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The Arabic word khalīfah (vicegerent, deputy, or successor) is one of the titles—others included imām (leader, particularly of prayer) and amīr al-muʿminīn (commander of the faithful)—given to those who succeeded the prophet Muḥammad as real or nominal rulers of the Islamic world. The full title is khalīfah rasūl Allāh (caliph of the messenger of God). Some later rulers, at a time when pre-Islamic Persian concepts of absolute monarchy were infiltrating the more democratic practices of the early Muslims, attempted to glorify themselves by shortening the title to Khalīfah Allāh (caliph of God), but the early caliphs as well as the classical jurists rejected this.

The caliphate (khilāfah) emerged spontaneously immediately after the Prophet 's death when leaders of the Muslim community elected Abū Bakr to succeed him. (The Shīʿīs believe that Muḥammad had actually designated his son-in-law ʿAlī for the succession.) The first four caliphs—Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUthmān, and ʿAlī—succeeded to the office on a nonhereditary basis by acclamation of the community, preceded in the first three cases by designation made by a few leading people or the preceding caliph. These four are known as the Rāshidūn (Rightly Guided) caliphs. Some Muslim writers have argued that the real caliphate ended here, degenerating thereafter into mulk (kingship) as it became hereditary and as many holders of the office demonstrated a lack of piety. In any case, the practices of the Rāshidūn era provided precedents for later theories of the caliphate. See RIGHTLY GUIDED CALIPHS.

Succession was the basic issue that divided Muslims into sects. The caliphate that prevailed in the early Islamic period was accepted by those who came to be known as Sunnī Muslims, whereas the Shīʿī branch is based on rejection of the legitimacy of these rulers in favor of a series of hereditary imams starting with ʿAlī. A third branch of Islam, the Khawārij, originally supported ʿAlī but later broke with him and argued that the caliphate is an optional institution.

With Damascus as their capital, caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty generally ruled the Islamic world from 661 to 750 c.e. The ʿAbbāsids (descendants of ʿAbbās, the Prophet 's uncle), with their seat in Baghdad (or nearby), continued the caliphate in the face of occasional rivals until the Mongol conquest in 1258. The Mamlūk Sultanate subsequently kept members of the ʿAbbāsid family as titular caliphs in Cairo until the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. See UMAYYAD CALIPHATE; ʿABBāSID CALIPHATE; and MAMLūK STATE.

Long before this time it had become commonplace for rulers in various parts of the Islamic world—including the Ottoman sultans—to style themselves loosely as “caliphs,” without necessarily claiming the universal dominion that the title originally implied. Most Muslims long considered the true caliphate a thing of the past, but the Ottoman sultans came to be widely recognized as the holders of the office before its abolition by the Turkish government in 1924.

Role in the Muslim Community.

The caliph is not the Muslim equivalent of the pope, that is, the head of a Muslim Church, for Islam has no such institution that may be differentiated from the state. It is misleading to think of the caliphate as a spiritual office; it is a religious office mainly in the sense that the purpose of the state itself is religious in Islam.

The functions of the caliph (the term imam was more commonly used) according to classical writers largely corresponded to the powers of rulers in other societies. Thus the list of ten functions provided by al-Māwardī (d. 1058) in perhaps the most important work on the topic, Al-aḥkām al-sultaniyah (Principles of Government), includes enforcement of the law and defense and expansion of the realm of Islam, distribution of funds (booty and alms), and the general supervision of the government. Considering that the law such a ruler enforced was the God-given sharīʿah and that the territory defended or expanded (dār al-Islām) is coterminous with God 's order on earth, such political functions were also religious in character. Conversely, the status of Islam as the ideology of the state made the caliph 's role as guardian of the faith a political as well as a religious one. When the caliph-imam led prayer, he was performing a ceremonial role analogous to functions performed by chiefs of state in the modern world.

