The Electoral Shura Under the Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs

by Iman Badawi


The study of history is of no use unless it yields benefit for the future.  To dwell on the pristine character of the four rightly-guided caliphs is to find magnificent role models of God-consciousness, devotion, sacrifice, integrity, and leadership. Yet, from the political standpoint, the imperfect realities of human nature continue to drive home a most obvious and self-confirming reality; the synergy of the system. No conglomeration of people, even with great leaders, can succeed in this world or the next without a system of law and governance. The best system is one that extracts only positive human qualities and enhances them, while the worst of systems is one that gives free reign to evil human tendencies.

The Islamic perspective on socio-political organization is governed by four main principles: justice, equality, human dignity, and shura.  The last of these principles, shura, was first practiced in the time of the Prophet ﷺ and then by the four rightly-guided Caliphs.1  The mandate of shura in Islam is quite broad, its scope being applicable at the family, community, and national levels.

Yet, shura has become a sort of lost relic in Muslim homes, community mosques, and national governments.  The lack of true understanding of shura and its indispensable nature in governance has led many to turn to the West for democratic solutions.  If only Muslims would delve into their rich history and put their minds to understanding the example of the Prophet ﷺ and the Four Caliphs after him, they would discover a profound concept essential for Islamic governance that would leave them in need of no other.

I have confined the topic of this paper to the use of shura in governance and have further restricted my research to include only the use of shura in the process of electing the Four Caliphs.  This form of shura will henceforth be referred to as the “electoral shura”.

The Four Caliphs were pioneers in the formation of the shura system, both in matters of election as well as the development of temporal state policy outside the scope of explicit injunctions mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah (prophetic tradition). The latter form of “legislative shura” was manifested on many occasions in the course of the reign of each Caliph and requires its own separate research.  With regard to the actual choice of a caliph, each one of the four was elected in a slightly different manner, each case revealing important precedents for the process of electoral shura.


Shura, translated as mutual consultation, is technically defined as “a collective endeavor for seeking an objective truth.”2   In the Qur’an, Allah subahanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) addresses the command to administer shura to His Messenger ﷺ, saying (what means)3 :

And it was by God’s grace that thou [O Prophet] didst deal gently with thy followers: for if thou hadst been harsh and hard of heart, they would indeed have broken away from thee. Pardon them, then, and pray that they be forgiven. And take counsel with them in all matters of public concern; then, when thou hast decided upon a course of action, place thy trust in God: for, verily, God loves those who place their trust in Him.4

In this way, shura was made a universal imperative. If anyone would have been exempt from consulting others it would have been the Prophet ﷺ due to his receiving revelation.  Yet, he ﷺ applied shura as a way of demonstrating a precedent and model for the Muslim ummah (community).

The concept of shura finds its origins in the pre-Islamic Arabian institution of Dar un-Nadwa, which was a meeting hall that the nobles of Quraish would gather in to discuss important decisions.  This concept of “nadi”, or council of Elders, is also mentioned in the Qur’an.5   As with many aspects of the pre-Islamic times, Islam confirmed and enhanced those elements which were beneficial.  Hence, Allah (swt) describes one of the characteristics of the believers as those “who respond to [the call of] their Sustainer and are constant in prayer; and whose rule [in all matters of common concern] is consultation among themselves…”6

While no detailed guidelines are available in the Qur’an as to how shura should be implemented, the Four Caliphs played a vital role in the development of the shura system. With the death of the Prophet ﷺ, revelation ceased and the Muslims needed a way to deal with functional matters of state. The most eminent of these matters after the burial of the Prophet ﷺ was the caliphate.  Hence, it was also the first step in the evolution of the electoral shura system.

 The Election of Abu Bakr radi allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with him)7

The case of Abu Bakr’s (ra) election established important precedents.  The Prophet ﷺ left clear indications of his choice without explicitly declaring a successor. During his terminal illness, the Prophet ﷺ commanded Abu Bakr (ra) to lead the community of believers in the congregational prayer.8

In light of the fact that the Prophet ﷺ only acts upon revelation, it is fair to assume one of the following conclusions; either Allah (swt) commanded him to assign Abu Bakr (ra) the imammate of the prayer or it was the Prophet ﷺ’s choice based upon his great prophetic wisdom and judgment. In either case, in assigning Abu Bakr (ra) the task of leading the prayer during his illness, the Prophet ﷺ entrusted him with a most important task and set the stage for his appointment to an even more significant position — the caliphate.

