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Colloquium: Still Recalling the Caliphate? Ft. Dr. Salman Sayyid

For Ummatics’ March 2023 colloquium, we welcomed Dr. Salman Sayyid to discuss his seminal book, Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonization and World Order. His book examines various theories and assumptions about Islam and the political, with a critical eye toward Western universalism. Respondents Dr. Sherali Tareen and Dr. Ovamir Anjum shared reflections on the book’s strengths and its implications for modern Muslim political imaginaries. 

Ummatics Colloquium Summary March 2023

Presenters:

  • Dr. Salman Sayyid
  • Dr. Sherali Tareen
  • Dr. Ovamir Anjum

Summary

Drawing on his preface to the 2022 edition of Recalling the Caliphate, Dr. Salman Sayyid reflected on how circumstances have evolved since the book was originally published in 2014. It remains the case that we lack a political imaginary that transcends liberalism. Though decolonial thought has gained traction in the academy, much of it is thinly cloaked secular liberalism; decolonial discourse often fails to make room for religious thought and motivations, and the Islamicate is only examined in order to answer whether Muslims have the potential to become democratic, liberal, and secular. These terms are invoked without being historicized, portraying history as a single, Eurocentric trajectory toward Western hegemony. 

In light of these epistemological issues, Recalling the Caliphate spans two broad sections: clearing and dreaming, otherwise understood as critique and reconstruction. By critiquing Eurocentrism and historicizing the supposed geographical entity known as Europe, we come to see that Europe is not constituted by the externalization of the Islamicate, and that Islam has rather always been part of Europe. With the goal of historicization in mind, Sayyid developed the field of Critical Muslim Studies, which aims to study Muslimness and how orientalist literature has distorted Muslim subjectivity. Although critiques of Orientalism are popularly articulated, few have taken up solutions to the problems it has created.

Additionally, Sayyid argued that more work must be done to integrate decolonial thinking and the Islamicate. Rather than trying to insert Islamicate history into Atlanto-centric decolonial thought, a global history must be articulated as the backdrop for integrated decolonial thinking. Critical Muslim Studies is also post-positivist in that it disputes attempts to map the social sciences — and knowledge in general — on the Enlightenment’s understanding of the natural sciences. 

Sayyid added that literature on the caliphate has been dominated by history writing; few works assess the caliphate as a political, theoretical object. Common historical narratives claim that the caliphate was defunct long before Mustafa Kemal officially abolished it, and portray Muslim efforts to reestablish the caliphate as mere utopian nostalgia. Recalling the Caliphate is not a historical or utopian account. Rather, it presents the caliphate as a metaphor that requires us to imagine the future of the Islamicate. 

At present, Sayyid explains, Muslims are too strong to be ignored by global power structures, but too weak to be accommodated. The caliphate is a metaphor for an overarching structure that would allow Muslim public opinion to affect global power dynamics.

Responses

Dr. Sherali Tareen described Recalling the Caliphate as a conceptually astute yet accessible critique of secular power. A key concept presented in the book is ‘westernese’: the family of concepts that gives secularism and liberalism the normative power to define good politics. 

Recalling the Caliphate also importantly critiques the secular foundations of the academy, which permeate decolonial thought and render it unable to rethink the question of the secular. Thus, even thinkers who claim to challenge colonial intellectual legacies fall in line with a narrative that portrays religion as a violent phenomenon that must be suppressed and controlled. There can be no truly decolonial politics without critiquing and disavowing secular liberalism.

In light of the secular question, Tareen asked Sayyid to offer his comments on recent attempts to conceptualize an ‘Islamic secular,’ which supposedly distinguishes between the religious and the secular on Islam’s own epistemological terms. Since secular power is tied to modern state sovereignty and its internal contradictions, whether the notion of the secular can be reclaimed or re-envisioned is questionable.

The book also problematizes a popular perspective of Islamic history, which portrays the colonial moment as a critical juncture between the early and modern Muslim worlds. By questioning this perspective, Recalling the Caliphate disputes what is considered historically significant by Enlightenment-centric standards.

Tareen also asked Sayyid to comment on the implications of presenting the caliphate as a metaphor. If there is no actual ideal to strive for, the caliphate only functions as a potentiality that never comes into being. This seemingly contradicts Ummatics’ mission to envision Islamic governance in concrete terms. 

