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Khilāfa (Arabic: خِلافَة, caliphate) is a political-religious term which refers to the succession of the Prophet (s) in political, governmental and religious matters. According to Shiites, the succession of the Prophet (s) extends to both mundane and afterlife matters, and the Prophet's (s) caliphs are Twelve Imams (a) from Ahl al-Bayt (a), the only difference between them and the Prophet (s) being that God does not make any revelation to them. After the demise of the Prophet (s), the official caliph [except for the short term rule of Imam Ali (a) and Imam al-Hasan (a)] was undertaken by non-infallibles (people who were not ma'sum). For about 13 centuries, numerous persons and dynasties occupied this position, introducing themselves as successors, that is, caliphs of the Prophet (s).

In historical terms, caliphate is a structure of government in terms of which the administration of the Islamic community took shape after the demise of the Prophet (s), and its occupant, who is called 'Khalifa' or 'caliph', counts as the Prophet's (s) successor in the Islamic government.


The Arabic word "Khilafa" is originated in the root of "kh-l-f" (Arabic: خ‌ ل‌ ف) which denotes succession, and the word "Khalifa" (خَلیفَة, plural: Khulafa' خُلَفاء and Khala'if خَلائِف) means successor or surrogate. The words "Khalifa", "Khulafa" and "Khala'if" have been used in the Qur'an in just this literal meaning.

In the wake of the demise of the Prophet (s) followed by political developments, the words "Khilafa" and "Khalifa" were used to refer to the political succession of the Prophet (s) in governing the Islamic community, or any Islamic government after the demise of the Prophet (s). Such uses have turned these words into key notions of the political culture of Muslims, and some people tried to ground the legitimacy of the political system of Khilafa or caliphate in the use of the word "Khalifa" in the Qur'an. The words imamate and Imam have also been used in the work of early Muslim authors in the same meaning, which is different from what Shi'as mean by the words.


In the historical approach, caliphate is a structure of government in terms of which the administration of the Islamic community after the demise of the Prophet (s) took shape, and its occupant, the Khalifa or caliph, counts as the Prophet's (s) successor in the Islamic government.

Event of Saqifa Bani Sa'ida

The formation of caliphate dates back to an assembly in Saqifa Bani Sa'ida in which a group of companions sought to determine the Prophet's (s) successor immediately after his demise. The architects of caliphate as a political system seem to have had a remarkable grasp of the system, which is the origin of the most important ideas about caliphate that left a profound impact on the subsequent views of Muslims. The assembly in Saqifa displayed the strong influence of the pre-Islamic cultural and social traditions of Arabs on the formation of the structure of an Islamic government.

Conditions of Caliph

The founders of the caliphate emphasized that the caliph should be from Quraysh, thereby making the tribal approach the most significant basis of the caliphate. Given its consistency with the cultural and social life of Arab people, the approach received wide acceptance. It was in line with such an approach that Al-Abbas b. Abd al-Muttalib, the Prophet's (s) uncle, emphasized the family inheritance of caliphate, and Abu Sufyan opposed the rule of a low-ranking kinsman of Quraysh, that is Taym, the tribe of Abu Bakr. In spite of this, there were still people at that time who did not subscribe to such a notion of the Prophet's (s) succession.


  • Given their crucial contribution to the progress of Islam, Ansar (the helpers)) wanted a ruler from themselves with the same position as the ruler from Quraysh.
  • Ahl al-Bayt, some people of Banu Hashim, as well as some of companions, opposed the assembly in Saqifa. They did not recognize the notion of the caliphate as assumed by parties in the Saqifa meeting. Instead, they refused to accept what was later known as the religious and mundane authority of the caliph as the successor of the Prophet (s), taking it to be a privileged feature of an Imam who is appointed by God and the Prophet (s).

Abu Bakr b. Abi Quhafa

The system of the caliphate was established by choosing Abu Bakr b. Abi Quhafa as the first successor of the Prophet (s), though the choice was later known as "Falta" (Arabic: فَلتة, lit. a sudden, snap and unexpected event) by 'Umar b. Khattab. Since the decision was opposed by many of Companions, Banu Hashim and in particular, Ahl al-Bayt (a), it was difficult to make people pledge allegiance for the caliph. Since the legitimacy of the new government did not seem obtainable except through people pledging their allegiance to the "caliph", proponents of the new government tried to get people to pledge their allegiance in whatever ways they could. While oppositions to the First Caliph were so frequent that he once decided to resign from power, the most important opponents were quenched in different ways in order to keep the First Caliph in power. He was called 'Khalifat Rasul Allah' (the successor of the Prophet (s)).

Abu Bakr is the first of Rashidun Caliphs, and the procedure for his election as a caliph is the ground of the theory of ahl al-hall wa l-'aqd (people of solution and convention) in the political jurisprudence of Sunni Muslims. Abu Bakr's practice during his two years of caliphate unveils his broad conception of the caliphate as the successor of the Prophet (s) in religious and mundane matters.


