The Authority of the Khilafah

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The Authority of the Khilafah


Death and Succession . The Prophet Muhammad’s death immediately cut off the Muslim community from its direct, personal divine source of inspiration, revelation, and guidance. The Prophet had not acknowledged anyone else as a prophet or potential prophet, and the Qur’an seems to foreclose that possibility for eternity (33:40). The community met and elected one of the older Companions, Abu Bakr (ruled 632–634), to hold sovereignty in Madinah. At first, perhaps, Abu Bakr bore the title of amir (commander), but under the rule of his successor, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (ruled 634–644), the title became amir al-muminin (commander of the believers), a more exalted label meant to clarify the superiority of the ruler’s authority

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over that of any other. More generally, the title khalifah (caliph), or deputy, also came into use for the ruler, probably because the Prophet had always appointed a deputy to take charge when he was absent from Madinah. This title is usually anglicized as “caliph.” Possibly by the reign of the third khalifah, the Umayyad ‘Uthman (ruled 644–656), this title was expanded to khalifat Allah (God’s deputy). Probably this interpretation of the title was elaborated from a single Qur’anic verse (38: 26) referring to the Prophet David’s appointment by God as a khalifah on earth. The title khalifat Allah became as important under the Umayyad dynasty (661–750) as that of amir al-mu’minin, with which it was used interchangeably.

Authority. From the beginning, Muslims held that— just as they had had to obey the Prophet—they must obey the khalifah, because he too possessed sovereignty over Muslims. This general power was theoretically unfettered, but certain limitations were nonetheless present from the outset. Unlike the Prophet, the khalifahs never claimed to receive special revelations from God, even though they insisted, at least from the time of ‘Uthman and probably from that of Abu Bakr, that God had authorized their rule.

Their lack of power of prophetic revelation limited their ability to legislate. As the Muslim law was eventually elaborated by independent jurists, the khalifahs saw their freedom of action gradually curtailed. Also, the state ruled by the khalifahs was not in any sense a modern, institutionalized nation-state, but rather the rudimentary state that they had inherited from the Prophet. As it expanded, coming to rule over large populations of non-Muslims by the reign of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, its main, immediate function was collecting taxes so that it could pay the army, in order to uphold the rule of Islam. Other institutions of government developed slowly, and non-Muslims were left to regulate their own affairs in many areas. During the reign of ’Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (ruled 717–720) it began to seem necessary to separate the public treasury from the khalifah’s private purse, but that reform took a long time to come into effect. Under Hisham (ruled 724–743) the khalifah still had only a single secretary for correspondence and sometimes even wrote his own letters to his governors. This situation continued under later Umayyads, who often resided in isolated private castles at the edge of the desert, remote from the cities and other population centers.

Abbasid Rule . To strengthen their power the Abbasid dynasty (749–1258) tried to elaborate the institutions of the state. Thus, in 763 they established a new capital, Baghdad, that quickly became the main metropolis of the Muslim world and thereby ended the khalifah’s isolation. They appointed a wazir (prime minister) to share in the administrative duties of running the state, and after 786 they also tried to impose their superior power over all the provinces by appointing a supreme judge in Baghdad with judicial authority over the whole khilafah (caliphate). Furthermore, they strove to improve the efficiency of their tax-gathering machinery. Nevertheless, the Abbasids encountered several insurmountable obstacles that led to the gradual disintegration of their authority. First, they lacked legitimacy because they had come to power through a revolution against the Umayyads, and they disappointed their Shi‘i supporters, who had wanted a descendant of the Prophet’s son-in-law ‘Ali to rule rather than the descendants of the Prophet’s uncle al-‘Abbas. Lacking legitimacy, they did not have the moral authority to compel the provinces to submit to a more central organization and taxation system. Instead, the provinces fell away one by one. Indeed, the Abbasids never ruled in Spain, Morocco, and Algeria, so they had to face a multiplicity of Muslim states from the beginning, a fact that seriously undermined their claim to universal dominion. In order to maintain themselves, they had to make deals that involved giving up more and more of their power. Thus, Tunisia and Tripolitania were sold to the Aghlabid family in 800 in exchange for a regular payment, and those countries were henceforth politically independent from the khilafah.

Military Rule . The Abbasids also had to rely on paid professional soldiers to keep them in power. After the Khalifah al-Mu‘tasim (833–842) began importing Turkish slave soldiers for this purpose, it was only a matter of time before the generals took over and pushed the khalifahs aside. The first military coup, which overthrew the Khali-fah al-Mutawakkil in 861, was the beginning of this trend. Beginning in 934, by which time most of the outer provinces had already been lost, the military dictator’s title was formalized as amir al-umara’ (commander of commanders), and the khalifah’s power was at an end. Under the hostile Shi’i Buyids (945–1055), the Abbasid khalifahs were reduced to prisoners in their own palace. Under the Sunni Saljuks (1055–1152), the khalifahs were once again honored but given no access to power, while the Saljuks controlled the state both in fact and in name with the new title of sultan (authority). After the decline of the Saljuks, the khalifahs were able to restore their own independent sovereignty once more (1152–1258), but only inside their home province of southern Iraq, an area much smaller than the present-day country of Iraq. Having lost their general authority, except in theoretical legal prescriptions, the Abbasid khilafah in this period functioned merely as one local state in a constellation of local states, until the non-Muslim Mongols put an end to it with their bloody conquest of Baghdad in 1258.

Rival Khalifahs . Meanwhile, a plethora of rival claimants challenged the Abbasids even for their titles of khali-fah and amir al-mu’minin. This tendency first arose in North Africa and Spain but eventually was found in many places, devaluing the concept of the khalifah’s universal rule. The first to free their lands permanently from the central khilafah’s control were the Berbers, whose new states began to emerge in North Africa in 740, even before the end of Umayyad rule. Never again was all Islam in anyway associated with a particular state. These new Berber states were at first deemed kharijite (rebel) by the main Muslim tradition, but from their own viewpoint each represented the true khilafah. Later, the Shi’i Fatimids (909–1171), who established themselves in Tunisia and eventually Egypt, seriously challenged the Abbasids’ monopoly on the khalifal title in the East as well. When the Umayyad dynasty in Spain (756–1031) revived its claim to the khalifal title in 928 and continued to do so until its end more than a century later, there came to be three major khilafahs simultaneously. Also, many local dynasties in Spain and North and West Africa adopted titles such as amir al-mu’minin that were normally accorded in the East only to khalifahs. Later, the full title of the khilafah was claimed by the al-Muwahhids (circa 1132–1269), the Marinids (1269–1465), the Hafsids (1253–1574), and all the later rulers of Morocco to this day. Thus, the various western dynasties did not recognize the eastern khilafah after 909.

End of the Khilafah . In the East the existence of the khilafah was called into question after the taking of Baghdad and the killing of the Abbasid khalifah by the pagan Mongols in 1258. In many respects, this event spelled the end of the khilafah and showed how unimportant and unnecessary the office had become. Although the Mamluk sultans set up an alleged branch of the Abbasids in Egypt (1261–1543), the sultans accorded this branch scant respect or attention, and it was not recognized outside the Egyptian sultanate except by the distant sultanate of Delhi in India (1211–1556). When the Ottoman Turks conquered Egypt in 1517, they temporarily carried off the khalifah, al-Mutawakkil III, to Istanbul, but he had so little importance that later he was allowed to return to Egypt, where he died. The Egyptian Abbasid khilafah did not continue after his death. Thus, by 1500, the khilafah barely existed in the Muslim world, having lost almost all importance and relevance, and it scarcely entered the consciousness of the Muslims any longer, except for the memory of it as an early ideal, especially in the books of the law. Much later, beginning in 1774, the Ottoman sultans made use of the title occasionally until its definitive abolition in 1924. Although the khilafah eventually served no governmental function, it played an early role in providing the somewhat stable political framework within which Islam was preached for more than two centuries (632–861). The khilafah helped to establish Islam on a firm and lasting basis, and then the religion was able to survive and flourish without such a political expression.


Antony Black, The History of Islamic Political Thought: From the Prophet to the Present (New York: Routledge, 2001).

Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, 2 volumes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).

Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century (London: Longman, 1986).

D. Sourdel and A. K. S. Lambton, “Khalifa,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, CD-ROM version (Leiden: Brill, 1999).