What were the consequences of Mohammad not leaving an heir?

Published 25 Apr 2017

Mohammad served as the source of religious, political and social authority prior to his death. His authority is widely accepted and recognized across the vast Muslim community. His death and the circumstances of his death had radical implications on Islam. His death marked the end of prophetic revelations (Dodge, 2003). By not designating an heir or specifying a system of selecting his successor, differences in perspectives over the rightful successor and the process of succession divided Muslims into Sunni and Shia.

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Succession in the Muslim culture happens according to shura or the idea of consultation and representative selection (Stearns & Langer, 2001; Oxtoby, 2002). This principle is highly revered because of its inclusion in several passages of the Koran. In practice, consultation and representation at the tribal level takes place through the tribal council in selecting the chief or leader (Dodge, 2003). The members of the tribal council are the selected members of the tribe and usually include representatives from the major and largest families or clans in the community. As such, the decision of the tribal council received acceptance by the community. The leadership of Mohammad is an extraordinary circumstance since recognition of his authority extended even beyond his own clan and community.

Upon his death, no person can assume Mohammad’s authority (Stearns & Langer, 2001). Since there is nobody who can equal his authority, the selection of a kaliph who can continue to unify the Muslim communities was a problem. Apart from the problem of selecting a worthy successor, the selection process displaced the traditional principle of consultative representation through the tribal council. The immediacy of selecting a successor weighed on the people closest to Mohammad before his death that unorthodox methods ensued (Oxtoby, 2002). In addition, selecting a leader for the entire Muslim population is difficult when applying a system that operates at the narrow level of the tribe in Madinah. There are many clans to consider in various parts of the Muslim territory complicating the selection process. Although successors emerged through varied processes of succession, this became the root of armed conflict among Muslim clans and communities and the split between Sunni and Shia Islam.

Right after Mohammad’s death, Abu Bakr, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, and Uthman Ibn Affan three of Mohammad’s closest companions met in Madinah to help in selecting a leader (Oxtoby, 2002). The process involved the representatives of major clans in the community. However, no decision emerged because of differences in the views of the clans over the rightful successor, with the clans preferring a person from their own clan (Stearns & Langer, 2001). The nobility of Quraysh favored Abu Bakr because he was one of them. The selection ended with the decision of Umar, one of the three companions, to pledge his loyalty to Abu Bakr (Oxtoby, 2002; Dodge, 2003). Through his influence, others acquiesced to the appointment to create a majority. Abu Bakr became the first kaliph.

In opposition, the Hashim clan who make up the relatives of Mohammad firmly believed that the rightful successor should be of the lineage of Mohammad (Dodge, 2003). Their candidate was Ali Ibn Ali Talib, the first cousin of Mohammad and husband of Mohammad’s daughter Fatima (Oxtoby, 2002). They were a minority so it took a while before Ali assumed leadership. At this point, there was already deep-seated enmity between the followers of Abu Bakr and supporters of Ali.

Before Abu Bakr died, he already appointed Umar, one of the three companions, as his successor (Oxtoby, 2002). Ali’s supporters were unable to elect their candidate. As the second kaliph, his caliphate lasted longer but the protests remained and he could not unite the clans of Madinah. He succeeded in conquering new territories such as Iraq, Iran and Syria (Oxtoby, 2002) but unable to quell the discontent of some groups in Madinah.
Umar implemented a different system by appointing a six-member council to select his successor (Oxtoby, 2002). Two candidates emerged Uthman the last of the three companions and Ali. The bickering was intense but in the end, Uthman became the third kaliph possibly because of his wealthy status and reputation as one of Mohammad’s companions and supporter or Islam (Stearns & Langer, 2001). This is the third rejection of Ali and his supporters are growing more agitated. Uthman faced claims of abuse of his position and favoring his relatives (Oxtoby, 2002). This ended in his assassination.

This time, Uthman did not appoint a successor or created a council. In an attempt to ease the civil strife, the male representatives of the clans in Madinah unanimously proclaimed Ali as the fourth kaliph (Oxtoby, 2002). His ascent into leadership established his followers, the Shia. He did not support the request of Uthman’s relatives to avenge the death of the third kaliph (Oxtoby, 2002). This delineated the fissure between the majority Muslims supporting Uthman and Ali’s Shia followers. There was an internal disagreement between Ali and a group of his followers when Ali agreed to arbitrate conflict. This group called the Khariji’s defected (Oxtoby, 2002). Throughout the troubles of this caliphate, Ali’s remaining supporters maintained Mohammad’s lineage as righteous heir and determined this belief as the Shia distinction. Ali’s sons Hasan and Husayn became his successors (Dodge, 2003).

The Shia became a minority group that focused on religious zeal. This group believed the imam as the religious leader mandated by divine providence so that Ali’s descendents were the rightful imams (Oxtoby, 2002). This differed from the kaliph, a position that involved religious and secular authority. There were many sects of the Shia, but these centered on the fundamental belief in the Mohammad’s bloodline as the rightful successors (Stearns & Langer, 2001; Oxtoby, 2002; Dodge, 2003). As a minority group, these attracted impoverished Muslims and non-Arab Muslims as followers (Oxtoby, 2002). These established Shia as distinct from the majority Sunni Muslims.


  • Dodge, C. H. (2003). The everything understanding Islam book: A complete and easy-to-read guide to Muslim beliefs, practices, traditions, and culture. Avon, MA: Adams Media.
  • Oxtoby, W. G. (2002). World religions: Western traditions (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Stearns, P. N., & Langer, W. L. (2001). The encyclopedia of world history. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
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