Caliph is the term or title for the Islamic leader of the Ummah, nation or community of Islam. It is an Anglicized/Latinized version of the Arabic word خليفة or Khalīfah (listen ▶) which means “successor,” that is, successor to the prophet Muhammad. Some Orientalists (non-Muslim Western scholars) wrote the title as Khalîf, which remains the preferred term among scholars, although the more common "caliph" will be used in this article. The caliph has often been referred to as Ameer al-Mumineen (أمير المؤمنين), or "Prince of the Faithful," where "Prince" is used in the context of "commander." The title has been defunct since the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate in 1924.
Historically selected by committee, the holder of this title claims temporal and spiritual authority over all Muslims, but is not regarded as a possessor of a prophetic mission, as Muhammad is revered in Islam as the final prophet. For centuries, the caliphate represented the ideal that all Muslims, regardless of race, are equal members of a single, global entity, the ummah. It also stood for the integration of the spiritual with the political, ensuring at least in theory harmony between the law of the state and divine law. In practice, too, much of the Islamic world, even if governed by autonomous Sultans, maintained a sense of unity and the life experience of Muslims was similar regardless of where they lived. The law was more or less the same throughout the territory of which the caliph was, if only nominally, the head. The caliphate was an attempt to create a single, God-fearing community of all mankind.
Modern understandings of the title of caliph are varied. Some movements in modern Islamic philosophy have emphasized a protective dimension of Islamic leadership and social policy from an understanding of khalifa that equates roughly to "render stewardship" or "protect the same things as God." This derives from use of the term for mankind in the Qur'anic creation narrative at Q2:30, where Adam is described as God's 'vice-regent on earth.' Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi (1903 – 1979), founder of the Jamaati-i-Islam, took this view. The modern absence of a single Muslim head of state is considered by some to be a violation of the Islamic legal code, the Shariah. Scholars came to view the caliphate as a 'necessity in the world.' Others insist that after the four rightful caliphs, the office ceased to exist—meaning that those who claimed after to be "khalifa" were actually "melik" (king), as suggested by Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406). Islamist movements (who argue for the restoration of authentic Islamic governance) have argued for the necessity of re-establishing the institution of a single office whose occupant, as successor to Muhammad, would possess clear political, military, and legal standing as the global leader of the Muslims. Such an initiative has yet to gather much in the way of practical support in the Muslim world.
Sources vary on the origin of the caliphate. Some Muslims hold that Muhammad had neither appointed a successor nor legislated how the community should be governed after his death, but that the ijma (consensus) of the community, which Muhammad said 'would not agree in error' decided on the caliphate. The caliph would lead the community but would have no privileged ability to interpret Islam. On the other hand, the caliphs were initially chosen for their piety and knowledge of Muhammad's sunnah (example, sayings and acts) and their views would have carried weight. It is believed that the early caliphs used the title 'deputy of the Prophet of God' but that later they dropped 'the Prophet' and used only 'deputy of God.' Patricia Crone and Michael Cook (1997) argue that the caliphs saw themselves as ruling directly on behalf of God, and that they did claim privileged authority. In fact, once Shariah (Islamic Law, although 'law' is not altogether an accurate translation) had been codified, it took priority (in theory) over any rulings that a caliph, or a political authority appointed or designated by the caliph, such as a Sultan, might decree. Effectively, jurisprudence or fiqh was the preserve of professionally trained religious scholars, while administration and politics (siyasah) was the preserve of the caliph (and of the sultans, who technically deputized for him).
In practice, there has often been a struggle between these two distinct spheres of authority. Caliphs and sultans could issue decrees (qanun, or khanun) that in their view either dealt with matters not covered by the Shariah (which leaves certain areas to 'urf, local custom) or which they said were necessary for the safety of the realm. Over time, two parallel legal systems emerged. One, the Shariah court system presided over by religious scholars, dealt with matters to do with religion including marriage, divorce and inheritance. The other, the mazalim, or grievance courts, dealt with commerce, tax, most criminal law, and any disputes with the government. F. E. Peters (1994) says that the caliph “was not a religious leader but leader of a religious community” (121).
Some parallels have been drawn between the offices of the caliphate and the papacy, a position which, like that of caliph, has embraced spiritual, political and military leadership at different times over the centuries, and seen disputes over individual holders and the nature of the role itself. The two major traditions of Islam, Sunni and Shi'a, differ profoundly on the critical question of who the first Caliph of Islam should have been, and the subsequent legitimacy of all later office holders.
According to Sunni thought, Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, Muhammad's closest friend and father-in-law, either the first or second male convert, was the legitimate successor to Muhammad, inasmuch as he was elected into the office of the caliphate in 632 C.E.. Some interpret various hadith as having actually appointed him prior to Muhammad's death (for examples, see the Miskhat-al-Masabih, V2: 1321-1323). Most agree that it was those who gathered in Medina after Muhammad’s death who decided that Abu Bakr was the 'best among the Muslims,' and so should be selected as leader. This is based on the injunction at Q4: 58 that trust should only be given to those to whom it is due. Other verses of the Qur'an refer to those who have been 'raised in rank' (daraja), which is interpreted to mean that some, who are more virtuous or knowledgeable, are best suited to govern (Q6: 165; 12: 76; 43: 32; 58: 11).
Abu Bakr stated that Muslims should only follow him if he himself followed the example of the Prophet. Tradition says that although a council of citizens (known as the ahl al-hall wa al-'aqd, those who bind and dissolve) selected him initially, this was later ratified by members of the general public taking the oath of allegiance (bayah). The concept of shura, based on Q43: 38 and 3: 159) is often cited to support the view that some form of public endorsement of a candidate for the caliphate is necessary or indeed that the public should be involved in his selection. However, there has been much discussion about whether, one appointed, a Caliph is bound by shura, or must merely consult. Muslims, says Q42: 38, are “those who conduct their affairs by mutual consultation.”
Discussion continues about who should be consulted, and what authority their advice carries. Abu Bakr's selection is sometimes referred to as the Saqifah, after the building where the meeting took place. The sources tell us that the Ansaris (the citizens of Mecca who had given Muhammad and his followers refuge in 622) began the selection process before the Muhajirun, or emigrants from Mecca, were aware of the meeting. They were arguing that the leader should be from their number, as they had given Muhammad sanctuary when he most needed it. When they did arrive at the meeting, the Muhajirun argued that only they could keep the Muslim community (ummah) intact. Some suggested a co-leader from each group. Abu Bakr suggested that Umar or Abu Ubayda should become leader but they deferred to Abu Bakr, saying “Nay, thou hast already at the Prophet's bidding led the Prayers, thou art our Chief” (Muir 1924: 4).
Before his own death, Abu Bakr nominated his successor, Umar, although he is said to have consulted informally and again the candidate received public acclamation. Umar appointed the Council of Six to nominate his successor. They chose Uthman, who was assassinated before he could nominate a successor or establish a mechanism for the nomination. Ali, it is said, was popularly proclaimed as the fourth caliph (he had been a member of the council of six). Ali faced opposition from a rebellion led by Aishah, the wife of the Prophet, and Abu Bakr's daughter, who supported Zubayr's claim to the caliphate, as he was a relative and a former member of the Council of Six. She was defeated at the famous Battle of the Camel (656 C.E.).
Later, Sunni scholars said more about the qualities of the caliph than they did about how he should be chosen. The caliph's responsibility was to protect Islam, to extend its territorial jurisdiction, and to act as the spiritual and temporal figurehead of Islam. He had to be male, a member of the Qurayshi tribe, sane, competent in the law and an able administrator. The designation Arimul-Mu'mineen 'commander of the faithful' was added to their title. This started when people began to address Umar as 'commander of the faithful,' probably both as a mark of respect and in recognition of his skilled military leadership (also, it was perhaps easier than his official title which may have been the more cumbersome, 'deputy of the deputy of the Prophet,' that is, deputy of Abu Bakr, the deputy of the Prophet). There was considerable discussion, too, on whether rebellion against an unjust caliph was justified, such as that of the Abbasids against the Umayyads, which had wide support at the time. Generally, scholars felt that for the sake of the unity of the community, rebellion was a last resort. Civil war is contrary to Shariah.
The Shi'a believe that Ali, who was Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, should have been his original successor and that succession should have been on the basis of blood relationship to the Prophet. They also believe that Muhammad had designated Ali as his successor. Although Ali was historically the fourth holder of the position, Shi'a consider him the first and perhaps only legitimate caliph. Shi'a believe that the caliph (or Imam) possesses special, unique qualities to lead the community. His interpretation of Islam takes priority and the Imam should be followed and obeyed. The Sunnis identify the first four caliphs, all close associates of Muhammad, as the '"rightly guided" caliphs, standing in the following line of succession: Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali. They consider these to be the only caliphs who did not deviate from the standards laid down by Muhammad, but they generally recognize the legitimacy of the subsequent caliphate dynasties, beginning with Muawiyah I and the Umayyad dynasty. Muawiyah, governor of Syria, blamed Ali for the death of Uthman, his relative, and led his troops against Ali in the Battle of Siffin (657).
