Why the First Four Caliphs of Islam Called the ‘Rightly Guided’

The ‘rightly guided’ period is the 30 year reign of the first four caliphs of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). These four caliphs were some of the closest companions of the Prophet (pbuh) and his strongest adherents. Each one of them had particular special merits which distinguished him from the others. They were not just great leaders of the Islamic state but also righteous worshiping slaves of Allah.

The term ‘rightly guided caliphs’ was coined by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself during his lifetime. It is reported by one of his companions that one day the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) advised the Muslims saying, “I admonish you to fear Allah, to listen and obey even if an Abyssinian slave is appointed as your leader. Because whosoever among you shall live after me, will see much discord. So hold fast to my Sunnah and the examples of the Rightly- Guided Caliphs who will come after me. Adhere to them and hold to it fast” (Abu Dawud & Tirmidhi).

The Muslims have agreed that these ‘rightly guided’ caliphs refer to Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. They are the best of people after the Prophets. The Prophet (pbuh) strongly advised following their examples and holding fast to them. These four in particular were among the ten who were promised paradise before their death by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). It is reported that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Abu Bakr will go to Paradise, Umar will go to Paradise, Uthman will go to Paradise, Ali will go to Paradise” (Abu Dawud). Further, these four “were brought up in the mould of the Prophet (pbuh) and had stamp of Prophetic character and adopted the pattern of his Prophetic rule” (Najeebabadi 261). This was prophesied by the Prophet (pbuh) himself when he said, “The caliphate of Prophecy will last thirty years; then Allah will give the Kingdom to whom He wishes” (Abu Dawud). This calculates perfectly among the four caliphs: Abu Bakr – 2 years; Umar – 10 years; Uthman – 12 years; and Ali – 5 years and 9 months. Ali’s son Hasan was caliph for about 6 months after him before giving it up to Mu’awiyah for the sake of unity and peace, thereby, completing 30 years. It was about Hasan that the Prophet (pbuh) once uttered, “This son of mine is a Sayyid (i.e. chief) and I hope that Allah will help him bring about reconciliation between two Muslim groups” (Bukhari). This is why some scholars put Hasan as also one of the rightly guided caliphs prophesied by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the hadith mentioned earlier above. “After these four, the later Caliphs assumed the manners of kings and emperors and the true spirit of equality of ruler and ruled diminished to a considerable extent in the political life of Muslims” (“The Rightly-Guided Caliphs”).

There are certain qualities that each of these four caliphs possessed that further establish why they deserved the honorable title of the ‘rightly guided’ caliphs.

Abu Bakr

Abu Bakr was the most righteous, knowledgeable, and wise among the companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Prophet (pbuh) himself held him in high regard. The Prophet (pbuh) chose him as a companion on his migration from Mecca to Medina and made him the imam to lead the people in prayer during his final illness. It is no wonder that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) once said, “There is no one who had done more favor to me with life and property than Abu Bakr bin Abi Quhafa. If I were to take a Khalil [close friend], I would certainly have taken Abu Bakr but the Islamic brotherhood is superior. Close all the small doors in this mosque except that of Abu Bakr” (Bukhari).

In addition to the above, there are many virtues mentioned about him in the Sunnah. For example, it is reported that once the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) proclaimed, “Who fasted among you today? Abu Bakr replied: I did. He (the Prophet again) said: Who among you followed a bier today? Abu Bakr replied: I did. He (the Prophet again) said: Who among you fed a poor man today? Abu Bakr replied: I did. He (again) said: Who among you visited a sick person today? Abu Bakr said: I did. Upon this the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said: Anyone in whom (these good deeds) are combined will certainly enter paradise” (Muslim).

