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Role and History of the Caliphate
The term caliphate (from the Arabic ‫ خ الف ة‬or khilāfa) refers to the first system of governance
established in Islam, and represented the political authority and unity of the Muslim Ummah. It was
initially led by Muhammad's disciples as a continuation of the political authority the prophet
established, known as the 'rashidun caliphates'. It represented the political unity of the Muslim
Ummah, not the theological unity as this was a personal matter, and was the world's first major
welfare state. A "caliphate" is also a state which implements such a government.
Sunni Islam dictates that the head of state, the caliph, should be selected by Shura - elected by
Muslims or their representatives. Followers of Shia Islam believe the caliph should be an imam
descended in a line from the Ahl al-Bayt. After the Rashidun period until 1924, caliphates,
sometimes two at a single time, real and illusory, were ruled by dynasties. The first dynasty was the
Umayyad. This was followed by the Abbasid, the Fatimid, and finally the Ottoman Dynasty.
The caliphate was "the core political concept of Sunni Islam, by the consensus of the Muslim
majority in the early centuries.
The caliph, or head of state, was often known as Amir al-Mu'minin (‫" )ال مؤم ن ين أم ير‬Commander of
the Believers". Muhammad established his capital in Medina, and after he died Medina remained
the capital for the rashidun period. At times in Muslim history there have been rival claimant caliphs
in different parts of the Islamic world, and divisions between the Shi'a and Sunni communities.
According to Sunni Muslims, the first Caliph to be called Amir al-Mu'minin was Abu Bakr Siddique
and then Umar ibn al-Khattāb, the second of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs. Uthman ibn Affan and
Ali ibn Abi Talib also were called by the same title, while the Shi'a consider Ali to have been the first
truly legitimate Caliph, although they concede that Ali accepted his predecessors, because he
eventually sanctioned Abu-Bakr.[4]
After the first four caliphs, the Caliphate was claimed by dynasties such as the Umayyads, the
Abbasids, and the Ottomans, and for relatively short periods by other, competing dynasties in alAndalus, North Africa, and Egypt. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk officially abolished the last Caliphate, the
Ottoman Empire, and founded the Republic of Turkey, in 1924. The Kings of Morocco still label
themselves with the title Amir al-Mu'minin for the Moroccans, but lay no claim to the Caliphate.
Some Muslim countries, like Indonesia and Malaysia were never subject to the authority of a
Caliphate, with the exception of Aceh, which briefly acknowledged Ottoman suzerainty.[5]
Consequently these countries had their own, local, sultans or rulers who did not fully accept the
authority of the Caliph.
Rashidun, 632–661
Abu Bakr, the first successor of Muhammad, according to Sunni beliefs, nominated Umar as his
successor on his deathbed, and there was consensus in the Muslim community to his choice. Umar
Ibn Khattab, the second caliph, was killed by a servant. His successor, Uthman Ibn Affan, was elected
by a council of electors (Majlis), but was soon perceived by some to be ruling as a "king" rather than
an elected leader. Uthman was killed by members of a disaffected group. Ali then took control but
was not universally accepted as caliph by the governors of Egypt, and later by some of his own
guard. He faced two major 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. Under the Rashidun each region
(Sultanate, Wilayah, or Emirate) of the Caliphate had its own governor (Sultan, Wāli or Emir).[6]
Muawiyah, a relative of Uthman and governor (Wali) of Syria, became one of Ali's challengers and
after Ali's death managed to overcome the other claimants to the Caliphate. Muawiyah transformed
the caliphate into a hereditary office, thus founding the Umayyad dynasty.
In areas which were previously under Sassanid Persian or Byzantine rule, the Caliphs lowered taxes,
provided greater local autonomy, greater religious freedom for Jews, indigenous Christians, and
brought peace to peoples demoralized and disaffected by the casualties and heavy taxation that
resulted from the decades of Byzantine-Persian warfare.[7]
The Caliphate, 622–750
Expansion during the Umayyad Caliphate, 661–750Under the Umayyads the Caliphate grew rapidly
in territory. Islamic rule expanded westward across North Africa and into Hispania and eastward
through Persia and ultimately to the ancient lands of Indus Valley, in modern day Pakistan, and
Abhisara, present-day Kashmir. This made it one of the largest unitary states in history and one of
the few states to ever extend direct rule over three continents (Africa, Europe, and Asia). Although
not ruling all of the Sahara, homage was paid to the Caliph by Saharan Africa, usually via various
nomad Berber tribes. However, it should be noted that, although these vast areas may have
recognised the supremacy of the Caliph, de facto power was in the hands of locals sultans and emirs.
For a variety of reasons, including that they were not elected via Shura and suggestions of impious
behaviour, the Umayyad dynasty was not universally supported within the Muslim community.
Some supported prominent early Muslims like Al-Zubayr; others felt that only members of
Muhammad's clan, the Banu Hashim, or his own lineage, the descendants of Ali, 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 Hashim and the
supporters of the lineage of Ali united to bring down the Umayyads in 750. However, the Shiˤat ˤAlī,
"the Party of Ali", 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 Ali. Following
this disappointment, the Shiˤat ˤAlī finally split from the majority Sunni Muslims and formed what
are today the several Shiˤa denominations.
Partitioning of the Ottoman Empire
In the 1920s the Khilafat Movement, a movement to defend the Ottoman Caliphate, spread
throughout the British colonial territories in what is now Pakistan. It was particularly strong in British
India, where it formed a rallying point for some Indian Muslims as one of many anti-British Indian
political movements. Its leaders included Maulana Mohammad Ali, his brother Shawkat Ali, and Abul
Kalam Azad, Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, and Barrister Muhammad Jan Abbasi. For a time it worked in
alliance with Hindu communities and was supported by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was a
member of the Central Khilafat Committee.[8][9] However, the movement lost its momentum after
the arrest or flight of its leaders, and a series of offshoots splintered off from the main organization.
End of the Caliphate, 1924
On March 3, 1924, the first President of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as part of his
reforms, constitutionally abolished the institution of the Caliphate. Its powers within Turkey were
transferred to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, the parliament of the newly formed Turkish
Republic. The title was then taken up by King Hussein bin Ali of Hejaz, leader of the Arab Revolt, but
his kingdom was defeated and annexed by Ibn Saud in 1925. The title has since been inactive.
A summit was convened at Cairo in 1926 to discuss the revival of the Caliphate, but most Muslim
countries did not participate and no action was taken to implement the summit's resolutions.
Though the title Ameer al-Mumineen was adopted by the King of Morocco and by Mullah
Mohammed Omar, former head of the now-defunct Taliban regime of Afghanistan, neither claimed
any legal standing or authority over Muslims outside the borders of their respective countries. The
closest thing to a Caliphate in existence today is the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an
international organization with limited influence founded in 1969 consisting of the governments of
most Muslim-majority countries.