As we know, the Islamic Khilafa ended with the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1924. Not many Muslims at the time mourned the death of the khilafa, certainly nothing on the scale we see these days. The Turks were thrilled by the prospect of cultural freedom in the modern and secular Turkey that was already being established by Mustafa Kamal. Outside Turkey, the Arabs celebrated the victory of their revolt which brought about the downfall of a repulsive and ailing empire.

The fact that the Islamic khilafa ended in 1924 is now common knowledge, but in my time it was not so common. I learned this information sometime in 1979, when the Islamists became powerful enough to re-write history. I remember I was traveling in a car in the Saudi desert with a Jordanian friend and paying little attention to the radio until we heard someone referring to the year 1924 as the end of the Islamic khilafa. We both thought that was a gross mistake that can only happen in that backward country. Until then, I personally thought the Islamic khilafa ended long time ago because even the kahalifas of the Abbasids and Umayads dynasties were not truly Islamic; they were khalifas only by name. I remember that incident vividly because I lived to see what I thought was a mistake is now considered a historical fact. Nowadays, nobody seems to dispute that the Islamic khilafa ended by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1924.

In theory, the leader of any country can create an Islamic state by implementing the Islamic law, without the need to change titles. Apparently that is not good enough to the Islamists of our time who insist that the state must be called khilafa and must be a superstate that looks after all Muslims in the world until all others convert to Islam (or live as Dimmis under Islam) which is Allah’s final plan for the world.

The current Islamic preoccupation with khilafa was initiated by the eccentric group of Hizbul Tahrir who have been obsessed with the idea since the group was founded. In the beginning, the idea seemed too ambitious or crazy, and many Islamists didn’t talk too much about it, but after the leaps made by Islam since the 1970s (thanks to the Western support) most Muslims believe the dream is within reach.

Being relatively modern, the Ottoman khilafa is of particular significance to Islamists, who regard it as a model to emulate. The Islamists are adamant that the Ottoman empire was a true khilafa, just like the abbasids and Umayads. This assertion supports their argument and makes it more convincing. Their case is that Muslims have always lived under khilafa since Mohammed’s time, therefore, the current situation is an artifact in history and must be fixed as soon as possible.

The Ottomans did not leave a good impression on the Arabs and other Muslims who were under their rule. The Islamists, being aware of this fact, embarked on an international project to re-write history to polish the image of Ottomans. They used schools, mosques, TV channels and their publishing firms to paint a rosy picture about life under the Ottomans. Their efforts paid off as they have been successful worldwide although some hard work still ahead, especially in the Arab world.


Khalifa and Khilafa

The Arabic word khalifa means a successor, the one who follows, or replaces another person. In theory, there is nothing religious about the word; it is perfectly correct to say that Gordon Brown was Tony Blair’s khalifa, because he was. It is also correct to say that John is George’s khalifa as a director of the company. This usage of the word is still common today. The first Muslim Khalifa (Caliph) was Abu Bakr because he succeeded Mohammed. Omar succeeded Abu Bakr as a khalifa and himself was succeeded by Uthman, who was succeeded by Ali. Muslims in general (1) have no doubt that each of the four khalifas faithfully emulated Mohammed and followed his example. The four men were virtually faultless because Mohammed promised each of them a guaranteed place in paradise. Each one of those khalifas was referred to as ‘Ameer Al Mumineen’, which is a religious title. Each of the khalifas was nominated and elected by the senior members of the Muslim community (Omar was nominated by his predecessor Abu Bakr). Most importantly, each Muslim was free to seal a deal (mubaya’a) with the nominated khalifa. The word khilafa is used to refer to the sate ruled by a khalifa, just like kingdom is derived from king.


What does Islam say about khilafa?

There are no details or comprehensible description of khilafa in the Quran and Sunna (2). Some Muslim scholars today may write volumes about the description of khilafa, but that would reflect their own effort, which they call ijtihad, rather an Islamic obligation. When ijtihad is not supported by Quran or sunna it becomes more of a personal opinion. Needless to say, based on ijtihad, other scholars may write volumes against khilafa.


The Quran:

The Quran touched on politics only a couple of times when it advised Muslims to consult each other, thereby establishing the principle of the ‘shura councils’. The Quran did mention the word khalifa but in a completely different context- to refer to Adam/mankind or, according to the Submitter Muslims, to refer to their prophet R. Khalifa (1935-1990) the founder of the miracle of the number 19, who later discovered that his name was written in the Quran. Obviously, the Quran did not include every detail in it, so the book was more focused on important issues like Mohammed’s marriages and the repetitions of the biographies of old prophets. There was no space left in the Quran for a comprehensible account on issues like khilafa.



There is nothing clear in the sunna about the Islamic khilafa. History tells us that Mohammed, on his death bed, asked Muslims to get him some writing material to write some important guidelines for the Muslims but Omar ignored the request on the basis that Mohammed was hallucinating.

All what Muslims were left with was Mohammed’s own example and how he dealt with matters in his own time.


The First khalifa

After Mohammed’s death, his companions had a meeting to determine his successor. Omar quickly nominated Abu Bakr and immediately did mubay’a with him. Other Muslims gradually started to step forward to do the same. The way history books describe this event imply some kind of moral pressure was put on Muslims to do mubaya’a, so that they do not appear to cause a divide in the Islamic community at such an early stage of the Islamic state.

In those early days of the Islamic state, the Muslims rightly expected that Mohammed can only be succeeded by a person who can faithfully emulate him. Indeed, each of the four khalifas did his best to do just that. There was no written job description for the post of ‘khalifa’ but the principal features of the job were obvious to all Muslims:

a) The khalifa was expected to have unquestionable integrity and to have thorough knowledge of Islam and follow the footsteps of Mohammed.

b) The candidate for the post should be nominated by Muslim of unquestionable integrity community.

c) The majority of the Muslim community should have no objection to do a free “mubaya’a” with the new khalifa. This is an important term that describes an important deed. It is like sealing a deal with the khalifa, in someway similar to a binding sale agreement between two parties.

d) The “khilafa” is not a birth right. It can not be inherited.

The death of Ali signaled the death of the Islamic khilafa, as the Muslims knew it, and the beginning of the new Islamic empire under the Umayad dynasty (660AD - 750AD). The word “khalifa” continued to be used as a title for the Umayads leaders even though none of the four principal features described above applied to them. The founder of the dynasty, Mu’aweyia Ibn Abu Sufyan was one of the sahaba but later became a rebellion against the Islamic khalifa under Ali, who was not only rightly guided but was one of only ten Muslims promised by Mohammed to have a guaranteed place in paradise. Common sense and logical thinking tell us that if Mu’aweya was a rebellion against Ali, then Mu’aweya was a rebellion against the Islamic state, therefore, was anti Islamic. This is one of the conundrums that Muslims can never solve because they are not allowed to conclude that any of the sahaba was wrong. In fact, they are are not allowed to discuss that subject at all on the basis that Allah knows best. Mu’aweya was the governor of Syria where he enjoyed a strong power base that helped him to declare himself as the new khalifa after Ali’s death, thereby forcing himself on the Muslims. However, Mu’aweya proved to be a capable leader who did not care too much about what the conservative muslims might think of him. He moved the administration centre of the state from the backward city of Medina to the well developed Roman city of Damascus. Mu’aweyia ruled like a monarch and arranged for his son to succeed him and for the leadership, or khilafa, to remain in his family, thereby establishing the Umayad Dynasty. The Muslims did not like it at the time but could do nothing about it; they had to live with the fact that times were changing and the era of the old Islamic khilafa was over. Mu’aweya’s son, Yazid, had a bad reputation in Islamic history; Most Muslim historians described him as too unreligious and sinful.

Mu’aweya could have used a more exotic title, like king or emperor, but probably thought that would be too provocative to the conservative Muslims, so he settled with the title khalifa. Mu’aweya was not nominated or elected by the Muslims and made no effort to emulate Mohammed. His son inherited the title just like kings do. The Muslims were aware that this new brand of “khalifas” had no resemblance to the true “khalifas” of the bygone era. To highlight the difference, the Muslims introduced the term “Rightly Guided Khalifa” to draw a line between the true Muslim Khalifas and the new monarchs who were still using the title. The Muslim historians agree that there were only four “Rightly Guided Khalifas” and that their era ended by the death of Ali (3).


The Umayad dynasty is generally credited for sustaining the Islamic jihad, which successfully expanded the Islamic state. It was under the Umayds when the Islamic state reached the distant territories in North Africa, Spain and Asia. However, an increasing number of Muslims were not happy about the conduct of the Umayad Khalifas and accused them of corruption. The dissatisfaction among the people was on the rise and prepared the grounds for the fall of the dynasty at the hands of the Abbasids clan.


The Umayyad dynasty collapsed after about 90 years and was followed by the Abbasids who proved to be even more corrupt. The first Abbasid Khalifa was called Abdulla Al Saffah. The word “Al Saffah” in Arabic means the butcher or mass murderer, which says it all. Al Saffah earned his title (by the Muslim historians) because he started his reign by mass murdering his Umayad opponents. The Abbasids inherited an already vast state and they didn’t bother to do too much of jihad. Anyway, they were too busy in power struggles and and internal wars. One of the power struggles was between two of the most famous khalifas, Al Amin and Al Ma’mun, who were the sons of Harun Al Rasheed. Al Ma’mun emerged victorious after four years of bloody war against his elder brother who was killed in 813AD. Needless to say that a man who revolts against his brother and kills him can hardly be considered a Muslim at all. In a way, being not too religious was a good sign because Al Ma’mun encouraged science, medicine, philosophy, geography, literature and all branches of knowledge. He even built a university in Baghdad (4 ) and encouraged translations of books from other languages to Arabic.

