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What is a Caliph?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By wisdomdivine — On Nov 04, 2012

The Caliph / Khalifah is successor to a prophet of Allah. His goal is to carry to completion the tasks of reformation and moral guidance which were started by the Prophet.

Allah has promised in Holy Quran to believers and doers of good deed that He would make Caliphs / Khulafa for them:

"Allah had promised to those among you who believe and do good works that He will surely make them Successors in the earth, as He made Successors from among those who were before them; and that He will surely establish for them their religion which He has chosen for them; and that He will surely give them in exchange security and peace after their fear.They will worship Me, and they will not associate anything with Me. Then whoso is ungrateful after that, they will be the rebellious.[chapter Al-Nur]

The verse mentions the blessings attached with righteous Caliphs / Khulafa. After the Holy Prophet (PBUH), the first four Caliphs are called Khulfa-Rashedeen. Hadhrat Abu Bakr, Umer, Uthman and Ali. Hadhrat Ali made a pledge of allegiance to all three previous Caliphs, one after another. They all loved each other.

According to the worldwide (in 200 plus countries) Ahmadiyya movement's claim, their Caliphate / Khilafat has been continuing since 1908. They claim it is according to the prophecy of Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)for peaceful revival of faith with no use of force. The fifth Ahmaddiyya Caliph / Khalifat leads his worldwide community. It is advisory in nature and oversees the morals and spirituality of the followers and has no political objectives at all.

By realislam12 — On Feb 18, 2009

(Hadith) Holy Prophet(sawa) said:Imam Hussain (a.s) is the guiding light and ship of salvation.

The Prophet of God made another statement which

leaves no doubt that (He Prophet)said "Hasan and Hussain are the masters of youth in Paradise.

Sayings of Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib (A.S.)

The 1st Imam of Islam after Holy Mohammed (s))

"Divine rule can be established only by a man, who, where justice and equity are required,

neither feels deficient nor weak and who is not greedy and avaricious."

Sayings of Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib(A.S)The 1st Imam after Prophet(saw)said:"If a friend envies you,then he is not a true friend.

By realislam12 — On Feb 17, 2009

Well the fact is Prophet(s) has already selected his successors at the very known islamic event at Ghadeer after returning from his last hajj pilgrimage. Imam Ali (a.s) was made his first successors, even Abu bakr and Umar have congratulated Ali for this deserving post and paid allegiance on Alis hand in form of 1 lakh witness, but i don't understand why did these 3 khulafa turn away with their words and after the death why didn't they attend the Prophet funeral when Ali waited for them for 36 hrs, why these 3 Khalifas arranged a special meetings and decided in threes the post of succession.

This is like poking knife from back in Mohammed (s)back,and an open cheating.

How can such cheaters be the leaders of islam?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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