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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in English.
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In a Nutshell: Classical Muslim scholars almost unanimously agreed the definition of the Khilafah (Caliphate) is the political leadership of the Muslim ummah, responsible for managing both religious and temporal matters.

Introduction

The office of Caliph and institutions of the Caliphate have been with the Muslims continuously since the time of the Messenger (saw) in Medinah up to 1924 when it was dismantled by Mustapha Kemal Ataturk and the secularists.

Its absence has resulted in the absence of Islam from the world for nearly a century now.

The classical scholars unanimously believed the Caliphate to be a mandatory institution, central and fundamental to the existence of Islam. The famous scholar, Amir al-Mu'minin fi al-Hadith, Abdullah ibn Mubarak (ra) (d. 181 AH) poignantly noted:

إن الجماعة حبل اهلل ف اعتصموا ) بع روته الوث قى لمن دانا كم يدفع اهلل بالسلطان مظلمة في ديننا رحم ة منه ودنيانا لوال الخلي فة لم تأمن لنا سبل ا ألقواناًوكانأضع فنا نهب )
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)

In the following answer, I will review the definitions of Khilafah (Caliphate) given by some of the leading classical scholars. The term is often used interchangeably with Sultan or Imam.

Evidences

Qur'an

1. يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَأَطِيعُوا الرَّسُولَ وَأُولِي الْأَمْرِ مِنكُمْ ۖ فَإِن تَنَازَعْتُمْ فِي شَيْءٍ فَرُدُّوهُ إِلَى اللَّهِ وَالرَّسُولِ إِن كُنتُمْ تُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِر ۚ ذَٰلِكَ خَيْرٌ وَأَحْسَنُ تَأْوِيلًا

O you who believe, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result. (Qur'an 4:59)

2. يَا دَاوُودُ إِنَّا جَعَلْنَاكَ خَلِيفَةً فِي الْأَرْضِ فَاحْكُم بَيْنَ النَّاسِ بِالْحَقِّ وَلَا تَتَّبِعِ الْهَوَىٰ فَيُضِلَّكَ عَن سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يَضِلُّونَ عَن سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ شَدِيدٌ بِمَا نَسُوا يَوْمَ الْحِسَابِ

[We said], "O David, indeed We have made you a khalifah on earth, so judge between the people in truth and do not follow desire, as it will lead you astray from the way of Allah." Indeed, those who go astray from the way of Allah will have a severe punishment for having forgotten the Day of Account. (Qur'an 38:26)

3. الَّذِينَ إِن مَّكَّنَّاهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ أَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتَوُا الزَّكَاةَ وَأَمَرُوا بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَنَهَوْا عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ ۗ وَلِلَّهِ عَاقِبَةُ الْأُمُورِ

[And they are] those who, if We give them authority in the land, establish prayer and give zakah and enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. And to Allah belongs the outcome of [all] matters. (Qur'an 22:41)

4. وَعَدَ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مِنكُمْ وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ لَيَسْتَخْلِفَنَّهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ كَمَا اسْتَخْلَفَ الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِهِمْ وَلَيُمَكِّنَنَّ لَهُمْ دِينَهُمُ الَّذِي ارْتَضَىٰ لَهُمْ وَلَيُبَدِّلَنَّهُم مِّن بَعْدِ خَوْفِهِمْ أَمْنًا ۚ يَعْبُدُونَنِي لَا يُشْرِكُونَ بِي شَيْئًا ۚ وَمَن كَفَرَ بَعْدَ ذَٰلِكَ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْفَاسِقُونَ

Allah has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth just as He granted it to those before them and that He will surely establish for them their deen which He has preferred for them and that He will surely substitute for them, after their fear, security, [for] they worship Me, not associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that - then those are the defiantly disobedient. (Qur'an 24:55)

5. قَالَ إِنِّي جَاعِلُكَ لِلنَّاسِ إِمَاماً قَالَ وَمِن ذُرِّيَّتِي قَالَ لاَ يَنَالُ عَهْدِي الظَّالِمِينَ

[Allah] said, "Indeed, I will make you a leader for the people." [Abraham] said, "And of my descendants?" [Allah] said, "My covenant does not include the wrongdoers." (Qur'an 2:124)

Sunnah

1. Abu Hurairah (ra) narrated the Prophet (saw) said:

‏كَانَتْ بَنُو إِسْرَائِيلَ تَسُوسُهُمُ الأَنْبِيَاءُ كُلَّمَا هَلَكَ نَبِيٌّ خَلَفَهُ نَبِيٌّ وَإِنَّهُ لاَ نَبِيَّ بَعْدِي وَسَتَكُونُ خُلَفَاءُ فَتَكْثُرُ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ قَالُوا فَمَا تَأْمُرُنَا قَالَ ‏"‏فُوا بِبَيْعَةِ الأَوَّلِ فَالأَوَّلِ وَأَعْطُوهُمْ حَقَّهُمْ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ سَائِلُهُمْ عَمَّا اسْتَرْعَاهُمْ ‏"‏.‏

The Israelites were ruled by the Prophets. When one Prophet died, another succeeded him; but after me there is no prophet and there will be caliphs and they will be large in number. His Companions asked: What do you order us to do (in case we come to have more than one Caliph)? He said: The one to whom allegiance is sworn first has a supremacy over the others. Concede to them their due rights (i.e. obey them). God will question them about the subjects whom He had entrusted to them. (Muslim, 33:71)

2. Nu'man ibn Bashir (ra) narrated the Prophet (saw) said:

تَكُونُ النُّبُوَّةُ فِيكُمْ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ تَكُونَ ، ثُمَّ يَرْفَعُهَا إِذَا شَاءَ أَنْ يَرْفَعَهَا، ثُمَّ تَكُونُ خِلَافَةٌ عَلَى مِنْهَاجِ النُّبُوَّةِ ، فَتَكُونُ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ تَكُونَ، ثُمَّ يَرْفَعُهَا إِذَا شَاءَ أَنْ يَرْفَعَهَا، ثُمَّ تَكُونُ مُلْكًا عَاضًّا، فَيَكُونُ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ يَكُونَ ، ثُمَّ يَرْفَعُهَا إِذَا شَاءَ الله ُأَنْ يَرْفَعَهَا ، ثُمَّ تَكُونُ مُلْكًا جَبْرِيّاً ، فَتَكُونُ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ تَكُونَ ، ثُمَّ يَرْفَعُهَا إِذَا شَاءَ أَنْ يَرْفَعَهَا ، ثُمَّ تَكُونُ خِلَافَةٌ عَلَى مِنْهَاجِ النُّبُوَّةِ ، ُثمَّ سَكَتَ.

There will be Prophethood for as long as Allah wills it to be, then He will remove it when He wills. Then there will be Khilafah on the Prophetic method and it will be for as long as Allah wills, then He will remove it when He wills. Then there will be biting rule for as long as Allah Wills, then He will remove it when He wills. Then there will be oppressive rule for as long as Allah wills, then he will remove it when He wills, and then there will be Khilafah upon the Prophetic method.' Then he (saw) was silent. (Ahmed, 18430)

3. Abu Hurairah (ra) narrated the Prophet (saw) said:

‏ مَا بَعَثَ اللَّهُ مِنْ نَبِيٍّ وَلاَ اسْتَخْلَفَ مِنْ خَلِيفَةٍ، إِلاَّ كَانَتْ لَهُ بِطَانَتَانِ، بِطَانَةٌ تَأْمُرُهُ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَحُضُّهُ عَلَيْهِ، وَبِطَانَةٌ تَأْمُرُهُ بِالشَّرِّ وَتَحُضُّهُ عَلَيْهِ، فَالْمَعْصُومُ مَنْ عَصَمَ اللَّهُ تَعَالَى

Allah neither raised up any Prophet nor did He authorize any khalif but for whom there were two types of entourage: one enjoins upon him to do good and incites him to carry it out, and the other enjoins evil and goads him; and the protected (from the bad entourage) is the one whom Allah protects. (Bukhari 1: 678)

4. Jabir ibn Abdullah (ra) narrated I joined the company of the Prophet (saw) with my father and I heard him say:

إِنَّ هَذَا الأَمْرَ لاَ يَنْقَضِي حَتَّى يَمْضِيَ فِيهِمُ اثْنَا عَشَرَ خَلِيفَةً ‏"‏‏.‏ قَالَ ثُمَّ تَكَلَّمَ بِكَلاَمٍ خَفِيَ عَلَىَّ - قَالَ - فَقُلْتُ لأَبِي مَا قَالَ قَالَ ‏"‏ كُلُّهُمْ مِنْ قُرَيْشٍ‏.‏

This Caliphate will not end until there have been twelve Caliphs among them. The narrator said: Then he (the Prophet) said something that I could not follow. I said to my father: What did he say? He said: He has said: All of them will be from the Quraish. (Muslim 33:5)

5. The Messenger of Allah (saw) said:

إذا بويع لخليفتين، فاقتلوا الآخر منهما

If the oath of allegiance has been taken for two khalifahs, kill the later of them. (Muslim 1853)

6. The Messenger of Allah (saw) said:

من أتاكم وأمركم جميع على رجل واحد، يريد أن يشق عصاكم، أو يفرق جماعتكم، فاقتلوه

Whosoever comes to you while your affair is united under one man, intending to sow discord among you or dissolve your unity, kill him. (Muslim 1852)

Sahabah

It has been reported Abu Bakr had assumed the title of "khalifat Allah" (Allah's deputy on earth) when the Messenger of Allah died, but Abu Bakr said:

بل أنا خليفة رسول الله، وحسبي ذلك
I am "khalifat rasul Allah" (the successor of the Messenger of Allah), that is enough." (Ibn Taymiyyah, Minhaj al-Sunnah, Vol. 1, p. 509)


Scholarly Views

The classical scholars, following the tradition of the companions, used terms like "Khilafah", "Imamah", "Ameer al-Moumineen" and even "Sultan" interchangeably.

دَخَلَ أَبُو بَكْرٍ عَلَى امْرَأَةٍ مِنْ أَحْمَسَ يُقَالُ لَهَا زَيْنَبُ، فَرَآهَا لاَ تَكَلَّمُ، فَقَالَ: «مَا لَهَا لاَ تَكَلَّمُ؟» قَالُوا: حَجَّتْ مُصْمِتَةً، قَالَ لَهَا: «تَكَلَّمِي، فَإِنَّ هَذَا لاَ يَحِلُّ، هَذَا مِنْ عَمَلِ الجَاهِلِيَّةِ»، فَتَكَلَّمَتْ، فَقَالَتْ: مَنْ أَنْتَ؟ قَالَ: «امْرُؤٌ مِنَ المُهَاجِرِينَ»، قَالَتْ: أَيُّ المُهَاجِرِينَ؟ قَالَ: «مِنْ قُرَيْشٍ»، قَالَتْ: مِنْ أَيِّ قُرَيْشٍ أَنْتَ؟ قَالَ: «إِنَّكِ لَسَئُولٌ، أَنَا أَبُو بَكْرٍ»، قَالَتْ: مَا بَقَاؤُنَا عَلَى هَذَا الأَمْرِ الصَّالِحِ الَّذِي جَاءَ اللَّهُ بِهِ بَعْدَ الجَاهِلِيَّةِ؟ قَالَ: «بَقَاؤُكُمْ عَلَيْهِ مَا اسْتَقَامَتْ بِكُمْ أَئِمَّتُكُمْ»، قَالَتْ: وَمَا الأَئِمَّةُ؟ قَالَ: «أَمَا كَانَ لِقَوْمِكِ رُءُوسٌ وَأَشْرَافٌ، يَأْمُرُونَهُمْ فَيُطِيعُونَهُمْ؟» قَالَتْ: بَلَى، قَالَ: «فَهُمْ أُولَئِكِ عَلَى النَّاسِ»

Abu Bakr went to a lady from the Ahmas tribe called Zainab bint Al-Muhajir... She said, “How long shall we enjoy this good order (i.e. Islamic religion) which Allah has brought after the period of ignorance?” He said, You will enjoy it as long as your Imams keep on abiding by its rules and regulations.” She asked, “What are the Imams?” He said, “Were there not heads and chiefs of your nation who used to order the people and they used to obey them?” She said, “Yes.” He said, “So they are those whom I meant.(Bukhari Vol. 5, Book 58, Hadith 175)

Here follows some of the definitions put forward across the various legal schools of thought:

Abul Hasan al-Mawardi

الْإمَامَةُ : مَوْضُوعَةٌ لِخِلاَفَةِ النُّبُوَّةِ فِي حِراسَةِ الدِّينِ وَسِياسَةُ الدُّنْيا .

