It has been 93 years since the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate by the Turkish Parliament.
During this time, many people and groups rose claiming themselves as the Caliph and rightful restorer of the Caliphate such as Sharif Husain in the Arabic peninsula, the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt and terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. However, none of these actors resonated like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which could utilize the power of social media, earning itself the title of the “Digital Caliphate” by many media sources. On 29 June 2014, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the Caliph and the leader of all Muslim people around the world. The group changed its name from ISIL to the so called Islamic State (IS). The spokesperson of the group Abu Mohamed al-Adnani announced that “…the Islamic State decided to establish an Islamic caliphate and to designate a caliph for the state of the Muslims” (Aljazeera News, 2014).

With the rise of ISIL and their brutal ways for spreading their messages, people around the world started to associate the word caliphate with terrorism. Soon after, Caliphate became a phenomenon that threatened the lives and values of not only the Western world but also the Muslim people who do not believe the same things as IS.

However, many questions persist such as: Is this the reality? Do we know enough about the Caliphate? What does the word Caliphate mean? When did it first emerge? Throughout history, how was it utilized by the Muslim rulers or exploited by other powers? “Has there been only one caliph at a given time governing the world’s Muslims? Does the God in Islam mandate a blueprint for governance called the caliphate?” (Azmeh, W., 2016, 227). There are many questions which need to be answered. In this paper, I will examine the history of the idea of Caliphate and try to find answers to these questions.

The Caliphate 

Encyclopedia Britannica defines the word Caliphate as “the political-religious state comprising the Muslim community and the lands and peoples under its dominion in the centuries following the death (632 CE) of the Prophet Muhammad”. On the other hand, D.B. Macdonald (1917, 349) describes Caliphate as “the symbol of the traditionally and theoretically essential and necessary political unity of the Moslem world.”.

In fact, the word Caliphate originates from the Arabic word “Khalaf which means “to be behind,” “to succeed,” or “replace” one.” (Pay, 2015, 107). Macdonald (1917, 349) explains the Caliph as the administrative person with the executive powers, covering the political, legal and religious life of the Muslim people. Therefore, we can describe the Caliph as the successor of the Prophet and the Caliphate as the office to perform all the administrative, legal, and religious issues, which were previously performed by the Prophet to maintain the social order in the Muslim community.

History of the Caliphate

Rashidun Caliphs Period (632-661). The death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 raised the question of finding a new leader to the newly-established Muslim community. In the absence of uniting the body of the prophecy, the Arabic peninsula was prone to civil strife between the tribes. Abu Bakr, the father-in-law of Muhammad, was accepted by all factions as the first successor and “the term caliph came to designate the religious and political leader of the Islamic community, and the office became known as the caliphate.” (Cleveland, Bunton, 2013, 12). Abu Bakr performed his duty for only two years until Umar, a companion of Muhammad, became the second Caliph. Umar would hold his position during the next decade until he was assassinated. Uthman and Ali, also companions of Muhammad, were the two successors of Umar for the following 17 years. Since all of them were chosen by the approval and pledge of the community, and strict followers of the Quran and Prophet’s Sunnah, “the first four caliphs were therefore called the rightly guided caliphs, al-Khalifa al-Rashidun.” (Azmeh, 2016, 229).

            Macdonald describes this brief period of the Caliphate as a democracy in theory.

…[I]ts head should be freely elected by the people or nominated by his predecessor, and then accepted by the people. In theory, therefore, the power is of the people functioning as a free democracy, but the people choose to be governed by a single individual who is then given absolute power and is to be obeyed implicitly as long as he breaks no essential law of Islam; if he does, he may be recalled by the people which appointed him (Macdonald, 1917, 350).

To summarize, during the Rashidun Caliph’s period kinship or belonging to a specific tribe was not the required qualification for the election of the Caliph but the eligibility of the nominee. Because of good governance and successful military campaigns, borders of the newly founded Caliphate expanded quickly to the northern Africa, Sassanid lands and Anatolia. However, the battle of Siffin in 657 between Ali and Mu’awiyah put an end to the Rashidun Caliphate and the Umayyad Dynasty came to power (Cleveland, Bunton, 2013, 14).

The Umayyad Dynasty (661-750).  Ali’s period witnessed many internal conflicts between Arabs. This period between 656 and 661 is known as the “Great Fitnah (time of trial)” (Hawting, 2000, 24). The dispute and civil war between Mu’awiyah and Ali were the most important ones which turned the tide in the Muslim community. During this period, Muslim community divided into three major sects, known as Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kharijites. Hawting associates the dispute between Mu’awiyah and Ali with the long rivalry between two important tribes of Mecca between the Umayyads (to which Mu’awiyah belongs) and Qurashis (to which Ali belongs) (Hawting, 2000, 24-32). Infighting between two groups ended in 661 when the fourth Caliph, Ali, was assassinated. The rise of the Umayyad Dynasty and Mu’awiyah’s grab of the Caliphate came as a result of this chaotic period. “Mu’awiyah, …ascended to the post and ruled for 19 years… Then Mu’awiyah designated his son as Caliph by the force of the sword. Thus, a new kind of caliphate system, one that is hereditary and limited to one clan, … began.” (Azmeh, 2016, 229).

During the Mu’awiyah’s Caliphate, administrative practices of the government completely changed from a tribal approach to an empire system. The new Arab empire captured all northern Africa and Spain and expanded its territory from the Atlantic Ocean in the west and to India in the east. Nevertheless, the Umayyad Dynasty came to an end after 90 years in power due to the improper practices of the succeeding Caliphs. For example, the Umayyads established their rule based on Arab nationality and discriminated the non-Arab Muslims both administratively and socially (Cleveland, Bunton, 2013, 15). In addition to this, lack of religious sensibility among the Umayyad Caliphs, with some exceptions like Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, was another prominent issue that caused a growing discontent among the Muslim community (Pay, 2015, 111). The Umayyad’s divergence from the core ideas of the Caliphate, such as inclusiveness, equality, and competency paved the way for the dynasty of the Abbasids, who ruled the Caliphate for the next five centuries, until 1258.

The Abbasid Empire (750-1258). Under the Abbasid’s rule, the Islamic world reached prosperity and stability. Contrary to Arab dominance during Umayyad Dynasty, Abbasid Caliphate embraced all the citizens of the empire from all ethnicities. This was especially true of Persians and Turks who got the opportunity to have a share in the governing bodies of the empire (Pay, 2015, 111). With the relocation of the capital from Damascus to Baghdad, Persian influence and bureaucracy significantly penetrated the Abbasid administration on every level (Cleveland, Bunton, 2013, 16). “The Abbasids rulers, with their more direct exposure to the Iranian idea of an absolute king of kings, carried the evolution of the caliphate to absolutist monarchy further than any of their predecessors.” (Cleveland, Bunton, 2013, 16). Eventually, Abbasids caliphates started to identify themselves as the “shadow of the God on earth” (Cleveland, Bunton, 2013, 16).

When the political influence of the caliphate in Baghdad weakened during the 10th century, a new idea arose among some canonist, allowing the people of the far-away lands to choose their own caliphs (Macdonald, 1917, 353). Because of the diminishing influence of the Abbasid Caliphate, two new Caliphates emerged on the vast lands of the empire, Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa in 909 (destroyed by Saladin in 1171) and the Caliphate of Cordoba in Spain in 928, which lasted one century (Pay, 2015, 111).

However, after almost a century, the Abbasids suffered the same fate, when the Mongols invaded Baghdad and killed the caliph in 1258. Until 1261 “there was no caliph or caliphate…[when] the Abbasid prince was given the title of caliph [by the Memluks in Egypt]. It was an honorary title devoid of political power and responsibility.” (Azmeh, 2016, 229). The Abbasid Caliphate lasted until the Ottomans captured Egypt and ended the Memluk Sultanate in 1517.

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The Ottoman Empire Period (1517-1924). Although Ottoman sultans were recognized as Caliphs in general, they usually didn’t use this title except for bilateral relations with their Muslim counterparts (Hugh, 2016). The title of Caliph was officially used for the first time in a bilateral agreement which was signed between the Russian empress and the Ottoman sultan in 1774 and recognized by other Western Powers. With the treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca, Russia demanded the authority of protecting power of the Orthodox Christians living under Ottoman rule (Pay, 2015, 113). In return, the Ottoman Caliph was recognized as “spiritual leader of all Muslims regardless of nationality or citizenship” (Pay, 2015, 113). However, while the Ottoman Caliph’s authority was recognized beyond its borders, religious and political separation of Caliph’s authority was also recognized with this treaty (Guida, 2008, 278). Sultan Abd al-Hamid II (1876-1909), the ruler during the decline of the Ottoman Empire, was the most pragmatic sultan to utilize the power of the title of “Caliph”. He used the power of Caliphate to establish relations with the Muslim communities and as a leverage in his fight against Russia and other colonial powers of the West. (Pay, 2015, 113). “The title of Caliph was formally asserted in the first Ottoman constitution of 1876 CE. It remained official Ottoman doctrine until the caliphate system was abolished by the Turkish Republic in 1924 CE” (Azmeh, 2016, 229).

The Idea of Caliphate in the Twentieth Century until now. When the Ottomans started losing their influence over Arab lands, the idea of an Arab origin Caliphate emerged in Sharif Husain’s mind. For him, this was essential to achieve the Hashemite sovereignty in the Arab world (Teitelbaum, 1998, 103-122). However, his ambitions were never accepted by the British Empire, as the British perceived the Caliphate as a danger for their mainly Muslim colonial lands (Teitelbaum, 1998, 103-122). “Husain’s ambitions to be recognized as Caliph finally ended with the Pilgrimage Congress of July 1924.” (Teitelbaum, 1998, 118).

