The Caliphate

A caliphate is a form of leadership where the ruler is elected by the people to rule and help solve their problems using the Shariah laws as a guide. The people who elect the Caliph use the Shariah laws to evaluate His performance. It is a form of leadership inspired by the Islamic belief system and is lead by a Caliph. There are many beliefs on how the caliph should be chosen. For instance, the Shia Muslims believe that the caliph should be an Imam and of the Ahl Al-Bayt decent. For the Sunni Muslims, the belief is that the caliph should be elected by the Shura or Muslim representatives. There are many rules and guidelines regarding the selection of the Caliph, His desirable traits, the persons who select Him and the duration He serves in the leadership position. Once chosen, a Caliph has a number of responsibilities he is supposed to play failure to which he may be removed from power.

The first caliphate was after the death of Prophet Muhammad. It was established by the disciples of the prophet in an attempt to sustain the political and military leadership the prophet had established. The Caliphs had spiritual but not prophetic powers. They also had Political and military powers. Sunni Muslims believe that Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali were the first Caliphs (Stewart, 1995). They were all very strong followers of Prophet Muhammad. The caliphs were elected by ‘Shura’. For the Shiites, the first caliph was Ali who was replaced by Muawiya on his death

In the past, there has been strong belief that the Muslim world should have only one Caliph. There are written records that claim that Prophet Muhammad said, “Whosoever comes to you while your affairs have been united under one man, intending to break your strength or dissolve your unity, kill him?” “The children of Israel have been governed by Prophets; whenever a Prophet died another Prophet succeeded him; but there will be no prophet after me. There will be caliphs and they will number many (in one time); they asked: What then do you order us? He said: “Fulfill bayah”. “When the oath of allegiance has been taken for two Caliphs, kill the latter of them”.

Other scholars have brought up their ideas concerning the Caliph. For instance, Ibn Khaldun who was a well known 14th century Muslim scholar and historian said that it was not possible to appoint two men in the position of the caliph at the same time. Al-Mawardi who was an 11th century jurist stated that “The investment of two rulers in two different cities is invalid in both cases, for the ummah.” By this, he meant that ‘Ummah’or the Islamic world did not will nor have more than two caliphs at a go. Incase this happened, he stated that they must give up office for each other, which would imply that they both step down for some one else. He also gave another option which involved the caliph from the community of the previous leader taking over. Another proof that shows that the Muslim world should only have one caliph at a time was the ‘Hadith’ writings which contain all the words said and deeds done by Prophet Muhammad. The ‘Madhhab of Fiqh’ states that “It is forbidden to give an oath to two caliphs or more, even in different parts of the world and even if they are far apart.” (Stewart, 1995). Muslim scholars have defined a given criteria which any possible leader of the Caliphate must meet to be considered legitimate.

There are a number of traits an individual must have to become a Caliph. The most basic is that he must be a Muslim man. The requirement that one must a man is put in place by the ’Hadith’ in which Prophet Muhammad stated that  the people would never gain under the leadership of a woman. This disqualified women from been Caliphs. Other than been a Muslim, the person must of good conduct, high morals and must be trustworthy. The person must be highly knowledgeable in Islamic issues and must be decisive enough to allow him critical make decision when required to.

Since the caliph serves as leader, he must have political, military and administrative experience. The experience is meant to help him effectively play his leadership role. At the time when Prophet Muhammad was in charge, the Quraish tribe was the majority in the Muslim world. The Prophet therefore stated that Caliph should be of the Quraish tribe. He stated that, “The Khalifas are Quraishi” (Stewart, 1995).  However, some scholars have opposed this view. For instance, Abu Hanifa and Muhammad Riya-Ad-Deen were of the view that the Caliph should be from the majority tribe. This was meant to make it easy for him to lead as he would have majority support. Finally, for one to be a caliph, the person must be physically able, spiritually able, courageous and protective of the ‘Ummah’ or the Muslim people. To reduce his dependency to other people, he must be healthy and all his body parts must be functioning properly. That meant for instance a blind man would never be a caliph.

