AskDefine | Define caliph

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caliph n : the civil and religious leader of a Muslim state considered to be a representative of Allah on earth; "many radical Muslims believe a Khalifah will unite all Islamic lands and people and subjugate the rest of the world" [syn: calif, kaliph, kalif, khalif, khalifah]

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From (khalīfä).


Extensive Definition

For main article see: Caliphate The Caliph is the head of state in a Caliphate, and the title for the leader of the Islamic Ummah, an Islamic community ruled by the Shari'a. It is a transliterated version of the Arabic word خليفة Khalīfah   which means "successor" or "representative". The early leaders of the Muslim nation following Muhammad's (570–632) death were called "Khalifat Rasul Allah", meaning the political successors to the messenger of God (referring to Muhammad). Some academics prefer to transliterate the term as Khalīf.
Caliphs were often also referred to as Amīr al-Mu'minīn (أمير المؤمنين) "Commander of the Faithful", Imam al-Ummah, Imam al-Mu'minīn (إمام المؤمنين), or more colloquially, leader of the Muslims. After the first four caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib), the title was claimed by the Umayyads, the Abbasids, and the Ottomans, and at times, by competing dynasties in Spain, Northern Africa, and Egypt. Most historical Muslim governors were called sultans or amirs, and gave allegiance to a caliph, but at times had very little real authority. The title has been defunct since the Republic of Turkey abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, although some individuals and groups have called for its restoration.

Succession to Muhammad

Fred Donner, in his book The Early Islamic Conquests (1981), argues that the standard Arabian practice at the time was for the prominent men of a kinship group, or tribe, to gather after a leader's death and elect a leader from amongst themselves. There was no specified procedure for this shura, or consultation. Candidates were usually from the same lineage as the deceased leader, but they were not necessarily. Capable men who would lead well were preferred over an ineffectual heir.
This is also the argument advanced by Sunni Muslims, who believe that Muhammad's Father-in-law Abu Bakr was chosen by the community and that this was the proper procedure. They further argue that a caliph may be ideally chosen by election or community consensus.
Shi'a Muslims disagree. They believe that Muhammad had given many indications that he considered , his cousin and son-in-law, as his chosen successor, regardless of democracy. and his descendants are believed to have been the only proper Muslim leaders, or imams in the Shia's point of view. This matter is covered in much greater detail in the article Succession to Muhammad and in the article on Shi'a Islam.
A third branch of Islam, the Ibadi Kharijites, believes that the caliphate rightly belongs to the greatest spiritual leader among Muslims, regardless of his lineage. They are currently an extremely small sect, found mainly in Oman.

The authority of the successor

The question of who should succeed Muhammad was not the only issue that faced the early Muslims; they also had to clarify the extent of the leader's powers. Muhammad, during his lifetime, was not only the Muslim political leader, but the Islamic prophet. All law and spiritual practice proceeded from Muhammad. Nobody claimed that his successor would be a prophet; succession referred to political authority. The uncertainty centered on the extent of that authority. Muhammad's revelations claim to be directly from God, were soon codified and written down as the Qur'an, which was accepted as a supreme authority, limiting what a caliph could legitimately command.
However, there is some evidence that some early caliphs did believe that they had authority to rule in matters not specified in the Qur'an. They believed themselves to be temporal and spiritual leaders even in issues not commanded in the Quran, and insisted that implicit obedience to the caliph in all things not contradicting the Quran, was the hallmark of the good Muslim. The modern scholars Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds, in their book God's Caliph, outline the evidence for an early, expansive view of the caliph's importance and authority. They argue that this view of the caliph was eventually nullified (in Sunni Islam, at least) by the rising power of the ulema, or Islamic lawyers, judges, scholars, and religious specialists. The ulema insisted on their right to determine what was legal and orthodox. The proper Muslim leader, in the ulema's opinion, was the leader who enforced the rulings of the ulema, rather than making rulings of his own, unless he himself was qualified in Islamic law. Conflict between caliph and ulema, akin to a modern judiciary, was a recurring theme in early Islamic history, and ended in the victory of the ulema. The caliph was henceforth limited to temporal rule only. He would be considered a righteous caliph if he were guided by the ulema. Crone and Hinds argue that Shi'a Muslims, with their expansive view of the powers of the imamate, have preserved some of the beliefs of the early Ummayad dynasty which they ironically despise. Crone and Hinds' thesis is not accepted by all scholars.
Most Sunni Muslims now believe that the caliph has always been a merely temporal ruler, and that the ulema has always been responsible for adjudicating orthodoxy and Islamic law (shari'a). The first four caliphs are called the Rashidun, the Rightly Guided Caliphs, because they are believed to have followed the Qur'an and the way or sunnah of Muhammad in all things. This formulation itself presumes the Sunni ulema's view history.

Al-Ghazali on the desired character traits for administration

Al Ghazali wrote the "Nasihat al-Muluk" or "Advice for Kings" to a Seljuq Caliph in which he gave ten different ethics of royal administration:
  1. The ruler should understand the importance and danger of the authority entrusted to him. In authority there is great blessing, since he who exercises it righteously obtained unsurpassed happiness but if any ruler fails to do so he incurs torment surpassed only by the torment for unbelief.
  2. The ruler should always be thirsting to meet devout religious scholars and ask them for advice.
  3. The ruler should understand that he must not covet the wives of other men and be content with personally refraining from injustice, but must discipline his slave-troops, servants, and officers and never tolerate unjust conduct by them; for he will be interrogated not only about his own unjust deeds but also about those of his staff.
  4. The ruler should not be dominated by pride; for pride gives rise to the dominance of anger, and will impel him to revenge. Anger is the evil genius and blight of the intellect. If anger is becoming dominant it will be necessary for the ruler in all his affairs to bend his inclinations in the direction of forgiveness and make a habit of generosity and forbearance unless he is to be like the wild beasts.
  5. In every situation that arises, the ruler should figure that he is the subject and the other person is the holder of authority. He should not sanction for others anything that he would not sanction for himself. For if he would do so he would be making fraudulent and treasonable use of the authority entrusted to him.
  6. The ruler should not disregard the attendance of petitioners at his court and should beware of the danger of so doing. He should solve the grievances of the Muslims.
  7. The ruler should not form a habit of indulging the passions. Although he might dress more finely or eat more sumptuously, he should be content with all that he has; for without contentment, just conduct will not be possible.
  8. The ruler should make the utmost effort to behave gently and avoid governing harshly.
  9. The ruler should endeavor to keep all the subjects pleased with him. The ruler should not let himself be so deluded by the praise he gets from any who approach him as to believe that all the subjects are pleased with him. On the contrary, such praise is entirely due to fear. He must therefore appoint trustworthy persons to carry on espionage and inquire about his standing among the people, so that he may be able to learn his faults from men’s tongues.
  10. The ruler should not give satisfaction to any person if a contravention of God’s law would be required to please him for no harm will come from such a person’s displeasure.

Single Caliph for the Muslim World

It has been recorded that Muhammad has said:
"Whosoever comes to you while your affairs has been united under one man, intending to break your strength or dissolve your unity, kill him."
''"The children of Israel have been governed by Prophets; whenever a Prophet died another Prophet succeeded him; but there will be no prophet after me. There will be caliphs and they will number many (in one time); they asked: What then do you order us? He (saw) said: Fulfil bayah to them, only the first of them, the first of them, and give them their dues; for verily Allah will ask them about what he entrusted them with"
"When the oath of allegiance has been taken for two Caliphs, kill the latter of them".
Abu-Bakr Muhammad's primary disciple is reported to have said: "It is forbidden for Muslims to have two Amirs for this would cause differences in their affairs and concepts, their unity would be divided and disputes would break out amongst them. The Sunnah would then be abandoned, the bida'a (innovations) would spread and Fitna would grow, and that is in no one's interests".
Umar bin Al-Khattab another disciple of Muhammad is reported to have said: “There is no way for two (leaders) together at any one time"
Ibn Khaldun the famous 14th century Muslim scholar, economist and historian said: "It is not possible to appoint two men to the position (of caliph) at the same time. Religious scholars generally are of this opinion, on the basis of certain hadith(recorded statements) of Muhammad. Those hadith are found in the book entitled, "On Leadership (imarah)," in Sahih Muslim. They expressly indicate that this is so."
The 10th century Sunni scholar Imam of al-Haramayn (i.e Makkah and Medinah) al-Juwayni wrote:
“Our (scholarly) associates agree on precluding the investing of two different individuals with the imamate at either end of the world. But, they add: If it should happen that two different persons were invested with the imamate, that would be analogous to the situation of two guardians contracting a marriage for the same woman to two different suitors without either being aware of the other's contract. The decision in the matter rests on the application of jurisprudence. My opinion on this issue is that investiture of two individuals with the imamate in a single locality within relatively restricted boundaries and limited provinces is not permitted and the investiture should be in accord with a consensus. But, when the distances are great and the two Imams quite remote from each other, there is room to allow it, although this cannot be established conclusively.”
The 11th century Sunni jurist Al-Mawardi wrote:
“The investment of two rulers in two different cities is invalid in both cases, for the ummah may not have two rulers simultaneously, even though there are some dissenting voices who would make that permissible. Jurists are disagreed regarding which one of the two should be sovereign. One party take him to be the one elected in the city where the previous leader died, because its residents are more entitled to make the choice, the rest of the Community in other districts delegating the task to them... Others have suggested that each one of the two must give up the office in favour of his opponent, thus allowing the elections to opt for one or the other..”
Imam Al-Nawawi a 12th century authority of the Sunni Shafi'i madhhab said: "It is forbidden to give an oath to two caliphs or more, even in different parts of the world and even if they are far apart"
Imam Al-Juzairi, a more modern expert on the Fiqh of the four Sunni madhhabs said regarding the opinion of the four Imams, “...It is forbidden for Muslims to have two Imams in the world whether in agreement or discord."''


Abū Bakr nominated Umar as his successor on his deathbed, and the Muslim community submitted to his choice. His successor, Uthman, was elected by a council of electors. Uthman was killed by members of a disaffected group. then took control, but was not universally accepted as caliph. He faced numerous rebellions and was assassinated after a tumultuous rule of only five years. This period is known as the Fitna, or the first Islamic civil war.
One of 's challengers was , a relative of Uthman. After 's death, managed to overcome all other claimants to the muslim. The first four caliphs are called as rightly guided caliphs by sunni muslims.Even though there were many pious and prominent caliphs after them,being the companion(sahaba) of prophet they are considered the best.


Under the Umayyads, the Muslim empire grew rapidly. To the West, Muslim rule expanded across North Africa and into Spain. To the East, it expanded through Iran and ultimately to India. This made it one of the largest empires in the history of West Eurasia, extending its entire breadth.
However, the Umayyad dynasty was not universally supported within Islam itself. Some Muslims supported prominent early Muslims like az-Zubayr; others felt that only members of Muhammad's clan, the Banū Hashim, or his own lineage, the descendants of , should rule. There were numerous rebellions against the Umayyads, as well as splits within the Umayyad ranks (notably, the rivalry between Yaman and Qays). Eventually, supporters of the Banu Hisham and Alid claims united to bring down the Umayyads in 750. However, the , "the Party of ", were again disappointed when the Abbasid dynasty took power, as the Abbasids were descended from Muhammad's uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and not from . Following this disappointment, the finally split from the majority Sunni Muslims and formed what are today the several denominations.


The Abbasids would provide an unbroken line of caliphs for over three centuries, consolidating Islamic rule and cultivating great intellectual and cultural developments in the Middle East. But by 940 the power of the caliphate under the Abbasids was waning as non-Arabs, particularly the Turkish (and later the Mamluks in Egypt in the latter half of the 13th century), gained influence, and sultans and emirs became increasingly independent. However, the caliphate endured as both a symbolic position and a unifying entity for the Islamic world.
During the period of the Abassid dynasty, Abassid claims to the caliphate did not go unchallenged. The Said ibn Husayn of the Fatimid dynasty, which claimed descendancy of Muhammad through his daughter, claimed the title of Caliph in 909, creating a separate line of caliphs in North Africa. Initially covering Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, the Fatimid caliphs extended their rule for the next 150 years, taking Egypt and Palestine, before the Abbassid dynasty was able to turn the tide, limiting Fatimid rule to Egypt. The Fatimid dynasty finally ended in 1171. The Umayyad dynasty, which had survived and come to rule over the Muslim provinces of Spain, reclaimed the title of Caliph in 929, lasting until it was overthrown in 1031.

Shadow Caliphate

1258 saw the conquest of Baghdad and the execution of Abassid caliph al-Musta'sim by Mongol forces under Hulagu Khan. A surviving member of the Abbasid House was installed as Caliph at Cairo under the patronage of the Mamluk Sultanate three years later. However, the authority of this line of Caliphs was confined to ceremonial and religious matters, and later Muslim historians referred to it as a "shadow" caliphate.


As the Ottoman Empire grew in size and strength, Ottoman rulers beginning with Mehmed II began to claim caliphal authority. Their claim was strengthened when the Ottoman Empire defeated the Mamluk Sultanate in 1517 and took control of most Arab lands. The last Abbasid Caliph at Cairo, al-Mutawakkil III, was taken into custody and was transported to İstanbul, where he surrendered the Caliphate to Selim I.
Ottoman rulers were known primarily by the title of Sultan. According to Barthold, the first time the title of caliph was used as a political instead of symbolic religious title by the Ottomans was the peace treaty with Russia in 1774. The outcome of this war was disastrous for the Ottomans. Large territories, including those with large Muslim populations such as Crimea, were lost to the Christian Russian Empire. However, the Ottomans under Abdulhamid I claimed a diplomatic victory, the recognition of themselves as protectors of Muslims in Russia as part of the peace treaty. This was the first time the Ottoman caliph was acknowledged as having political significance outside of Ottoman borders by a European power. As a consequence of this diplomatic victory, as the Ottoman borders were shrinking, the powers of the Ottoman caliph increased. Around 1880 Sultan Abdulhamid II reasserted the title as a way of countering creeping European colonialism in Muslim lands. His claim was most fervently accepted by the Muslims of British India. By the eve of the First World War, the Ottoman state, despite its weakness vis-à-vis Europe, represented the largest and most powerful independent Islamic political entity. But the sultan also enjoyed some authority beyond the borders of his shrinking empire as caliph of Muslims in Egypt, India and Central Asia.

