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Understanding the Caliphate: Between Romanticism and Cynicism

It is an undeniable fact that the institution of the Caliphate played a central role throughout Islamic history from the death of the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) in 632CE to the abolishment of the Ottoman Empire on 3rd March 1924CE.

This history which consists of 1,300 years of vast territorial expansion, economic prosperity and intellectual enlightenment is also known for its civil wars, dynastic power struggles and instances of oppressive rule. Therefore, Muslims should refrain from thinking that the history of Islām from the perspective of the Caliphate, empire or governance was faultless, and should avoid portraying it as a quasi-utopian civilisation.

However, my fellow co-religionists should also be wary of not accepting and promoting historical narratives framed by Islām’s ardent ideological detractors i.e. the orientalists, European colonialists, and Judeo-Christian supremacists. It is understandable that since the dawn of the War on Terror and the subsequent retaliatory attacks that have occurred in the West, Muslims have been under immense pressure to accept some of the toxic narratives pertaining to their faith and its alleged symbiotic relationship with terrorism. This subconscious and passive inferiority complex has been further cemented by the heinous crimes of the so-called “Islamic State” which was born out the US-led invasion of Iraq, and has claimed responsibility for numerous lone wolf attacks in mainland Europe.[1]

This tense sociopolitical environment has had an inevitable negative impact on how Muslims reconcile their religious identity with their place of birth or residence, as well as the mindset in which they attempt to understand their history, especially that of the Caliphate.

The Caliphate 

The Caliphate, or Khilāfah in Arabic, derives from the Arabic word khalaf, which means “successor”. Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) being the final prophet of Allāh stated that the position of authority of the Muslim nation (Ummah) would be granted to Caliphs, as mentioned in the following ḥadīth:

“The children of Israel used to have their political affairs ruled by prophets. Whenever a prophet died another would succeed him. But there will be no prophet after me, instead there will be caliphs and they will number many.” The Companions asked, “What then do you order us?” Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “Fulfil allegiance to them one after the other. Give them their dues. Verily, Allāh will ask them about what He entrusted them with.”[2]

In short, the role of the Caliph was to act as Allāh’s vicegerent on earth, by ruling with the Divine law (Shariah) in totality, establishing prayer, collecting obligatory alms (zakāt), and conveying the message of Islām to the world.[3] Naturally, these responsibilities became increasingly difficult and politicised from an administrative perspective as the Caliphate quickly expanded into large swathes of North Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean under the Rāshidūn and Umayyad Caliphates.

Whilst there were clear examples of rebellions, power struggles and usurpation of authority within the history of the Caliphate, prominent non-Muslim commentators have noted that it was never at the scale of the constant wars and instability that ravaged medieval Christian Europe.[4] For all its shortcomings, Muslim theologians and historians have noted that there was always some degree of striving towards Islamic orthodoxy or legitimacy via the key role played by Muslim scholars and judges in the day-to-day running of the Caliphate, albeit historical instances of misapplication of Shariah laws, principles and ethics.

Between romanticism and cynicism

The absence of a nuanced and balanced approach, which avoids falling into either Muslim romanticism or Western cynicism, in trying to understand the sociopolitical and religious dynamics of the Caliphate has been partly due to the tainted method in which orientalist academics have depicted Islamic history in general, as well as the psychological aftereffects of European colonialism in former Ottoman territories.[5]

One of the prevailing arguments that was born out of the post-colonial era of secular nation statehood, which continues to trouble the Muslim psyche today, is the re-establishment of the Caliphate. Unfortunately, the political aspiration of Muslims yearning to see a return of the Caliphate has been meticulously depicted by War on Terror propaganda as the exclusive aim of Islamist extremists – both its violent and non-violent strands.[6] And this cannot be further from the truth based on research and surveys carried out in the Muslim world, which has shown high percentages of Muslims wanting to be governed by Shariah law and united with fellow Muslim majority countries as one state.[7][8] In addition to this, the irrefutable importance of the Caliphate stressed in Islamic source texts makes it nearly impossible for orientalists, modernists and secular liberal reformers to dismiss the concept of the Caliphate as a post-colonial dream of reactionary Islamists.

