What Does The Word “Caliphate” Mean?

Caliphate is a word that’s often trending due to its use—right or wrong—in the media. As some scholars have described it, it’s a word “loaded like no other” and often used to represent the Muslim world.

Dictionary.com exists to help you learn about words. Our mission is to make sure you have the right word at the right time, and the purpose here is to provide accurate meaning of an old word. Here’s a bit of background on the word caliphate.

What is a caliphate?

The definition of caliphate is “government under a caliph.” A caliph is a spiritual leader of Islam who claims succession from Muhammad. The word stems from the Arabic khalifa meaning “successor.”

Historically, caliphates are governance under Islamic law, which calls for election of leadership under Sunni practice and selection from a group of imams in the Shia tradition. The rule of law by Islamic ethics is a common thread to the governance under of a caliphate. Caliphate rule was largely symbolic, the power of local sultans and rulers handling the day-to-day operations of government.

The Ottomans, rulers of an empire centered in what is now Turkey, used the symbolism of the caliph to expand their rule in Arab countries, but it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the role of the caliph referred to political rather than spiritual leadership. When the Ottoman Empire came to an end with the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, it was the end of the caliphate.

We’ve written about a number of words associated with Islam in order to help shed light during controversies. Read about the literal meanings of mosque, temple, and church, here.

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