Sunday, 13 September 2015

What is the Caliphate?

One of the cornerstones of the Islamic political system is the concept of the Caliphate, the global Muslim empire, consisting of all Muslim countries united into one, ruled by a single supreme guide, or caliph. The medieval Muslim jurist Abu’l Hasan al-Mawardi (d.1058) explained that the Caliphate “is intended as vicarate of the prophecy in upholding the faith and managing the affairs of the world. Its establishment is unanimously considered to be obligatory on the Community…”

To justify the conception of the Caliphate, al-Mawardi quotes the Qur’an: “O ye who believe! Obey God, and obey the Apostle, and those charged with authority among you. If ye differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to God and His Apostle, if ye do believe in God and the Last Day: That is best, and most suitable for final determination.” (4:59) He then comments: “He [Allah] has thus made it obligatory for us to obey those in authority; namely, the sovereigns with power over us…[T]he Messenger of God [Muhammad], God bless him and grant him peace, said, ‘You will be ruled after me by some who are benign, and some who are depraved. Listen to them and obey them in all that is right. The good they do will be for your benefit and theirs; the bad they do will be for you and against them.’”

Throughout the history of the Caliphate, this Qur’anic verse was invoked to emphasise the importance of obedience to the sovereign in maintaining governmental authority.  The renowned Islamic legal manual Reliance of the Traveller says that “[i]t is obligatory to obey the commands and interdictions of the caliph (or his representative) in everything that is lawful...even if he is unjust...because the purpose of his authority is Islamic unity, which could not be realized if obeying him were not obligatory.”  Furthermore, “[t]he caliphate of someone who seizes power [i.e. by force] is considered valid, even though his act of usurpation is disobedience, in view of the danger from the anarchy and strife that would otherwise ensue.”

Maududi’s (d.1979) commentary on verse 4:59 provides another mainstream confirmation of these ideas:

This verse is the cornerstone of the entire religious, social and political structure of Islam, and the very first clause of the constitution of an Islamic state. It lays down the following principles as permanent guidelines…

…In the Islamic order of life Muslims are further required to obey fellow Muslims in authority…Those invested with authority include all those entrusted with directing Muslims in matters of common concern. Hence, persons ‘invested with authority’ include the intellectual and political leaders of the community, as well as administrative officials, judges of the courts, tribal chiefs and regional representatives. In all these capacities, those ‘invested with authority’ are entitled to obedience, and it is improper for Muslims to cause dislocation in their collective life by engaging in strife and conflict with them. This obedience is contingent, however, on two conditions: first, that these men should be believers [in Islam]; and second, that they should themselves be obedient to God and the Prophet…

A Muslim is obliged to heed and to obey an order whether he likes it or not, as long as he is not ordered to carry out an act of disobedience to God. When ordered to carry out an act of disobedience to God he need neither heed nor obey…

Such a political system is inherently anti-democratic. The analysis of the renowned historian Bernard Lewis, from a 1954 essay comparing Islam to Communist totalitarianism, highlights the inferiority of this worldview compared to the Western democratic model:

There are no parliaments or representative assemblies of any kind, no councils or communes, no chambers of nobility or estates, no municipalities in the history of Islam; nothing but the sovereign power, to which the subject owed complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by the Holy Law. In the great days of classical Islam this duty was only owed to the lawfully appointed caliph, as God's vicegerent on earth and head of the theocratic community, and then only for as long as he upheld the law; but with the decline of the caliphate and the growth of military dictatorship, Muslim jurists and theologians accommodated their teachings to the changed situation and extended the religious duty of obedience to any effective authority, however impious, however barbarous. For the last thousand years, the political thinking of Islam has been dominated by such maxims as 'tyranny is better than anarchy' and 'whose power is established, obedience to him is incumbent.'

Despite the abolition of the Caliphate by the secular regime in Turkey in 1924, these ideas are certainly not dead-letter theory today. According to a 2007 World Public Opinion/University of Maryland poll, 71% of Muslims – hardly a fringe minority – surveyed in four major Islamic countries (Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia) openly declared that they wanted to see the resurrection of the Caliphate. 74% also wanted strict (that word was emphasised) application of sharia law in every Islamic country. In early 2009, a follow-up poll by the same team achieved similar results.

The appeal of this totalitarian religio-political system is important in understanding current events, since the jihadist organisation known as the Islamic State has declared itself to be the new Caliphate. In a recent poll conducted in Arabic by al-Jazeera, 81% of forty thousand respondents stated that they supported the “victories” of Islamic State.  If this is anywhere near representative of the Islamic world as a whole, it aptly demonstrates that Muslims still overwhelmingly support the idea of the Caliphate, despite the absolute barbarity it has been shown to commit every single day.

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