Summary and Keywords
The caliphate as an institution for governing the Muslim community can be traced back to the time immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 ce. With its humble origins in the parochial settings of an Arabian desert oasis, the caliphate provided the structure for the shepherding of a community of believers organized around prophetic teachings calling for return to the true religion of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets, a religion that came to be known as Islam. Despite internal dissent and even civil war, the caliphate not only survived but even expanded far beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Between the 8th and 10th centuries the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates ruled an empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus River. After that, the challenges of sustained political control proved too formidable to be exercised from a single center, leading to political fragmentation.
Although it functioned only for a few centuries as an effective form of Islamic governance, for many Sunni Muslims the caliphate’s political and symbolic significance has outlasted its administrative and institutional fragmentation. Its appeal even continued after its formal abolition in 1924 by the founding president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938). Since then the caliphate has not just remained a nostalgic memory. Throughout the 20th century and into the new millennium, some proponents of political Islam continue to advocate the restoration of a caliphate as a rallying point for Muslims worldwide, in some instances making concrete efforts toward re-establishing the institution or even proclaiming a new caliph.
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