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caliphate

caliphate (kălˈĭfātˌ, –fĭt) [key], the rulership of Islam; caliph kălˈĭfˌ, the spiritual head and temporal ruler of the Islamic state. In principle, Islam is theocratic: when Muhammad died, a caliph [Arab., = successor] was chosen to rule in his place. The caliph had temporal and spiritual authority but was not permitted prophetic power; this was reserved for Muhammad. The caliph could not, therefore, exercise authority in matters of religious doctrine. The first caliph was Abu Bakr. He was succeeded by Umar, Uthman, and Ali. Sunni Muslims recognize these first four, or Rashidun (the rightly guided), caliphs. Shiites, however, recognize Ali as the first caliph. After Ali's death, Muawiya became caliph and founded the Umayyad dynasty (661–750), chiefly by force of arms. Its capital was Damascus. In 750 the Abbasid family, descended from the Prophet's uncle, led a coalition that defeated (749–50) the Umayyad family. The Abbasid dynasty (749–1258) is sometimes called the caliphate of Baghdad. One Umayyad, Abd ar-Rahman I, escaped the general massacre of his family and fled to Spain; there the emirate of Córdoba was set up in 780. This later became the caliphate of Córdoba, or the Western caliphate, and persisted until 1031. A third competing contemporaneous caliphate was established by the Fatimids in Africa, Syria, and Egypt (909–1171). After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols under Hulagu Khan in 1258, the Abbasids fled to Egypt. The Ottomans captured Egypt in 1517 and Selim I assumed the title of caliph by questionable right. The Ottoman sultans, however, kept the title until the last sultan, Muhammad VI, was deposed. He was succeeded briefly by a cousin, but in 1924 the caliphate was abolished by Kemal Atatürk. A year later Husayn ibn Ali, king of Arabia, proclaimed himself caliph, but he was forced to abdicate by Ibn Saud. Subsequently, several pan-Islamic congresses attempted to establish a rightful caliph. A number of Islamist political parties and Islamist guerrilla groups have called for the restoration of the caliphate by uniting, either through peaceful political action or through force, Islamic nations in a transnational state.

See W. Muir, The Caliphate (1898, repr. 1964); T. W. Arnold, The Caliphate (1924, repr. 1966); A. S. Tritton, The Caliphs and Their Non-Muslim Subjects (1930, repr. 1970); M. Ali, Early Caliphate (tr. 1947); S. K. Bakhsh, The Caliphate (1954); P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (10th ed. 1970); H. Kennedy, The Early Abbasid Caliphate (1981).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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