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Glenn E. Perry, Mona F. Hassan
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.


The Arabic word khalīfah (vicegerent, deputy, or successor) is one of the titles—others included “imam” (leader) and amīr al-muʾminīn (commander of the faithful)—given to those who succeeded the prophet Muḥammad as real or nominal rulers. The full title is khalīfat 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 khalīfat Allāh (caliph of God), but the early caliphs as well as the classical jurists rejected this.

The caliphate (khilāfah) emerged spontaneously upon the Prophet’s death when leaders of the Muslim community chose Abū Bakr to succeed him (the Shīʿī tradition holds 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 (with some Sunnīs also including the Prophet’s grandson al-Ḥasan and the later Umayyad caliph ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz in this number as well). Some Muslim writers have argued that the real caliphate ended here, degenerating thereafter into mulk (kingship) as it became dynastic and 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.

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 a rejection of the legitimacy of these rulers in favor of a series of hereditary imams starting with ʿAlī. A third branch, the Khārijīs, 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 ruled the Islamic world from 661 to 750 C.E. The ʿAbbāsids (descendants of al-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 by Sultan Selim I in 1517. The Ottoman sultans claimed to inherit the mantle of the caliphate dating from this historic juncture, and they came to be widely recognized as the holders of this office before its abolition by the Turkish government in 1924.

Role in the Muslim Community.

The functions of the caliph (the juristic term “imam” was more commonly used in legal discourse) according to classical writers largely corresponded to the powers of rulers in other societies. Thus the list of ten functions provided by the Sunnī jurist and legal theorist al-Māwardī (d. 1058) in perhaps the best-known work on the topic, al-Aḥkam al-sulṭānīyah (Rulings on 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 elements of the law that such a ruler upheld included the God-given Sharīʿah and that the territory defended or expanded (dār al-Islām) was coterminous with attempting to implement God’s order on earth, such political functions were also religious in character. Conversely, the status of Islam as the intellectual framework 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, 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 even one was enough. 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 (hence, the ʿAbbāsids) and the Umayyads. The Khārijīs rejected this, arguing for piety as the only consideration and insisting that even a socially marginalized 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. This process has been portrayed by some modern writers as having ideally constituted the final stage of popular election. In premodern practice, it amounted to formal acceptance of whoever had been designated by those in power.

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 Qurʾānic 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 premodern period, however, such ideas gradually yielded to those of jurists, who gave priority to the fear of anarchy and chaos (fitnah) that could destabilize society and were reluctant to delegitimate the head of state. Muslims were told that a corrupt ruler, even one who came to power by forcibly overthrowing the legitimate one, could be accepted to avoid further ills 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 Imāmī Shīʿī dynasty, the Būyids (ruled Iraq and Iran from Baghdad, 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 holding 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 from north India to West Africa often—though not exclusively, 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.

In the eighteenth century, 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 Küçük Kaynarja in 1774 between the Russians and the Ottomans, which recognized the Ottomans’ loss of the Crimea but provided that the Muslim Crimean Tatars, now under Russian rule, would remain under the religious authority of the Ottoman ruler in his capacity as caliph of the Islamic world.

As the head of the only major Sunnī Muslim state to have avoided outright colonization by European powers, the Ottoman sultan was increasingly viewed by many Muslims—especially in India— 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. Many Indian Muslims began to identify themselves with the Ottoman ruler. Throughout the late nineteenth century, this worked to the advantage of British colonial rule in India, because Ottoman rulers who recurrently depended on London’s 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 the Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz (r. 1861–1876) came largely in response to the appeals of Muslims outside the empire, especially from 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 Ottoman constitution of the same year) emerged as a major instrument of the Ottomans’ attempts to create a more cohesive empire in the face of nationalist and imperialist territorial ambitions. His pan-Islamic claim to the caliphate also 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.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, others suggested an Arab caliphate to replace that of the Ottomans. In 1881 the English writer Wilfrid Blunt called for a Qurashī Arab caliphate limited to spiritual matters to be established in Mecca under British protection. There is reason to believe that Blunt saw the Qurashī 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-Raḥman al-Kawākibī (1854–1902)—who may have been working on behalf of the Egyptian ruling house—called for a Qurashī 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 Young Turks’ proclamation of jihad against the Allied Powers in 1914 and Istanbul’s subsequent propaganda throughout the Islamic world failed to evoke substantial pan-Islamic solidarity. But the Khilafat 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 Turkish nationalist forces based in Anatolia. Shīʿīs and even some Hindus joined forces with Sunnīs in this mass movement.

