The advent of a prophet is a grand occurrence in the world, in which a man sent from God to bring the people back to a path of morality and righteousness, but is invariably opposed by his people and subject to the bitterest opposition. But it seems a futile exercise if the divine guidance only flows during the lifetime of a prophet – a limited range of time after which the people are once again rudderless without the divinely guided leader who brought them back to God, peace and enlightenment. It seems a great deal of trouble for a limited benefit that leaves the society, yearning for more.
It is for this reason that God always establishes a system of successors – a Caliphate – after every prophet, who carry on the mission and mandate of the prophet.
In recent times, the term ‘Caliphate’ has been much distorted by extremist groups and the mainstream media to be of something radical. And it often generates an apprehension of an Islamic uprising where Muslims will take over the political world. However, the concept of Caliphate in Islam is much different than that. The word ‘Caliphate’ means succession and the ‘Caliph’ is a successor to a prophet of God. The goals and objectives of a Caliph are far from being political or governmental. The role of a true Caliph in Islam is to complete the tasks of reformation and moral training that the prophet started. Indeed, the Caliphate exists and flourishes without being a political state and is meant for spiritual guidance and unification.
The Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) prophesied that after his demise a period of caliphate will follow, then monarchy and after an interval, caliphate would be re-established based on the precepts of prophethood.
This notion is also established in the Holy Qur’an where it says, “Allah has promised to those among you who believe and do good works that he will surely make them successors in the earth, as he made successors from among those who were before them…” (24:56).
Today, we see this prophecy being fulfilled precisely. Indeed, it is the Ahmadiyya Muslim community who has been blessed with over 100 years of Caliphate. A Caliphate that continues to flourish despite all the persecution and oppression faced by its members. Against all odds, the members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community are spread into 206 nations, united by one spiritual leader. And every year, hundreds of thousands people are joining Ahmadiyyat Islam and are becoming part of a global tree. A tree which is planted by God, raised by the Prophet, revived by the Messiah and nourished by the Caliph.
For our discussion, we would like to make a distinction between “Khilafat” and “caliphate” for reasons other than mere etymological development of the words. In Arabic “Khalifa” means “successor/deputy/vicegerent”, and “khilafat” is the dominion of a Khalifa, or the institution that runs under the leadership of a Khalifa.
In English, “caliph” is the chief civil and political Muslim ruler regarded as a successor of Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him). But in the Holy Quran, the words khalifa (in singular) and khulafa or khalaa’if (in plural) have wider connotations than “caliph” and “caliphs” in English. For example, the Holy Quran uses the title of “khalifa on the earth” for Prophet Adam as “God’s deputy or vicegerent on the earth” (2:31). In Arabic we can call him “Khalifatul-Allah” but we cannot call him as ‘God’s Caliph.’
Similarly, David is called a “khalifa”, a vicegerent of God in the Holy Quran: ‘O David! We have made you a khalifa (vicegerent) in the earth; so judge between men with justice and follow not vain desires, lest it should lead you astray from the way of Allah.’ (38:27).
But we never say “Caliph David” in the English language; he is called “King David”. Moreover, in the Holy Qur’an the words “khalifa” and “khulafa” (plural of khalifa) have been used for some nations or specific generations in the sense that God did a great favor to them and made them dominant over the earth: “And remember the time when He made you as khulafa after the people of Noah, and increased you abundantly is constitution.” (7:75).
“And remember the time when He appointed you as khulafa after ‘Ad, and assigned you an abode in the land.” (7:75). But in English we do not refer to any nation or generation as “Caliphs.”
The Holy Qur’an specifically uses the term “khalifa” indicating a special favor of Allah to the people not only by granting them worldly power, but more specifically as a spiritual reward for their righteousness. In this sense, to retain the blessing of khilafat, vigilance is required as it is a test and a trail for righteous people.
“And He it is Who has made you khalaa’if (successors to win favors of God) on the earth, and then exalted some of you over the others in degrees of rank, so that He may try you by that which He has given you” (6:166).
“ Then We made you khalaa’if (successors) in the earth after them (i.e. the earlier generation), that We might see how you would act.” (10:15).
“Who answers the distressed person when he calls upon Him, and removes the evil, and makes you khulafa (successors) in the earth? Is there a God besides Allah? Little it is that you reflect” (27:63).
In this verse the blessing of khilafat is closely connected with God’s answering the prayers of the distressed, and removing a sorrowful state. Again, “Verily, Allah knows the secrets of the heavens and the earth. Verily, He knows full well all that lies hidden in the breasts. He it is Who made you khalaa’if (successors/vicegerents) in the earth. So he, who disbelieves, will himself suffer the consequences of his disbelief” (35:40). In the quoted verses above, the Holy Qur’an lays emphasis on the moral, ethical and spiritual aspects as a requirement for the believers to receive the favor of khilafat from God.
“Allah has promised to those among you who possess faith, and do good works, that He will surely make them Successors in the earth, as He had made Successors from among those who were before them; and that He will surely establish for them their religion which He has chosen for them; and He will surely give them in exchange security (and peace) after their fear: They will worship Me alone, and they will not associate anything with Me” (24:56)
God’s promise to establish Khilafat as a blessing for mankind is firmly rooted in the moral and spiritual condition of sincere believers. In this specific sense, we make a distinction between Khilafat and Caliphate. Caliphate deals with civil and political domain of the rulers in Islamic history, but khilafat deals with moral, religious and spiritual leadership of mankind. Khilafat exerts to establish the worship of One God, to see that the people remain prayerful, do good works, live freely, and maintain peace. Therefore, a political ruler who might be called “Caliph” may not be a “Khalifa” in the true Qur’anic sense of the word. Hadhrat Huzaifa – a companion of Muhammad – narrates that that the Messenger of Allah sa said: “Prophethood will remain among you as long as Allah wills. Then khilafat on the lines of Prophethood shall commence, and remain as long as Allah wills: Then corrupt/erosive monarchy would take place, and it will remain as long as Allah wills. After that, despotic kingship would emerge, and it will remain as long as Allah wills. Then, the khilafat shall come once again based on the precept of Prophethood.” In this narration, the promise of khilafat is connected with Prophethood on two separate occasions.