The afternoon of the 28th of Safar of the year 11 A.H., which corresponds to May 25th of the year 632 A.D., is marked with indelible precision in Islāmic history. With the flow of time, this event, and those which followed it, led to a radical political change in the socio-religious orientation of the Muslim world. It is the ill-fated day of the demise of the Prophet Muhammad, the date of the closing of the “Cycle of Prophethood” [dā'irat al-nubuwwah] and, simultaneously and successively, the opening of the “Cycle of Initiation” or the “Esoteric Cycle of the Imāms” [dā'irat al-wilāyah]. The passing away of the Prophet constitutes the most tragic moment in which two distinct conceptions of authority and power confront themselves.
The first was motivated by “eternal interests” and wanted to follow the straight path, shown by the final mandate of God and His Messenger, to its end. The second was embroiled in an intricate web of “personal interests,” seeking social benefits and political privilege in which Islām, evidently, occupied a subaltern role. This later group represented the mentality of a segment of early Muslims who were unable to replace the ties of blood with the ties of faith.1
Historians explain that the death of the Prophet and the issue of his succession led to plots, intrigues, alliances, underground opposition, and corrupt forms of collusions. According to these academics, they were all provoked by the powerful representatives of the dominant class whose differences with 'Alī were motivated by political ambition from the very beginning.
This interpretation, however, is far too simplistic when we consider the rivalry between the two factions, the emigrants [muhājirūn] and the allies [ansār].2The first, long accustomed to strong tribal authority, treaties, and blood-ties, wanted to maintain some of the political privileges and ancient social considerations abolished by Islām. They wanted to take advantage of the Prophet's death to reclaim power by appointing a Caliph who would be loyal to them: Abū Bakr.
The appointment of 'Alī as successor, however, came from a divine mandate. Unlike the opportunistic and orchestrated election of Abū Bakr, 'Alī's investiture was rooted in the historical event of Ghadīr. In the 11th year of the Hijrah, the Prophet made a solemn pilgrimage to Makkah, known as Hajjat al-wadā' [the Farewell Pilgrimage].3
During his return, he stopped on the 18th of Dhul-Hijjah at the pond of Ghadīr Khumm in front of 120,000 Muslims. Shī'ite commentators point to the event of Ghadīr as the definitive proof, not only of the fulfillment of the Prophet's mission, but of God's permanent commitment to the preservation of Islām by the concession of a wilāyah to His Final Messenger.4The perfection and completion of Islām was conditioned and dependent on the designation of the Prophet's successor for, as we read in the Qur'ān [5:3], the Messenger and the guidance go hand and hand. As a result, both the Prophethood and the Imāmate must follow the same path.
Zayd ibn al-Arqam relates that “the first to visit and congratulate 'Alī were Abū Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthmān, Talhah, and Zubayr: the congratulations and the bay'ah [oaths of loyalty] continued until sunset.5What stands out from this and other trustworthy and authentic Sunnī traditions is that when the Prophet publicly appointed 'Alī as his successor and executor, placing his wilāyah in his descendants, neither Abū Bakr nor 'Umar ibn al-Khattāb, who ended up preceding 'Alī in the succession of the historical Caliphate, contested the matter nor did they have the audacity to claim any special rights. Abū Bakr never insisted upon his superiority over 'Alī.
He never claimed to have more right to rule over the Muslims and for them to obey him. To be precise, the event that unleashed an endless series of internal division, known by Arab historians as the fitnah [insubordination / sedition], came quite unexpectedly. It coincides with Abū Bakr, the son of Abū Quhāfah, being illegitimately appointed as the successor of the Prophet. His appointment took place through the collusion of powerful interests. It was they who granted him the leadership of the Islāmic community by means of a pre-Islāmic consultative assembly [shūrā].6
When commenting on this practice, Modernist Sunnī scholars commonly claim that Abū Bakr was recognized as Caliph through a “democratic” election, based on the decision and consensus of a majority.7This gives the false impression that this ancient form of consultation is comparable to the modern democratic systems found in the Western world. It must be recalled, though, that the people did not participate in this elective act in the political sense that we understand it today. Quite the opposite was true.
The people were completely excluded from the process, including 'Alī, his Family and the closest Companions of the Prophet.8The shūrah [a fundamental organism of the pre-Islāmic constitutional system] that was convoked in the saqīfah was limited to the council of tribal chiefs exclusively composed of the dominant classes who were open and organized enemies of 'Alī.9
As a result of these events, the Islāmic Caliphate, the first de facto Islāmic government, the highest and most important religious and political institution in the Sunnī world, begins when Abū Bakr decides to take personal power. As Caliph, Abū Bakr assumes the role of leading and governing the rest of Muslims in accord with a sovereign authority and jurisdiction which, until the time of the Prophet's death, was expressed in his culmination of the Prophethood. While the Prophet lived, the Caliphate was, in the person of Muhammad, a holy and indivisible entity.
After his death, though, ambitions became impatient. The result was the rupture of what, by divine design, was inseparable, the Prophethood and the wilāyah, the Caliphate and the Imāmate, which were meant to go hand in hand, since there can never be one without the other.10It was for this reason that the Prophet said in the Tradition of Ghadīr, “to whomsoever I was the lord and master 'Alī is your lord and master.”11
The initiatory role and function of the Caliphate and the Imāmate are the same. They are characteristic of the spiritual authority and the temporal power of the Imām. They are non-transferable and cannot be subjected to the ballot box. When we say that the functions of the Imām are “non-transferable” we specifically mean that these powers and functions are not at the reach of unqualified individuals. Spiritual and political leadership is not available to all.
They cannot be seized by force or by consensus. The powers in question are exclusive. They are superior by their very nature. They are divine by origin and not by artifice. The Imāmate requires an individual with exceptional perfection and cannot be shared with all individuals.
Abū Bakr's attitude and actions forever destroyed the esoteric foundation of the succession of the Prophet. Concerned more with justifying his own personal superiority, he constantly stressed that consensus was indispensable when it came to continuing the exoteric work of the Prophet. This is the reason why, according to some later Sunnī commentaries, it is often asserted that Abū Bakr was selected Caliph because the Prophet had not clearly designated a successor. The truth, however, is altogether different.
Although some Sunnī scholars admit that the most important traditional sources contain numerous testimonies that manifest, with great clarity, the legitimate rights of succession of 'Alī, they insist, nonetheless, that the Prophet may very well have changed his mind at the last minute and finally decided to place Abū Bakr in the place of 'Alī.12
We must remember that, according to the clearest and most unanimous accounts, there is no indication whatsoever that the Prophet changed his mind regarding 'Alī or did anything to retract his previous decision, annulling, canceling, or removing his primary rank as a member of the Prophetic Household. If he had changed his mind, he would have made it known publicly in front of all Muslims with the same clarity and precision that he had used previously to proclaim 'Alī as the head of the community at Ghadīr Khumm.
It was well-known by all Muslims of the time that the Prophet never acted out of haste. His decisions were well meditated upon. What certain Sunnī commentators seem to forget, or fail to take into consideration, is the consequence of the ultimate mandate of God to His Messenger in the moment that the following āyāt was revealed: “And today I have perfected your religion and have chosen Islām as your religion.” [4:3].
While some Sunnī commentators defend the superiority of Abū Bakr due to the respect he received from some of the Prophet's Companions, there are numerous clear accounts concerning the superiority of 'Alī. Any educated individual, who objectively examines the circumstances surrounding the death of the Prophet, can only conclude that 'Alī was the victim of a political plot. He was the victim of a conspiracy aimed at denying him the legitimate exercise of his political functions as Spiritual Magistrate as Caliph and Imām. In this light, is it not significant that Abū Bakr changed the name of his post, calling himself “Caliph”–in the sense of “substitute” and not “successor”–as opposed to Imām?13
On the basis of the aforementioned, we cannot come to a favorable conclusion to support the superiority of Abū Bakr. If we stick objectively to the reports found in traditional primary sources, we must address the metaphysical and esoteric reasons for 'Alī's appointment as the successor of the Prophet. It was at Ghadīr Khumm were Muhammad transmitted his wilāyah [guardianship] as an exoteric personification of temporal power and a representation of the esoteric unity and universality of the spiritual authority.
Certain Orientalists, who focus exclusively on superficial interpretations, may indeed admit the superiority of 'Alī. However, they view the whole question as a political dispute among two factions struggling for the succession of the Prophet which resulted in the victory of Abū Bakr. Similarly, when studying the prophetic traditions, many Sunnī commentators deny or fail to recognize the status of 'Alī and his Imāmate as a continuation of the personal primacy of the Prophet.
The same selective blindness regarding the status of 'Alī, however, does not occur among Sūfi sages. In Sūfism, one aspect does not exclude the other. As a result, both exoterically and esoterically, Abū Bakr and 'Alī ibn Abī Tālib can be seen as the arkān or pillars of Islām. For Sūfism, 'Alī, as founder of the founder of the wilāyah [guardianship], legatee and living preserver, present at all times, continues to be the spiritual foundation of Islāmic gnosis due to his innate dignity and power as qutb al-aqtāb [the Pole of the Spiritual Poles].
Abū Bakr, on the other hand, is the visible foundation of the religion due to the powers that were conferred upon him through the consensus of the Companions. For Sūfism, they both fulfill this function simultaneously: both Abū Bakr and 'Alī ibn Abī Tālib are the pillars of the religion in its external and formal manifestations. The interesting thing, however, is that for the Sūfis, the First Imām of the Shī'ites is the Pillar of all Pillars, even of Abū Bakr, in the sense that upon the death of the Prophet he assumed all of his functions and prerogatives.
Sūfism, as is well-known, contains formulations that are more esoteric than exoteric. It should not be overlooked that the very establishment of Sūfism in the Sunnī world is the result of the unbalancing action caused by Abū Bakr when he split the exoteric from the esoteric by assuming the leadership of the Muslim community.
Even though Sūfism and Shī'ism are entirely orthodox expressions of Islām, Sunnis have always viewed them with extreme suspicion due to their constant reference to 'Alī as al-bāb or “the gate” to Muhammadan gnosis and initiation. According to the exoteric exegesis of some Sunnī scholars, the Prophet is also a Legislator, since in Islām the sacred law permeates all aspects of religious and social life. For Sunnī scholars, the Caliph or Imām is the Successor of the Prophet, but only as a partial executor of the Law as given and is in no way a spiritual successor of the Prophet.
Sunnī theologians justify the historical need for the Caliphate, as an institution, from the point of view that one of the objectives of the Prophet was the creation of a strong organized Islāmic State. For Sunnis, the Imām or Caliph must possess the following qualities: belong to the tribe of Quraysh [the tribe to which Muhammad belonged], be competent and capable, possess knowledge and virtue; be worthy of ruling men and guide them along the straight moral and religious path through the rigorous application of the formal divine laws. He may be named directly by the Prophet or the preceding Caliph or by means of “election,” namely, through designation by the elders of the community.