Abu Bakr (alternative spellings, Abubakar, Abi Bakr, Abu Bakar) (c. 573 - August 23, 634) ruled as the first of the Muslim caliphs (632-634).
Abu Bakr was a towering figure in the development and early survival of Islam. He was responsible for preventing the break-up of the Islamic community following Muhammad's death and is regarded by Sunni Muslims, although not by Shi'a, as the most worthy of all Muhammad's early male companions. His character has impressed even those highly critical of Muhammad, leading them to surmise that Muhammad must have been sincere at least initially else he could never have commanded the loyalty of a man like Abu Bakr.
When Muhammad died, Abu Bakr was selected as Caliph but he never allowed authority or power to corrupt him or to think that he himself was a substitute for Muhammad, on whose death he told the assembled, “Whoso worshippeth Muhammad, let him know that Muhammad is dead; but whoso worshippeth God, let him know that God liveth and dieth not” (Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 59, Number 733). The unity so valued by Islam both of faith and within the Muslim community was protected and safe-guarded by Abu Bakr's short, though quite turbulent, period as Caliph. His Caliphate unified central Arabia under Islamic control, preparing the way for its subsequent territorial expansion. His rule was just and compassionate, and he regarded all Muslims as equal. It is possible that without Abu Bakr's able leadership, one of the world's great cultural and spiritual traditions would not have survived.
Abu Bakr was born in Mecca, a Quraishi of the Banu Taim clan. According to early Muslim historians, he was a successful merchant, and highly esteemed as a judge, as an interpreter of dreams, and as one learned in Meccan traditions. He was one of the last people anyone would have expected to convert to the faith preached by his kinsman Muhammad. Yet he was one of the first converts to Islam (possibly the first male convert) and instrumental in converting many of the Quraish and the residents of Mecca. He may have been about three years younger than Muhammad-thus 573 or 574 C.E. can be given as his year of birth.
Originally called Abd-ul-Ka'ba ("servant of the house of God"), on his conversion he assumed the name of Abd-Allah (“servant of God”). However, he is usually styled Abu Bakr (from the Arabic word bakr, meaning a young camel) due to his interest in raising camels. Sunni Muslims also honor him as Al-Siddiq ("the truthful," or "upright"). His full name was Abd-Allah ibn Abi Quhaafah.
He was one of Muhammad's constant companions and stood by him even when others doubted. When Muhammad fled from Mecca in the hijra of 622, Abu Bakr alone accompanied him. He is referred to in the Qur'an 9:40 as “the second of the two.” Abu Bakr was also linked to Muhammad by marriage: Abu Bakr's daughter Aisha married Muhammad soon after the migration to Medina. Once a wealthy man, he was known to have impoverished himself by purchasing the freedom of several Muslim slaves from polytheist masters. He accompanied Muhammad on most of his military campaigns. He may have been deputed by Muhammad to lead the pilgrimage in 632 C.E. During Muhammad's final illness, he asked Abu Bakr to lead the prayers (see Sahih-al-Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 11, hadith no 651).
Rise to the Caliphate
During the prophet's last illness, it is said by some traditions that Muhammad allowed Abu Bakr to lead prayers in his absence, and that many took this as an indication that Abu Bakr would succeed Muhammad. Soon after Muhammad's death (June 8, 632), a gathering of prominent Ansar (the helpers, citizens of Medina who gave refuge to the Muslims in 622) and some of the Muhajirun (the believers who migrated, with Muhammad, from Mecca to Medina in 622), in Medina, acclaimed Abu Bakr as the new Muslim leader or caliph. He immediately pledged loyalty to the legacy of Muhammad, saying, “Obey me so long as I obey God and His Messenger (Muhammad, PBUH). But if I disobey God and His Messenger, ye owe me no obedience” (1st speech as caliph).
