14 May 2023

What is a caliph? – Learn the role of caliphs in the Muslim religion

By Donald

A caliph is the highest authority in the political and religious sphere of the Muslim people, since it is a title granted to the faithful followers of Muhammad who, at the moment of death, exercise a double power, both religious and civil. This title is similar to other holy figures, such as “the pope” in Catholicism or the Dalai Lama in Buddhism.

Meaning of caliph in the Muslim religion

The word Caliph comes from the Arabic “خليفة” which means representative, and is the successor of the Prophet Muhammad in the Muslim community and in the spiritual, judicial and earthly fields. This always follows the parameters and references of the Qur’an, since it is he book sacred of islamwhere the word of Allah or God of all Muslims is contemplated.

In Islamic history, the caliphate was a form of government that emerged after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 632. The caliphs were the successive leaders of the umma, where the first four are known as the ‘rightly guided’. After them, the caliphate became a hereditary monarchy and the position of the caliph lost much of its political power in favor of local rulers.

Today, the position of caliph does not exist, as such, in the Muslim world. However, there are extremist groups that use this term to refer to leaders seeking to establish an Islamic state and claim religious and political authority about Muslims around the world.

What are the characteristics of a caliph?

The caliphs were the political and religious leaders of the Islamic world during the period of the Golden Age of Islam, which spanned from the 7th to 13th century. Now some general characteristics are:

  • Political and religious leaders: They considered themselves successors of the Prophet Muhammad and were expected to rule in accordance with the early islam.
  • Promoters of science and culture: The caliphs actively promoted education in their territories. They encouraged the learning of Greek and Roman knowledge, translating into Arabic and creating libraries and study centers.
  • Trade Drivers: They established trade routes and promoted business throughout the Islamic world. In addition, developed a prosperous economybased on agriculture, crafts and industry.
  • Social Justice Advocates: they cared about fairness and equity in his government. They tried to address issues of economic and social inequality, where they promoted equanimity between people.
  • Architects and Builders: Its architectural style was distinctive, characterized by domes, arches and mosaicswhere it became a trademark of Islamic architecture throughout the world.
  • Patrons of Arts and Literature: They encouraged poetry, music, calligraphy, and other forms of artistic expression. In addition, they supported many artists and writers.

Where did the caliphs live?

The caliphs, as political and religious leaders of the Muslim world, resided in different cities throughout history. During the Orthodox Period, between the years 632 and 661, the first four caliphs lived in Medina, the city ​​in which the prophet muhammad had preached. The capital of the caliphate was moved to Kufa in Iraq, during the caliphate of the fourth caliph, Ali.

After the Umayyad dynasty was established in 661, the caliphate se moved to Damascusthe capital of Syria, where they built a great palace and a mosque, making it the capital of the caliphate for more than a century.

In the year 750, the Abbasids defeated the Umayyads and they established their own caliphate, moving the capital to the city of Baghdad in Iraq. However, at present, there is no position of caliph that has political or religious authority over the Muslim world.

What were the functions of a caliph?

It must be taken into account that the caliphs have certain functions established according to the Muslim religion and customs, where their main mission was impose authority in the umma, according to the teachings and precepts established by Muhammad. Thus, the caliphs could not design no dogma. Other important functions are:

  • Religious leadership: They were expected to establish religious policies and also ensure that Islamic law, the sharia, was respected and applied throughout the territory under your control.
  • Political administration: They were responsible for the management of the territory that was under their control. This included the directorate of civil affairsmilitary and financial, as well as decision-making related to justice and public security.
  • Peace-keeping: The caliphs were responsible for ensure peace and stability in their territories. This included the prevention of rebellions and riots, the protection of borders, and the promotion of cooperation between different ethnic and religious groups.
  • military protection: They directed the military forces and were responsible for the defense of Islamic territory against outside invasions. They also establish alliances and agreements with other leaders to guarantee the security Of the territory.

How many caliphates were there?

First of all, it must be understood that a caliphate is a islamic system of government supported by religion, where the maximum leader receives the name of caliph. Now, throughout history there have been six caliphatesfrom its creation in 632 to its abolition in 1924:

  • Orthodox Caliphate (632-661): Also known as the well-guided caliphate, it had four different caliphs, the first called Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, the second Úmar ibn al-Khattab, the third Uthmán ibn Affán and the fourth called Ali ibn Abi Tálib. This was the only one who accepted both Shiism and Sunniism.
  • Umayyad Caliphate (661-750): Its founder was Muawiya I, an Orthodox governor who managed to establish a hereditary dynasty of caliphs. In this government, the capital of the caliphate was established in Damascus, a city in Syria. In addition, they were characterized by their luxurious and extravagant style, in contrast to the austere and modest life of the orthodox caliphs.
  • Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258): Its founder was Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah. During this period, the caliphate expanded further and became one of the largest and wealthiest empires in history, with a vast trade network and flourishing culture. The Abbasids were characterized by their support for the arts, literature, science and philosophy.
  • Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171): Its founder was Abd Allah al-Mahdi, a religious leader who claimed descent from Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. During his heyday, he ruled much of North Africa, including Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya. In addition, he was in conflict with other Muslim powers, especially the Seljuks and Abbasids.
  • Caliphate of Córdoba (939-1031): It was proclaimed by Abderramán III in Córdoba, Spain, created with a Sunni orientation. At its height, the caliphate held trade and diplomatic relations with other powers of the Islamic world, as well as with the Christian kingdoms of the north of the Iberian Peninsula.
  • Ottoman Empire (1517-1924): It is of the Sunni model, where the last caliph, called Al-Mutawakkil III, passed his title to Sultan Selim I. This caliphate was characterized by the religious and ethnic tolerance. In addition to the complexity of the political method, since it included a centralized bureaucracy and a legal system where elements of Islamic law and customary law were combined.