Khilafah (Caliphate)

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The Caliph (خليفة‎; khalīfah) is the head of state in a Caliphate, and the title for the leader of the Islamic Ummah (body of Muslim believers) who serves as the successor to Muhammad, the founder of Islam, in all matters of political and religious decision making. The word of the caliph is, however, only legally and not theologically binding upon members of the Muslim ummah who consider him legitimate.


Historical caliphates

Upon Muhammad's death (632)

According to the hadiths, the Muhajirun and Ansar of Medina got together separately to ascertain a leader to take Muhammad's place shortly after Muhammad's death. Abu Bakr and Umar, however, decided that these separate efforts to appoint a leader would lead to infighting, and thus Abu Bakr suggested to the entire assembly of Medinans either Umar or Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah be made leader. When the Medinans refused to make a choice between these two, Umar declared his allegiance to Abu Bakr as caliph. The Medinans present, it is said, then followed suit.

It is also reported that upon Abu Bakr's designation as caliph, Ali refused to accept Abu Bakr as the caliph, presumably preferring that he himself, as son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad, be appointed caliph instead. Ultimately, Umar confronted Ali, perhaps physically, and extracted his allegiance.

The Rightly Guided Caliphs, or al-Khulafa al-Rashidun (632-661)

According to Islamic theology, the first four successors of Prophet Muhammad were the "Rightly-Guided Caliphs" (Khulafaa-e-Rashidun). They were all Sahabahs (companions or apostles) who were extremely close to Muhammad, and are therefore considered by Muslims to be model Islamic leaders who ruled in accord with the Qur'an and Sunnah.[1] The first four Caliphs were; Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali.

Abu Bakr ruled for two years before dying of natural causes in 634. Umar, Uthman, and Ali were all assassinated by political oppositionists, with Ali's stint as caliph ending in a 5-year civil war that left thousands dead and gave rise to a group that would later become the Shi'ite sect of Islam.

During the Rashidun caliphate, the Islamic empire grew from comprising just the Arabian peninsula during Muhammad's life, to comprising modern day Iran, part of modern day Turkey and the Caucasus, as well as well as lower Egypt and the northern part of modern day Libya.

Umayyad caliphate (661-750)

The Islamic empire saw great expansion under the dynastic rule of the Umayyad caliphate founded by Ali's opponent and successor, Mu'awiyya. Under the Umayyads, the Islamic empire grew to comprise modern day Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Morocco, and Spain, becoming the largest empire in history until the 8th century, and the 6th largest empire in all of history.

The Umayyad rulers did not enjoy universal support among the Muslim ummah, as they gained their thrones through birth rather than appointment. This led to multiple rebellions against Umayyad rule, some of which resulted in the solidification of the Shia-Sunni split. As the number of people pushing for a caliph from the family of the prophet grew, however, the Umayyad Dynasty would succumb to the Abbasids (descendants of Muhammad's uncle Abd al-Muttalib), scattering their efforts.

Umayyad Spain (756-1031)

Following overthrow in 750, the Umayyad prince Abd al-Rahman I would flee in 756 to Codoba in modern day Spain and establish the Emirate of Cordoba. Though the Umayyad emirs of the Emirate of Cordoba would initially recognize the caliph and caliphate of the Abbasids, in 929, these Cordoban Umayyads, led by Abd al-Rahman III, would declare their own independent caliphate (to help in their fight against threatening Fatimids), transforming (heretofore-emir) Abd al-Rahman III into a caliph and transforming the Emirate of Cordoba into the Caliphate of Cordoba. The Caliphate of Cordoba would last until 1031, at which point it would dis-aggregate into various independently governed principalities.

Abbasid caliphate (750-1258)

The Abbasid overthrow of the Umayyads ushered in the Islamic Golden Age, especially as the rationalist heresy of the Mu'tazilites became culturally dominant and as the ruling Abbasids themselves participated in and encouraged this heresy. The rationalists' obsession with knowledge and reason directly motivated the Mu'tazilite ruler al-Ma'mun (ruling from 813-833) to both found the famous House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) in Baghdad, fund the works of scientists like al-Khwarizmi, and begin an inquisition (mihna) against the traditionalist, and even anti-intellectual movement that would later become orthodox Sunni Islam and bring an end to the scientific and philosophical flourishing of the Islamic world as a result of the sort of dogmatism that would define the lives and works of Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) a few centuries later. By the 1250s, however, the once-loyal Mamluk members of the Abbasid military would take control of Egypt, and in 1258, Baghdad would be sacked, bringing an end to the original Abbasid caliphate.