Still, the Prophet’s ﷺ silence upon the matter left a loud precedent; namely, that the community of believers are to choose their own leader. This implicit understanding led to the gathering of the leaders of the Ansar at Saqifat Bani Saa’idah with the intent of appointing the most honorable among them as caliph.  They, having served the Prophet ﷺ and Islam in such a sincere and sacrificial manner, perceived themselves to have the most right to the caliphate.  When Abu Bakr (ra), ‘Umar (ra), and Abu ‘Ubaydah ibn al-Jarrah (ra) heard of the gathering, they felt the urgency of attendance and intended to preclude the appointment of an Ansari caliph which would undoubtedly lead to division in the Ummah. They knew that the Arabs viewed the Quraish as supreme among the tribes and that they would only respect the leadership of the most honorable from among them. It was this main factor of disqualification that Abu Bakr (ra) used to illustrate to the Ansar the unfeasibility of their ambitions. Having silenced the opposing side, Abu Bakr (ra) proceeded to offer his two attending companions, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra) and Abu ‘Ubaydah ibn al-Jarraah (ra), as choices for caliph.  As tensions mounted during the meeting and voices began to increase in volume, ‘Umar (ra) rescued the occasion by grasping the hand of Abu Bakr (ra) and pledging allegiance to him, after which, all of those present followed suite.9

At first glance, it may seem that Abu Bakr (ra) was not elected by shura.  However, the circumstances of the time, the paramount importance of the decision, and the presence of an already existing tribal structure made this form of electoral shura the best way to proceed.

While the Qur’anic reference to shura is general and inclusive of all members of the ummah, the shari’ah (law) does not specify any particular mode of applying the shura system on the national basis.10   It would seem that while the Qur’anic phrase “their affairs are conducted by mutual consultation”11 refers to any matter the scope of which influences the general community, some matters are of such great importance and require the input of people of such great foresight, knowledge, and integrity that they could not possibly be left to the conflicting views and ambitions of each individual among the masses. The Islamic civilization was still in its infancy and many of the Muslims were new converts whose tribal loyalties were still strong.  A general election would have been a practical impossibility.

Hence, it is in line with the general spirit of solidarity that the shura system is instrumental in breeding, that a council of respected representatives will deliberate and choose, from among them, the leader of the nation. However scholars differed over whether this “council of Elders”12  should be chosen based upon merit or comprised of a comprehensive group of representatives elected directly by their respective peoples.13  Still, this was an irrelevant concern during the time of Abu Bakr (ra). The status quo of the post-prophetic society made the task of electing a council effortless because the Arabian political landscape was already painted with different tribal associations each of which culminated in a head.  In fact, as M. Asad notes, had council representative elections been held, by some marvel, it would undoubtedly be the same tribal heads that would win the elections. The use of this pre-existing tribal political structure for the electoral shura’s formation continued throughout the reign of the Four Caliphs.14

The council of Elders that ensued at the time of Abu Bakr (ra) was, in reality, the consolidation of the tribal leaders among the Muhajiroon (emigrants from Mecca) and Ansar (helpers native to Medina) with all of their respective sub-groups. The Muhajiroon were from Quraish while the Ansar were composed of the Aws and Khazraj.  All those in the council recognized that the leader should be the most honorable of the most respected tribe. The choice of Abu Bakr (ra) was later confirmed by all of the ummah.15

Some criticize the election of Abu Bakr (ra) as having been a hasty decision made in a state of urgency without the unanimous consent of all.16  The response to such a point is two-fold.  Firstly, no scholar has ever made unanimity among council members a condition for the validity of the choice of a caliph. Actually, it is impossible to assume that the council would always unanimously agree. It is also against the nature of shura to demand that people reach unanimity since mutual consultation requires that people voice their views without pressure of persuasion. A simply majority is the most that can be expected in such proceedings. Secondly, Abu Bakr (ra) was clearly the Prophet’s choice ﷺ, to the exclusion of all others, and being as he was the Messenger of God, his choice precluded the possibility of a more suitable candidate. This was in addition to the fact that if the matter had not been decided quickly, tribal ambitions for the caliphate would stir up chaos and division. Hence, it was an act of pious political stratagem on the part of ‘Umar (ra) to quickly insist that allegiance should be given to Abu Bakr (ra) even without unanimous consent. Abu Bakr (ra), recognizing that the solidarity of the ummah depended upon his acceptance of the pledge of allegiance, gracefully took his position as the first caliph in Islam.

