The Caliphate Delusion: the political construct that bears no relevance in the modern world

Ghaffar Hussain, the Managing Director of Quilliam, historicises the Caliphate to show what little relevance it has in the modern world

Ghaffar Hussain, the Managing Director of Quilliam, historicises the Caliphate to show what little relevance it has in the modern world

I first came across the term Caliphate or Khilafah back in 1992 when, as a young teenager, I attended a lecture organised by a local Islamist group. The term was a reference to a global Muslim empire that would have a single ruler for life, referred to as Caliph, and implement a single interpretation of shariah. This empire would also be expansionist and seek to aggressively stretch its borders through warfare until the entire world fell under its domain.

The Caliphate, it was argued, was necessary because, theologically, it was an Islamic obligation and, politically, only such an entity could protect Muslims around the world, under siege as they are from non-Muslim enemies.

Furthermore, the return of the Caliphate was foretold in scripture and had existed up until 1924 until it was destroyed by European imperialists who felt threatened by Muslim unity and power. Prior to 1924, it was argued, a thriving Caliphate had ushered in a golden age of Islam in which science, art, philosophy and economic prosperity flourished as Muslims implemented a divine ruling system.

At the time it was a compelling narrative, especially since it weaved theology, geo-politics and grievances young British Muslims were experiencing at the time. It also had a feel-good factor to it because essentially it blamed all the contemporary failings of Muslim societies around the world on Western conspiracies and the lack of a Caliphate.

As such, it was very empowering in that it gave young Muslims delusions of grandeur, it made us feel relevant and important at a time of mass disenfranchisement.

Many of those taken in by Islamist propaganda in their youth grow up to reject it, just as most Trotskyists mature to realise a grand workers revolution won’t necessarily make the world a better place, save a small band of hard-core comrades who continue attending Socialist Worker rallies well into their 60s. I also grew up with the dawning realisation that the Islamist narrative was both historically inaccurate and politically illiterate. The Caliphate project, therefore, was always doomed to not only failure, for mere failure would be a blessing, but to leave widespread chaos and bloodshed in its wake.

However, ever since the Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) declared the re-establishment of a Caliphate with their leader, al-Baghdadi, as Caliph – interest in this idea has been revived. I, therefore, think it is an opportune time to summarise why I, and many others, came to the realisation that a Caliphate is undesirable, unnecessary and ultimately unworkable.

In truth, Islam does not have a set political system. That is not to say Islam does not have anything to say about the political domain, arguably most religions do, but Islam does not mandate a specific political model that needs to be implemented at all times in all places. The various Muslim empires, many of which existed concurrently whilst competing with one another, implemented different political models.

The Abbasid Empire (750-1517 CE), for example, was based on the diwan system, that was borrowed from the pre-Islamic Persians, and a form of patrimonialism that also relied heavily on Persian governance structures. Indeed, Baghdad was built near the former Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon.  The Ottoman Empire (1280 – 1924 CE), on the other-hand, relied on a Byzantinian model of governance in which civil and military administration ran side by side whilst the state co-opted and instrumentalised the ulema (religious scholars) to buttress their rule. Both these empires were dynastical and the Caliphs were essentially monarchs which is interesting because modern Islamists decry monarchies.

Similarly, the Moghul Empire (1556-1857 CE) in India and the Safavid (1501- 1722 CE) in Iran relied on their own political models rooted as they were in local culture and history. This adaptability is what made them durable and successful in the first place. These Empires also did not implement one interpretation of shariah as state law in the way Islamist seek to do today. Furthermore, religion was used in the same way in which it was used by Christian kings in Europe, i.e. to stifle dissent, ensure loyalty from the subjects whilst giving them a set of rules that they are familiar and comfortable with.

These varying political models were relevant for the time in the same way horses and camels were relevant as the main modes of transport. They were a mere reflection of the state of the world back then, hence, were adopted pragmatically by rulers seeking power and security.

There is nothing inherently Islamic or un-Islamic about these ruling systems, especially since they changed and adapted as time went on until the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1924. As such, there is nothing intrinsically un-Islamic about modern governance structures that rely on different and arguably more practical systems today.

