Islamic Civilisation — 06 August 2011
Realising a Caliphate

A recent piece in the Economist entitled “Dreaming of a Caliphate” investigates how some thinkers are struggling with the concept of Islamic rule in the “modern” age where it appears the only acceptable polity is that of liberal Democracy. The constant refrain of accusing ‘Islamists’ of wanting to impose an “Islamic dictatorship” or “theocracy” against the will of the people and the West, which then evokes a defensive response from spokesmen of aforementioned groups who claim that they only want the opportunity to participate in any democratic system formulated by the elite (normally the military and former establishment), has effectively sidelined any serious discussion about Islamic government as an alternative to the status quo in the political domain. This is problematic, given that there is public sentiment in support of the idea, and the debates have clearly been carrying on between people away from the glare of the media only to explode onto the scene of public consciousness as occurred at the Tahrir square demonstrations in Cairo at the end of July which witnessed the consistent explicit pronouncement of Islamic political slogans repeated in unison by hundreds of thousands if not millions of demonstrators.

The hegemony of a liberal democratic discourse is reflected in a lot of thinking in the Middle East by Islamic scholars and intellectuals, termed “New Islamists” by Raymond Baker, with their belief that “democracy in modern times affords the best means to justice”[1]. Not only in the Middle East, Muslim intellectuals in the Western tradition have also formulated their own ideas about how polity in the Islamic world should be organised. There are those who talk about a separation between religion and the state, though not politics, with Islamic values informing the views of the Muslim part of the population, such as Muqtedar Khan who firmly states that “Muslims must widely and unambiguously accept that Islam and democracy are compatible”; those who do so are approvingly referred to as “Muslim democrats” whereas others are scolded as “Muslim isolationists”[2]. The economist article mentioned earlier also seems replete with thinkers searching for ways to make Islam “compatible” or “acceptable” to Western philosophy such as the how far could an Islamic polity be compatible with a John Rawls-like democracy. Others such as Khaled Abou el Fadl make the case for liberal democracy as the most effective form of government to protect and promote Islamic values. But as mentioned by Saba Mahmood in her response to Abou el Fadl, rather than ask how Muslims could become better liberals, can we not ask whether the World could be lived differently, with alternative visions being explored rather than succumbing to the hegemony of Western political ideals?[3]

This hegemony of the superiority and universality of democracy has underlain much of the approach to analysing the politics of Islamic individuals and groups across the Middle East and general Muslim world. Briefly, analysts normally fall into two broad camps – the first approach holds the incompatibility of Islam and ‘modernity’ as the trigger for regional discontent and the support for various Islamic movements, whereas the second contends that factors such as the failure of secular nationalist movements to resolve the societal problems of poverty and denial of political representation are the main causes of the backlash. However, for all their differences and arguments, since the end of the Cold War both sides implicitly make liberal democracy as the ultimate reference in their approach to analysis, such that Michael Salla has previously noted that “the relationship between liberal democracy and political Islam is unidirectional: Political Islam either responds to liberal democratic norms by demonstrating their consistency with the Islamic heritage; or reacts to them as contrary to the Islamic heritage”[4].

Submitting to or enforcing a hegemonic discourse that assumes the universality of a “democracy”, which is in any event contested, with anything else labeled as “authoritarian” will hardly help in understanding what each side is positing. The reaction by some prominent Islamic groups, to the events of July 2011 in Tahrir square, was to position themselves as the “moderate” face of Islamic politics, ready to play by the “rules of the game” as defined from outside – by Western democratic on-lookers – and a small number of secularists within the region. This kind of politicking, though perhaps understandable (and to some extent expected from the more pragmatic elements), actually hinders and clouds any possible discussions regarding the role of Islam in the polity of the region.

