What is caliphate? What does the term mean? What is the history of the idea? Is it an ancient irrelevance, only interesting as a voice from a past which is safely consigned to history? Or is it a concept that we can interpret and use today? In this book I shall try to answer these questions. The concept of caliphate has had many different interpretations and realizations through the centuries, as we shall see, but fundamental to them all is that it offers an idea of leadership which is about the just ordering of Muslim society according to the will of God. Some have argued that the caliph is the shadow of God on earth, a man whose authority is semi-divine and whose conduct is without blame; many more would accept that the caliph was, so to speak, the chief executive of the umma, the Muslim community, an ordinary human with worldly powers, and there is a wide spectrum of ideas in between. All are informed by the desire to see God’s will worked out among all Muslims.

This is not a book, primarily, about contemporary politics. It is rather a history book and much of the historical material it deals with dates to the period which historians in the Anglo-Saxon tradition call the early Middle Ages or even the Dark Ages, the four centuries between the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and the coming of the Crusaders to the Middle East in 1097, though some of the narrative discussion goes through to the twenty-first century. It is easy to imagine that this period has little or no bearing on the position we, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, find ourselves in today and indeed most accounts of the so-called Islamic State, for example, begin with recent history and see the movement as a response to western influence and twenty-first-century pressures. I would argue, on the contrary, that in order to understand Islamic State’s idea of caliphate, and why it should prove relevant and important to many, we have to understand its roots deep in the Muslim tradition. Islamic State has made the revival of the caliphate a centrepiece, a keystone of its project for Islamic renewal and the response this has generated shows the potency of the idea almost fourteen centuries since it first emerged. For modern Islamists searching for a basis to construct a viable political vision for the revival of the Muslim umma, the events of these centuries are at once an inspiration and a justification.

These events continue to be an inspiration partly because they recall a world in which the caliphate was the most powerful and advanced polity in the whole of western Eurasia, when Baghdad had a population of some half a million while London and Paris could only boast a few thousand inhabitants, when the caliphate administered huge areas with a standing army and a literate and numerate bureaucracy and Baghdad and Cairo were huge centres of trade and culture. To anyone within the Muslim tradition or outside it, knowledge of the history of this period can encourage that cultural self-confidence which is essential to any civilization if it is to live at peace with itself and with its neighbours. At this level my book is aimed at Muslims and non-Muslims who want to inform themselves, as everyone should, about the real glories and achievements of a vibrant civilization.

But it goes further than that. For some Muslims, the history of the caliphate points to a time when Muslims were God-fearing and devout, puritanical and self-disciplined, and always willing to sacrifice their lives in the path of Allah. This vision is not simply a nostalgic memory. To a degree not found in any other contemporary political discourse, this ancient past justifies the present for certain Islamist groups. Reading such contemporary propaganda as the Islamic State periodical Dabiq, it is impossible not to be struck by the constant references to the acts of the Prophet Muhammad, the sahāba who were his companions and disciples, and the early caliphs. If they did something, the argument goes, then we should follow their example. No further justification is needed, and even the most apparently cruel and barbaric actions require no further legitimization if they can be shown to be following the examples of such great heroes. We cannot understand what these loud and insistent voices are saying, still less argue against them, unless we too go down the road into the ancient past.

History has a power for this tradition which we do not find elsewhere. No one in Britain looks to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a work which dates from the same centuries as the early Arabic sources, and uses it as a way of justifying political behaviour today. It may intrigue us, it may give important insights into the ways our ancestors conducted themselves and the deeds of King Alfred may even, in a general way, be inspirational, but they will not be normative, nor will they provide instructions or excuses for today’s and tomorrow’s behaviour. That is why any discussion of the concept of caliphate has to be a history book, and why we need to understand properly these complex memories and traditions.

I have sought to enliven the book by quoting original texts translated from Arabic and Persian, which can give us insight into the lived experience of caliphate, records of what people saw and heard at the time unfiltered by later attitudes and preoccupations. Such texts make the point that many Muslims looked to their caliphs, and expected their caliphs, to produce dazzling displays of opulence and be a focus of cultural activities which would redound to the credit of not just the ruling dynasty but the whole Muslim community. By reading these descriptions we can perhaps recover something of the delight and joie de vivre which attended the performance of the caliphate, but which is often lost in dry narrative history.

