Is Caliphate a religious matter in Islam?
Caliphate in Islam was never a divinely decreed and religious matter like all other matters for which specific instructions were revealed during the revelation of Quran in the life of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. It was a worldly matter and for such matters there is commandment in the Quran for the Prophet and after him the Muslims to consult each other and make decisions based on mutual consultation process: (Al Quran 3:159)...And take counsel with them in all matters of public concern; then, when you have decided upon a course of action, place your trust in God: for, verily, God loves those who place their trust in Him. (Al Quran 42:38)…..and whose rule [in all matters of common concern] is consultation among themselves.
Had there been a specific and clear instruction on selection of Caliph/Imam similar to all important religious matters such as salaah (5 times prayers), distribution of property, rules of zakat (obligatory charity) etc. there would not have been dispute after the death of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Had it been very clearly mentioned from Allah ﷻ and His Prophet who will be the successor Caliph there would not had been the slightest contention among the companions because clear evidence on religious matters were readily accepted by them regardless of their personal like or dislike and that is the reason why Prophet Muhammad ﷺ praised them: “The best of my followers are those living in my generation (i.e. my contemporaries). and then those who will follow the latter. There will come after you, people who will bear witness without being asked to do so, and will be treacherous and untrustworthy, and they will vow and never fulfill their vows, and fatness will appear among them." (Sahih al-Bukhari 3650) They were best in following and obedience in everything that Allah ﷻ specifically commanded. It was later generations that interpreted this matter of caliphate under the light of religion and sanctioned it as a religious matter giving proofs for this interpretation. In fact it was exactly due to this reason why the first successor and rightly guided Caliph named Abu Bakr (r.a), the first and foremost of all Muslims never referred to himself as a Caliph (representative) of Allah ﷻ. In fact he always referred to himself as a Caliph of Prophet and not of Allah ﷻ because one can represent someone in their absence and Allah ﷻ is never absent but Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is absent after his passing away. When writing a letter of covenant with the Christians of Najaran, he represents himself as a representative of the Prophet ﷺ and his own people:
“In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. This is the written statement of Abdullah Abu Bakr, the Khalifa (Caliph) of Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him), the Prophet and Messenger of Allah. He affirms for you the rights of a protected neighbor in your selves, in your lands, your religious community, your wealth, retainers, and servants, those of you who are present or aboard, your bishops, monks, and monasteries, and all that you own be it great or small. You shall not be deprived of any of it, and shall have full control…” (Abu Yusuf - Kitab Al Kharaj)
Additionally we also find that when the second successor of the Prophet ﷺ and rightly guided Caliph Umar bin Khattab (r.a) was on his deathbed he was advised to appoint a successor to which he declared openly in front of entire gathering, which included senior companions of the Prophet, that he would not like to appoint a successor like Abu Bakr did on his death (by appointing Umar) and would instead follow the Prophet’s example who never appointed a successor: Salim bin Abdullah narrated from his father who said: "It was said to 'Umar bin Al-Khattab: 'Perhaps you should endorse your successor.' He said: 'If I appoint a successor, then indeed Abu Bakr appointed a successor. And if I do not appoint a successor, the Messenger of Allah(s.a.w) did not appoint a successor."' (Jami at-Tirmidhi 2225)
It is known that Umar (r.a) never appointed anyone and in fact left it for the Shura (consultative council) of senior most companions of the Prophet ﷺ to decide whoever they chose best. Please note that Hazrat Ali (r.a) was part of this shura and never raised a hue and cry claiming that it was his right above all others to be chosen as a Caliph and neither did any among the Companions, who were known for their piety and righteousness contradicted this statement of Umar (r.a).
