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Prerequisites of a Rightly Guided Khalifa

by Adam Walker

It is disheartening to see many writers impose certain stringent characteristics and qualities as a prerequisite to becoming a Khalifa. They mean to set a uniform standard to which every prospective Khalifa must meet otherwise he would not be a worthy of the office. It is not unreasonable to expect a Khalifa to tick all the boxes which are required of all Muslims in adherence to the blessed ‘Articles of Faith,’ however, to devise such strict classifications is an error and the proceeding paragraphs are aimed to alleviate such misconceptions.

It is important to first note that some classical writers have imposed certain ‘skills/knowledge requirements’ on the office of Khilafat-e-Mulk (Temporal Khilafat, Kingship) which have subsequently, throughout the echoes of time, been manipulated to cover both Rightly Guided leadership and ordinary Kingship as if the two were the same. Other classical writers have not set out to impose prerequisites upon Khalifas but have created scholarly treaties which merely highlight characteristics which were common amongst the Rightly Guided Khalifas. A final category of writers have stipulated prerequisites which are not based on independent reasoning but rather taken from the Book of Allah the Almighty and Sunnah, these prerequisites amount to standards which should be upheld by all sincere believers. A number of Modern writers have done a disservice to the true intentions of these classical writers by creating mischievous ambiguities.

As mentioned above, several classical commentators have outlined common qualities required of a Khalifa, for example Hazrat Shah Wali Allah (may Allah’s mercy be on him) writes that there are several qualities which a Khalifa should have but that these qualities are universal to all types of Kings and Rulers both in Islam and other societies. The universal qualities listed are,

“(1) Sanity,(2) malehood, (3) bravery, (4) wisdom and the ability to hear, observe and articulate.”

In addition to these universal prerequisites he says that Islam places its hallmark on the required qualities of a Khalifa by stipulating a further three, namely,

“(1) total loyalty to Islam, (2) keen insight and understanding in the matters of shariah and, (3) a high level of integrity and high level of conduct (‘adalah)”.

In his book, Minhaj, Ibn Taymiyyah puts forward the following qualities as required by a Khalifa,

“(1) The Imam should be a Qurayshi, (2) He should be appointed by the consultation of the Muslims, (3) He should receive the oath of allegiance from the Muslims, and (4) He should possess the quality of Justice.”

With respect to the potential candidates and their eligibility for the post of Khalifa, there are seven conditions of eligibility outlined by one of the most prominent classical writers on Khilafah and the Islamic state, Al-Mawardi, in his al-Ahkam, these are set out as follows,

“(1) Justice or probity with all its attributers; (2) Knowledge conductive to the exercise of independent judgment in crisis or decision making; (3) Sound hearing vision and speech so that perception could serve as a correct basis for action; (4) Physical fitness and freedom from handicaps to movement or agility of action; (5) Prudence that ensures wise handling of the subjects and able maintenance of their interests; (6) Dauntless courage in defence of the homeland and repulsion of its enemies; and (7) Notable Qurayshite descent, a matter indisputably settled by explicit text and general consensus.”

The above prerequisites are, in general, standard qualities, except the last one, which common sense demands of any ruler of the faithful. Other commentators unnecessarily impose much stricter prerequisites upon a Khalifa, however, there are several important reasons why it is illogical for them to do so. It is clear that a Rightly Guided Khalifa comes to assume his position through the Divine manifestation of Allah’s Will. Keeping this in mind it would be untenable to question or place provisos upon Allah’s Will, with the exception to those stipulations which Allah the Almighty and His Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) have already stated in the primary and secondary sources of Islam. Ordinary man has no place in this process for surely Allah the Almighty has said in the Qur’an,

“Do you see what you sow, is it you who grow it or are we the grower?”

It is here made clear that Allah’s Majesty brings about change and not the efforts of man as man is only able to sow a crop by virtue of the fact that God has created a system which permits it to bear fruit. This is furthermore highlighted in the verse of Istikhlaf where Allah the Almighty explicitly says that it is He Who will establish Successors on this Earth.

The relationship between Allah the Almighty and His appointed Khalifa is a private one which no person is capable of intruding upon it with independent prerequisites. This special relationship is most beautifully described by Hazrat Shah Wali Allah (may Allah’s mercy be on him) as follows,

“The Will of God which descends from above the seventh heaven to spread the prophetic guidance among the people, to protect the prophetic light and make it dominant, and to effect the execution of the promises made to the Prophet, creates an urge in the heart of the khalifa. There may be thousands whose hearts are filled by divine inspiration, with the urge to help the Religion of the prophet, but this khalifa is among them (the Muslims) as the heart is among organs of the body. First of all, the divine inspiration enters the heart of the khalifa and then from there it reaches the hearts of other persons. This inspiration enters the heart of the khalifa through the agency of the Prophet and urges from inside, and unless it urges from inside no one can become special khilafah.”

