By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam
27 August, 2014
The dream of a Caliphate or the creation of an Islamic state on a global scale appears to be an aspirational issue for most Muslims cutting across all sects. If this reflects a desire to end ethnic and sectarian differences and unite, then it is a good thing. What prevents people from sinking their differences today and uniting? Or is this the dream of an escapist people who think that somehow all the present day problems will disappear and the Muslims will once again become prosperous and powerful? If the Caliphate was such a good thing then why did it not last? I have pondered over this question and have begun to have my own dream of achieving all the good things that the Muslims want from their Caliphate but witha solution that is practical – or so I think. Let me share my dream with you.
Does the Quran support the idea of a Caliphate? There is nothing in the Quran or the Ahadith that supports the idea. There are plenty of verses that speak about the need to remain united such as:
(3:103) And hold fast, all together, by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah´s favour on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His Grace, ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth Allah make His Signs clear to you: That ye may be guided.
A Brief History of the Caliphate
After the Prophet’s death Abu Bakr (RA), one the first converts to Islam was selected by the Shura (council of elders) process to be the leader of the Muslims. The office of the Caliphs was held by each of the Caliphs for life. The Shura process selected the second, third and the fourth Caliphs but the fifth Caliph was a usurper although not without considerable support as he was already a governor with considerable political clout. He also changed the Institution of the Caliph into a dynasty (Umayyad). The division between Shias and Sunnis is also over the selection process. The Shias contend that the Caliphs should have been only from the family of the Prophet and since the Prophet was not survived by any son, Ali who was the son of the Prophet’s paternal uncle and also the Prophet’s son-in-law should have been the first Caliph followed by his son etc. These disputes and the rapid changes in the selection process and converting the institution into a dynasty underlie the bare fact that there was no guidance on the aspect of succession and choosing of a ruler either in the Quran or the Ahadith.
By 750 or in a short period of 120 years, the Caliphate had expanded across North Africa and into Hispania to the west and through Persia in the east and also to cover Sindh in modern day Pakistan. The Caliphate was the largest empire in history until then, and one of the few empires to ever rule over three continents (Africa, Europe, and Asia). Till this point in time and for another four centuries, the Caliphate consisted of lands conquered by the Caliph and all the Muslims of the World were within the Caliphate. It is therefore, a mere accident of history that the Caliph ruled over all of the Muslim lands up to the 12th century. However, once the Caliphate became too big, the Caliph lost control over the parts that were distant – for example, there were competing dynasties in al-Andalus (Abdur Rehman I), North Africa (Almohads) and Egypt (Fatimids). From the 12th century, there were Muslim rulers and countries that did not come under the Caliphate. The de facto power in Saharan Africa remained in the hands of local sultans and emirs who had their own dynasties. After three centuries, the power of the Caliphs ruling from Baghdad waned and subordinate sultans and emirs became increasingly independent and the Caliphate endured as a symbolic position. The Safavid dynasty ruled Iran from the 16th century.
The Caliphate covered all of the Muslims until a time when the only Muslims in the world were within the Caliphate. This was bound to be true even if some unworthy person was the Caliph during the early period. There is not even a single instance of a Muslim majority country agreeing to become a part of the Caliphate which was not a part of the Caliphate to start with. Neither Indonesia nor Malaysia nor Somalia became part of the Caliphate much less Muslim empires such as the Mughal Empire in India. The sole exception is perhaps Aceh (part of Indonesia today) which briefly acknowledged Ottoman suzerainty.
So what was the Caliph except ruler of a single imperial empire? Asking for the Caliphate is like the Christians asking for a Roman Emperor with a Roman Empire! You can replace Roman with Christian if you please. The comparison may not be exact but the idea is equally ridiculous.
So What Does The Return Of The Caliphate Really Mean?
The concept of a Caliph once elected ruling for life is no longer tenable. It is a recipe for unchecked corruption. Lack of legislation covering the institution of Caliphate allowed it to be converted into a dynasty after the fourth Caliph. The fifth Caliph was a usurper. There was no legislation to deal with such a situation or with the corruption or lack of piety. The Caliphate failed to even protect itself. It first disintegrated into several dynasties and eventually came to an end. So what really remains of the idea of a Caliphate that makes people yearn for it? Is it only the idea of unity of the Ummah and nothing more? Or is it the success, prosperity, peace and domination for several centuries that the Muslims enjoyed? Such unity can be achieved by removing all the irritants that make people bicker and fight after which the Muslims can focus on progress, peace and prosperity.
Present Day Reality
The present day sectarian and ethnic strife in the ME owes much to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and the secret Franco-British-Russian pact as a result of which people of different ethnicity and belonging to different sects have been split across several nation states. The Kurds numbering about 25 million live in a region they call Kurdistan that is today divided between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. The Arab Shias are spread across Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Syria, eastern Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and UAE and in smaller numbers in Egypt and Jordan. The Shias have also in recent years, been subject to severe repression. Similarly the Alawis (a branch of Shia Islam) form about 12% of the population of Syria and are found in smaller numbers in Lebanon, and Turkey. The Druze are split across Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Lebanon has large Sunni and Shia populations besides Christian majority. The situation was further complicated by minority groups seizing power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. These groups who ruled with an iron hand to retain their hold on power.
