The heterogenous heritages of the caliphate

L’Association des Jeunes Internationalistes publishes an article written by Archie Philipps, former master’s student in MLitt in Terrorism and Political Violence at Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), University of St. Andrews.Cet article est publié en coopération avec la rubrique diplomatie de La Gazelle, un journal inter universitaire. Nous souhaitons également remercier Jeanne El Arafi pour la production de la carte.

In summer 2014, Daesh (the so-called ‘Islamic State’), declared a Caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria. This was the first caliphate declared since the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in March 1924. By spring 2019, the Daesh Caliphate had collapsed. Prior to, throughout, and after, its existence, the idea of a caliphate – the pan-Islamic polity – was met with enthusiasm by some Muslims, indifference by others, and even hostility by a few.

The Islamic world order is divided into Dar al-Islam (the realm of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (the realm of war). Sayyid Qutb, probably the most influential Islamist theorist, argued that Dar al Islam, ‘the homeland of a Muslim, in which he lives and which he defends, is not a piece of land’ but rather where ‘the Islamic faith’ and ‘way of life’ prevails in all affairs. Dar al-Islam is institutionalised in the polity of a caliphate, led by a caliph. The word ‘Caliph’ comes from the Arabic ‘Khalīfah’ (خِلَافَة) meaning « successor [of the Prophet Muhammad] » in deputising for God and promoting his rule on Earth.

There have been four major Caliphates since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632CE. The first, the Rashidun or ‘rightly-guided’ Caliphate, began with the reign of the Prophet’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr (r.632-634CE), and lasted until 661. This was followed by the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750), and then the Abbasid Caliphate, which ruled in Baghdad until the Mongol sacking in 1258. The capital of the caliphate then moved to Cairo, until the Ottoman conquest in 1517. The Ottoman ruler held both temporal (as Sultan) and spiritual authority (as Caliph) until 1922, when the Sultanate was abolished and replaced with the Turkish Republic under Atatürk as President. The Ottoman Caliphate was abolished on 3rd March 1924.

In a 2006 Gallup survey, Muslims living in Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia and Pakistan, two-thirds of respondents said they supported the goal of « unifying all Islamic countries » into a new caliphate. What can be said about this utopian and rather vague dream ?

The legacy of the caliphate and its relevance for the future is far from monolithic for Muslims. It is vital to note that many post-1924 Islamists are more concerned with implementing sharia within nation states than in a transnational caliphate. The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which existed from 1996 to 2001, and was redeclared in August 2021, is an example of this more nationally-oriented Islamism.

Turning to those who seek to establish a caliphate, Sayyid (2014) suggests five ways to conceptualise what this means. Firstly, as a polity whose boundaries coincide/represent that of the umma. Secondly, as being the sole Muslim polity of which most Muslims would be citizens, as was the case from the wars of Ridda (632–633CE) to the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate in 750CE. Thirdly, as a form of Muslim Vatican, a polity that exercises spiritual leadership over Muslims, with the Caliph akin to ‘Pope’ rather than ‘politician’. Fourthly, wherever there are ‘institutions and practices’ akin to historical caliphates, regardless of scale or specific name.  This comes close to Qutb’s vision, for whom the creation of this ‘Islamic system’, Dar al-Islam, was more important than any specific form or name. Fifthly, more political than territorial, as an ‘overarching Islamic great power’ within the international system.

Within this fifth conception, some Muslims see the caliphate more as a metaphor of Islamic great power, but not a (pressing) future possibility. For many, the caliphate is attractive as the symbol of past Islamic greatness, providing a ‘cultural self-confidence’. Al-Qaeda exploits this, portraying the caliphate as a unifying symbol to globalise its struggle into a clash of civilisations, but considers its implementation too far-off for a detailed vision.

For other groups, such as ISIS, or the lesser-known Hizb ut-Tahrir, and Al-Muhajiroun, the caliphate is a concrete policy proposal. Yet even revivalist groups disagree on the means and ends of the caliphate. For ISIS, the caliphate was ultimately a means: to capture territory, facilitate a war there with the ‘crusader’ armies, and so immanentize the Apocalypse. This apocalyptic element is tangential, if mentioned at all, in many other caliphal revivalist groups’ rhetoric. ISIS established its caliphate by violence. By contrast, groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir seek to persuade society to re-establish it.

