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Pan Islamic
Declaring A New Khalifah (Caliph)
Sep 2014

The leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) have recently elected a khalifah as the head of Sunni Islam. According to their statements appearing in different media, they have already slaughtered hundreds of Shias who had raised objections to the establishment of a universal khalifate. A brief write up about the institution of khalifah follows. This is primarily based on The Dictionary of Islam by Thomas Patrick Hughes, London, 1885; The Preaching of Islam and The Caliphate by Sir Thomas Arnold, London, 1913 and 1924 respectively and The Indian Islam by Murray T. Titus, London 1930.


The word khalifah is an Arabic word and its plural is khulafa. The latter is derived from khalf, which means to leave behind. The English equivalent is Caliph, means a successor or vice regent. The words used in the Quran for Adam are : Surah ii.28 : And when thy Lord said to the angels, I am about to place a vice regent (khalifah) on earth And also for David. Surah xxxvii.25 : O David!  verily we have made thee a vice regent;  judge then between men with truth. In Islam, it is the title given to the successor of Prophet Muhammad who is vested with absolute authority in all matters of state, both civil and religious as long as he rules in conformity with the law of the Quran and Hadis. The word more often used in works of Islamic jurisprudence is Inanu l Azam. There shall be one khalifah at a time. The Prophet is reported to have said : When two khalifahs have been set up, put the last to death and preserve the other, for the last is a rebel. (Mishkat,  Book xvi). According to all Sunni books, it is absolutely necessary that the khalifah be a man, an adult, a sane person, a free man, a learned divine, a powerful ruler, a just person, and one of the Quraish (of the tribe to which the Prophet belonged) On the other hand, the Shiahs hold that he should be one of the descendants of the Prophet's own family; but this is rejected by the Sunnis and the Wahabis. By the Sunni interpretation, the  Turkish Caliphs  were not Quraish and thereby failed to establish their claim to the khalifate. The four immediate successors of Muhammad - Abu Bakr, Umar, Usman and Ali - are honoured as the rightly guided khalifahs. Some other texts confer this distinction on the first five khalifahs including al-Hasan. These are considered as elective and not hereditary. 

Umayyades/Abbasides Caliphates

The hereditary tradition began with Banu Umayah. The first khalifah of this dynasty was Muawiyah. The Umayyades reigned at Damascus.  This lasted from AD 661 to AD 750.  The title then passed on to Abu Abbas and the Abbaside khalifah reigned at Baghdad. The dynasty lasted from AD 750 to AD 1258. Hulaqu Khan, the grandson of Chengez Khan, invaded Baghdad in 1258.  Hulaqu Khan had long ago determined to destroy the Caliph. Only for ten days Hulaqu permitted the Caliph to remain alive and then he ordered him to be beaten to death. More than three quarter of the inhabitants of Baghdad, which previously numbered two million people, were massacred, and only a few buildings were left standing. Baghdad perished, its libraries and schools destroyed, its great historical and cultural centre of Islam disappeared. Islam was dead. For three and a half years there was no Caliph on the throne. Muhammadans everywhere thought that the sun had gone out and there was no moon. 

In the words of a western writer, the condition of caliphs some two hundred years before the sack of Baghdad was : In Baghdad, the wide-eyed Caliphs, their Arab blood watered by the mingled strain of their slave mothers, still sat on their thrones in robes stuff with gold, crept about their palaces like glittering ghosts, and on state occasions held in their hands the holy sword of Muhammad but they were no more than shadow. The four successors of the Caliph al-Muqtadiir (AD 908) died without honour. Al-Qahir, the half brother of N. Muqtadir eyes met a horrible fate. His men put out his eyes with hot needles.  His successor was smothered to death and his two successors were blinded. At one period, three former Caliphs, all blind, were wondering like beggars through streets of Baghdad. (The Holy Sword by Robert Payne).

The next great upsurge of Islamic energy came from a quarter which no one expected - a handful of Turkish slaves on the banks of the Nile.  These slaves saved  Islam; and in saving Islam they saved Christendom. For three centuries certain descendants of the Abbaside resided in Egypt and asserted their claim to the spiritual power. 