At least in theory, the caliph was a limited ruler. He was the chief executive, bound by the sharīʿah that he merely enforced, thus providing the basis for classifying the Islamic state as a nomocracy. Unlike the Shīʿī concept of the imam, the Sunnī (and Khārijī) theory ascribed to the caliph no superhuman qualities, sinlessness, or infallibility.

Ideology of Leadership.

In Sunnī and Khārijī theory, the caliph was elected by the community, but some jurists legitimized the caliph 's designation by his predecessor. They disagreed on the minimum number of electors required and on the qualifications for this role, with some concluding that one was enough, thus undercutting the whole notion of election. Theorists identified various qualifications for the office, such as justice, knowledge, and physical fitness. Sunnī writers generally added descent from the Quraysh tribe that included both Muḥammad 's Hashemite clan and the Umayyads; the Khawārij insisted that even an African slave might qualify. There was supposed to be only one caliph at a time, but some authorities recognized that a second caliph might exist under special circumstances.

The initial choice of caliph was to be confirmed by the bayʿah (agreement or homage) of the community. Although no one ever specified what individuals were to be involved in this process, it has been portrayed by some modern writers as having ideally constituted the final stage of popular election. In practice, it amounted merely to formal acceptance of whoever had been designated by those in power. See BAYʿAH.

As originally formulated, the theory of the caliphate seems to have approximated a Lockean, mutually binding social contract, with the community ceasing to owe obedience to a caliph who violated the sharīʿah. This, together with the principle of election and the Qurʿānic admonition to engage in consultation (shūrā), provides much of the basis for the claim of some modern Muslims that Islam is compatible with democracy. In the medieval period, however, such ideas gradually yielded to those of jurists who gave priority to the fear of chaos (fitnah) and of any rejection of the legitimacy of the holder of an office considered to be the keystone of the religiopolitical order. Muslims were told that an evil ruler, even one who came to power by forcibly overthrowing the legitimate one, must be accepted and indeed may have been sent by God as a punishment for sins.

Legitimation of De Facto Rulers.

Beginning in the early ʿabbāsid period, military commanders in various regions increasingly established their de facto independence while continuing to give formal obeisance to the caliph. By the late ninth century, such commanders had become the real rulers in the capital itself. This was true also of the Twelver Shīʿī dynasty, the Būyids (945–1055), for whom the doctrine of the absence of the twelfth imam justified retaining the ʿabbāsid caliphate, making it easier for the predominantly Sunnī population to tolerate their new rulers.

With the conquest of Baghdad in 1055 by the Sunnī Seljuk Toghril Beg, who was proclaimed sulṭān (the one with power), a new distinction emerged between the caliphate and the sultanate (salṭanah). The latter office came to be held by the effective ruler (first at the seat of the caliphate and later in other regions); the former was typically restricted mainly to the role of a ceremonial monarch legitimizing those who held real power.

Whatever their titles, rulers of various parts of the Islamic world often—though with many exceptions, particularly after 1258—valued the legitimation that the caliph could provide. By receiving diplomas of investiture, robes of honor, and other symbols of authority from the caliph and by stamping his name on coins and having it mentioned in the Friday sermon, the real rulers could reassure their Sunnī Muslim subjects that the forms if not the substance of caliphal authority were being maintained.

The Ottoman Claim and Pan-Islam.

The Ottoman sultans’ serious claim to be caliphs goes back only to the late eighteenth century. It was bolstered by wide dissemination of an apparently baseless and previously unknown story published in France in 1787 to the effect that the ʿabbāsid caliph Mutawakkil had turned his family's rights over to the Ottoman Sultan Selim I in 1517. Moreover, in their dealings with Europe at this time, the Ottomans found it useful to exploit the age-old confusion about the caliphate as the Islamic counterpart of the papacy and of the Russian ruler 's role as head of the Orthodox Church. This confused notion found its first official appearance in the Treaty of Küçhük Kaynarja in 1774, which recognized the Ottomans’ loss of the Crimea but provided that the Muslim Crimean Tatars would remain under the religious authority of the Ottoman ruler in his capacity as caliph of the Islamic world.

