November 11, 2014 By David Rutledge

The Meaning of the Caliphate

Dr Salman Sayyid is a post-colonial political scientist and a public intellectual. He focuses on the constructs and ideologies about Islam and the Muslim world in the knowledge traditions of the west. Currently a Reader of Sociology and Social Policy in Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law at the University of Leeds, Dr Salman has to his credit A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism, a book noted for its daring political acumen and comprehensiveness as well as numerous essays and articles. He has of late come out with his second book titled Recalling the Caliphate: Decolinalisation and World Order. The book engages critically with the interaction between Islam and the political in context of a post-colonial world that continues to resist profound decolonization.

Dr Sayyid Spoke to David Rutledge on the platform of the latter’s Encounter Series, a signature programme of Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National. The interview can be seen at (LINK). A transcript of the interview follows..


If we look at the history of the Caliphate, in what sense does it help to understand it as a political institution on one hand and a religious institution on the other? Is it both those things? Can the distinction be applied?

I think it’s probably not that helpful to divide things up into political and religious, partly because the notion of religious that we have depends on extrapolating from the Enlightenment reading of the western Christian history at a particular period in time, and then (on our) trying to fit everything into that little hole of what is religious and what is not. It makes things more difficult. I think the best way to understand the Caliphate is (to consider it) firstly as an institution of governance over large Muslim areas and the fact that it is changed in its significance in over time. Obviously an institution that lasted that long bound to go through different changes and different kinds of relationship. So it’s difficult to pick out what it was all the time in any particular general sense. However all you can do is to see much more symbolically what it has come to mean nowadays. And I would point to three things. Firstly, there is the continuity. The caliphate points to a continuity of the Muslim presence. Secondly it points to a consensus or unity. Thirdly, and most importantly, it points to a great power in the world. Those are the three things that people symbolically understand by the Caliphate apart from the kind of legalistic, more detailed kind of tradition. But it is really the metaphor which I think is important.

And that time when the Islamic world was in a position of great power and prestige, it was also a territorial entity. I wonder how important it is to understand or distinguish between the Caliphate and the idea of Islamic state with territorial border.

All Conversations like this take place after 1924 when effectively the Turkish leadership abolished the caliphate. Upto that point there were discussions about what qualities you needed to have a good Caliphate. But there were not really discussions about how the Muslim society should be organized. Do they need a government? Do they need a state? Because the idea was to have a legitimate institution.

When the Caliphate became abolished, you then suddenly have the opening of questions about what significance it really has? Can you be a Muslim without living under a Muslim government? Different intellectuals and different groups took different positions. Out of that ferment, the idea of Islamic state was born. These Islamic states were not conceived as being all encompassing but really as smaller entities, really the nation states and the colonial states being ‘islamicized’ rather than something which was going to be new and transnational and transgressive. So in a sense the Caliphate was really replaced by the idea of Islamic state, and now we have ISIS (IS). It is said to be an attempt to revoke the Caliphate as a way of unifying or attempting to unify and getting rid of these boundaries which divided up the Muslim lands.

You talked about the abolition of caliphate. One thing I was really struck by looking over the history of 20thcentury is that I don’t really find much evidence of a kind of pan Islamic outrage over the abolition of caliphate in 1924.

Take the example of Malaysia, which was never under the Ottoman rule. There were protests and demonstrations, throughout the Muslim lands, even in areas where the ottomans never had any direct control. There was a sense that something had been lost, and there was a sense of outrage. The problem with outrage is that you have to have mechanism and infrastructure to be able to express it or articulate it. You have to remember that at that time 80 percent of the Muslim population was living under the colonial rule. So their means of actually expressing themselves on any particular issue was severely restricted. You have an example in 1960 in Australia. A group of eight Muslims held up a train and raised the caliphate flag. The caliphate had never been in Australia. So why would they were doing that? So obviously what I am trying to say is that the idea of caliphate circulated much beyond the territorial extent of the ottoman state. It circulated despite the fact that it was very difficult for Muslims living under colonial rule to express these ideas. In India for example you had the Caliphate Movement which was trying to argue for the restoration.

