Caliph and Caliphate

James E. Sowerwine

in Islamic Studies

ISBN: 9780195390155
Published online December 2009 | | DOI:
Caliph and Caliphate


The term “caliph” (khalifah in Arabic) is generally regarded to mean “successor of the prophet Muhammad,” while “caliphate” (khilafah in Arabic) denotes the office of the political leader of the Muslim community (ummah) or state, particularly during the period from 632 to 1258. Although the caliph was not considered to possess spiritual authority as Muhammad had, the caliph presided over a state governed under Islamic law (Sharia) whose territories constituted the “abode of Islam” (dar al-Islam). Thus, the caliph served as the symbol of the supremacy of the Sharia, as commander of the faithful (amir al-muʾminin) in his capacity to both defend and expand these lands and as leader of prayers (Imam), thereby clothing the caliphate with religious meaning. Sunni Islam holds that Muhammad left no instructions regarding his successor, who was to be elected, with the decision of the community regarded as infallible. Accordingly, following Muhammad’s death, Abu Bakir was elected based on his close association with the Prophet, his piety, and his leadership ability. The Shiʿa Islamic tradition, on the other hand, asserts that the community made a grievous error in electing Abu Bakr rather than Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, ʿAli ibn Abi Talib, whom they believe was chosen by the Prophet. These partisans of ʿAli consider Abu Bakr’s succession to be illegitimate, claiming that infallibility was limited to the Prophet’s family through ʿAli, ʿAli’s sons through his marriage with the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, and their descendants. Thus, Shiʿite Islam rejected the Sunni notion of rightly guided (Rashidun) caliphs, a term used for the first four caliphs, acknowledging instead the rightful succession of ʿAli and his descendants. The Rashidun Caliphate (632–661) was followed by the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750) established by Muʿawiya in Damascus, Syria. The dynastic succession established by Muʿawiya lasted until a rival clan of the Qurash tribe, the Abbasids, successfully revolted. The Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258) established a dynasty with its capital in Baghdad, though its control over the state was severely reduced during its last three centuries by rival secular rulers, including the Buyids and Seljuks along with the Fatamid Caliphate (909–1171) in Egypt and the Umayyad Caliphate (929–1031) of Spain. The Ottoman conquest of the Mamluk state led to the establishment of the Ottoman Caliphate (1517–1924).

Article.  4471 words. 

Subjects: Islam

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