The Prophet uprooted an oppressive social structure and ended a cycle of reprisals and warfare in Arabia before Khulafa Rashidun, his successors, helmed the rapid advancement of Muslims and laid the foundation of Islam’s Golden Age
Bilal, an African slave, was among the first converts to Islam and prominent members of the nascent Muslim community. Islam’s egalitarian message first resonated with marginalised people such as women and slaves.
In a society with entrenched notions of ethnic and tribal superiority, Islam challenged inequalities determined by kinship, affiliation, and wealth, and prompted fierce opposition from the elites such as Umayya, Bilal’s owner.
Umayya would torture Bilal by placing a rock on his chest to have him renounce Islam. Bilal, who was known for his beautiful voice, refused to give in. He went on to earn the distinction of giving the first azan or public call to Muslim prayer.
Bilal’s marriage to an Arab woman from an important clan and closeness to the Prophet Muhammad would become defining examples of how the Prophet transformed Arabia. Social justice, which brought about the change, was the core of the Prophet’s mission.
The Prophet sought to create a society that took care of its weak and treated them with respect. He uprooted the oppressive power and social structure, where Nasab (kinship or lineal descent) determined an individual’s low or high social status.
The change did not come easy. It involved blood, sweat, and tears. The Prophet’s own—the dominant Meccan Quraysh tribe—turned against him. But the balance he struck between idealism and pragmatism would win him over even his fierce enemies.
The Prophet ended a vicious cycle of reprisals and constant warfare in Arabia. He helped usher in unity, order, peace, and justice by uniting warring tribes and giving them a sense of community. The Prophet overcame the persecution, which forced his flight to Medina, assassination attempts, and wars by much more powerful adversaries to eventually have Meccans welcome him back to the city of his birth.
The Prophet was Arabia’s undisputed leader when he gave him the last sermon and reiterated his vision for the community that had until then been key to its successes.
All humans, he declared, have descended from Adam and Eve. There is no superiority, he continued, ‘of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person.’
The Prophet urged his followers to treat others justly so that no one would be unjust to them. ‘You will neither inflict nor suffer inequity…you have certain rights over your women, but they also have rights over you. …Treat your women well and be kind to them…’ Equality was the essence of the Prophet’s farewell address and his moral and ethical mandate for the community.
When the Prophet passed away in 632, the community grappled with questions about effective leadership. His successor had really big shoes to fill and maintain the hard-earned unity and peace. Ali, his charismatic son-in-law known for his valour and military leadership, was among the main contenders to succeed the Prophet as his closest relative.
A group of Muslims insisted Ali, who championed social justice and is once believed to have risked his life by sleeping in the Prophet’s bed to deceive his potential assassins, was more qualified for the job. The Prophet, they insisted, wished Ali to succeed him and lead the Muslim community.
But with Ali still in his 30s and relatively younger, a council of elders instead chose Abu Bakar as the Prophet’s first successor as per the local tradition despite some dissent. Consensus eventually prevailed. Even dissenters including Ali accepted the leadership of Abu Bakr, who was chosen taking the cue from the Prophet’s declaration that his community ‘will never agree in error.’
The general consensus was the Prophet’s heir did not need to have extraordinary spiritual qualities. He was supposed to just lead by example and guide the community in religious and political matters. Abu Bakar fit the bill when the elders agreed to have a single leader as the Prophet’s successor.
The elders chose Abu Bakar as the first of the four Khulafa Rashidun (rightly-guided caliphs). He would spend his brief reign consolidating a unified Arabia from 632 to 634. Umar, Uthman, and Ali followed Abu Bakar as caliphs over the next three decades until 661.
As close companions of the Prophet, the four caliphs enjoyed a special status. Knowledgeable in religious matters, they laid the foundation of Islam’s Golden Age. The four are revered as embodiments of Islam’s ‘early purity and success.’
Khulafa Rashidun provided the budding community with effective leadership and helmed its rapid advancement. Muslims extended their realm greatly under Umar and Uthman by bringing Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Persia, and the North African coast under their control.