The Rashidun Caliphate: History’s First Welfare State?

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The early rise of Islam is, without a doubt, an extraordinary event. The Arabs were a people who had languished in near total obscurity for 2,000 years of recorded history, receiving only occasional mentions in ancient texts as mercenaries in the armies of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. But with the advent of Islam in 610 AD, the Arabs dramatically burst into the Middle East, and onto the stage of history. Within 50 years, the tribes and kingdoms of the Arabian peninsula had unified, crippled the Byzantine Empire, conquered the Persian Empire, and established a vast empire that stretched from Tunisia to Turkmenistan.

While the unprecedented speed of the early Arab conquests attracts a great deal of interest, it was far from the only aspect that made their empire so unique. The leaders of these early Islamic conquests were not kings or emperors; their title was Caliph (khalifah in Arabic), and their realm was not an Empire, but a Caliphate. While these terms now evoke images of Islamic extremism in the modern Western imagination, their original meaning had no such association; Caliph simply means ‘successor’ to the Prophet Muhammad.

The first four Islamic Caliphs are called the Rashidun Caliphs, but they did not come from a dynasty—their title was not a royal one and it was not passed down a family line. They had no coronations, wore commoners’ robes, and legend holds that the second Caliph even lived in a simple mud hut. But most of all, they were all zealously committed to the cause of social welfare. The Rashidun Caliphate represents an extraordinary moment in both Islamic and global history, where the Muslim egalitarian ideal was still fresh, and the vision of a better society saw a brief heyday that would not be seen again until the modern era. 

The Prophet Muhammad’s teachings on social justice were revolutionary to Arab society at the time. During Muhammad’s early prophetic career as a Meccan street preacher, his teachings made him beloved by slaves and commoners, and the mortal enemy of the Meccan elite. For example, he declared, that anyone who amassed unnecessary wealth at the expense of others “will be cast into the crushing fire”, and in his farewell sermon shortly before his death he proclaimed: “The Arab has no superiority over the non-Arab, nor the non-Arab over the Arab, nor the Black over the White, nor the White over the Black, except in piety”. This teaching is exactly what drew so many leaders of the American civil rights movement, such as Malcolm X, to the Islamic faith.

By the time of Muhammad’s death the State he had founded controlled, directly or indirectly, almost all of the Arabian peninsula. After his passing the succession to his rulership was not hereditary, but rather by nomination. Muhammad’s first successor (and therefore, the first Caliph) was his close companion Abu-Bakr. Abu-Bakr is remembered today as the mastermind behind the Caliphate’s bold and unlikely victories over the Persians and Byzantines, but also for his rigid commitment to the egalitarian Islamic ideal. The 10th-century Arab historian Al-Masudi recounts that when Dhu‘l-Kala, King of Himyar (in present-day Yemen) travelled north to submit to Abu-Bakr, he arrived wearing his most luxuriant royal finery with an entourage of 10,000 slaves. The king was shocked to find the Caliph wearing commoners’ robes, and quickly changed his wardrobe accordingly; he would later be seen in Medina wearing a sheepskin. While the details of this account are almost certainly exaggerated, the core of the story is undoubtedly true; Abu-Bakr set a precedent that Islamic Caliphs would not rule like kings, but as Muhammad had. 

The second Rashidun Caliph, Umar, was also one of Muhammad’s close companions. He is most famous for spreading Islam out of the Middle East by expanding the Caliphate’s borders into North Africa and Central Asia. But Caliph Umar was far more than just a successful conqueror, for while Abu Bakr practised strict modest restraint within the office of Caliph, Umar brought the egalitarian ideal to the entire population. 

First on Umar’s priority list was administration; he divided his vast Empire into provinces, where he established local governments in which power would be shared equally between 6 meritocratically-appointed officers. The Caliph allegedly declared to his officers: do not behave as if you were superior to [your people], for that is tyranny over them”. His bark carried a bite; each of his officers would have an inventory taken of their possessions when they took office, and any increase in this would be investigated. Furthermore, when they travelled with the Caliph to Mecca, the people would be free to voice any complaint they liked about them, creating an elegant anti-corruption mechanism. 

But Caliph Umar’s greatest innovation was the Bayt Al-Mal, literally ‘House of Money’ or ‘government treasury’. This housed the revenue earned through conquest and taxation, including from the zakat, one of the Five Pillars of Islam mandating all Muslims to donate 2.5% of their earnings to those in need. With this, he provided pensions to the soldiers of his armies and family benefits to their wives and children. This was done meritocratically—the slave Uthamah Ibn Zayd famously received a larger pension than Umar’s own son. Monetary support was also offered to orphans and widows, the old, infirm and sick. 

