What is a caliphate?

A “caliphate” is a region controlled by an Islamic state and government, usually under a system of sharia law – meaning that the laws of the region are taken from a fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran.

The word caliphate is also used in reference to the government who control this region: which means that a caliphate (government) controls a caliphate (region) in the Islamic world.


Although there are no significant caliphates left in the world today, caliphates controlled Asia and much of North Africa for a significant period of the world’s history; each one was like an empire of its own, and together formed the Ancient Islamic Empire.

Who rules a caliphate?

The caliphate is ruled by a leader called a “caliph” and his government, or “caliphate”. The tradition of the caliphate began after the death of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. Caliphs are seen as successors to Muhammad, and it is their responsibility to manage the practice and spread of Islam in his place.

The powers of the caliphs were similar to those of the king – while the caliphs held supreme authority, they sought advice from their governments in most matters, and were generally run as oligarchies (systems of government in which more than one person holds all the power.)

What was the first caliphate?

The first caliphate was formed after the death of Muhammad in 632 A.D. As Muhammad had not chosen a successor at the time of death, a great struggle for power ensued when he passed away.

The Muslim people couldn’t decide who should take power. This indecision led to the “great schism” of the Islamic faith, which saw the religion split into two denominations – Sunni and Shia.

The first caliphate was called the Rashidun Caliphate, and the first caliph chosen was a man named Abu Bakr. He was the first of the “Rightly Guided” caliphs, a name given to the four caliphs who were given personal tutelage by Muhammad himself before his death.

The vector version of the iconic calligraphy of the 1st Rashidun Chalif

Despite the mass support the four “Rightly Guided” caliphs had from the public, their caliphate lasted only 30 years. The Rashidun Caliphate collapsed following the assassination of the fourth “Rightly Guided” caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib. Following its collapse, the role of the caliphate became a highly contested position, and a great struggle for power ensued.

What were the other major caliphates?

The Umayyad Caliphate (661 – 750 A.D.) was the first to be established following the collapse of the Rashidun Caliphate, and in many ways is considered a continuation of the first.

Under the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate, the Islamic empire expanded greatly, spreading to encompass parts of eastern Europe and most of Asia; it even spread far enough along southern Europe to control most of Spain and Portugal.

The Umayyad Caliphate was the first to establish a dynasty of succession, with the role of leader passed from father to son with each generation. The first caliph of the Umayyad caliphate was named Uthman.

The Abbasid Caliphate (750 – 1517 A.D.) began when the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads, following a period of political weakness. The Golden Age of Islam occurred under the Abbasid Caliphate.

This was a time of great scientific, cultural, and technological development for the region. In 1258 A.D, the Mongols ransacked the Abbasid capital of Baghdad, forcing the caliphate to flee to Egypt and establish Cairo as the new Islamic capital.

Following the destruction of Baghdad, however, the caliphate’s political power was vastly reduced.

The Abbasid Caliphate is occasionally referred to as the last caliphate of Islam – although the “Ottoman Caliphate” only legally came to an end in 1924, when the country of Turkey was established, the position of caliph was far more political than spiritual in the years following the destruction of Abbasid Baghdad.

However, the Ottoman Caliphate is more commonly called the final caliphate of Islam. The Ottoman Empire held political power in the Middle East for over 700 years.

Facts about the Caliphates of the Early Islamic World:

  • A “caliphate” is a region controlled by an Islamic state and government.
  • Most caliphates were run on a basis of Sharia law, but this was not always the case.
  • The caliphate is ruled by a leader called a caliph.
  • The caliphs were the successors of the Prophet Muhammad.
  • The first caliphate, the Rashidun Caliphate was formed after the death of Muhammad in 632 A.D. It was ruled over by four of Muhammad’s students, the “Rightly Guided” caliphs.
  • The next caliphate was the Umayyad Caliphate. The Umayyad Caliphate oversaw a great expansion of the Islamic Empire, where its territory stretched all the way to Spain and North Africa.
  • Following the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate came to power. During the Abbasid Caliphate, the Golden Age of Islam began. The Golden Age of Islam was a time of great cultural, technological, and scientific development for the Middle East.
  • The Abbasid Caliphate is seen by many to be the last caliphate, and came to an end in 1258 A.D. when the city of Baghdad was destroyed by the Mongols.


  1. What is a caliphate?

A “caliphate” is a region controlled by an Islamic state and government.

  1. Who is the supreme leader of a caliphate?

– The Caliph.

  1. What was the name of the first caliphate, and why were its leaders called the “Rightly Guided?”

– The Rashidun Caliphate. Its caliphs were called the “Rightly Guided” because they were all personal students of the prophet Muhammad.

  1. What was the name of the caliphate which came to power following the collapse of the Umayyad?

– The Abbasid Caliphate.

  1. What year was the city of Baghdad sacked by the Mongols?

– 1258 A.D.