The Mirage of Caliphate

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By

A. G. NOORANI

Demystifying the Caliphate! Historical  Memory and contemporary Contexts” by Madawi Al-Rasheed, Carool Kerston and Marot Shterin (Editors); Hurst & Company, London; 307 pages.

In the eyes of the unwary the mirage of the Islamic State has as its companion nearby the mirage of the Caliphate (Khilafat). This subcontinent was rocked, nearly a century ago, by the Khilafat movement. As was demonstrated earlier, Islam does not envisage or sanction an Islamic State (Criterion; July-September, 2009). Nor does it envisage or sanction its corollary, the Caliphate.

The great Ibn Khaldun held “Some wrongly assume the imamate to be one of the pillars of the faith. It is one of the general (public) interests. The people are delegated to take care of it. If it were one of the pillars of the faith, it would be something like prayer, and Muhammad would have appointed a representative, exactly as he appointed Abu Bakr to represent him at prayer.(Had he done so), it would have become generally known, as was the case with prayer. That the men around Muhammad considered the caliphate as something analogous to prayer and on the strength of that attitude argued in favour of Abu Bakr’s caliphate, is merely another proof of the fact that no appointment of an heir had taken place. It also shows that the question of the imamate and succession to it was not as important then as it is today.” (The Muqaddimah : An Introduction to History; Translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal; Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press, 1967; p. 169).

Around the time of the abolition of the Caliphate by Turkey in 1924, its leader Mustapha Kemal said “Our Prophet has instructed his disciples to convert the nations of the world to Islam; he has not ordered them to provide for the government of these nations. Never did such an idea pass through his mind. Caliphate means government and administration. A Caliph who really wants to play his role, to govern and administer all Muslim nations [finds himself at a loss] how to manage this. I must confess that in these conditions, if they appointed me as the Caliph, I would immediately have resigned.

“But let us return to history, and consider the facts. The Arabs founded a caliphate in Baghdad, but they also established another one in Cordova. Neither the Persians, nor the Afghans, nor the Muslims of Africa ever recognized the Caliph of Constantinople. The notion of a single Caliph, exercising supreme religious authority over all the Muslim people, is one which has come out of books, not reality. The Caliph has never exercised over the Muslims a power similar to that held by the Pope over the Catholics. Our religion has neither the same requirements, nor the same discipline as Christianity. The criticisms provoked by our recent reform [separating the Caliphate from the Sultanate] are inspired by an abstract, unreal idea: the idea of Pan-Islamism. Such an idea has never been translated into reality. We have held the Caliphate in high esteem according to an ancient and venerable tradition. We honour the Caliph; we attend to his needs, and those of his family. I add that in the whole of the Muslim world, the Turks are the only nation which effectively ensures the Caliph’s livelihood. Those who advocate a universal Caliph have so far refused to make any contribution. What, then, do they expect? That the Turks alone should carry the burden of this institution, and that they alone should respect the sovereign authority of the Caliph? This would be expecting too much [of us].” (Hamid Enayat; Modern Islamic Political Thought; Macmillan, 1982; pp. 53-54).

Surprisingly, even Abulala Maududi is unable to trace its sanction in Islam in his book Islamic law & Constitution (Islamic Publications, Lahore; 1967; pp. 86 and 15). Assertions, like sovereignty vests only in Allah and the Caliph holds a viceregency (Khilafat), are as unhelpful as they are dangerous.

The three editors of this instructive volume under review teach at King’s College, London. The essays which they have compiled from scholars of distinction cover history as well as modern politics with special references to South Asia and Turkey and some remarkable analyses of the movements in Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Iraq and Northern Caucasus. “Fringe contemporary political activists openly call for the return of the caliphate as the ideal Islamic State” for which jihad is the sanctioned means. Al-Qaeda is committed to “an Islamic Caliphate”.

There is, however, no uniformity in the Muslim world’s understanding of what Caliphate implies and entails while the West takes alarm at the very mention of the word. “In the west and in Muslim mass media and political establishments, such open conferences in support of resurrecting the caliphate, often attracting substantial crowds, are usually treated with a mixture of apprehension and disdain, as first steps towards overthrowing democracy, returning to oriental despotism, reinventing medieval divine rule, or establishing a totalitarian Muslim empire. Indeed in Western popular imagination the caliphate often conjures up images of beheading, stoning, and discrimination against women and non-Muslim minorities, which are grafted onto the portrayals of Taliban practices and propaganda. However, these images and perceptions have very little to do with reality. While some Muslims may retain the nostalgic memory of the caliphate, only very few are currently working on making the dream come true. Moreover, these images ignore the fact that a substantial number of Muslims are loath to see the flag of a caliphate raised in Muslim capitals, even though some of them may long for the application of shari’a in their countries. With very few exceptions, neither historically nor in the contemporary period do we come across a uniform endorsement of the caliphate as a faith-based political project, or a unified effort to resurrect it, shared by all Muslims.

“From London to Moscow, Jakarta, Istanbul, and Baghdad the concept of the caliphate may be theorized by a handful of religious scholars, invigorated by political activists, and condemned by other Muslims. Yet the caliphate is retained as a powerful slogan, image, and symbol that draws on an imagined past and a longing to reproduce it. While a few Muslims insist on its centrality to Islam, many have not only rejected it but contributed to its historical downfall.” (p.5). The editors’ joint Introduction accurately sums up the present situation.

For the Muslim World as well as the West the erudite essays provide a sound corrective. Hukumat-e-Ilahi (divine government) is a concept with little ideological appeal and less political support. This rich volume deserves a wide readership in our part of the world.