The Election of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra)

Following in the blessed footsteps of the Prophet ﷺ, Abu Bakr (ra) also chose his successor. In fact, it is Abu Bakr (ra) who was the first to make delegation by the caliph a binding process of selection.17 Hence, the system of selecting a caliph became an option between two methods: delegation or shura.18

However, even in delegating the caliphate to ‘Umar (ra), Abu Bakr (ra) did actually employ a form of electoral shura.  He did not simply write a statement of bequest handing over the caliphate to ‘Umar (ra).  Rather, he consulted his trusted advisors who all unanimously concurred with his choice.19 Then, this positive decision was brought to the wider shura forum, the members of the ummah. Abu Bakr (ra) commanded ‘Uthmaan ibn ‘Affaan (ra) to write his bequest and read it to the people. The people accepted ‘Umar (ra) and pledged allegiance to him.20

It is important to note, that while widespread acceptance was sought in both the elections of Abu Bakr (ra) and ‘Umar (ra), it was done after the notables of the community had made a choice and then posed a positive decision to the ummah.  It was not done by allowing the indiscriminate brainstorming of individual candidates. This brings the question of free elections back into the discussion. If it becomes feasible, at any time in the ummah’s political development, to hold free elections, would that have been the preferred way to conduct the electoral shura? In my view, it would not have been the best way and would be a clear detraction from the unifying elements of shura.

The issue of positive decision vs. general elections is a crucial one. The first method represents the presentation of a well considered opinion of the most qualified members of the society to the general body, while the second represents an open and unguided field of campaigning by anyone who deems himself fit. The method of positive decision actually unifies the ummah by rallying their support for the most worthy candidate. Hence the method of positive decision forwards the peoples’ will while not compromising on the solidarity of the ummah and the process of nomination by qualified members of the shura council. General elections would not preserve any of these aspects and would, undoubtedly, lead to much confusion, disunity, and political fallout.

Envision a case in which two different people accepted the pledge of allegiance for the caliphate in two different localities within the Islamic state. Al-Mawardi asserts that the more correct course of action would be to validate the pledge of he who was accepted prior21 and not to hold general elections between the two. In fact, the scholars considered it incumbent upon the ummah to pledge allegiance to the one who has been chosen by the shura council and has subsequently accepted the nomination.22 Hence, Islamic constitutional precedents further support the use of positive decision as the proper course for electoral shura proceedings.

Another question may then arise: what is the difference between delegation and shura if Abu Bakr (ra) did, in fact, consult others before delegating the caliphate and sought the acceptance of the ummah at large? The answer is simple. In the case of shura, all members of the council are on the same footing and each vote has the same weight. However, in the case of delegation, the current caliph holds the power of final decision and veto. Hence, he only uses shura as a tool of assessment and not as a process for attaining a result. It may still be argued, however, that the reigning caliph is, theoretically and ideally speaking, the quintessence of what the electoral shura aims at (i.e. a leader of impeccable caliber) hence, even his individual choice is an indirect result of the original electoral shura that selected him. Needless to say, both methods uphold the principles of shura when applied by the likes of Abu Bakr (ra). However, the sad reality is that the option of delegation did open the window of opportunity for the establishment of a monarchial system of selection in which caliphs would narrow the scope of shura to which of their immediate kin was most deserving of the weighty position.23

During ‘Umar’s (ra) caliphate, however, delegation was not the best option. While some sterling personalities from among the Prophet’s ﷺ companions still remained, they were, more or less, of equal or similar caliber and the choice of caliph from among them would be more difficult.  Additionally, ‘Umar (ra) had to face the realities of a growing ummah and the matter of representation became an even more crucial mandate. ‘Umar (ra) can, in fact, be considered the pioneer of the electoral shura concept, seeing as he was the first to officially form a council for the explicit purpose of conducting a process of selection. He appointed six members: ‘Uthmaan ibn ‘Affan (ra), Ali ibn Abi Taalib (ra), Talha ibn ‘Ubaydillah (ra), Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas (ra), Abdur-Rahman ibn ‘Auf (ra), and az-Zubayr ibn al-‘Awwaam (ra).24  He instructed them to choose from among themselves the one whom they agreed was most suited to the job. In the case of a tie, Abdullah ibn ‘Umar (ra), the caliph’s son, was to have the casting vote.

The choice of council members was not conducted by general election, one might argue.  However, a closer look at the historical demographics of the Muslim society of the time would show that ‘Umar (ra) could not have chosen anyone other than those six because they were the most superior of the living companions of the Prophet ﷺ.  The Muslim society, still in proximity to the Prophet’s death ﷺ, and still rightly-guided, had no objection to accepting the seniority of the remaining companions or the choice of caliph from among them.

