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Rightly Guided Caliphs Period of Rule

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Rightly Guided Caliphs Period of Rule

Who were the first leaders of the Islamic community after Muhammad, and how did they shape Islam as a world force? The period of rule of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs - Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali - became known in Islam as a golden age. But what happened during this period to make it such an exception, and how 'golden' really was this age? Read on to find out.

Rightly Guided Caliphs Period of Rule: Meaning

The 'Rightly Guided Caliphs' were the first four caliphs to rule the Islamic community after the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632. They shared several characteristics: they had all been close companions of the Prophet Muhammad, they were all from the Quraysh tribe, and all were skilled diplomats and military commanders. These four caliphs were:

1. Abu Bakr (ruled 632-634)

2. Umar (ruled 634-644)

3. Uthman (ruled 644-656)

4. Ali (ruled 656-661)

During the rules of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, the Islamic empire grew at an unprecedented rate. The following map shows the massive expansion of Muslim territory from when Muhammad was alive to when Ali became caliph in 656. Because his reign was marked by internal conflict within the Muslim community, the Islamic empire did not grow during Ali's five years as caliph.

Rightly Guided Caliphs Period of Rule Map Showing the Expansion of the Rashidun Caliphate Study SmarterMap Showing the Expansion of the Rashidun Caliphate. Key: I = Muhammad, II = Abu Bakr, III = Umar, IV = Uthman, Rowanwindwhistler, Wikimedia Commons

The Rashidun Caliphate

The formal name for the combined reigns of Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali is the Rashidun Caliphate. Rashidun is the Arabic term for 'Rightly Guided' - why are they considered rightly guided? Most Muslims believe that these four caliphs represented a golden age when the Islamic community adhered to Muhammad's teaching and vision.

Caliphate

An Islamic state ruled by a single religious and political leader, called a caliph

Another name for the Rashidun Caliphate is the 'Patriarchal Caliphs'. This refers to the fact that Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali were all relatives or close companions of the Prophet Muhammad.

What's in a name?

What both of these names, Rashidun and Patriarchal, have in common is a tendency to set these four caliphs and their 29-year rule apart from the rest of Islamic history. These caliphs are regarded as special, extraordinary, and unique in the history of Islam's leadership because they were morally pious leaders who did not seek their own power but rather the will of Allah.

Rightly Guided Caliphs Period of Rule: History

This table condenses some of the most important facts about who these four caliphs were and what happened during their reigns.

Caliph BackgroundNotable Facts and AchievementsManner of death
Abu BakrAbu Bakr was a close companion of the Prophet Muhammad and his father-in-law
  • Abu Bakr exercised strong leadership in the wake of the Prophet Muhammad's death.
  • Abu Bakr unified/conquered the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of Islam.
  • Abu Bakr began campaigns into Byzantine and Sasanian Empire lands.
Abu Bakr died of natural causes in August 634. He appointed Umar as his successor before he died.
UmarUmar was an early convert to Islam; he had fought in most of Muhammad's battles and was a close advisor to Abu Bakr.
  • Umar is revered as one of the greatest caliphs in Islamic history.
  • Umar conquered the Sasanian Empire in under two years.
  • Umar conquered two-thirds of the Byzantine Empire, including Syria.
  • Umar introduced records of all officials of state.
  • Umar led administrative reforms.
  • Umar created the Islamic calendar.
  • Umar introduced pensions for the elderly and child benefits (creating one of the first welfare states).
Umar was assassinated by a Persian enslaved person (possibly as revenge for the conquest of the Sasanian Empire). Before he died of his wounds, he appointed a six-man committee to elect the next caliph.
UthmanUthman was a son-in-law, companion and second cousin of the Prophet Muhammad.
  • The Rashidun Empire reached its peak size with military success under Uthman.
  • Uthman introduced financial reforms which made the Islamic empire more prosperous.
  • Uthman was known for nepotism, which made him very unpopular.
Uthman was assassinated by a Kharijite during a siege on Uthman's house by Muslim protestors.
Ali Ali was a son-in-law, companion and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad.
  • Ali was elected by popular opinion in Medina.
  • His rule saw the outbreak of the First Fitna.
  • Ali faced opposition early on in his reign from Muhammad's widow and two rivals but defeated them at the Battle of the Camel.
  • Ali also faced an uprising from Muawiya, the governor of Syria, who sought revenge for his kinsman Uthman's assassination.
Ali was assassinated by a Kharijite. His eldest son, Hasan, assumed the throne. However, Muawiya negotiated a large payment with Hasan in exchange for his abdication. Muawiya I thus became the first Umayyad Caliph, and the period of the Rashidun Caliphate ended.