The abolishment of the Caliphate by the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA), caused a discontent in Muslim lands. Just after this decision, a swift meeting was held in 1924 by the religious leaders of Azhar in Cairo to decide the future of the Caliphate (Hugh, 2016). They rejected the decision by the TGNA and decided to find a new caliph (Hugh, 2016). However,

Any of the suggested candidates for the office—Sharif Husain of Mecca, Fu’ad I, the king of Egypt, or Ibn Sa’ud, king of what was becoming known as Saudi Arabia, were all mentioned—immediately aroused fierce opposition or simple ridicule, which ruled them out. There was no widespread popular dismay about the abolition of the caliphate, nor any mass movements among Muslims to work for its restoration (Hugh, 2016).

In later years, the idea to reestablish the Caliphate was not a priority in the Muslim world. Mostly the ideas of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, gave a direction to the later movements. According to Hasan al-Banna, Caliphate was a symbol for the unity of the Muslims and should be reestablished but as the last step of the independence (Azmeh, 2016, 211; Hugh, 2016). At the end of 1940s the Tahrir Party appeared as the defender of Caliphate idea albeit with a more radical vision but without violence.  However, in 1950s, ideas developed by Sayyid Qutb, brought a more radicalized and offensive approach to the notion of caliphate rather than the defensive ones of Banna (Azmeh, 2016, 231). Today, some terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and IS, claim that they are the defenders of the Muslim world and constantly working to reestablish a so-called Caliphate. Their efforts demonstrate how the Muslim world has moved away from the core ideas of the Caliphate.


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The idea of the Caliphate started in the seventh century just after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. It was an urgent necessity to choose a successor to the Prophet in order to hold the newly born Muslim community together. The main idea behind the creation of the Caliphate institution was to carry on administrative, legal and religious affairs and maintain the social order. However, throughout history, the role of the Caliph and the structure of the Caliphate evolved in parallel with the circumstances and necessities of the current time. With the spread of Islam and the expansion of territories, a Caliph’s role changed from the successor of the Prophet to an emperor, who claimed to be the “shadow of God on Earth”. As time passed, the Caliphate lost its influence and turned into a term nothing more than something symbolic.

In my opinion, the rise of nationalism and the nation-states brought an end to the concept of the “Caliphate” and it will never come back again. This is because the term Caliphate or the Caliph requires only one leader for both the political and religious realms of everyday life. At present, the Muslim community is deeply divided between the camps of Sunnis, Shi’as, Alawites, moderates, Salafists, violent Salafists, and so on. Therefore, it is not likely to see a single authority that can function as a political and religious leader in a global sense.

Finally, when it comes to ISIS’s leader Baghdadi and similar figures who think themselves as the Caliph or declare their Caliphate, a couple of messages should be reminded.  First, it is not only the diversity of the Muslim populations (sects, tribes, ethnicities) that will make any self-declared Caliph’s position meaningless, but also the spread of the Muslims all over the world will make the picture more complicated. Second, Muslim people in the world need better governance, democracy and rule of law in their society. They do not appear to be attracted of an idea of a Caliphate, excluding a limited number of teenagers that join the ranks of extremist groups mostly for adventure. Last, the realities of the 21st century impose adaptation of international and humanitarian values which can be perfectly represented by well educated, responsible and bright leaders and the new Muslim generation will most likely be attracted by these kinds of figures rather than an overarching religious or political leader.





Aljazeera News, “Sunni rebels declare new ‘Islamic caliphate’”, 30 June 2014. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/06/isil-declares-new-islamic-caliphate-201462917326669749.html

Azmeh, W. (2016). “Misconceptions About the Caliphate in Islam”, Digest of Middle East Studies, Volume 25, and Number 2, p. 227–263.

Cleveland, W.L., Bunton, M. (2013). “A History of the Modern Middle East”, Westview Press, United States of America.

Guida, M. (2008). “Seyyid Bey and the Abolition of the Caliphate”, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Mar., 2008), pp. 275-289, Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

Hawting, G.R. (2000). “The First Dynasty of Islam the Umayyad Caliphate AD 661–750”, (Second Edition), Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London, New York.

Hugh, K., (2016). “Caliphate: The History of an Idea”, Basic Books, New York.

Macdonald, D. B. (1917). “Caliphate”, Muslim World, October 1917, Vol.7 (4), p.349-357.

Pay, S. (2015). “The Journey of Caliphate from 632 to 1924”, International Journal of Business and Social Science, Vol. 6, No. 4; April 2015.

Teitelbaum, J. (1998). “Sharif Husayn ibn Ali and the Hashemite Vision of the Post-Ottoman Order: FromChieftaincy to Suzerainty”, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Jan., 1998), pp. 103-122.