My perspective on this topic, as outlined the last two sentences of the last paragraph, is problematic for Islamists for three reasons. Firstly, because they believe Muslims globally can only have one leader at any time. Secondly, they believe Muslims must be governed by shariah alone, and a narrow interpretation of it. Thirdly, a selective reading of history has led to them romanticising the past and falsely attributing relative scientific progress and political stability to the implementation of a specific political model.

With regards to the single global leadership for Muslims, with the exception of the first few decades of Islam, this has never been the case. There have always been multiple and competing leaders vying for the title of Caliph whilst many other Muslims lived outside the various Muslim empires. Furthermore, Islamic theologians have differing views on the necessity of a single global leadership. For example, in his discussion on appointing Caliphs in The Muqaddimah (page 158 in the 2005 Princeton University Press edition) renowned Muslim theologian and historian Ibn Khaldun stated:

“Others hold the view that (the prohibition against two Imams) applies only to two imams in one locality, or where they would be close to each other. Where this is great distances and the imam is unable to control the farther region, it is permissible to set up another imam there to take care of public interests.”

So clearly there is no theological consensus on this issue which renders the exercise futile in practice.

Interestingly, Ibn Khaldun also compared the necessity of having Caliphs with anarchy, suggesting references to having Caliphates and Caliphs stress their importance because social order is preferable to disorder and chaos. This again supports the point that there is no single political model in Islam, rather an emphasis on political order and governance structures to prevent the social and political anarchy.

Islam and shariah are diverse and multiple interpretations of both exist. At no point in history was a single interpretation of Islam adopted by a Muslim empire and imposed and enforced on subjects of that empire in the way modern laws are. In fact, positive law is a relatively modern European notion that emerged from the Westphalian state. Theologically this is not a necessity either.

Imam Malik was the supreme authority of Sunni Islam during the time of Saffah, Mansur, Mahdi and Hadi, the first four Abbasid caliphs.  Of them, the last three all wished to impose his teachings, contained in his book Muwatta, upon all Muslims.  Imam Malik refused each time, arguing that other authorities had other knowledge and different interpretations, and it would be utterly wrong to impose one interpretation upon everyone.

This was also based on the basic Sunni principle that only God and the Prophet Muhammad were infallible in matters of the sacred law – with the understanding of others being naturally human, subjective and open to error.

The numerous scientific discoveries and breakthroughs that took place in Muslim history were not a result of the imposition of a certain interpretation of Islam. Rather they were the product of a culture of relative openness, pluralism and free-thinking that Islamists of today seek to do away with. Hence, we witnessed an explosion of learning and knowledge in the Abbasid Empire and in Andalusia, where such a culture existed, but not in the late period of the Ottoman Empire where attitudes towards learning became very different and, arguably, religiously orthodox.

The Ottomans, for example, chose to centralise knowledge in the hands of a few learned men, reject innovations such as the printing press and destroy Istanbul’s only observatory. These steps, which were pushed for by the ulema at the time, contributed to Ottoman decline.

Furthermore, many scientists and thinkers that were responsible for much of the scientific progress celebrated by modern Islamists held very derogatory views towards religion. For example, the preeminent physician, chemist and philosopher al-Razi (865-925 CE) stated:

“The falseness of what all the prophets say is evident in the fact that they contradict one another: one affirms what the other denies, and yet each claims to be the sole depository of the truth; thus the New Testament contradicts the Torah, the Koran the New Testament. As for the Koran, it is but an assorted mixture of ‘absurd and inconsistent fables,’ which has ridiculously been judged inimitable, when, in fact, its language, style, and its much-vaunted ‘eloquence’ are far from being faultless.”

Other leading Muslim thinkers from the period, such as Ibn Sina (973-1037 CE) and Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 CE), also deviated from orthodox theology and sought to question common held assumptions about the role of religion. Ibn Rushd, for example, has been referred to as the founding father of secularism since he called for science and philosophy to be divorced from theology. In fact, if he was around today he would most likely be declared a heretic by Islamists.