I have made use of modern historical works, starting with that of my illustrious predecessor as Professor of Arabic at SOAS, Sir Thomas Arnold, whose book The Caliphate (1924) was the first volume in English devoted to the subject. Fellow academics will recognize many of my debts. The main ones I have acknowledged in the Notes and Further Reading, and my apologies go to any I have inadvertently missed. Fundamentally, however, what I write stems from within the Muslim tradition. The material is derived not from orientalist outsiders but from the wealth of intelligent and perceptive Muslim historical writing, mostly in Arabic but some in Persian and Turkish, which is one of the great glories of the Islamic cultural tradition. I cannot pretend to have covered all the various manifestations of caliphate throughout the Muslim world; in particular, some readers may feel that I have neglected developments in south and south-east Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but I feel that would have made the work too long and diffuse and these should be the subject of another study.

This coming from within the tradition generates a respect for political and religious actors and writers. The early Muslims, who struggled to create institutions which would express Islamic values while also providing a safe and orderly framework in which they could practise their faith, did not, in the main, act in fanatical or irrational ways, nor were the writings in which they recorded their deeds, debates and disputes fundamentally dishonest. They wrestled with political and religious dilemmas which are common to many human societies: how to live the good life; how to construct a community which enables people to live together even if they do not have the same opinions; what offences are so grave that a person must be expelled from the community or put to death; and, perhaps most fundamentally, how to understand the will of God and what He expects of mankind. If we treat their arguments, fears, hopes and visions with respect, we will come much closer to understanding their deeds and attitudes than if we dismiss their concerns or feel that their writings are too partisan and tendentious to be taken seriously.

This book is quietly polemical. The message which runs through it is that the idea of caliphate is a rich and varied tradition. Many Muslims have embraced the argument that such an institution is the best way of ordering human society, but caliphate is a many-splendoured thing. There is no one way, no single template or legal framework which defines caliphate. History tells us that there have been caliphs of many different sorts, warrior caliphs, pious caliphs, intellectual caliphs, pleasure-loving caliphs, incompetent caliphs, cruel and tyrannical caliphs. They are all part of the caliphal tradition. There has never been one generally agreed view of what powers the office should have, who is qualified to be caliph and how caliphs should be chosen. Perhaps it is this flexibility, even uncertainty, which has enabled the idea to survive so long and have traction in so many different Muslim societies.

My aim here is to show something of the variety of caliphal experience. You can choose what you want to take from this tradition, but the choice is yours. If you want a caliphate which is aggressive and fiercely controlling of the Muslim population, you can find precedents in the vast historical records. If you want a caliphate which is generous and open to different ideas and customs while, of course, remaining true to its vision of God’s will and purpose, then you can find that in the historical tradition too. The past bears many different messages.

There are those who see caliphate as a vehicle for imposing their particular and often very narrow view of Islam on the umma; there are others who see caliphate as a justification for aiming at world conquest; but there are equally those who see caliphate as simply providing a framework in which Muslims can strive to live a godly life and make up their own minds about the best way to this. There are those who have looked to the caliph as God’s representative on earth with semi-divine powers; others who have seen his role as protecting the Muslim community from its enemies by collecting taxes and raising armies. And we should not forget those who remember with pride the open, broad-minded and inclusive societies presided over by the great Abbasid and Fatimid caliphs and the superb intellectual and artistic achievements they encouraged. The history of the caliphate, and Islamic history more generally, must not be the possession of one interpretation or one narrow view, rather we should all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, rejoice in the richness and variety of the experience of caliphate through the ages.

The history of the idea of caliphate has endured and been used and adapted from the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 until the present day, a period of almost fourteen centuries. It has been discussed, adopted and rejected in countries stretching from as far as South East Asia to Portugal and Morocco. It is no surprise, then, that the concept has been put into practice in many different ways and expressed in many different languages. The variety of the caliphal experience is therefore one of the themes I shall explore in the following chapters. At the same time, these different practices and expressions of the idea of caliphate have a common historical basis, or rather they derive from a memory of historical circumstances which have important elements in common, even though their interpretation may vary wildly. The way in which this tradition was expounded, developed and invented in different eras and in different political and social environments will be one of the main themes of this work.

