What is the Caliphate? 2 January 2015

2014 saw the emergence of ISIS and their claims of being the new ‘caliphate’. Abdul-Azim Ahmed explores the roots of the Islamic caliphate as this ancient form of leadership becomes current affairs.

“A bit like the Muslim Pope, not quite, but sort of”. That was my response when I was asked during a radio interview “what is a Caliph?” It wasn’t a very good response, but how else could I communicate the idea of a Caliph to a mainly Western European listenership to whom the term was completely unfamiliar?

Suleymaniye MosquePerhaps some had heard of it, most likely through some iteration of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ or the travelogues of English aristocrats during the age of the British Empire. Yet understanding the term is no longer only important to historians or scholars of religion. The ruthless militia once known as the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Shaam (ISIS) declared themselves a Caliphate on the 1st of Ramadan 1435 – late June 2014 in the Gregorian calendar. ISIS’s announcement was, for all extents and purposes, a publicity stunt. It was an attempt at legitimising themselves amongst Muslims globally, by appealing to both Islamic history and theology. The appeal has largely been unsuccessful, with Muslim scholars and laymen alike denouncing ISIS, both in their claims to a Caliphate and the atrocities committed by them against religious minorities as well their own Muslim co-religionists.

Yet ISIS has put the term Caliph on the agenda, and if to describe a Caliph as ‘a bit like the Muslim Pope’ is incorrect, what is a better response? What role does a Caliph play in Islamic theology and why is it so important? I couldn’t answer the question “what is a Caliph?” in a sentence, but I hope here to answer the question in about 2000 words.

Some trace the idea of the Caliphate back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad. A new leader of the early Muslims was chosen and given the title ‘successor to the Prophet’ or in the Arabic – khalifat ar-Rasullulah – from which we get the anglicised ‘Caliph’.

However, the term predates the death of the Prophet. It can be found in the Quran. In one of the earliest chapters God announces the creation of mankind to an audience of sceptical angels:

Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood, whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy name?” He said: “I know what ye know not.” (2:30, Quran)

Vicegerent of God on earth, or khalifah tul-ard, is a term found in the Quran repeatedly to describe humanity and its unique responsibility amongst the creations of God. To be khalifah tul-ard, within Islamic theology, is to be a steward of the earth and a guardian of morality and ethical conduct. Many green Islamic theologians rely heavily on this concept to speak of the values of environmentalism and sustainability found within Islamic teachings. More so than that, the vicegerent of God is expected to embody God’s divine characteristics, often called His 99 names, as far as humanly possible. Thus the true human being reflects the names of God such as ‘The Merciful’, ‘The Compassionate’ and so on (see al-Ghazali’s The Ninety Nine Beautiful Names of God for a classical treatise on the topic). The angels to whom God announces the creation of mankind in the Quran are, however, cautious to believe that humanity – with its penchant for killing and violence – can ever live up to this role.

Thus the term khalif is an incredibly theologically symbolic one; it refers to someone who has successfully embodied the Divine plan of God for human beings. Only after understanding this deep theological root, can the historical Caliph be understood.

The Four Rightly Guided Caliphs
Following the death of the Prophet, some of the most senior Muslims met to agree upon a new leader. The need for a leader was considered so important that the Prophet Muhammad’s body was left unburied for three days (highly discouraged within Islamic theology) while leadership was decided. Interpretations of what happened in those three days differ. Sunni Muslims maintain that precedence of leadership was given to one of the Prophet’s closest friends and followers and the most capable leader – Abu Bakr as-Siddiq. Shia Muslims believe Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin of the Prophet, one of his youngest and earliest followers, was unfairly and impiously overlooked for leadership despite the Prophet Muhammad’s explicit commands. Over the next few centuries, Shia Muslims would turn away from the notion of the Caliph, preferring instead the leadership of Imams descended from the Prophet Muhammad himself.

For Sunni Muslims however, the Caliph became the foremost institution, first held by Abu Bakr, then by Umar ibn al-Khattab, then Uthman, and finally, Ali ibn Abi Talib himself. These four men were all notable followers of the Prophet, known for their piety, religious knowledge and aptitude for leadership. They became known as the ‘Four Rightly Guided Caliphs’. The importance of the Rashidun Caliphate, as it is often referred to in the history books, is that it became a model for later generations and a “benchmark for the idealised conceptualisation of the Caliphate” according to Dr Carool Kersten, author of a three volume anthology of the Caliphate soon to be published as well as Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and the Muslim World at Kings College London.