All the authorities and powers of the Prophet (s) were conferred to the caliph, the only difference being the sources of their powers. Such a conception of the caliphate was exhibited most obviously when Abu Bakr declared that Muslims who refuse to pay their zakat to him are apostates (Murtadd). He was so strict in his reaction to these people that other Muslims objected to him. In fact, unlike the early statements of Abu Bakr as taking himself to be equal with other Muslims, asking people to enjoin the right (Amr bi l-ma'ruf) on him and forbid him from the wrong (Nahy 'an al-munkar) and obey him only insofar as he is on the right path of God, his performance during his caliphate displayed an authoritarian character, not only extending to the broad area of the caliph's authorities, but also to his preferences for the Quraysh tribe to which he belonged. He explicitly declared his preference for Quraysh and even in practice, he did not punish some criminals who were from this tribe, such as Khalid b. Walid.

Umar b. al-Khattab

A short time before his death (13/634), Abu Bakr appointed 'Umar b. al-Khattab as his successor and obligated Muslims to pledge their allegiances to him. He has been reported as having said that the reason for such an appointment was to prevent riots (fitna) in the Islamic community. It is not clearly known what he meant by 'riot', but insofar as the structure of caliphate is concerned, this reveals the lack of any unified approach to the selection or election of the caliph—the selection being subject to personal interests and preferences—which opened the way for the inheritability of the caliphate, turning it into the sultanate.

Since Abu Bakr was called the Prophet's (s) successor, and 'Umar b. al-Khattab was Abu Bakr's successor, he was called "Khalifat Khalifat Rasul Allah" (Arabic: خليفة خليفة رسول الله, the successor of the successor of the Prophet (s)), but he preferred to be called "Amir al-Mu'minin" (the ruler of the believers), instead. The title, Amir al-Mu'minin, remained the most popular and the most significant title for caliphs until the end of the age of caliphate. At the time of the second caliph, widespread changes were made in different dimensions of the emerging Islamic community, exhibiting an extension in the notion of caliphate, especially in its religious aspects. This view is supported by changes made by the caliph in some traditions of the Prophet (s) or some Islamic laws.


As a caliph, 'Umar took his authorities and power to be equal to those of the Prophet (s). Such a view was sometimes given a religious profile. While such a view came to be accepted among Arab Muslims, it gave rise to some worries even among the agents of the government. Even Umar himself was concerned that caliph would turn into a king or a sultan, despite his inflexible thoughts regarding the wide authorities of the caliph. Such worries were reinforced by his taking the election of Abu Bakr to have been sudden, that Abu Bakr took power without Muslims being consulted, and his different practice in selecting his own successor. However, such worries remained just that, since some of his governmental policies, such as his attempts to approximate the structure of caliphate to that of standard governments of that time, left serious impacts in the Islamic community; policies such as the constant propagation of the view that Arabs are superior to other ethnic groups ('Ajam) in contrary to the Prophet's (s) explicit anti-racist views, discrimination among people in their shares of the governmental treasury (Arabic: بیت المال, Bayt al-Mal, or the finance house), and the abolition of an equal sharing of war booties.

Appointing the Council of Caliphate

Umar left the election of his successor to a six-member council constituted by the Prophet's (s) companions. It seems that this was not his initial opinion since according to some reports, he frequently expressed his preference to appoint some of companions, who were not alive at that time, as his successors. These remarks, together with his views about the subsequent caliph, express his doubts in this regard. But he finally found it more practical to leave the decision to a council. The council was not independent enough in its election, since all its six members were from Quraysh and since they were required to elect the caliph from among themselves, the tribal approaches to the election of the caliph (emphasizing the superiority of Quraysh) would persist. Though the council resolved the problem of finding a successor for the Second Caliph, it turned into a new problem—because of raising new claims concerning caliphate—that deepened the disputes among Muslims.

'Uthman b. 'Affan

'Uthman b. 'Affan took power in 23/643-4 or 24/644-5. He was given the pledge for allegiance (Bay'a) on the condition that he acts upon the Qur'an and the Prophet's (s) tradition, and most importantly, follow the practice of the previous caliphs (called 'Shaykhayn', the two old men). Imam 'Ali (a) refused to accept the latter condition, and 'Uthman himself did not remain committed to it. In fact, though his conception of the position of caliphate and its authorities was similar to that of his predecessors, his governmental policies were unexpectedly radical and deconstructive.


Some actions, such as appointing some people who were banished from the Islamic community by the Prophet (s) to important governmental positions, assigning important governmental affairs to Banu Umayya, and donations to some people, especially people of Banu Umayya, from the Islamic treasury, were in direct contradiction with the dominant conception of caliphate among Muslims. Though these took place in the last years of Uthman's caliphate, it was heralded by some of his approaches in the first days of his rule. It has been reported that, after 'Uthman received people's Bay'a, Abu Sufyan called him to return to pre-Islamic criteria, and 'Abd al-Rahman b. 'Awf called him the supporter of Banu Umayya.