Highlighted here is that the office of Khalifa is not any ordinary seat of authority but requires Divine appointment and inspiration. The post of Khalifa is not like any worldly role; there is no apparent chain of authority to climb so as to attain the status of a Khalifa, and it is certainly not possible to google a Khalifa’s job description. The following saying of the Holy Prophet, may peace and blessings of Allah be on him, illustrates this point,

Allah’s Apostle said, “(O ‘Abdur- Rahman!) Do not seek to be a ruler, for, if you are given the authority of ruling without your asking for it, then Allah will help you; but if you are given it by your asking, then you will be held responsible for it (that is, Allah will not help you) . And if you take an oath to do something and later on find another thing, better than that, then do what is better and make expiation for (the dissolution of) your oath.”

The mission of each Khalifa can only be understood when placed beneath the shadow of the deceased Prophet they have succeeded. As a starting point, it is a mistake to believe that with the passing of a Prophet his Prophetic mission is complete. The purpose of Khilafah is to nurture and continue the mission of the deceased Prophet as certain objectives of that mission may not be realized until long after his passing away. Commenting on this Hazrat Khalifatul-Masih IV (may Allah’s mercy be on him) writes,

“Khilafat is the successor after the prophet in the form of a person who is representing the deceased prophet…”

Further expanding this Hazrat Khalifatul Masih II (may Allah be pleased with him) writes:

“According to nature’s physical laws, man has only a limited life span, but the task of reformation and training of society requires a much longer time. So, Allah has established the system of Khilafat after the system of Prophethood. The Khalifa continues and carries on the task of the Prophet. The seed sown by the Prophet is protected and nurtured by the Khalifa till it becomes a strong and sturdy tree.”

This concept is also wonderfully delved into by Hazrat Shah Wali Allah (may Allah’s mercy be on him) who explains, by means of analogy, that Allah the Almighty has fixed the prescribed times for the five daily prayers and we cannot fulfill our obligations to pray each of those prayers prior to their appointed times. Similarly a Prophet may come about to revive and warn mankind and whilst some of his goals may be initiated during his lifetime they may only come into fruition at a later divinely appointed time after his death, hence the need for Khilifah to nourish and help bring about these initiatives.

Touching on this issue, and more broadly explaining the description of what and who a Khalifa is, the following quotation is extremely insightful and comprehensive. Quoting from the Isti‘ab of Ibn ‘Abd al-Bar, Hazrat Shah Wali Allah (may Allah’s mercy be on him) writes that the special Khilafah (Al-Khilafah Al-Khassah) is based on three fundamental principles,

“The prophets are created with the purest and noblest souls and it is on account of this quality that they become the recipients of divine revelation and are given the charge of guiding mankind. Only God knows as to who among them posses this pure and refined nature, for the Qur’an says, “Allah knows the soul to which he assigns the commission of prophecy.” Similarly, in the ummah also there are some people whose soul is created almost pure and noble as that of the Prophets, and these are the people who become the real successors of the prophet. They get the spiritual illumination from the Prophet that others cannot get. And whatever knowledge they receive from him they believe in as if they have seen its truth and received its essence independently and the prophet has only confirmed it by giving its details. So the special Khalifa means that just as the Khalifa is the head of the Muslims in the temporal sense he is also their head in the spiritual sense.

The real successor of the prophet is like a pipe. When someone plays on a pipe and produces a sweet melody in the atmosphere this performance is attributed not to the pipe but to the piper. Similarly God has promised to do many things through the Prophet but he called him back before all of them were realized. The remaining things were then performed by his successors, and this performance will be attributed to the Prophet rather than these people, because they are, like the pipe, his mere organs. Thus the special Khalifa is one who compliments the works of the Prophets which have been explicitly and implicitly mentioned in the Qur’an and Hadith.

The Khilafa is an office of great responsibility. But satisfaction of the un-controllable physical desires and devilish tendency are ingrained in the very instinct and blood of man. Therefore, if the Khalifa is elected by the people, the possibility is there that he may do tyranny and injustice. Hence there must be some factor to remove this possibility, so that normally it might be imposable for the khalifa to be negligent or tyrannical in performing his duties. This fear, however, cannot be removed except by the text (nass) of the Book or the Sunnah. So the special Khalifa is one whose knowledge and sense of equity are guaranteed by God and His Prophet.”