What is your response to ISIS(IS) which calls for the restoration of caliphate?

I think the declaration of the Caliphate has to be understood in two ways. Firstly, it is a part of power struggle between al Qaeda and ISIS (IS). Al Qaeda always argued that they wanted the restoration of the Caliphate. ISIS(IS) is trying to be superior to al Qaeda. The second part is that ISIS have taken over territories which are really transnational. There is actually a conundrum what to call their rule. The problem with them is that their idea of the caliphate is kind of restrictive and xenophobic. And their lack of legitimacy manifested in the degree of their violence. They themselves undermined their legitimacy.

In 2007 former British Home Secretary Charles Clark made a speech in Washington where he gave four areas in which western government could not agree with Islamists’ demands. One of them was they could not allow the Islamists to have a caliphate. At the same time the Pentagon commissioned a kind of study. In that study one of the scenarios they have is the restoration of the Caliphate in some part of the Middle East. This happened years before ISIS declared the Caliphate. The idea of the Caliphate has been circulating among Islamic intellectual circles too. Sometimes they talked about the Caliphate, sometimes they talked about the Islamic state. They actually talked about the absence of the Caliphate. So I think the Caliphate has already been there for 90 years. But no one actually dared to name it. And I think what ISIS has done is that they named it. But it’s already been around.

I wonder if you feel that immigration and movement of Muslims to the west has resulted in a situation where a Muslim in Jordan or Soudi Arabia or any other Muslim countries might feel that he\she is at home. For a Muslim in Europe or Australia, the appeal of global Islam is likely to be stronger.

I think the broader point is not just immigration; it’s globalization itself. When Muslims come to Australia, they come from different countries. When they encounter each other, they actually are much more able to see the universality of Islam. As a sense what you have is a kind of reinforcement of the cosmopolitan nature of Islam. There is an articulation of an Islam which is far abstracted from the local, and which emphasizes universal principles.

I take your point. Often the call for Caliphate was interpreted by some western commentators as a reactionary rejection of globalization, modernity and westernization rather than a thought-out political alternative.

There is an islamophophic trend which sees any obsession of Muslim rights or Muslim autonomy as a threat to the world. I don’t think that is particularly helpful or particularly useful. These islamophobes won’t allow Muslims to be able to express themselves. There is the element of that around the issue of caliphate. Ultimately what the caliphate represents is really a symbol in which Muslims have a mechanism to make appeals to direct their demands, to direct their concerns at some institutional framework with some idea that this would be affective, and that for me is the crucial point. Because, in the absence of that kind of political mechanism you open the road for perpetual violence, and that’s where we are. Once you block a political route, then you open up a route of violence. And that’s exactly where we are. One of the biggest illusions around this issue is that western governments claim that they support democracy throughout the world. The experience of those outside the west is very different from that. They have seen repeatedly that western governments are actually quite capable of having democracy at home and supporting tyranny abroad, not just once, but nearly always. And that I think is the biggest problem here. This leads to a lot of misconception. That leads to a lot of anger, and more importantly, that increases rather than diffuses the violence and instability in the region.

Let’s talk about democracy. I am going to read you some statistics, if you will forgive me, Research in 2007 across Egypt, morocco, Indonesia and Pakistan showed that 71 percent of the people favored the application of Sharia law across the Islamic world, 65 percent in favor of restoring the Caliphate, 74 percent against western values in Muslim countries, then also 65 percent in favor of democracy. These figures seem surprising to me, there is a sort of confusion there of what Caliphate and Sharia and democracy all mean?

