu Baqr Al-Siddiq – the Prophet’s closest companion and one of the earliest people to convert to Islam – was elected as the first of the Rashidun Caliphate with the task of leading the Islamic community forward.

Abu Baqr Al-Siddiq [632 – 634]

Although the Muslim community at the time was strongly established and well on its way to growing, upon the Prophet’s death some Arab tribes saw this as the end of their pledge of allegiance and they chose to leave Islam and revert back to their old religions along with refusing to pay taxes. It was a daunting challenge for the newly appointed Caliphate, Abu Baqr, and he had to reassert Islam’s rule over these tribes through what later became known as “Al-Ridda War” ‘The converts war”. Abu Baqr won this war and the Arabian Peninsula became fully controlled by Islam. The religion expanded beyond the Arabian desert and reached to neighbouring countries such as Yemen. Internally, Abu Baqr worked on organizing the governmental structure of the caliphate as well as building an army dedicated to spreading Islam. In 634 he passed away, but during his two-years rule, Abu Baqr proved himself a great leader and secured a strong foundation for the Rashidun Caliphate who were to follow him in ruling.

Umar Ibn Al-Khattab [634 – 644]

The following elections named Umar Ibn Al-Khattab as the second Rashidun Caliph, whose rule saw major military expansions against the powerful empires of Byzantine and Sassanid. His choice to attack those empires was well-timed as both of them had already suffered decades of fighting each other.

Umar was known as an honest leader and a strong military commander. He assigned General Khaled Ibn Al-Walid to lead an army against the Sassanids in the Battle of the Chains, from which the General returned victorious. The battle took its name after the Persians army soldiers who were wearing a chain on their feet to prevent their desertion.

In 636, General Khalid Ibn Al-Walid along with Abu Ubaidah bin Jarrah faced an army that was much larger than theirs in the Battle of Yarmuk. This victory brought in the Holy City of Jerusalem and Egypt under the rule of the Rashidun Caliphate. By that time the three Islamic Holy Cities; Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem were under the control of the Rashiduns.

Victories kept coming one after the other. A year later in 637, the Battle of Qadisiya brought Iraq and parts of Persia under the Muslims ruling and in 641 the ancient cities of Mosul and Babylon fell to the Arabs after which the Sassanid King fled away for years.

To keep together a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-faith empire, a system was devised to enable some religious tolerance. The caliphate gave some non-Muslims the choice of either converting to Islam or practicing their own religions under the condition of paying extra tax “Jizya” since they were to live under the protection of the Muslim army.

Umar established a bureaucracy for the expanding Caliphate, and divided it into provinces ruled by a civil governor and a chief judge. He also created an executive council with representatives from both Muslim and Non-Muslim communities to advise him on state affairs. Umar’s reign witnessed a great amount of wealth for the empire, which resulted in the creation of a public treasury office “Diwan” meaning ledger in Arabic, which managed the finances of the Caliphate and monitored the army’s salaries. Moreover, Umar introduced the Islamic Hijri Calendar which is still used today. He also initiated the work on documenting and compiling the Qur’an.

Islamic coins at the time of the Rashidun, derived from the Sassanid (left) and the Byzantine (right) (source)

Umar met his end in 644 under an assassin’s blade while he was performing pilgrimage. He passed away after a ten-year rule leaving a Muslim empire that covered the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, Iraq, the Levant (Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordon), and Egypt.

Umar Ibn Al-Khattab was born in Mecca to a merchant family. His father came from the Banu Adi clan, which was responsible for arbitration among Meccan tribes, whereas his mother came from the Banu Makhzum tribe. His pre-Islamic experience as a merchant and contact with the political systems of Rome and Persia may have provided ideas for his administrative reforms during the expansion of the Rashidun caliphate.

Uthman Ibn Affan  [644 – 656]

While on his deathbed, Umar nominated a council of six to choose his successor. The council chose the Prophet’s son-in-law Uthman Ibn Affan as the third Caliph. It was a close call between Uthman, and another, Ali Ibn Abu-Talib the Prophet’s first cousin and son-in-law, who eventually became the fourth Caliph. Uthman ruled for twelve years during which time modern day Armenia and Libya were absorbed. Regarding religious affairs, under Uthman’s rule the compilation of the Qur’an was finally completed.

rashidun_kufic manuscript
The oldest ‘Kufic” Qur’an manuscript, Hast Imam Library, Tashkent, Uzbekistan (source)

During his rule, Uthman has been criticized for his nepotism since he nominated and appointed many of his relatives to prominent rules.  Apart from that, he was a member of the Ummaya clan, who strongly opposed the Prophet during the early years of Islam. These reasons probably contributed to the fact that he became unpopular. This unpopularity caused the uprising of a revolt that spread to the city of Medina, besieged his house and eventually killed him in 656.

Ali Ibn Abu-Talib [656 – 661]

After the assassination of Uthman, the people of Medina claimed Ali Ibn Abu-Talib (656-661) as the fourth Rashidun Caliph. Ali’s reign however was entangled with civil war. Ali was urged by both Muawiya Abu Sufyan, Uthman’s relative, head of the Umayya Clan at the time and appointed leader in Syria- and Amr Ibn Al-‘As in Egypt to avenge Uthman’s murder and punish the murderers. But since Ali knew that those rebels responsible for Uthman’s death supported him immensely, he refused to execute such punishment. This led Muawiya to refuse to pledge his allegiance to Uthman which caused a divide within the Islamic community. The result manifested in the civil war, “the First Fitna”, where on one side there were Ali’s supporters “The Shia’a” while on the other side there were those who supported the fair elections of Caliphs “The Sunni”.

Eventually, the Sunni and Muawiya won the civil war, and after the assassination of Ali in 661, the Umayyad Caliphate was established by Muawiya. The Caliphate continued expanding the Islamic Empire under a well-organized government.

Alas though, Ali’s claim to the Caliphate was carried on unsuccessfully by his sons, Hassan and Hussayn, and the results of this divide and split is still seen up to this very day by the Shia’a.

Africa’s First Mosque

On the back of military victories against superior numbers, the Sassanids in Persia, the Byzantine Empire (in Syria and  Egypt) and the Kingdom of Mauritania, the Rashidun Caliphate felt very confident and tried to go south of Egypt into Africa. In Egypt, it built the first mosque in the whole of Africa, the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As.

Rashidun Mosque_of_Amr_(panorama)
Panoramic view of the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As

The Baqt

When the Rashidun Caliphate gave its usual three options to the Kingdom of Makurai of convert, pay the jizya or fight, it found out why Nubia was called the Land of the Bow by the Ancient Egyptians. The Kingdom of Makurai would secure the first two significant battle victories by Christian forces against Islamic forces in the first battle of Dongola and the second battle of Dongola. In the face of gross waste of life, the Rashidun Caliphate became sufficiently motivated to sign a peace treaty, which would later become the longest observed peace treaty in the world, the Baqt.

This provided pause for the Islamic expansion and caused the Caliphate to consider for the first time trading peacefully with a non-Muslim neighbour. In the next stage of the spread of Islam, the religion would spread into the interior of Africa through trade rather through military campaigns.


  • Hunt, Courtney. The History of Iraq. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005, ISBN-13: 978-0313334146.
  • Koehler, Benedikt. Early Islam and the Birth of Capitalism. London: Lexington Books, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0313334146.
  • Sowerwine, James E. (May 2010). Caliph and Caliphate: Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guide. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 5. ISBN 9780199806003.

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The Rashidun Caliphate: international spread of Islam

by Editorial Team time to read: 6 min