Abolition of the institution

On March 3, 1924, the Turkish Grand National Assembly, on the initiative of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, abolished the institution of the Caliphate, transferring its powers within Turkey to the Assembly.
Occasional demonstrations have been held calling for the reestablishment of the Caliphate.

Notable Caliphs

  • Abu Bakr: First rightly guided caliph. Subdued rebel tribes in the Ridda Wars.
  • Umar ibn al-Khattab: Second rightly guided caliph. During his reign, the Islamic empire expanded to include Egypt, Jerusalem, and Persia.
  • Uthman ibn Affan: Third rightly guided caliph. The Qur'an was compiled under his direction. Killed by rebels.
  • Ali ibn Abu Talib: Fourth and last rightly guided caliph, and considered the first imam by Shi'a Muslims. His reign was fraught with internal conflict.
  • Muawiya I: First caliph of the Umayyad Dynasty. Muawiya instituted dynastic rule by appointing his son Yazid as his successor, a trend that would continue through subsequent caliphates.
  • Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan - Fifth caliph of Ummayad Dynasty, translated important records into Arabic, established an Islamic currency system, led additional wars against the Byzantines and ordered construction of the Dome of the Rock.
  • Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz: Umayyad caliph considered by some (mainly Sunnis) to be a fifth rightly guided caliph.
  • Harun al-Rashid: Abbasid caliph during whose reign Baghdad became the world's preeminent center of trade, learning, and culture. Haroon is the subject of many stories in the famous work 1001 Arabian Nights.
  • Selim I the Brave: First Caliph of the Ottoman Empire with the conquest of Egypt and the Holy Cities. Defeated the powerful Shia Safavid Empire.
  • Suleiman the Magnificent: Early Ottoman Sultan during whose reign the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith.
  • Abdul Mejid II: Last Caliph of the Ottoman Dynasty, the 101st Caliph in line from Caliph Abu Bakr. On August 23, 1944, Abdul Mejid II passed away at his house in the Boulevard Suchet, Paris XVIe, France. He was buried at Medina, Saudi Arabia.
Several Arabic surnames found throughout the Middle East are derived from the word khalifa. These include: Khalif, Khalifa, Khillif, Kalif, Kalaf, Khalaf, and Kaylif. The usage of this title as a surname is comparable to the existence of surnames such as King, Duke, and Noble in the English language.


The more important dynasties include:
Note on the overlap of Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates: After the massacre of the Umayyad clan by the Abbassids, one lone prince escaped and fled to North Africa, which remained loyal to the Umayyads. This was Abd-ar-rahman I. From there, he proceeded to Spain, where he overthrew and united the provinces conquered by previous Umayyad Caliphs (in 712 and 712). From 756 to 929, this Umayyad domain in Spain was an independent emirate, until Abd-ar-rahman III reclaimed the title of Caliph for his dynasty. The Umayyad Emirs of Spain are not listed in the summary below because they did not claim the caliphate until 929. For a full listing of all the Umayyad rulers in Spain see the Umayyad article.

Claims to the caliphate

Many local rulers throughout Islamic history have claimed to be caliphs. Most claims were ignored outside their limited domains. In many cases, these claims were made by rebels against established authorities and died when the rebellion was crushed. Notable claimants include:


  • Crone, Patricia, and Martin Hinds. God's Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. ISBN 0521321859.
  • Donner, Fred. The Early Islamic Conquests. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981. ISBN 0691053278.
caliph in Arabic: خلافة إسلامية
caliph in Aragonese: Califa
caliph in Catalan: Califa
caliph in Czech: Chalífa
caliph in Danish: Kalif
caliph in German: Kalif
caliph in Estonian: Kaliif
caliph in Modern Greek (1453-): Χαλίφης
caliph in Spanish: Califa
caliph in Esperanto: Kalifo
caliph in Persian: خلیفه
caliph in French: Calife
caliph in Galician: Califa
caliph in Croatian: Kalif
caliph in Indonesian: Khalifah
caliph in Italian: Califfo
caliph in Latin: Calipha
caliph in Latvian: Kalifs
caliph in Malay (macrolanguage): Khalifah
caliph in Dutch: Kalief
caliph in Japanese: カリフ
caliph in Norwegian: Kalif
caliph in Polish: Kalif
caliph in Portuguese: Califa
caliph in Russian: Халиф
caliph in Serbian: Калиф
caliph in Finnish: Kalifi
caliph in Swedish: Kalif
caliph in Thai: กาหลิบ
caliph in Turkish: Halife
caliph in Chinese: 哈里發
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