In subsequent generations, however, this matter became a point of investigation by scholars; namely, the qualifications of those who choose the caliph and upon what criterion they make their choice. Logically, there should be two groups of people associated with the choice of a caliph. The first group are those who are worthy of choosing the caliph, and the second group is comprised of those who are worthy of assuming the caliphate itself. In the time of the Four Caliphs, these two groups were combined because the most prominent of the living companions of the Prophet ﷺ were clearly the most worthy in all respects. Hence, ‘Umar’s (ra) establishment of the council of six and the corresponding instructions he gave them were prudent for that circumstance. Still, the need for standardizing such a system became quickly apparent.

In the fifth century after Hijrah, al-Mawardi wrote in great detail about these two groups and their qualifications.25  He delineates the characteristics of the first group, those who are to select the caliph, as being three: 1) They are just; 2) They possess knowledge of what the caliphate entails and who has most right to it; 3) They possess insight and wisdom that enables them to choose the person who is most capable of managing the offices of administration.

As for the characteristics of qualified candidates, he mentions seven: 1) Justice together with all its conditions; 2) Capability of producing ijtihaad26  in unforeseen matters; 3) Good health in the faculties of hearing, sight, and speech such that he is able to make sound assessments about what he perceives; 4) Freedom from any deficiency in the limbs that restricts movement; 5) Judgment that enables him to organize people and manage the offices of administration; 6) Courage and bravery enabling him to defend the territories of Islam; and 7) Being of the family of Quraish.

This last condition has been a subject of debate among many scholars. The original injunction comes from a saying of the Prophet ﷺ. Some, like Al-Mawardi, espoused the literalist view, supporting the idea that only those of the tribe of Quraish have the right to the caliphate. However, others interpret the spirit of this ruling as being associated with the esteem, respect, and authority that a candidate accords with his followers. In the time of the Prophet ﷺ and the Four Caliphs, this was surely the Quraish, from which the Prophet ﷺ himself descended. However, in contemporary times, a genealogical connection to Quraish seems irrelevant with regards to suitability for the caliphate, albeit still an honor to share in the lineage of the blessed Prophet ﷺ. If, however, in a particular socio-economic climate, one group of people did enjoy superiority, it would seem in line with the Prophet’s ﷺ commandment to choose the caliph from among them, so long as a suitable candidate exists.

The Election of ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan (ra)

After ‘Umar (ra) was buried, the council of six held a meeting. Abdur-Rahman ibn ‘Auf (ra) suggested that the candidates should be reduced to three. Az-Zubayr (ra) gave up his right to ‘Ali (ra), Talha (ra) gave up his right to ‘Uthmaan (ra), and Sa’d (ra) gave up his right to Abdur-Rahmaan (ra). Abdur-Rahmaan (ra) offered to make the choice between ‘Uthmaan (ra) and ‘Ali (ra) and they both agreed to that.27

Thereafter, Abdur-Rahmaan (ra) proceeded to consult many important members of the ummah.  At-Tabari points out that, for nights, his house was the meeting spot for many companions, prominent figures, and dignitaries, the majority of whom opted for ‘Uthmaan (ra). Again, the positive decision was put to the ummah to confirm and the vast majority accepted. Talha (ra), who was absent during the preliminary steps of the electoral shura process, also pledged loyalty upon his return, refusing to go against the consensus of the Muslims.28

The appointment of ‘Uthmaan (ra) by the council of six is, in fact, the first time that the inner mechanism of the electoral shura may be observed. The first point of interest is that Abdur-Rahmaan (ra) immediately assumed the organizational leadership of this council. It was a prudent move that is in line with the sunnah since no group can be effective without a leader. It is unclear, however, how this leader should be chosen since it occurred so naturally in this case. The subsequent procedure followed by Abdur-Rahmaan ibn ‘Auf (ra) in organizing this council reveals important elements of the electoral shura and the spirit of its aims.

His first step in organizing the council was to divide it into two sub-groups by reducing the candidates to three. So while all six were prominent, only the best three were considered for the caliphate. When Abdur-Rahmaan (ra) also relinquished his right to the caliphate, only two candidates were left and the remaining four members were to become the “selection committee”.  This organizational structure is exactly like what Al-Mawardi described several centuries later.

Next, after consulting with the selection committee, Abdur-Rahman (ra) widened the circle of shura to include other notables and prominent community figures. This indicates that Abur-Rahmaan (ra) attempted to ascertain the popular consent of the people by inquiring about the opinion of their leaders and that the council considered this to be a factor in the choice of the caliph. This shows that the true spirit of the electoral shura is found in harmonizing the choice of the council with popular consent. Since the council will ideally favor the candidate of greatest piety and deepest knowledge, this can only occur in a society that weighs the value of others in accordance to the Qur’anic criterion. In so much as the society deviates from this criterion will it, proportionally, drift from a state of harmony and political cohesion.

