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Caliphate during the Abbassids and the Ottomans

There is a common belief that the transition of the caliphate to the Ottomans took place with Sultan Selim I. However, even though the title of “caliph” was used by previous sultans.

With the murder of Last Umayyad Caliph Mervan b. Mohammed as a result of an uprising, in 132 according to Islamic Calendar (based on 622 A.D., the year of the Hegira), the Umayyad caliphate ended and the Abbasid caliphate began. The Abbasid caliphate founded by Muhammad b. Abdallah was in many aspects, the continuation of the Umayyads.

Abbasid Period

The Abbasid Caliphate emerged as a reaction to the Umayyads. Abdullah b. Muhammad went so far in shedding the blood of Umayyad tribe that he was given the nickname “Seffah”, which means very bloodshed. Shortly after the Abbasid Caliphate was established, they dismissed all the governors appointed by the Umayyads and appointed people of their own descendants in their places.

The Abbasids consolidated their power rapidly evaluating the negative image of the Umayyad Caliphate and their close family linkage with Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him). Unlike the Umayyads, the emphasis of the title ‘caliphate’ was stronger and more evident in the Abbasid period. Probably the Caliphs gained a very much stronger status with the effect of the ‘rank of imamate’ put forward by Shia. They tried to legitimize this status with some verses that praise the ‘Ahl al-Bayt’ and rescuing people from the persecution of Umayyads, claiming that domination was bestowed on them by Allah, etc.

The sermon that the second Abbasid caliph Abu Jafar al-Mansur gave in Baghdad on the day of Arafat clearly reveals this transcendent and divine authority of the caliphs: “O people! Surely, I am the sultan (authority) of Allah on earth. I govern you with His help and guidance. I am the guardian of His possessions. I do business with the will of Allah, and I will distribute his goods with His will and give with His permission.” (Taberî, Târihu’r-rusul ve’l-mulûk, 4/533)

With these words, he raised his position and rank to a place that is not equivalent, accessible and inaccessible among people, on the other hand, he was freed from responsibility and control. While the Umayyad caliphs gained legitimacy by highlighting the forced ideology and taking refuge in the fate and appreciation of Allah; Abbasid caliphs based their rule and political actions directly on the will of Allah. There was no doubt that it would open the door of a dignitary and dictatorial management approach.

Caliphs used to get dressed like Prophet Muhammad during Friday prayers and official ceremonies. They used to carry the baston of Prophet as a sign of their caliphate and they used to have important scholars as companions around them. Unlike the Umayyad sultans, they acquired new nicknames and titles such as “Sultanullahi fi’l-ard (the sultan of Allah on earth)”, “Zıllullahi fi’l-ard (the shadow of Allah on earth)”. We can say that as the caliphs’ ties with Islam decreased, their Islamic titles increased on the contrary. Although caliphs tried to strengthen their authority and gain prestige in the eyes of the people with their exaggerated titles, they couldn’t succeed to reach this goal. 

During the Abbasid period, luxury and gaudiness increased even more. The caliphs distanced themselves from the public even more because of the palace hierarchy and splendor. Much more than the Umayyads being influenced by Byzantium, the Abbasids were affected by the Sassanids. Persian ‘sultan’ ideology, politics and administration style, administrative structure and cultural fabric have influenced Abbasids seriously. The Sassanid influence on the dressing and palace organization made itself felt. Luxury and gaudiness, which started with Umayyads, peaked in Abbasid era. They started living like kings.  

It became almost impossible for ordinary people to enter the presence of the caliphs, to meet them. The organization (hâdjib al-hudjdjâb) developed to regulate the protocol at admission protected the caliph against possible assassinations while preventing the public from engaging the caliph. Meeting with caliphs were designated to special procedures, for this, certain times were scheduled and special halls were allocated. A special bodyguard unit was created inside the army, tasked with protecting the caliph.

Although it was called “caliphate”, the system of inheritance and reign continued, as in the Umayyads, and the caliphate circulated among the members of the same dynasty. In other words, with the fall of Umayyads, the reign came out of one family and passed into another family. Even though Caliph Me’mun wanted to appoint Ali er-Rıza, who was outside the dynasty, he had to take a step back after the reaction within the dynasty. However, the influence of tribalism on state administration has weakened in the Abbasids as well. With the tribe’s withdrawal from the political scene, it was replaced by the “elite”. The state gained more universal features. In one sense, it was passed from the “tribal state” to the “caliph state”. (Jabirî, Arab-Islamic Political Mind, p. 446)


The second caliph Mansur got Abu Hanifa arrested, who rejected his offer as a ‘Qadi’ (judge). Caliph Me’mun got Abu Hanbal arrested since he rejected the idea that Qur’an was created.  The other great scholars such as Ibn Aclan and Sufyan es-Sevri suffered from persecution. These are the indications that persecution continued during the time of the Abbasids as well. However, it is worth noting that in this period, very important developments occurred in science, many madrasas(schools) were opened, translation activities started, and significant works related to different branches of science were authored.

