AD 632: Beginning of the Caliphate
The term caliphate refers to the religious and political Islamic state established by the followers of Muhammad, who died in AD 632. The word caliph comes from the Arabic word khal fah, meaning "successor." Thus, the caliphs, as successors of Muhammad, claimed to rule in his name according to an inherited authority. The caliphs were chosen from members of Muhammad's Quraysh tribe until the 16th century, when Muslim rule was transferred to a Turkish caliph in the Ottoman Empire.

The size of the Muslim world increased rapidly following Muhammad's death. The armies of Islam set out from the Arabian Peninsula to make conquests in nearly every direction. At its height the Muslim empire stretched across North Africa and up into Spain, while eastward it incorporated the entire Near East and extended into India. Later, after the Quraysh caliphate line had ended, the Muslim world came to include the European Balkans as well.

The Quraysh caliphate can be divided into three general periods. The first era began with Muhammad's father-in-law, Abu Bakr, in AD 632 and ended with the third of his successors, 'Ali, in AD 661. The next era, called the Umayyad caliphate, lasted until AD 750. This was followed by the 'Abbasid caliphate, which lasted from AD 750 until AD 1258, though from AD 945 onwards the 'Abbasids were caliphs in name only. There were, in addition, many other local caliphates, as expected in such a large empire with the era's poor communication.

Most of these caliphates were extinguished by Turks, who gradually began encroaching from the east in the 11th century. By AD 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered the last remnants of the Byzantine Empire, they had become the supreme political power in the Muslim world.

AD 632 - AD 1453: Era of the Caliphate
The political structure of the Islamic states in the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain was called the caliphate; the term is from the Arabic word for "successor." The caliphs were successors of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, who died in AD 632. Arab conquests that began soon after Muhammad's death incorporated vast territories into the realm of Islam within a few decades. The political intent was to govern them all from one center, which eventually became Baghdad, in what is today Iraq. In the long run this intent proved impossible to realize, and many smaller caliphates developed. The first four caliphs were based in Mecca, on the Arabian Peninsula. The last of these, 'Ali, lost the leadership to Mu'awiyah, a fellow member of his Umayyad clan, in AD 661, the year he was murdered by a member of Mu'awiyah's sect. This change of power began the Umayyad Caliphate, which eventually made its capital at Damascus, capital of modern Syria. This caliphate lasted until AD 750. The last of the Umayyads was defeated in battle by a member of the rival Abbasid family, and the Abbasid Caliphate was established. It lasted until AD 1258, with its capital at Baghdad. In AD 1258 the Mongol hordes arrived from the east and destroyed the city and its caliphate.

NOTE: To learn more about oriental history, I would highly recommend the Free website.

hapax says, "This is a Sunni history, and you should probably say so. Shi'i Muslims would take MAJOR issue with what you wrote here!" Done. If anyone is offended, I am sorry. Consider this a mea culpa.

This paper was given June 2005 at a history conference under the title Citizen and State in the Islamic Caliphate: Ibn Khaldun’s Vision of Unity. The suggestions, criticisms and crash-testing here first were a real help.

A Failing Empire

Historians of empire have two major problems addressing those outside their fields. One, we find ourselves at the moment in a world without empires (despite occasional rumblings from unnamed White House officials). We have in their stead, unions, commonwealths, leagues and confederations. Second, in most circles, if empires are discussed, the judgment is almost always negative. They seem at best authoritarian and antiquated; at worst, exploitative and militaristic. However, as several historians have recently pointed out, until sixty years ago, the empire was the standard for much of the world’s population. Empires were the rule, rather than the exception. For centuries they governed the lives of millions.

Being a citizen of empire, as a general point, seems taxing. As Aristotle remarks in the Ethics, to be a good citizen was one thing, a good person quite another, and it’s often tricky to be both. 1 The private letters of eminent Romans and Victorians speak to this. Livy and Tacitus certainly grumbled, as did Kipling and Churchill. But it is one thing to be citizen in a stable imperium, quite another to be subject in one collapsing on all sides.