Turkish Caliphate

The founder of the Turkish dynasty Osman invaded Makkah in 1259 and extended his conquest to the Black sea. His successor Salim (ninth in descent) obtained the title of khalifah in 1515 from one of the Abbaside khalifahs in Egypt. Salim had more than one claims on the title. He was the grandson of Muhammad II who had extinguished the Roman Empire of the East.  In 1516 he had conquered Syria and in 1517 entered Cairo.  There he made prisoner of the reigning Mammeluke ruler and had him publicly beheaded. In 1519 his name was recited as khalifah in the Great Mosque of Zacharian at Aleppo. The Ottoman Sultan subsequently assumed the title of khalifah in the centuries following Salim's death.  Hanafi Ulama supported Ottoman Sultan as khalifah because no rival had questioned the authority of the Turkish Sultan. In the course of history Caliphate had moved from al-Madinah to Damascus to Baghdad to Cairo and once more moved from Cairo to Constantinople.  Sultan Salim had brought to St. Sophia some Ulama of the Azhar mosque and in conjunction with the Turkish ulama had ratified Salim's election as the Khalifah.

Scholars argue that it was, however, a mere assertion, for the title and office being elective, it was not in the power of the Turks to transfer it to another. Force of circumstances alone had compelled the rulers of Ottoman Empire to assume the position.  British scholars who have researched on this subject a lot are of the view that they have not seen a single work of authority attempting to prove that the Sultans of Turkey are the rightful khalifahs. In this context, Thomas Patrick Hughes quotes Mishkat-ul-Masabih : Ibn Amar relates that the Prophet of God said: The khalifah shall be of the Quraish tribe as long as there are two persons in it, one to rule and another to serve. Many other sources are quoted to the effect that the khalifah must belong to the Quraish tribe.

It is a matter of history that the Wahabis regard Turkish Sultan as an usurper. Saud took over Makka and Madinah in 1804 and until the beginning of the 20th century, in countries not under Turkish rule, khutabah were recited in the name of the ruler of the Muslim state instead of the Ottoman Sultan.

Indispensability of Khalifah 

Views as to the necessity of the institution of khalifate differ among Muslim divines and scholars. In this context, Thomas Patrick Hughes quotes the author of Sharbu e-Muwaqif : According to the orthodox law of the Sunnis the appointment of an Imam (the khalifah) is incumbent upon the united body of Muslims. Although the Mutazilahs and Zaidiyahs say it is merely an expedient, but not ordered by the law. While the Ismailiyahs and the Imamiyahs God Himself appoints an Imam for the establishment of sound doctrine. Some say the appointment of an Imam is only necessary when Muslims are at peace amongst themselves and united, and not when they are in a state of rebellion. The arguments in favour of the absolute necessity of an Imam or khalifah during the time of Abu Bakr, the first khalifah, was established by general consent. Abu Bakr in his first khutba had said: Beware! Muhammad is certainly dead, and it is necessary for this religion that someone should be appointed for its protection. And consequently, in all ages Muslims have had an Imam. And it is well known that without such an office Islam cannot be protected from evil, for without him it is impossible to maintain the order of the Muslim law, such as marriage, jihad, punishment and the various ordinances of Islam.

Injunctions of Prophet Muhammad  

There are a number of injunctions given in this context by Prophet Muhammad. Some of them read : He who forsakes obedience to the Imam, will come before God on the Day of Resurrection without a proof of his faith and he who dies without having professed to the Imam, dies as the people of ignorance. Prophets were the governors of the Children of Israel; when one died, another supplied his place and verily there is no prophet after me, and the time is near when there will be after me a great many khalifahs. The companions said, Then what do you order for us? The Prophet said, Obey the khalifah and give him his due; for verily God will ask about the duty of the subject.

The Khalifahs of the Sunnis at :

(a) Makkah AD 632 - AD 660 -  The four rightly guided khalifahs.

(b) Damascus - Umaiyade dynasty  AD 661 - AD 750

(c) Baghdad - Abbaside dynasty  AD 750 - AD 1258

(d) Cairo  -   Continues as a spiritual power

(e) Constantinople -  Turkish dynasty   AD 1512 - AD 1924

The Shias

They regard those as rightful Imams (they do not use the word khalifah) who are descended from Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet. According to their traditions, they say that on his way to Madinah, the Prophet, Ali and certain other of the companions stayed at a place called Ghadiri Khum. And that it was here revealed by Gabriel that he should nominate Ali as his successor. According to them, there have only been twelve lawful Imams. The last was Muhammad, son of al-Askari who is supposed to be still alive and will appear as al-Mahdi, the Director, on the last day.

The Fatimide Khalifahs (Cairo)

They appeared in the reign of the Abbasides. Their founder was Ubaidu Ilah pretending to be al-Mahde and a descendant of Fatimah. They were in all fourteen in number and reigned over Egypt and North Africa from AD 911 to AD 1171.

