Leadership in Islamic societies is firmly tied to two concepts, imāma and khilāfa. Imāma indicates the religious guidance a leader is expected to provide the Muslim community, deriving first and foremost from his ability to lead the community in prayer. Khilāfa refers broadly to the temporal aspects of leadership, central to which is maintaining the unity and internal harmony of the community. Implicit in both terms is the recognition that leadership in Islamic societies is subordinate to the dictates of the shari’a. The standard exposition of leadership is found in the Ahkam al- Sultaniyya (The ordinances of government) of Mawardi (d. 1058). This well- known treatise on governance provides the locus classicus for the Sunni doctrine of leadership, a principal feature of which is the obligation to establish a single leader of the Muslim community. Views that allow for more than one claimant to the position of supreme leadership over the Muslim community, or that would authorize more than one leader of the community on the basis of extreme distance or separation by sea, are characterized as heterodox.
Qualifications for leadership of the Muslim community include descent from the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad (nasab), knowledge of the law (‘ilm), moral probity (‘adāla), majority (rushd), and ability to carry out the duties of the office (qudra). This latter qualification encompasses such responsibilities as enforcing the law and settling disputes; dispensing legal punishments; maintaining peace in the lands under Islamic rule; conducting jihad to expand the realm of the faith; receiving alms, taxes, and war booty; and appointing trustworthy men (‘udūl) to positions of authority and administration. Of equal importance is the duty of the leader to command the right and forbid the wrong and to protect the Muslim community from errant belief, a point that has proved particularly contentious in Islamic history and has at several turns placed the unity of Muslims in jeopardy.
Attaining leadership of the community is carried out through either designation by a predecessor (‘ahd) or selection by a group of electors (ikhtiyār). The body of electors is commonly referred to as ahl al- ḥall wa- l- ‘aqd (those who loosen and bind), a designation with origins in early Arabian rituals accompanying the conclusion of pacts, truces, and agreements, and is typically composed of the prominent members of the community (‘ayān) considered fit to choose a leader by virtue of their discernment and moral integrity. The number of electors that constitute this body varies, but it is widely held that their decision is binding on the community as a whole. The choice made by these notables results in the “most virtuous” figure (al- afḍal) assuming leadership; it has been conceded, however, that a “lesser” individual (al- mafḍūl) may be chosen if qualified. This distinction corresponds historically with the changing nature of leadership of the Muslim community from the time of the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Caliphs (632– 61), held up as exemplary leaders beyond reproach, and their successors, the character of whose rule more closely approximated worldly kingship (mulk) and was often despotic in practice.
Notables took an oath of enduring loyalty (bay’a) in support of the newly chosen leader. Considerable importance was attached to public ceremonies surrounding the pledging of the oath, and this tradition survives in Morocco, where the pledging of loyalty to the monarch is attended with great pomp and ceremony. This act of near indissoluble fealty to the leader of the Muslim community can in theory be rescinded only if the leader suffers mental or physical incapacitation or, in the opinion of certain groups (the Kharijis most notably), if he is found guilty of immorality, oppressive rule, or errant belief. There is general agreement concerning the obligation of the community to remove an unjust leader, but the precise mechanism for doing so has never been fully articulated, and it is commonly held that the oath pledged to a leader is forfeit only upon death.
The khilāfa was effectively dismantled in 1924, and much thinking since then has centered on the means for restoring and adapting the institution to the modern world. The institution of shūrā, or a government run by consultation modeled on the pattern of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, has also been set forth as an acceptable form of leadership in the absence of the khilāfa.
See also authority; caliph, caliphate
Thomas Arnold, The Caliphate, 1924; Patricia Crone, God’s Rule, 2004; Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds, God’s Caliph, 1986; Hamilton A. R. Gibb, “Some Considerations on the Sunni Theory of the Caliphate,” in Archives du Droit Oriental 3 (1939); Abu al- Hasan al- Mawardi, The Ordinances of Government, 1996; E. A. Salem, Political Theory and Institutions of the Khawārij, 1956; Émile Tyan, Institutions du droit public musulman, 1956.