close_menu
close-popup
image-popup

Available languages:
close-popup
Paypal
Carta di credito
subscribe
Classics

Ali Mérad, Le Califat, une autorité pour l'islam?

Michele Brignone

Ali Mérad

 

, Le Califat, une autorité pour l'islam? (The Caliphate, an authority for Islam

 

), Desclée De Brouwer, Paris 2008.

 

"Why is it that there is no moral authority qualified to represent Islam at the international level? Are Muslim states fatally flawed that they cannot establish a unifying institution that offers Muslim nations a new opportunity to assert their presence, and values, on the stage of history? Informed by such questions Ali Mérad, a specialist in modern Islamic thought and professor emeritus at the Université Paris III, offers his reflections on one of the pivotal institutions in Islamic civilisation and Muslim societies, the Caliphate. More than 80 years after it was abolished in 1924 by Atatürk's secular and nationalist Turkey, the possibility that it might be reborn continues to instil hope in many a Muslim. Why? Because for the author "for almost 13 centuries (634-1924), the caliphate was for most Muslim nations, the model par excellence of the Islamic state."

 

Yet, as an institution the Caliphate is as much a source of problems as it is a spring of inspiration as the Shia-Sunni split demonstrates. The underlying cause of this division lies in the different notions the two sides have had and still have of the Caliph's role. Although rooted in "Islam's original corpus," neither the Qur'ān nor the prophetic traditions are particularly explicit as to its nature.

 

In Arabic khalifa

 

literally refers to Muhammad's representative, but it is not clear who was supposed to succeed the prophet or what were to be his prerogatives; that is, how he was supposed to exercise the religious and politico-military functions that been vested in the person of Muhammad.

 

According to classic Sunni doctrine, well summed up for Mérad by the great Ibn Khaldun, Islam is both dîn (religion) and dunya (temporal sphere). Hence, the caliph is the holder of both powers, which are never the less distinct in nature and purpose. Political power has a rational basis, even if it must be duly enlightened by faith, and has earthly purposes that are best embodied in the twin notions of 'justice and the common good'. By contrast, religious power is exclusively based on canonical sources and in this field the caliph can only uphold what is already in them.

 

But beyond such functions what really matters is the symbolic significance of the representative of the unity of the Ummah for, historically, the nominal presence of the caliph did not always mean an actual use of power. For this reason the author insists on the fact that for most Muslims the abolition of the Caliphate is merely incidental and not something irreversible. Indeed since 1924 many Muslim thinkers have tried to formulate various theories to explain its disappearance.

 

This debate has been dominated by three main viewpoints. The first one, originating in the controversial position of jurist 'Alî 'Abd al-Râziq, postulates that there are no legal bases for the caliphate in the founding texts of Islam and thus it is not necessary to Islam. The second viewpoint is inspired by 'Abd al-Razzâq Sanhoury, who argued that in the modern world the Caliphate should take the form of a 'League of Muslim Nations'. The third position, which views the restoration of the caliphate as an opportunity to establish a truly Islamic state, contends that the caliphate must be restored according to model established in Madinah and which was initially ruled by the first four caliphs, the so-called 'rightly guided' caliphs or râshidûn.

 

Individual positions aside, an obvious nostalgia for one of the most tangible signs of Muslim unity runs through the book. Even more obvious is a desire, that Mérad shares and is clearly visible in his choice of words (apostolic succession, magisterium, ecumenism), for a unifying entity in the Muslim world akin to the Catholic Church.

 

As much as it is a synthesis that combines scientific rigour with one man's passion, the book is an accurate reconstruction of the history and nature of an institution that very much embodies the dreams but especially the tribulations of modern Muslim societies.

Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter

For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal