Caliphate, Featured, Ruling

4. CALIPHATE CONTENTIONS: It is permitted to have multiple Caliphs or rulers and multiple Islamic states

This article has been reproduced from Prophetic Politics.

Generally speaking, the contemporary argument that it is permitted to have more than one ruler for Muslims is not textually based but derived from the thinking that the paradigm of the nation-state is the only pragmatic way to do politics today. The inability to imagine another form of state, or to envision a unified Muslim state, may then lead to the sincere individual seeking justification from Islam for submission to the current geo-political status quo, hence the relevance of this contention.

This contention is pushed under the arguments:

  1. It is not an obligation to have a single Caliph – scholars have differed over it
  2. It is not possible to have a single Caliph – so it is not necessary
  3. Historically a single uncontested Caliph was the exception not the rule, and therefore it has not been considered obligatory

These arguments are then used to conclude that the idea of a unified Islamic state is un-realistic, and the status quo of multiple nation states is fine.

A Summary of the Normative Position on Unified Leadership

A summary of the normative positions regarding the obligation of having a single caliph, from whom all authority to execute ruling is derived, is as follows:

  1. The obligation of having a single caliph, and the forbiddance of having more than one, is agreed upon in normative Sunni scholarship, without exception.
  2. A minority of Sunni scholars such as Imam al-Qurtubi held that under circumstances of necessity, the prohibition of having more than one ruler is temporarily lifted via the application of the rule that necessities make that which is forbidden to be permitted (i.e. the same rule that is applied for eating pork if starving etc.)
  3. Despite that, according to scholars such as al-Nawawi the vast majority of Sunni scholarship rejected the above position, and stated that under no circumstances at all is it permitted to have more than a single caliph
  4. Different Shia schools allowed more than one caliph (these details are not the concern of this article)
  5. The Zaydi school of thought – followed by the two scholars al-Sana’ai and al-Showkani – believed it to be possible to have more than one caliph

The Evidences that it is obligatory to have a single Caliph

There are a few evidences used to establish the obligation of appointing a single ruler (Caliph, Sultan, Imam) over the Muslim nation (ummah)

At the head of these evidencesis the narration of the Prophet, peace be upon him:

إذَا بُويِعَ لِخَلِيفَتَيْنِ، فَاقْتُلُوا الآخَرَ مِنْهُمَا

If the bay`a (pledge of allegiance) is given to two Caliphs, then kill the second of them

This evidence is explicit in prohibiting the appointment of more than one caliph.

There are several other evidences from Qur’an, prophetic narrations (Sunnah/ ahadith), and the example of the companions.

Among them the narration where the Prophet describes how the tribes of the banu Isra’il used to be ruled by Prophets, whereas after the Messenger, peace be upon him, there will be no further Prophets and rather there will be khulafa – successors. When asked what the Muslims should do – part of the reply was:

فُوا بِبَيْعَةِ الْأَوَّلِ، فَالْأَوَّلِ

Fulfil your pledge of allegiance to them, the first, then the first (i.e. one after another, and to the first person appointed)

The indication that it is prohibited to have more than a single caliph from this narration is the instruction to pledge to them one after another, and that any pledge given during the existence of another pledge would be invalid.

Among the Quranic verses used:

وَأَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَلاَ تَنَازَعُوا فَتَفْشَلُوا وَتَذْهَبَ رِيحُكُمْ

And obey God and His messenger, and do not dispute/quarrel so you fail/become weakened and your wind/breeze (energy & strength) goes/goes away (8: 46)

According to some of the exegesis of the Quran, the “wind/ breeze” mentioned in the verse refers to the unity of the State.

And from the consensus of the companions – the words of Abu Bakr speech upon accepting the pledge of allegiance

وإنه لا يحل أن يكون للمسلمين أميران ؛ فإنه مهما يكن ذلك يختلف أمرهم ، وأحكامهم ، وتتفرق جماعتهم ، ويتنازعوا فيما بينهم ، هنالك تترك السنة ، وتظهر البدعة ، وتعظم الفتنة ، وليس لأحد على ذلك صلاح

And it is not permitted for the Muslims to have two Amirs (leaders), since if that would occur it would lead to a difference in their affairs, and laws, and their unity would be split, and there would be competition between them. That would be leaving the sunnah, and innovation would appear, and fitna would spread, and none of that would be in anyone’s benefit

Selected Quotes from Islamic Scholarship Regarding the Obligation

The evidences mentioned have historically formed the backbone of the position within normative Sunni scholarship regarding the prohibition of having more than one caliph. The following quotes highlight that consensus:

Abu Muhammad ibn hazm describes the consensus of Islamic jurists upon the prohibition of two leaders being appointed whatever the circumstance in his book al-muhalla

واتفقوا ـ (أي الفقهاء) ـ أنه لا يجوز على المسلمين في وقت واحد في جميع الدنيا إمامان، لا متفقان ولا مفترقان، ولا في مكانين، ولا في مكان واحد

And (the jurists) agreed that it is not permitted for the Muslims to have two imams, in the whole world, at the same time – whether it was agreed (to divide the authority) between them or they differed over it. And it is not permitted irrespective of whether they were in the same place, or two difference places.

