[Reza Pankhurst previews his recently published book, The Inevitable Caliphate? A History of the Struggle for Global Islamic Union, 1924 to the Present (Hurst Publishers, 2013).]
‘Reza Pankhurst’s deftly argued, thought-provoking book addresses the significant yet neglected topic of the Islamic Caliphate, focusing on the attempts of Muslim thinkers and activists to resuscitate the institution following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. What stands out is the author’s ability to situate the contributions of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Al-Qaeda, and other advocates of the Caliphate within the context of normative Islam, rather than weigh them against the yardstick of liberal democracy. This important book, which examines the Caliphate on its own terms, will challenge the way scholars and other observers of political Islam conceive of their subject.’
John Calvert, Associate Professor of History, Creighton University and author of Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism
The call to an Islamic caliphate is a contentious issue. Its profile has been raised internationally, largely in the aftermath of 9/11, which saw the American and British governments frame some of the narrative of the “War on Terror” as being against an “extremist ideology” that supposedly sought to install an Islamic superstate stretching from Europe to Asia. At the same time, while in the West the term “caliphate” evokes negative images, throughout Islamic history, it has been considered the ideal Islamic polity, with an agreed consensus in normative Islamic scholarship upon the obligation of its existence. It is therefore not surprising that most major Islamic political movements have identified its re-establishment as part of their ultimate program.
As a result of the uprisings across the Middle East and the sustained re-imagination of political possibilities in the Middle East, The Inevitable Caliphate? becomes especially relevant. From Rabat to Riyadh, people across the region have re-asserted the right to think about political alternatives, demonstrating the grassroots popularity of Islamic frameworks of legitimacy and laying the groundwork for a renewed and far-reaching conversation about Islamic governance paradigms. Ideas about the Caliphate—as precedent, as social contract, as imagined community—are bound to shape and be shaped by these debates.
With the rhetoric calling for the re-establishment of a caliphate being introduced more openly into the public and political spheres in the Middle East since 2011, it has become a topic of contention between the liberal elements of society and Islamic movements. The leaders of groups that have publicly reconciled themselves to working within pluralistic, civil systems and adhering to a democratic discourse in the political sphere, are often asked about their position vis-à-vis the caliphate by the media, leading to a variety of responses, normally attempting to highlight their more “pragmatic” nature to appease secular and liberal sentiments in parts of both society and the political sphere.
When the head of en-Nahda Rashid al-Ghannouchi was asked about his position regarding its re-establishment, he admitted that the caliphate was the hope and desire of all Muslims, though it had no role in his group’s political program (at least at this time). The head of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood Mohammad Ayad was much more emphatic in denying that there was any plan whatever for the re-establishment of the caliphate by the movement in wake of the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, trying to separate between the goals of his movement and that of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the region. Meanwhile, the head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Dr. Mohammad Badie stated that the righteous caliphate, reviving the Islamic State, and Shari‘a were among goals of the party as stated by Hasan al-Banna, and that they were close to being achieved, perhaps referring to the growing debate within Egyptian Islamic circles about the caliphate.
All of these discussions and debates around the caliphate, its relevance for the contemporary era, and how it applies to the political programs of movements in the region, highlight increases in the interest it currently holds. And with the creation of a civil space for more open political discourse within the Middle East as a result of the Arab uprisings, this has only increased.
It is clear that the caliphate represented different things to its various supporters and detractors. In the early 20th Century, the supporters of the institution variously thought it to be a symbol of Islamic unity, a last hope against Western imperialism, a focal point to strengthen communal identity against other new nationalisms and a useful tool to extend the elite’s political influence in the region, among other meanings attributed to it. Its detractors claimed it was a symbol of a civilisation whose time had passed, even anti-modern, totalitarian, and others were afraid it could be used against them in their local political struggles with the various monarchies dotted around the region.
The apparent absence of the caliphate from public consciousness for several decades and its subsequent re-emergence as part of what may be perceived as a broad Islamic revival, as well as the opening of public space for political discussion in the Middle East, raises many interesting questions. These range from what the idea means to those who propagate it, how it is used in the counter-hegemonic discourses of the Islamic thinkers and groups engaged in a struggle to wrest power from entrenched regional ruling elites, and to what extent it is adopted as a symbol of reactionary rejection of modernity and Westernization rather than as a political alternative in its own right.
There have been numerous works on different aspects regarding the caliphate, including Sean Oliver Dee’s “The Caliphate Question”, Mark Wegner’s “Islamic Government”, Soaud Ali’s thesis on Ali Abdul-Raziq, and Mona Hassan’s “Loss of Caliphate”. All of these focus on the period around the abolition of the caliphate, respectively covering Britain’s relationship with the Indian Khilafat movement, the debates in Egypt at the time of the abolition, analysing the work of one of the opponents of the caliphate, and comparing the reaction of the abolition of the caliphate in 1924 to the loss of the Abbasid caliphate to the Mongol invasion in 1258.
The intention of The Inevitable Caliphate? is to go beyond that period in time, to provide a history of some of the movements making a claim to the call for a caliphate over the last century, and to ask how those claims fit within the reconstruction of a “Pan-Islam” that James Piscatori has defined as “giving concrete form to the idea of Muslim political unity” – trying to answer how these movements have articulated their belief that the spiritual unity of the Muslim community requires political expression either primarily through the use of the idea of the institution of the caliphate or other forms of transnational authority.
The book starts from discussions around the period of the formal abolition of the Caliphate, the ideas and discourse of various individuals such as Rashid Reda, Ali Abdul Raziq, Hasan al Banna, Taqiudeen an-Nabahani, Syed Qutb, Abul Ala Maududi, Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam, and groups including Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and al-Murabitun are examined. A rich comparative analysis highlights the core commonalities as well as differences in understanding what the Caliphate is, its status in Islamic theology, and how it could be applied in contemporary reality, and suggests that as movements struggle to re-establish a polity which expresses the unity of the umma (global Islamic community), the caliphate has alternatively been ignored, had its significance minimized, or been reclaimed and promoted as a theory and symbol in different ways, continuing to be a political ideal for many.
In presenting the caliphate in the terms and understanding of its advocates and opponents, rather than through the imposition of alien paradigms that proclaim the universality of liberal (or illiberal) democracy, I hope that the book will provide a unique contribution and hopefully a greater understanding of the nature and nuances of Islam in politics. It paints the path of Islamic revival across the last century, providing an understanding of the waning popularity of the caliphate in Muslim discourse and its re-emergence, also illustrating its differing importance to different actors and movements, the importance of symbols and their varying levels of meaning in forming and strengthening political positions against regimes which lack popular legitimacy, and how ideas are diffused globally across movements and individuals.
Reza Pankhurst is a political scientist and historian, specialising in the Middle East and Islamic movements. He has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, where he previously completed his Masters degree in the History of International Relations.
This preview was originally posted on There is Power in the Blog