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Ridda Wars

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Ridda Wars

What happened after the Prophet Muhammad died? Firstly, of course, a new leader had to be appointed to rule the Islamic community. But a second consequence of the Prophet's death was that many Arabian tribes renounced Islam, deciding to go back to their old customs and religion. Abu Bakr, the new Islamic leader, waged a series of campaigns against these 'rebel' tribes. These became known as the Ridda Wars.

Ridda Wars Definition

The Ridda Wars were a series of military campaigns carried out between 632 and 633 by the first caliph, Abu Bakr.

Caliph

Ruler of the Islamic community and empire, known as a caliphate.

Many Arab tribes had converted to Islam during Muhammad's lifetime because of the power and influence wielded by the Prophet during his last few years at Medina. However, once Muhammad died, these tribes were keen to return to their old customs and religious practices. They also resented the zakat tax - an alms tax that all Muslims of a high social standing had to pay. Therefore, several tribes renounced their allegiance to the Muslim community after Muhammad's death.

Caliph Abu Bakr set about cementing Islam across the whole Arabian peninsula once more, by engaging in warfare with these 'rebel' tribes. These campaigns became known as the Ridda Wars.

Wars of Apostasy

Another name for the Ridda Wars is the Wars of Apostasy. Apostasy is when someone abandons or renounces a previous religious belief or practice. The Ridda Wars are also known as the Wars of Apostasy since they started when several Arab tribes renounced their Muslim allegiance and practice in the years after Muhammad's death.

Caliph Abu Bakr's military campaigns were deliberate attempts to re-establish Islam as the Arab religious and political culture against those who wanted to return to their old ways of living.

Causes of Ridda Wars

We can divide the causes of the Ridda Wars into long term causes, short term causes and the catalyst which sparked the entire conflict.

Long term

The long term causes of the Ridda Wars lay in the ancient history of the tribal structure in the Arabian peninsula. For centuries before Islam, the basic unit of society had been the tribes. The customs and religious practices of these tribes were handed down through the generations.

With Muhammad's rise to power, the basic unit of society shifted from the tribes to whether or not someone was a Muslim. With this shift in identity came new religious practices, new customs laid down by Muhammad, and new social structures since people could now intermarry with anyone in the Umma, regardless of which tribe they were from.

Many tribes had converted to Islam not because they believed in the Prophet's message, but because they saw that there was no point in resisting Muhammad as the dominant military and political power in the region. Moreover, Muhammad controlled all the trade routes into the Arabian peninsula. Therefore, historian Fred Donner argues that many tribes converted simply because they needed to if they wanted to be able to eat and survive.

Once Muhammad had firm control over all agricultural areas in northwestern Arabia, the options of the tribes were distinctly limited. If they wished to eat, they had to come to terms with this new, ubiquitous political force."

-Historian Fred Donner.1

This meant that many tribes' allegiance to Islam had been a decision of necessity, rather than a genuine conversion. As a result, once the Prophet Muhammad died and there was a crisis of leadership in the Muslim community, many tribes took the opportunity to revert to their old practices.

Short term

Many tribes resented the zakat tax that they were forced to pay under the Prophet Muhammad. This tax meant that all Muslims of a certain social standing had to pay alms to be distributed among all the people. For many, this meant paying money to be given to people who had just a few years back been their mortal enemies.

Catalyst

The catalyst that sparked the beginning of the Ridda Wars was the death of the Prophet Muhammad in June 632. This left a crisis of leadership in the Muslim community, since Muhammad never stated who his successor should be. Even when Abu Bakr, who had been a close friend of Muhammad, was appointed the new caliph, several prominent Muslims, such as Muhammad's son-in-law Ali, continued to oppose his rule for a time.

Many tribes therefore took the opportunity of this sudden weakness in the Muslim community to declare their independence from Islamic rule and religion.

Period of the Ridda Wars

Caliph Abu Bakr divided his army into eleven divisions, each of which were sent to a different region to subjugate a different rebel tribe. This strategy was very effective for three reasons:

  • It meant that Abu Bakr's enemies could not attack Medina while his army was on campaign against a different tribe.

  • It isolated Abu Bakr's enemies, preventing them from forming alliances with one another.

  • It stopped Abu Bakr's enemies from striking back.

Caliph Abu Bakr's chief commander was Khalid ibn al-Walid. He was very loyal to the cause of Islam and had played a significant role in helping Muhammad achieve victory at the Battle of Uhud in 625. Khalid's forces were sent to subdue the most powerful of Caliph Abu Bakr's enemy tribes.

Did you know? Khalid ibn al-Walid was such a talented military commander that he became known as Saif Allah, meaning 'sword of God'.

Military Campaigns

Here is a table summarising Abu Bakr's numerous campaigns and battles.

