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Caliph

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Caliph

    Caliph is the title held by those who succeeded Muhammad as rulers of the Islamic world between 632 and 1924 . As Muslim heads of state, early caliphs held powers similar to those of other rulers. These powers included enforcing the law, defending and expanding the realm of Islam, and distributing funds. In later years, however, the office of caliph lost much of its power, and the title became little more than ceremonial.

    Muslim leaders elected the first caliph, Abu Bakr , after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 . The three caliphs who succeeded him— Umar , Uthman , and Ali ibn Abi Talib —were also elected. Sunni Muslims call these four caliphs the Rashidun, or “rightly guided.” Their reign ended with the death of Ali in 661 . Some Muslim writers have argued that the true caliphate (office of the caliph) ended here, and that the caliphs who succeeded Ali were merely kings or sultans, rulers with political power but not religious authority. They had inherited the title and often abused their position.

    Not all Muslims believed that the Rashidun caliphs were the rightful heirs of Muhammad. This controversy led to the division of the Islamic world into two major sects. Muslims who accepted the authority of the Rashidun became known as Sunni Muslims. Those who rejected the authority of the early caliphs became known as Shi'i Muslims.

    Between 661 and 750, caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty ruled the Islamic world. The Abbasid caliphs followed the Umayyads, retaining power until the Mongol conquest in 1258 . After the Mongol conquest, Egyptian rulers maintained figurehead caliphs in the region until 1517 , but these positions were not recognized elsewhere. Occasionally, Muslim rulers used the term caliph as an honorific title, but most rulers were identified as sultans rather then caliphs. In the later centuries of the Ottoman Empire, sultans also took the title of caliph. In 1924 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the new Turkish government abolished the caliphate altogether. See also Mongols; Ottoman Empire; Shi'i Islam; Sultan; Sunni Islam; Titles, Honorific.

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