Three Questions

Three questions will dominate the discussion in this volume and run through its chapters like a connecting thread. The first of these is: how was a caliph to be chosen? Three possible answers to this question emerged. The first option was that the caliph would be chosen by the Muslims themselves. This apparently simple idea, however, could be worked out in many different ways. Who were the choosers to be? Should there be many or could just one be enough? Was any sane and sound adult male (the idea of a female caliph being one which is never entertained in these historical debates) eligible for the office, an idea espoused by the Kharijites, or did the caliph have to be of a certain family or lineage; above all did they have to be of the Prophet’s tribe, Quraysh, for the Sunnis, or even his direct descendants through his daughter Fātima, his son-in-law Alī and their children, Hasan and Husayn, for the Shi’ites?

The second option was that the caliphate should be hereditary within one Holy Family, that of Alī and Fātima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. But this led to further questions and possibilities. Should all of the family be considered eligible or just one branch? Within that branch, should the office be decided by primogeniture, the succession of the eldest son, even if that son was apparently incapable or failed to obey the established laws and customs of the Muslims? Should he still be chosen or passed over in favour of a more suitable candidate? And, of course, as the years and centuries wore on, more and more people could claim to be descended from the holy lineage until their numbers seemed to be as great as the sands of the sea. In these circumstances it was possible, even likely, that individuals invented their genealogies, either because they were frauds who hoped to accrue some of the benefits of such a prestigious connection, or because they were deluded and genuinely felt that the blood of the Prophet ran through their veins.

The third option was that of nass. Nass essentially means choice or designation by the previous ruler. It often meant in practice the choice by a ruler of one or more (an heir and a spare) of his sons, but not necessarily so, as when the caliph Ma’mūn chose a member of the family of Alī instead of one of his own Abbasid sons and relatives. Nass had very little theoretical or ideological underpinning compared with either election or heredity, but in practice it was the most common way in which the office was passed down through the generations. It gave the green light, so to speak, for the concept of dynastic succession.

The first question – how was the caliph to be chosen – was inextricably bound up with the second: what should the caliph do and how extensive should his powers be? There was a whole spectrum here between those who held that the caliph was essentially a God-king, the equal or even superior of the Prophet Muhammad, and those who believed that he should be more of a primus inter pares or chief executive of the Muslim community, with no more direct connection with the Almighty than any other Muslim. This difference was connected with the question of the method of choice. If the succession was hereditary within the Holy Family, it was essentially a choice made by God and therefore the leader had divine approval, he was God’s chosen instrument in the ordering of human affairs and had the power to interpret, or even modify, the Qur’ān and the sunna (the practice and sayings of Muhammad). This is essentially the Shi’i view. If, on the other hand, the caliph was to be chosen by humans, however pious and learned, then he was necessarily fallible: all humans can make mistakes. He would certainly have no direct line to God, no status to interpret the Qur’ān or decide law. That would have to be left to the scholars and intellectuals (ulama) who devoted their lives to the study and understanding of the Qur’ān and the hadīth (sayings of the Prophet). This is essentially the Sunni view.

The third fundamental question was: what was the evidence on which these issues could be decided and how should it be interpreted? After the death of Muhammad in 632, the Muslim community was confronted with an unprecedented situation. There were no guidelines to be sought in the past for the mission of Muhammad, and his reception by the Muslims had made the pre-Islamic past irrelevant anyway, except as an awful warning of how not to behave and order society. Equally the practices of the great Roman and Persian monarchies could not be adduced because they had rejected the teachings of the Prophet and been defeated and, in the case of the Persian monarchy, destroyed by the Muslims with God’s support. In fact, as time wore on some Muslims did incorporate ideas from the ancient monarchies about how things should be done, but such ideas could never be the basis of an argument, since they would otherwise impugn the unique validity of the Prophet’s message and hence of Islam itself. Only the ancient prophets sent by God, all 144,000 of them, were possible exemplars, but, with the important exceptions of Moses and Jesus, the lives and policies of these shadowy or even unknown figures could provide little guidance.