With the major Sunnī Muslim state having avoided outright colonization by European powers, Muslims—especially in India—increasingly saw the Ottoman sultans in a caliphal role. Some princes in southern India accepted the Ottoman ruler in this capacity in the 1780s, but otherwise the Mughal emperors continued to perform formal caliphal functions in the subcontinent. When the British ended the Mughal Empire in 1857, this created a void for Indian Muslims that the claimants to the caliphate in Istanbul began increasingly to fill, for instance by having their names mentioned in Friday sermons. Indian Muslims began to identify themselves with the Ottomans. Throughout the late nineteenth century, this worked to the advantage of British colonial rule in India, for Ottoman rulers who recurrently depended on Londonʾs help in stopping Russian expansionism were able to present the British to their coreligionists in India as friends of Islam.

Renewed stress on the claim to the caliphate by Sultan Abdülaziz (r. 1861–1876) came largely in response to the appeals of Muslims outside the empire, especially of refugees from countries that had fallen under non-Muslim rule. Under Sultan Abdülhamid II, who came to the throne in 1876, the claim to the caliphate (written into the constitution of the same year) emerged as a major instrument of the Ottomans’ Pan-Islamic policy as well as of their absolutist rule at home. The sultan-caliph sent emissaries throughout the Islamic world to urge unity under his leadership, and his claim to the caliphate received support wherever Muslims found European empires encroaching. Egyptian nationalists such as Muṣṭafā Kāmil supported the caliph in Istanbul as a counterweight to the British occupation of their country. And after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, the now merely titular caliph remained a useful symbol for the new rulers’ continuing Pan-Islamic policies.

Others were suggesting an Arab caliphate to replace that of the Ottomans. In 1881 the English writer Wilfrid Blunt called for a Qurayshī Arab caliphate limited to spiritual matters to be established in Mecca under British protection. There is reason to believe that Blunt saw the Qurayshī caliph as an instrument for the legitimation of colonial rule in India. Demonstrating the beginnings of Arab nationalist feeling, such writers as the Syrian ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Kawākibī—who may have been working on behalf of the Egyptian ruling house—called for a Qurayshī Arab caliph to be installed in Mecca as the temporal ruler of the Hejaz but limited to religious functions in the Islamic world as a whole. All of this meshed with the potential claims of the Hashemite sharīfs of Mecca, who had long governed the Hejaz under Ottoman overlordship.

The sultan-caliph 's proclamation of jihād against the Allied Powers in 1914 and Istanbul 's subsequent propaganda throughout the Islamic world failed to evoke substantial Pan-Islamic solidarity. But the Khilāfat Movement emerged in India in 1919 to support the authority of an Ottoman dynasty that had by then been reduced to impotence under the enemy occupation of Istanbul at the end of World War I and, after 1922, the control of Mustafa Kemal 's nationalist forces. Shīʿīs and even some Hindus joined forces with Sunnīs in this mass movement. See KHILāFAT MOVEMENT.

Abolition and Controversy.

The Turkish Grand National Assembly began its attack on the Ottoman dynasty in 1922 with the abolition of the sultanate, while leaving a caliph to perform purely spiritual functions. The assembly, which now assigned itself the function of choosing future caliphs from the Ottoman ruling house, deposed Sultan Mehmed VI (Vahidüddin) and installed Abdülmecid as caliph. The way the conservative forces rallied around the new caliph seems to have motivated the nationalists to obliterate this center of opposition. Moreover, the widespread recognition by supporters of the caliphate, both in Turkey and throughout the Islamic world, that this division between spiritual and temporal authority contradicted the Islamic theory of the state further pushed Kemal toward abolishing the office. Finally, the new Turkish leadership resented the protests of Muslims outside the country.

In March 1924, the assembly resolved the matter by abolishing the caliphate and sending Abdülmecid into exile. The former widespread acceptance of the Ottoman claim to the office meant that its abolition shocked many Muslims, but the deposed caliph had to take refuge in Europe when no Muslim country showed willingness to be his host. A few individuals insisted that Abdülmecid was still their caliph, but too many other rulers (and ʿulamāʿ, who backed them by acquiescing in the decision made in Ankara) aspired to become caliph themselves to allow the Ottoman claim to survive.