Mamluk Sultanate of Cairo (1261-1517)

A memory of the Abbasid caliphate would persist under the Mamluk rule of Egypt, who then founded the Mamluk sultanate (also known as the Abbasid caliphate of Cairo) in 1261, which would last until its conquest by the Ottomans in 1517.

Fatimid caliphate (909-1171)

The Isma'ili, Shi'ite Fatima caliphate, from its base and capital in Mahdia, Tunisia, ultimately came to rule the entire northern coast of the African continent as well as lower Egypt (where caliphate later established its capital in Cairo), modern day Morocco, parts of Syria and the Arabian peninsula, and Sicily.

The caliphs of the Fatimid dynasty where also the holy Imams of the Isma'ili Shi'ites. These Imams were the descendants of Ali via his wife Fatima (also the daughter of Muhammad, making the Imams direct descendants of both Muhammad and Ali), hence the name of the caliphate.

The Fatimid project depended upon taking land from the Abbasids, with whom the Fatimids were contemporaneous. By the 1160s, the Abbasid began to take back what had, since the 900s and the relative military decline of the Abbasids, been a very one-sided land-grab by the Fatimids. By 1171, the Fatimids would be totally conquered by Saladin of the Ayyubid dynasty of the Abbasid caliphate.

Muslim India

Ghaznavid Dynasty (977-1186)

The Ghazvanid dynasty, centered in Persia and descendant of the Turkic mamluks of the Abbasids, would come to rule modern day Afghanistan, large parts of modern day Iran, Turkmenistan, and Pakistan, as well as portions of northwestern modern day India by 1030. Under the rule of the dynasty's founder, Sabuktigin, ruling from 977 till his death in 997, the Ghaznavids would be subservient to the Samanid Empire of Persia (which had itself been subservient to the Abbasid empire until c. 900). In 997 the Ghaznavids would declare independence from the Samanid Empire, which would itself come to an end in 999

In 1011, the Ghaznavids would conquer the Ghurid dynasty operating in modern day Afghanistan. After peaking in 1030, the Ghaznavids would begin to lose control of their territories, however, and in 1186 the Ghurids, would turn the tables and conquer the Ghaznavids.

Muslim Ghurid Dynasty (1011-1215)

Upon being conquered by the Muslim Ghaznavids in 1011, the Iranian-descendant and Buddhhist Ghurid dynasty of Afghanistan converted to Sunni Islam. A few decades later, starting in 1163 under the rule of sultan Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad, the Ghurids would come to conquer the majority of Northern India (all the way to Bengal) and in 1186 would over throw the ruling Ghaznavids themselves. After reaching its zenith under the rule of sultan Ghiyath al-Din, however, Ghiyath al-Din's death in 1206 would lead to infighting between his potential Ghurid successors. This would weaken the state substantially, and by 1215, the Ghurids would come to be conquered by the Khwarazmian dynasty in Persia and Khorasan (modern day Afghanistan) and by the Mamluk Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate in India.

Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526)

The Delhi Sultanate, based in Delhi and comprised of five dynasties during its lifespan, was an Islamic empire that ruled over most of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as wall as some of southwestern Nepal.

The Delhi sultanate started out as a rogue principality in northern India ruled by the Turkic slave-generals who had first conquered the region for Ghurid Dynasty a few years before. Eventually, this principality would claim independence and accelerate the soon-to-come death of the Ghurid Dynasty. Following this independence, the Delhi Sultanate would formally be founded in 1206 (under the Mamluk Slave Dynasty), only to be replaced by the Khilji Dynasty in 1290, the Tughlaq Dynasty in 1320, the Sayyid Dynasty in 1414, and the Lodi Dynasty in 1451.