Lastly, Talha’s (ra) submission to the shura edict, despite his lack of participation in the council’s proceedings, indicates a crucial idea. It would seem that after the proper shura process has run its course, there is no room for dissent. This would also indicate that, in such a case, the current caliph would have the right to silence rebels in the interests of preserving the sanctity of the electoral shura and the harmony of the state.

The Election of Ali ibn Abi Talib (ra)

While it is not the subject of this paper to dwell on the tragic events of ‘Uthman’s (ra) assassination, it is important to exonerate the electoral shura system from any blame in the subsequent political catastrophe.29 ‘Uthman (ra), like his predecessors, ruled with piety and God-consciousness, and no noteworthy dissension occurred in the first six years of his reign. However, in the successive six years, a kind and generous trait of ‘Uthman’s (ra) character being exploited by members of his Ummayad kin for the purpose of seizing important state positions ignited a spark of dissent that eventually became a fire of anger that entered the very house of this pious caliph and killed him.30

By all measures, the election of ‘Ali (ra), after the three nights of anarchy following ‘Uthman’s  (ra) murder, could have been excused as an exception to the rule. Still, a both respectful yet politically critical evaluation of that most miserable situation shows that ‘Ali (ra) did have the ability to carry out the electoral shura system but was enticed to override some of its steps. Having been urged by the rebels and many others to assume the caliphate, Ali (ra), at first, refused to accept, recognizing the duty to gather with the remaining members of the council of six, namely Talha (ra), az-Zubayr (ra), Abdullaah ibn ‘Umar (ra), and Sa’d  ibn Abi Waqqas (ra). The latter two deferred their oath of allegiance, waiting for the situation to resolve itself. However, upon insistence of the people of Medinah, Ali (ra) finally took the pledge of allegiance, and contrived its acceptance from Talha (ra) and Az- Zubayr (ra) upon the argument that the preservation of the ummah’s solidarity required using duress to remove any dissent.31

Had no other negative factors worked against Ali (ra), matters could have possibly eventually worked themselves out, rectifying the state of a disturbed nation.32 However, Ali’s (ra) subsequent indiscriminate deposition of all Umayyad governors, albeit legitimate, was essentially an act of political suicide that initiated a family rivalry for the caliphate that would ravage the annals of Muslims history for generations to come. Nevertheless, while not dwelling too much on the other extraneous political factors that led to the unjust termination of Ali’s (ra) caliphate, it can be said that the flaws in the implementation of the electoral shura system clearly contributed to the weakness of Ali’s (ra) position, hence serving as a negative proof of the validity of the shura system, itself.33

The flaws in implementing the electoral shura were two: Firstly, omitting consultation with the council of six and, secondly, the sufficiency found in the oath of the people of Medina without seeking the acceptance of the ummah at large before officially assuming the duties of the caliphate.

The election of ‘Ali (ra) represents a reverse in the process of electoral shura. Instead of seeking consultation with Talha (ra),  az-Zubayr (ra), and other prominent citizens, and then posing the positive decision to the ummah for confirmation, ‘Ali (ra) accepted the oath of allegiance from the people of Medina and then coerced the dissenters for what he believed was in the interests of solidarity. After having concluded that the right of the caliph to silence dissenters is the direct result of implementing the electoral shura process correctly, ‘Ali’s (ra) position on this matter seems quite untenable. Additionally, this reversal of process severely restricted the actions of ‘Ali (ra) in his caliphate, and he, ultimately, had to cling to the support of the rebels to maintain some semblance of authority.34

The practical result of this flaw in the electoral shura process was that the main base of Ali’s (ra) supporters was of the rebels, among whom were the murderers of ‘Uthman (ra).  This led some to believe that `Ali (ra) would be lenient in punishing the criminals and eventually culminated in the Battle of the Camel. Reconciliation between the two sides, namely Ali’s (ra) army and that of `A’isha (ra), Talha (ra), and az-Zubayr (ra), would have precluded the shedding of much blood.  The rebels, however, attacked in clear defiance of `Ali’s (ra) orders and caused havoc once again.  This was just another symptom of accepting the caliphate without consulting those rightfully responsible for disposing of it.

