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The caliphate (Arabic خلافة or khilāfah), was the Islamic form of government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world. The term "Caliphate" refers both to the rule of a particular individual (parallel with "Kingship") and to the institution.  The Caliph was both a religious and political leader, as successor (Khilafa or substitute) to  Muhammad,  The first Caliph is considered by Sunni Muslims to be Abu-Bakr, who succeeded Muhammad in 632 CE.

According to Sunnis the Caliph is supposed to be elected by the people or their representatives, while Shia see the Caliphate as a hereditary position chosen from among the members of Muhammad's household, the Ahl ul-Bayt. From the time of Muhammad until 1924, successive caliphates were formally held by the Umayyad, Abbasid, and finally Ottoman Turkish Sultans.

In reality, the Caliphate under later Turkish rule was quite different from the early Arab institution. The early Caliphs were religious, political and military leaders. They often presided over a coalition of governates that were ruled by their relatives and vassals. The Caliphs were all peninsular Arabs originally. In this system, there was one great Islamic nation or Ouma, and the different states or peoples such as Egypt or Iraq represented lesser ethnic and geographic groupings, of no real political or national significance.

The later Turkish Sultans were only officially religious leaders, religious primacy being given to the Ulema, and the Turks generally subordinated the local rulers into a provincial system. Their title of "Caliph" was more formal than real, like the position of "Holy Roman Emperor."

The Caliphate became irrelevant in Turkey after World War I, and was formally abolished by Kemal Ataturk's government in March of 1924. Islamist extremists want to reinstitute the Caliphate as a theocracy.    

Synonyms and alternate spellings: 

Further Information: See History of Islam and the Arabs Islam

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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

Spelling - Spelling of words in Middle-Eastern languages is often arbitrary. There may be many variants of the same name or word such as Hezbollah, Hizbolla, Hisbolla or Husayn and Hussein. There are some conventions for converting words from Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew There are numerous variant renderings of the same Arabic or Hebrew words, such as "Hizbollah," "Hisbulla" etc. It is not possible to find exact equivalents for several letters. 

Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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