The facts of history, however, are largely irrelevant to modern Islamists because theirs is a struggle and a cause that is characterized by the meaning it gives to their lives and the excuses it offers to avoid introspection. In other words, it’s too good to be spoiled by the facts and alternative perspectives are deemed an irritant, getting in the way of a comforting and binary understanding of the world.

It is for these reasons that most Islamists, in my experience, resort to name-calling and playing the man rather than the ball when challenged. A tribal mindset in which any criticism of their politics is deemed an attack on the faith and their entire identity kicks in and enables them to pull the shutters down. In such a climate rational debate is difficult.

The Caliphate is a political construct of the past that bears no relevance in the modern world from a theological or political perspective and most Muslims around the world realize that. Seeking to resurrect such an entity is no different to Italians seeking to bring back the Roman Empire, it is illogical and unworkable. However, the fact that sane and seemingly rational people are calling for such a thing in the modern world is a sad indictment of the state of political thought in Muslim-majority societies.


Ghaffar Hussain is managing director at counter-extremism think tank Quilliam

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33 Responses to “The Caliphate Delusion: the political construct that bears no relevance in the modern world”

  1. GhostofJimMorrison

    Fantastic, interesting and engaging article. I’ve long admired Quilliam and the work you do, and deplore the abuse directed at you from odious, divisive cretins like George Galloway. Quilliam has taught me to access and reflect upon some of my opinions of Islam – for the better. Thank you

  2. Dave Roberts

    Not just Galloway. Don’t forget the likes of Sunny Hundal, The Guardian, the SWP the list is endless. Basically people who claim that any criticism of Islam is Islamopobia. Let’s include the bunch of wasters who invented that name, The Runnymede Trust.

  3. GhostofJimMorrison

    Don’t even get me started on the SWP – nasty, intolerant thugs. I find it interesting the same people who cry Islamophobia are also the first to accuse anyone concerned with anti-Semitism of excusing Israel.

  4. Spyinthesky

    Superb insight so beyond that available to the intellectually inept who oppose such views.

  5. Val Cocora

    those animals could use some blood eagle treatment, viking style.
    catch them, get any information out of them (waterboarding, welcome!) and them pull their lungs out thru their back, salt them well and let them dry on the muslim’s shoulders.
    make the others watch while waiting for their turn, instill the same terror in their souls as they did to their victims.
    and above all, no mercy.
    these are not human beings, they are muslim inbred animals, the fruit of long years of Islamic brainwashing and first cousin marrying.

  6. Dave Roberts

    Two quite different writers have commented on the far left and how it has taken up Islam and the phony Islamophobia industry. Nick Cohen in this country and Italy’s now deceased Oriana Fallacci have both demonstrated how, when the left realised that the working class weren’t going to make the revolution, needed other causes to champion and other groups to join themselves to, always as leaders of course.

    Have a read through the pages of the left journals on line and see if you can find the word class. It is seldom if ever employed instead there are whole range of groups, causes and issues that they try to get involved in usually without success. The big issue at the moment is Islam and the supposed “demonization” of Muslims. Quite why they should be singled out from Sikhs, Hindus, Buddists, Jains etc except for the fact that the latter aren’t blowing up planes, buses and tubes isn’t actually made clear.

    I always suspected that the Respect project would end in tears but not that it would damage the far left as badly as it has. I know far lefties who still cannot work out what happened. One day the revolution was around the corner wit a new mass movement to the left of Labour and the next it had all collapsed. Couple that with the rape cover ups within the SWP all of which were widely known about for years and you can see the utter dishonesty and moral bankruptcy of the far and liberal left in this country.

    When you get well known left ” intellectuals” saying that we had it coming in terms of terrorist atrocities for “Imperialism” you know that they have lost the plot, whatever the plot was in the first place.

  7. Dave Roberts

    One of the reasons that Quilliam is accused of being a tool of the Imperialists in their bid for world domination. The accusations are from people like Seamus Milne so nobody really takes them very seriously.

  8. GhostofJimMorrison

    I’ve been a fan of Nick Cohen for several years now, particularly his masterpiece “What’s Left?” The far left long abandoned the white working classes, and now regard them with little more than contempt, vilifying them as bigoted, racist, Islamophobic (of course) misogynistic EDL supporting lager-louts, while Muslims have ostensibly been cast as the salt of the earth victims of British Imperialism who can do no wrong. As Cohen rightly said, though I’m paraphrasing slightly, people with brown skins are just as capable of racism as those with white skins.

  9. GhostofJimMorrison

    I’d recommend Pascal Bruckner’s The Tyranny of Guilt, an essay on western masochism

  10. Dave Roberts

    Your last sentence definitely applies to the Guardian CiF article by Simon Woolley of the ridiculously named Operation Black Vote about Pauline Pierce, I think that was her name, resigning from the Lib Dems because they were racist. I can’t imagine a more non racist bunch than the sandal wearing lentil crunching Lib Dems.

    It seems she as a 1999 conviction for smuggling cocaine and is therefore an ideal role model for black urban youth. Talking of CiF tey recently ad a piece by the “Rev” Al Sharpton better known for starting anti semitic riots in Jewish areas of American cities, figures I suppose.

  11. ronmurp

    This is either extreme comic irony or exactly the sort of thinking that the post was criticising: practices of a by-gone age no longer relevant. The problem is those two interpretations of your comment are indistinguishable. Could you clarify.

  12. George White

    Unfortunately, I think he’s serious.

    This is a problem. Separating those who strongly oppose reactionary theological movements from those who strongly oppose other races!

    At least he’s not hiding his light under a bushel!

  13. tzioneretz

    It is time to bury one of the most disingenuous but persistent myths about the “golden era” of Islam. You state: “[W]e witnessed an explosion of learning and knowledge in the
    Abbasid Empire and in Andalusia, […] but not
    in the late period of the Ottoman Empire where attitudes towards
    learning became very different and, arguably, religiously orthodox.”

    In fact, hostility toward “secular” science, knowledge, and pursuits developed and enveloped Islamdom far earlier than “the late period of the Ottoman Empire.” Please read the following article explaining precisely what caused the flame of knowledge and progress to be extinguished in the Moslem world:
    Ofek, H. (2011). “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science.” The New Atlantis. Winter, 2011. Retrieved from

  14. tzioneretz

    The only imperialists in existence today are those seeking to establish an Islamic empire founded on blood running neck-deep.

  15. tzioneretz

    Which “race” are we talking about here? I read all the comments in this thread several times, and other than “Vikings” (which is arguably an ethnicity or nationality), I could not find any, even oblique, reference to anyone’s “race.”

  16. Lionel Beck

    Excellent. Thanks for this.

  17. Dave Roberts

    An interesting contribution tzioneretz. The anti European Imperialist brigade are very fond of stressing just how many inventions originated in Islamic countries as well as China. There is even the bizarre Afro-Centric school which attributes it all to Africa, and then Europe stole it and destroyed the records!

    Many inventions can be traced to the Islamic and other cultures but what is important is what is done with them, how they are developed and improved. What is also important is the society that evolves around them.

    The Chinese invented gunpowder and paper, the Arabs the astrolabe and the zero. What Europe did, and I determine European as the cultures that descend from Europe, was to take these inventions and develop them.

    A whole series of cultural events took place which Europe used and incorporated these inventions into to produce the civilisation that we have today all over the world. A Europe that had undergone the Renascence and Enlightenment could take the astrolabe and cannon, put them into a square rigged sailing ship with a transom hung rudder and sail out of sight of land.

    Using the Arabic system of numeration it could create double entry book keeping that made commerce international. The inquiring mind made possible by the reformation broke the authority of the Vatican on astronomy and medicine and the leap forward in all scientific spheres was possible.

    What is interesting in understanding the mind of the Islamist is contained in Bin Laden’s declaration of war on the West when he obliquely referred to a disaster that ad befallen Islam seventy years before. It tuned out he was talking about the abolition of the Caliphate by the new Turkish Republic.

    We live in a world that has been shaped by European initiatives and there is no going back. Communism collapsed because it choked the human spirit and we need to stand up to this new totalitarianism.