Of course, in terms of their merit and form of administration to the caliphate, the Abbasid caliphs were not all at the same level. For example, Omer b. Abdulaziz, Mahdi and Haroon administrations were not the same level in Abbasid periods, these were close to the line of the Four Caliphs. When he became the caliph, Mahdi said in his first sermon: “A great burden was put on me, and I will be responsible for the believers in the presence of Allah. O Muslims! Do the same in our absence as you do against our face in obedience, and we will strive for your good. Obey those who spread justice and help you. I swear by Allah that I will spend my life on the way of serving you (by rewarding those who do good and punishing those who do evil).” (Suyûtî, Târihu’l-hulefâ, p. 202) Mahdi embraced the scholars in his time, struggled by writing scientific books against harmful drafts and provided important services to Islam.

Likewise, Caliph Harun Rasheed was known for his piety and with his respect to scholars. It was Harun Rasheed who appointed Imam Abu Yusuf, the famous student of the Imam Azam, as the chief Qadi (judge) of the Abbasi state. Abu Yusuf was very objective in saying and implementing the provisions of religion, and Harun Rasheed valued his fatwas/provisions. However, both of these caliphs continued the tradition of the sultanate and appointed a successor after them.

During the ascension periods, the Abbasid caliphs acted to some extent with justice and righteousness; They tried to adhere to the provisions of the Quran and Sunnah. Beginning with the Mu’tasım period, however (h. 218), acting in accordance with pleasure and desire, persecution started to increase. All this, in turn, caused the state to weaken.

With the weakening of the central authority, new states emerged within the borders of the state. But the rulers of these states did not claim the caliphate, they accepted the spiritual authority of the Abbasid caliph. In fact, an understanding began to be established that the rulers who declared their independence on a particular piece of land should be officially recognized by the caliph in order to be legitimate. Because the caliph’s authority to establish a state for the ruler played an important role in the eyes of the people. Aware of this, the rulers were trying to keep their relationship with the caliph well and did not fail to honor him. In a sense, they even devoted themselves to the service of the caliph. With all these developments, the political and worldly authorities of the caliphs began to weaken, and the caliphate moved towards becoming a religious and spiritual authority.

The caliph has completely lost his political authority since the son of Buveyh Ahmad came to Baghdad in 334. Although the Abbasi caliph Müstekfî-Billah appointed Ahmad as ‘amiru’l-umera’ and gave him the nickname ‘Muizzuddevle’, Ahmad appointed Muî’lillâh as the new Caliph. In addition, the control of Buveyhîs, which would last 110 years, started in Baghdad. During this period, the caliphs lost all their political and military authorities as they came under the domination of Buveyhi sultans.

Finally, based on the invitation of the Abbasid caliph in 447( Hijri Calendar), Tugrul Beg came to Baghdad and imprisoned the Buveyhi and punished the rebels. Thus, the Abbasid caliph was freed from the pressure of the Shiite dynasty and regained its independence. But this time, the Seljuks took political power. Because Abbasid caliph gave Tugrul Beg the title of “the master of the East and the West”; he left the state administration and order to him. Therefore, the caliph was again deprived of political power.

In 656/1258, after Hulagu conquered Baghdad killing the caliph, the Abbasid caliphate ended. After this incident, the Islamic world remained calm for three years. In 659, a new era began for the caliphate when the Sultan of Mameluk Baybars called Ebu’l-Kasım Ahmed (Müstansır-Billâh), the uncle of the last caliph, to Egypt with a great ceremony and printed a coin in his name.

But this period was different from the previous ones. The caliphs, whose worldly authority already weakened for a long time, did not interfere with the administration and politics from anymore. They lost all their political and worldly power even if their names were read in the sermons with the sultan and were included in the coins. The following statements of Ibn Kayyim al-Cevziyye are remarkable in terms of the position of the caliphs in this period: “The provisions of Qur’an and Sunnah are now reduced to the position of caliphs, whose names are read and printed in the coins but have no authority and influence.” (Ibn Kayyim, Ictimâ‘u’l-cüyûşi’l-İslâmiyye, p. 82)

Although the influence and powers of the caliphs were limited only to the spiritual and religious domain after a certain period; the caliphate always maintained its reputation among Muslims. It is also important for sultans not to touch the caliphs, not to attempt to abolish the caliphate, and to see the magnitude of this authority in terms of their legitimacy, although they have power and possibilities. However, it is not possible for a person who is deprived of the power and authority to enforce his judgment, to become a true caliph (imam / head of state). Hodja Şükrü compared the status of the caliphs, who were deprived of financial power and political influence, to the sheikhs of the sect, who had been granted with him.

Ottoman Period

With the weakening of the Abbasids and the emergence of new states, some rulers acquired the caliphate without sultanate, some sultans without caliphate. The caliphate-sultanate separation will end with Selim I, who conquered Egypt in (923/1517), who brought the last Egyptian-Abbasid caliph to Istanbul and took over the caliphate with a ceremony (there are doubts about the reality of this event). The combination of caliphate and sultanate continued until the abolition of the Ottoman reign on 1 November 1922. Although Sultan Abdülmecid Efendi was appointed as the new caliph by the Grand National Assembly on this date, all political powers in his hands were taken.

It was a deficiency in the name of the caliphate that the system of inheritance continued during the Ottoman period and all the rulers were always among the members of the same dynasty. Likewise, there is no doubt that the state during the Ottoman period was excessively blessed, furthermore giving of fatwa to the sultans to kill his brothers and the issue of political murders caused abuse of power.  The abuse of power and the rise of luxury in the period of decline were actions against perfect rule of caliphate.

But on the other hand, the spirit of administration being based on rights and justice, keeping religion for long centuries, providing great services to Islam, implementing Islamic law, ensuring the unity of the majority of Muslims, protecting the freedom of religion and conscience, peace, welfare and security of the people were other indications that Ottomans were also loyal to some requirements of good caliphate.  


There is a common belief that the transition of the caliphate to the Ottomans took place with Selim I. However, the title of “caliph” was used by previous sultan as well. It is stated that the first to use this was Murad I. Information on the use of the title of caliphate in the correspondence of the sultans afterwards and the acceptance of this title by the rulers of other countries is available in the history books. It is stated that only Sultan Mehmet II did not use this title at all. However, it can be said that, along with Selim I, the caliphates of the Ottoman sultans started to be embraced by Muslims living outside the borders of the country.

However, none of the Ottoman sultans did focus on caliphate as much as Abdulhamid II. It was stated in the article 3 of Kanun-u Esasi (Basic Law), which was accepted in his time, that the Ottoman sultans possessed the “The Great Caliphate of Islam”, and in the 4th article it was stated that he was the protector of the religion of Islam and the ruler of the whole Ottoman dependents and thus, the Ottoman caliphate takes on a constitutional identity.

Caliph Abdulhamid II has benefited from the influence of the caliphate in order to gain the support of the Islamic world and protect the unity and solidarity of the Muslims against the ever-increasing pressure and exploitation of the Western states. As a result, he succeeded in uniting the Islamic world around the caliphate thanks to his work on this subject and formed a common public opinion.

In a period when western colonialism was escalating, Caliph Abdulhamid’s unification of Muslims around Islam through caliphate worried Western states, especially British Empire. Because there was a dense population of Muslims in their colonies. Therefore, especially British Empire started a serious propaganda against the caliphate in order to break the influence of the Ottoman Empire. On the one hand, British Empire claimed that the caliphate of Abdulhamid was not legitimate, on the other hand they were propagating that he did not come from the Quraysh lineage. They attempted to declare the Amir of the Makkah as the caliph. Abdulhamid II published a large number of brochures and booklets to respond to these allegations.

All these developments attracted the attention of the Muslim public significantly on caliphate. Acknowledgment that the caliphate will continue as a religious and spiritual content only as a result of the harsh negotiations in the TGNA in 1922; In 1924, as a result of long negotiations and quarrels, the “Caliphate was abolished”.  The abolition of the caliphate with the form of the law has sparked much debate around the caliphate. Especially the Caliphate Movement in India made serious attempts to restore the caliphate. In Egypt, heated discussions were held especially around al-Menar magazine and meetings were organized repeatedly.

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Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Law and Religous Studies.

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