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Masters in Education from Nottingham University, qualified teacher in the UK. Has studied Masters in Islamic Studies also Islamic Banking and Finance. Interests in Politics/History/Philosophy.
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In a Nutshell:
Throughout Islamic history and beyond, jurists discussed the issue of the caliphate (khilafah) and concluded it to be an obligation without which the Islamic way of life, i.e. Islam, would not be possible.
Introduction

Throughout Islamic history and beyond, jurists discussed the issue of the caliphate (khilafah)
and concluded it to be an obligation. The 19th century jurist stated one of the strongest evidences for the obligation of appointing an imam and pledging allegiance to him is what the Prophet (saw) said, through multiple chains:

من مات وليس عليه إمام مجاعة فإن موتته موتة جاهلية
Whosoever dies whilst not having over him an imam of the jama'ah, then indeed his death is the death of jahilliya. (Hakim, Ahmad, Tirmidhi, ibn Khuzayma and ibn Hibban)
Not only was it an obligation, there was a consensus that it was central to the Islamic way of life ensuring security, protection, welfare and justice for its peoples and those beyond its territories. The famous muhaddith Abdullah ibn Mubarak (ra) (d. 181 AH) poignantly noted:

Indeed the jama'ah is the rope of Allah, so hold on. How many a darkness does Allah repel by the sultan If not for the Khalifah, paths would not be safe for us to its grip, firm for him who professes Islam in our deen mercy results from him and in our dunya and the weak would be a source of pillage for the strong (Hilyat al-Awliya, 8:164)

Seventh Century

After the death of the Prophet (saw) the companions delayed his burial for 3 days and two nights until Abu Bakr (ra) was chosen as caliph. This delay by the companions indicates the obligation of appointing a caliph, deemed more important than the obligation of a rapid burial. The Prophet (saw) is reported to have said:

إذا مات أحدكم فلا تحبسوه وأسرعوا به إلى قبره
"When one of you dies, do not hold onto him but rush to his burial." (Bayhaqi, Shu'ab al-Iman, 8959‏)
Al-Darami said in his Sunan:

On the authority of Tamim Ad-Dari who said: 'People were building high building during the time of Umar (ra), Umar said: 'Oh Arab people, don't build such high buildings. There is no Islam except with jama'ah, and no jama'ah except with imarah (leadership), and no imarah except with ta'ah (obedience). If people appoint a leader who has fiqh then there will be life for him and them, but if they appoint a leader without fiqh, it will be theirs and his destruction.'" (Ibn Abd al-Birr, Jami Bayan Al Ilm Wa Fadhluh 1:263)
It is why Islamic scholarship have said there is ijma al-sahabah (consensus of the prophet's companions) on the obligation of appointing a khalif, an ijma which has been transmitted to us through tawatur narrations.

Eighth Century

Those who followed the companions generation (tabi'een) held a similar understanding. The famous tabi'i Mujahid argued khilafah meant establishing Allah's commandments, manifesting the signs of his unity and ensuring justice amongst the people.

According to al-Dahhak, the four functions, mentioned in the verse of al-Hajj, are the obligations incumbent upon the khalif.

"Those who, if We establish in the land, establish regular prayer and give regular charity, enjoin the right and forbid wrong: With God rests the end (and decisions) of (all) affairs." (Qur'an 22:41)

Ninth Century

Ahmed bin Hanbal (164-241 AH) stressed the importance of the khilafah, citing the first dispute amongst the companions after the death of the messenger, Abu Bakr demonstrating the vital role of a khalifah in preventing arguments or disputes and a means to avoid sedition (fitnah):

"The Fitna (tribulations) occurs when there is no Imam established over the affairs of the people. He was asked: What is the meaning of the hadith: 'Whosoever dies and he does not have an Imam he dies the death of jahiliyyah' He said: 'Do you know what an Imam is? An Imam is the one around whom all the Muslims unite. This is its meaning."
Tenth Century

Abu Al-Hasan Al-Ash'ari (d. 324 AH) said:

Allah the Almighty praised the Muhajiroon and Al-Ansar and the first Muslims, and the Qur'an mentioned this praise in many places, and praised the people of Bay'at Al-Radwan (Al-Fath: 18). All those whom Allah has praised consented on the Imamah of Abu Bakr As-Siddiq (ra), called him the successor of the Messenger of Allah, gave him the Bay'ah, obeyed him. (Al-Ibanah an Usul al-Diyanah, p. 252)