  18. readersin

    Exactly, I don’t know of anyone who actually take Quilliam seriously. Well, besides the British government that keeps tossing cash at them so of course they’ll toe the “party line” as it seems.

  19. GordonHide

    Thanks very much for that link

  20. Just Visiting

    Quilliam seem to be getting more coverage in the media these days – some great NewsNight appearances, facing down some Muslims who are no willing to condemn honour killing or whatever.

    I see them getting more traction not less – so have you any evidence for your claim. (And yes we know about the muslim groups who condemn Quilliam but who fail to address their actual statements.

    Or maybe you feel that the fact that they have had government money in the past is bad? So do you have a problem with the many Muslim organisations that have government money? You’re aware that local government have dished out to many Muslim groups under ‘inclusion’ budgets?

  21. readersin

    You know what I hate about this “expectation” that Muslims should “speak out” and condemn this and that, it’s essentially saying that Muslims are by default responsible for the actions of 1.6 Billion and “owe” the world some sort of explanation for the various actions that are committed. I mean, if we take that logic in that you as (presumably) a Westerner are by default responsible for the actions committed by your government, doesn’t that just legitimize the actions of ISIS in what they did to that poor journalist?

  22. Fearitself73

    I agree in part. However a lot of the rhetoric of religious reactionaries isn’t that far off the ideology of IS, though (on surface at least) non-violent.

    I think it’s fair to ask those who, for instance, equate “apostates” as traitors (and go on to say that traitors in USA are executed, hint, hint), who talk about how homosexuals should suppressed (though obviously only in an “ideal state”), who promote the idea of a caliphate and talk about democracy and liberal values as being inferior to sharia, what their views are on IS. It’d be no different than asking a Marxist what their views are on Communist states.

    And whilst it’d be great if religion was a mere personal matter, the reality is that it isn’t.

  23. swat

    Excellent article, but completely irrelevant to defeating ISIS; they are madmen that do not think logocally. Once caught and tried execution by guillotine is the only way to bring the madness to a stop. You fight fir with fire; its the only language that fanatics understand and respect.

  24. PS

    I am surprised that there are still people,learned it would seem,who think that the Arabs invented zero and made great contributions to mathematics.The Arabs were traders and like so many other things that they took from India to sell to the West,they also took Indian mathematicians’ works to Europe.

  25. johnmerryman

    The basic problem with the premise of monotheism is that the absolute is basis, not apex, so a spiritual absolute would be that raw essence of being from which we rise, not an ideal social, civil, moral and intellectual form from which we fell.
    It is certainly politically convenient to assert the source is an ideal, as it validates the authority of those issuing edicts, otherwise known in the west as the “divine right of kings.” That doesn’t make it true though. As complex biological and social beings, we are a focusing and concentration of that elemental essence of consciousness permeating life, but when the complex definitions which make us what we are, are broken, we don’t necessarily ascend to a higher state, but more likely melt back into that ground state. Pushing the reset button might be a descriptive analogy.
    The various versions of monotheism necessarily tend to emphasize different characteristics.
    While Judaism in its liberal stages tends toward a universal enlightenment, the conservative side exhibits a fairly monolithic tribalism.
    Christianity, in its origin myth and given the first several hundred years of persecution, has incorporated the premise of rebirth and renewal rather elementally, which has proven useful when the layers of bad code get too deep and it needs a reset, though there is a lot of baggage to sort through.
    Islam has in many ways been like a single enormous wave, with seven hundred years as one of history’s most successful social and civil movements, followed by about six hundred years of coasting on that primary success. And now the enormous backwash, in which the more moderate elements have limited defenses against the absolutists, who only wish to pull all into the vortex. The terrible irony here is the immune response it will generate in other cultures, will most likely fall hardest on those moderates, thus pushing them to renounce Islam, or side with the fanatics.
    One more storm on the horizon and likely not the worst.
    Hopefully we are at the end of the beginning for humanity and not the beginning of the end.

