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
Muhammad, The first Caliph is
considered by Sunni
Muslims to be
Abu-Bakr, who succeeded Muhammad in 632
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
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