In ahkam al-sultaniyya, Imam al-Mawardi also states the position of mainstream Sunni scholarship.

إذا عقدت الإمامة لإمامين في بلدين لم تنعقد إمامتهما، لأنه لا يجوز أن يكون للأمة إمامان في وقت واحد، وإن شذ قوم فجوزوه

If two Imams are appointed in separate lands, their leadership is invalid – because it is not permitted for the Muslim ummah to have two Imams at one time (despite the aberrant/ shadh position of those who permitted it)

The following narration found in sahih Muslim

كَانَتْ بَنُو إِسْرَائِيلَ تَسُوسُهُمُ الْأَنْبِيَاءُ، كُلَّمَا هَلَكَ نَبِيٌّ خَلَفَهُ نَبِيٌّ، وَإِنَّهُ لَا نَبِيَّ بَعْدِي، وَسَتَكُونُ خُلَفَاءُ فَتَكْثُرُ»، قَالُوا: فَمَا تَأْمُرُنَا؟ قَالَ: «فُوا بِبَيْعَةِ الْأَوَّلِ، فَالْأَوَّلِ، وَأَعْطُوهُمْ حَقَّهُمْ، فَإِنَّ اللهَ سَائِلُهُمْ عَمَّا اسْتَرْعَاهُمْ

“The tribes of Isra’il were ruled by the Prophets, every time a Prophet deceased he was followed by another Prophet, and there will be no Prophets after me, and there will be Khulafaa (successors) and they will be many.” The companions then asked “What do you order us?” To which the Prophet replied “Fulfil your pledge of allegiance to them one after another, and give them their rights, and truly Allah will ask them about their responsibilities”

In his book on the explanation of sahih Muslim, Imam al-Nawawi explains that the narration is a proof that it is obligatory to appoint a single caliph as the leader of the Muslims, and how it is prohibited under any circumstance for more than one to be appointed.

وَمَعْنَى هَذَا الْحَدِيثِ إِذَا بُويِعَ لِخَلِيفَةٍ بَعْدَ خَلِيفَةٍ فَبَيْعَةُ الْأَوَّلِ صَحِيحَةٌ يَجِبُ الْوَفَاءُ بِهَا وَبَيْعَةُ الثَّانِي بَاطِلَةٌ يَحْرُمُ الْوَفَاءُ بِهَا وَيَحْرُمُ عَلَيْهِ طَلَبُهَا وَسَوَاءٌ عَقَدُوا لِلثَّانِي عَالِمِينَ بِعَقْدِ الأول جَاهِلِينَ وَسَوَاءٌ كَانَا فِي بَلَدَيْنِ أَوْ بَلَدٍ أَوْ أَحَدُهُمَا فِي بَلَدِ الْإِمَامِ الْمُنْفَصِلِ

The meaning of this narration, is that if a caliph is given a pledge of allegiance after another caliph has already been appointed, then the first appointment is valid and must be fulfilled, whereas the second is void and it is prohibited to fulfil it. It is prohibited for him to request that fulfilment, irrespective of whether they knew of the first caliph or not, and irrespective of whether they were in the same or different locations, or whether one of them was in a land totally separated from the other.

He also addresses the position of those scholars who believed that if it was impossible to have a single ruler, due to a reason such as a huge distance between separate lands, claiming that this position was untenable as it went against conclusive and clear definitive proofs.

وَاتَّفَقَ الْعُلَمَاءُ عَلَى أَنَّهُ لَا يَجُوزُ أَنْ يُعْقَدَ لِخَلِيفَتَيْنِ فِي عَصْرٍ وَاحِدٍ سَوَاءٌ اتَّسَعَتْ دَارُ الْإِسْلَامِ أَمْ لَا وَقَالَ إِمَامُ الْحَرَمَيْنِ فِي كِتَابِهِ الْإِرْشَادِ قَالَ أصحابنا لا يجوز عقدها شخصين قَالَ وَعِنْدِي أَنَّهُ لَا يَجُوزُ عَقْدُهَا لِاثْنَيْنِ فِي صُقْعٍ وَاحِدٍ وَهَذَا مُجْمَعٌ عَلَيْهِ قَالَ فَإِنْ بَعُدَ مَا بَيْنَ الْإِمَامَيْنِ وَتَخَلَّلَتْ بَيْنَهُمَا شُسُوعٌ فَلِلِاحْتِمَالِ فِيهِ مَجَالٌ قَالَ وَهُوَ خَارِجٌ مِنَ الْقَوَاطِعِ وَحَكَى الْمَازِرِيُّ هَذَا الْقَوْلَ عَنْ بَعْضِ الْمُتَأَخِّرِينَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْأَصْلِ وَأَرَادَ بِهِ إِمَامَ الْحَرَمَيْنِ وَهُوَ قَوْلٌ فَاسِدٌ مُخَالِفٌ لِمَا عَلَيْهِ السَّلَفُ وَالْخَلَفُ وَلِظَوَاهِرِ إِطْلَاقِ الْأَحَادِيثِ وَاللَّهُ أَعْلَمُ