I’d like to focus on a particular model of empire today, and one particular historians vision of it. The historian was Ibn Khaldun. The empire was the Islamic Caliphate, established in the early 7th century and surviving in various forms until 1256, when Baghdad was assaulted and the Caliph executed by Mongol armies.

Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis, at the beginning of Ramadan, 732 A.H. (May 27th, 1332). A succession of disasters – the Christian Reconquest of Spain, the Mongol Invasions of Persia and the spread of the Black Death into North Africa 2 – had all battered the House of Islam over the preceding century. The time of plague was known as “the Days of Annihilation” in the western portion of the Arabic-speaking world. Anywhere from a third to a half of the Maghribi population was said to have died. In the middle 8th century, the territory of the Caliphate spread from the Sind to the Pyrenees east to west, and from Yemen to Armenia north to south. 3 A century later, the Caliphate enclosed roughly 10 million square kilometres and may have had 36 million people. 4 Its economy was roughly double the size of the Byzantine Empire – and dwarfed Carolingian trade. 5

By the age of Ibn Khaldun, however, this empire had vanished. Citizenship, it turns out, was a central problem. The House of Islam had become vast – stretching from Granada to Indonesia. Political disunity had become the norm. The Caliphate split first into two, then three, then five, and finally a dozen distinct jurisdictions. 6 In writing the historical work for which he is best known, the Muqaddimah , Ibn Khaldun sought the source of the Caliphate’s collapse. The relation of rulers to the ruled – and subjects to one another – was pivotal to that historical analysis. Citizenship – though not named as such – was very clearly on his mind.

Ibn Khaldun viewed the Caliphate’s history and institution from a privileged position. He served the state as a diplomat and jurist 7 but also fell victim to its political snares. He spent two years in jail for politically disloyalty in Fez – interesting as treason is unusual for historians, and a fate usually reserved for poets and philosophers. Like many other great authors in jail, however, he used his time well. He planned a singular historical work, and on his release set to it. His Muqaddimah sketched the cultural and political architecture of the Islamic empire from origin to eclipse.

The manuscript of the Muqaddimah had not even been edited or copied before word of new troubles came to Ibn Khaldun. The dynasties of North Africa, the Maghrib, had suffered from political instability for centuries. The political order he had lived under, served and described was pressed on all sides. Schism, wars of succession and invasions had toppled rulers from Persia to Spain. 8

The Strength of the Caliphate

The Caliphate, as referred to by medieval Muslims, was an ideal concept - but notoriously difficult to maintain. As an overarching polity, the Caliphate had dealt with instability from birth. Centralized political authority was resented, especially in an empire populated widely by nomadic tribes. Elites were viewed as distant, uncaring and corrupt. Local customs and traditions were at odds with values professed by authority. Taxes were often viewed as onerous. Laws seemed unjust.

The Muqaddimah features a long list of complaints. As an imperial and universal vision, the first Caliphs faced dynastic feuds, tribal conflicts, regional succession, ethnic uprising, open schism and secretive heresy. 9 These elements rippled across the Caliphate for its first three centuries, but never completely severed one end of the imperium from the other as had occurred with Rome. As an official judge, Ibn Khaldun heard cases from Fez to Cairo. Mitigating conflict in the House of Islam was his livelihood; his historical writing, he reconstructs and expands upon those problems.

One of his clearest assertions to his readers was that they lived in an dying empire: “The days of Arab rule are over…power was seized by others, like the Turks in the East, the Berbers in the West and the Franks in the North…entire nations cease to exist…their glory forgotten, their power no longer heeded.” 10 Ibn Khaldun’s ancestors lived under the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain for over four hundred years, until conquistadors drove them from Seville in 1248. A decade later, at the other end of the empire, Baghdad fell to Mongol armies. Quite explicitly, the Muqaddimah is in part a memorial to a culture and political life Ibn Khaldun knows may not survive. 11

Preservation of a legacy was not his main focus however; at root, his work seeks an explanation for the Caliphate’s demise. While never justifying God to man, he tries to deduce how a powerful empire, dominant for centuries, can be left a shadow. The loss of Spain serves as but his most immediate example. He judges the people of Spain to have been terribly weak in the face of Christian armies – passive subjects, like cattle (ra’ăyă ). They lacked duty, obligation, solidarity. 12 No dynasty can afford a loss of unity and no empire can survive without common cause.

He then describes the long-standing fracture of interests and allegiances in the Maghrib (West Africa) and Al-Andalus (Spain) – from the subversion of the Umayyad to the rise of Murăbitun , to the chaos of the reyes taïfas (Party Kings13) and Berber lords, and finally the assaults of the Christian crusaders. Instability had drained the people of Spain of their communal spirit, what Ibn Khaldun names ‘asabîyah or group feeling14. Naniyah , a preoccupation with self, had replaced it.

To return to the matter of citizenship, Ibn Khaldun then argues a sense of close community and shared purpose (resulting from ‘asabîyah ) as crucial - for any polity. Group feeling can spring from several sources – tribal unity15 , shared faith16 , royal authority17 , even propaganda18 - so long as fellowship and loyalty is retained. Without ‘asabîyah , Ibn Khaldun argues, no people can remained united or focused. Modest societies will remain weak, once great dynasties decay; “Individual desires must come together to press their claims and all hearts must be united.” 19 Ibn Khaldun argues to ensure unity, one temporal and spiritual leader is best, and that figure is called the Khalîfah or Caliph:
Holy war (jihad ) is a religious duty (fard al-‘ayn ) because of the universalism of the Muslim mission…the Caliphate and royal authority are united in Islam so that the Caliph can devote available resources to both…other religions have no universal mission, and the holy war is not a duty except in defence…their religious leaders are uninterested in politics – and among them power comes to those who are born to it, by fate, which has little to do with religion. 20
Leaving aside this mischaracterization of Christendom (the Papacy in the 14th century being anything but apolitical), his point is basically this: Church and state, pontiff and prince, are ideally not questions in the dar al-Islam . Religious law unites the people under the Caliphate’s protection. 21 The perceived enemies to order were self-interest (istaqa ) and individualism (nahniyah ), which Ibn Khaldun characterizes as primitive tendencies for any society. He is also dismissive of utopian politics (siyāsah madaîyah ) where citizens are educated and socialized so well, they can “completely dispense with rulers.” 22 Philosophers might debate such an anarchic theory – but civilization could never organize itself this way.

The Subject of the Caliphate

So what finally was the status of a subject within the Caliphate? What rights and responsibilities might a Persian, or Berber or Spaniard have had under this system? Well-outlined is the first principle of protection – new clients to the Caliphate were expected to pay a tribute or poll tax (jizya ).23 In return, Jews and Christians were granted religious liberty as fellow ‘people of the Book’ (ahl al-Kitab ) and were known as dhimmis , or protected minorities. Secondly, provided they could learn Arabic – and there was certainly evidence many did in Spain, known collectively as the Mozarabs – new subjects were even encouraged to take up intellectual or administrative roles. 24 By permitting intellectual freedom, commercial activity and everyday self-sufficiency, the Caliphate sought less to assimilate as accommodate new subjects.

Conquered communities as a whole were offered treaties protecting person, property and religion (provided the tax was paid) and became known muwallad or clients within the wider Muslim umma or brotherhood. 25 Having subsumed Persia and Egypt within the Caliphate of the late 8th century, rulers of North Africa and Spain had a working model of rule to employ in lands subsequently under their control. As Ibn Khaldun writes, “injustice ruins civilization, whoever takes someone’s property, or uses him for forced labour, or imposes upon him a duty not required by law does an injustice…it is the dynasty that suffers from all these acts, as much as civilization.” 26

Unity and Greatness

Finally, the Muqaddimah returns to the question of empire. After setting out how to found a dynasty – uniting people to a common vision, religion and community – Ibn Khaldun then argues how leadership can reinforce these elements. His conclusion is surprising – namely, leaders ensure nothing. It is the collective will of the people that must together sustain the effort; “know then that any ruler, by himself, is but a feeble creature, on whom a very heavy burden is laid and who consequently needs the help of his fellows.” 27 Or even more explicitly,
A ruler achieves greatness only with the help of his people. They are his family and helpers in any enterprise. He uses them to fight against those who revolt against his dynasty. It is they with whom he fills the administrative offices, whom he appoints as governors or tax-collectors. They are the government and share in all his important affairs. 28
Or finally, “know then that the use of the ruler to his subjects lies not in his person, his fine figure or features, his wide knowledge, his excellent penmanship or the sharpness of his intellect, but solely in his good relation to them.” 29 In all three passages, the people are the true locus of a culture’s success.

Ibn Khaldun moved on after his service at court politics in Fez and Tunis – to Cairo in the winter of 1382. He became a teacher and settled down to write. Cairo was the last refuge of the Caliphate, and he again served as emissary to a conquering army. Not to Christians this time (as he had in Granada) but the Golden Horde of Timur as it sacked Damascus in 1401. The Mongol general wanted to know more of the Mediterranean world – but Ibn Khaldun veiled the richness and disunity of the region. It was clearly intentional. The invaders receded, he returned to Cairo and resumed his writing until his death in 1406.

Little in his surviving work indicates Ibn Khaldun was ever truly satisfied – as either subject or agent – in any government he served. Despite acting as judge, court scholar and emissary – he still actively chose to live out the end of his life as a teacher. In that way, like Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy or Augustine’s City of God , the work can be read as much as a political ideal as a lament. 30 In a time of turmoil, his descriptions of the Caliphate were meant to enlighten and educate. Just as the image of empire he prays to be restored will better protect and guide its citizenry.

1 Aristotle, Ethics (V, II), 1130b30.
2 Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, trans. F. Rosenthal (Princeton, 1967) – v. 1, p. 79; v. 2, p. 45-6, 278-9.
3 Freeman-Grenville, G. Historical Atlas of Islam (New York: Continuum, 2002)
4 Charles Issawi, “The Area and Population of the Arab Empire,” p. 381; from The Islamic East, 700 – 1900, ed. A. L. Udovitch (Princeton, 1981), pp. 375 – 396.
5 Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Empire: Communication and Commerce, AD 300 – 900 (Cambridge, 2001), p. 582
6 Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Almoravid, Berber, Seljuk – followed by dozens on imamates, emirates and independent wazirs.
7 Ambassador to the court of Pedro I, King of Castile and Leon, in 1364 – they met in Seville, Ibn Khaldun’s ancestral home. He later served a Malikite grand judge in Cairo.
8 Mahdi, M. Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History (Chicago, 1964), p. 26.
9 Ibn Khaldun, I, 43-6, 430-48.
10 Ibid, I, 57.
11 For example, traditional offices of government (I, 452-65) or administrative representatives (II, 11-35) of various dynasties receive close attention.
12 Ibn Khaldun, I, 61.
13 Ibid, II, 12.
14 Ibid, I, 391.
15 Ibid, I, 277, 287.
16 Ibid, I, 306, 319.
17 Ibid, I, 292.
18 Ibid, I, 314.
19 Ibid, I, 319.
20 Ibid, I, 473.
21 Ibid, I, 320.
22 Ibid, II, 138.
23 Ibid, I, 480.
24 Ibid, II, 8.
25 Ibid, III, 314.
26 Ibid, II, 104.
27 Ibn Khaldun, Prolegomena (Paris, 1858), ed. Quatremere, II, 1.
28 Ibn Khaldun (Rosenthal), II. 372.
29 Ibn Khaldun, Prolegomena (Paris, 1858), ed. Quatremere, I, 341.
30 Arnold Toynbee, Study of History (London: Oxford, 1953), v.3, 476. Toynbee was particularly attracted to the idea of ‘asabîyah – as a theory this volkgeist perfectly explained how a nomadic tribe could overwhelm an established empire.

Cal"i*phate (?), n. [Cf. F. califat.]

The office, dignity, or government of a caliph or of the caliphs.


© Webster 1913.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.