With regard to the second flaw, namely the acceptance of the oath of the people of Medina as binding upon the rest of the ummah, it could be argued that the election of Abu Bakr (ra) occurred in the same manner. However, in the time of Abu Bakr (ra), it so happened that those who should be consulted were already gathered in Medina, hence the result of their consultative decision became binding. In the time of ‘Ali (ra), however, the most prominent members of the ummah were scattered throughout and it was the proper course of action to gather them and seek their council as the precedent dictates. There is certainly no basis for choosing the shura council according to territoriality. So it was that ‘Ali (ra), having really no more than the support of the people of Medinah, optimistically thought that any dissenters should be silenced for the sake of unity. The result of the second flaw was that those who entertained ambitions for the caliphate held hope of swaying the rest of the ummah. The calculated actions of Mu’awiyah (ra) clearly played on this weakness and led to the Battle of Siffin, the results of which also ended in devastation.35

While no one can challenge the eminence of the Four Caliphs in conviction, dedication, and character, the adherence to the Islamic system of governance and, more specifically, the electoral shura process, still proved to be the major factor in preserving the institution of the caliphate.


The Four Caliphs were pioneers in the establishment of the electoral shura system and many important principles can be derived from studying the history of their elections. The circumstances surrounding the selection of each caliph were different, yielding insights into the dynamism, relevance, and mechanism of the electoral shura process.

Since the Prophet ﷺ did not explicitly delegate a successor, the matter of appointing a caliph weighed heavily upon the ummah. The Prophet’s ﷺ silence on the matter was the first precedent for choosing a caliph by shura. The meeting that ensued at Saqifatu Bani Saa’idah was to be the first unofficial electoral shura. This representative council was comprised of tribal chiefs who clearly enjoyed the consent of their followers. Hence, it was befitting and natural that their choice would be binding. However, later scholars differed over whether the members of this council should be chosen purely for representational purposes or based on merit. The subsequent appointment of Abu Bakr (ra) as caliph reveals that the leader could only be conceived as being the most honorable of the most supreme tribe (i.e Quraish) and that unanimity was not a condition for the validity of council decisions.

The next caliph, ‘Umar (ra) was delegated by his predecessor. This was the first precedent for delegation by the previous caliph. The electoral shura system differs from the process of delegation in that the former accords equal footing to all those involved in consultation, while the latter grants the current caliph the privileges of final decision and veto. However in both instances, the positive decision is posed to the ummah for confirmation. This method of positive decision is to be favored over free elections because it preserves the solidarity of the ummah and the nomination of the caliph by those most qualified to do so.

Upon assuming the caliphate, ‘Umar (ra) was plagued by the question of succession. He became the pioneer of the electoral shura system when he formed a council of six companions to choose the succeeding caliph from among themselves. The analysis of the workings of this council of six formed the basis of what scholars later delineated as the characteristic of those who are worthy of choosing the caliph and upon what criterion they are chosen.

After the death of ‘Umar (ra), the council met and Abdur-Rahmaan ibn ‘Auf (ra) assumed organizational leadership. He divided the council into two sub-groups: 1) the candidates and 2) the selection committee. The council of six first consulted among themselves and then consulted with other prominent members of the community, the majority of whom chose ‘Uthmaan (ra).  This shows that the council of six clearly considered popular consent as a factor in choosing the caliph and that the true spirit of the electoral shura is in minimizing the gap between its decisions and the popular opinion. Once, the proper shura process has run its course, there is no room for dissent, and the caliph has the right to silence rebels in the interests of preserving the harmony of the state.

While each caliph had time to consider the matter of succession and make proper preparations, ‘Uthmaan’s (ra) assassination left the ummah shocked and in a state of confusion. The problems that ensued toward the end of the caliphate of ‘Uthmaan (ra), and led to his assassination, were not related to the electoral shura system, but the events that followed surrounding the appointment of ‘Ali (ra) as caliph provide deep insight into the practical consequences of deviating from the electoral shura process.

While the case of ‘Ali (ra)’s selection may seem like an exception, in fact, he did have the ability to implement the electoral shura process. For reasons which can only be examined in retrospect, ‘Ali (ra) did not adhere to the strictly proper course of action. The flaws in ‘Ali’s (ra) implementation of the electoral shura were two. Firstly. the lack of consultation with the remaining members of the council of six. This flaw had severe repercussions, the most noteworthy of which is ‘Ali’s (ra) dependence upon the rebels for support and his consequential delay in punishing the murders of ‘Uthmaan (ra), the end result of which was the Battle of the Camel. The second flaw was the sufficiency found in relying upon the oath of the people of Medina and not seeking widespread acceptance until after formally assuming the caliphate. It was incumbent upon ‘Ali (ra) to gather all the prominent members of the ummah, despite their being scattered throughout the Islamic territory, and to seek their council before assuming the caliphate. Upon their acceptance, ‘Ali (ra) would have had the strong political footing needed to remedy the problems of the time. Instead, Mu’awiyah (ra) took advantage of the fact that not all of the Islamic provinces had pledged allegiance and fought ‘Ali (ra) at Siffin. The torch with which the rightly-guided caliphs had lit the world was practically extinguished only to flicker for the last time during the caliphate of ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdil Azeez (ra). History tells the story of the massive ramifications that these events had upon the course of the Islamic caliphate.



