views updated May 23 2018


CALIPHATE . The office of "successor" to the prophet Muammad as the leader of the Muslim community is a uniquely Islamic institution. Hence the anglicization caliphate is preferable to inadequate translations of the term khilāfah. (This article will not address the concept of khilāfah in Islamic mysticism.)

Upon Muammad's death in ah 11/632 ce there was in existence a self-governing, powerful Islamic community, or ummah. It had been shaped by the Prophet in conformity with the revelations he had received, and by the end of his life, his temporal as well as his spiritual authority was unassailable: he was the governor of the ummah, an arbitrator of disputes within it, the commander of its military forces, and its principal strategist. He had deputized others as his representatives to distant tribes and regions. The term khilāfah in the pre-Islamic sense of "deputy" was apparently used in reference to these assignees.

To the ummah the Prophet's death was a shocking, even inconceivable event. The Muslims were suddenly bereft of divine guidance, the source of Muammad's charismatic authority. Yet they were sufficiently imbued with the Islamic vision to persevere in efforts to shape the ideal society embodied in that moral imperative.

But who was to lead this society? What was to be his authority? The caliphate, the expression of the temporal leadership of all Muslims conceived as a single community, was the institutional answer. It had emerged ad hoc, however, in response to a crisis. Evolving practice framed theoretical constructions, especially in the absence of any agreed Qurʾānic foundation. Hence the conduct of those holding the office, the caliphs, elicited sharp and continuing controversy over not only individual moral qualitites but also the character of the institution itself.

The forces at work in this controversy may be divided for the purposes of analysis into Islamic theories of the caliphate and historical influences on the institution.

Classical Theories of the Caliphate

The majoritarian, Sunnī view of the origins of the caliphate is that Muammad left no instructions for the future leadership of the ummah. Yet on his death the community desperately required an acknowledged leader, since all the latent rivalries that the prophetic message had overwhelmed reemerged in tribal factionalism. The innermost core of the Muslims responded by acclaiming as their leader one of the earliest of their number and certainly among the most prestigious, Abū Bakr (r. 632634). Whether he was actually proclaimed khalīfāt rasūl Allāh ("caliph of the messenger of God") is unclear, but all Sunnīs regard him as the first caliph. His role was to lead the ummah in peace and in war as the Prophet had done, and to lead the ritual prayers and conduct the pilgrimage, both of which duties he had previously performed on Muammad's behalf. Absent from this formulation was the prophetic role that had clothed Muammad's acts with nigh impeccable authority. Theoretically, a divinely guided community of Muslims selected the early Sunnī caliphs, while its act of acclamation, the bayʿah, constituted an elective ideal that deprecated all subsequent dynasticism.

Evolved Sunnī theory required that a caliph be an adult male from the Quraysh, the leading tribe of Mecca. Soundness of mind and body, knowledge of the religion, piety, and probity are frequently listed among Sunnī criteria. Caliphal preogatives were to lead the prayer, to be recognized in the Friday sermon as the leader of all Muslims, to coin money, to command the army, and to receive on behalf of the ummah a fifth of all booty. Later, the Abbasid caliphs (7501258) arrogated to themselves the right to wear the presumed mantle of the Prophet, a sacred relic in their possession.

Sunnis generally describe the caliph's duties as follows: to defend the domain of Islam and to extend it if possible, to uphold the sharīʿah, the prescribed conduct for a Muslim, to ensure law and order so that Muslims might observe the sharīʿah in peace and security, to collect canonical taxes, and generally to administer the ummah in consultation with selected counselors.

The Shīʾī conception of the caliphate differs from the Sunni in the manner of origination and the consequences flowing therefrom. Out of certain verses of the Qurʾān and from selected adīth (reports of the Prophet's words or deeds), the Shīʿah adduce that Muammad had indeed chosen a successor: his first cousin, son-in-law, and early convert, ʿAlī ibn Abī alib. According to the Shīʿah, a conspiracy among the companions of the Prophet denied ʿAlī his rightful position, plunging the community into error the instant Muammad died. That the prophet had himself selected ʿAlī establishes to Shīʾī satisfaction a leadership of far greater charismatic authority than the Sunnī version, a leadership that for most of the Shīʾī grew to incorporate impeccability and infallible interpretation of scripture.

ʿAlī did become the fourth caliph, the last of the so-called Rāshidūn or "rightly guided" caliphs, but his designation by the assassins of his predecessor, ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān (644656) of the clan of Umayyah, precipitated a civil war that rent forever the fabric of the community. When ʿAlī was killed in 661, the caliphate passed to the Umayyads (661750). The Shīʿah would thereafter cleave to the view that only the ʿAlids, ʿAlī's progeny, could claim the caliphate; their claim alone was divinely sanctioned. Yet the inability of the Shīʿah never to agree on a particular candidate among ʿAlī's descendants condemned their movement to martyrdom, factionalism, and futility.

The conflict between ʿAlī and the Umayyads spawned a third interpretation of the caliphate, that of the Khārijīs. In the view of these numerically few but very active dissidents, hostile to both parties following the civil war, the caliph was liable for deposition should he deviate an iota from Muammad's practice. The Kharijis thus depreciated the office to no better than a tribal chieftainship. Arab nomadic groups were, in fact, the milieu from which they drew their support.

Historical Influences on the Caliphate

The evolution of the caliphate reflects in microcosm the forces molding Islamic civilization. Foremost of these was the Islamic moral imperative, expressed in the Qurʾān and the sunnah, or custom, of the Prophet. However visionary and inspirational these Islamic teachings were, they offered little specific guidance on the shape of Islamic leadership, principally the prophetic model and a framework of moral principles. But various non-Islamic influences heavily warped these Islamic precepts.

