After twenty three years of spreading the Message of Islam, his job as the Seal of the Prophets was done. When Muhammad the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, died, the whole of the Arabian Peninsula recognized him as the “Master.” But he did not hand over the Islamic State to his successor in a silver plate.
The Prophet had successfully established the foundation for this “new” religion, but not the State. He had subdued all the tribes in the Arabian Peninsula, but as soon as the news of his death broke out, and before his successor, Abu Bakar, could do anything, the intelligence had reached Madinah that there have been widespread rebellions throughout Arabia. The fledgling Islamic State under the new leadership suddenly found itself under serious threat.
Only three cities were free from rebellions: Makkah, Taif, and Madinah itself. Tribes in all other regions had challenged the central leadership in Madinah in various degrees, ranging from refusal to pay the religious tax (zakat) to openly declare war. The city of Madinah, therefore, needed protection very badly.
But there was one knotty problem. Just before the Prophet died, he had assembled an army of 30,000 strong, and commanded them to march to the Roman frontiers. The Romans and their subjects had been playing truant at the borders. The Prophet wanted to teach them some lesson. He also wanted to show to the Romans what the Muslims are capable of. He wanted to reverse the loss suffered in the Mu’ta War three years earlier.
The Mu’ta War was led by Zayd bin Haritha, the Prophet’s adopted son. He fell martyr there. Then the leadership was taken over by Jaa’far Abu Talib, the older brother of Ali. He too fell martyr. Then led by Abdullah bin Rowahah, who also fell martyr. The three were the designated commanders by the Prophet himself, who said: “If Zayd falls, then Jaa’far will take over; if Jaa’far falls, then Abdullah Rowahah. If he also falls, then choose one among yourselves to be the commander.”
When Abdullah fell, the Muslims asked Khalid al Walid to lead. It was the first war Khalid participated as a Muslims, having entered into Islam a few months earlier. He saved the Muslims from total annihilation through tactical retreat. For his service in that war, the Prophet gave him the title The Drawn Sword of Allah.
Before the Prophet died, he gave the army strict instruction that they must march to the Roman frontiers—to teach the Romans a lesson and to take revenge for the loss in the Mu’ta War—regardless of what happened to him. The Prophet was already gravely ill at that time, and he died very soon after.
Because of his death, the army, which was about to leave Madinah, delayed the marching. They attended the Prophet’s funeral and took part in pledging their obedience to the new leader, Abu Bakar. When all these brief affairs were completed, but before they could march, the news of the rebellions broke out. The majority of the Companions, therefore, felt that it was better to delay the marching to the Roman frontiers and dealt first with the internal affair. After all, the survival of the Islamic State itself was at stake.
Abu Bakar was therefore left with a critical decision to make: either to continue with the Prophet’s command, or to go along with the majority opinion.
But breaking the command of the Prophet was not about to be his first decision upon assuming the role as the Prophet’s Successor. So, he ordered the army to march.
But just before the army got ready for the march, the Companions wanted to give another try in persuading their new leader to change his mind. Had the Prophet were still alive when the widespread rebellion broke out, they reasoned, he would have delayed the marching to the Roman frontiers and settled the internal affair first. This time, however, they did not approach the Caliph in group, but elected Umar to be their negotiator, since the Caliph had a proclivity to listen to Umar.
But even before Umar could complete making his case, Abu Bakar the Caliph shouted at him: “You too, Umar, of all people!”
Umar, despite his reputation for being stern, blurted out meekly, “I am only a messenger, carrying the message of your companions.”
To which Abu Bakar replied authoritatively, “The Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, has made his command. Changing his command is not about to be my first decision as his successor. Proceed quickly, do the job quickly, and come back quickly. You people are wasting precious time.”
The army then marched to the Syrian border, leaving behind a few leading Companions including Umar, Ali, and Zubayr to take care of the security in Madinah.
For that line of approach, Abu Bakar is often misunderstood as being dogmatic. Some Western writers even suggest that Abu Bakar was a dogmatic blind follower who followed the instruction of his deceased leader exactly to the letters.
But is that the real case?
