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The Islamic Khilafat – Its Rise, Fall, and Re-emergence

by Rafi Ahmed

Rafi Ahmad

In this essay, we will examine the concept of the khilafat, its rise, fall, and reemergence, and discuss its relevance in modern times.

The Arabic word khalifa means successor. The term caliph is simply an anglicized version of khalifa. The terms khilafat and caliphate, though derived from khalifa and caliph respectively, have different connotations. Khilafat refers to the Islamic institution of spiritual successorship, whereas caliphate implies a politico-religious Muslim state governed by a caliph [6, 14].

Theological Foundations of Khilafat

The Holy Quran makes several references to the term khalifa, but it does not expound upon the prerogative, scope, authority, or manner of establishment of khilafat. Our understanding of khilafat and how it draws its legitimacy is essentially based on the following Quranic verse.

Allah has promised to those among you who believe and act righteously, that He will surely make them Successors (khalifas) in the earth, as He made Successors from among those who were before them; and that He will surely establish for them their religion, which He has chosen for them; and that He will surely grant them security and peace in place of their fear. (24:56)

In this verse, the Holy Quran presents the institution of khilafat as a reward for collective piety. It is often interpreted to provide a basis for an Islamic polity founded upon the democratic lines headed by a khalifa whose office is, in principle, elective and bound by the Quran and the sunnah.

In a well-known hadith, the Prophet MuhammedSAW is reported to have observed:

Prophethood shall remain among you as long as God wills. Then khilafat on the pattern of prophethood will commence and remain as long as He wills. A corrupt monarchy shall then follow and it shall remain as long as God wills. There shall then be a tyrannical despotism which shall remain as long as God wills. Then once again khilafat will emerge on the precept of prophethood. [Masnad-­Ahmad, Mishkat, Chapter Al-Anzar Wal Tahzir].

This hadith not only reassures us about the reemergence of divinely guided khilafat but it also passes a historical judgment on what was to follow the early Khilafat.

Khilafat and State

The Islamic view is that sovereignty over the universe belongs to God, but mankind, as God’s deputy, is vested with authority in certain spheres, as a trust, for which it is accountable to God. Hazrat Zafrulla Khan wrote:

“As God’s sovereignty extends over the universe, the ultimate ideal of a state in Islam is a universal federation or confederation of autonomous states, associated together for upholding freedom of conscience, for the maintenance of peace, and for cooperation in promoting human welfare throughout the world…” [5]

The role played by a khalifa is both spiritual and secular. According to, Hazrat Mirza Tahir AhmadRZ, Khalifatul-Masih IV, the implication of a khalifa being the spiritual head of a confederation of states is that the khalifa, if he sees fit, may relegate most or all his secular authority to the elected representatives of the members of the confederation [3]. Thus the concept of khilafat transcends national sovereignty and ethnic divide and forms a truly universal supra-national entity.

A khalifa has the promise of divine support so long as it remains firmly based on the precept of prophethood – that is, the principles and prototypes exemplified by prophets. He is bound by the ordinances of divine law. He decides questions of policy after consultation with the chosen representatives of the people. The concept of khilafat is thus imbued with both secular and religious characteristics.

The institution of khilafat is based on the precept of prophethood; and therefore, like prophethood, it can exist and flourish without a state.

The Rightly-Guided Khalifas

When the Prophet MuhammedSAW died (632 C.E.), Hazrat Abu Bakr succeeded to his spiritual, political, and administrative functions as successor of the messenger of God (khalifa rasul Allah). Bernard Lewis, the preeminent historian of Islam, observes:

“Abu Bakr was given the title of Khalifa or ‘Deputy’ (of the prophet) … and his election marks the inauguration of the great historic institution of the Caliphate. His electors can have no idea of later functions and development of the office. At the time, they made no attempt to delimit his duties or powers. The sole condition of his appointment was the maintenance of the heritage of the Prophet.” [10]

Bernard Lewis captured the essence of the institution of khilafat in the last sentence by re-stating the phrase “on the precept of prophethood” from the hadith. The first four Khalifas, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali, were close associates of the Prophet known for their high integrity and great devotion. The qualification rightly-guided (the rashedun) has been historically applied to them to distinguish them from the kings-caliphs who followed them.

The period of the reign (632-661) the rightly-guided Khalifas constituted what later generations of Muslims would often remember as a golden age of pure Islam. Muslims would often define themselves and their theology according to the way they assessed the glorious, though turbulent and short-lived, events of that formative period [7].

The famous historian of Islam, Muhammad ibn Jarir Al Tabari, relates the following incident [10].

“Umar said to Salman: ‘Am I a king or a khalifa?’ and Salman answered: ‘If you have levied from the lands of the Muslims one dirham, or more, or less, and applied it unlawfully, you are a king not a khalifa’. And Umar wept.” [Al Tabari, Tarikh al-Rusul Wal Muluk]

Here Hazrat Umar, the second Khalifa, whose piety, sense of justice, and puritanical austerity were proverbial, came to tears by the mere mention of the possibility of misusing a single coin from the public exchequer. This incidence underscores the distinctive characteristics of the rightly-guided khilafat.

The rightly-guided Khalifas played active spiritual and secular roles. They were the head of the Islamic confederation and exercised secular authority often indirectly through appointed governors of various provinces of the empire.

After the assassination of Hazrat Ali (661 C.E.), the last of the rightly-guided Khalifas, the question of the right to khilafat resulted in a major split in Islam into Sunni and Shia branches [9]. Muawiyah declared himself the khalifa of the ummah and of the Muslim empire and thereby laid down the foundations of a long line of dynastic monarchy – quite in accordance with the prognostications made by the Prophet.

Monarchy and Despotism

After the end of the rightly-guided Khilafat, the title of khalifa was borne by the fourteen Umayyad kings of Damascus (661-750) and subsequently by the thirty-eight Abbasid monarchs of Baghdad (750-1258). After the fall of the Umayyad dynasty, the title was also assumed by the Spanish branch of the family who ruled in Spain at Córdoba (755–1031) and by the Faṭimid rulers of Egypt (909–1171). Thus there existed multiple contemporaneous caliphs from the 7th to 12th centuries [6].

The last titular Abbasid caliph of Cairo was captured in 1517 by the Ottoman sultan Selim I. The Ottoman sultans then claimed the title of khalifa and brandished it for four centuries until it was abolished in 1924 by the Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the founder of Turkish Republic.

It is not uncommon for many scholars [14, 20] to state that the caliphate came to an end in 1924. But, as a matter of fact, it had reached its nadir long time ago. What came to an end in 1924 was a vestigial and vacuous title misappropriated by a decadent monarchy, which, even in its imperial heyday, never represented the Muslim ummah and nor had it exercised any positive influence over them since the 13th century.

Wishful Thinking

In 2005, President Bush warned [12]: “These Al Qaida terrorists are driven by a radical and perverted vision of Islam that rejects tolerance, crushes all dissent, and justifies the murder of innocent men, women and children in the pursuit of political power.  They hope to establish a violent political utopia across the Middle East, which they call caliphate … where all would be ruled according to their hateful ideology. This caliphate would be a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands”.

Mr. Bush is not alone in raising the specter of the caliphate. After the recent unrest and demand for freedom and justice in the Arab lands, many public figures in academia and think tanks have expressed similar alarmist views, while some in the media have circulated wild caliphate conspiracy theories.

On the other end of the spectrum, the collective Muslim soul yearns for a global caliphate, which is cherished as a memory of past glories and timeless ideals. In recent years, interest among Muslims in international unity and the caliphate has grown. Popular Islamic movements identify a lack of spirituality and decline in personal religious observance as the root cause of the Muslim world’s problems, and claim that the caliphate cannot be successfully revived until these deficiencies are addressed.

Osama bin Laden has called [12] the 9/11 attacks “a great step towards the unity of Muslims and establishing the righteous caliphate.” A number of fundamentalist political parties have called for the restoration of the caliphate by uniting Muslim nations, either through peaceful political uprising or through force [13]. Two influential and radical pan-Islamic groups, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood, seek to restore the caliphate, but fail to differentiate between a militant Islamic state [16, 17] and the spirituality of the rightly-guided khilafat. Some see the ineffectual Organization of the Islamic Conference, an international organization with 57 Muslim member states, as a precursor to the caliphate. Other scholars, like Tarek Masoud of Harvard Kennedy School, take a milder view envisioning the caliphate somewhat like the European Union for Muslims [19].

