Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
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A caliph is the head of the caliphate, or the head of the Islamic state. The caliph was able to appoint governors, generals, etc., and was advised by prominent members of the Muslim world. Each of the major Muslim dynasties was referred to as a caliphate; for example, Umayyad caliphate, the Abassid caliphate, the Fatimid caliphate, and the Ottoman caliphate. The caliphate form of government began immediately after the death of Muhammed. Because Muhammed left no directions regarding succession, a schism formed. Sunni Muslims believe that the first four caliphs are legitimate, whereas Shiite Muslims only recognize Ali as the first true caliph. According to Sunni tradition, there are four "rightly guided" caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman Ibn Affan, and Ali.
Posted at Nov 30/2010 03:05PM:
ian: The Fatimids shake things up a bit in two ways. 1) they serve as a rival caliphate to the Abbasids in Baghdad (as well as the Umayyads that took up in Spain) -- thus adding confusion to a post that was supposed to be unitary. 2) Combining the shii notion of imam with that of a caliph which had not been possible with the descendants of Ali.