The Islamic Caliphate Between Past Myths and Present Delusions

The Islamic caliphate is promoted by its advocates on the basis that it was an ideal system of Islamic government in the past that can be equally suitable and successful for the present and future. The fact is that this form of rule is completely unsuitable for use anymore, let alone it is impossible to implement. But the history of the Islamic caliphate also shows that it was far from the image it is given not only by its supporters today but also in the minds of other Muslims who have not studied history carefully.

The Islamic caliphate is one of those concepts that have suffered from what I call the “purist” approach to understanding and presenting Islamic history. When used with any aspect of this history, this approach unfailingly produces a narrative that is extraordinarily tidy and untroubling but at the same time largely unhistorical. This applies to things such as Islamic law, the Prophet’s Hadith, Islam’s political history, and so on. The caliphate is another victim of such a naïve and uncritical view of the history of Islam. The purist approach is the outcome of conflating Islam and Muslims. The Islamic caliphate is a Muslims’ invention not a genuine Islamic concept.

The term “caliph” comes from the Arabic word “khalīfa” which means “successor,” in reference to succeeding Prophet Muhammad as the leader of the Muslims. This concept does not exist in the Qur’an, although the term “khalīfa” is used differently to refer to any human representative of God on earth. The main two elements of the Islamic caliphate are a political leadership that governs all Muslims or at least a substantial number of them and the application of Islamic law by that leadership. I will focus here on the question of the leadership of the Muslims, drawing on its history to understand the prospect of its future.

For Sunni Muslims, al-Khulafā’ al-Rāshidūn or the “Righteous Caliphs” who headed the Muslim state after the death of the Prophet in 11 H (632 CE) were the first caliphs. These are Abu Bakr (11-13 H), ʿUmar bin al-Khaṭṭāb (13-23 H), ʿUthmān bin ʿAffān (23-35 H), and ʿAlī bin Abī Ṭālib (35-40 H). Shia Muslims, however, believe that ʿAlī should have succeeded the Prophet and that the first three were not legitimate caliphs. They argue that the Prophet had named ʿAlī as his successor, and that the meeting of Companions of the Prophet that took place in Saqīfat Banī Sāʿida and appointed Abū Bakr was deliberately rushed while ʿAlī was preparing for the burial of the Prophet. Furthermore, Shiasm states that the caliphs should be the Imam who in turn should be from the lineage of the Prophet. Sunnis, on the other hand, argue that ʿAlī gave his blessings to the appointments of the first three caliphs. Various scholars and groups have differently assessed and contrasted arguments and historical reports, hence the disagreements on what exactly happened.

Regardless of what view one takes on the legitimacy of the first three caliphs, no one can dispute the existence of more than one version of history. Similarly, no one can contest the fact that those differences are impossible to resolve conclusively due to the lack of indisputable evidence. But leaving these issues aside, there are facts that all agree on, and these facts are no less significant. The first is that three of the first four caliphs were killed. In fact, Abū Bakr ruled for only two years, so it is reasonable to speculate that had he governed longer, he also probably would have been murdered. These assassinations were certainly not signs of stability and consensus. They also indicate that the first caliphs did not surround themselves with the kind of protection that later caliphs had.

ʿUthmān’s policies and appointments caused administrative corruption and favoritism to spread, provoking public anger. So the second significant fact is that by the time ʿAlī took over after the murder of ʿUthmān, the political situation of the Muslim state had significantly worsened to the point that it had become ungovernable peacefully. While the first three caliphs expanded the Islamic state through conquests, ʿAlī was forced to engage in civil wars.

In his second year (36 H), ʿAlī had to defeat an army led by the Companions Ṭalḥa bin al-Zubair and al-Zubair bin al-ʿAwwām both of whom were killed in that battle. The name of the battle, “al-Jamal (The Camel),” itself bears a clue to the seriousness of the political instability. The name comes from the fact no less than one of the Prophet’s wives, ʿᾹ’isha, sided with Ṭalḥa and al-Zubair and marched with their army on the back of a camel.