Abu Bakr's appointment became the subject of controversy and the source of the first schism in Islam, between Sunni and Shi'a. Shi'as believe that Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was his designated successor, while Sunnis believe that Muhammad deliberately declined to designate a successor although Sunni sources have Muhammad more or less doing so (perhaps these were apocryphal). One hadith cites Muhammad assaying, “should, after my death, follow the way of Abu Bakr and 'Umar” (Hakim, Mustadrak, 3.75). In another, he appears to predict a deterioration in the governance of the ummah, “Surely, the Caliphate after me will last thirty years; afterwards it will a cruel monarchy” (Abu Dawud, Sunna, 8; Tirmidhi, Fitan, 48; I. Hanbal, 4.273). Sunnis argue that Muhammad endorsed the traditional Arabian method of shura or consultation, as the way for the community to choose leaders. Designating one's successor was the sign of kingship, or mulk, which the independence-minded tribesmen disliked. Whatever the truth of the matter, Ali gave his formal bay'ah, or submission, to Abu Bakr and to Abu Bakr's two successors. (The Sunni depict this bay'ah as enthusiastic, and Ali as a supporter of Abu Bakr and Umar; the Shi'as argue that Ali's support was only pro forma, and that he effectively withdrew from public life in protest.) The Sunni/Shi'a schism did not erupt into open warfare until much later. Many volumes have been written on the affair of the succession.
The Ridda Wars
Troubles emerged soon after Abu Bakr's succession, threatening the unity and stability of the new community and state. Various Arab tribes of Hejaz and Nejd rebelled against the caliph and the new system. Some withheld the Zakat, the alms tax (2 ½ percent of disposal income), though they did not challenge the prophecy of Muhammad. Others apostatized outright and returned to their pre-Islamic religion and traditions, classified by Muslims as idolatry. The tribes claimed that they had submitted to Muhammad and that with Muhammad's death, they were again free. Abu Bakr insisted that they had not just submitted to a leader but joined the Muslim religious community, of which he was the new head. Apostasy is a capital offense under traditional interpretations of Islamic law, and Abu Bakr declared war on the rebels. This was the start of the Ridda Wars, or the Wars of Apostasy. The severest struggle was the war with Ibn Habib al-Hanefi, known as "Musailimah the Liar," who claimed to be a prophet and Muhammad's true successor. The Muslim general Khalid bin Walid finally defeated al-Hanefi at the battle of Akraba.
Expeditions to the north
After suppressing internal dissension and completely subduing Arabia, Abu Bakr directed his generals towards the Byzantine and Sassanid empires (see Iran). Khalid bin Walid conquered Iraq in a single campaign, and a successful expedition into Syria also took place. Fred Donner, in his book The Early Islamic Conquests, argues that Abu Bakr's "foreign" expeditions were merely an extension of the Ridda Wars, in that he sent his troops against Arab tribes living on the borders of the Fertile Crescent. Given that the steppes and deserts over which Arabic-speaking tribes roamed extended without break from southern Syria down to Yemen, any polity that controlled only the southern part of the steppe was inherently insecure.
Reputation and Conduct
Abu Bakr was renowned for his simple life style. As caliph, he refused to enrich himself from the money flowing into the treasury and lived modestly. Abu Bakr initially served without pay. His followers insisted that he take an official stipend. At his death, his will returned all these payments to the treasury (Age of Faith, Durant, p. 187). Sir William Muir (1819-1905) described him as “simple, diligent, wise and impartial” (1924: 80). Muir, whose classic Life of Mahomet (1858-1861) was more positive about Muhammad in discussing his life before the hijrah than after that event regarded it as evidence that Muhammad had initially been sincere that “he could have won the faith of and friendship of a man Abu Bakr who was not only sagacious and wise, but throughout his life simple, consistent and sincere” (81). He insisted on the title “deputy of the prophet,” and rebuked anyone who omitted the “of the Prophet.” He maintained Muhammad's custom of treating all equally regarding the distribution of any spoils of war. He had no servants or guards. Muir cites as an example of Abu Bakr's compassion and concern for the welfare of his subjects that he was once found enquiring into the “affairs of a poor blind widow.” He used his power, says Muir “in the interests of Islam and the people's good” (81). He is said to have been absolutely faithful to Muhammad's sunnah and to have studiously avoided innovation. During the two years of his caliphate, the whole of central Arabia was under Muslim control. He had four wives, two early in his life and two later in life (possibly political alliances). In addition to Aisha, he had two sons and a daughter. He did not keep any concubines (see Muir: 80). Abu Bakr is remembered as the first of four rightly guided Caliphs (Al-Khulafa-ur-Rashidun). Some hadith list the first four in order of merit, which makes Abu Bakr the most worthy Muslim after the Prophet himself. Ahmad bin Hanbali's creed places the companions in “order of excellence,” starting with Abu Bakr.