In the first Islamic century Arab tribalism was a continuing challenge to the developing caliphate. Inherited and/or acquired prestige, directly linked to lineage, constituted the basis of Arab leadership concepts. Traditionally power was closely associated with the numerical strength and past reputation of the lineage. Early Muslim caliphs lacked such esteem; only ʿUthmān had both tribal and Islamic prestige. His well-intentioned effort to use tribalism as well as Islamic prestige to enhance the caliph's authority was a major cause of his downfall. Mutual hostilities among the tribes plagued the early Muslim community: the Umayyads were constrained to form tribal marriage alliances to solidify their authority, but rising criticism of their reliance on Arab social custom was a crucial element in the dynasty's overthrow.

The later Umayyads and the early Abbasid dynasty were deeply affected by the tradition of imperial authority in the lands they had conquered. Its advocates, usually newly converted scribes, envisaged a rigidly hierarchical society of privileged rulers and taxpaying ruled, with the caliph as supreme arbiter in all matters. The Abbasid caliphs, therefore, withdrew within a royal city, appeared in public only on ceremonial occasions, ruled despotically and pursued a lifestyle greatly at variance with the Islamic values expressed in the Qurʾān and sunnah.

The Abbasids never exclusively adopted their imperial tradition inherited largely from the Sasanid Persians. They were acutely conscious of having acquired power by criticizing the alleged impiety of the Umayyads, so they patronized the ʿulamāʾ (religious scholars) as well as poets, musicians, and wine merchants. Even the Islamic aspects of the caliphate, however, succumbed to imperial majesty. Assuming charismatic throne-names, the Abbasids, following the later Umayyads, asserted that their authority derived directly from God, not from Muammad and certainly not from the ummah. If most of the pious shunned their patronage, still it was during the early Abbasid caliphate that Islamic civilization attained its full grandeur.

By the middle of the tenth century, however, the caliph was a virtual prisoner in his palace, his authority and his majesty evaporated. Between 945 and 1055 the Buyids, tribesmen from Iran professing Shiism, ruled the caliphal capital of Baghdad yet retained the Sunnī caliphate, perhaps recognizing that a pliant puppet symbolizing the unity of Islam was politically more useful to them than a Shīʿī caliph demanding at least their respect. Furthermore, the Buyids refused to recognize the Shīʿī Fatimid caliphate that had emerged in North Africa in 909 and was preparing to advance eastward to establish itself in Cairo (969) with the hegemony of the Muslim world as its manifest goal. As an extremist Shīʿī dynasty, the Fatimids were a menace to both Sunnī and moderate Shīʿī Muslims.

Such a threatening Shīʿī presence in North Africa evoked a response from the remnant of the Umayyad dynasty in Spain (7551031). Heretofore content with lesser titles despite nonrecognition of their Abbasid successors, the Spanish Umayyads now claimed the caliphate in 929 as a rallying point for nearby Sunnīs. The simultaneous existence of two Sunnī caliphs presented a challenge to those religious scholars bent on accommodating their political theory to the actual historical process. Abū Manūr ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī (d. 1027), for example, argued that if an ocean should separate the ummah into two distant parts, a second caliph was unfortunately justifiable. This view was firmly rejected, however, by the jurist Abū al-asan al-Māwardī (d. 1058), who would condone no attenuation of the caliphal prerogatives.

Rescue, if it can be so characterized, came in the form of the Seljuk Turks, tribesmen from Central Asia who styled themselves champions of Sunnism while continuing to dominate the caliph. In the eleventh century they reversed the tide of political Shiism, yet in their train came a new influence damaging to the concept of the caliphate: visions of world domination nurtured among pastoralists of the broad Asian steppes. Incipient with the Seljuks, the view reached full force among the pagan Mongols, who would suffer no rival, however moribund, to a Mongol khanate destined to rule the earth. Their assault on Baghdad in 1258 extinguished the classical caliphate.

Although they soon became Muslim, those Mongols who ruled in Islamic lands and the Turco-Mongol dynasties that succeeded them gave little heed to the caliphate. They claimed to rule by divine right and garnished their own tradition with the Persian concepts of a functionally hierarchical society. Islamic scholarship adjusted, however reluctantly, to this new reality: henceforth the ʿulamāʾ, claiming to be the guardians of the sharīʿah, conferred the title of khalīfat Allāh ("deputy of God") upon any ruler who upheld that body of sacred law and ruled righteously. The once-exalted title became one of many with which Muslim rulers of succeeding centuries adorned their chancery documents.

The Mamluk sultans of Egypt, however, adopted an alleged scion of the Abbasid house as legitimator of their oligarchic rule, seemingly a residual authority during the tension-laden interlude between the death of one ruler and the consolidation of his successor. Until 1500, Indian kings used to seek investiture documents from this "shadow caliph" to bolster their tenuous legitimacy. The Ottoman conqueror of Egypt, Yavuz Sultan Selim, then took this putative Abbasid caliph to Istanbul in 1517, an event subsequently exploited by Ottoman sultans of the nineteenth century to substantiate their own caliphal claims.

By the late nineteenth century the force of European imperialism had sparked a revival of the caliphate in a new form that engendered as much controversy among Muslims as had the classical version. The Ottoman sultan, ruling a sprawling empire threatened by European powers, sought to elevate his prestige and retain a link to his lost Muslim subjects by recasting the caliphate into a spiritual office. This device appealed to Muslims under colonial rule, such as in India, tsarist Russia, the Malay Peninsula, and the Indonesian archipelago. Even in British-occupied Egypt it elicited a favorable response. But within the Ottoman empire, non-Muslim nationalists struggling for independence regarded the revived concept of the caliphate as an instrument to marshal Muslim support for their suppression. By the eve of the First World War this view was shared even by some Muslim Arabs who decried the Ottoman caliphate was a sham lacking the slightest trace of a Quraysh pedigree. Both Islamic reformers and Muslim nationalists reviled the Ottoman sultan/caliph and, citing classical scholars to support their contention, characterized the Rāshidūn as the only true caliphs.