The scholars have agreed that it is not permissible for two caliphs to be appointed in the same time, irrespective of whether the Islamic state/ dar al-Islam was widely spread or not. Imam al-Haramain (al-juwaini) wrote in his book al-irshad: ‘Our companions (meaning – scholars in the Shafi’i school of thought) that it is not permitted for two people to be contracted (as caliph). My opinion is that it is not permitted to appoint two in a single land, and this opinion is agreed upon. If there is a large distance/ region between the two leaders, then there is some scope for it (to be permitted).’ (Al-Nawawi) This view contradicts what is conclusively known. Al-Maziri narrated this view as being the view of some of the later scholars, by which he meant Imam al-Haramain, and it is an invalid (fasid) opinion which contradicts what the salaf and khalaf were upon, as well as the clear/ literal position of the prophetic narrations. And Allah knows best.

What is clear from the above quotes, is

  1. The conclusive view that it was obligatory to appoint a single ruler over all the Muslims, and prohibited to appoint a second
  2. A minority considered that under a circumstance of necessity, such as a huge expanse of land between Muslims such that it was impractical or impossible for a single leader to rule over both areas, it was permitted to have a second ruler.
  3. The minority position (b) – despite seeming to be justifiable under the rule of necessity – was condemned and considered invalid by scholars such as al-Nawawi.

The view of the Zaydi school of thought

Dr. Wahba al-Zuhaily mentions in his book al-fiqh al-Islami wa adillatuh that the Zaydi school of thought believed that it was permitted to have two caliphs appointed, so long as they were in separate lands (or in other words – not contesting/ conflicting with each other).

Imam al-Sana`ani argued that since the Abbasid caliphate, the Muslims haven’t agreed upon a single caliph and instead independent fiefdoms sprung up within the Muslim lands, each being ruled over by their own leader. Consequently, as a result of the spread of Islam across regions, it was permitted for the different regions/ lands to have their own ruler, and each ruler should be obeyed.

Imam al-Showkani explains that expecting people in a distant land to obey someone who they have no communication with would be asking the impossible, and therefore would be invalid.

ولا تجب على أهل القطر الآخر طاعته ولا الدخول تحت ولايته لتباعد الأقطار فإنه قد لا يبلغ إلى ما تباعد منها خبر إمامها أو سلطانها ولا يُدرى من قام منه أو مات, فالتكليف بالطاعة والحال هذا تكليف بما لا يطاق.
It is not obligatory for the people of the other region to obey (the ruler of another domain), and to be part of his governorship due to the distance between the regions, since the news of his leadership or sultanate may not reach them, and they would not know whether he was ruling there or had died [as way of an example]. Obediance is commanded, and the situation in this case it would be an impossible command [and therefore is not a command at all since Allah does not command the impossible]

There are two main elements to the Zaydi argument. One mimics the minority view in Sunni scholarship; namely that necessity mandates the appointment of two caliphs due to the difficulty for a single ruler in administering faraway lands.

The other is the historical precedence argument – i.e. the practical reality was that there were several competing caliphs or sultans, and therefore it is not an obligation to have a single Imam.

Discussion of the Historical Precedence Argument

It should first be noted that scholars such as ibn Hazm, al-Mawardi and al-Nawawi each lived during eras where there was division between different Muslims, and even contestations over the caliphate. Irrespective of this, they conveyed the opinion that unity was an obligation, and only one caliph could be legitimate.

This is to highlight that disunity is not something recent, or even only as far back as the last couple of centuries during which time the two Zaydi Imams were writing, but reaches back to the first centuries of Islamic history. With contested opinions over ruling and authority throughout history, and the spread of Islam to as far as Spain and India, the realities mentioned were considered by all of the scholars who talked upon the subject. And the vast majority conveyed that the normative position was that despite whatever the status quo was at the time, the Islamic rule was that a single ruler was mandated.

