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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 would not be possible.
Throughout Islamic history and beyond, jurists discussed the issue of the caliphate (khilafah) and concluded it to be an obligation.

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.

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:

"When one of you dies, do not hold onto him but rush to his burial."
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.

Eight 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.

"(They are) 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." 

Ninth Century

Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (164-241 AH) said:

"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."
Imam Al-Juzayri, an expert on the Fiqh of the four great schools of thought, said regarding the four Imams:

"The Imams (scholars of the four schools of thought) - may Allah have mercy on them - agree the Khilafah is an obligation, and that the Muslims must appoint a leader who would implement the injunctions of the religion, and give the oppressed justice against the oppressors. It is forbidden for Muslims to have two leaders in the world whether in agreement or discord."

Tenth Century
The Shafi'i jurist al-Mawardi (362-448 AH) stated:

"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 - Ijma al-Ullama) that the person who discharges the responsibilities of this position must take on the contract of Imamah of the Ummah.'
Imam al-Baghdadi 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."

Eleventh Century

The Shafi'i jurist 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."
His student Imam Ghazali (d.505 AH) noted:

"You should know the obligation of appointing an Imam is from the necessities of the Shari'ah which we cannot abandon."
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."
Ibn Hazm stated:

'All of Ahl as-Sunnah, all of al-Murji'a, all of Shia, all of Khawarij have agreed on the obligation of Imamah. And the Ummah is obliged to appoint an Imam who will apply the rules of Allah and look after their affairs (yasusuhum) with the rules of the Shari'ah which the Messenger of Allah brought, except some from the Khawarij."
The Zahiri jurist Ibn Hazm did not give much credence to the views of the Khawarij; he did not believe their disagreement had any impact on the ijma of the Khawarij themselves let alone the Ijma of Ahl al-Sunnah.

Twelfth Century

Al-Nasafi (d. 701 AH) explained:

"The Muslims simply must have an Imam (Khaleefah), who will execute the rules, establish the Hudood (penal system), defend the frontiers, equip the armies, collect Zakah, punish those who rebel (against the state) and those who spy and the highwaymen, establish Jum'ah 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."

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."
The Maliki scholar Imam al-Qurtubi (d. 671 AH) said:

"The Khaleefah is listened to and he is obeyed, for the word is united through him, and the Ahkam (laws) of the Khaleefah are implemented through him, and there is no difference regarding the obligation of that between the Ummah, nor between the Imams except al-Asam who was most deaf regarding the Shari'ah.'
Al-Asam was an extreme Mutazalite,  al-Asam the superlative form of the word 'deaf' meaning extremely deaf. Imam al-Qurtubi also mentioned:

"When Abu Bakr was about to die he proposed Umar to be the Imam. No one said this is not Wajib on us or you. Rather this indicates its obligation as the Khilafah is the pillar upon which other pillars rest."
Ibn Khaldun (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."

Fourteenth Century

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-Taftazani (d. 791) 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."

Fifteenth Century

Jurjani (d.816), the author of at-Ta'reefaat stated:

"Appointing an Imam is the best in meeting the interests of the religion and achieves the greatest aims (maqasid) of the Deen."

Sixteenth Century

Ibn Hajar al-Haythami (d. 974) 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."

Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Shah Waliyullah Dehlavi expounded the obligation of a Khaleefah saying:

"The collective reason of mankind requires that a Khilafah should be there to look after the interests which cannot be achieved without a Khilafah ... The Sahabah also rushed to establish the Khilafah immediately, after the death of the Prophet and delayed his burial. Moreover there are matters which cannot be accomplished without the Khilafah."