But the war that truly changed the direction of the history of Islam happened one year later. ʿAlī tried to replace Muʿāwiya bin Abī Sufiān who had been appointed by ʿUmar as governor of Jordan and Damascus, and whom ʿUthmān later extended his rule to include Syria. Muʿāwiya used the pretext that ʿAlī did not bring the killers of ʿUthmān to justice to reject ʿAlī’s caliphate and his decision to remove him from office. This led the two to fight in the Battle of Ṣiffīn in 37 H. ʿAlī’s side was winning the seven-day battle when a faction of his own army, who later came to be known as the “Khawārij,” rebelled against him and demanded that he agrees to a cunning offer of a truce by Muʿāwiya. The inconclusive end to this battle further weakened ʿAlī’s caliphate. Two years later, ʿAlī had this time to fight the Khawārij, whom he defeated in the Battle of Nahrawān. Unsurprisingly, the fourth caliph was assassinated a year later. After ʿAlī’s death, his son and grandson of the Prophet al-Imam al-Ḥasan was chosen to succeed him as caliph, but within 6 months he was forced to step down and hand over the power to Muʿāwiya. Having foiled ʿAlī’s attempt to reform the Islamic state and having succeeded in seizing power, Muʿāwiya went on to introduce hereditary monarchy for the Muslims, establishing the first dynastic caliphate, the Umayyad (41-132 H).

This is an extremely brief description of the earliest history of the Islamic caliphate, but it serves to show how untidy that history is. More details of what happened can only make the picture even messier. Later caliphs, with rare exceptions, were not much better than Muʿāwiya. The last political leader to carry the title of caliph was Mehmed VI, the last Ottoman Sultan. In November, 1922, the Turkish Grand National Assembly, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, abolished the Sultanate and sent the last Sultan into exile. The latter’s cousin, Abdülmecid Efendi, was appointed caliph, that is a religious leader but with no political power. In March 1924, this now utterly meaningless title was also finally abolished.

When Prophet Muhammad was alive, he was the only and uncontested leader, both spiritual and political, of all Muslims. This is natural, of course, as the very definition of “Muslim” implies the belief in the divine origin of the mission of Prophet and obedience to him as in the Qur’an’s repeatedly command to the Muslims to “obey Allah and the Messenger” (e.g. 3.32). Any rejection of the spiritual or political leadership of the Prophet would not have been seen as a rift among Muslims, because it would have resulted in the rejectionist losing their Islamic identity, i.e. becoming non-Muslim. The very definition of Muslim was derived from accepting and following the Prophet.

But the same could not be said about the Prophet’s successors. If someone rejected the appointment of say, Abū Bakr, as caliph, then that did not automatically take away their Islamic identity or exclude them from the Muslim community. A person could believe that Abū Bakr was the wrong person to lead the Muslims and still be a Muslim. Obviously, if one believed that the Prophet had chosen his successor but still rejected that decision, then that would have been an extremely serious act of disobedience, but none of those who supported or opposed to the appointment of any of the first caliphs said that they acted against the Prophet’s decision. Everyone argued that they were following what the Prophet wanted.

Shias would argue that ʿAlī was in this regard more like the Prophet than the other caliphs, because the Prophet explicitly chose him to succeed him both politically and spiritually. However, the fact that most Muslims did not and do not share this belief means that the case of ʿAlī is not the same as that of the Prophet. The Prophet’s leadership was indisputable, and that is a critical point in the current discussion.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the first three caliphs were unanimously accepted by all Muslims. Even if that were true, this unanimity ended with the death of ʿUthmān. ʿAlī was the majority’s choice but he also faced serious opposition. This opposition grew as some of his followers also turned against him because he accepted a truce with Muʿāwiya. He found himself in a no win, no win situation; an impossible task. After ʿAlī, Muslim caliphs did not gain power through the consensus of a majority, like the first caliphs, but by imposing themselves on their Muslim subjects. Muʿāwiya (41-60 H) was not more popular than ʿAlī or al-Hasan nor was he given the position of the head of the Islamic state by the Muslims. He simply took it by force, as well as guile, and sacrificed anything and everything to seize power and become caliph and then pass it on to his son Yazīd (60-64 H). The extravagant Abbasids were not any less brutal or more consensually elected than the Umayyad rulers, and the indulgent Ottoman’s Sultan were no less dictatorial and narcissistic, to mention only the main Islamic empires.