There is no greater example of this than that of the Rightly Guided Khalifas who followed the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him). An in-depth study into each of their blessed terms as Khalifas draws us to the conclusion that each of them was gifted different personal qualities of excellence. For example, after the passing of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) each of the companions reacted differently but it was the unique strength of Hazrat Abdu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) which led him to stand firm and lead the Ummah in it’s greatest time of distress. Commenting on this the great mufassir (commentator on the Holy Qur’an) Al-Qurtubi very poignantly points out that this very action of Hazrat Abu Bakr was the highest display of courage,

“if bravery is defined as having a firm and steadfast heart during times of hardship and calamities. And there was no calamity that was greater than the death of the Holy Prophet.”

Another such example is that Hazrat Khataman-Nabiyyeen (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) gave orders for a military expedition to be dispatched to Syria under the command of Hazrat Usama bin Zaid, however, it was not until the Khilafah of Hazrat Abu Bakr (may Allah’s mercy be on him) that this order was fulfilled. Despite many of the companions being against this expedition for noble reasons Hazrat Abdu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) stood firm in fulfilling the command of Hazrat Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him).

Qureyshite Descent

As you may have gathered, there are several scholars who stipulate that a Khalifa must be of Quraishite descent, some go so far as to say that he must be a direct descendent of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him). There are several faults in this contention; firstly this would go directly against the Qur’anic injunction,

“O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; And We have made you tribes and sub-tribes that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you. Surely, Allah is All-Knowing, All- Aware.”

How can it be that the most honorable among the dwellers of this world are those who are most righteous yet only a member of the Quraish can achieve the status of Khalifa. Furthermore, how can it be that Allah the Almighty has raised righteous Prophets before Mohammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) from non-Quraishite lineage yet a Khalifa must now be of Quraishite descent?

This contention also goes against the following verse of the Holy Qur’an,

“Allah has promised to those among you who believe and do good works that He will, surely, make them successors 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, give them in exchange security and peace after their fear; They will worship ME and they will not associate anything with ME. Then whoso disbelieves after that, they will be the rebellious.”

Here Allah the Almighty makes no mention of the need for a person to be of the Quraish to achieve the station of Khalifa but instead says those ‘who be- lieve and do good works’.

We must also consider the farewell sermon of the Holy prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) (Khutbatul Wada) in which he (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) said,

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over a white – except by piety and good action.”

The distinction of one believer over another is here defined by piety and good action; lineage is not only not mentioned but expressly ruled out as a defining factor.


It is also common amongst classical commentators (al-Mawardi, Shah Wali Allah, al-Junaid and Ibn Taymiyyah) to stipulate that a Khalifa should have sufficient knowledge to allow him to come to an independent decision. This requirement is not highlighted as a primary requirement but nevertheless is stipulated, the scholars do not generally elaborate on this issue. It is of course reasonable to hold that a Khalifa, or indeed any person of authority, should have an advanced level of spiritual and theological knowledge, however, it is unwarranted to stipulate they must have been educated in such and such institute or studied such and such subject in a strictly prescribed manner. In addressing this issue we must once again return to the words of Allah the Almighty,

‘’Do you see what you sow, is it you who grow it or are we the grower?”.

Allah the Almighty is all Powerful and thus elevates whom He wishes, and by whatever means He wishes, to any status He pleases. Such appointments are Divinely ordained and to place ‘worldly’ limitations of learning upon them would be a contradiction in terms.

Hadhrat Shah Wali Allah writes in his ‘Izalah’ that a Khalifa requires a good grasp of Islamic law in relation to the Qur’an and Sunnah so as to be able to discharge the following,

  • Judicial functions at the highest level;
  • Revival of the religious sciences; and
  • Enjoining good and forbidding evil.

These prerequisites are easily misunderstood, thus, in order to clarify the stand point of Hazrat Shah Wali Allah (may Allah’s mercy be on him) we must turn to the following explanation of the above as offered by Hazrat Muhammad al-Ghazali (may Allah’s mercy be on him),

“It is therefore, necessary for the khalifa to possess thorough knowledge of a large body of Islamic injunctions (ahkam) along with their detailed proofs (al-adillah al-tafsiliyya) derived from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, consensus (ijma) and analogical reasoning (qiyas). This means that he should understand each injunction pertaining to his functions as khalifa in relation to its effective cause (illah). However, according to Shah Wali Allah, the Khalifa need not be an independent (mustaqill) mujtahid like Abu Hanifa or al-Shafi’i. It would rather suffice for him to be a mujtahid muntasib, that is, a mujtahid affiliated with any one of the four major schools of law. This would require, instead, an acute understanding of the investigations made on legal injunctions along with their supporting arguments by the first elders of the Muslim community (salaf).”

