Caliphate (Arabic: خِلافَة) denotes the political-religious headship of the Muslim community. The term khalifa—which is used in the Quran with reference to Adam (2:30) and David (38:26), besides seven other occurrences in the plural—is understood in Sunni juristic theory as the successor of the prophet Muhammad.
The position of the caliph is the most central of all political institutions in the history of classical Islam, and issues pertaining to the legitimacy of those occupying this office, the scope of its powers, and the theoretical and practical accommodations forced upon it during the course of its long career are central to the political and religious history of Islam.
In Sunnism[edit | edit source]
Sunni Muslims believe that Muhammad did not appoint anyone to succeed him on his death. According to this view, which has also been generally adopted by modern scholars of early Islamic history, a number of the companions of Muhammad congregated in Medina immediately after his death to deliberate on the question of his succession. At this meeting, Abu Bakr, a member of Muhammad’s tribe of Quraysh and one of the most influential of his companions, was elected as the first caliph.
In Shi’ism[edit | edit source]
The succession was soon recognized by the other companions, including Ali, the initially recalcitrant cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, who was later to become the focus of the legitimist claims of the Shi’a. The latter’s view of Muhammad’s succession is squarely at odds with that of the Sunnis. To them, Muhammad had, in fact, designated a successor in the person of Ali, and most of the companions of the Prophet were culpable for subverting this explicit testament, as indeed were the successors of the first generation Muslims for their continued denial of the claims of Ali’s descendants, the imams, to the political and religious headship of Islam.
History of the Institution[edit | edit source]
Rashidun Caliphs[edit | edit source]
The caliphate of Abu Bakr (632–634), which signified the continuation of the polity that Muhammad had founded in
Medina, was challenged by a number of tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. They had acknowledged Muhammad’s authority by embracing Islam and sending tribute to Medina, but several of them now refused to continue their tributary status, and some renounced allegiance to the new faith as well. Abu Bakr’s first challenge was to subdue these rebellious tribes to secure the future of the nascent caliphate. The armies he sent against them did not stop at reasserting Medina’s authority, however, but embarked on an extraordinarily daring path of conquests outside the Arabian Peninsula. Muhammad had already led campaigns in the Syrian desert, and Muslim armies now began operations simultaneously in the Byzantine territories of Syria and Palestine and in the Sassanian territories. The degree to which the conquest of the Byzantine and Sassanian territories was the result of careful planning or coordination from Medina is uncertain; yet by the time Abu Bakr died (634), two years after the death of Muhammad, the early Islamic state was already on its way to becoming a major world empire.
The beginnings of the administrative organization of the caliphate are credited to Abu Bakr’s immediate successor, Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634–644). He created a military register (diwan) for the payment of the troops and for the disbursement of pensions to other members of the Muslim community. It was in his reign that the first garrison towns were established in the conquered lands, a system of taxation was put in place, and efforts were made to minimize the social and economic disruptions inherent in this rapid conquest. Yet it was not just the conquered people but also the new conquerors who had to cope with the changes set in motion by the expansion of the Medinan state. Entire tribes came to settle in the newly acquired territories, and, quite apart from such rivalries as they may have brought with them from their earlier environs, new grievances and conflicts were provoked by the competing claims of those who had converted to Islam early or late (which determined the share of one’s stipends), by the unfamiliar demands of the nascent state on its subjects, and by the conduct and policies of the caliph or his agents.
Such resentments came to the surface in the reign of ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan (r. 644–656), the third Caliph, who was eventually murdered in Medina by disaffected Arab tribesmen from the garrisons of Kufa, Basra, and Egypt. The murder of ‘Uthman inaugurated the series of bitter conflicts within the Muslim community that are collectively known as the fitna—a highly evocative term suggesting a time of temptation and trial, dissension, and chaos. This civil war, Islam’s first, was to continue throughout the reign of ‘Uthman’s successor, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (r. 656–661), and it ended only with the latter’s assassination and the rise of the Umayyad dynasty (r. 661–750). The events of these years were debated by Muslims for centuries: It is to these events that later Muslims looked in explaining and arguing over their sectarian divisions, some of which were to prove permanent. Even in later centuries, it was never easy to explain how the first community of believers, formed by the Prophet’s own guidance, had fallen into such turmoil so soon after his death.
