When the companions of Prophet Muhammad introduced the Caliphate system to run the affairs of the Islamic state, following his death in AH 623, they did not really come up with an entirely novel idea.
As the Quran indicates, after their death, the most prominent prophets had “successors” among their followers. For example, for the jewish people, Yusha Bin Nun succeeded Prophet Moses, while followers of Jesus continued to spread his teachings.
Some Islamic literature for both Sunnis and Shiites, narrate stories on Prophet Muhammad’s prophecies about his succession as well as the duration of the Caliphate system before turning into a monarchy. Some of these prophecies actually described the character of the first successor, Abū Bakr Abdallāh bin Abī Quḥāfah, known as aṣ-Ṣiddīq among Sunnis, and Ali ibn Abi Talib, the paternal cousin of Prophet Muhammad, among Shiites. Some of these prophecies were too detailed, mentioning the rise of the Umayyad dynasty to power followed by the Abbasids.
In any case, the Caliphate was a unique system among its contemporaries, and remained just as unique compared to the regimes that followed.
Defining Caliphate in Its Early Beginnings
In its simplest definition, the Caliphate system is about executing the tasks of Prophet Muhammad, including managing the civil and religious affairs of the Islamic state. Therefore, the first successor was called “the successor of God’s prophet”. When Omar ibn Al-Khattab assumed power, he was called “the successor of the Prophet’s successor”. He later objected saying the title was too long, which led to the coining of the term “Amīr al-Mu'minīn” (commander of the faithful).
Although the term had a Jihadi connotation due to its association with commanders of the army at the time, Muslims since then started using it to refer to caliphs.
Muslim scholars and experts in Islamic politics had different views on whether the caliph was the successor of the Prophet or of God. The majority endorsed the opinion that a caliph succeeds the Prophet, rather than God almighty, because one can only succeed a person who is either absent or deceased, two conditions that do not apply to God almighty.
The civil tasks of a caliph are quite similar to any other head of state in any administrative system: leading the army, developing public policies, overseeing state institutions, and addressing other states. However, the ruler shall be accountable to “Ahl As-shura”, an advisory council bringing together key figures, the “opinionated, wise and experienced” figures, heads of tribes and families, army commanders and representatives of different social groups.
This was the “contract” between the ruler and the people, which was first created by the first caliph, Abū Bakr ‘Abdallāh bin Abī Quḥāfah, who said in his first speech: if I do well, help me. If I do not do well, you shall guide me to the right path”.
In the religious aspect, a caliph ensures that Islam’s teachings are observed and implemented in state institutions and people’s conduct, who shall avoid the vice, perform their religious duties and observe limits.
Because the caliph can be questioned by his people and have pre-set authorities, this regime is different from “the religious/theocratic” regime, where the ruler is deemed infallible and derives his power from the deity. However, this understanding only applies to the Sunni understanding of the caliphate.
Followers of Shiite Imami doctrine believe caliphs are infallible rulers, who succeeded descendants of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the direct successor of Prophet Muhammad according to them. Consequently, one who inherits the post of the Prophet also inherits his infallibility.
Who Can Be a Caliph?
An eligible caliph has to meet numerous conditions, such as: being qualified, adhering to general moral and behavioral norms, having no bodily diseases that may affect their performance, and being mentally fit.
The following are the four most important conditions a caliph must have:
Allegiance of the People
It is the free pledge of allegiance without any act of coercion or manipulation of people’s free will. Scholars had different views on whether all people need to pledge their allegiance to a caliph, or if “Ahl Al-Hal Wa Al-Aqd”, who are the senior officials of the state, may be enough.
Consulting with People
As per the commandment of the Quran, a caliph is expected to “consult them in the matter”. Therefore, he cannot take major decisions, such as wars, important laws or the introduction of any new system in the state, without consulting people.
Scholars also had different views on whether consulting with people actually meant the general public or only the aforementioned “Ahl Al-Hal Wa Al-Aqd”. They also explored how binding the opinion of the majority can be. Does the caliph have to follow this opinion? Can he listen to these opinions and then follow what he deems fit?
