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When the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) died in 632, he left behind a governmental organization that revolved around Him. He was a political and military leader who provided revelations. When political or societal problems arose, they resolved them with the help of Muhammad’s (PBUH) suggestion and through the revelation of Allah himself.

Muhammad’s (PBUH) important role posed several challenges to the developing Islamic state. The first issue was the status of revelation itself, which was settled with the formation of the definitive Qur’an. The political and military succession to Muhammad (PBUH) was a more significant issue. The only viable model was a single leader, but that leader had God’s authority behind Him.

The most potent followers of Muhammad (PBUH) devised the answer together with the solution. The Meccan followers of Muhammad (PBUH) who had moved with him in 622 (the Muhajirun, or “Emigrants”) and the Medinans who had become followers (the Ansar, or “Helpers”) disagreed—violently.

However, Muhammad’s (PBUH) father-in-law, Abu Bakr RA, was eventually dubbed the Khalifa, or “Successor” of Muhammad (PBUH). A new role in the religion and environment resulted in a novel, untested political formation: the Caliphate. This blog has detailed notes on the Caliphate from the patriarchal to the modern era, so read thoroughly till the end.

The Patriarchal Caliphs

The early caliphs were Muhammad’s (PBUH) relatives and adherents. These four caliphs would solidify Islam’s political, social, and religious institutions, including the canonical edition of the Qur’an.

During their reign, the Islamic world expanded far beyond the Arabian peninsula’s borders—east into the Persian empire, north into Byzantine territory, and west over northern Africa.

The first four caliphs are known as Islam’s patriarchs or patriarchal caliphs because of their fundamental position and direct followers of Muhammad (PBUH). For many Muslims, this was the golden age of Islamic administration, when a true Islamic polity existed; for others, such as Shi’ite Muslims, this was the only period in which there was a valid Islamic government. According to this viewpoint, establishing the Umayyad dynasty ushered in more than a millennium of illegal authority.

Abu Bakr RA (632–634)

Abu Bakr RA, Muhammad’s (PBUH) friend and father-in-law (the father of his most adored wife, Aisha RA), has been with Him since the beginning. Abu Bakr RA demonstrated his military prowess during conflicts with Makkah and other Arabian tribes. Abu Bakr quickly urged a military expedition against the Byzantine Empire, partly to avenge an earlier Islamic defeat and partly to draw Islamic and Arabian attention.

However, as soon as the Arabian tribes learned of Muhammad’s (PBUH) death, Islamic peace and most partnerships collapsed, and several tribes revolted. This marked the beginning of the period known as al-Ridda, or “The Apostasy,” among Muslims. In the early years, Abu Bakr RA devoted all of his energy to quelling these rebellions and tenuously restoring Islamic calm.

Following suppressing the rebellions, Abu Bakr RA launched a conquering war. It is unclear if he meant a full-fledged imperial conquest, but he set a trajectory leading to one of history’s largest empires in just a few decades. Abu Bakr RA began with Iraq, but before he could assault the Persian empire, he died—only two years after being named Muhammad’s (PBUH) heir.

‘Umar RA (634-644)

Umar was gifted militarily and politically; above all else, his political genius kept the Islamic world together throughout Muhammad’s lifetime.

‘Umar RA maintained Abu Bakr’s RA war of conquests. He pressed into the Persian Empire but also traveled north into Syria and Byzantine territory and west into Egypt. By 640, Islamic military conquests had delivered Abu Bakr complete control of Mesopotamia and most of Syria and Palestine. Egypt and the Persian Empire were both captured in 642. These were arguably of the world’s wealthiest territories, defended by formidable militaries—and they fell into Islamic hands instantly.

However, ‘Umar RA was one of history’s most significant political geniuses. While the empire grew alarmingly under his leadership, he also began constructing the governmental system to hold the immense dominion together. Umar RA did not require non-Muslim communities to convert to Islam, nor did he seek to centralize administration as the Persians had done. Instead, he permitted subject populations to keep their religion, language, customs, and government primarily intact. The only intrusions would be by a governor (Amir) and, occasionally, a financial officer known as a’amil or agent.

His most significant innovations were in creating a financial structure for the empire. He established an effective revenue structure to do this and placed the military under direct governmental financial supervision. He also established the diwan, a unique Islamic institution.

The diwan included people essential to the Islamic faith and world, such as Muhammad’s disciples. Umar RA established many Islamic traditions and rituals and began compiling the Qur’an.

His most enduring legacy, however, was the establishment of the Muslim calendar. The Muslim calendar, like the Arabian calendar, remained lunar. However, he established the calendar’s commencement when Muhammad (PBUH) emigrated to Medina. According to Umar RA, this marked a watershed moment in Islamic history.

‘Ottoman RA (Osman 644-656)

As he neared death, ‘Umar RA created a committee of six individuals to elect the future caliph, selecting one of their own. All of the men, including ‘Umar RA, belonged to the clan of Quraysh; the Ansar, or Medinans, had steadily lost authority.