Under Khalji and Tughlaq rule, the Delhi Sultanate would expand through almost all of southern India, save a chunk of East of India and the southern coastline.This peak period in the 14th century was followed by gradual decline as Hindu reconquests increased and as competing Muslim sultanates broke off from the Delhi Sultanate. Finally, in 1526, the Delhi Sultanate was conquered by the Mughal empire.

Mughal Empire (1526-1857)

The Mughal empire (also known to refer to itself as Gurkani) is storied to have been founded by a warrior chieftan by the name of Babur in 1526 who employed the help of the Ottoman and Safavid empires to conquer what had, until then, been the Delhi Sultanate. Babur was a descendant of the Turco-Mongol Timur on the side of his father, and a descendant of Ghengis Khan on the side of his mother. Indeed, the very word "Mughal" is a bastardization of the word "Mongol".

Following brief instability, from 1556 to 1605, the Mughal empire was ruled by Akbar, who was responsible for conquering almost all of India and for modernizing the empire's adminstration. Akbar was even more famous for his tolerant domestic policy whereby, despite his Islamic faith, he did not prosecute or diminish non-Muslims nor especially pagan subjects such as the Hindus. Akbar was so fundamentally cosmopolitan, in fact, that he started his own religion by merging favorable elements of several religions, including Hinduism and Islam, to produce a syncretic religion which he dubbed Din-e-ilahi, or "Divine Faith", which epitomized tolerance and whose hallmark was the idea that no one religion could alone be true. Akbar would oversee the prime era of the Mughals.

Subsequently, from 1658 to 1707, the Mughal empire would be ruled by Akbar's great-grandson, Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb seized the throne from his brother (also the rightful heir), Dara Shikoh, in 1658 and had Dara executed in order to preserve his power (the practice of executing competing claimants to the throne was a relatively common practice throughout the history of Islamic empires, and found sanction in Islamic law, or Shariah)[2]. Aurangzeb likewise imprisoned his father, Shah Jahan, following Dara's execution. Aurangzeb was a strong supporter of Islamic orthodoxy, saw the Shariah implemented throughout the entirety of the Mughal empire, and undid much of the tolerant and syncretic reforms brought about by his great-grandfather, Akbar. This period in the empire's history also saw India's grow into the most productive economy in the world, and would see Aurangzeb conquer almost the entirety of South Asia.

By 1707, however, the Mughal empire would experience widespread and open revolt, likely brought about by his strict Islamic regime. After Aurangzeb's death in 1707, his son Bahadur Shah I would attempt to stifle the emerging chaos by dismantling the religious policies created by Aurangzeb and revitalizing the empire's administration. These efforts, however, would prove to be too late, and the Mughal empire would enter an irreversible phase of decline. In the year 1719 alone, the seat of the emperor would change hands no less than four times. Subsequent futile attempts at restoration and reform would be made by Shah Alam from 1759 to 1806, but from this point the Mughal empire would begin to lose substantial chunks of lands to neighboring competitors.

Starting in 1818, the British East India Company would take upon itself the protection of what remained of the Mughals in Delhi, and would increasingly gain authority over other parts of India as the Mughals declined until, in 1858, Great Britain took over the East India Company and established the British Raj.

Ottoman caliphate (1517-1924)

Prior to the establishment of the Ottoman caliphate in 1517, the Ottoman empire was founded in 1299 in northwestern Anatolia (roughly modern day Turkey) by Osman I. Prior to claiming caliphal authority in 1517, the Ottoman empire had already conquered Constantinople (under Mehmet the Conqueror) and had taken over the Balkans. During the period between 1299 and 1517, the Ottoman empire was ruled by a series of sultans who did not envision themselves as caliphs.

In 1517, sultan Selim I finally defeated the Mamluk Sultanate in Cairo, and the final Abbasid caliph, al-Mutawakkil III was famously imprisoned in Istanbul (once Constantinople). Once imprisoned, it is storied that al-Mutawakkil hand over to Selim I the title of caliph along with the sword and mantle of Muhammad, signifying the transition of the caliphate. Selim would go on to conquer Mecca (Muhammad's place of birth and the location of the Kaaba) and Medina, thereby claiming the title of "defender of the holy cities" and buttressing his authority as caliph.