Dr. Ovamir Anjum expressed that Recalling the Caliphate is an important intervention that shows the possibility of evading both the liberal, imperial gaze and Muslim reactions, which are mostly occupied with presentist concerns. He also agreed that the caliphate must be a metaphor, even if and when it is a reality, meaning there must be a conceptual space to think about how the caliphate should look and function. In other words, the caliphate is an asymptotic ideal: an ideal model that the real version may closely approach but not intersect with.

Recalling the Caliphate also contains a lot of courageous questioning, but it nonetheless leaves ample room for construction. Anjum pointed out a quote in the book from Immanuel Wallerstein on universalism, which portrays the dilemma faced by the subjugated. When the West presents universalist accounts of history, reason, and justice, the colonized must either accept these accounts and thereby accept the West, or reject them and thereby accept their parochiality and marginalization from the ‘colorless’ default. Wallerstein suggests neither wholly accepting nor rejecting these universalisms and instead oscillating between the two and ultimately falling into incoherence.

Many third-worldist movements have oscillated in this manner, but this reflects the problems with decolonial thinking that Sayyid pointed out: it ends up being nothing more than reformatted liberalism. Therefore, Anjum argued, a different universalism is needed to guide this avoidance of the West’s universalism. A stronger commitment to Islam provides this by making Islam the place of standing and point of reference and not merely a foil for critique.

Discussion

Sayyid: Regarding the caliphate being a metaphor — we are always living in metaphors, and everything can be metaphorized. That doesn’t mean the caliphate should be forever suspended in potentiality; an actual structure would improve the situation of the ummah. Translating it from potentiality to actuality requires strategic work in specific contexts. It’s not a conceptual task, and Recalling the Caliphate was not placed to do that.

Hammad Yasir: How can a Muslim minority living in a secular nation-state think of the caliphate as a metaphor, and how can we articulate Muslim subjectivity in a secular nation-state?

Sayyid: I don’t agree with Wael Hallaq that the modern state only has one possible formulation. It’s true that the modern state needs to be reconfigured; we don’t have to inherit it. However, Muslims lived as minorities until 300-400 years after Islam. So the problem is not living as a minority, but the condition of that minority. The challenges of living as a minority are even more complicated if you don’t think beyond the national boundaries that make you a minority.

Anjum: The nation-state is not a timeless entity that we can touch and see. We are told that it emerged with Westphalia and survived into modernity, but those 17th-century states looked very different from both 19th-20th-century empires and the modern nation-state. So I agree with Sayyid that Hallaq’s description of the nation-state should be questioned. 

J.S. Ahmad: How do you see ‘clearing and dreaming’ unfolding in Pakistan at this particular juncture?

Tareen: The situation in Pakistan shows the relationship between Islamophobia and Kemalist sensibilities. There is a modernist mandate at work where anti-establishment actors are seen as prone to religious excess. This clearly shows the intimacy between liberalism, modern state sovereignty, and secularity.

Salman: To Tareen’s earlier question on the ‘Islamic secular,’ I think it’s an oxymoron. It isn’t a useful exercise because it’s based on the notion that secularism is the separation of church/mosque and state, but historically it has always been manifested in the state taking control of religious institutions. 

Shehla Khan: Regarding the limits of decolonial thought, Imran Khan epitomizes this: he’s a liberal who emphasizes the rule of law and constitutionalism but also invokes the Islamic state of Madina and criticizes Western liberalism. He’s not a radical, but the things he has said have nevertheless been very incendiary.

Tareen: This example reinforces the relationship between secularity as a sensibility and secularism as a form of political power. Invoking Islamic notions in the political realm is seen as a threat to imperial, secular sensibilities.

Khurram Rafique: Movements like Tanzeem-e-Islami claim to be working for the establishment of Khilafah through Islamic education and academia, not through political activism. What long-term role will such efforts play?

Sayyid: Many 20th-century thinkers, such as Maududi and Shariati, tried to think of an Islamic alternative to what they saw in Europe in relation to Marxism. Marxism was seen as both a science, which observes society, and an ideology, which works to shape society. We don’t have to claim that Islam is a science and thus make it a second-hand Marxism. Islam is a divine commandment, not a critique of particular social conditions, though there are works within the Islamic tradition that may observe and critique those conditions. Treating it as a science makes it secondary to science and analytics, whereas Islam should transcend both. 

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