Exploring the role of Caliphs & Popes

Sharique Naeem

The history of Christian Europe and Caliphate of the Muslim civilization followed distinctive paths. Historians and even average students of history recognize this distinction. The structure of ruling and the role religion played, do not mirror each other. However today, some critics of Caliphate system naively consider them identical and draw analogies between the two institutes, i.e. Caliph and the Pope.

The internal struggle of Christian Europe against the political role of the Religious authority directly stemmed from the failure of the religious authority to cater to the needs of the masses and their outright exploitation by using religion. This internal struggle was not fanned, maneuvered or forced upon them by any external power. Therefore the idea of ‘separation of church and state’ indigenously took root, gained momentum and was eventually accepted as the norm de facto.

On the other hand, the Islamic civilization thrived, under the system of Caliphate. It did not have a ‘dark age’ to begin with and did not suffer from the kind of intense rivalry that dominated the geopolitics of Kingdoms in Europe.

Carly Fiorina (ex-CEO of HP) spoke of Islamic Civilization by saying: “There was once a civilization that was the greatest in the world. It was able to create a continental super-state that stretched from ocean to ocean, and from northern climes to tropics and deserts. Within its dominion lived hundreds of millions of people, of different creeds and ethnic origins.”  She then says: “It was leadership that harnessed the full capabilities of a very diverse population-that included Christianity, Islamic, and Jewish traditions. This kind of enlightened leadership – leadership that nurtured culture, sustainability, diversity and courage – led to 800 years of invention and prosperity.”

Contrary to the European experience, the demise of Caliphate was not a result of a purely indigenous struggle of the Muslims. The Imperial west, in particular the British played an active, conscious and planned role in order to dismantle the Caliphate. The west needed to place loyal dictators in the various fragments of the caliphate, once abolished, in order to ensure that the wings do not converge. It thwarted all efforts for restoration of Caliphate post 1924. The current secular order of nation states over much of the Muslim world, was a foreign construct engineered by the west. Secular critics of Caliphate system, for example Prof. Hoodbhoy recognize the fact that before Kemal Ataturk eliminated the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, “a caliphate had been the norm”.

Another critique presented against the Caliphate system is, that a Caliph cannot be selected quickly, relative to the speedy selection of Pope, since the Caliph has both the religious and state leadership, while a Pope is only ceremonial. The use of the premises that quick consensus on Electing a Pope is due to its limited Ceremonial role, as an argument that any new Caliphs election would be slow is invalid. Rationally, to understand the selection of a new leader in a position requires one to consider all aspects of the structure of ruling, and not merely the scope of Leader’s authority. The Shariah law stipulates that the new Caliph has to be confirmed within a bracket of 3 days. Also, history of the Caliphate shows, that the selection of New Caliphs was not prone to unreasonable delays.

The seat of Caliph, is at times misunderstood as associated with infallibility by its critics, as they tend to perceive the position of Caliph with the same historical lens, as that of the seat of Pope. However this analogy of Infallibility too is invalid. The Caliph is not infallible. And to validate that allegation would require historical proof and textual evidence from the works of renowned classical scholars of Islam.

Today the trend of Christians moving away from Church, because of its stance on some social and political issues, is taken as a reference to indicate that religion’s influence is losing its say on the collective affairs of the people, and therefore Islam too has lesser role to play. The incorrect parameter in this argument is the mapping of a trend amongst Christian societies onto Muslim societies. The trend in the Muslim world is different. Mosques and Islamic Centers flourish in Muslim communities living in west, and there is a growing rate of non-Muslims acceptance of Islamic faith. The ocean of pilgrims for Hajj grows every year. Moreover the Arab spring, has also brought the debate for the need of Islam in Politics at the forefront. These and many other indicators point to the growing role of Islam in Politics.

The definition of Caliphate and scope of its authority has been the same historically. Even today, the definition of this idea, its scope and significance is the same amongst the Scholars across the Muslim world. It is for this reason that we find that no one in the Muslim world today is able to ‘fake’ this label for himself. No Monarch in the Arab world would call himself with that title, and present himself as a Caliph. Nor will any Imam from Makkah, or any other mosque position himself as a Caliph. No Leader of any of the various movements in Muslim world, label himself as one. This is precisely because the idea of the seat of Caliphate is clear in the thoughts of the Muslim world and its scholars, and they cannot be duped into believing a fake Caliph.

In order to make the critique sound more ‘Scholarly’, stances of lone, self-claimed experts of Islam are sometimes presented to dilute and refute the credibility of the Caliphate. This particular critique than extends to grouping all other Scholars of Islam, who are pro-Caliphate, as being influenced by either Syed Qutb or Maulana Abul ala Maududi. The reality however stands in stark contrast. The lack of substance in this notion is either deliberate or due to utter lack of knowledge of history of Scholars of Islam.

The significance and centrality of the Caliphate, and the need for presence of Caliph, is found in the works of almost all the major classical scholars throughout the Muslim history. Amongst these scholars, who highlighted the obligation of Caliphate’s existence are: Imam Abu Hanifa (ra), Imam Shafi (ra), Imam Ibn Tahimiyya(ra), Imam Ahmed (ra) etc.