The Khalifate of Cordova

The khalifate in Spain was founded by a descendant of the deposed Umaiyah dynasty, Abdu r-Rahman ibn Muawiyah. Muslim Amir had ruled at Cordova from AD 711. The khalifahs of Cordova lasted from AD 755 to 1236 and khalifahs of Granada lasted from 755 to AD 1483. The end of the khalifates at Cordova and Granada coincided with the fall of these emirates. It was because the Christians recovered their lost kingdoms.

Treatment of non-Muslims Under Islamic Rule   

Christians living in Andalusia gradually became Arabized and were known by the designation Mozarbs.  The Muslim jurists saw this as a threat to the faith of Islam as the Christians had adopted certain elements of the speech and dress of Muslim rulers. However, the actual contacts between the Christians and Muslims were relatively limited. The most pious Muslims refrained from speaking to infidels except at a distance. If a Muslim and a Christian met on a public road, the Christian always had to give way to the Muslim. Houses of Christians had to be lower than those of Muslims. An infidel Christian could never employ a Muslim in service. It was forbidden for Christians to learn the Quran or to speak about it to their children. Christians could not build new churches or monasteries or repair old ones if they deteriorated; churches and chapels had to be kept open day and night should a Muslim traveller wish to find lodging.  Church bells could only be sounded softly, voices could not be raised in prayer, and no cross could be placed inside a building. Funeral processions could not pass through Muslim areas. A Muslim who converted to Christianity was immediately sentenced to death,  even if  earlier he had formally been a Christian who converted to Islam.  On regaining their territories, Christians adopted similar set of measures against the Muslims, as the latter had against the Christians during the Muslim rule. 

Indian Islam : Early Relations with the Caliphate

As per the Islamic tenets, the Caliph is not only the head of  the State, but is also the head of the Church; for Islam, under ideal conditions, is not a State religion but a Religious State. Caliph Uthman, the third caliph had desired to send an expedition to India, but was kept from it because the only land route open was through southern Persia and Baluchistan, a desert country exceedingly difficult to cross.  Finally, in the reign of Umayyad Caliph Walid, Muhammad bin Qasim invaded Sind in AD 711 and captured it. The khutbah continued to be read in the name of the khalifah so long as Sind was under Arab control. Khutbah is the sermon delivered on Fridays at the mosques at the time of the zuhr or mid day prayer. In the distribution of the booty, one-fifth was reserved for the khalifah. Mahmud Ghazni recognized the supreme authority of the khalifah.  

Iltutmish (1210-1235) was the first Indian ruler who received the investure of a diploma and title from the Abbasid Caliph at Baghdad. This is indicated in the inscription over the archway of the entrance to the Addhai-din-ka Jhopra at Ajmer.  The Sultans who followed Iltutmish followed this pious example. In the words of Thomas Arnold : The name of the last Abbasid khalifah of Baghdad, Mustasim (1212-1238), first appeared on the coins of Ala-ud-Din (1241-1246); and though Mustasim was put to death by the Mangols in 1258, his name still appeared on the coins of successive kings of Delhi.  Mahmud Shah Nasir (1245-1265), Balban (1265-1287) and  Kayaqabad (1287-1290). The  monarchs of the slave dynasty continued to have the name of Mustasim mentioned in the khutbah. Khaljis also followed, to an extent the precedent set by earlier Sultans. 

The Caliphate Pretensions of the Mughal Emperors  

An interesting development in the relation of the caliphate took place during the reign of the Mughals.  In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the only Sunni monarchs who could rival the Ottoman Sultan were the Mughal emperors of India. The Mughal commonly assumed the title of the khalifah and from the reign of Akbar, they termed their capital as dar al Khilafat (the abode of the caliphate). Akbar's gold coin bore the inscription: the great Sultan, the exalted khalifah. It certainly never formed any part of the policy of the Mughals to acknowledge the over-lordship of the Ottoman Sultan. In 1557 when Akbar was only fourteen years of age, a letter was addressed to the Ottoman Sultan Sulayman, thus : He who has attained the exalted rank of the caliphate. At the same time the Sultan is reminded that Akbar is a monarch whose magnificence is equal to that of Solomon. Moreover, the learned body of men in India were of the view that the caliphate could belong only to the Quraiyash.

Relations of Indian Muslims to the Caliphate since 1800 

In the absence of a Muslim ruler who could act as its immediate temporal and religious head, the Sunni Muslim community of India took special interest in the affairs of the Ottoman caliphate. They also, at times, mentioned the name of the Ottoman Caliph in the khutbah.  In fact, Muslims more than once had raised the question whether India, without a Muslim ruler, was technically dar-ul-Islam or if it was not actually dar-ul-Harb. When the last Mughal ruler was overthrown in 1857, and the dar-ul-khilafat of India was empty, Indian Sunnis started looking towards Ottoman caliphate during the years 1877-1908.  