Historical precedence is not an evidence for permissibility. That it is not a source of Islamic ruling should be clear – if taken to its conclusion that would mean that we can point to the actions of some of the leaders historically to align themselves with groups hostile to the Muslims such as the crusaders or Mongols, or enforced hereditary rule, or other indiscretions of specific rulers which went unchecked, whether personal or otherwise – and suggest that they were also permitted since they took place. Such an argument is irresponsible, incorrect and contrary to Islamic thought.

The fact that the Prophet – peace be upon him – made the statement that if two caliphs are appointed then the second should be killed – is evidence that disunity will occur among Muslims, and that there would be situations where authority would be contested. The direction of the Prophet to kill the second claimant to the caliphate both ascertains the seriousness of the issue – by making deliberate attempts to violate political unity a capital offence, mandating death if necessary in order to remove the conflict – as well as the clear injunction that political unity of the Muslim ummah is a general and all-encompassing rule.

As for what to do in the situation where there is division due to the shortcomings within the Muslim community, Sheikh ibn Taymiyya wrote that it is imperative that each leader still implements Islam in their authority.

والسنة أن يكون للمسلمين إمام واحد، والباقون نوابه، فإذا فرض أن الأمة خرجت عن ذلك لمعصية من بعضها، وعجز من الباقين، أو غير ذلك فكان لها عدة أئمة، لكان يجب على كل إمام أن يقيم الحدود، ويستوفي الحقوق

According to the sunnah, the Muslims should have a single Imam, and the other leaders are his assistants. If it was the case that the Muslim ummah were no longer united under a single ruler, due to the sinfulness of some of the Muslims (by separating from the leadership), and the inability of the rest of the Muslims to prevent that from happening, or for any other reason, and as a result there were numerous leaders – then it is obligatory upon each leader to establish the hudud and ensure that peoples’ rights are fulfilled

A brief survey of Islamic history highlights that during the period of greater disunity, greater calamities befell the Muslim ummah such as the fall of al-Andalus, the long occupation of the Crusaders across Muslim lands including al-Quds, the sacking of Baghdad, and ultimately the abolition of the caliphate itself. These are just some of the examples of the loss of authority and security which can be contrasted to the spread of Islamic authority and security during periods of relative unity and stability.

This lesson is even more pertinent today, a period of greater disunity than any other, among the consequences being the attempted genocide of Muslims in places are distant as Bosnia, China, Burma and Palestine, the killing between Muslims due to nationalism and tribalism such as in Yemen, the Iraq-Iran war, Sudan, and the displacement of Muslims who do not fit into the current nation-state forms such as the Kashmiris, the Kurds, the dispossessed in Kuwait and elsewhere, along with too many other issues to be listed here.

1. CALIPHATE CONTENTIONS: There was no consensus among the companions that appointing a Khalifa is obligatory upon the Muslims.

2. CALIPHATE CONTENTIONS: The obligation to establish a Khilafa is not mentioned in the Quran, and therefore not an obligation.

3. CALIPHATE CONTENTIONS: There is nothing in the Sunna to suggest that establishing a Khilafah is an obligation upon the Muslims.


There is certainly no succour within Islamic scholarship for anyone promoting the idea of multiple Islamic states, let alone legitimising the division of Muslims into nation-states as we see today. This includes the minority views of the Zaydi school of thought. The nation-state inherently makes the supremacy of loyalty to the nation state, over and above loyalty to Allah, His messenger and the ummah, with some of the consequences listed in the previous section. This goes beyond the discussion of the division of Muslims under different or disputing leaders, and falls under the discussion about the foundation and nature of the state.

As for the historical argument, it is invalid and rejected. Islam came to change the status quo from that which runs counter to Islam to that which is in line with its injunctions and prohibitions, not to submit to the pressures of the time.

The contention that there may be large distances between lands under Muslim control which therefore necessitates multiple rulers can be rejected by the understanding that the caliph is able to appoint governors who would rule in those faraway lands by the authority invested in them by the caliph. Throughout pre-Islamic history other large empires existed across civilisations where the authority was ultimately derived from the leader of the empire, and that authority was devolved via the various bureaucracies that were developed.

The only circumstance where necessity may lead to two imams being appointed is if the two lands were far apart, and there was no communication between the two, and so each group appointed their imam in ignorance of the other group, believing their appointed leader was the sole leader. Whenever communication was established between the two sides, and one side was made known to the other, then the one who was appointed first would be considered the caliph, and the pledge of allegiance to the second would no longer be considered valid.

In conclusion – the normative position that it is only permitted to have a single leader for the Muslim ummah is overwhelmingly adopted within Islamic scholarship and political unity was seen as critical for maintaining the political presence of Islam as well as the security and authority for the ummah, and the contention is proven both inaccurate and damaging.

Dr. Reza Pankhurst is the author of The Inevitable Caliphate (Oxford University Press, 2012) and The Untold History of the Liberation Party (C Hurst & Co, 2016)