In the absence of ancient or foreign models, the Muslim community soon began to develop a body of precedent based on its own early history, as remembered, and misremembered and invented, by its participants and eyewitnesses and recorded in the form of akhbār (sing. khabar), which were essentially short stories and anecdotes. These in turn were gathered together and edited by a later generation, at the beginning of the eighth century or earlier, into collections of accounts which over time became elaborated written accounts. In the form in which we have them today, they date from the mid-ninth century to the first half of the tenth, thus being a century and a half, or even two centuries, older than the events they describe. This apparent time gap has provoked considerable, and largely unhelpful, anguish among modern historians. The contradictions and discrepancies have been used to argue that this material is so unreliable as to be useless for reconstructing ‘what really happened’ or so partisan as to be actively misleading. But all historical writing is like that. The great historians of the early medieval Christian world, Procopius, Gregory of Tours, Bede and all their contemporaries and followers, used historical narrative to make points and arguments and selected those incidents and characters which would sustain the ideas they were presenting. So it was with the early Muslim recorders and compilers.

There are two important things we should remember about the compilation of these early histories and the use we make of them. The first is that they present a wide variety of detail and interpretation within a broadly similar framework. Almost without exception, they tell us that there were four caliphs who followed the death of the Prophet, Abū Bakr (632–4), Umar (632–44), Uthmān (644–56) and Alī (656–61). That said, there are different opinions about these four characters. For some, probably the majority, they were venerable figures whose utterances and conduct should be studied and admired by all Muslims. Others, however, felt that the first two, Abū Bakr and Umar, were indeed great, but that things had started to go wrong in the reign of the third caliph, Uthmān, largely because of his personal failings, and that the proper order of things was only restored with the accession of Alī. Still others argued that Abū Bakr has usurped the rights of Alī, the true heir of the Prophet, and that Umar and Uthmān were also evil-doers whose rule was illegitimate and whose conduct was flawed. True caliphate always belonged to Alī and was only restored, if only briefly, during his reign. And so these differences of opinion continued under the Umayyads (661–750) and the Abbasids (750–1258) and under other dynasties with caliphal pretensions. Far from being unreliable or, even worse, deliberately dishonest, accounts of such differences are profoundly revealing of the attitudes and debates of the time. But the modern reader must always be aware that there are many elements in the sources which can be seized on and developed for later polemic.

And this is the second point about the early historical narratives. They are fundamental to all discussions of the nature of caliphate; they are the building blocks of political debate. To determine the true nature and function of the office of caliph, most Muslim thinkers have turned, not to abstract theories or principles of political institutions, in the manner of Hobbes and Rousseau for example, but to the records of the ancient caliphs, especially the first four. These records are not just, as Wordsworth put it, of ‘old, unhappy, far off-things, and battles long ago’, but events which determine how people should behave and act in their own time, how they should reconcile the demands of living together with their fellow human beings with absolute obedience to the will of Almighty God. If this book seems burdened by historical narrative and discussion, this is because it is the way the debate about caliphate has always taken place and the way it is taking place now. If we are to understand this debate, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, we must understand the historical language in which it is conducted.

The following chapters, then, will set out to examine these three fundamental questions – how a caliph should be chosen, the nature and extent of his powers, and the way in which they were recorded and used – in the light of the different historical periods of the caliphate, and to show how men in different times and places have used, and perhaps abused, the basic concepts which have informed the idea of caliphate throughout the ages.

Transliterations and Dates

I have made every effort in this book not to intimidate, or indeed bore, the reader with huge numbers of Arabic names and terms. Some Arabic vocabulary, including of course the word caliph itself, is necessary because many of the concepts involved in the discussion have no direct English equivalent. Such words will be briefly explained on their first occurrence in the text and further explained in the Glossary. All dates will be given in the Common Era (AD) format to avoid confusion, although of course the Arabic writers who inform us about these issues use hijrī dates, based on the number of lunar years (eleven days shorter than solar years) which have passed since the Prophet’s Hijra (emigration) from Mecca to Medina in 622.

History, particularly the history of periods so removed from our own, can occasionally seem like dull and dreary stuff, just ‘one damn thing after another’, as the Duke of Wellington described it. It is not surprising if Muslims and non-Muslims alike are put off by records of battles and conquests, not to speak by the unpronounceable and unmemorable names which litter so many books on Islamic history. So, at the risk of oversimplification, I have made a decision to keep the number of personal names to a minimum and make them more accessible by missing out the initial definite article (al-).

