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Old Tuesday, November 13, 2007
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Post Caliphate


Caliphate, office and realm of the caliph as supreme leader of the Muslim community and successor of the Prophet Muhammad. Under Muhammad the Muslim state was a theocracy, with the Sharia, the religious and moral principles of Islam, as the law of the land. The caliphs, Muhammad's successors, were both secular and religious leaders. They were not empowered, however, to promulgate dogma, because it was considered that the revelation of the faith had been completed by Muhammad.

The Sunnis (followers of the Sunna, the body of Islamic custom or the Way of the Prophet), who constitute a majority of Muslims, generally consider the period of the first four caliphs the golden age of Islam (see Sunni Islam). Other sects, however, as they were formed, came to regard this period and subsequent caliphates differently, and as a result great hostility has frequently arisen between the Sunnis and other Muslims, such as the Shias (see Shia Islam), concerning the caliphate. During the course of Islamic history the issue of the caliphate probably has created more dissension than any other article of faith.

Based on the examples of the first four “rightly guided” caliphs and companions of the Prophet, the Sunnis formulated the following requirements of the caliphate: the caliph should be an Arab of the Prophet Muhammad's tribe, the Quraysh; he should be elected to his office and approved by a council of elders representing the Muslim community; and he should be responsible for enforcing divine law and spreading Islam by whatever means necessary, including war. In the history of the caliphate, however, all these requirements were rarely met.

The Shias, in contrast, believing that the Prophet himself had designated his son-in-law, Ali, as both his temporal and spiritual successor, accepted only Ali's descendants (by Fatima, Muhammad's daughter) as legitimate claimants to the caliphate.

Muhammad died in 632, leaving no instructions for the future government of the Muslim community. A group of Islamic leaders met in Medina (now in Saudi Arabia), the capital of the Muslim world at that time, and elected Abu Bakr, the Prophet's father-in-law and closest associate, to lead the community. Abu Bakr took for himself the title khalifat Rasul Allah (Arabic, “successor to the Messenger of God”), from which the term caliph (Arabic, khalifah, “successor”) is derived.

Umar I became the second caliph in 634. On his deathbed, Abu Bakr had designated Umar as his successor, and all the important members of the Muslim community immediately accepted Umar's succession. Under his leadership, the first great expansion of Islam outside of Arabia took place. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the northern part of Mesopotamia became Islamic territories, and the armies of the Persian Empire were routed several times. Umar added the title amir-al-mum-inin (Arabic, “commander of the believers”) to that of caliph.

After Umar's death in 644, Uthman ibn Affan, Muhammad's son-in-law and one of his first converts, was appointed the third caliph by a panel of six Meccan electors. Although an elderly man, he carried on Umar's policy of territorial expansion. Eventually, however, Uthman earned the enmity of many of his subjects, who felt he favored the Meccan aristocracy in political and commercial affairs. Uthman also antagonized the Islamic preachers by issuing an official text of the Qur'an (Koran), with an accompanying order to destroy all other versions. Rebellious Muslim troops from Al Kūfah (Iraq) and Egypt besieged Uthman in Medina and assassinated him in 656.

Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was acknowledged as the fourth caliph by the Medinians and the rebellious Muslim troops. The governor of Syria, Muawiyah, later Muawiyah I the first Umayyad caliph, refused to recognize Ali as caliph and called for vengeance for the death of Uthman (who was Muawiyah's kinsman). In 657 the rival parties met at Siffin, on a plain in northern Syria, near the site of the modern city of Ar Raqqah. There, after an inconclusive battle, they agreed to arbitrate the dispute. Ali found himself being considered as a mere candidate for the caliphate on equal grounds with Muawiyah. Angered by this indignity, and with Ali for submitting to it, a group of his followers, later known as the Kharijites, deserted and vowed to assassinate both Ali and Muawiyah. They succeeded in killing only Ali. Ali's son, Hasan, then claimed (661) the still disputed caliphate but abdicated within a few months under pressure from Muawiyah's supporters, who greatly outnumbered Ali's followers, the Shias.

The Umayyad caliphs were descendants of aristocratic caravan merchants, the Umayya, to which Muawiyah, the first Umayyad caliph, belonged. During his reign, Muawiyah stabilized the Muslim community after Ali's assassination. He moved the capital of Islam from Medina to Damascus, bringing the Muslim rulers into contact with the more advanced cultural and administrative traditions of the Byzantine Empire. Muawiyah also dispensed with the practice of electing the caliph by designating his son Yazid as heir apparent. The principle of election was acknowledged formally, however, by having the council of elders pledge to support the designated heir. The practice of hereditary succession continued throughout the Umayyad dynasty and in subsequent dynasties as well. Many Muslims, however, later disapproved of it as a deviation from the essential nature of Islam.

Yazid I (reigned 680-83) succeeded his father but was faced immediately with two rebellions, each supporting a rival claimant to the caliphate. The Kufan Shias recognized Ali's second son (and the Prophet's grandson), Husayn, as caliph. Thus encouraged, Husayn left Medina for Al Kūfah, despite warnings that Yazid's troops had quelled the Kufic uprising. On the plain of Karbalā’, in Iraq, he and his small escort were intercepted and slaughtered. This event, more than any other, marks the true beginning of the Shia schism. A second rebellion by Meccans was finally quelled during the caliphate (685-705) of Abd al-Malik, Yazid's third successor.

Shia, Kharijites, and other groups of Muslims and non-Arabic converts (Arabic mawali) frequently revolted against the Umayyads. The mawali accused the Umayyads of religious laxity and of indifference to their demands for full brotherhood in the Muslim community. Umayyad caliphs, nevertheless, vastly enlarged the Muslim empire and created a bureaucracy capable of administering it. Under the Umayyads, Muslim armies swept eastward to the borders of India and China, westward across North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean, then northward through Spain and over the Pyrenees Mountains into France, where the Frankish infantry under the Carolingian ruler Charles Martel checked them near Poitiers in 732.