The Umayyads[edit | edit source]
Like their predecessors, the Umayyads too were members of the Quraysh tribe. Unlike their predecessors, all four of whom came, after much controversy, to be set apart from subsequent rulers and to be revered by Sunni Muslims as the Rashidun, the “rightly guided” caliphs, the rise of the Umayyads marked the establishment of a caliphal dynasty. Mu’awiya (r. 661–680), the founder of this dynasty, based his rule on careful cultivation and manipulation of ties with tribal notables (ashraf), and it was through such ties that he was able not just to govern but also to have his son, Yazid I (r. 680–683), recognized as his heir. This system of rule through tribal intermediaries was short-lived, however. On Mu’awiya’s death, several disparate revolts—often characterized as the second civil war—erupted in different parts of the empire. Among these was the revolt of Hussain, the son of ‘Ali and the grandson of the Prophet, who was killed in Iraq in 680 along with a small band of his followers. Though hardly momentous at the time it occurred, this event was to acquire profound importance in the history of Shi’ite Islam as the symbolic focus of Shi’ite piety and religious identity. At the time, however, another threat to the Umayyads was represented by the revolt of Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr in the Hijaz, in Arabia, and by factional warfare between Arab tribes in Syria and Mesopotamia. In 684, with the civil war still in progress, Marwan ibn al-Hakam (r. 684–685) was elected caliph in Syria, marking the transfer of ruling authority from Mu’awiya’s descendants, the Sufyanid clan (of which ‘Uthman had been a member), to another clan of the Umayyad family. This clan, the Marwanids, was to rule as caliphs until the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty in 750.
The Marwanids governed their empire through powerful generals appointed from the capital, Damascus, and through
increasingly elaborate administrative departments (diwans). Late antique administrative structures and traditions continued under the Umayyads even as they underwent sometimes rapid changes that expressed the evolving Arab and Islamic identity of the new empire. Around the turn of the eighth century, the language of the administration was itself changed from ancient Persian and Greek to Arabic and a new system of coinage, clearly asserting the Islamic identity of the new rulers, was instituted. This identity was expressed even more strikingly in monumental architecture, of which the two most famous extant examples are the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built during the reign of the caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (r. 685–705), and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, built under his successor al-Walid I (r. 705–715).
Though the Umayyads are often portrayed as worldly “kings” in Arabic historiography (an unfavorable image that
owes much to the fact that early Islamic historiography is largely the work of those who were unfavorably disposed toward this dynasty), it was under their rule that Islamic religious, cultural, and political institutions began to take their distinctive shape. The caliphs, though far removed from the austere lifestyle of the Rashidun, were hardly the ungodly rulers that medieval Arab chroniclers and many modern scholars have often represented them to be. As Crone and
Hinds have shown, their coins, their official pronouncements, and their panegyrists often characterized them as the “deputies of God,” a formulation frowned on by the religious scholars but one that suggests something of the scope and seriousness of Umayyad religious claims. The caliphs are known to have given decisions on matters involving Islamic law and ritual, and some of them are featured as authorities in early collections of hadith. Above all, the existence of a powerful centralized political authority provided the crucial context in which the early development of Islam and of Muslim communal and cultural identity took place.