A common argument presented by the many critics of the Caliphate is that the institution itself has never been “united,” and this is usually substantiated by the fact that there were multiple (usually two) claimants to the Caliphate at one given time throughout Islamic history.[9] However, what trumps this fact is that the Prophet Muhammad clearly stated that there cannot be two caliphs, and he who makes the second claim should be killed:

“Whoever gives his oath of allegiance to a Caliph and gives him his hand and his heart, let him obey him as much as he can. If another one comes and disputes with him for leadership, kill the second one.”[10]

The majority of Sunni scholars throughout history up until today hold this position, which is based on the above ḥadīth (along with other supplementary evidences).[11][12] However, a minority of classical scholars, namely Shaykh Ibn Taymiyya, made an exception to this rule due to the difficulties of governing over vast areas of land, poor communication, and to avoid bloodshed and instability.[13]

One Caliph for One Ummah

It is also interesting to note that during periods in Islamic history wherein contesting dynasties fought for power, land and the institution of the Caliphate, there seems to have been a general normative understanding of having one Caliph:

Muawiya (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) – the first Umayyad Caliph – never declared himself as Caliph or sought the bayah (pledge of allegiance) until after the death of Imām ʿAlī (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu), when his son Imām Hasan (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) handed over the position to Muawiya (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) to avoid further disunity in 661CE.

– The first Abbasid Caliph, as-Saffah, waited until all the remaining Umayyad dynasty members were killed until he sought the pledge of allegiance and declared himself Caliph in 750CE.[14]

– Yusuf b. Tashfin, the most prominent leader of the Almoravid dynasty, refused to declare himself as Caliph over the Maghreb and Spain because of the existence of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad.[15]

– At the pinnacle of the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt, the Abbasid Caliphs were still recognised as the symbolic leaders of the Ummah, to the extent that specific religious duties were carried out by the Abbasids, like the declaration of the start of Ramaḍān and the two days of Eid.[16]

– The Seljuk Empire accepted the ceremonial position of the Abbasid Caliphate. They even fought for the restoration of the Abbasid Caliph, al-Qa’im, under Toghrul Beg in 1058 CE when the Fatimid agent Basasiri took control of Baghdad.[17]

– Successive Ayyubid sultans swore loyalty to the Abbasid Caliphate.[18] Most famously, Salahuddin al-Ayyubi’s biographer, Baha al-Din b. Shaddad, documented that one of the objectives of his military campaign was to realign the holy lands with the Abbasid Caliphate.[19]

– Sultan Selim I was the first Ottoman Caliph. He only declared himself Caliph and sought the bayah after the last Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil III was forced to abdicate his position by handing over the sword and mantle of the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) in 1517 CE.[20]

– The Mughal Empire unequivocally acknowledged the Ottoman Caliphate. Just before his death, Mughal Emperor Humayun wrote an imperial letter to Sultan Sulaiman ‘the Magnificent’ addressing him as “Caliph of the Muslims”.[21] It was also widely documented that salutations and praises to the “Ottoman Caliphs” were common during the Jumma prayers across the Mughal Empire.[22]

Evidently, one can ascertain that even during times of competing and warring sultanates, there was an overarching acceptance of the institution of the Caliphate, albeit ceremonial and for political legitimacy. There was also a consistent acknowledgement of the ruling that there should only be one Caliph, hence the refusal or hesitancy of the aforementioned dynasties to make the claim and seek the bayah whilst a Caliph already existed. Whilst Persian, Turkic and Berber dynasties flourished, and in most cases out-powered the Abbasids (to the extent they could have easily invaded Baghdad at will) – there was never a second claim to the Caliphate made by these autonomous polities, or an effort to dethrone the Abbasids.

However, there were four significant instances where a second claim to the Caliphate was made during the existence of a formative Caliphate, which are worth noting:

The Umayyads declared a Caliphate in Cordoba between 929-1031CE.

– The Almohad dynasty declared a Caliphate over North Africa and Spain between 1121-1269CE. The Almohads were widely regarded as khawarij (a heretical sect) by many of their contemporaries.[23]

– The Fatimids declared a Caliphate between 909-1171CE, though they were widely rejected by the Sunni masses due to being Ismaili Shias.[24]

– The Sokoto Caliphate was declared by Usman dan Fodio in West Africa between 1804-1903CE. This was a well-organised resistance movement against British colonial rule that did not stretch beyond modern day Nigeria.

The above Caliphates barely lasted 150 years, and with the exception to the Fatimids, none really made the claim to their Caliphate with the intention to overthrow or delegitimise the formative one; even when their expansionist aims were not restricted to lands that were under the direct authority of the Abbasids or the Ottomans. Their lack of longevity or their expansionist restrictions aside, the existence of two Caliphs at one given time was generally unjustifiable from a normative Islamic perspective.

Should history dictate right and wrong?

A manifestation of the inferiority complex mentioned earlier in this article, which has been exacerbated by the War on Terror and the constant blame game against Islam and Muslims, is the disproportionate cynicism many Muslims apply when trying to understand the complex history of the Caliphate, and more so, towards the aspiration of the Ummah to see its return today.

Therefore, it is not uncommon to read or hear Muslims cite examples of civil wars, rebellions, tyranny or misapplication of Shariah laws in the same condescending tone as orientalists and secular liberal reformers. Furthermore, it is as if the cynics among us regard historical events pertaining to the Caliphate as indicators or even evidence to what is ḥalāl and harām in relation to Islamic governance – forgetting that those who ruled the Muslim world after the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) were human beings.

A few examples to stress the above point:

– Internal dynastic power struggles did not necessarily mean that the basic rights of the citizens of the Caliphate were not being met. For example: Feuding Ottoman princes seeking to overthrow or kill each other in Topkapi Palace did not mean their citizens in Bosnia, Syria and Jerusalem were not being fed, clothed and sheltered.

– Usurpation of power and civil wars did not mean that the Shariah was not being implemented and injustice was rife in the Muslim lands. For example: during the fitna between Imām ʿAlī (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) and Muawiya (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu), can we seriously say that justice was not upheld and the Shariah was not being implemented? Such a claim would be outrageous.

– How should Muslims measure the “success” of the Caliphate? Is it through the number of civil wars and rebellions, or its scientific and material achievements? Rather, our measurement of what made the Caliphate “successful” is whether it upheld justice, protected the basic rights and security of its citizens, carried the message of Islām beyond its realm, and if the laws and values of society were centred around Islām. If that is the case, then surely the history of the Caliphate should not be measured by civil wars and individual actions of Caliphs, but rather how closely it adhered to the Qur’ān and Sunnah in its day-to-day running internally and externally?

– Muslims should be able to distinguish between historical events and what Islamic source texts stipulate or indicate, and this is the responsibility of the ʿulama. Muawiya (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) making the Caliphate into hereditary rule did not nullify him being a Caliph, in the same way that the bloody Abbasid revolution which overthrew the Umayyads was Islamically wrong, but it did not negate as-Saffah as a Caliph because he fulfilled the shari’ conditions to be the Caliph, he took authority by force, and was given the bayah by the Ahlul hali wal’aqd (people of power). So, just because hereditary kingship occurred and sitting Caliphs were overthrown, it did not make these events correct or permissible according to Islamic source texts.

– The existence of crimes, sins and debauchery in society does not nullify any Caliphates of the past from a fiqhi (legal) point of view. Crimes, sins, wars, power struggles and even treachery existed at the time of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) and the Khulafah ar-Rashideen, and they were the best generation of Muslims.

