What is a Caliphate?

Niki Foster

A caliphate is the traditional Islamic form of government, presided over by a caliph, either appointed or elected, who is considered the political leader of all Muslims. It also incorporates a shura, a body similar to a parliament, that represents the will of the people and may elect and/or advise the caliph. Though originally, and ideally according to some, a caliphate — or the caliphate — is a unique entity that unites all Muslims under its rule, there have been concurrent and even competing ones at some points in history.

Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the caliphate in 1924.
Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the caliphate in 1924.

The caliphate began after the death of Mohammed, the first four caliphs being his followers. The institution was intended to carry the legacy of Mohammed's authority. Politically powerful Islamic entities throughout history, including the Ottoman Empire, were incarnations of this government. In 1924, Turkish President Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the caliphate.

The caliphs were early leaders of the Islamic religion.
The caliphs were early leaders of the Islamic religion.

While the majority of caliphates have been centered in the Middle East and exercised authority over Muslims around the world, a notable exception is the Caliphate of Córdoba that ruled the Iberian Peninsula during the 10th and 11th centuries. The Iberian Peninsula became part of the Islamic Empire during the 8th century, when the Ummayad Caliphate ruled out of Damascus. In 750, the Abassids overthrew the Ummayads in the Middle East, marking the beginning of a five-century dynasty. However, descendents of the Ummayads remained in control of Spain, eventually setting up a government there. Many of Spain's most famous and beautiful buildings date from this period, including the Great Mosque of Córdoba.

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Though the caliphate in the Middle East was a significant political force in the world into the 20th century, there have been no successful attempts to reinstate it. Several groups, including al-Qaeda, have expressed a desire or intention to reestablish this government. However, different groups have widely divergent positions regarding the particulars of how such a caliphate would be established and run, and many who would favor reinstating it are not political extremists. United States President George W. Bush spoke vehemently against the restoration of the caliphate, which he claimed is a threat to world freedom.

A map of the Middle East, where the majority of caliphates have been centered.
A map of the Middle East, where the majority of caliphates have been centered.

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Discussion Comments


The reinstatement of the Caliphate / Khilafat was foretold by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself.

Currently, only the Ahmadiyya Caliphate / Khilafat claims to be successfully going on since 1908. Under the fifth Caliph / Khalifah, they are peacefully working in more than 200 countries worldwide. They focus on a non violent approach.



It could also be argued that Christianity is itself a sect of Judaism, which would mean that Judaism has many smaller sects. Or it could be argued that both Islam and Christianity are sects of Judaism, since Judaism had a great amount of influence on both, and is the mother of all major Monotheistic religions.


The main issue of divide between Shiites and Sunnis was the matter of succession after Mohammed. There was a great rift in terms of who the religious authority then became, much like the Papal Schism of the Eastern and Western Christian Church. There are also other sects, such as the Sufis. Islam has not split into as many organized sects as Christianity has, however.

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