People often wonder how Muslims who want Sharia and caliphate can say no to western values and still want democracy. The assumption is that democracy is a western value. And it seems to me to be a pernicious and problematic assumption. It’s problematic both on theoretical and philosophical level, but it’s problematic also practically. If you think democracy is simply the same as being western, then clearly there can be no democracy outside the west. Wherever there has been an attempt to bring about westernization, it has been done through dictatorships. Hamas for example won the election. What was the reaction of the United States, Israel and the EU? We will not accept the result of Hamas winning the election. So, Palestine cannot choose their representative. If democracy simply means voting for an outcome that western powers feel comfortable with, then you are in collision between the expression of popular sentiment and what western powers are comfortable with.

Let us see what we understand by democracy. The word democracy comes not from Greek , it is actually Sumerian. It has different kinds of roots. You can tell different stories about it. Some people say Islam had democracy. What they are concerned about is the notion of the sovereignty of people versus sovereignty of god. There is confusion about what the sovereignty of people means in relation to sovereignty of god. I think it’s quite combatable to believe that the god is supreme and still believe people have the right to choose.

Is the Caliphate a theocracy?

I think the idea that the caliphate is a theocracy is a misnomer. It comes from taking the template of western history as the only way of understanding the world. We often talk about the ideal constitution having the separation of powers. Historically, the way Muslims separate powers was not just by having an independent judiciary formally. But they had an independent judiciary. Because,The judiciary or the legal system was not actually dependent upon the state or even tax for revenue. It got its pay of salaries from other means. It was completely independent in that sense. If you look at the actual record of the Sharia courts, where they are working autonomously, the kind of judgements they pass are very different. You often hear people saying that this is a medieval institution. At the time of the medieval ages, the Muslims were in a very different position from what the Europeans were. And many of the kind of punishments and practices that we associate with the medieval are much more associated with what was happening in Europe.

What I am arguing in my book is that the Caliphate is an attempt to accept that the nation state model is not fit for purpose in a world of globalization. It’s not an attempt to go back to the middle ages. I don’t think that is a viable or sustainable project, it is really an attempt to try and a have future in which you are the authors of your own future rather than reading someone else’s script.

We know how power works, and power works when it is invisible, when it is institutionalized. It seems to me that the war on terror is recognition of the weakening of western hegemony. What the United States could do through persuasion 50 years ago, it now needs drones to do so. It has to rely on collusion more and more. As you rely on collusion more and more, it undermines legitimacy .I think the current political order in the Muslim lands is not robust enough to deal with these changes of circumstances. So, IS is really a reflection of state failure .It is not different in that sense from what goes on in the border land between Mexico and the United States where the narco gangs operate violently. The main reason for the formation of IS is really the failure of post-invasion state building of the Iraqi state. So, when the state collapses, warloadism is an outcome. That is what I think IS should be understood as: warlordism rather than a caliphate.

I would like to quote some part of the ‘the Inevitable Caliphate’, in which The author , Reza Pankhurs, says:‘’it may be the end of western history where the dominant discourses and narratives that have stemmed from the west throughout the last couple of centuries have not only been challenged but eventually overturned. As the people of the Middle East and beyond find their voice and able to articulate their demands for good governance publicly, it would be foolish to try to sideline those who propose Islamic solutions. Is this sort of what you are getting at it?

There is a sense in which the idea that western narratives have the solution for everything is difficult to sustain. As a consequence, it is increasingly difficult to rule out other kinds of solutions simply by saying the westerners are the best. Also, there is a shift in rations of power. The ability of western government, the ability to regulate the world has decreased. We are now moving towards the de-centering of the west. Decolonization is not something that just happens over there, it also something that needs to happen here in the metropolitan countries. And you see those things happening, perhaps not fast enough, but you see those struggles in nearly all western societies. All of them are struggling with the possibility of either adapting to a world which is going to be far more diverse, far more multicultural, or trying to roll back this tide of diversification and diversity, to hold back the tide of history. I think the choice for policy makers is try to accommodate a world which has many centers, many narratives, and find in that diversity strength, not fear.

Transcribed by: Saad Salmi

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