– Another example of historical events not being evidences for what is ḥalāl and harām – even if a particular harām resulted in goodness, or a particular obligation resulted in harm, is the issue of having two Caliphs. Just because two claimants to the Caliphate occurred in Islamic history does not make it permissible to have two Caliphs today. Just because some Caliphs were tyrants whilst others were unimportant and useless, does not mean we reject the obligation of having a Caliphate today – whether it solves all the Ummah’s problems or not.

The above assumptions are becoming increasingly common amongst Muslims today – and sadly, it is expected given the hostile political climate of structural and institutional Islamophobia in the West, and the sophisticated subtlety of orientalist narratives that is spearheading the secular reformist movement. However, as a general principle, Muslims should always remember that history is ultimately written by the victors who subsequently influence or set the narratives about their respective opponents, which varies from over-exaggerating wrongdoings, the distortion of facts to outright fabrications. If liberal reformists, revisionists and orientalist historians claim that most or the entirety of the Caliphate’s history was not actually “Islamic” at all, but rather secular and Godless in nature, then the burden of proof is on them to present the authentic and reliable evidences where the Caliphate disregarded Islām as reference point for its governance.

To conclude, this summarised snapshot into the multi-layered complexities of the history of the Caliphate demonstrates how, even with all its shortcomings, the institution still strived towards Islamic orthodoxy with the inclusion of their respective schools of jurisprudence and theology playing a central role in its governance and social values. When studying and teaching Islamic history, or any history for that matter, students and teachers alike should try to avoid disproportionate romanticism and cynicism – and try to understand everything objectively within its correct sociopolitical and religious context. Admittedly, this is much easier said than done as we all (including myself) have ideological presuppositions and psychological complexes which influence the way we interpret and make sense of everything, including history.

Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] https://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2015/03/23/isis-the-unintended-consequences-of-the-us-led-war-on-iraq/

[2] Sahih al-Bukhari

[3] Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya w’al Wilayat al-Diniyya – Imam Al-Mawardi [Translated by Professor Wafaa H. Wahba, Feb 2000]

[4] http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/06/14/if-islam-is-a-religion-of-violence-so-is-christianity/

[5] https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21606284-civilisation-used-lead-world-ruinsand-only-locals-can-rebuild-it

[6] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/isis-caliphate-islamic-history_us_5963b2dde4b005b0fdc70f62

[7] http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-overview/

[8] Gallup World Poll of Muslims, 2006. http://media.gallup.com/worldpoll/pdf/worldpollmuslimtrifoldbrochure5-2006.pdf

[9] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29761018

[10] Sahih Muslim

[11] The 60 Sultaniyya, Abu Luqman Fathullah

[12] Classical Scholars on Khilafah: http://www.hizb-australia.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Classical-scholars-on-Khilafah.pdf

[13] Majmu‘ Fatawa, Shaykh Ibn Taymiyya (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:175-76.

[14] Kennedy, H. (2004). The prophet and the age of the caliphates. 2nd edition

[15] G. Stewart, Is the Caliph a Pope? in: The Muslim World, Volume 21, Issue 2

[16] A. Stilt, Kristen Islamic Law in Action: Authority, Discretion, and Everyday Experiences in Mamluk Egypt (2011) p.30

[17] Hoiberg, Dale H., ed. (2010). “Abbasid Dynasty”. Encyclopaedia Britannica. I: A-Ak – Bayes (15th ed.). Chicago, IL.

