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The Caliphate or Khilafah

What was the Caliphate or Khilafah in early Islamic history?

The term caliphate, or Khilafah in Arabic (an abbreviation of Khalifatu Rasulil-lah, Successor to the Messenger of God), is the pre-eminent form of governance in traditional Islamic political thinking. The term caliph refers most originally to the successor to the Prophet (pbuh). The first four caliphs are deemed in the Sunni tradition to be the 'Rightly Guided Caliphs', while the Shi'a view Ali (the fourth) as the truly legitimate successor, designated by the Prophet before his death. They exercised political headship of the community in straightened circumstances; requiring legal governance, maintaining or extending complex social alliances in the region, military defence of the community and expansion over new territory. However, they were not deemed to be kings or sovereigns; 'Allah alone is sovereign.

These first four caliphs were close companions of the Prophet, and in the eyes of most Muslims their leadership was characterised by piety, justice, and wisdom. Open conflict emerged during the caliphate of Ali. Ali sought to remove Mu'awiya, a governor in Syria installed by Uthman, who rebelled and sent his armies against Ali. Although the result was inconclusive Ali could not overthrow Mu'awiya. Ali was eventually assassinated by a splinter group called the Kharijites. Mu'awiya assumed the Caliphate, bringing the era of the 'Rightly Guided Caliphs' to an end.

Thereafter the position of caliph was hereditary, and the caliphate in practice became something monarchical and dynastic in nature; more secular and less spiritual in its governance. Mu'awiya was the first of the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled for nearly one hundred years. During the reign of his son, Yazid, the fateful battle of Karbala took place, which sealed the division between Sunni and Shi'a.

Muslim territory expanded dramatically under the Umayyads, but loss of control of some of their lands and internal fracture proved their undoing. After nearly a century the descendents of the Prophet's uncle Abbas overthrew the Umayyads, replacing them with the Abbasid dynasty. The Abbasid dynasty was in turn swept away in 1258 by the Mongols. The later Ottoman Empire, from the 15th to 20th centures (AH), was also sometimes referred to as a Caliphate