King Ḥusayn of the Hejaz (formerly the sharīf of Mecca) eagerly sought to become the new caliph. This culminated in his acclamation as the holder of that office during a visit to his son ʿAbd Allāh 's British-protected emirate of Transjordan in March 1924. The bayʿah was limited to individuals from the Hejaz, Transjordan, and his other son Fayṣal 's new kingdom of Iraq. With so many others aspiring to the caliphate and with much of the Islamic world seeing him as a British client who had betrayed the caliph during World War I, Ḥusayn 's claims evoked rejection almost everywhere. When a Pilgrimage Congress met in Mecca in July 1924, Ḥusayn failed to get it to legitimate his claims. The quickly ensuing defeat of the Hejaz by the forces of Sultan ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz of Najd put an end to the sharīfian pretensions.

Leading ʿulamāʿ  in Egypt, particularly Shaykh Muṣṭafā al-Marāghī of al-Azhar University, worked to get their king, Fuʿād, chosen as caliph—a project that the king himself apparently backed. Although initial plans for such a conclave were announced in 1924, opposition from many quarters—including the Wafd and other parties in Egypt—prevented the General Islamic Congress for the Caliphate from meeting in Cairo until two years later. The Congress, in which Muslim countries were unevenly represented, could agree only on the obligation to pick a caliph while admitting to the impossibility of doing so at that time, deferring the matter to another meeting the next year; that meeting never took place. Other Islamic conferences in Mecca in 1926 and Jerusalem in 1931 did not deal with the issue of the caliphate, although Abdülmecid and some of his Indian backers apparently wanted the latter meeting to reaffirm the position of the deposed Ottoman caliph. This possibility aroused the suspicions of the still hopeful King Fuʿād; his aspirations were assumed after 1936 by his successor King Fārūq.

The crisis inspired a series of controversial works on the nature of the caliphate. The most radical idea was that of an al-Azhar–trained Egyptian judge, ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Rāziq, who argued in a book published in 1925 that the caliphate has no basis in Islam. He held that it was coincidental that the Prophet had political as well as spiritual roles, and that the subsequent caliphate did not represent the real consensus (ijmāʿ) of the Muslim community because it came to be based on force. ʿAbd al-Rāziq went so far as to assert that there is no necessary relationship between Islam and any particular kind of government, a position that stirred wrath in more traditionalist circles.

In 1922, the Syrian-born Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā, successor to Muḥammad ʿAbduh as leader of the modernist movement in Egypt, wrote a book condemning what had existed since the Rāshidūn as a grotesque distortion of the true caliphate, but he avoided the kind of hostile reception accorded ʿabd al-Rāziq. Riḍā stressed the need to work for the restoration of a true caliphate. He proposed that the caliph should perform various functions of an obviously religious nature as well as formally investing rulers, judges, and muftīs and engaging in the merely ceremonial supervision of government; he would be elected from an elite group of legal scholars trained by a special institution. This new kind of caliph would preside over the process of updating Islamic law through the exercise of ijtihād (independent judgment).

Decreased Salience.

Considering the centrality of the caliphate in Islamic political theory, it may seem surprising that its revival eventually ceased to be a major concern, even for many Islamists. The demonstration during the 1920s of the impossibility of agreement on the caliphate seems to have induced Islamists to concentrate on building Islamic orders within the boundaries of existing territorial units. As a case in point, Richard Mitchell (The Society of the Muslim Brethren, London, 1969, p. 246) shows that Ḥasan al-Bannā, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, sometimes spoke of the eventual reestablishment of the caliphate, but only vaguely and with little real concern. Al-Bannā even suggested that the title of the chief executive in an Islamic state would not be important. The Indo-Pakistani Islamist Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī advanced the concept of “theodemocracy” and stressed that the khilāfah (distinguished from sovereignty in being restricted by divine commands), is vested in all Muslims, who delegate limited authority to their leaders. He thus did not propose a caliph in the usual sense as head of state, although—as Leonard Binder (Religion and Politics in Pakistan, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1963, pp. 161 ff.) documents—a board of experts appointed to advise the authors of the Pakistani constitution took the classical theories of the caliphate into account in 1950 in making proposals relating to the head of state. A lack of concern for the issue is also characteristic of more recent militant groups, although some—notably the Islamic Liberation Party (Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr al-Islāmī) and its Egyptian offshoot, the Jihād Group—have called for reestablishment of the caliphate.



