Saturday, December 16, 2017

What is a Caliphate?

Abdulmecid II, the Last Sultan and Ottoman Caliph
In 2014, a term returned from the past and used to inspire fear and hatred. The Islamic State of Syria and Levant declared itself a Caliphate making many ask the question – What is a caliphate?

Early Caliphate

A caliphate is an Islamic state that entrenched its legitimacy from the Prophet Mohammad itself. It began during the time of the Prophet’s death in 632 and his followers built upon his legacy of a polity during their time in Medina. Back then, the Prophet led Medina and built upon a state that defended the rights of all inhabitants of the city whether believers or not of Islam. He also demonstrated his position as a political, military, and religious leader. From this, the Prophet’s followers convened to discuss who should succeed in the position.

They agreed that none should replace Mohammad as the Prophet of Allah and decided to call the succeeding leaders as Khalifa rasul Allah (Successor of Allah’s Prophet) or simply Caliph meaning successor. In 632, the Muslim leadership chose Abu Bakar as the first Caliph.

After Abu Bakar, 3 more men followed him as Caliphs and they became known as the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs or Rashidun. Their duties included implementing of Islamic laws, suppressing apostates, leading the prayers, and protecting pilgrims to Mecca. Thus, a caliph commanded both political and religious leadership of the whole Islamic community. Also, the Rashidun caliphs rose up to the position through election. During the rule of the 4th Caliph Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, a divide emerged as the process of choosing a caliph went into question.

2 factions emerged that continued to plague Islam to this very day. The 1st called the shia’t Ali (Followers of Ali) or Shias in short, believed that Ali should have been the first Caliph disregarding the first 3 Rashidun caliphs and believed as well that the Caliph should be a relatives of the Prophet. On the other hand, the ahl al-sunna wa-l-jama’ah (people of custom and community) or Sunnis believed that caliphs should be elected. As a result, the position of a Caliph ceased to be a single particular man unifying Islam but became a multiple men serving as a rallying points in the politics of the religion. A civil war erupted between the factions ending with Ali’s death and the rise of the Sunni Umayyad Caliphate.

Umayyads and Beyond

The Umayyads transformed the position of Caliph from an elective to a dynastic or hereditary position. The caliphate’s founder Muawiya found elections as a cause for factionalism and instability. So he decided to make the position hereditary and did so under threat of death. In a council meeting to designate Muawiya’s successor, all those who opposed the appointment of his son as his successor met a sword in front of him. Under such instance, none voiced opposition and the Caliphate became a hereditary position.

The practice of hereditary caliphate continued well into the successors of the Umayyads – the Abbasids. Other caliphates also appeared that challenged the leadership of another caliphate as the condition of the Cordoba Caliphate in Spain and Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt that refused to recognize the authority of the Abbasid Caliphate. They too also practiced the hereditary Caliphates.

A Caliphs imbedded powers from the Prophet and leadership of the Islamic community made its recognition important to newly forged Islamic states. Sultanates and emirates sought the recognition of the Caliph for their respective consolidation of powers.

In 1258, the Abbasid Caliphate ended in the hands of the Mongols. A small number of relatives of the Abbasid caliph survived in Egypt and continued to hold the title without much authority however.

It was not until in 1517 that a Caliph who wielded power and authority rose again in form of the Ottomans under Selim I. Selim conquered Egypt and made the last Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakil III to transfer the title of Caliph to him. Since then, the Sultans of the Ottomans came also to be known as Ottoman Caliphs in the Islamic world. A title they held until the fall of the Ottomans 1924.

The title of Caliph and the term caliphate remained dormant amidst the rise of western style governments and secularism. Only with the rise of Islamism and ISIS in 2014 that a renewed attention on Caliphates returned, tragically in a negative way.

Summing Up

Caliphate is a state ruled by a caliph or a successor of the Prophet as the leader of the Islamic community. The early caliphates followed the tribal practice of election until the Islamic community grew along with the ambitions of the title’s holders. It transformed to a hereditary position similar to a King but wielded still both religious and political authority. Politics brought numbers of caliphate existing simultaneously erasing the caliph’s position as a leader of a unified Islamic community. Soon it only became a mere title for the purpose of prestige and power. Now, the caliphate and caliph gathered attention as terrorist used this leadership position to justify their acts of terrorism.

See also:
"Caliphate." In Historical Dictionary of Syria. Edited by David Commins and David Lesch. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2014.

"Caliphate." In Encyclopedia of the Medieval World. Edited by Edward English. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005.

Keaney, Heather. "caliphate." In Encyclopedia of Islam. Edited by Juan Campo. New York, New York: Facts On File, inc., 2009.

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