DEATH OF ABU BEKR
AUGUST 13 A.H. / 634 A.D.
AT the first yearly pilgrimage, Abu Bekr had been hindered by the pressure of rebellion from the journey to Mecca; but the following year he presided at the solemnity himself. As the party entered Mecca the Citizens hastened to tell the Caliph's father, who, blind from great age, was sitting at his door. On his son's approach, the old man arose to greet him. Abu Bekr made the camel on which he rode kneel down at the threshold, and alighting, embraced his father who shed tears of delight, and kissed him between the eyes. The Governor and other chief men of Mecca approached and shook the Caliph by the hand. Then they did obeisance to him and to his father also, who said: "These be our nobles; honour them, my son, and make much of them." "Make much of them," answered Abu Bekr,"that I do; but (mindful of his Master's teaching) as for honour, there is none save that which cometh from the Lord alone." After bathing, he went forth in pilgrim garb, to kiss the Black Stone, and encompass the Holy House. The People crowded round him; and as they made mention of the Prophet, Abu Bekr wept. It was but two years since Mohammad had been amongst them, celebrating the same rites. How much of danger and deliverance had come to pass in that short space! And so they mourned his loss. At midday, he again went through the ceremonies of the Ka'ba; then, sitting down under the shadow of the Hall of Assembly, he commanded the Citizens that, if any had complaint to make, he should speak it out. All were silent; so he praised the people and their Governor. Then he arose and celebrated the midday
prayer. After a little, he bade them all farewell, and again departed for Medina.
During the summer, Abu Bekr was busied with reinforcements for the Syrian campaign. Simple and temperate in habit, he was now, though over threescore years, hale and hearty. In the autumn, bathing incautiously on a cold day, fever laid him low and obliged him to make over the presidency at public prayer to 'Omar. When the illness had lasted a fortnight, his friends became anxious, and said: Shall we send for a physician?" "The Physician hath been to me already," was the solemn answer. "And what said he?" "He saith to me, I am about to do that with thee which I purpose to do." They understood his meaning, and were silent. Aware that the end was near, he made preparation for a successor. The choice was fixed on 'Omar; but willing to fortify his own conviction by that of others, he first consulted 'Abd ar-Rahman, one of the Prophet's foremost councillors, who praised 'Omar as the fittest man, but withal inclined to be severe. "Which," responded the dying Caliph, "is because he saw me soft and tender-hearted. When himself Master, he will forego much of what thou sayest. I have watched him. If I were angry with one, he would intercede in his behalf; if over lenient, then he would be severe." 'Othman too confirmed the choice;"What is hidden of 'Omar," said he, "is better than that which doth appear; there is not his equal amongst us." Talha, on the other hand, expostulated: "If we have suffered so much from 'Omar, thou being yet with us, what will it be when thou art gone to thy Lord, there to answer for having left his people to the care of so hard a master?" "Set me up," cried the Caliph, much excited; "seekest thou to frighten me? I swear that when I meet my Lord, I will say unto Him, 'I have appointed as ruler over Thy people him that is the best amongst them.'"
Thereupon Abu Bekr called for 'Othman, and dictated an ordinance appointing 'Omar his successor. He fainted while it was being written. Recovering, he bade 'Othman to read it over. Satisfied now, he praised the Lord; "for," said he, "I saw thee apprehensive lest, if I passed away, the people had been left in doubt." Upon this, he desired the ordinance to be read in the hearing of the Citizens, who had
assembled in the court of the Mosque. 'Omar himself was present, and hushed the noise, that they might hear. Then, desiring to obtain their assent, the dying Caliph bade his wife Asma raise him to the window (for the Caliph's house looked out upon the Court); so she bore him, in her tattooed arms, to the window, from whence, with a great effort, he called out: "Are ye satisfied with him whom I have appointed over you? None of mine own kin, but 'Omar son of Al-Khattab. Verily I have done my best to choose the fittest. Wherefore, ye will obey him loyally." The people answered with one voice," Yea, we will obey."
To the end, Abu Bekr's mind was clear and vigorous. On his last day he gave audience (as we have seen) to Al-Muthanna, and, grasping the crisis, commanded 'Omar to raise, with all despatch, a levy for Al-'Irak. During his illness, 'Aisha repeated verses from a heathen poet supposed to be appropriate. Abu Bekr was displeased, and said: "Not so; say rather" (quoting from the Kor'an)"Then the agony of death shall come in truth. This, O man, is what thou soughtest to avoid."1
His last act was to summon 'Omar to his bedside, and counsel him at great length to temper severity with mildness. Shortly after, he expired with these words on his lips:"Lord, let me die a true believer, and make me to join the blessed ones on high!"
Abu Bekr had reigned but two years and three months. According to his express desire, the body was laid out by the loving hands of Asma. He was wound in the clothes in which he died; "for," said he, "new clothes befit the living, but old the mouldering body." The same Companions that bore the Prophet's bier, now bore that of Abu Bekr: and they laid him in the same grave, the Caliph's head close by his Master's shoulder. 'Omar performed the funeral service, praying, as was customary, over the bier. The funeral procession had not far to go; it had only to cross the open court of the Sanctuary; for Abu Bekr died in the house appointed him by Mohammad opposite his own2.
During the greater part of his reign, he had occupied that house.
For six months, indeed, after Mohammad's death, he continued to live
partly as before in As-Sunh, a suburb of Upper Medina3.