Imamah is established as being succession to the prophethood in the protection of the deen and the administration of the worldly affairs. (Al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyyah, p. 56)

Juwayni

رياسة تَامَّةٌ ، وَزَعامَةٌ عَامَّةَ ، تَتَعَلَّقُ بِالْخَاصَّةِ وَالْعَامَّةِ فِي مُهِمَّاتِ الدِّينِ وَالدّنيا مُهِمَّتُهَا حِفْظِ الْحَوْزَةِ ، وَرِعايَةُ الرَّعِيَّةِ ، وَإقامَةُ الدَّعْوَةِ بِالْحُجَّةِ وَالسَّيْفُ وكفُ الْحَيْفِ وَالْخَيْفَ ، وَالْاِنْتِصَافُ لِلْمَظْلُومِينَ مِنَ الظّالِمِينَ ، وَاِسْتيفاءُ الْحُقوقِ مِنَ الْمُمْتَنِعِينَ وإيفاؤها عَلَى الْمُسْتَحِقِّينَ .

The Imamah is a perfect authority and general leadership over the people, commons as well as notables, in all important religious and worldly affairs; the purpose of which is to defense of territory [of Dar al-Islam], looking after the interests of the community, establishing Islamic da'wah by providing evidence and even by using force (if necessary), denouncing the deviation, abstaining from inequity and oppression, providing help and support to the oppressed against transgressors and recovering the dues from those who refuse to be paid to those who were deprived of their rights. (Ghiyath al-Umam fi iltiyath al-Zulam, p. 22)

Tahnawi

الْإمَامَةُ عِنْدَ الْمُتَكَلِّمِينَ: هِي خِلاَفَةُ الرَّسُولِ عَلَيه السّلامَ فِي إقامَةِ الدِّينِ وَحِفْظُ حَوْزَةِ الْإِسْلامِ بِحَيْثٌ يَجِبُ اِتِّبَاعُهُ عَلَى كَافَّةِ الْأُمَّةِ .

Imamah according to the theologians denotes the succession to the Messenger (saw) in the establishment of deen and protecting the territory of Islam [i.e., Dar al-Islam]. As such, all the ummah must follow him. (Kashaf Istilahat Al-Funun, Vol. 1, p. 92)

Taftazani

نِيَابَةٌ عَنِ الرَّسُولِ عَلَيه السّلامَ فِي إقامَةِ الدِّينِ بِحَيْثٌ يَجِبُ عَلَى كَافَّةِ الْأُمَمِ الْاِتِّبَاعَ .

The imamah is a general leadership in establishing the deen. As such, all of the ummah has to follow him. (Sharh al-Aqa'id al-Nasafiyyah, p. 15)

San'ani

رئاسة عَامَّةَ لِشَخْصِ مَخْصُوصٍ بِحُكْمِ الشَّرْعِ لَيْسَ فَوْقَه يَدً إلّا يَدً اللَّهِ تَعَالَى .

A general authority given by the shari'a to a specific person so that only Allah has authority over him. (Al-Taj Al-Mudhab, Vol. 4, p. 404)

Ibn Khaldoon

هِي حَمَلُ الْكَافَّةِ عَلَى مُقْتَضى النَّظَرِ الشَّرْعِيِّ فِي مُصَالِحِهُمْ الأخروية وَالدُّنْيَوِيَّةُ الرَّاجِعَةُ إِلَيهَا ، إِذْ أَحْوالُ الدُّنْيا تَرْجِعُ كلَهَا عِنْدَ الشَّارِعِ إِلَى اِعْتِبارِهَا بِمُصَالِحِ الْآخِرَةِ ، فَهِي فِي الْحَقِيقَةِ خِلاَفَةً عَنْ صَاحِبِ الشَّرْعِ فِي حِراسَةِ الدِّينِ وَسِياسَةُ الدُّنْيا بِهِ .

Khilafah is to consider everyone from the perspective of the Islamic shari'a regarding their temporal interests, as well as in relation to the Hereafter. The khalif is in reality a vicegerent of the law-maker in safeguarding the deen and temporal affairs. (Muqaddimah, p. 190)

Al-Iji

هِي خِلاَفَةُ الرَّسُولِ - صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيه وَسَلَّمُ - فِي إقامَةِ الدِّينِ بِحَيْثٌ يَجِبُ اِتِّبَاعُهُ عَلَى كَافَّةِ الْأُمَّةِ

Imamah according to the theologians denotes the succession to the Messenger (saw) in the establishment of deen. As such, all of the ummah must to follow his rules. (Al-Mawaqif, p. 395)

Al-Hilli (Shi'i)

The Imamate is a universal leadership (riyasa) by a single individual in religious and secular matters. It is a matter which is incumbent upon God, for it is a divine mercy and every divine mercy is incumbent upon Him, so the imamate is incumbent upon Him.