Abolition and Controversy.

In 1922, the Turkish Grand National Assembly convened in the wake of ousting British and Greek forces from Istanbul and Anatolia. It moved to consolidate its power to rule on behalf of the Turkish nation by separating the Ottoman sultanate from the caliphate and apportioning the political authority of the sultanate to the assembly alone. The assembly also assumed the responsibility of designating future caliphs from the Ottoman dynasty, deposed the last Ottoman sultan-caliph Mehmed VI (Vahideddin), and installed Abdülmecid as caliph instead. These developments left the role of the Ottoman caliph, who was no longer a sultan but still a significant religious figure, problematically ambiguous, even among the diverse group of nationalists who had led the country to independence. By March 1924, however, those nationalists who supported a continuing role for the caliph were outmaneuvered, and the assembly dramatically abolished the Ottoman caliphate and sent Abdülmecid into exile. Some Muslims in other countries continued to insist that Abdülmecid was still their caliph, but too many other rulers (and the ʿulamāʾ who backed them by acquiescing to 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 by a group of supporters during the king’s visit to his son ʿAbdallāh’s British-protected emirate of Transjordan in March 1924. This bayʿah, however, 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 dismissing him as a British client who had betrayed the Ottoman caliph during World War I by waging the Arab rebellion, Ḥusayn’s claims met with rejection almost everywhere. When a Pilgrimage Congress met in Mecca in July 1924, Ḥusayn failed to convince it to legitimate his claims. The quickly ensuing defeat of the Hejaz by the forces of the amir ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ibn Saʿūd of Najd put an end to the Hejazi pretensions.

A number of ʿulamāʾ in Egypt worked to have their ruler, Egypt’s King Fuʾād, 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 nationalist Wafd Party 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 Fuʾād, whose aspirations survived even more unrealistically with his notoriously opulent son, Farouk, who succeeded his father in 1936.

The crisis of the caliphate’s termination inspired a series of controversial works on the nature of the institution. The most radical idea was that of an al-Azhar–trained Egyptian judge, ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Rāziq (1888–1966), who argued in a book published in 1925 that the caliphate had no essential 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. Responses to ʿAbd al-Rāziq from ʿulamāʾ and other circles proved so fierce as to end the young thinker’s career.

In 1922, the Syrian-born Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935), 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 condemnation that befell ʿAbd al-Rāziq by stressing that a true caliphate had indeed once existed and emphasizing the need to work for its restoration. He proposed that the caliph should perform various functions of an obviously religious nature, formally invest rulers, judges, and muftis, and also serve as a ceremonial supervisor of government. The caliph 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 reaching a global (or even regional) Muslim agreement on the caliphate seems to have led Islamists to concentrate on building Islamic orders within the boundaries of existing territorial units. Ḥasan al-Bannā, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example, sometimes spoke of the eventual reestablishment of the caliphate, but also suggested that the exact title of the chief executive in an Islamic state would not be important. The Indo-Pakistani Islamist Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (1903–1979) 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 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. Numerous more recent Islamist groups do not emphasize the issue of the caliphate as the centerpiece of their activities, although some—notably the Islamic Liberation Party (Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr al-Islāmī)—have actively called for reestablishment of the caliphate.



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