These rulers might have governed most of the Muslims and Muslim lands, but that is not the main element of the concept of the Islamic caliphate as applied to the first caliphs. None of those powerful rulers were caliphs in the same sense of the first caliphs. Also, their motives were far from being purely Islamic. It is telling that the Ottoman sultans went on conquests that expanded their empire massively in all directions yet not a single one of them made the trip to Mecca for pilgrimage or ʿumra or visited the shrine of the Prophet in Medina. Their keenness to assemble alleged relics of the Prophet in Istanbul was more about promoting their capital than the result of love for the Prophet or providing a service to Muslims. There were rare exceptions, as I said, such as the just Umayyad caliph ʿUmar bin ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz.

All this highlights a simple fact: from the Sunni perspective, the Muslims had the caliphate for only 30 years after the Prophet, and from the Shia view it only existed for the five years of ʿAlī’s rule. The later centuries of strong leaderships many of which governed the majority of the Muslims were times of Islamic caliphate only in name. This is why the alleged Islamic caliphate of the past is more of a myth than a reality.

Even when the Muslim community was still small, having a broadly accepted caliph was difficult. Not even ʿAlī, whose closeness to the Prophet and piety was never questionable, could not unite the Muslims. Muʿāwiya realized that to unite the Muslims or most of them, the rulers had to resort to the same base tactics that all kings and emperors of the time employed: use power, seize power, justify power. It may be argued that had Muʿāwiya accepted ʿAlī’s caliphate the history of the Islamic caliphate would have been different. But the point is that this preferable alternative history did not materialize even to as prominent a figure as ʿAlī.

So if this is what happened back then, what are the chances of establishing a genuine Islamic caliphate in the world today? Who is that exceptionally gifted and pious caliph? Putting this issue aside, even a caliph that would rule from Indonesia to Morocco would have many millions of Muslims living elsewhere and under different political systems. And how on earth would any such political unification between Islamic states take place even by force? This is why a modern Islamic caliphate can never be more than a delusion.

One may argue that for all its flaws, the Islamic caliphate was better for the Muslims then than living under the rule of non-Muslims. This was certainly true most if not all of the time. In fact, those very corrupt Muslim caliphs were often preferred even by non-Muslims to other rules. The Jews had a much better life and were safer under Muslim caliphs than Christian rulers. But that does not mean that those caliphs represented proper Islamic leadership and governance. They were not largely genuine Muslim rulers with some flaws, but they were corrupt dictators who had borrowed from Islam some of its beautiful values.

But here is the critical point. While this caliphate might have been the best option available then, it certainly is not an option today. I mean not only for non-Muslims, but also for Muslims. The Islamic caliphate is effectively a totalitarian system of government so by definition it is completely incompatible with how people today want to live and be governed. Any such dictatorial system, regardless of its theological basis, would be rejected and resented by the overwhelming majority of Muslims. This is why any group that seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate, such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), can only do that by forcing it brutally on people. In fact, their savagery exceeds even the brutality of other contemporary dictators, something that most caliphs of the past cannot be accused of. Muslims know that they have more human rights under a non-Muslim rule than under a modern version of the terrible Islamic caliphate of the past. Because the overwhelming majority of Muslims today oppose an Islamic caliphate, this project has a zero chance of success. However, like any war, it can still leave behind numerous dead people and cause unimaginable suffering and destruction. For many, the image of Islam is part of the damage.

Those who want to establish an Islamic caliphate today and return that supposedly lost glory are guilty of at least one of the following but often all of them:

  • Ignorance of Islamic history.
  • Promoting an incredible and unrealistic view of the Islamic caliphate.
  • Failure to show how such a system can be implemented.
  • Trying to establish a small, short-term caliphate by using extreme brutality against those they want to govern.

Those who use violence to drive their agenda of an Islamic caliphate, such as al-Qaeda and IS, seek what the Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Ottomans, and other Muslim rulers wanted. What they are after is exactly the same that the Greek, Roman, Christian and other kings and emperors sought: power and privileges. Their claim that they want to establish an Islamic caliphate to serve Islam is no more truthful than the crusaders’ proclamation that they waged their wars to promote and defend Christianity. When power and privileges are one’s main driver, fanaticism comes in handy, because false zeal for religion can then be used to justify the elimination of one’s rivals and enemies, including those who share the same faith. This is how Islamic-caliphate-seeking groups justify the persecution and killing of Shias, Sufis, Sunnis they do not approve of, and non-compliant Muslims, let alone non-Muslims. Such violent groups and individuals are the new Crusaders; they are the Crusaders within.

Copyright © 2014 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved.

