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An Anglicized/Latinized version of the Arabic word خليفة or Khalīfah, Caliph () is the term or title for the Islamic leader of the Ummah, or community of Islam. It means "successor", that is, successor to the prophet Muhammad. Some Orientalists wrote the title as Khalîf. The title has been defunct since 1924. Historically selected by committee, the holder of this title claims temporal and spiritual authority over all Muslims, but is not regarded as a posessor of a prophetic mission, as Muhammad is regarded in Islam as the final prophet.

Modern understandings of the title of Caliph are varied. Some movements in modern Islamic philosophy have emphasized a protective dimension of Islamic leadership and social policy from an understanding of khalifa that equates roughly to "render stewardship" or "protect the same things as God". Many Islamist movements have argued for the necessity of re-establishing the institution of a single office whose occupant, as successor to Muhammad, would possess clear political, military, and legal standing as the global leader of the Muslims. Such an initiative has yet to gather much in the way of practical support in the Muslim world.

The Sunnis identify the first four Caliphs, all close associates of Muhammad, as the '"rightly guided" caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib. It is important to understand, however, that the Sunnis and Shi'as differ profoundly on the critical question of who the first Caliph of Islam should have been, and the subsequent legitimacy all later office holders.

According to Sunni thought, Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, Muhammad's closest friend and father-in-law, either the first or second male convert, was the legitimate succesor, inasmuch as he was elected into the office of the Caliphate in 632. The Shi'a, on the other hand, believe that legitimate authority belonged to Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali Ibn Abi Talib on the basis of his blood relation to the Prophet himself, and on the belief that he was designated by Muhammad as his successor.

Following the conflict between the Fatimids and the Abbasids, other Muslim rulers began to claim the title of caliph. With the defeat of these peripheral caliphates, the caliphate of the Ottomans began increasingly to be considered the undisputed primary caliphate. Thus, by the eve of the First World War, the Ottoman caliphate represented the largest and most powerful independent Islamic political entity.

The rulers of the Ottoman state, however, only rarely used title of khalifa for political purposes. It is known that Mehmed II and his grandson Selim used it to justify their conquest of Islamic countries. At a later date, one of the last Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Abdulhamid II, used it as a tool against the European colonisation and occupation of countries with large Muslim populations.

The last Ottoman (Uthmani) Khilafah title and powers were transferred from the Ottoman family line to the Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament) on 3rd March 1924, meaning no individual could thereafter possess the title. The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet) still fulfills the duties of the khalifa within Turkey.

In the 1920s the Khilafat Movement, a movement to restore the Turkish Caliphate, spread throughout the British colonial territories in Asia. It was particularily strong in India, where it was a rallying point for Muslim communities.

The absence of a single Muslim head of state is considered by some to be a violation of the Islamic legal code, the Shariah. Others insist that after the four rightful caliphs the office ceased to exist, meaning that those who claimed after that to be "khalifa" were actually "melik" (king).

Muslims believe that the Caliphate is the application of Messengership of Prophets (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, until Jesus and Muhammad) as the institution to protect and order the Muslims according the Law of God (in the Qur'an and the Universe), with the structure imitating the structure of Heaven (Mulkiyah/Government) and Earth (Ummah/People). Some parallels have been drawn between the offices of the caliphate and the papacy, but the relevancy of these comparisons are disputed.

Note on the overlap of Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates: After the massacre of the Umayyad clan by the Abassids, one lone prince escaped and fled to North Africa, which remained loyal to the Umayyads. This was Abd-ar-rahman I. From there, he proceeded to Spain, where he overthrew and united the provinces conquered by previous Umayyad Caliphs (in A.D. 712 and 712). From 756 to 929, this Umayyad domain in Spain was an independent emirate, until Abd-ar-rahman III reclaimed the title of Caliph for his dynasty. The Umayyad Emirs of Spain are not listed in the summary below because they did not claim the caliphate until 929. For a full listing of all the Umayyad rulers in Spain see the Umayyad article.

See Also: History of Islam


Famous caliphs


The more important dynasties include:


The Rashidun ("Righteously Guided")

The Umayyads of Damascus

The Abbasids of Baghdad

(Not accepted by the Muslim dominions in the Iberian peninsula and parts of North Africa)

The Umayyads of Cordoba

(Not universally accepted)

The Abbasids of Cairo

The Ottomans

Note: From 1908 onwards constitutional monarch without executive powers, with parliament consisting of chosen representatives.

  • Mehmed(Muhammed) V - 1909 - 1918 (constitutional monarch/Caliph without executive powers, parliament consisting of chosen representatives)
  • Mehmed (Muhammed)VI - 1918 - 1922 (constitutional monarch/Caliph without executive powers, parliament consisting of chosen representatives)

The Republic of Turkey

Although the title of Caliph is currently unused, it could conceivably be used again if the Turkish parliament were to decide to reactivate it.

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