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caliphate (kălˈĭfātˌ, –fĭt), the rulership of Islam; caliph (kălˈĭfˌ), the spiritual head and temporal ruler of the Islamic state. In principle, Islam is theocratic: when Muhammad died, a caliph [Arab.,=successor] was chosen to rule in his place. The caliph had temporal and spiritual authority but was not permitted prophetic power; this was reserved for Muhammad. The caliph could not, therefore, exercise authority in matters of religious doctrine. The first caliph was Abu Bakr. He was succeeded by Umar, Uthman, and Ali. Sunni Muslims recognize these first four, or Rashidun (the rightly guided), caliphs. Shiites, however, recognize Ali as the first caliph. After Ali's death, Muawiya became caliph and founded the Umayyad dynasty (661–750), chiefly by force of arms. Its capital was Damascus. In 750 the Abbasid family, descended from the Prophet's uncle, led a coalition that defeated (749–50) the Umayyad family. The Abbasid dynasty (749–1258) is sometimes called the caliphate of Baghdad. One Umayyad, Abd ar-Rahman I, escaped the general massacre of his family and fled to Spain; there the emirate of Córdoba was set up in 780. This later became the caliphate of Córdoba, or the Western caliphate, and persisted until 1031. A third competing contemporaneous caliphate was established by the Fatimids in Africa, Syria, and Egypt (909–1171). After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols under Hulagu Khan in 1258, the Abbasids fled to Egypt. The Ottomans captured Egypt in 1517 and Selim I assumed the title of caliph by questionable right. The Ottoman sultans, however, kept the title until the last sultan, Muhammad VI, was deposed. He was succeeded briefly by a cousin, but in 1924 the caliphate was abolished by Kemal Atatürk. A year later Husayn ibn Ali, king of Arabia, proclaimed himself caliph, but he was forced to abdicate by Ibn Saud. Subsequently, several pan-Islamic congresses attempted to establish a rightful caliph. A number of Islamist political parties and Islamist guerrilla groups have called for the restoration of the caliphate by uniting, either through peaceful political action or through force, Islamic nations in a transnational state.


See W. Muir, The Caliphate (1898, repr. 1964); T. W. Arnold, The Caliphate (1924, repr. 1966); A. S. Tritton, The Caliphs and Their Non-Muslim Subjects (1930, repr. 1970); M. Ali, Early Caliphate (tr. 1947); S. K. Bakhsh, The Caliphate (1954); P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (10th ed. 1970); H. Kennedy, The Early Abbasid Caliphate (1981).

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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

When Muhammad died he left no clearly designated successor to lead the new Muslim movement. This led to an immediate division in Islam.

Traditionalists believed Abu-Bakr, one of the Prophet's friends (some say he was a father-in-law) and among the first of his converts, was meant to step into Muhammad's place. People of this tradition became known as Sunnis. Others chose to follow Ali, the prophet's cousin and son-in-law. These people came to be known as Shi'ites (from Shia Ali—"the party of Ali").

The leaders of each party were called caliphs, and their successors formed the caliphate.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the Muslim theocratic system; the term is also used in the literature to designate the feudal Arabic-Muslim state headed by the caliphs. The original nucleus of the caliphate was the Muslim community (umma) formed by Muhammad in western Arabia in the early seventh century. As a result of Arab conquests, the caliphate was transformed into an enormous state that included the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran, most of Transcaucasia, Middle Asia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, most of the Iberian Peninsula, and Sind.

Under the Umayyads (661–750) and Abbasids (750–1258), while feudal relationships in the caliphate predominated, the slaveholding and patriarchal systems were still strong. The caliphate’s brilliant and diversified culture, formed between the seventh and tenth centuries, was a very important influence in world culture.

In the ninth century, various factors led to the breakup of the unified caliphate and the emergence of feudal states that had de facto independence. Such factors included the varying level of economic development among the countries that were part of the caliphate, the weakness of economic ties among the different regions, the antifeudal uprisings for popular liberation, the concentration of land ownership in the hands of the military elite and local aristocracy of feudal landowners, and the internal struggle in the feudal class itself.

Beginning in the first half of the tenth century, the Abbasid caliphate coexisted with two others—the Fatimid caliphate (909–1171) and the Umayyad caliphate, or caliphate of Córdoba, in Spain (929–1031)—in which the caliph had both spiritual and secular authority. The Abbasid caliph was divested of secular power after the conquest of Baghdad by the Buyids in 945.

In 1055 the Seljuks replaced the Buyids in Baghdad. After the breakup of the Seljuk state in 1118, the Abbasid caliphate was revived as a state in the Tigris-Euphrates basin. In 1258, after the Mongol conquest of Baghdad, the caliphate ceased to exist as a state. Nevertheless, Abbasid caliphs continued to live in Cairo until the Turkish conquest of Egypt in 1517; their religious authority, as exercised through investiture, served to sanctify the secular rule of the sultans in Egypt and sometimes in other Muslim countries as well. Later, the Turkish sultans called themselves caliphs, claiming that after the conquest of Egypt the title had been transferred to them by the last representative of the Abbasid dynasty in Cairo. The Turkish caliphate was abolished in republican Turkey in March 1924.


Bartol’d, V. V. Soch., vol. 6. Moscow, 1966. Pages 15–139 and 303–19.
Beliaev, E. A. Araby, islam i arabskii khalifat v rannce srednevekov’e, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1966.
Nadiradze, L. I. “Voprosy obshchestvenno-ekonomicheskogo stroia gosudarstva arabov i khalifata VII–VIII vv. v sovetskoi istoriografii.” In the collection Istoriografiia stran Vostoka. Moscow, 1969.
Nadiradze, L. I. “K voprosu o feodalizme v zavoevannykh arabami stranakh.” In the collection Sovremennaia istoriografiia stran zarubezhnogo Vostoka. Moscow, 1975.
Mez, A. Musul’manskii Renessans. Moscow, 1966. (Translated from German.)
Wellhansen, J. Das arabische Reich und sein Sturz. Berlin, 1902.
Hitti, P. History of the Arabs, 8th ed. London-New York, 1964.
Spuler, B. Geschichte der islamischen Länder, part 1. Leiden, 1952.
See also references under ISLAM.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


, califate, kalifate
the office, jurisdiction, or reign of a caliph
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005