Islam 101: Caliphate

I wasn’t initially planning on writing a post on what the caliphate was and what it’s role in the Islamic world, at least not immediately. But, the unending bullshit being perpetuated by some about an “impending caliphate” has to be dealt with.

So, let’s begin with the basics:

Caliphate: (Arabic: khilāfa; Turkish: halife) meaning “successor,” developed as the first government system within Islam. In theory, the caliphate was a constitutional republic based on the Constitution of Medina (also known as the Charter of Medina). The Constitution of Medina was drafted by Muhammad and served as a truce, a cease fire so-to-speak, between the disparate tribes of the Arabian Peninsula that had been engaged in a bloody struggle. The Constitution (drafted shortly after 622) established: religious freedoms, security of the community, the role of Medina as a haram (sacred place) and thus the prohibition of all weapons and violence within it, the security of women, non-violent tribal relations within Medina, a tax system that could support the ummah during times of conflict, parameters for exogenous political relationships and affiliations, a system that could grant protection of individuals, a judicial system for conflict resolution, and a system of regulating blood money (payment between families or tribes in instances of the slaying of an individual in lieu of lex talionis).

The Constitution of Medina served as the foundation for the caliphate. It [the caliphate] was initially lead by Muhammad’s disciples in an effort to continue the leadership and unity heralded by the Prophet. The first period of the caliphate (632-661) is known as the Rashidun period (rightly guided). Was the nearly 30 year period immediately following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. This period saw four caliphs: Abu Bakr (632-34), Umar ibn al-Khattab (634-44), Uthman ibn Affan (644-56), and Ali ibn Abi Talib (656-661). Immediately following the death of the Prophet, Abu Bakr was elected to lead the community. He was a very close friend of Muhammad’s and one of the first converts to Islam. The first caliphs were all close friends or relatives of the Prophet. They served as leaders because it was believed that they were the best qualified to follow the path set forth by Muhammad. Hence, “rightly guided.”

Upon the election of the fourth caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, the community began to splinter. The Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali idn Abi Talib, believed he deserved to be in charge because he was the only male descendant of Muhammad. Muhammad had no male children who lived to adulthood. His only child to serve to adulthood, marry, and produce heirs was his daughter Fatima. Fatima married Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and ward. Ali’s followers believed he should have become the first caliph and that all future caliphs should come from his progeny. Others believed that the caliphs should be elected based on their qualifications. The firstfitnah followed. This civil war marks the breaking of the faith in Sunni and Shi’ia.

After this split, there were at times one but many times two caliphs. The caliphate marks the core belief of Sunni Islam, government of the majority. This was the presiding political structure of early Islam. From the early 10th century on (about 935) the caliphs no longer had temporal power. They served merely as symbolic figures who could lend their authority to local rulers who had established dynasties throughout the empire.

Now that we know what the caliphate was and what it’s intentions were, we can dispel the ridiculous falsities currently being spread about an “impending caliphate.”

Glenn Beck, most prominently, and others have been frightening their audiences with the outlandish idea that current uprisings, demonstrations, and revolutions in the Middle East are due to a Muslim desire to take over the world, institute a caliphate, and place us all under Shar’ia. I will address the horrendous misconceptions about Shar’ia at a later time.

From a purely definition basis, a caliphate is not possible anymore. Modern economies, political alliances, multi-national corporations, etc make it impossible to erase modern nation-state borders and implement a single governmental unit. It’s just not possible. It’s the kind of threat that sounds good on TV, that hits the right fear-buttons of Middle-America viewers who are under-educated and concerned about what they see on TV. Beck, et al, depend on the fear of their viewers for their success. Period. If the masses aren’t scared, fear-mongers can’t make money. Beck made $32 million dollars pitching fear to his viewers. The goal of Egyptians protesting the Mubarak regime, or Tunisians protesting the Ben Ali regime, etc, is not to unify into some global entity, but to have a true democracy in their country. That’s it. Fears that millions of college-aged kids taking the world with the Muslim Brotherhood as the head of the table is just asinine.

Next time someone says there’s going to be a caliphate, tell them there hasn’t been one in 1,075 years. End of discussion. These are national democracy movements. Citizens of one nation fighting for their vote, their voice in how their government is run. No more corruption, no more bribes, no more cronyism, no more torture or kidnapping. Freedom. You have to be one sick human being to make people scared of that.



Filed under Islam, Middle East, Politics

7 responses to “Islam 101: Caliphate

  1. Thanks for this. You write well! Lots of information in a fast flowing style.

    But enough about form. It was the content that mattered, and I am glad to be armed with facts by which I might de-bunk the fear mongers. I recently attended a symposium on Egypt at school. It was (except for one Persian) an all Egyptian panel. One interesting point was that in Iran, for example, under the shah, all organized groups were suppressed except religious ones, so in the vacuum of power after he was deposed, they were the only ones organized.

    This was similar to the breakdown of law in the long collapse of Rome. The church remained organized, so they could step in/up.

    I watch the scenes in the Middle East, excited, but, wary… They need time to develop forums for public debate and legitimate—popularly supported—political parties.

  2. Well done, Sarah! Thanks for providing some much needed rational analysis.

  3. @SethP23

    I really enjoyed this a lot. Easy to understand, I will recommend this to my friends.

  4. Well said. If only facts and reality were enough to counteract the fear and the stupid, we’d be all set. But having rational facts on “the caliphate” is good, even if only the non-fear-based among us are able to grasp and internalize them.

  5. I agree with your conclusion but I have to take issue with your reasoning. You say, “From the early 10th century on (about 935) the caliphs no longer had temporal power.” I suggest you read the Wikipedia article on Islamic Caliphate, here: There was a Caliphate in one form or another until 1924. Even if you argue that the Abbasid dynasty represents the last true caliphate, which I will grant is a persuasive contention, even then that takes you to the 13th century A.C.E. Still, it is difficult to even imagine a set of conditions that could bring about the return of the Caliphate because of nationalism, capitalism, and a host of economic and political forces.

  6. Pingback: Caliph | English Language Reference

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