There he inhabited a simple
1 Sura l. 18. 2 Life of Mohammad, p. 172. 3 Ibid. p. 169.
1 Sura l. 18.
2 Life of Mohammad, p. 172.
3 Ibid. p. 169.
dwelling with the family of the wife whom he married on coming to Medina, and who shortly after his death gave birth to a daughter. Every morning he rode or walked to the courtyard of the Mosque where Mohammad lived and ruled, to discharge the business of the day, and to perform the Public prayers, 'Omar presiding if he were absent. For the more important service of Friday, at which an address also was delivered, he stayed in the early hours at home to dye his hair and beard, and dress more carefully; and so did not appear till midday prayer. Here, as elsewhere, he preserved the severe simplicity of early life, and even fed and milked the household goats. At the first he continued to maintain himself by merchandise; but perceiving that it interfered with the burdens of the State, he consented to forego all other occupation, and to receive instead a yearly allowance of six thousand dirhems for household charge.
Finding the Sunh too distant from the Mosque where as in the time of Mohammad, public affairs were all transacted, the he transferred his residence thither. The Exchequer was in those days but simple. It needed neither guard nor office of account. The tithes as they came in were given to the poor, or spent on military equipage and arms; the spoil of war also was distributed just as received, or on the following morning. All shared alike, the recent convert and the veteran male and female, bond and free. As claimant on the Muslim treasury, every believing Arab was his brother's equal. When urged to recognise precedence in the faith as ground of preference, Abu Bekr would reply, "That is for the Lord; He will fulfil the reward of such, in the world to come. These gifts are but an accident of the present life." After his death, 'Omar had the treasury opened; they found but a solitary golden piece, slipped out of the bags; so they lifted up their voices and wept, and blessed the departed Caliph's memory. His conscience had troubled him for taking even what he did by way of stipend from the People's chest; and on his deathbed he gave command that certain lands, his private property, should be sold and a sum equal to that received, refunded.
In disposition Abu Bekr was singularly mild and gentle. 'Omar used to say there was no man for whom the people would more readily have laid down their lives. He had long
been called "the Sighing" because of his because of his tender-heartedness. He was severe in his treatment of the Apostate tribes; but excepting the solitary case in which he committed a brigand to the flames, no act of cruelty stands out against him; and for that he expressed his sorrow. "It was one of the three things which he would wish undone." The others were that he had pardoned Al-Ash'ath when he deserved death; and that when Khalid was transferred to Syria, he had not at the same time sent 'Omar to Al-'Irak. "Then," said he, I should have stretched out mine arms, both the right hand and the left, in the ways of the Lord."
Unlike his Master, he contented himself with but few wives. Two he had at Mecca before conversion. On arrival at Medina, he married the daughter of a Citizen; and, later on, Asma, the widow of Ja'far, 'Ali's brother slain at Muta. By all he left issue. There is no mention of any other wives, nor of any slave-girls in his harim. Of his children, he loved 'Aisha best and, in proof thereof, gave her a property for her own. On his deathbed, troubled at the seeming partiality, he said to her, "I wish thee, my daughter, to return that property, to be divided with the rest of the inheritance amongst you all, not forgetting the one yet unborn." His father survived him six months, reaching the great age of ninety-seven.
At his court, Abu Bekr maintained the same simple and frugal life as Mohammad. Guards and servitors there were none, nor anything approaching pomp and circumstance. Diligent in business, he leaned upon 'Omar as his counsellor, whose judgment had such weight, that he might even be said to have shared the government with him. Abu Bekr never spared himself, and he personally descended to the minutest things. Thus, he would sally forth by night to seek for the destitute and oppressed. 'Omar found him one night inquiring into the affairs of a poor blind widow, whom 'Omar had himself gone forth to help. The department of justice was made over to 'Omar, but for a whole year "hardly two suitors came before him." The seal of State bore the legend, God the best of Potentates. The despatches were chiefly indited by 'Ali. Abu Bekr made use also of Zeid (the amanuensis of the Prophet and compiler of the Kor'an) and of 'Othman, or any other penman who might at
the moment be at hand. In the choice of agents for high office or command, he was altogether free from partiality, wise and discerning in his estimate of character.
But he had not 'Omar's strength and decision; nor was his sense of justice so keen and stern. This is illustrated in the matter of the two Khalids. Upon the one, though warned by 'Omar and 'Ali, he was prevailed upon, according to Seif, to confer a command; the disaster in Syria was the consequence. Again, by refusing to condemn the other Khalid for injustice, cruelty, and the scandal of marrying Ibn Nuweira's widow, he became responsible for his evil deeds. Yet to this unscrupulous agentwell named The Sword of Godwas due, more than to any other, the survival and the triumph of Islam. But Abu Bekr was not wanting in firmness when stern occasion called; for example, the despatch of Usama's army when Medina lay defenceless and all around was dark showed a boldness and steadfastness of purpose that, more than anything else, helped to roll back the tide of rebellion and apostasy.
Abu Bekr had no thought of personal aggrandizement. Endowed with sovereign and irresponsible power, he used it simply for the interests of Islam and the people's good. But the grand secret of his strength was faith in Mohammad. "Call me not the Caliph of the Lord," he would say, "I am but the Caliph of the Prophet of the Lord." The question with him ever was, What did Mohammad command? or, What now would he have done? From this he never swerved a hair's-breadth. And so it was that he crushed Apostasy and laid secure the foundations of Islam. His reign was short, but, after Mohammad himself, there is no one to whom the Faith is more beholden.
For this reason, and because his belief in the Prophet is itself a strong evidence of the sincerity of Mohammad himself, I have dwelt at some length upon his life and character. Had Mohammad begun his career a conscious impostor, he never could have won the faith and friendship of a man who was not only sagacious and wise, but throughout his life simple, consistent, and sincere.
The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall [Table of Contents]
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