One could easily fall into the worldly and short sighted trap of assuming that knowledge is the premise from which we should judge if a man is fit to be a Khalifa or not. It is here that I once again reiterate that the position of Khalifa cannot be compared with any worldly role for indeed a Khalifa is a Divine appointment and not reliant on the temporal substance of this world but is elevated to his position through the Grace and Wisdom of Allah the Almighty. Again, when describing special Khilafah (or Khilafah Khassah as he terms it) Hazrat Shah Wali Allah (may Allah’s mercy be on him) gives us another unique insight into this subject as described by Muhammad al-Ghazali,

“…a Khalifa belonging to the category of khilafah khassah, is distinguished by his auxiliary role in the realization of the supreme objectives that have been regarded as part of the Prophet’s mission, according to the Qur’an and Prophet’s traditions. The achievement of these objectives is indeed attributed to the Prophet, but the Khulufa’ do become instrumental in it in some way. Further, such Khulufa’ command an extraordinarily high degree of confidence and faith of the Muslim community in their leadership. This faith stems from the explicit and implicit approval pronounced in the Qur’an and by the Prophet’s traditions in favor of their installation. On the other hand, a Khalifa who belongs to the category of Khilafah ammah, does not enjoy this lofty level of faith from the community. Members of the community do support his appointment on account of his high level of knowledge and integrity, but they do so merely on the basis of their opinion in that behalf and not pursuant to any revelational indication or Prophetic approval to that effect.”

Hazrat Shah Wali Allah (may Allah’s mercy be on him) makes it crystal clear in the above summary that one could reach a lofty level of temporal knowledge but this would in no way suffice, that is to say, that only with the support of Allah the Almighty can one really qualify as a Khalifa.

To silver stamp this point Hazrat Shah Wali Allah (may Allah’s mercy be on him) shows that during the lives of the Rashid Khulafa there were several individuals who were relied upon as sources of knowledge within the Khilafah. Hazrat Shah Wali Allah (may Allah’s mercy be on him) identifies certain individuals as those companions whom succeeded Hazrat Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) in the domain of knowledge, these in- clude (1) Abd ‘Allah Ibn Masud (field of Qur’anic Sciences and Law), (2) Mu’adh ibn Jabal (Judiciary), (3) Zayd Ibn Thabit (Law of Inheritance).

Hazrat Shah Wali Allah (may Allah’s mercy be on him) defines the above successorships as partial Khalifa as opposed to what he labeled ‘absolute Succession’ (al-khilafah al-mutlaqah) which he says requires extra qualities allowing the ‘khalifa al-mutlaqah’ to be ‘competent to shoulder the responsibilities of state and Government’ in addition to knowledge.

“Knowledge is not what is memorized, but what benefits.”

The second is of al-Amiri (may Allah’s mercy be on him) who goes to the heart of the subject emphasizing that a Divinely appointed ruler only achieves power through the Mercy and Grace of Allah the Almighty and not by means of temporal worldly pursuits, he writes,

“Expressed in the most universal terms, the things necessary for (the preservation of the world) are two: true prophecy and real royal authority. Learning and wisdom know no higher force than prophecy. Power and dignity know no higher source than Royal Authority. No human being can have both or one of them, except as a gift from heaven. This is indicated in the following verse of the Qur’an: ‘Or do they envy the people because of the favors God has bestowed upon them? We have given the family of Abraham the book and wisdom, and we have given them great royal authority (iv. 54/57). And the Qur’an speaks of Moses as addressing him people as follows: ‘Remember the favor God bestowed upon you when He made prophets appear among you and made you rulers (v. 20/23)’.

There can be no doubt that this is so. Consequently, as we must realize, the ranks of rulers must strike for essential nobility in their moral qualities like nobody else, because rulers are the real example for all those below them. They are what a mirror is for a man that is not clean. A mirror which is not cleaner than the face of the man who looks into it, does not do the slightest good. Any ruler who does not try hard to subdue his ignoble qualities cannot hope to receive praise, nor can he rid his subjects of his faults.”