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Caliphate

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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

    Caliphate

    The caliphate was the ruling institution of the Islamic state, which included Muslims and the lands they conquered. The caliphate began with the death of Muhammad in 632 and continued in some form until 1924 , when the Turks formally abolished it.

    The caliphate, which comprised a large staff of officials, scribes, servants, and other workers, was ruled by a caliph (Arabic for “successor”). The caliph provided political and military leadership, and to some degree, religious leadership. Caliphs were chosen and claimed their authority based on their link with Muhammad. Throughout much of its history, disputes over succession of the caliphs plagued the caliphate.

    The “Rightly Guided” Caliphs.

    When Muhammad died in 632 , the Muslim community needed leadership. Community elders selected Abu Bakr , Muhammad's father-in-law, as the first caliph. This choice was based on Abu Bakr's close personal relationship with Muhammad and his devotion to the highest standards of behavior.

    Abu Bakr died in 634 and was succeeded by Umar I ( 634 – 644 ), Uthman I ( 644 – 656 ), and then Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib ( 656 – 661 ). These men had been companions of the Prophet and ruled by virtue of their personal connections to him. These first four caliphs are remembered by many Muslims as the Rashidun or “rightly guided” caliphs. Muslims believe their rule reflected the ideals and goals of Muhammad. Their rule also marked a time of great expansion of the Islamic empire. Muslim victories in Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Iran, and Iraq, among others, brought enormous wealth and power to the caliphate.

    Not everyone, however, was satisfied with the rightly guided caliphs. Umar's policies, for example, angered some groups in the cities of Medina and Mecca and led to his assassination. Uthman sought to expand the authority of the caliph into a range of social, economic, and religious matters. His mea-sures created such anger that he, too, was assassinated. Uthman's successor, Ali ibn Abi Talib , could not escape from the bitterness that lingered over Uthman's murder. Uthman's cousin Mu'awiyah challenged Ali's leadership. Ali was assassinated, and Mu'awiyah declared himself the next caliph.

    The Muslim Community Splits.

    The Muslim community split over who had the legitimate right to occupy the caliphate. One group, the Sunnis, believed that the Prophet had not designated a successor. They accepted the leadership of Abu Bakr and the caliphs who followed him. Sunni Muslims believed that because the first four caliphs had been selected on a nonhereditary basis, their successors should be chosen in the same way. Another group, the Shi'is, rejected the authority of the Rashidun and followed the tradition that Muhammad had designated Ali, his son-in-law, to be his heir, and that only Ali's descendants should succeed as caliphs. Over time, these groups developed their own communities, each with its own set of political ideas. Although their religious practices are virtually the same, they remain distinct Muslim communities to this day.

    In spite of these divisions, Mu'awiyah continued as caliph. His rule marks the beginning of the Umayyad caliphate, in which leadership was passed on within the Umayyad family. This was a period marked by growing divisions in the Muslim world, including a civil war among disgruntled groups that raged for 20 years. Military success also characterized the Umayyad years. The caliphate expanded into new territory, including North Africa and Spain, and absorbed more groups into the Islamic empire. The growth produced great strain in the Muslim world.

    The Rise of the Abbasids.

    Following the death of the Umayyad caliph Hisham in 743 , the empire again fell into civil war. The armed forces of the caliphate were worn out from years of battle on behalf of the empire. Groups of discontented subjects rose up against Umayyad authority. They were led by the Abbasids, who were descendants of an uncle of Muhammad. Among their supporters were the Shi'i Muslims, who believed the Abbasids supported their cause of installing a descendant of Ali as caliph.

    The Umayyad caliphate ended in 750 with the battle of Great Zab. The victorious Abbasids named their own caliph, contrary to the hopes of the Shi'is. This marked the beginning of the Abbasid caliphate, which, like the Umayyad caliphate, was dynastic in nature.

    A key development of the Abbasid era was the establishment of Baghdad as the new capital of the caliphate. This city grew in population and became a center of trade and industry. Baghdad, however, was remote from much of the territory under the caliphate. While the Abbasid caliphs tried to hold the empire together, they actually had little control over many diverse groups and communities within the realm. Rebellions occurred regularly, and the caliphate had trouble collecting taxes in many areas. In both Africa and Spain, opponents of the Abbasids proclaimed new caliphates—one called the Fatimid caliphate and another proclaimed by a descendant of the Umayyads. Clearly, the empire was coming apart.

    The End of the Caliphate.

    The Abbasids managed to hold power and even reclaim some of their influence in remote areas of the caliphate. But they were unable to resist the power of the Mongols. In 1258 these Asian people, who were in the process of conquering vast territories in Europe and Asia, captured Baghdad. The Abbasid caliph escaped to Egypt, but as a political and military force, the caliphate had been greatly weakened. The title of caliph was subsequently adopted by various rulers for ceremonial purposes. The Ottomans later merged the titles of caliph and sultan. The Turks formally dissolved the caliphate in 1924 , shortly after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. See also Abbasid Caliphate; Caliph; Shi'i Islam; Sunni Islam; Umayyad Caliphate.

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