It is interesting to note that there were times when the Muslims had two other Khalifas in addition to the Abbasid one. There was a Khalifa in charge of the Umayad state in Spain (Andalusia) and a third one in charge of the Fatimid state in North Africa. Three khilafas coexisting at the same time!

In 1258AD the city of Bagdad was conquered by the Mongols and the Abbasid khalifa was killed together with many members of the Abbasids. A few members of the Abbasid clan reached Egypt and were given asylum and made welcome by the Muslim Mamluk leader of Egypt. In 1261, the Mamluk leader made a member of the Abbasids as an honour Khalifa i.e khalifa by title but with no power.

In 1516AD, the Ottomans under Sultan Salim threatened Syria and Egypt. The Mamluk leader of Egypt, Al Gouri, lead his army to fight the Ottomans in Marj Dabek in northern Syria. The Egyptian army was defeated and its leader was killed and Egypt’s fate was sealed. As mentioned above, Cairo was a host city for a symbolic Abbasid Khalifa since 1261. Sultan Salim, who had a reputation of killing his subordinates for minor reasons, ordered the khalifa to surrender his title to him in return for keeping him alive. I doubt if that Sultan, or any other Ottoman Sultan, valued the khalifa title because they seldom used it, but this is how the title ended up in their hands. It is interesting to note that, despite the title, the Ottoman leaders were not referred to as khalifas or Ameer Al Mumineen but as Sultans.


The Khilafa Achievements

1) Al Khilafa Al Rashida: The era of the Rightly Guided Khalifas (al khilafa al rashida) was all about wars. It started with the ‘Ridda’ wars to safeguard the state from an early collapse when almost all Arabia abandoned Islam after Mohammed’s death. Indeed, the state was saved and became powerful enough to start other wars against the Romans and the Persians. That era was plagued by power struggles that claimed the lives of the last two khalifas, Uthman and Ali in addition to hundreds of thousands of Muslims. Under the short reign of the Rightly Guided Khalifas, the Islamic state expanded to beyond Arabia but there were no cultural achievements of note other than collecting the Quran (mus-haf Uthman).The victorious Muslim soldiers sent a message to khalifa Omar seeking him what to do with those books they found in the conquered territories. Omar’s reply summarizes Islam’s opinion of other cultures, He said: “Destroy them! because if they were bad we don’t need them and if they were good we have better (the Quran)”.


2) The Umayads: The Umayads are credited for most of the military conquests and expansion of the Islamic state. On the cultural side, the Arabic language became more developed by inventing the dots which helped the Arabic script to be more readable. Poetry was revived for the first time after the rise of Islam by the works of some distinguished poets like Jareer and Al Farazdak. In addition, the Umayads built some fine architecture, like the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. In Andalusia, the Umayads had even more stability to enrich the Arabic literature and poetry. They also produced some fine architecture which is still standing today.


3) The Abbasids: Most of the Muslims’ contributions to science, astronomy, medicine and literature happened under the Abbasids dynasty. That produced scientists like Al Razi, Al Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd ...etc most of whom were accused of apostasy by the Muslim scholars of their time, which is why we believe that those scientists were successful despite of Islam, not because of it.


The Ottomans Achievements

When today’s Islamists mourn khilafa, they mean the Ottomans Khilafa towards which they exhibit special affection and nostalgia. They are particularly sensitive to any negative criticism to the Ottomans rule than they are to the Abbasids and the Umayads. This is because the Ottomans’ rule is still a living memory while the others distant memory. The Islamists believe that after the fall of the Ottomans, the Muslim world lost their head and became like a headless chicken stumbling from one trouble to another. The Islamists message is clear: the root of the Muslims’ problems is the absence of khilafa, without which they cannot have a decent existence. They imply that the Muslims were fine under the Islamic rule (of the Ottomans) and accepting the western culture and laws doesn’t do the them any good. It is in this area of history where the Islamists and their Saudi backers have been working hard to re write history. In my time, school children in countries like Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq were taught that the Ottoman’s rule was the dark ages of the Arab World. I am not sure what is in the school books these days, but judging from what the adults are being taught in mosques and through the media it is easy to see the direction we are heading to.