The first political (rather than religious) usage of the title caliph, however, would not occur until 1774, when the Ottomans needed to counter the Russians, who announced that they needed to protect Orthodox Christians under the Ottoman empire, by making a similar claim about the Muslims living in Russia.[3][4]The British would tactfully affirm the Ottoman claim to the caliphate and proceed to have the Ottoman caliph issue orders to the Muslims living in British India to comply with their British rulers.[5] In 1899, the Ottomans would comply with a request from the U.S. government and leverage their religious authority as caliphs to order that Tausug Sultanate of Sulu (located in the Philippines) stop resisting and submit to U.S. sovereignty; the Tausug people would heed Sultan Abdul Hamid II's order, and surrender.[6][7]

The Ottoman caliphate was officially abolished on March 3rd, 1924.

Relevant quotations


Allah hath promised such of you as believe and do good work that He will surely make them to succeed [layastakhlifannahum, or "we will make them khalifahs"] (the present rulers) in the earth even as He caused those who were before them to succeed (others); and that He will surely establish for them their religion which He hath approved for them, and will give them in exchange safety after their fear. They serve Me. They ascribe no thing as partner unto Me. Those who disbelieve henceforth, they are the miscreants.
And when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lo! I am about to place a viceroy [khalifa] in the earth, they said: Wilt thou place therein one who will do harm therein and will shed blood, while we, we hymn Thy praise and sanctify Thee? He said: Surely I know that which ye know not.
Is not He (best) Who answereth the wronged one when he crieth unto Him and removeth the evil, and hath made you viceroys [khulafa, the plural of "khalifa"] of the earth? Is there any Allah beside Allah? Little do they reflect!
Lo! We did reveal the Torah, wherein is guidance and a light, by which the prophets who surrendered (unto Allah) judged the Jews, and the rabbis and the priests (judged) by such of Allah's Scripture as they were bidden to observe, and thereunto were they witnesses. So fear not mankind, but fear Me. And barter not My revelations for a little gain. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are disbelievers.