The Umayyads were overthrown by a combination of Shia, Iranian, and other Muslim and non-Muslim groups dissatisfied with the Umayyad regime. The rebels were led by the Abbasid family, descendants of the Prophet's uncle Abbas. From about 718 the Abbasids had plotted to take the caliphate, sending agents into various parts of the Muslim empire to spread propaganda against the Umayyads. By 747 they had secured enough support to organize a rebellion in northern Iran that led to the defeat of the Umayyad caliphate three years later. The Abbasids executed most of the Umayyad family, moved the capital of the empire to Baghdād, and assimilated much of the pomp and ceremony of the former Persian monarchy into their own courts.
Beginning in 750 with Abu al-Abbas, the Abbasid caliphate lasted five centuries; it is the most durable and most famous Islamic dynasty.

The Abbasids became patrons of learning and encouraged religious observance. They were the first Muslim rulers to become leaders of an Islamic civilization and protectors of the religion rather than merely an Arab aristocracy imposing an Arab civilization on conquered lands. Under their caliphate Baghdād replaced Medina as the center of theological activity, industry and commerce developed greatly, and the Islamic empire reached a peak of material and intellectual achievement.

The 8th- and 9th-century caliphs Harun ar-Rashid and his son Abdullah al-Mamun are especially renowned for their encouragement of intellectual pursuits and for the splendor of their courts. During their reigns scholars were invited to the court to debate various topics, and translations were made from Greek, Persian, and Syriac works. Embassies also were exchanged with Charlemagne, emperor of the West.

In the late 9th century, the Abbasid caliphs increasingly began to delegate administrative responsibility to ministers of state and other government officials and to lose control over their Baghdād guards. As they gradually gave up personal political power, the caliphs placed more and more emphasis on their role as protectors of the faith. One result of this change in emphasis was the increased persecution of heretics and non-Muslims. About the same time, several successful revolts in the eastern provinces led to the establishment of independent principalities, and independent caliphates were subsequently established in North Africa and in Spain. Eventually, the power of the Abbasids barely extended outside Baghdād, and by the middle of the 10th century, the Abbasid caliphs had virtually no power, serving merely as figureheads at the mercy of the military commanders. The final defeat of the Abbasid dynasty came from outside the Muslim world, when al-Mustasim was put to death by the invading Mongols at the order of Hulagu, the grandson of Genghis Khan.

When the Mongols sacked Baghdād in 1258, two members of the Abbasid family escaped to Egypt, where they took refuge with Baybars I, the Mamluk sultan. Each was named caliph, successively, by the sultan; but they were allowed to assume only religious duties, and the descendants of the second caliph remained politically powerless under the Mamluk sultans.

During the decline of Abbasid power, two rival caliphates were established, one in North Africa and another in Spain. The first, ruled by the Fatimid dynasty, was founded by Ubayd Allah, who proclaimed himself caliph in Tunisia in 909. The Fatimids were Shias, claiming descent from Fatima (thus the name Fatimid), Muhammad's daughter, and her husband Ali, the fourth caliph. At the height of its power, in the latter half of the 10th century, the Fatimid caliphate constituted a serious threat to the Abbasids in Baghdād. The Fatimids ruled most of northern Africa from Egypt to present-day Algeria, as well as Sicily and Syria. In addition the Fatimids claimed the allegiance of other Shias, both within and outside their domain. They sent missionaries from their capital in Cairo to the rest of the Muslim world, proclaiming the Fatimid caliphs to be infallible and sinless and the bearers of divine illumination handed down directly from Ali. Their dynasty was overthrown in 1171 by Saladin, sultan of Egypt.

The second rival caliphate was established by Abd-ar-Rahman III, who proclaimed himself caliph in Spain in 929. He was the descendant of an Umayyad prince who fled the Abbasid massacre of his family and settled (755) in Spain. The Umayyad dynasty of Spain, responsible for a brilliant period in Spanish history, ruled from its capital in Córdoba until 1031, when the caliphate broke up into numerous petty states.

From about the 13th century various monarchs throughout the Muslim world, particularly the Ottoman sultans, assumed the title caliph indiscriminately without regard to the prescribed requirements of the caliphate. The title held little significance for the Ottoman sultans until their empire began to decline. In the 19th century, with the advent of Christian powers in the Near East, the sultan began to emphasize his role as caliph in an effort to gain the support of Muslims living outside his realm. The Ottoman Empire collapsed during World War I (1914-1918). After the war, Turkish nationalists deposed the sultan, and the caliphate was finally abolished (March 1924) by the Turkish Grand National Assembly.

The abolition of the caliphate brought consternation to many sections of the Muslim world, and protests were directed against the action of the Turkish government. Subsequently, King Husein ibn Ali of Al Ḩijāz (the Hejaz, now part of Saudi Arabia), laid claim to the title by virtue of his direct descent from the Prophet and his control of the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina. His claim, however, received little attention outside of Palestine, Syria, and parts of Arabia. The conquest (1925) of Al Ḩijāz by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, ruler of Najd, Arabia, made Husein's claim even less significant.

An international Muslim congress held in Cairo in 1926 to choose an acceptable successor to the caliphate proved abortive, resulting only in an appeal to the Muslims of the world to work together to reestablish a caliphate. Ever since World War II, however, the preoccupation of Muslim nations has been with national independence and economic problems, and the restoration of the caliphate may now be regarded as irrelevant.
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