[18] Shillington, Kevin (2005), Encyclopaedia of African history, CRC Press, p.438

[19] The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin. Baha al-Din ibn Shaddad [Translated by D.S. Richards, Routledge November 2002]

[20] Drews, Robert (August 2011). “Chapter Thirty – The Ottoman Empire, Judaism, and Eastern Europe to 1648

[21]Six Ottoman documents on Mughal-Ottoman relations’ by N.R. Farooqi in: Journal of Islamic Studies, Volume, Issue 1, p.32-48

[22] Ottoman-Mughal Political Relations Circa 1500-1923, Razi Ashraf https://www.academia.edu/6380410/Ottoman-Mughal_Political_Relations_circa_1500-1923

[23] Kitab Akhbar Al-Mahdi Ibn Tumart, Abu Bakr ibn Ali Baydhaq (Algiers 1982) p.68

[24] Amin Maalouf (1984). The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. Al Saqi Books. pp. 160–170

First published in 2017

About Dilly Hussain

Dilly Hussain is the deputy editor of British Muslim news site 5Pillars. He is also a political blogger for the Huffington Post and a features writer for Al Jazeera specialising on human rights. He regularly appears on Islam Channel, Russia Today, BBC Look East, BBC South and BBC radio stations discussing Middle East and North African politics, as well as domestic stories concerning British Muslims.


  1. Masha Allah, a great piece. There are common misconceptions about history in general and Muslim history in particular.

    History is written about momentous events, typically negative ones, rather than about mundane events. We won’t find history books full of “this day was fine day and everything went just fabulous, the next day was also a fine day and everything went just fabulous again, and so on”. Often negative events are highlighted more than notable good events.

    For Muslims, we have a high standard for Justice – Islam. Anyone less than the Prophet (saw) and the Sahabah (ra) is not considered just.

    So we criticise all rulers and compare them to the Prophet (saw) and the Khulafah Rashidah, and they come up short, perhaps except khulafah Umar bin Abdul Aziz, Mutassim Billah, Muhtadi Billah, Suleiman al-Qanooni, Abdul Hamid II (ra).

    So of course almost all of Muslim history would appear to be unjust, but from the perspective of high Islamic standards. Only the systems from the Creator can best serve the interests of all and only Islam can be just. Any shortcoming, misunderstanding, or misapplication of Allah’s rules is injustice. For sure then, any non-Islamic rule would be extreme zulm. I find the following piece a very good read too https://www.islamiqate.com/3438/how-would-characterise-muslim-history-caliphate-khilafah

  2. Can you please clarify how caliphate can be restored? Ummah now consist of many countries, there will be one caliph or more and most importantly how the caliph will be elected or selected and how he will be succeeded and if need be sacked.

  3. So, a caliphate is a Good Thing and any evidence to the contrary should be ignored.
    “Internal dynastic power struggles .. civil wars and rebellions … Crimes, sins, wars, power struggles and even treachery” are trivial as against other matters like “whether it upheld justice [justice as defined by muslims, of course, which looks very much like injustice by any other standards], protected the basic rights and security of its [muslim only] citizens, carried the message of Islām beyond its realm [whether or not the people it was carried to wanted it], and if the laws and values of society were centred around Islām”. A caliph may be a son-of-a-bitch but that’s OK because he’s a son-of-a-bitch who meets Islamic criteria. And even if he doesn’t, he’s still got to be put up with. In short, by nonislamic standards it looks very like invasion, conquest and the imposition of foreign despotism, but the opinions of non-muslims (who aren’t citizens) don’t count.
    Tyranny, usurpation, injustice, aggression do not matter as against “how closely it adhered to the Qur’ān and Sunnah in its day-to-day running internally and externally”. It isn’t surprising that nonmuslims ” reject the obligation of having a Caliphate today”. Even if it “solves all the Ummah’s problems”, though, it does so at the expense of nonmuslims. If the caliphate really did apply “Islām as reference point for its governance”, so much the worse for islam and the caliphate. In fact, the one advantage of having a contemporary caliphate would be that other states could decide that people who believed this nonsense were obviously citizens of the caliphate and could immediately be deported to it as undesirable aliens. This might annoy the caliph, but as he’s going to carry the message of islam to everyone else when he can anyway, it’s as well to begin as he means to go on.

    • Straw man argument. As if secular liberalism is the better choice with the illusion of choice. If people were more academically honest rather than cherry picking history and imposing your own bias you will find there have always been idiots in power. Boris Johnson, Theresa May the likes of George Bush etc . . .

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