A Caliphate


What is a Caliphate?

A caliphate is simply an Islamic state that is ruled by Islamic law, or sharia law and is governed by a caliph. The caliph, or khalifah is considered to be the successor to Muhammad. This is the simplest understanding of the caliphate, but throughout history how the caliphate has been defined has differed. Even from its earliest origins, the nature of the caliphate was a source of tension that eventually led to the formation of the two major sects of Islam: Sunni and Shia.

A caliphate (Arabic: خِلافة‎ khilāfa) is a form of Islamic government led by a caliph (Arabic: خَليفة‎ khalīfah About this sound pronunciation (help·info))—a person considered a political and religious successor to the prophet Muhammad and a leader of the entire Muslim community.[1] The Rashidun caliphs, who directly succeeded Muhammad as leaders of the Muslim community, were chosen through shura, a process of community consultation which some consider an early form of Islamic democracy.[2] During the history of Islam after the Rashidun period, many Muslim states, almost all of them hereditary monarchies, have claimed to be caliphates.[1]

The Sunni branch of Islam stipulates that, as a head of state, a Caliph should be elected by Muslims or their representatives.[3] Followers of Shia Islam, however, believe a Caliph should be an Imam chosen by God from the Ahl al-Bayt (the “Family of the House”, Muhammad’s direct descendants). In 2014, the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant declared itself a Caliphate;[4] nonetheless, its authority remains unrecognised by any country.

What is the origin of the Sunni and Shia schism?

The schism between Sunni and Shia happened early on in the history of Islam. The dispute originated with the question of who was fit to lead the budding Islamic state. After the death of Muhammad, Sunni Muslims believed that the successor, or caliph, should be elected through shura or council. The Shia, whose name originate from Shiatu ‘Ali meaning party of ‘Ali, favored succession through lineage and supported Muhammad’s son-in-law ‘Ali.

The Sunni elected Abu Bakr and the Shia contested his authority. According to the Shia, ‘Ali was passed by three times by usurpers until finally becoming caliph.

Some accounts of the difference between Sunni and Shia try to make an analogy to the schism between Protestantism and Catholicism, but this is highly misleading. The theological differences between Sunni and Shia are minimal—the differences are there, but the major source of tension stem from questions of legitimacy to rule.

Who were the first caliphs?

According to the Sunni it is the rashidun or the “rightly guided ones.” These are Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, Uthman, and ‘Ali. Shia on the other hand reject the first three as usurpers and only accept ‘Ali and those directly related to his line as authentic leaders of the Islamic state.

How has the caliphate evolved and changed throughout history?

The caliphate has never been a static institution. It is dynamically constructed throughout the centuries to reflect socio-political and religious trends, or altered to suit the purposes of those invoking its authority.

From the beginning there was great variation. Besides the differences between Sunni and Shia, the question of succession within the Sunni tradition has varied also. The first caliph, Abu Bakr was elected by council, but upon his death bed he appointed Umar as his successor. Umar on the other hand selected six candidates who were to form a committee to elect a caliph from amongst them.

The caliphate was eventually transformed into a hereditary monarchy under the Umayyad dynasty and Muawiyah, but continued to adopt and transform with each subsequent dynasty.

Who was the last caliph?

The Ottoman Empire’s, Abdulhamid II was the last real caliph. Despite claiming caliphal authority, the Ottomans ruled as sultans—a far more secular title—leaving religious matters mostly in the hands of the ‘ulema or scholars. This allowed them to successfully avoid sectarian differences and pursue less than religious lifestyles. It was not until Abdulhamid II that there was a conscious attempt at reasserting the role of the caliph in the Islamic world. Bolstered by the Khilafat Movement and the Pan-Islamic sentiment of thinkers like Jamal Ad-Din Al-Afghani, Abdulhamid II pushed for a unification of Muslims under the political authority of the caliph to oppose the growing encroachment of Western imperialism. Under Abdulhamid, the caliph was a rallying point for Muslims around the world against the threat of imperialism.

After World War I, which partitioned the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent Turkish nationalist movements, the caliphate was abolished.
Have Sunni and Shia always been fighting? Is the modern war in Iraq centuries old?