Any Caliph, in fact every Caliph, is in some way echoing the status and importance of these four men. However the Caliphate was always dramatically different from what we understand today as a state; it was a person to whom allegiance was given, bayah. Mirroring a pre-Islamic tribal custom, the Caliph was given an oath of fealty by other Muslims, who themselves held the fealty of certain tribes, villages, or towns. Different tribes, ethnicities and indeed entirely different nations, could pledge allegiance to the Caliph – it was a globalised patchwork of allegiance, sometimes lacking geographical contiguity.

The historical Caliph then has the ultimate divine right to rule – to claim to be not only a leader of Muslims, but in fact a successor of the Prophet’s authority and responsibility. Islamic theology has made clear the religion would have no Prophets after Muhammad, but the Caliphs came closest to holding the mantle of the messenger.

Church and State
It is a common refrain from secularists that Islam, like Christianity, needs to undergo a divorce of church and state, of spiritual and temporal power. The statement is often made comparing Europe, with its Western liberal democracies and widely Christian population, to the Middle East, with its theocratic monarchies and largely Muslim population. The statement however ignores Islam’s own development of the relationship between religious authority and political power (as well the effect colonialism had on this development).

The Caliph, during the era of the Rashidun Caliphate, was indeed both the foremost religious and political authority for the Muslims living in what is now modern-day Saudi Arabia. This was not necessarily by virtue of the position of Caliph, but more so due to the personal spiritual authority brought to the temporal position by Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali.

After Ali, the next Caliph was Muawiyah who recognised as the first of the Umayyad Caliphs. The majority of Umayyad Caliphs quickly lost the religious authority that the Rashidun Caliphs held – not least because of the Caliph Yazid’s involvement in the murder of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Husain. Yet despite ceding religious power to other agents, the Umayyad Caliphs certainly held on to temporal power.

Later down the line, for example during the Abbasid Caliphate, political power was stripped from the Caliph, but the position remained as a religious and spiritual figurehead, akin to the Caliph in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Dr Kersten speaks of this shift also, noting that during the Abbasid Era, “the Caliph becomes a symbolic figurehead. It is others, warlords and minor viziers, who became the real power brokers.”

While most Caliphates try, in some sense, to appeal to the notion of the Caliph from the Rashidun Caliphate, as a temporal leader who also held an incredible amount of spiritual authority, in practice historically, the reality has been varied.

The importance however is that even if the Caliph was not the foremost spiritual authority (or even political authority), they represented a spiritual voice in politics, or alternatively, a political voice in religion. The modern division between politics and religion is often an idealised notion than a description of reality. Historically, the Caliph has provided a means to negotiate the temporal and spiritual arenas.

The Just Ruler
A famous narration of the Prophet Muhammad tells of those people, on the Day of Judgement, who will be in “the shade of God’s throne”, a phrase indicating unique divine grace upon that person. One such person will be “the Just Ruler” (imam al-adl).

While there have been countless numbers of Caliphs through the fourteen centuries since the Prophet Muhammad, very few are remembered. Those that are remembered and celebrated are done so because they epitomise the idea of a Just Ruler. It is in this regard that the idea of a Caliphate becomes most potent.

Much like the Catholic notion of Just War recognises that war is inherently problematic and a source of evil, the Islamic notion of the Just Ruler recognises that power and authority often corrupt and often causes sedition (fitnah in Arabic). The Just Ruler is the belief that though rare, it is possible to wield power and authority for the greater good.

Umar ibn al-Khattab, of the Rashidun Caliphate, was known as one of the few Caliphs who invested into state-building. He established a police force, a civil service, and an early welfare system within the nascent Islamic Empire and would be warmly remembered by Muslims for his commitment to justice.

Statue of Abd ar-Rahman I, Caliph in Spain.

A statue of Caliph Abd ar-Rahman I, a widely celebrated Caliph who ruled over parts of Spain.

Historic Caliphs are often highlighted, remembered and celebrated within Islamic theology and texts for fulfilling the role of Caliph and Just Ruler. Umar ibn Abdul-Aziz (died 720) is celebrated for his role in pressing forward reforms addressing the corruption that had crept into the Umayyad Empire, as well as outlawing slavery. Harun al-Rashid, one of the most famous Abbasid Caliphates (died 809) is celebrated for his contribution to science, learning and culture, as well as for establishing the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, one of the world’s largest libraries until its destruction by the Mongols in 1258. The latter is perhaps most known to Western audiences due to his name being preserved in the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Abd-Rahman I, who founded a Caliphate in Iberia, is celebrated for ushering in what is often viewed by Muslims as a ‘Golden Age’ of interfaith scholarly work between Muslims, Jews and Christians.

