Challenging the Demonisation of the Caliphate
Recent events in Iraq have once again placed the notion of the return of the Caliphate high onto the agendas of Western politicians and media.
Whilst the emphasis has been upon highlighting the violence wrought in the capture of Iraqi cities, it is appropriate to once again examine the importance of the institution of Caliphate (Khilafah) and to decouple the institution itself from the means used by some to re-establish it.
Caliphate-bashing is nothing new. Senator Joseph Lieberman once described it as the “new evil empire”. Former British Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, stated in the aftermath of 7/7: “there can be no negotiation about the recreation of the Caliphate; there can be no negotiation about the imposition of Shariah law”.Former President Bush referred to it as a “violent political vision” and Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, once suggested the mere mention of the Caliphate gave an “almost instinctive fearful impact”.
The prevailing Western narrative has been to construe the Caliphate as a violent throwback that would usher in a new dark age, characterised by sectarian conflict, persecuted minorities and fear, because these are reportedly the hallmarks of some trying to establish it.
But rubbishing a political vision for the Muslim world in this way is a strategy in vain – polls in the Muslim world reveal that most Muslims respect the history of the Caliphate and want a Shariah-based system, whilst simultaneously wanting its return in the Muslim world via non-violent means .
We must decouple means from goals. The political vision of an independent Muslim world under a Caliphate significantly predates the current chaos in the Muslim world, non-violent calls for which have been heard ever since the day it was formally abolished at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Talk of the Caliphate is not new nor something that emerged in the last couple of decades – it has featured across the spectrum of political debate in the Muslim world ever since its demise, and before.
Let us pose a broader question to highlight the point in a different way: is it sound to discredit a set of political goals because of the means employed by some to achieve them?
If this logic held true, some of the most celebrated historical events in the West should be recast as triumphs for political violence.
The founding pillars of the “enlightenment” should be held responsible for motivating violent upheaval and thus should remain under the shadow of terror, having represented the ideals of the violent and bloody struggles that were the French and American revolutions.
Thomas Paine, the esteemed thinker at the heart of America’s struggle for independence, articulated the case for an American revolution in his highly influential pamphlet ‘Common Sense’ when he wrote “We view our enemies in the characters of Highwaymen and Housebreakers, and having no defence for ourselves in the civil law; are obliged to punish them by the military one, and apply the sword, in the very case, where you have before now, applied the halter”.
Thomas Jefferson too suggested: “It is unfortunate that the efforts of mankind to recover the freedom of which they have been so long deprived, will be accompanied with violence, with errors, and even with crimes. But while we weep over the means, we must pray for the end.”
Equally, national liberation struggles that used violence should render the goal of independence from foreign control violent and immoral, a far cry however from the glowing endorsements they selectively received from Western powers such as former US President Ronald Reagan’s support for the Afghan struggle against the Soviets: “We are proud to have supported their brave struggle to regain their freedom, and our support for this noble cause will continue as long as it is needed”.
The African National Congress’ struggle against apartheid represented a noble cause but as Nelson Mandela admitted in 1963 that: “without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle” although he “planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation”. None of this rendered the fight against racism in South Africa wrong; Mandela now revered internationally and re-branded a freedom fighter no less.
The purpose here is not to justify the use of violence as a tool for political change by stealth. But to demonstrate the Caliphate as a stable, independent, accountable and representative state – an institution that dominated 95% of Islamic history – cannot be rubbished by associating it with the acts of violence perpetrated by some.
The Caliphate has a long track record of ruling disparate communities, ethnicities, regions and religions with success, bringing stability to previously war-ravaged territories, engaging populations and earning strong loyalties from the communities and religions it governed.
The Khilafah [Caliphate] is a distinct state, characterised by an accountable executive, organised judiciary, representative consultation, the rule of law and citizenship.
It is the executive body that Islam has defined as the method through which the Shariah is implemented in society. Without it, Islam would be no more than a host of spiritual rites and morals, and its rules related to economic, political and social life would be rendered redundant. The Islamic authority is established in order to look after the people’s affairs, relationships and interests – both Muslims and non-Muslims who reside under its authority.
