According to Sunni Islamic tradition, the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad and therefore empowered to lead the entire Muslim community. After the death of Muhammad, the first four Caliphs, Abu Bakr (r. 632 – 634), Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634 – 644), Uthman ibn Affan (r. 644 – 656), and Ali ibn Abi Talib (r. 656 – 661), were prominent companions of the prophet who were selected by other companions based on their piety, ability to control the affairs of the Muslims, and membership in the prophet’s Quraysh tribe. The issue of succession, however, led to decades of sectarian strife, culminating with the assassination of Ali at the hands of troops loyal to Mu‘awiya, the first caliph of the Ummayad Dynasty. This action solidified a rift in Muslim society, causing the formation of the Shi’a branch of Islam and establishing the caliph as an undemocratic dynastic position based purely on heredity.
   Over time, various caliphal dynasties came to power, and the resultant changes often included moving the dynastic capital to different cities within the Muslim world such as Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Istanbul. In the mid-thirteenth century, the Mongols razed Baghdad and destroyed the Abbasid caliphal line, effectively ending the traditional power afforded to the caliph. Although the position was quickly restored under the Mamluks of Cairo, it was no longer a strong unifying position, but rather a weak figurehead. The Ottoman conquest of Egypt in the early sixteenth century ended the Abbasid caliphate of Cairo. The Ottoman sultan Selim I (1467–1520) claimed that caliphal authority had been passed to him by the last Abbasid caliph, conferring on him and future sultans the title of caliph. Most early Ottoman sultans, however, did not feel it necessary to call upon caliphal authority to rule their empire, using it mainly as a justification to conquer other Muslim lands.
   In the late eighteenth century, the Ottoman sultan’s authority became threatened by internal forces for independence and outside pressure from rival European empires. Sultan Mahmud II (1785–1839) sought to strengthen the central government’s control of his far-flung empire and modernize Ottoman civil society and military forces. The European influence engendered in the modernization process caused friction within the empire, and a growing rivalry developed between the sultan and the universally popular Muhammad Ali of Egypt. Despite all of Mahmud II’s efforts to hold the empire together, during his reign he lost Algeria to France and Syria to Muhammad Ali, and saw Greek independence established. By the time Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842–1918) was firmly in power in the late nineteenth century, the empire was rapidly disintegrating. In response, he asserted his role as caliph in an effort to inspire pan-Islamic unity and support from the disparate ethnic groups within the Ottoman Empire and around the Muslim world. As the Ottoman Empire foundered, its European rivals began to colonize regions previously under the sultan’s control, as well as other Muslim lands. Some of the colonized peoples looked to the caliph as the symbol of the broader Muslim world and a last hope to restore their lands to Muslim control; this sentiment was particularly strong in British colonial India. Nonetheless, internal strife, defeat in World War I, and the rise of the secular westernized government of Mustapha Kemal in Turkey sealed the fate of the caliphate. The last caliph, Abdul Mejid (1868–1944), was deposed and the position of caliph abolished in 1924.
   See also <>.
    Crone, Patricia, and Hinds, Martin. God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986;
    Quataert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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