Effectively, Ali's caliphate ended when he accepted a proposal at Siffin that the dispute be settled by arbitration. The arbitrators ruled in favor of Muawiyah, and the dissident group known as the Kharijites emerged at this point. They believed that God should settle the question of who should be caliph (based on Q49: 9), not by human arbitrators, and that Ali (they assassinated him in 661) had proved himself unworthy.
The dynastic caliphates upheld the practice of nomination and bayah, so strictly speaking, succession was not automatic. Muawiyah, the first Umayyad, nominated his son, Yazid, to succeed him. His nomination was then endorsed by a number of Muhammad's companions. Husayn (Muhammad's grandson) declined, as did Abd Allah ibn az-Zubayr (son of Zubayr, see above), who declared himself caliph and controlled Mecca until 692. Thus, the Ummayads had at least two rivals. From 972 until 1171, a Shi'a dynasty (the Fatimids) ruled Egypt, claiming the title of caliph in opposition to the Abbasids. At the height of their power they ruled a territory from Syria to Tunisia (see below).
Under the Ummayads, the Muslim empire grew rapidly. To the west, Muslim rule expanded across North Africa and into Spain. To the east, it expanded through Iran and ultimately to India. The Abbasids rebelled against the Ummayads, accusing them of sidelining Islam and actually had the support of the Shi'a minority, since the Abbasid claim to the caliphate was based on their descent from Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, Muhammad's uncle. However, the Abbasids successfully seized power from the Ummayads in 750. The Abbasids provided an unbroken line of caliphs for over three centuries, consolidating Islamic rule and cultivating great intellectual and cultural developments in the Middle East, but by 940 the power of the caliphate under the Abbasids was waning as non-Arabs, particularly the Turkish slaves known as Mamluks gained influence and sultans and emirs became increasingly independent. Real political power passed from the caliph to regional sultans, although in theory the caliph delegated their authority. The caliphate endured as both a symbolic position and a unifying entity for the Islamic world.
During the period of the Abbasid dynasty, Abbasid claims to the caliphate did not go unchallenged. The Shi'a Said ibn Husayn of the Fatimid dynasty, which claimed descendancy of Muhammad through his daughter, claimed the title of caliph in 909, creating a separate line of caliphs in North Africa. Initially covering Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, the Fatimid caliphs extended their rule for the next 150 years, taking Egypt and Palestine, before the Abbasid dynasty was able to turn the tide, limiting the Fatimids to rule to Egypt.
The Fatimid dynasty finally ended in 1171. The Abbasids rejected the Fatimids claim to the caliphate, since this was through a woman while their own claim rested on a family relationship with Muhammad through a male. Interestingly, the question of a blood tie with Muhammad was not an issue in terms of the legitimacy of the first four rightly guided caliphs. Blood descent is still important in some parts of the Muslim world - the royal houses of Morocco and Jordon are descended from Muhammad. The Umayyad dynasty, which had survived and acquired control of the Muslim provinces of Spain, reclaimed the title of caliph in 929, lasting until it was overthrown in 1031.
1258 saw the conquest of Baghdad and the execution of Abbasid caliph by Mongol forces under Hulagu Khan. Although members of the Abbasid dynasty proclaimed a new caliphate within three years, based in Cairo, various other Muslim rulers had also begun to claim the title of caliph and the Muslim empire became fractured, and eventually the caliphate of the Ottomans established primacy. Thus, by the eve of the First World War, the Ottoman caliphate represented the largest and most powerful independent Islamic political entity. The rulers of the Ottoman state, however, only rarely used title of caliph for political purposes. It is known that Mehmed II and his grandson Selim used it to justify their conquest of Islamic countries. At a later date, one of the last sultans of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Abdulhamid II, used it as a tool against the European colonization and occupation of countries with large Muslim populations.