Allah (swt) has commanded all the Muslims to abide by Islam and to comprehensively implement all of its rules as they have been revealed: “And whoever does not rule by what Allah has revealed, they are the disbelievers” [Translated Meaning of the Qur’an 5:44]. And: “And rule between them by what Allah has revealed” [Translated Meaning of the Qur’an 5:49]. Allah (swt) says “So judge between them by what Allah has revealed, and follow not their vain desire, diverging away from the truth that has come to you” [Translated Meaning of the Qur’an 5:48].
The centrality of the Khilafah to Islam – and the Islamic obligation to establish it – is without dispute amongst the classical scholars through the ages. According to Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal when asked: What is the meaning of the hadith: ‘Whosoever dies and he does not have an Imam he dies the death of jahiliyyah’, he replied: ‘Do you know what an Imam is? An Imam is the one around whom all the Muslims unite”. According to Imam Al Juzayri: “The Imams (scholars of the four schools of thought) – may Allah have mercy on them – agree that the Caliphate is an obligation, and that the Muslims must appoint a leader who would implement the injunctions of the religion.” Al-Mawardi stated: “Imamate is prescribed to succeed Prophethood as a means of protecting the Deen and of managing the affairs of this world.” According to al-Baghdadi,: ‘The companions of the Prophet have agreed on the obligation (of the Khilafah)”. Al-Juwayni said: “Muslims must have an Imam to lead them and that is the consensus of the opinion of the Ummah and Imams.” Imam Ghazali stated: ‘You should know that the obligation of appointing an Imam is from the necessities of the Shari’ah which we cannot abandon.’ This is to name but a few scholars.
This centrality of the Khilafah has been well understood by Muslims historically, demonstrated by their reaction to its demise. The fall of the Khilafah in 1924 was an event of monumental significance for Muslims as it represented the end of a 1350 year-old institution that had existed since the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) himself. Outside observers too admit that its loss had a “deep effect on the way in which politically conscious Arabs thought of themselves” [Albert Hourani]. In the immediate aftermath, individuals and movements from all quarters of the Islamic political spectrum and across the Muslim world emerged, advocating the restoration of a Shariah-based political system.
The Caliphate then is the orthodox Islamic position on ruling and governance, established in definitive Islamic sources, and implemented historically.
Contrary to the prophecies of doom, the Caliphate will be a stabilising force for the Muslim world – it will bring stability to the Muslim world in numerous ways:
Firstly, the Caliphate is an accountable political system whose head is legitimated only through popular consent . It will therefore be unlike the regimes that currently litter the Muslim world, which are both unrepresentative and unaccountable, and whose brutality and persecution is widespread. The Caliphate, in striking contrast, engages voices of dissent through the political system by providing extensive channels for accounting all parts of the state’s apparatus as well as a consultative assembly made-up of elected representatives with significant powers.
Secondly, the Caliphate system is consistent with – not alien to – the values of the people in the Muslim world. This provides it deep roots and a better chance at working in partnership with its populations because it engages them on a common point of reference and for common goals. But it also means the Caliphate acts as a guarantor for values considered most at threat since its demise by Muslim peoples. The secular, autocratic regimes that emerged in the Caliphate’s wake significantly curtailed Islamic practice and engineered new readings of Islamic values and history. The attempted import of values deemed ‘Western’ are tarnished by perceptions of Western moral and sexual decadence. A political system that credibly protects Islamic values is a key to securing public confidence and partnership.
Thirdly, the loss of the Caliphate brought with it an unprecedented loss of authority and leadership on Islamic issues. The resulting vacuum allowed individuals to become global figureheads for merely speaking the rhetoric of anti-colonialism and standing-up to perceived aggressors. This crisis in leadership after the Caliphate dangerously allowed its functions to be dismembered and claimed by virtually anyone who was willing to take them on. The Caliphate was the only institution able to provide credible leadership on Islamic issues and for Muslims.
Efforts to malign the Caliphate must be challenged with an understanding of exactly what it would represent. Making it inseparable from violence is a false association that lacks historical, political and intellectual credibility. The goal of replacing the brutal regimes in the Muslim world with a political system based on Islam that is accountable, representative and draws on strong ideological commonalities with its people can only be a stabilising force for the region. The Caliphate represents an alternative political vision for the Muslim world that is gathering support amongst Muslims across the Muslim, despite attempts at demonisation spreaheaded by Western commentators and politicians.
- University of Maryland survey – (April 24, 2007)
- Council on Foreign Relations 2005