Formation of Formal Ceremonies

Some of 'Uthman's early practices were evidence of his different approach. It is reported that on the first night of his caliphate, when he went to the mosque to say prayers, some people with candles in their hands walked ahead, which was a sort of formal ceremony. And unlike the previous two caliphs who always sat below the Prophet's (s) seat on the minbar, he sat on the Prophet's (s) seat. According to al-Ya'qubi, he later called the custodian of the treasury his own custodian, which shows his tendency to treat the treasury as his own personal property. And this is what underwrites his donations to people from the treasury. And when his opponents asked him to resign from power, he rejected their request on the basis of the argument that God has given him the position. Such a conception was reinforced by 'Abd Allah b. 'Umar by saying to 'Uthman that "[caliphate is] a cloth that God has put on you". The fact that such conceptions of caliphate gave rise to serious objections and oppositions among Muslims, and in particular among the Prophet's (s) companions, is evidence that they were at odds with the concept of caliphate most Muslims had in mind then.

Other characteristics

The most important actions of 'Uthman that gave rise to objections include: not observing the rights, changing the laws of the Qur'an, increasing his personal wealth by the support of the public treasury, overlooking people's criticisms and their enjoining him the good (al-Amr bi l-ma'ruf) and forbidding him the wrong (al-Nahy 'an al-munkar), tendency to pre-Islamic traditions such as tribalism, instead of Islamic values, e.g. giving more power to Banu Umayya and in particular Mu'awiya b. Abi Sufyan, and overlooking the unjust behaviors of his agents with people.

Murder of the Third Caliph

When the Third Caliph overlooked frequent objections of people, Muslims asked for his resignation and punishment. Though the request was unprecedented, it shows that caliphate was, for people at that time, a position that may be subject to criticisms, and it is, on this conception, legitimate insofar as it is in accordance with the Islamic values, and it can persist only if people consent to it. Therefore, on this conception, if a caliph were not practically committed to religious laws, people had the right to object to him, remove him from power, and even rise against him.

The Third Caliph was killed after a public riot. The event revealed a deep division among Muslims. There were two influential tendencies among Muslims: idealists who could not overlook any deviations in the caliphate from Islam, and some wealthy people who were only concerned with their mundane interests. At this point in history, social circumstances led to the victory of idealists and the election of Imam 'Ali (a) as the next caliph.

Ali b. Abi Talib (a)

Imam 'Ali (a)
First Imam of Shi'a

Event of GhadirLaylat al-MabitYawm al-DarCaliphateTimeline

Nahj al-BalaghaGhurar al-hikamAl-Shiqshiqiyya Sermon

Excellences of Ahl al-Bayt (a)Al-Wilaya VerseAhl al-Dhikr VerseUlu l-Amr VerseAl-Tathir VerseAl-Mubahala VerseAl-Mawadda VerseAl-Sadiqin VerseHadith Madinat al-'IlmHadith al-ThaqalaynHadith al-RayaHadith al-SafinaHadith al-Kisa'Al-Ghadir SermonHadith al-ManzilaHadith Yawm al-DarHadith Sadd al-AbwabHadith al-WisayaLa Fata Illa AliThe First Muslim

'Ammar b. YasirMalik al-AshtarAbu Dhar al-Ghifari'Ubayd Allah b. Abi Rafi'Hujr b. 'Adiothers

Related Topics
Holy Shrine


People pledged their allegiance with 'Ali b. Abi Talib (a) when, unlike the previous three caliphs, there was no particular procedure for his election and 'Uthman had not proposed any such procedures for the election of his successor. This was the result of the particular social and political circumstances of Muslims at that time. In these circumstances, the Third Caliph did not have the time and chance for proposing procedures for the election of the next caliph, nor was it feasible for Muslims to apply the previous methods. Thus the protesters who went to Medina found that the only legitimate way to elect the next caliph was a direct consultation to public opinions, and they finally agreed on the election of Imam 'Ali (a) as the caliph because of his numerous virtues. In spite of his own preferences to be an advisor, rather than a leader, Imam 'Ali (a) found it wrong to reject people's requests. In particular, he accepted to undertake the position because for him, the ultimate goal of a government was to maintain justice, and this was what people wanted then.


People pledged their allegiance (Bay'a) to 'Ali b. Abi Talib (a) on the condition of acting upon the Qur'an and the Prophet's (s) tradition. He did not make the allegiance compulsory on the grounds that he was only obligated to call people to follow him, rather than coercing them to do so. Al-Iskafi has reported another allegiance that Imam 'Ali's (a) followers (Shi'as) made in order to befriend his friends and hate his enemies. This shows that the boundaries of Shi'a was being more clear-cut at that time.