Ruling with Justice
This remains one of the most important conditions, setting the caliph apart from a dictator who serves their personal interests or those of the ruling elites. A caliph is expected to rule with justice, and keep the public interest as a top concern in all of his decisions and acts.
A Descendant of Quraysh
At one point, Al-Ansar (local inhabitants of Medina) wanted Sa'd ibn Ubadah, head of the Khazraj tribe, to be the caliph. However, Abū Bakr Abdallāh bin Abī Quḥāfah, Omar ibn Al-Khattab and Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah said a caliph must be a descendant of the Quraysh tribe.
When some suggested having “a caliph from you (Quraysh) and a caliph from us (Al-Ansar)”, the three aforementioned figures said they had heard the Prophet Muhammad say: “Imams are from Quraysh” and “let Quraysh lead and do not seek to lead”.
This condition in particular is the most controversial. Companions of Prophet Muhammad believed a caliph must be a descendant of Quraysh because of the tribe’s power, which ensures other Arabs’ obedience. They said “Arabs will not bow except for this descendant of Quraysh”.
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While some perceived it as a condition that applied to a certain historical context relating to Prophet Muhammad’s death, others believed it was timeless.
When other political and ethnic groups emerged during the Abbasid era, such as the Persian and the Turkish and surpassed Quraysh, some Islamic jurists dropped this condition. However, Shiite Imami doctrine still strictly observe this condition. Not only did they seek a descendant of Quraysh, but also a direct descendant of Ali ibn Abi Talib and his wife Fatima, daughter of Prophet Muhammad.
As per the norm, Mecca and Medina, the Islamic holy sites in Hijaz, had to fall under the rule of the Caliphate, which explains why Abbasid and Fatimid caliphs competed to rule this region. However, the Umayyad Caliphate in Andalusia broke this rule, as their eighth Emir, Abd-ar-Rahma III, also known as Abd-ar-Rahman Al-Nasser, proclaimed himself a caliph in his country.
Power Transfer and Transition to Monarchies
In the early decades of the caliphate, power was transferred through different methods. While Abū Bakr Abdallāh bin Abī Quḥāfah himself had been proclaimed a caliph by the people of the capital “Medina”, he chose Omar ibn Al-Khattab to succeed him before his death.
Following an assassination attempt, Omar formed a council of six nominees for the post: Uthman ibn Affan, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Az-Zubayr ibn Al-Awam, Talhah ibn Ubaydullah, Abd al-Rahman ibn Awf, and Saʿd ibn Abī Waqqās.
Although he made his son Abdullah the seventh member, he only wanted him to take part in the consultation but never run for the post. Uthman ibn Affan was chosen as the third caliph.
After the death of Uthman, Ali ibn Abi Talib sought to become the caliph, demanding the allegiance of people in Medina, Iraq and Egypt amid a serious political rift between him and his opponent, Muawiyah Ibn Abi Sufian.
Lying on his death bed after an assassination attempt, his companions asked if his son, Al-Hassan ibn Ali, would be the caliph and he responded: “I neither demand nor prohibit it”. Al-Hassan later ended the political rift, ceding power to Muawiyah and marking the end of the Caliphate in its old form. From that point onwards, it became a hereditary monarchy, resembling the Byzantine and Persian ruling systems according to some of the Prophet’s companions.
Later, Muawiyah’s son, Yazid, inherited the throne from his father. Throughout the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, a ruler had to name his heir among family members while he was still alive, be it a son, a brother, a nephew or a relative, as Sulayman bin Abd al-Malik named his paternal cousin, Omar ibn Abd Al-Aziz, a successor.
However, power transfer arrangements had to observe some conditions. For example, Umayyads refused to let the son of a slave rule their first state in the east, whose capital was Damascus, fearing it would then fall.
