Ovamir Anjum’s refreshingly bold essay ‘Who Wants the Caliphate?’ (2019) is a wide-ranging reflection on various aspects of Muslim thinking about the caliphate.1
Through a detailed argument for the desirability, feasibility and religious necessity of the caliphate, it takes aim at a ‘failure of imagination and intellectual courage’ that does not allow for ‘Islam to be Islam’ and calls for a broadening of thought beyond hegemonic categories such as the nation-state. In this short essay, we echo these views through a critical reflection on two types of contemporary narratives that counter the religious necessity, or preferably, the shar’i obligation, of the caliphate. We indicate how these are ultimately weak arguments, in no small part because they are still beholden to, or fail to venture beyond, dominant secular categories of thought and practice.
On the particular aspect of the caliphate’s shar’i obligation, Anjum is clear that this is a matter of consensus: ‘All surviving Muslim schools and sects agreed on the obligation of appointing one leader for the Muslim community.’ (Anjum 2019, 24) He goes on to cite, by way of example, Ibn Hazm (d. 456/1064), al-Nasafī (d. 537/1142), Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), al-Taftāzānī (d. 792/1390), Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406), and al-Ḥaṣkafī (d. 1088/1677), where many others from various madhāhib can be cited. Suffice to say that the obligation and priority of the caliphate is a matter beyond dispute in the classical Islamic tradition. The same cannot be said, however, of modern Islamic scholarship, which revisits and negotiates this obligation in novel and creative ways.
Modern challenges to the classical position cover a broad range. In this reflection, we focus on two positions: one that expresses an outright negation of any obligation; and another that amounts to a practical negation thereof. The former position historicises the caliphate and expressly denies that it is a religious obligation. An example of this is the (in)famous position of ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Rāziq (1888–1966) which rereads the caliphate as a matter of historical contingency that carries no abiding ‘religious’ value. A contemporary articulation of such a view can be seen in Dr. Javed Ghamidi. In contrast, the latter position upholds a theoretical affirmation of the obligation that is, however, ultimately empty in that it amounts to an effective or practical negation thereof. Examples of this position have greater frequency and more mainstream advocates, for which reason they also call for greater engagement; a contemporary articulation can be seen in Sh. Akram Nadwi or Sh. Hamza Yusuf.
In what follows we briefly consider an instance of both such arguments, focusing on the arguments proffered.
Wholesale Negation on the Fringes
Javed Ghamidi’s explicit negation of the caliphate being an obligation upon Muslims rests on a number of premises creatively brought together: Islam is primarily addressed to individuals, not collectives; the state has no religion; ‘Khilafah’ is not a religious term because it was coined by scholars, not Allah or His Messenger (saw); and there is not a single directive in the Qur’an and Hadith that necessitates it—that is, that necessitates a unified governance of all Muslim lands.2 Ghamidi accepts that there are Shari’ah ‘directives given to Muslim society’, such as propagating Islam, enjoining good and forbidding evil, engaging in Jihad, establishing justice, establishing salat and zakat, all of which can only be carried out by governments. However, if Muslim governments chose not to do any or all of these, all Muslim scholars and leaders can do is advise them and leave it at that. There is no obligation to ‘force’ them to implement Islam or to establish Islamic governance if none exists.
There is an interesting atomisation in the notion that Islam is primarily addressed to individuals and much can be said about the erroneous claim that ‘khilafah’ is not a shar’i term3, but we bypass these arguments here for brevity—these operate, in any case, largely as strawmen with regards to the overarching argument that seeks to deny the obligation of the caliphate. The core of Ghamidi’s argument is that there are no directives in the Qur’an and Hadith that require the caliphate and that the obligatory tasks that would otherwise by undertaken by it—if it so happened to exist—can simply be taken up by the Muslim governments of modern nation-states, or, remarkably, be left unfulfilled without the Umma being sinful.
What is immediately noticeable here is that the very obligatory tasks which classical scholars used, virtually unanimously, as one set of evidences for the obligation of the caliphate—on the basis of the established principle that what is required to fulfill an obligation itself carries the same ruling [mā lā yutimu al-wājibu illā bihi fa huwa wājib]—are effectively rendered non-obligatory by specifying them to the rulers. In fact, these are communal obligations [furūdh kifāya] that are addressed in the first instance to the Muslim Umma at large and only secondarily to the rulers in terms of execution (effectively as agents of the Umma acting on her behalf). Further, of course, there are clear directives that Muslims are to be ruled by Islam and by a unified leadership, such as the clear ahadith in Bukhāri and Muslim which necessitate one ruler to the extent of permitting fighting contenders to a legitimately contracted khalīfah as a last resort, if other means do not suffice. Ghamidi is aware of these and quotes them but re-interprets them such that they apply not to the Muslim Umma at large but separately to each Muslim state4—as if the Shari’ah was revealed in the context of nation-states.
This anachronistic reading is perhaps the most tenuous aspect in Ghamidi’s narrative, which, relatedly, leans on a naïve understanding of modern nation-states as simply neutral, non-ideological units of governance. Indeed, the modern, secular, sovereign nation-state is anointed a quasi-sacredness by Ghamidi such that it cannot be challenged: ‘what cannot be demanded from them is that they give up their nation states and national identities and become one nation and one state’. It is surely an astonishing set of interpretations by which the caliphate is secularised as a purely historical and disposable entity while the nation-state is sacralised as indispensable.
Practical Negation in the Mainstream
A second, more ‘mainstream’, narrative ends up not far from where the ‘fringe’ Ghamidian argument lands, except that the former does not explicitly negate the shar’i obligation of the caliphate. Rather, its pathway to what is an effective negation of the same is a thoroughgoing de-prioritisation of it. The basic idea here is that while the caliphate is a helpful, even desirable, institution, it is not essential to Islam, which is, at base, a personal relationship between the individual Muslim and Allah (swt). A believer’s ultimate purpose is Jannah, which he or she can reach with or without a caliphate. Further, while the Shari’ah mandates the caliphate—as a means, not an end—the prevailing reality of Muslims’ distance from Islam across the Muslim world makes it completely impracticable. Therefore, it is to be left aside in favour of working on more fundamental matters like the iman and Islam of the Umma.
Akram Nadwi is one reputable advocate of such a view.5 The likes of Hamza Yusuf and Hatem al-Haj also belong in this category as they arrive at similar conclusions, albeit from different pathways. For Yusuf, his quietist conservatism means he either stays silent about the state of political affairs in Muslim countries, or confers legitimacy on them (as with Morocco and the UAE). The question of how radical change does not therefore arise. For Nadwi and al-Haj, it does, but they place their hopes in one form or another of secular governance.6
For Nadwi, to hone in on one example, religion is a fundamentally personal matter between the individual and their Lord. Its basic purpose is for individuals to fulfill their personal obligations: to be good Muslims. If many such people find themselves in a society, they are, of course, commanded to organise their societal affairs according to Islam as well. If Muslims attain power, they are commanded to organise society by Allah’s command or to rule by it. However, there is neither any obligation to form such a society nor is such a society essential to individual religiosity, which is what matters most.
Nadwi goes as far as to assert that ‘for the time being’ the best thing for Muslim countries is secularism. This is because the politics of any society is based on its prevailing norms. Since the prevailing norms in Muslim countries are not Islamic, a religion- or Islam-based politics is bound to fail. Thus, he argues, we should adopt a secular approach to politics as a means to develop Islamic norms. This ‘secularism’ is conceived as a situation where the state is fair to everybody and gives an equal chance to all religions, including Islam, to operate freely from state interference or persecution—a freedom that currently does not exist, he avers, given that Muslim countries are only secular in name but anti-secular in practice.