Eleventh Century

Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (d. 429 AH) observed:

"The companions of the Prophet have agreed on the obligation (of the Khilafah), and there is no significance to the opposition of al-Futa (Kharijite) and al-Asam (Mutazalite) when we have an Ijma al-Sahabah." (al-Farq bayn al-Firaq, p. 340)
Al-Mawardi (362-448 AH) argued for its necessity during a period where the Seljuk Turks had taken Baghdad from the pro-Shi'a Buyids in 1055, using the verse 4:59 as its justification:

"Imamah is prescribed to succeed Prophethood as a means of protecting the Deen and of managing the affairs of this world. There is a consensus of opinion (amongst the scholars) that the person who discharges the responsibilities of this position must take on the contract of Imamah of the Ummah." (al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah, p. 56)
Ibn Hazm (d. 456 AH)  said:

"All of ahl al-sunnah agreed, as did all the murji'a, all the shi'a, and all the khawarij upon the obligation of the Imamah, and that it is obligatory on the ummah to submit to a just imam, who establishes upon them the ahkam of Allah, and manages their affairs by the ahkam of the shari'a with which the Messenger of Allah (saw) came; except only the najadat from the khawarij who said: the people are not obliged with the Imamah, rather what is upon them is to mutually practice the what is correct between them." (al-Fasl fi Milal wa al-Ahwaa wa al-Nihal, 4:87)
Abu Bakr al-Baqilani said in his reference to the consensus on the Khilafah of As-Siddiq (ra):

"His obedience was obliged due to the consensus of the Muslims; they must obey him and his Imamah and surrender to him. Even the Commander of the Believers Ali said in response to Abu Bakr's saying: 'Remove me for I am not the best among you.' Ali said: 'We will not remove you or take your feet away; the Messenger of Allah chose you to lead us in our Deen (when The Messenger chose him to lead in the prayer in his presence and when he leads the people in Hajj) so why should we not choose you for our Dunya.' Ali (ra) was the best of the Ummah and best in Iman and best in understanding and knowledge." (Al-Insaf, p. 65)
Al-Juwayni (d. 478 AH) said:

"Muslims must have an Imam to lead them and that is the consensus of the opinion of the Ummah and Imams."

Twelfth Century

Ghazali (d. 505 AH) contributed by arguing the primary justification is for living in order and unity, a core benefit for the ummah. Even a usurping leader is better than none as the latter is likely to result in chaos:

"You should know the obligation of appointing an Imam is from the necessities of the Shari'ah which we cannot abandon." (al-Iqtisad fi al-I'tiqad, p. 19)
In the absence of the Khilafah:

"The judges will be suspended, the Wilayaat (provinces) will be nullified ... the decrees of those in authority will not be executed and all the people will be on the verge of Haram." (Fada'ih al-Batinah, p. 105)
Shahristani (d. 548 AH) said (describing the situation of the companions near the death of Abu Bakr (ra), and his choice for Omar (ra)):

It was not in his heart (i.e., Abu Bakr) nor was it in the heart of anyone that the Earth may be free from an Imam, this indicates that the companions, the first generation all agreed that there must be an Imam, such consensus is a conclusive evidence of the obligation of the Imamah). (Nihayat al-Aqdam fi Ilm al-Kalam, p. 480)

Thirteenth Century

The Shafi'i jurist al-Nawawi (631-676 AH) said:

"(The scholars) agreed that it is an obligation upon the Muslims to select a Khaleefah... It is forbidden to give an oath to two Imams or more, even in different parts of the world and even if they are far apart." (Sharh Sahih Muslim, 12:205)
The Maliki scholar Imam al-Qurtubi (d. 671 AH) said:

"This ayah is an evidence for the appointment of an imam and khaleefah. He is listened to and obeyed, for the word is united through him, and the ahkam (laws) of the khaleefah are implemented through him, and there is no difference of opinion regarding the obligation of that between the ummah, nor between the scholars, except what is narrated from al-Asamm (lit. the deaf), who was indeed deaf with regards to the shari'a, as were all those held his opinion and who followed it."