Nepotism

The practice of appointing relatives and close friends to important positions in a company or government

First Fitna

The first civil war in Islam: the conflict started when Muhammad's widow and two of his companions revolted against Caliph Ali. Muawiya, the governor of Syria and relative of Uthman, emerged as the victor of the First Fitna. This represented the end of the Rashidun Caliphate and the start of the Umayyad Caliphate.

The Kharijites

For a small Islamic sect, the Kharijites had a pretty influential impact on the course of Rashidun history. Let's take a closer look at this political group and why they assassinated two of the Rashidun Caliphs.

The Kharijites were the first Islamic sect. They emerged during the protests against Caliph Uthman, unifying around the principle that Ali was the rightful heir to Muhammad. A Kharijite assassinated Uthman in 656 in order to bring Ali to the throne.

However, the Kharijites turned on Ali after he agreed to negotiate with Muawiya at the Battle of Siffin. The Kharijites thought that Ali should strike Muawiya down and interpreted Ali's act of negotiation as a sin because it showed Ali to rely on human judgement (diplomacy) rather than Allah's judgement (fate in battle).

Ali attacked the Kharijite camp after they had been responsible for several murders of travellers and envoys in the region. This was known as the Battle of Nahrawan. As revenge, a Kharijite assassinated Ali with a poisoned sword while he was saying prayers in a mosque in 661.

Achievements of the Rightly Guided Caliphs

What were the main achievements of the Rashidun Caliphs?

  1. Military Conquest: The Rashidun Caliphs conquered the whole of the Arabian Peninsula, the whole of the Sasanian Empire, and two-thirds of the Byzantine Empire within a span of twenty-four years.
  2. Establishment of one of the first welfare states: Under Caliph Umar, allowances for children and the elderly were introduced, paid for by the zakat tax (an early kind of progressive taxation).
  3. Consolidation of Islam: Abu Bakr's successes against rebel tribes in the Ridda Wars ensured that Islam would not be forgotten with the death of Muhammad but that it would become a powerful religious and political force in world history. Caliph Uthman was responsible for compiling the written Qur'an, which ensured that Muhammad's teachings were preserved for the future.
  4. Toleration of other religions: The Rashidun caliphs mostly treated other religious people with respect. Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and other religious groups were called dhimmis, 'the protected people'. They had to pay a special tax called the jizya and acknowledge Muslim rule, but in exchange for this, they were mostly left to practice their faiths in peace. Some dhimmis even became important members of the Muslim government.

Progressive tax

A tax which increases according to someone's ability to pay it

For example, a person with much wealth and income would pay more than someone with little wealth or income.

Right Guided Caliphs Period of Rule: Effects

This period saw the establishment of Islam as the unquestionable superpower in the Near East.

Before the Rashidun Caliphate, the big cheeses on the block were the Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian Empire. Muhammad may have won local fame and power in central Arabia, but his territorial and cultural impact was limited compared to these two empires.

However, within just twenty-nine years, the rising star of the Rashidun Caliphate meant that the Islamic Empire became the most powerful force in the Near East. They conquered all the lands of the Sasanian Empire, meaning that this ancient Persian empire crumbled after several centuries of rule. Moreover, they made serious inroads into Byzantine territory. It would be another two hundred years before the Byzantine Empire started to assert itself again under the Macedonian dynasty.

These two maps side by side, showing the Near East before Muhammad and after the Rashidun Caliphate, shows this radical change.

Rightly Guided Caliphs Period of Rule Map Showing Near East before Muhammad Study SmarterMap showing the tribes and empires of the Near East before Muhammad migrated to Medina c.600, Getoryk, Wikimedia Commons

Rightly Guided Caliphs Period of Rule: Map Showing the Expansion of the first two caliphates Study SmarterMap Showing the Expansion of the Islamic Caliphate. Key: Dark red: Muhammad, Orange: Rashidun Caliphs, Yellow: Umayyad Caliphs, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

The name historians give to this kind of re-ordering of political dominance in a region is geopolitical balance of power. The lasting historical legacy of the Rashidun Caliphate was that it reordered the geopolitical balance of power in the Near East.

Geopolitical

Relating to politics (especially international politics), especially as is influenced by geographical factors such as changes in territory

Historical Importance of the Rightly Guided Caliphs Period of Rule

The significance of the Rashidun Caliphate is hotly contested.

Rightly Guided Caliphs Period of Rule: Painting of Umar and his council Study SmarterCaliph Umar with his council, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

The traditional Muslim view of the Rashidun Caliphate

Most Muslims believe that the Rightly Guided Caliphs' period of rule was a golden age for Islam. Although they do not believe that Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman or Ali were prophets capable of receiving revelation as Muhammad did, they do believe that they were moral exemplars who followed Islam faithfully and that their authority 'to implement and execute law' was as great as the Prophet Muhammad's.1

For different reasons, most Muslims believe that after the fall of the Rashidun Caliphate, the office of the caliph became 'corrupted'.2 Shia Muslims think that the caliphate should only pass down through Caliph Ali's descendants; hence later caliphs were not the true heirs to the caliphate. Sunni Muslims think that these later caliphs were out for their own gain rather than true caliphs faithful to Muhammad's teaching and example.

Thus the Rashidun Caliphs get singled out within the history of Islam as a unique golden age when the political and religious community of Islam, the umma, was truly devout and obedient to God's will.

Revisionist Approach

Historian Robert Hoyland sums up the critical Western approach to this traditional Islamic narrative in the following words.

The problem with this narrative is not so much that it is wrong, but that, like all histories told from the standpoint of the victors, it is idealised and one-sided. 3

Robert Hoyland, Fred Donner and other Western scholars advocate a way of treating the past that takes into account 'complexity and ambiguity' rather than accepting a black-and-white picture of reality which makes some people into moral heroes and others into tyrants.4

A good example of this approach in practice is an article by Heather Keaney, which analyses ninth-century Islamic histories of Caliph Uthman. She argues that later Islamic writers 'used literary techniques to point to moral and political lessons' about the Rashidun caliphs for their own present time.5 Moreover, her article points out that in two of the three sources she looks at, Caliph Uthman is portrayed in a highly negative light - 'corrupt at worst, weak at best'.6 The portrayal of Uthman as a bad ruler in these early sources again complicates the view that the Rashidun Caliphs are always seen as moral exemplars, even in the long tradition of Islamic historiography.

Rightly Guided Caliphs Period of Rule - Key takeaways

  • The period of rule of the Rightly Guided Caliphs started in 632 with the death of Muhammad. This period lasted for twenty-nine years until Muawiya I became caliph in 661.
  • The four caliphs who ruled during this period were Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali.
  • These four caliphs received the title 'rightly guided' (Rashidun in Arabic) because they became seen as moral exemplars who led the Islamic community in the footsteps of Muhammad.
  • The major achievements of the Rashidun Caliphate were: military expansion, the foundation of an early welfare state, toleration of religious minorities and the consolidation of Islam.
  • Traditional Muslim accounts view the Rashidun Caliphate as a golden age. In contrast, recent Western scholarship tries to paint a more nuanced picture of the Rashidun Caliphate.

References

  1. Ira M.Lapidus, 'The Golden Age: The Political Concepts of Islam', The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 524 (1992), p.14.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Robert G. Hoyland, In God's Path; The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Arab Empire, (2015), p.2.
  4. Hoyland, In God's Path, p.6.
  5. Heather Keaney, 'Confronting the Caliph: 'Uthman b' Affan in Three Abbasid Chronicles', Studia Islamica 106, (2011), p.47.
  6. Keaney, 'Confronting the Caliph: 'Uthman b' Affan in Three Abbasid Chronicles', p.29.

Frequently Asked Questions about Rightly Guided Caliphs Period of Rule

The rightly guided caliphs ruled for a total of twenty-nine years. The period started when Abu Bakr became caliph in 632 and ended in 661 when Ali was assassinated. 

The traditional Muslim interpretation of the rightly guided caliphs is that their rule was a golden age for Islam. Evidence supporting this interpretation includes the rapid military expansion, the consolidation of Islam, toleration for other religions and establishment of one of the world's first welfare states. However, many modern Western scholars question this 'golden age' argument, believing that this is an idealised depiction of what was a complex and messy period. 

The reign of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs began in 632 when Muhammad died and his close friend Abu Bakr became the first rightly guided caliph. The reign of the Rightly Guided Caliphs ended in 661 when Caliph Ali was assassinated. 

The period of the four rightly guided caliphs lasted for just twenty-nine years. However, during this short time, they achieved many impressive feats, including the conquest of the Sasanian Empire. 

Of the four rightly guided caliphs, the caliph whose reign lasted the longest was Caliph Uthman. He ruled from 644 to 656, a total of twelve years. The next longest duration of a reign for the four rightly guided caliphs was Caliph Umar, who ruled for ten years between 634 and 644. 