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18 Comments on "The Islamic Caliphate Between Past Myths and Present Delusions"

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A very well written summary of the early political history of Islam and how it applies to ISIS. I don’t believe that terrorist groups such ISIS should be allowed to be compared to historical Caliphates. Further, to call such terrorists Muslims is an insult to the religion of Islam. These groups are mere criminal organizations who want to gain political recognition by hijacking the religion of Islam. The media and online websites should act responsibly and immediately stop using any Islamic phrases when addressing such groups, but instead start calling them by their proper titles, Criminals. By allowing ourselves to… Read more »

Brother Ibrahim what do you think?

Salaam, A verse worth considering here is: “O ye who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you. If ye differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if ye do believe in Allah and the Last Day: That is best, and most suitable in the end.” (4:59) Legitimate leadership should be obeyed as part of proper Muslim practice. If there is a differing between the people in this regard, whether common people or those put in authority, then the criterion and source of judgement will be the revelation of… Read more »
First of all this is a brilliant summary of what was a quite complex and much written about era in the history of Islam and we can only thank you for that Louay! But having said that ….what and whose ‘sunna’ are ISIS really following? It seems to me that their violence and belligerence is nothing new and has historical origins with very famous characters’ and incidents from Islamic History. For example we have seen images and videos of members of ISIS beheading non-believers (non-believer in this case is a non-believer in ISIS) and the general response to this from… Read more »

These groups are mere criminal organizations who want to gain political recognition by hijacking the religion of Islam. The media and online websites should act responsibly and immediately stop using any Islamic phrases when addressing such groups, but instead start calling them by their proper titles, Criminals.

Salam Tarik

There are many on bothe the Sunni and Shia divide who would say that some of the Caliphs were just that…Criminals using Islam for their own gains…Allah Knows best their intentions

I see your point Louay but when those same contemporary Jihadist are quoting those who have committed historic atrocities and refer to the manner in which the Caliphate at that time was established we can not dismiss this as mere coincidence when the similarities are almost identical…if IS were Christians then they would be quoting the Crusades…I think you should know that the Prophet was surrounded by Hypocrites who we are told he was not aware of….no names were mentioned so it is not for us to say it was referring to so and so but look at what happened… Read more »
People often hide their motives and at times they do not even know them well. If we say that IS is using Islam to cover its real interests and objectives, as the caliphs of the past did, then we can safely conclude such criminals would have used anything, not only the name of Islam, that would have worked for them. ISIS have a following of up to 15,000 and maybe even more….which Criminal organisation could amass such a large following in short space of time just based on Crime alone???? ISIS are made up of a very diverse ethnic membership.… Read more »
Yes brother Louay it is important to analyses the condition, climate and circumstances which a group like IS emerge for surely they did not just pop out the middle of no where……the Sunni Shia divide was an accident waiting to happen and all they did was take advantage of that…along with the economic status…but can I ask you a question? I have Syrian friends and they say that there has not been an Issue between Sunni and Shia…in Syria….maybe some banter and heated debates on some occassions but no where near the level where it has reached today…as an Iraqi… Read more »

Really appreciate that Louay… confirms what my friends have been saying plus I saw a documentary on Iraq and how they could boast of its high standard of education and the intellectuals it produced…this is pre Saddam of course…..I am not a conspiracy person but I don’t ignore consistent ‘co-incidences’ and it is clear to me that there has been some sort of ‘planning’ to destabilise that region along with Africa in order for exploitation of the chaos to proceed…if you know what I mean


I just wondering to read this summery and this is very well written summary of the early political history of Islam. May Allah help you to write more and more. I also wondering after reading these discussion also. thank you so much brother.

Salam Louay Just a quick one….some Imam justified what happened in Paris with the following ayah… If the hypocrites, and those in whose hearts is a disease, and the alarmists in the city do not cease, We verily shall urge thee on against them, then they will be your neighbours in it but a little while. (60) Accursed, they will be seized wherever found and slain with a (fierce) slaughter. (61) That was the way of Allah in the case of those who passed away of old; thou wilt not find for the way of Allah aught of power to… Read more »
Thank you Louay it certainly did answer my questions…well they were not mine but a relative who is a Salafi but is now having doubts about that creed…….actually I do have a question myself…in regards to violence in the Quran….and it refers to the following Quran (5:33) – “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as… Read more »