In retrospect, it is not surprising that the most secular of the nationalist movements in Muslim countries, the Turkish, should have abolished the Ottoman caliphate in 1924; at the time it came as a shock to the entire Muslim world. The Indian Khilafat Conference (19191933), advocating self-rule for Indian Muslims because they owed spiritual allegiance to the caliph, found its cause hopelessly undercut. Muslims elsewhere demanding independence from colonialism had to revise their strategy once they overcame their disappointment.

In the newly independent Arab world a contest for the caliphate emerged, but the effort to revive the "true" caliphate was short-lived. Three conferences over a brief span (19261931) broke up in disarray. It was soon apparent that new nation-states opposed the restoration of such a vaguely defined but potentially influential institution unless their own governments could control it.

The quickened religious pulse in the Islamic world today has evoked no noticeable inclination to revive the concept of the caliphate. It would seem that however much Muslims may desire a greater sense of unity, any expression of such sentiment is unlikely to assume the caliphal form.

See Also

Imamate; Modernism, article on Islamic Modernism; Ummah.


Historical Surveys

In addition to Dominique Sourdel's comprehensive article "Khalīfa" (and its references) in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden, 1960), the only full treatment of the concept of the caliphate and its role in Islamic history is the book by Thomas W. Arnold, The Caliphate, the second edition of which, with an additional chapter by Sylvia G. Haim, is to be preferred (Oxford, 1965). Its heavy emphasis on classical Sunnī texts may be leavened by the insights and balance of Marshall G. S. Hodgson throughout the three volumes of his The Venture of Islam (Chicago, 1974). Al-Mawardi's exposition of the Sunnī caliphate is ably assessed by H. A. R. Gibb in an article, "Al-Māwardī's Theory of the Caliphate," in his Studies on the Civilization of Islam, edited by Stanford J. Shaw and William R. Polk (Boston, 1962). The chapter "Caliphate and Sultanate," in the pioneering Islamic Society and the West, vol. 1, part 1, by Gibb with Harold Bowen (Oxford, 1950), unduly reflects the views of Sunnī theoreticians of the caliphate.

Interpretive Works

Most valuable for its able exposition of the early caliphate against the background of Arab culture is H. M. T. Nagel's article, "Some Considerations concerning the Pre-Islamic and the Islamic Foundations of the Authority of the Caliphate," in Studies on the First Century of Islamic Society, edited by G. H. A. Juynboll (Carbondale, Ill., 1982), pp. 177197.

The growth of Persian influences on Islamic ruling institutions is best found in the two-part article by Ann K. S. Lambton, "Quis custodiet custodes? Some Reflections on the Persian Theory of Government," Studia Islamica 5 (1956): 125148; 6 (1956): 125146. She continues her analysis into the Turko-Iranian period, but her work should be supplemented by Osman Turan's article "The Ideal of World Domination among the Medieval Turks," Studia Islamica 4 (1955): 7790. The chapter "The Mongols, the Turks and the Muslim Polity" in Bernard Lewis's Islam in History: Ideas, Men and Events in the Middle East (London, 1973) puts Turan's thesis in a broader perspective.

Intellectual aspects of the recent phase of the history of the caliphate are perhaps best dealt with in Albert Hourani's Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 17891939, 2d ed. (Cambridge, 1983). The Turkish perspective is outlined in the analytical chapters of Bernard Lewis's The Emergence of Modern Turkey, 2d ed. (Oxford, 1968), while the abolition of the caliphate and the reaction to it in the Arab world is covered in detail in Arnold Toynbee's "The Islamic World since the Peace Settlement," in the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Survey of International Affairs, 1925, vol. 1 (Oxford, 1927).

Herbert L. Bodman, Jr. (1987)


views updated May 17 2018


In classical and medieval Islamic history and juristic theory, the Arabic term khilafa, of which "caliphate" is the anglicized form, denotes the political headship of the Muslim community. The term khalifa—which is used in the Qur˒an with reference to Adam (2:30) and David (38:26), besides seven other occurrences in the plural—is understood in Sunni juristic theory as the successor of the prophet Muhammad. The position of the caliph is the most central of all political institutions in the history of classical Islam, and issues pertaining to the legitimacy of those occupying this office, the scope of its powers, and the theoretical and practical accommodations forced upon it during the course of its long career are central to the political and religious history of Islam.

History of the Institution

Sunni Muslims believe that Muhammad did not appoint anyone to succeed him on his death. According to this view, which has also been generally adopted by modern scholars of early Islamic history, a number of the companions of Muhammad congregated in Medina immediately after his death to deliberate on the question of his succession. At this meeting, Abu Bakr, a member of Muhammad's tribe of Quraysh and one of the most influential of his companions, was elected as the first caliph. The succession was soon recognized by the other companions, including ˓Ali, the initially recalcitrant cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, who was later to become the focus of the legitimist claims of the Shi˓a. The latter's view of Muhammad's succession is squarely at odds with that of the Sunnis. To them, Muhammad had, in fact, designated a successor in the person of ˓Ali, and most of the companions of the Prophet were culpable for subverting this explicit testament, as indeed were the successors of the firstgeneration Muslims for their continued denial of the claims of ˓Ali's descendants, the imams, to the political and religious headship of Islam.

As the rival Shi˓ite and Sunni perspectives on early Islam—and especially on the locus of legitimate authority after Muhammad—suggest, there are competing, often irreconcilable, narratives that comprise the history and historiography of the early caliphate. In the form that these and other narratives have come down to the present day, they are also relatively late (with the earliest extant sources on the caliphate dating from the 9th century), and their content and structure often reveal considerable instability in how they were transmitted or variously rearranged by different hands before, and even after, being committed to writing. Early Islamic historiography may provide rich clues to the controversies on questions of religious and political authority during the first centuries of Islam, but it does not serve well as a reliable guide to the history of the caliphate. Yet, if sources do not lend themselves to a detailed reconstruction of the careers of individual caliphs during Islam's first two centuries or more, modern scholars generally agree that even the tendentiousness of the extant accounts does allow an overview of the caliphate's history along something like the following lines.

