The concept of a Caliph and Caliphate in Sunni Islam and how it differs from the Shia view on the matter.
Bismillāhir Rahmānir Rahīm, As-salāmu ʿAlaykum wa rahmatullāhi wa barakātuh. Peace be upon you brothers and sisters.
Welcome back to the Muslim Converts Channel!
In this lesson, we will overview the concept of the Caliphate in the perspective of our Sunni brothers and sisters. Since we have talked a lot
about the Islamic view of the Imamate, we will only briefly compare this view of the caliphate to that of the school of Ahl al-Bayt (as).
BODY OF TEXT
The word Caliph comes from the Arabic word Khalifah. Khalifah in Arabic means vicegerent or successor, as in successor of the Prophet Muhammad (s). In the Qur’an, the term is used differently. It refers to humankind as God’s vicegerents on the earth.
In Sunni Islam, a Caliph is only secondarily a religious leader, he is more primarily a political leader. This is why in Sunni law a Caliph does not need to be a scholar of Islam.
But despite his primary role as a political and worldly leader, he still has some religious functions, such as determining special days like Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of the month of Ramadan. Although he does not have to be a scholar, he is still expected to have some acceptable level of knowledge when it comes to Islam.
In Sunni Islam, successorship to the Prophet Muhammad (s) is not necessarily determined by the Prophet himself. It can be determined in three other ways as well:
- Through selection by a small but select group of the Prophet’s companions.
- Personal designation by the previous Caliph
- Self-declaration or self-appointment
- Let look at each of these in a little more detail.
1. Selection by a small but select group of the Prophet’s companions
This happened three times in Islamic history.
The first time this happened was during the first Caliph’s ascension to the Caliphate. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad (s), a small handful of companions gathered in a place called Saqifa and selected Abu Bakr as the first Caliph of Muslims.
The second time this happened was with Uthman, the third Caliph. The second Caliph Umar had selected a small number of companions to choose the third caliph in the event of Umar’s death.
The third time this happened was during the time of Imam Ali (as). This incident was somewhat different as it wasn’t just a small group of companions who wanted him as Caliph, it was a large group of companions and a large crowd of Muslims who gathered to his house begging him to accept the political version of the Caliphate.
2. Personal designation by a previous caliph
This means that a Caliph personally selects who will succeed him after his death. In the history of the Caliphate, this has been the most prominent way Caliphs have assumed power.
The first person to practice this was Abu Bakr who selected Umar as his successor and second Caliph.
3. Self-declaration or self-appointment
This means that that someone can declare himself as Caliph without being selected by anyone. In Sunni law, the only condition for this kind of self-appointment to be legitimate is that enough people accept the self-appointment. What counts as “enough” is usually not clear and there is no agreement as to what is.
The first person to have become Caliph through this method was Muawiyah b. Abi Sufyan.
Muawiyah asserted his claim to the Caliphate through extreme violence.
Through the threat of violence, he managed to get Imam al-Hasan (as) to resign from the Caliphate. Then with violence and bribery, he got others to pledge allegiance to him after he declared himself Caliph.
In Sunni Islam, there is disagreement as to the legitimacy of Muawiyah’s Caliphate and his standing as a Muslim. Some Sunnis reject Muawiyah's Caliphate and view him as a violent politician who was merely pretending to be a Muslim.
Now that we've reviewed the Caliphate from the Sunni Islamic perspective, let's briefly review the Caliphate from the Shia perspective.
In Shia Islam, the Prophet’s successor can only be chosen by God himself. Unlike Sunni Islam, the office of the Caliphate is primarily a religious one. The Caliph must be the most knowledgeable person on earth at that time, he must be infallible, and he must be divinely inspired. The primary role of the Caliph is the religious guidance of humankind. Political office is only secondary. In Shiʿa Islam, a person can still be the Prophet’s caliph or successor yet not hold political office.
According to this view, only an Imam can succeed the Prophet Muhammad (s). For more information on Imamate, please view our previous lectures.
In Shiʿa Islam, God sends revelation or inspiration to the Prophet Muhammad (s) or a living Imam informing him who the next Imam and Caliph will be.
From this, we conclude that the Prophet Muhammad (s) designated Imam Ali (as) as his successor during the event of Ghadir, right before he passed away.
The word for this type of designation is called “nass” in Arabic. Like Imam Ali (as), all the other Imams were also appointed as Imams and Caliphs in this manner.
Until Next Time, thank you for watching. As-salāmu ʿAlaykum wa rahmatullāhi wa barakātuh
Successor of the Prophet (s)
Successorship, as in the office of successorship of the Prophet Muhammad (s)
Designation of a Caliph or Imam by God through the intermediary of the Prophet Muhammad (s) or a living Imam.
What is a Caliph?
Caliph means successor, as in the successor of the Prophet (s)
What is the difference between the caliphate in Sunni Islam and Shia Islam?
The caliphate in the former is largely a political leadership. A caliph is Sunni Islam is selected by humans. In Shia Islam, the primary function of a caliph is religious and he can be selected by the Prophet Muhammad (s) and God only.
What is nass?
Nass literally means designation, as in the designation of an Imam and Caliph by God.
According to Sunni Islam, can someone appoint himself as a Caliph?
Yes, as long as there are people around who are willing to give him their oath of allegiance. As long as he declares himself a Muslim, he can do this.
Who were the first Caliphs in Sunni and Shia Islam?
In Sunni Islam, the first Caliph was Abu Bakr, whereas in Shia Islam it was Imam Ali (as).
caliphate in sunni islam
caliphate in shia islam
imam ali (as)
Ahl al-Bayt and Caliphate by Murtada Mutahhari