Why would the idea of the caliphate be popular? Caliphate revivalist groups often emphasise two aspects: the unifying nature of the caliphate, and the accountability of the Caliph. Firstly, the caliphate, especially the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates represent the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam, where a single Muslim polity ruled from Central Asia to Spain. When producing propaganda surrounding its own Caliphate, ISIS, for example, understood the emotive power of the historical Caliphates. The group adopted symbols of the Abbasid Caliphate such as the black flags, scimitar-wielding horsemen, and the black robes of the Caliph, which Al-Baghdadi wore in his few public appearances. Moreover, the legacy of the caliphate as a pan-Islamic polity would have resonance with a ‘deterritorialised’ Muslim diaspora in the West. Caliphate revivalist groups emphasise the global nature of the caliphate, supposedly free from discrimination on the grounds of nationality or skin colour, which many in Muslim diasporas experience. Going a step further than that other great ideology of the 20th-century Middle East, the secular pan-Arabism of Nasser and others, caliphate revivalist groups emphasise pan-Islamism, regardless of where Muslims are from.

In Qutb’s words, in Dar al-Islam,  ‘partisanship – the partisanship of lineage – ended; and this slogan, the slogan of race – died; and this pride – the pride of nationality – vanished; and man’s spirit soared to higher horizons, freed from the bondage of flesh and blood and the pride of soil and country’.  In the first issue of its English-language magazine, Dabiq, Daesh emphasised this transnational unity, insisting its Caliphate was a place where ‘the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers’, while British-born convert to Islam and ISIS militant Abu Rumaysah insisted that he was welcomed by the Syrian locals as part of the umma or global Muslim community. 

A British-based revivalist group, Al-Muhajiroun, brings an abstract theological and political concept, the caliphate, to the practical level by promoting it as a solution to the everyday problems faced by ‘any group’ experiencing discrimination:  

“Islam solves the problem of racism [… since] Islam has no concept of a Nation State […] Islam sees all land as God’s land and it does not allow any group of individuals from a certain region to see themselves as superior to any other group of individuals from other regions on the basis of race or nationality.”

As the argument goes, a state under Islam would have no racism. Hence, a caliphate, as an Islamic polity, solves the ‘race problem’ experienced by so many Muslims, and should be established.

Secondly, the Caliphate is presented not only as a positive alternative to racism but to another abuse, that of power. Caliphate revivalist groups in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region stress that while global, the caliphate is not imperialist. As the group Hizb ut-Tahrir argues, ‘the caliphal system’ considers every single region as a part of the state and its citizens enjoying the same rights’ as those in the ‘mother country’ and does not exploit peoples under its polity. This would likely have resonance in a region struggling with a heritage of a long history of colonialism. Moreover, the MENA region contains many autocratic monarchies and presidents, and caliphate revivalist groups also stress that the head of the caliphate, the caliph, is elected, unlike monarchists, and can be removed by a council if he fails to implement sharia, or Islamic law. In his first sermon as ‘Caliph’, Daesh leader Al-Baghdadi insisted that ‘if you see me upon falsehood, then advise me. Obey me as long as I obey Allah in your regards’, and if he failed to do so he would have ‘no authority’ over Muslims. Even diaspora-based groups, operating in democracies which hold regular elections, such as Al-Muhajiroun, stress that the caliph would not act with the supposed fickleness of Western elected leaders. Western politicians, Al-Muhajiroun argues,  ‘‘throw all of the promises they made to you in the bin’, breaking manifesto promises, and proceed with their hidden ‘personal agenda’. The caliph, so the argument goes, can have no hidden personal agenda, being bound to rule by sharia rather than his own ideas.

Overall, the idea of a caliphate means different things to different Muslims. For some, it is a useful symbol; for others, an actionable policy proposal; for others still, a distraction from the more realistic and immediate goal of implementing sharia within their own states, not to mention the swathes of Muslims unconcerned with implementing Islamic systems as alternatives to the existing systems in which they live. Decades after the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, the idea of a caliphate has galvanising power, causing some Muslims to campaign, and even some to fight and die for its re-establishment. 

The territorial Daesh Caliphate has now collapsed into rubble. The excitement over the Caliphate and its role in the apocalypse which led thousands to travel to live in and fight for it has been dented. However, in his 1956 classic, When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger argues that ‘when prophecy fails’, movements often rationalize this as a test of faith or part of ‘a march towards eventual triumph’, and that this can re-invigorate and actually increase commitment to a cause.  The caliphate fell, was re-established, fell again. Yet its legacy remains. It would be foolish, indeed dangerous, to dismiss the caliphate as an anachronistic idea whose galvanising power for some Muslims has passed.