There is clearly a rising religiosity in the Middle East and wider Islamic world, and so the perceived authenticity and genealogy of the various claims about whether “Islamic government” exists and what it looks like will likely play a greater role in garnering support, though the continued imposition and participation in “democratic discourse” may simply dilute and undermine the authenticity of the ideas of all sides of the debate. While there are continuing discussions about the right of different cultures to develop their own “indigenous” form of democracy, or widening definitions of hybrid-regimes, the possibility that a vision of an elected, accountable government can be articulated outside of the paradigm and vocabulary of universally claimed democratic ideals remains either overlooked or dismissed, arguably narrowing the potential for meaningful dialogue and understanding. It can be proposed that the orthodox Islamic theories of the Caliphate system represent an elected, accountable government and the rule of law – all of which address the core grievances felt by the protesters from Tunisia through Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Jordan to Bahrain – is such a vision and deserves to be taken seriously in its own right.

Islamic Political Theory – a brief overview

The most famous exposition of the Islamic theory of State was by the scholar al-Mawardi who claimed that the establishment of the Caliphate was an Islamic obligation agreed upon by the scholars[5]. His treatise al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya (the rules of governance) remains one of the major classical references for Islamic political theory. In it, he explains that the ruler is either elected by the peoples’ representatives or through being nominated by the previous Caliph. The Caliph’s responsibilities include implementing thehudood (punishments explicitly proscribed in Islam for acts such as theft, rebellion, public acts of extra-marital intercourse), collecting and distributing the taxes according to the Sharia prescriptions, and to protect and expand the borders of the Islamic State. There is a contract, known as bay’a, between the Caliph and those who elected him, that basically pledges allegiance to him as long as he fulfils his responsibilities to rule by the Quran and Sunnah. Though there are differences over the validity of those who usurp the power, the majority consensus is that bay’a is “not contracted without consent and choice”[6].

These ideas were not articulated by al-Mawardi alone. His claim of a consensus upon the obligation of the Caliphate is mirrored by everyone else who wrote on the subject in the period, and based upon earlier sources which articulated Islamic political thought. Early political treatises written to advise the Islamic government can be found dating back to the 8th Century, when for example the Persian scholar Abdullah ibn al-Muqaffa argued that government only merited obedience if it obeyed Quran and Sunnah[7]. Recourse to some of ibn al-Muqaffa’s original text finds him telling the ruler that he has the sole responsibility for applying the hudood and other rules from the Sharia, and that “whoever disobeys the Imam in those issues or abandons him” is blameworthy, which can only mean that he considered establishing a ruler to govern as obligatory since it was the only way for the rules of Islam to be applied. Ibn al-Muqaffa also held the ruler accountable for applying the Sharia and stated that if he “prohibited prayer and fasting and pilgrimage” or “prevented the hudood and permitted what Allah had made forbidden” he was not to be obeyed[8].

This concept of accountability based upon the ruler’s application of Islamic law is traced back to words attributed to one of the foremost early Muslims called Abu Bakr who was the first Caliph appointed after the death of the Prophet through the choice of the people – in words attributed to Ali bin Abi Talib the son in law of the Prophet – “the Prophet did not direct us to anyone to take leadership – and so we decided upon Abu Bakr as his successor”[9]. Amongst the first words recorded by Abu Bakr after taking this position was that “if I do good then support me, and if I do wrong then straighten me”. In his first speech addressing the Muslim community in Medina he made it more explicit, stating “obey me as long as I obeyed Allah and His Messenger, and if I sinned against them then I have no claim to obedience over you”[10].

Thus the precedents for elected leadership who had the consent of the governed based upon application of and adherence to the rules of Quran and Sunnah, in other words theSharia, are found in records of the first generation of Muslim rulers.

The contemporary conceptions of the role of the ruler being chosen by the people to rule them in accordance with the dictates and prescriptions of their Islam and to be accountable accordingly can be seen as coming from the same tradition as the original classical Caliphate theory, basing them on what they consider to be an authentic understanding of the original sources of revelation accepted by mainstream Islam. Without going into the detailed arguments and theological justifications for their various positions regarding the structure that government would take which would require its own independent study, their theories were built upon the foundations that sovereignty was for the Sharia, that the ruler is elected and accountable for applying Islamic law upon the community within the territory under their authority, and that in origin there should be a single ruler for the Muslims as a nation[11].

