Much of the historic confusion among Muslims is recycled into sectarianism because neither those who regard themselves as Sunnis nor those who regard themselves as Shi‘is have a balanced understanding of that first generation of committed Muslims who gained their devotion and achieved their steadfastness by virtue of their love of Allah (swt) and admiration of the Prophet (pbuh). It has to settle into the “general Muslim public conscience” that a unique—not infallible and not unerring—generation came into being in those twenty-three years of the Prophet’s guidance and influence. This generation detached itself from materialism and was no longer interested in the luxuries of everyday earthly comforts. The Prophet’s love for them and their love for him became the staying power of their society.
These persons around the Prophet (pbuh) were the founding fathers of Islamic self-determination. They were not all of the same ranking: there were those who were the first among the first (al-Sabiqeen); there were those who were persecuted and tortured, there were those who were forced out of Makkah (al-Muhajireen)—some of them went to Abyssinia (al-Habashah) and then some to al-Madinah. There were those who sheltered, protected and supported them in al-Madinah (al-Ansar). There were those who labored, struggled and fought with all that they had of livelihood and life, knowing that they are with Allah’s Prophet (pbuh) on a path to Allah (swt).
These are the pioneers who despite their weaknesses constituted that rare Prophetic generation. With all this, they never thought of themselves as being above others. Nor did they entertain the notion that they were a “chosen people”. Their unpretentiousness endeared them to the Prophet (pbuh). Their popularity resulted from their humility. In this first community of committed Muslims a master was no longer a master and a slave no longer a slave. The shared care and concern for each other narrowed the space between the poor and the rich. As those 23 years went by, this core community of committed Muslims stood out among the rest of the people in the Arabian Peninsula—those who were Muslims and those who were not. This building bloc of devout and selfless Muslims was to become the imminent octane of Islamic propulsion into surrounding territories and countries.
Months after the Prophet (pbuh) assumed civic leadership and social governance in al-Madinah, the battle of Badr occurred. The victory of the Prophet (pbuh) and those loyal Muslims with him at Badr catapulted the status of the committed Muslims to a prominent position in the public eye. Consequently, those combat committed Muslims who fought at Badr became “public heroes”. And their participation in future military duties added to their “heroic reputation”.
The ayats in the Qur’an and some hadiths of the Prophet (pbuh) vouch for their struggle, sacrifices, and selflessness. It is extremely important to note that not everyone who became a Muslim during the last ten years of the Prophet’s mission is included in this category. There were munafiqeen (dual-loyalists), al-A‘rab (Arabian opportunists), al-Tulaqa’ (those lifelong enemies of Islam who were amnestied by the Prophet (pbuh) on the day Makkah was liberated, al-Mu’allafatu qulubuhum (those who were subsidized as a matter of “winning them over” to Islam), etc…
What we should understand from all this is that this true and tried Prophetic generation was the one that eventually decided on who will become the successor to the Prophet (pbuh). In other words, the leader of the Muslims after the Prophet (pbuh) left his earthly abode would not be able to effectively rule without their vigorous support. They were the ones who had to good-naturedly decide on who will rule after the Prophet (pbuh). Correspondingly, whoever becomes the leader of the Muslims will have to refer to them in reaching a particular policy or public interest decision.
It was only a matter of hours or days after the Prophet (pbuh) passed on that a type of partisanship or “political leanings” began to surface within this critical mass of true and tried Muslims. It appears to this writer that these dedicated Muslims were caught between their knowledge of the Prophet’s recommendations or “nomination” of Imam ‘Ali to be the successor to the Prophet (pbuh) on one side, and the ‘asabiyah backlash coming from neophyte Muslims, who were numerically the majority, if Imam ‘Ali was endorsed by them to be the immediate successor to the Prophet (pbuh), on the other. The “majority Muslim newcomers” would have impulsively interpreted the instantaneous succession of Imam ‘Ali to be a kind of hereditary rule. This would have caused a broad confluence of primitive tribalism to come together and go to war against Imam ‘Ali.
In this emotionally packed and tight frame of mind, the Ansar came out and suggested “a rotational” leadership by saying: منا أمير ومنكم أمير [from us – the Ansar – a chief and from you—the Muhajireen—a chief.] Then Abu Bakr mentioned a hadith from the Prophet (pbuh) saying: الأئمة من قريش [the Imams (leaders) are [to be] from Quraish.] Then Abu Bakr followed that up by saying: الأمراء وأنتم الوزراء نحن [We – the Muhajireen—come out as the persons in command and you [the Ansar] become the seconds-in-command]. The Ansar showed no opposition to the proposal from Abu Bakr. The only person from the Ansar who did not agree with this proposition was Sa‘d ibn ‘Ubadah.
It appears from all that this writer knows that from here on a consciousness of “who is/was closer to the Prophet (pbuh) took hold; and how do we define the word “close to the Prophet”? One understanding was that the Muhajireen of Quraish are the closest circle/community to the Prophet (pbuh). This understanding would exclude anyone outside of them from being a successor to the Prophet (pbuh). The second tier of affinity to the Prophet were the Ansar and so they were involved in the decision-making process. For all practical purposes, Muhajireen of Quraish became the “primary community” of producers of leaders and advisers closely followed by the Ansar. What is to be noticed here is that eventually Quraish as a tribe trumped the Muhajireen but the door of “popular participation” was wide open for everyone.
We are treading here on a sensitive area in Islamic history so we have to be very careful and thoughtful when we probe this subtle and tactful page in our early Islamic history. Our reading of this sensitive issue is that Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and Abu ‘Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah did not consider Quraish-the-tribe to have a monopoly over the highest office in Islamic leadership. They may have thought that Quraish meant – more or less – the Muhajireen whose majority members are from Quraish and who have spent a lifetime sacrificing for the cause of Allah (swt). It was common knowledge then, and should be common knowledge today, that the Muhajireen and Ansar are mentioned as one in the Qur’an and in the Prophet’s hadiths – even by the Arab commoner. When Abu Bakr mentioned “Quraish” he in all likelihood was alluding to the Muhajireen, the bulk of whom were from Quraish.
Judgment [and ruling on this matter] rests with none but Allah. He shall outline the truth [about justice,] since it is He who is the best judge [to rule between truth and falsehood.] - Al-An‘am, 57