  • Arnold, Thomas W.The Caliphate. Oxford, 1924. Reissued with a concluding chapter by Sylvia G. Haim. London, 1965. History of the institution, and analysis of the theory underlying it.
  • Berkes, Niyazi. The Development of Secularism in Turkey. Montreal, 1964. Thorough study of the emergence of secularism, culminating with the changes made by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, including the abolition of the sultanate and caliphate.
  • Berkey, Jonathan. The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600–1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Crone, Patricia and Martin Hinds. God 's Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought. Austin, 1982. Analysis of twentieth-century ideas of Muslims, mainly Egyptian and Iranian, about Islam and politics, including much emphasis on the issue of the caliphate.
  • Gibb, H. A. R.“Constitutional Organization.” In Law in the Middle East, vol. 1, Origin and Development of Islamic Law, edited by Majid Khadduri and Herbert J. Liebesny, pp. 3–27. Washington, D.C., 1955. Concise, authoritative analysis of the theory of the caliphate and the sultanate.
  • Gibb, H. A. R.Studies on the Civilization of Islam. Edited by Stanford J. Shaw and William R. Polk. London, 1962. Reprints of articles, including “Some Considerations on the Sunni Theory of the Caliphate” and “Al-Mawardi 's Theory of the Caliphate.”
  • Kedourie, Elie. “Egypt and the Caliphate, 1915–52.” In The Chatham House Version and Other Middle-Eastern Essays, pp. 177–212. New York, 1970. Thorough study of the aspiration of successive members of the Egyptian ruling family to obtain the caliphate.
  • Kennedy, Hugh. When Baghdad Ruled the World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2004.
  • Kerr, Malcolm H.Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muḥammad ʿAbduh and Rashīd Riḍā. Berkeley and London, 1966. Excellent analysis of such matters as idealism in the classical theory of the caliphate and Rashīd Riḍā 's writings on this institution.
  • Khadduri, Majid. War and Peace in the Law of Islam. Baltimore, 1955. Classic work on Islamic principles of international relations, with an introduction that provides an incisive statement on the theory of the state, notably dealing with it in relation to social contract theories.
  • Kramer, Martin. Islam Assembled: The Advent of the Muslim Congresses. New York, 1986. Thorough study of Islamic congresses held after the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate, as well as of earlier proposals, related in large part to the issue of the caliphate.
  • Landau, Jacob. The Politics of Pan-Islam: Ideology and Organization. Oxford, 1990. History of the idea of Islamic unity and attempts to implement it since the late nineteenth century.
  • Levy, Reuben. The Social Structure of Islam. 2d ed.Cambridge, 1962. Broad treatment of Islamic institutions, including the caliphate.
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Political Language of Islam. Chicago and London, 1988. Clear and learned exposition of Islamic political terms.
  • Minault, Gail. The Khilafat Movement: Religious Symbolism and Political Mobilization in India. New York, 1982. The most thorough study of this movement, with useful background material on Indian Muslims vis-à-vis Ottoman claims to the caliphate.
  • Spuler, Bertold. The Age of the Caliphs: A History of the Muslim World. Markus Wiener, 1995.
  • Tyan, Émile. Institutions du droit public musulman, vol. 1, Le califat; vol. 2, Sultanat et califat. Paris, 1954–1956. The most thorough study of the caliphate.
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