The caliphate of Abu Bakr (632–634), which signified the continuation of the polity that Muhammad had founded in Medina, was challenged by a number of tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. They had acknowledged Muhammad's authority by embracing Islam and sending tribute to Medina, but several of them now refused to continue their tributary status, and some renounced allegiance to the new faith as well. Abu Bakr's first challenge was to subdue these rebellious tribes to secure the future of the nascent caliphate. The armies he sent against them did not stop at reasserting Medina's authority, however, but embarked on an extraordinarily daring path of conquests outside the Arabian Peninsula. Muhammad had already led campaigns in the Syrian desert, and Muslim armies now began operations simultaneously in the Byzantine territories of Syria and Palestine and in the Sassanian territories. The degree to which the conquest of the Byzantine and Sassanian territories was the result of careful planning or coordination from Medina is uncertain; yet by the time Abu Bakr died (634), two years after the death of Muhammad, the early Islamic state was already on its way to becoming a major world empire.

The beginnings of the administrative organization of the caliphate are credited to Abu Bakr's immediate successor, ˓Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634–644). He created a military register (diwan) for the payment of the troops and for the disbursement of pensions to other members of the Muslim community. It was in his reign that the first garrison towns were established in the conquered lands, a system of taxation was put in place, and efforts were made to minimize the social and economic disruptions inherent in this rapid conquest. Yet it was not just the conquered people but also the new conquerors who had to cope with the changes set in motion by the expansion of the Medinan state. Entire tribes came to settle in the newly acquired territories, and, quite apart from such rivalries as they may have brought with them from their earlier environs, new grievances and conflicts were provoked by the competing claims of those who had converted to Islam early or late (which determined the share of one's stipends), by the unfamiliar demands of the nascent state on its subjects, and by the conduct and policies of the caliph or his agents.

Such resentments came to the surface in the reign of ˓Uthman ibn ˓Affan (r. 644–656), the third successor of Muhammad, who was eventually murdered in Medina by disaffected Arab tribesmen from the garrisons of Kufa, Basra, and Egypt. The murder of ˓Uthman inaugurated the series of bitter conflicts within the Muslim community that are collectively known as the fitna—a highly evocative term suggesting a time of temptation and trial, dissension, and chaos. This civil war, Islam's first, was to continue throughout the reign of ˓Uthman's successor, ˓Ali ibn Abi Talib (r. 656–661), and it ended only with the latter's assassination and the rise of the Umayyad dynasty (r. 661–750). The events of these years were debated by Muslims for centuries: It is to these events that later Muslims looked in explaining and arguing over their sectarian divisions, some of which were to prove permanent. Even in later centuries, it was never easy to explain how the first community of believers, formed by the Prophet's own guidance, had fallen into such turmoil so soon after his death.

The Umayyads. Like their predecessors, the Umayyads too were members of the Quraysh tribe. Unlike their predecessors, all four of whom came, after much controversy, to be set apart from subsequent rulers and to be revered by Sunni Muslims as the Rashidun, the "rightly guided" caliphs, the rise of the Umayyads marked the establishment of a caliphal dynasty. Mu˓awiya (r. 661–680), the founder of this dynasty, based his rule on careful cultivation and manipulation of ties with tribal notables (ashraf), and it was through such ties that he was able not just to govern but also to have his son, Yazid I (r. 680–683), recognized as his heir. This system of rule through tribal intermediaries was short-lived, however. On Mu˓awiya's death, several disparate revolts—often characterized as the second civil war—erupted in different parts of the empire. Among these was the revolt of Husayn, the son of ˓Ali and the grandson of the Prophet, who was killed in Iraq in 680 along with a small band of his followers. Though hardly momentous at the time it occurred, this event was to acquire profound importance in the history of Shi˓ite Islam as the symbolic focus of Shi˓ite piety and religious identity. At the time, however, far more serious threats to the Umayyads were represented by the revolt of ˓Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr in the Hijaz, in Arabia, and by factional warfare between Arab tribes in Syria and Mesopotamia. In 684, with the civil war still in progress, Marwan ibn al-Hakam (r. 684–685) was elected caliph in Syria, marking the transfer of ruling authority from Mu˓awiya's descendants, the Sufyanid clan (of which ˓Uthman had been a member), to another clan of the Umayyad family. This clan, the Marwanids, was to rule as caliphs until the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty in 750.

The Marwanids governed their empire through powerful generals appointed from the capital, Damascus, and through increasingly elaborate administrative departments (diwans). Late antique administrative structures and traditions continued under the Umayyads even as they underwent sometimes rapid changes that expressed the evolving Arab and Islamic identity of the new empire. Around the turn of the eighth century, the language of the administration was itself changed from ancient Persian and Greek to Arabic and a new system of coinage, clearly asserting the Islamic identity of the new rulers, was instituted. This identity was expressed even more strikingly in monumental architecture, of which the two most famous extant examples are the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built during the reign of the caliph ˓Abd al-Malik (r. 685–705), and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, built under his successor al-Walid I (r. 705–715).

Though the Umayyads are often portrayed as worldly "kings" in Arabic historiography (an unfavorable image that owes much to the fact that early Islamic historiography is largely the work of those who were unfavorably disposed toward this dynasty), it was under their rule that Islamic religious, cultural, and political institutions began to take their distinctive shape. The caliphs, though far removed from the austere lifestyle of the Rashidun, were hardly the ungodly rulers that medieval Arab chroniclers and many modern scholars have often represented them to be. As Crone and Hinds have shown, their coins, their official pronouncements, and their panegyrists often characterized them as the "deputies of God," a formulation frowned on by the religious scholars but one that suggests something of the scope and seriousness of Umayyad religious claims. The caliphs are known to have given decisions on matters involving Islamic law and ritual, and some of them are featured as authorities in early collections of hadith. Above all, the existence of a powerful centralized political authority provided the crucial context in which the early development of Islam and of Muslim communal and cultural identity took place.

