After Muhammad died, one of the first questions to be answered was ‘Who will now be the leader of the Muslims?’ One group said that, while returning from pilgrimage to Mecca, Muhammad had appointed his son-in-law, Ali, as his successor. But on the other hand, when he was ill, Muhammad had appointed his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, to lead the prayers, and since he was the most senior, another group supported him.

The Rightly Guided Caliphs

Shia Muslims in IraqIn the end, Abu Bakr prevailed and became the first Rightly Guided Caliph. This was the beginning of the split in Islam between Sunni and Shia, Sunni meaning those who acted according to the behaviour of Muhammad in choosing a successor and Shia from shiat Ali – followers of Ali. Abu Bakr was caliph for two years.

During Muhammad’s lifetime, the Qur’an was not recorded in its entirety; rather, people recorded what they heard on parchment, scapulae, the leaf stalks of date palms, and to memory. After the battle of Yamama (AD 632), Abu Bakr asked a man called Zaid to compile the Qur’an from the various sources available to him.

Abu Bakr died that same year and was succeeded as caliph by Omar, who ruled for ten years. Omar presided over the first great expansion of the Islamic empire, conquering Egypt and large parts of the Levant and Persia. He was assassinated in 644 and was succeeded by Uthman, who also ruled for about ten years. Uthman standardised the Qur’an and distributed copies of it, burning all others. On his assassination in 656, he was succeeded by the fourth and final Rightly Guided Caliph, Ali, who ruled for five years.

For Shi’ite Muslims, who do not recognise the first three Rightly Guided Caliphs, Ali was the first imam. The rebellion that resulted in Uthman’s assassination led to civil war within the Muslim world between Muawiyah, the governor of Syria, and Ali.

Umayyad Mosque

The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus is an important Islamic site

Ummayad Caliphate

In 661 Ali was assassinated and his eldest son, Hasan, continued the fight, eventually making peace with Muawiyah. This was the beginning of the Ummayad Caliphate, which expanded both eastward and westward, conquering North Africa, Spain and most of France. The advance was halted at the Battle of Tours in northern France in 732. By 750, the Ummayad Empire had been mostly pushed out of France. At this time a group known as the Abbasids successfully revolted against Ummayad rule and took over. Moving their capital to Baghdad, they presided over the Golden Age of Islam where significant advances were made in various fields, including mathematics and science.

End of an era

The Abbasids lost power to the Mongols and eventually the Ottomans took over. With the end of the Ottoman Empire, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Islamic world was at a low ebb, with many countries occupied by western powers. Since then – and with the discovery of oil – there has been independence and growing power and wealth in the Muslim world.

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