There is now a generally accepted system of transliteration of Arabic names and terms into Latin characters. This is important because it allows the English to convey with precision exactly which Arabic letters are used. I shall, however, use a simplified version of this to avoid the proliferation of dots under and lines over letters. It is not especially useful to the non-Arabist to know which of the different letters transliterated into Latin as d, s, t, z, are indicated. The only exception is the letter, unique to Arabic, known as ‘ayn, and transliterated as (as in bay‘a), which indicates a guttural consonant but which can be sounded, by non-Arabic speakers, as an elongated vowel. Arabic also uses a glottal stop, called the ḥamza, which will be indicated as ’ (as in Qā’im). On the other hand there is, it seems to me, a purpose in distinguishing long and short vowels because these determine the emphasis. Thus it helps to know that the name of the famous Abbasid caliph is pronounced Rasheed not Raashid, and to this end it is written as Rashīd. The two other long vowels, the extended ī (as in Alī) and the extended ū (as in Mansūr) will also be indicated, showing where the emphasis should lie.

The Arabic word ibn meaning ‘son’, a component of many Arabic names, I have simply rendered as ‘b.’ in full names (as in Abbās b. Firnās).

  • amīr — see emir

  • amīr al-mu’minīn — Commander of the Faithful, title usually held by caliphs

  • ansār — literally ‘helpers’: the inhabitants of Medina who supported Muhammad

  • ashrāf — see sharīf

  • bay‘a — oath of allegiance to caliph or other ruler

  • dā‘ī — missionary, usually of clandestine religio-political movements

  • da‘wa — missionary movement (cf. dā‘ī)

  • dawla — dynasty or state, e.g. the Abbasid dawla or the Fatimid dawla

  • dīnār — standard gold coin

  • dirham — standard silver coin

  • dīwān — originally list of those entitled to state salaries. Also office or department of government.

  • emir — army commander, provincial governor or ruler of small independent state

  • fitna — civil war or dispute within the Muslim community

  • ghāzī — Muslim volunteer who fights in the jihād

  • hadīth — Tradition recording the words of Muhammad

  • hajj — annual pilgrimage to Mecca

  • hijra — the emigration of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622, which marks the beginning of the Muslim era

  • imam — spiritual leader of the Muslim community, often synonymous with caliph

  • Jāhiliyya — period of ignorance or savagery in Arabia before the coming of Islam

  • jāriya — female slave. Often singer or poet

  • jihād — holy war

  • jizya — poll tax levied on non-Muslims

  • jund — army; one of the administrative districts of Syria Palestine

  • kāfir, pl. kuffār — unbeliever, non-Muslim

  • kharāj — land tax

  • khutba — address in mosque at Friday prayer which included mention of the ruler’s name, a sign of sovereignty

  • kufr — unbelief

  • mamlūk — slave soldier. This term, occasionally used in early Islamic history, came to replace the term ghulām from the fifth/eleventh century onwards.

  • mawlā, pl. mawālī — originally ‘client’, often non-Arab client of an Arab tribe, hence the use of mawālī to describe non-Arab Muslims in the first century of Islam. Later more commonly ‘freedmen’ in the Abbasid period, the term passes out of general use in the fourth/tenth century.

  • minbar — pulpit in a mosque

  • muhājir, pl. muhājirūn — one who participated in the Hijra, that is a Meccan who accompanied Muhammad to settle in Medina

  • murtadd — apostate: used of those who rejected the authority of the Muslims after the death of Muhammad

  • nass — designation of ruler by his predecessor

  • qādī — Muslim judge

  • qalansuwa — tall, conical headgear worn as part of Abbasid court dress

  • ridda — apostasy from Islam; hence the wars in Arabia which followed Muhammad’s death are known as the ridda wars

  • sābiqa — precedence, especially precedence in conversion to Islam, i.e. the earlier a person was converted, the greater his sābiqa

  • sahāba — Companions of the Prophet

  • sadaqa — the payment of alms enjoined by Muslim law

  • sharī‘a — Muslim religious law

  • sharīf, pl. ashrāf — in Umayyad times, tribal leader, chief. By the fourth/tenth century the title is usually confined to descendants of Alī.

  • shawkat — political and military power

  • shirk — polytheism

  • shūra — council formed to choose a caliph

  • sikka — the right to mint coins, usually the prerogative of the ruler

  • sunna — the sayings and actions of Muhammad used as legal precedents

  • sūq — market

  • ulama — learned men, especially experts in the Traditions of the Prophet and Islamic law

  • umma — the Muslim community

Next chapter

The First Caliphs

Chapter 1