Caliphate, Featured, Ruling

Conditions of the Caliph

There is consensus (ijma) among the scholars on the pillars (arkan) that someone must possess to take up the post of Khaleefah. However, there are differences of opinion (ikhtilaaf), on some of the other conditions (shuroot) such as being from Quraysh, a mujtahid (able to perform ijtihad) and brave.

The contractual conditions must have a shar’a daleel (divine evidence) from the divine text (Qur’an and Sunnah). Imam Ghazali (1058-1111) says, “Conditions for the Imamate must be proved, and proof is either a text from the Trustee of the Law, or a reasoning about the benefit (maslaha) for which the Imamate is sought. The only text is that about descent from Quraysh. The other conditions are from necessity and needed for the purpose of the Imamate.”[1]

Before discussing the opinions of the classical scholars concerning the contractual conditions of a Khaleefah, we need to understand the time period they lived in. Only then can we begin to appreciate why they emphasised certain conditions over others, and why they legitimised certain abnormal situations, such as the Khaleefah delegating (tafweedh) most of his executive powers to a Turkic (non-Qurayshi) Emir or Sultan.

In the later part of the Abbasid Khilafah during the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, the state split in to a number of autonomous provinces, with some declaring themselves fully independent as rival Khilafahs, and others as Emirates and Sultanates who gave nominal allegiance to the Abbasid Khaleefah in Baghdad. The Fatimids (Ismailis) in Egypt declared independence and a “Khilafah” in 909CE. This lasted until 1171 when Salahudeen Ayyubi who was a Wazir within the Fatimid State, formally abolished it upon the death of its last Emir Al-Adid. He then gave bay’ah to the Abbasid Khaleefah Al-Mustadi in Baghdad, and Egypt became unified with the Khilafah once again, albeit still semi-independent with the Seljuk Sultan Nur ad-Din Zengi in full control of Egypt and Ash-Sham.

In the East, the Buyids established themselves in Iraq, and central and southern Iran from 934 to 1062, but kept the Abbasid Khaleefah in office. The Khaleefah had limited executive power, with most executive power delegated (tafweedh) to the Buyid Emir. The Buyids were replaced by the Seljuk Sultanate (1037-1194), which spanned across Central Asia, Khorasan, Iran and the Middle East in to Ash-Sham and Anatolia, but the Khaleefah continued to exert limited authority, with most executive powers held by the Sultan. Ibn Khaldun says, “From the time of an-Nâṣir (r. 1180-1225) on, the caliphs were in control of an area smaller than the ring around the moon.”[2]

It’s during this time that the ahkam (rules) related to the Khilafah or Imamah, as it was commonly known, were collated and written down.

Al-Mawardi (972–1058), wrote his famous book Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyyah ‘The laws of governance’ during the mid-11th century, which collated all the rules related to the Islamic governing system, and which became the de-facto go to reference by later scholars. The ulema of the past were not academics who simply wrote textbooks about hypothetical scenarios. They were scholars who wrote practical guides for the Muslims, so they could implement Islam in their lives and societies like the sahaba did. Al-Mawardi was the Chief Judge (Qadi ul-Qudat) for the Abbasid Khaleefahs Al-Qadir and Al-Qa’im, and an ambassador for them in their dealings with the Buyid Emirs. His book was written for leaders, statesmen and politicians to implement.

Al-Mawardi lays down seven conditions for the Imam (Khaleefah), according to the Shafi’i madhhab (school of thought):[3]

  1. Justice
  2. Mujtahid
  3. Good health in their faculties of hearing, sight and speech
  4. Sound in limb
  5. A Judgement capable of organising the people and managing the offices of administration
  6. Courage and bravery
  7. Quraysh.

Imam Ghazali, also from the Shafi’i school mentions ten conditions[4] for the Imam (Khaleefah), six are innate and four are acquired. The six innate conditions are:

1. Mature

2. Sane

3. Free

4. Male

5. Quraysh

6. Sound sight and hearing;

The four acquired conditions are:

7. Military prowess/bravery (al-najdah),

8. administrative competence (al-kifayah)

9. piety (al-wara’)

10. knowledge (al-‘ilm)

These conditions are from his book Mustazhiri which was written on the orders of the Abbasid Khaleefah Al-Mustazhir (1094-1118) refuting the legitimacy of the Fatimid “Khilafah” based in Egypt.