In yet another hadith, it is reported that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, “Anybody who spends a pair of something in Allah’s Cause will be called from all the gates of Paradise, O Allah’s slave! This is good. He who is amongst those who pray will be called from the gate of the prayer (in Paradise) and he who is from the people of Jihad will be called from the gate of Jihad, and he who is from those who give in charity (i.e. Zakat) will be called from the gate of charity, and he who is amongst those who observe fast will be called from the gate of fasting, the gate of Raiyan.” Abu Bakr said, “He who is called from all those gates will need nothing,” He added, “Will anyone be called from all those gates, O Allah’s Messenger (pbuh)?” He said, “Yes, and I hope you will be among those, O Abu Bakr”” (Bukhari). This hadith clearly points out the virtuous character of Abu Bakr and that he was among the rightly guided.

Furthermore, Abu Bakr was responsible for unifying the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) during the Riddah wars. Immediately following the death of the Prophet (pbuh), three groups emerged among those who had claimed Islam during the Prophet’s lifetime. The first group were those who claimed false prophethood and led armies to fight against the Muslim community, the second group were those who rejected giving the zakah, and the third group were those who rejected Islam and went back into paganism. Abu Bakr fought against them and brought them back under the banner of Islam, thereby, unifying the Muslim community.

Umar bin Al-Khattab

Umar’s conversion to the Muslim community was a blessing for the early Muslims. He was a strong and brave man who was feared in Mecca. His conversion gave the Muslim community hope and confidence. There are many prophetic praises mentioned for him in the texts with regards to his virtues.

It is reported that the Prophet (pbuh) once said, “If there were to be a Prophet after me, it would have been Umar bin Al-Khattab” (Tirmidhi). In another hadith, it is reported that the Prophet (pbuh) said, “There had been among the people before you inspired persons and if there were any such among my nation, Umar b. Khattab would be one of them” (Muslim). These hadiths point to the insight, intuition, and wisdom of Umar.

Umar certainly proved true to his praise because he established “many of the fundamental institutions of the classical Islamic state” (“Rightly Guided Caliphs”). He also expanded the Islamic world beyond the Arabian Peninsula to include Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Iran (“The Rightly-Guided Caliphs”). He was also a very devout Muslim, hence, he “insisted that his appointed governors live simple lives, keep no guard at their doors and be accessible to the people at all times, and he himself set the example for them” (“The Rightly-Guided Caliphs”).

Umar’s rapid expansion of the Muslim world still bewilders historians. There is no rational explanation for it except that he was divinely inspired with deep intuition, which would lead him to make right decisions at right times.


Uthman bin ‘Affan

Uthman is often given the honorable title of Dhun Nurayn (the one with two lights) because the Prophet (pbuh) married two of his daughters to him. They both died before Uthman and in that occasion the Prophet (pbuh) showed interest in giving a third daughter to him if he had one. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) mentioned many virtues of Uthman during his lifetime.

Uthman was blessed with lots of wealth; however, this did not deter him in spending it in the way of Allah. He once bought a well in Medina for the Muslim community free of charge from a Jew who was giving a tough time to the Muslims due to shortage of water. During preparations for the Battle of Tabuk, Uthman help fund a large portion of the army with his own personal wealth. This led to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) saying, “Whatever Uthman does after today will not harm him” (Tirmidhi).

As for Uthman’s caliphate, he “is generally held responsible for the canonization of the Quran as it is known today” (“Rightly Guided Caliphs”) and a “large number of copies of this text were made and distributed all over the Muslim world” (“The Rightly-Guided Caliphs”).

In addition, he was a righteous ruler who preferred abstinence and dialogue rather than violence against the rebels who eventually executed him. He would also send “prominent Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) as his personal deputies to various provinces to scrutinize the conduct of officials and the condition of the people” (“The Rightly-Guided Caliphs”). The prophecy of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) came true when he once said about Uthman, “Give him the glad tidings of entering Paradise after a calamity that will befall him” (Bukhari).

Ali bin Abi Talib

Ali was brought up under the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The latter considered him like his own brother. He married his most beloved daughter Fatimah to him. He is considered the imam of zuhd, piousness, knowledge, and courage. As with the previous three, there are numerous virtues mentioned about him in the Sunnah.