The idea of Pan-Islamism, of a common front of the Muslim peoples against the common threat of the Christian empires, seems to have originated in the 1860s and 1870s. It was, in part, inspired by the successes of the Germans and Italians in unifying their peoples and countries. Some people in Turkey thought that the Ottoman Empire could do what Prussia had done for the Germans and Piedmont for Italians, writes Bernard Lewis (The Middle East, 1995). The active affirmation of Pan-Islamic ideas by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-97) and the development of  Islamic modernism in many different forms by Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) in Egypt, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) in India, and Ismail Gasprinskii (1851-1914) in Russia reflect the vitality of the aspirations for Islamic revival  at the beginning of the twentieth century. Such movements represent a new era and new ways of expressing the aspirations of Islamic revival of Muslims, observes John Obert Voll (Oxford History of Islam, 1999).

India and Pan-Islamism: 

B.R. Nanda a distinguished historian states that the historical links of Indian Islam with the institution of the caliphate had been tenuous. The rulers of slave dynasty considered it necessary to receive the blessings of the Caliphate in Baghdad as well as Cario Abbasides. Later the Mughals adopted a completely opposite stance.  Emperor Akbar had adopted the title of the exalted khalifa;  even Shah Alam II whose writ did not run beyond his palace, was described by his biographer as khalifa and the Shadow of God. Later, Tipu Sultan had sought investiture from the Sultan of Turkey. In the last quarter of the 19th century, however, Russia defeated Turkey (1877) and as a consequence of the Treaty of Stefano, Rumania, Serbia, and Montengro became independent and Cyprus was ceded to the British. Allama Iqbal writing in 1909 rejected the concept of the nation-state based on geographical limits. He observed that the expression ‘Indian Muhammadan’, however convenient it may be, is a contradiction in terms, since Islam in its essence is above all conditions of time and space.  Nationality with us is a pure idea, it has no geographical basis.

Sultan, Abd-ul-Hamid II was developing his doctrine of Pan-Islamism.  Jamal-ud-Din Afghani then living in Hyderabad made an extensive propaganda in this regard.  It is at this time that the Sultan came to promote the Damascus-Medina railway project. Indian Sunnis sent subscriptions for this purpose.  During 1914 war, the Sultan gave the call for a jihad by Muslims against the allied powers.

Gandhi Leads the Khilafat Movement

The First World War saw the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire and the Turkish Empire. Fearful of the fate of the Turkish empire, the Indian Muslims under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi launched the khilafat agitation in 1920. In his autobiography, Gandhi had written : My South African experiences had convinced me that it would be on the question of Hindu-Muslim unity that my ahimsa (non-violence) will be put to its severest test. From the Muslims side Maulana Mahomed Ali, was leading the khilafat movement. He was prosecuted for passing the following resolution at the All India Khilafat Conference held in Karachi in 1921 : This meeting clearly proclaims that it is in every way religiously unlawful for a Musalman at the present moment to continue in the British Army, or to enter the Army, or to induce others to join the Army. And it is the duty of all Musalmans in general and of the Ulemas in particular to see that these religious commandments are brought home to every Musalman in the Army. The only allegiance a Musalman is commanded by the Koran to acknowledge is his allegiance to God, to his Prophet and those in authority from among the Musalmans. He went on to explain that Islam does not recognize territorial affinities. Its affinities are social and religious and therefore extra territorial. This is the basis of Pan Islamism and the justification for launching the khilafat movement. That is why a Musalman says that he is Muslim first and Indian afterwards.

Abolition of Caliphate, 1924

The irony is that Mahatma Gandhi gave the whole force of his political power and personal endeavour to the khilafat movement. In 1921 Moplahs of Malabar rebelled against the British raj and set up a khilafat kingdom. Hundreds of Hindus were killed and thousand cases of forcible conversion of Hindus to Islam were reported to the British government. This situation prevailed up to early 1924. In March 1924, Kemal Pasha, the President of the Turkish Republic startled the entire Muslim world by summarily deposing the Caliph Abd-ul-Majid, and by banishing him and his family from the Turkish nation. That was the end of the Sunni Caliphate. Abdul Majid, before his death nominated his daughter's son Prince Mukarram Jah as the Khalif of Sunni Islam.


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