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A caliph is the head of a Muslim state governed by sharia, under which ideally the whole ummah—the worldwide Muslim community—is politically united. Such a state ruled by a caliph is known as a caliphate. Muhammad’s followers established the first caliphate to carry on the political system created by the Prophet. There have been numerous caliphates throughout history, the last of which—the Ottoman Dynasty—was abolished in 1924; few have actually encompassed the full ummah. Sunni Muslims generally view a caliph as an elected head of state chosen by the ummah, though historically the office of caliph was often hereditary. Shi’a Muslims believe a caliph must be a divinely-appointed imam descended from the family of Muhammad. There is debate in the Muslim community today on the feasibility of, and the Qur’anic mandate for, a caliph.
哈里发是伊斯兰教法下统治下穆斯林国家的元首，理想情况下，整个“乌玛” ——全球穆斯林社会 在这一国家下政治上团结。这种哈里发统治下的国家被称为“阿拉伯帝国”。穆罕默德的追随者建立了第一个阿拉伯帝国，以实践由先知所创的政治制度。整个历史上有许多的阿拉伯帝国 ，它们中的最后一个—— 奥斯曼王朝 于1924年被推翻；仅有少数的阿拉伯帝国事实上包含了完整的“乌玛”。逊尼派穆斯林普遍认为哈里发是“乌玛”所选择国家的民选元首，尽管在历史上，哈里发职位往往是世袭的。什叶派穆斯林相信哈里发必须是一个出自穆罕默德家族的后裔并由神圣任命的伊玛目。今天穆斯林社区存在对哈里发的可行性和可兰经授权哈里发的辩论。