Before we discuss his character in light of this event, whether he is dogmatic or practical in his approach, let’s take a look at some other events during his time as a caliph.
First, as the Prophet did not take any “salary” in his capacity as the Prophet and the leader of the State, Abu Bakar too followed his successor’s footstep. He did not take any salary. He was a merchant and earned his living that way before he became a caliph. As he assumed the leadership role, the demand for his time had increased. Soon he ran out of provision.
One day, people were waiting for him at the mosque, but he did not turn up. Umar asked what had happened to the Caliph, whether he was sick or being detained by some other matters. Somebody told him that he saw Abu Bakar at the market. Umar quickly went to the market, and upon seeing the Caliph, he asked: “What on earth are you doing here?”
“Can’t you see what I am doing?” The Caliph replied.
“I know what you are doing, but why?”
“My family has to live. We have run out of food.” The Caliph answered matter of factly.
Umar quickly perceived the heart of the matter. In the case of the Prophet, he received one fifth of the booty. He therefore had enough provision to sustain his large family (bearing in mind the Prophet had many wives), although he spent most of it for the poor or for the State. Abu Bakar, however, did not receive such provision.
When the Prophet was alive, Abu Bakar would receive war booty only when he participated in the expedition. Since he became the Caliph not long ago, he did not participate in any war, and had not been doing much trading due to busyness in running the State affairs.
“Your time is too precious to earn a living like this, we must allocate some salary for you.” Umar said.
Although the Prophet never received any salary, Abu Bakar quickly agreed with Umar. He was not being dogmatic at all. The only thing is that, due to his asceticism, he only agreed to take the barest minimum of wage so that he can sustain his family.
Second, after the Battle of al Yamamah, many reciters of Quran (read, those who had memorized the whole Quran by heart), fell martyr. Umar was concerned that if more and more reciters fell martyr, the Quran would be lost if not compiled in the book form. So, he went to Abu Bakar with his proposal, namely, to compile the Quran in a book form.
Abu Bakar saw the logic of Umar’s proposal, but was concerned that the Prophet never asked them to do it. Umar pointed out that though the Prophet never asked them to compile the Quran in a book form, but the latter always asked the Revelation to be written when it came to him. As Abu Bakar was still not comfortable, he told Umar he would think about it. They talked about the matter again the next day. By the third day, he told Umar to find the man for the job.
In this case, while at first he had some reservation, it did not take long for him to see the value of his right hand’s man proposal and quickly agreed to that. He was not being dogmatic.
Third, during the war against the rebels (having won the war at the Roman frontiers), Khalid al Walid proved himself to be the most worthy general. He was the leader of one of the eleven battalions formed by Abu Bakar to fight against the insurgents. Unlike some other generals, Khalid finished his job quickly and effectively. As soon as his given task was done, the Caliph instructed him to help other battalions. Without fail, this means taking over the leadership of those battalions.
But the news had reached Umar that Khalid had been distributing the war booty without reporting to, or asking permission from, the central command in Madinah. Incensed with that behavior, Umar quickly demanded Abu Bakar to take stern action Khalid.
Abu Bakar the Caliph simply wrote a letter to Khalid, asking the latter to play with the rule like other generals did. In his characteristic way, Khalid simply replied: “If you want me to do the job, let me do it my way. If you don’t like it, come here and do it yourself.”
Umar was doubly incensed with that terse reply, and again demanded stern action against Khalid. Abu Bakar simply cooled Umar down, saying that he needed a general like Khalid, because he got the job done. Abu Bakar understood that to get extraordinary result, one cannot be ordinary. And Khalid was no ordinary general. He knew how to get his job done, and he knew how to motivate his soldiers. So long as Khalid did not go overboard, he was free to do his job the way he saw fit. After all, Khalid had succeeded where others failed.
In this case, Abu Bakar was even more pragmatic than Umar.
These three cases illustrate that, far from being dogmatic, Abu Bakar is actually driven by the spirit of practicality. If such is the case, why was he so adamant about following the Prophet’s command when the majority thought that it was a bad decision, as was the case of sending the army to the Roman frontiers?
We shall answer that question in our concluding part, God willing.
End of Part 1