It is reported that once the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said to Ali, “Will you not be pleased from this that you are to me like Haroon was to Musa” (Bukhari). It is also reported that, “On the day of Khaibar, Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said, “Tomorrow I will give this flag to a man through whose hands Allah will give us victory. He loves Allah and His Apostle, and he is loved by Allah and His Apostle.” The people remained that night, wondering as to who would be given it. In the morning the people went to Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) and every one of them was hopeful to receive it (i.e. the flag). The Prophet said, “Where is Ali bin Abi Talib?” It was said, “He is suffering from eye trouble O Allah’s Apostle.” He said, “Send for him.” Ali was brought and Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) spat in his eye and invoked good upon him. So Ali was cured as if he never had any trouble. Then the Prophet (pbuh) gave him the flag” (Bukhari).

Ali took leadership after the tragic execution of Uthman. His reign was engulfed in civil war. He was also instrumental in defeating a radical group of Muslims called the Khawarij, who were causing havoc in the Muslim lands by slaughtering fellow Muslims whom they considered as disbelievers. But “even though the era of Ali’s caliphate was marred by civil strife, he nevertheless introduced a number of reforms, particularly in the levying and collecting of revenues” (“The Rightly-Guided Caliphs”).


The era of the ‘rightly guided’ caliphs is called as such because they exemplified the Prophetic leadership within their own rule. They were sincere, righteous, wise and devout believers who strived to do that which was best for the Muslims. They strongly held to the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and followed them with their utmost ability to the end. They did not let their desires or love of leadership prevent them from the teachings of their religion. It is for these reasons, in addition to their virtues mentioned earlier, that they are considered by the Muslims as the best people after the prophets and those that were ‘rightly guided’ by Allah.


Najeebabadi, Akbar Shah. The History of Islam. Ed. Abdul Rahman Abdullah and Muhammad Tahir Salafi. Vol. 1. Riyadh: Darussalam, 2000. Print.

“Rightly Guided Caliphs.” The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. 12-Jun-2016. <http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t125/e2018>

“The Rightly-Guided Caliphs.” Mission Islam. 12-Jun-2016. <http://www.missionislam.com/knowledge/The%20Rightly-Guided%20Caliphs.htm>

Caliphate of the Rightly Guided Caliphs vs the Umayyads

Map of Expansion of the Caliphates

The rightly guided caliphate was the period of spread of Islam to various corners of the world. The companions and the soldiers of Allah fought for the cause of Allah and to spread the revealed word of Allah to the far corners of the world. The four guided caliphs were not interested in worldly interests but preservation of the religion of Allah and abiding by the teachings of Muhammad (pbuh). As for Banu Umayyah, the love of the world had crept into their hearts and they transformed the honorable system of caliphate into a kingship. They began to indulge in worldly pursuits and the chasing of power. This alienated them from the common people especially the Islamic scholars, who would avoid them.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have said, “The caliphate of Prophecy will last thirty years; then Allah will give the kingdom to whom He wishes” (Abu Dawud). This is exactly what happened because after thirty years, the Umayyad dynasty took over and the caliphate system began to resemble the kingdoms of emperors and kings where the son inherits power from the father. This was the first most controversial difference between the first four caliphs and the Umayyad dynasty. This step was initiated by Mu’awiyah, the first Umayyad Caliph. Before him during the time of the rightly guided caliphs, the leader would be chosen by his peers or appointed by the previous caliph. But this changed when Mu’awiyah appointed his son Yazid to be caliph before his death. This was a new and alien concept never practiced before in Islam where a father appoints his own son, thereby, becoming a monarchy (Kuiper, 2012). Many of the companions contested to this, such as, Hussein, Ibn Umar, Ibn Zubayr, and others. They did not want the Islamic caliphate to turn into hereditary empires like the Romans and Persians. This very controversy led to another thing which never existed before: a second caliphate existing simultaneously in Mecca by Ibn Zubayr.

Another difference between the earlier righteous caliphate and the later Umayyad leadership was that the former focused on expansion due to concern for spreading the word and religion of Allah all across the world, whereas, the latter focused on secular issues and securing their own power interests. They began to focus on administrative concerns and trying to manage the large empire that was under their control even at the expense of ignoring religious concerns, which bothered many devout Muslims (Nawwab, Speers, & Hoye, 1968, p. 57). A brother would turn against brother, an uncle against nephew to try and remove power from one and secure it for himself. Execution of political opponents became a common phenomenon (Najibabadi, 2001, p. 119 & 166). Rather than trying to secure leadership of the next caliph to a worthy person, which was the way of the rightly guided caliphs, the Umayyad kings would do everything in their power to assure the success of their own sons to inherit it after them. Perhaps this is why after 90 years of leadership, they “rarely shook off their empire’s reputation as a mulk – that is, a worldly kingdom” (Nawwab, Speers, & Hoye, 1968, p. 63).

Another difference between the first four caliphs and the Umayyad dynasty was that the latter used money to secure power and influence people (Najibabadi, 2001, p. 253). They lived lavish lives and threw heavy loads of wealth on people to keep them content so that they will not oppose their leadership. They would even offer provinces for rule to opponents provided they accept the right of caliphate for the Umayyads and would be under them in hierarchy (Najibabadi, 2001, pp. 251-253). The first four caliphs, however, were beyond such petty politics. They took utmost care in ensuring that the public treasury is not used for personal gain. They would only take from it what was necessary to survive and even then would feel guilty about it. They would utilize the wealth that Allah granted them through conquests for what benefits Islam and the Muslims. This is because they were trained under the guardianship of the best man to walk the face of the earth: Muhammad (pbuh) (Najibabadi, 2001, p. 22). He had instilled within them a strong desire for the afterlife and Allah’s pleasure. Having lived a life of kufr and then converted, they appreciated the gift of Islam and did not take it for granted.

However, not everything about the Umayyad dynasty was bad. They had some good aspects as well. For example, the Umayyad Caliph Umar bin Abdul Aziz was an exception to all of the other caliphs. He was brought up in Medina around pious Muslim scholars and was a devout Muslim. When he came into power, he reversed many of the corrupt policies of the Umayyads particularly their obsession with worldly gains. He discontinued impermissible practices, such as, imposing of a poll tax on converts. Umar bin Abdul Aziz wanted to bring the government back to the example of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Because of his justice, he was well liked even by his enemies (Nawwab, Speers, & Hoye, 1980, p. 60). A descendent of Umar bin Al-Khattab through his mother, he had justice in his blood. He paid no attention to tribal loyalties as his predecessors and treated all Muslims equally (‘Umar II, 2007). He was liked by all segments of the Muslim society including his critics. (Kuiper, 2012)

In conclusion, the first four caliphs led an exemplary lifestyle as foretold by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). They did not waste their time chasing the worldly pleasures, rather, they focused on expanding the message of Islam far and wide and keep justice throughout the empire. They made sure to follow the example laid out to them by their beloved prophet and did not turn away from his teachings. The Umayyad dynasty, however, was completely self-centered and focused on expansion for the purpose of obtaining territory and wealth. They used this obtained fortune for self-interests or as bribes. The people did not view them as devout like the first four, rather, corrupt, stingy, vengeful, and unjust. Umar bin Abdul Aziz was their only caliph that tried to revive the earlier methodology of the first four caliphs among them, however, after his demise they went back to their old ways.


Kuiper, K. (Ed.). (2012, August 17). Umayyad Dynasty. Retrieved December 10, 2016, from Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Umayyad-dynasty-Islamic-history

Najibabadi, A. S. (2001). The History of Islam (Vol. II). Riyadh: Darussalam.

Nawwab, I. I., Speers, P. C., & Hoye, P. F. (Eds.). (1968). Aramco and Its World—Arabia and the Middle East. Washington, D.C.: Arabian American Oil Company.

‘Umar II. (2007, July 11). Retrieved December 10, 2016, from Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Umar-II