The title of caliph was part of the Islamic world from the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD until 1924 when it lapsed. It originally comes from an Arabic word, khalifa, meaning a successor to the Prophet, someone who could both see to the spread of Islam and ensure that the law of Islam was upheld. In particular it was the title assumed by the three men who had been companions of the Prophet and who, in turn, took over the leadership of the Muslim community after the Prophet’s death and then others.
Unlike in the West, in classical Islam there was no distinction between a religious institution and the government. The government was a religious institution with the caliph as the supreme leader.
“The caliph had no pontifical or even priestly functions, and did not receive the professional training of the men of religion, the ulama. His duty was not to expound, still less to interpret the faith, but to uphold and protect it, and to create and maintain conditions in which men could live the good Muslim life in this world, and thus prepare themselves for the world to come,” (Joseph Schacht “The Legacy of Islam”).
This is, however, where the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiite, also diverge.
The Sunnis continued to follow the above description while the Shiites believed that their imams, as they called their equivalent of caliph and later ayatollahs, could interpret Islam and lay down prescriptions that had no prior basis in Islamic law.
Choosing a caliph
They were succeeded by Ali and Hasan (632-661). Ali was a relative of the Prophet and Hasan was Ali’s son who turned over the caliphate to the Umayyad dynasty (661-750), leading to the split between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.
The Ottoman Turks and the caliphate
He was sent to Istanbul with some 2,000 leading Egyptian merchants, artisans and religious leaders who were inducted into the Ottoman system.
Although al-Mutawakkil resided in Istanbul for several years before returning to Egypt, it’s not clear whether he surrendered his title to Selim or whether the latter appropriated it.