Imam Qurtubi (1214-1273) from the Maliki school, mentions eleven conditions for the Imam.[5] These are:

  1. Muslim
  2. Free
  3. Sane
  4. Mature
  5. Male
  6. Good character
  7. Possess [ruling] experience
  8. Sound limbs
  9. Knowledge
  10. Quraysh
  11. Mujtahid

Although the condition of Quraysh features prominently as a mandatory condition for all the scholars of the period, its importance started to diminish with the rise of the Turkic Sultans. Power and strength became more important conditions for the Khaleefah, with Ibn Jamāʾah (1241-1333) initiating the idea that “the seizure of power itself gave authority”.[6]

Al-Juwayni (1028-1085), who taught at the Nizamiyya madrassa established by the Seljuk wazir Nizam ul-Mulk (1018-1092) mentions, “If there is in an era someone who possesses sufficiency and strength but does not reach independence in his mastery of knowledge, and has dominated by means of his numerous [troops] and helpers and endorsed by the loyalty of powerful people, then he is the ruler and under his power are the affairs of wealth, military and other offices, but it is incumbent upon him to not finalize any matter without the consultation of the ulama.”[7] “The overall purpose of establishing a leader for the Muslim community, al-Juwaynī argues, is not affected by the question of genealogy, whereas to insist upon a leader of Qurashī blood may in fact be detrimental. Preference, al-Juwaynī explains, should be assigned at all times to a scholarly, capable, and pious candidate for caliph over one who is merely Qurashī.”[8]

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) says, “The group feeling (asabiyah) of the Fâṭimids and the Ṭâlibids, indeed, that of all the Quraysh, has everywhere disappeared. There are other nations whose group feeling has gained the upper hand over that of the Quraysh.”[9]

These changes in Islamic political thought, laid the foundations for the rise of the Ottoman Khilafah in 1517, and the end of the powerless Qurayshi Abbasid Khaleefahs in Cairo. After the abolition of the Khilafah in 1924 by Mustapha Kemal, Mustafa Sabri, the last Sheikh ul-Islam of the Ottoman Khilafah, wrote to Mustapha Kemal pointing out that he didn’t need to abolish the Khilafah and that “he could have had himself recognized as caliph, following this tradition, and Muslims around the world would have happily acquiesced. He was after all widely hailed as the hero of Islam and the restorer of its glory, and Muslims no longer felt compelled to limit a caliph’s lineage to Quraysh alone as they had with the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad and Cairo.”[10]

Although Al-Mawardi and Al-Ghazali didn’t explicitly list Muslim as a condition, this was because it was already understood by the target audience of their books i.e. the scholars, statesmen and rulers of the Islamic State. Imam Ghazali mentions elsewhere in Mustazhiri that “the key conditions of the Imamate are correctness of belief and soundness of religion”.[11]

As for the conditions related to capability like possessing ruling experience, sound limbs and knowledge we can combine them under one general condition called capability (kifayah). This leaves us with seven contractual conditions for the Khaleefah post which are agreed upon by the ulema, and which have decisive qaraa’in (indications) for being an obligation. This is the opinion of Abdul-Qadeem Zallum (1924–2003) who specified seven contractual conditions for the Khaleefah, four of which are pillars (arkaan) and three of which are conditions (shuroot).[12] He says, “The Khaleefah must satisfy seven contractual conditions in order to qualify for the Khilafah post and for the Bay’ah of Khilafah to him to take place legitimately. These seven conditions are necessary. If just one condition is not observed the Khilafah contract would not have taken place and it would be considered null and void.”[13]

The contractual pillars of the Khaleefah are:

1- Muslim

2- Free (hurr)

3- Sane (‘aaqil)

4- Mature (baaligh)

The contractual conditions are:

5- Male

6- Just (‘adl)

7- Capable (kifayah)

More in this series:

Conditions of the Caliph: Why only a Muslim Caliph?

Conditions of the Caliph: Why can’t a woman be a ruler in the Caliphate?

Conditions of the Caliph: What does the word upright (‘Adl) mean?

Conditions of the Caliph: Will there will be teenage Caliphs in a future Caliphate?

Conditions of the Caliph: Why does the Caliph being free actually mean?

Conditions of the Caliph: The Caliph must be sane

Conditions of the Caliph: The Caliph must be capable of ruling


[1] Imam Ghazali, ‘Al-Mustazhari,’ translated by Richard J. McCarthy, Twayne Publishers, 1980, p.278

[2] Ibn Khaldun, ‘The Muqaddimah – An Introduction to History,’ Translated by Franz Rosenthal, Princeton Classics, pp.385

[3] Abu l-Hasan al-Mawardi, The Laws of Islamic Governance, translation of Al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyah, Ta Ha Publishers, p.12

[4] Imam Ghazali, Op.cit., p.278

[5] al-Qurṭubī, ‘Tafsīr al-Qurṭubī Vol. 1,’ translated by Aisha Bewley, Diwan press, p.156

[6] Mona Hassan, ‘Longing for the Lost Caliphate,’ Princeton University Press, 2016, p.104

[7] Al-Juwayni, Ghiyath al-Umam, 392; Quoted in Ovamir Anjum, ‘Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought,’ Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.123

[8] Mona Hassan, Op.cit., p.104

[9] Ibn Khaldun, Op.cit., p.394

[10] Mona Hassan, Op.cit., p.238

[11] Imam Ghazali, Op.cit., p.276

[12] Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, ‘An Introduction to the Constitution and its obligation’ translation of Muqadimatud-Dustur Aw al-Asbabul Mujibatulah, Article 40, p.124

[13] Abdul-Qadeem Zallum, ‘The Ruling System in Islam,’ translation of Nizam ul-Hukm fil Islam, Khilafah Publications, Fifth Edition, p.55