The caliph as leader of the Islamic world

The caliph as leader of the Islamic world

The caliph as leader of the Islamic world

A pilgrim caravan to Mecca in the 13th century.

The title of caliph was part of the Islamic world from the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD until 1924 when it lapsed. It originally comes from an Arabic word, khalifa, meaning a successor to the Prophet, someone who could both see to the spread of Islam and ensure that the law of Islam was upheld. In particular it was the title assumed by the three men who had been companions of the Prophet and who, in turn, took over the leadership of the Muslim community after the Prophet’s death and then others.

Unlike in the West, in classical Islam there was no distinction between a religious institution and the government. The government was a religious institution with the caliph as the supreme leader.


The Ka’ba and its surrounds at Mecca.

“The caliph had no pontifical or even priestly functions, and did not receive the professional training of the men of religion, the ulama. His duty was not to expound, still less to interpret the faith, but to uphold and protect it, and to create and maintain conditions in which men could live the good Muslim life in this world, and thus prepare themselves for the world to come,” (Joseph Schacht “The Legacy of Islam”).

This is, however, where the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiite, also diverge. The Sunnis continued to follow the above description while the Shiites believed that their imams, as they called their equivalent of caliph and later ayatollahs, could interpret Islam and lay down prescriptions that had no prior basis in Islamic law.

“It was held that the caliph must be a male, free, and of age and normal physical capacities, possessed of a certain degree of piety and of legal knowledge and perception, capable of directing the public administration and of leadership in war. Moreover, though he might delegate the performance of certain of his functions to qualified persons, he could not divest himself of his ultimate responsibility for all the actions of government,” (H.A.R. Gibb and Harold Bowen, “Islamic Society and the West”).

Choosing a caliph

At the time that the Prophet died, he had not appointed anyone to lead the Muslim community nor given any instructions as to how his successor was to be chosen. The choice was either consultation (election) by qualified electors or inheritance. The Prophet’s immediate companions decided on consultation – Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman. They were succeeded by Ali and Hasan (632-661). Ali was a relative of the Prophet and Hasan was Ali’s son who turned over the caliphate to the Umayyad dynasty (661-750), leading to the split between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam. After the Umayyads, who were Sunni, the caliphate was claimed by the Abbasids (750-1258), who were also Sunni. From 1258 to 1517, the Abbasids who were caliphs had only spiritual power as successive waves of Mongols and then Turks conquered the Middle East.

An attempt was made to combine consultation/election with inheritance. Discussions among the ulama jurists concerned who constituted qualified electors and it was settled that there might only be one qualified elector, the caliph himself who theoretically embodied all of the qualities a caliph should have.

Thus the caliph could appoint his successor before he died or if he was, for one reason or another, incapable of discharging his duties successfully, for example if he was imprisoned. Under the Umayyads and Abbasids, the successor did not need to be the first born son since the principle of primogeniture did not exist.


The Prophet Mohammed delivering his
last sermon in Medina.

The Ottoman Turks and the caliphate

When and how the Ottoman sultan adopted the title of caliph is disputed with some scholars suggesting that it was Mehmed the Conqueror who first claimed caliphal authority. It is more commonly thought that Sultan Selim I adopted the title following his capture of Egypt in 1517. The Abbasid caliph, al-Mutawakkil III, was resident in Cairo and so fell into the hands of the Turks. He was sent to Istanbul with some 2,000 leading Egyptian merchants, artisans and religious leaders who were inducted into the Ottoman system. Although al-Mutawakkil resided in Istanbul for several years before returning to Egypt, it’s not clear whether he surrendered his title to Selim or whether the latter appropriated it.

According to Stanford Shaw in “The History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey,” after al-Mutawakkil went back to Turkey, he took up his duties as caliph again until 1543.

While in Egypt the latter accepted the title “Servant of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina” from the Sharif of Mecca in 1517. So the Ottoman sultan, as caliph, took as his office the task of protecting Mecca and Medina, seeing that the caravan routes were safe for pilgrims coming from all over the world, providing a new covering for the Ka’ba itself every year and necessary repairs and appointing the people who served there down to janitors in addition to paying their salaries.

“It was in fact by the much more important titles of sultan and ‘Servant and Protector of the Holy Places’ that Selim and his successors sought to be remembered – the idea of caliph being used only to emphasize their pre-eminence in the Islamic world and right to promote and defend the Muslim religion and law. By extending the gazi tradition, the Ottoman sultans came to stress their role as leaders and defenders of the entire Islamic world, thus using a new interpretation of the caliphate to establish Ottoman mastery over Islamic peoples,” Shaw writes.

Only in the late 18th century did the title of caliph assume particular importance, at a time when the Ottomans were becoming increasingly weak. As a result of the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774, the Turkish sultan’s position was recognized to extend to Muslims outside the actual borders of the empire, although that did not last long. And in the last part of the 19th century, Sultan Abdülhamid II made use of the title in his efforts to prevent the breakup of the Ottoman Empire under the onslaught of the European powers to foster rebellion in its various provinces. Although the Ottoman Empire was officially terminated in 1922, the caliphate was not abolished until 1924, about five months after the Turkish Republic was proclaimed. The last caliph was Abdülmecid II, the son of Sultan Abdülaziz.