caliphal /kal"euh feuhl, kay"leuh-/, adj.
/kay"lif, kal"if/, n.
1. a spiritual leader of Islam, claiming succession from Muhammad.
2. any of the former Muslim rulers of Baghdad (until 1258) and of the Ottoman Empire (from 1571 until 1924).
[1350-1400; ME caliphe, califfe < MF < ML calipha < Ar khalif(a) successor (of Muhammad), deriv. of khalafa succeed]

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Arabic khalīfah ("deputy" or "successor")

Title given to those who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as real or nominal ruler of the Muslim world, ostensibly with all his powers except that of prophecy.

Controversy over the selection of the fourth caliph, Alī, eventually split Islam into the Sunnite and Shīite branches. ʽAlī's rival, Muāwiyah I, established the Umayyad dynasty of caliphs, which produced 14 caliphs (661–750). The Abbāsid dynasty (750–1258), the most widely observed caliphate, associated with 38 caliphs, moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad. The Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258 effectively ended the dynasty. Other Muslim leaders created caliphates with limited success. The Fātimid dynasty proclaimed a new caliphate in 920; Abd al-Rahmān III announced one in opposition to both the ʽAbbāsids and the Fāṭimids in 928. A scion of the ʽAbbasid line was set up by the Mamlūk dynasty as a sort of puppet caliph after 1258. This caliphate exercised no power whatsoever, and, from 1517 until it was abolished by the Republic of Turkey in 1924, it resided in Istanbul under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Modern Muslim militants consider the abolition of the caliphate a catastrophic event, and its return has been a central pillar of their political program.

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▪ Islamic title
also spelled  Calif,  Arabic  Khalīfah 

      (“successor”), ruler of the Muslim community. When Muḥammad died (June 8, 632), Abū Bakr succeeded to his political and administrative functions as khalīfah rasūl Allāh, or “successor of the Messenger of God,” but it was probably under ʿUmar ibn (Umar Iʿ) al-Khaṭṭāb, the second caliph, that the term caliph came into use as a title of the civil and religious head of the Muslim state. In the same sense, the term was employed in the Qurʾān in reference both to Adam and to David as the vice-regents of God.

      Abū Bakr and his three immediate successors are known as the “perfect” or “rightly guided” caliphs (al-khulafāʾ ar-rāshidun). After them the title was borne by the 14 Umayyad (Umayyad Dynasty) caliphs of Damascus and subsequently by the 38 ʿAbbāsid (Abbāsid Dynastyʿ) caliphs of Baghdad, whose dynasty fell before the Mongols in 1258. There were titular caliphs of ʿAbbāsid descent in Cairo under the Mamlūks from 1258 until 1517, when the last caliph was captured by the Ottoman (Ottoman Empire) sultan Selim I. The Ottoman sultans then claimed the title and used it until it was abolished by the Turkish Republic on March 3, 1924.

      After the fall of the Umayyad dynasty at Damascus (750), the title of caliph was also assumed by the Spanish branch of the family who ruled in Spain at Córdoba (755–1031), and it was also assumed by the Fāṭimid (Fāṭimid Dynasty) rulers of Egypt (909–1171), who claimed to descend from Fāṭimah (daughter of Muḥammad) and her husband, ʿAli.

      According to the Shīʿite Muslims, who call the supreme office the “imamate,” or leadership, no caliph is legitimate unless he is a lineal descendant of the Prophet Muḥammad. The Sunnites insist that the office belongs to the tribe of Quraysh (Koreish), to which Muḥammad himself belonged, but this condition would have vitiated the claim of the Turkish sultans, who held the office after the last ʿAbbāsid caliph of Cairo transferred it to Selim I.

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Universalium. 2010.

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