Campaign RegionEnemy Outcome
Battle of ZhuqissaCentral ArabiaUsama Abu Bakr's army was victorious. Usama's army retreated to find allies elsewhere.
Battle of Abraq Central ArabiaUsamaAbu Bakr's forces were victorious. Usama's army retreated to find allies elsewhere.
Tayy Negotiations Central ArabiaAdi ibn HatimAdi ibn Hatim and Abu Bakr conducted negotiations which were successful. Adi ibn Hatim not only withdrew his army, but offered it as support to the Muslim forces. He also persuaded the Banu Jadila tribe to submit to Abu Bakr.
Battle of Buzakha and Battle of GhamraCentral ArabiaTulayhaKhalid's forces decisively defeated Tulayha.
Battle of NaqraCentral ArabiaBanu SaleemKhalid's forces were victorious.
Battle of ZafarCentral ArabiaChieftess SalmaKhalid's forces decisively defeated Salma.
NajdCentral ArabiaBanu TamimKhalid's forces were victorious.
Yamamah Central ArabiaMusaylimaAbu Bakr's forces were defeated when the corps' commander attacked prematurely. When a second commander also attacked Musaylima before waiting for Khalid to join, the Muslim army was defeated a second time.
Battle of YamamahCentral ArabiaMusaylimaKhalid's forces were victorious. This represented the turning point in the Ridda Wars because Musaylima had been their biggest opponent. Within five months of this battle, all other tribes were subdued.
Battle of DibbaOman Tribe of AzdAbu Bakr's forces were successful.
Syrian borderNorthern ArabiaQuza'a and Wadi'a tribesAfter a long campaign, Abu Bakr's forces were successful.
YemenSouthern ArabiaAmr and QaysAbu Bakr's forces were victorious and their enemies then subdued by successful negotiations.
MahraSouthern ArabiaTwo local tribesAbu Bakr's forces concluded successful negotiations with the weaker of the two tribes, who then teamed up with the Muslims to defeat the bigger of the two tribes in battle.
BahrainWestern ArabiaLocal tribesAbu Bakr's forces won a decisive victory.
HadhramautSouthern ArabiaKinda tribeAbu Bakr's forces initially waited for reinforcements to come from fighting campaigns elsewhere. Finally, they attacked and were successful. This was the final rebellion.

As you can see, Abu Bakr and Khalid's forces were almost always successful. Their one significant defeat was at the hands of Musaylima.

Who was Musaylima?

Musaylima was the most powerful opponent that Caliph Abu Bakr and Khalid faced during the Ridda Wars. He was a self-proclaimed prophet from the Banu Hanifa tribe, one of the biggest tribes in Arabia. His army far outnumbered the Muslim forces.

Musaylima was a monotheist, but he advocated a more relaxed form of religious practice than Muhammad. Whereas Muslims had to pray five times a day facing the direction of the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, Musaylima argued that people only had to pray three times a day, and that they could face any direction they wanted because God was not confined to one direction.

Musaylima was killed at the Battle of Yamamah. Muslims gave him the title Musaylima the Arch-Liar, to reinforce their belief that he was a false prophet.

Effects of the Ridda Wars

What were the main outcomes of these campaigns?

  1. Caliph Abu Bakr unified the entire Arabian peninsula under Islamic rule.

  2. Islam became embedded in local culture across Arabia.

  3. Khalid gained notoriety as a military commander.

  4. The scene was set for Caliph Abu Bakr to launch invasions against the Sassanian Empire and the Byzantine Empire.

  5. Caliph Abu Bakr's position as leader was consolidated.

Ridda Wars Importance

Muhammad had attempted to unify the Arabian peninsula in the cause of Islam. He had succeeded to an extent. However, the tribes' loyalties to him were weak and there were still areas that he had yet to extend his influence to. With the Ridda Wars, Caliph Abu Bakr unified the whole of the Arabian peninsula under Islam, thus fulfilling Muhammad's wish.

The Ridda Wars also created a strong base from which Abu Bakr and the later caliphs could extend their influence into Byzantine and Sasanian territories.

Finally, the Ridda Wars consolidated Caliph Abu Bakr's position as undisputed leader of the Muslim community.

Ridda Wars Historiography

The historian Elias S.Shoufani provides a rather different take on the Ridda Wars. He argues that most of the tribes that Caliph Abu Bakr's armies subdued had never agreed to pay the zakat tax or follow Muhammad in the first place. This means they can't really be seen as apostates, 'rebels' who turned against the Islamic community, so much as tribes who had kept their independence.

Therefore, he argues that most of the Ridda Wars should be seen as wars of conquest into new territories that Muhammad's influence never really reached during his lifetime. Only the tribes in Central Asia can be legitimately seen as wars of apostasy - reinforcing Muslim power over rebel tribes.2

From this perspective, the importance of these campaigns is more than just consolidating Islamic power in the Arabian peninsula. It was actually the rapid Muslim conquest of the entire Arabian peninsula in no less than a year and a half.

Ridda Wars - Key takeaways

  • The Ridda Wars were a series of military campaigns fought between 632 and 633 between Abu Bakr and the Muslims' enemies in the Arabian peninsula.
  • The catalyst for the Ridda Wars was the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Many tribes took the opportunity to distance themselves from Islam.
  • Abu Bakr's chief commander was Khalid ibn al-Walid.
  • The Muslims' most powerful opponent during the Ridda Wars was a self-proclaimed prophet named Musaylima. He was killed at the Battle of Yamamah.
  • The outcome of the Ridda Wars was that Abu Bakr consolidated Islam across the entire Arabian peninsula, fulfilling Muhammad's wish. This left the Islamic empire ready to launch invasions into Byzantine and Sasanian lands.

References

  1. Fred McGraw Donner, 'Mecca's Food Supplies and Muhammad's Boycott', Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 20, (1977), p.266.
  2. Gautier H.A.Juynboll 'Review: Al-riddah and the Muslim Conquest of Arabia by Elias S.Shoufani', Journal of the American Oriental Society 97, (1977), pp.199-200.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ridda Wars

In Arabic, Ridda means to 'retrace one's steps'. The name Ridda Wars refers to the fact that the wars were caused by the decision of many Arabian tribes to renounce Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. For this reason, the Ridda Wars are also known as the Wars of Apostasy.

Abu Bakr's purpose in the Ridda Wars was to quell the rebellious tribes which had turned away from Islam in the wake of the Prophet Muhammad's death. He led military campaigns to subdue these tribes and unify the entire Arabian peninsula.

The Ridda Wars comprised of many different military campaigns all around the Arabian peninsula, as Abu Bakr and his Muslim army defeated a succession of tribes who had rebelled against Islamic rule between 632 and 633. Abu Bakr emerged victorious from all of these conflicts, whether through military success or diplomacy. The Ridda Wars ended when Abu Bakr unified the whole Arabian peninsula under Islam.

Apostasy refers to the decision of a person or group to abandon a religious belief or practice that they once held. An apostasy movement is when many people or groups decide to abandon a religious practice at the same time.

The Ridda Wars were important because Abu Bakr managed to unify the entire Arabian peninsula under the banner of Islam for the first time. They consolidated Abu Bakr's leadership and the standing of the Muslim community in Arabia, and they set the scene for the impressive military conquests into Byzantine and Sasanian lands to come in the following few decades. 

Final Ridda Wars Quiz

Question

Who was the caliph during the Ridda Wars?

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Answer

Abu Bakr

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Question

When were the Ridda Wars fought? 

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Answer

632-633

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Question

What is another name for the Ridda Wars? 

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Answer

The Wars of Apostasy

Show question

Question

What does apostasy mean? 

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Answer

The practice of abandoning a previously held religious belief or practice. 

Show question

Question

What was the long term cause of the Ridda Wars? 

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Answer

Many tribes had converted to Islam not because they believed in Muhammad's message but because there was no point resisting Muhammad's military and political power. As soon as Muhammad died, these tribes took their chance to regain their independence from the Muslims. 

Show question

Question

What was the zakat tax? 

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Answer

All Muslims of a certain social standing had to pay a tax to be distributed among the people. 

Show question

Question

Who was Abu Bakr's main rival for leadership? 

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Answer

Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali. 

Show question

Question

What was Abu Bakr's strategy in the Ridda Wars? 

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Answer

He divided his army into eleven corps, each of which was sent to a different region. 

Show question

Question

Who was Abu Bakr's chief commander? 

Show answer

Answer

Khalid ibn al-Walid

Show question

Question

Which battle was the turning point of the Ridda Wars? 

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Answer

The Battle of Yamamah, where Musaylima was killed. 

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Question

Who was Musaylima? 

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Answer

The most powerful opponent Abu Bakr faced. He was a self-proclaimed prophet with a large army. 

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Question

What was the main outcome of the Ridda Wars? 

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Answer

Abu Bakr unified the entire Arabian peninsula under Islamic rule. 

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Question

Who emerged as the undisputed leader of the Muslim community at the end of the Ridda Wars?

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Answer

Abu Bakr

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Question

What was the name Khalid was given as a result of his victories during the Ridda Wars? 

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Answer

Saif Allah - Sword of God

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Question

Which region did Abu Bakr decide to subdue first before turning his attention to other areas in the Arabian peninsula? 

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Answer

Central Arabia

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