Imagination and a Future Ummatic Nation

The provocative and erudite essay Who Wants a Caliphate? (2019) by Professor Ovamir Anjum deserves close reading and serious engagement. After providing a comprehensive overview of the religious, political and historical issues at stake, he challenges us to reimagine a future khilafah and presents its conceptual assumptions as well as the contours of the operational governance mechanisms for this ambitious goal. Dr Anjum notes that the ‘task of delineating such a vision requires ‘a generation of Muslim jurists, theologians, political theorists, entrepreneurs and visionary leaders’. He argues that:

“Muslims…must reimagine the caliphate as a confederation of governments in the core regions of Islam that protects a range of human rights for all, provides political and economic stability to these regions, and allows Muslims to develop a variety of local political arrangements while embracing the larger religious and cultural unity of these regions. Such an order would not only be in accordance with the divine command but also is the only long term alternative to the mutually reinforcing coterie of despots and terrorists (p. 52).”

He goes on to remind us that notwithstanding the colossal challenges facing us – we also inhabit a time of immense opportunities. It is a call to dream big, think globally while acting locally, and develop new discourses and practices within a framework that takes the collective future of the global Muslim umma seriously.

Counterintuitively in this short essay, I take the end goal of a khilafah as a starting point and suggest that this quest could benefit from applying some of the techniques from the discipline of Future Studies. It takes a bi-focal perspective, one which approaches the task with its eyes on a distant objective while simultaneously focusing on what is immediately in front of us. In doing so, I present some initial ideas to stimulate discussion and encourage further action.

Prerequisites and Potential Limitations

 The goal of persuading the diverse global Muslim community of close to two billion people to work towards a unified government would appear to be an impossible task. However, history is replete with the seemingly impossible being made possible and manifesting in fact. But where do we begin? Charting ways forward require deep, holistic, realistic, solution-focused approaches that are future oriented. They need to be multi-layered and integrated to trigger systemic transformation at macro, meso and micro levels. This shift would also have to occur at the personal level which transforms the individual self, actualising well known Islamic teachings that precondition changed outer realities to altered inner states. We cannot disconnect the external changes that we seek from what the internal changes we need to undertake ourselves. The intellectual aspects of this process require an open minded disposition, the ability to be self-critical, reflexive and where necessary unlearn negative mental habits and behavioural patterns.

While Professor Anjum sketched the ethical parameters of a future khilafah which avoids ahistorical, utopian, or exclusive reliance on medieval theorisations –the project raises a number of obvious questions. If we were able to time travel into that future, what would this transnational polity look like in practice? Which political and economic inducements would make more than fifty separate nations from Morocco to Malaysia leave the post-colonial territorial settlements of the twentieth century? In what way would disparate theological trends and ethnic and cultural interests be reconciled? How would the leader of such an institution be chosen? What measures would secure the rights of non-Muslim minorities? Which checks and balances would prevent it succumbing to authoritarianism or being otherwise compromised? And how would it deal with inevitable big power interference?

Providing incentives to more than 50 Muslim states to form common economic, political and cultural co-operation is of course easier said than done. Apart from the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and a few regional strategic agreements such as OPEC, African Union, Maghreb Union and ASEAN, there currently exist very few meaningful attempts to advance this goal. As we know, multiple barriers and individual state interests currently discourage the hope of transnational ummatic unification and navigating these structural challenges is perhaps the most difficult impediment given the deeply entrenched levels of authoritarianism, corruption and poor governance among many Muslim regimes. Unchecked, destructive socio-political trends made worse by social inequalities, unemployment, poverty, pandemics, political instability, war, sectarianism, consumerism, neo-colonialism and the environmental crisis will only magnify the unravelling that is currently taking place and may lead to a future that none of us wants.

