The word caliph, from khal_- fa in Arabic, means representative or steward. In the Qur'an the word is applied to Adam and to humankind in general, to refer to our responsibility and dominion over the earth and all God's creations. In the early days of Islam, the men who took up leadership responsibility following Muhammad's death were known as caliphs. The first four stand apart from those who followed and are collectively referred to by Sunni Muslims as "al-khulafa - ' ar-ra-shidu-n" or the "rightly guided" caliphs. They were among Muhammad's closest companions and so learned from him firsthand. However, unlike the Prophet, the caliphs did not receive divine revelation. Nevertheless, they were respected for their spiritual knowledge, though they did not have absolute authority in religious matters.
These first four caliphs were motivated by sincere faith, for they shunned the luxuries and riches that were emblematic of the kings of that era. They built upon the example of Muhammad, and their individual differences reflected different approaches and different interpretations of Islam. Confronted with new situations, they reacted with resourcefulness and good judgment. Like Muhammad, these first four caliphs had a unified, God-centered worldview that did not differentiate greatly between worldly and spiritual matters. They left a legacy not only in politics, but also in personal conduct, in spirituality, and even in mysticism. For future generations of Muslims, they set the standard of what leadership should mean. To understand these four, then, is to understand essentials about Islam and Islamic culture today.
Abu Bakr was the first of the rightly guided caliphs. During the pre-Islamic days, he was highly respected throughout Mecca for his friendly nature, his honesty, and his knowledge of tribal genealogies. As a wealthy merchant of noble lineage, he enjoyed great influence in class-conscious Meccan society. Abu Bakr was the first adult man to convert to Islam, and, throughout Muhammad's life, he remained one of Muhammad's most devoted companions. He donated all of his wealth for the cause of Islam and for helping the needy. He paid for the freedom of at least seven slaves who, after accepting Islam, had been abused by their masters. He was Muhammad's right hand on the field of battle, but in peacetime, he was a tenderhearted and forbearing man. Nearing the end of his life, as Muhammad became too ill to lead the prayers, he insisted that Abu Bakr perform this duty, despite Abu Bakr's having a soft voice and despite his often breaking into tears while reciting the Quran. Muhammad's death brought chaos and uncertainty, and many refused to believe that the prophet had died. Abu Bakr addressed the masses saying, "O people! Whoever has worshipped Muhammad, certainly Muhammad is dead, and whoever has worshipped God, God is Ever-living and He never dies." He then quoted from the Quran: "Muhammad is but a Messenger; and messengers before him have passed away. If he die or be slain, will you then turn upon your heels? Whoever turns on his heels will do no harm to God, and God will reward the thankful" (3:143). Abu Bakr's words, then, established a needed way of thinking to provide a successful transition following Muhammad's death, and so the Muslim people made him Muhammad's successor.
In his acceptance speech he laid out the principles that would define the ideals of government in Islam. "Help me if I am in the right," he said. "Set me right if I am in the wrong! The weak among you shall be strong in my eye until I have vindicated his just rights, and the strong among you shall be weak in my eye until I have made him fulfill the obligations due from him. . . . Obey me as long as I obey God and His prophet. In case I disobey God and His prophet, I have no right to obedience from you."
Abu Bakr's short rule was spent crushing rebellions and restoring order in Arabia. Perhaps his most important act was to establish clear rules for humane behavior during wartime. He commanded his followers not to kill women, children, and old men. He forbade them from harming monks or monasteries. Trees, crops, and houses were to be left unharmed, and the corpses of fallen foes were not to be disfigured. Treaties with other faiths were to be fulfilled, and those who surrendered were entitled to the rights and privileges of Muslim subjects. He died after only 2 years as caliph, and before his death, he appointed his friend, Omar ibn al-Khattab, to succeed him. Omar was one of the most remarkable figures in the history of Islam. He was a fearless warrior with a fierce temper. At one time, he had persecuted Muslims.