Caliph was the person acting in Muhammad's place after his death, i.e. the leader of Islam for the sunni sect. When Muhammad died in 632, the Muslim community faced a problem on how their community should be governed, and how leaders should be appointed. There were conflicting stories on what Muhammad had said, and the tensions that came already with the first appointment of a leader, a person acting in the place of the Messenger, a khalifatu r-rasuul, few months after Muhammad's death. Khalifa can be translated as "successor, vicegerent", but is a term that is seldom used for anything else than the leader of the entire Muslim community, and when other forms of usage appears the use of "Caliph" (khalifa), is very conscient regarding the main meaning of the term.

Through history, we have seen parallel Caliphs, but none had as much symbolic power and influence as the one that followed the line of Caliphs from Abu Bakr, which was the first. This line of Caliphs had a steady residence in Damascus from 661 to 750, and Baghdad and Samarra up until 1258. After 1258, and until 1924 there have been several Caliphs, but all of these have had only limited influence, they have represented no continuation of the Caliphs of Baghdad, and in more than one case, these caliphhoods have been motivated by political motives, and few or none religious. The Muslim world have never agreed upon uniting behind anyone of these.

The Caliph carried other titles, that were less modest, as they were not relative to Muhammad, but to the Muslim community. As amiiru l-mu'miniin he was responsible for the Muslim armies. As imam he was the head of public worship, and gave khutbas (hutbe). The last Caliph was removed by the Mongols when they conquered Bagdad. After this there has been several rulers putting up their own Caliph, but the Caliphate never gained any of its former power or importance.

There are four periods of the Caliphate of Islam:

  1. The Rashiduns (632-661): Rashidun is the name used for the first four Caliphs, from 632 to 661, and indicate that these were the just and admirable leaders of the Muslim community. This period was marked by a long line of conquests by the Arabs, as well as endeavors to turn the leaflets of the revelations that had been given to Muhammad into a book, the Holy Koran. Inside the Muslim realms peace prevailed until the death of Uthman in 656. As this was a murder, the Muslim could not agree upon quite who was responsible. This time, the caliphate of Ali, came with the two schismas that has impregnated Islam ever since, when first there was a break between the majority and a group now known as Kharijis, and later between the group now known as Shi'is and the Sunnis.

  2. The Ummawiyys (661-750): The Ummawiyyas got their power through military actions, a fact that influenced their religious legitimacy strongly through the 90 years they had the power. Most Muslim regard the Ummawiyyas as less admirable than both the Rashiduns and the later Abbasids. Even if the Shi'is did not accept the rule of the Ummawiyy Caliphs, this group was at the time to weak to represent much of a threat to the ruling group.

  3. The Abbasids (750-1258): The Abbasids was to a large extent Shi'is (the division lines of today was not as clear in those early days), and the defeating of the Ummawiyys was strongly motivated by Ali's claim on the leading position in the Muslim world. The Abbasid Caliph involved himself strongly in the religious life of the community. The distance between ruler and people became longer, the court of the Caliph was one of increasing splendor.

    The 9th century was the start of the decline of the real influence of the Caliph on first politics, and soon also religious matters. The symbolic importance was, however, increased. All effective power was lost in 946. The Buyyids became the new ruling dynasty, but in secular terms. Some cases of outward importance of the Caliph was seen in some cases in the following centuries, but this was mainly instances where the secular ruler got the blessings of the Caliph, but without giving the Caliph any form of influence. The blessings, in the shape of a diploma of investiture and robes of honor was given to strong leaders as Saladin.

    In 928 Abdu r-Rahman III of Spain, a desendant of the Ummawiyys, took the title caliph, a title his descendants also carried. The Fatimids of Egypt had also taken this title, as far as back to 909, but they put less emphasis on this than what the Ummawiyys of Spain did.