This committee would prove significant, as its decision would eventually lead to Islam’s first schism. The committee restricted the options to two: Uthman RA and Ali RA. Ali RA was Muhammad’s (PBUH) son-in-law, and he had been with the prophet since the beginning of his mission. Muhammad (PBUH) may have also designated Uthman as his successor. Uthman was an Umayyad, one of the affluent tribes violently resisting Muhammad (PBUH). 

‘Uthman RA was an efficient and intelligent military and political commander, but ‘Ali RA was a devoted religious devotee. 

Uthman RA continued the conquests that Umar RA had started. The Islamic Empire captured Libya in North Africa and ultimately conquered the eastern regions of the Persian Empire.

However, dissatisfaction increased steadily and drastically. In 656, a riot broke out in Medina, and the protesters were so angry that they flung stones at ‘Uthman RA. The caliph asked for military assistance. When rumors of military reinforcements spread among the rioters, they broke into ‘Uthman’s RA house and murdered Him while he was reading the Qur’an.

Until ‘Uthman RA, the Qur’an was primarily an oral scripture that followers had memorized. However, conquest wars had reduced their numbers, and the admission of alien peoples into Islam jeopardized the Quran’s integrity as an Arabic scripture. So ‘Uthman directed that all written and oral versions be compiled and a definitive version set down. This ultimate form became Islam’s primary scripture, serving as the foundation of Islam’s history. 

The Umayyad Dynasty

Following Ali’s death, Muawiya’s (r. 661-680 CE) lone rival was Ali’s eldest son, Hasan, who abdicated the post in favor of the former in exchange for a large annuity. The Umayyad Dynasty’s authority began officially in 661 CE, with Muawiya as its first caliph and Damascus as the new capital; power was relocated from Iraq to Syria, and Medina would never regain its political stature. His 20-year reign was the most stable for the Ummah (Islamic community) since Umar’s death.

Tunis was also seized under his rule (in 693 CE), and the native Berber population joined Islam, eventually expanding the empire’s borders into the Iberian Peninsula. Iraq’s refractory province was also controlled by a brutal but faithful governor, Hajjaj ibn Yusuf (l. 661-714 CE).

Muhammad ibn Qasim invaded sections of modern-day Pakistan (by 712 CE), while Kutayba ibn Muslim conquered Transoxiana (by 713 CE). Tariq ibn Ziyad led the Muslim conquest of Hispania in 711 CE, and Musa ibn Nusayr followed suit; by the time Walid died, the two had taken most of Spain.

Muslim historians have exclusively praised Umar ibn Abd-Al-Aziz (r. 717-720 CE), the most dedicated and pious Umayyad. Also known as Umar II, he was a devout Muslim whose brief reign was reminiscent of the older Rashidun Caliphate. He fostered equality, facilitated conversion by lowering taxes on non-Arab Muslims, prohibited public cursing of Ali, and ceased raids on the empire’s peaceful neighbors. His persistent commitment to justice and piety pitted him against his tribe, which assassinated him in 720 CE; he is nevertheless revered as a legendary figure among Muslims today.

The Abbasids, a new power, conquered him in 750 CE. The Umayyads’ uncontested reign ended with Marwan’s death, while they retained a small fraction of their previous empire, Al Andalus. 

The Abbasids Dynasty

The Abbasids, descendants of Muhammad’s (PBUH) uncle, were successful in their insurrection due to their appeal to different pietistic, radical, or disaffected groups, particularly the Shiʿah, who believed the Caliphate belonged to the descendants of ʿAlī. The Shia vs. Sunni sect conflict can be seen there, and the Shia became antagonistic to the majority of Sunni after the Abbasids failed to fulfill their aspirations by seizing the Caliphate. This led to repeated rebellions against the established authority.

The first Abbasid caliph, al-Saffāḥ (749-754), ordered the destruction of the Umayyad clan. The only notable Umayyad who escaped was ʿAbd al-Raḥman, who created an Umayyad dynasty in Spain that lasted until 1031.

The period 786-861, particularly the caliphates of Hārūn (786-809) and al-Maʾmūn (813-833), is considered the pinnacle of Abbasid power. The dynasty’s eastward tilt was indicated by al-Manṣūr’s relocation of the capital to Baghdad in 762-763 and successive caliphs’ policy of marrying non-Arabs and hiring Turks, Slavs, and other non-Arabs as palace guards. Al-Maʾmūn promoted Iran’s intellectual and cultural heritage and appointed Persian administrators to critical positions in the Caliphate’s government. After 861, unrest and insurrection rocked the empire. Hereditary governors took control of Tunisia and eastern Iran, recognizing Baghdad’s suzerainty only nominally. Other provinces became less dependable sources of revenue. Shi’ah and related organizations, like the Qarmaṭians in Syria and the Fāṭimids in North Africa, fought Abbasid control on both theological and political levels.

Competing claims

In 945, the Būyids, a dynasty of harsh tribesmen from northwestern Iran, took control of Baghdad, ending competing claims to Abbasid supremacy. They kept the Abbasid caliphs as figureheads. The Samanid dynasty in Khorāsān and Transoxania, the Ghaznavids in Central Asia, and the Ganges River valley recognized the Abbasid caliphs as Sunni Islam’s spiritual leaders. In 920, the Fāṭimids established a new caliphate in Al-Mahdiyyah, Tunisia, accusing the Abbasids of usurpation. In 928, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III, the Umayyad monarch in Spain, accepted the title of caliph in opposition to both the Abbasids and the Fāṭimids. 

Saladin restored nominal Abbasid rule to Egypt in 1171. By then, the Abbasids had regained part of their old strength, as the Seljuq dynasty in Baghdad, which had supplanted the Būyids in 1055, began to collapse. Al-Nāṣir (1180-1225) dealt politely with eastern threats, but al-Mustaʿṣim (1242-58) was assassinated during the Mongol sack of Baghdad, which terminated the Abbasid line in the city.

A scion of the dynasty was asked a few years later to construct a puppet caliphate in Cairo, which lasted until 1517 but held no power. From the 13th century onward, several rulers outside Cairo included caliphs among their titles. However, their claims to the universal leadership of the Muslim community appear to have been more fictitious than genuine.

Ottoman Sultanate (Osman)

In 1299 CE, Osman (r. c. 1299-1324 CE), a former Turkish subordinate to the Seljuks and tribal chieftain, began expanding his power in Asia Minor at the expense of the weaker Byzantine Empire, establishing the Ottoman Sultanate. Osman and his descendants, who saw jihad and imperial expansion as moral obligations, continued swiftly conquering colossal territory. By 1453 CE, the Ottomans controlled Asia Minor, Anatolia, and numerous Balkan countries from their capital in Edirne. 

By 1453 CE, Constantinople was all that remained of the Byzantine Empire, and Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1451-1481 CE) was determined to conquer it. Mehmed’s siege proved successful, and the city became the Sultanate’s new capital. With control of the Dardanelles, the Ottomans had a stranglehold on the major commercial routes (Silk Road’s part) between the Middle East and Eurasia and had no intention of sharing them with the rest of the world. They closed the Silk Road, forcing other Western nations to explore the unknown world – the Age of Exploration – resulting in European powers conquering the so-called “New World.” 

Like previous Sultans, Mehmed claimed the title of caliph for himself, and with no one else to dispute him, the claim was partly valid. It received additional legitimacy in 1517 CE when Sultan Selim I invaded the Mamluk Sultanate and officially transferred the title from the Abbasid shadow caliphs to the Ottomans.

Although the Muslim world was not as united as it once was, the Caliphate’s symbolic importance continued in the minds of Muslims, who considered it a symbol of Ummah unity. The Ottomans’ defeat in World War I (1914-1918 CE) resulted in the establishment of nationalist Turkey, whose founder, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, officially abolished the Caliphate in 1924 CE. After that, no other nation claimed caliphal power over the Islamic world.

The Caliphate in modern times

In the 18th century, the Caliphate gained new prominence as a tool of statecraft in the Ottoman Empire’s decline. Faced with the erosion of their military and political authority and territory losses in wars with European competitors, the Ottoman sultans, who had periodically designated themselves as caliphs since the 14th century, sought to emphasize their claim to Islamic community leadership. 

This maintained some influence over Muslim communities in the formerly Ottoman territory while reinforcing Ottoman authority within the empire. The Caliphate was abolished in 1924 following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of the Turkish Republic.

Although Islamists occasionally cited the reestablishmeCaliphate caliphate as a symbol of global Islamic unity in the twentieth century, mainstream Islamist groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood had little practical interest in doing so. It did, however, feature heavily in the rhetoric of violent extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda. 

In June 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS] and the Islamic State [IS]), which had taken control of eastern Syria and western Iraq, declared a caliphate, with the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi serving as caliph. Outside of radical circles, the group’s assertion was widely dismissed.

Wrap-Up

The caliphate institute progressed through three significant periods. It began as a religiously driven governmental system in which the holder ensured that the “rule of God” prevailed over his country. After Uthman’s death, it became clear that the institute’s political component was dominating andCaliphate caliphate could be “snatched.” This was reinforced when the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties ascended to power. Both faced fierce resistance and animosity yet continued to reign despite this. These two empires also established and combined the concepts of dynasticCaliphate caliphate.

When the Ottomans publicly declared their unchallenged claCaliphate caliphate, they became the first non-Arabs to receive the “command of the faithful.” Muslims consider the institute unfortunate but believe its symbolic importance to the Islamic community. However, after 1923 till now no one claimed a caliphate, nor did the Ummah see a deserving man for the service of Khalifa, while many of us know its importance to Muslims’ strength. We are hoping for the Ummah to find a leader and a well-deserved person for the position of Khalifa, which will unite us.