After independence, Syria and Egypt tried to merge and so also Iraq and Jordan but these attempts ended in failure. Ethnic and Sectarian strife, which was relatively unknown earlier, became commonplace. Lebanon had a full blown civil war. Under the Ottoman Empire, it never occurred to the Turks that the Kurds were different who spoke a non-Turkish language and had to be wiped out! The problems of Iraq and Syria are too recent to need recounting. The Kurdish people have suffered the most in each of the countries viz. Syria, Iraq and Turkey including systematic genocide.
“The disintegration of empires always makes the earth tremble as it is battered by tumbling geopolitical masonry. Think how long Europe took to regain the civilised standards it lost with the fall of Rome. Consider the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires: above all, the British one. Our imperial exhaustion led us to abandon Palestine and Pakistan, those two Ps which no princess’ mattress can suppress: those two possible catalysts for a nuclear war which could destroy mankind” (As Bruce Anderson).
The impact of structural changes that the region has experienced is immense. The redrawing of the boundaries to divide and fragment distinct identities has created ethnic and sectarian strife that was non-existent earlier. While once the region was borderless and without feelings of nationalism and Arabism, these feelings now have come to the fore. The people have learned new ways of describing their identities or distinguishing themselves from the ‘others’. Under colonial rule, the Shariat laws were replaced by secular laws which were another major structural change. The efforts to go back to Shariat or the struggle between Shariat laws and secular laws are another cause of instability.
In the post-World War I era coups were common, and by the 1960s, oppressive republics outnumbered monarchies. The ME has therefore been unstable and in this environment of stable nothing, there have been developments in the last 35 years, which have created armies of civilian “jihadists”, who report to none and are not under any command/control structure like a disciplined army.
The Parallel with Europe
Europe has a history of having gone through much pain during the medieval period which were its dark ages and rose like a phoenix after the renaissance which was ironically based on Muslim achievements and knowledge and emerged stronger after two World Wars and has overcome problems of stability caused by multiple languages and ethnicities. Europe could be a good example to emulate.
Europe today, is a continent of about 50 nation states and each state consists of a single people with a shared ethnicity, language and religion. This has resulted in peace and stability. The exceptions are UK, Spain and Belgium and these countries are struggling with nationalist aspirations of the other groups. Distinct traditional regional identities within Spain include the Basques, Catalans, Galicians, Cantabrians and Castilians. Belgium has three official languages but mainly Dutch spoken by the Flemish and French spoken by the Walloon. The UK comprises the English, Scottish, Irish and the Welsh populations mostly. The reorganization of most European states into one people, one language and one religion came about after many years of reorganizations.
Can The ME Be Reorganized For Peace And Stability?
Mergers between monarchies in the ME may face internal resistance but between democracies where the people are from the same sect and speak the same language, it is conceivable. Redrawing of the boundaries to create new political identities of a single people, creating new nation states to cater to the aspirations of ethnic groups like the Kurds and the Alawites will bring greater stability and peace. Iraq appears to be splitting. Regrouping to create new nation states appears to be the need of the day.
The reality is that peace and stability in the modern world has been achieved as a result of redrawing of political boundaries to meet the nationalist aspirations of each large distinct group of people. Regrouping of a single people who were divided has also proved successful - the outstanding example being Germany. Creating a single Islamic state will neither bring stability nor peace nor encourage people to focus on progress while they fight and bicker.
Realizing The Dream For The Caliphate
What then of the Caliphate dream? The dream can be met by creating an Islamic Union on the lines of the European Union. Such a Union can be created right away and its first task could be to preside over the redrawing of boundaries to meet the aspirations of all the people. The hurdle to cross would be the monarchies which are likely to drag their feet or oppose openly. Those who oppose could be bypassed to be dealt with later. Once some reorganization takes place which ends strife, then the success achieved will provide the impetus for others who initially opposed the idea to join and fall in line.
A single political entity is no longer possible or desirable nor does even the Caliphate of the past have a single instance where a territory not conquered by the Caliphate merged with it. The USSR split up precisely because the people of different states shared very little with each other and were separate nations states held together artificially. Holding such disparate people together is to remain in a state of disequilibrium. Maintaining such a state requires enormous energy and attention and is unproductive. The earlier a state of equilibrium is attained, the better it is for everyone.
For the sake of unity, the Quran does not discourage nuclear families nor encourage joint families. As a matter of fact, if the wife asks for it, it is necessary for the husband to provide her with a separate house where they can live as a nuclear family. Such splitting into nuclear families helps avoid quarrels and tensions and to maintain healthy relationships. If this is true of families, it is even truer at the level of larger groups. The guidance of Islam on the subject is therefore to go for political divisions and alignments that promote peace, stability and better relations. We can unite as an Ummah only when we cease to fight which is possible only when we remove the reasons why we fight today.
The goals of the unity of Muslim Ummah, and of peace, stability, security, progress and prosperity can be achieved without a Caliph or a Caliphate by forming a union of Islamic states with a suitable charter to achieve the objectives. I hope that the Muslim World will show the sagacity to move in the right direction without waiting for the US and the UK to hammer out a solution and force it on them.