When Muhammad died in 632, he left a political organization that was entirely centered around him. He was a political and military leader and he was the source of revelation. When political or social difficulties came up, not only would they center on Muhammad, but sometimes through revelation be mediated by Allah himself.

The central role of Muhammad left the growing Islamic polity with several difficulties. The first was the status of revelation itself—this became settled with the establishment of the definitive Qur'an . A more serious problem, though, involved the political and military succession to Muhammad. The only working model was an individual leader, but that leader had the authority of God behind him.

No one seems to have thought very much about the succession to Muhammad before his death. No one regarded Muhammad as divine or immortal, but no-one really considered what would happen after his death. The solution was cobbled together by the most powerful followers of Muhammad. There was disagreement—in fact, violent disagreement—between the Meccan followers of Muhammad who had emigrated with him in 622 (the Muhajirun, or "Emigrants") and the Medinans who had become followers (the Ansar, or "Helpers"). In the end, however, Muhammad's father-in-law, Abu Bakr, was named the khalifa or "Successor" of Muhammad. A new religion and a new circumstance had formed a new, untried political formation: the caliphate.

The Caliphate

Caliph is the title given to the spiritual head and temporal ruler of the Islamic state. In principle, Islam is theocratic: when Muhammad the Prophet died, a caliph [Arab.,=successor] was chosen to rule in his place. The caliph had temporal and spiritual authority but was not permitted prophetic power; this was reserved for Muhammad. The caliph could not, therefore, exercise authority in matters of religious doctrine.

The first caliph was Abu Bakr. He was succeeded by Umar, Uthman, and Ali. Sunni Muslims recognize these first four, or Rashidun (the rightly guided), caliphs. Shiites, however, recognize Ali as the first caliph. After Ali’s death, Muawiya became caliph and founded the Umayyad dynasty (661–750), chiefly by force of arms. Its capital was Damascus. In 750 the Abbasid family, descended from the Prophet’s uncle, led a coalition that defeated (749–50) the Umayyad family. The Abbasid dynasty (749–1258) is sometimes called the caliphate of Baghdad.

One Umayyad, Abd ar-Rahman I, escaped the general massacre of his family and fled to Spain; there the emirate of Córdoba was set up in 780. This later became the caliphate of Córdoba, or the Western caliphate, and persisted until 1031. A third competing contemporaneous caliphate was established by the Fatimids in Africa, Syria, and Egypt (909–1171). After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols under Hulagu Khan in 1258, the Abbasids fled to Egypt.

The Ottomans captured Egypt in 1517 and Selim I assumed the title of caliph by questionable right. The Ottoman sultans, however, kept the title until the last sultan, Muhammad VI, was deposed. He was succeeded briefly by a cousin, but in 1924 the caliphate was abolished by Ataturk. A year later Husayn ibn Ali, king of Arabia, proclaimed himself caliph, but he was forced to abdicate by Ibn Saud. Since then several pan-Islamic congresses have attempted to establish a rightful caliph.


"One of the marks of a truly vigorous society is the ability to dispense with passion
as a midwife of action - the ability to pass directly from thought to action. " 
Erick Hoffer     (1904-1983)