The Caliphate and Hizb ut-Tahrir

The most explicit proponents of the Caliphate upon the orthodox theory mentioned thus far has historically been Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamic political party which was established in Jordan in 1953 and now operating across several countries in the Muslim World from Indonesia to Uzbekistan to Tunisia. The group is currently in the media as being under pressure in Pakistan by the regime there who view the ideas of the movement as a threat, especially as their anti-government discourse highlighting the role of Pakistan in America’s deeply unpopular actions in the region from predator drones to other forms of illegal and illegitimate actions resonates with the general public as well as government and military figures. Their detractors would consider them to be the most “anti-democratic”, and their vision of the Caliphate the most “dictatorial”, and so it is useful to briefly consider their understanding of the role of the Caliph and his relationship with his subjects.

In line with the classical position, they consider the Caliphate to be a contract of “consent and choice”. The choice of the people is to be found through a process of nomination and election carried out by a directly elected council named the majlis al-ummah (theUmmah council)[12] in a manner which appears to be largely inspired by the practice which occurred at the time of the nomination and selection of the third Caliph Uthman bin Affan[13].

Regarding the contractual basis between the Caliph and the people, in the  book “The Ruling System” their second leader Abdul Qadeem az-Zalloom writes that unlike the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Jordan where the King is effectively the owner of the country and the source of its laws, the Caliph has no “special privileges or rights” and is subject to the law as any other citizen since he is their “representative…in ruling and authority” with his selection being from the people who give him their pledge of allegiance “willingly” in order to “implement the Sharia of God upon them”. Therefore the Caliph is “restricted in all his actions, judgments and looking after the affairs of the Muslim nation” by the Sharia and he only takes his position “when the Muslim nation willingly gives him the pledge of allegiance”[14].

At the same time, “accounting the ruler is an obligation upon the Muslims”, and even if there are Prophetic narrations which council patience if the ruler acts unjustly, this is taken to mean that “obeying them is obligatory” while at the same time “holding them accountable for their actions is obligatory as well”. This accounting is to take place through personal means, the establishment of political parties to hold the ruler to account, a consultative council of elected representatives and an independent court which would deal with cases against the executive[15]. However, if the ruler went beyond personal malpractice and injustice and extended their actions to implementing un-Islamic laws, in other words laws which ran in contrary to what was agreed in thebay’a agreement between them and the people, it would be obligatory to remove them at all costs whether through the courts at first or if necessary by force if they refuse to abide by the court’s decision[16].

It appears that their conception of the Caliph, his selection, and the contract between himself and those who chose him bear close resemblance to original orthodox theory which is claimed to be based upon original practise of the first generations of Muslims. It is these original orthodox elements (as opposed to subsequent historical practise) that were accepted even by the famous Orientalist Bernard Lewis as potentially “helping democratic development”, attaching importance to “the classical Islamic concept of supreme sovereignty” which was “elective, contractual, in a sense even consensual and revocable”. Of particular interest are the following passages describing his view of the theory of the bay’a“The bay’a was thus conceived as a contract by which the subjects undertook to obey and the Caliph in return undertook to perform certain duties specified by the jurists. If a Caliph failed in those duties—and Islamic history shows that this was by no means a purely theoretical point—he could, subject to certain conditions, be removed from office. This doctrine marks one of the essential differences between Islamic and other autocracies. An Islamic ruler is not above the law. He is subject to it, no less than the humblest of his servants. If he commands something that is contrary to the law, the duty of obedience lapses, and is replaced not by the right but by the duty of disobedience.”[17]

Though the comparison with democracy/ autocracy is made this is aside from the main point that Lewis highlights – which is that the Islamic political theory has always articulated the concepts of the rule of law and accountability. These two concerns are consistent grievances felt by the population across the region, with the symbolism of former President Hosni Mubarak being seen being bars in the courtroom having such a cathartic effect for precisely this reason. As the peoples of the region are able to find their voices more and able to articulate their demands for good governance publicly, it would be unrealistic to try to sideline those who propose Islamic solutions given their growing constituency and the likelihood that in the more open discursive environment the popularity of their ideas will continue to rise as they can articulate the authenticity of their vision of government from Islamic sources rather than a largely discredited Western civilisation self-destructing in front of our eyes.