Probable, Possible and Preferred Futures

A spectrum of thinkers from the late nineteenth century and across the twentieth century have grappled with the fragmentation of Muslim civilization and how to restore meaningful ummatic cohesion. The contributions of scholars as diverse as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Mohammed Abduh, Rashid Rida, Muhammad Iqbal, Abul A’la Maududi, Abul Hassan Ali Nadwi, Malek Bennabi, Alija Izetbegović, among many others examined the paralysing effects of colonialism, modernity, secularism, nationalism and corrosive stagnation of intellectual creativity in the Muslim world and offered various ways forward. They did their best to respond to their time and context and inspired Islamic revivalist movements that achieved varying degrees of success in their societies and have left us a rich legacy to consider.

That baton was passed on to various contemporary Muslim thinkers, philosophers and intellectuals who built on the work of these predecessors and attempted to assess the current state of the umma and offer their own thoughts. Few appear to have impacted outside of scholarly circles or ardent followers and their influence has remained limited and inaccessible to lay Muslims. Among the more interesting recent efforts to offer a meta-analysis of the umma have been M. Umer Chapra’s Muslim Civilization: The Causes of Decline and the Need for Reform, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization by Ali Allawi and Civilizational Transformation and the Muslim World by Ahmet Davutoğlu. Unfortunately, very few scholars and activists have spent time seriously visualising what a better future could look like and how to shape it. Ziauddin Sardar is one of the few Muslims to have systematically thought through these matters in his books The Future of Muslim Civilization and Islamic Futures: The Shape of Ideas to Come. In my view, ummatic thinking could benefit from applying some of the tools and techniques of Future Studies.

The application of Future Studies models of analysis could help anticipate probable and possible future scenarios through a systematic, holistic, inter-disciplinary examination of social, political, technological, environmental and cultural trends by utilising tools such as Horizon Scanning, Visioning, Scenario Planning and Backcasting. Scenario Planning would be useful for mapping and extrapolating and various trends that are underway in different Muslim societies. Applying this method, it is possible to anticipate various scenarios that may take place and could imagine optimistic, realistic, worst case or wildcard future possibilities. It would of course have to rely on the best available data and studies would need to be integrated in a systematic way so that area experts can form a deep analysis of their socio-political cultures, bilateral, multilateral and international alliances and the historical and current status. The Backcasting tool works by asking individuals to imagine their preferred future by encouraging a move from an initial envisioning process and working backwards to think through the various stages and steps needed to reach the preferred destination.

Back to The Future Caliphate

 The world’s Muslim population is expected to increase to around 2.2 billion by 2030, with around 28 percent aged 15-29. Given this youthful demographic, they are more likely to be open to planning for the future as many are already engaged in social movements that work for human rights, peace building, economic and social justice. It is this generation of activist journalists, entrepreneurs, social media influencers and political campaigners who emerged during the Arab Uprisings that are most capable of changing societies for the better.

The growing, economically stable middleclass of globally networked Muslim Millennials has the ability to think ummatically, facilitate knowledge transfer and enhance intra-Muslim trading relationships. They are also most likely to finance NGOs that provide education and skills development to and uplift less fortunate communities. Such a youthful movement of networks could translate hope into action but should not limit itself to issues that only affect Muslims. We cannot disentangle the Muslim condition from wider planetary crises and should seek to advance solutions for our collective human well-being.

Muslims seeking to reinstitute a pan-Islamic mode of governance need to practice greater consultation, consensus-building and co-operation at the intellectual, social, cultural, artistic levels, among each other and between generations. To increase ummatic consciousness, our ideas must be able to resonate and be relevant to people of all backgrounds, otherwise we risk becoming another elite intellectual project. There is huge potential for positive exchange between like-minded, virtual and real world networks. This can be achieved by maximizing collaborative online/offline infrastructures and utilizing open-source tools. Strengthening existing forms of Muslim fraternity and building new forms of interconnectivity makes the likelihood of any future khilafah more of a possibility.

Discover more

Why Ummatics: A Series of Contentions

June 12, 2024
Ovamir Anjum

Mālikī Authorities on the Imamate

May 27, 2024
Dr. Shadee Elmasry

Colloquium | Qas Al-Haq: An Alternative to Capitalism, Nation-State, Parts I & II

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