On March 3, 1924, the first president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, constitutionally abolished the institution of the caliphate. Its powers were transferred to the Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament) of the newly formed Turkish nation-state and the title has since been inactive. Scattered attempts to revive the caliphate elsewhere in the Muslim world were made in the years immediately following its abandonment by Turkey, but none were successful. Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, a former Ottoman governor of the Hejaz who had conspired with the British during World War I and revolted against Istanbul, declared himself caliph at Mecca two days after Turkey relinquished the title. No one took his claim seriously, and he was soon ousted and driven out of Arabia by the Saudis, a rival clan that had no interest in the caliphate. The last Ottoman Sultan Mehmed VI made a similar attempt to re-establish himself as caliph in the Hejaz after leaving Turkey, but was also unsuccessful.
In the 1920s, the Khilafat Movement, a movement to restore the Turkish caliphate, spread throughout the British colonial territories in Asia. It was particularly strong in India, where it was a rallying point for Muslim communities. A summit was convened in Cairo in 1926 to discuss the revival of the caliphate, but most Muslim countries did not participate and no action was taken to implement the summit’s resolutions. Though the title Ameer al-Mumineen was adopted by the King of Morocco and Mullah Mohammed Omar, former head of the now-defunct Taliban regime of Afghanistan, neither claimed any legal standing or authority over Muslims outside the borders of their respective countries. The closest thing to a caliphate in existence today is the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an international organization founded in 1969 consisting of the governments of most Muslim-majority countries. But the OIC has limited influence; many Muslims are not aware that the organization exists, and its resolutions are often ignored even by member nations.
Once the subject of intense conflict and rivalry amongst Muslim rulers, the caliphate has lain dormant and largely unclaimed for many years. The reasons for this are varied and complex. After World War I, most Muslim lands fell under foreign occupation. The Muslim World was subsequently reshaped along secular nationalist lines and heavily influenced by Western or socialist political philosophies. The role of mosques and the religious establishment was substantially reduced in most Muslim countries, leading to the emergence of political and military elites that viewed Islam as a personal matter and not a basis for political unity or a viable foundation for a modern state. Furthermore, the prevalence of old grudges and nationalist rivalries (particularly in the Arab world) have prevented large-scale international cooperation amongst Muslim states from taking place.
Though Islam is still a dominant influence in most Muslim societies and many Muslims remain in favor of a caliphate, tight restrictions on political activity in many Muslim countries, coupled with the tremendous practical obstacles to uniting over fifty disparate nation-states under a single institution, have prevented efforts to revive the caliphate from garnering much active support. Popular apolitical Islamic movements such as the Tablighi Jamaat identify a lack of spirituality and decline in religious observance as the root cause of the Muslim world's problems, and claim that the caliphate cannot be successfully revived until these deficiencies are addressed. No attempts at rebuilding a power structure based on Islam were successful anywhere in the Muslim world until the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which was based on Shi’a principles and did not deal with the issue of a global caliphate.
Sunni & Wahabi Islamist movements have gained momentum in recent years, calling for a restoration of the caliphate. However many such movements have as yet been unable to agree on a roadmap or a coherent model of Islamic governance, and dialogue on amongst Muslim intellectuals there is a broad range of viewpoints on what a modern Islamic state should look like. Many Islamic institutions in Muslim countries today have not made the restoration of the caliphate a top priority and have instead focused on other issues. Most regimes have actually been hostile to such a call.
Many, however, view the nation state as a non-Islamic, Western innovation and would prefer some form of global governance for all Muslims. The party most known to call for the restoration of a caliphate are the transnational vanguard Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Liberation Party, who have detailed a draft constitution for a future caliphate and written books related to its funds, economic system, political system, and a method to go about its restoration. 
The more important dynasties include:
Note on the overlap of Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates: After the massacre of the Umayyad clan by the Abbasids, one lone prince escaped and fled to North Africa, which remained loyal to the Umayyads. This was Abd-ar-rahman I. From there, he proceeded to Spain, where he overthrew and united the provinces conquered by previous Umayyad Caliphs (in 712 and 712). From 756 to 929, this Umayyad domain in Spain was an independent emirate, until Abd-ar-rahman III reclaimed the title of Caliph for his dynasty. The Umayyad Emirs of Spain are not listed in the summary below because they did not claim the caliphate until 929. For a full listing of all the Umayyad rulers in Spain see the Umayyads article.
(Not accepted by the Muslim dominions in the Iberian Peninsula and parts of North Africa)
(Not universally accepted)
(Not universally accepted)
Note: From 1908 onwards—constitutional monarch without executive powers, with parliament consisting of chosen representatives.
Although the title of Caliph is currently unused, it could conceivably be used again if the Turkish parliament were to decide to reactivate it.
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