Issue of successorship after Prophets passing away
After Prophet Muhammad ﷺ passed away there were three groups formed as a result of contention over matter of his successorship and leadership. First group was the Ansaar (helpers), who were originally Madinah citizens and had gathered at the place of Saqeefah in Madinah, to elect a leader for all Muslims. The second group was the Muhajireen (emigrants), all Makkan Muslims who had settled in Madinah after the migration and were all from the tribe of Quraysh. The Muhajireen went to Saqeefah to stop the Ansaars (helpers) from selecting one of their own and remind them that the Prophet ﷺ had clearly advised the Muslims that Quraysh should always have authority over the Muslims: “Authority of ruling will remain with Quraysh, and whoever bears hostility to them, Allah will destroy him as long as they (i.e. Quraysh) abide by the laws of the religion.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 3500) “This religion would continue to remain powerful and dominant until there have been twelve Caliphs (rulers).” and “all of them will be from the Quraysh.” (Sahih Muslim 1821 f)
This is because they were the most educated and informed about Islam than anyone else due to their accepting Islam 13 years prior to the acceptance of Islam by Ansaar (helpers). The group of Muhajireen that went to Saqeefah included the most senior and experienced companions of all such as Abu Bakr (r.a), Umar (r.a) and Abu Ubayda bin Jarrah (r.a). They went to inform the Ansaars to stop their election and choose one from the Quraysh. After some debate and argument they were able to convince the Ansaars in choosing Abu Bakr (r.a). Furthermore by reminding the council that the Prophet ﷺ preferred the rule of Quraysh, they were also told that Abu Bakr (r.a) was leading the prayer in the absence of the Prophet and continued to do so till his death, therefore since he was the best to lead the Muslims in prayers then they deduced that he should be chosen to take care of political matters as well.
A third group had gathered at the house of Ali (r.a), the Prophet’s cousin and son in law, who were mainly supporters of Banu Hashim, the Prophet’s own clan and part of his family. They had gathered because they thought the successorship should go to one of the Hashmis as they are more entitled to this matter than anyone else. With Ali (r.a) being at the forefront of Hashmis many supporters gathered at their house wanted them to lead. Knowing that the majority of Muslims, Ansaar and Muhajireen, gathered at Saqeefah had already made Abu Bakr (r.a) as their leader and Banu Hashim were a minority third group, therefore the majority vote went for Abu Bakr (r.a) and there was no turning back on this. In fact after Ali (r.a) had known that Abu Bakr (r.a) was elected he gave the following response to Abu Sufyan who had come with Abbas (r.a), the Prophet’s uncle, to convince Ali (r.a) to revolt against the majority vote: "O People! Steer clear through the waves of mischief by boats of deliverance, turn away from the path of dissension and put off the crowns of pride. Prosperous is one who rises with wings (i.e. when he has power) or else he remains peaceful and others enjoy ease. It (i.e. the aspiration for Caliphate) is like turbid water or like a morsel that would suffocate the person who swallows it. One who plucks fruits before ripening is like one who cultivated in another’s field.." (Nahjul Balagha - Sermon 5)
Despite the fact that Ali (r.a) was not pleased with the decision that took place at Saqeefah, he nevertheless, did not accept the offer to revolt on the ground that this would create dissensions among the Muslims. His displeasure was legit because the council at Saqeefah did not take Hashmis vote in to consideration. Nevertheless Ali (r.a) was convinced later and gave Bayah (pledge of allegiance) to Abu Bakr (r.a) many months after the latter’s election:
Ali (r.a) recited tashahhud and said “We recognise your moral excellence and what Allah has bestowed upon you. We do not envy the favor (i. e. the Caliphate) which Allah has conferred upon you; but you have done it (assumed the position of Caliph) alone (without consulting us), and we thought we had a right (to be consulted) on account of our kinship with the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ).” He continued to talk to Abu Bakr (in this vein) until the latter's eyes welled up with tears. Then Abu Bakr spoke and said: “By Allah, in Whose Hand is my life, the kinship of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) is dearer to me than the kinship of my own people. As regards the dispute that has arisen between you and me about these properties, I have not deviated from the right course and I have not given up doing about them what the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) used to do.” So Ali said to Abu Bakr: “This afternoon is (fixed) for (swearing) allegiance (to you).” So when Abu Bakr (r.a) had finished his Zuhr prayer, he ascended the pulpit and recited Tashahhud, and described the status of Ali, his delay in swearing allegiance and the excuse which had offered to him (for this delay). (After this) he asked for God's forgiveness. Then Ali b. Abu Talib recited the Tashahhud extolled the merits of Abu Bakr and (said that) his action was not prompted by any jealousy of Abu Bakr on his part or his refusal to accept the high position which Allah had conferred upon him, (adding:) “But we were of the opinion that we should have a share in the government, but the matter had been decided without taking us into confidence, and this displeased us (Banu Hashim). Hence the delay in offering allegiance.” The Muslims were pleased with this (explanation) and they said: “You have done the right thing.” The Muslims were (again) favorably inclined to Ali since he adopted the proper course of action. (Sahih Muslim 1759 a, Book 32 Kitab Al Jihad)