Abu As-Su’ood, Tamir. Biographies of the Rightly Guided Caliphs (from the works of Ibn Katheer, at-Tabari, and as-Suyooti). El-Mansoura, Egypt: Dar Al-Manarah, 2001.

Al-Mawardi, Abu’l Hasan ‘Ali (ra) ibn Muhammad ibn Habib al-Basri. Al-Ahkam Sultaniyyah (The Laws of Islamic Governance). Trans. Asadullah Yate. London: Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd., 1996.

Asad, Muhammad. The Principles of State and Government in Islam. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Islamic Book Trust, 1999.

As-Suyuti, Jalal ad-Din. Khalifahs Who Took the Right Way. Trans. ‘Abdassamad Clarke. London: Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd., 1995.

Hasan, Ahmad. The Doctrine of `Ijma’ in Islam. Islamabad, Pakistan: The Islamic Research Institute, 1984.

Yusuf, Sayyid Muhammad. The Choice of a Caliph in Islam. Lahore: Islamic Book Service, 1982.

Print Friendly
  1. To be henceforth referred to as “the Four Caliphs”.  The word “caliph” refers to the leader of the Islamic state. ﷺ means “may peace be upon him.” []
  2. Ahmad Hasan, The Doctrine of ‘Ijma’ in Islam (Islamabad, Pakistan: The Islamic Research Institute, 1984) 21. []
  3. All verses of the Qur’an cited in this paper are taken from Muhammad Asad’s translation. Any translation of the Qur’an is to be considered a form of exegesis and not to be equated with the original. After stating this disclaimer, the words “what means” will henceforth be omitted from the main text. []
  4. Qur’an 3:159 []
  5. Hasan 27. The word “nadi” is found in Qur’an 96:17. []
  6. Qur’an 42:38 []
  7. These words will henceforth be substituted by the abbreviation of the Arabic equivalent “ra”. []
  8. Jalal ad-Din As-Suyuti, Khalifahs Who Took the Right Way, trans. ‘Abdassamad Clarke (London: Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd., 1995) 49. []
  9. Suyuti 55-56. []
  10. Muhammad Asad, The Principles of State and Government in Islam (KualaLumpur, Malaysia: Islamic Book Trust, 1999) 36. []
  11. 42:38 []
  12. Sayyid M. Yusuf, The Choice of a Caliph in Islam (Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Book Service, 1982) 12. []
  13. Hasan 27 []
  14. Asad 53 []
  15. Yusuf 5 []
  16. Hasan 25 []
  17. Yusuf 27 []
  18. Al-Mawardi 12 []
  19. Tamir Abu As-Su’ood, Biographies of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (from the works of Ibn Katheer, at-Tabari, and as-Suyooti) 133. The only exceptions were ‘Ali (ra) and Talha (ra) who were of the view that ‘Umar (ra)’s toughness was grounds to consider him less than the best candidate. []
  20. Abu As-Su’ood 134 []
  21. Al-Mawardi 16 []
  22. Al-Mawardi 14 []
  23. Mas’oodi, Murooj adh-Dhahab, trans. Paul Lunde, (London: Kegan Paul International, 1989) See the chapter explaining Haroon ar-Rashid’s anguish over which of his two sons to delegate for the caliphate and his consultation with trusted advisors regarding this matter. []
  24. Abu As-Su’ood 265 []
  25. Al-Mawardi 13-14 []
  26. Ijtihaad means the exertion of the intellect in reaching a legal verdict. []
  27. Abu As-Su’ood 266 []
  28. Abu As-Su’ood 281-2 []
  29. Yusuf 4. See Ch. 6 entitled “The revolt against ‘Uthmaan (ra)” []
  30. Yusuf  29-30 []
  31. Yusuf  32, 34 []
  32. Yusuf  36 []
  33. Yusuf  32 []
  34. Yusuf  34 []
  35. Yusuf  41-43 []


  1. Yasmin says:

    Jazakallah khayr for this very informative historical post!