Final Rightly Guided Caliphs Period of Rule Quiz

Question

Where was Abu Bakr born?

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Answer

Mecca

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Why was Abu Bakr's daughter important?

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Answer

She allowed the Prophet Muhammad to marry into the Quraysh tribe.

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Which future caliph said that Abu Bakr should become the first Muslim leader?

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Answer

Umar

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What was Ali doing when the council were discussing the first caliph?

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Answer

Washing and burying the Prophet Muhammad.

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What was 'zakat'?

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Answer

Tax for Muslims

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Who was awarded with the 'Sword of Allah'?

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Answer

Khalid ibn al-Walid

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Who succeeded Abu Bakr?

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Umar

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How did Abu Bakr react to the death of many Hafiz Muslims?

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Answer

He ordered that the Qu'ran be written down to preserve the word of Allah.

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Which caliphate was Abu Bakr a member of?

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Rashidun

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Why were some people unhappy about the appointment of Abu Bakr as caliph?

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He was not related to Muhammad. Shia Muslims believed that Ali was the rightful leader.

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Which word does NOT describe how Abu Bakr gained power?

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Answer

unanimously

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Was Abu Bakr a successful caliph?

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Considering the short length of his leadership Abu Bakr was an excellent caliph. His greatest achievements were consolidating Muslim power on the Arabian Peninsula, writing down the Qu'ran and ensuring a smooth succession.

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Who was the caliph during the Ridda Wars?

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Abu Bakr

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When were the Ridda Wars fought? 

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632-633

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What is another name for the Ridda Wars? 

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Answer

The Wars of Apostasy

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What does apostasy mean? 

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Answer

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

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What was the long term cause of the Ridda Wars? 

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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. 

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What was the zakat tax? 

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

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Who was Abu Bakr's main rival for leadership? 

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Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali. 

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

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

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Who was Abu Bakr's chief commander? 

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Khalid ibn al-Walid

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Which battle was the turning point of the Ridda Wars? 

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The Battle of Yamamah, where Musaylima was killed. 

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Who was Musaylima? 

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

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What was the main outcome of the Ridda Wars? 

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Abu Bakr unified the entire Arabian peninsula under Islamic rule. 

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

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Abu Bakr

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

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Saif Allah - Sword of God

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

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Central Arabia

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Where did Caliph Uthman come in the Rashidun Caliphate? 

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Third caliph 

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When did Caliph Uthman reign? 

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644-656 C.E.

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Who was Caliph Uthman married to? 

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The Prophet Muhammad's daughter, Ruqayyah. 

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Which clan did Uthman belong to? 

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The Banu Umayya 

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Which holy book did Caliph Uthman order the official compilation of? 

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The Qur'an. 

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How did Caliph Uthman die? 

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He was assassinated by a Kharijite. 

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What was Uthman's profession before he became caliph? 

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He was a merchant. 

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Who convinced Uthman to convert to Islam? 

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Abu Bakr

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What two financial reforms did Uthman create? 

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He relaxed restrictions on sale of lands in conquered territories and he increased the public allowance by 25%. 

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Which naval battle did Uthman's forces achieve victory in during 655? 

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The Battle of the Masts. 

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Why was Uthman unpopular? 

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He appointed his relatives and close friends to official positions. 

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How many rebels besieged Uthman's house in the summer of 656? 

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1000 rebels 

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Who were the Kharijites? 

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An early Islamic sect who wanted Ali to become the caliph because he was more closely related to the Prophet than Uthman. 

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What is the general Islamic story about Caliph Uthman? 

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Answer

He was a pious leader whose reign was characterised by peace and prosperity. 

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Which region erupted into a revolt against Uthman and deposed Uthman's governor? 

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Egypt

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What was the relationship of Umar to the Prophet Muhammad?

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Father-in-law

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Why was Abu Bakr put forward to be the first caliph by Umar?

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Because he was his elder, an important factor in Arabic culture.

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Which of these facts about Umar was NOT true?

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Answer

He milked cows while he was caliph

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Which important strategic area did Umar want control of?

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Answer

The Levant

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Who was the key military leader in the Battle of Yarmouk?

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Answer

Khalid ibn al-Walid

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What does 'jihad' mean for Muslims?

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Answer

struggle

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What does 'Dar al-Harb' mean for Muslims?

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Realm of War

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How did Umar surprise the leader of Jerusalem when he arrived in the city?

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Answer

He was wearing the clothes of a poor man.

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