Nineteenth Century

Al-Shanqeeti (1325-1393) said:

"It is well known from Islam by necessity of the Deen that is wajib on the Muslims to appoint an Imam who will unite them and apply the rules of Allah on the earth."
Ibrahim al-Bayjuri (d.1276 AH) argued:

"The Sahabah were agreed (on the appointment of an Imam) after he parted this world, they were occupied by this from burying the Prophet . This is because he died on a Monday at zawaal (mid-day) and he was left that day until the night of Tuesday and he was buried towards the end of Wednesday night. Abu Bakr had said: Someone must undertake this responsibility, so think about the matter and bring forth your views, may Allah have mercy on you. From every corner of the Prophet's mosque the people said: saddaqta saddaqta (you have spoken the truth, you have spoken the truth.) No one said we do not need an Imam." (Tuhfatul Mureed ala Jawharat at-Tawheed, Vol. 2, p.136)

Twentieth Century

Shaykh al-Islam Mustafa Sabri (d.1372), who worked for Sultan Abd al-Hamid II, was the last Shaykh al-Islam of the Uthmani Khilafah said:

"Khilafah i.e. succession to the Messenger of Allah means: obliging the adherence of the rules of the Shari'ah over the Muslims by the one who assumes authority, it by this way one is successor to the Prophet. And the abolition of the Khilafah is abolition of this adherence….This has actually happened in Turkey after the abolition of the Khilafah. So what has succeeded it is a secular government." (Mawqif al-Aql, p322)
Sheikh Aatif Afandi, amongst the most illustrious scholars of the Uthmani era, stated:

"The bay'ah of the Muslims to a Khaleefah is wajib and it is proven by the ration and text. The Shari'ah evidence for this is that the consensus of the Sahabah and Tabi'een was on this matter. Upon the death of Sayyidina Rasool the Sahabah gathered, before his burial, at Saqifa Bani Sa'idah and made shura and gave bay'ah to Sayyidina as-Siddiq (ra)."
Sheikh alHind Maulana Mahmud Hassan (head of Darul Uloom Deoband and direct student of Maulana Qasim Nanautavi, the founding father of the Darul Uloom) issued a fatwa to save the Uthmani Khilafah from the European powers:

"The enemies of Islam have left no stone unturned to strike against and harm the honour and prestige of Islam. Iraq, Palestine and Syria that were won over by the Prophet's companions and his followers, after in numerous sacrifices, have once again become targets of greed of the enemy of Islam. The honour of Khilafah is in tatters. Khalifa al-Muslimin, who used to unite the entire community on this planet; who is the vice-regent of Allah on this earth; used to implement the universal law of Islam; who used to protect the rights and interests of Muslims and used to preserve and ensure the glory of the words of the Creator of this universe be preserved and implemented, has been surrounded by enemies and made redundant.' 
Iraqi scholar Sheikh al-Zahawi, the mufti of Baghdad (1863-1936 AD) said:

"The Companions of the Prophet have unanimously agreed upon appointing him to office (ajma'a 'ala nasabihi) after the passing away of the Prophet to the extent that they considered it to be the most important of obligations (ahamm al-wajibat) giving it precedence even over his burial and people in every generation since have not stopped doing this. Also, many narrations support this [obligation of appointing an Imam] one of them being his saying "Whoever dies and does not have on his neck a pledge of allegiance (bay'ah), he dies a death like in the days of ignorance."'
Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani (d.1977 AD), graduate of Al-Azhar University, founder of Hizb ut-Tahrir, echoed the classical scholars, saying:

"The appointment of the Khaleefah is an obligation upon the Muslims. They are forbidden from spending more than two nights without giving a Bay'ah to him. If the Muslims did not appoint a Khaleefah within three days they would all be sinful until they had appointed a Khaleefah. The sin would not fall until they had exhausted their efforts to appoint a Khaleefah and continued to endeavour to appoint him. The obligation of appointing a Khaleefah has been confirmed by the Qur'an, Sunnah and the general consensus of the Sahabah.'
Al-Nabhani defined the Khilafah as:

"The Islamic State (al-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah) is a Khalifah implementing the law. It is a political (siyasi) and executive (tanfidhi) entity for the reason of implementing and executing the divine laws of Islam.' He also defined it as: "The general temporal leadership (ri'asah aamah) of all the Muslims that establishes the Islamic rulings (li-iqamati ahkam al-shar al-Islami) and carries the Islamic invitation (al-da'wah) to the entire world…"

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

Mustafa al-Sabri, Mawqif al-Aql

Ibrahim Bayjuri, Tuhfatul Mureed ala Jawharat at-Tawheed

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