There are main ways through which one be selected a caliph. The caliph is chosen by the Muslim ‘Ummar’ or the Muslim people. A caliph may be chosen by selection, nomination and by force. In the first instance where the Caliph is chosen by selection, it is done by a group of people called the ‘Majlis-Ash-Shura’ or the consultative council. The group is made of at least three people who are very knowledgeable on Islamic affairs. They are experts in issues pertaining to Islam. The group should not be too big to allow for easy decision making. The members of the groups should be selected from the various Muslim tribes. Al-Mawardi suggested that for any body to be a member of the group, the person should be just, knowledgeable on Islamic issues and must have wisdom. Another scholar Al-Juwayni gave the conditions that for one to be a member of the council, one had to be Muslim, knowledgeable and must be a man. Most of the scholars were of the view that Knowledge on Islamic issues and wisdom were most critical for the membership. The person appointed by the council becomes the caliph unless the general community opposes the appointment. Incase community is against the appointment, the council must found the reasons why, try to negotiate with the public and resolve the problem.

Another way of choosing a caliph is by nomination. This occurs when the current Caliph nominates the Caliph to take over or replace him. The people should accept the person nominated unless the person is unfit to be a leader. In such a case, the public may reject the person. A good example of a Caliph who was chosen using this approach is Umar who was nominated by Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr had also been nominated by Prophet Muhammad to become a Caliph.

A caliph may still be chosen through the use of force. This happens when the current Caliph chooses somebody and forces the people to accept him as their Caliph. Nobody can oppose the Caliph after he takes over power. Scholars stated this is meant to prevent Muslim bloodshed that would result if individuals were to fight for the leadership position. For instance, Ibn Hanbal, a popular Muslim scholar stated that if the individual is righteous and promises to be righteous, the person becomes the caliph (Stewart, 1995). This also occurs in instances when there is no Caliph in power. Anybody may forcefully take over power and become the Caliph. The person must however promise to abide by the law and to be righteous. For instance, currently there is no Caliph in charge of the “Umar’. Any qualified person who forcefully takes over would become the Caliph.

On becoming a Caliph, the individual has number of duties he is supposed to play in the society. He plays a protective role. A caliph must watch over the religion of Islam and ensure that no foreign beliefs are introduced into it. In addition to watching over Islam, the caliph must watch over the territory of his people. The Caliph plays a judicial role in society ensuring that those who deserve justice do get and those who commit crimes are punished for their crimes. A caliph should ensure that everybody living within his society whether Muslim or Non-Muslim is treated fairly and protected so as to be productive. A caliph should help in the spread of Islam throughout the world and should see to it that Muslims all over the world are protected. To help protect Muslims, the Caliph can call for a ‘Jihad’ against any nation that victimizes Muslims.

The caliph also has some administrative roles to play. The caliph is supposed to gather and allocate the spoils of war guided by the Q’uran and Sunnah. The distribution must be done without fear. It should be collected from the middle people. Another administrative role the Caliph plays is to make payment to all persons involved in the collection of Zakat or State levied taxes (Stewart, 1995). The Caliph should ensure that salaries paid are reasonable and the payment is made on time. A caliph plays some governance and leadership roles. He is supposed to give guidance and advice on governance issues. He is supposed to appoint aides and governors who are supposed to help in the governing of the ‘Umar’. However, when making his appointments, the caliph must ensure that he appoints competent people capable of giving him good advice. The Caliph should ensure that he is aware of major governance issues and that he prevents corruption.

