Leadership In Islam

Khalifah. Imam. Amir. Sultan.

There are four phrases that have routinely been used to describe the position of leadership in Islam. These are Khalifah, Imam, Sultan, and Amir. In English, these four words are often used interchangeably. And that’s because there have been many Muslim leaders of the past who have held more than one title. But let’s try to understand what each phrase means linguistically and historically and practically.


The word Khalifah (Caliph) should be pretty common to you. We all know position of Khalifah was the title held by the ruler of the entire Muslim world. The Four Righteous Caliphs (khulafah) are legendary figures and include:

  • Abu Bakr
  • Umar Ibn Al-Khattab
  • Uthman Ibn Affan
  • Ali Ibn Abi Talib

The word “khalif” comes from the Arabic root kha-lam-fa and means “Successor.” The reasoning being that each Caliph succeeds the one that came before him, and the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, succeeded Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in leadership of the Muslim world.


This word is also familiar to most of us because so many prominent Muslim figures have been given this title (they usually did not take it themselves). For instance:

  • Imam Malik
  • Imam Abu Hanifa
  • Imam Bukhari
  • Imam Ahmad

The word “imam” comes from the Arabic word “imaamah” which means “in front.” And the man “in front” leading the prayer is usually called the Imam. Most of the Caliphs throughout Islamic history did not take the title “Imam.”

That was usually reserved for men of knowledge and scholarship. And even today, when we think of the word “Imam” it is almost the same thing as “Sheikh” or “Maulana” or “Alim.” Also, the Imam usually did not have any political power.

Some Imams did accept government positions, but it’s very rare that an Imam was also a ruler. However, it should be noted that there are several hadiths where the Prophet (pbuh) used the words Imam along with the word Amir. Speaking of which…


The word “amir” comes from the Arabic root a-ma-ra and means “one who gives orders” or just “commander.” The Caliph (that is, the leader of the Muslim world) would often take the title “Amirul Mumineen” meaning “Commander of the Believers.”

But also lesser leaders like generals and governors would also be called “Amir” at times. In practical terms, the Amir was not always a religious figure. I

n fact, except for the Four Righteous Caliphs, most of the Caliphs of the Muslim world did not have much religious training (however, there were many who did such as Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz and Harun Al-Rashid).


The word “sultan” comes from the Arabic rood seen-lam-ta and means “authority.” The Sultan was often a ruler but much lower than the Caliph. The Sultan may have been a governor or other high appointed figure.

But as the Islamic Caliphate broke down near the end of the Abbassid reign, there were many Sultans who had complete authority and power in their own lands.

How To Choose A Muslim Leader

Now that we have the definitions in place, let’s look at the actual process of choosing the leader. Many Muslims today say things like “democracy is haraam!” and talk longingly about bringing back the Caliphate. leader-islam-muslim-2

Of course, Muslims should try to unite, but as it stands right now, the Muslim leaders we currently have in place just aren’t very encouraging.

Chances are, if we had a true Caliph of the Muslim world, he’d be just as despotic, tyrannical, and totalitarian as most Muslim rulers today are.

But if democracy is haram (not my words, just saying) then how do we choose the Muslim leader? What instructions were we given in the Quran and Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) on choosing the leader?

Well, there are none. I

n His wisdom, Allah has not revealed any direct, specific orders on how to choose a leader. Allah has given us instructions on:

  • How to fast.
  • How to divorce.
  • How to split our inheritance.

But nothing about how to choose the leader. And there were no specific directions from Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) either.

When he died, he did not directly choose a successor. It is true, that just a few hours before he died, while he was suffering from his final, fatal sickness, he did appoint Abu Bakr to lead the people in prayer since he felt too weak to do so himself.

Let’s read what happened next.

I (Aisha) said to him, “If Abu Bakr stands in your place, the people would not hear him owing to his weeping. So please order Umar to lead the prayer.”

Aisha added, I said to Hafsa, “Say to him: If Abu Bakr should lead the people in the prayer in your place, the people would not be able to hear him owing to his weeping; so please, order `Umar to lead the prayer.”

Hafsa did so but Allah’s Apostle said, “Keep quiet! You are verily the Companions of Joseph. Tell Abu Bakr to lead the people in the prayer. ” Hafsa said to `Aisha, “I never got anything good from you.” Related in Bukhari

So this is a pretty good indication that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) considered Abu Bakr to be the most knowledgeable after him. And without a doubt, Abu Bakr was certainly the best person to lead the Muslim Ummah (nation) after the Prophet (pbuh).

But he still died without specifically appointing a successor and he did not leave us a method on how we should appoint one ourselves.

The Four Righteous Caliphs

Since there’s no instructions in the Quran on choosing a leader, and there’s no explicit instructions in the Sunnah, we next turn to the Sahabas, the companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). There were the closest to him and understood the Quran and Sunnah better than all of us.

When Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) died without appointing a successor, the Muslims of Medina immediately began to discuss who would be the next leader. After some discussion, Umar grabbed Abu Bakr’s hands, giving him his allegiance.

The other Muslims followed suit and without any campaigning or politicking, Abu Bakr was made the leader. Two years later, Abu Bakr had fallen ill and he knew his time was near. He appointed Umar Ibn Al-Khattab as the next Caliph after him.