The Sunni and Shia have clashed several times throughout Islamic history and fought in civil wars. But the history of the two sects is not always one of bloodshed and violence. In fact, they spend more years at peace than at war. Sunni and Shia have lived alongside one another, intermarried, and cooperated over the years.

Most notably, the “Golden Age” of Islam was a result of Sunni and Shia cooperation. The Persian Abbasids, who overthrew the Arab Umayyad, were a Sunni dynasty that relied on Shia support to establish their empire. They appealed to the Shia by claiming descent from Muhammad through his uncle Abbas.

Similarly the Khilafat Movement and Pan-Islamic movement of the 19th and 20th centuries both relied on unified Sunni and Shia support.

Who is Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi?

Born Ibrahim Al-Badri, he is the so-called caliph of the new Islamic State that was established by the Islamist group known as ISIS. Al-Baghdadi is a Ph.D in Islamic law who has led a radical insurgent group within Iraq against the government.

His vision of Islam is puritanical and violent and his group has committed great atrocities in Iraq. Though originally associated with the wider terrorist organization, Al Qaeda, Al-Baghdadi’s group was rejected by them on the grounds of being too extreme in its methods.

Does Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate mean a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam?

Since Samuel Huntington’s 1992 lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, the “clash of civilizations” has been adopted and reinterpreted by analysts and some thinkers. It has gained traction with jihad watch groups and similar groups, but it fails to truly address the dynamics within the Middle East.

The so-called Islamic State, while hostile to the United States and the “West,” have dedicated most of their aggression towards fellow Muslims. It wouldn’t even be accurate to view this in terms of Sunni and Shia as both groups have been struck by violence from the insurgent group.

Should the United States be worried about this new so-called Islamic State?

It is certainly worrying that this new caliphate is defined by insurgency, puritanism, and extremism. However, this should be more worrying for Muslims. It is up to them to accept or reject the claims of the caliphate, which presumes to speak and lead all Muslims. While some extremists are likely to flock to the insurgents, the wider region will ban together against the threat. A new coalition of powers will form—the hints of which we are already seeing—and the dynamic within the region will shift.

Questions of who speaks for Islam, what form of government will take root in the Middle East, and what role the region will play globally are all issues that will need to be tackled by the people themselves. It is certainly going to be violent and complicated, but it is a process taking place within the Middle East itself.

What is significant about Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate?

The so-called new Islamic State gives us valuable insight into the constructed nature of the caliphate. The very term caliphate invokes apprehension in public discourse and Al-Baghdadi’s group has not help change that. But historically the caliphate was a dynamic institution. Whether it was the aristocratic Arab caliphate of the Umayyad, the Persian Islamic caliphate of the Abbasid, or the more secular caliphate-but-really-a-sultanate of the Ottomans, the caliphate has been defined differently by different people. Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is just another example of this history and no doubt like previous caliphates it will be contested and rejected. The real question is how will the caliphate continue to take shape? Will it follow the extremist model of Al-Baghdadi and his ilk or is there another definition on the horizon? [1]
– See more at:

Islamic Governance has been set by Sahih Muslim Bk 20

The role of a Caliph within a Caliphate was determined with the hadith Sahih Muslim Book 20 of which I refer to here:

https://mbplee.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/book-on-islamic-government-sahih-muslim-bk-20/    [2]

Like everything Islamic, the role of a Caliph and the function of a Caliphate is already determined long ago in the hadith Sahih Muslim Book 20, so it is not some new concept. In fact it is a concept conceived in the 7th century to those values and culture. So when we look at “IS” or “ISIS” or “ISIL” we are looking to a well accepted and familiar system of governance practiced over hundreds of years. The laws the have adopted are fundamentalist Islamic Laws of Allah, the Sharia Laws, the codes of ethics and justice are that of the Sharia Laws that has not changed much since the days of the Prophet Mkuhammad. So why are we so surprised when their justice and punishment meted out are of the same standards practiced my Muhammad himself? The whole concept of the caliphate is a system that stems from Muhammad’s days. This is a system that Muslims want to rekindle and live by. These are Islamic values taught from the Quran. We may have forgotten how fundamentalist those values are and it may even shock us, but they are Islamic values cherished by Muslims.

Because Islam is rigid and inflexible, these concepts clash with our present western Christian values, and there is no way either party can accommodate the other. The gap is too great and the parties are too inflexible. Hence we have a clash of civilisations.

The decline of the Arab world 

In any case, the proclamation of the Caliphate shows where the Islamic world is heading. Three conclusions emerge from al-Baghdadi’s proclamation: first, “We want to restore the greatness of Islam”; Second, “the West has reduced the Islamic world to nothing, killing people, making widows …”; third, “we will forcibly take back our leadership”.

This is the typical mythical discourse of the fundamentalists: first we were very good, then we were depleted, now we will regain power by force.
Here’s how Abu Bakr depicts the decline of the Islamic world in his tirade:
  “The Islamic Ummah seeks your jihad with hope. Your brothers in many parts of the world are being inflicted with the worst forms of torture. Their honor is violated and their blood is shed. Prisoners are moaning and screaming for help. The orphans and widows lament their fate. Women who have lost their babies cry. Mosques are desecrated and shrines are violated. The Islamic nation awaits your jihad with hope. You have brothers in all the corners of the earth who are suffering: in China, India, Palestine, Somalia, Arabian Peninsula, Caucasus, the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Philippines, Ahwaz, Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, both in the East and in the West … “.

He began with a very acceptable observation: the decline of the Arab and Islamic world, recognized by intellectuals and people from all walks of life. It is enough to compare any given Muslim nation and a Western counterpart in the arena of economics, politics, human rights, justice, social life, care for the weak and the poor, to see that the Islamic world is in the midst of a period of decline. Even where we have billions and are richer than anyone (think of the Arabian oil), the educational level is very low and the contribution to world civilization is null!

This is where the seeds of the dream are born.  This dream of rebirth, however, finds no support in wealthy Muslim nations, the oil countries, uninterested in any integral human development. Reflecting on this, the Arab world must recognize the following: we have money, but it is the hands of a few; we have the numbers, with hundreds of millions of people, but we only know how to make war.

Rebuilding a culture of openness 

In fact, the only way to regain our dignity is to culturally reconstruct our concept of the Arab and Muslim person, to rethink the laws we apply to human rights, to strengthen them and move in the direction of an open culture, which sympathizes with the whole world. Instead we see the spread of a culture of division, which is a step backwards.

We should look at the Abbasid Caliphate and ask ourselves: where did its greatness stem from? It came from the union of all parts of the ancient Muslim empire. From the cultural point of view more than the Arabs, the Iranians, Afghans, Balkh, Syriac-speaking Christians have contributed to its greatness… It was an open vision that gave space to all, all the while giving priority to the Arab Islamic world.
Today’s culture is based on the human rights of the people and solidarity between peoples. And what do we do? We try to justify and regress to a way of life from the past (seventh century), typical of a Bedouin desert region: this cannot be a solution for the twenty-first century.

6. Islam’s ideological error
The Islamic world’s error is an ideological one. It leads to ideological wars: cultural, religious, historical, but never based on the real needs of the people.

The Arab people seek solutions to basic needs; equality between men and women; between Muslims and non-Muslims; rich and poor (the poor in the Arab world have never had a voice!).

Instead of taking the best of modern civilization and assimilating it, we try to find the solution by going backwards.

The cause of this error is ideological, but the West is also partly responsible: it must improve relations with the Arab world. We see the West as an immoral place, without values​​. It is partly true. The West is seen as the global leader, but it uses weapons and the law of the fittest to impose its dominion. Looking at these elements, the Muslim world rejects the Western project, as too “human”, and hopes in a “divine plan” that is sharia.

In reality, Sharia law has nothing “divine” about it: it is the sedimentation of Bedouin tribal rules from the ninth and tenth centuries, and has nothing to do with the Koran, which dates to the seventh century, or with the Prophet Muhammad.

Unfortunately, although this idea is shared by most of the population, the political leaders, especially the richer ones, continue to keep alive the idea of Sharia law as something “holy”, defending the Bedouin and the desert culture, in so far as they are descendants of that era. But they are not and will never be a model for the Muslim world.

