The concept of Caliph and Caliphate in Islam

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The most deliberated discussion concerning the successors of Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) is the discussion of Caliphate. Different sects of Islam have interpreted the concept of ‘Caliphate’ which best suited them. In this treatise, we will try to unveil the mystery on the concept of ‘Caliphate’

Literary Meaning

Raagheb Isfahaani, the renowned littérateur writes, ‘Caliphate means representation of another, either due to the absence of the represented one or due to his death or due to his inability or due to the eminence of the representative. On account of the last-mentioned meaning, Allah has made His friends as His representatives in the earth.’[1]

Therefore, a Caliph is the representative of the other, regardless of the represented person being absent, dead, unable or due to the esteemed and lofty position of the representative in the eyes of the represented person. Or the execution of some tasks, the implementation of the authority of the represented one and the manifestation of his position through the representative are appropriate as per the wisdom, aims, purposes, etc. of the represented one. It is irrelevant whether the representative and the represented one are Allah, the High, His Prophet (s.a.w.a.) or a group of His servants or some of them.

Hence, amongst all the literary applications, we cannot take the first three i.e. the absence, death and inability of the represented person as these cannot be applied for the Prophethood of a Prophet or the Imamat of an Imam. Therefore, the term ‘Caliph of Allah’ is truly applicable in its real sense on Hazrat Adam (a.s.), Hazrat Dawood (a.s.) and all other Prophets like Hazrat Nuh (a.s.), Hazrat Ibraheem (a.s.), Hazrat Moosa (a.s.), Hazrat Isaa (a.s.), their chief Hazrat Muhammad (s.a.w.a.) and the twelve Imams about whose caliphate the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.) has given tidings to his nations.

Meaning in Quran and Traditions

The term ‘Caliph’, as used in the Holy Quran and the traditions, is not related to any added noun, displaying clearly that it implies only for the Caliph of Allah, the High. So, a Prophet or an Imam is a representative and heir of Allah, the High, and Prophethood and Imamat are from the affairs of Allah, the High. None has got the right to stake a claim to this status but with His permission.

Allah has used the word ‘Caliph’ in the Holy Quran, thus: إِنِّي جَاعِلٌ فِي الأَرْضِ خَلِيفَةً I am going to place in the earth a Khalif[2] And He, Mighty and Glorified be He declared, يَا دَاوُدُ إِنَّا جَعَلْنَاكَ خَلِيفَةً فِي الْأَرْضِ O Dawood! Surely, We have made you a ruler in the land [3] It has come in the traditions that he was the Caliph of Allah, the High. Then the caliphs are the representatives of Allah upon His servants and His deputies for His creatures.

As for the rulers, they are the chiefs regardless of them being Caliphs on earth. Consequently, every Caliph is a ruler and a chief, but every ruler and chief is not a Caliph.

The words ‘government’, ‘reign’ and ‘authority’ fall much short in comparison with the concept of a ‘caliph’. Caliphate as used by Allah or for that matter by the Prophet, covers all the aspects like majesty, beauty, holiness, governance on the foundations of goodness, justice and human values, handling the weak ones with kindness, etc., which no other term covers. For, the authority of a caliph is connected to the authority of Allah, the Wise, the Just, the Beneficent, the Merciful, the Overpowering, the Subduer, the Generous, the Holy, the Kind, the Forgiving and the Refuge. A caliph cannot be deprived of his status nor does he divert from the course that Allah has charted for him. He is not ordered but the establishment of justice, repelling falsehood, purification of the souls and acting upon the Holy Quran and the Sunnah. So, whoever digresses from this path and aim will not be a caliph, as opposed to an emir, a governor or a ruler.

Indeed, it’s clear for you now that caliphate is a divine position and Allah’s representation, which cannot be completed nor realized save through divine appointment and none partners Him in this regard.

Besides the rational argument that the appointment of Allah’s caliph in the earth necessitates that he should be appointed by Allah only, the verses of the Holy Quran: إنّى جاعِلٌ[4] and إنّا جَعَلناكَ[5] are also evidence enough of the aforementioned fact. For, these two verses clearly suggest that the appointment of a caliph is from the affairs of Allah, the High, and His special acts, in which none partners Him.

There are a number of traditions in both Shia and Sunni books implying that Caliph and Caliphate imply only Allah’s representation, the great divine appointment and nothing else.

And like the advice of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.) to Huzaifah, “If there is for Allah a caliph in the earth, obey him even if he whips your back or takes away your wealth.”[6]

Kumail reports that Ameerul Momineen Ali Ibn Abi Taalib (a.s.) said, “They are the caliphs of Allah in His cities (in His earth).”[7]

While addressing those responsible for public trusts and wealth, Ameerul Momineen (a.s.) advises them to exercise utmost caution in establishing truth and following the principle of justice in all matters, big or small, significant or otherwise. Then he (a.s.) orders them to say to the people, “O servants of Allah! The friend of Allah and His caliph has sent me to you.”[8]

The great genius, the master in jurisprudence, tradition, literature and a number of other sciences, Shaikh Bahauddin al-Aameli (a.r.), while deriving from the above traditions, has written poems titled ‘Waseelah al-Fauz wa al-Amaan fi madh Saaheb al-Asr wa al-Zamaan’. A couplet from it goes as follows:

خليفة ربِّ العالمين و ظلّه   على ساكني الغيراء من كلّ ديار

 “The caliph of the Lord of the worlds and His shade

On the inhabitants of the earth in every house.”

Hence, nobody else has got any role whatsoever in the appointment of a caliph in the earth.

(Abridged from the English translation of the book “Muntakhab al-Asar”, vol. 1, (published by Naba Publications, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran) by Ayatollah Lotfollah Saafi Golpaygani (may Allah prolong his life))!

[1] Al-Mufradaat fi Ghareeb al-Quran, p. 156.

[2] Surah Baqarah (2): Verse 30.

[3] Surah Suad (38): Verse 26.

[4] Surah Baqarah (2): Verse 30.

[5] Surah Suad (38): Verse 26.

[6] Sunan Abi Dawood, Kitaab al-Fetan, vol. 2, pg. 200. Musnad Ahmad, vol. 5, pg. 430.

[7] Nahj al-Balagah, Saying No. 147; Tazkerah al-Huffaaz, vol. 1, pg. 11 & 12; Dastoor-o-Ma’lem al-Hekam, pg. 84; Al-Amaali al-Khamisiyyah, vol. 1, pg. 66.

[8] Nahj al-Balagah, Letter No. 25.

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