"The sahaba all agreed on electing Abu Bakr (ra) after the difference that occurred between the muahjireen and ansar in the courtyard of Bani Sai'da, in which the ansar said, "One ameer from us and one from you." Abu Bakr, Umar and the muhajireen countered this... Had the imamah not been obligatory, neither in Quraysh nor in other than them, this discussion and debate would not have taken place at all, and someone would have said, "It is not obligatory, neither in Quraysh nor anyone else. Your disagreement has no basis or benefit, since the matter is not obligatory." Further, when death neared Abu Bakr (ra), he chose Umar (ra) for the imamah and no one said to him, "This matter was not obligatory upon us or on you." All of this indicates that it [the khilafah] is obligatory and is a pillar from the pillars of the deen by which the strength of the Muslims is realised, and all praise belongs to Allah, Lord of the Words." (al-Jami li Ahkam al-Qur'an, 1:264-265)

Fourteenth Century

Al-Nasafi (d. 701 AH) explained:

"The Muslims simply must have an Imam (Khaleefah), who will execute the rules, establish the hudud (penal system), defend the frontiers, equip the armies, collect Zakat, punish those who rebel (against the state) and those who spy and the highwaymen, establish jum'uah and the two eids, settle the dispute among the servants (of Allah), accept the testimony of witnesses in matters of legal rights, give in marriage the young and the poor who have no family, and distribute the booty." (Taftazani, Sharh al-Aqa'id al-Nasafiyah, p. 142)
The prominent Egyptian jurist, Ibn Jama'ah (d. 701 AH) adduced several Qur'anic verses to support the necessity of leadership including 38:26 and 22:42, citing of the Muslim jurists as saying:

"Forty years of tyranny of a sultan are better than the abandonment of his subjects for one hour." (Tahrir al-Ahkam fi Tadbir Ahl al-Islam, p. 15) 
Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 AH) said:

"It is imperative to know that the office in charge of governing the people is one of the greatest obligations of the deen. Nay, there is no establishment of the deen or the dunya except by it. The interests of humans are not achieved except by social interaction due to their need of one another, and this social interaction necessarily requires a head... so he obligated making one a leader in a small and temporary social interaction in travel, drawing attention by this to all other types of social interaction. Further, because Allah has obligated enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, and this is not executed except through a power and authority. The same applies to other obligations such as jihad, establishing justice, organising the hajj, jumu'a and the eids, assisting the oppressed, implementing the hudud; none of these are able to be executed except by a power and authority. For this reason, it has been narrated that, "The sultan is the shade of Allah on Earth", and it is said, "Sixty years of an oppressive imam is better than one night without any leader," and experience substantiates this. Thus did the salaf such as al-Fadl ibn Iyad and Ahmad ibn Hanbal used to say, "If we had one du'a guaranteed to be answered, we would supplicate for the sultan." (al-Siyasah al-Shar'iyyah, p.129)
Imam Adud al-Din al-Iji (d. 756 AH) said:

"Our position on appointing the Imam is that it is obligatory by text… the consensus of the Muslims of the first generation after the passing of the Prophet (saw) to avoid being in a state of not having an imam has reached us by concurrent narration (tawatur). This was emphatic to the extent that Abu Bakr (ra) said in his sermon, "Behold, Muhammad (saw) has passed away, and it is necessary for this deen to have someone to lead and implement it," so the companions all moved swiftly to accept him and leave for him to decide about the most important matter, namely, the burial of the Messenger of Allah (saw). The Muslims have remained on this position in every age up till this time of ours, in appointing an imam who is followed." (al-Mawaqif fi Ilm al-Kalam, 3:579-580)
Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Musa al-Shatibi (d. 790 AH) a well known Maliki jurist observed:

"In the absence of the Khilafah, a state of anarchy and lawlessness would prevail and this would usher in a great corruption and disorder. And it is evident the establishment of the Deen is impossible in a state of anarchy and disorder." (Al-Itsam)
Al-Taftazani (d. 791 AH) explained the obligation of Khilafah is text based:

"The adoption is that it is obligatory upon the servants by textual evidence because of the saying of the Messenger, "Whoever dies not having known the Imam of his time, dies the death of the days of ignorance." Also, the Ummah agreed that this was the most important duty following the death of the Messenger, so important in fact that they considered it more important than the matter of his burial, and so also has it been after the death of each Imam." (Sharh al- Aqa'id al-Nasafiyyah, pp. 353-354)

Fifteenth Century

Ibn Khaldoon (d. 808 AH) argued:

"Imamah is wajib and its obligation is known by the consensus of the opinion of the companions of the Sahabah and the Tabi'een … the Imam is no different from any of the Muslims other than the fact that he implements the Ahkam (rules) and protects the Deen." (al-Muqaddimah, Chapter 3, Section 26)
Jurjani (d. 816 AH) stated:

"Appointing an Imam is the best in meeting the interests of the religion and achieves the greatest aims (maqasid) of the Deen." (Al-Ta'reefaat)
Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti noted:

"The people must appoint an Imam who serves their interests like guarding the borders, preparing the armies and defeating the enemy and spies, because of the consensus of the Companions after the death of the Prophet (saw) to appoint an Imam, they even made it the most important obligation, and gave it priority over the burial of the Prophet (saw), and people in every era followed it." (Sharh al-Mahali ala Jamm al-Jawami, 2:487)

Sixteenth Century

Ibn Hajar al-Haythami (d. 974 AH) explained the Ijma al-Sahabah:

"It is known that the Sahabah (raa) consented that selecting the Imam after the end of the era of Prophethood was an obligation (Wajib). Indeed they made it (more) important than the (other) obligations whilst they were busy with it over the burial of the Prophet." (al-Sawaa'iq al-Muhriqah, 1:25)
Shaykh al-Islam Zakariyah Al-Ansari (d. 926 AH) said:

People must appoint an Imam who serves their interests, like guarding the borders, preparing the armies and defeating the enemy and spies. This is because of the consensus of the Companions after the death of the Prophet (saw) to appoint an Imam; they even made it the most important obligation and gave it priority over the burial of the Prophet (saw), and people in every era adopted this. (Ghayat Al Wusul Fi Sharh Lub Al Usul, p. 420)

Seventeenth Century

Imam Shams al-Din al-Ramli (d. 1004 AH) said:

"It is obligatory on the people to appoint an imam who looks after their interests – such as implementing the ahkam, executing the hudud, defending the frontiers... due to the consensus of the companions after the death of the Prophet (saw) on appointing him, to the extent that they considered it the most important of obligations and prioritised it over his (saw) burial, and the Muslims have remained on this (appointing an imam) in every age." (Ghayat al-Bayan fi Sharah Zabd ibn Raslan, 1:15)
Mansur ibn Yunus al-Buhuti (d. 1051 AH) stated:

"Appointing the greater imam (the khalifah) upon the Muslims is an obligation of sufficiency." (Kashaf al-Qinaa an Matn al-Iqnaa, 6:158)
Imam al-Haskafi (d. 1088 AH) said:

"The major imamah (khilafah) is the right of general disposal over the people. Its study is in scholastic theology and establishing it is the most important of obligations. For this reason did the sahabah gave it priority over the burial of the Prophet (saw)..." (Radd al-Muhtar ala al-Durr al-Mukhtar, 1: 548)​​​​​
Mullah Ali Qari (d. 1014 AH) states:

“It is the majority opinion there is a duty to appoint an Imam. But there is a difference, as to whether this is Allah’s duty or whether this is incumbent on the public. The belief in the eyes of Ahl’ul Sunnah and Muttazalites is that the duty to appoint an Imam is a duty of the public. In terms of hadith and logic this is a duty of the public.“(Sharh Fiqh Akbar, p. 175)

Conclusion

Throughout Islamic history and beyond, jurists discussed the issue of the caliphate (khilafah) and concluded it to be an obligation without which the Islamic way of life would not be possible.


References

Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi, al-Farq bayn al-Firaq
Adud al-Din al-Iji, al-Mawaqif fi Ilm al-Kalam
al-Ghazali, al-Iqtisad fi al-I'tiqad
al-Ghazali, Fada'ih al-Batinah
al-Haskafi, Radd al-Muhtar ala al-Durr al-Mukhtar
al-Juwayni, Ghiyath al-Umam fi Tiyath al-Dhulam
al-Mawardi, al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah
al-Nasafi, al-Aqa'id al-Nasafiyyah
al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim
al-Qurtubi, al-Jami' li Ahkam al-Qur'an
al-Shahrastani, Nihayat al-Iqdam fi Ilm al-Kalam
al-Shawkani, al-Sayl al-Jarrar al-Mutadaffiq ala Hada'iq al-Azhar
al-Taftazani, Sharh al- Aqa'id al-Nasafiyyah
Ibn Hajar al-Haytami, al-Sawaa'iq al-Muhriqah
Ibn Hazm, al-Fasl fi Milal wal-Ahwaa' wal-Nihal
Ibn Khaldoon, al-Muqaddimah
Ibn Taymiyyah, al-Siyasah al-Shar'iyyah
Ibrahim Bayjuri, Tuhfatul Mureed ala Jawharat at-Tawheed

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