Islamic Civilisation — 06 July 2011
The Meaning of “Khilafah”

The following is the introduction and first part of a presentation by Dr. Hassan Ko Nakata entitled “Humanitarian Intervention from Sunnite Islamic Perspective”, delivered at Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan as part of the international conference “Asian Perspectives on Humanitarian Intervention in the 21st Century”.

1. Introduction

In this presentation, we argue that

(1)    Jihad in Islam as its totality is to be interpreted as “a sort of  humanitarian intervention”, and

(2)     Islam has the better articulated teaching about the humanitarian intervention in case of violation of “human rights” of the oppressed Muslims.

Before that, we should explain the outline of Islamic world view to clarify that Islamic idea of “humanitarian intervention” is never to be realized in the frame work of “territorial nation state system” because it contradicts Islamic worldview as well as the concept of “humanity”.

The sole legitimate Islamic political system is Khilafah, the caliphate, which is intrinsically the global governance. It cannot be realized within the “territorial nation state system” despite that it may co-exist with “territorial nation state system”, because the Islamic world view is the dichotomy of Dar al-Islam(House of Islam) / Dar al-Harb(House of War). To explain: Dar al-Islam(whose political system is Khilafah) is conceived to be forced to coexist with Dar al-Harb according to rules of Siyar, Islamic international law, and the world of  the “territorial nation state system” is regarded as this Dar al-Harb(House of War).

In these days, most of the discourse talking about Islam in “public spheres” are systematically distorted under the pressure of the “global” ruling class or Establishment supporting the “territorial nation state system” who are oppressing “the true Islamic political discourse” of Khilafah by banning its publications, rejecting its advocators access to the offices of the government and the mass media, arresting them and killing them. That is why we hardly have heard about Khilafah, especially in the terminology of social science, and consequently have no understanding of its real meaning and actual implications in the contemporary world.

Therefore we should explain about Khilafah before entering our main topic.

2. Meaning of Khilafah

In Islamic law, Khilafah is synonymous with Imamah Kubra, and defined as “the supreme leadership in the religion and this world by the succession of the Prophet Muhammad”.

The necessity of the establishment of Khilafah, Caliphate, is the consensus of all the scholars of Islam, Ulama’, from the disciples of the Prophet Muhammad up to now. Even the most voluminous contemporary encyclopedia of Islamic law officially endorsed by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia declares that Ummah(Islamic community) anonymously agreed upon the obligation of establishment of Imamah(Caliphate) by the consensus of Sahabah wa-Tabi‘un(Prophetic disciples and their followers) .[1]

Although in Islamic law, Khalifah is abbreviation of Khalifah Rasul Allah, i.e., the successor of the Apostle of Allah, not Khalifah Allah, the vicegerent of Allah on the earth, but the connotation of the vicegerent of Allah on the Earth has never been forgotten. al-Qurtubi   says in his famous Qur’anic commentary  “This verse (“And when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lo! I am about to place a viceroy in the earth…Q:2:30) is the basis for the appointment of Imam or Khalifah who is listened to and obeyed in order that the opinion would be agreed and rules of the people be carried on.” (al-Qurtbi, al-Jami‘ li-Ahkam al-Qur’an, n.p., n.d., vol.1, p.264)

Khalifah is the vicegerent of Allah on the earth, thus the globalism and universalism is essential for Islamic politics, because Allah is not the Lord of any certain country but the Lord of the earth, thus Tawhid (uniqueness of Allah) requires the acceptance of oneness of the lordship of Allah on the earth as well as denial of the lordship for any other creatures on any places on it. And the place on which the unique lordship of Allah is realized, namely the Shari‘ah or the Divine Law of Allah alone is enacted and implemented to rule the people, is called Dar al-Islam. And the uniqueness of Khalifah symbolizes the unity and integrity of Dar al-Islam.

Khalifah must also be one person and two or more Khalifahs (Khulafa’ )’ coexistence is severely forbidden.[2] The Prophet Muhammad ordered loyalty to a single Khalifah in one age in order of accession to the throne, saying,; “although there is no prophet after me any longer, Khulafa’ (successors) will appear and their number will quite a large. Give allegiance to each of them after the other, and follow the authority which Allah vested in them.” (Hadith: Muslim), and he did not only reject the legitimacy of the second and following Khalifahs but ordered decisively their execution, saying,; “When the pledge of allegiance is given to two Khalifas, kill the second one.” (Hadith: Muslim)

When the Prophet Muhammad passed away, many tribes of Arabia refused to give Zakah to Madinah, the capital of the Khalifah Abu Bakr. At this time, the Khalifah Abu Bakr subjugated them despite of the fact that they confessed “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the apostle of Allah” and performed the prayer (Salah). This battle is called “apostasy (Riddah)” war. This decision of the Abu Bakr shows that the supremacy of the headship, Khilafah, and the unity of the Ummah(Muslim community) are fatally important for Islam.

The earth is one and indivisible, and consequently, the Khalifah as the vicegerent of Allah on the earth should be one and indivisible, as the lordship of Allah for the earth is one and indivisible, there is no god but Allah.

Islamic law prescribes the uniqueness of Khalifah and strictly forbids its plurality, because the Islamic order includes security of the freedom of migration. An angel says in the Qur’an; “But was not God’s earth spacious that you might have emigrated therein. (4:97), and Ibn ‘Abbas in his Qur’anic commentary Tanwir al-Miqbas, explains this verse; “…My earth is spacious…” as “the land of al-Madinah is safe, so immigrate to it.” (Ibn ‘Abbas, Tanwir al-Miqbas, 1992, Lebanon, p.102) Namely, al-Madinah, Dar al-Islam should be the place to which all the Muslims can immigrate. The oneness of the Khalifah symbolizes the oneness of the Islamic order, and the Islamic order secures the free movement of human beings and commodities within its territory, Dar al-Islam.

The earth belongs to nobody, but solely to Allah. Therefore, contrary to the ideology of the “territorial nation state” of modern Western Europe, Islam neither allows anyone to cut it into parts and restrict migration within it, nor allow human beings to be divided into separate nations. This is because Allah created human beings as various ethnic groups so that they could know each other, as Allah says; “We have indeed created you from a male and a female, and made you nations and tribes that you may come to know one another.” (49:13), and the freedom of migration is the precondition for mutual understanding. And Allah orders us to travel in the earth to learn the history of nature and the history of human beings by saying,; “… Travel in the land and observe how He originated creation.” (29:20), “…so travel in the land and behold how was the end of those who denied.” (3:137, 6:11, 16:36). The liberation of the earth by the abolition of the borders and the unity of the Islamic order are essential conditions for the Islamic mission.

In order to understand the true implication of Islamic globalism, we should reconsider the conception of nationalism in the light of Islam. Nationalism is a form of neo-tribalism born in Western Europe in the second half of the 18th century. The Prophet Muhammad  said; “Those who were killed under the flag of delusion which appeals for or support tribalism(‘Asabiyyah) died the death of the Jahiliyyah(pre-Islamic ignorance)” (Hadith: Muslim) and said, “Those who appealed for tribalism are not our fellows. And those who fought for tribalism are not our fellows. And those who died for tribalism are not our fellows.” (Being asked “What is tribalism?”) He answered; “It is supporting your tribe in injustice.” (Hadith: Abu Dawud) Tribalism was of the normal way of life for the Arabs of the Jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic ignorance), and the good tidings for all mankind was the advent of Islamic justice. Now the conquest of this “neotribalism” has become the major objective of the Islamic mission.

Western scholars always criticize the Khilafah system as a form of dictatorship because of the lifetime tenure of Khalifah or as a kind of theocracy because Khalifah is the successor of the Holy Prophet.

