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The Saqīfah (Arabic: السقيفة), also known as Saqīfah Banī Sā'idah (Arabic: سقيفة بني ساعدة), was a roofed building used by a Jewish tribe called Banu Sa'idah, a faction of Banu Khazraj tribe of the city of Madinah in Hejaz, western Arabia.
Significance of Saqifah
The name of the house is used as shorthand for the event, or the gathering, which was a crucial turning point in the history of Islam. On the day Muhammad died (June 8, 632 CE), the Medinan Muslim or "Ansar" gathered in the Saqifah to discuss the future and leadership of the Muslims. There were two Ansar tribes, the Khazraj and the Aws; both were present. However, the Muhajirun, or Muslim emigrants from Mecca, had not been notified of the gathering. Muhammad Ibn Jarir Tabari writes in his Ta'rikh at page 456, Volume II that ‘Umar came to the door of the Prophet's house but did not enter. He sent a word to Abu Bakr: "Come immediately; I have urgent business with you." Abu Bakr sent message to him that he had no time. ‘Umar sent another message: "We have came across a critical issue. Your presence is required."
Abu Bakr came out and was informed secretly about the gathering of the Ansars in the Saqifah by umar. ‘Umar said that they should go there at once and both of them moved. After a tumultuous debate, the details of which are highly contested, those who gathered there gave their allegiance, or bay'ah, to Abu Bakr as the new leader of the Islamic community. There were some Muslims who felt that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, should have been the new leader. They initially refused to take the oath to Abu Bakr and were known as the Shi'ah Ali or "Follower of Ali." Some of them even thought that Ali himself didn't take the oath.
Over time, disaffection with the government of the caliphs strengthened the ranks of the Shi'ah Ali. This eventually led to the separation of the Muslim community into the Sunni and Shi'a traditions. Sunnis believe Abu Bakr, the first male convert to Islam, Muhammad’s companion, and father-in-law, was his first successor. In contrast, the Shi'ah believe that Ali, first amongst the youth to convert to Islam and Muhammad's first cousin and son-in-law, and his lineal descendants (known as Imams) had a divinely ordained right to lead the community religiously and politically.
Though Sunnis do not give much importance to this event. Shias still consider the Event at Saqifah to be one of the turning points in Islamic history where Ahlul Bayt, the household of Muhammad suffered many tribulations afterwards. The denial of the inheritance of Muhammad's only daughter, Bibi Fatima Zahra of Fadak by the First Caliph, Abu Bakr. There is a famous incident of Bibi Fatima taking a group of women as witnesses to publicly contest the decision in the mosque where Abu Bakr ruled.
Ali observed active passivity in the years following the Event of Saqifah. He chose not voice his opposition to the decision of appointing Abu Bakr as it would cause much fitna (infighting) amongst the early Muslims. However, the First three Caliphs relied heavily on the advice of Ali during times of confusion and distress; claiming that their Caliphates would have collapsed without him.
Ibn Ishaq's account
According to this account, after the death of Muhammad the Ansar gathered at the Bani Sa'ida's saqifah while the closest relatives of Muhammad, Fatimah and Ali and their relatives, were preparing Muhammad's body for burial. Abu Bakr and Umar were sitting with some of the Muhajirun, the emigrants from Mecca. Having heard that the Ansar were meeting, they went to join them. There, Abu Bakr addressed the Ansar.
Abu Bakr argued that only a leader from the Quraysh, Mecca's leading clan, could keep the community intact. Only the Quraysh were universally recognized as a noble clan, worthy of leadership. He suggested that the meeting choose either Umar or Abu Ubaidah ibn al Jarrah (both Quraysh) as a leader.
One of the Ansar suggested that the Ansar should choose a leader for themselves and the Meccans should choose another for themselves. The meeting became loud and unruly. Umar is reported to have said that he feared that the unity of the Muslim community would dissolve then and there. So he seized Abu Bakr's hand and loudly swore the bay'ah to him as the leader of the Muslims. The Muhajairun followed his lead and then the Ansar.
The next day, the Muslim community of Medina gathered for prayers and Umar spoke, praising Abu Bakr and urging the community to swear allegiance to him. Ibn Ishaq says that the bulk of the community did so.
According to The Succession to Muhammad by Wilferd Madelung, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, Umar later described the event as a faltah, a precipitate arrangement (p. 30).
I have been informed that a speaker amongst you says, "By God, if 'Umar should die, I will give the pledge of allegiance to such-and-such person." One should not deceive oneself by saying that the pledge of allegiance given to Abu Bakr was given suddenly and it was successful. No doubt, it was like that, but God saved (the people) from its evil, and there is none among you who has the qualities of Abu Bakr. Remember that whoever gives the pledge of allegiance to anybody among you without consulting the other Muslims, neither that person, nor the person to whom the pledge of allegiance was given, are to be supported, lest they both should be killed.
"At the tumultuous council held in the headquarters of the Banu Saidah in Medina, Omar, almost as a surprise, imposed Abu Bakr as khalifa or successor of the Envoy of God. Like so many events and institutions, the caliphate was born of an improvisation."
- Guillaume, A. The Life of Muhammad, Oxford University Press, 1955
- Madelung, W. The Succession to Muhammad, Cambridge University Press, 1997