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The Difference between Caliph and Caliphate in Islam

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In daily life, we certainly often hear the term caliph and caliphate. In fact, people often consider that these two terms are similar, even though both have different meanings. The following are the differences between the caliph and the caliphate in Islam.


The Meaning of the Caliph

The caliph comes from the Arabic khalifah (خَلِيْفَة) which means a substitute or representative of Allah to carry out His laws on Earth, while continuing the leadership of the Prophet, both in worldly affairs and in the end. The word khalifah itself is in the Koran which shows a substitute leader.

Allah Ta’ala said (which means), “And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.” They said, “Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?” Allah said, “Indeed, I know that which you do not know.” (Surah Al Baqarah: 30)

In the verse, it is clear that humans or Adam were appointed as leaders on Earth. Some scholars argue that there are other creatures before humans, namely al jinn and al hinn. But then God created humans to replace them in leading the world.

The Word of God Ta’ala about the tribe ‘Aad:

وَاذْكُرُوا إِذْ جَعَلَكُمْ خُلَفَاءَ مِن بَعْدِ قَوْمِ نُوحٍ

“And remember all of you when God made you substitutes after the disappearance of Noah.” (Al-A’raf: 69)

The Word of Allah Ta’ala about the tribe of Thamud:

وَاذْكُرُوا إِذْ جَعَلَكُمْ خُلَفَاءَ مِن بَعْدِ عَادٍ

“And remember all of you when God makes you successors after the disappearance of the ‘Aad.” (Al-A’raf: 74)

ثُمَّ جَعَلْنَاكُمْ خَلَائِفَ فِي الْأَرْضِ مِن بَعْدِهِمْ لِنَنظُرَ كَيْفَ تَعْمَلُونَ

“Then, We make you substitutes (them) on the Earth after them, so that we pay attention to how you do.” (Jonah: 14)

Allah Ta’ala said to the Prophet David.

يَا دَاوُودُ إِنَّا جَعَلْنَاكَ خَلِيفَةً فِي الْأَرْضِ فَاحْكُم بَيْنَ النَّاسِ بِالْحَقِّ وَلَا تَتَّبِعِ الْهَوَىٰ فَيُضِلَّكَ عَن سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ

“O David, surely We make you caliph (substitute) on the face of the Earth. Then, make a judgment among the people fairly and do not follow lust, for it will lead you astray from the path of Allah.” (Shad: 26)

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The Meaning of the Caliphate

Next the difference between the caliph and the caliphate in Islam is, the meaning behind them. The caliphate or khilafah comes from Arabic خَلَفَ – يَخْلُفُ – خَلَفًا وَ خِلاَ فَة which means substitute. The word خِلاَ فَة means power or government. In terms, khilafah is an arrangement in a government in which everything is arranged according to Islamic teachings, where aspects relating to government are also entirely based on Islamic teachings.

The word khilafah itself is not found in the Koran, but there are many propositions that show how a caliphate or government should be built.

Allah Ta’ala said,

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ أَطِيعُواْ اللّهَ وَأَطِيعُواْ الرَّسُولَ وَأُوْلِي الأَمْرِ مِنكُمْ

“O ye who believe, obey Allah and obey His Messenger, and the ulil amri among you.” (An-Nisa: 59)

Imam Tabari concluded the most correct opinion is opinion, “They are the rulers who obey Allah and bring benefit to the Muslims.” (Jamiulul Bayan, Tabari: 8/502)

وَأَنِ احْكُم بَيْنَهُم بِمَا أَنزَلَ اللّهُ وَلاَ تَتَّبِعْ أَهْوَاءهُمْ وَاحْذَرْهُمْ أَن يَفْتِنُوكَ عَن بَعْضِ مَا أَنزَلَ اللّهُ إِلَيْكَ

“And let you decide the things between them according to what Allah has revealed, and do not follow their passions. And be careful of them, so that they do not turn you away from what Allah has sent to you.” (Al-Ma’idah: 49)

This argument explains that the law used in a system of government should be based on Islamic law; a law derived from God is not based on a law made by humans.

Allah Ta’ala also said,

لَقَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا رُسُلَنَا بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ وَأَنزَلْنَا مَعَهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْمِيزَانَ لِيَقُومَ النَّاسُ بِالْقِسْطِ وَأَنزَلْنَا الْحَدِيدَ فِيهِ بَأْسٌ شَدِيدٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ وَلِيَعْلَمَ اللَّهُ مَن يَنصُرُهُ وَرُسُلَهُ بِالْغَيْبِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ قَوِيٌّ عَزِيزٌ

“Indeed, We have sent Our Apostles by bringing tangible evidence and We have sent down with them the Book, and the balance sheet (justice) so that people can carry out justice. And We created iron in which there were a great strength and various benefits for mankind (so that they could use the iron), and so that God would know who helped (His religion) and His apostles, even though Allah had not seen him. Indeed, Allah is Strong, Mighty.” (Al-Hadid: 25)

From Abdullah bin Umar that the Prophet Sallallaahu ‘Alaihi Wasallam said,

مَنْ مَاتَ وَلَيْسَ فِي عُنُقِهِ بَيْعَة مَاتَ مِيْتَةً جَاهِلِيَّ

“Abdullah bin Umar related that the Prophet Sallallaahu ‘Alaihi Wasallam, “Whoever dies, and on his neck, there is no allegiance, then he dies in a state of jahiliyah.” (Narrated by Muslim, number 1851)

Imam Ash-Syathibi Rahimahullah said, “The tsabit (remains) that the Prophet Sallallaahu ‘Alaihi Wasallam did not die, so he has explained all the affairs of religion and the world that are needed, and this is no dispute among the experts of the sunnah.” (Al-I’tisham: 1/64)

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Al-Haitsami said, “Know that the Companions of Ridhwanullah ‘Alaihi said that appointing imams after the end of the Prophethood is obligatory, even they make it the most important obligation. The proof, they are busy raising leaders rather than taking care of the funeral of the Prophet Sallallaahu ‘Alaihi Wasallam.” (Ash-Shawa’iq al-Muhriqah, p.7)

The argument shows how important it is to have a leader who guides his people to believe and fear of Allah.

The meaning of caliph and caliphate indeed is different, but both of them show that humans are creatures who become leaders who follow the rules set by Allah. Hopefully, this article adds insight and faith in Allah.

Further readings:

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