Note on language: The word "caliph" simply means "successor" and refers to the person who purports to rule the Islamic community as a successor to the prophet Muhammed. The word "caliphate," in turn, signifies the institution of this ruler; think of the difference between the "president" (a person) and the "presidency" (an institution.)

The Rashidun Caliphs (632-661 CE) (also known as the "rightly guided" or "patriarchal" caliphs) were the first rulers of Islam after the prophet Muhammad died in 632 AD. The four main caliphs were Abu-bakr, Omar, Othman, and Ali. Each of them expanded the Islamic empire in one way or another. The Islamic expansion from 632-661 started from the Arabian peninsula in Mecca and Medina , to the west into Africa reaching Libya and to the east going as far as Afghanistan.


Map of the Rashidun Caliphate (dark green) with vassal states (light green), c. 654.

As word of Muhammad's death spread throughout
Arabia, several Arab tribes that had allied with the prophet Muhammad refused to obey the new caliph, Abu Bakr, who ruled from Medina. Some of recently converted tribes openly rejected Islam and returned to their earlier religious practices; other rebellious tribes objected to the rule of Abu-Bakr until he put down their rebellion. From 632 to 634 CE, the first "rightly guided" caliph Abu-Bakr therefore consolidated and solidified Muhammed's expansion. From 634 to 644, Umar, the second and most influential of the "rightly guided" caliphs, achieved the first great expansion of Islam's political and religious authority outside of the Saudi Arabian peninsula. Umar's armies drove the Byzantine Empire out of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and parts of southern Asia, while pushing the Sassanid Empire (Iran) out of Mesopotamia.

Passing over Muhammed's nephew and son-in-law Ali after Umar's death, generals chose Uthman -- a merchant from the Umayyad clan that had oppressed Muhammed -- to be the third caliph. The tension between followers of Ali and those of Uthman would eventually result in the Sunni/Shiite split. During
Uthman's reign (from 644 to 656 CE) the authority of the government in Medina was improved and a conference of scholars was called to make an official version of the Qur'an, placing the chapters in the order in which they appear today. During Uthman's reign the caliphate continued to expand, with Muslim armies moving farther east into Sassanid Iran. After Uthman's assassination, Ali became the fourth and final Rashidun caliph, ruling from 656 until his assassination in 661 (see below.)

Religon and Culture of the Rashidun Caliphate
The culture of the Rashidun Caliphate was extremely religious. Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, died in 632 CE. The remarkably smooth transition was thanks to Abu-Baker, who was elected into power by the Shura (literally meaning "consultation", this term refers to the Arab custom of gathering prominent members of the community together to make important decisions.) The early caliphs established the basic principles of Sharia, or Muslim holy law, by declaring that any act of the state had to be consistent with the Qur’an and the Hadith ( also known as the Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and second only to the Qur'an as a Muslim religious text.) Later when Uthman was voted into power, the construction of more than 5,000 mosques was approved, along with the expansion of The Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. The great attraction that these sites held as destinations of pilgrimage proved that the Islamic religion was still a major part of the daily lives of the people.

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A Syrian Shiite devotional icon of Ali: "There is not other fighter that Ali and there is not other sword that Zulfikar."
Fall of the Rashidun Caliphate
Uthman was the third ruler of the Rightly Guided Caliphs or the Rashidun Caliphate. He ruled for twelve years, but for the second half of his rule, civil distress rocked the empire. Uthman, reluctant to spill Muslim blood, refrained from destroying the rebellion. He tried to talk to them and persuade them. The reason he had been so forgiving may have due to Muhammad's words, “Once the sword is unsheathed among my followers, it will not be sheathed until the Last Day.”1 Ali's followers, in contrast, were upset to see a kinsmen of Muhammed's oppressors leading the Muslim community while Muhammed's nephew and son-in-law -- the pious and warlike Ali -- was passed over. In 656 CEE they killed Uthman while he was at mosque, chopping off three of his wife's fingers as she strove to protect him. Ali was the next Caliph, but the murder of Uthman left the land uneasy, and Ali himself soon fell victim to assassination; the split in Islam grew from there. Rule passed ironically back to the Uthman's Umayyad clan -- a family that had once violent oppressed Muhammed -- and the Umayyad Caliphate was born.

1; under Uthman Caliphate.

Works Cited
National Muslim Student Association of the USA and Canada. "The Rightly Guided Caliphs." Sunnah Online, Apr 2009. Web. 1 Apr 2010. <>.
"Rashidun: The Rightly-Guided Caliphate." The Meaning of Islam. N.p., Thursday 1 Apr 2010. Web. 1 Apr 2010. <>.

"Rashidun." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 02 Apr. 2010 <****>.
"The Rashidun Caliphate". <>.
Wyatt, Thomas. "Rashidun, First Caliphs of Islam after Muhammad". Janurary 21, 2010 <>.