Circumstances of caliphate in the period of Imam 'Ali (a) were distinct from those in the periods of his predecessors, both because of several political crises in which he was engaged from the very beginning, and because of his radically different approach to caliphate from the established, orthodox approach. One underlying reason for such a difference in approach was his rejection of Islamic caliphate both in its origination and its persistence—acquiescing it only out of exigence—but the most important reason underwriting such an approach of his was his firm belief that he himself was the immediate successor of the Prophet (s) both in political power and his spiritual position. Therefore, he was the elected leader of people and not only a caliph—a notion totally at odds with the system of caliphate. It is obvious that such a conception had particular consequences and implications for his conception of a government.

Guidance in the Framework of the Divine Mission

Unlike his predecessors, his religious leadership was not based on free ijtihad in modifying the Quranic laws and the tradition of the Prophet (s), but was in the framework of his divine mission, without taking himself equal to the Prophet (s) with respect to legislation.

Political and Economic Dimensions

In political and economic respects, like the religious ones, he followed the principles of the Prophet (s), including:

  • Refusing from any coercion and oppression with respect to allegiance as well as his treatment of people who broke their allegiances (Nakithun) or people who disobeyed him.
  • Undertaking the task of informing people of the right and wrong, both in public and in encounters with enemies—even those who drew their swords against him.
  • Refusing to take military measures as much as possible.
  • Determined combat against class, tribal and racist discriminations that were institutionalized during 25 years of the previous caliphs, and full commitment to justice.

Conveyance of the Prophet's (s) Intellectual and Practical Tradition

Imam 'Ali's main concern during the period of his caliphate was to convey the Prophet's (s) intellectual and practical tradition to people most of whom had forgotten, or were unfamiliar with, it; in fact, there was the fear that the essence of Islam was going to be dis-remembered. This is why he took the teaching of religion to be a main task of a government. He was determined to erect the flag of faith and inform them of halal (permissible) and haram (forbidden). The fact was even acknowledged by those of the Prophet's (s) companions who were still alive at that time.

Problems of Imam 'Ali's (a) Government

Because of such a conception of the government, Imam Ali's (a) government encountered numerous problems, the most important of which were the occurrence of three civil wars during 4 years and branching of some Muslims into a different religious sect. There was once again a riot against the Caliph requesting his resignation. This time, without holding any talks or negotiations with the caliph, the riots announced his removal from power and, instead of a sit-in in the center of caliphate, they killed people. Unlike 'Uthman, Imam 'Ali (a), who believed in the effectiveness of dialogues, invited them to hold negotiations and make compromises, though to no avail. And whenever there was a military action, he first talked with them with reasoning and arguments and invited them to rethink their positions. The defeat of Khawarij in this battle could quench their riot since they had no foothold among people, but social and political diversities of that time left no opportunity for Imam 'Ali (a) to go on his reforms, and soon he was martyred by some Khawarij.

al-Hasan b. Ali (a)

Imam 'Ali's (a) martyrdom in 40/661 complicated the critical circumstances of caliphate—in addition to political troubles, the geographical borders of caliphate were in danger, since Mu'awiya had declared the independence of Syria and Egypt from the center of caliphate. People nominated Imam 'Ali's (a) son, al-Hasan (a) for caliphate, since they deemed him to be competent to continue Imam 'Ali's (a) path. However, Imam 'Ali (a) left it to people to choose the next caliph. The election of Imam al-Hasan (a) as a caliph is evidence that some of Imam Ali's (a) doctrines were established among people. This is supported by the fact that people pledged their allegiance to Imam al-Hasan (a) on the condition that he acts upon the Qur'an and the Prophet's (s) tradition.

Separation of Caliphate from Sultanate

Later in one of his sermons, Imam al-Hasan (a) made a clear distinction between caliphate and sultanate in that the former has to be in accordance with the Qur'an and the Prophet's (s) tradition and should be based on justice. At that time, in Syria, Mu'awiya, who was an old enemy of Islam before the Conquest of Mecca and was appointed as the governor of Syria by the Second Caliph, was making a serious attempt to turn caliphate into sultanate, and of this Imam al-Hasan (a) and many Muslims were fully aware. That is why Imam al-Hasan's (a) priority, during his leadership, was to resist such attempts.

Mu'awiya as the Rival of Caliphate

The governmental system of Mu'awiya b. Abi Sufyan in Syria was a rival to the central caliphate. This was not resisted before Imam Ali's (a) caliphate, since Umar and Uthman who had appointed Mu'awiya as their agent in Syria, found it necessary to support him. However, Imam Ali (a) did not agree with this; he believed, instead, that the presence of Mu'awiya in power is pernicious for the Islamic nation, and this was why he took measures to remove him from power.

Compromise with Mu'awiya

Imam al-Hasan (a) tried to resist Mu'awiya, but the complicated predicaments of that time left him no choice other than to make a compromise with Mu'awiya. Thus six months after his election as the caliph, when there was an attempt to assassinate him, he resigned from caliphate and made a compromise or a peace treaty with Mu'awiya. According to al-Baladhuri, one of Imam al-Hasan's (a) conditions in his peace treaty was that Mu'awiya should not choose his successor on his own and should leave it, instead, to Muslims. Moreover, he is said to have disagreed with Mu'awiya's suggestion to overtake caliphate after him. These two positions reflect Imam al-Hasan's (a) worries about Mu'awiya's attempts to establish an inherited sultanate. These worries were soon confirmed, since on the very day when Imam al-Hasan's (a) peace treaty was signed, in a public speech Mu'awiya said that all his attempts were directed at establishing his power.

