Dr. Susmit Kumar

The caliphate is the head of the Islamic state or civilization. After the death of Muhammad, Abu Bakr was chosen as his successor, or first caliph. The caliphate ended in 1924, when it was abolished by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. The first four caliphs, who were among the companions of Muhammad, are considered to be Rashidun (Rightly Guided) caliphs (in sequence): Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib. They lived simple lives. Abu Bakr was caliph for two years (632-634) and Umar for 10 years (634-644). Umar was assassinated by a non-Muslim slave for purposes of revenge. Uthman was caliph for 11 years (644-656). He was killed by a group of Muslims who were not happy with the way he governed. His murder started the first fitna, or civil war, among Muslims. The fourth caliph, Ali, was chosen in 656 in the middle of the civil war. A’isha took a leadership role in challenging his authority and fought with him the Battle of the Camel in Basra within a year of his assuming the caliphate. She was defeated in that battle.

Immediately after the Battle of the Camel, Ali had to fight with Mu’awiya, governor of Syria, who was angry with Ali for not punishing the killers of ‘Uthman. Mu’awiya and ‘Uthman belonged to same clan, the Umayyads. Although neither side won the battle, Ali’s power was reduced and Mu’awiya won the caliphate by rigging the arbitration. One faction, which refused to accept the arbitration, formed the Shiite faction among the Muslims, and recognized Ali as caliph and later on his descendants, the imams. In addition, an extremist group known as the Kharijites wanted to kill both Ali and Mu’awiya. They were successful in killing only Ali, however, though Mu’awiya was wounded.

After the first four caliphs, the caliphate became based on dynasties: the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Ottomans, and for short period of time, other dynasties in al-Andalus, Northern Africa, and in Egypt, who also claimed the caliphate.

Mu’awiya made the caliphate hereditary and started the dynasty of the Umayyad (661-750). The dynasty was based in Damascus, and enjoyed the benefits of this life and its material enrichments. With it the caliphate became more a form of kingship and lost much of its spiritual orientation. This materialistic orientation notwithstanding, the Umayyad caliphs were careful to safeguard the temporal interests of the Muslim community and to organize it formally into a state administered by an expanding bureaucratic machinery that reflected the strong influences of the assimilated conquered peoples and their traditions of government.[1]

The Abbasids (750-1258), based in Baghdad, forcefully appropriated the caliphate from the Umayyads under the pretext of restoring the pure and pious traditions of the Prophet to caliphal rule. Under the influence of Persian advisers and courtiers, they began to emulate Persian ways and their love of pomp and splendor, familiar to the reader of the tales popularized by the Arabian Nights. The caliph no longer regarded himself as the primus inter pares of the community, the imam who led the faithful by personal example along the righteous path. He was now an absolute sovereign empowered by all the prerogatives due a despot; he was beyond reach of the public; unlimited powers were at his disposal, and he was fully capable of exercising such powers at will.[2]

The bureaucracy, started during the Umayyad dynasty, usurped most of the powers once held by the caliph. An imam led the Friday prayer and delivered the important khutbah (sermon); a qadi (judge) dispensed justice as decreed by the Quran and embodied in the Shariah; an amil was in charge of gathering taxes; and an emir commanded the army and often the administration in the various far-flung provinces of the caliphate. The numerous decrees issued in the name of the caliph were drawn up by kuttab al-sirr (scribes, secretaries) constantly multiplying in numbers. With the Abbasids, the institution of the vizierate entered the scene, and the vizier, who enjoyed no special function at first other than that of a general aide-de-camp and confidant to the caliph, now took charge of a whole hierarchy of viziers and began to exercise powers like those of the modern cabinet system.[3]

The power of the caliph was gradually reduced as non-Arabs, especially Turks, gained influence, and sultans (possessor of supreme authority) and emirs grew in power. In North Africa, the Fatimid dynasty, which claimed descendancy from Muhammad through his daughter, claimed the title of caliph in 909. They conquered Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. The Abbasids were able to confine the Fatimids to Egypt only, however, and the Fatimid dynasty ended in 1171. The Umayyad dynasty briefly ruled in Cordova (Spain) and claimed the title of caliph from 929 to 1031, when they were ousted.

In 1258, Mongol forces attacked Baghdad and executed the Abassid caliph Al-Musta'sim and all his sons except one, who was taken as a prisoner to Mongolia. In 1261, a surviving member of the Abbasid dynasty was installed as caliph in Cairo under the patronage of the Mamluk sultanate, but this line of caliphs was in name only, and served only a ceremonial function. Historians call them the Shadow Caliphate.

Mehmed II (sultan 1432-1481) was the first ruler of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) who started to claim the title of caliph. After Ottomans conquered most Arab lands and defeated the Mamluk sultanate in 1517, they brought the last Abbasid caliph, al-Mutawakkil III, as prisoner to their capital, İstanbul, where he surrendered the office of the caliphate to the Ottomans. Ottoman rulers usually used the title “sultan,” however. Their empire was one of the largest political structures created after the Roman Empire. It ruled over eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, several of these areas for as many as 600 years.

1 Farah, Caesar E., Islam, Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., Hauppauge, NY, 6th ed., 2000, p. 152.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., pp. 152-153.

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