Reza Pankhurst is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He has a PhD from the London School of Economics Government department, and also blogs at This article is an updated and abridged version of an academic article previously published in the Political Theology journal entitled “Muslim Contestations over Religion and the State” found here




[1] Raymond William Baker, Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp.171.

[2] M. A. Muqtedar Khan, “The Politics, Theory and Philosophy of Islamic Democracy,” in Islamic Democratic Discourse : Theory, Debates, and Philosophical Perspectives, ed. M. A. Muqtedar Khan (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006).

[3] Khaled Abou El-Fadl and et al., Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[4] Salla, “Political Islam,” pp.737.

[5] al-Mawardi, Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyya (Beirut: Dar Al-Kotob Al-ilmiya).

[6] Ibid., pp.9-19.

[7] Ann K.S. Lambton, State and Government in Medieval Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp.53.

[8] Mohammad Kurd Ali, Rasa’il Al-Bulughaa (Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Arabiyya al-Kubra, 1913).

[9] ibn Kathir al-Dimashqi, Al-Bidaiyat Wal-Nihaiyat (Beirut: Dar Al-Kotob Al-ilmiyah, 2003), vol 5 pp.272.

[10] Ibid., vol 5 pp.270.

[11] The consensus within traditional belief in the origin of the necessity of a singular overall Caliph or Imam for the whole Muslim nation is mentioned by both Abdul Jabbar and al-Mawardi

[12] Hizb ut-Tahrir, Muqadimma Al-Dustoor Qasm Al-Awwal (Beirut: Dar al-Umma, 2009), pp. 145.

[13] For narration of the events leading to the election of Uthman bin Affan as Caliph based upon the opinions of the people of Medina, refer to : al-Dimashqi, Al-Bidaiyat Wal-Nihaiyat, vol 7 pp.140-42.

[14] az-Zalloom, Nitham Al-Hukm Fil-Islam, pp.31-2.

[15] Hizb ut-Tahrir, Muqadimma Al-Dustoor Qasm Al-Awwal, pp.171.

[16] az-Zalloom, Nitham Al-Hukm Fil-Islam, pp.254-7.

[17] Bernard Lewis, “Islam and Liberal Democracy,” The Atlantic Monthly, Feburary 1993.


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(4) Readers Comments

  1. As-salaam aleykum.

    Thanks for this important piece. But I think there is also a problem with the discussion that protagonists of an Islamic caliphate offer. That is, they argue points in theory with due reference to textual authority, past scholars and opinions, but there is very little investigation of policy implementation and practical governance.

    What is missing is the mountain of civil discourse (ideally based in practice) on how a caliphate would operate today, with today’s complexities, culture/s and diversity. People want to know what the implications are and how key problems can be solved, at least generally.

    The reference to democracy is not only because of a powerful elite enforcing the narrative on us, but because of the positive things liberal democracies offer, and which totalitarian or religious polities have failed in the past on. While these positive things may be real or not (and I’m sure some of them are real), ‘Islamists’ don’t tend to paint a detailed picture of how Islamic society will be implemented and how it will be enforced, generally, but particularly in relation to a number of key issues. These issues may include dealing with minorities, agreeing on leadership, implementing and enforcing punitive justice, agreeing on the scope of ikhtilaf and vaild opinion, economy, flexibility of political system, and there are many more.

    While there are many opinions or statements on the above, which have been said numerous times, very little discussion, research, debate is alive that identify, respond to and provide clarity on specific issues in such categories.

  2. WS

    I would suggest that this discussion is not completely lacking – rather it exists, though this is a rarity. As an example – the footnote 15 refers to the two volume arabic book entitled “the precepts/ introduction to the constitution” which details out an Islamic constitution, covering the points you have mentioned in detail –
    the issue of citizenship, vis a vis Muslims and non-Muslims
    mechanisms for electing leadership
    institutions for accounting the leadership
    areas that the leader should adopt within and areas left open to ijtihad
    and so on

    We will expand upon these themes here at New Civilisation in future articles, please do spread these discussions around amongst everyone of any religion to engage in that debate.