Yet the growing community of Muslims also posed serious challenges to the Umayyads. Since the conquest of the Middle East, the economic well-being of the state was based on the principle that the non-Muslims paid the bulk of the taxes on the land, while the Muslims were responsible for only the religiously obligated taxes on their wealth. In theory, anyone who joined the ranks of the Muslims was entitled to the same concessions; in practice, a large influx of previously taxed non-Arabs threatened the revenues of the empire, with the result that the new Muslims (the mawali or “clients”) often continued to be taxed as if they had not converted to Islam. The Umayyads never satisfactorily resolved the problem of how to integrate the new non-Arab Muslims into the Muslim community, and they thereby created considerable resentment against their dynasty. This was compounded by the grievances of those Arabs who had given up their military careers and settled down in the conquered lands, but felt discriminated against or unfairly treated by the military generals and their (sometimes non-Muslim) tax-collecting agents. There was, moreover, increasingly destructive tribal factionalism within the Umayyad army that severely weakened the caliphate both through faction-based military revolts and the systematic persecution of members of a faction each time a rival came to power.
Shi’ite groups led a number of revolts against the Umayyads, as did the Kharijites, erstwhile followers of ‘Ali who had
separated from him when he agreed to negotiate with what the Kharijites regarded as Mu’awiya’s iniquitous party. The revolt that brought the Umayyad dynasty to an end in 750 also began as a Shi’ite movement that called, as had many others before it, for returning the rule back to the rightful descendants of the Prophet and for rule according to the “book of God and the sunna of His Prophet.” It was not, however, the descendants of ‘Ali but those of al-‘Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet, that came to power with what is often characterized by modern scholars as the “Abbasid revolution.”
The Abbasids[edit | edit source]
The new center of the empire was Iraq rather than Syria, and bureaucrats of Iranian origin were prominent in the Abbasid caliphate (750–1258) from its inception. The new empire was, like its predecessor, also an “Arab kingdom,” and indeed there were important continuities between the Umayyad and the early Abbasid caliphates. Yet, the latter was much more inclusive in terms of the ethnic origins of its soldiers and bureaucrats and much more successful in assimilating its non-Arab subjects into the Islamic empire. Its ideological emphases were also different from its predecessor’s. Unlike the Umayyads, the Abbasids emphasized from the outset their kinship with the Prophet as the justification for their claims to the caliphate. This was to remain a major basis of their legitimist claims, though it was scarcely the only one. The early Abbasid caliphs also tried to invoke, especially in their regnal titles, the messianic expectations rife at the time; they sought, as had the Umayyads in their own ways, to bolster their authority with appeals to pre-Islamic royal traditions and symbolism, and they presided over elaborate circles of patronage that involved a broad spectrum of the cultural and religious elite of the time. Baghdad, founded by al-Mansur (r. 754–775) as his new capital, had evocative imperial symbolism inscribed in its very design, but it soon also became the center of culture and learning, and of interaction not only between various Muslim groups and emerging schools and sects but also between Muslims and non-Muslims.
The first century of Abbasid rule was a time of extraordinary cultural and religious efflorescence, not just in Baghdad but also in the major provincial towns. It was during this time that the eponymous founders of the major schools of Sunni and Shi’ite law flourished. The systematic collection of the traditions of the Prophet, the hadith, began to take place during this time; some of the first extant works of hadith date to this period, as does the earliest major biography of the Prophet, the Sira of Ibn Ishaq (d. 767). Under royal patronage, systematic efforts were made to translate ancient philosophical and scientific works into Arabic, and this was the age that saw formative developments in Islamic theology, notably the rise of the rationalist Mu’tazila, as well as the beginnings of what later emerged as Sunni and Shi’ite Islam.
But this formative age was also a time of considerable political turmoil. A number of Shi’ite revolts, of which the most serious took place in Medina and Basra in 762, threatened Abbasid rule. The existence of the descendants of ‘Ali, the Shi’ite imams, and their followers in the midst of the community continued to challenge Abbasid legitimacy. Khurasan, where the Abbasid revolt had originated, saw many uprisings against the caliphal state in the early decades after the revolution. The empire was also shaken by a destructive civil war between two sons of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809), eventuating in the murder of the incumbent caliph, al-Amin (r. 809–813), and the succession of his brother and the governor of Khurasan, al-Ma’mun (r. 813–833). This murder, and the widespread uncertainty and disorder that accompanied and followed the civil war, considerably weakened the Abbasid state, necessitating extensive effort on the part of the caliph to reassert his authority. This effort took some unusual forms.