Origins of the Qur'an
Some traditions about the origin of the Qur'an say that Abu Bakr was instrumental in preserving Muhammad's revelations in written form. It is said that after the hard-won victory over Musailimah, Umar ibn al-Khattab (the later Caliph Umar), saw that many of the Muslims who had memorized the Qur'an from the lips of the prophet had died in battle. Umar asked Abu Bakr to oversee the collection of the revelations. The record, when completed, was deposited with Hafsa bint Umar, daughter of Umar, and one of the wives of Muhammad. Later it became the basis of Uthman ibn Affan's definitive text of the Qur'an. However, other historians give Uthman the principal credit for collecting and preserving the Qur'an. Shi'as strongly refute the idea that Abu Bakr or Umar had anything to do with the collection or preservation of the Qur'an.
Death of Abu Bakr
Abu Bakr died on August 23, 634, in Medina. Shortly before his death (which one tradition ascribes to poison, another to natural causes) he urged the Muslim community to accept Umar ibn al-Khattab as his successor. The community did so, without serious incident.
(This succession also is a matter of controversy; Shi'a Muslims believe that the leadership should have been assumed by Ali ibn Abu Talib, without any recourse to shura.)
Abu Bakr lies buried in the Masjid al Nabawi mosque in Medina, alongside Muhammad and Umar ibn al-Khattab.
Was Abu Bakr the first man to adopt Islam?
Muslim scholars agree that the first woman to adopt Islam was Khadijah, Muhammad's first wife. However, there is some disagreement whether Ali ibn Talib or Abu Bakr was the first male to convert. Many Muslims learn only that "Abu Bakr was the first adult male; Ali was the first boy." This glosses over the difficulty. One of the earlier sources for Islamic history is a work called the Sirat Rasulallah, by Ibn Ishaq, known only from excerpts quoted by Ibn Hisham and Tabari. Ibn Ishaq tells two stories about Abu Bakr and Ali's conversion. One story puts Abu Bakr first in time, another puts Ali. Since the Sunni/Shi'a schism was hardening just at the time Ibn Ishaq wrote, it seems predictable that two stories would be current: one, Shi'a, putting Ali first, and one, Sunni, putting Abu Bakr first. Without any further evidence, it is impossible to say which story is correct.
It should be noted that while this is a pressing issue from the Shi'a point of view, most Sunnis consider both to be great men and the question of priority a minor one.
Shi'a view of Abu Bakr
Shi'as believe that Abu Bakr, far from being a devout Muslim and wise and humble man, was a schemer who seized the Islamic state for himself, displacing the proper heir, Ali. They believe that Abu Bakr and Umar persecuted Ali, his family, and his followers, and in so doing, caused the death of Ali's wife Fatimah Zahra (who was Muhammad's daughter) and her unborn child, Al Muhsin.
- Al-Bukhari, Muhammed Ibn Ismaiel. Sahih-al-Bukhari (9 Volumes), translated and edited by M.M. Khan. Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, revised ed. 1987. ISBN 1881963594
- Donner, Fred. The Early Islamic Conquests. Princeton University Press, 1981. ISBN 0691101825
- Muir, Sir William. The Life of Mahomet (4 Volumes). London: Smith & Elder, 1858-1861.
- Muir, Sir William. The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and Fall, edited by T H Weir. Edinburgh: John Grant, 1924 (republished 2004, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing ISBN 1417948892)
All links retrieved November, 2019.