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The caliphs were the early leaders of the Islamic religion and people, appointed after the death of Muhammad in 632 CE. Caliph, sometimes spelled Kalif, means representative or successor, and the caliphate is the early Islamic form of government under the caliph. Sometimes the term caliph is also related to Imam, or religious leader.
The united Islam accepted the first few caliphs, but trouble arose after the death of the fourth caliph, Ali ibin Abi Talib. At that time, an exceptionally powerful family called the Umayyads came forth to offer a candidate to replace Ali. Dispute followed because some of the Islamic people believed the caliph had to be a blood relative of Muhammad, as the first four caliphs had been. Others felt a caliph should be determined by election, and that blood relation to Muhammad was not a prerequisite.
This dispute led to the legendary split of Islam into the Shi’a and Sunni sects. The Shi’a would not support any caliph but a blood relation of Muhammad’s, and the Sunni supported the first Ummayads caliph, Muawiyah 1. Another smaller sect of Islam, the Ibadi, felt a caliph should be chosen for his abilities as a great spiritual leader. They did not feel that direct relationship to Muhammad was necessary.
The schism in the Islamic religion following Umayyad control of the caliphate was not complete until the Umayyad dynasty fell in 750 CE. At this point, another powerful family called the Abbasids took power. Though they were marginally related to Muhammad, they were not related to the first caliph, Ali. This disappointed the Shi’a and resulted in complete schism with the Sunni and Ibadi Islamic groups.
The Abbasids controlled the caliphate for an exceptional 300 years, and the Shi’a began an alternate caliphate. Since Islam now controlled a very large territory extending from Spain to Africa, the Abbasids claimed power mainly of northern lands, while the Shi’a caliph line ruled in primarily North Africa.
Because of the arguments regarding the appropriate right to hold the caliph title, some leaders of Islam designated themselves sultans or emirs. This was the official title of the Ottoman Empire rulers who controlled the caliphate, for both Sunni and Shi’a Islam, until 1875. In 1924, in the then defunct Ottoman Empire’s stronghold of Turkey, the caliphate was officially abolished. It remains within the Turkish government’s authority to reinstate it, and rename a caliph. This is an unlikely possibility.
In most cases, especially since the schism in Islam, the office of caliph has been a divisive force, and most countries now rely more on local Imams to guide them in matters of governance related to spirituality. It should be noted that while the Sunni advocated for a democratic or elective process in deciding who should stand as caliph, there are many countries with a primarily Islamic population that do not have general elections. Leaders of a country are more likely to be appointed or to seize power. However, the government styles of Islamic countries continue to change, sometimes rapidly.