Yet the growing community of Muslims also posed serious challenges to the Umayyads. Since the conquest of the Middle East, the economic well-being of the state was based on the principle that the non-Muslims paid the bulk of the taxes on the land, while the Muslims were responsible for only the religiously obligated taxes on their wealth. In theory, anyone who joined the ranks of the Muslims was entitled to the same concessions; in practice, a large influx of previously taxed non-Arabs threatened the revenues of the empire, with the result that the new Muslims (the mawali or "clients") often continued to be taxed as if they had not converted to Islam. The Umayyads never satisfactorily resolved the problem of how to integrate the new non-Arab Muslims into the Muslim community, and they thereby created considerable resentment against their dynasty. This was compounded by the grievances of those Arabs who had given up their military careers and settled down in the conquered lands, but felt discriminated against or unfairly treated by the military generals and their (sometimes non-Muslim) tax-collecting agents. There was, moreover, increasingly destructive tribal factionalism within the Umayyad army that severely weakened the caliphate both through faction-based military revolts and the systematic persecution of members of a faction each time a rival came to power.

Shi˓ite groups led a number of revolts against the Umayyads, as did the Kharijites, erstwhile followers of ˓Ali who had separated from him when he agreed to negotiate with what the Kharijites regarded as Mu˓awiya's iniquitous party. The revolt that brought the Umayyad dynasty to an end in 750 also began as a Shi˓ite movement that called, as had many others before it, for returning the rule back to the rightful descendants of the Prophet and for rule according to the "book of God and the sunna of His Prophet." It was not, however, the descendants of ˓Ali but those of al-˓Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet, that came to power with what is often characterized by modern scholars as the "Abbasid revolution."

The Abbasids. The new center of the empire was Iraq rather than Syria, and bureaucrats of Iranian origin were prominent in the Abbasid caliphate (750–1258) from its inception. The new empire was, like its predecessor, also an "Arab kingdom," and indeed there were important continuities between the Umayyad and the early Abbasid caliphates. Yet, the latter was much more inclusive in terms of the ethnic origins of its soldiers and bureaucrats and much more successful in assimilating its non-Arab subjects into the Islamic empire. Its ideological emphases were also different from its predecessor's. Unlike the Umayyads but like the ˓Alids, the Abbasids emphasized from the outset their kinship with the Prophet as the justification for their claims to the caliphate. This was to remain a major basis of their legitimist claims, though it was scarcely the only one. The early Abbasid caliphs also tried to invoke, especially in their regnal titles, the messianic expectations rife at the time; they sought, as had the Umayyads in their own ways, to bolster their authority with appeals to pre-Islamic royal traditions and symbolism, and they presided over elaborate circles of patronage that involved a broad spectrum of the cultural and religious elite of the time. Baghdad, founded by al-Mansur (r. 754–775) as his new capital, had evocative imperial symbolism inscribed in its very design, but it soon also became the center of culture and learning, and of interaction not only between various Muslim groups and emerging schools and sects but also between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The first century of Abbasid rule was a time of extraordinary cultural and religious efflorescence, not just in Baghdad but also in the major provincial towns. It was during this time that the eponymous founders of the major schools of Sunni and Shi˓ite law flourished. The systematic collection of the traditions of the Prophet, the hadith, began to take place during this time; some of the first extant works of hadith date to this period, as does the earliest major biography of the Prophet, the Sira of Ibn Ishaq (d. 767). Under royal patronage, systematic efforts were made to translate ancient philosophical and scientific works into Arabic, and this was the age that saw formative developments in Islamic theology, notably the rise of the rationalist Mu˓tazila, as well as the beginnings of what later emerged as Sunni and Shi˓ite Islam.

But this formative age was also a time of considerable political turmoil. A number of Shi˓ite revolts, of which the most serious took place in Medina and Basra in 762, threatened Abbasid rule. The existence of the descendants of ˓Ali, the Shi˓ite imams, and their followers in the midst of the community continued to challenge Abbasid legitimacy. Khurasan, where the Abbasid revolt had originated, saw many uprisings against the caliphal state in the early decades after the revolution. The empire was also shaken by a destructive civil war between two sons of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809), eventuating in the murder of the incumbent caliph, al-Amin (r. 809–813), and the succession of his brother and the governor of Khurasan, al-Ma˒mun (r. 813–833). This murder, and the widespread uncertainty and disorder that accompanied and followed the civil war, considerably weakened the Abbasid state, necessitating extensive effort on the part of the caliph to reassert his authority. This effort took some unusual forms.

Unlike his Abbasid predecessors, al-Ma˒mun made strong claims to religious authority, namely to an ability to lay down at least some of what his subjects must believe. Toward the end of his reign, he instituted the mihna, an inquisition to enforce conformity to the theological doctrine that the Qur˒an ought to be regarded as the "created" word of God. Irrespective of the provenance of this idea or its theological merit, it allowed the caliph to assert his own authority as the arbiter of the community's religious life. The inquisition was apparently intended not only to extend the scope of caliphal authority but also to humble many of those scholars of hadith and law whose growing influence in society the caliph resented and who consequently were among the principle victims of the mihna. But al-Ma˒mun died shortly after the inquisition began, and though it continued in effect under two of his immediate successors, it did more, in the long run, to define the "uncreatedness" of the Qur˒an as a Sunni creed and to solidify the ranks of the early Sunni scholars than it did to enhance the caliph's religious authority. Later caliphs were usually happier to align themselves with the Sunni religious scholars in asserting their own roles in the community's religious life than they were in confronting or challenging them.

