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Emergence of Caliphate and Umayyads-3

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was at the head of the political structure that emerged after he emigrated to Madinah, as well as fulfilling his duty of prophethood throughout his life. With his death, an important problem emerged in front of the Companions that they had to deal with: Filling the gap in authority. After Prophet Muhammad passed away, the revelation ceased and his duty of prophethood ended. But in order to carry out world affairs and to protect religion, the authority gap left by him (pbuh) had to be filled. Especially in the Arab society, where there was no state organization and the tribal life was dominant, the protection of the political union, which had just begun to form, was extremely important.

How did the caliphate emerge?

The Companions, who were aware of this urgent need, gathered in Beni Sakifa to choose the one to replace him before the funeral of the Messenger. After the long negotiations and debates, they elected Abu Bakr as the head of the state. They began to call him “the Caliph of the Messenger of Allah”. At first, some of them were forced to say “Caliphullah-Allah’s caliph”, but Abu Bakr objected to this and stated that he was the caliph of the Messenger of Allah only. (Ibn Abu Shayba, al-Musannef, 7/432)

In fact, when the companions gathered in Beni Sakifa to elect a president, the speeches made here, events such as the election of the caliph of Abu Bakr and the allegiance from the public the next day; the necessity of choosing someone as a caliph became the determinant of many provisions related to the caliphate, such as the caliphate being based on election and loyalty, the rejection of inheritance, the necessity of having a single caliph, the caliphs being from Kuraysh and the importance of merit and competence.

After the death of Caliph Abu Bakr, Omar, who replaced Abu Bakr, was also the subject of controversy among the Companions. Although some began to call him the Caliph of caliph of the Messenger of Allah”, this statement was abandoned because it was difficult to say. Since Omer liked the term “amiru’l-mu’minîn” the people started to use this instead of the term Caliph. (Taberî, Târihu’r-rusul ve’l-mulûk, 4/208) This title was also used by Othman and Ali as well during their rules. 

The fact that Omar preferred the title of “emiru’l-mu’min” instead of the caliph, and that it continued to be used later, indicates that the concepts of “caliph” for the head of state and “caliphate” for the state institution are based on a historical experience and consists of an only semantic preference. Thus, there is no religious obligation to use these words. It is not the title that matters but the essence, spirit and meaning.

All four caliphs devoted their lives for emanating religion, substituting the right, ensuring justice, preventing oppression and injustice, creating an environment of stability and trust in society. They tried to adhere to the Qur’anic provisions and follow the sunnah of the Messenger of Allah with their maximum capacity. They did all their works in consultation. They gave the power to the order of the right. In no way, did they resort to oppression and persecution.

They avoided reign and sultanate. They never emulated the lives of kings. Therefore, they avoided grandiosity and splendor. They lived a very simple and humbe life. They were always among the people and did not build walls with the public. They always thought and prioritized the interests of society, not themselves. None of them thought of leaving the leadership to his son or a relative after him. They listened to the warnings of the people. It was a period when the public domination was valid and the caliphs could be taken into account due to their actions.

Radical Shift in Caliphate with Umayyads

Along with the Umayyads, there were important changes in the management approach. Caliphate turned into reign and rulership with the influence of Sasanid and Byzantine experiences. While only the name and form remained, the essence and spirit disappeared. The four caliphs held their religions superior to all kinds of eartlhly interests, and did everything needed to protect it. With Umayyads, earthly goals started to come to the fore in the use of power and in the administration of the state. If we put it in terms of Cabirî’s concepts, the role of “religion” in the determination of social and political life began to weaken, and “tribalism” and “booty” ideas started to dominate. (See Cabirî, Arab-Islamic Political Mind)

umayyad cordoba

Undoubtedly, adhering to the commandments of religion, struggling with subtle sects, protecting and spreading religion maintained its meaning for the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs as well. Islam was delivered to overseas. Thanks to Muaviye’s political genius, internal mischief ended and Muslims were united again. There were important developments in areas such as science, culture and art in this period. However, regarding management approach, there were  distinct deviations and radical ruptures from the path of the four Caliphs. Most importantly, the caliphate based on consultancy transformed to sultanate based on power and superiority. For this reason, Omar b. Abdulaziz period is to be exempted, the practices of the Umayyad caliphs were not exemplified for later periods and did not constitute an evidence.