Features of Rashidun Caliphs

Imam al-Hasan (a) was the last caliph in the first chain of the Islamic Caliphate. He was one of the caliphs that came to be called Rashidun Caliphs who have had charismatic characters among later Sunni Muslims (Shia Muslims have a different view). Such a conception that can clearly be found in the work of Sunni authors of different periods, such as the fact that they were among the distinguished class of the Prophet's (s) companions, their kinship with the Prophet (s) either by blood or by marriage, their early conversion to Islam, their assistance of the Prophet (s) in his goals, and their practical tradition (with the exception of the Third Caliph). These features underpinned a significant difference between them and the later caliphs, and, above this, they turned into yardsticks against which the performance of political leaders in the Islamic community was evaluated.

Governmental Approach of Rashidun Caliphs

Their governmental approach was the basis on which some of the most important political and governmental laws of Sunni Muslims were founded. The following are some theories of this type in Sunni jurisprudence:

  • Opinions of ahl al-hall wa l-'aqd (people of solutions and conventions)
  • Principle of counseling (Shawra)
  • Caliph should be from Quraysh
  • Role of allegiance (Bay'a) as an expression of one's assent to a caliph
  • Obligation of obeying the ruler and the prohibition of rising against him
  • Permissibility or impermissibility of evicting a caliph
  • Fighting with riots against a caliph.

These are derived from the practice of Rashidun Caliphs as models of an Islamic government.


Mu'awiya b. Abi Sufyan

The establishment of Umayyad Chaliphate in 41/661-2 led to a legitimacy crisis for the Islamic caliphate. Mu'awiya was a caliph who was not seen by Muslims as similar to previous caliphs—he was not even well-reputed. In fact, most Muslims found it unbelievable to pledge their allegiance to him as a caliph, and this is why people of Kufa were coerced to pledge their allegiance to him. Even Mu'awiya himself stated that he had not seized caliphate with consent, rather by force.

Ways of Legitimizing His Caliphate

Mu'awiya had at his disposal some procedures to prove himself as a legitimate caliph.

  • According to al-Jahiz, Mu'awiya called the year in which people pledged their allegiance to him "the Year of Consensus" ('Am al-Jama'a), that is, the year of consensus over one caliph. This was a widely accepted principle at that time that a caliph is legitimized by people's consensus. This is why some Sahaba refused to pledge their allegiance to 'Ali b. Abi Talib (a) in order to break consensus over his caliphate—ignoring another widely accepted principle at that time according to which a person agreed upon by people of al-Haramayn (that is, Mecca and Medina), Muhajirun and Ansar is the caliph, which was exemplified in the case of Imam 'Ali (a). Such a pretext—that was later known, in the political fiqh of Sunni Muslims, as the principle of "the rule of the dominant"—was key to the legitimization of governments during the time of Mu'awiya and his successors, with which opponents were oppressed.
  • The main goal of Mu'awaiya, as made explicit in his inauguration speech, was to turn caliphate into sultanate. He later called himself a king, declaring the end of caliphate. However, he finally came to see that he had better keep the titles of "Khalifa" (caliph) and "Amir al-Mu'minin" (ruler of the believers) for himself. Such a contradiction, though acceptable by his proponents in Syria who had been calling him "Amir al-Mu'minin" for a long time, wasn't so acceptable for others; but it was still believable since they used to conceive of Mu'awiya as the Kasra (King) of Arabs. It was obvious that the king of Arabs could not be similar to previous caliphs. He took himself to have the permission to deal with the Muslim treasury as his personal property and he even called himself the successor (Khalifa) of God and the king of God (Sultan Allah).
  • He took his government to be a divine privilege for his own kinsman. This turned into a dominant view leading to the inheritance of caliphate among Banu Umayya, and turning the notion of Islamic caliphate into an Islamic sultanate. This was supported and confirmed by a hadith attributed to the Prophet (s) that "there will be 30 years of caliphate and then there will be sultanate". The Islamic aspect of such sultanate was the title "Amir al-Mu'minin", in addition to some superficial manifestations of Islam, such as moving the Prophet's (s) minbar and cane to Syria. Also, the title "Sultan Allah" (the King of God) was used to terrorize and oppress people. Such an approach—of terrorizing people—was key to establish Yazid as the caliph deputy.

