In the Name of Allah; the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful
Salutations of Peace and Blessings upon Our Prophet and Master Muhammad ﷺ and upon His Family and Progeny
The standard view of Sunni Muslims, also known as Ahlus Sunnati wal-Jamaa (ASWJ) is that the Prophet ﷺ did not appoint a successor intentionally, and that after his death his senior companions gathered at the Saqifa (shed) of Banu Saaida in Medina and elected sayyidina Abu BakrRA as the first caliph, or successor, of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Apart from Saad b. UbadaRA and a few other isolated individuals, all of the Prophet’s companions accepted the election of sayyidina Abu BakrRA and gave their Baya (pledge of allegiance) to him, including sayyidina Ali b. Abi TalibRA, though the latter’s pledge was not immediate.
The Imamiya Shia, however, claim that the Prophet ﷺ designated his paternal cousin and son-in-law, sayyidina AliRA as his successor and the first Imam (leader) of the Muslims after him. But this claim is dismissed by serious and impartial scholars of Islamic history, for example:
“Western historians largely reject as fabrications of history Shi'i claims that Muhammad appointed Ali as his successor and say there is no evidence that Muhammad appointed anyone as his successor.” (Valerie J. Hoffman, The Essentials of Ibadi Islam, p. 6)
My own view on this controversial matter is generally in accord with that of the orthodox Ahlus Sunna sect, though it is somewhat more nuanced. From a historical point of view, there can be no doubt that the Prophet ﷺ did not designate anyone to succeed him or lead the Muslim community after him, though of course he made certain prophetic statements which indicated that he would be succeeded by his most senior companion and right-hand man, Abu BakrRA, and furthermore insisted that Abu BakrRA lead the prayers in his Mosque in Medina during his final illness. But from a theological perspective, it is my contention that because the election of Abu BakrRA was sudden and extraordinary, this is a proof that Allah Most High inspired the hearts of the Prophet’s Companions through the Holy Spirit, particularly sayyidina UmarRA and then those others present at the Saqifa of Banu Saaida, to discover sayyidina Abu BakrRA and immediately pledge their allegiance to him. Hence, while the election of Abu BakrRA as the Prophet’s first successor was, in the apparent, brought about through the consultation and discussion among the companions present at Saqifa, the reality is that the decision to elect Abu BakrRA was through divine inspiration to those Companions, which explains why Abu Bakr’s election was so sudden. Recounting the event that unfolded at Saqifa, sayyidina UmarRA stated:
فَلاَ يَغْتَرَّنَّ امْرُؤٌ أَنْ يَقُولَ إِنَّمَا كَانَتْ بَيْعَةُ أَبِي بَكْرٍ فَلْتَةً وَتَمَّتْ أَلاَ وَإِنَّهَا قَدْ كَانَتْ كَذَلِكَ وَلَكِنَّ اللَّهَ وَقَى شَرَّهَا، وَلَيْسَ مِنْكُمْ مَنْ تُقْطَعُ الأَعْنَاقُ إِلَيْهِ مِثْلُ أَبِي بَكْرٍ
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 Allah saved (the people) from its evil, and there is none among you who has the qualities of Abu Bakr. (Sahih al-Bukhari)
In other words, Allah actively intervened to ensure that Abu Bakr’s caliphate was established and recognized by those present at Saqifa and subsequently the rests of the Prophet’s companions, in order to prevent the evil of fragmentation and chaos within the community. Consider the fact that the companion Bashir b. Saad al-AnsariRA bolted towards sayyidina Abu BakrRA spontaneously to be the first to pledge allegiance at his hand, even before sayyidina UmarRA. Thereafter, the rest of the people began rushing toward Abu BakrRA all at once, trampling over their chieftain Saad b. UbadaRA who was lying down wrapped in a blanket due to illness, such that it was rumored that the latter had been killed because of the stampede.
After his election at Saqifa, sayyidina Abu BakrRA proceeded to the Prophet’s Mosque, where sayyidina UmarRA stood up to address the people, saying:
وإن الله قد جمع أمركم على خيركم ; صاحب رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم وثاني اثنين إذ هما في الغار ، فقوموا فبايعوه . فبايع الناس أبا بكر بيعة العامة بعد بيعة السقيفة
“Verily, Allah united your affair upon the best of you, Companion of Allah’s Apostle, peace and blessings be upon him, and second of the two when they were in the cave. Therefore stand, all of you, and pay homage to him!” So the people pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr with a general pledge after the pledge of Saqifa.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
مَا بَعَثَ اللَّهُ مِنْ نَبِيٍّ ، وَلَا اسْتَخْلَفَ مِنْ خَلِيفَةٍ إِلَّا كَانَتْ لَهُ بِطَانَتَانِ : بِطَانَةٌ تَأْمُرُهُ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَحُضُّهُ عَلَيْهِ ، وَبِطَانَةٌ تَأْمُرُهُ بِالشَّرِّ وَتَحُضُّهُ عَلَيْهِ ، فَالْمَعْصُومُ مَنْ عَصَمَ اللَّهُ تَعَالَى
“Allah never raised up a Prophet or gives the Caliphate to a Caliph but that he (the Prophet or the Caliph) has two groups of advisors: A group advising him to do good and exhorts him to do it, and the other group advising him to do evil and exhorts him to do it. But the protected person (against such evil advisors) is the one protected by Allah Most High.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
In other words, the Caliph or Successor of a Prophet is in fact granted his position by Allah Himself, though it may be through the medium of consultation of the elders of the community, whose hearts are guided to the person whom Allah wishes to clothe with the robe of Caliphate.