Early Fuqahā’ on the Significance and Role of the Khilāfah

Classical Scholars

[Professor Muhammad Yusuf Faruqi, Hamdard Islamicus, Volume XIV No. 1 (Spring 1991)]

After the demise of the Holy Prophet (), the Companions decided to choose someone capable of organizing and looking after the affairs of the Ummah, establishing the commandments of the Sharī‘ah and continuing the work of da‘wah which was promulgated by the Messenger of Allah (). Addressing the audience soon after the death of the Holy Prophet (), Abū Bakr had stressed the second aspect of the Khilāfah: the establishment of Dīn and the advancement of the laws of Sharī‘ah, He said:

“O people! Muhammad has passed away. However, it is certainly necessary that someone should come forward to keep Dīn established in society.”[1]

The Companions agreed on this point and gave priority to the preservation of the Dīn by establishing the institution of the Khilāfah. Thus, the basic purpose of preserving the Dīn by enforcing its laws and implementing its rules was considered the basic and primary objective of the Khilāfah. Abū Bakr, after being chosen as Khalīfah made it clear in his first speech that he would strictly follow the Qur’ān and the Sunnah. The words of Abū Bakr, as recorded by Ibn Hishām and al-Tabarī are: “Obey me as long as I obey Allah and His Messenger; if I disobey Allah and His Messenger, you then have no obligation of obedience to me.”[2] ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb and other Rāshidūn Khulafā’ also followed the same policy of implementing the rules of the Qur’ān and the Sunnah. A hadīth recorded by al-Dārimī illustrates the approach of Abū Bakr and ‘Umar when dealing with legal, social and administrative issues. Mahrān b. Maymūn reported that whenever a dispute arose, or any issue was taken to Abū Bakr or ‘Umar for settlement, they looked into the Qur’ān first to find a solution; but in those cases where they could not find an answer they referred to the Sunnah of the Prophet () and settled the matter according to the Sunnah. If they were not content with their knowledge of the Sunnah on any particular issue, then, they called the Companions of the Prophet () and asked them whether they had heard something from the Prophet () concerning that particular issue. If anyone knew something, he told the Khalīfah. The Khalīfah would then decide the matter in accordance with the Sunnah. If the Khalīfah was unable to reach a decision after having consulted the Companions, because he could not find any relevant saying from the Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه وسلم), then the Khalīfah summoned the leaders and notables of the Ansār and Muhājirūn to discuss the matter with them.[3]

The Rāshidūn Khulafā’ not only followed the teachings of the Qur’ān and the Sunnah but also gave instructions to their governors and judges to decide matters according to the Qur’ān and the Sunnah. The letters of ‘Umar Fārūq to Abu Mūsā al-Ash‘arī and Qādī Shurayh support our argument that the primary objective of the Khilāfah was to implement the rules of the Sharī‘ah.[4]

The fuqahā’, even in later periods gave due consideration to this aspect of an Islamic government while discussing the institution of the Khalīfah. Al-Baghdādī (d. 429 A.H.), for example, defines Khalīfah as one who implements the rules of the Sharīah amongst the Muslims, establishes hūdūd, dispatches expeditions, arranges marriages of widows and distributes the fay’ among the public.[5] Al-Māwardī (d. 450 A.H.) has a clearer idea about the institution of the Khilāfah; he gives a more comprehensive definition of the institution than his predecessor. To him the Khilāfah is the succession (niyābah) to the Prophet () in the protection of the Dīn and looking after the worldly affairs of the people[6]. Imām al-Haramayn al-Juwaynī (d. 478 A.H.) gives a long definition, covering many aspects of the Khilāfah:

“The Imāmah is a perfect authority and general leadership over the people, commons as well as notables, in all important religious and temporal affairs; the defence of territory of Dār al-Islām, looking after the interests of the community, establishing Islamic da‘wah by providing evidence and proof (or truthfulness of Islamic faith) and even by using force (if necessary), denouncing the deviation, abstaining from inequity and oppression, providing help and support to the oppressed against transgressors and recovering the dues from those who refuse to be paid to those who were deprived of their rights.”[7]

Al-Juwaynī includes the words riyāsah tāmmah, and zi’āmah ‘āmmah which made his definition slightly different from that of al-Māwardī. Al-Juwaynī, by adding these words, differentiates between the Khilāfah and imārah (governorship) of provinces. The Khilāfah, according to him, is the highest authority in Muslim society.

These definitions by the fuqahā’ give us a deep insight into their concept of the Khilāfah; it is almost unanimously agreed by all the fuqahā’ that the Khilāfah deals with both religious and temporal matters. According to al-Baghdādī and al-Māwardī, the religious aspect of the Khilāfah is predominant as we have noticed above. Al-Baghdādī refers, in the same chapter, to the views of Abū al-Hasan al-Asharī who is of the opinion that the Imāmah and the Sharī‘ah are twins, and the implementation of the Sharī‘ah depends on the establishment of the Imāmah.[8]

Most of the later fuqahā’ also adopted these definitions. Their interpretation of the Khilāfah is not very much different from that of the early scholars. Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 767 A.H.), for example, advances the definition that, “Imām is a protector (rā‘ī = shepherd) of the Ummah”, a statement which is derived from a well known hadīth.[9]

Al-Taftāzānī (d. 791 A.H.) defines the Khilāfah as:

“The Imāmah is a general leadership (riyāsah ‘āmmah) in religious and temporal affairs, as vicegerent of the Prophet [).[10)

‘Adud al-Dīn al-Ījī (d. 756 A.H.), another prominent scholar and theologian, also defines the Imāmah as follows:

“It is the vicegerency of the Prophet () in establishing the Dīn and looking after the affairs of the Ummah.”[11]

Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808 A.H.) also discussed the system of Khilāfah in al-Muqaddimah. His definition is not different from that of al-Māwardī.[12] However, Ibn Khaldūn stresses the religious aspect, because the religious commitment and fervour, according to him, strengthen the powers and solidarity of the believers. The politics based on religious values, as viewed by Ibn Khaldūn, contributes to the good in this world as well as in the Hereafter.[13]

The definitions given by al-Juwaynī and al-Taftāzānī have not been accepted by many scholars, perhaps, because they add the phrase, riyāsah ‘āmmah which, according to some of the modern critics, confers the Khalīfah with much authority. It was the Prophet () who, being the Messenger of Allah, held such an extensive authority.[14] It seems that al-Juwaynī and al-Taftāzānī are misunderstood. They do not mean absolute authority for the Khalīfah. Al-Taftāzānī makes it clear that this phrase is added in the definition of the Khalīfah in order to exclude the judges and governors of provinces. The authority of the Khalīfah is general as far as the jurisdiction is concerned, while the authority and jurisdiction of governors and judges are limited to their particular areas of duties.[15] Al-riyāsah ‘āmmah, therefore, means nothing but only higher authority or general jurisdiction in a territorial sense. Al-Taftāzānī refers to al-Rāzī (d 606 A.H.) who also includes the same phrase.[16] Not only al-Taftāzānī but some of the very late scholars have also considered it as an essential condition of the Khilāfah. Shāh Walī Allāh, for example, explains the Khilāfah, as:

“It is general authority as vicegerent of the Prophet () for the establishment of Dīn by reviving the religious sciences, establishing the pillars of Islam, carrying out the jihād and what is necessary for jihād, such as organizing the armies and paying the stipends to soldiers and allocating the fay’, establishing justice, implementing the hūdūd, eliminating oppression, enjoining the Good and forbidding the Evil.”[17]

The above discussion makes it clear that Muslim scholars both of the early and the later periods agree to the point that the main responsibility of the Khilāfah is to look after both the religious and temporal affairs of the Ummah.

Al-Rayyis argues on the basis of the definition of al-Māwardī that the function of the Khalīfah is to preserve the Dīn; he, therefore, has no right to make any change or amendment or even to introduce any new interpretation to the fundamentals of the Dīn[18] since it is the domain of the fuqahā’ and is not one of the obligations of the Khalīfah. Lambton also reaches the same conclusion. She discusses in her article on Khilāfah:

“The title Khalīfat Rasūl Allah implied the assumption by Muhammad’s successors of Muhammad’s function as judge and temporal leader of the community. Muhammad’s Prophetic function, on the other hand, was held to have ceased with him and it was believed that the spiritual guidance of the community had been inherited by the community as a whole. The Khalīfah, thus, had no authority to give new interpretations to religious matters. His function was merely a delegation of authority for the purpose of applying and defending the Sharīah”.[19]

However, it does not seem plausible to impose any unnecessary restriction on the Khalīfah. If he is knowledgeable and has ability for giving expert opinion, he is allowed to do so in his capacity as faqīh or mujtahid. Al-Māwardī and some other fuqahā’ suggest the ability of ijtihād as a necessary qualification for the Khalīfah. In his capacity as mujtahid, the Khalīfah has the right to exercise ijtihād, like any other mujtahid in the Muslim community. Lambton quotes Ibn al-Muqaffa’ (d. 139 A.H.), who was disappointed by the differences of the fuqahā’ on legal questions, to have suggested that the Khalīfah should enjoy superceding powers to regulate and coordinate the ra’y.[20] Ibn al-Muqaffa’ attempted to convince the Khalīfah to eliminate the right of the fuqahā’ to individual opinion. He feared that the ‘ulamā’ might create a public opinion against the government. However, according to Lambton, the opinion of Ibn al-Muqaffa’ was rejected by the mainstream of Islam.[21]

The definitions of the Khilāfah, discussed above, have been derived from the Qur’ān and the Sunnah of the Prophet () and the practice of the Rashidūn Khulafā’. Abū al-Hasan al-Ash‘arī, while discussing the issue of Khilāfah refers to the Qur’ānic verse (22):

“O David! We did indeed make thee a vicegerent on earth: so judge, thou between men in truth (and justice): nor follow thou – the lusts (of thy heart) for they will mislead thee from the Path of God.”[23]

Al-Māwardī also quotes this verse while discussing the obligations of the Khalīfah. Allah granted David (عليه السلام) powers and authority, argues al-Māwardī, to establish justice and truth.[24]

It will be appropriate to discuss another verse which is very important in connection with authority and government. The verse reads:

“(They are) Those who, if We establish in the land, establish regular prayer and give regular charity, enjoin the right and forbid wrong: With God rests the end (and decisions) of (all) affairs.”[25]

Al-Tabarī (d. 310 A.H.) argues from this verse on the authority of the Companions who succeeded the Prophet () and accomplished the obligations mentioned in the verse.[26] Al-Jassās (d. 370 A.H.) also establishes the legitimacy of the authority of the Rashidūn Khulafā’ on the basis of the fact that they fulfilled all these obligations.[27]

According to al-Dahhāk, the four functions, mentioned in the verse of al-Hajj, are the obligations incumbent upon the Khalīfah. The ‘ulamā’ who have close contact with the ruling authorities also shoulder the responsibilities imposed on the rulers.[28]

The fuqahā’ also consider the verse of 30 of al-Baqarah where the word Khalīfah is mentioned and a general reference is made to the divine purpose behind the creation of mankind.[29] Al-Baghdādī, interpreting the verse, mentions the opinion of ‘Abd Allah b. Mas’ūd and Mujāhid that Khalīfah means that one who establishes Allah’s commandments, manifests the signs of His unity and does justice among the people.[30] The verse of al-Nūr is also frequently quoted by scholars when referring to the system of Khilāfah. The verse reads:

“God has promised, to those among you who believe and work righteous deeds, that He will, of a surety, grant them in the land, inheritance (of power), as He granted it to those before them; that He will establish in authority their religion – the one which He has chosen for them; and that He will change (their state), after the fear in which they (lived), to one of security and peace.”[31]

The term Khilāfah is not only used in the Qur’ān but is also used constantly in the hadīth literature.[32] The two ahādīth which we would like to discuss here are narrated in the authentic books of hadīth. The first of these ahādīth is narrated by al-Tirmidhī, Abū Dāw’ūd, Ibn Mājah and some other muhaddithūn. It states that the Holy Prophet () directed the people to follow firmly the Sunnah of the Prophet () and the Sunnah of the Rāshidūn Khulafā’.[33] According to Tirmidhī, the hadīth is authentic. The other hadīth, narrated by al-Bukhārī, al-Muslim and many others, states that the Prophet () has said, “the Children of Isrā’īl were led by their Prophets; as soon as a Prophet passed away another took his place; but there would be no Prophet after me, however, there would be the Khulafā’“.[34]

All the above mentioned Qur’ānic verses and hadīth references are important as regards understanding the meaning of the term Khilāfah. The Companions, who chose Abū Bakr, and gave him the title of “the Khalīfah of the Messenger of Allah”, must have had in mind, when they did so, the Qur’ānic verses and the ahādīth of the Prophet (). The Muslims were aware of the nature of mulūkiyyah (absolute monarchism) which existed in many countries around them at the demise of the Holy Prophet (). The Companions avoided calling their ruler ‘king’. Al-Qalqashandī (d. 821 A.H.) and al-Suyūtī (d. 911 A.H.) mention a dialogue between ‘Umar, the Khalīfah, and his colleagues on the difference between Khilāfah and mulk (monarchy) which gives us an idea as to their concept of monarchy. According to that dialogue, the Khalīfah is just a trustee of public wealth and treasury, while the king is one who treats it as his own property, takes whatever he likes and gives what he wants.[35]

Among the later fuqahā’ especially who came after the period of the Rāshidūn, this early period of governing the society is regarded as a model which is to be realized again. Thus the actions of the immediate successors of the Prophet () have always been regarded as a model by the scholars. This definition of the Khilāfah, we discussed above, has, thus, been determined in the light of the Qur’ānic verses, the Sunnah of the Prophet () and the practice of the Rāshidūn Khulafā’.

We may conclude in the light of above discussion that a just government which establishes al-Dīn, implements the laws of the Sharī‘ah and looks after the affairs of the Ummah is regarded as Khilāfah by the fuqahā’ of the early period (mutaqaddimūn).

The fuqahā’ also discuss the qualifications necessary for a candidate for the office of Khalīfah. Mostly the fuqahā’ stress knowledge (al-‘ilm), sound and just character (al-‘adālah), capacity of social and political organization, military expertise and descent from the Quraysh. Al-Baghdādī and al-Māwardī, al-Juwaynī and al-Ghazālī place much emphasis on knowledge, good character and capability of dealing with social and political matters. The condition of being descendent from the Quraysh is mentioned as the last one by al-Baghdādī, al-Māwardī and al-Ghazālī. Al-Ījī discusses the condition of descent from the Quraysh as being disputed; the Khawārij – and some of the Mu‘tazilah do not accept this condition.[36] Imām al-Haramayn al-Juwaynī, however, is not satisfied with the condition of Qurayshite descent; he criticises this condition in the historical context. The hadīth which states “the leaders come from the Quraysh”[37], according to al-Juwaynī, is not of such standard that the doctrine of Qurayshite descent could be derived from it.[38] He puts much emphasis on knowledge. He is of the opinion that the Khalīfah should have knowledge and ability of exercising ijtihād.[39] Ibn al-Farrā’ puts the condition of the Qurayshite descent as the first one. He mentions a tradition from Ahmad b. Hanbal saying that the Khalīfah should not be non-Qurayshite. He is strict about this condition, and lenient about others.[40] Ibn al-Farrā’ does not adduce any argument in favour of his attitude. It seems that it was a political issue to support either Qurayshite or Hashmites without producing any reason or argument.[41]

It seems, as we understand, that the hadīth is indicative of the socio-political standing of the Quraysh in the Arab society. The Quraysh, even in the Jāhiliyyah, held the leadership, and their social and political prestige was recognized by the neighbouring states. ‘Umar, the Khalīfah, once pointed out this unique status of the Quraysh. He said:

“O people of Quraysh! By Allah, even if you enter a hole the Arabs, following your traces, will also enter the same. Therefore, be mindful of Allah in their affairs.”[42]

This tradition also makes it clear that the Quraysh commanded the respect of the people and were regarded as the leaders of the Arabs. The Prophet () has also obviously referred to the same thing in the hadīth. Now, it is a historical fact that the Quraysh at the time of the establishment of the Khalīfah held a pre-eminent position in the collective life of Arabia; they could keep the unity and integrity of the Ummah. We must, therefore, see the hadīth in this context. The hadīth does not seek to lay down any principle or rule that the rulers or leaders should always be from the Quraysh. Ibn al-Farrā’ mentions the argument of Abū Bakr and ‘Umar at the meeting of Thaqīfah of Banū Sā‘idah in these words:

“Certainly the Arabs will not submit to anyone except this tribe of Quraysh.”[43]

This argument of Abū Bakr and ‘Umar also supports our contention that the hadīth only expresses the political dominance held by the Quraysh, and does not lay down any legal rule of permanent nature.


[1] Ibn al-A‘tham al-Kūfi, Kitāb al-Futūh (Hyderabad Dakkan, 1968) Vol. 1, pp. 2, 3.

[2] Ibn Hishām, al-Sirah (ed. Khalil Harras, Cairo, 1955) vol. 4, p. 457; al-Tabari, Tārīkh (ed. Abu al-Fadl Ibrahim, Cairo, 1961) vol. 3, p. 210.

[3] Al-Dārimī, Sunan, (Beirut, n.d.) vol. 1, p 58; Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘lām al-Muwaqqi‘īn, (Beirut, 1973) vol. 1, p. 62.

[4] See ‘Umar’s letters to Abū Mūsā al-Ash‘arī and Qādī Shurayh, Wakī‘, Akhbār al-Qudāt (Beirut, n.d.), vol. 1, pp. 283, 84, vol. 2, pp. 189-90.

[5] Al-Baghdādī, ‘Abd al-Qāhir, Usūl al-Dīn (Istanbul, 1928), p. 271.

[6] Al- Māwardī, al-Ahkām al-Sultāniyah (Cairo, 1966), p. 5.

[7] Al-Juwaynī, Imām al-Haramayn, Ghiyāth al-Umam (ed. Mustafa Hilmi, Alexandria, 1979), p. 15.

[8] Al-Juwaynī, Usūl al-Dīn, op. cit., p. 272.

[9] Laoust, Henry, Nazriyyāt Ibn Taymiyyah fi al-Siyāsah (Arabic tr. By M. ‘Abd al-‘Azim ‘Ali, Cairo, 1979), p. 226; also ssee Bukhārī, Sahīh, (9 parts in 3 vols., Cairo, n.d.), vol. 1, part 2, p. 6; Abū Daw’ūd, Sunan (ed. ‘Izzat ‘Ubayd. Hims, 1969), Hadīth No. 2928; Ibn Taymiyya, al-Siyāsah al-Shar‘īyyah (ed. Ali al-Maghribi, Kuwait, 1986), pp. 23, 23.

[10] Al-Taftāzānī, Sharh al-Maqāsid (Lahore, 1981), vol. 2, p. 272.

[11] Al-Ījī, ‘Adud al-Dīn, al-Mawāqif, (Beirut 1979), p. 395.

[12] Ibn Khaldūn, al-Muqaddimah (Beirut, 1956), p. 38; al-Ramli, Nihāyat al-Muhtāj (Cairo, 1967), vol. 7, p. 409.

[13] Ibn Khaldūn, al-Muqaddimah, op. cit., pp. 277, 78, 337.

[14] Al-Rayyis, Diyāl al-Dīn, al-Nazriyyat al-Siyasiyyah (Cairo, 1970), p. 121.

[15] Al-Taftāzānī, Sharh al Maqāsid, op. cit., vol. 2. p. 272.

[16] Ibid., p. 272.

[17] Shāh Walī Allāh, Izālat al-Khifā, (Urdu tr. ‘Abd al-Shakur, Karachi, n.d.), vol. 1, p. 28.

[18] Al-Rayyis, al-Nazriyyat, op. cit., p. 121.

[19] Lambton, A.K.S., “Khilafah in Political Theory” in Encyclopedia of Islam.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Al-Ash‘arī, Abū al-Hasan, al-Ibānah (Cairo, 1977), p. 251.

[23] Al-Qur’ān, 38:26; also see al-Tabarī, Jāmi‘ al-Bayān (Beirut, 1972), vol. 23, p. 97; al-Zamakhsharī, al-Kashshāf (Cairo, 1966), vol. 3, pp. 371-72.

[24] Al-Māwardī, al-Ahkām al-Sultāniyah, op. cit., p 16; Ibn Jamā‘ah starts the chapter of Imāmah with this verse, see Tahrīr al-Ahkām (ed. H. Kofler, Islamica 6, 1934; and 1938), p. 355.

[25] Al-Qur’ān, 22:41.

[26] Al-Tabarī, Jāmi‘ al-Bayān, op. cit., vol. 17, p. 126.

[27] Al Jassās, Abū Bakr, Ahkām al-Qur’ān, (Constantinople, 1335 A.H.), vol. 3, p. 246.

[28] Al-Qurtubī, Al-Jāmi‘ li Ahkām al-Qur’ān (Beirut, 1969), vol. 12, p. 73; Ibn Jama‘ah, Tahrīr al-Ahkām, op. cit., p. 355.

[29] Al-Qur’ān, 2:30.

[30] Al-Baghdādī, ‘Abd al-Rahmān b. ‘Ali, Zād al-Ma’āthir, (Damascus, 1964), vol. 1, p. 60.

[31] Q. al-Nūr 24:55.

[32] Wensinck, al-Mu‘jam al-Mufahras see word “Khalīfah”.

[33] Tirmidhī, Sunan (Hims, 1965), vol. 7, p. 320 (H. No. 2678); Abū Daw’ūd, Sunan, op. cit., (H. No. 4607); Ibn Mājah, Sunan (Cairo, 1952) h. No. 24; Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad (Beirut, n.d.), vol. 4, pp, 126; al-Dārimī, Sunan, op. cit., vol. 1. pp. 44, 45.

[34] Bukhārī, Sahīh, op. cit., vol. 2, part 4, p. 206; Muslim, Sahīh (Cairo, n.d.), vol. 6, p. 17; Ibn Mājah, Sunan, op. cit., (H. No. 2871); Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 297.

[35] Al-Suyūtī, Ta’rīkh al-Khulafā’ (Cairo, 1964), p. 164; al-Qalqashandi, Ma’āthir al-Ināfah (ed. A. Sattar Ahmad, Kuwait, 1964), vol. 1, pp. 13, 14.

[36] Al-Baghdādī, Usūl al-Dīn, op. cit., p. 277, al- Māwardī, al-Ahkām al-Sultāniyah, op. cit., p. 6; al- Ghazālī, al-Iqtisād (Beirut, 1969), p. 215, al- Ījī, al- Mawāqif, op. cit., p. 398.

[37] Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 129, vol. 4, p. 421.

[38] Al-Juwaynī, Ghiyāth al-Umam, op. cit., pp. 62-64.

[39] Al-Juwaynī, Ghiyāth, op. cit., p. 65.

[40] Ibn al- Farrā’, al-Ahkām al-Sultāniyah, (ed. M. Hamid al-Fiqi, Cairo, 1966), p. 20.

[41] Al-Juwaynī, Ghiyāth al-Umam, op. cit., p.64.

[42] Al-Tabarī, Ta’rīkh, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 259.

[43] Ibn al- Farrā’, al-Ahkām al-Sultāniyah, op. cit., p. 19; al-Qurtubī, Al-Jāmi li Ahkām al-Qur’ān, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 264.

[Professor Muhammad Yusuf Faruqi, Hamdard Islamicus, Volume XIV No. 1 (Spring 1991)]

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