Unlike his Abbasid predecessors, al-Ma’mun made strong claims to religious authority, namely to an ability to lay down at least some of what his subjects must believe. Toward the end of his reign, he instituted the mihna, an inquisition to enforce conformity to the theological doctrine that the Qur’an ought to be regarded as the “created” word of God. Irrespective of the provenance of this idea or its theological merit, it allowed the caliph to assert his own authority as the arbiter of the community’s religious life. The inquisition was apparently intended not only to extend the scope of caliphal authority but also to humble many of those scholars of hadith and law whose growing influence in society the caliph resented and who consequently were among the principle victims of the mihna. But al-Ma’mun died shortly after the inquisition began, and though it continued in effect under two of his immediate successors, it did more, in the long run, to define the “uncreatedness” of the Qur’an as a Sunni creed and to solidify the ranks of the early Sunni scholars than it did to enhance the caliph’s religious authority. Later caliphs were usually happier to align themselves with the Sunni religious scholars in asserting their own roles in the community’s religious life than they were in confronting or challenging them.
Toward the end of the first century of Abbasid rule, the caliph was still in control of large parts of his realm, but his empire was not as extensive as it had been at the beginning of the dynasty, and it was rapidly shrinking. Some of the provinces were already becoming independent in all but name, and at the heart of the empire, the caliph had to cope with the increasing power of a new military force, Turkish “slave soldiers” drawn from the lands of the Central Asian steppe, a force that in later decades contributed substantially to the political and economic weakness of the Abbasid state. This pattern of a shrinking state and the caliph’s increasing dependence on military generals was to continue for much of subsequent Abbasid history. From the middle of the tenth century, the caliphs came under the sway of ruling families that controlled the Abbasid realm, and often the person of the caliph himself, in all but name. The Buyids, a family of Shi’ite military adventurers from Iran, ruled what was left of the Abbasid caliphate from the middle of the tenth to the middle of the eleventh century. They were replaced by the faithful Sunni Turkish Seljuks, who then oversaw the Abbasid caliphs until toward the end of the twelfth century. Even as the caliphate declined in effective political power, and for all the humiliations that individual caliphs were meted out at the hands of the warlords, the symbolic significance of the caliphal institution grew during these centuries. The Shi’ite Buyids not only maintained the caliphate but sought also to legitimize their own rule by seeking formal recognition from the caliphs. The Seljuk sultans and their wazirs (ministers) were often far more powerful than the caliph or his officials, but they too continued to be formally subservient to the caliph.
Not all caliphs during this period were equally helpless, however. At times of political transition, when the warlords were weak, and depending on the personal abilities an initiative of individual caliphs, the latter could exercise a prominent role in the political and religious life of the realm. Notable among such caliphs were al-Qadir (r. 991–1031) and al-Qa’im (r. 1031–1075) in the Buyid period, and al-Nasir (r.1180–1225), who reigned at a time when the Seljuk power had waned and who utilized his ties with Sufi and chivalric (futuwwa) groups, which he reorganized with himself at their head, to reassert his authority during a remarkably ambitious reign. But such revivals were sporadic and they did not do very much to seriously stem the effects of the long decline the caliphate had already undergone. In the middle of the thirteenth century, the caliphate of Baghdad was terminated altogether at the hands of the Mongols, whose ravages included the destruction of large parts of the eastern Islamic world. The caliphate was revived—and the Mongol tide finally stemmed—by the Mamluks of Syria and Egypt, but the Abbasid caliphs of the Mamluk era never had the prestige or the symbolic capital possessed by many of their predecessors in Baghdad. The Mamluk era and, with it, the shadow Abbasid caliphate ended with the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517.
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