Clearly, at the core of the divergent ideas of restoration of the caliphate lies a minimal precondition of the political unity of the Muslim ummah [13]. But that seems to be inconceivable in the present climate. In recent memory, Muslim countries have not been a picture of unity and harmony: the world has been a witness to the Black September of Jordan (1970), the failure of the Pan Arabic movement and of the United Arab Republic (1971), division of Pakistan (1971), the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the Darfur conflict (2003-2008), and the decision of the southern Sudan to secede from the north (2011). In a Friday sermon [18], Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul-Masih V, succinctly put it: “How do they propose to establish khilafat over every Muslim country when they cannot even agree on who could lead the prayer?”

The Ahmadiyya Khilafat

Hazrat Mirza Ghulam AhmadAS, the Messiah and Mahdi, likened khilafat to the second manifestation of God’s power – the advent of prophets being the first manifestation. He drew a parallel and proffered the archetypical Khilafat of Hazrat Abu Bakr as the second manifestation. He quoted the Quranic verse 24:56 and made a prophetic statement: “The second manifestation cannot come till I go. But when I go, God will send a second manifestation for you which will remain with you forever.” [1] This second manifestation unequivocally refers to the Ahmadiyya Khilafat.

After the death of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam AhmadAS in 1908, a large number of leading members of the Ahmadiyya community convened and unanimously decided that Hazrat Nurud DinRZ should be his first Khalifa. In 1914, at the time of the election of the second Khalifa, Hazrat Mirza Mahmood AhmadRZ, a small dissenting group formed a separate organization known as Lahoris; their main dispute with the mainstream Ahmadis centered over the scope of and the need for the institution of khilafat [4]. Since then the transitions to three Khalifas have taken place with grace and harmony. These Khalifas have been men of piety and probity, of simplicity and austerity, dedicated to Islam, and engaged in serving the faith and transforming the faithful.

After a hiatus of 13 hundred years, the divinely-guided Ahmadiyya Khilafat in Islam re-emerged in accordance with the prophecies of the Holy Prophet and of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam AhmadAS. This was one of the most significant events in the history of Islam whose full impact is yet to be seen [11].

The Ahmadiyya Khilafat categorically rejects militancy in every form and wages an intellectual jihad of the pen. When faced with bitter persecution, it practices patience and perseverance. When subjected to invidious intolerance, it preaches peace and tolerance. It champions the cause of the dispossessed and works towards uplifting the downtrodden.

The Ahmadiyya Khilafat has conquered no land and possesses no earthly dominion, but it wields its influence over the hearts and minds of millions by winning over one man and one woman at a time. It is a force for good in the world, and exemplifies, once again, an institution grounded in the precepts of prophethood.


  1. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, The Will, Islam International Publication, Ltd., 2001
  2. Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mehmud Ahmad, Islam May Ikhtilafat Ka Aghaz (The Origin of Dissention in Islam), Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, Qadian, India, 1978.
  3. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, Islam International Publication, Ltd., 1992
  4. Yohanan Friedmann, Prophecy Continuous, University of California Press, 1989
  5. Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, Islamic Concept of the State, Review of Religions, February 1993
  6. Caliphate”, Encyclopædia Britannica 2006, Ultimate Reference Suite DVD.
  7. Phillip K. Hitti, A History of the Arabs, Macmillan & Co. Ltd., New York, 1961
  8. Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, Islam and Human Rights, Islam International Publications, 1967
  9. Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History, Modern Library, New York, 2000
  10. Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993
  11. Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, Ahmadiyyat: The Renaissance of Islam, Tabshir Publications, London, 1978
  12. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/05/AR2006090500656.html
  13. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/13/AR2006011301816_pf.html
  14. Noah Feldman, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, Princeton University Press, 2008.
  15. Osama Saeed, The Return of the Caliphate, The Guardian, November 1, 2005.
  16. Kalim Bahadur, The Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan, Chetana Publications, New Delhi, 1977.
  17. R. S. Leiken and S. Brooke, The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood, Foreign Affairs Magazine, Vol. 86, No. 2, March 2007.
  18. Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Friday (25-2-2011) Sermon, http://www.alislam.org/friday-sermon/20110225.html#summary-tab
  19. Global Public Square, CNN, February 20, 2011.
  20. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon & Schuster, 1996