Once one becomes a Caliph, one serves in the position as long as one is competent. When a sitting Caliph performs his obligations effectively, he cannot be removed from power or disobeyed by anyone. Whatever he says binds all so long as he is guided by the Shariah laws. It is forbidden to remove a Caliph who acts as per the laws. However, there are times when the removal of the caliph has been necessary and different scholars have given their views regarding this issue. For instance, the famous Muslim scholar Al-Mawardi is of the view that a Caliph who doesn’t follow the Quran and the Sunnah should be removed. If the caliph is also handicapped to the extent that he cannot effectively perform his duties, the caliph should also be removed. For example, he stated that if the Caliph becomes blind or is amputated, he must stop been the Caliph. Another Muslim scholar by the name Al-Baghdadi was of the view that a Caliph should be removed if he diverges from justice. However, prior to his removal, he should be warned of his wrongful acts. Al-Juwayni stated the major the Caliph’s goal should be to watch over Islam and protect Muslims failure to which he should be removed (Stewart, 1995). Other scholars have written given different reasons that a may lead to the removal of the caliph. A caliph may be removed if he is ignorant, oppressive and deviates from Islamic practices.

Another reason that may lead to the removal of the Caliph is if he behaves in a way that portrays him as a non-believer. Al-Asqalani wrote that incase this happens, it is wrong for anybody to obey his word. All Muslims are required to stand against him and fight him. Those who listen to him engage in sin. Anyone who cannot fight against him should move to another place and organize his resistance from there. A Caliph that practices Kurf should be removed immediately. However, Kurf results only after an individual commits a major misconduct. Reasons that would lead to the declaration of Kurf are abuses on the Quran and Sunnah, failure to participate in prayer and fasts and any attacks on Allah by the Caliph. All these result to declaration of Kurf whose result is the removal of the Caliph immediately.

Once a caliph has been ineffective requiring removal, the Majlis-Ash-Shura or the consultative council acts on behalf of the Muslims and requests the Caliph to resign. Incase there is no Majlis-Ash-Shura or the consultative council in place, the public nominates people who form one. The nominated persons lead in the removal. However, no Caliph should be removed from office before he has been warned and made aware of his crimes. The council is put up because no single should initiate an attack against the Caliph (Habib & Malise, 2002). Muslim scholars have greatly contributed towards this issue. For instance, Al-juwayni suggests that if the Caliph acts in a wrongful manner, the Majlis-Ash-Shura or the consultative council should lead all Muslims against the Caliph. He states that no single individual can lead an opposition against the Caliph as this would amount to anarchy.

If the Caliph is warned and he fails to change his wrong full acts, the Majlis-Ash-Shura or the consultative council has authority to remove him from power. However, if the Caliph is requested to resign and he fails to or threatens to use physical force so as to remain in power, there are a number of options that may be used to remove him. Some scholars suggest that the Caliph should be fought. They suggest that it is mandatory for Muslims to use all means available including force to remove him from power. However, there are some scholars who suggest that so as to avoid Muslim bloodshed, the Caliph should be let to continue leading. Scholars who promote this view include Malik, Ash-Shafi’i, and Ahmad (Habib & Malise, 2002). Others still suggest that the Majlis-Ash-Shura or the consultative council after analyzing the situation can use both attempts.

Currently, the Muslim world doesn’t have a Caliph. The advice Al-Mawardi would have for the Muslim world would be for them to select a Majlis-Ash-Shura or the consultative council that would help in the selection of the Caliph. He would advice them to look for men who are just, men who are knowledgeable in Islamic issues and men who are wise and have insight. He would advise the Council to select a person who is just, wise, of good health, physically, good leader, courageous and of the Qurayash family to become the Caliph. Al-Mawardi would advise the Muslims to get a Caliph because of the many benefits he provides. For instance, he is a unification figure, he helps safeguard Islam, he ensures there is equality and justice for all among many others. All this benefits would make Al-Mawardi favor a Caliph.



Stewart, P.J Unfolding Islam, Clark, NV: Garnet, 1995

Gettleman, M.E  & Schaar, S The Middle East and Islamic world reader Authors New York, NY: Grove Press, 2003

Walker, S.T The caliphate The Clarendon press, 1924

Crone, P & Hinds God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam
  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003

Habib, A.H & Malise, R A history of the Arab peoples   Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002

Hanne, E.J Putting the caliph in his place: power, authority, and the late Abbasid Caliphate Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007

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