Most Muslims have never been subjected to the authority of a caliph

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Most Muslims have never been subjected to the authority of a caliph. The discourse on the “Islamic state” as a legitimate state is a recent ideology that, emerging between the 1930s and the 1960s, links the legitimacy of a state’s political regime to a particular understanding of religion. Today’s Islamic world needs both a religious reform that can stimulate fresh reflection on the polity, understood not as a religious institution but as the administration of public affairs, and a political reform that can promote alternation in power.

Islamic state” is a relatively recent technical term. It was first used by Byzantine travellers and historians to designate the lands dominated by the Ottomans. Muslim historians and jurists, on the other hand, used the expression dār al-islām i.e. the “abode” in which the majority of the inhabitants are Muslim, where Muslims and dhimmīs[1] enjoy security and where no one can prevent anyone from building Islamic places of worship and practising Islamic worship.


To Emigrate or Not to Emigrate?

When the British occupied India and gradually conquered the Moghul Sultanate until it fell in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion, some jurists stated that that territory was no longer “Islam’s abode.” Other jurists replied that the British were indeed an enemy to be fought but that the territory continued to be “Islam’s abode” since the occupiers were not opposing the presence of mosques, Muslims or their acts of worship. In support of their argument, they cited the case of the Ottoman sultan who, having lost the Crimean peninsula in a war against the Russians, established (in the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, 1774) that the Muslims would not have had to emigrate as long as their places of worship, their mosques, their mortmain property and their judges were left intact.

This debate has been repeated every time Muslim inhabitants have lost control of one of their territories: whether in Sicily and Andalusia or in India, Algeria, central Asia, Egypt or Sudan. The migratory flow out of the occupied regions was due to the fact that colonialism or the occupying forces took those territories out of the framework of Islamic lawfulness. We do know, however, that in the case of Sicily and Andalusia, the emigration was forced: it did not depend on a religiously motivated choice. In the central Asia of the 1880s and, earlier still, in the Algeria of the 1830s and 1840s, the Hanafi jurists (i.e. the jurists of one of the four Sunni school of law, Ed.) argued that occupation did not transform the identity of the “abode,” that emigration would have meant the end of resistance and that lawfulness was not forfeited for as long as Islam was practised and life was possible. In this respect, they recalled the verse of the Qur’an that states, “God forbids you not, as regards those who have not fought you in religion’s cause, nor expelled you from your habitations, that you should be kindly to them, and act justly towards them; surely God loves the just” (60:8).


A Recent Invention

The discourse on the “Islamic state” as a legitimate state is a recent ideology that emerged between the 1930s and the 1960s. It is based on ideas and trends inspired by the fear that Islamic identity had been threatened both by Westernization and by the subjugation of a large part of the Muslim population. In India, this issue developed in the context of the Muslim League and in the thinking of Abul A‘lā al-Mawdūdī, the founder of Jamā‘at Islāmiyya. It led to the partition of the regions with a Muslim majority and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. On the one hand, this posed the Muslims remaining in India with the problem of being a minority, thereby fuelling mutual mistrust, and on the other, it failed to solve the problem of the separatists, who split again, on an ethnic basis, into two states [Pakistan and Bangladesh, Ed.]. Although the split was not religiously motivated, it was in this context that a good part of the extremist organizations still existing today made their appearance.

The most recent manifestation of this schizophrenic trend that links the legitimacy of the state’s political regime to a particular understanding of religion is the idea of restoring the original caliphate, the rightly guided caliphate (considered to be the only legitimate form of power) and excluding from Islam those who do not go back to such a vision. In reality, two aspects are involved: one that considers the political system to be a pillar of Islam and another that considers the caliphate, i.e. the form of government chosen by Muslims after the Prophet’s death (peace be upon him), to be the only form that is capable of both guaranteeing the state’s legitimacy and applying sharia. These are ideas that were unknown to Islam and – before our time – to Muslims’ interpretations. They have wrought division and destruction in states, societies and within Islam. In Sunni Islam, the political system (caliphate included) is chosen by people and it changes and evolves in line with what they consider suitable.


A-religious Political Regimes

Most Muslims have never been subjected to the authority of a caliph, in any era. Nor to that of an Ottoman sultan (the sultans began using the title of caliph from the eighteenth century onwards). In Islam, religious identity is defined not by the political regime but by Muslims; through their doctrines, their acts of worship and their forms of conduct and these do not include political organization. The presence of a power that may safeguard security and peoples’ interests and repulse external acts of aggression is rationally and legally necessary in every society. However, such power does not have any religious function in the sense that neither its existence nor its permanence is linked to religion. Nor is it tied to any particular form. This is demonstrated by the fact that the majority of Muslims have abandoned the caliphate for the sultanate, the emirate and other political regimes during the course of history and no one has ever said that they have distanced themselves from religion on that account. As imam al-Juwaynī (1028-1085) stated, it is choice, agreement and consensus between people that establish the legitimacy of power. Sunni theologians and jurists concur about the fact that the issue is one of agreement on the safeguarding of public interests, quite independently of matters of worship and doctrine. Contemporary Muslims are also agreed on this point. We can think, for example, of the nationalist movements that put an end to colonialism and of the national legal systems that succeeded (and are still succeeding today) in guaranteeing the people’s interests without being tied to any religion or belief.

An Islamic state is the state that the majority of Muslims say they are in favour of establishing and, like every political regime in the world, it draws its legitimacy from this majority. Nowadays, within the political regimes in power in the countries with a Muslim majority, a consensus has been built around citizenship i.e. that which implies equality of rights and duties, including the right to choose a government by way of elections. We, as Muslims, human beings and Arab citizens and, right now, also the main victims of the sectarian militias, are called to fight to prevent our religion from being swallowed up by the state, and thus to defend both the religion and the state.

We therefore need two reforms: a religious reform that can stimulate fresh reflection on the polity, understood not as a religious institution but, rather, as the administration of public affairs; and a political reform that may promote alternation in power and the creation of upright and well-ordered systems of government. As Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1292-1350) wrote, wherever justice shows itself, it becomes law.


*Text presented with the title “Al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya wa-l-Khilāfa” (The Islamic state and the caliphate) at the “Conference on the Fight against Extremism and Terrorism” held at al-Azhar (Cairo) on 4 December 2014.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] That is, the non-Muslim, (usually a Jew or Christian) who obtains protection and the right to practise his/her own faith in exchange for the payment of a tax (Ed.).

To cite this article

Printed version:
Ridwan Al-Sayyid, “The Caliphate is not a Matter of Faith”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 80-83.

Online version:
Ridwan Al-Sayyid, “The Caliphate is not a Matter of Faith”, Oasis [online], published on 29th July 2016, URL: