Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad, by Barnaby Rogerson

Caliphs of a golden age
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In The Prophet Muhammad, his elegant and engaging biography of the Prophet of Islam, Barnaby Rogerson told the story of the orphan boy from the tribe of Qoraysh who was born in Mecca in 570, raised in the desert of Arabia, became the founder of one of the world's great religions, and died in power and glory in Medina in 632. This new book takes up the story of what happened once the charismatic presence of the Prophet was removed from the scene, and how his heirs managed the community, spread his message and created a vast empire. It is "an extraordinary epic, a fantastic fusion of tragedy, love, noble self-sacrifice". Rogerson recounts it with verve and eloquence.

Rogerson combines serious scholarship with the skills of an Oriental storyteller and informs as he enthralls. He begins with the Hegira, when in 622 the Prophet and 80 companions escape from Mecca and settle in the oasis of Medina, making it the capital of an ever-expanding Arabian state, and ruling "by persuasion rather than imposition". Ten years later, in June 632, he dies, leaving the Companions and the community bereft.

Returning from his last pilgrimage, the Prophet made a final sermon in which the Shias believe he designated Ali, his cousin, son-in-law and closest companion, as his heir: "Are you not content to stand to me as Aaron to Moses?". The Sunnis hold that he left the choice to the Companions. They chose Abu Bakr, father of Aisha, the Prophet's favourite wife, and proclaimed him Caliph - Successor. Abu Bakr did not "insist that the Caliphate conferred spiritual power", only the management of the Umma - community.

The rejection of Ali was partly due to his youth (he was only 30) and partly to Aisha's "fierce and implacable enmity", going back to an incident in which she was falsely accused of infidelity and Ali did not defend her. Thus the two most beloved people in the Prophet's life were bitter opponents, which created a "fault line" that contributed to the Sunni-Shia schism. After Abu Bakr, twice more Ali was rejected in favour of Omar and Uthman, until finally he was elected the Fourth Caliph.

These four Companions are the "Rightly-Guided Caliphs" who ruled by the example of the Prophet. Their reign was a period of expansion - to the East, the Persian empire and Central Asia; to the West, the Byzantine dominions. This period of grace ended with the assassination of Ali by a dissident group. Then Muawiya, the ruthless governor of Syria, established a hereditary monarchy: "The time of innocence came to an end with riches and pride."

Muslims continue to look back on the rule of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs as a golden age, "the Eden of good government". But Shias see even this period as flawed, and aspire to the model of a Muslim community led by Ali.

Rogerson describes the personalities of the Righteous Caliphs - wise, pious Abu Bakr, puritanical, unlovable Omar, aristocratic, learned Uthman, and the saintly Ali. He corrects many misconceptions: the idea of the "Muslim warrior with a sword in one hand and the Qu'ran in another" is false. Conversion was not imposed and in Persia Zoroastrianism was declared a "religion of the book" to avoid popular discontent.

The book is full of vivid accounts of famous battles, and wonderful portraits of colourful characters: extraordinary women such as Aisha; or the educated Sahfa, another wife of the Prophet, who argued with him; and the noble Zahra, Ali's wife. This is serious history told with relish by a sympathetic narrator. It helps better to understand how far removed from the doctrine and the example of the Prophet and his Companions are today's women-hating, Sharia-distorting, so-called "Fundamentalists".

Shusha Guppy's 'The Secret of Laughter' is published by I B Tauris