An Objection to the Usage of the term ‘Caliph’

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Objection: Why was the term ‘Caliph’ used for all the rulers after the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.) till the recent rulers of the Ottoman Empire, although they were neither appointed by Allah nor by the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.)? Moreover, their governance did not carry the pure Islamic message nor did they have any legal sanction from Allah. They were also labeled as oppressive tyrants, whose reign had nothing to do with Islam and who had no qualms in taking the servants of Allah as their slaves and usurping their wealth.

Answer: The term ‘Caliph of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.)’ was used in early Islam for the rulers immediately after him (s.a.w.a.) by those who were close to them. Later, the domain of its usage expanded and the above term was used for the oppressive kings as well, fearing their tyranny and barbaric oppressions. After sometime, this term was curtailed to a singular word i.e. ‘the Caliph’.

There is no doubt that this term and its application does not lead to the change of words of the Holy Quran and the traditions, from what appears from them at the time of usage nor do they change the words to their new meanings. Also, the usage of this term was historically erroneous because the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.) never appointed Abu Bakr as his caliph. As for Umar, Abu Bakr appointed him[1], so logically he should be called as the Caliph of Abu Bakr (and not the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.)).

As for the status for the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.) and his rule over the affairs, then it was never due to the selection of the people or his domination over the affair or the fear of his oppression. Nay! It was only due to the choice of Allah, the High. Hence, using the terms, ‘emir’, ‘ruler’ and ‘king’ for those called as caliphs would be more appropriate than being called as a ‘caliph’, leave alone the terms ‘Allah’s caliph’ or ‘the caliph of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.)’.

A right-thinking and sane person, not necessarily a follower of the Ahle Bait (a.s.) can never permit, condone or overlook the usage of the term ‘the caliph of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.)’ for the likes of Usman, Moawiyah, Yazeed, Waleed, the tyrants of Bani Abbas and the progeny of Usman, etc., who ruled over Syria, Iraq, Spain, etc.

Briefly, the epithet ‘Allah’s Caliph’ is a lofty and elevated term. The same applies for the term ‘caliph’. It cannot be used, and it is not correct to use it except for Allah’s representative on the earth, whom He has chosen to establish justice, be the highest role model for mankind, implement His laws, inhabit His cities, spread goodness and preserve the laws of Shariah and signs of truth.

Its usage is incorrect for any other person either due to disregard or carelessness. For the clarification of the falsity of this claim, when he was addressed as, ‘O caliph of Allah!’, Abu Bakr said, ‘No, I am the caliph of Muhammad (s.a.w.a.)’ or ‘I am the caliph of Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.).’[2] Of course, his conferring the above titles on his own self has no substance of truth in it because caliphate is representation of another, and this representation cannot be complete without the appointment by the represented one. Unanimity prevails concerning the fact that the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.) did not appoint Abu Bakr as his caliph, nor did he (s.a.w.a.) make any will to him. None of Abu Bakr’s actions like sitting in the place of the Prophet (s.a.w.a.), going on the pulpit and praying in his (s.a.w.a.) prayer niche (mehraab), were on his behalf and under his (s.a.w.a.) representation.

The Sunnis are of the opinion that governance and the appointment of a ruler is the duty of the Ummah (Islamic nation) and hence, it is obligatory upon it to appoint him. Also, there was consensus in the Ummah — which actually never existed — for the appointment of Abu Bakr, without force or fear. So, using the term ‘Caliph of the nation’ instead of ‘the caliph of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.)’ will be more appropriate and correct. For, in their view, Abu Bakr was the representative of the nation, whose collective responsibility was to implement the laws and protect the system. Needless to mention, the above idea has been formulated without devoting the slightest of deliberations on the definition of ‘caliphate’ i.e. it’s representation of the other.

(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] Even this appointment is debatable and not established because it is said that when Usman became busy in writing the will of Abu Bakr, the latter fainted. Usman thought that Abu Bakr had died and wrote the name of Umar on his own. When Abu Bakr regained his senses, Usman informed him of what he had done and Abu Bakr duly endorsed it.

What confounds the researcher is that Abu Bakr died during this very illness and Umar was appointed as his successor on the basis of the writing of Usman. But on this occasion, notwithstanding the serious illness of Abu Bakr, Umar never protested that this man is not in his senses! Nor did he prevent Abu Bakr from dictating his will like he had prevented the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.) from making known his will! Surely, we are from Allah and unto Him shall we return!!

[2] Musnad of Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, vol. 1, p. 10

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