Islamic Studies Caliph and Caliphate
James E. Sowerwine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0013


The term “caliph” (khalifah in Arabic) is generally regarded to mean “successor of the prophet Muhammad,” while “caliphate” (khilafah in Arabic) denotes the office of the political leader of the Muslim community (ummah) or state, particularly during the period from 632 to 1258. Although the caliph was not considered to possess spiritual authority as Muhammad had, the caliph presided over a state governed under Islamic law (Sharia) whose territories constituted the “abode of Islam” (dar al-Islam). Thus, the caliph served as the symbol of the supremacy of the Sharia, as commander of the faithful (amir al-muʾminin) in his capacity to both defend and expand these lands and as leader of prayers (Imam), thereby clothing the caliphate with religious meaning. Sunni Islam holds that Muhammad left no instructions regarding his successor, who was to be elected, with the decision of the community regarded as infallible. Accordingly, following Muhammad’s death, Abu Bakir was elected based on his close association with the Prophet, his piety, and his leadership ability. The Shiʿa Islamic tradition, on the other hand, asserts that the community made a grievous error in electing Abu Bakr rather than Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, ʿAli ibn Abi Talib, whom they believe was chosen by the Prophet. These partisans of ʿAli consider Abu Bakr’s succession to be illegitimate, claiming that infallibility was limited to the Prophet’s family through ʿAli, ʿAli’s sons through his marriage with the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, and their descendants. Thus, Shiʿite Islam rejected the Sunni notion of rightly guided (Rashidun) caliphs, a term used for the first four caliphs, acknowledging instead the rightful succession of ʿAli and his descendants. The Rashidun Caliphate (632–661) was followed by the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750) established by Muʿawiya in Damascus, Syria. The dynastic succession established by Muʿawiya lasted until a rival clan of the Qurash tribe, the Abbasids, successfully revolted. The Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258) established a dynasty with its capital in Baghdad, though its control over the state was severely reduced during its last three centuries by rival secular rulers, including the Buyids and Seljuks along with the Fatamid Caliphate (909–1171) in Egypt and the Umayyad Caliphate (929–1031) of Spain. The Ottoman conquest of the Mamluk state led to the establishment of the Ottoman Caliphate (1517–1924).

General Overviews

Scholarship on the caliphate is long-standing and impressive in addressing questions of Islamic historiography, theory, and histories of this institution. Although a large body of literary evidence exists (largely biographies or chronicles), most date to the Abbasid era rather than to the time of Muhammad, the Rashidun, or even the Umayyads. This has led to considerable controversy regarding both the reliability of sources and the proper interpretation of the early years of the Islamic state and its conquests. al-Tabari 2007 is the most comprehensive and important of these narratives. Humphreys 1991 provides researchers with a critical tool to evaluate this early historiography, while Gibb 1982 and Arnold 1965 provide good overviews on the theory of the caliphate. Kennedy 2004 provides detailed histories of the caliphate throughout the medieval era, while Bearman, et al. 1960–2005 and Hodgson 1974 examine this history well into modern times.

  • Arnold, Thomas W. The Caliphate. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.

    New edition with concluding chapter by Sylvia Haim. Focuses on the theory and history of the caliphate. Originally published in 1924.

  • Bearman, P. J., Th. Bianquis, Clifford E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs, eds. Encyclopedia of Islam. 12 vols. 2d ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1960–2005.

    This monumental work is the most comprehensive reference work on Islam, with detailed articles by top scholars on the Islamic world.

  • Gibb, Hamilton A. R. Studies on the Civilization of Islam. Edited by Stanford J. Shaw and William R. Polk. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

    This collection of essays on Islamic civilization, first published in 1962, includes several on the development of Islamic historiography as well as political theory regarding the caliphate. One chapter considers the development of Sunni political theory, contending it was never properly reflected by the political institutions of the caliphate, while another provides an insightful analysis of al-Mawardi’s views on the caliphate at a critical juncture when its temporal power was seized by the Buyids.

  • Hodgson, Marshall G. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

    A classic survey of Islamic history in three volumes, including consideration of all aspects of the caliphate.

  • Humphreys, R. Stephen. Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

    A critical study of the sources, methods, and scholarship on the political and social history of the medieval Middle East and North Africa.

  • Kennedy, Hugh. The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in the Early Islamic State. London: Routledge, 2001.

    A well-balanced study of the social and political considerations associated with the compositions of the caliphs’ armies and their corresponding impact upon the caliphate over its first three hundred years.

  • Kennedy, Hugh. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates. 2d ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education, 2004.

    Provides an excellent introduction to Islamic history through the 11th century as well as a fine bibliographical essay and a list of general and more specialized works in Western languages, including available translations of primary sources.

  • al-Tabari. The History of al-Tabari. 40 vols. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

    Major series of translated volumes of the most widely acclaimed Arabic chronicle of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the Umayyad Caliphate, and the Abbassid Caliphate to 915. The first thirty-nine volumes were published separately between 1985 and 1999, with the full forty-volume set (including index) released in 2007.

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