  3. Very nice article. I fully agree with the fact that, as Muslims, we should not be trying to conform our political system to what the West deems as acceptable and should instead implement Sharia Law. The problem, however, is that many of the “Islamic” parties that want to implement “Sharia” law actually stand for something quite different. They have very rigid and harsh interpretations of Sharia. In Pakistan, for example, such parties remind people of the dictatorship and violence that a campaign to implement “Sharia” by the Taliban, has brought to parts of the country. Due to this many such parties are, rightly, not popular amongst the masses.

    I think that the first thing that needs to be done if we are to implement Sharia is to agree on exactly what it is, e.g. by presenting the evidence that you have above. Obviously, the rigid, oppressive and violent ideologies that some Muslim “scholars” have are not part of authentic Sharia, since “never does God command anything shameful”. For Islamic movements to be successful a very important prerequisite is for them to be a force for implementing true Islam; not Taliban-style Islam. Once this condition has been met these movements will gain the support of virtually all Muslims and also lose some of the opposition from the West since, unlike what it does now, it won’t be able to label an obviously just and peaceful Sharia as being an radical or extremist ideology.

  4. The so-called western secular liberal democracies are in
    reality “military industrial aristocracies”.

    Those Muslims calling for democracy are naive about how
    the world works.

    The world system is owned by the powerful “financial-aristocrats”
    or capitalists.

    The world system is Capitalism.

    This system is like a computer operating system (like Windows 8)

    Democracy is just a facade.

    It is like the GUI or Graphical User Interface, or “front end”.

    Democracy is like “window dressing”, or the paint of a car.

    However the “engine” is where the real power resides.
    There are all sorts of systems and subsystems at work
    “under the bonnet”. The engine is Capitalism.

    It is the Capitalist systems that really matter.
    Not the mickey mouse mask called Democracy.

    Systems such as “patent law”, “giant trans-national corporations”
    (with oil companies and western banks having massive power over
    western politicians).

    Systems such as the U.N. where some have veto power.

    Systems like “the stock market” (which is a big casino)
    and “riba” and so on.

    The point is when the entire operating system (OS) of the world
    system is owned by the powerful financial-aristocracy in America
    and elsewhere, it is nearly impossible to have true independence.

    Even the Europeans find it difficult to be independent of
    American financial power. That is the reason the E.U. still
    exists. It is to compete with America.

    But America has such financial power that when it sneezes the
    whole world catches a cold! (credit crunch)

    If the E.U. finds it hard, what chance do weaker entities have?

    To use a metaphor it is like playing football.

    Imagine a game of football where “Team Muslim” is on one side,
    and the opposing team is “Team America”.


    the referee is American.

    The committee that makes the rules is American.

    The game starts…

    A Muslim accidently brushes against an American player…

    He gets a “red card”. He is sent off.

    Later an American punches a Muslim player and knocks
    him to the ground…


    No problem. Play on. It is not a foul according to the referee.

    Then Team America scores a goal.

    On the scoreboard it shows 2:0 instead of 1:0
    (the company that makes the scoreboard is american)

    The Muslims play really well…. and they score a goal…

    Referee holds up the flag! OFF SIDE!

    The goal is not counted.

    Team America wins.

    This is the metaphor for how the world system works in reality.

    Democracy changes nothing. It is like Team Muslim changing
    its shirts for new shirts with different colours.

    The rules of the world system remain the same.

    The only way for Muslims to “WIN” is for us to have a Muslim
    referee, a Muslim committee that makes the rules and a Muslim
    company that makes the scoreboard etc.

    i.e. We establish a system that “levels the playing field”.

    The Caliphate is that system.

    Those who call for democracy are missing the point.

    Muslims have been suffering from the “Game” of capitalism
    for 500 years. Democracy changes nothing.

    Democracy does nothing to alter the rules of the world
    capitalist system.

    It is time for Shariah Rules not Capitalist Rules.
    It is time for a Quranic State not a Shaytanic State.
    It is time for Islam.
    It is time for the Caliphate.

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