Narrated Abu Huraira: That heard Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) saying, "We are the last but will be the foremost to enter Paradise)." The Prophet added, "He who obeys me, obeys Allah, and he who disobeys me, disobeys Allah. He who obeys the chief, obeys me, and he who disobeys the chief, disobeys me. The Imam is like a shelter for whose safety the Muslims should fight and where they should seek protection. If the Imam orders people with righteousness and rules justly, then he will be rewarded for that, and if he does the opposite, he will be responsible for that."
It has been narrarted on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: People are subservient to the Quraish: the Muslims among them being subservient to the Muslims among them, and the disbelievers among the people being subservient to the disbelievers among them.
It has been narrated on the authority of Jabir b. 'Abdullah that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: People are the followers of Quraish in good as well as evil
Narrated Ibn `Umar: The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "Authority of ruling will remain with Quraish, even if only two of them remained."
It has been narrated on the authority of 'Abdullah that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: The Caliphate will remain among the Quraish even if only two persons are left (on the earth)
Narrated Muhammad bin Jubair bin Mut`im: That while he was with a delegation from Quraish to Muawiya, the latter heard the news that `Abdullah bin `Amr bin Al-`As said that there would be a king from the tribe of Qahtan. On that Muawiya became angry, got up and then praised Allah as He deserved, and said, "Now then, I have heard that some men amongst you narrate things which are neither in the Holy Book, nor have been told by Allah's Messenger (ﷺ). Those men are the ignorant amongst you. Beware of such hopes as make the people go astray, for I heard Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) saying, 'Authority of ruling will remain with Quraish, and whoever bears hostility to them, Allah will destroy him as long as they abide by the laws of the religion.' "
It has been reported on the authority of Jabir b. Samura who said: I went with my father to the Messenger of Allah (may peeace be upon him) and I heard him say: This religion would continue to remain powerful and dominant until there have been twelve Caliphs. Then he added something which I couldn't catch on account of the noise of the people. I asked my father: What did he say? My father said: He has said that all of them will be from the Quraish.
Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "The Hour will not be established until the son of Mary (i.e. Jesus) descends amongst you as a just ruler, he will break the cross, kill the pigs, and abolish the Jizya tax. Money will be in abundance so that nobody will accept it (as charitable gifts).
Narrated `Abdullah bin `Umar: Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "You (i.e. Muslims) will fight with the Jews until some of them will hide behind stones. The stones will (betray them) saying, 'O `Abdullah (i.e. slave of Allah)! There is a Jew hiding behind me; so kill him.'"
It has been narrated on the authority of Ibn 'Umar that the Prophet (May be upon him) said: Beware. every one of you is a shepherd and every one is answerable with regard to his flock. The Caliph is a shepherd over the people and shall be questioned about his subjects (as to how he conducted their affairs). A man is a guardian over the members of his family and shal be questioned about them (as to how he looked after their physical and moral well-being). A woman is a guardian over the household of her husband and his children and shall be questioned about them (as to how she managed the household and brought up the children). A slave is a guardian over the property of his master and shall be questioned about it (as to how he safeguarded his trust). Beware, every one of you is a guardian and every one of you shall be questioned with regard to his trust.
It has been narrated on the authority of Alqama b. Wai'l al-Hadrami who learnt the tradition from his father. The latter said: Salama b. Yazid al-ju'afi asked the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ): Prophet of Allah, what do you think if we have rulers who rule over us and demand that we discharge our obligations towards them, but they (themselves) do not discharge their own responsibilities towards us? What do you order us to do? The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) avoided giving any answer. Salama asked him again. He (again) avoided giving any answer. Then he asked again-it was the second time or the third time-when Ash'ath b. Qais (finding that the Prophet was unnecessarily being pressed for answer) pulled him aside and said: Listen to them and obey them, for on them shall he their burden and on you shall be your burden.
It has been narrated on the authority of 'Arfaja who said: I have heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) say: Different evils will make their appearance in the near future. Anyone who tries to disrupt the affairs of this Umma while they are united you should strike him with the sword whoever he be. (If remonstrance does not prevail with him and he does not desist from his disruptive activities, he is to be killed.)
It has been narrated on the authority of Aba Sa'id al-Khudri that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: When oath of allegiance has been taken for two caliphs, kill the one for whom the oath was taken later.
It has been narrated on the authority of Umm Salama that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: In the near future there will be Amirs and you will like their good deeds and dislike their bad deeds. One who sees through their bad deeds (and tries to prevent their repetition by his band or through his speech), is absolved from blame, but one who hates their bad deeds (in the heart of his heart, being unable to prevent their recurrence by his hand or his tongue), is (also) fate (so far as God's wrath is concerned). But one who approves of their bad deeds and imitates them is spiritually ruined. People asked (the Holy Prophet): Shouldn't we fight against them? He replied: No, as long as they say their prayers.
It has been narrated on the authority of Ibn 'Abbas that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said on the day of the Conquest of Mecca: There is no Hijra now, but (only) Jihad (fighting for the cause of Islam) and sincerity of purpose (have great reward) ; when you are asked to set out (on an expedition undertaken for the cause of Islam) you should (readily) do so.

See Also


  1. The Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs of Islam - Sunni Essentials, accessed October 2, 2010
  2. Sahih Muslim 20:4568 "It has been narrated on the authority of Aba Sa'id al-Khudri that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: When oath of allegiance has been taken for two caliphs, kill the one for whom the oath was taken later."
  3. Barthold
  4. Finkel, Caroline (2005). Osman's Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923. New York: Basic Books. p. 111. ISBN 978-0-465-02396-7.
  5. Qureshi, M. Naeem (1999). Pan-Islam in British Indian Politics: A Study of the Khilafat Movement, 1918–1924. BRILL. pp. 18–19. ISBN 978-90-04-11371-8.
  6. Karpat, Kemal H. (2001). The Politicization of Islam: Reconstructing Identity, State, Faith, and Community in the Late Ottoman State. Oxford University Press. p. 235. ISBN 978-0-19-513618-0.
  7. Yegar, Moshe (1 January 2002). Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar. Lexington Books. p. 397. ISBN 978-0-7391-0356-2.