  2. AJ says:

    Salaam, There are a number of beautiful articles on this website. I visit regularly and commend the often impartial discussions that take place. On this occasion I have to voice a disappointment. Being the beginning of the Holy Month of Muharram, rather than having an article on the political succession that has separated our Ummah for years, why not educate our brothers and sisters on the Martyrdom of Hussain (ra) for that is a clear fact of history. There are many that have a different opinion to this article on the succession of the prophet. I’m disappointed on the timing of this article not the article itself. Rather than fuelling the flames and continuing the lack of awareness of the oppression of the Prophet (sawa) grandson, key holder to the youth of paradise – Hussain (ra), would it not be better in these times where people are being oppressed around the world to share in the story of how to beat oppression with dignity? Salaam & Duas

    • mw_m says:

      This article is not about division in the Ummah, it’s exactly what the title says it is “The Electoral Shura Under the Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs.” I fail to say what in it is “fuelling” any flames and lacking awareness of “oppression.”

    • Abdul Sattar says:

      wa salam,

      I think you are reading your own thoughts into an article about Islamic political theory.

      This article seemed to have serve as a Rorschach test. Your reaction says more about what’s on your mind than on the author’s.

      If you really want to draw into current events, what is more current than the Arab Spring, which is getting Muslims to ask the question: How do we want to be governed and what is our history of government?

      The article is a straightforward researched piece on Islamic political theory – nothing more.


    • Abdullah says:

      What AJ is saying is we should be more sensitive to events around us right now. Given that the posting of the article commenced with the day of Ashura, this article can be seen by some as a “rebuttal” piece. I think the article itself is profound and a good post, however the sensitivity of the date it was posted on is the issue.

  3. Abdul Hameid says:

    fabulous write-up…We need more works based on sound Ijtehaad on these issues..

  4. Wazir says:

    I wish all world leaders would follow suite because this was the best example displayed by thi caliphs after the prophet

    • Fezz says:

      mA nice work with this article; a thorough attempt at academic analysis of a difficult topic.

      I think the criticism of Ali (ra) is unfair; you neglect to mention the well positioned subsersive forces at work which would never have allowed such a consultation process to occur and meant this was a poisioned chalice from the start. I’m not sure if there is a ‘structural lesson’ to be learnt from that event (as you have extracted from the previous Shuras). Both his insight into the situation and courage were certainly notable.

      Interestingly one can argue that the majority of democratic world leaders are appointed by Shura of some form.

  5. Bilal Mongra says:

    What is the wisdom behind not delegating the next leader?
    Doesn’t it lead to more issues if no one is delegated?

    With the massive size of the Ummah now, how can it ever be possible to conduct electoral shura??

  6. Mohamad says:


    JazakAllah khair for the piece.

    If I might add, I think that Allah swt revealed his revelation(in the ayat at the beginning of the article) and didn’t specify further the methodology of selecting a leader for a reason.

    Like some of the other revealed laws in the Quran, it is revealed as a general guide to make it always relevant till the end of time. With the general rule in place, it is up to our scholars to apply ijtihad to apply it to our society. The sahabahs applied what they felt was needed in their time based on their circumstances and environment. The prophet saw didn’t specify a methodology. Even the three caliphate was elected in their own slightly different manner as pointed out above.

    Our challege is to take the lessons and the implement what we feel would suit our circumstances now bearing in mind the Quran and the Sunnah. It’s debatable whether an old text can be applied in totality considering the text was written to address the realities of the time the scholar lived.

    We need practical solutions, deliberated and detailed, to face the challenge of the modern world. To offer a solution to show that Islam has the answer.


  7. US says:

    Salaam all, I was under the impression that there are FIVE rightly guided caliphs, as the short caliphate of Imam Hasan brought the 30 years as prophesised to a completion.

    • mw_m says:

      I don’t believe Hasan (ra) is considered a caliph because his caliphate was never really recognized outside of a small area. The same reason why Abdullah ibn ‘Umar (ra) is not considered a caliph.

      • Umair says:

        I think you mean Abdullah bin Zubair (RA).. As far as I know, Abdullah bin Umar (RA) was never the caliph; he refused even when offered.. And Hasan (RA) ruled for onlu 6 months, so that will hardly have an effect on the number of years..

  8. Bilal T says:

    I’ve always wondered this, Prophet (saw) left this world after having the message for only 23 years without appointing a successor and then hoped the ummah to vote in these 4 rightly guided Caliphs even when from the beginning he could have told us who who his successor should be. I hope it’s not a sin for thinking this but maybe if he would have told us the successor it would have prevented wars and a lot of problems, wars, etc. Are there any traditions that speak about the prophet telling people his successor?

  9. Islam says:

    So informative article.

  10. A very comprehensive exposition of the most important events that took place at the early morning of our great heritage. May Allah reward you abundantly

Leave a Reply

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

More in History, Islamic Law (23 of 94 articles)