Yazid b. Mu'awiya

The notion of caliph deputy or surrogate—which introduced the notion of an inherited crown prince in the structure of caliphate—implied that caliphate should continue among Banu Umayya, as it implied the demolition of the Islamic aspect of caliphate (especially with respect to the character of the caliph). However, things deteriorated when the caliph deputy became a caliph in 60/679-80 he ignored all Islamic values and oppressed all opposition with violent force. In this period Imam al-Husayn (a) and his companions were called "Khariji" (that is, outsiders of the religion), and people of Medina were forced to choose between death and pledging their allegiance to Yazid as slaves whose lives and properties were under the authority of the caliph. And in order to oppress al-Zubayris, they set Ka'ba to fire. This meant that the legitimacy of the caliph was no longer measured against his commitment to Islam; rather he was deemed as the yardstick of right and wrong. Even the rightest action, after testifying the oneness of God, was deemed to be the oppression of the caliph's opponents. However, uprisings such as Harra, Tawwabun and the uprising of al-Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, shows that such a conception of caliphate, though widespread, had serious opponents. In addition to the household of the Prophet (s) who expressed their position in the Battle of Karbala, some groups of Muslims, especially people of Mecca and Medina and Iraq expressed their opposition to such a conception. The arguments they made and the criteria they had for a desirable caliph are evidence of there being a strong intellectual movement whose adherents sought to put the caliphate back to its right track. One of these opponents who later claimed to be a caliph was 'Abd Allah b. al-Zubayr.

'Abd Allah b. al-Zubayr

Though 'Abd Allah b. al-Zubayr did not rise as a caliph, he had such a claim a long time before that. After the death of Yazid in 64/683-4, he called people to pledge their allegiance to him on the condition of acting upon the Qur'an, the Prophet's (s) tradition, and the practice of Rashidun Caliphs. This call was a return to the original form of caliphate as a political ideal. After the resignation of Mu'awiya b. Yazid from caliphate and the crises of Umayyad government, his caliphate went beyond Hijaz, where it began.

Banu Marwan

The caliphate of Banu Marwan began from 64/683-4 and continued until 132/749-50 with ten caliphs. They continued the Mu'awiya's heritage of sultanate and raised the spiritual authority of the caliph. A caliph as conceived by Banu Marwan was deemed as sacred, as manifested in titles such as "Khalifat Allah fi l-Ard" (God's successor on the Earth), "Amin Allah" (God's trustee), "Ra'i Allah fi l-Ard" (God's guardian on the Earth), "Wali l-Haqq" (the warden of the right), "Wali 'Ahd Allah" (the warden of God's promise), "Imam al-Huda" (the leader of guidance), "al-Imam al-Mubarak" (the blessed leader), and "Khayar Allah li-l-Nas" (God's choice for people). There were some people within the caliphate system that propagated such conceptions, such as those who fabricated some hadiths, especially poets who expressed a lot of sacred notions concerning caliphs. Hajjaj is quoted as using expressions such as the "shadow of God" or "infallible both in speech and in practice by God's leave" with respect to caliphs, claiming that wahy was still revealed to caliphs. It is indubitable that this approach had political purposes since under such conceptions it would be religiously legitimate to oppress the opponents.


Shias, and groups of Muslims who were political proponents of Imam 'Ali (a) and his progeny, expressed their opposition to such a notion of caliphate by defending the uprisings of 'Alawis (as being qualified more than anyone else for the realization of Islamic ideals).

Some of these people were attracted to the slogan of Banu 'Abbas, that is, "the consent of the Prophet's (s) progeny". They helped Banu 'Abbas, hoping that the caliphate comes back to the Prophet's (s) progeny.

Things were different with 'Alawis. Some of them (Shiite Imams from the progeny of al-Husayn b. Ali (a)) remained immune to the oppression of Banu Umayya, because they avoided public political and military activities, though they made attempts to propagate anti-caliphate ideas. Thus they could establish the intellectual and religious framework for Imamiyya Shiism. On the contrary, other groups of 'Alawis, such as Zaydis, took military action to be the best possible solution to oppose Banu Umayya. They had no success during the Umayyad period, because of strong oppressions, but they managed to establish governments in different parts of the Islamic world, though not always as caliphate.

View of Khawarij

Khawarij had a different position. They emphasized that caliphate was not restricted to Quraysh and this led to their deep political conflict with the standard idea of caliphate. They believed that every righteous, knowledgeable and brave Muslim could occupy caliphate. Even some of them believed that non-Arab Muslims and women could be caliphs. According to such a belief, they had their own non-Quraysh rulers who were called "Amir al-Mu'minin". They always conflicted with other Muslims with military action. Their rulers were elected by public appointments, and in case they deviated from religion or committed Major Sins, their followers could evict or kill them. More branching inside Khawarij and their dispersion in different areas of the Islamic world led to changes in their conception of the notion of caliphate. For instance, Najadat, a branch of Khawarij, rejected the need to an Imam or caliph if there is equality in the human community. According to this theory, Imamate or caliphate is not religiously obligatory, and when there is no need, it is not an obligation. Another branch of Khawarij, called 'Ajarida, believed that there can be two Imams or caliphs at the same time.