Qalqashandi

“Public office over the entire community, the undertaking of its affairs, and the bearing of its burdens.” (Ma’athir al-Inafah, Vol. 1, p. 8)

And, citing the companion Salman al-Farisi, he states:

“[The Caliph] is the one who deals with his flock justly and apportions [resources] among them fairly, who shows compassion and concern for them the way a man has compassion for his wife or a parent for his child, and who judges among them by the Book of God the Exalted.” (Ma'athir al-Inafah, Vol. 1, pp. 13-14)


Analysis

These definitions introduced by the classical Muslim scholars give us an insight into their conceptualisation of the Khilafah and its core office comprising of the Caliph himself who delegates via his authority to others in governance.

It is unanimously agreed by the scholars that the Khilafah is the general leadership that deals with both the deen and temporal matters, with contemporary scholars generally in agreement with the classical scholars.

Scholars also used the terms "Khilafah" and "Imamah" interchangeably as synonymous with each other. Nawawi as an example commented:

يَجُوزُ أَنْ يُقَالُ لِلْإمَامِ الْخَلِيفَةَ وَالْإمَامَ وَأَميرِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ

The Imam may be called Khalifah, Imam and Amir of the believers. (Rawdat al-Talibeen, Vol. 10, p. 49)

Writing nearly two centuries after the Mongol conquest of Baghdad, the classical jurist al-Shirazi insisted on the centrality of the Cairo Abbasid caliph for contemporary affairs, in both legal and metaphysical terms. In his explanation, amongst the best I have encountered, the honour of the caliphate originates with the first of men and prophets: Adam.

Shirazi invokes Allah's words to the angels, "I am putting a trustee (khalifah) on earth" (Qur'an 2:30) to convey the honuor of God's designating Adam as the first of caliphs responsible for tending to God's creation. In addition to selecting Adam for this high and noble station, God further distinguished him by placing this successive leadership in his progeny, khala'if in the Qur'an:

وهو الذي جعلكم خلائف الأرض ورفع بعضكم فوق بعض درجات ليبلوكم في ما آتاكم إن ربك سريع العقاب وإنه لغفور رحيم

And it is He who has made you successors upon the earth and has raised some of you above others in degrees [of rank] that He may try you through what He has given you. Indeed, your Lord is swift in penalty; but indeed, He is Forgiving and Merciful. (Qur'an 6:165)

Accordingly, he describes the word caliph or khalifah as the noblest of all titles. The best of creation in each era inherit this paternal role (maqam al-ubuwwah) from the father of humankind and no king or sultan can compare with the glory of a caliph. Indeed, the caliph commands what God commands, and therefore opposition to him in reality means disobedience of God.

As he elaborates, the caliphate travelled from prophet to prophet until it reached the Muhammad (saw), the final seal of prophets and then from saint to saint after him and from him, until it reached "Our Master, the Commander of the Believers" al-Mu'tadid III Dawud. The caliph has been granted all the lands of Islam, he explained, as well as executive authority over them as the metaphorical shadow of God on earth in whom all the weak and powerless can seek refuge. His very presence provided stability and order in the world and yields immense blessings and benefit to all. In al-Shirazi's eyes, supporting religion and the welfare of Muslims are synonymous with taking care of the caliphate and appreciating its worth and the cause of success, salvation, and every good.

Conclusion

Based on the different definitions introduced by the classical scholarship, we can define Khilafah as a perfect authority and general leadership and a succession to the Prophethood for the purpose of protecting the deen, the Muslim territories, establishing justice, denouncing the deviation, abstaining from inequity and oppression, providing help and support to the oppressed against transgressors and establishing Allah's rules in the world.

References

Abul Hasan al-Mawardi, Al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyyah
Al-Iji, Al-Mawaqif
Ibn Khaldoon, Muqaddimah
Ibn Taymiyyah, Minhaj al-Sunnah
Juwayni, Ghiyath al-Umam fi iltiyath al-Zulam
Tahnawi, Kashaf Istelahat Al-Funun
Taftazani, Sharh al-Aqa'id al-Nasafiyyah
San'ani, Al-Taj Al-Mudhab
Nawawi, Rawdat al-Talibeen

Qalqashandi, Ma’athir al-Inafah


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