By contrast, there are Caliphs who are considered to have failed in upholding the responsibilities of justice and fair treatment. For example, the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu’tasim (died 824) is most known for his religious intolerance, enforcing a heterodox (and now extinct) Islamic theology on his Sunni and Shia subjects. And then of course, there are Muslim rulers who are celebrated, yet never held the title of Caliph. Saladin al-Ayyubi, the Turkish leader who fought against the Crusaders and the entire litany of Mogul rulers in India, despite holding as much legitimacy as the Ottomans, are rarely granted the title Caliph.

The Idea of a Caliphate
The Caliph, throughout history and in the modern era, has been an incredibly versatile symbol. It is first and foremost about a sense of connection to the era of the Prophet. The Caliph can act as a symbol of unity and belonging for Muslims. The Caliph can be a metaphor for the Just Ruler, one with almost Messianic properties. It was not simply about religious authority, but about fulfilling a particular religious destiny, an echo of the khalifah tul-ard of the Quran.

Regardless of the ups and downs of various empires, the Caliph’s symbolic potency remained – “it is important to note that after the Abbasid Caliphate collapsed following the Mongol invasions, all the dynasties, like Seljuks, Mamluks, Ottomans, Ayyubids, all made a point of retaining the notion of the Caliph – it was an important point for them” clarifies Dr Kersten. Perhaps paradoxically, the Caliph was a Middle-Eastern phenomenon, but with a global reach.

Dr Kersten explains that the Caliphate was one of the earliest forms of ‘globalisation’, and recounts an interesting example of this – “in the Indian Ocean, even after the fall of Baghdad, there was a tendency to mention the name of the Caliph in the Friday sermon. From Darussalam to the Maldives to Goa, the name of the Caliph would be mentioned. Of course he exercised no power there. But the Muslims on the ground felt they belonged to something bigger than the Sultanate of Delhi, or the Omani Sultanate, or whatever.”

Modern Resonance
The idea of the Caliphate became more important following the fall of the Ottomans. The Muslim world was still in the grip of colonialism, albeit a loosening one. Most of the historic institutions of authority in the Middle East, Africa and Asia were stripped back and replaced by various forms of European government; this was true of places like India, Indonesia and Africa, but it was felt most prominently in the heart of the Caliphate – the Middle-East.

After fourteen hundred years of one form of Caliphate or another, the Ottoman Caliphate was ended after World War One. The loss of the Caliphate raised many questions, not least amongst them, why is a Caliph important? For some Muslim reform movements, particularly activist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the re-establishment of a Caliph is about reconnecting the Muslim present with a pre-colonial Muslim past. Others, such as the worldwide Tablighi Jamaat, considered calls for a Caliphate a distraction from the true goal of Islam, inner purity, and call upon Muslims to focus on their hearts. These two strands of Muslim reform, the activist and the quietist, are still yet to come to an agreement.

ISIS’ claim of being a Caliphate tries to build on this symbolic and emotional resonance that the term Caliph holds amongst some Muslims – it is an attempt to capitalise upon the notions of just leadership, a divine right to rule, and also the trauma of colonialism, in order to lend legitimacy to the militia. During ISIS’s early rise to power, it engaged in battles and conflicts with other Muslim groups involved in the Syrian revolution. The claim of Caliphate became a vital means by which to justify their campaign of violence upon other Muslims.

Instead of being one of many violent armed groups in the Middle East, ISIS has tried to convey itself as the vanguard in a cosmic and historic battle for all that is good and Islamic.

Yet in the story of the Caliphate, ISIS is a footnote. Dr Kersten believes the idea of a Caliphate offers not only Muslims, but the wider world, much more in the future. “Our thinking is confined by the nation state – for the last 200 years, we have been unable to think in any other concept. Maybe through the idea of the Caliphate, we can think of a more interesting way to organise ourselves in the modern global world.”

To stay in-the-know about current issues of faith and society, subscribe to On Religion magazine – just £19 for a year’s subscription (4 issues):


About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

all, Features, History, Islam , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,