By Abdul Majeed Abid
28 Nov 2014
The term ‘Khilafat’ or ‘Khilafah’ is surprisingly back in vogue. In the last six months, murderous hordes belonging to the group ISIS have claimed authority over parts of northern Iraq and Syria. The basis of their ideology is the establishment of Khilafat (Islamic State).
The concept of Khilafat or Islamic State is almost as old as Islam itself. Interestingly, Muslims have never united under the command of a single ruler since the seventh century. Islamic revivalists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries insisted that Muslims ought to have a single ruling authority. In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Sultan was instrumental in propagating this revisionist idea.
Historically, the Indian subcontinent was never a part of any global caliphate. Dr. Yaqoob Bangash, in an article titled “Indian Muslim Theory of Kingship”, says ‘Though Muslim, the Mughals did not see themselves subordinate to the Ottoman Caliph in any way. All Mughal emperors, even the deeply religious Aurangzeb, had the Friday sermon [khutba], the ultimate sign of authority, read in their name and did not recognize any Ottoman superiority.”
When the East India Company gained political power in the subcontinent and gradually seized most of the states, the rulers who wanted to retain their independence felt threatened. After losing all hope of any support coming from the Mughal state; Tipu Sultan of Mysore (d.1799) wrote a letter to the Ottoman caliph for help. Instead of extending help, the caliph betrayed Tipu Sultan by handing him over to the British government. In 1857, after the revolt against the British rule, the caliph exhorted the Muslims of the subcontinent to support British rule instead of fighting against it.
The Ottoman Caliphate was propped up by the British Empire as a buffer against the Russian Empire
Despite these setbacks, there was interest in the Ottoman caliphate among the Muslim population of India. This feeling of fondness and nostalgia was tapped by members of the clergy during the First World War. The Ottoman Caliphate was in doldrums throughout the nineteenth century and had lost significant territory to its neighbours. It was propped up by the British Empire as a buffer against the Russian Empire. It was also allied with the Prussian Empire and the Ottoman army was modernized with the help of German Officers and weapons. During 1906-08, a reform movement comprising “Young Turks” had almost taken control of the Caliphate. When the First World War started, the Ottoman Caliphate sided with Prussia instead of its British ally. During the war, the Ottoman army was routed on most fronts.
Mustafa Kemal was one of the very few Turkish officers who were not disgraced during the First World War. Prussia lost the war and the Ottoman Caliphate was carved up by the victors. Mustafa Kemal formed a new party and called for preserving the sovereignty of the areas comprising modern-day Turkey but his efforts were opposed by the Caliph and his British advisors.
Meanwhile, political participation in the Indian subcontinent had given rise to political parties including the All-India Congress and All-India Muslim League. Educated Muslims were joining either of the two parties, a development that didn’t favor the Muslim clergy. Efforts to gain political mileage by the ulema had been unsuccessful, until the perfect cause surfaced. Khilafat Movement (1919-1924) was started in the Indian subcontinent by ulema, essentially to force the British to let the Caliphate remain intact. It was a utopian idea at best, and according to Hamza Alavi, the Ulema’s covert way of gaining political power. Clergymen from India failed to grasp the archaic nature of the institution of the Caliphate in the age of the nation state, or the fact that the British Empire was using this movement to oppose the liberation of Turkey being advocated by Mustafa Kemal. During the movement, traditional doctrinal differences arose between various ulema. Barelvi ulema refused to support the movement due to differences in interpretation of the Caliphate, and who actually deserved to be a Caliph. In its later stages the movement was hijacked by Gandhi for his own vested interests.
The Khilafat Movement came to an abrupt end when Mustafa Kemal abolished the Caliphate and founded the Republic of Turkey. Entry of the religious idiom in Indian politics has been credited by Hamza Alavi to the Khilafat Movement. In 1928, an organization named Ikwanul Muslimeen or ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ was established in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna, a schoolteacher. The primary aim of the organization was to establish an Islamic State. Jamaat-e-Islami—in 1941—and Hizb-ut-Tehrir—in 1953—were established with similar agendas.
The aforementioned organizations have advocated the need for an Islamic State for the last few decades but have been unable to turn their dreams into reality, until recently. The Islamic State presents an opportunity to the Islamists for experimenting their ideas about an ideal state. In reality though, none of the mainstream Islamist organizations have openly endorsed the actions of “Islamic State”. News emanating from the state till now have been bleak, including the desecration of historical monuments and massacre of minorities. Where does that leave the proponents of ‘Khilafah’? Denial-istan?