After the demise of the Caliphate, several notable personalities tried to revive it. Amongst them are:  Mohammad Ali Jouhar (Khilafah Movement 1919, India) who was jailed for 4 years by British; Shibli Nomani (1857-1914) who advocated unity of Muslim lands; various Scholars in Egypt who made effort to hold conferences for revival of Caliphate between 1925-1927, however they were met with constant hurdles; Hasan Al Banna (Founder of Ikhwan, Egypt), Sheih Taqi-ud-Din Nabhani (founder of Hizb ut Tahrir) and countless others. An objective study of the viewpoint of the scholars of the Muslim world, clearly shows that advocating the significance of Caliphate, cannot be reduced to the viewpoint of few scholars of a specific time or locality.

In order to garner sympathy, yet another critique that is presented is that in a Caliphate various ‘school of thoughts’ will vanish. The irony of this critique is in the fact that the very premises of this assertion requires the Caliphate to be in place; for it was during the centuries of rule of Caliphate, where various Fiqh (school of thoughts) flourished. This was because the legislative order (Shariah) required their active presence. In fact, even the classical Jewish scholars, enjoyed the protection of the Islamic Caliphate in Spain, and were able to write volumes on their religion.

One valid Critique is that a sudden formation of a super state encompassing most of the Muslim world is not possible. Ironically, none of the advocates of it expect this either. A Caliphate will naturally, have a starting point, and then move towards merging of the Muslim world, and in doing so it will seek to dismantle the nation-state model. Therefore the nation-state model and the Caliphate cannot exist two in one. The Caliph will naturally engage with the world based on Islamic principles. Therefore it will have treaties, trade, commerce, Cyber correspondence, Space navigation, and may even be at war etc. Hence it will not be a state functioning in Isolation.

It is true, that the context of Arab Spring, has brought the notion of Caliphate into the limelight. With regards to the political structure of the Arab world, an interesting observation is made by Samuel P. Huntington. He writes in ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ (1996): “In the Arab world, existing states have legitimacy problems because they are for the most part the arbitrary, if not capricious, products of European Imperialism”.  Therefore any failure of these arbitrary construct of nation-states, naturally pushes the region close to its previous state, i.e. a Caliphate.

The argument by Critics, that Race and ethnicity presents an insurmountable problem in the unity of the Caliphate lacks historical insight. For the Caliphate, expanded from Spain to Indonesia, and blended in people from all race. In fact the ability of the Islamic civilization to amalgamate people from various races is a well established fact recognized by various historians.

Edward A. Freeman (in ‘Ottoman Power in Europe’, 1877) writes:  “that common history gave them common creed.  And that common history and common creed working together have given them a common civilization, a common morality, a common possession of political, social and intellectual life”.

The official language of a Caliphate, being Arabic, is one of the factors which foster unity. This cannot be compared to the example of the controversy that resulted due to Urdu in the subcontinent. Because in the case of East and West Pakistan, the choice for official language was based on nationalist/ethnic grounds and likewise the resistance against it was based on the same ground. However, Arabic as a language already holds mass appeal due the Islamic creed.

The assertion, that global caliphate can only be created through violence needs to be taken into context. Today if it were not for the imposed secular political order of nation-states, the political direction of the Muslim world would organically lead towards unification. For example, if Egypt did not closed the Gaza border crossing, will not the Muslims travel to assist the Palestinians? Also, today if visa restrictions were lifted, the Ummah would see a sudden surge in internal commerce and trade. The existence, of dictators, and capitalist order – fully assist by the west – is in fact what perpetuates violence and violently opposes the unity of the Muslim world. The current support by the rulers of the Muslim world in the War of terror is a manifestation of this. Pakistan allowing bases for attack on Afghanistan, is violence. Iran – Iraq war was violence, Algeria providing Airspace to France for attacks on Mali is violence. The Caliphate, in its pursuit for unification of the Muslim lands, would essentially seek to put an end to this sustained oppression that has kept the Muslim world pre-disposed to exploitation by Imperial west.

Lastly, at times the academic critics of Caliphate make a stubborn prophecy that Caliphate’s revival has a ‘zero-chance’, after having exhausted all other allegations and assertions against it. In the last decade, many in the west from amongst key Politicians, Thinkers, Journalists, Army Generals and Think Tanks have referred to the possibility of the emergence of the Caliphate. These include: Bush, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Henry Kissinger, General Richard Dannatt (ex Head of Army, UK), Charles Clarke (ex-home secretary, UK), Glenn Beck (FOX), National Intelligence Council etc.  Clearly something which has a ‘zero-chance’ will not merit so frequent a reference in the official political debate in the west.

Today, an objective evaluation and critique of the existing political order of the Muslim world, and possible alternatives, included but not limited to Caliphate, is essential for a productive discourse. In any such discourse, factual and well seasoned arguments are always more pleasing and engaging to the intellect.

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