But it is almost self-evident for Sunnite Muslims that Khilafah is neither dictatorship nor theocracy, because the Sunnite scholarship define Khalifah as the layman elected by the people contrary to the Shiite Imam the divinely nominated infallible saint.

The Prophet Muhammad’s government was based on “unity of Religion and Politics”, thus “religious.” As already stated, the Prophet Muhammad was governing based on Allah’ revelation. That is, a political decision of the outbreak of war etc. was also made based on Divine Will. And much of revelation had taken the form of the individual command responding to each situation, a legal system had not been formed yet, a political system and legal system were still undifferentiated. That is, the Prophet Muhammad’s government is “religious”, in the meaning that it was based on the transcendental authority of the divine will of a revelation of Allah to which common believers has no access except through him, and is based on the “unity of Politics and Religion” in the meaning that both of the law and the politics were based on his transcendental authority in the undifferentiated form because the legal system and the political system was still undifferentiated.

The Prophet Muhammad’s government was typical “hierocracy” or “theocracy” in terminology of Western political sciences in the meaning that the religious person who represents divine will governs, and we can call Shiite Imamah also “hierocracy” or “theocracy”, because the Shiite Imam is also divinely nominated by Allah and infallibly guided by Allah, namely, he alone has the access to Allah, consequently has absolute authority over all the Shiite Muslims.  However, according to the Sunnite creed, the revelation ceased since the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and the Khalifah has no special access to the Divine Will. Thus there was no transcendental element in the Khalifah’s political determination, it was carried out through the realistic worldly calculation.

The inaugural speech of the first Sunnite Khalifah Abu Bakr “as long as I follow Allah and His Apostle, follow me. Supposing I disobey Allah and His Apostle, it is not obligatory for you to follow me.” (narrated by al-Tabari), shows clearly that the Sunnite Khalifah, the successor of the Apostle, was homogeneous as the fallible Apostolic deputy officials under the reign of the Apostle who obeyed the Divine commandments embodied in Qur’an and Sunnah. Namely, Khilafah is “the rule of law” contrary to  Imamah which is “the rule of men”, for the Divine Will is known through Shari‘ah, Divine Law, according to Sunni thinking, while it is known only through the divinely appointed infallible Imam according to the Shiite Imamology.

In addition to the fact that the Sunnite Khilafah is based on the theory of election by people (Ikhtiyar) opposing to the theory of the Divine nomination (Nass) in the Shiite Imamology, consultation with people(Shura) for Khalifah or the Ruler is strongly required. Some scholars say that Shura is obligatory while the others say that it is recommended, for Allah says in Qur’an; “{… So pardon the and ask forgiveness for them and consult with them upon the conduct of the affairs…”(3:159) and “And those who answer the call of their Lord and establish worship, and whose affairs are a matter of counsel, and who spend of what We have bestowed on them”(42:38),

As for the Shiite theory, Imam is the divinely appointed infallible successor of the Apostle of Allah Muhammad. On the other hand, Sunni Khalifah is neither divinely appointed nor infallible. Thus Khilafah is neither theocracy nor dictatorship, but rather it is a nomocracy or “the rule of law”.


Dr. Hassan Ko Nakata is former Professor of Theology at Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan. He is the author of several books and articles in English, Arabic and Japanese.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect New Civilisation’s editorial policy.

[1] al-Muwsu‘ah al-Fiqhiyyah, vol.6, 2004, Kuwait, pp.127-129.

al-Muwsu‘ah al-Fiqhiyyah is officially edited by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs of

Kuwait and Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs of Arab Republic of Egypt, and published on the Website of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs of Kuwait

(, and endorsed by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs of Saudi Arabia also( Therefore it is duly regarded the most voluminous and authoritative Encyclopedia of Islamic law in contemporary Muslim world.

[2] Majority of Islamic jurists say that it is not permitted for there to be two Imam in the world at one time, only one Imam can be existent. al-Muwsu‘ah al-Fiqhiyyah, vol.6, p.134.


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