The Islamic khilafa was the dark ages for the Arabs and Muslims in general, it is difficult to argue otherwise. The Ottomans rule fails miserably even when compared to the other Muslim dynasties. Those who read the Arabs’ history can easily skip the period between the 16th to the 20th century without missing too much. You can turn the pages of five hundreds years of history, one by one, and find they were all blank and without any signs of brain activity.


Under this Islamic khilafa, the Arabs produced no books or publication of any kind. Science, Medicine, philosophy or Geography were completely forgotten and their names became alien words to the largely uneducated and illiterate society. Of more significance is that the Arabs, who can not live without poetry, produced nothing worth reading for five hundreds years under the Ottomans rule. Many Arab historians believe the Arabic language was only saved because of the Al Azhar mosque in Cairo. The absence of literature and poetry, which are parts of the Arabs’ lives, is a grave sign of absence of intellectual activity as if the Arabs entered a phase of prolonged deep sleep that lasted for centuries.

The Arab countries were left undeveloped with no infrastructure. Under the ottomans, the Arabs had no universities or scientific institutes. Schools were minimal and basic while the education system was completely neglected paving the way for illiteracy to prevail everywhere. Health care was poor with hardly any hospitals. The same was true for the transport system, the hijaz railway, which was built to facilitate pilgrimage from Turkey to Mecca, was the only project of significance that was completed under the Ottomans. The only architecture I can think of was the extension of the Haram mosque in Mecca. Of course, the Ottomans built some fine palaces and mosques in Turkey, but the Arabs did not see anything like that in their countries. In short, The Arab world under the ottomans was like Afghanistan under Taliban or Somalia under Al Shabab, exactly the kind of people who mourn the Ottomans khilafa.

The Ottomans khilafa was a demonstration of the menace of the Islamic rule. Normally, people do not accept to be subdued by others, however, they accept even a humiliating oppression by god. The Ottomans used Islam to subjugate the Arabs in a similar way the Taliban used it to subjugate the Afghanis, both claimed to enforce the law of god. The same is true for the Saudis, who are the last nation you would expect to rise against their oppressors. To the non Muslim nations, the Ottomans rule was considered vile and repulsive, almost with no virtues, but to the Arabs it was accepted as a destiny decided by Allah.

All the Ottomans could offer was the military might, but even that was useless when needed most. Egypt was an important part of the empire but was attacked in 1798 by Napoleon. Did the Ottomans military defend Egypt? Not at all. It took Napoleon’s forces only one hour (that is right, only one hour) to defeat the Ottomans garrison protecting Cairo! Egypt was attacked again in1882, this time by the British, Did the Ottomans defend the country? Not at all, they didn’t even condemn the aggression.

At this point, it is worth making a quick comparison between Egypt and the rest of the Arab World. In the 19th century, Egypt was virtually independent under Mohammed Ali while the rest of the Arab World was still lifeless under the Islamic khilafa. Mohammed Ali modernized Egypt to match European standards. He sent Egyptians to Europe to learn the various European systems and apply it in Egypt. He established a good industrial base and the army, the transport system, Hospitals, education and postal services were all created to high standards while the rest of the Arab world was still in its deep sleep. The relatively secular but modern Egypt became so powerful under Mohammed Ali that in 1838 his son occupied parts of Turkey on his way to capture Istanbul. To whom did the Islamic khilafa turn for help? to Europe, in particular the British! Exactly what the Islamists teach the Muslims not to do!

Even in Turkey, the Ottomans military conquests were not matched by scientific or cultural achievements. In the 16th century, with an army and navy that were the the largest in Europe, the Ottomans were the military superpower of the world. They occupied most of the Arab world besides parts of Europe and Asia. That was in the 16th century, the time when Europe produced scientists like Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Copernicus, William Harvey, Zacharias Janssen. All those scientists and all those inventions came from countries significantly smaller than the Ottomans Empire. It is natural for people look at the superpower of the time to see what they produced, only to be disappointed because the Ottomans did not produce much.

Throughout history, scientific progress and achievements tended to be corollaries to the might of empires. The wealth of an empire, its stability and high standard of living provided the right environment for talented people to excel. Progress usually takes place in those dominant empires, not in the smaller nations. Think of the Pharos, the Greek, the Romans...etc.

Under the Ottomans, history made an exception. Probably it was the only time when progress was made by the smaller nations, not the dominant power of the time.


  1. Please note that article addresses the subject from the Sunni point of view. Shia Muslims have different views about the sahaba and the ‘rightly guided khalifas’ .

  2. The Shia believe that Mohammed specified that he wanted Ali to succeed him.

  3. Some Muslims like to add to the list a fifth khalifa, Omar Ibn Abdul Aziz, who was one of the Umayad monarchs, because his conduct was believed to be as good as the previous four “Rightly Guided Khalifas”.

  4. University of Baitul Hikma

Comments powered by CComment

Joomla templates by a4joomla