Among Muslims

Despite such diversity and plurality of views regarding the notion of caliphate, the political dominance and widespread propagations of Banu Umayya led to the prevalence of their conception of caliphate among Muslims in general, even after the Umayyad period. However, Banu Umayya themselves were not well-reputed among the majority of Muslims (both in their own time and later), because of the religious and political illegitimacy of their governments and their cruel treatments of the Prophet's (s) Ahl al-Bayt (a). Thus some Muslim authors refused to use the title "Amir al-Mu'minin" or "Khalifa" for Banu Umayya or appealed to the hadith according to which there will be thirty years of caliphate and then sultanate, in order to exclude the Umayyad rulers from caliphate. Even the reforms of two Umayyad caliphs, 'Umar b. 'Abd al-'Aziz and Yazid b. al-Walid, or attempts of some authors to justify the practice of Umayyad caliphs, did not improve Muslims' conception of Banu Umayya.


Abbasid was the third caliphate in Islam which lasted over five centuries (132/74-50 - 656/1258) by thirty-seven caliphs. Their motto was "Al-Rida min Al Muhammad (s)". Taking oath of allegiance to Saffah based on retaining Ahl al-Bayt's (a) rights and return of succession as the divine heritage of Prophet Muhammad (s) and his family was the principles of Abbasid caliphate. Based on this governing system, hierarchy was an essential principle in the structure of the Abbasid caliphate.

Taking the oath of allegiance to the caliph was carried out in a special ceremony written in the second and the third century after Hijrat. Ceremonies and rituals in different aspects of caliphate were necessary requirements for caliph and caliphate system.

The first generations of Abbasid caliphs were holding high religious and political authority. They were able to rule with supreme political power as they were holding religious authority. However gradually their political authority declined, even the appointment and dismissal of caliphs, the longevity of their government and their lives were almost completely in the hands of Turk, Buyid and Seljuk military officials.

Abbasid dynasty was eventually overthrown by the attacks of Hulagu Khan to Baghdad in 656/1258 which led to disappointment of those who regarded caliphate sacred. Also in different regions of Islamic territory some raised and claimed to be the caliph of Muslims.


Fatimid dynasty ruled for about 270 years (from 297/909-10 to 567/1171-2) by fourteen caliphs. They ruled over Egypt, Maghreb and the majority of Syria. Fatimids also managed to govern Diyarbakir, Rabi'a, Hijaz and Yemen in some periods of their caliphate.

The intellectual system of the Fatimid caliphate had a complex and powerful administrative structure which was based on stabilization of caliphate and promotion of their religious outlook (Isma'ili Shi'ism) all over the Islamic territories. Therefore, the Fatimid caliph was a caliph and an Imam (based on their own special meaning of Isma'ili Imam) who were holding a high spiritual status far more than Abbasid caliphs'. Fatimid caliphs had different titles including Amir al-Mu'minin, Wali Allah, Hujjat Allah, etc.

After the death of Al-Mustansir in 487/1094-5 the court of Fatimid was divided into two groups who supported Musta'li and Nizari. They were competing over the succession and caliphate which led to the division of Fatimid territories and eventually their fall. Al-'Adid the last Fatimid caliph was entirely dominated by Salah al-Din Yusuf b. Ayyub, the Sunni Sultan who supported Abbasids. Al-'Adid's death in 567/1171-2 marked the end of the Fatimid caliphate.


Ottoman sultans were ruling over Russian Steppes to the Black Sea, a region in Europe and Africa, Iraq, Hijaz and Syria; they also managed to form a strong fresh government. When Ottomans conquered Egypt in 923/1517-8 they officially attained caliphate. The Ottoman Sultan knew if they wanted to achieve caliphate, they had to relate themselves to the Abbasid caliph in Egypt; even Sultan Salim I, who founded Ottoman Caliphate tried to announce himself as an Abbasid caliph before claiming his caliphate. As Ottoman Sultans conquered parts of Iran, Anatolia, Hijaz, Syria, and north of Africa they made efforts to achieve caliphate of Muslims over Islamic territories. After the battle of Chaldiran in 920/1514-5 in which Sultan Salim defeated Safavids, he was then called "Caliph of God and Prophet (s)".

However, the Ottoman caliphate never had a magnificent spiritual status. As they were non-Arab and non-Quraysh, and their lineage did not go back to Prophet Muhammad (s) Ottomans failed to attain spiritual authority. Also in the first century after caliphate of the Ottomans, a prominent Ottoman official wrote a Risala in which he tried to legitimate caliph and Imam for non-Quraysh (Ottoman) Sultans; it represents the fact that legitimacy of Ottoman caliphate was under question.

In 1922-3 Grand National Assembly of Ankara, limited Ottoman caliphate to a spiritual level and separated it from ruling. After a year, Sultanate was replaced with Republic ruling system and Turkey became a Republic country. It was opposed with Muslims who favored caliphate especially notable figures including Sayyid Amir Ali Hindi a Twelver Shi'a and Aqa Khan (the leader of Isma'ilism), they traveled to Turkey and held meetings with the President and the Prime minister of the time to reconsider the decision. These actions failed eventually and in 1924-5 people of Turkey voted to abolition of caliphate ruling system.