  26. johndowdle

    The core problem lies not just with the Islamic world and nation-states which come under such a label but also with Western states too.
    In countries like the UK and the US, religions of all kinds are granted privileged status and access to governmental power.
    I can only assume it is because it suits the powers-that-be to have it that way.
    In their way of thinking, they assume that they can control their societies through the use of religion and religious authorities, even though time and again it does not work.
    It has seemed to me for a very long time that governmental insistence of religious education or indoctrination in publicly funded schools is absolutely perverse and negative.

    What is needed in our education systems is a curriculum based on strictly secular values which foster a spirit of enquiry – if not downright skepticism – in our children.
    The current phenomena of the Islamic State with many western volunteers among its ranks should come as no surprise to us. After all, have not western governments all been involved in the religious mind-washing of the young people involved for decades now?
    It seems to me that institutions like the Quilliam Foundation should be saying to central government that if they are genuine in their desire to confront and overcome religious extremism, they need to start at the outset by challenging religion and religious ideas in all our schools.

    If parents of children want to indoctrinate religious ideas into the minds of their own children then let them pay for the privilege of perpetuating this form of child abuse.
    Religion – in this current context – is not part of the solution; it is the whole of the problem.

  27. Guest

    I point out that Judaism’s Kings were expected to be good boys and follow the rules. Indeed, many were punished for not doing so.

    Not the exceptionalism allowed for Christian rulers, which in turn cased, for instance, the entire Protestant reformation.

  28. Guest

    Trying to selectively drive out ideas is what the USSR did. How well did that work, again?

    There is a difference between teaching the scientific method and what you are doing which is reminiscent of what France does, and has lead to communities which are extraordinarily divided from each other – even the mostly secular Jewish community – and has lead, in the end, to violence.

    Moreover, you *would* end up with parallel school systems, and not to the betterment of the kids dragged into them. We’re already seeing that problem with “Free Schools”.

  29. johndowdle

    I am not saying we should drive these ideas out – as you put it – but we should be challenging and confronting them in our schools and elsewhere.
    I am no supporter of so-called “free” schools, which are designed to appeal to a few selfish parents at the expense of everyone else and could well provide crucibles for the very kind of extremism none of us want to see.
    The recent Operation Trojan Horse revelations are a timely warning of this.
    Far better to have schools which are wholly secular in character but which also deal with religions historically and their involvement in the mass murders and other atrocities across world historic time in a realistic way.

  30. Just Visiting

    ok, so don’t respond to what people here actually write. Your choice to put up straw-men: but you won’t get much dialogue that way.

  31. del

    A very poor piece that is intellectually and academically very light simply promoting the author’s predetermined ideological stance.
    For example he is distorting the scholar’s stance citing Ibn Khaldoon’s argument that two rulers were prohibited in a locality unless distances were large. That was not ibn Khaldoon’s stance-he prohibited more than one ruler unless a state was so vast it could not be ruled or managed by one, or that there were two regions and the vast distances precluded the possibility of one ruler. Thus necessity being the exception. He is arguing that there was somehow a legitimate difference of opinion amongst scholars of the time which is simply untrue. Today’s neocolonial situation where we have been divided is not exceptional – it is a radically different political configuration, which the classical scholars would have collectively forbidden.
    The diwan system was an administrative system so irrelevant what its origins were – Umar(ra) adopted persian administrative systems too. Islam let administrative detail to us to adopt and did not prescribe them – whether we use parchments or computer systems does not make a system islamic or unislamic.
    Modern scholarship show the alleged internal “decline” of the Ottomans is little more than a myth and the examples cited need to be show to contribute to their demise which happened centuries later – something the author conveniently ignores.
    On and on the distortions and distortions run…

  32. Space_Cowboy_1952

    Like disgraced Mayor, Lutfur Rahman of Tower Hamlets, who gave 75% of local largesse to the 35% Muslim demographic, while winging 20,000 ghosted Muslim postal votes..? Muslim, Saint Geoarge Galloway and Comrade Ken Livingstone screamed “Islamophobia”. How unusual.

  33. Space_Cowboy_1952

    There is no more sophistication in an astrolabe than in the Antikythera instrument (the world’ first known analogue computer) believed to have been designed in the 2nd century BC. That’s 800 years before Muhammad…. bummer 🙁

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