Umar’s Caliphate, and the Rashidun Caliphate as a whole, has been called history’s first welfare state, and rightly so. In his empire the administration was meritocratic and strictly regulated, and public wealth was distributed altruistically. This was far removed from the rigid and repressive feudal system that ruled Europe at the time. 

Additionally, the entire Rashidun period was a time of exceptional religious tolerance and coexistence. One of the keys to the Caliphate’s unlikely victory over Byzantium had been, perhaps surprisingly, the support of Christians. The Christians of Byzantine-controlled Syria and the Levant were primarily Monophysite, not Greek Orthodox, and had consequently been labelled as heretics and suffered centuries of marginalisation. When the Muslim armies swept in from the south, they defected to the apparently tolerant invaders en masse. The Rashidun Caliphs did make non-Muslims pay an additional tax, called the Jizya, but that was the fullest extent of its religious discrimination. Later Caliphal dynasties would enforce strict Islamisation, but in the Rashidun period Christians and Muslims would frequently pray side-by-side. Caliph Umar also made the seminal decision to permit Jews to return to Jerusalem. For the first time in centuries, Jewish and Muslim communities would coexist peacefully in the city, even fighting together against the crusades centuries later.

The Rashidun era would have two more caliphs after Umar, before being torn apart by schism and civil war. The first Caliph of the successive Umayyad dynasty, Mu’awiyah, was a descendant of the very Meccan elite that had opposed Muhammad. His policies more closely resembled that of the pre-Islamic Arab kings, turning the funds of the Bayt Al-Mal away from charity and towards the army, especially his chief commanders, so as to guarantee their loyalty. It would be unfair to portray Mu’awiyah, as some Muslim historians do, as a totally corrupting villain; he continued to uphold the religious tolerance of his predecessors and was broadly a skilled and capable ruler. However, what is key is that he ruled as a king, not a Caliph. 

After his death, Mu’awiyah became the first Caliph to pass the title onto his son, and under his successors, members of Mu’awiyah’s Umayyad family line would be placed in key governing positions across the empire through nepotism, making this the first true Caliphal dynasty. The dangerous precedent set by Mu’awiyah quickly resulted in further erosion of the Caliphate’s egalitarian principles in subsequent generations. Within a century the Caliphs of the Islamic Empire were indistinguishable from the kings and emperors around them, ruling from opulent palaces, holding great banquets and engaging in a bloody cycle of backstabbing intrigue. 300 years after Mu’awiyah, the Seljuk Turks conquered much of the disintegrating Arab Empire, and the Ottomans seized power not long after. The Ottoman Sultans would continue to claim the title of Caliph until their downfall following the First World War, but by then it had totally lost its original meaning and purpose.

In the words of Anglo-Yemeni historian Tim Mackintosh-Smith, the Rashidun Caliphate embodied “the theocratic commonwealth that was is the Islamic ideal”. As such, it has been extensively idealised and mythologised in the Arab consciousness; the very word rashidun means ‘rightly-guided’. For example, a number of folk tales portraying the greatness of the Rashidun Caliphate and its Caliphs have appeared in subsequent centuries. One story claims that when the first Muslims were fleeing persecution in Mecca to the safe haven of Medina, most went by nightfall, while the future Caliph Umar left in broad daylight, declaring “any man who wishes to make his wife a widow and his children orphans can meet me by that cliff!” As entertaining as these stories are, they should be taken with a grain of salt. A nuanced analysis must recognise that the Rashidun Caliphate was anything but an ideal of political stability; both Abu-Bakr and Umar died by assassination. Additionally, while it is easy to paint a moralistic picture of the collapse of the proto-welfare state as a consequence of the decadence and corruption of later Caliphs, it could certainly be argued that Umar’s charitable schemes were only made possible by the rewards that came from the Caliphate’s rapid conquests, and could never realistically have lasted. However, it is acceptable to call this first Islamic Caliphate ‘rightly-guided’, as a true desire to build a better society clearly permeated the actions of all its Caliphs.

Thus, the Rashidun Caliphate is a powerful example that Islamic civilisation is by no means a hostile antagonist to Liberal, ‘western values’. The ultimate downfall of the Caliphate’s egalitarian ethos can continue to carry lessons for our society today. Its system revolved around the Caliph, and as the memory of Muhammad’s message began to fade in the minds of the Caliphs themselves, the altruism of the regime faded with it. What none of the Rashidun Caliphs did was establish lasting laws or institutions to account for the possibility of an unrighteous Caliph in the future – and their story serves as a reminder to preserve our democratic institutions in the present.

Mackintosh-Smith, Tim (2019). Arabs: A 3000 Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empire. Yale University Press

Crone, Patricia (2005). Medieval Islamic Political Thought. Edinburgh University Press

Hamid, Shadi (2003), An Islamic Alternative? Equality, Redistributive Justice, and the Welfare State in the Caliphate of Umar, Renaissance: Monthly Islamic Journal