Although Umayyad leaders continued to claim for caliphate, according to historians who evaluated these periods, the caliphate was actually transformed to sultanate. Because Muawiya appointed his son Yazeed, for the Crown, and received allegiance from the people with force or money, “election process”, one of the most important features of the caliphate, was violated and “allegiance” also lost its meaning. In a place where there are many competent companions for the caliphate, Muaviye’s appointment of his son Yazeed as the heir to his place was the beginning of the biggest break and deviation in the caliphate institution.

With Muaviye, preserving power and reign was seen as the biggest target. The idea that individuals and even some religious values could be sacrificed for the ‘State’ began to be prioritized. The grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Hussain, and hundreds of leading Companions such as Abdullah b. Zübeyr, Hucr b. Adiy were martyred. Grinding the Kaaba with catapults; Madinah looting; torture of many companions such as Sa’d; Enes b. Malik, Câbir b. Abdullah, Said b. Musayyab and Sehl b. Sa’d and talking against Caliph Ali during the Friday sermons were the very indications of this shift.

 It is not possible to explain the words against Ali in a different way.

The only reason for all these evil acts to be carried out was the idea of keeping the reign alive at all costs. In other words, the interventionist, sacred and transcendent State observed in the Byzantines and Sassanids started to prevail in the Muslim community. Instead of concepts such as “fundamental rights and freedoms”, “justice”, “political participation”, “civil opposition”; Concepts such as “order”, “fitna” and “obedience” came to the fore, showing the excessive statist mentality. A new “state mentality” and “political perspective” appeared in which Muslims were unfamiliar. As the political sphere expanded, the civil sphere narrowed.


 Together with the Umayyads, one of the most important principles of religion was abandoned here: Consultancy! Instead, the dictatorial regime began to dominate. It is unrealistic to expect that people can easily criticize the caliph or suggest contradictory ideas in an environment where the state has begun to mobilize, property rights and life safety were jeopredized, people are killed or tortured for small reasons. As a matter of fact, those who dared to this had to pay heavy prices. For this reason, even if there were consultancy delegations there, the purpose and nature of these changed and the consultations took a formal and secretive form.

Another development that draws attention with the Umayyads is the reversal of the relationship between the state and religion. As noted earlier, the core value for the four caliphs was religion; the state was valid as long as it served religion and fulfilled the ideals of religion. As the authority received its legitimacy from the public, its implementation was for the sake of public interest and religion. The driving force that guided politics was religion. Politics consisted of a tool applied to fulfill religious goals. There was not even a detached “political sphere” and “political society” formed as seen in modern state.

During the Umayyad period, politics separated from religion and became independent. Politics in the state administration started to get ahead of religion. In one aspect, religion was even put into its service. When religion and the interests of the state clashed, the interests of the state became prominent. The separation of the Ulema (Scholars) and the Umera (Rulers), led the Army and the people separated, also paved the way for the reign and the state interests dominate religon and public.

The disconnection between the public and the rulers was another feature of this period. Sassanid and Byzantine envoys who came to Madinah during the caliphate, were extremely surprised when they found Caliph Omar sitting in a corner of the masjid or resting. The envoys were amazed seeing a president sitting comfortably in this way without fear of anyone. (Şiblî Numanî, Omer and the State Administration in all its aspects, 2/255) None of the four caliphs had palaces or guards. Whoever from the public wanted to see them could easily reach and talk to them. Because they were not afraid of the people. There was also no reason to be afraid; they were not persecuting, they were not taking anyone’s right. They lived like the public, and were away from glamor.

As the persecution of Umayyad caliphs increased, they needed to be hidden from the public and kept out of sight. They built palaces and hired guards to protect themselves. Even in the masjids, they performed their prayers not in the public, but in the private compartments built for them. With the regular army established during the period of the Muawiyah, the ‘civil political structure’ transformed to ‘militarist political structure’. After that, power began to replace rightousness.

The right to criticism and the opposition was replaced by unconditional obedience. Every occasion was evaluated in order to keep the idea of absolute obedience alive among the people. Freedom of expression has partially disappeared. Because the cost of critical speaking about politics and administration could be heavy. Muaviye said, “I will not prevent people from speaking unless they reach our power.” Although his words (Ibn Kuteybe, Uy’nü’l-ahbâr, 1/63) seemed to support freedom of expression, on the other hand, it was also an indication of restriction. 

Therefore, it was not easy to speak in the presence of the sultans; speakers used to speak only to praise them. There were also some who opposed to them when they violated Islamic provisions taking all kinds of risks. But many of them also had to pay serious costs. Many of the Companions preferred not to be involved in management affairs in order not to lose their lives and properties and avoid further chaos and turmoil, and they retreated to their own world.

With Islam, the idea of tribalism that existed in the Arab society had changed significantly. However, together with the Umayyads, both tribalism and Arab nationalism rose again. Umayyads considered themselves superior to other Arab tribes and Arabs to other nations. The ‘notion of asabiyyah’ and the tribilism surpassed brotherhood of faith.  Said’i Nursi sheds light in this fact, stating, “Because Umayyads had nationalism in their politics, they both offended the world and suffered themselves, as well.”  (Bediuzzaman, Mektubat, p. 365)

Another important point that the Umayyads distinguished from the The Rashidun Calips (the first of the four major caliphates established after the death of the Prophet Muhammad) was the way of spending the ‘state treasury’. The first four caliphs saw themselves as the guardian who was responsible to protect the state treasury.  (Imam Malik, Muqatta, hadith no: 740) According to them, state property was a trust from Allah and the people. Therefore, this trust should be well protected and used in the interests of the people. The Umayyad sultans saw the state treasury as their own wealth, used it wastefully and made very extravagant spendings. The palaces they built, the weddings they made were the biggest evidences of this.

We have stated that the caliphate is not only a religious institution but rather includes both religious and worldly authority. Both the Prophet Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphs did not separate religion and politics. But for the first time, with the Umayyads the political authority started to leave religious affairs. But such a distinction was not yet clear and evident in the Umayyad period. But it was also a fact that they had entered a new path. As a matter of fact, the Caliphate gradually separated from the Sultanate and finally turned into a symbolic institution that distributed the posts to Sultans.


The Umayyads did not hesitate to suppress any opposition, use force and violence in order to continue their reign. In fact, their attitude created a vicious circle. As they oppressed the people, exerted pressure, internal criticism rose and their legitimacy was questioned more. Indeed, it was these pressures and persecutions that would bring their end.

Instead of turning to ‘taqwa’ (God-fearing behavior, godliness, piety) justice and right direction in order to eliminate this dissatisfaction in the segments of society; Umayyad Sultans highlighted the idea of absolute obedience by using religious provisions and tried to prove the legitimacy of their caliphate. Sometimes, even religious provisions were insufficient to provide legitimacy. They were trying to place themselves in an unquestionable and uncritical holy position, spreading the idea that they were specially chosen by Allah among the people and that they were performing in the name of God. It was probably the result of such an idea that the Umayyad sultans used the title of “halifetullah-Allah’s caliph”.

As we have already pointed out, Omar b. Abdulaziz’s management approach was quite different from the Umayyads. When he was the caliph, his speech was as follows: “God’s terms are clear. For this reason, I do not judge, but fulfill the provisions of Allah; I will not make up new provisions, but obey the provisions of Allah. I am not superior to any of you. My difference from you is that my burden is heavier. Those who escape from the cruel ruler and do not obey him can’t be cruel. Because there is no obligation to obey anyone who revolts against Allah.” (Ibn Kesir, al-Biday ve’n-nihaya, 9/109)

During his caliphate, which lasted for two and a half years, he had literally accorded his words, continued to his administration which was in line with the four caliphs, and put the state on the right and just foundations. He took the goods that were unjustly confiscated by the Umayyads back and returned them to the treasury. He lived simply, valued the people, and engaged with people. Therefore, the ice between the people and the administration started to melt during his period. So much so that even the Kharijitiies who rebelled for years took away their weapons. Prosperity and peace prevailed in the society.

However, when the Umayyad notables saw that their rights and privileges began to be taken away, they could not tolerate his caliphate and poisoned this great caliph.

In our next article, we will continue to evaluate the Abbasid and Ottoman periods in terms of caliphate.

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

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