Toward the end of the first century of Abbasid rule, the caliph was still in control of large parts of his realm, but his empire was not as extensive as it had been at the beginning of the dynasty, and it was rapidly shrinking. Some of the provinces were already becoming independent in all but name, and at the heart of the empire, the caliph had to cope with the increasing power of a new military force, Turkish "slave soldiers" drawn from the lands of the Central Asian steppe, a force that in later decades contributed substantially to the political and economic weakness of the Abbasid state. This pattern of a shrinking state and the caliph's increasing dependence on military generals was to continue for much of subsequent Abbasid history. From the middle of the tenth century, the caliphs came under the sway of ruling families that controlled the Abbasid realm, and often the person of the caliph himself, in all but name. The Buyids, a family of Shi˓ite military adventurers from Iran, ruled what was left of the Abbasid caliphate from the middle of the tenth to the middle of the eleventh century. They were supplanted by the staunchly Sunni Turkish Seljuks, who then oversaw the Abbasid caliphs until toward the end of the twelfth century. Even as the caliphate declined in effective political power, and for all the humiliations that individual caliphs were meted out at the hands of the warlords, the symbolic significance of the caliphal institution grew during these centuries. The Shi˓ite Buyids not only maintained the caliphate but sought also to legitimize their own rule by seeking formal recognition from the caliphs. The Seljuk sultans and their wazirs were often far more powerful than the caliph or his officials, but they too continued to be formally subservient to the caliph.

Not all caliphs during this period were equally helpless, however. At times of political transition, when the warlords were weak, and depending on the personal abilities and initiative of individual caliphs, the latter could exercise a prominent role in the political and religious life of the realm. Notable among such caliphs were al-Qadir (r. 991–1031) and al-Qa˒im (r. 1031–1075) in the Buyid period, and al-Nasir (r. 1180–1225), who reigned at a time when the Seljuk power had waned and who utilized his ties with Sufi and chivalric (futuwwa) groups, which he reorganized with himself at their head, to reassert his authority during a remarkably ambitious reign. But such revivals were sporadic and they did not do very much to seriously stem the effects of the long decline the caliphate had already undergone. In the middle of the thirteenth century, the caliphate of Baghdad was terminated altogether at the hands of the Mongols, whose ravages included the destruction of large parts of the eastern Islamic world. The caliphate was revived—and the Mongol tide finally stemmed—by the Mamluks of Syria and Egypt, but the Abbasid caliphs of the Mamluk era never had the prestige or the symbolic capital possessed by many of their predecessors in Baghdad. The Mamluk era and, with it, the shadow Abbasid caliphate ended with the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517.

Ideological Challenges to the Caliphate

From the time of its inception, the caliphate faced challenges of varying degrees of gravity to its existence. Many of these challenges were political. Civil wars resulted in some of the major shifts in the caliphal office: the end of the Rashidun era and the emergence of the Umayyads; the transfer of the caliphate from the Sufyanids to the Marwanids; the Abbasid revolution; and the war between al-Amin and al-Ma˒mun. There was secession of territories that had once been part of the caliphate, internal rebellions and warfare with external foes, and, eventually, the loss of effective caliphal control of the heartland of the empire itself and, indeed, even of the caliphs's own freedom of action. Some of the challenges to the caliphate were also ideological, in that they denied the legitimacy of those who occupied this office or contested the basic assumptions on which the Sunni institution of the caliphate was predicated. The Kharijites, for all the antagonism within their ranks, denied the legitimacy not only of ˓Uthman's later years but also that of most of his successors. Their position that a ruler who was guilty of a grave sin ought to be deposed brought them into frequent and bloody conflict with the government. Indeed all but the most moderate of the Kharijites were eventually eliminated, but not before they had forcefully raised the question of what constituted a legitimate ruler, under what circumstances must an unjust and sinful ruler be deposed, and what were the terms of membership in the community of Muslims. As Crone has shown, some of the Kharijites as well as certain Mu tazili theologians were not convinced that the position of a caliph was necessary at all, though this view did not attract much support from the Muslim community.

If the history of the caliphate is viewed from the perspective of the majoritarian Sunnis rather than from that of the Shi˒a, then the latter must be seen as representing a more durable challenge to the legitimacy of the caliphate than had even the Kharijites. Divided into many different sects, the Shi˓a agreed that the headship of the Muslim community belonged properly to a member of the "people of the house" (ahl al-bayt). What this phrase connoted was a matter of some uncertainty in early Islam, though the term came to be generally understood to refer to the family of the Prophet. As such the Abbasids, too, could and did claim to be the ahl albayt, and indeed their revolutionary propaganda had demanded the installation as caliph of the "acceptable one (alrida) from the family of Muhammad." The descendants of ˓Ali, however, denied that any but their own number was properly entitled to the caliphate, though there were sharp disagreements among them on the precise qualifications of the person who was to be the political-religious head of the community—the imam. Since the time of their sixth imam, Ja far˓al-Sadiq (d. 765), the Imami Shi˓a had found it prudent to hold largely quietist political views: The imam did not have to show his entitlement to this position by actually taking up arms against the iniquitous order, as certain other Shi˓ias thought he must. This meant that, despite tensions, the Imamis could continue to live in peace under the caliphs. But the Isma˓ili Shi˓a, differing with the Imamis on the identity of those of Ja˓far's descendants who were to be recognized as imams, thought and acted differently. A state established by the Qarmati Isma˓ilis in northeastern Arabia gave much grief to the Abbasids during the tenth century. In the early tenth century, a stronger and more ambitious Isma˓ili state, the caliphate of the Fatimids, was established in Ifriqiyya (modernday Tunisia) from where it moved, in 969, to Egypt.

The Fatimids saw themselves as Isma ili imams as well as caliphs, demanding absolute authority over their followers and challenging, with considerable might and a splendor to match, the legitimist claims of all other rival states and rulers. The pressure of these claims was felt widely, and not just by the Abbasids. Thus it was in response to them, and not primarily as an affront to the Abbasids, that the Umayyads who had been ruling Spain ever since the fall of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus, began to also style themselves as caliphs in the tenth century. The Abbasids, however, outlived both of these claimants to the caliphate. And while the Fatimid caliphate was in existence, the Shi˓ite Buyids of Iraq were happier to pay nominal allegiance to the Sunni Abbasids than they were to the Fatimids, and even the Qarmati Isma˓ilis remained opposed to the latter. As for the population of Egypt, most people preferred to remain Sunnis, and it was to the Sunni Abbasid caliphate that the celebrated Saladin looked when he terminated Fatimid rule in 1171.

The Caliphate in Constitutional Theory

Detailed formulations of Sunni public law are the product of times when the caliphate had largely ceased to be an effective political institution. The most influential of these, the Ahkam al-sultaniyya of the Shafi˓i jurist al-Mawardi (d. 1058), was written in the later Buyid period, when the caliphs had for decades lived in often humiliating circumstances under the tutelage of their military overlords. Even so, the caliph occupies the center of al-Mawardi's exposition, with all powers of appointment and dismissal concentrated in his person, to be "delegated" to others as needed. The principal functions of the caliph, as al-Mawardi saw them, were: the preservation of religion according to its agreed-upon principles; implementation of the law, preservation of order, and the security of the realm against internal and external threats; undertaking jihad; the collection of the taxes as required by the sacred law, the shari˓a, and the proper disbursement and use of the revenues; and the appointment of the appropriate officials for discharging the various functions of the state; and close personal supervision of public affairs. Al-Mawardi's formulations were plainly idealistic; indeed, some of them would have been so even when the Abbasids presided over a large and powerful empire. Yet, in a milieu of political decline, they served important functions. They were simultaneously a way of protesting against the existing circumstances, through a rearticulation of caliphal privileges and his centrality to the life of the community, and a means of bringing juristic theory into some accord with changing circumstances. As for the former, it is noteworthy that the caliph al-Qadir, under whom al-Mawardi wrote his treatise, had himself made efforts to reassert some of his authority against the later Buyids and, as Gibb has suggested ("Al-Mawardi's Theory"), this treatise may have been part of the same effort. But, the jurist also made important concessions to changing times: The person elevated to the caliphate ought to be the "best" of all those available, yet one who was not such could validly occupy the position; the caliph could hold his position even with his powers severely limited by a military usurper, provided the latter continued to abide by the shari˓a; and independent rulers of outlying provinces could be recognized as legitimate and indeed integrated into the caliphal system if they formally submitted to the caliph and did not contravene the shari˓a.

Jurists like al-Mawardi sought to tread a difficult path between trying to formalize and legitimize the status quo, to adapt the shari˓a itself to the changing circumstances, and to encourage the existing authorities to conform in some manner to the shari˓a. Later jurists went much beyond al-Mawardi in their concessions to realpolitik. For instance, al-Ghazali (d. 1111) argued that the interests of the community dictated that any military usurper be deemed legitimate, for the effort to remove him would inevitably result in political chaos and bloodshed; indeed, whoever was recognized as caliph by the military ruler was to be accepted as a legitimate caliph. Such juristic formulations meant the recognition of a reality the jurists (or the caliphs, for that matter) were powerless to change. They also signified efforts to safeguard the historical continuity of the Muslim community. To concede that the constituted political authority was (and for centuries past had been) illegitimate would have meant that the overall political framework in which the community lived was fundamentally illegitimate, and, unlike the Shi˓a, the Sunni scholars were not willing to go so far. Yet, as Khaled Abou El Fadl has shown, if they acknowledged the legitimacy of the existing order and had a stake in its preservation, many Sunni jurists did not necessarily close all doors to the possibility of rebellion against unjust rule. Leaving such a possibility open may not have had much practical efficacy, though it did serve as a pointed reminder of the jurists' view that a ruler was legitimate only insofar as he did not flagrantly contravene the basic norms of justice and of the shari˓a— that is, as long as he allowed the continuance of a world in which the scholars could do their work of providing practical religious guidance to the community. For the most part, however, Sunni political thought had made its peace with the political realities long before the extinction of the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad. The resurrected Abbasid caliphate of Cairo did not receive much attention from later scholars. Rather, jurists like Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) ignored the institution altogether, focusing instead on the implementation of the shari˓a by the ruler—whoever he might be—in collaboration with the religious scholars.

Historic and Symbolic Significance of the Caliphate

The fundamental importance of the caliphate, irrespective of the actual conduct of individual caliphs or the political fortunes of the institution, lies in what it symbolizes of the classical history of Islam and of the Muslim community. The early caliphate was not only the force behind the military expansion of the Arab Muslims immediately after the death of Muhammad, it was also the institution that kept the Muslims together as a religious and political entity. For all the adverse views that abound about the Umayyads in Arabic historiography, it was through their caliphate that the political survival of the Muslim community was assured. And it was in the framework of the caliphal state, under the Umayyads and then under the Abbasids, that the religious and cultural institutions of Islam evolved. The formation of Islam, its intellectual life, and culture in the first centuries, is, in short, not merely intertwined with but inconceivable without the caliphate.

Even as it declined, the caliphate continued to represent the historical continuity of the Muslim community. It also represented the ideal of the shari˓a's supremacy in the collective life of the community. The symbolic weight of the caliphal institution continued to be felt, as long as the caliphate lasted, in the investitures sought by many of the rulers who were independent of the caliphate in all but name. This symbolic power could be revived even long after the institution associated with it had become extinct. For much of their history, the Ottoman sultans had not claimed to be "caliphs," yet even they began to do so from the late eighteenth century. This was largely meant to assert Ottoman authority over those who lived in territories now lost to the sultan, and thereby also to bolster his weakening standing vis-à-vis the European powers of the time. Such claims on the part of the sultans had resonance in several Muslim societies, especially as the latter came under colonial rule and began more anxiously to look for a visible symbol of the worldwide Muslim community. This sentiment found its most powerful expression in India, where what was in fact the Indian subcontinent's very first mass-movement of the colonial period was launched in defense of the Ottoman caliphate at the end of the First World War—a movement that came to an end only with the formal termination of the Ottoman caliphate by Republican Turkey in 1924. That was not the end of the symbolic significance of the caliphate, however. For it was in the debates surrounding the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate that some of the first modern discussions on the "Islamic state" were to find their point of departure in the twentieth century.

