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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