Much can be said, again, in any detailed assessment of this view. We suffice here in briefly drawing out two points at which its faltering is, or ought to be, apparent. The first is its atomisation, as with Ghamidi, of religiosity as a personal affair, with something—anachronistically, again—of a modern, Protestant accent. The collective aspects of Islam are here rendered non-essential, or only conditionally obligated, by separating them cleanly from individual responsibility and (re)defining ‘religiosity’ as an individual matter. Yet surely collective obligations are rendered meaningless if not tied in some way to individual responsibility, because then no one is ultimately responsible. Consider the idea that the caliphate is not necessary for people to enter Jannah, or to fulfill the basic purposes of religion/Islam. If this is correct, then neither is Jihad or Zakat (as an institution) or the establishment of shar’i trade and mu’amalat, or any collective aspect of the deen. With all these and their like de-obligated, such an Islam is rendered a mere shadow of its actual self.
Where the classical formulation would have the path to Jannah require of us to fulfill our individual obligations and contribute where able to collective obligations, for which the Umma at large is inalienably responsible, this modern—and arguably, modernist—view cuts us off from collective obligations and renders the deen little more than an individual quest. In fact, one would not be wrong to say that the very notion of the deen being a personal affair would be unintelligible to the early Muslims—indeed to all pre-modern Muslims—and inexpressible in their idiom. It is modern conditions of possibility and categories that allows us to even think the thought—secular categories, which this view is unwittingly dealing with and uncritically adopting.
The second major issue, running hand in glove with the first, is the implicit, and at times quite explicit, understanding of secularism as a neutral form of governance that simply allows everyone freedom to be and do as they will. This now-well-discredited view is little more than liberal wishful thinking, if not outright propaganda. Secularism is no more neutral or less ideological than any other worldview or religion. As Talal Asad, Saba Mahmoud and many others now have shown, secularism makes, disciplines, and repudiates religion/s as per its own criteria and normative values; it does not simply allow them free expression.7 To suggest that secular power, if only proper, would allow Islamic norms to flourish is as naïve an assumption as it is dangerous. That it can still be made by serious scholarship is as concerning as it is disappointing.
These, then, are some initial and basic reflections on the challenging contours of the landscape of contemporary Muslim thought on the caliphate. We hope to expand on these in more depth in due course. We have looked only from the angle of its shar’i obligation. Any stone turned on other aspects reveals similar challenges. All of these call for serious and critical engagement.
- Anjum, O (2019, Oct 31), ‘Who Wants the Caliphate?’, Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research.
- For his arguments, see Ghamidi J (2016, Feb 03), ‘Islam and the State: A Counter Narrative’, Australian Muslim Times; and Ghamidi J (2015, Mar 03), ‘Khilafah, Not a Religious Term’ (S Saleem, trans.), NewAgeIslam.
- Importantly, its being so does not mean that its usage is mandatory but that the term and, more importantly, its referent, is established in the Shari’ah.
- There is some distortion, perhaps unwitting, that serves this reinterpretation. Abu Bakr (ra) is quoted by Ghamidi as cautioning people, ‘that a state can only have one ruler’, yet the report he cites from al-Bayhaqi’s al-Sunan al-Kubrā (no. 16550) makes no mention of any ‘state’. Rather it quotes Abu Bakr as saying, ‘It is not permitted that the Muslims have two leaders…’ [lā yahillu an yakūna lil-muslimīna amīrān], which clearly refers to all Muslims as benefitted by the definite article of genus [lām al-jins] prefixed to ‘Muslims’. Notably, in this report Abu Bakr (ra) goes on the explain the reason why two or more rulers are not allowed: this would lead to division, discord and tribulations among Muslims. Evidently, allowing a multiplicity of sovereign states does just that.
- For an articulation of his views, see Nadwi, A (2017, Sep 10), ‘Should Muslims Establish the Khilafah’ [Video], YouTube; and Nadwi, A (2020, Jul 22),’ Ask Shaykh YQ Special with Dr. Akram Nadwi’, YouTube, 23.10-29.30.
- For Sh. Hatem al-Haj’s recent articulations on this topic, see here and here. Relatedly, Hamza Yusuf also finds secularity to be compatible with Islam, as he indicates here.
- Asad T, Formations of the Secular, Stanford University Press, 2003, and Mahmood S, Religious Difference in a Secular Age, Princeton University Press, 2016.