Political Philosophy-Caliphate

In the traditional democracies where Sovereignty belongs to the people, exercised thorough their elected representatives, in Islam the Sovereignty belongs to Allah [Qur’an;9:116], “Allah grants kingship [rule] to whom He pleases.”(Qur’an;2:247). The power is exercised by the ruler, elected or chosen by Muslims through consultation (Shura, 42:38) as representative (Khalifah) through Shari’a [Islamic law]. Islamic philosophy is based on the belief that all spheres of life (including hereafter), spiritual, social, political, and economic form an indivisible unity that must be thoroughly imbued with Islamic values. This ideal forms such concepts as “Islamic law” (Shari’a) and the “Islamic state” and accounts for Islam’s strong emphasis on social & spiritual life and duties in society. Even the cardinal religious duties prescribed in the five pillars of Islam have clear social implications therefore; religious authorities have had considerable political influence in the Muslim societies.

Caliphate-A Political Concept: A caliphate is the traditional Islamic form of government, headed by a Khalifah (Caliph), either appointed or elected, who is considered the political leader of all Muslims. The caliphate also incorporates a shura, a body similar to a parliament that represents the will of the people and may elect and advise the caliph. One group of thinkers considers that the concept of Caliphate as a political concept does not rely on any clear evidence from the Sunnah. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) established a state at Medina comprising believers and non believers, he did mention about his successors in rule (Khalifah). Narrated Abu Huraira; The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “The Israelis used to be politically ruled and governed by prophets: Whenever a Prophet died, another would take over his place. There will be no prophet after me, but there will be Caliphs who will increase in number.”[Extract from Sahih Bukhari volume.4, Number.661].

The Prophet (peace be upon him) however did not specifically advocate any form of government, or the political entity. This is the reason why the choice of the first five caliphs in Islam took five different procedures. All of them meet the general principle that Islamic government is consultative (shura), practice justice, and establish system of Prayer (Salah) and Zakah (alms, obligatory charity), enjoining good, forbidding evil in line with Qur’anic injunctions at 42:38, 3:159 and 22:41. The era of first four caliphs is considered as an era of Khilafat-e-Rashida [Rightly Guided Caliphs]. The individual character, personalities of first four caliphs and their strict adherence to the tenets of Islam being close associate of Prophet (peace be upon him) made them a role model for others to follow. However no Muslim ruler could ever reach closer to the high standards of ‘Khilafat-e-Rashida’ except Caliph Umar bin Abdul Aziz (682-720), [also called Umar-II]. The other rulers in Muslim history, who declared to be Caliph, were hereditary kings, using ‘Khalifah’ as title to claim some legitimacy and religious support.

Khilafat- Historic Overview: Though originally, and ideally according to some, a caliphate  is a unique entity that unites all Muslims under its rule, there have been concurrent and even competing caliphates at some points in history. The caliphate began after the death of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him).  The first four successors to that office were chosen by consensus of the Muslim community’s elders and were known as leaders of the believers. After them the caliphate became hereditary. Two principle dynasties, the Umayyads and Abbasids, dominated the caliphate until destruction by Mongols in 1258. The Mamluk sultanate kept members of the Abbasid family as titular caliphs in Cairo until the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. Ottoman sultans were then widely recognized as caliphs till abolition of the caliphate by Atatürk in 1924 on establishment of republic of Turkey.

While the majorities of caliphates have been centered in the Middle East and exercised authority over Muslims around the world, a notable exception is the Caliphate of Cordoba [Spain] that ruled the Iberian Peninsula during the 10th and 11th centuries. The Iberian Peninsula became part of the Islamic Empire during the 8th century, when the Umayyad Caliphate ruled out of Damascus. In 750, the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in the Middle East, marking the beginning of a five-century dynasty. However, descendents of the Umayyads remained in control of Spain, eventually setting up a caliphate there. Many of Spain’s most famous and beautiful buildings date from the period of the caliphate, including the Great Mosque of Córdoba (Qurtaba).

It should be noted that, although the office of the caliph (Khalifah, one who is successor to the Prophet in rule) is not a spiritual office [First Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, may be an exception being very close pious companions of Prophet (peace be upon him), directly taught and groomed by him], but the institution was imbued with political and religious symbolism, particularly regarding the unity of the Muslim community hence traditionally many Muslim rulers symbolically bore allegiance to the Caliph. The caliph held temporal and sometimes a degree of spiritual authority this does not imply any functions comparable to those of the Roman Catholic Pope. The caliph has no authority either to define dogma or, indeed, even to legislate. He is the chief executive of a community based upon religion, and his primary function is to implement the sacred law and work in the general interests of the community. He himself is not above the law and if necessary can even be deposed, at least in theory. The ruler could not become absolute because a basic restraint was placed upon him by the Shari’a law under which he held his authority and which he dutifully was bound to execute and defend. When, in the latter half of the 16th century, the Mughal emperor Akbar in India wanted to arrogate to himself the right of administrative-legal absolutism, the strong reaction of the orthodox thwarted his attempt. In general, the ‘ulama` (religious scholars) jealously upheld the sovereign position of the Shari’a against the political authority.

The effective shift of power from the caliph to the sultan was, again, reflected in the redefinition of the functions of the caliph. It was conceded that, if the caliph administered through wazirs (viziers or ministers) or subordinate rulers (amirs), it was not necessary for him to embody all the physical, moral, and intellectual virtues theoretically insisted upon earlier. In practice, however, the caliph was no more than a titular head from the middle of the 10th century onward, when real power passed to self-made and adventurous amirs and sultans, who merely used the caliph’s name for legitimacy.


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