Their prophecy actually happened later. During their rule in Andalusia, they did not abide by this condition and their last caliph, Marwan ibn Muhammad, was the son of a slave. According to Fatimids and Ottomans, a ruler must be the eldest son, except when the sultan/caliph passes away without having male heirs.
It is worth noting that every state told its people they would maintain the rule till the end of time. The first Abbasid caliph Abul Abbas al-Saffaḥ said “we will keep this rule until we hand it back to Jesus son of Mary” in a reference to apocalyptic events, such as the return of Jesus Christ to rule with justice.
The Gradual Fall of the Caliphate
During the Abbasid Caliphate, Al-Muʿtaṣim bi’llāh ordered a change in the structure of the army, relying on his Turkish soldiers who formed the corps of his troops. He even established a military capital for them, named “Surr Man Ra’a” (which later collapsed as people ridiculed the name and called it “Sa’ Man Ra’a”). It later became Samarra.
From that point onwards, Turkish soldiers rose to power, controlled the state and became even more powerful than caliphs. The caliphate became an honorary title, as caliphs were given monarchical titles such as “Amir al-Umara’”, King, Sultan, Qaseem Amīr al-Mu'minīn.
When people pledge allegiance to them, caliphs announce that they delegate their authorities to the soldiers, or as the saying goes “I give them access to what lies behind my door”.
A state within the state emerged through establishing hereditary monarchies within these caliphate states, such as Seljuk, Buyid, Tulunid, Ikhshidid and other dynasties.
Some of them killed caliphs who tried to rebel against them, such as Al-Mutawakkil and Al-Muntasir. Others pierced caliphs’ eyes, such as Al-Qahir, invaded their capital Baghdad, or ruled from neighboring states, such as the Turkish Seljuks.
When the Abbasid rule moved to Cairo during the Mamluk era, namely during the rule of al-Ẓāhir Rukn al-Din Baibars al-Bunduqdar, a caliph kept an honorary role, granting the Sultan the necessary legitimacy and accompanying him in official convoys and ceremonies only.
Things did not really change in the second half of the Fatimid state. During the rule of caliph Al-Mustansir Al-Fatimy, he summoned a military leader of Armenian descent Badr Jamali from the Levant, and made him the “the Minister of Pen” and “Minister of Sword”. He became known as “the holder of two portfolios”.
Following this incident, ministers became more powerful than caliphs and interfered in their affairs until the caliphate fell at the hands of the Ayyubid dynasty, affiliated with the Abbasids.
As for the Ottomans, when Sultan Salim I conquered the Mamluk state, he took the Abbasid caliph with him to Istanbul, where historical narratives vary as to what exactly happened. While some claim he forced the caliph to cede power to him through an official contract, others say there was no such a thing.
However, there is a consensus that the Abbasid caliphate did fall completely, and Ottoman sultans inherited the title, albeit they used it only when they needed to appeal to people’s religious and spiritual emotions.
The Ottoman caliphate also witnessed its share of autocracy, either by the army or by the “prime ministers”. In 1924, the caliphate officially ended at the hands of the Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Where is the Caliphate Today?
On June 29, 2014, ISIS, the terrorist organization in Iraq and Syria declared the creation of the “Islamic State” and proclaimed Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badry, known as “Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi” as their caliph.
The goal was double-folded: to appeal to the “nostalgia” that some Muslims feel towards the caliphate and to legitimize their operations. Al-Baghdadi appeared on stage wearing a classical Islamic black robe and Turban, a sign that history buffs understand and immediately associate with the Abbasid caliphate.
Generally speaking, Muslims who feel some kind of nostalgia want to reclaim the “glories” that are long gone, especially in light of religious texts that suggest the caliphate will turn into a monarchy before it re-emerges again, and ends with the emergence of the “Caliph of the end of time”, who rules the world with justice.
The “savior caliph/Mahdi” is mentioned repeatedly in Islamic literature. It did not begin with the fall of the caliphate in 1924, but rather with the gradual loss of caliphs’ power in previous centuries.