  4. The period after 1258: When al-Musta'sim was killed in 1258 by the Mongols, he did not leave any heir. The uncle of al-Musta'sim was however installed in the position as Caliph in 1261 in Cairo, but this Caliph disappeared in the desert when bringing an army up north in order to try to sack the Mongols. A new Caliph was installed in 1262, once again in Cairo, this also a relative of al-Musta'sim. A mere symbol, without the permission to move freely around, this new line of Caliphs stayed in their position for about 250 years. Except from installing the Sultan in great ceremonies, this Caliph had no importance. The Abbasid Caliph of Cairo was also ignored by the rest of the Muslim world.

    In several places Caliphs popped up, in Maghreb, with the Seljuks, the Timurids, the Turcomans, the Uzbeks and the Ottomans. When the Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517, the remaining Caliph was transported to Istanbul, the Ottoman Sultan Selim called himself Caliph. Later sources claims that the Abbasid caliph transferred his dignity to Selim I. In the 18th century the importance of being Caliph had grown stronger for the Ottoman Sultan, and started to call himself the protector of the Muslim religion. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan held on to his title of Caliph for two more years, until his office was abolished in March 1924 by Atatürk.

    A congress in Cairo in 1926 that tried to reestablish the Caliphate, did not manage to succeed. Important Muslim countries did not participate, and the resolutions agreed upon did not result in real actions, even if they expressed to be in favor of a Caliphate. Since then nothing has been done, much due to nationalism in the different countries. There are no more Caliphs around the world today.


Year AD Year Hijra Caliph's official name
The Rashiduns
632-634 11-13 Abu Bakr
634-644 13-23 Umar ibnu l-Khattab
644-656 23-35 Uthman ibn Affan
656-661 35-40 Ali ibn Abi Talib
The Ummawiyys
661-680 41-60 Mu'awiyya ibn Abi Sufyan
680-683 60-64 Yazid I
683-684 64 Mu'awiyya II
684-685 64-65 Marwan ibnu l-Hakam
685-705 65-86 Abu l-Malik
705-715 86-96 al-Walid
715-717 96-99 Sulayman
717-720 99-101 Umar II ibnu Abdi l-Aziz
720-724 101-105 Yazid II
724-743 105-124 Hisham
743-744 125-126 al-Walid II
744 126 Yazid III
744 126-127 Ibrahim
744-750 127-132 Marwan II al-Himar
The Abbasids
749-754 132-136 as-Saffah
754-775 136-158 al-Mansur
775-785 158-169 al-Mahdi
785-786 169-170 al-Hadi
786-809 170-193 Harunu r-Rashid
809-813 193-198 al-Amin ibn Harun
813-833 198-218 al-Ma'mun ibn Harun
833-842 218-227 al-Mu'tasim ibn Harun
842-847 227-232 al-Wathiq
847-861 232-247 al-Mutawakkil
861-862 247-248 al-Muntasir
862-866 248-252 al-Musta'in
866-869 252-255 al-Mu'tazz
869-870 255-256 al-Muhtadi
870-892 256-279 al-Mu'tamid
892-902 279-289 al-Mu'tadid
902-908 289-295 al-Muktafi ibnu l-Mu'tadid
908-932 295-320 Muqtadir bi'llahi bni l-Mu'tadid
932-934 320-322 al-Qahir bi'llahi bni l-Mu'tadid
934-940 322-329 al-Radi bi'llahi bni l-Muqtadir
940-944 329-333 al-Mutaqqi li'llahi bni l-Muqtadir
944-946 333-334 al-Mustakfi bi'llahi bni l-Muktafi
946-974 334-363 al-Muti' ibni l-Muqtadir
974-991 363-381 al-Tai'i' ibni l-Muti'
991-1031 381-422 al-Qadir bi-amri'llah
1031-1075 422-467 al-Qa'im
1075-1094 467-487 al-Muqtadi
1094-1118 487-512 al-Mustazhir
1118-1135 512-529 al-Mustarshid
1135-1136 529-530 ar-Rashid
1136-1160 530-555 al-Muqtafi
1160-1170 555-566 al-Mustanjid
1170-1180 566-575 al-Mustadi'
1180-1225 575-622 an-Nasir li-Dini llah
1225-1226 622-623 az-Zahir
1226-1242 623-640 al-Mustansir
1242-1258 640-656 al-Musta'sim