Ten years later, Umar was stabbed several times while in prayer. As he lay dying, he was encouraged to choose a successor. Here is what Umar said:

Should I carry the burden of conducting your affairs in my life as well as in my death? I wish I could free myself in a way that there is neither anything to my credit nor anything to my discredit.

If I would appoint my successor, one better than me did so. (He meant Abu Bakr.) If I would leave you alone, one better than me, i. e. the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him), did so. Related in Sahih Muslim

Rather than directly choose a successor, Umar chose several of the major Sahabas (companions of the Prophet) and told them to choose from among themselves. Ultimately, Uthman Ibn Affan was chosen as the next Caliph.

Twelve years later, Uthman was assassinated and the Muslim world was thrown in turmoil. Ali Ibn Abi Talib was the next most obvious Caliph, but since many of his supporters came from the same group that assassinated Uthman, he could never consolidate his authority.

So while today Ali Ibn Abi Talib is recognized as the fourth Caliph, he never had full control of the entire Muslim world, and several major Sahabas refused to give him the bay’ah (pledge of allegiance).

What Does All This Mean?

This shows that even with the best of our Ummah, the Four Righteous Caliphs, there was no consensus on how to choose the leader. Each and every one of the first four Caliphs of Islam became ruler in a different manner.

  • Abu Bakr was popular chosen.
  • Umar was appointed.
  • Uthmaan was chosen by committee.
  • Ali assumed leadership that never had full support or power.

After Ali was assassinated, Muawiyyah became the Caliph, so he kind of “won” the position by outlasting Ali. He appointed his son Yazid and from that point forward, it’s been hereditary rule.

So no one can say that any specific method of choosing the ruler is “haraam” unless it directly goes against some aspect of Quran and Sunnah. In my opinion (and this is definitely my opinion, you can take it or leave it), it seems that Allah has left it up to us to choose our leader in whatever way best suits the needs and customs of our current situation.

Perhaps it’s best to look at how the Caliphate transitioned from Umar to Uthman.

How Uthman Became The Caliph

As mentioned earlier, Umar was stabbed several times while making the prayer by a disgruntled Christian Persian slave. Though he was reportedly stabbed with a poisoned knife, the attack didn’t kill him right away.

Instead, he lingered on for a few more days. It was clear that death was near so the people around him began to urge him to choose a successor. And you’ve already seen his response to them.

What he did instead was give the names of six of the major companions and told them to choose from among themselves the next Caliph. The six companions were:

  • Abdur Rahman Ibn Auf
  • Talhah Ibn Ubaidullah
  • Zubair Ibn Al-Awwam
  • Sa’d Ibn Abi Waqqas
  • Ali Ibn Abi Talib
  • Uthman Ibn Affan

Talhah was not in the area at the the time so he was not able to be part of the decision. Zubair, Sa’d, and Abdur Rahman all opted out. That left Ali and Uthman as the last two willing to accept the position.

Abdur Rahman Ibn Auf was chosen to manage to election and he ultimately chose Uthman Ibn Affan. Some reports state that Abdur Rahman consulted with several other companions and tribal leaders before making his final decision.

Is This Democracy?

The system Abdur Rahman Ibn Auf used to choose the Caliph is not what we would consider democracy today. But it is very close.

In the United States, the people indirectly choose the President via the electoral college (sorry, I don’t have enough time or energy to explain the process). The electoral college is usually chosen by the governor of the individual states.

The main issue most scholars have with the American system of voting is the one-man-one-vote idea. This gives every individual, both the derelict and the debutante, the same say in choosing the leader.

Many Muslims would be concerned about having any system that resembles a Western system and would cite the immorality of the west as the primary objection. But this is overlooking something very important. Let’s use the United States as an example.

The reason American morals are so wishy-washy has nothing to do with how the President is chosen. It has everything to do with the document that governs the overall direction of the nation. All laws passed in the U.S. must be in accordance with the U.S. Constitution.

However, the Constitution is not a “moral” document. It’s not a Quran or Bible. It does not dictate the relationship between people. It only dictates the relationship between the government and the people.

So if the people want to make something that was immoral and illegal before, moral and legal today (for example homosexuality), they simply choose the politicians who will do that. And there’s nothing in the Constitution to block that from happening.

In a Muslim nation there is an easy way to prevent our morals from decaying in the same fashion. Simply make sure the document that governs the nation dictates morality as well as politics. Make the Quran your Constitution.

Spread the word

5 Responses to Leadership In Islam

  1. Excellent piece of work. You have written – ‘ Of course, Muslims should try to unite, but as it stands right now, the Muslim leaders we currently have in place just aren’t very encouraging. Chances are, if we had a true Caliph of the Muslim world, he’d be just as despotic, tyrannical, and totalitarian as most Muslim rulers today are.’. Extremely well said. The germs were laid in the early years right after the demise of the Prophet. Although, democracy seems to be at the heart of the Islamic organisation, not much has been said or written about it, let alone, practising it. I wish you would try to expand on this. Good work.

  2. Ahamdulillah brother we pray to Allah to increase you in knowledge for the good work done. It should be well noted that The Four Righteous Caliphs (khulafah)did not select themselves and campaign for support as politicians are doing now.

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