New Approaches to the Problem of Caliphate

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Muslim scholars proposed different theories regarding caliphate:

  • 'Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (d. 1320/1902-3) was an Egyptian intellectual who adopted an ethnic approach and sought the return of caliphate to Arabs, but he was not specifically an advocate of the caliphate system, rather he was an advocate of a form of a government which was not deemed sacred and did not lead to absolute power. Thus, he restricted the power of a caliph to that of a religious leader.
  • Sayyid Jamal al-Din Asadabadi (1254/1838-9 ; 1314/1897): he had a positive view of caliphate and, in particular, the Ottoman caliphate. This approach is relevant to his ultimate motivations and goals, that is, the unification of the Islamic world, emancipation of Muslims from their regress and ignorance, and the recovery of their power and glory against colonialism. He believed in the revival of the power of caliphate (as an axis of the unification of the Islamic world), not in its traditional form, rather in a new framework (respecting citizen rights and mutual rights of the government and people). His positive optimistic approach turned into disappointment towards the end of his life as a result of misconducts of Istanbul's caliphate and Abd al-Hamid II (the caliph of the time).
  • Muhammad Rashid Rida (1282/1865-6 ; 1354/1935-6): he was a strong advocate of the caliphate. He was at first a supporter of the Ottoman caliphate. However, in the wake of the separation of the Ottoman caliphate from monarchy in 1922-3 and the spread of Arabic nationalism, he turned into an opponent of the Ottoman caliphate (taking it to be a deviation from the proper system of caliphate). Thus, Rashid Rida adopted the same approach as Kawakibi's to the problem of the Arabic caliphate.
  • 'Abd al-Razzaq Ahmad Sanhuri (1313/1895-6 ; 1391/1971-2): in an attempt to merge the system of caliphate and the independence of Muslim governments, Sanhuri proposed the establishment of Islamic international organizations. These organizations were supposed to take the place of the institution of caliphate by creating cultural relations and an ideological-cultural unification among Muslim people. In this proposal, the caliph was an honorary head of all Islamic governments with religious power and without any political power.
  • Abu l-Kalam Azad (1305/1887-8 ; 1377/1957-8): he gave an account of the system of caliphate as a government based on the Qur'an, decisively defended such a system, and emphasized on the election of the caliph through the votes of "Ahl al-Hall wa l-'Aqd" (qualified people). After the collapse of the Ottoman caliphate, he turned to nationalistic views and even justified the non-religious policies of Atatürk.
  • Abu l-A'la Mawdudi (1321/1903-4 ; 1399/1978-9): he defended the system of caliphate on the basis of an ideal theory of caliphate. However, he did not take caliphate to be restricted to the Quraysh or any other tribe, ethnicity, or group. He also considered the power of the caliph to be limited and restricted. He also emphasized the division and independence of powers in the political structure of caliphate. He took the caliph to be a representative of people, and thus, he leaned towards democracy.
  • Others: according to Malek Bennabi, an Algerian intellectual, there was a democratic government before the Battle of Siffin. He was optimistic about the return of Muslims to the original Islamic democracy (with an emphasis on values such as freedom of speech and thought and emancipation from tyranny). However, he never talked about the revival of the system of caliphate in his work. Hasan al-Banna (1324/1906-7 ; 1368/1948-9), the leader of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, suggested a similar view in a different way. While he considered the caliphate to be a principle of Islam and a ground for the unification of the Islamic world, he highlighted the religious role of the institution of caliphate.

Revive of Islamic Caliphate

After the abolition of caliphate of the Ottomans, some made efforts to revive the Islamic caliphate. Mawlana Muhammadullah popularly known as Hafezzi Huzur in Bangladesh founded a movement similar to caliphate which included huge political and religious movements as he tried to revive the Islamic caliphate. Supporters of Hafezzi Huzur were politically active in Bangladesh in the 1980s which included some Islamic groups. It led to massive internal disputes between supporters of Hafezzi and the government of Bangladesh. Eventually, the leaders of Hafezzi Huzur movement were arrested and Hafezzi Huzur was put in house arrest; the activities of this movement were also restricted.

In addition, Jamal al-Din b. Rashid Kablan (Khuja Ughlu) the Turkish religious scholar, declared caliphate in 1990s as the only legitimate Islamic government. It was founded based on traditional fiqh principles on caliphate as well as requirements of the modern world. Kablan's plan was almost similar to 'Abd El-Razzak El-Sanhuri's, the only difference was that El-Sanhuri regarded caliph as the highest administrative position in Islamic world and he emphasized on revival of traditions such as taking oath of allegiance, having Lunar calendar and exercising Shari'a laws. He also concentrated on selecting Istanbul as the spiritual capital of caliphate.

ISIS is the most recent group that claimed caliphate over Islamic territories.

See Also


  • The material for this article is mainly taken from خلافت in Farsi Wikishia.