See alsoEmpires: Abbasid ; Empires: Ottoman ; Empires: Umayyad ; Kharijites, Khawarij ; Monarchy .


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Muhammad Qasim Zaman


views updated Jun 11 2018


the caliph was the temporal and spiritual ruler of islam until the office was abolished in 1924.

The Ottoman dynasty's claim to the office had been widely recognized in the Muslim world by the end of the nineteenth century, even though its historical basis was controversial. The claim was based on an alleged transfer of caliphal authority to the House of Osman after Ottoman armies conquered Mamluk Egypt. There an Abbasid caliph with descent from the Quraysh tribe of the Prophet Muhammad had been maintained as a dependent figurehead.

Nationalism and the Caliphate

The caliphate signified the ideal of pan-Islamic unity and solidarity and served as a psychological rallying point for Muslims against imperialist encroachments. The impending collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I mobilized Muslims worldwide to campaign for the retention of the caliphate. The India Khilafat Congress was especially active in this cause during the peace negotiations of 1919, since Indian Muslims were seeking self-determination based on allegiance to the caliph.

After the Ottomans were defeated in the war, the Anglo-French occupation of Constantinople (now Istanbul), the seat of the caliphate, further compromised the authority of Sultan-Caliph Mehmet VI Vahidettin. Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and other leaders of the Anatolian independence movement declared that a principal objective was to liberate the sultanate and the caliphate from occupation forces. At the same time, Vahidettin denounced the resistance on Islamic grounds. Political and military circumstances, however, gradually transformed the nationalists' attitude toward the caliphate. In view of the successes of the independence struggle and the complicity of Vahidettin with the occupying powers, the rival Ankara government promulgated in January 1921 the Fundamental Law which established the nation's sovereignty. On 1 November 1922, it passed legislation to abolish the Ottoman monarchy, separating the sultanate from the caliphate and maintaining the caliphate as a vague spiritual and moral authority. On November 16, Vahidettin sought asylum with British authorities and left Constantinople for Malta and later the Hijaz.

A Caliphate without Political Authority

The new law authorized the Turkish Grand National Assembly to select a meritorious member of the Ottoman dynasty as caliph. As the Muslim world debated the legitimacy of a caliphate without political authority, the assembly conferred the title of caliph on Abdülmecit II (18681944), son of Sultan Abdülaziz. The separation of the caliphate from the defunct monarchy was a tactical step toward abolishing the House of Osman and soothing domestic and international Muslim public opinion.

Foreign reaction was apathetic as the Khilafat Congress recognized the new caliph. In Turkey, though, the caliph quickly became the focus around which the proponents of the constitutional monarchy rallied. In October 1923, Mustafa Kemal declared the Turkish republic. The designation of the president of the republic as the head of state further compromised the caliph's position.

In December 1923, Indian Muslim leaders Amir Ali and Aga Khan, the imam of the Ismaʿili sect, wrote a letter to the Turkish prime minister Ismet Inönü urging retention of the caliphate. The Indian plea only accelerated the end. The Kemalists denounced the intervention of the two Muslim leaders as interference in the affairs of the new state and discredited them as Shiʿite British proxies. Indian religious scholars called for an international conference to determine the status of the caliphate. On 3 March 1924, the assembly passed legislation eliminating the office as part of a string of secularizing measures, including the abolition of religious education. The Kemalists argued that the caliphate was superfluous because the government of each Muslim country should administer both temporal and religious affairs.

Attempts to Create a New Caliphate

Abdülmecit left Turkey for Switzerland and later France. Since Turkey had emerged as the strongest independent country in the Muslim world, its abandonment of the caliphate elicited concern and disapproval from colonized Muslims, while in Turkey and other independent Muslim countries there was relative indifference. There was no Muslim consensus on how to respond to the Turkish fait accompli. The sharif of Mecca, now the king of the Hijaz, Husayn bin Ali, immediately put forward his claim, which was sanctioned by Vahidettin. King Fuʾad of Egypt and Imam Yahya of Yemen also emerged as possible candidates, as did the Moroccan and Afghan kings. Others advocated the continued recognition of Abdülmecit as the legitimate caliph. Husayn had a strong claim due to his prestige and descent from the Hashimite family of the Quraysh. Further, the British had revived the notion of a Meccan caliphate on the eve of the Arab Revolt. However, by 1924 Husayn lacked real political authority. In fact, Indian Muslims were inclined toward his rival, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saʿud of Najd. Ibn Saʿud, surrounded by Hashimite power in the Hijaz, Iraq, and Transjordan, felt even more threatened by Husayn's caliphal ambitions and invaded the Hijaz, forcing Husayn to exile.

There could be no agreement on a single candidate when no consensus existed on the continuation of the office. A Caliphate Congress (muʾtamar al-khilafa) convened in Cairo in May 1926 with the participation of ulama (clergy) from several Muslim countries. At this conference, King Fuʾad hoped to promote his claim, but the relative apathy toward the meeting and disagreement about eligibility requirements resulted in its adjournment with only the group's affirmation of the need to reinstitute a caliph. Yet the caliphate appeared as an ever-more-incongruent political institution in a Muslim world that was becoming increasingly fragmented. The issue of caliphal succession became embroiled in the nationalist rivalries and inward-looking struggles of the Muslim countries.

see also abd al-aziz ibn saʿud al saʿud; abdÜlmecit ii; atatÜrk, mustafa kemal; hashimite house (house of hashim); İnÖnÜ, İsmet; ismaʿili shiʿism; osman, house of; sharif of mecca; ulama.


Arnold, Thomas W. The Caliphate. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.

Teitelbaum, Joshua. The Rise and Fall of the Hashemite Kingdom of Arabia. London: Hurst, 2001.

Toynbee, Arnold J. "The Abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate by the Turkish Great National Assembly and the Progress of the Secularization Movement in the Islamic World.". In Survey of International Affairs, 1925, vol. 1: The Islamic World since the Peace Settlement. London: Oxford University Press, 1927.

Hasan Kayali