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Ways to Become a Head of State According to Islam

The pattern of selecting the head of state has become one of the most important political matters nowadays. Moreover, the fact that the head of state comes into the office after being elected by the people constitutes both the most important objective and most distinct aspect of modern-day democracies.

In sober fact, the way the head of state comes into the office is not a primary concern for the government or politics. Because the main objectives of the state are to guarantee justice and fundamental rights and freedoms, establish social order and procure political and social integrity. However, all of these affairs are possible only with a government occupied by competent individuals. This is why the matter of how the head of state should come into the office is important. Because the primary objectives of the provisions, which dictate how the head of state should be elected and appointed, are taking this heavily demanding duty away from the despots and autocrats and handing it over to the competent and efficient individuals, and also precluding the systems of sultanate and inheritance.  

At this point, the eyes either turn to Islamic history from time to time or to modern-day practices of the Islamic world, and some criticisms and interpretations are asserted about the provisions of Islam on this matter with reference to the factual situation. Because Islamic history is full of practices which are not acceptable under any circumstances from the viewpoint of modern-day democratic values. Naturally, it is not a correct approach to evaluate the historical periods based on modern-day democratic acceptances and political conditions. However, when the political sense started with the Umayyads is evaluated with regards to the conditions of the time; there will be quite a lot of practices which cannot be accepted in terms of the principles presented by Quran and Sunnah about rulership. The fact that many Sultans, who reigned over many Islamic states, are under heavy criticism of the ulama points at this reality. 

This is why it is important to state that it is not possible to understand the provisions of Islam about the selection of the head of state and other matters of the rulership by evaluating the Islamic states established throughout the history; the only way to know this is through having a grasp of the fundamental approach of the Quran and Sunnah to this matter and then being very competent to the theory of political Islam which is asserted by the ulama based on these two sources. If anybody desires to learn how to put this theory into practice; first, they should focus on the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and then the political practices of the four caliphs. Indeed, the Prophet (PBUH) showed Muslims the true path with the following hadith: “Whoever sees them must adhere to my Sunnah and the Sunnah of the upright, guided Caliphs. Bite onto it with your back teeth.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2676)

Moreover, the Prophet (PBUH) stated that the caliphate (rulership applicable to the path of the Prophet) after him would continue for another thirty years and revealed that kingship (sultanate) would start consecutively both as a warning and a miracle. (Sunan Abu Dawood, Sunnah 9) However, also pointed out by Ibn Taymiyyah, the tyrants and cruel sultans are not the only reason for the caliphate to transform into the sultanate. As it is understood from the following sources that the mistakes and shortcomings of the people aside from the rulers also caused such result (Ibn Taymiyyah Mecmu, 35/20): “And thus will We make some of the wrongdoers allies of others for what they used to earn.”(Surah Al-An’am 6:129) “You are to be ruled the way you are.” (Al-Bayhaqi, Suabu’l-iman, 6/22) Starting from this point of view, we would like to state that the ideal and perfect rulership will only come into existence in an ideal and perfect community. 

Of course, we do not want to mean that the Islamic principles were completely abandoned throughout the periods after the four caliphs. If we centralize the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and view His (PBUH) rulership as a perfect one; sometimes it was possible to come close to this rulership and sometimes the people drifted away from it. For example, despite the fact that the sultanate system was adopted after Muawiyah, Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, who was appointed as the heir apparent by Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik, stated that they were not dependent on this agreement while addressing the public after the death of Abd al-Malik and added that they could select somebody else if they desired to do so; however, he started to perform his duty since the people selected and paid homage to him.

As it is understood from these reminders; our primary resources for this matter are Quran and Sunnah, then the practices throughout the period of the four caliphs, and finally the ulama’s opinions systematized based on the previous. There is no reference on how to select the head of state neither in the Quran nor in the authentic sunnah. There are two eye-catching and accentuated concepts in this matter throughout the verses of the Quran and hadith. Both of them are extremely important.

Because “bay’ah” (homage) is an agreement (imamate agreement) between the head of state and people (although bay’ah has different application areas, we will not focus on these in this article). An agreement can only be made by the consent of two parties. Therefore, the head of state must absolutely be an individual who is accepted and consented by the people. And the istisharah (consultation) is a very important Islamic discipline which contains all of the processes of the election of the head of state from the nomination of the candidates to the primary elections; from the voting to the bay’ah phase in order to determine the most efficient individual. From this point of view, both the istisharah and bay’ah notions had been very effective towards the election of the four caliphs and also on the Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyyah type of works.

The questions about how to elect the head of state were raised the first time after the passing of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and were resolved by the sahaba (Muhammad’s (PBUH) companions). All of the four caliphs were elected in different ways. This indicates that there is no particular resolution provided by Islam for elections and appointments. The way they became caliphs constitutes the main axis of the debates. Thus, we are going to provide some information and consecutively an analysis of the matter.

Election of Four Caliphs

After Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) passed away, even before the burial process was not completed, the prominent ones of the sahaba first paid attention to the election of the caliph in order not to have any unrest and disorder. Long debates and negotiations carried out by the sahaba, who gathered under the roof of Saqifah Bani Sa’idah, in order to elect the new caliph show that there is no assignment made by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Because not a single soul amongst the sahaba claimed anything as such. Particularly the following narration by Aisha sheds light on this matter: “When Prophet Muhammad died, he did not appoint any caliphs. If he would have appointed one, he would have either selected Abu Bakr or Umar.” (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, 6/63) There is also no method pointed out by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) on how to elect a caliph beyond appointment. Therefore, as it was explained broadly in our previous article, there is no rightful aspect of Shia’s “nas and appointment” notion. 

Beyond any doubt, there are reasons for Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) not to leave an heir as a caliph and not advising a method for this matter while he was passing away. Just like Sayf al-Din al-Amidi stated; Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did not advise anything on the matter due to the fact that he knew the inconveniences of an appointment. (Al-Amidi, Gayetu’l-meram, p. 381) He did not want the caliphate to be transformed into a sultanate system. He rather left the responsibility to the people to elect their own ruler. Since the caliphate (head of state) represents the people on behalf of them; the responsibility of appointing their own representative should have been given to the people first. 

Here is a brief explanation about how the four caliphs were elected: Abu Bakr was elected after long negotiations carried out by the prominent ones among the sahaba who gathered in Saqifah Bani Sa’idah. Everybody comfortably made a proposal, explained their arguments and as a result, they decided on Abu Bakr. Umar was appointed by Abu Bakr as a result of the istisharah carried out with the prominent ones among the sahaba. Uthman was elected as a result of the three-day negotiations carried out by a committee of six people appointed by Umar and further istisharah carried out by ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Awf, who presided the committee, with the people of Medina including the women. And Ali was elected as a result of insisting proposals made once again by the prominent ones among the sahaba (ahl al-hall wal-aqd) after five days without a caliph after Uthman was martyred.

Although all four caliphs took the office in different ways; there are some common patterns with their caliphates. First one of these is the fact that nobody had a doubt if all four caliphs possessed characteristics such as fairness, wisdom, and merit. Secondly, the caliphate of all four became definite and official only after the people paid homage. Likewise, none of them used force or girt themselves with a sword in order to take over the caliphate. On the contrary, due to the fact that their caliphates were based on istisharah, election, and bay’ah (will and consent of the people), they were actualized quite democratically. (Although there are different opinions about Abu Bakr’s appointment of Umar, we will focus on this shortly.) Bay’ah of the majority of the people were accredited. Therefore, there had been people, although just a few of them, who did not pay homage during the caliphate of all four; however, none of them were oppressed or forced to pay homage by any means. 

None of the caliphs thought about replacing themselves with their sons or any other relatives, and they deprecated any proposals as such. Moreover, Umar designated only the alive people from Ashara Mubashara (ten sahaba with glad tidings of paradise) in order to form the committee. However, although Sa’id bin Zayd was among these people, he did not include him in the committee due to the fact that he was a relative of him. In other words, just like Umar rejected the caliphate proposal for his son Abdullah ibn Umar by stating “One victim is enough from one house”; he also frowned upon the appointment of an individual, who is related with him, among the committee that would select the upcoming caliph in order to eliminate any indictment. 

Ways to Become a Caliph According to Faqihs (Islamic Jurists)

The ulama who composed works about the idea of political Islam such as Al-Mawardi, Abu Ya’la, Al-Juwayni, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyyah, and Ibn Khaldun pointed out to the people’s consent and acceptance as a fundamental matter about the accession of the head of state. This acceptance and consent may happen after the people directly pay homage to the imam they elect and also after a committee (Ahl al-hall wal-aqd), which is formed by the prominent ones among the community and act as the representatives of the people, elects a particular individual. The second method was rather chosen more often due to the fact that the commitment of a committee in order to perform this duty was more practical with regards to the condition of the period and also the duty of knowing and selecting an individual properly required immense knowledge.  

Another important reason for the faqihs to urge upon the “ahl al-hall wal-aqd” and their determination of the minimum requirements for the people to join the committee was to make a felicitous decision about the individual who would be the head of state. They chose to leave this job to a special committee since they thought that knowing the available candidates and choosing the most efficient individual required significant knowledge and accumulation. However, even the head of state would be selected by the ahl al-hall wal-aqd, the bay’ah from the people considered imperative. 

In accordance with the statements of the modern interpreters, it was always possible for the people to select the individuals who would be in the committee. Moreover, it was pointed out that there is no obstacle for the people to select the head of state as long as the necessary conditions are met. Because the ultimate decision-maker for the determination of the ruler is always the people. As long as the head of state is elected by the people; the election will be identified with the bay’ah, but as long as the people pay homage to the head of state who is elected by the ahl al-hall wal-aqd, the bay’ah will mean a promise of commitment. 

As a matter of fact, it is necessary to remind that the bay’ah consists of two phases; the first bay’ah done by the ahl al-hall wal-aqd is called “bey’atu’l-hasse (special homage), and subsequently the one that is done by the people which is called “bey’atu’l-amme” (general homage). In this regard, bey’atu’l-hasse is a kind of election, and bey’atu’l-amme is a recognition and promise of commitment. A homage is not done one-sided of course. Since a homage is an agreement, the head of state also promises back the people, who promised for commitment initially, that he will stay loyal to the people, justice, and rights, and perform his duties in full. From this aspect, bay’ah constitutes a practical form of the “social consensus” that is said to exist hypothetically in Western law between the people and the head of state. 

Bay’ah did not remain a theory and it was executed in the application areas throughout nearly all of the Islamic states in different forms and formats. However, it is important to state that it lost its effect together with the Umayyads and it was boiled down to a formality only. Because, although will and consent are essentials for the agreement of bay’ah; the sultans of the Umayyads forced the people to pay homage to themselves regardless of the averse fatwas. 

The Sunni Islamic scholars stated that there are two methods to determine the caliph in general terms; they focused on the election as the primary method and emphasized on its conditions and provisions. The second method they emphasized was “istikhlaf”, leaving an heir in other words. Ibn Khaldun stated the following about the legitimacy of istikhlaf: “The caliphate is a kind of great mainspring and comprehensive basis, and all thesefunctions are branches of it and fall under it because of the wide scope of the caliphate, its active interest in all conditions of the Muslim community, both religious and worldly, and its general power to execute the religious laws relative to both (religious and worldly affairs).

The essence of the imamate is to protect the religious and earthly affairs of the ummah. As well as the imam is the trusted individual who undertakes these affairs of the people when he is alive; he is also required to protect the affairs of the ummah and appoint somebody who would claim responsibility for these affairs of the ummah after he dies. The ummah is expected to trust his opinion just like they trust his previous opinions… The caliph is excluded from negative comments that would rise about his legacy. It is necessary especially when there is an inconvenient fearsome situation or a benefit that forces the caliph to take action as such… However, Islam does not consider preservation of the ruler’s inheritance for his children the proper purpose in appointing a successor. “(Ibn Khaldun, Mukaddime, p. 295)

As it is seen, the faqihs considered it lawful for the caliph, who was righteously appointed by the people and performed his duty properly, to leave an heir after him. This way, they aimed to prevent the potential fitna and disputes which might arise while the election of the new caliph is in process and in order to have the office of the caliphate to continue uninterrupted. However, this authorization restricted the appointment of the caliph’s son as an heir in general terms. Similarly, it was pointed out that the individual must have the required characteristics for the rulership office. Another respect pointed out about this matter was the necessity of the people to pay homage to the individual who was left as an heir after the death of the caliph. 

There were two different opinions provided by the faqihs about the nature of the bay’ah in question. Majority of the classical ulama including Al-Mawardi accepted the istikhlaf as an agreement made between the caliph and the individual appointed by him; they stated that the ahl al-hall wal-aqd or people’s homage both are accepted as promises of commitment. (Al-Mawardi, al-Ahkamu’s-sultaniyye, p. 32) 

Abu Ya’la ibn al-Farra’ and the majority of the modern-day ulama stated that istikhlaf is not singlehandedly sufficient to be the head of state; on the contrary, it will only go as far as a nomination. According to them, the individual, who was left as an heir, should have the approval of ahl al-hall wal-aqd to take over the caliphate duty. In this regard, the bay’ah provided by the ahl al-hall wal-aqd is an election bay’ah. (Abu Ya’la, al-Ahkamu’s-sultaniyye, p. 25; El-Sanhuri, Fikhu’l-hilafe, p. 138)

It was stated that the ummah is in accord about the caliph choosing a successor and obeying this successor. Although we might leave aside the objections towards the existence of such an accord, it is obvious that this is based on affairs and not any kind of nas. Because there is no nas exists neither in the Quran nor in Sunnah about the istikhlaf. And the faqihs accepted that the accord based on the affairs can be changed if the affairs change. 

The most important evidence about the legitimacy of the istikhlaf (leaving an heir) and the foundation of the accord is the practices of Abu Bakr and Umar. However, some evaluated that the practice of Abu Bakr was not an act of appointing a successor but to nominate one, and stated that Umar’s caliphate was finalized after the bay’ah of the people. Furthermore, as we have stated above, Abu Bakr gathered the people after he realized his death was close and told them that they can choose anybody as their new caliph after explaining the situation. However, they left this duty to Abu Bakr. And after long negotiations, he left Umar as his heir after he understood that the majority of the people deemed Umar worthy of the position. And Uthman was not elected directly through istikhlaf but after long negotiations carried out by a committee trusted by all of the sahaba. 

Therefore, it would be better to see istikhlaf as a limited method under particular conditions and only accompanied by istisharah and bay’ah instead of seeing it as an absolute method of determining the caliph. And there is no doubt that the passing of caliphate from father to son (heirdom) and thus transforming it into a sultanate system contradicts with the general principles of Islam. 

However, it is important to make the following reminder at this point; the illegitimacy of the appointment of a caliph does not mean that he is an absolute despot and would focus on his own needs before the people’s. There had been numerous sultans who had been appointed through the heirdom method, even by brute force, and ruled fair and lawful throughout the Islamic history.  

Situation of the Individual After Coming to Power by Force

Finally, we would like to focus on the individual who becomes a caliph by force. This is called an incursion or tyranny. And this means an individual to seize power by force and violence without any istikhlaf or bay’ah, and make the people obey him by force or persuasion. Despite the fact that the faqihs

 stated that there are two legitimate ways to become a caliph; they also evaluated the situation of an individual who seizes power by force due to the emergent factual situations and necessities and provided different opinions on the matter. 

Some of the faqihs found it necessary to obey the tyrant considering the loss of lives and properties should any kind of revolt breaks out and the emergent chaos and fitnas. However, they attributed this opinion to the facts that the caliph possesses the required characteristics for the caliphate and the impossibility of a resistance; in other words, they had no choice but to accept the contingency just like the rule stated: “The thing that is non-warrantable in the beginning may be warrantable in the end.”  (Ibn Hajar, Fethu’l-bari, 13/7)

However, there were others who rejected the legitimacy of such a caliph. One of them was Al-Juwayni who took a dim view of coming to power based on strength and force Because, coming to power inequitably and by force is a form of disobedience. And the imamate of a disobedient individual is inappropriate. (Al-Juwayni, Giyasu’l-umem, p. 326-327) Similarly, Ibn Hajar al-Haytami also stated that the individual who comes to power by force is disobedient and since this individual deserves to be hindered and not liked rather than goodness and gospel, the flagrancy of his actions must be also announced to others. (Al-Haytami, es-Savaiku’l-muhrika, 2/27)

Although there are a lot of possibilities about the individual who comes to power by force and there are various attitudes to adopt as a response, it is always possible to state the following as a result: For whatever reasons, it is not possible to see such a method religiously legitimate that spurns the will and consent of the people and violates the fundamental principles of Islam such as istisharah, election, and bay’ah. To obey, revolt against, or resist the individual or not is a matter first related to the actions of the individual in question whether he adopts fair and equitable rulership, and then what kind of consequences the actions in question would bear and this should be evaluated separately. 

Finally, we should state that the reason for the contradicting opinions to the istisharah, election, and bay’ah principles in classical literature about the election of the head of state is the influence of the available social and political conditions over the jurisprudence. The faqihs wrote some of their interpretations based on the factual situation; sometimes they wanted to criticize the current political structure, and sometimes they wanted to show that it is legitimate. What we mean is that we must consider the political life of the period while the related opinions are evaluated in classical sources, 


There would be two legitimate ways to come into power as a head of state if we consider istikhlaf as a valid appointment by relying upon the opinions in classical sources; “election” and “istikhlaf”. However, it is important to state that jurisprudence about istikhlaf will not allow heirdom or inheritance. In the event of istikhlaf to be viewed merely as a primary election and a nomination phase, and the consent and approval of the ahl al-hall wal-aqd are sought in order for the individual appointed by the previous caliph to take the office; the ways for the caliph to take the office are reduced to one from two and only the way of election remains. The following statement of Umar dictates that it is a must to consult the opinions and views of the people in order to appoint a caliph: “Whoever pays homage to somebody to be selected as the head of state without having an istisharah, the homage is invalid.” (Ibn Abi Shaybah, Musannef, 6/452)

Although the modern-day researches consider it legitimate for the people to carry out the election directly; the duty of electing the head of state belongs to the ahl al-hall wal-aqd which acts as the representative of the people and is formed by the prominent ones among the people who possess knowledge and hold a view. Just like the election committee did when electing Uthman; it is a good practice for the ahl al-hall wal-aqd to feel the pulse of the people before they elect somebody and make a decision, and make istisharah with the people and carry out negotiations among themselves.

Bay’ah remains after the election of the caliph. This bay’ah is an agreement between the caliph and the people. Therefore, it is required for the agreement of bay’ah to be made with free will, just like all other agreements. The agreement of bay’ah encumbers both sides. According to this, the head of state will perform the duties of the office he is entrusted with while the people will help him with his duties and obey him. With regards to this viewpoint, bay’ah, rather than an election, is nothing more than an agreement made between the caliph and the people, before the caliph starts performing his duties. 

As it is understood from all these explanations; there are three fundamental principles in Islam about the appointment of the head of state. These are; committee, election, and homage. The matters of how these principles will be actualized with which mechanisms and what kind of procedures should be followed change according to the time and the communities. Because, Islamic law did not impose mandatory and fixed provisions due to the fact that it has a universal and flexible structure.

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

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

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