Conclusion: Rebuilding Arab society with shared values 

If you really want to rebuild the Arab society, a few fundamental choices are needed:

1. We Arabs must learn to live together on the basis of shared values​​, without going to war because of religious differences. And secondly, we need to think about solidarity in the countries and the region. It is unacceptable that there are super-rich Arabs and people struggling to survive and these differences encourage wars.

2. At another level, regional collaboration is needed, especially with Israel, for peace with the Palestinians. Every step towards peace in this sense may also facilitate relations with the West.

3. Another urgency is that Arab nations must prepare constitutions inspired by justice, equality, human rights, peace, without making any distinction between the sexes or religions.

4. Finally, societies need to eradicate corruption. Our countries are drowning in corruption. In Egypt, for instance, many people do not go to the hospital because they know that every service, even the most simple, requires a small bribe. For surgery, a daily pill, an injection you have to pay, otherwise you will not receive any care!

The caliphate has none of these 4 principles. So it will not succeed, indeed it will only reinforce discrimination based on standards established more than 1000 years ago. The vast majority of Muslims want to live according to true ​​and current values; only the Salafists want to go back to the Middle Ages!
The solution is to enter into a vision of international inter-Arabian collaboration, to build a new civilization, incorporating the positive elements of modernity and the values ​​contained in Islamic tradition. If the Arab world fails to do so, it will only regress, and – what is worse – it will do so in the name of religion, namely Islam. The time has come to save Islam, by fighting against religious fanaticism. [3]


I found the article quite stimulating even if I do not agree with all the views expressed. It has taken me some time to mull over its contents and to formulate my views.

(1) Despite the great wealth held by a few in the Arab lands, there is still much illiteracy, poverty, ignorance, and corruption there. The wealthy do not attempt to spread their wealth for the benefit of the general population but squander it upon themselves. Some of the most selfish and self indulgent behaviour is exhibited in these Arab countries. There is very little investment for the development of science and industry to create jobs and wealth for the masses. So the Arab nations have remained static or even stagnant in scientific or material progress.

(2) I quote “the Salafists want to go back to the Middle Ages!
The solution is to enter into a vision of international inter-Arabian collaboration, to build a new civilization, incorporating the positive elements of modernity and the values ​​contained in Islamic tradition. If the Arab world fails to do so, it will only regress, and – what is worse – it will do so in the name of religion, namely Islam. The time has come to save Islam, by fighting against religious fanaticism.”

The dichotomy is that, “The Quran is the immutable literal word of Allah.” And thus it cannot be challenged or changed or modified. It is within the ideology of Islam that is holding back, “the inquiring mind” and the “questioning mind” because by so doing he would undermine the foundations of Islam. This is what is holding back Islam, and stopping the incorporating the positive elements of modernity into Islam.” The Gates of Ijtihad were closed in the 10 Century. Islam can only hope to revert back to the 7th century and cannot move forward to the 21st.

(3) There is nothing intrinsically wrong with an Islamic Caliphate. “A caliphate is simply an Islamic state that is ruled by Islamic law, or sharia law and is governed by a caliph. The caliph, or khalifah is considered to be the successor to Muhammad. This is the simplest understanding of the caliphate.”

A caliphate is simply a Government ruled by Sharia Laws of Allah. This is why it has such appeal to devout Muslims. Most Muslims know of the Ottoman Caliphate and how it extended its rule across much of southern Europe with comparative success and have dreams of the return of such glory for Islam again. It is like wishing for the return of Empire.

But, Muslims do not appreciate that today we understand the differences of the different religious doctrines and the compatibility or immiscibility of such cultures much better than in the days of the Ottomans, that today there will be a much greater resistance to such rule. So the concept of a Caliphate raises great concerns of the future of the Western civilisation and thus the wariness.

The gulf of cultural values and its immiscibility is the cause of concern and fear and for good reason as history has shown.


[1] What is a caliphate: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/156280#sthash.xUILQNBY.dpuf

[2] Shahih Muslim Bk 20: https://mbplee.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/book-on-islamic-government-sahih-muslim-bk-20/

[3] The Desperate Dream of an Islamic Caliphate: http://www.asianews.it/news-en/The-desperate-dream-of-the-Islamic-Caliphate-31574.html

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