The Caliphate as an Institution and Practice

The Caliphate as an Institution and Practice
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Aadil Hussain Malik

Prophet Muhammad (SAW), after his migration from Makkah to Madinah, established an institution which was successfully carried forward by the Pious and Rightly-Guided Caliphs(Khulafa’-i Rashidun), that is the period of first four Caliphs, from 632 to 660 CE, namely Hadrat Abu Bakr(RA), ‘Umar(RA), ‘Uthman(RA), and Ali (RA). They succeeded Prophet (SAW) as the religio-political heads of the Islamic commonwealth at Madinah and other parts of the Islamic world. In this essay, an attempt is made to highlight the basic features of the Pious Caliphate Era.
After the demise of the Prophet (SAW) in 632 CE, the institution of Caliphate came into existence. As long as the Prophet (SAW) lived, he himself performed the functions of Prophet, Lawgiver, Religious Leader, Chief Judge, Commander of the Army, and Civil Head of the State—all in One. But after him, an immediate successor was needed to supervise the affairs of the Ummah; and it was the Khalifah who became the religio-political head of the Islamic State. And, with the election of Abu Bakr (RA) as the first Caliph, the institution of Caliphate was established.
Once he was elected as the Khalifah, a general oath of loyalty (Bay‘ah) was taken by the Muslims in the Mosque of the Holy Prophet (SAW). He gave his first Address as a Khalifah in the mosque after the general Bay‘ah as: “O People I have been selected as your Trustee although I am not better than anyone of you. If I am righteous obey me. If I am misguided, set me right. Of course truth is honesty & lie is dishonesty”; “I ask you to obey me as long as I obey Allah His Messenger (SAW). If I disobey Allah and His Messenger, you are free to disobey me.”
Significant Features of the Pious Caliphate Era: The system of the government, that was in vogue during the 30 year-long era of the Pious Caliphs, was ideal and democratic in its nature. Some of its major and significant features are listed below:
Elective in Nature: The Khalifah was never a nominated person during the period of the pious caliphs. The Election of Ḥaḍrat Abu Bakr(RA), as described above, took place after general consent. It was an exemplary democratic way of Election never held before in the world. The Elections of the coming three pious leaders of the Ummah was also in no way against the dictates of the Sharī‘ah. Although Abu Bakr (RA) nominated ‘Umar (RA) as his successor, it was based upon general consent as well. At the time of nomination, they asked the Muslim public to assemble in the mosque of the Holy Prophet (SAW) and told them: “Do you agree for the successor I propose I swear by Allah I have not done anything wrong in proposing the name of the person who is not my relative”. Some people refused, as they claimed that ‘Umar (RA) was a high tempered man. At last Abu-Bakr (RA) convinced them and sais: “I ask you to listen to him and obey him”. All the Muslims said in one voice we will listen to him and obey him. The election of Caliph ‘Uthman (RA)was done by a panel of Muslims appointed by ‘Umar (RA) who excluded his son from the panel. This clearly proves that the nature of the Khilāfah was elective. People believed that the Muslims would select their caliph by their consultation without any pressure because there was and is no scope for monarchy and hereditary type of government in Islam.
Consultative Government: ‘Khalifah’ was the head of the state but not the sole authority. He was in no way allowed to decide any matter without proper consultations. The consultative body or the Council of Advisors was known as the “Shura”/ “Majlis-i Shura”. All the four Caliphs consulted it in all the affairs of the state. Khalifah was bound to consult it in any matter but he was not bound to accept the opinion of the consultative body. He was the head of state; so there had to be some difference between the Khalifah and the consultative body. The Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet (SAW) are the fundamental sources of all the Islamic knowledge. Caliph ‘Umar (RA) is reported to have said: “There can be no Khilafah except by consultation”. The significant feature of consultation was the complete freedom of expression.
The State Exchequer (Bait al-Mal): It was for the first time in the history of the humankind that the public treasury/ state exchequer or the Bait-al-Mal was considered as public property and not the personal property of the ruler. They considered it as the great trust of Allah as well as Muslims and never spent even a single penny according to their own choice. The Caliphs took only that amount of salary from Baital-Malwhich was sufficient for an ordinary man. Caliph Abu Bakr(RA) took a very small salary from the Bait al-Mal which was barely enough for his family. Caliph ‘Uthman(RA) never took anything from it for his personal use. Thus, we see that they treated the Bait al-Mal as a a trust.
Concept of Government: The Caliphs did not treat the Government (Khilafah) as their inherited right rather as a great trust and as such they declared themselves as Trustees. In his first address, Abu Bakr (RA), said ‘I have been appointed as a ruler over you, although I am not the best man amongst you, I swear by Allah who holds my life in His hands that I never wanted it and I never prayed to get it obey me till I obey Allah and his Prophet Muḥammad (SAW). Whenever Umar (RA) appointed a Governor or an Officer, he advised him: “I am not appointing you to be the master of the public. You have been appointed so that you may establish Ṣalah, and observe Justice and pay the rights of the people to them”
Supremacy of Law: The Shari’ah (Islamic law) is the final authority in Islamic system of government. The caliph did not think himself an extraordinary person free from Law. In the eyes of law, he was just an ordinary Muslim. He appointed Qadis (Judges). A judge was free to give decision, even if it was against the Khalifah himself.
Absence of Bias: This was also another distinctive significance of Islam as well as of the governance during Pious Caliphs. All the subjects were treated equal by them and by in an unbiased way. Everyone was given freedom that he and she enjoyed. The society of that time was free from all kinds of tribal, racial, parochial prejudices. The tribal prejudice was suppressed by the Prophet (SAW).
In sum, the above mentioned features clearly reveal that the nature and the salient features of the Pious Caliphate era. This era, which lasted for about 30 years, is considered as the “Golden Age of Islam”, from the governance and administrative point of view. This period is unique in its nature, as one sees or observes that the values and principles of freedom of expression, fear of Allah, sense of responsibility, accountability, selflessness, supremacy of law, justice for and so on were the central of it.

—The author is pursuing PG in Islamic Studies from AMU, Aligarh. He can be reached at: