The Muslim Khilafa
The following article is a paraphrased transcript of a series of four
lectures delivered by Gharm Allah Al-Ghamdy to the
Association at the University of Southern California. These lectures
were given between November 1991 and January 1992, and took place in
the MSA House located at 1144 West 37th Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90007.
The subject of Al-Ghamdy's lectures was an examination of the processes
involved in choosing and removing the Muslim Khalifa. The last Khalifa
of the Muslims was removed in 1924 (though some say the position was
strictly a powerless, figurehead office for at least 500 years before
Khalifa is an Arabic word literally meaning "one who replaces someone
else who left or died" (English: caliph). In the context of Islam,
however, the word acquires a narrower meaning. The Muslim Khalifa is
the successor (in a line of successors) to Prophet Muhammad's (saw) position
as the political, military, and administrative leader of the Muslims.
The prophetic role of Muhammad is strictly not included in this
definition, as the Qur'an and Hadith clearly state that Muhammad was
the last of the prophets. Khilafa is a related Arabic word which, in
the context of Islam, is used to denote the government of the Muslim
state, of which the Khalifa is the head. A workable analogy of
Khalifa and Khilafa is president and presidency or king and monarchy.
The Khilafa is a fard kifaya on the ummah.
The Khalifa of the Muslim ummah must strive to:
Muslim scholars have determined certain criteria which any possible
candidate for the Khalifa must meet to be considered legitimate.
- Safeguard Islam in its original form, and to protect against the
introduction of new things (bid'a) into Islam.
- Establish justice (including punishments for crimes) among the
- Ensure the protection of the ummah. People within the boundaries
of the Muslim state (regardless of whether they are Muslims or not)
should feel secure enough to be productive.
- Protect the physical boundaries of the state through the use of
arms and other methods.
- Defend the rights of Muslims abroad, and to see to it that Islam
can spread freely in non-Muslim lands (including the use of force).
- Organize jihad against any non-Muslim government which prevents
Muslim da'wah from entering its land.
- Collect and distribute zakat and the spoils of war according to the
Qur'an and Sunnah (and ijtihad, if necessary). This must be done
without the use of fear as an incentive (unless a person refuses to
pay). Zakat is not to be taken from the best or worst of people's
possessions, but rather from the middle.
- Pay the salaries of Bayt-ul-Mal employees, i.e., those people whose
job is the collection of zakat and other state-levied taxes. Their
salaries should be reasonable and be paid on time.
- Hire honest people as helpers, aides, governors, etc. The Khalifa
must appoint to public office those who are competent and who can give
good advice. This especially applies to Bayt-ul-Mal officials.
- Be heavily involved personally in the acts of governing. The
Khalifa must be actively checking and overseeing the duties of the
government, and constantly be guarding against internal corruption.
There are three ways in which the Muslim ummah may choose a new
Khalifa. However, in all three cases, the people are obligated to give
the new Khalifa their bay'a once the process of choosing him is over.
People can send representatives to give their bay'a if the population
is large. The three ways of choosing the Khalifa are by selection, by
nomination, and by force.
- The Khalifa must be Muslim.
- He must be a man. This condition is based on the hadith where the
Prophet states that a nation would not profit under a woman as its
- He must be knowledgeable in Islam, and be able to make independent
decisions if necessary.
- He must be just, have good morals, and be trustworthy.
- He must be physically able (non-handicapped), spiritual, brave, and
helpful to protect the ummah against its enemies. His eyes, ears,
tongue, and body in general should be in working condition. The point
here is to stress an independent, dynamic leader for the sake of the
ummah, not to discriminate against the physically handicapped. Today,
for example, an artificial limb could be used to offset an otherwise
- He must be politically, militarily, and administratively
- He must be from the tribe of Quraish because they used to be the
leading tribe, the majority. The Prophet has said, "The Khalifas are
Quraishi." However, many Muslim scholars have commented on this
prerequisite. Al-Mawardi has written that the Khalifa should be
Quraishi based on the saying of Abu Bakr that the Khalifas are Quraishi
and their ministers are non-Quraishi. The majority of scholars are of
this opinion. Other scholars have arrived at a different conclusion.
Abu Bakr Al-Baqlani has said that the leader of the Muslims simply
should be from the majority. Muhammad Riya-Ad-Deen and Abu Hanifa
wrote that the leader must come from the majority to make it easy to
There is no fixed size for this group, however, it is generally agreed
that it should not be too large. Muslim scholars have established some
basic prerequisites which the members of the Majlis-ash-Shura should
have to become part of that group. All agree that the members must be
adults (in Islam, this means anyone who has entered puberty), and of
sound mind. These members are chosen by the various communities in the
ummah. Other prerequisites, while generally agreed upon, differ
slightly from scholar to scholar.
- By selection. The Khalifa is selected by a group of the best, most
Islamically knowledgeable people in the society (not by a general vote
of everyone). This group is called the Majlis-Ash-Shura (Arabic for
"consultative council"). The members of the Majlis-ash-Shura are
chosen from experts who are learned in Islam, and they in turn choose
the Khalifa. If the society as a whole rejects their choice, the
Majlis-ash-Shura must find out why, perhaps negotiate with the people,
and in general try to resolve the problem - however, this situation has
never occurred. The Majlis-ash-Shura must have at least three people
by the definition of a jama'a (a group of three or more people). The
Muslim scholar Al-Mawardi has noted that in the emergency case of no
Khalifa and no Majlis-ash-Shura (the situation today), the people
should create two parties: one being the Majlis-ash-Shura, and the
other being a list of candidates for the Khalifa. The Majlis-ash-Shura
then selects a Khalifa from the list of candidates.
- By nomination. The current Khalifa may nominate his successor, the
next Khalifa (as Abu Bakr did with Umar). The people have to accept
him just as in the first case. If the old Khalifa appoints someone
unworthy out of ulterior motives, the people must reject that
- By force. If the current Khalifa forces someone on the people to
be the next Khalifa, but that person is righteous, the people must
accept him as long as he remains righteous. Similarly, if there is no
Khalifa (again, the situation today), it is permitted for someone to
forcibly seize power and declare himself the Khalifa if he guarantees
to abide by his responsibilities under Islam.
There are four conditions which must be met for the Majlis-ash-Shura to
legitimately select a new Khalifa.
- Al-Mawardi has written that each member should satisfy three
conditions: he must be just, he must have enough knowledge of Islam to
differentiate between a potentially good Khalifa and a bad one, and he
must have sufficient wisdom and judgment to select the best leader.
- Al-Juwayni has four conditions for the Majlis-ash-Shura: each member
must be a man, knowledgeable, above average relatively, and Muslim.
- Abdul-Jabbar is of the opinion that the members must have enough
knowledge to select he who can be Khalifa - enough Islamic knowledge in
particular, and wisdom and judgment in general.
- Muhammad Rida wrote that the Majlis-ash-Shura should be the best of
the ummah, composed of the scholars, leaders, soldiers, businessmen,
and respected people of the society. All the members should have deep
knowledge of Islam as a basic prerequisite. They must be people whose
opinions and decisions are obeyed and respected. The Majlis-ash-Shura
should have people from many fields of expertise to ensure a broad base
of support and knowledge.
- Faiyadh has written that the Majlis-ash-Shura serves as an
intermediary between the people and the Khalifa. The most qualified
people to be in the Majlis-ash-Shura are the leaders of the different
'tribes', the Muslim scholars, and those experienced in life (i.e.,
experts in non-Islamic fields like economics, engineering, medicine,
etc.). These are also the ones who represent the ummah and who can
speak against the ummah.
- Al-Baghdadi believed that the Khalifa and the Majlis-ash-Shura should
be selected from amongst those who can choose wisely.
Some scholars believe that the bay'a should be given in the presence of
two witnesses, whereas other scholars believe this is unnecessary since
selecting the Khalifa is a public matter.
- There must currently be no existing Khalifa.
- A qualified and willing individual must accept his nomination by
- The nominee must have been selected freely by the Majlis-ash-Shura
- and the members of the Majlis-ash-Shura must give him their bay'a.
- The bay'a must be given to the nominee by the general populace -
though some scholars say this is optional.
When the Majlis-ash-Shura votes for the Khalifa, the members must
formally select one of the candidates, and there must be no objection
against that candidate which can be supported by evidence. However,
Muslim scholars have differed on the number of members in the
Majlis-ash-Shura needed to select a Khalifa from the list of
One way the Khalifa may be chosen is through the use of force. Many
Muslim scholars say that if a person has already seized power, then to
avoid Muslim bloodshed that person should be accepted if he upholds his
duties as the Khalifa of the Muslim ummah.
- Some scholars say that at least a majority of the Majlis-ash-Shura
must agree on the new Khalifa.
- Al-Ashari believes the Khalifa could be given to an eligible person
even by a single vote if he comes from the Majlis-ash-Shura and has a
good Islamic character. There must also be no valid objection
supported by evidence or witnesses.
- Another group of scholar's opinion is that the Khalifa must have two
votes for him in the Majlis-ash-Shura who are good Muslims (two because
the Majlis-ash-Shura is a jama'a which is at least three people).
- A fourth opinion is that the Khalifa must have four votes (with no
countering objection) because witnessing to a charge of adultery in
Islam requires four witnesses.
- A fifth opinion holds that at least three votes are necessary to make
the decision have the strength of a jama'a behind it.
- A sixth opinion is that at least five votes are needed to make an
even stronger decision.
- Finally, a seventh group of scholars believes that it requires 40
members of the Majlis-ash-Shura to vote for the same candidate for him
to become the new Khalifa since Friday prayer requires 40 people to be
valid (according to some scholars).
All scholars are in unanimous agreement that using force to displace an
already established Khalifa who is meeting his responsibilities is
- Ibn Hanbal wrote that if a Khalifa has seized power, it is haram to
fight him. However, he must meet his responsibilities under Islam.
- Ash-Shafi'i believed that a person who seizes power and then is
accepted by the people is a legitimate Khalifa.
- An-Nawawi believed that if someone forces himself on the ummah, but
is qualified, then he should be accepted by the people to avoid Muslim
bloodshed and to preserve Muslim unity. An-Nawawi also claimed that if
the new Khalifa subsequently does not follow the sunnah of the Prophet
precisely, it would be still be questionable to fight against him
because of the paramount importance of avoiding Muslim bloodshed and
- Ibn Khaldun, Al-Asqalani and Al-Juwayni all believed that forceful
seizure of power by someone is legitimate as long as he follows Islam
as the new Khalifa.
- Ibn Taymiya wrote that after someone has seized power, he is
legitimate so long as he follows the Qur'an and Sunnah.
The above scholars rely on the following ahadith to support their
Many Muslim scholars have commented on when it is permissible to
disobey or remove the Khalifa, which is normally forbidden when the
Khalifa is meeting all his responsibilities under Islam.
- From Sahih Muslim: A companion of the Prophet named Hudhayfah asked
the Prophet about what the future holds for the Muslims. The Prophet
replied that they will be led by devils at some point. The Prophet
then added that the Muslims should obey these leaders.
- From Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim: The Prophet noted that there
will come leaders whom the Muslims will not like - that is, they will
not follow the Sunnah precisely. The Prophet continued and ordered the
Muslims to "give your right to them, and ask God for your right," or in
other words be patient.
- From Sahih Muslim: The Prophet asked people for their bay'a in which
he asked for obedience during weakness and strength, wealth and
poverty. This request for obedience from the people applies to the
Khalifas as well unless they exhibit signs of kufr.
The Khalifa must be seriously and unrepentantly off the straight path
if he is to be accused of kufr. Actions like neglecting prayers,
ignoring the fast, and claiming that the Qur'an and Sunnah are outdated
are the types of crimes that indicate kufr on the part of the Khalifa.
In such circumstances, he must be warned quietly first before taking
any physical action against him. However, in cases where the Khalifa
is not a kafir, but is simply very belligerent (e.g., seizing the land
of others unjustly), the people are obligated to yield their rights
(including possessions) to avoid bloodshed. Instead, they should pray
to Allah to restore their rights.
In a the event of a bad Khalifa, the Majlis-ash-Shura must be the voice
of the ummah which steps forward and orders the Khalifa to step down
(although they must warn the Khalifa first of his crimes). If there is
no Majlis-ash-Shura, the general populace must create one first by
nominating and appointing people to form it. No individuals should
rise up alone in protest against the Khalifa. Muslim scholars have
elaborated on this subject extensively.
- Al-Mawardi believed that if the Khalifa has followed the Qur'an and
Sunnah, the people must follow and support him. On the other hand, if
he becomes either unjust or handicapped to the point of ineffectiveness
(such as blindness or an amputation), then he must be removed.
- Al-Baghdadi believed that if the Khalifa deviates from justice, the
ummah needs to warn him first to return to the straight path. If this
fails, then he can be removed.
- Al-Juwayni held that since Islam is the goal of the ummah, any
Khalifa who steps away from this goal must be removed.
- Ashighistani wrote that if the Khalifa is found to be ignorant,
oppressive, indifferent, or a kafir after his selection, then he must
- Al-Ghazali believed that an oppressive Khalifa must be told to desist
from his crimes. If he does not, then he must be removed.
- Al-Iji believed the ummah has a definite list of permissible reasons
to remove the Khalifa.
- Al-Asqalani wrote that if the Khalifa starts to act as an unbeliever,
it is prohibited to obey him and obligatory to fight him. It is
obligatory to stand against him if one can - and this entails a big
reward. Those people who choose to ignore the situation are in sin,
whereas those who cannot fight should emigrate (to organize
resistance). Al-Asqalani used two ayahs from the Qur'an in particular
to support his position. The first is from surat Al-Ahzab 67-68,
"...And they would say, 'Our Lord! We obeyed our chiefs and our great
ones, and they deceived us as to the right path. Our Lord! Give them
a double penalty and curse them with a very great curse'...", and the
second is from surat Al-Baqara 167, "...And those who followed would
say, 'If only we had one more chance, we would clear ourselves of them,
as they have cleared themselves of us.' Thus will Allah show them (the
fruits of) their deeds as (nothing but) regrets. Nor will there be a
way for them out of the Fire..."
- Muslim reported that Ibn Umar said the Prophet ordered every Muslim
to obey their leader unless commanded to do something bad, in which
case they must neither obey nor listen. Muslim also reported that Ibn
Malik said the best leader is the one where mutual love exists between
him and the people, and the worst leader generates mutual hate.
However, even in the latter case, fighting the Khalifa is prohibited
unless he enters kufr by stopping prayers or zakat for example.
- Ibn As-Samit reported that the Prophet said to obey him in all things
and situations, and not to remove the leaders unless they openly
- Abu Daud reports from Ibn Ujrah that the Prophet entered a masjid,
and said there will come leaders after him who disobey the Qur'an and
Allah. Those who help them are not of the Muslims, but if someone
opposes them, he or she is of the Prophet's people.
The Majlis-ash-Shura is the body which has the authority to remove the
Khalifa if he behaves contrary to Islam. At first, the
Majlis-ash-Shura must advise the Khalifa of his deviant behavior, and
warn him to stop. If the Khalifa does not change, then he must be told
to resign. If he refuses and threatens to use physical force to stay
on (e.g., a corrupt army backs him), then the Muslim ummah has three
options available to it at that point:
- Al-Juwayni has written that if the Khalifa acts strangely and is
leading the Muslims to weakness, the ummah should not allow individuals
to step forward and challenge the Khalifa because this leads to
anarchy. Rather, any change must go through the Majlis-ash-Shura.
- Al-Mindad believed that an oppressor cannot be the Khalifa, a judge,
imam for prayer, or even a simple witness. However, if he is already
the leader, then we must go through the Majlis-ash-Shura first to
- Ash-Shahastani believed that the Khalifa is very important, so in
case of disagreement between him and the people, no individual should
go about creating turmoil. Instead, the people should go through the
- Al-Ash'ari noted that the first fitnah or dispute after the Prophet's
death was the dispute over the Khilafa.
- Ibn Taymiya believed that an oppressive Khalifa should not be fought
against immediately, but rather after going through the
Majlis-ash-Shura first (and failing).
- An-Nawawi wrote that a sinning, oppressive Khalifa should be removed
by the Majlis-ash-Shura. However, if much bloodshed among the Muslims
is forthcoming, then the ummah should avoid the fighting and bear him.
- Ghazali believed that a bad Khalifa should be borne to avoid the
possible killing of Muslims. However, the Majlis-ash-Shura should warn
the Khalifa quietly at first. If the Majlis-ash-Shura is unsuccessful,
and fighting is threatened, then the ummah must weigh the possible cost
of many deaths against oppression. Sometimes the bloodshed warrants
that the oppressive Khalifa should be tolerated.
When should the ummah have to fight? Muslim scholars all agree that
fighting is obligatory on the ummah when the Khalifa starts to alter
Islamic doctrine and practice. This makes him a clear kafir. Some
scholars say that the Khalifa can be fought even when he becomes only a
fasiq - e.g., he believes in prayer, but does not do it regularly. The
majority of scholars say that this particular offense (neglecting
prayer) is kufr anyway - not just fisq.
The method by which Abu Bakr became Khalifa was by selection (ikhtiar)
though there is a difference of opinion on whether the selection was
carried out by a Majlis-ash-Shura or the general populace. There are
certain actions of the Prophet which implied that he wanted Abu Bakr to
be the first Khalifa.
- Fight him according to some scholars.
- Be patient, and let him lead, to avoid Muslim bloodshed. This is
the strongest opinion: the majority of the ahl-ul-hadith and scholars
of the Sunnah advocate this view including Malik, Ash-Shafi'i, and
- Depending on the circumstance, either fight or be patient according
to some scholars.
- A woman asked the Prophet who to come back to for help should the
Prophet not be there (i.e. if the Prophet had died). The Prophet
stated Abu Bakr.
- The Prophet said, "Follow the best successors after me: Abu Bakr
- When the Prophet became ill, Aisha said that he asked her to call
in Abu Bakr to write a letter "so that people will not dispute."
- The Prophet asked Abu Bakr to lead the prayer in his absence.
- The Prophet informed us of a dream he had in which he pulled some
water out of a well, followed by Abu Bakr, then by Umar.
- During a khutba, the Prophet said, "If I were to choose a best
friend from the people, I would choose Abu Bakr."
- A man had a dream where the Prophet and Abu Bakr where weighed
against each other, and the Prophet was found to be heavier. Then Abu
Bakr and Umar were weighed - Abu Bakr being heavier. Then Umar and
Uthman were weighed - Umar being heavier.
[Editor's note: The first four caliphs were Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and
Ali, and they are known as the