‘The imamate was established to take the place of prophecy in the safeguarding of religion and the government of earthly matters’: such was the classic formula with which the jurist Al-Mâwardî (died 1058) defined the nature and the tasks of the highest authority of Sunni Islam – the imâm or caliph, depending on whether the emphasis is on his role as a leader (imâm) or on his function as the vicar (khalîfa) of Muhammad. In reality, when Mâwardî wrote his tract on the ordinances of government of Islam, the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad had just begun its parabola of decline and the profile and the prerogatives that the jurist attributed to the caliph outlined an ideal figure rather a historical reality. And yet, notwithstanding the fact that the caliph was rarely up to the demanding portrayal that was provided of him (and to such an extent that only the first four – whose title at that epoch was amîr al-mu’minîn and not caliph, defined a posteriori as being ‘well led’ – were fully in line with Islamic legal requirements), almost all jurists and theologians were in agreement in thinking that the Islamic community, the umma, cannot do without its supreme leader, the guarantor at one and the same time of its unity and its sound socio-politico-religious functioning.
Thus in 1924 when the founder of the secular and nationalist Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, abolished the institution of the caliphate, which had been held since 1517 by the Ottoman dynasty, the entire Islamic world discovered that it was the orphan of a chief whom, to tell the truth, it probably had already forgotten that it possessed. From that moment onwards politicians, thinkers, jurists and theologians asked themselves about what had to be done, creating a debate from which there emerged, in substantial terms, three positions. In the view of shaykh ‘Alî ‘Abd al-Râziq, who with his theses had a major impact in Egypt in the 1920s, the caliphate was a superfluous institution given that it had no legal justification in the founding texts. The jurist ‘Abd al-Razzâq Sanhûrî believed that in the contemporary world the caliphate could not be proposed anew in its historical embodiments but should, rather, take the form of a ‘society of the eastern nations’. The reformist thinker Rashîd Ridâ thought, instead, that the caliphate should be restored according to the paradigm of the Islamic community of the origins and identified the Iraqi city of Mosul as its most suitable capital.
Whether the public appearance, specifically in Mosul, of the self-styled caliph Ibrahim (Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî, the leader of ISIS) was a coincidence or a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, it is difficult to tell. However, it is certain that it did not convince many important Islamic leaders in the world.
In a note published on its own web site, the World Union of Muslim ‘Ulamâ’ (scholars) – whose creator and president is shaykh Yûsif al-Qaradâwî, an influential thinker connected with the Muslim Brothers – declared that the caliphate is legally void and asserted this on the basis of three arguments: 1) an announcement by some body is not sufficient to institute the caliphate because the caliphate has to obtain its investiture from the umma through its own representatives; 2) in Islam the management of the state must take place through the principle of shûrâ (consultation) and should not spring from unilateral actions; 3) the caliphate is not legitimate if rather than unifying the umma it is a further element of division between the groups that constitute it. In general, the Union of the ‘ulamâ’ does not contest the principle of the restoration of the caliphate (‘all of us dream of the Islamic caliphate and hope deep in our hearts that it will be established as soon as possible’, the note says) but, rather, states that ‘great projects need a great deal of reflection and suitable preparation’.
The Vice-President of the Union of the ‘ulamâ’, the Moroccan scholar Ahmed Raysûnî, added a number of clarifications in a text bearing his signature that appeared subsequently. After presenting the arguments already adopted in the communiqué of the Union, Raysûnî specified that one should not transform the question of the caliphate into a purely nominal debate given that the legitimacy of a political system derives from its capacity to achieve the ‘objectives of the sharî‘a’ and not from the way it is defined. He also added that the use of the sword is justified when one has to defend oneself against aggression or repel occupiers, but it should not be used for hegemonic purposes or for the abuse of power. On the same wavelength is Râshid al-Ghannûshî, the head of the Islamist Tunisian movement al-Nahda, who himself is also a member of the Union of the ‘ulamâ’. On the specific subject of the Tunisian Islamist caliphate he limited himself to sharing and reporting the position of Raysûnî, but, firstly in an interview granted to the pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-‘arabî and then in a sermon given on Friday on 4 July of this year, he started with the events in Iraq to make certain more general political observations on the situation in the Arab world and in particular in Tunisia. In the view of Ghannûshî, although in mature democracies the majority method can function, in political systems that are going through a transition stage this system runs the risk of fostering forms of sectarianism and partisanship and should thus be replaced by what he defines as the ‘consensus’ method. This is why, in the delicate Iraqi situation, the unilateral proclamation of the caliphate was an ‘imprudent’ fact.
Qaradâwî, Raysûnî and Ghannûshî, albeit with different emphases, share the idea of the gradual construction of the Islamic polity. Their condemnation of the initiative of the Islamic state is thus understandable. But amongst the critics of Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî and his organisation there are ideologues who are markedly Salafi and Jihadist, in particular those of the ‘old guard’ connected with Al-Qa’ida. An important place amongst these is held by the Jordanian-Palestinian ideologue Abû Muhammad al-Maqdisî. Not much known about by Muslims outside Salafi circles and almost unknown in the West, al-Maqdisî is in reality one of the most influential jihadist thinkers in the world (he was the creator of the web site www.tawhed.ws, the largest online library of radical Islamic literature and the inspirer, amongst others, of the former leader of al-Qa’ida in Iraq Abû Mus‘ab al-Zarqâwî). As early as last November Maqdisî contested the ambitions of Abû Bakr al-Baghdâdî and in the dispute which was then completely Syrian between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra he took a stance that was favourable to the latter. In an article published on 12 July last on his site, this Jordanian ideologue went back to harshly attacking the Islamic state and accused it of creating divisions not only between Muslims but also within the ranks of jihadist militants. ‘The caliphate’, wrote Maqdisî, ‘must be a refuge and a guarantee for all Muslims, not a threat or an intimidation’.
Beyond any considerations regarding the fractures and the rivalries inside the jihadist front, to which in the last edition of Oasis an article by Cole Bunzel referred, one fact is striking: that a person who until yesterday could be seen as a dangerous disseminator of hatred and violence can appear today to be an example of moderation tells us a great deal about the nature and the methods of the Islamic state.
Amongst the voices that have been raised to comment on the proclamation of the caliphate by the Islamic state, that of Al-Azhar has been absent. This prestigious university-mosque in Cairo has for the moment confined itself to publishing a communiqué on the situation in Iraq, on 23 June of this year and thus before the proclamation, in which it invited Iraqis to leave behind ‘party, sectarian or ethnic interests and to search immediately for a new formula of agreement with which to save Iraq and its people from all forms of extremism and from foreign powers lying in wait’. However, in a personal capacity some professors of this Egyptian university expressed their views when they were asked for them by the Lebanese daily newspaper Al-Safîr. Ahmad Karîma, a professor of sharî‘a, stated, for example, that in the history of Islam the caliphate has never had a political dimension but, rather, only the mission of preaching, and, when referring to the ideas of Sanhûrî, he added that ‘when Arabs and Muslims have an economic market like that of the European Union, a single currency like the euro, a political and military entity, and when the obstacles to obtaining visas are removed, then one will be able to speak about a caliphate’.
To sum up: more than a symbol of the unity of the umma, the caliphate appears today to be the emblem of its division, as, for example, has already occurred in the history of Islam. In his La tragédie de l’Islam moderne, the Tunisian scholar Hamadi Redissi writes that ‘Islam has by now many faces because it no longer has its own face…Everyone speaks on behalf of Islam but certainly not of the same Islam; everyone reinvents it in the present’.
The question of the caliphate seems in a decided way to indicate that he is right.